THE SOUND OF MUSIC

I have written earlier about how poetry and music were often historically connected.  Today we think of poetry as apart from music, but in earlier times poetry was often sung or chanted to musical accompaniment.

Music, in relation to poetry, is very interesting.  Music is, in a way like the sense of touch.  one may feel that something is cold or hot or neutral, but one does not know what, precisely, is causing the sensation, unless and until one looks.

Similarly, there are many works of music written about things or on specific themes, but without an added title we would really have no idea what a given work was about.  From the sound of the music we would feel it to be sad or peaceful or happy or forceful, But beyond that we would be lost.

Take for example the lovely work “The Swan,” from Carnival of the Animals, by Saint-Saens.  Knowing it is about a swan, as we listen to it we may see in the mind a swan gliding peacefully across smooth water.  But if it were called something else — something that also fit the peaceful softness of the music — we would likely see that “something else” instead.

A written title, then, adds “eyes” to the sensory-emotional impact of the music — it adds a visual impression.  And if we set words to the music, describing a swan as it glides smoothly along, we make the picture even more definite.

Now let’s reverse the process:  Imagine that we have a poem about a swan.  We can see what is depicted in the poem, but that seeing is somewhat deficient in feeling.  Feeling may not be absent, but we will not realize how deficient it may be until something is added.  Add the music to the words, however, and their effect is magnified many times over — suddenly there is a strongly felt “emotional” aspect to the words that is provided by the musical background.

That, of course, is precisely the reason for a musical score in a movie.  It adds a sensory-emotional context to what is seen on the screen.  Think of some of the most effective scenes from great movies, and you will simultaneously hear in your head the bit of musical soundtrack that went with that scene, whether it is Luke Skywalker standing against the twilight sky near his desert home, thinking of his future, or Scarlett O’Hara vowing she will never be hungry again.  Who, in fact, can even think of Gone With the Wind without hearing that sweeping musical background?

That is the way it is with poetry.  Think of William Blake’s poem Jerusalem:

And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen?

It is an interesting and effective poem.  It does what Blake intended it to do.  But if you have ever heard it sung by an English choir with the full backing of a thundering pipe organ, you will feel reverberating through all your being that when Blake says,

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

he means business!  And it is no wonder that it was sung by others who similarly meant business, such as the National Union of Womens’ Suffrage societies, who used it as a kind of anthem at certain of their meetings.  And even today it is a kind of unofficial national anthem of England, so effective did it become when set to the stirring music of Hubert Parry.

To say that the effect of Blake’s words becomes enhanced when set to Parry’s music is in no way to belittle Blake.  He was a remarkable poet.  But music adds a depth that is not felt to be missing until one hears a poem set to just the right music.

Think of the lines,

Uncounted diamonds lie in stony caverns,
Unnumbered pearls within the sunlit sea…

They are pleasant enough, but when set by Rimsky-Korsakoff to the tune popularly known as “Song of India,” they become more than they are in themselves, they become absolutely enchanting.  That is the effect good music can have on words.

We must keep in mind, however, that just as good music may enhance a poem, bad music will ruin it.  It is surprising, however, that even mediocre poetry may be elevated by the addition of good music.

 

David

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A CAMELLIA FLOWER

A spring hokku by Bashō:

In falling,
It spilled its water —
The camellia flower.

Camellias are flowers of the cold and wet beginning of spring.  As they age, they fall with a “plop.”  This one, in falling, has spilled the rain water that has collected in it when it was still on the bough.

Bashō gives us a simple image of transience, showing us that even in Spring — the time of youth and beginnings — time and aging are already at work.  A sense of transience is always an important element of hokku, which never allow us to forget that all things are changing and impermanent.

This hokku, like all the rest written over the centuries, is not “great poetry.”  Hokku do not try to be either “poetry” (in the conventional understanding) or “great.”  They simply present us with a sensory experience of Nature, set in the context of the seasons, showing us how the season manifests its character in what happens within it.  This camellia flower dropping its water is Spring.

It is when we try to make “poetry” of hokku that we run into trouble.  That has been the unfortunate fate of the 20th century offshoot of hokku, the haiku.  In the West the hokku came to the attention of people brought up on western notions of poetry, people who unconsciously read those Western notions into their experience of hokku, and then re-made it as the haiku, which is a kind of peculiar hybrid of the brevity of the hokku with a substance composed of what people in the West were accustomed to think of as “poetry.”

When that happened, of course, the whole point of the hokku was lost.

