TAIGI AND THE FALLEN BLOSSOMS

Today’s hokku is a spring hokku by Taigi.  To get the meaning of it in English I will take some liberties, then explain the original:

Everything swept up
Is cherry blossom;
The evening temple. 

The original says “Dust/rubbish all cherry-blossom; temple’s evening.”  But if we say, as  Blyth does…

The temple evening;
The dust is all
Cherry blossoms.

…then that sounds odd to American ears, because we do not use “dust” to mean also “rubbish,” as the British do.  They have their “dustbin,” but we have our  “garbage can.”  Blyth, of course, is using “dust” here in the British sense, to mean [in this case] all the debris fallen to the ground – twigs, dead leaves, etc.  But when we say “dust” in America, we tend to think only of tiny particles of dry dirt, etc — that fall out of the air or that blow up from the earth.  That is why Blyth’s “dust” is not the best translation in American English.  But “rubbish” or “garbage” is too severe.  That is why in my version, I have used the overall meaning of the hokku rather than a literal translation of its words.

As for the hokku itself, in spite of being a spring hokku (the time of increasing yang), it has an overall feeling of yin — of age and decay.  The setting is the grounds of a temple at evening, and of course evening is a yin time of day.  Fallen cherry blossoms are also yin — they are dead, returning to the soil.  So in this hokku, paradoxically, we have both harmony of similarity (yin evening, yin blossoms) and harmony of contrast (spring, withered blossoms).

It is a hokku of impermanence.  Only a short while earlier people had flocked to the temple grounds to see the beauty of the blossoms.  Now they are just “yard debris” to be swept up and disposed of.  But nonetheless, we get the feeling that the fallen blossoms are a “richer dust” than the usual sweepings.

We could even translate the verse like this:

The temple evening;
All the sweepings
Are cherry blossom. 

 

David

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CAT DANCING

Issa wrote:

Harusame ya neko ni odori wo oshieru ko
Spring rain ya cat with dance wo teaches child

Spring rain;
The little girl teaches the cat
To dance. 

The little girl, unable to go out and play, has inflicted herself on the cat, which struggles to get away as she holds him up by his forelegs, moving them to and fro and pulling the    struggling cat along in time to the rhythmic melody she sings.

Blyth has an appropriate comment about this.  He says of the spring rain that forms the setting of this hokku,

“It falls in the gusts round the verandah, as thoughtlessly, as heartlessly as the child and the kitten.”

Most people reading this hokku for the first time mistakenly see it as “cute.”  That is not the feeling of the cat, and much of Issa’s verse has this underlying sense of the pain of life expressed through creatures other than human.

David

I WAKE AND FEEL THE FELL OF DARK: HOPKINS’ DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

Here is another poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, that rather difficult impressionistic poet whose use of language, though it makes his verses a task to unravel, is nonetheless brilliant.

Today’s study is one of his dark poems.  Hopkins suffered from severe depression, and he expressed it in verse.  This one is titled I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark.

Hopkins never shies away from using archaic and near forgotten words, and he uses one right off in the first line.  It is the word “fell,” which, as a noun, means “bitterness.”

As usual, I will divide the poem into parts for easier discussion:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day ,
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

Hopkins has awakened in the middle of the night:  “I wake and feel the fell [bitterness, animosity] of night, not day.”  He seems to have had nightmares, no doubt followed by fretting and worrying on waking, unable to sleep again:  “O what black hours we have spent / This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!”  The “we” is literary; he is speaking of his “heart,” meaning his emotion-affected mind.  It must have seen terrible things that night, and he has awakened in great mental distress.  And he will continue to suffer even more, because he cannot go back to sleep, but must wait and fret and have gloomy thoughts and images in his mind through the remaining hours of darkness before the light of dawn finally comes — “And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.”

