A ONE-SIDED SPRING

Today is the first of February — the beginning of spring by the old calendar.

I looked at the edge of my little garden and saw blooming snowdrops — one of the first signs of spring.

The old name for February 1st is Imbolc, though sometimes the name of the later “Church” commemoration that happens one day later (February 2nd) may be used as well.  That is Candlemas, which makes us think of light and brightness.

The English poet William Wordsworth wrote this:

LINES WRITTEN IN EARLY SPRING

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

The poet is sitting leaning back in a grove of trees.  Around him he hears all the “blended notes” — the mixed songs of spring birds.  It is pleasant, but it also brings him sad thoughts.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

The human soul or “spirit” if you will, is connected to Nature.  We are a part of Nature, though the artificiality of modern life has tended to obscure that.  But for Wordsworth, looking at all the natural life about him, it makes him wonder why humans have made such a mess of things — why our fellow humans are treated so poorly and heartlessly.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The periwinkle (a creeping ground plant with blue flowers) trails its viny shoots among the primrose plants in the green grove.  Looking at them, Wordsworth is moved to believe that every flower enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

He watches the birds hopping and fluttering around him, and though he does not know what goes on it their heads, it seems to him that every small hop and flutter and interaction among them reveals that they must be feeling thrills of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

Wordsworth cannot help feeling that even the budding twigs of bushes and trees spreading out to catch the air must sense in that some kind of pleasure.  So in all this, he sees Nature rejoicing in spring in it various ways.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Wordsworth feels a divine inspiration in his belief that Nature is rejoicing.  He sees the pleasure inherent in natural things as “Nature’s holy plan” — the natural course Nature follows.  He finishes by saying that if such pleasure is experienced by the flowers, the birds, even in the budding twigs, what is wrong with humans that they treat one another so miserably, instead of following Nature’s plan?

The poem has some memorable lines:  And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes — and Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man? — but it is not perfect.  Wordsworth, in this poem written in April of 1798, overlooks the more unpleasant and violent side of nature that was to be made more boldly evident in the 1800s, with Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution, and the “survival of the fittest” notion that grew out of his discoveries.

So that is the flaw in this poem.  Wordsworth ignores the more violent side of Nature, choosing to see only the pleasant as a model from which humans have strayed in their cruelty to one another, and in that he is being very one-sided.  It leaves us with the feeling that the poem, though pleasant, is rather immature and incomplete.  Nonetheless, it does give a pleasant picture of the happiness spring brings, though Wordsworth may not have succeeded in the lesson he draws from it.

While writing this, I could not help seeing a similarity between Wordsworth’s cheerful picture of Nature and that of the Hobbits in J. R. R. Tolkien’s works.  To them, their Shire home was a peaceful and benevolent place, and they were quite insulated in their thinking from the wilder and far more dangerous world outside it — until circumstances forced that unpleasant reality on them.  We can easily see, however, how Wordsworth — who was very aware of human suffering and violence in his time — might turn to Nature for solace, finding in the rural English countryside a peace not found in the turbid politics and social issues of the last years of the 18th century.

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.

HOUSMAN’S FLOWERS: I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED

Today we will take a look at poem # 63 — LXIII in Latin numerals — the last poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad:

I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED

I hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not the wear.

The writer has been a diligent grower of flowers, hoeing them, keeping them free of weeds, and trenching (mixing the lower and upper levels of soil).  The result is blooming flowers that he gathers and takes to the fair to sell.  An English fair, in those days, was a place where one could buy all kinds of things, as well as see various simple entertainments.  But his efforts to sell his flowers failed.  People paid no attention to them, because they were not the popular color to wear.  So he took them back home, where they will wilt unappreciated.

So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.

Having found the locals had no interest in what he had grown, he decides to take the flower seeds and sow them — scatter them to grow and flower — “up and down,” meaning in all kinds of random places, all over the countryside.  Places where young men are likely to happen upon them in future springs and summers, after the writer is dead and buried and forgotten.

Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower
The solitary stars,

Some of the seeds he scatters will of course be eaten by the birds.  And some will be ruined by the bad weather of the season.  But nonetheless, here and there some of them will sprout and flourish, and so here and there will be flowers growing alone — “solitary stars.”

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

Every year the flowers grown from his scattered seeds will bloom again in the country fields, when spring with its tender leaves appears.   And other lads who have similarly not had good fortune in life will pluck the blossoms, and wear them on hat or pinned to the shirt or coat,  when the writer who planted them has long been dead and gone.

Now we can understand this poem on two levels.  First, it is the simple tale of a country lad who fails in what he tries, but nonetheless thinks what he has grown is worthwhile, so he scatters the seeds abroad so that they may flower for other fellows like him to find and enjoy in future years.

The second level is that of the writer himself.  He carefully composes his various poems (his flowers), but finds they do not seem to be popular with those around him.  They just don’t “get” what he creates.  Nonetheless, he does not give up, but scatters his verses out where the public can see them (has them published), so that those few young men who will understand the writer and share his sentiments will find them and appreciate (“wear”) them.

As you can see, this poem is a kind of summary and finale to A Shropshire Lad.  And Housman was right.  Those “luckless lads” do find and appreciate the beautiful results of his efforts — the scattered flowers of his poetry — these many long years after his death.

Housman, of course, was quite familiar with the King James Bible.  He once remarked “I think I should describe myself as a High-Church atheist,” meaning he did the dutiful formalities of a normal Englishman in his relations with the national Anglican Church, while not at all believing its doctrines and dogmas.  It is not surprising that we find in this poem an echo of Matthew 13:3-9:

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;  And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:  Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:  And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.  And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:  But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

David

GLAD YULE: THE WINTER SOLSTICE

Tomorrow — December 21st — is the Winter Solstice, the ancient holiday of Great Yule.  It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  It is also the turning point after which the days once more gradually lengthen, and the nights shorten.

That is why, in ancient times, it was seen as the “rebirth” of the sun, which had been crossing ever lower and nearer the horizon after Midsummer’s Day.  Yule was celebrated as the sign of the return of light and warmth, a time of celebration and feasting.

Some of us still keep the Yule holiday with its twelve days.  Because it is the Winter Solstice, it is the “natural” winter holiday.  For those of who keep up Christmas traditions without the dogma, it is not an “either/or” matter.  Because Yule continues for twelve days, it easily incorporates the Christmas gift giving for those who wish to continue that.  And of course all the greenery indoors that one associates with Christmas was originally part of Yule and still is.  In Welsh the holiday greeting this time of year is “Nadolig Llawen,” meaning “Happy Birth.”  One can apply that to the Winter Solstice as well, when one remembers the ancient tradition that it is the rebirth of the sun, which metaphorically it is.  The sun once more begins to climb higher and higher as it arcs across the sky, eventually bringing us to spring.

Yule is a reminder that even the darkest times, there is hope for better.  The world, with its daily news filled with violence and dismal prospects for the environment and humanity could certainly use some of that now.

Sometimes the smallest things can take us out of ourselves and our personal preoccupations, bringing a bit of light to dispel dark thoughts, as in this winter poem by Robert Frost:

DUST OF SNOW

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

GLAD YULE, EVERYONE!

 

David

THE COLOR PURPLE: AN ENVIRONMENTAL WARNING

justinianravenna

Anyone familiar with English literature and with history will know the term “Tyrian purple.”  This purple color was once the prerogative of royalty, thus the expression “to the purple born,” which we can trace back to the Byzantine Greek expression porphyrogennetos.

We find a variant of that word — Porphyrogene — in Edgar Alan Poe’s rather creepy poem The Haunted Palace:

Wanderers in that happy valley,
   Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically,
   To a lute’s well-tuned law,
Round about a throne where, sitting
   (Porphyrogene!)
In state his glory well-befitting,
   The ruler of the realm was seen.

