It is important to know that not all old hokku provide good models for writing, nor were they all — even those we find in books today — good hokku.

Now and then we find among these old verses a tendency to over-dramatization and over-emotionalizing. It exists not only among “ordinary” writers like Jōsō, but is also found in Bashō, who in spite of his reputation wrote far more forgettable than memorable hokku.

Here is an example from Jōsō:

Colder than snow —
The winter moon
On white hair.

Or we could make it less literal:

Colder than snow —
The winter moonlight
On white hair.

What is wrong with it? From my perspective, it is exaggerated and striving for effect. Jōsō wants to make a statement about time and old age, but in hokku it is best to be more objective, to present an event that arouses the mind of the reader but does not try to manipulate it.

Here is an example of similar hyperbole from Bashō. One has the feeling his sentiments were sincere, but still there is an overwhelming sense of artificiality:

If taken in hand,
Hot tears would melt it —
Autumn frost.

One has to know the context (a bad sign in hokku) in order to understand the verse. Bashō was looking at white hairs of his deceased mother, shown to him by his brother. So the “autumn frost” in the verse really signifies his dead mother’s white hair.

It is possible in hokku to write “occasion” verses that refer simultaneously to two different things (like white hair and frost in this verse), but when doing it, one must be careful that such a verse works well on both levels. This verse fails, because on the most important level (the objective), it is too much influenced by the other, subjective level. We know that subjectively, the white hairs would not melt in Bashō’s hand, that he is exaggerating; and there seems no point to saying the obvious on the objective level — that hot tears will melt autumn frost.

In hokku one has to be very careful not to strive too much for an effect, and one must also be careful to focus on things rather than emotions. One lets things speak for themselves in arousing the mind of the reader, which will create the appropriate emotion without the need for the writer be too blatant in attempting to evoke it.

Etsujin shows us how to write a hokku that does what both Jōsō and Bashō failed to do in the above verses:

The ending year;
I hid my grey hair
From my father.

Etsujin has just objectively presented an event, but nonetheless one can feel everything that is behind it, with no sense of overstatement, no sense of artificiality. What he gives us here is something that young people may not yet understand, but it is something that older people naturally feel — that there is something unexpectedly troubling in aged parents suddenly seeing their children aging as well. I did not really understand this verse until, one day after a long absence, I visited my mother, and suddenly had the inexplicable feeling that it was somehow unkind to let her see, in her old age, the signs of age in myself — the increasingly grey hairs on my head. It quite surprised me, and Etsujin’s verse became clear. Sometimes one must grow into a hokku to understand it.

To summarize, it is generally best to be objective and subtle in hokku, particularly when conveying emotion. Being too flagrant is in bad taste because it gives an unpleasant effect somewhat equivalent to the English term “maudlin.”

It is worth recalling the connection between old age (white hair) and winter. You will remember that the season of winter corresponds to very old age and death, because it is the “death” of Nature in the cycle of the year, the ending of one cycle prior to the beginning of another.

For those wanting originals, here they are:

Yuki yori mo samushi shiraga ni fuyu no tsuki
Snow more mo cold white-hair on winter’s moon

Te mo toreba kien namida zo atsuki aki no shimo

Hand if take, vanish tears zo hot autumn ‘s frost

Yuku toshi ya oya ni shiraga wo kakushikeri

Departing year ya father at white-hair wo hid



Constantine Cavafy has a poem called simply Ithaka, one of his historical pieces in which advice is given to a traveller setting out on the journey to Ithaka — and the advice is “Hope that the road is long.” The point of the poem is that what is gained from a journey is in the voyaging, not in the arriving — and that when one does arrive as an old man (or woman, we may add) — one may find the goal achieved to be less than what was gained in the traveling to achieve it.

Of course this is a metaphor for the journey of life. You will find the poem here:

In his Verginibus Puerisque, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote,

Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.

Stevenson is the author of a poem of the category I like to call an “old man’s poem,” though of course there are “old woman’s poems” as well. In it he looks back on youth. It is a pleasant poem to read, full of the freshness of youth, and one can almost see and feel the prow of the swift boat breaking the waves into salt spray — glittering drops of sunlight.

(Skye with the Western Isles in the distance — photo by Fr. Ronald Campbell)

The islands mentioned — Skye, Mull, Rum, and Eigg — are all in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland.


Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul:
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.

There is another poem — not by Stevenson — that also has the words “Over the Sea to Skye,” but it is about the escape of “Bonnie Prince Charlie” in Scottish history, and that one is not quite so interesting for my purposes here.



In my last posting, I discussed the overall meaning of the Dylan Thomas poem Fern Hill, and I hope readers now find it no longer mystifying.  It is, as I said, about childhood’s end, and how youth passes never to return.  Unfortunately the poem proved rather prophetic for Thomas, who lost himself in alcoholism and died of pneumonia, aged 39.

Today, having already discussed the basic meaning, I would like to take a look at the methods by which Thomas made Fern Hill so effective and memorable in spite of — or rather because of — its impressionistic style.

First, let’s take a look at how important repetition is to it.  Certain words (and forms of a word) are found again and again in the poem, the most common being “green,” which is repeated seven times, and “time” also seven times. Also frequent are “golden,” found four times, and “sun,” four times, and “house” four times.  Then come three repetitions each of “young” and “happy.”  we find “easy” twice; “lovely” twice; “honoured” twice; “light” twice, “moon” twice, and “white” twice.