David

DECIPHERING HOPKINS: THE WINDHOVER

A friend recently remarked, “I don’t like poems that you have to figure out.”  That friend is not alone.  Most people do not like puzzle-poems that are difficult to understand, that must be deciphered or interpreted, and such poems are a great frustration to many students of English literature.

I recently mentioned two such “difficult” poets:  Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins — the first Welsh, but writing in English, the second having spent some time in Wales and in learning Welsh, but also writing in English.  Both teeter on the edge of indecipherability, but unlike many “noted” poets of the latter half of the 20th century, neither topples over.  It was these later poets — after Thomas and Hopkins — with their seemingly meaningless strings of verbiage that put the public off poetry, so that today poetry — Aside from the works of more straightforward writers like Billy Collins — still is really alive for the general public only in the lyrics of songs for the most part, and few enough of those are worthwhile.

Today I want to talk about Gerard Manley Hopkins, that sad figure with his hidden glories, a man who, I think, lost himself in converting to Roman Catholicism and becoming a Jesuit; it seems to have made his life ever more miserable.  He was one of those remarkably sensitive souls who fall into astounding depths of depression, and his dull, uncreative life as a Jesuit did not help matters.

It is Hopkins who gives us one of the most affecting statements on the abyssal depths of depression and the feeling of hopelessness:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.  Hold them cheap
May who never hung there.  Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep.  Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

He is telling us that the mind has dark abysses that terrify the sensitive soul, that those who have not experienced these depths of depression really have no idea what it is like.  He tells us our small “durance,” the small period in which we last and live, or we can say our “endurance,” cannot cope with such depths of dismalness.  A wretched being so afflicted is served only by a kind of cold comfort amid a whirlwind of negativity, and that poor comfort is that life ends in death, and each day ends in sleep.  Not a great encouragement, and Hopkins, who suffered from terrible depression, obviously found little cheer in it.

When is the last time you heard someone use the word “durance”?  Perhaps never, and Hopkins has a predilection for such out-of-fashion and archaic words, which add to the difficulties of much of his poetry.  We find such obscure terms in one of his most famous poems, one which he thought perhaps his best.  It involves the poet at morning, watching a falcon hovering and swooping high in the sky.  The falcon hovers against a headwind while searching for prey, and when it finds a victim, it may plummet with incredible speed.  Because of its hovering against the wind, it is called a “windhover.”  Here is the poem:

THE WINDHOVER  (To Christ our Lord):

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

“Good grief!” you may be saying.  How is one supposed to understand a poem featuring terms like “minion,” “dauphin,” and “chevalier,” and all of these assembled in odd grammatical phrasing?  Well, perhaps it is not quite so hopeless as it seems at first glance, but one must admit that Hopkins did not write for the masses.  He seems to have been very inward-turned in his notion of an audience for his verse, very ingrown.  But let’s see what we can make of it:

The Windhover

We know what that is now:  a kind of falcon that hovers against the wind, that swings in circles, swoops and dives through the air.

To Christ our Lord

Why the dedication?  Well, obviously Hopkins had become a Jesuit — a “religious” — but there is perhaps more to his dedication than appears at first glance.  We shall examine that possibility later in the poem.  Let’s look at it now, part by part:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a
bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Hopkins is telling us that he saw (“caught”) a windhover in the dappled light of dawn.  He calls him “kingdom of daylight’s dauphin.”  Dauphin is a French term that meant the eldest son of the King of France; here we need regard it only as a title of nobility — like the lord of a domain.  So the windhover, we may say, is “lord of the morning”

He saw the falcon “in his riding of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding high there.”  The falcon was riding the gusts of steady air, high in the sky.

Hopkins remarks, “how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing in his ecstasy!”   His use of the term “rung” is one with which most people are not familiar, because it is not “rung” as in a bell, but rather “rung” as a term used in falconry, which refers to the bird rising through the air in spirals — circling upward.

Hopkins says the bird “rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing,”  meaning that in his upward circling, he was held in the gyre by the folding — the bending — of his wing, but “wimple” also has the meaning of “meander, turn” — so we can add this layer of meaning to it as well if we wish — that the bird was held in the spiral by turning with his wings.  We often find such uncertainty of interpretation and multiple possibilities of meaning in the rather archaic language Hopkins employs — but we see the overall significance, and that is enough, because Hopkins is not clearly defining what he means, not presenting his images sharply outlined, but rather is using some of the impressionism we found in Dylan Thomas.  That is one reason why his use of grammar is often rather odd, though rhythm also plays a part in that.  He is more concerned about the sound of words and the images they create than in telling us plainly and clearly what he means.  That is the key to understanding Hopkins.

