HUMAN LIFE, HUMAN NATURE: HOUSMAN’S “MAY”

Here is another poem by Alfred Edward Housman.  I will discuss it part by part:

MAY

Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.

The speaker sees “the morning blink,” that is, the sun rising.  And now that the sun is up, he too must rise from his bed, wash his face, put on his clothes, and have breakfast.  And he must begin human daily life, which is “to look at things and talk and think and work.”  And, he adds, “God knows why” — meaning he has no idea why humans must do as they do, day after day.  He sees no point in it all.

Continuing this latter thought, he says:

Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
And all’s to do again.

He is tired of the seemingly meaningless daily round of human existence.  After day after day after day of going through the cycle of washing and dressing, what does he have to show for it?  This is particularly the lot of people who work hard for a living, yet seem unable to get ahead, to derive any significant benefit from their round of labor beyond staying alive.  “What’s to show for all my pain?” he asks.  He feels he would be better just staying in bed and getting some rest, because in spite of the “ten thousand times” he has done his daily best, he must still continue with the same tiresome actions, over and over — “all’s to do again” — it never ends.  That has somewhat the same feeling as these line’s from Tennyson’s “The Lotos-eaters”:

Instead, it has more the feeling of  these lines from Tennysons “The Lotos-eaters”:

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?

Still, when he sees the beauty of morning, he is inspired:

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

How beautiful the morning beams of sunlight are, as they move across the fields and reflect from grass and leaf.  The skies “laugh out with glee,” that is, Nature as seen in the bright sun rising in the eastern sky — “up from the eastern sea” like a bird set free” — seems to make the morning and the prospect of the following day seem delightful — at least at first.

Today I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

The writer feels empowered by this sense of beauty and delight, and makes a resolution.  Today, he decides, he will be strong in his will.  He won’t give in to doing things he should not do, wasting time on them.  He will no more squander life, he says.  And all those days he has let pass without making good use of them — well, he will bring them back now by doing his utmost to keep this resolution for changing his life and his ways.

But…

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

Now we have reached the end of the day that began so brightly, with so much hope and resolution in the writer.  His mood, however, has changed.  Day is ending.  He sees the sun setting into the west, “ensanguining the skies,” that is, turning them reddish, like the color of blood.  The sun and the day seem to sink heavily into the West, because that is now the emotional state he is in — and the light of day dies away.

So that day is gone, never to be recovered or seen or felt or heard again.  It is “past touch and sight and sound”; it is over, ended.  And, the writer concludes, “How hopeless under ground falls the remorseful day.”  From this we know that things did not go as planned.  The delight of morning faded away.  His resolution to do better, not to give in to what should not be done was not kept.  And all he is left with is this feeling of remorse, as the sun and the day with it sink “under ground” — that is, below the horizon.  But by saying “under ground,” he also gives us a sense of death and burial, as though all hope is lost.

It is not a cheerful poem.  It reminds me of those poor communities where the inhabitants must rise and toil in the same monotonous round of labor, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until death.  And many of them try to find a little relief in escapes such as alcohol, which only makes things worse.  Numbers of them must have made morning resolutions to give up such bad habits, but found the day ending only with shame and failure.

Though this poem is not specifically about addictions such as alcoholism, one may certainly apply it to such situations.  That is why I have the greatest respect for alcoholics and other addicts of one kind or another, who struggle each day with resolutions to end their habits, and even when they fail, they continue on with the struggle, and do not let despair overcome them.

Of course it may be applied to lesser difficulties as well, such as those people who have great plans of one kind or another, but let each day pass without beginning to put them into effect.  Many people settle for the monotonous daily round, letting each day end without making full use of the opportunities the morning has brought them.  Thought of that way, this poem by Housman acts as a cautionary warning.  Carpe diem — seize the day.  It will not come again.

