COLD RAIN; AN AUTUMN HOKKU

autumnpuddle

It is pouring rain here, and having just come in out of it, here is a simple hokku expressive of the day:

(Autumn)

Cold rain;
A solitary crow
Stalks among the puddles.

Nothing profound there, just a wet happening on a wet day.

For those of you learning hokku, it is a standard hokku in form, meaning it has a setting, a subject and an action. Here is how it works:

Cold rain; (setting)
A solitary crow (subject)
Stalks about the puddles. (action)

David

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FOREVER AUTUMN: THOMAS HARDY’S DURING WIND AND RAIN

Today we shall take a look at Thomas Hardy’s poem During Wind and Rain.

It might be puzzling at first glance, but one quickly notices that the first five lines of each stanza depict a pleasant scene of middle-class family life in rural England roughly at the beginning of the Edwardian period, while the last two lines of each stanza consist of a ballad-like lament (repeated in two different forms) followed by an image of transience. These latter images, when combined, show us the coming and arrival of a storm, quite in contrast to the bright and happy scenes, but nonetheless, we shall see, related.

This odd combination of pleasant family vignettes combined with images of storm have, as their point, very much the same as that of the poem Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas. In the latter we are shown the happy childhood of a boy quite unaware that even as he is enjoying his simple pleasures, time is already gradually killing him. In Hardy’s poem the family similarly are engaged in their domestic pleasures, quite unaware that a storm is arriving. The storm is time and death.

So that is Hardy’s point, very close to that of Dylan Thomas, who wrote:

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.

You will find it helpful, I think, to read my posting on Fern Hill in the archives of this site.

This notion of humans heedlessly going about their little pleasures, unaware that time is engaged in killing them, is found also in the very old Buddhist parable of the children playing in a house. They are so absorbed in their play that they fail to notice that the house is aflame. In Fern Hill these children are the boy Dylan Thomas; in During Wind and Rain they are the happy middle-class family.

Here is the poem:

They sing their dearest songs–
He, she, all of them–yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face….
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss–
Elders and juniors–aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all–
Men and maidens–yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee….
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them–aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

The first stanza shows us a group, likely a family, father, mother, children and perhaps some friends, gathered together and happily singing familiar songs, something that was very common in the days before radio and television and the Internet. They sing in harmonious parts, high voices, medium voices, and low voices, and the candlelight shines on their faces, making them glow like moons in the shadowy pre-electrified room. One person plays accompaniment on a musical instrument, perhaps an upright cottage piano with its two candleholders placed above the music rack, to left and right, and the candles lit.

This cheerful scene is followed by the first lament:

Ah, no; the years O!

— like the repeated refrain of a song.

Next comes the second stanza, another pleasant scene. We see them, some older, some younger, tidying up a garden, removing moss, cleaning the paths, building a pleasant seat for conversation or contemplation in the shade of a vine or beneath the boughs of a tree. But that is followed by the second lament:

Ah, no; the years, the years;

Then comes a third pleasant scene. Here both males and females are lightheartedly having their breakfast outdoors beneath a tree. The waters of the bay glitter in the distance, and wandering pet chickens approach the legs of the sitters curiously, hoping for some stray bit of food to eat. And after it the first lament is repeated:

Ah, no; the years O!

Finally we see the last pleasant scene. The family has come up in the world; it is the day of their moving into a larger and more commodious house, a big event for a rising middle-class family. All the furniture and bright belongings are placed outside the door on the lawn, the sunlight shining on it and warming it all, clocks and carpets and chairs, as the interior of the house is gradually tidied and arranged and things are brought in piece by piece to be placed in their new locations. And then comes a repetition of the second lament:

Ah, no; the years, the years;

In each case, in each stanza, the ballad-like lament is followed by a scene contrasting with the happy family scenes. If we put all four together, we can see that they gradually build up a storm, a sense of impending unpleasantness, to a final climax:

How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
See, the white storm-birds wing across!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

First we see a multitude of leaves falling from the trees, and next “storm-birds” — birds flying across the sky ahead of the coming storm; a wind rips an aged but decayed rose stalk from the wall against which it had been growing for years; and finally we see tombstones in the beating rain, the drops streaming down and through the grooves of the carved names of the same family we have seen in the preceding happy times.

