Today we will look at a poem about becoming American, seen primarily from the viewpoint of a descendant of immigrants from the United Kingdom. It was written by Robert Frost, the poet who always comes off as a simple if thoughtful New England farmer, though he was well educated and even was at times a teacher. In this poem we are looking at becoming American from Frost’s “New England” perspective.
Let’s look at it in parts.
THE GIFT OUTRIGHT
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
He is talking about America — more specifically about the land that was first colonized by England and later became the United States.
“The land was ours before we were the land’s.” He speaks collectively of Americans from the beginnings of European — primarily British — immigration. They came to this land and took possession of it — owned it — before they really became a part of it. What does he mean by that? Let’s read further:
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.
The first permanent settlement in North America was established by English colonists in 1607. That was more than a hundred years before the stirrings of revolution in 1765.
She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
The land was “ours” — speaking collectively of Americans and their early immigrant ancestors from England — yet those who settled in America, in the colonies of Massachusetts and Virginia, were not yet “Americans” but were still psychologically English colonials. They possessed the land in this New World, but still were not really a part of the land they now owned, not yet possessed by the land itself. They were still held by the notion that they were “English” — though they no longer lived in the British Isles, but rather on American soil.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
There was something missing in the American character of the first immigrant colonists until they realized, after generations of living on American soil, that they were not really English any more — they found it was themselves they had been keeping from America — the land they lived on. And once they realized that notion — the notion that they were no longer English but had become the land’s — had become Americans — with that their concept of themselves changed completely. In their minds they were no longer subjects of a foreign power and king, but were Americans who could choose and create their own destiny.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.
Still new to the idea of being “Americans” no longer under a foreign power, they now gave themselves “outright” — gave themselves completely to being Americans — and the gift they gave themselves was certified by a deed of gift — a metaphorical document — that included “many deeds of war — primarily the acts of those who fought in the Revolutionary War that made America independent.
The land to which the newly-realized Americans gave themselves was “vaguely realizing westward” — gradually becoming known through the first signs of the westward expansion of the newly independent country from the original eastern colonies that had now become states — a westward trend that would eventually reach the Pacific Ocean. Frost himself was born in San Francisco on the California coast, though he later settled in New Hampshire.
That land was still “unstoried” — without having yet made its own history, “artless” — simple and free from artificiality, and “unenhanced” — primitive and not yet raised to what it could become. And so, Frost seems to say, that is how it still is.
There is some truth to the poem — the idea that a place changes those who live in it. Yet as presented in this poem, we must keep in mind that it is also a limited view, with its focus on English colonists of Anglo-saxon ancestry. It took immigrants from many countries to make America. But that too is a narrow view. What about the numerous tribes of Native Americans who were a part of the land many thousands of years before English colonials arrived? We could say they were more a part of the land than masses of Americans today, who have separated themselves from the land and from Nature. Yet they are completely absent from Frost’s poem, which seems to have the perspective of many elementary school history books in the 1950s, which focused so heavily on the English roots of America that children of German, Irish, French, Chinese, Japanese and other immigrant ancestors might have thought they too were of English ancestry.
Nonetheless, though seen from a limited point of view, Frost makes a very good point about the difference between simply occupying or owning land and becoming a real part of that land in spirit.
Just a final caution: do not mistake “the gift outright” as being the land as a gift to the immigrants; the gift outright was really the giving of the immigrants and immigrant descendants of themselves to the land psychologically — becoming thus Americans not only by place of residence but in spirit.
Here is the poem to read again as a whole:
The Gift Outright
The land was ours before we were the land’s. She was our land more than a hundred years Before we were her people. She was ours In Massachusetts, in Virginia, But we were England’s, still colonials, Possessing what we still were unpossessed by, Possessed by what we now no more possessed. Something we were withholding made us weak Until we found out that it was ourselves We were withholding from our land of living, And forthwith found salvation in surrender. Such as we were we gave ourselves outright (The deed of gift was many deeds of war) To the land vaguely realizing westward, But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, Such as she was, such as she will become.