Emily Dickinson, who was fond of the color purple, mentions

An altered look about the hills —
A Tyrian light the village fills —

Reference to ancient royal purple — Tyrian purple — pops up in innumerable books and contexts.  Tyrian purple has been a part of our history since ancient times.  In fact our English word “purple” itself comes originally from the Greek porphyra, the name for the pigment we call Tyrian purple (as well as the mussel from which it was made).

All of this is just a preface to telling you that yesterday I was saddened to read in The Guardian that the shellfish used in ancient times to make the dye Tyrian purple (so called from the ancient city of Tyre) has disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean due to the rise of sea temperature caused by climate change.  It is just one worrisome sign among a multitude of troubling evidence that the world has entered precarious and dangerous times environmentally and climatically.

Here is the link to the article:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/05/ancient-shellfish-red-mouthed-rock-shell-purple-dye-vanishes-eastern-med

 

David

 

 

BECOMING ONE WITH EMPTINESS: ROBERT FROST’S DESERT PLACES

weedsinsnow

Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”

DESERT PLACES

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.

David

FROM THE GATES OF FAERIE: HENRY MARTYN HOYT

Those who enjoy the fantasy poetry of Walter de la Mare will find a similar atmosphere in this poem by Henry Martyn Hoyt (May 8, 1887- August 25, 1920), whose work we have seen before in the posting “Where Throbbed the Thrush.”  Today’s poem continues a tradition of Fairy lore found in old tales and ballads, particularly the so-called “Child Ballads” collected by Francis James Child in his book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes from 1882-1898.

THE SPELL

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

And riders passed me on the left, and riders on the right,
Clad in cramoisie so fine
Phantom riders nine and nine,
That faded with the night.

The dawn was flushing in the east as I won to my door,
And there within the ingle dark
One had drawn a cantrip mark
Upon the earthen floor.

The thatch was matted o’er with weeds, the well was choked with stones,
There lay a shroud upon the bed
Draped and drawn from foot to head,
As white as dead men’s bones.

I ran and shouted down the street, but none would heed my cry.
I screamed across the market-place.
Never a burgher turned his face.
In silence they passed by.

Oh, none could hear and none could see the man they used to know.
For he is witched for seven years,
He who in the dawning hears
The elfin bugles blow.

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

This is very much in the tradition of “medievalism” stimulated before Hoyt by the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England, and we can link it to the earlier poem “Blow, Bugles, Blow” by Alfred Tennyson, with its second stanza reading:

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

Hoyt’s poem, however, goes deeper into the Fairy lore of the British Isles.   In that belief, fairies were not little winged, flitting creatures, but rather a supernatural people of simultaneously this world and of another — a dimension humans entered at their peril.  And sometimes humans were taken — meaning they were abducted from this world by the fairy folk; they might be able to return in seven years, or fourteen, or twenty-one — or never.  That is why the country people spoke of the fairy folk with great respect and not a little fear, speaking of them carefully and only in a roundabout way.

In Wales they were the Tylwyth Teg — the “Fair Folk.”  In Ireland they were the Sidh — pronounced “Shee.”  Similarly, in Scotland they were the Daoine Sith, pronounced somewhat like “Doo-en-uh Shee” —  The “Fairy People,”  or more euphonically, the “Fairy Folk; also Daoine Math (pronounced “ma”), the “Good Folk.”  In older “Germanic” English, they are the Elves.  Both the word “fairy” and the name of their realm, Faerie, came into English from Old French.  So “Faerie” is Elfland, the otherworldly realm of the Daoine Sith.

The classic work on the subject in English is The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, which you will find free, online, in its entirety, here:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34853/34853-h/34853-h.htm

Let’s look at the poem part by part:

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

It is the first light of morning (as we shall find).  A man is walking up a sandy road above the sea.  Suddenly he hears a rooster crow three times, then again three; and following that he hears three blasts on an elf/fairy horn, from the gateway to that otherworldly dimension.  Three times three makes nine, which is a number with sacred significance in old Celtic belief.

And riders passed me on the left, and riders on the right,
Clad in cramoisie so fine
Phantom riders nine and nine,
That faded with the night.

The man finds himself between two lines of finely-clothed riders on horses, nine on his left, and nine on his right.  They are clothed in beautiful cramoisie, meaning “crimson” — a very old-fashioned word borrowed from Old French, which in turn borrowed it from Arabic.  He calls them “phantom riders,” meaning they seem like spirits, and as the last traces of night fade away, the riders fade away as well.

The dawn was flushing in the east as I won to my door,
And there within the ingle dark
One had drawn a cantrip mark
Upon the earthen floor.

He manages to get to the door of his cottage, with the glow of dawn already in the East.  As he enters,  he sees, on the floor by the fireplace, a “cantrip” mark.  A cantrip is a spell or charm, so the mark is a spell placed on the dwelling.  Ingle is a Scots term meaning the fire in the fireplace, and by extension the fireplace itself and the hearth or space immediately in front of it. People in the early 1900s generally knew the word from the term “inglenook,” a recessed space in front of the fireplace, where one could sit cozily.

The thatch was matted o’er with weeds, the well was choked with stones,
There lay a shroud upon the bed
Draped and drawn from foot to head,
As white as dead men’s bones.

Though it seems that only a short while has passed since he encountered the procession of riding Daoine Sith, actually it has been much, much longer.   He finds his thatched roof rotting, and weeds growing in it.  His bed is covered over with a white shroud, as though someone had died and the bed was no more used.  The well where he draws his water seems long unused, and is filled with stones.

I ran and shouted down the street, but none would heed my cry.
I screamed across the market-place.
Never a burgher turned his face.
In silence they passed by.

Alarmed by all he has seen, he runs down the street, shouting to draw attention, but no one can hear him.  He runs screaming across the market square of the town, but not a single “burgher,” — that is, townsman — turns to look at him.  Instead they pass by in silence.

Oh, none could hear and none could see the man they used to know.
For he is witched for seven years,
He who in the dawning hears
The elfin bugles blow.

No one can see him or hear him.  He is neither entirely in this world, nor in the other, because he has been enchanted, “witched,” for seven years.  And all because he heard the blowing of the elfin bugles as the Daoine Sith came out from the hidden gates of  Elfland into our world, and he was caught in their passing.

As I came up the sandy road that lifts above the sea,
Thrice and thrice the red cock crew,
And thrice an elfin bugle blew
From the Gates of Faerie.

The poet repeats the first stanza to bring the poem to its end, something often done in old songs and ballads to give a sense of completion.

 

David

WHERE THROBBED THE THRUSH: THE FORGOTTEN HENRY MARTYN HOYT

HENRY MARTYN HOYT (Self portrait)
HENRY MARTYN HOYT
(Self portrait at age 23)

Most people — even most teachers of literature — have never heard of the artist and poet Henry Martyn Hoyt (May 8, 1887- August 25, 1920).  And yet one of his poems remains a favorite of mine, not only for its vivid imagery, but also for depicting so clearly the hopeless attitude of mind that — if one does not have a corrective change of perspective — can lead to disaster.

It deals with disillusionment about life — the realization that the world of childhood and youth — a world lived much in the imagination and shining expectations — is not the real world around us.  It comes to different people at different times, whether early or later in life.  It can be precipitated by any number of things.

We have seen this realization — shattering for some people — in previous discussions.  We saw it in Dylan Thomas’ lines:

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.

We saw it also in the plea of Matthew Arnold:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Life suddenly becomes very difficult and traumatic for those going through this realization; whenever it occurs, it is essentially a transition crisis from immature thinking to adult thought.  For some people, the body matures but the mind reminds in a childish state, blocking out the realities of life.  Such people are the Peter Pans of the world, who never want to grow up.  This clinging to mental immaturity — this reluctance to deal with the hard facts of life — is one reason why people attach themselves so firmly to dogmatic religious beliefs, and then when the evidence against those beliefs becomes too overwhelming, the individual’s world seems to collapse.