Notice that Hardy connects this rising storm with autumn. That is because autumn, as in hokku, is the time of withering, decay, and ultimate death. It is also because in England storms tend to come from the West, off the Atlantic. That also gives us the connection with the wind in the poem, which likely was the wind from the West. We see that autumn/wind connection expressed in Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which begins,

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing…

And that, of course, gives us the beginning autumn image Hardy uses in the last line of the first stanza — leaves blown from the trees.

What is the meaning of all this? It is that human joys and human lives are fleeting, that even while we are in the midst of our pleasures there are unheeded signs that it will not last. Hardy’s method was to show us those hints of coming distress after each happy scene, preceded always by a lament of the swift passage of the years, of inexorable time:

Ah, no; the years O!
Ah, no; the years, the years;

It is the years, it is time that is the destroyer of temporary human joys, the taker of brief human lives. It is the same view, untinted by romanticism, that we find in Hardy’s remarkable novels, a view exemplified by his statement “… my sober opinion — so far as I have any definite one — of the Cause of Things, has been defined in scores of places, and is that of a great many ordinary thinkers: that the said Cause is neither moral nor immoral but unmoral: ‘loveless and hateless’ I have called it, ‘which neither good nor evil knows’” Hardy considered himself “a harmless agnostic.”

This poem achieves its end, its point, by mixing happy scenes of the dead past with the result of it all, rain streaming down tombstones. The pleasant scenes are all counterbalanced by scenes of autumn and storm. Hardy is saying that in spite of its superficial spring-summer appearance, life is really forever autumn. As Omar Khayyam says in Fitzgerald’s version,

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

The meaning of Hardy’s poem is, in one word, impermanence — the same theme that underlies all good hokku.

The old Japanese writer of hokku, Rōka, wrote a verse which, though it long precedes Hardy’s, nonetheless expresses the same sentiment more subtly by concentrating only on the present moment:

Sadness;
Cold rain dyes the letters
On the grave-stone.

Here is the original and a very literal translation:

Kanashisa ya
Shigure ni somaru
Haka no moji.

Sadness ya
Rain in is-dyed
Gravestone ‘s writing

You will recall, if you are a regular reader here, that ya is an untranslatable particle indicating a meditative pause, indicated in English here by a semicolon.

The word shigure means the cold rain of late autumn to early winter. Traditionally this is considered a winter hokku, but remember that according to the Hokku Calendar, winter begins about the time of Halloween.

Regarding this stanza of Hardy’s poem —

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them–aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

— you may have read the interpretation that “a high new house” means the family has died and has moved to heaven, and the furniture placed out upon the lawn signifies the sale of their belongings. I do not think that is a legitimate or reasonable understanding. Hardy the self-declared agnostic was not a believer in a heaven. His view as we have seen, was that the tiny, brief lives of humans take place on the vast stage of a universe neither moral nor immoral, but “un-moral.”

Some see the “pleasant parts” of the four stanzas as representing the four seasons, beginning with winter, progressing to a spring garden cleaning, then to a summer breakfast, and finally autumn, but I do not think there is enough evidence for that. Instead it would appear that aside from the last line of each stanza, all can be placed in a spring through summer setting, thus contrasting with the “forever autumn” theme of the poem as a whole.

That theme also explains the title of the poem, During Wind and Rain. The family going about their domestic pleasures are quite unaware that their actions are all happening as an “autumn” storm (time) is rising that will sweep all away.

David

THE LONG NIGHT: DARKNESS AND SOUND IN GOCHIKU

As autumn deepens, the days grow ever shorter, the nights longer.

Our bodies, if not constrained by trying to follow “clock time,” gradually adjust to this, but nonetheless sometimes we find ourselves waking in the night, unable to go back to sleep.

In that time of dark stillness, any sensory event makes a much stronger impression than usual, like a pebble falling into a well.

Gochiku wrote a hokku expressing this silence of the mind into which a sensory experience falls, and one can hardly do better than the translation of R. H. Blyth:

The long night;
The sound of water
Says what I think.

Gochiku does not mean that the sound of water dripping, flowing, or falling (he does not specify which) in the night is in keeping with thoughts, with images running through his mind. He means instead that the sound of water expresses the silence of his mind, an empty darkness in which that sound becomes magnified by the absence of both active thinking and other sensory input — again, like a pebble falling into a deep dark well, creating only a resonant splash and waves moving outward in a circle and being reflected inward again.

drip

Everyone experiences a hokku differently, depending on our individual stores of memories and impressions. While this hokku retains its essential meaning no matter whether one hears a slow dripping of water, like that of rain dripping from a roof, or the gurgling of a nearby stream, or that of a very small waterfall, I like to hear the slow dripping of water. It is a sound that comes into consciousness, disappears, then appears again, a kind of ticking of the world clock in which we feel what is always happening, things arising and passing away, the constant movement from this moment to the next, a repeating birth and death.