We also see repetition through use of similar words: “happy”; “gay”;  “carefree” — and different forms of the same word: “play/playing”; “rode/riding” “sang/singing.”

If we widen our focus, we see families of words related in meaning:  “light,” “sun,” “shining,” “golden,” and “morning.”  We take our focus even wider, seeing the  repetitive harmony of words indicating beginnings: “morning,” “birth/born,” “Adam and maid,” (first man and woman in Christian myth), “young.”  And we find groups such as “honoured,” “lordly,” “prince,” “famous,” and “praise.”

All such repetitions contribute greatly to the overall effect and to the chief contrast in the poem between “green” — the word of youth and freshness — and “time,” the word and name of youth’s undoing.

Other elements we should notice are the pleasant repetitions in phrasing, for example:

Now as I was young and easy…
And as I was green and carefree…
Oh as I was young and easy…


Golden in the mercy of his means…
Golden in the heydays of his eyes…
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means…


All the moon long…
All the sun long…
And happy as the heart was long…


Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days…
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades…


In the sun that is young once only…
And the sun grew round that very day…
In the sun born over and over…
In the moon that is always rising…

Added to these is the effect of other internal rhythms, which I pair here by the same enclosing marks:

{Sang} to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sa+bb+ath {rang} /slowly/
In the pe+bb+les of the /holy/streams.


One could carry our examination on to the frequent alliteration (repetition of beginning consonant sounds) and consonance (repetition of the same consonant sounds, whether at the beginning or elsewhere in a word) in such lines as;

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman….


I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

All of these usages combine to make a remarkable poem that relies for its impressionistic effect on the mixture of repeated sounds, repeated rhythms,  and related images repeated in variations.

We may sum up the poem by saying that it represents the inherent conflict between youth and time represented in the frequency of the words we discover, through it, to be opposite: “green” and “time.”

The poem shows the heedless joy of the boy Thomas, thinking the happy, golden days are eternal, not realizing that Time — personified in the poem — gives the joys of youth only “in the mercy of his means.”

Now what does this key phrase “mercy of his means” signify?  One’s means are the instruments or methods used to achieve one’s ends — the means to an end.  And the end brought about by Time is aging and death and loss of youth and innocence.  The mercy of his (Time’s) means lies in allowing Thomas the boy to spend his happy, youthful days heedless and unaware — for a brief, golden while — of this bitter reality.  In that at least, Time is merciful to him.

That is why Thomas finishes the poem with the painful, overwhelming revelation:

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.

There it is, the great paradox:  “Time held me green and dying.”  No matter to Time that Thomas “sang in his chains like the sea.”

So, dear reader, if you grasp the meaning of “Time held me green and dying,” you grasp the poem.  “Green” is youth and freshness, The childhood of Thomas; but even while he is young and fresh and youthful, Thomas later sees, looking back, that he was already dying — simultaneously green and dying.  It is like the old saying, “Birth is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.”  It is a theme Thomas repeats in another poem, The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.

You should now easily understand those lines, having experienced what Thomas meant through Fern Hill. The same force that drives the sap through the stalk to make the blossom is the force that ages and kills us.  Time holds us green and dying.  It is no accident that we find the word “green” significant in both poems.

“I sang in my chains like the sea.”  What does that mean?  Here we must not be too literal, but must rather get the overall sense of what Thomas wants to convey.  The sea is bound by its rocky shores; Thomas is bound by the inevitability of change and death.  His singing is an expression of the overflowing joy of his youth; his childhood was a song of happiness and rejoicing.  Yet even though his “singing” is as filled with happiness and vitality as the sea is filled with — “sings” with — sounding waves and vigor and motion, and even though he expresses only great happiness through his being, Time is already killing him — “Killing me softly.”  His “chains” are visible to him only in retrospect, when looking back on his childhood he realizes that he was already chained by the human condition, by inevitable aging and ultimate death.  Earlier he thought he was free; now he realizes he was chained.  He had the illusion of freedom without the reality.  Though young — “green” — he was already dying — “green and dying,” in spite of his happiness in those lost days.

One could spend much more time in analysis and discussion of this poem, but now that you have the key to unlock it, better just to read it, to hear Thomas singing in his chains like the sea.


Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air
And playing, lovely and watery
And fire green as grass.
And nightly under the simple stars
As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,
All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars
Flying with the ricks, and the horses
Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
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.



As I mention repeatedly, a sense of transience is very important in hokku, because it is not only all around us, but within us as well.  The writers of hokku express it very simply.  Western poets have a more elaborate way of dealing with it, as in this poem by Louise Driscoll (1875-1957).  It is a good reminder.  No matter what we think we are buying in life, what we are really getting is age:


With his unspent youth
Like a penny in his hand,
See him stand!
There’s a look on his face
Like a child that comes
To the market-place
After tops and drums.

With his youth—his youth
As a thing that he can spend—
See him run!
And what will he have for
His bargain at the end
When it’s done?

I have asked old men
With their empty purses,
I have heard the tale
Each one rehearses,
And on the last page
They have all bought age.
They have all bought age.

When youth is spent
A penny at a fair,
The old men tell
Of the bargains there.
There was this and that
For a price and a wage,
But when they came away
They had all bought age.