But now look; with the next lines we find he is taking the experience of that one night and applying it to years of dark depression in his life:

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

With witness I speak this” means he has experienced it himself, witnessed it firsthand.  And now he tells us that when he says “O what black hours we have spent / This night!,” what he means by hours is really years — years of horrible, dark depression.  And then he tells us something very revealing about his inner life.  I mentioned in a previous posting that Hopkins became a Jesuit, a Catholic “religious,” and for him it proved to be a big mistake.  It seems to have just magnified his dark moods.  He says,

And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

He is speaking, of course, of prayers to God [dearest him] for help, and that help never comes.  His countless cries go unheeded, and he realizes that all of those prayers have been “like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away.”  His innumerable prayers have gone off into the darkness and no reply came back, as though they had never even been received.  God is not there, not nearby; there is only a feeling of his absence, as though he lives not among us, but “away” — unreachable.  That is really a dark night of the soul for someone with religious belief.  He keeps calling out to his deity, but no answer comes, no matter how deep Hopkins’ pain and anguish.  Hopkins is speaking also in a broader sense of the pain and anguish and cries innumerable of countless other suffering humans.

Now Hopkins tells us his state of mind, his condition, and we may consider it physical as well as mental, because one of the results of constant stress and depression is very poor digestion:

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

I am gall [a very bitter substance, a synonym of “fell” in the first line], I am heartburn.”  What Hopkins feels mentally, he also feels physically.  And he thinks that is what God’s will for him is.  God wants him to taste bitterness, and that bitterness has become Hopkins’ life, Hopkins himself:  “My taste was me“:

God’s most deep decree / Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;

He feels that his deep mental and physical distress is something that God built into his very nature; his bones built it in him, his flesh filled with it, his blood brimmed with “the curse,” — his dark depression.  But by “the curse,” he also means the rather literalistic Christian belief that the first parents of mankind were cursed for disobeying God.  In Genesis God says to Adam, who represents humankind,

Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.”

That is “God’s most deep decree.”

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

Hopkins also blames himself:  “Selfyeast” of spirit” is something in himself that taints and embitters him.  It is the opposite of an infusion of a divine spirit from outside that might enliven and inspire.  It is his gloomy self that provides a negative yeast that gradually permeates and sours his dull [flat, sluggish, somewhat gloomy] dough, by which he means that it spoils his life.  In the Bible yeast (leaven) is used as an analogy for sin, which if it gets into dough– into life — will gradually spread through and affect the whole mass of it.  Hopkins feels that it is his “self” that was tainted to begin with, and that “self-yeast” has spread through and soured his whole life.  What a gloomy mood he must have been in, feeling that his dark emotional state was both the will of God and his own doing, a part of his own being and nature!

In spite of his negative mental state, however, he nonetheless thinks that things could be worse.  He thinks of those the “Church” considers “lost”:

The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

We should read those lines like this:

The lost are like this, and their scourge [is] to be
As I am [being my own scourge], their sweating selves; but worse.

The lost are like this, and it is their scourge, as it is mine, to be our sweating selves — only it is even worse for them than for me …

The lost are like he is, and it is their punishment to be their “sweating” [loosely used here to mean toiling and suffering] selves, just as that is the scourge of Hopkins — to be his suffering self; only he feels that for the “lost,” things are even worse, probably because they are not “churched” as he is — so he seems to retain some shreds of his belief in spite of the fact that God never answers.

Hopkins, we may say in summarizing the poem, is suffering from an attack of excessive ego.  By that I do not mean arrogance, but I mean being too much wrapped up in his own sense of being a “self” separate from everything else.  He feels even his God to be so separate and distant that talking to him is like sending letters to a dead letter office.  It is paradoxical that depression is in general really a condition — which Hopkins realizes on some level in this poem — of being too absorbed, for whatever reason, in one’s self, one’s own thoughts and emotions and fears, never being able to step outside them for even a moment — a Hell of one’s own making, as he says in so many words in his “Selfyeast” metaphor.  The poem is like the cry of the old Johnny Rivers song, “Gotta get out of myself.”  Only Hopkins, in his dark mood, unfortunately sees no way out.

Fortunately, I should remind readers, there are ways out of such self-absorption, but Hopkins, in his time and place, was not in a position to find them, and suffered greatly as a consequence.

David

VIOLETS AND TIME

The woman Sono-jo wrote:

Violets beside the track

Withered
Between the tissue papers —
Violets. 

It is a very simple verse, not striking nor even very original, but it does remind us of beauty and impermanence.

The oldest and last remaining relative of my parents’ generation passed away yesterday morning.  She was 102.  Somehow, Sono-jo’s hokku seems appropriate.