It is expressed when reality breaks into fantasy in the lines of T. S. Eliot:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

And some people, unfortunately, do wake only to drown.  The difficult time of transition is just too much for them.  If they were to wait, to learn from the hard knocks of life, they might survive and be better for the experience.  But for some, giving up the “Land of Dreams” is so traumatic a crisis that they end their lives prematurely, without ever having really achieved all that maturation means.  They cannot survive the loss of their pleasant illusions about life — the world of childhood and youth — at least that is how they feel while in the grip of the trauma of that dark period.

Henry Martyn Hoyt left us one of the most poetic expressions of this critical and dangerous time of transition.  It is titled

THE LAND OF DREAMS

Ah, give us back our dear dead Land of Dreams!
The far, faint, misty hills, the tangled maze
Of brake and thicket; down green woodland ways
The hush of summer, and on amber streams
Bright leaves afloat, amid the foam that creams
Round crannied boulder, where the shallows blaze.
Then life ran joyous through glad, golden days
And silver nights beneath the moon’s pale beams.

Now all is lost.  There glooms a dark morass
Where throbbed the thrush across the dappled lawn.
Oh, never more shall fairy pageants pass,
Nor dance of light-limbed satyr, nymph and faun,
Adrift among the whispering meadow-grass,
On wind-swept uplands, yearning toward the dawn.

procession3One can discern in this poem an individual whose bright, youthful view of the world has been shattered, replaced by a day-to-day reality far from what had been hoped.  There is so little published material available on Hoyt’s life that one cannot easily trace the course of this disillusionment, but we know that it ended in his taking his own life at age 33.

This is the beginning of an article that appeared in The Sun and the New York Herald, 26 August, 1920:

H.M. Hoyt, Artist, Ends Life With Gas
No Cause Assigned for His Act.

Henry Martyn Hoyt, a portrait painter, committed suicide last night in his studio at 37 West Tenth street, by inhaling gas. William Rose Bennet, who roomed with Mr. Hoyt, returned home at 11:15 o’clock and found the artist’s body in the bathroom with a gas tube in his mouth and attached to that gas jet. Mr. Hoyt was only partly dressed.
Mr. Bennet notified the police and Patrolman Schroeder of the Mercer street station summoned a physician from St. Vincent’s Hospital, but Mr. Hoyt was dead when the physician arrived at the studio. Mr. Bennet told the police he knew of no reason why his friend should have committed suicide.

The “William Rose Bennet” mentioned in the article was actually William Rose Benét, the older brother of the writer and Pulitzer Prize winner (1929) Stephen Vincent Benét.  William eventually married (her third marriage) the poet and literary editor of Vanity Fair,  the beautiful Elinor Wylie, born Elinor Hoyt — a sister of the poet and artist Henry Martyn Hoyt.  She was Benét’s second wife of four.  William Rose Benét was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.

“The Land of Dreams” was published in Dry Points: Studies in Black and White, by Henry Martyn Hoyt and William Rose Benét, in 1921.  Oddly enough, I first encountered the poem in my teens, finding it in the old volume The Home Book of Modern Verse (1925) in my school library.  For many years — due to an apparent typographical error in that edition — I knew the fourth line from the end as:

Oh, never more shall fiery pageants pass…

But when I read the original printing of Dry Points, I found it as

Oh, never more shall fairy pageants pass…

I must admit that I still rather prefer the line as it is with the typographical error “fiery,” because it presents such a strong, vivid and effective image.

Henry’s friend William Rose Benét wrote of him in Dry Points:

All it meant to him — this life!  It meant so much.  It tortured him so deeply and yet he wrung from it so much and such exquisite pleasure.  And the times when he was most happy were of such utter simplicity — friends, his family, summer evenings, talk to the accompaniment of some handiwork, snatches of song, Italian restaurant suppers, lamplight, the reading of poetry, firelight, mildly hilarious pilgrimages through moonlit streets, — friends, friends, friends ….

Hoyt came from an old, very prominent, and wealthy family.  He had connections to then well-known people.  He was well-educated, talented and intelligent, and yet all of that was not enough in his time of crisis.

If you would like to read Dry Points, you will find it online here:

Click to access drypointsstudies00hoyt.pdf

And for those who want to know a little more of the life of Henry Martyn Hoyt, the Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale College tells us this:

Henry Martyn Hoyt was prepared at the Haverford Grammar School and the Friends’ School, Washington D. C., entering Yale when he was only sixteen…

He spent the summer after graduation abroad, and then attended the Harvard Architectural School for a year.  The next summer he did some painting and took a trip through the West, and the following year was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under William M. Chase.  After another visit to Europe he entered the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, studied under Edmund C. Tarbell, and completed the course there.  He had since continued his painting independently and had developed a gift for etching.  He wrote a number of articles in connection with his work, some poems, and a one-act play… Dry Points, a volume of verse, by Mr. Hoyt, with a sketch of his life by William Rose Benét, ’07 S., was published in the fall of 1921.

In the summer of 1915 Mr. Hoyt attended the first Plattsburg Training Camp.  He enlisted on May 3, 1917, and during the next two months attended the Ground School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He went overseas in August, 1917, and was sent to the flying field at Etampes, later being transferred to Avord.  In Septemper and October, 1917, he was flying at Foggia, Italy, but was then taken ill with Saloniki fever and sent to a hospital in Paris.  In February, 1918, he was transferred to the Photographic Section of the Air Service, and the following May was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Air Service and assigned to the Photographic Section Headquarters at Tours.  He returned to the United States in April, 1919, and received his discharge at Washington on the twenty-fifth of that month.

He took his own life in his studio in New York on August 15, 1920.

A collection of Hoyt’s papers, sketchbooks, and correspondence are preserved in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

THE DAYS DWINDLE DOWN: CAVAFY’S CANDLES

 

Today’s poem is my translation of another work by that unique poet of Egyptian Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), who wrote in Greek.  It is titled Κεριά, pronounced kair-YA.  It means simply

CANDLES

lineofcandles

The days to come stand before us
Like a row of lighted candles —
Golden, warm, and lively.

The days gone by remain behind,
A sad line of extinguished candles,
The nearest still smoking;
Cold candles, melted and bent.

I don’t want to look at them; their form saddens me,
And it saddens me to remember their first light.
I look ahead to my lit candles.

I don’t want to turn back, to see and tremble:
How fast the dark line grows —
How fast the extinguished candles multiply.

The poem gives a clear visual image of the swift passing of life, of how one eventually realizes that the days behind are many more than the days likely left ahead.  And every older person knows that the older one gets, the more time seems to speed up.

Many people, as they age, like to dwell on the past and its memories.  But here Cavafy says it makes him fearful to think of all the “dead” days gone by, and it is sad for him remember them as they once were but are no more.  Better, he says, not to dwell on the past, but to look ahead at what still remains of life, without comparing it to what came before.  All too often, comparing the present to the past can be depressing, particularly as one ages and more and more people disappear from one’s life, and one’s abilities begin to wane.  One sees fewer and fewer lit candles ahead, and even their number is only a hopeful guess.

It makes one think of these old words  from Dante’s Divine Comedy:

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.

“No greater pain than to recall, in misery, the happy times.”

I am always impressed by the simplicity and beauty of Cavafy’s poetry.  Many modern poets, with their needless and unpleasant obscurity and crudity, could learn much from it.

 

DEFINING HOKKU

Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:

DEFINING HOKKU

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:
Dawn;

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.

David

INNISFREE OF THE DEEP HEART’S CORE

Today’s poem is simple, but nonetheless one of the most popular in English literature.  It was written by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939).

THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

It begins with the biblical sounding “I will arise and go…”  Compare that with Luke 15:18 in the King James Version story of the Prodigal Son:  “I will arise and go to my father….

