It may be due to the Celtic side of my ancestry, but I have always been quite taken by “otherworldly” music — music that sounds somehow related to the mythic unseen world of the ancient British Isles.  Sometimes the connection is in the words of a song, sometimes only in the feeling the music creates.

Today I would like to share with you two such “otherworldly” songs.

If you saw the television series Merlin (Episode one), then you have already heard one of them.  It is the remarkable “Witch’s Aria,” sung in the tale by Lady Helen of Mora — or rather by the witch that has stolen her outward form.  In that guise, she sings a spell of dangerous enchantment over King Uther — Arthur’s father — and his court.  Here is that segment:

And here is the performer Mary “Bewitch”(“x out” the ad).  The blowing wind in the trees makes it quite visually effective , as though one sees the power of the rising spell.

The other “otherworldly” song I wish to share is an old favorite of mine.  It is by that rather unique 1960s group called The Incredible String Band.  Titled “The Circle is Unbroken,” it always made me think of people gathering for the mystic journey to the “Isles of the Blessed” — Tir-nan-og — the Undying Lands — so of course it gives one not only a Celtic but a rather Tolkienian feeling:

I only recently found that the melody is borrowed from a sad Irish Gaelic song –“Eanach Dhúin” (Anach Cuin).  Here is a beautiful “low whistle” rendering:

Here is the origin story of the sad lament, and an Irish Gaelic rendering (subtitled):

I hope you find some pleasure in these strangely beautiful songs.



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The three-line hokku is a very useful format for expressing Nature.  But now and then, there are experiences that we may wish to extend slightly.

The following experience, for example, can be written in a longer or shorter form, with the difference here being only one word:


Standing intently
In the sun-dappled stream —
The blue heron.

Or it could be simply:


Standing intently
In the sun-dappled stream —
The blue heron.

The second version is a hokku, the first is not, though both have much the same spirit.  The first just adds a specific time of day, which gives the verse a further layer or tone.  We can writer either way of course, depending on individual preference and which version we think best conveys the sensory experience without becoming too “wordy.”



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This morning I was reading through old summer poems in English — a rather disappointing experience, because most are so heavy-laden with personification that they fail to adequately express the season.  It is refreshing to turn from them to the clarity and directness of hokku that present the experience of summer to us directly.

Nonetheless, here and there one finds works of Western poetry that “stick to the subject,” without a burdensome overlay of of personification and metaphor — among them, John Clare’s pleasant “Sonnet.”  Its only ornamentation lies in the subjective use of “I love,” and “I like,” and in the use of simile:

I love to see the summer beaming forth
And white wool sack clouds sailing to the north
I love to see the wild flowers come again
And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain
And water lillies whiten on the floods
Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood
Where from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes
And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes
I like the willow leaning half way o’er
The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore
I love the hay grass when the flower head swings
To summer winds and insects happy wings
That sport about the meadow the bright day
And see bright beetles in the clear lake play

It expresses Clare’s joy in seeing the shining light of summer.  The scene he depicts seems to be set near the beginning of summer, which you will recall begins in May in the old calendar

He speaks of white clouds floating in the blue sky as “white wool sack clouds sailing to the north” — reminiscent of the later words of Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Hurrahing in Harvest”:

what lovely behaviour /Of silk-sack clouds!

Only Clare — being more rustic — likens to wool rather than silk.

He then turns his eyes from sky to earth:

I love to see the wild flowers come again
And mare blobs stain with gold the meadow drain

He joys in the warm-weather return of wild flowers, and looks to where golden flowers fill the ditch that drains water from the meadow.  They are “mare blobs” in common speech — Caltha palustris — the marsh marigold.

Clare tells us that

water lillies whiten on the floods
Where reed clumps rustle like a wind shook wood

By “floods” he means here simply “waters” (rivers, ponds, lakes); and on them the water lilies grow white.  Here is Nymphaea alba, the white water lily native to Britain:

There, where the water lilies bloom, the clumps of tall reeds rustle “like a wind shook wood” — that is, like trees shaken by the wind.

There too,

from her hiding place the Moor Hen pushes
And seeks her flag nest floating in bull rushes

The moor hen — Gallinula chloropus — pushes out of her hiding place among the reeds.

The nest the moor hen seeks is a “flag nest” that is, a nest made of the leaves of the common water flag, Iris pseudacorus:

The yellow water flag is also known as the “gladden,” which accounts for the “Gladden Fields”  the  marshlands were Isildur was slain in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and where the “One Ring” was lost in the river.

Clare likes to see

the willow leaning half way o’er
The clear deep lake to stand upon its shore.

And he loves

the hay grass when the flower head swings

To summer winds and insects happy wings
That sport about the meadow the bright day

“Hay grass” is the grass left to grow tall and luxuriant so that it may be cut with the scythe and stored in the barns as hay for beasts.  Clare likes to see the blossoms of wild flowers as they move to and fro in the tall grasses in the summer wind, and the insects flitting about in the sunshine.

And see bright beetles in the clear lake play

His gaze is drawn to the water beetles scuttling about in the bright water.

John Clare (1793-1864) was an English poet born of poor and illiterate country workers, and though he managed to get some of his work published and received a small annuity, it was never enough to support his family, so he also had to work as a farm laborer.  The many difficulties of life eventually became too much for him, and he began to have mental problems and delusions that caused him to be placed in an asylum.

John Clare, by William Hilton: 1820, National Portrait Gallery

We do not know why this poem by Clare is not punctuated.  It is known only from a copy transcribed by W. F. Knight, the steward at the asylum where John Clare spent over two decades of the latter part of his life.