 

David

DROWSING IN LOTOS-LAND: Part II

A coin of vantage

III

Lo! in the middle of the wood,
The folded leaf is woo’d from out the bud 
With winds upon the branch, and there 
Grows green and broad, and takes no care, 
Sun-steep’d at noon, and in the moon 
Nightly dew-fed; and turning yellow
Falls, and floats adown the air. 
Lo! sweeten’d with the summer light, 
The full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow, 
Drops in a silent autumn night. 
All its allotted length of days
The flower ripens in its place, 
Ripens and fades, and falls, and hath no toil, 
Fast-rooted in the fruitful soil.

The poet describes how each thing grows and matures, then fades and dies; the bud becomes the leaf, it grows broad and green, then yellows and falls.  So too the apple, which matures, then ages and drops from the tree.  The flowers do the same — they mature (“ripen”), then fade and fall.  All of these things pass through their course of life without effort or labor:

IV

Hateful is the dark-blue sky, 
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why 
Should life all labor be? 
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast, 
And in a little while our lips are dumb. 
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become 
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past. 
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have 
To war with evil? Is there any peace 
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave 
In silence—ripen, fall, and cease: 
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.

Using verse III as its base, the choric song now brings in humans.  The singers think of the “hateful” blue sky arching (“vaulted”) over the sea like a roof, and they consider that life is all toil, all work.  The plants grow and mature and die without work, so why should men not do the same?  Life is short, and in a little while humans die and speak no more — their lips are dumb (“mute, silent”).  Everything humans have is taken from them — beauty, youth, friends, family, possessions — and all become parts of the “dreadful” past.  “Portions and Parcels of the dreadful Past” (alliteration in the repeated use of “P” in that great line). Note how the things of normal life have become hated and dreadful.

Why, the sailors ask, should they continue to sail on the sea (“climbing up the climbing wave”)?  There is no peace or rest in that, nor is there pleasure in constantly fighting against evil.  “All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave in silence,” they sing, and they want to be a part of that lack of strife and effort, so they ask, “Give us long rest or death, dark death, and dreamful ease.”  They have fallen fully under the sleepy enchantment of the lotos.

V

How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream, 
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream! 
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light, 
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height; 
To hear each other’s whisper’d speech; 
Eating the Lotos day by day, 
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach, 
And tender curving lines of creamy spray; 
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly 
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy; 
To muse and brood and live again in memory, 
With those old faces of our infancy 
Heap’d over with a mound of grass, 
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass!

The preceding verse is a description of someone in a drug-induced stupor.  It reminds me of those old pictures of people lying on beds puffing on opium pipes in an opium den.  The sailors want to live in this kind of semi-trance, half dreaming, half awake, partly aware of the sights and sounds about them while also aware of the inner images that arise in the mind of faces they had known long ago, faces now buried as dust in an urn beneath a grassy mound in some distant place.

VI

Dear is the memory of our wedded lives, 
And dear the last embraces of our wives 
And their warm tears; but all hath suffer’d change; 
For surely now our household hearths are cold, 
Our sons inherit us, our looks are strange, 
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy. 
Or else the island princes over-bold 
Have eat our substance, and the minstrel sings 
Before them of the ten years’ war in Troy, 
And our great deeds, as half-forgotten things. 
Is there confusion in the little isle? 
Let what is broken so remain. 
The Gods are hard to reconcile; 
’Tis hard to settle order once again. 
There is confusion worse than death, 
Trouble on trouble, pain on pain, 
Long labor unto aged breath, 
Sore task to hearts worn out by many wars 
And eyes grown dim with gazing on the pilot-stars.

The sailors think what returning home would be like.  The fires on their hearths have long grown cold.  They have been gone from home so long that their sons will have grown, and will be living their own lives.  Life will have continued without the sailors for years, so why should they return, like strange ghosts, to trouble the lives of people who will hardly remember them?  Or perhaps the princes of their homeland have taken what they left behind (“eaten their substance”), and remember them only as actors in a war long past.  Have things gone wrong in their home in their absence?  Well, they think, if so, let it be so.  Why bother to try to mend what is broken?  The quarrels of the gods reflected in the affairs of men are difficult to lay to rest, so why even try?  There is only confusion and trouble and toil until one grows old and one’s eyes are worn out from gazing at the “pilot-stars” — the stars by which one sets and guides the course of a ship.