Hopkins tells us that the bird did this upward spiralling “in its ecstasy,” but it is obvious that it is Hopkins, not the falcon, who feels this ecstasy.  He is projecting his admiration, his emotion, onto the windhover.

Then, he says, the bird was “off forth on swing, as a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding rebuffed the big wind.”  The bird leaves the upward spiral and hurls himself off in another direction and makes yet another sharp swing in the air, as though the strength of the wind meant nothing at all to him.

The bird throws itself forward into a swing, like the “heel” of a skate sweeps smoothly in a turn — a “bow-bend” on the ice.  Hopkins tells us that the “hurl” — the forward impetus — and the gliding of the bird “rebuffed the big wind,” meaning the falcon showed by skill that it was master, not the wind.

Hopkins is lost in admiration as he secretly watches: “My heart in hiding stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”  He is overwhelmed — his heart is stirred — by witnessing the achievement of the falcon, its mastery of the air and wind.

Hopkins sees so many elements impressively combining in the flying falcon: “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here buckle!

In “buckle,” Hopkins uses a term so various in its meanings that he makes the sentence difficult, but he wants another “b” word to go with “brute” and “beauty,” so “buckle” it is.  Different interpreters have different opinions, but I like to think that he is using it in a manner derived from the French boucler, which means “to bulge” “to curl,” “to loop.”  Seen thus, the sentence means  that “brute beauty and valour and  the act of swift turning, the air /wind, the “pride,” of the bird (his natural great ability) and “plume” (his feathers) here buckle!” — meaning that the physical characteristics, strength and skill of the bird combine with the air and wind in his impressive curving turn. We can add to this a secondary level of meaning from the old use of the term “buckle” to indicate things that come together and join, as two groups of men who “buckle” in battle.  So all of these characteristics of bird and air join in the marvelous sweep and turn of the windhover.  We should not be surprised that Hopkins makes us excavate meanings out of his archaic terms — it is one of his peculiarities, and inward-turning people do have their peculiarities.

Now we come to the most difficult part of the poem:

AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Did you notice that Hopkins has been talking of the windhover throughout the poem in the third person, like an “it” or a “he”?  Why, then, does he suddenly shift to speaking of a “thee?”  This is where the odd dedication “To Christ our Lord” comes in.  It seems that in this shift to “thee,” Hopkins shifts his attention from the bird to Christ, whom he addresses directly, calling him “my chevalier.”  That is another term borrowed from French; a chevalier is a knight, one who rides on a cheval — a horse.  We have seen that the windhover rides on the wind.  Now our attention is turned to Christ, who is the “knight” to Hopkins — or better, the “noble rider.”  But whereas the skill — the “glory” of the windhover lies in mastering wing and wind, the skill, the glory of Christ lies revealed in his mastery of Nature (in Hopkins’ religious view) and its acts and changes.  Hopkins has seen it in the remarkable spiralling and turning and swooping of the windhover, and having seen it, he tells Christ,

AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

By “fire” he means “glory,” an old term which means not only fame and laud but also great light, like the “glory hole” of a glass blower’s furnace, through which the intense blazing fire is seen.  He sees the glory of Christ in the glory of Nature and its creatures — specifically here in the windhover.  He sees the fire, the “glory” of Christ in the windhover, and he is more than impressed, knowing that the totality of the glory of Christ is astoundingly more multiplied and impressive, “a billion times told lovelier,” and he feels it so overwhelming as to be dangerous.  There is often a sense of danger associated with something felt to be incredibly holy and powerful.

Hopkins goes on to say that nonetheless, there is nothing remarkable in that — in seeing “glory”  — Christ’s glory — or to put it in wider terms, the glory of God — in the natural world — in the flight of the windhover.  It is not to be wondered at, because something as ordinary as a farmer plodding behind his hand-held, horse-pulled plough down a furrow in the field (a “sillion”) makes the dull metal of the plough shine with light (“fire,” “glory”) as the turning soil polishes it.  And Hopkins adds that even the dark-appearing, blue-bleak coals of a fire in the hearth, when they fall and and gall (abrade, scrape) themselves and break open (gash themselves), reveal an intense gold-vermilion light inside, their “glory”: just as there is a glory hidden in such ordinary things as a plough in the furrow and in apparently dark coals in a fireplace, so the glory of Christ hidden in such a thing as the windhover may reveal itself if one pays attention.

