ACTIVITY AND REST: FROST’S “STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING”

Today we will look at one of the best-known winter poems — Robert Frost’s

STOPPING BY WOODS ON A SNOWY EVENING

Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 

The poet is passing by a forest at evening.  He thinks he knows who the owner of the forest is, but it does not matter.  The presumed owner lives in the village, not out here in the country, so he will not see the poet stopping to watch the snow falling and covering the trees and ground.  No one will suddenly appear to ask him why he is there or what he is doing.

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year. 

The poet is there with a little horse, and he supposes the horse must think it strange that the man wants to stop without any farmhouse — the kind of place where he would usually stop — nearby.  Instead, the poet has paused between the snowy woods and a frozen lake, on this, the darkest evening of the year.  By “darkest evening of the year” the poet means it is the longest night of the year, which comes at the Winter Solstice.

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.  
 

The horse gives his head or body a sudden shake — which rings the many harness bells attached — to indicate that the creature feels there is something amiss; it must be a mistake to stop out in “nowhere.”  Other than that quick shake of the harness bells, the only other sound in that isolated location is that of the easy wind filled with light and fluffy snowflakes.

From what has been said so far, we can see that the poet’s little horse has harness bells — sleigh bells, which were worn about the neck or around the body just behind the front legs, or in both places,  so the poet has come to these snowy woods in a sleigh pulled by one horse.  The bells were used on sleigh horses so that people in the path of a sleigh could hear it coming, and move accordingly.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

The poet thinks to himself that the woods are beautiful, they are dark, and they are deep; he would like to just remain there in the chill, dark silence — far from the noise and worry of the human world — but he cannot.  He has made promises.  He has places he must be, appointments he must keep.  He must continue on his way back into the everyday world of people, because he has much to do before he can rest that night — miles yet to go before his work is finished and he can sleep.

The repetition of the last line

And miles to go before I sleep

is for emphasis, as if one is saying, “I have a long way to go, yes, a long way to go.”

The charm of this poem lies partly in its simplicity — simple words and simple rhymes — and partly in the sensory experience it provides — the cold of the night and the snow, the sound of the flakes blowing in the easy wind and the metallic jingle of the harness bells, the dark depths in the forest.  But the charm is also in the lack of details.  That is important.  We do not know who the man is, or what promises he has made that he must continue on his way, or even where is is going.  That raises the unanswered questions in our mind that we find so often in old and modern hokku, and they give a similar effect — what we may call the “unanswered question” experience.

What we do know is that for him, this pause to watch the snow falling on the deep and dark woods is a respite, a brief relief, a moment of rest from all the cares of his life.  It gives the reader too an immense sense — for the moment — of peace and tranquility, before we are called back to our responsibilities.

Though there are many possible explanations of the who and why, it would have been a fitting poem for a country doctor in the old days — one who had his visit or visits to make among scattered farmhouses, but who stops for one brief moment of peace somewhere between, to watch the woods fill up with snow.  However, he has people or patients he must see, so cannot pause as long as would like — but must continue on his long way, knowing that he will have much to do before he can finally return home and sleep.  Perhaps you have your own interpretation of the man and his duties and his goal — or wish to apply them to someone you know or to yourself, in a metaphorical way.  But the best is not to interpret them at all — just accepting the poem as it is, with its unanswered questions.

We could say that this poem — aside from its beauty — is a contrast between what we must do as humans who have our duties and responsibilities, and what we would like to do.  In terms of Chinese philosophy, it is a contrast between the yang of activity and the yin of peace and stillness and rest.  And of course the poem is set in the cold winter — the most yin time of the year.