VII

But, propped on beds of amaranth and moly, 
How sweet—while warm airs lull us, blowing lowly— 
With half-dropped eyelids still, 
Beneath a heaven dark and holy, 
To watch the long bright river drawing slowly 
His waters from the purple hill— 
To hear the dewy echoes calling 
From cave to cave thro’ the thick-twined vine— 
To watch the emerald-color’d water falling 
Thro’ many a woven acanthus-wreath divine! 
Only to hear and see the far-off sparkling brine, 
Only to hear were sweet, stretch’d out beneath the pine.

The sailors, again, just want to give up on their former lives, want only to drowse with eyes half-closed on “beds of amaranth and moly,” to gaze half-awake at the waters, to listen to echoing, distant sounds, to hear the soft beating of the distant surf on the shore as they recline in a half-dream.

VIII

The Lotos blooms below the barren peak, 
The Lotos blows by every winding creek; 
All day the wind breathes low with mellower tone; 
Thro’ every hollow cave and alley lone 
Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown. 
We have had enough of action, and of motion we,
Roll’d to starboard, roll’d to larboard, when the surge was seething free, 
Where the wallowing monster spouted his foam-fountains in the sea. 
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind, 
In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined 
On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.
For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl’d 
Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl’d 
Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world; 
Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands, 
Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands, 
Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands. 
But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song 
Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong, 
Like a tale of little meaning tho’ the words are strong; 
Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil, 
Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil, 
Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil; 
Till they perish and they suffer—some, ’tis whisper’d—down in hell 
Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell, 
Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel. 
Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore 
Than labor in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar; 
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

In this last portion, the sailors are given over completely to the enchantment of the Lotos-Land.  The lotos blooms everywhere on the island; its yellow, soporific dust — pollen — blows about all over the island, and the whole place is lost in dreams.  The sailors think of themselves as like the gods in Olympus who look down on the distant toils and troubles of the world from their comfortable, immortal heights; they watch from their far-off heights the humans who labor, suffer, age and die and then go to Hades or to the Elysian Fields, and all of it is to the gods like a distant dream.  That is how the sailors feel themselves now to be — removed from it all, like the gods.  Slumber, they declare, is more sweet than toil, so they will abandon themselves forever to the indolence of the Lotos-Land, will abandon their voyaging — which means abandoning real life — forever:  “O rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more!”

The poem is filled with effective images and studded with fine and memorable lines, in spite of its length.  If we summarize it, we might say that it is an expression of human weariness with the work and sorrow and the troubles of life, and of the urge to escape all of these things inherent in life — not by trying to resolve them or grow beyond them, but by running away from them into a land of drug trance and dreams.   It is only those not under the influence of the drug who can see what is really happening to the sailors, how they have completely given up on life and reality and have committed a kind of spiritual suicide, wanting only to drowse on and on, eating more and more of the lotos in that land where time seems to have slowed to a near stop.  One could hardly find a better “inside view” of drug addiction seen from the addict’s distorted point of view.  But we may also view the poem simply as a pleasant, sleepy escapism, as long as we come back to the real world and do not linger too long in Tennyson’s Lotos-Land.

There is, of course, much more to say about this lengthy poem, and I have hardly done it justice here.  But I hope this will be helpful to some as an overall description, or perhaps as a relaxant before an evening’s sleep.

David

DROWSING IN LOTOS-LAND: TENNYSON’S THE LOTOS-EATERS

The poem discussed today is by the British poet Alfred Tennyson.  It is based upon a short incident in the ancient Greek Odyssey by Homer, which tells of the years-long attempt of Odysseus and his sailors to return to their island home of Ithaca.  Here is the incident upon which the poem is based:

I was driven from there by foul winds for a length of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotos-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take on fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk, I sent two of my crew to see what kind of men the people of that place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotos-eaters, who did them no harm, but gave them the lotos to eat, which was so delicious that those who ate of it stopped caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and chewing lotus with the Lotos-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly, I forced them back to the ships and tied them firmly under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotos and stop wanting to get home, so they took their places and struck the grey sea with their oars.”