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In the past few days,  have noticed a great many people coming to this site for my discussion of the “Days of Wine and Roses” poem by Ernest Dowson.  In it, he discusses the brevity of life, which appears as though out of a dream, and is soon gone again.

Musing on that poem and its theme, these lines popped into my head:

Oh, why did I awake?  When shall I sleep again?

They are from poem #XLVIII  (48)– “Be Still My Soul, Be Still” — In Alfred Edward Housman’s great anthology A Shropshire Lad.  Let’s examine it stanza by stanza:

Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle,
Earth and high heaven are fixt of old and founded strong.
Think rather,– call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
The days when we had rest, O soul, for they were long.

The poet is telling his soul — his mind in modern terms — his “self” — to calm down.  “The arms you bear are brittle” — meaning his “weapons” — his resources to struggle against the problems of life — are fragile, weak and easily broken, while earth and sky — the universe in which we live — was “fixt [fixed, set firmly in place] of old”  — made to be what it is long ago — and was made strong, and will not become other than it is.  His feeble resources will not change it.  So instead of fretting about it all, he tells himself that he should instead be calm and think of “the days when we had rest,” that is, the time before he was born, when he was still free of all earth’s troubles.  And those days of his non-existence were long, far longer than the brief period of grief allotted to him in his life here on earth.

Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran and blood sprang out and I was never sorry:
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.

Before he was born, men loved unkindness as they do now, but then he was “lightless in the quarry,”  he was still not removed from the darkness of non-existence.  “Lightless” means without consciousness.  “The quarry” here means that he was not yet “cut out of the rock” to become an individual, conscious entity.   So before birth he “slept and saw not.”  Living people wept over their sorrows, but he did not then mourn.  People sweated and bled, but he was never sorry, because he was not yet conscious, not yet in the world  “Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.”  “Ere” is an old word meaning “before.”

Now, and I muse for why and never find the reason,
I pace the earth, and drink the air, and feel the sun.
Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season:
Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.

Now the poet muses over the matter of life and death.  He thinks about it all, but can find no reason for it for why he was born.  But the fact is that for the present, he walks the earth, breathes, feels the sun on his skin.  He exists.  So he again tells his soul to be still, because this existence is only “for a season,” for a short time.  He tells it to be patient in spite of the injustices of life and the cruelty of man:  “Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.”  “An hour” here means the relatively brief time left in his life.  He tells himself, that we must just endure life as it is, with all its flaws, including the cruelty of man to man, and hold on, because it will soon be over.  Life will come to its natural end.

Ay, look: high heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation;
All thoughts to rive the heart are here, and all are vain:
Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation–
Oh why did I awake? when shall I sleep again?

Yes, he says, look at the human condition.  Heaven and earth “ail from the prime foundation,” that is, there is an inherent flaw, a suffering built into the universe from its very origin.  All the thoughts that “rive the heart,” (“rive” means “split”) that tear us apart emotionally — are all here in our world — in life — but they are all vain — empty — they end ultimately in nothing.  These emotions we suffer — horror and scorn, hate and indignation — they only move  the poet to ask the fundamental questions:  “Oh why did I awake?  When shall I sleep again?  That is, why was I born, made conscious — and when shall I return to the sleep of death and unconsciousness?

You may recall  the Housman poem discussed earlier, On Wenlock Edge.  In it, he discusses the same topic, though in a wider view.  He tells us that

The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The simple fact of being born makes one subject to the pain of emotions, to suffering.  And in that earlier poem, as in this one, Housman says,

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon. 

The gale of human life and emotions, however strong and turbulent, will soon be gone.  One returns to the nothingness out of which one came,  back to the “quarry” of unconsciousness, and

To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon. 

Then all the wind of emotion that troubles us is ended.  This was Hopkins’ view.  It was also the view of Ernest Dowson:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
   Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
   We pass the gate.

Buddhism would agree that suffering is inherent in the structure of the universe, of existence.  Humans are plagued by endless desire and aversion.  But, it would add, dying does not end them, because this life is only one small link in a long chain of existence.  We have all heard stories of children who claim to recall previous lives.  So Buddhism offers a different solution — coming to know the true nature of that which we call the “self,” that which suffers, which ultimately it is said, is found to have no real existence, and when that happens, suffering ends.

In Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, we find stanzas that express much the same sense of the brevity and vanity of life that we find in Housman, for example:

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two–is gone.

And as for the meaning of life, the reason for birth, and what comes before and after it, the answer given in the Rubaiyat is this:

There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil through which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There seemed — and then no more of Thee and Me.






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Two more days, and it will be May Day — the old celebration about halfway between the Spring Equinox and the summer Solstice.  Here is a simple hokku from this morning:


Morning warmth;
The sweet smell of cottonwoods
Along the creek.

In the sun of spring, the leaf buds of the native cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) put out a fragrant resin that perfumes the air.  The Native Americans used it medicinally, and one can make a healing ointment called “Balm of Gilead” from the tender, sticky buds.




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A sunny morning;
The daffodils I planted
Are now my neighbors’ spring.




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Issa wrote a spring “question” hokku about violets:


Who was it
That lived here before me?
The violets….

“The violets” is not an answer to his question, but rather the context.  He is wondering what kind of people were there before him and saw the violets of previous springs, as he sees them now.  But it is just a question that, as in all “question” hokku, expects no answer.  It is the feeling aroused by the question itself that is the point of the verse.

I happen to live in an area that used to be a forest, and children of a century ago picked wildflowers in those vanished woods.  Now it is houses, but between my dwelling and that of my neighbor, the wild violets still bloom in the spring, whether noticed or not, whether appreciated or unappreciated.  I could not help thinking of those vanished children of generations ago seeing the violets here, and now I — under greatly changed circumstances — still see them blooming.



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