We should not, however, think of this sound of water in the night as a symbol or metaphor of anything. It expresses itself, but in it we feel the nature of all existence.

In form, this is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action:

The long night; (setting)
The sound of water (subject)
Says what I think. (action)

One can write countless hokku using this setting/subject/action model. Just remember that the setting is the place, condition or circumstance in which something happens. The subject is the main “actor” in the verse (a noun), and the action is precisely that, something moving or changing, generally characterized by a verb.

One can simplify this in terms of a play:

The setting is the stage, which can show us day, night, rain, a time of year, etc. etc.;
The subject is the actor on that stage, what the “play” is about;
The action is what the actor does, what happens on stage.

That is, of course, a simplified way of approaching the subject, but it may be helpful to those who wish to learn to write real hokku.

For those who like to see originals, here it is transliterated and with a literal translation, in “western” three line form:

Nagaki yo ya
Omou koto iu
Mizu no oto

Long night ya
Thought thing says
Water ‘s sound

David

INVICTUS: THE VICTORY OF WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) wrote a poem about a very difficult time in his life, a work that has been both praised and (unjustly) derided over the years. Its subject is the human spirit and its response to difficult circumstances.

londoneng

We all have seen how differently people react to the same trying event, such as the death of a dear family member or a terrible accident: some just regard it quietly, with grim, dry-eyed stoicism, while others fall apart completely and can barely function. How one responds gives a very good picture of one’s psychological makeup.

In such times of trial — we commonly speak of them as “dark” times — we are forced to see the negative side of life, the side we try to ignore or forget about for our own mental health. But Henley could not forget about it or overlook it. As a boy he suffered so severely from tubercular arthritis that doctors eventually removed one of his legs. Medicine in those days was still primitive and germ-ridden, and the result of surgery was often infection and death. When, in 1873, doctors wanted to remove his other leg, Henley managed to get another opinion, which fortunately was that of Joseph Lister, the man who pioneered the new technique of antiseptic surgery. By that decision Henley saved his remaining leg.

Because of all his difficulties, Henley was “in hospital” as the British say, for a very long time, almost two years, and one can imagine how this must have affected the young man. He began to write poetry about those troubling months, a series of verses called In Hospital.

Henley had certainly known dark times. He could truly say, as Robert Frost wrote in a poem, “I have been one acquainted with the night.” He must have felt like those unfortunates spoken of in William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

What follows is the most famous of his “hospital” poems. It was written in 1875, and was later given a title that summarizes it well — Invictus, Latin for “Unconquered”:


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

We have seen that “night” is a metaphor for dark and difficult times. So dark were those times for Henley that he described them as night so black that it “extended from pole to pole,” that is, it darkened his whole world.

He speaks of that darkness as “black as the pit.” What is “the pit”? At that time the Bible was well known in Britain, and so immediately a reader would have recognized “the pit” as a synonym for death, the grave, as in Job 17:16:

They shall go down to the bars of the pit, when our rest together is in the dust.

But again for those in Britain, it was a common term among coal miners, for whom “to go down the pit” meant to descend into a coal mine, and there was nothing blacker than the depths of a coal mine when a lamp went out, no darkness, at least no physical darkness, greater. So this usage by Henley was, in its time, very strong and expressive.

But in that darkness, he did not just give in to utter despair. He did not let his emotions rule him; instead, he took charge of his thoughts, guiding himself through those black times like a captain in control of his ship. For this ability he is so grateful that he thanks whatever in the universe gave him the ability to manifest this inner strength; he thanks whatever gods there might be, whatever the reasons were, for his unconquerable spirit.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Henley used the old word “fell,” as did J.R.R. Tolkien, to mean “deadly, terrible.” In the terrible and deadly grasp of the circumstances that beset him, Henley did not wince, did not shrink back, nor did he cry out in anguish. He kept his composure. And under the beatings that fortune had dealt him, he took those blows but did not give in or submit. Metaphorically speaking, his head was wounded, but he kept it erect and did not bow to the forces besetting him, he did not give in to despair. These words “My head is bloody, but unbowed” have become famous and are often quoted. One thinks of the old Christian hymn by Bach, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” “O Head full of blood and wounds,” referring to the passion of Jesus, and Henley may have had that image of the Passion in mind.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