I will discuss Tennyson’s poem on this subject — The Lotos-Eaters– part by part.  It is a longer poem than usual, but perhaps a good antidote to those among us brought up on the quick edits of television that create a ceaseless, jittery leap from one image to another.  If we give it our attention — which we must to appreciate and understand it — it will cause us to slow down, and will lull us into a not-unpleasant state of drowsiness.  The key to understanding The Lotos-Eaters is to realize that it is a kind of enchantment of words and phrases that weave a sleepy spell.  It would make an excellent bedtime poem because of this relaxing effect.

It begins when the sailors come upon the Lotos-Land:

“COURAGE!” he said, and pointed toward the land,
“This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.”
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
All round the coast the languid air did swoon, 
Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.
Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;
And, like a downward smoke, the slender stream
Along the cliff to fall and pause and fall did seem.


Odysseus, on board ship with his crew, tells them to have courage; he points out that they are near land, which is visible in the distance.  He tells them that a rising wave will soon carry the ship toward that shore.

It is afternoon as they reach the beach of that land, a place where, strangely, it always seems to be afternoon.  All around the shore on which the waves beat, the languid (relaxed, at ease, without energy) air swoons (seems as though falling into a state of relaxation like that of fainting), and the soft air is very gentle and slow, breathing like a person in a weary dream.  Above the valley that extends inland from the shore, the moon is full in the sky even though it is day.   A stream falls from a cliff in the distance,  but in a most unusual way; it seems like a slender wisp of smoke that wafts slowly downward, hesitates, then continues its descent.  We can see that already we are under the spell of the place, because even the fall of water happens in a drowsy slow motion.  This is not the ordinary world.

A land of streams! some, like a downward smoke,
Slow-dropping veils of thinnest lawn, did go;
And some thro’ wavering lights and shadows broke,
Rolling a slumbrous sheet of foam below.
They saw the gleaming river seaward flow
From the inner land; far off, three mountain-tops, 
Three silent pinnacles of aged snow,
Stood sunset-flush’d; and, dew’d with showery drops,
Up-clomb the shadowy pine above the woven copse.

The Lotos-Land is a land of streams.  Some of them fall, as we have seen, like drowsy smoke, like slowly-dropping veils made of the thinnest “lawn,” a kind of gauzy, semi-transparent white cloth.  Some streams are seen through wavering lights and shadows in the distance, creating a sleep-slow foam as they flow downward.  A river winds languidly from inland toward the sea.  Far off are three mountain peaks covered with snow that has been there a long, long time (note how Tennyson constantly emphasizes slowness, drowsiness, a sense of time moving barely if at all).  The late afternoon sun turns the snow reddish, like a “flush” or blush on a person’s face.  The shadowy pines (one pine stands for many here) rise up (“up-clomb”) here and there from the intertwined (“woven”) branches of the copse (a thicket of small trees and shrubs); drops of moisture as though from a shower are on the boughs of these high pines that rise above the lower foliage.

The charmed sunset linger’d low adown
In the red West; thro’ mountain clefts the dale
Was seen far inland, and the yellow down
Border’d with palm, and many a winding vale
And meadow, set with slender galingale;
A land where all things always seem’d the same!
And round about the keel with faces pale, 
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

Notice that Tennyson repeats the feeling that it is always afternoon here.  The sun seems always to be in that late, sleepy time of day, as though enchanted (charmed), under a magic spell.  The western sky, like the snowy peaks on which it reflects, is red.  Through gaps (clefts) in the mountains of the island, we can see farther inland to a valley (dale), and we see a yellow down (smooth, higher meadow-like slope) bordered with palm trees; and we see other winding valleys and meadows where grows (“set with”) a  sedge-like plant with aromatic roots that is called galingale.  Tennyson probably had in mind the kind of galingale he had seen in Spain, which is Cyperus esculentus.

This is, he reiterates, a land where nothing seems to change, — where time does not exist — at least not in the ordinary way.  And then Tennyson has Odysseus look downward to see people approaching the keel — the  base of his ship.  Their faces are dark against the rosy flame of the western late afternoon sky, and they appear mild-eyed and gentle, yet he feels a melancholy in them.  His description of them is likely to call drug addicts to mind:

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake, 
And music in his ears his beating heart did make.