Much of its appeal is due to its quiet and lulling atmosphere, enhanced by the repetitious phrasing, for example the seven “I” repetitions:

“I will arise”
“will I have”
“I shall have”
“I will arise”
“I hear”
“I stand”
“I hear”

The first stanza:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Its meaning is simple:

The writer says he will arise and go to Innisfree, and there he will build a small cabin of clay and wattles.  “Wattles”  are wooden poles set upright, with smaller wooden branches or rods woven crosswise between them to make a barrier, such as a fence or wall.  When daubed with wet clay (“wattle and daub”) and let dry,  it forms a solid wall, though of course it must be protected from rain by a roof.  Thoreau’s cabin in the woods was built of lumber.  Yeats’ notion of a wattle and daub cabin is more primitive.

He says he will have “nine bean rows.”  The notion of planting beans came from Thoreau’s Walden:

Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.

Why nine rows in the poem?  Perhaps because in Celtic lore, nine is a sacred number, being three times three, and three too is a sacred number.  Yeats was very influenced by Irish legends and folklore.

Yeats speaks of “a hive for the honey-bee,” but in Walden, Thoreau had only wild bees:

“In August, the large masses of berries, which, when in flower, had attracted many wild bees, gradually assumed their bright velvety crimson hue, and by their weight again bent down and broke the tender limbs.”

So Yeats will build his clay and wattles cabin, plant his nine rows of beans,  and have a bee hive that will provide bees to make the island glade “bee-loud” (loud with the humming of bees).

The second stanza:

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

He speaks of having (one gets the sense of “finally having”) peace there on the island, and says that peace drops from the “veils of morning,” which can be both dawn emerging from the dark veil of night, as well as the mists that veil the lake in the morning.  Yeats does not more clearly define his meaning.  That peace drops from “the veils of morning” to “where the cricket sings.”  Again Yeats is not entirely clear.  It can mean both “from the air to the ground,” and “from morning to the end of day.”  The impression is that all time is filled with tranquility there, morning, noon, evening, and midnight.

He speaks of midnight as “all a glimmer,” which makes one think of the moonlight glittering on the lake water, but that is not definite; nor is his meaning in “noon a purple glow.”  We can assume these are just romanticizing words to cast a dreamy atmosphere over things, “to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination,” in Wordsworth’s terminology.  And evening, he says, “is full of linnet’s wings,” that is the fluttering of the wings of the small bird (Carduelis cannabina) called a linnet in Britain and Ireland,  a kind of finch.

The third stanza:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

There is a sense of decision and immediacy in the “will go now.”  And the reason for this immediacy is that “always night and day / I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore…”  It never leaves him.  He hears it even amid the artificiality and bustle of the big city.  He hears it while standing on the roadway and while on the “pavements grey.”  “Pavement” is the British term for what Americans call a sidewalk.

So really the writer will arise and go to Innisfree because it is felt to be the deepest, most appealing and most authentic part of him; its sounds and image lie “in the deep heart’s core” — but like many such images, it is a mental mirage woven of memories, illusions and imagination.

Essentially, The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a fantasy poem with three main elements.  The first two are obvious:

  1.  A boy’s typical dream of living alone on an island (whether in river or lake or ocean).

2.  Henry David Thoreau’s account in Walden of living alone in the woods by a large pond, and growing beans.

3.  An undertone of Celtic folklore in which Nature is filled with mysteries hidden behind the visible world.

Yeats made no secret of the influence of Thoreau.  He wrote:

… sometimes I planned out a lonely austerity. I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street [in London] very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little bell upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem ‘Innisfree,’ my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music.” (Autobiographies, p.153)

So there we have the first two elements:  1.  the youthful fantasy of living on an island, and 2.  the influence of Thoreau.  The third element we find mentioned in another autobiographical excerpt:

I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood.  I should live, as Thoreau lived, seeking wisdom.  There was a story in the county history of a tree that had once grown upon that island guarded by some terrible monster and borne the food of the gods.  A young girl pined for the fruit and told her lover to kill the monster and carry the fruit away.  He did as he had been told, but tasted the fruit; and when he reached the mainland where she had waited for him, was dying of its powerful virtue.  And from sorrow and from remorse she too ate of it and died.  I do not remember whether I chose the island because of its beauty or for the story’s sake, but I was twenty-two or three before I gave up the dream.” (Autobiographies, p. 72)

Yeats apparently had found the local legend of the magical tree in a book called History of Sligo (1882) by William Gregory Wood-Martin.

But The Lake Isle of Innisfree also had its beginnings in a story by Yeats titled John Sherman,  published in 1891.  Yeats wrote in an 1888 letter (to Katherine Tynan):

In my story I make one of the characters when ever he is in trouble long to go away and live alone on that Island — an old day dream of my own.  Thinking over his feelings I made these verses about them [an early draft of Innisfree] (Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, I, 120).

In his story, he called the island Inniscrewin rather than Innisfree:

Often when life and its difficulties had seemed to him like the lessons of some elder boy given to a younger by mistake, it had seemed good to dream of going away to that islet and building a wooden hut there and burning a few years out, rowing to and fro, fishing, or lying on the island slopes by day, and listening at night to the ripple of the water and the quivering of the bushes — full always of unknown creatures — and going out at morning to see the island’s edge marked by the feet of birds.

Now let’s be realistic.  Just as Yeats’ old man’s poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is a fantasy about a once-real place that was transformed into a place of the imagination, so The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a young man’s poem, a fantasy about a real island made into an island of the imagination.  And note that behind both poems is the notion of going somewhere for the sake of knowledge, of wisdom (though they are not always the same thing).  Yeats had written a couple of earlier poems about an island in Lough Gill, one, The Stolen Child, richly heavy with Irish fairy lore, as we see in its beginning lines:

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

“Sleuth Wood” is merely Slish Wood, the wood opposite Innisfree.  And Innisfree is an actual island, but only about one acre in size, not too far off the shore of Lough Gill, a five-mile long lake mostly in county Sligo in the west of Ireland.  The name Innisfree is an anglicized form of Inis Fraoigh in Irish Gaelic. Inis (pronounced “inish”) means “island” and fraoigh means “of heather” (fraoch); so Innisfree is really the “Isle of Heather.”  But by happy chance, when anglicized it becomes a combination of Irish Innis/Inis and the English word “free,” which adds to the sense of escape and liberation in the poem — “the Island of Freedom.”

Now Innisfree, being a very small and rocky island covered with brush and trees, is hardly a place where one could have successfully planted a garden of beans or have found an open glade for anything.  It is only one of  about 20 or more islands in that lake.  A writer described it as “probably the most inhospitable place in Lough Gill.”  But again, Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree is not the real island, but rather that island transformed into a fantasy refuge of the imagination.

So we should remember that it is just a “wish-fulfillment” poem.  Yeats was not a Thoreau in character.  Yeats in reality never arose and went to Innisfree, never built a wattle dwelling there, never planted rows of beans or had a hive of bees there.  The  journey to Innisfree, like that to Byzantium, took place only in his mind.

None of that, of course, changes its beauty as a poem, but perhaps it helps to explain why Yeats was bothered by its continuing popularity in the latter years of his life.

The poem was finished in London in 1888, and published in 1890 in the National Observer.

 

 

David

 

NO HARM IN TRYING: HOUSMAN’S TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH

Those familiar with Alfred Edward Housman will know that a “sports” poem by him is not going to be simply a sports poem.  That is certainly the case with today’s example, which is poem XVII (#17) in his collection A Shropshire Lad.  We shall take it part by part.  It is titled:

TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH

Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

“Thorough” here is just an old spelling of “through.”  And “football” here is the British term for what Americans traditionally call “soccer,” though with the current spread of popularity for the game in the United States, the term “football” for it has become better known.