Henley’s attitude is much like that of the pre-Christian Romans. They did not know what came after death, but often pictured the afterworld as a dark place. He sees this world as a “place of wrath and tears,” a place of suffering and sorrow, and beyond that comes death, “the Horror of the shade.” “Shade” here means darkness, shadows, but it also has undertones of the old use of the word, meaning a departed spirit. So he cannot see what lies before him; all is shadowed. Yet he has survived so far, and “the menace of the years,” the threat both of life and of what lies beyond, “finds and shall find me unafraid.” Henley has survived the trials of life, and he will go through the trials of death, whatever they may be, with the same strength of spirit. His attitude here is both courageous and agnostic (literally “not-knowing”) — he is confident that he will deal with whatever comes.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Henley begins his final stanza with a biblical allusion, Matthew 7:13 in the King James Version:

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

“Strait” is an old word meaning narrow and constricted. The biblical reference means that the way to eternal life is so narrow and difficult that very few will find it and be able to make it though.

He continues with the old notion that all of a human’s deeds in life, both good and bad, are written down in a book or on a scroll. We find this notion in the Bible, in Revelation 20:12

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”

So Henley is using old allusions to signify that it does not matter how difficult the passage into the afterlife may be, nor does it matter what awaits him there, even if it be punishment. Through it all he will maintain his inner strength, and nothing will cow (intimidate) him.

Some people may see this, incorrectly, as a very egotistical poem, because we know that many difficult circumstances in life, and certainly ultimate death, are quite beyond our control. But Henley is not saying he controls the great events of life and death; he is saying simply that whatever life or death may bring, he has already been through the fire, he has already been tested by suffering, and that has given him unconquerable strength. For him the old saying of Friedrich Nietzsche has proved true:

Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker
“What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

Because of his previous suffering, he now has the courage to face whatever may come. As Buddhism teaches, that which we no longer fear has no real power over us.

David

INCREASING YIN: THE LIGHT GOES OUT

lightdark

I often mention that Shiki, who is generally considered (inaccurately) the founder of the modern haiku movement, just continued to write hokku, for the most part, though he called them “haiku.”

Not only were his verses hokku in form, they also continued the seasonal connection (which most writers of modern haiku have abandoned entirely) and, whether Shiki himself realized it or not, they often continued the aesthetic approach of hokku, so were hokku for all practical purposes, whatever he wished to call them.

Here is a good example, which in form and content is really nothing other than an autumn hokku:

The light in the next room
Goes out too;
The cold of night.

If you read my previous postings on the Hokku Wheel of the Year and the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, you will easily grasp the significance of this verse.

It is set in autumn, the time when Yang energy (light, warmth, movement) is fading and Yin energy (dark, cold, stillness) is increasing. It is late night. the writer extinguishes his own lamp, and then, after some time in silence, he sees the faint glow from the light in the next room go out too.

This verse expresses very well the fading of Yang energy, as first one light goes out — adding to the darkness — and then the light in the other room also goes out, making the darkness complete. And in that darkness one suddenly perceives deeply the chill of the autumn night, not yet as piercing as that of winter, but affecting in its expression that light and warmth are fading from the world. This increasing of darkness and cold parallels the waning of Yang and the increasing dominance of Yin in the season of autumn. So we could say quite honestly that this little verse manifests the character of deepening autumn very well.

It is all such deeper connections that have been forgotten and lost in the modern haiku movement, which on the whole has a completely different spirit and aesthetic than the practice of hokku. It already began to be lost in the time of Shiki, but we still find it in this verse.

As I have mentioned before, I have one reader who chides me if I do not add the originals for Japanese hokku I translate here, so for him and any others who may wish it, here is Shiki’s verse in a literal translation (in Western lineation) and in transliteration.

Next’s room’s
Light also extinguished
Night-cold kana

Tsugi no ma no/ tomoshi mo kiete/ yosamu kana
Next ‘s room ‘s/ lamp also extinguished/ night-cold kana

We are getting closer to the next major calendar point in the hokku year, which is Halloween/Samhain; it marks the end of autumn by the old calendar, and the beginning of winter, the season when Yang forces are weakest and Yin forces dominant. Shiki’s verse of increasing darkess and cold makes a good lead-in to that.

David