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BATTLES WITHOUT, BATTLES WITHIN

A reader requested that I discuss poem XXVIII [28] in Alfred Edward Housman’s anthology A Shropshire Lad.  It is often known by its first line — “High the Vanes of Shrewsbury Gleam” — or by the title “The Welsh Marches.”

First, we need to understand the meaning of “Welsh Marches.”  In medieval geographic usage, a “march” was a border land —  a boundary land — between one region and another.  We find the term used in two forms, for example, in Tolkien.  You may recall that he speaks of the “East and West Marches,” and in regard to Rohan, he uses it in the form “mark,” writing of the East-mark and the West-mark

In the British Isles, the “Welsh Marches” is the name given the border region between England and Wales, and Shrewsbury was one of the most important cities in this border region.

There is much history in this, because as you perhaps know, the old inhabitants of the British Isles — the Britons — gradually lost control of England after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, and the last Briton stronghold in the West was what is known today as Wales, because the Britons and the Welsh are one and the same people.  The rest of England came under Anglo-Saxon control, and the language changed there from an old form of Welsh spoken by the Britons — which is a Celtic language — to Old English — the language of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancestor of the language in which I am writing this.

The Welsh Marches were thus from very early times a region of contention and division, with the Welsh on one side and the ever-pushing English on the other, and of course inevitably some mixing of the two.  And that mixing of the two is the subject of this poem, set in Shrewsbury.  We shall see this dichotomy — this being pulled in two directions psychologically — in Housman’s poem.  The speaker in the poem is a son of the Welsh Marches who feels this division within himself.

High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
Islanded in Severn stream;
The bridges from the steepled crest
Cross the water east and west.

The “vanes” are weathervanes on the high steeples.  They gleam on the buildings built on the hill that rises on the North side of the “island” that is nearly enclosed by a wide loop of the Severn River — “Severn stream.”  Old Shrewsbury was built inside this loop of the river, so it was almost like an island, being nearly surrounded by the loop of the Severn.  The “steepled crest” was that hill — the highest place in Shrewsbury, upon which St. Alkmund’s Church with its high steeple was built.

There were bridges that crossed that loop of the Severn, both on the East side and the West.  They were named by where the roads across them led:  the bridge on the East was the “English Bridge.”  That on the West was the “Welsh Bridge.”

The flag of morn in conqueror’s state
Enters at the English gate:
The vanquished eve, as night prevails,
Bleeds upon the road to Wales.

Housman calls the dawn the “flag of morn,” and of course it comes to Shrewsbury from the East.  But the setting sun  is to the West — the side of Wales.  Housman makes quite clear that the “flag of morn” that comes “in conqueror’s state” — that is, as a conqueror — the rising, overcoming power — is that of the English, which like the morning sun, enters “at the English gate.”  And to the West, as darkness comes — “the vanquished eve[ning]” symbolizes the defeated Britons/Welsh, and Housman makes it quite visual in his statement that the vanquished eve [i.e. the Welsh] “bleeds upon the road to Wales” — the defeated Welsh retreating into their last western strongholds.

Ages since the vanquished bled
Round my mother’s marriage-bed;
There the ravens feasted far
About the open house of war:

Here he is referring to an ancient battle.  It has been ages, he says, since the vanquished Britons lay bleeding “around my mother’s marriage-bed.”  He tells how at that place the “ravens feasted far / About the open house of war.”  The ravens were feeding on the dead bodies of those slain in battle.  Of course by “mother” he is speaking of a long-ago ancestor.  But why does he picture his mother’s “marriage-bed” in the middle of this violent chaos?  We shall see as we read on.

When Severn down to Buildwas ran
Coloured with the death of man,
Couched upon her brother’s grave
That Saxon got me on the slave.

The writer tells us it was when the river Severn — “Coloured with the death of man” — that is, red with blood — ran down from Shrewsbury to the town of Buildwas some 12 1/2 miles to the southeast, that was when his mother — a Briton — was raped by a Saxon on the site where her dead brother lay, in the middle of the battle.  And now we know what the “marriage-bed” in the previous stanza was — a place of death and violence for his “slave” mother.