Many people apply this poem symbolically, and then the man’s journey through the night is his duty-filled daily life, and his brief pause by the dark, chill forest is the call of death and rest — but the man has responsibilities in life that he must fulfill before he can rest in death.  Yet Frost does not actually say or imply anything about death, and I do not think the poem is to be read in that way.  In my view, Frost’s poem is both simpler and deeper than that — the often overlooked depth of everyday things like snow and cold and darkness.  But it is just human nature to find meanings — to take something and see it as a symbol of something else — so people tend to give even simple poems meanings beyond what the poet intended.  We see the same in the interpretations people attach to Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” particularly the lines

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Yet Frost himself made clear that he had intended no profound philosophical meaning in those simple lines.

I think what people tend to miss in Frost is that the depth and profundity in life lie in ordinary, everyday simple things — not in the intellectual interpretations we attach to them.  That is also the message of the verse form known as hokku.

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IT SIFTS FROM LEADEN SIEVES

Today — now that we have entered the dark of the year — we will look at a poem on snow by Emily Dickinson.  If we consider the position and presumed tasks of women in her day (1830-1886), we should not be surprised if it then reads as a “feminine” poem.

Let’s examine it part by part:

IT SIFTS FROM LEADEN SIEVES

It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.

The snow falls slowly, like flour falling through a leaden — meaning heavy and slow here — sieve or sifter.  One may also think of “leaden” as referring to the grey color of the sky from which the snow falls.  Thus the poem begins with an image well-known to women, the sifting of flour for baking.

The snow — like fine white flour — “powders all the wood” — it covers the trees in the forest with whiteness.  It also fills the “wrinkles of the road” — the ruts and highs and lows and wagon and buggy tracks — with “alabaster” wool — meaning wool that is very white.  Alabaster is a translucent white stone, but it is being used as an adjective here to mean “pure white.” Dickinson is likening the falling flakes of snow to tiny tufts of pure white wool.  That is again something with which women of the 19th century would have been very familiar, from their spinning and weaving and related household tasks.

It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain, —
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.

Likely still thinking of the snow filling “wrinkles,” Dickinson says that it “makes an even face” of the mountains and the plain — that is, the hills and the flat areas below, smoothing them, making an “unbroken forehead”  — that is, a wide smooth area — from East to West.  We see in this the preoccupation of many women of the time with having a smooth and pale complexion — something Dickinson uses here to poetic advantage.

It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil

On stump and stack and stem, —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.

The wide, flat expanse of snow reaches all the way to fence, and slowly “wraps” it — that is, begins to cover it rail by rail, until it is “lost in fleeces” that is, obscured by the whiteness of the deep snow, which Dickinson again here likens to wool — a “fleece” is the wool taken from a sheep or goat.

The snow “flings a crystal veil” — that is, it covers as if with a translucent white cloth — the stumps of trees, the stacks  — perhaps of hay left out, and of other things — and the stems of plants.  She calls this area “the summer’s empty room,” because it is the fields and gardens empty and flat after the harvest.  She describes it as “acres of seams where harvests were” — that is, the rows of stubble (now covered by snow) where crops once grew, which she likens to the long seams made by women in their sewing.  And she adds that if it were not for these remaining traces of harvest, there would be no record — no evidence — of the crops that had grown there in summer; they would be “recordless,” without evidence or remembrance that they had once been.

It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen, —
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.

The snow surrounds the bases and joints of posts, creating what Dickinson likens to cloth “ruffles,” such as might be found on the “ankles of a queen.”

The last line is a bit tricky, and rather ambiguous at first sight.  Dickson has spoken of the snow ruffling the “wrists of posts,” then says it

…stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.

Grammatically, “its artisans” must refer to the artisans of the snow, but who or what are they?  The best explanation I have seen is that the “artisans” are the falling snowflakes, which vanish like ghosts when the snow stops falling, as though they had never been in the air.  But their work — the white covering of hills and fields and posts — is left behind.  The creators are no longer seen — having disappeared into the creation.

It is not a perfect poem, and certainly far from the best poem one might find on the subject of snow.  Dickinson greatly mixes her metaphors, from baking to cosmetics to sewing and costuming, but it does create a poem to which a woman of her day could easily have related because of the familiar allusions to household tasks and personal grooming interests.