A man looks back to the youthful days of his life.  He is (at least in memory) on the playing field, and tells us that twice every week, all through the winter, he stood on this spot as goalkeeper (shortened to “goalie” or “keeper”).  But he was an unhappy young man, melancholy, and in those days football then was a way of fighting his sorrow, of keeping the sadness and depression out of mind.  It was a common belief in British schools of that time that sports were an important part of male education, helping to provide, as the Latin saying goes, mens sana in corpore sano — “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”

footballgoalie

He does not tell us why he was sad.  Housman himself was homosexual, and there would have been reason enough for a person so inclined to sorrow in those days when it was spoken of in whispers, the so-called “love that dare not speak its name.”  Not only was there the possibility of being a social outcast if word got out, but also there were sobering legal penalties.  So Housman knew well what it meant to be “acquainted with grief,” as the biblical expression puts it.

But speaking more generally, there are many reasons why a young man might be given to sadness and depression, with the reasons varying as widely as the individuals.  And one thinks too of William Blake’s notion that some are just “born that way,” recalling these lines from his poem Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

So we know our young man was deeply unhappy, and used football as an escape all through the winter days.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

The season moves on to spring.  It is the month of May, and the seasonal sport now played is that quintessentially British game, cricket.  Our unhappy young man marches out to the rectangular “pitch,” that is, the playing area.  He has his flat cricket bat, and wears the customary knee pads.  He stands at the wicket.  In cricket there are two wickets, one at each end of the pitch, consisting of three short upright sticks in the ground topped with two loose crosspieces called “bails.”

So as he marches out with bat and pads to the wicket, he invites the reader to see him as he was then, a “son of grief,” that is, a very sad young man, trying again to keep his sorrow temporarily at bay, “trying to be glad.”

Housman uses the football season (approximately autumn to spring) and the cricket season (approximately spring to autumn) to show us how the speaker in the poem attempted to deal with his unhappiness throughout the year.

And now Housman comes to the summation of the matter, looking back on the youthful attempt of the lad to fight sorrow through sport:

Try I will; no harm in trying: 
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

As in those young days of playing sports, the speaker of the poem says, “Try I will.”  He will keep trying to keep sadness off, because trying certainly does no harm, though success may be limited.  Because after all, he says, it is a wonder how little mirth, how little enjoyment in life, keeps a person from just giving up on living entirely, and becoming merely dead bones lying in the earth.

Housman frequently turns to this kind of bittersweet paradox.  It takes but little pleasure in life to make a person want to keep living, and the speaker of the poem wonders that it takes so little — just the escape in a game of football, or in a game of cricket.  Or, of course, in any number of other things.

It reminds one of Woody Allen’s comments at the end of the movie Annie Hall:

“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’  Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

That is the “glass half empty” approach.  But there is also the “glass half full” approach that we find in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  The Spirit of Christmas Past takes miserly Ebenezer Scrooge back in time to a Christmas Party, small in cost, but rich in mirth, held by his kindly first employer, Mr. Fezziwig.  The Spirit comments on the party Fezziwig has provided, and thus evokes in Scrooge significant thoughts on the way Fezziwig treated his fellow humans:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
“Small!” echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,
“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

I hope in this holiday season. as the Midwinter Solstice approaches, that we may all try, in whatever way, to make the burdens on our fellow humans a little lighter, at minimum no more severe.  And as Housman wrote, “…no harm in trying.”

Here again is the whole poem, at one go:

Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

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.

 

A POOR WAYFARING STRANGER

The autumn chill;
Every place I live in
Belongs to another.

We have entered the time for autumn hokku.  Autumn is when Nature withers, and the energies of life go inward.  It is also a time of migration for birds and animals, and so is connected to travel among humans as well.

This hokku gives us a sense that we are all transients on earth, just passing through.  Some people are able to own houses and “put down roots,” but for many, life is a sequence of rentals, always living in a building that belongs to someone else, always at the whim of circumstance.  But there is a truth in that; nothing here really belongs to us.  Nothing here can really be ours.  Nothing here will last.

The verse is based on a hokku by Issa that is usually translated differently; but this rendering is better, and has a deeper significance.

 

David

MEETING THE GOD: BUSON’S SUMMER GROVE

There is a hokku by Buson that may easily be misunderstood.  R. H. Blyth presents it as

(Summer)

Not a leaf stirring:
How awesometrees
The summer grove!

The problem is the word rendered as “awesome.” We might think it means “very pleasant” or something similar. But using “awesome” in that sense is very recent in English. Buson’s term osoroshiki, which has the underlying sense of “fear-inspiring” — is much like the older usage of “awesome,” which similarly included an undertone of fear and dread.

The vast grove of old trees, completely still and silent on a summer’s day, with not one leaf moving, was experienced as overwhelming and intimidating.

That may initially seem odd, but it makes sense to me because of an experience I had when I was a very young boy.

In those days, my best friend and I liked to go hiking and roaming all over the rural countryside.  One day we went beyond our usual territory, and came to the edge of an old forest.  In retrospect, it was likely the first untouched old-growth forest I had ever seen.

We left the sunny field that bordered it, and entered the wood.  At once everything changed.  We were surrounded by huge trees whose tops we could not see, and haphazardly lying among them were massive fallen and decaying logs.  Everything — ground and fallen trees — was covered in a thick layer of soft, green moss several inches deep, and the light of the wood about us was a shadowy green.

We had gone some distance into this ancient, silent and still wood when we stopped and looked all around.  Then suddenly, inexplicably, we were both seized with panic, and hurriedly turned and rushed out of the forest as quickly as we could, back into the sunlight.  We never returned there again.

If you had asked either of us what in that ancient wood had filled us with sudden dread, I doubt we could have answered.  It was only later that I learned our fear was nothing new, that the ancient Greeks had felt it too.

Their explanation was Pan, the god of forests and shepherds.  They said that if a wanderer were suddenly to stumble across Pan, the embodiment of everything wild and natural, the god would fill him with an immediate, irrational, overwhelming fear —panic — a word derived from the god’s name.  It seems my friend and I, coming upon that untouched primeval forest for the first time, were so struck by its sense of otherness — of tremendous wildness — that we too were overwhelmed with panic.

masque_1

As for the hokku itself, I don’t think it works very well because it is so easy to misunderstand.  One would have to experience it, as I did, to “get” it.  So it does not make a good model for writing in English, and I include it here only because it helps to show both the difficulty in translating some hokku and the role experience plays in reading them.

 

David

 

HOT THINGS: THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT

I often emphasize the importance, in writing hokku, of seeing something in a new way.  It is not that we constantly have to look for quite new subjects; it is just that when we see an ordinary thing in a new way, we perceive it differently; we have what Blyth used to call a “little enlightenment.”  We suddenly realize that the experience is telling us something we already knew, but did not know that we knew, until it was shown to us in a different way.

The seasonal context of a thing changes it.  We experience the same thing differently in different seasons.  Here is a good example, a “little enlightenment” of Buson:

(Summer)

Spider webs
Are hot things!
The summer grove.

Ordinarily we think of such webs as light and airy, open to the wind.  But in the heat of summer, entering and walking through a dry and windless grove of trees, we feel spider webs sticking to our face and hands, and suddenly we realize

Spider webs
Are hot things!

Like the verses in the two preceding postings, the bothersomeness of the spider webs on our skin in the windless grove only magnifies the heat.  One uncomfortable thing added to another uncomfortable thing makes both worse, with each bringing out the nature of the other.  And in doing so, they help to give the verse unity; the parts all work together as one experience, which in hokku is very good.

Suddenly realizing that spider webs are “hot things” is seeing something ordinary in a new way.  That is an opportunity we should use in writing.  Of course without the context of summer and heat, it would not be so.  In a different season and context, the nature of the spider webs — how we experience them — would also be different.