The next stanza takes us up to Housman’s present — centuries after the battle:

The sound of fight is silent long
That began the ancient wrong;
Long the voice of tears is still
That wept of old the endless ill.

The sounds of warfare in the Welsh Marches has long been silent — the warfare that began the ancient wrong of Saxon against Briton.  And the voices all those who shed bitter tears over the wrongs done to them by the Saxons in those days have long been silent.

In my heart it has not died,
The war that sleeps on Severn side;
They cease not fighting, east and west,
On the marches of my breast.

The writer tells us that even though in the outer world, the sounds of battle and the tears are long past, they still exist in his heart — he still feels that struggle of East and West — of Saxon agains Briton at the Severn river — “on the marches of my breast,” which contains his heart — and the heart is the ancient symbol for the innermost feelings of a person.

Here the truceless armies yet
Trample, rolled in blood and sweat;
They kill and kill and never die;
And I think that each is I.

He still fees that dissension — that division — within himself, the struggle between his English and his Welsh side.  It is there that the ancient war goes on, never knowing a truce or pause.  He still feels the killing and death that seems to go on perpetually, and in each person killing and killed, he feels himself always in the battle.

None will part us, none undo
The knot that makes one flesh of two,
Sick with hatred, sick with pain,
Strangling– When shall we be slain?

So we know the writer feels an endless inner conflict of his Briton and Saxon ancestry — he is both, and the conflict pulls him in two directions perpetually.  This knot that binds his Saxon/English and Briton/Welsh ancestry will never be untied, and he suffers psychologically from the internal struggle — “sick with hatred, sick with pain,” and wonders “when shall we be slain,” that is, when this terrible inner conflict will end.

When shall I be dead and rid
Of the wrong my father did?
How long, how long, till spade and hearse
Puts to sleep my mother’s curse?

In this final stanza, he continues the thought expressed in the previous one — wondering when his internal struggle will be over.  When will he die, and at last be free “of the wrong my father did” — that is, of the great wrong the Anglo-Saxons — the English — did the Britons — the Welsh.  And he finishes by wondering how long he must suffer this internal division, how long it will be until he himself is finally dead, thus putting an end to the mental conflict though the spade that digs his grave and the hearse that bears his body there.

This is a rather unusual poem for Housman, with its sense of a person struggling over his internal dual nature.  It is not unique in its theme, however.  We find a similar conflict in Thomas Mann’s novel Tonio Kröger. In it, the protagonist Tonio is the son of a rather cold and authoritarian north German merchant father, and a very different artistic and sensuous Italian mother.  The polarization in his parents’ personalities is reflected by an ongoing conflict in his own.  Of course this is without the extreme violence of the Housman poem, but the sense of being pulled in two different directions by one’s own nature is much the same.  The question in both cases is when (or whether) the internal opposites will be united and harmonized.  In the case of Housman’s poem, the sufferer thinks it will never happen, but will end only in death.

Housman is deliberately vague about dates and times, because it is the psychological conflict of a border lad with both Welsh and English ancestry that he wants to portray.   As in his poem “On Wenlock Edge,” he moves from ancient times to his own time.  And it is set in Shrewsbury, because of its historical position in the Welsh Marches as the doorway between England and Wales — and the site not only of ancient conflicts but also of the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.

The Welsh-English conflict did not end with the defeat of the Britons.  Even in the beginning of the 20th century, students were flogged in Wales for speaking Welsh to one another in schools — English being the only permitted language.  An old Welsh term for England was Gwlad y Saeson — “Land of the Saxon,” and even today the Welsh term for the English language is Saesneg — “Saxonish.”

There is much discussion among scholars today as to how accurately the early accounts describe the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain, particularly how violent the transition was. Archeologists claim to find little evidence of such violence, and tend to regard the Anglo-Saxons as mostly just peaceful farmers — but in Housman’s time the early accounts of the violence of the “Anglo-Saxon invasion” were generally accepted.