The inhabitants of Lotos-Land carry branches of the lotos — “that enchanted stem,” branches loaded with flowers and fruit, and they give some to each sailor.  But a very strange thing happens:  whoever eats the lotos is quickly affected.  The sound of the ocean waves suddenly seems very far-off and muted, as though it were breaking on some other shore of some other land.  Note how in that distance, the waves seem to “mourn and rave,” unhappy and troubled in the ears of the hearer; we feel already in that an aversion to sailing upon them.  And the voices of the other sailors seem very thin and without strength, like a voice of a ghost (“from the grave.”).  Whoever eats the lotos falls into a kind of waking sleep; even the beating of the heart changes into a kind of soft, strange music in their ears.

This is very important to understanding the poem.  The Lotos-Land is a land where time as we know it does not exist, and the lotos itself is a plant that induces a kind of trance condition, a dream-like state very much like that, we may suppose, of an opium addict.  And that is why the Lotos-eaters seem melancholy to Odysseus; they are caught by the drug.

They sat them down upon the yellow sand,
Between the sun and moon upon the shore;
And sweet it was to dream of Fatherland,
Of child, and wife, and slave; but evermore
Most weary seem’d the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then some one said, “We will return no more;”
And all at once they sang, “Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam.” 

The sailors, having eaten of the lotos, sit down on the sand of the shore, with both the sun and moon in the sky above them.  And even though their dreams of returning to their homeland and children and wives had seemed sweet to them, now they are under the spell of the Lotus-Land; they have growing ever greater in them the conviction that it is tiresome to be sailing on the restless sea, tiresome to be pulling on the oars of the ship, and this growing feeling makes the endless, empty waters on which they must sail to reach home seem wearisome and travel on it pointless.   At last one of the sailors speaks what is in all their minds:  “We will return no more.”  And enchanted all together by the Lotus-Land and its fruits, they break into a remarkable chorus of sleepy song, the first words of which are,

“Our island home
Is far beyond the wave;
We will no longer roam.”

And now that we and the sailors have been lulled into this drowsy, dream-state that is neither sleep nor waking, the sailors take up their choric song, their chorus, and this is the most affecting part of the whole poem, and it is full of meaning:

CHORIC SONG

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir’d eyelids upon tir’d eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro’ the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep, 
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

This island, like the island of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is an enchanted place with strange music.  Perhaps Tennyson was thinking of Caliban’s speech:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

In Lotos-Land there is a strange, sweet music that is softer than rose petals falling from mature rose flowers (“blown roses”) onto grass — softer than night dew on still water pools lying in mountain passes of dark granite stone, passes through which light gleams.  Music that is gentler on the human spirit than the welcome weight of eyelids on tired eyes.  It is faint music that seems to be everywhere, that seems to bring down pleasant sleep from the bliss-filled skies.

The lines I repeat now, with their continuous sameness of end-rhyme, only increase the sense of drowsiness and sleep by mentioning the poppy — which puts us in mind of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum — literally “the poppy that carries sleep”:

Here are cool mosses deep,
And through the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

II

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown;
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!”—
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?

That gives us the sleepy reasoning behind the determination of the sailors to cease their wanderings and drowse in the slumbrous scents and music and air of the Lotus-Land.  They ask why they should feel the heaviness of life’s troubles, why they should be always distressed, why they, who are humans, the foremost among created things, should not be able to rest, when around them all other things rest.  Why should they again take up their toilsome sea journey, thrown from one trouble to another, never being able, like birds, to “fold their wings” and rest, nor to go deeply into peaceful sleep.  They listen to what their inner spirit is telling them — enhanced, of course by the effects of the Lotos-Land and its lotos fruit — that the greatest joy is not in labor and strife, but in calm and quiet and and an end of striving.  Why should they, the highest (“roof”) of created beings, the “crown” of creation, be the only ones to toil?

Already we see that the lotus has distorted their thinking.  They are not the only beings that toil, but surrounded by the drug-like pleasantness of the Lotus-Land, they begin to think they are, and they are tired of laboring, tired of the troubles of life.  They  begin to sink into the drowsy,  worryless peace that surrounds them.

And today we shall leave them there, because this is a long poem, and I do not want to weary you with too much explanation at one time.  I will continue the rest another day.

What we can see from what has been covered so far is that Tennyson was not at all an “impressionistic” poet like the later Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Instead, he was a consummate craftsmen of words and memorable phrases.  Where the impressionists used words and sounds like dabs of color to evoke images, Tennyson reminds me of a sculptor carefully carving a bas-relief — everything clear and sharp.