 

David

 

 

 

HEAT ON HEAT: A KNOCK AT THE DOOR

Here is a “westernized” variation on a hokku by Yayū that borders on senryu:

(Summer)

Hurriedly dressing
At a knock on the door;
The heat!

It is a very hot day, and the writer has been lying around nearly naked in the shadowy house interior, trying to cool off.  Suddenly there is a knock at the door, and he/she gets up with a start and hurriedly throws some clothes on, which, with the sudden activity of the body at the knock, make the heat of the day feel even more intense.

 

Davidhokku

HAIR AND HEAT: SONO-JO’S CHILD

The unseasonably hot days continue here.  It brings to mind a hokku by Sono-jo, a female writer.

As you know, summer and winter are the two “extreme” seasons; summer for its heat, winter for its cold.  Consequently it is effective in hokku to put opposites together — a cool river on a hot day, a warm quilt on a freezing day.  That helps to bring out and express the nature of the cold of winter and the heat of summer.

There is another useful method, however, for expressing the nature of an extreme such as heat or cold.  That is by combining it with something similar in some way, so as to add emphasis.

Here is how Sono-jo did it (Blyth’s translation, which can hardly be bettered):

(Summer)

The child on my back
Playing with my hair —
The heat!

Not only is the day unbearably hot, but the heat is only magnified by the sweaty heat of the little body against her back, and the hot little fingers tangling and tugging her hair.

Photo:  Hopi Mother by E.S. Curtis
Photo: Hopi Mother by E.S. Curtis

So it is the “bothersomeness” of the child carried on her back and playing with her hair, that magnifies and emphasizes the last line:

The heat!

We feel the uncomfortableness of the heat in the uncomfortableness of having the little child on her back.  It is not that she does not like the child; it is just that in this case, at this particular time, the child has become a living manifestation of the heat and its troublesomeness.  If you are a regular reader here, you will recognize this as just another variation on the writing method known as “harmony of similarity.”

It is good to keep such correspondences in mind as possible techniques to use when writing hokku, as well as in reading them.

 

David

 

 

 

 

COOL, CLEAR WATER

 

With the unseasonably hot weather here, my thoughts turn naturally to cool water.

There is a verse by Shiki that is rather awkward in English if translated too literally, but it comes out well if we just take the meaning, like this:

(Summer)

At the bridge,
The horse instead
Goes through the river.

The whole point of the verse depends on knowing that it is a summer verse; given that, we know why the horse prefers to walk through the water instead of taking the bridge.

And we feel a similar sensation in a hokku by Buson, again taking the overall meaning rather than being too literal:

(Summer)

Cooling his chisel
In the clear water —
A stone mason.

The same water that cools horses and humans cools a chisel.  The heat of the chisel (made hot by friction in use) brings out the coolness of the water, just as did the horse who preferred the river to the bridge.

Stones at the bottom
Seem to be moving;
The clear water.

R. H. Blyth tells us that Sōseki should not have said “seem to be.”  That is because hokku goes with what is seen, without thinking it through intellectually.  When looked at through the water, the stones DO move. We need no lesson on light and refraction telling us that it is only an appearance.  The moving of the stones is the perceived reality; that they “really” do not move is the reasoned reality — “thinking.”

We could re-write it like this:

(Summer)

Clear water;
The stones at the bottom
Are moving.

 

David

 

 

SENSATION AND UNITY IN HOKKU

Here we are on Midsummer’s Day, the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.

Photo: Anna Langova
Photo: Anna Langova

In the previous posting, I said that for a hokku to create a poetic-sensory experience in the mind, the writer has to create the right conditions.  When that is done, that experience will involuntarily arise in the reader’s mind.

Those right conditions are what make interesting hokku as opposed to boring hokku, meaning unsuccessful, failed hokku.

One does not need extraordinary subject matter for good hokku.  Most use very ordinary things.

As an example, here is a slight variation on a hokku by Genshi:

(Summer)

Looking to see
If the leaves are moving;
The heat!

That verse has great unity, meaning everything in it works together to create the experience in the mind.  We feel the intensity of the summer heat in the urge to find even the slightest breath of wind stirring the leaves on the trees.

Summer (like winter) is a season when contrasts become very important — heat and coolness.

Here is another slight variation, this time on a verse by Ganshitsu:

(Summer)

Evening heat;
Listening to the sound
Of distant thunder.

That too creates a sensation in the mind.  We feel the oppressive heat of the evening, and we hear it in the sound of the far-off thunder.

Remember two qualities that tend to make for good hokku:  strong sensation (meaning it creates a strong sensory experience in the reader) and seeing something from a different perspective.

Regarding the latter, we ordinarily think of leaves as green and cool and pleasant.  But in the following variation on a hokku by Kooku, we see them from a different perspective, meaning we see them presented in a way that gives US a different perspective:

All the leaves
Are covered in dust;
The heat!

It is a day so hot and windless that the dry dust that has settled on the leaves of the trees remains there, and we see the heat in it.

You can see heat in unmoving leaves and in dust; you can hear it in thunder.  That is a sign of a verse with good unity, and that unity helps to make good hokku.

As an example of a verse without unity, a verse that fails, look at this:

(Summer)

A robin
Walks across the lawn;
The hot day.

What is the relationship between the robin and the hot day?  None.  Two unrelated things, the day and the bird, have just been randomly put together.  There is nothing in it to make us feel a strong  poetic-sensory experience; there is nothing allowing us to see something from a different perspective; and there is nothing that unifies the robin and the day.  Keep those faults in mind, and it will help you to avoid writing bad hokku.

 

David

 

HOKKU: CREATE THE RIGHT CONDITIONS

In the previous posting, I wrote that the poetic-aesthetic experience created in the mind on reading a hokku is involuntary; it just happens, because the hokku has created the right conditions for it to happen.

To better understand this, let’s look at a famous old waka by Saigyō:

Even in the mind of a mindless one
Sadness arises,
When the snipe flies up from the marsh
In the autumn dusk.

By “mindless one,” Saigyō means a spiritual person who has calmed the mind through meditation.  He thinks that even in such a person, given the experience of the autumn marsh, sadness must arise on seeing the bird rise up and fly away as day darkens.  Such an experience is involuntary.

It is the combination of the season, the time of day, and the rising and flying off of the bird that creates this particular aesthetic sensation in the mind.  Saigyō is saying that when the conditions are right, the experience will happen of itself in the mind — involuntarily.  That is the principle of hokku.

Writing a good hokku means creating the right conditions for that experience to sprout in the mind.

Incidentally, I mentioned some time ago that hokku has an “evil twin” called senryu.  While hokku is the verse of Nature and sensory experience, senryu, by contrast, is the verse of the quirks of human psychology and behavior.  Where hokku creates a poetic experience in the mind, senryu creates a bitingly humorous glimpse into the worldly human mind, something quite different.  We have already seen how Saigyō explained the rise of a poetic-aesthetic experience in his verse about the snipe.  Now here is how senryu explains Saigyō:

Saigyō sneezed,
And a verse about a snipe
Came out.

It means that Saigyō, sitting in the marsh at evening, suddenly sneezed, which frightened a snipe, causing it to fly up and away, inspiring Saigyō to write his waka.

As  you can see, unlike hokku, senryu tended to be witty and “low-class,” quite a different kind of verse.  Even though the outward form is the same, senryu is about human psychology, not Nature, and unlike hokku, it does not have a required seasonal context.

 

David

 

 

HOKKU: DON’T THINK, JUST EXPERIENCE

In the previous posting, I paraphrased R. H. Blyth’s definition of hokku: A non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

We can think of this as referring both to the initial experience of the writer and to the experience of the person reading the writer’s verse.

There is an old hokku by Bashō that will help in understanding:

(Summer)

So cool —
The wall against my feet;
A midday nap.