THE PERSISTENCE OF NATURE

Another winter hokku by Buson:

Tampopo no wasure-bana ari   michi no shimo
Dandelion  ‘s  forget-flower is   road  ‘s frost

A mistimed
Dandelion flower;
The frosty road.

The key to this hokku is in knowing that it is a winter verse.

Walking down the freezing road, he notices a frosty dandelion flower blooming out of season.  In Japanese, such a flower is a wasure flower — a “forget” flower — as though it has forgotten that the time to bloom has passed.

We could of course translate it other ways, for example:

An out-of-season flower
On the dandelion;
The frosty road.

It is not a great hokku, but it does present us with in interesting image, and though a flower in the frost is something we may notice in passing, would we think to put it in a hokku?  At least Buson did.

 

David

 

SOUNDS IMPLIED: BUSON’S MOUSE

One has to be really careful with the hokku of Buson, because he can often be quite contrived and artificial.  Now as you know, I favor objective hokku, and to find that in Buson one must carefully pick and choose among his verses.  You will recall that Buson was a painter as well as a writer of hokku, and often his desire to create a certain effect wins out over realism.

Today we will look at a winter hokku of Buson.

Shigururu ya   nezumi no wataru   koto no ue
Cold-rain ya   mouse   ‘s    crossing koto  ‘s on

Cold rain;
A mouse walks across
The koto.

Shigeruru  is winter rain falling, thus cold rain.  Technically, nezumi could be translated either as “mouse” or “rat,” because Japanese did not make a clear distinction, but in this case a mouse — because of its size — is more appropriate.  A koto is of course a quite long stringed instrument placed on the floor.

This hokku gives us a sense of being in an interior as cold rain falls outside.  We hear the rain, and along with it, we hear sudden, faint musical sounds as a mouse walks or scurries across the strings of the koto.

We could emphasize the sound by translating it as;

Winter rain;
A mouse creeps across
The koto.

That way we hear the mouse making “k”- “k”-“k”  sounds as he moves — formed by the “c” in creeps, in across, and the same sound in the “k” of koto.  That rendering makes the movement of the mouse across the koto rather slow.

Some of you may have seen the translation of this verse by W. S. Merwin.  He makes the hokku into a question — asking “Is it a winter shower / or a mouse running / across the koto strings?”   But that, in my view is doing damage to the verse through mistranslation, because it is not at all written as a question, and the writer is not asking a question.  Instead, the original hokku gives us the chill of the air in the room as cold rain falls in the background, and against that background, we hear the faint sound of the friction of the mouse disturbing the strings (unmentioned but implied in the original) of the koto as he passes over them.

Notice that in the original, the sound (like the strings) of the koto is not even mentioned, nor is that of the rain — but they are understood by implication.

 

David

 

AUTUMN ENDS

Autumn ends;
Again the cries of wild geese
Passing overhead.

Yes, autumn is ending, according to the old calendar.  And it ends with Halloween, the night before the old Celtic holiday of Samhain — (pronounced Sah-win) –which is only a few days away.  Then comes the beginning of winter — the time of turning inward.

 

David

 

THE AGING YEARS

As people grow old, their friends and acquaintances begin more and more rapidly disappearing, one by one — leaving this life.

Last night I dreamed I was talking with some elderly ladies in a sort of “do-it-yourself” retirement home.   They mentioned someone who was gone, and I said to them,

You go someplace
And you knock on the door,
And the person who was there
Isn’t there anymore.

Just then I began waking up, and realized it rhymed, and formed a kind of simple poem that summarized the common experience of those in their later years.

 

David

 

“POETIC” HOKKU AND DAOKU

I often express the view that the best hokku are those that keep the “self” out of the way so that Nature may speak.  That means hokku expressing an experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature, through one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

There were, of course, many hokku that did not do this — even though written by the same author.