I should add, before we finish today, that we should not confuse the “lotos” of the poem with the lotus flower that grows out of water.  But what, then, was it?  To answer that, we would have to know precisely what Homer meant by the term, and we do not.  There are several possible “real” candidates, but none of them do what Homer says the plant did to the sailors.  I think it best to consider the lotos a mythical plant, though it may have been a real plant given mythical attributes.  Certainly Tennyson’s description of its effects must have been heavily influenced by the prevalence of opium used as a drug in his time, both medically to induce sleep and for its ultimately very dangerous and harmful use as a “recreational” drug.  We can keep in mind that morphine, an alkaloid derived from opium, derives its name from Morfeos, the Greek god of dreams.

David


“GETTING” R. H. BLYTH

If you want to understand what R. H. Blyth meant by connecting Zen and hokku, it can be stated very simply.

Thoreau's Cove, Concord, Massachusetts. Thorea...

To Blyth, Zen was the elimination of the boundary between self and other, between subject and object.  I have said before that a human is the universe “humaning,” and a stone is the universe “stoning.”  When we eliminate the distinction between subject and object — which exists because of the notion of a self — then all that exists is a unity.

That is why Blyth makes statements that seem initially to make no sense at all.  But if you keep what I just said in mind, then you can understand (at least intellectually) what he is talking about.

For example, He mentions these lines of Keats:

I who still saw the universal sun
Heave his broad shoulder o’er the edge of the world.    

Blyth goes on to say of them, “If I lift my shoulder the sun rises; if I lower it, it sinks.”

“If you only think about this kind of statement, it seems crazy beyond all endurance…” he remarks.  And indeed it does, because thinking involves the separation of subject and object.  But if we abandon thinking for a moment, then there is no self and no other — there is no subject-object distinction.  That is why when you raise your shoulder, the “sun” — the universe which manifests as both you and sun — rises, because your shoulder is the sun’s, as is mine, as is that of everyone else in the world.

Of course that is a kind of play on words, because we are using “sun” here as a name for the universe.  When you raise your shoulder, the universe raises its shoulder, which is not separate from “your” shoulder, but one and the same.  The universe as “man” raises its shoulder.

That is why we can say that one thing manifests the whole universe; nothing is separate from the universe.  So when you open your eye, a star opens its eye, because there is no separation between you and the star.

That may sound odd at first, but if you just think of the universe as all of the same substance, the action of one thing is the action of all the rest of the universe manifested in that one thing.  That is why in hokku we can say that a single cherry blossom is all of spring.

The other thing to keep in mind about Blyth’s notion of Zen is that it is the complete union of mind and action.  He tells us that “A thief running away like mad from a ferocious watch-dog may be a splendid example of Zen.”  Why?  Because in the thief’s mad running away, there is no separation of thought and action.  The thief is the running away.

We all know people who cannot seem to unify mind and action.  They are filled with hesitation and uncertainty and equivocating and second thoughts.  But in Zen, mind and action just plunge ahead as one.  That is why when Blyth talks of Zen action, it is not a matter of morals or ethics.  It is just the lack of separation of mind and action.

Don’t take that crudely and unwisely, please, as the “Beats” did, to mean that you may do anything you wish, and that whatever you feel like doing is perfectly fine, no matter how immoral it may seem to others.  That is not the way the world works.  It is just a description of what Blyth meant by Zen, and I hope it will give you a key to understanding some of his more “difficult” statements in his various works.

If we reduce what I have said here to its minimum and apply it to hokku, then we have — as writers of hokku — to keep in mind that hokku generally eliminates the separation of subject (the writer) and object (what is written about).  That is why, for example, in the old hokku

The old pond;
A frog jumps in — 
The sound of water.

…there is no “poet” visible.  He has become one with the pond, the frog, the sound of water, and all of those are also just one.  Nor is there any separation of “thing” and “action.”  We could describe the “Old Pond” hokku as one long extended verb.   That is the unity of hokku.

If you find that what I have written here makes no sense to you the first time you read it through, it would be helpful to read it again and to ponder it.  Once you get it, you will understand a lot of Blyth’s writing that previously may have seemed impenetrable.

David