Today in my “Blyth Made Easy” summary, we will look again at his volume Eastern Culture — specifically beginning with Section 1: The Spiritual Origins of Hokku” Remember that for reasons previously given, when Blyth writes “haiku” I will generally use the more historically accurate “hokku.”
In this section, Blyth introduces the reader to “the historical development of the Zen state of mind in the creation of hokku by Bashō and his followers.” He tracks this development “from its origins in pre-buddhistic thought in India, through Chinese culture, into the Japanese world-view and the poetic expression of it” — how that is expressed in Japanese verse — particularly in hokku.
Blyth traces the spiritual origins of hokku through several converging lines of influence:
Blyth then takes us back to the beginnings of “what ultimately became the simple directness and instantaneous perception of hokku” in pre-Buddhist Indian thought. We may think of it as Upanishadic thought — found in the ancient Upanishads of India. Blyth gives several examples, but all can be summarized in the Parable of Svetaketu and the Nyagrodha Tree:
The Story of Svetaketu
When Svetaketu was twelve years old, he was sent to a teacher with whom he studied until he was twenty-four. After learning all the Vedas, he returned home full of conceit in the belief that he was consummately well-educated, and very censorious. His father said to him, “Svetaketu, my child, you are so full of your learning and so censorious, have you asked for that knowledge by which we hear the unhearable, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived and know what cannot be known?” “What is that knowledge, sir?” asked Svetaketu. His father replied, “As by knowing one lump of clay all that is made of clay is known – so, my child, is that knowledge, knowing which we know all.” “But surely these venerable teachers of mine are ignorant of this knowledge; for if they possessed it they would have imparted it to me. Do you, sir, therefore, give me that knowledge?”
“So be it,” said the father… And he said, “Bring me a fruit of the nyagrodha tree.” “Here it is, sir.” “Break it.” “It is broken, sir.” “What do you see there?” “Some seeds, sir, exceedingly small.” “Break one of these.” “It is broken, sir.” “What do you see there?” “Nothing at all.” The father said, “My son, that subtle essence which you do not perceive there – in that very essence stands the being of the huge nyagrodha tree. In that which is the subtle essence of all that exists has its self. That is the True, that is the Self, and you Svetaketu are That.”
“Pray, sir”, said the son, “tell me more.” “Be it so, my child”, the father replied; and he said, “Place this salt in water, and come to me tomorrow morning.” The son did as he was told. Next morning the father said, “Bring me the salt you put in the water.” The son looked for it, but could not find it, for the salt, of course, had dissolved. The father said, “Taste some of the water from the surface of the vessel. How is it?” “Salty.” “Taste some from the middle. How is it?” “Salty.” “Taste some from the bottom. How is it?” “Salty.” The father said, “Throw the water away and then come back to me again.” The son did so; but the salt was not lost, for the salt existed forever. Then the father said, “Here likewise in this body of yours, my son, you do not perceive the True; but there, in fact, it is. In that which is the subtle essence, all that exists has its self. That is the True, that is the Self, and you, Svetaketu, are That.”
Hokku, Blyth adds, are the “You are That”: “when a man becomes a bamboo grove swaying in the windy rain, a cicada crying itself and its life away,” then he is That. And in this all genders are included.
One concept that came into the life and thought of the Japanese through Indian ➛ Chinese ➛ Japanese Buddhism was that life is sorrow and suffering. He adds “there is more than a tinge of this in Bashō and Issa; but Buson and Shiki, in their objectivity, feel the meaningfulness of things more deeply than their evanescence.”
“In Buddhism, ignorance is the great evil of the world, rather than moral wickedness. The great problem of practical, everyday life is thus to see things properly, not to valuate them in some hard and fast moral scale of virtue and vice, use and uselessness, but to take them without sentimental or intellectual prejudice.”
The Japanese, in their animistic ancient polytheism, had many gods, but they were not thought to be far from humans in location or status. Further, there was no definite separation between humans and non-humans, but as in the Buddhist notion of rebirth, there were higher realms and beings and lower realms and beings, and humans were placed in between them — in the middle. The result of this was a certain sympathy with beings both above and below that of humans, which manifests itself in hokku as a feeling of kinship with birds, beasts, insects, etc.