I have written before that for practical purposes and to avoid confusion, it is best not to think of this as poetry, but rather as the “seed of poetry.”  It is an experience put into simple words that when read, create a sensory-aesthetic experience in the mind of the reader, and THAT experience is the poetry.  It is not on the page, which only provides the seed that suddenly sprouts into life in the mind when read.  That is why I generally refer to hokku simply as “verse.”  If we call hokku poetry, people easily confuse it with all the ideas and characteristics they have picked up from Western poetry, and that baggage has contributed to the thorough misperception of hokku in the West and, incidentally to the rise of modern haiku as a verse form separate from traditional hokku.

When we say that hokku is a “non-intellectual sensory experience,” we mean that it is an experience of one or more of the five senses: seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing.  There is no thinking involved.  When you touch a wall with the soles of your feet on a hot day, the wall feels cool.  You do not have to think about it, or reason about it, or use it as a symbol for something, or make a metaphor or simile of it.  It is what it is, a sensory experience of coolness made pleasant by the fact that it is a hot day in summer.  So when I say there is “no thinking” in hokku, that is what I mean.  You don’t need to think to get the message.  You just experience it immediately through the senses, in this case the sense of touch.

And when I say that hokku is an experience “outside the conscious will” I mean that the experience of the coolness of the wall is not something you will into happening; it just happens.  You put your bare feet against the wall, and the wall feels cool.  The same happens when you read the verse.  You do not have to consciously will an experience to happen in your mind; it just happens when your read the simple words of the verse.

That is what Blyth means when he speaks of “Zen” in hokku.  He means precisely how this verse conveys its sensation, with

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

In hokku, nothing stands between the reader and the experience.  Look at this verse by Taigi:

(Summer)

A midday nap;
The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

It is a very warm and drowsy day.  Lying down for a noon-time nap, the person slowly moves the fan back and forth to create a hint of  cool wind; but the heat and the drowsiness finally win out, and as the person falls asleep,

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

In this verse we have the heat of summer and how it affects humans.  We are talking about one particular human, but in doing so, we are talking about humans in general.  That is why we so easily “get” the verse, why we feel the warmth and the drowsiness of the day in the hand that stops moving.  The verse expresses what summer is and what humans are, and what humans in summer are.  It shows us, as I always say hokku does,

Nature, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.

You will recall that all hokku are set in a particular season.  This is a summer hokku, so that is the primary setting.  The secondary setting is “A midday nap.”  And in the primary and secondary settings combined, we see what happens:

The hand with the fan
Stops moving.

Hokku is just that simple.  There is no need to make it seem complicated or mysterious or difficult.  It only requires that the writer be open to the inherent poetry of sensory experience and to our intimate connection with Nature and the seasons.  All that is required of the reader is to put aside “thinking” for the moment and to simply experience the verse as it “opens” in the mind.

 

David

*
Hiya-hiyato  kabe wo fumaete hirune kana
Cold-feels    wall  on  tread     midday-nap kana

Hirune shite   te no ugokiyamu uchiwa kana
Midday-nap doing   hand ‘s moving-not fan kana

 

 

SENSORY EXPERIENCE: THE HOKKU AESTHETIC

R. H. Blyth, in a very convoluted paragraph tucked away in his little-read volume titled Senryu, gives an ultimately simple definition of the hokku aesthetic that I will put into easily-understandable words:

Hokku is a non-intellectual sensory experience outside the conscious will.

He is talking about what happens when one reads a hokku.  We can take, for example, even this late verse by Shiki, who would have called it a haiku, but it is nonetheless just the old hokku:

(Summer)

Coolness;
Seen through the pine boughs —
Sailing ships.

There is nothing intellectual about it.  It is all an experience of the senses, an involuntary sensory experience created in the reader when it is read,  a reader who suddenly finds herself or himself looking through green pine boughs at sailing ships passing by on the blue water.

The first line is a basic sensory experience of coolness, felt on the skin.  Then comes a visual sensory experience of boughs and ships and water, and the combination of the coolness with the visual sensation makes the whole one simultaneous,  non-rational (by which I mean immediate and not thought out) experience.

In the same volume, Blyth also tells us what he means by “Zen” in hokku.  I don’t even like to use the term “Zen” today, because it has been so misunderstood, misinterpreted, and sullied by use and over-use.  So we can just use the synonym-phrase Blyth gives us:

Simplicity, directness, and non-intellectuality.

If you leave all the other mind baggage aside, and focus just on what is on this page, you will make a great step forward in understanding what hokku is all about.

Shiki also wrote:

(Summer)

Coolness;
With the lamp gone out,
The sound of water.

One does not need to think about it.  One just needs to experience it.  Moving from “thinking” poetry, which a lot of Western poetry is, to “no-thinking” verse, which is hokku, will give you a completely different way of looking at verse.

 

David

*
Suzushisa ya   matsu no hagoshi no    hokake bune
Coolness ya    pine    ‘s   needles-seen-through ‘s sailing ship(s)

Suzushisa ya    andon kiete   mizu no oto
Coolness ya      lamp   gone-out water ‘s sound

 

 

DUST IN THE WIND: HOUSMAN’S “FROM FAR, FROM EVE AND MORNING”

Today we will return to Alfred Edward Housman’s anthology A Shropshire Lad, though we will skip ahead for now to poem #32, which is titled

FROM FAR, FROM EVE AND MORNING

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

In stanza one, the speaker tells us that the elements that compose him, body and mind, came together from all directions and were “knit together” into an individual human life.  Though Housman is speaking poetically, we can say that scientifically there is much to what he says.  We are all “knit together” from food that comes from the earth, grown in various places, from water, from the air we breath, from sunlight, and from all the elements that compose our bodies and those of our ancestors, which scientists tell us, are ultimately made of the dust of exploding stars.

The speaker says all that makes him comes “from far, from eve and morning,” meaning from East and West, from where the sun sets and where the sun rises, from light and from shadow.  It all somehow “blew together” into an identity, a sense of self.  And so, seemingly out of nothing, “Here am I.”

When he speaks of “yon twelve-winded sky,” we see Housman’s classical background.  The modern  “compass rose” that backs a compass needle shows eight, sixteen, or thirty-two points or directions.  But Housman is using the old “wind” directions of the classical Greek and Roman world, which has twelve winds of different directions blowing in the sky, as in this illustration.  The wind names in blue are Greek, in red Latin.  Houseman knew both languages.

Now that the elements have “blown together” into an individual, that individual speaks to another:

Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

“I am only  pausing here for a short time,” he says,” before I dissolve and return to the elements;  so connect with me quickly — take my hand and tell me what you think and feel.”  He likens the brief span of human life to the taking of a breath.  That is in harmony with his mention of the twelve winds, and of the materials of his life being “blown hither” (blown here); and the breath  is also a very ancient symbol of life and the spirit.  So he is saying, “Quick, tell me your hopes and fears while we have this brief moment of life together, do not miss the opportunity, because soon I will be gone again.”

He tells his temporary companion,

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

He is saying, “If you open yourself to me, I will respond; tell me what you need, how I can help you in this life.  But be quick about it, because soon it will all be over and the ingredients that make up my being will disperse, and I will be gone.”

It is not difficult to see that the point of this simple but well-written poem is that life is very short, and we have only a brief opportunity in which to relate to  and help another being, and then we will be gone again.   Just as we are blown together from all directions of the winds, so we will fall apart again and disperse back into the universe.  It reminds me of  a line from the song “Pastures of Plenty”:

I come with the dust, and I’m gone with the wind.”

But we can go farther back to Fitzgerald’s rendition of a quatrain from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
Nor Whence, like Water, willy-nilly flowing; 
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

David

THE PRESENCE OF ABSENCE: A VERSE BY SHIKI

Masaoka Shiki wrote a summer verse that, like many hokku, creates both an image and a mood in the mind of the reader:

A cicada cries
At the gate of the empty house;emptyhouse
The evening sun.

