The Japanese hokku writer Buson wrote this:

Koma-bune no yorade sugiyuku kasumi kana

A Korean ship
Passes by without stopping;
The mist.

There are many interpretations of this verse, but for me it is another of Buson’s imaginary hokku that romanticize the distant past. He fantasizes looking at the spring sea, and out of the mist appears an ancient Korean trading vessel; it does not pause or turn toward port but sails on, back into the mist. The mist is time and Buson’s imagination. The ship appears out the past and then returns to it, a brief reverie.

This kind of hokku — imaginary hokku — is not the kind I teach or favor, but it does have its uses. Today that use for me is as an entry point into another poem that romanticizes sea trade in the distant past, this time written by the British poet and novelist John Masefield (1878-1967). We will look at the first two stanzas — the “romantic” stanzas, and then at the last, by contrast:


Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

The past is always easier to romanticize than the present, but somewhat more difficult to depict accurately.

Masefield uses imagery to evoke shapes, colors, and smells in the mind. He shows us a “quinquireme,” an ancient ship named, scholars think, for its five rows of oars. It was very large, but in reality it was a warship, not a cargo ship. And Masefield calls it a “quinquireme of Nineveh,” but the Assyrian city of Nineveh, on the Tigris River in Mesopotamia, was looted and abandoned in 612 B.C.E., which was more than two centuries before the quinquireme galley came into use on the Mediterranean sea of the Hellenistic era.

Masefield says the Nineveh quinquireme was coming from “distant Ophir.” That reveals Masefield’s source of inspiration for this stanza, because Ophir is a place mentioned in the Old Testament. Its precise location is uncertain, but it appears to have been somewhere on the east coast of Africa. If we look at a couple of lines from the biblical book 2 Chronicles, chapter 9, we find this concerning King Solomon :

10: And the servants also of Huram, and the servants of Solomon, which brought gold from Ophir, brought algum trees and precious stones…
21: For the king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram: every three years once came the ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.

Masefield conflated (combined into one) Ophir with the cargo of the ships of Tarshish, and came up with

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir

This poem, then, is not history but romantic imagery, so we must overlook the inaccuracies and look instead at the image of a great, multi-oared vessel rowing to port in Palestine on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, coming from far off Ophir, laden with white ivory tusks, with chattering apes and colorful peacocks, with fragrant sandalwood and cedarwood, and sweet white wine. That gives us the first set of images of sea cargo.

Next comes this:

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Masefield shows us a wooden sailing vessel from many centuries later than the quinquireme — a Spanish galleon on its return voyage from the Americas, from “the Isthmus.” That is the Isthmus of Panama, that narrow strip of land connecting North and South America. It is the region where gold and silver coming north from Spanish possessions in Peru were carried from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the Caribbean Sea on the “Atlantic” eastern side in the days long before the Panama Canal, and then shipped on to Spain, so it was a very important center of trade.

Masefield shows us the galleon sailing past the shores and islands of the Caribbean, green with palm trees, and onward to Spain, loaded

With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

This is a rich and colorful list, spiced with the fragrance of cinnamon bark. First the stones: Sparkling white diamonds, green emeralds, purple amethysts, and topaz in every color from yellow to blue to reddish brown. And then come gold moidores, literally “coins of gold” in the Portuguese language (moedas de ouro) shining gold coins that ceased being minted in 1732 but continued in circulation on trading ships for a long time — coins of the “pirate” era, along with doubloons and pieces of eight. We can see from Masefield’s rhyming it with “shores” in line two of the stanza that he wants it pronounced as “moy-dors.”

Now we come from the exotic past into what was, for Masefield, the prosaic present, and something he would have seen often:

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Look at the adjectives: “dirty,” “salt-caked,” “mad,” “cheap.” Compare those with the adjectives in the first and second stanzas:
“distant,” “sunny,” “sweet,” “white,” “stately,” “palm-green,” “gold.”

A “coaster” was a ship trading up and down the coast of a country, not a vessel of the deep sea. This one is dirty from long and hard use, and unlike the quinquireme that was powered by oars and the galleon powered by wind in its sails, the coaster has a boiler powered by burning black coal. The stack from which the smoke pours is caked with salt from the sea spray, and the coaster does not move gracefully, but rather goes “butting” — pushing its way — through the rough waters of the English Channel in the “mad” days of March, days when the weather is erratic and can be very windy and cold.

The cargo of the coaster is nothing exotic or colorful. It carries heaps of coal from the coal-shipping center on the Tyne River in northeastern England; it carries iron rails for train tracks; it carries pig lead, that is, lead cast into large ingots (“pigs”) that can be stacked and shipped for eventual re-melting and casting into other forms; it carries firewood; it carries ironware (objects cast from iron, such things as kettles and tools, etc.); and finally it carries cheap tin trays. One can easily see that compared to the cargo in the first two stanzas, the third has only utilitarian and uninteresting and ordinary things for everyday use, not the luxury items of the rich that were carried on quinquireme and galleon.