In the West, we are not accustomed to poetry that focuses on a sensory experience of Nature.  It is, in fact, rather rare in English-language poetry.  People encountering sensory hokku for the first time therefore often fail to recognize it for what it is, being accustomed to verses in which a poet expresses feelings about something, or expresses a point of view, or uses an event in Nature as a prelude to a poem discussing personal emotions or opinions.  So in general, there is a lot of “I” in English poetry — a lot of the “self,” a lot of the poet expressing opinions and emotions, or else simply trying to be clever in words.

What all this means is that when a Westerner first encounters hokku, she or he will commonly view it in terms of Western poetry, which is, for the most part, quite different from sensory, objective hokku — so different, in fact, that even thinking of such hokku as poetry only contributes to the misperception.  That is why I say that in trying to understand hokku — by which I generally mean sensory, objective hokku — it is best not to think of it as poetry, because we in the West are not accustomed to viewing objective sensory experience as poetry.

Westerners are generally far more at ease with verses such as this one, by Buson:

Asagiri ya   e ni kaku   yume no hit0-dori
Morning-mist picture in painted dream’s people-passing

Morning mist;
Painted into a picture —
Dream people passing.

That is a verse completely unlike sensory, objective hokku.  Instead, Buson (who was also an artist — a painter) has added his imagination to the verse.  “Morning mist” is sensory enough, but the remaining two lines of the hokku are simply Buson’s imaginative interpretation of an event.  The event itself  consists of people passing through the morning mist.  Buson, however, has used his imagination to make it into an analogy with painting:  in his interpretation, the morning mist becomes the white paper, and those passing though it become misty watercolor people.  It makes an interesting image, and for what it is, it is rather good poetry — but it does not at all do what sensory, objective hokku do, which is to take us away from the imagination and intellect into pure sensory experience.

Compare Buson’s verse with this, by Kikaku:

Tombō ya  kurui-shizumaru   mikka no tsuki
Dragonflies ya disorder-calms  third-day moon

We have to gloss it a bit to get the meaning in English:

Dragonflies;
They cease their wild flight
As the crescent moon rises.

This is a simple statement of what is happening.  The sensory experience is primarily visual.  We see the erratic, wild flight of the dragonflies end with the rising of the crescent moon.  There is no likening it to something else, no interpretation.  It is just what it is, with no “thinking” or emotion added.

Now historically, both Buson’s “dream people” verse and Kikaku’s “dragonflies” verse are both technically hokku — but they are worlds apart, two completely different kinds of verse using the same form, but using different aesthetics to fill it.

When the Western haiku (as distinct from hokku) movement really got underway — which did not happen for all practical purposes until the 1960s — many of its enthusiasts automatically gravitated toward verses using “thinking” and imagination rather than sensory, objective verses.  That is because the former are much more like conventional English-language poetry than the latter.  As time passed, this trend only became magnified, which resulted in Western haiku moving ever farther away from its inspirational origins in Japanese hokku.

As long-time readers here know, I favor sensory, objective hokku.  I do so because they are what was unique and innovative in old hokku.  Their existence can be traced to the influence of Daoism and Zen Buddhism on Japanese aesthetics, so one could refer to such objective hokku as “Zen” hokku — but not because of any connection to Zen as a religious organization.  It is their simplicity and purity  that makes the connection.

Because of these historical, aesthetic influences on sensory, objective hokku, I like to refer to this category of hokku as daoku — “Dao” or “Tao” verses: hokku that give us an objective experience of Nature and the place of humans within Nature through one or more of the five senses, without the addition of the writer’s ego, imagination, intellection, or interpretation.  Those verse are really — in my view — the best that Japanese hokku had to offer, a unique gift to the world.  And those are the verses that make the best models for learning objective hokku — or daoku — today.

Daoku, by the way, borrows the word Dao — meaning the Way — the Way of the Universe, the Way of Nature — from the Chinese language, and the word ku — meaning “verse” — from Japanese.