Blyth says the Mahayana Buddhist teaching that things are both the same and simultaneously different “sets apart Buddhism and Christianity as nothing else does.” That explains why Buddhist experience and Japanese verse were so deeply connected. And though Buddhism “is in a sense pantheistic,” the All which is One is not thought of as a person, but as something that is neither personal nor impersonal. All things — even stones and rivers — have the Buddha Nature, meaning they are the same Self as everything else, humans included. That “lays a foundation for a spiritual and practical democracy” that Christianity by its perceived gulf between humans and other things could never provide.
In the next posting on this topic, I will discuss Blyth’s presentation of Zen.
I again want to note that Angelico Press now offers reprints of Blyth’s 4-volume Haiku set:
Some time ago I gave a little preface to what I said would be “a rather lengthy look at old hokku and how it relates to modern hokku and its subcategory daoku.”
Now that the major works of R. H. Blyth on the topic — long out of print — are now easily available online, we can begin that more thorough and rather systematic look at the topic. [Update: I found that reprints of Blyth’s 4-volume Haiku set are now available through Angelico Press: https://angelicopress.org/r-h-blyth-author-bio%5D As I advised, everyone interested in hokku should read Blyth’s books. Not just the verses translated and anthologized in them, but also his very important commentaries. Without them someone with no background in hokku will easily fall into the trap that caught the majority of the modern haiku community: looking at the outward form without understanding the aesthetics behind hokku.
Blyth’s works will be the basis for our deeper look at hokku.
I will repeat that Blyth used the anachronistic “haiku” term in his works for what was really hokku for the most part, because in his day that newer term had begun to replace the more accurate “hokku.” As you know, I continue to use the original term employed by Bashō and Onitsura and Taigi and Buson and Issa and all the rest up to the time of Shiki and even somewhat beyond, because it was only in the first quarter of the 20th century that the word “hokku” began to fall into disuse. So when you see “haiku” in Blyth, just mentally convert it to “hokku.” That is valid even for the late works of Shiki, because though Shiki called his verses haiku, most were for all practical purposes just hokku under another name. Therefore, when Blyth writes “haiku,” I will use “hokku.”
Here again is the link to digital versions of Blyth’s four-volume Haiku series and his two-volume History of Haiku series. Note that it can all be downloaded there for easy reading on desktops, iPads, etc. A reader has pointed out that there are some pages occasionally omitted in the digital versions:
Blyth begins by telling us that there are two tendencies in the history of the human spirit: first, to move one’s focus away from life in the world to the abstractions of philosophy or emphasis on a presumed afterlife in a heaven realm. The other is to move one’s focus toward this natural world: to living in the everyday surroundings of the changing seasons, of trees and streams and gardens and the quirks of other humans.
The Japanese, because of geography and national character, were those who put the emphasis on life in this world and focused on Nature about them rather than on mental imaginings. Of course there are always exceptions, but Blyth tells us that is the general focus of traditional Japanese culture.
Blyth felt this Japanese focus on reality rather than mental imaginings began in China, with Enō (Chinese Hui-neng: c. 638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism. When Ch’an was transmitted to Japan, it came to be known as Zen. Blyth tends to use Japanese pronunciation of Chinese names in his writing.
Blyth tells us quite correctly that the Chinese, perhaps due to the vastness of China’s geography, “have always had a strong tendency in poetry and philosophy toward the vast and vague, the general and sententious [somewhat affected moralizing].”
We see that in Confucianism, which taught that in society everyone has a position with responsibilities to those above and below that position — a place for everyone and everyone in his place. The Japanese, Blyth feels, reversed this tendency when they adopted Chinese culture, and one important result of that reversal was the return from philosophical abstractions to the real world in hokku and its emphasis on Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. In place of the vast distances often found in Chinese poetry, Japanese verse tended to concentrate on what was close at hand, often even on very small things.
He writes: “Hokku have a simplicity that is deceptive both with regard to their depth of content and to their origins, and it is the aim of this and succeeding volumes to show that hokku require our purest and most profound spiritual appreciation, for they represent a whole world, the Eastern World, of religious and poetic experience.”