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

What are we to do with a poet who sprinkles his verse with archaic words and odd terms like “sillion,” leaving us to divine and dig for his meaning?  “Sillion” seems to be a word Hopkins created himself, probably inspired by the French word sillon, which means simply “furrow.”  And actually Hopkins is using it to mean precisely that — a furrow in a field.  For some reason, a few writers after him seem to have misinterpreted it to mean the soil turned by the plow, but when Hopkins says “plow down sillion,” he is simply talking of the passage of the plow down the furrow; and it is clearly the plow that shines in the poem, according to Hopkins, not the turned soil, as some would incorrectly have it.

So Hopkins is deliberately archaic and oddly vague.  He could have just written “plow down furrow,” but obviously that would not have rhymed with “vermilion,” so he employs his peculiar yet somehow effective (if one ignores its obscurity) construction “sillion” instead.

Surprisingly, even if one does not take the time necessary to decipher Hopkins, one may still derive a great deal of pleasure from his use of repetition of sounds, and from such vivid images as dark coals that “gash gold-vermilion.”  But I hope what I have said here will be of some use to those readers who want to go a bit deeper.

Hopkins’ use of “gall” also has some ambiguity when he speaks of  “blue-bleak embers” that “fall, gall, and gash themselves gold-vermilion.”  “Gall” means to swell, but it also can mean “to damage or break the surface,” and in fact Hopkins uses it in this latter sense in his poem St. Alphonsus Rodriguez:

And those strokes that once gashed flesh or galled shield…

Obviously it is this latter meaning that Hopkins intends in St. Alphonsus, and he likely  intends it in The Windhover as well, meaning that the falling coals “gall themselves and gash gold-vermilion,” with those terms indicating the abrading (scraping) and gashing open of the falling hot coals, revealing the “gold-vermilion” bright heat inside as they do so.

It is this ambiguous use of often archaic terms that makes Hopkins somewhat bothersome in interpretation, if not in overall effect.  In fact some interpreters take “buckle” in the poem to indicate the passion of Jesus, “in the V-shaped collapse of his out-pinned arms, when his body buckled under its own weight” (Paul L. Mariani, A Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins).  To me such an interpretation is a bit excessive and goes beyond what we actually find in the poem (and it also makes a very strained analogy with the swooping bird), but who is to say that Hopkins might not have had such a thing in mind, with the coals that “fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion” indicating the bleeding wounds of Jesus?  Well, it still seems excessive to me, and not indicated in the poem, but we cannot deny that Hopkins adds obscurity rather than clarity to his writing by his use of archaic and imprecise terminology.

We may speculate on what Hopkins might have produced had he not become a Roman Catholic and a Jesuit, if he had not burned his poems when he changed his life, if he had not been subjected to years of depressing, unchallenging work that no doubt added to the weight and physical effects of his depression, but that is pointless.  He has left us a number of poems of varying effectiveness and varying opacity, and we can take pleasure in turning them over in our minds like stones from a quarry, seeing here and there in them the sudden, strange, opalescent shine of gemstone in the matrix, the glory of his mind and creativity.

Hopkins died in 1889, saying on his deathbed that he was happy. His poems were not published until 1918, so Hopkins, like the artist Vincent Van Gogh, died without ever knowing of his fame.  The late date of publication, combined with the remarkably experimental and original nature of his poems, makes people think of Hopkins not as a poet of the 19th century, but rather as one of the “moderns” of the 20th — a century he did not live to see.

David

DYLAN THOMAS: FERN HILL (part II)

In my last posting, I discussed the overall meaning of the Dylan Thomas poem Fern Hill, and I hope readers now find it no longer mystifying.  It is, as I said, about childhood’s end, and how youth passes never to return.  Unfortunately the poem proved rather prophetic for Thomas, who lost himself in alcoholism and died of pneumonia, aged 39.

Today, having already discussed the basic meaning, I would like to take a look at the methods by which Thomas made Fern Hill so effective and memorable in spite of — or rather because of — its impressionistic style.

First, let’s take a look at how important repetition is to it.  Certain words (and forms of a word) are found again and again in the poem, the most common being “green,” which is repeated seven times, and “time” also seven times. Also frequent are “golden,” found four times, and “sun,” four times, and “house” four times.  Then come three repetitions each of “young” and “happy.”  we find “easy” twice; “lovely” twice; “honoured” twice; “light” twice, “moon” twice, and “white” twice.

We also see repetition through use of similar words: “happy”; “gay”;  “carefree” — and different forms of the same word: “play/playing”; “rode/riding” “sang/singing.”