What do we see in this poem, then? First and foremost, it shows us colorful and romanticized imagery in the first two stanzas, so much so that the third is something of a letdown. Second, it presents a striking contrast between the rich and the ordinary, between luxury goods and everyday utilitarian items. Third, it shows us the difference between the pre-industrial world and the smoky, dirty, industry-polluted world in the days after the Industrial Revolution, a contrast between past and present, and the present suffers by comparison. Fourth, it shows us the continuous importance of shipping in human history, which to Masefield was significant because in his youth he went to sea and spent a number of years sailing to places as distant as Chile. Those years meant a great deal to him and strongly influenced his poetry. He never quite got the sea out of his mind.

The structure of the poem is simple: the last word of the second line in each stanza rhymes with the last word in the last line of each stanza.

Ultimately, though, this poem is just a pleasant presentation of sights and smells that contrast the “romantic” past (which we cannot see, and thus paint with the imagination) with the “prosaic” present (which we can see). There is nothing deep in it, just a sequence of colorful pictures that fade to dingy grey at the end.

Of course the past is never as romantic as we think it to be when we carefully select such exotic things as ivory and emeralds out of times that were for most people very difficult and filled with hunger, disease, hard labor, violence and early death. But humans have always found it more interesting to remake the past into a pleasant dream.

That is what Buson did with his vision of an ancient Korean ship coming out of the spring mist, and that is what Masefield did with his Nineveh quinquireme and Spanish galleon.




Today I would like to talk about a rather fascinating poem by the unique British writer Walter de la Mare.

It is a simple poem, and does not require much explanation. Its fascination lies in its atmosphere of that mixture of the sense of the passage of time and of sadness in solitude, a feeling we often find in hokku verses. The Japanese call it sabishisa, but we have no adequate single word for it in English, though the translation of the the old Latin expression lacrimae rerum — “the tears of things” — meaning the sadness inherent in the world as it is — points us in the right direction.

Here is the poem:


This blue-washed, old, thatched summerhouse —
Paint scaling, and fading from its walls —
How often from its hingeless door
I have watched — dead leaf, like the ghost of a mouse,
Rasping the worn brick floor —
The snows of the weir descending below,
And their thunderous waterfall.

Fall — fall: dark, garrulous rumour,
until I could listen no more.
Could listen no more — for beauty with sorrow
Is a burden hard to be borne:
The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there;
That music, remote, forlorn.

De la Mare shows us a summerhouse — one of those light and simple outdoor structures in which one can sit out of the direct heat and glare of the sun in summer. It is painted a pale blue, and its paint, applied long ago, is peeling and flaking off the walls. That alone gives us the feeling of time having passed, of a depth of years.

“How often,” he says, “from its hingeless door I have watched the snows of the weir descending below, and their thunderous waterfall.”

He is there now, but he is also — mentally — there in the past. He looks out of the opening in the summerhouse, a “door” that is not really a physical door, just an open doorway — down the slope toward the river and its weir. A weir is a kind of low dam built across a river, over which the waters pour continuously, with a pool held behind it and the flow of the river continuing beyond it. The poet recalls how he has gazed out at that weir in times past, watching its “snows” — meaning the white fall of water cascading over the weir –and listening to “their thunderous waterfall,” the sound of the water plunging down from all along the top of the weir to the river below.

But in telling us that, de la Mare inserts a parenthetical statement to tell us that as he watched the weir, a dry leaf caught in a swirl of wind inside the summerhouse made a dry, rasping sound on the worn bricks of the summerhouse floor, a movement and sound “like the ghost of a mouse.” That too gives us a sense of the passing of time, because the rasp is not “like a mouse,” but rather slightly eerie, like “the ghost of a mouse.” De la Mare enjoys injecting a sense of the eerie into his verses.

He again gives us the sense of the passage of time as he describes further his attention focused on the weir and its falling waters, and what he experiences is

Fall — fall, dark, garrulous rumour.

The sound of the plunging waters is continuous, and though their appearance is white, their sound to him is dark, a garrulous (like continuous, pointless babble) rumour. Here rumour is used to mean a persistent noise.

The poet hears this sound until he can listen no more, and here we get to the heart, the essence of the poem:

–for beauty with sorrow
is a burden hard to be borne:

That is an idea we do not often hear, but it is commonplace in hokku; that in beautiful things there is also sorrow, because beauty is transient in this world. As Robert Frost wrote, “nothing gold can stay.” Every adolescent who has a first crush on some beautiful person knows from experience — even though it may be in retrospect — that with beauty comes a pain so deep as to be felt physically.

For de la Mare, that beauty is the faded summerhouse, the rasping leaf swirling on the brick floor, the white water cascading over the weir and its continuous, loud “dark” murmur, and with those,

The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there;

And then

That music, remote, forlorn.

Does he hear a distant, lonely melody from a nearby house? Or does he mean only the music of the weir and its sights, or perhaps a remembered melody from the past?

I like to think he means the first, with the sound of the water coming from the river, and the thin, lonely sound of someone playing a piano drifting, half heard, across the lawn to the summerhouse.

A characteristic of de la Mare’s poetry is that he often does not wish to tell us the whole story; he just presents us with an atmosphere, with things caught in the sense of time long passing, and then he lets us feel the emotions and think the thoughts thus aroused within us. Did he come to the summerhouse with sorrow? Or did the sorrow come with the summerhouse?