PLANTING HOLLYHOCKS

There was frost on the rooftops this morning, which is typical here for early spring, when the air is pulled back and forth between the lingering cold of winter and the increasing warmth of progressing spring.  It is time to begin planting seeds indoors, to later move into the garden when the arc of the sun is higher in the sky and the earth becomes warm enough for the young seedlings.

Today I planted some Russian hollyhock seeds (Alcea rugosa/Alcea taurica/Alcea novopokroskiy).  They are said to be from the Crimean and Caucasus regions, and they do quite well in my area (zone 8b, which has an average extreme winter temperature of 15-20 degrees Fahrenheit/9.4-6.7 Centigrade).  I grew them years ago, but lost them when I moved from a place with a garden space to one without — and I really felt the change.  Now that I am happily gardening again, I want them back.

Russian hollyhocks do not grow as tall as some hollyhocks and hybrids, usually between about three to five feet.  The flowers are a cheery light yellow, and also — unlike the hollyhocks one commonly finds in plant nurseries (Alcea rosea)– they are perennial, coming back faithfully each year.

And — this is very important — Russian hollyhocks are free of the fungal “rust” disease (Phragmidium) that plagues the  Alcea rosea hollyhocks — those with which most people are familiar.

For those wanting hollyhocks that are free of rust but offer more in color variety than Russian hollyhocks, there is fortunately another kind that is easy to grow and has a bright range of colors — the Fig-leaved/Figleaf hollyhock (Alcea ficifolia), said to have originated in Siberia.  Its leaves are shaped rather like those of a fig, with toothed edges instead of the more rounded leaves of Alcea rosea.  And — oh joy! — it is rust-resistant.   Sometimes called the “Antwerp” hollyhock, you may find seeds of  it also under the name “Happy Lights.”

Hollyhocks are one of the old traditional garden flowers, and their blooming spires offer a strong and welcome height variation in gardens afflicted with that “flat” look — with all plants on the same level.

And speaking of the “flat” look, you have perhaps noticed — as I have — that taller perennials seem to be disappearing from the selections of plants in many nurseries.  The reason, of course, is that it is easier for growers to pack more plants into less space if they are quite short.  And so increasingly it is becoming harder and harder to find varieties of plants that are not “dwarf” varieties.  This benefits the commercial growers, not the home garden.  And you may also have noticed a decline in the range of flower seeds offered in nurseries and plant shops.  Some things that were once quite common have now become a challenge to find.  Following the pattern of modern society, there seems to be an effort to limit and standardize the variety of seeds available.  And perhaps you have also noticed that seeds are much more expensive than they were just a few years ago.

The rising cost of seeds and the difficulty of finding some kinds of flowers in seed form is a good reason for saving the seeds from your own garden each year, rather than assuming you will be able to replace them from garden shops the next growing season.  You may be disappointed.

But back to hollyhocks.  If you like the “old-fashioned” look to a garden, there is nothing that achieves it quite as well as adding a few hollyhocks.  Now you know that you can grow them without fearing rust, if you select the right kinds, and it is easy to save the seed of your favorites (and hollyhocks produce prolific seeds at the end of their growing season).

This year I am also planting a kind new to me — the Turkish hollyhock (Alcea pallida).  It grows from Greece and Turkey into the Balkans.  From the photos, it appears to be a very  pale rose color, with a more “wild” look to it.  I don’t have great expectations of it, but one never knows until a plant flowers in one’s own garden.

 

David

 

THE OBJECTIVE SELF

(Early Spring)

There and back,
The only footprints are mine;
The snowy road.

Because Objective Hokku is a very selfless kind of verse, we generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “mine,” except in cases where they are necessary for clarity.  That does not mean, however, that we do not use them at all.  We use them, but we use them objectively.  That means we speak of the self just as we would of a fox or a wild goose, or a river — without adding our own opinions and comments and interpretations.

