ENDINGS


A crow alights
In blowing leaves;
Autumn’s end.

fallenleaves

David

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HEAPS OF TIME

Tomorrow evening is Halloween — Samhain in the old agricultural calendar.  It is a very ancient holiday.  Traditionally, it is the beginning of winter, and the time when the spirits of the Dead return.  So it reminds us of all that is withering in Nature, and of our own mortality.

Buson wrote a hokku very much in keeping with this time of year.  You will recall that in traditional Japanese hokku, fallen leaves relate to winter, and winter corresponds to the latter part of old age and to death:

(Winter)

Heaped up
Around the old man’s shack — 
Fallen leaves.

The very old man is in keeping with winter, as are the fallen leaves piled up around his dwelling.  Being so old, he does nothing to sweep them away, and in the leaves that have fallen on one another, we feel the accumulation of the many years of the old man’s life.

frostyleaves

Where I have “old man,” the original has “long-life [person]”

 

David

 

 

QUIET SKIES RUINED: WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY’S “FRIENDS”

Human romantic relationships can be difficult and messy, sometimes leaving a swath of emotional destruction in their wake, not only for those directly involved but also for those who know them.

Today’s poem by William Ernest Henley is precisely on that topic, and it is written with an effective but simple rhythm.  Its subject is that old (but sadly often true) cliché of the wreck of a close relationship by the involvement of one’s romantic partner with one’s long-time friend.

FRIENDS… OLD FRIENDS…

Friends… old friends…
One sees how it ends.
A woman looks
Or a man lies,
And the pleasant brooks
And the quiet skies,
Ruined with brawling
And caterwauling,
Enchant no more
As they did before,
And so it ends
With friends.

It is so simply written that its message is all the more effective.  All it takes to end a long and valued friendship is for one’s romantic partner and one’s friend to develop a desire for one another.  And then, suddenly one day, the formerly-oblivious neglected party notices, sees a glance, catches something slightly off in a conversation —

A woman looks
Or a man lies…

That moment of revelation is all it takes to change one’s perception of life; all at once,

…the pleasant brooks
And the quiet skies…

are ruined with quarrels, accusations and recriminations.  It taints everything.  Even the pleasure one had in the surrounding sky and earth, in passing clouds and sparkling waters, is gone.  “They enchant no more.”  And that is true as well of the friend and of the romantic partner.  All joy and trust are gone.

Friends… old friends…
And what if it ends?
Shall we dare to shirk
What we live to learn?
It has done its work,
It has served its turn;
And, forgive and forget
Or hanker and fret,
We can be no more
As we were before.
When it ends, it ends
With friends.

Well, what if it all ends?  Shall we ignore the lesson life has taught, shall we try to pretend that nothing has happened, attempt to glue the shattered pieces of friendship back together?  No matter if we try, the result will still be loss.  The experience has done its work, it has accomplished what it must.  And even if we wish to forgive the betrayal, attempt to smile and forget, what was will be no more.  “The fallen flower does not return to the branch.”

We can be no more
As we were before.
When it ends, it ends
With friends.

 

THE RAIN IT STREAMS ON STONE AND HILLOCK: Alfred Edward Housman

Today’s poem, even in its austerity, is one of the great mourning poems of the English language.  Whitman has his poems on the death of Lincoln, but those are “state” poems; Auden has his effectively-overstated “Stop All the Clocks.”  And Housman has this poem, which manages to take us from stiff-lipped objectivity to a moving cry of the heart.  Let’s take it verse by verse:

THE RAIN IT STREAMS ON STONE AND HILLOCK

The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.
Since all is done that’s due and right
Let’s home; and now, my lad, good-night,
For I must turn away.

The speaker of the poem is in a cemetery.  The church and graveside rites are over, the grave has been filled in and the tombstone set in place.  Out of a grey and darkening sky, the rain beats down on the stone and on the new-piled dirt of the hillock that marks the burial.  The writer speaks in his thoughts to the one buried there, and as he does so, speaks to himself as well.  All has been done that’s due and right — the memorial services and ritual words, the flowers, the black garments.  Yet he stands there in the rain, the freshly-dug clay clinging to his boots.

Now he says farewell:  “My lad, good-night, for I must turn away.”  Everything is ended, including your life and all it meant.  It is time to leave.

Good-night, my lad, for nought’s eternal;
No league of ours, for sure.
To-morrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.

And still he pauses.  “Good-night, my lad,” he repeats, “for nought’s eternal.”  Nothing is forever.  Nothing lasts.  Everything ends.  Even our relationships, yours and mine — that is certain and obvious.  The mourner tries to tell himself that “Tomorrow I shall miss you less.”  This ache of loss, the heaviness of spirit, are things that only time may ease.

Over the hill the highway marches
And what’s beyond is wide:
Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.

The highway — the main road — passes over the hill and beyond into the wide world and all it holds, a world and time that the person in the grave will not see.  The highway means a future, new experiences.  It is a symbol that the mourner’s road of life will continue, while that of the deceased has ended here at this soggy hillock of earth.  Given all that must await out there, the mourner again tells himself that the sorrow and painful memories will gradually fade away; sad thoughts of the deceased will come less and less, until the ache is no longer felt.

The skies, they are not always raining
Nor grey the twelvemonth through;
And I shall meet good days and mirth,
And range the lovely lands of earth
With friends no worse than you.

He tells the departed, and in doing so himself, that the skies are not always raining and grey through the year; life now will not always be gloom and sorrow.  There are sure to be sunny times, and the mourner will no doubt have pleasant days, and meet new and good friends in his wanderings.

Through all this he has repeated to himself, in various ways, that the painful memories will lessen, that he will be happy again, that he will make new acquaintances — but at the last verse he drops this would-be objectivity in a wrenching cry of sorrow:

But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.

“The house is fallen that none can build again.”  The house is the body and life of the friend, once filled with joy and hopes.  But now that house is fallen, and none can build it again.  No one can change that.   And the mourner expresses his own profound sorrow and the sorrow of the human condition by projecting it onto the mother of the deceased:

“How full of joy and woe your mother was all those years ago, when in the happiness of having a child and in the pains of childbirth, she brought you into this world.  And now all her hopes and wishes for you have come to nought.  You are dead, and tonight you lie in the earth and the dark and the beating rain.”

Though it is thought that the poem was influenced by the death of Housman’s brother Herbert, who died in Africa in the Boer War, the first draft of the last stanza was actually written before that event.

This verse is number XVIII (18) in the volume titled Last Poems, published in 1922.