Please do not think hokku are limited by their Eastern origins. What is profound in hokku is universal.
And now we come to something that is commonly either misunderstood, misinterpreted, or completely rejected by the modern haiku community. Blyth writes:
“Hokku are to be understood from the Zen point of view.” And he defines that point of view: “… that state of mind in which we are not separated from other things, are indeed identical with them, and yet retain our own individuality and personal peculiarities.” The deepest spiritual teachings of both East and West are that the individual self is illusory, and that the deeper and true Self (with a capital letter) is not personal, but links everyone and everything in one unity. So when we look at falling leaves, we are not separate from them; they fall within our mind, not out there in some separate world.
That is the primary meaning of Zen as Blyth uses it. The secondary meaning is “…a body of experience and practice begun by Daruma [Bodhidharma] (who came to China 520 A.D.) as the practical application to living of Mahayana [Northern School of Buddhism] doctrines, and continued to the present day in Zen temples and Zen books of instruction.” In other words, organizational Zen — Zen as a sect of Chinese or Japanese Buddhism.
Similarly, the term “hokku” is to be used in two senses: “in the plural, meaning the poems themselves” [though I don’t encourage people to think of hokku as poetry]; and “in the singular, signifying the poetical attitude of mind of the hokku poets, their way of life, their “religion.”
But very importantly, Blyth adds that though hokku are to be understood from the point of view that we and all things are not separate but identical, even while retaining our apparent individuality, hokku should be appreciated for themselves — not as “poetry,” not as “Zen” — but as an expression of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. Hokku, he says, “…belong to a tradition of looking at things, a way of living, a certain tenderness and smallness of mind that avoids the magnificient, the infinite, and the eternal.”
He also points out the potential faults of hokku: “a tendency toward weakness and sentiment.” We see that often in ineffective hokku and in the Western tendency toward writing about what is “cute” or overly sentimental. We should avoid both in composing new hokku.
Hokku also “avoid lyricism and mind-colouring both instinctively and consciously.” That is very important. In hokku we do not try to be “poetic,” with fancy words or phrases. Everything is kept very simple. And we avoid “mind-coloring,” which Blyth writes in the British spelling. “Mind-coloring” is not depicting things as they are, but rather putting our own thoughts and interpretations and often emotions on them. We find it frequently in Western poetry. But in hokku we avoid adding our own thoughts to hokku, preferring instead to let things be what they are, as they are. “In hokku the intellectual element is absent….” In modern hokku we simply call that “no thinking.” Do not add your own thoughts and abstractions when writing hokku. Just present an experience as it is.
Byth adds that he has given his many explanations of individual hokku to save the reader all the years necessary to fully absorb Eastern culture as it applies to hokku. The Japanese (at least those of Blyth’s day) generally already had that cultural background, but for Westerners new to hokku, considerable explanation is often necessary to understanding hokku aesthetics.
Hokku is “not only poetry, that is, a representation in words of the real world; it is a way of life, a mode of living all day long.” That is why Blyth sometimes refers to hokku as a “religion” in quotes. It is a spiritual way of living in the world.
Hokku record moments of particular significance. When a hokku experience happens, the writer feels that peculiar significance in it. Blyth tells us that writers of hokku excel all others in recognizing this unspoken significance in the most unlikely places and times. Hokku is a kind of “little enlightenment” in which we “see into the life of things.” It tells us things we know, but do not know that we know. Hokku enable us to “grasp the inexpressible meaning of some quite ordinary thing or fact hitherto entirely overlooked. Hokku is the understanding of a thing “by a realization of our own original and essential unity with it.” “The thing perceives itself in us.” When we present an experience of Nature as it is, without adding our own thoughts or opinions, we allow Nature to speak through us. Because of this unity, “one flower is the spring; a falling leaf is the whole of autumn….”
Returning to the topic of “Zen,” Blyth says that historically speaking, “hokku is the flower of all the pre-Buddhist religious speculation, Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese and Japanese Zen, Taoism and Confucianism.” He gives a quote from the Upanishads:
“That from whence these things are born, that by which when born, they live, that into which at their death they re-enter, try to know that. That is Brahman.” By “Brahman” is meant your True Self.