If we widen our focus, we see families of words related in meaning:  “light,” “sun,” “shining,” “golden,” and “morning.”  We take our focus even wider, seeing the  repetitive harmony of words indicating beginnings: “morning,” “birth/born,” “Adam and maid,” (first man and woman in Christian myth), “young.”  And we find groups such as “honoured,” “lordly,” “prince,” “famous,” and “praise.”

All such repetitions contribute greatly to the overall effect and to the chief contrast in the poem between “green” — the word of youth and freshness — and “time,” the word and name of youth’s undoing.

Other elements we should notice are the pleasant repetitions in phrasing, for example:

Now as I was young and easy…
And as I was green and carefree…
Oh as I was young and easy…

and

Golden in the mercy of his means…
Golden in the heydays of his eyes…
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means…

and

All the moon long…
All the sun long…
And happy as the heart was long…

and

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days…
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades…

and

In the sun that is young once only…
And the sun grew round that very day…
In the sun born over and over…
In the moon that is always rising…

Added to these is the effect of other internal rhythms, which I pair here by the same enclosing marks:

{Sang} to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sa+bb+ath {rang} /slowly/
In the pe+bb+les of the /holy/streams.

Sang/rang
Sabbath/pebbles
Slowly/holy

One could carry our examination on to the frequent alliteration (repetition of beginning consonant sounds) and consonance (repetition of the same consonant sounds, whether at the beginning or elsewhere in a word) in such lines as;

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman….

and

I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

All of these usages combine to make a remarkable poem that relies for its impressionistic effect on the mixture of repeated sounds, repeated rhythms,  and related images repeated in variations.

We may sum up the poem by saying that it represents the inherent conflict between youth and time represented in the frequency of the words we discover, through it, to be opposite: “green” and “time.”

The poem shows the heedless joy of the boy Thomas, thinking the happy, golden days are eternal, not realizing that Time — personified in the poem — gives the joys of youth only “in the mercy of his means.”

Now what does this key phrase “mercy of his means” signify?  One’s means are the instruments or methods used to achieve one’s ends — the means to an end.  And the end brought about by Time is aging and death and loss of youth and innocence.  The mercy of his (Time’s) means lies in allowing Thomas the boy to spend his happy, youthful days heedless and unaware — for a brief, golden while — of this bitter reality.  In that at least, Time is merciful to him.

That is why Thomas finishes the poem with the painful, overwhelming revelation:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

There it is, the great paradox:  “Time held me green and dying.”  No matter to Time that Thomas “sang in his chains like the sea.”

So, dear reader, if you grasp the meaning of “Time held me green and dying,” you grasp the poem.  “Green” is youth and freshness, The childhood of Thomas; but even while he is young and fresh and youthful, Thomas later sees, looking back, that he was already dying — simultaneously green and dying.  It is like the old saying, “Birth is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.”  It is a theme Thomas repeats in another poem, The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.

You should now easily understand those lines, having experienced what Thomas meant through Fern Hill. The same force that drives the sap through the stalk to make the blossom is the force that ages and kills us.  Time holds us green and dying.  It is no accident that we find the word “green” significant in both poems.

“I sang in my chains like the sea.”  What does that mean?  Here we must not be too literal, but must rather get the overall sense of what Thomas wants to convey.  This singing is an expression of the overflowing joy of his youth; his childhood was a song of happiness and rejoicing.  Yet even though his “singing” is as filled with happiness and vitality as the sea is filled with sounding waves and vigor and motion, even though he expresses only great happiness through his being, Time is already killing him — “Killing me softly.”  His “chains” are visible to him only in retrospect, when looking back on his childhood he realizes that he was already chained by the human condition, by inevitable aging and ultimate death.  Earlier he thought he was free; now he realizes he was chained.  He had the illusion of freedom without the reality.  Though young — “green” — he was already dying — “green and dying,” in spite of his happiness in those lost days.

One could spend much more time in analysis and discussion of this poem, but now that you have the key to unlock it, better just to read it, to hear Thomas singing in his chains like the sea.

FERN HILL

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

David

CHILDHOOD’S END: DYLAN THOMAS AND FERN HILL

In English there are poets of the intellect, poets who use words and grammar with the precision and coldness of mathematics.  In contrast to these are the impressionists of poetry who use words as an artist uses broad dabs of color, a smear of scarlet for a stalk of flowers.

Among the most impressionistic poets in English are two associated with Wales — first Gerard Manley Hopkins, who studied Welsh at one time, and second Dylan Thomas, who was Welsh though he wrote in English.

Today I want to talk about Thomas.  His verbal impressionism was at its height in the poem Fern Hill. It is one of those works often initially mystifying to the high school or college level reader, a poem that seems to create an atmosphere rather than to convey information.  Many find it difficult to understand.