Now oddly enough, when we do that, it removes the writer from the verse.  The “self” in the verse — the experiencer — then becomes the reader.  So when you read the hokku above, it is you seeing that the only footprints on the snowy road are yours, in spite of the fact that I wrote it this morning on my way back from walking through the snow to the grocery store.  And because that is the way of Objective Hokku, I am happy to disappear entirely from the verse so that it may become your experience.

That is how the self appears in hokku.  We might call it the “selfless” self.

THE HOLES IN THE ROOF

The medieval Japanese woman Izumi Shikibu, whose life spans the late 10th to early 11th centuries, wrote a waka that we might render simply and loosely like this in English:

Where the wind

Blows through the gaps

In the roof,

The moonlight

Also shines in.


It amounts more to a kind of proverb than a poem — one gets the good with the bad, the light with the dark.  A pessimist will notice just the cold wind, but an optimist will see the moonlight.  Most of us lie somewhere between.

We could also see it as a kind of Buddhist parable:  the difficulties, suffering and impermanence of life can also be the impetus for us to take the path to enlightenment.

PURE EXPERIENCE

Issa wrote a hokku that we might render in English as:

Half of it
Is fluttering snowflakes;
Spring rain.

It is not a profound hokku, but it does express the “mixed” nature of early spring weather, when we still feel the Yin effects of winter though spring has weakened them.

The hokku makes a statement, but it is not an interpretation.  That is important in distinguishing Objective Hokku from other kinds.  It just tells us — objectively — what Issa saw (those last two words make me want to say “I saw Issa sitting on a seesaw” really fast), and because it is limited to that, we see it too.

That is the great virtue of Objective Hokku (in contrast to other kinds of hokku); it does not put a writer between the reader and the experience.  And it does not block the experience with unnecessary words and interpretation.

In Objective Hokku, the difference is that we present the experience directly, in simple words.  We do not write about the experience — we write the experience.  Now of course we use words to do that, but the words are not important for their own sake — as they are in what we usually think of as poetry.  Instead, the words are just the means of conveying the experience, as a cup conveys the experience of drinking cold water or hot tea.  We do not want them to get in the way.

Nor do we want the writer to get in the way.  If he or she does, then we no longer experience the hokku directly.

Issa wrote another hokku in which he “gets in the way” of the experience by adding an interpretation:

Spring mist;
Noisy from morning on —
The foolish crow.

Instead of just presenting us with the mist and the morning and the continual caws and rattles of the crow, he comments that the crow is “foolish,” or we could also translate that as “stupid.”  Issa has added his own “thinking” to the experience, so it is no longer objective.  He has obscured the pure experience with his own opinion.  To remove his comment, we could rewrite the verse as Objective Hokku, like this:

Spring mist;
Noisy from morning on —
The crow.

I hope you see what a difference that makes.  It is no longer Issa telling us about his experience, it is now we who are having the experience itself, with nothing added, and no writer’s interpretation in the way.

Now how you react to Issa’s verse — and to the objective version — will tell us how you react to verse in general.  Some people are not accustomed to thinking of verse as pure experience, without the added comments, opinions, or “thinking” of the writer.  Some feel that to be “poetic,” all of that must be added.  But as I constantly repeat, we should not think of hokku as “poetry” in the usual sense.

The great difference is that in Objective Hokku, the poetry is not in the words.  They are — we could say — only the seed of poetry, that when read by the receptive reader suddenly sprouts into the experience in the mind.  And that experience itself, pure and alone and unobscured — is the poetry in hokku.

In the first hokku, the experience is the spring rain, half mixed with fluttering snow.  In the third, revised hokku, the experience is the spring mist and the continuous noisiness of the crow from morning on.

This purity of experience, with no writer or comments to hinder it, is the very essence of Objective Hokku.  If you find that a significant discovery, then you are the kind of person who can appreciate Objective Hokku and its remarkable aesthetics.

 

David