The Upanishads had a strong influence on American Transcendentalism and its best-known representative Henry David Thoreau.
And a quote from Tōju Nakae (1608-1648):
“Heaven and earth and all things exist in my mind — there is no difference between life and death, being and non-being — the real nature of man’s mind is delight.”
Hokku, unlike waka [the courtly Japanese 5/7/5/7/7 verse form] does not aim at beauty; instead it aims at that unspoken significance revealed in an experience of Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature. And when that is achieved, “some special kind of beauty is found hovering near.”
“The essential simplicity of hokku and Zen must never be forgotten. The sun shines, snow falls, mountains rise and valleys sink, night deepens and pales into day, but it is only very seldom that we attend to such things.” In hokku, however we always attend to such things. “When we are grasping the inexpressible meaning of these things, this is life, this is living. To do this twenty-four hours a day is the Way of Hokku. It is having life more abundantly.”
Finally in his preface, Blyth informs us that “Japanese readers will all have slightly different translations and meanings to give most of these verses. That is both the power and the weakness of hokku.” I would add that in writing English-language hokku we avoid that weakness, which comes from the vague wording of some Japanese hokku. It leaves one “not quite sure of the meaning of the writer.” Blyth goes on to see a virtue in this in that the vagueness requires the “poetic” cooperation of the reader to put meaning into the hokku. In my view, Blyth is here making a virtue of necessity. In English there is no need for such vagueness, and indeed it weakens hokku, as Blyth recognized. Aside from that, what is important to remember from this is that the same hokku may be translated in different ways. Some like to translate very literally, some more loosely, and some “translators” fail to understand the original hokku at all, giving a rendering far from the original intent. That only emphasizes the importance of clarity when we write new hokku in English.
So that, in my view, is the essence of Blyth’s preface to the first volume of his four-part Haiku series. It is a summary of the most important points. Again, I hope all of you will read and ponder Blyth’s full preface via the digital versions, or printed versions if you happen to have access to them. And feel free to ask questions.
Yes, the Wheel of the Year has turned. Yesterday was Halloween — Samhain — the beginning of winter by the old hokku calendar.
Winter is the most austere season, a season of extremes and contrasts warmth and cold, light and dark, sound and silence. In the day it corresponds to evening and night; in human life it corresponds to old age and death.
Issa wrote this winter hokku:
身に添や前の主の寒さ迄 Mi ni sou ya mae no aruji no samusa made Body in add ya before ‘s owner ‘s cold up-to
We may loosely translate it as:
Feeling it all — Right up to the cold Of the former owner.
If you have ever lived on little money in a cheap apartment or room on a cold winter night, you will understand that. You feel in your body the poverty of the previous owner and all that went with it — even the deep cold.
By the way, though I teach and advocate hokku and not modern haiku, there is a useful resource for writers of hokku now available on the Haiku Foundation site: digital versions of the major works of R. H. Blyth, which have now long been out of print. Blyth’s works remain to this day the best resource for those wanting to understand the spirit of old hokku. Blyth, as you know, used the term “haiku” — current in his day for what was really hokku. Nonetheless his explanation of the aesthetics and his interpretations of old hokku remain the most useful resource a student of modern hokku could have, so I encourage everyone who has not had the opportunity to read his four-volume Haiku set and his two-volume History of Haiku set to do so.
But two big cautions: First, do not just read the verse translations in Blyth without carefully reading and pondering his extensive explanations. That error is what led to the departure of the modern haiku community from the spirit and aesthetics of old hokku, which most writers of modern haiku have either never understood or simply have rejected.
Second, Blyth’s purpose in writing was to reveal both the aesthetics and significance of the old Japanese hokku to those in the West. He did not initially anticipate a Western interest in writing them in English and other European languages, so he did not teach the mechanics and techniques of how to write hokku in English — and of course that is something dealt with here on my site. So if you combine the aesthetic principles learned from Blyth with the practical methods of writing hokku in English presented here on the Hokku site over the years, you will have a very good grounding in the principles and practice of modern hokku, as well as an understanding of the important differences between subjectivity and objectivity in writing.