It is really quite easy, however, once one realizes that Thomas has taken a simple yet profound theme — childhood’s end — and has depicted it impressionistically, using words instead of pigments, repeating them and repeating phrasing and consonantal sounds to build up the overall image.  Thomas once wrote how as a child he fell in love with the sounds of words quite apart from their meaning.  In Fern Hill he combines sound and meaning and melody, not to make a clearly-defined statement, but rather to make his point through the overall impression given by his combination and use of words — his verbal impressionism:

In the following I have emphasized certain words and letters to draw your attention to the repetition of sounds and of certain key words, though I have not marked all that might be noted:

FERN HILL

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

You will want to know that a “dingle” is a small valley between hills, what would be called a “hollow” in the eastern United States.  Thomas has put the adjective “starry” after it instead of before it, but he means simply a little valley or dell with stars above it.

Thomas is showing us his childhood, when everything was fresh and new, everything green (the color of youth and growth) and golden (the color of light and preciousness) and bright.  He gives it to us in a Welsh rural setting of green and wagons and apples and daisies and barley and “rivers of windfall light” that is, a world flooded with light that came without any effort on his part.  It was a time and place in which he felt princely and lordly — as though things were there to serve and please him.  Time was like a kind and doting grandfather, letting Thomas climb “golden in the heydays of his eyes” — in the golden days of youth.  “Heydays” means here the height of Thomas’ youthful vigor, his youthful “prime.”  He tells us this happened “once below a time” — a play upon “once upon a time,” used by Thomas to indicate his childhood was felt to be in a place “below” time — outside of  it — timeless.  We shall watch this interplay between his illusions and the realities of time.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

In the second stanza, Thomas emphasizes by repetition:  In stanza one he said he was “young and easy.”  In stanza two it becomes “green and carefree.”  Now he repeats Time as a benevolent male figure who let Thomas “play and be golden.”  And he was, he says, “green and golden,” young and fresh and bright and precious.  As he was princely and lordly in the first stanza, in the second he is “famous” and singing — he is happy in this youthful paradise, in which time seems a kind and merciful figure.  The bawling of calves, the barking of foxes, the ringing of the church bells combine to make a music expressing a world that is peaceful,  joyous and holy — “the sabbath rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams.”  Keep in mind that the sabbath is a day of rest from labor, and Thomas uses it to indicate a seemingly everlasting tranquility.  We feel the slow passage of green and golden days that seem a part of eternity.  The streams are “holy” because everything in that childhood world is mysteriously “holy.”

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

Thomas uses words in unexpected ways, but we understand very clearly what he means when he says “all the sun long” — all the day long — only here the sun becomes a manifestation of time that seems ever-fresh and unending and un-aging.  Of his life at that time, he says, “It was running, it was lovely…it was air and playing,” evoking the great energy and joy of childhood.  Even fire was “green as grass.”

Then came the transition to the peace and forgetfulness of night, a passage like riding into sleep and dreams when, “under the simple stars,” waking consciousness would fade as though “owls were bearing the farm away.”  And again there is the sense of holiness, when “blessed among stables” Thomas would hear, dream-like, the nightjars “all the moon long” (for “all the night long”).

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

Thomas tells us that each morning was like the first morning of Creation.  He would return to waking consciousness and  find the farm, gone during the night, come back “like a wanderer white with dew,” the cock that cries the morning on his shoulder.  Not at all a prosaic statement like, “I woke on the farm and heard the rooster on the fence crowing.”

Again Thomas presents us with images of light and freshness: “It was all shining, /It was Adam and maiden.” That repeats his previous notion that each day was like the first day of Edenic creation.  The sun never aged, but was continually born afresh: “The sun grew round that very day.”

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,

Thomas speaks here of “the sun born over and over,” which seems in direct contradiction to his earlier mention of “the sun that is young once only.”  The solution is that by “born over and over” he is referring to the actual individual days of his childhood, while by “the sun that is young once only” he is referring to his childhood as an entire period.  The sun of childhood is “young once only,” and then childhood with its bright, golden light is gone forever.

And notably, in this stanza Thomas introduces the first hint that all is not well.  He repeats his feeling of high status, that he was “honoured among foxes.”  He tells us he was “happy as the heart was long” under the “sun born over and over,” — as the seemingly endless days passed, each one fresh and new — but he tells us, abruptly, that he ran “heedless” — unaware of something of great significance behind it all.  And then he presents us, clearly and simply, with the serpent in the garden, with the discovery that death is, even in Arcadia:

“…nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace…”

“Nothing I cared at my sky-blue trades.”  By those words, Thomas indicates he was occupied with his childish activities and play beneath the blue sky — “at my sky-blue trades.” And so did not heed what was gradually happening.  Like all children, he thought youth and its freshness were eternal, but he has a stunning realization here.  He is to fall out of the apparent grace that was given him, he is to lose Eden.   That is to be repeated with bitter painfulness in the following stanza:

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

By “lamb-white days” he again paints with a broad, impressionistic brush as he did with “sky-blue trades”  Here he indicates the youthfulness, innocence, and purity (“lamb-white” of the days of his childhood.  Thomas realizes that while he ran and played beneath the sun that always seemed reborn, or slept beneath the moon that seemed always rising, it happened eventually that he realized Time was leading him by the hand to the loft and sleep, and that when he woke childhood would have ended, that he would wake not to another day fresh and new and white with dew, but instead would wake to “the farm fled forever from the childless land” — his childhood’s end, the loss of innocence, and the knowledge of the real state of things in this transitory world — “Nevermore.”

And Thomas finishes with the lines that almost bring tears to one’s eyes, the realization that he had been foolish and naive, that even while he was young and happy and seemed to be the favored child of Time, it was not so.  I shall not add any emphatic marks to these last lines, because in them you will see the key points of the poem all brought together in the final truth:  that even while he was young and fresh and happy and heedless and rejoicing, Time held him captive and dying, in spite of his freshness, joy and innocence that seemed as free and flowing as the sounding sea:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Those last three lines are engraved on a stone in Cwmdonkin Park in Swansea, Wales, near Thomas’ childhood home.

“Dylan,” by the way, is a Welsh name correctly pronounced “Dullan,” but Thomas preferred the English pronunciation of his first name, with the “y” like the “i” in “still.”

As for the title and setting of the poem, it is interesting (but not essential) to know that though Thomas lived as a child in the city of Swansea, Wales, he spent considerable time in his youth with relatives who lived in a farmhouse near the village of Llangain, in Carmarthenshire, Wales.  The name of that farm was “Fernhill.”

If you found this posting interesting, you may wish to read Part II of it as well:
https://hokku.wordpress.com/2011/03/16/dylan-thomas-fern-hill-part-ii/

David

RICHARD WRIGHT: THE WRONG PATH TAKEN

In my previous posting I skimmed over the topic of Richard Wright and his attempts at writing what he called “haiku.”  Here I shall add just a bit to what was already said.

In my view Wright’s “haiku” are useful in demonstrating clearly how Western writers misperceived and misunderstood the hokku from their very first exposure, seeing it through the distorting lens of their Western preconceptions about poetry and poets. Consequently his “haiku,” represented by the volume Haiku: This Other World (Arcade Publishing, 1998) demonstrate how the Japanese hokku, written for centuries, became the “haiku” through its rather confused introduction to the West.

First of all, what is a hokku?  It is a short verse — in three lines in English, though generally one line in Japanese — expressing Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, in the context of the seasons.  It consists of two parts — a longer and a shorter — separated in English by appropriate punctuation.

Richard Wright was exposed to the hokku through the writings of Reginald Horace Blyth, who presented numerous translations of old hokku in his Haiku series, though he obviously and unfortunately used the anachronistic terminology of Shiki common in the Japan of his day.  Nonetheless, the larger part of what Blyth translated and commented upon was hokku, not the revisionistic and conservative “haiku” of Shiki, though Shiki was included in Blyth’s work.

It is important to repeat that when Richard Wright was exposed to the hokku (and conservative haiku) translations of Blyth, he unconsciously mixed what he was seeing with what he already knew of Western poetry, assuming parallels that existed only in his mind.  Consequently when Wright began to compose his own “haiku,” they were heavily influenced by what he was conditioned to think poetry should be, and so he did not see the hokku or the conservative haiku for what it really was.

The result, in the work of Wright and many other self-taught novice writers of the “new” haiku in the mid-20th century, was a hybrid verse that mixed the brief form of the hokku with what was often largely traditional “Western” poetic content.  That is the very simple means by which haiku got off on the wrong foot in the West and continues to misstep awkwardly to this day.

Wright’s “haiku” fall along a graduated scale ranging from verses that — by accident more than anything — may qualify as actual hokku, to verses that hybridize the two (hokku and Western poetry) in varying degrees, to verses that are entirely brief Western poems in substance, with only the brevity of the hokku remaining.

Here, for example, is a Wright “haiku” that has become entirely a Western poem in content, retaining only the shortness of the hokku and nothing of its substance:

Each ebbing sea wave
Makes pebbles glare at the moon,
Then fall back to sleep.

What Wright is really saying is that the successive waves of the withdrawing tide wet pebbles that first reflect back the bright moonlight (glare), then cease to reflect (sleep) as they again lose their watery shine.  But it is the way he says it that is the problem.  As a verse, it does exactly what hokku should not do, which is to mix the fantasy of the writer with reality.  In reality pebbles do not “glare,” nor do they sleep.  Such heavy use of what Wordsworth called the “coloring of the imagination” is, however, very characteristic of Western poetry, which is often heavily fantasy-imagination-based.

Another example of Western fantasy in Wright’s “haiku” is this:

Clutching from the trees,
Thick creepers are strangling clouds
In the lake’s bosom.

No Japanese writer of hokku would have written such a thing.  Again it is just Wright, representative of countless writers of Western “haiku,” smearing his imagination over reality, creating a brief Western poem, but not really a haiku as Shiki knew it, and certainly not a hokku.  Wright seems to have found it very difficult to just let things be as they are:

Every sandgrain
Of the vast sunlit desert
Hears the snake crawling.

Well, no it does not.  Sand grains do not hear.  But Wright must add what he thinks is his poetic imagination to the real poetry of Nature, and in doing so he repeatedly spoils a great many of his “haiku.”

A final example, and an extreme one, of Wright’s failure to understand that in hokku (and in “Shiki” haiku), reality should not be obscured by the writer’s fantasy:

What giant spider spun
That gleaming web of fire-escapes
On wet tenements?

Sadly, one repeatedly encounters such “fantasy” verses in the Wright anthology.  They are the result of an inherent preconception that reality in itself is not “poetic” enough, and must be enhanced by the addition of the writer’s “poetic” imagination.  It is a notion that is death to hokku, but very common in modern Western haiku — a hybrid verse form with little left in it of the hokku or the conservative haiku.

Wright did not understand that a hokku should be a manifestation of a season — something expressing the character of a season.  His use of obvious season, then, seems haphazard.  He assumed, as was and remains common among Western writers of “haiku,” that a haiku is simply an event.  He did not realize that such an event must have a deeply-felt unspoken significance, and so he wrote numbers of verses that leave the reader feeling “So what?”  Here is one of many:

In the July sun,
Three birds flew into a nest;
Only two came out.

Wright’s use of the season here in the word “July” is pointless, because the verse does not express the season.  It is just a random event, a random assemblage of elements.  It does not have the focus and coherence of a real hokku.

Wright sometimes falls victim to the pseudo-profundity syndrome that afflicted so many early Western writers of “haiku,” who thought they should make their verses “Zen-like.”  The result is verses such as:

Six cows are grazing;
The seventh stands near a fence
Staring into space.

Another:

The ocean in June:
Inhaling and exhaling
But never speaking.

And another example of pseudo-profundity:

A cathedral bell
Dimming the river water
In the autumn dusk.

As mentioned in my previous posting on Wright, he wrote many verses that are simply obvious variations on old Japanese hokku, verses recognized by anyone with a knowledge of the traditional hokku repertoire:

Among these “imitations” are:

In a dank basement
A rotting sack of barley
Swells with sprouting grain

That is based on this Japanese original by Buson:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

The large numbers of people visiting my site hoping to find something about Richard Wright and his “haiku” will likely be disappointed to read that in my view, Wright never really understood the hokku or the “Shiki” haiku, and consequently his work, when viewed in the context of hokku and of conservative haiku, does not go beyond the experimental student stage.  That he is so often used as an exemplar of “haiku” by teachers in elementary and high schools simply demonstrates that those teachers do not really understand what Wright was doing — and not doing.   And because they lack a background in hokku and an historical understanding of the origins of the Western “haiku,” they are unable to evaluate him objectively, and so spread this misevaluation of his verses among their students.

Wright’s “haiku,” falls between two stools, as the Germans say:  it is neither hokku nor “Shiki” haiku, nor is it for the most part even good as Western poetry.  Like much of modern haiku, it is an odd aberration, a reaching for something that Wright, lacking the technical and aesthetic knowledge, was not able to attain, though one nonetheless sees in his attempts a potential that was to remain unfulfilled.  That is due to his failure to understand the aesthetic point behind both the hokku and the “Shiki” haiku, and so he replaced it with a false point derived from what he already knew of Western poetry — something also characteristic of the great bulk of modern haiku, which follows in a similarly confused and erratic tradition.

 

David