The point of this verse lies in the combination of the monotonous, ongoing drone of the unseen cicada with the feeling of emptiness and absence and the passage of time given by the vacant residence.  Even though it is a summer verse, it gives us a feeling akin to that of autumn.

I have mentioned before that the absence of things can be just as significant, or even more significant in some cases, than their presence.  Hokku often make use of this.

David

The original transliterated:

Aki-ie no    mon ni semi naku    yū-bi kana

Vacant-house ‘s    gate at cicada cries    evening sun kana

TOUCHING THE MOON

As you could tell from the previous posting, we have entered the time of summer hokku.  There is an interesting verse written by the Buddhist nun Chiyo-ni:

Touched by the line
Of the fishing pole —
The summer moon.

This verse gives us a good lesson in how to read hokku.  As we know already, hokku deal with sensory experiences, not with surrealism.  So when Chiyo-ni tells us that the fishing line touches the moon, we use the “intuitive leap” that is often necessary in hokku to tell us that the moon is a reflection in the water.  There is the moon in the evening sky and the moon in the water, but in this hokku we are focused on the moon in the water.

moonreflection

Chiyo-ni’s verse mixes the “real” world — the world of fishing lines — with the illusory world — the moon that is only a reflection, and where the line touches the moon the two worlds meet.  It is that odd feeling of the intermingling of reality and illusion that helps give the poem its effect. It is something like the old tale of the Daoist Chuang-tsu’s awakening from dreaming he was a butterfly, then wondering if he is a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or now a butterfly dreaming he is a man.  It raises the whole issue of what is reality and what is illusion, but of course the hokku does not go that far.  It merely gives us the “seed” experience that turns to poetry in the mind.

 

David

For those who like to see the Japanese original transliterated:

Tsurizao no ito ni sawaru ya natsu no tsuki

Fishing-pole’s line at touching ya summer ‘s moon

HOKKU MADE SIMPLE: SEEDS OF POETRY

The risk of writing a lot about the verse form hokku is that people may begin to think it is complicated.  It does not help when I begin to explain how hokku differs from the recent offshoot known as haiku.  All of that can be a bit confusing at first.

The difference, essentially, is this:  modern haiku can be most any kind of verse of about three lines or less.  If someone calls it a haiku, it is a haiku.  It may be about any subject.

That notion is easy for people to grasp, and it is easy to write a verse that has no fixed standards.  It is hard to make a mistake when there are really no lines to color outside of.

Hokku, by contrast, does have standards and expectations.  First, the subject must be Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.  Second, the verse must be set in one of the four seasons — spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Then there are the things that should be left out of hokku:  Romance, sex, violence, things in general that tend to trouble or disturb the mind.

There is also the format.  A modern English-language hokku is written in three short lines, with the first letter of each line capitalized, and with appropriate internal and ending punctuation.  And the hokku should consist of a longer (two lines) and a shorter (one line) part, separated by appropriate punctuation.

As for aesthetics, in general hokku rely on the concrete, on things and on sensory experience.  It abandons “thinking” — intellectualizing — and emphasizes the perceiving of things through the senses.

Put that way, it does not really seem difficult, does it?  All of that is easy for people to do.

The most difficult part of hokku is to be able to achieve its sense of spareness and simplicity and the oneness of humans and Nature and the changing seasons.  Without that aesthetic, hokku does not really attain what it should.  And the way to get that into your hokku is to get the writer out of the way, to take the emphasis off the self, and to put it into experiencing.

Let’s look at a hokku by the old Japanese writer Kikaku, translated into English:

(Summer)

Summer rain;
A woman sitting alone,
Gazing outside.

Eight words.  That is all it takes in English.  It is in three lines, appropriately capitalized and punctuated.  It takes place in a given season (summer).  It has two parts: 1.  Summer rain; 2.  A woman sitting alone / Gazing outside, separated by appropriate punctuation (the semicolon after “rain”).  It is a sensory experience, primarily sight, but also the implied sound and feel of summer rain.  The words are simple and direct.

Though it is obvious that this is a summer hokku (given that it includes the word), I have added the season in parentheses at the beginning to show how modern hokku are shared.  Not all hokku contain the season name, and it is important to know the season.  In modern hokku that is done by putting it just before a single verse or a collection of verses of the same season.

So you see, writing hokku is really not difficult at all.  It just takes time to learn the aesthetic approach appropriate to hokku, because people are so accustomed to poetry that either tells a story, or expresses what we think about things, or comments on things, or is all about me, me, me — all things that must be dropped to write good hokku.  As you see, there is no “me” in Kikaku’s  hokku to get between the reader and the experience.  There is only the experience itself, and that is hokku.

We are not told why the woman is sitting there, or why she is staring so fixedly.  That omission is important.  The questions that poetry in general so often answers are left unanswered in hokku.  Instead, we just want the experience, plain and unadorned by thought and comment.  R. H. Blyth somewhere described that experience as the seed from which poetry grows.  The poetry is the feeling the reader gets on reading an effective hokku.  The hokku is the seed, and the poetry bursts from that seed in the mind of the reader when the hokku is read.

 

David

 

For those who like to see Japanese originals, here is Kikaku’s verse in transliteration:

Yūdachi ni  hitori soto miru  onna kana

Shower at alone outside looking woman kana 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELECTED SILENCE: BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR

Today we shall “translate” another of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ oddly but interestingly-worded poems into easily-understandable English. It is his very overtly religious poem,

THE HABIT OF PERFECTION

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

The title requires some explanation. “Habit” here does not mean a repeated behavior like a “smoking habit”; it means “habit” as in a religious garment like that worn by a Roman Catholic monk or nun. So this poem is about metaphorically “putting on the garment of perfection.”

An “elected” silence is a chosen silence, a silence not forced on someone, but chosen by them. Hopkins addresses that chosen silence as if it were a person, saying “Chosen silence, sing to me.” He asks Silence to “beat upon my whorled ear,” meaning to let him hear not sounds, but silence. By “whorled,” which he accents to be pronounced as “WHOR-led,” he is simply describing the curved shape we see in everyone’s ears.

He asks this personified Silence to “Pipe me to pastures still.” He is speaking of silence as though it were actually sound, asking it to Pipe him to quiet “fields.” “Pipe” here means to play a blown musical instrument, like the flute the Pied Piper of Hameln used in the old story to lead children into a mountain, or like the bagpipes a scottish piper plays to formally lead people into a dinner or ceremony. So Hopkins calls on Silence to lead him into quiet and restful peace, to be the soundless “music that I care to hear,” the sound of silence.

Now Hopkins begins to talk to his own body:

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

By “shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb,” he means, “Lips, do not form words, do not speak, be beautifully silent (dumb). And he says it is the closing of the mouth, its silence, that makes it truly eloquent. Truly beautiful speech, he thinks, is silence. This shutting of the lips he calls a curfew. A curfew is a signal sent to people that they must be off the streets and indoors. To hopkins it means leaving the outer world of the senses and going inside one’s self. This curfew of silence is sent “from there where all surrenders come,” which is the willingness of the person to give himself over, in Hopkins’ view, to the impulses sent from God.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

To be shelled (again, Hopkins wants us to pronounce it in two syllables as “SHEL-led” here means to be covered. It is likening the eyelids to two shells that cover the eyes when closed. That is why he says that closing the eyes will cover them “with double dark,” meaning not only the darkness behind each of the two eyelids, but the darkness in both eyes.

This “ruck and reel” — the outer crowd of things and movement that the eyes ordinarily — “remark” (notice) and pay attention to, “coils keeps and teases” simple sight. It captures it, like a vine coiling about a plant, it keeps (holds) it, it teases (distracts) it. Hopkins simply means that to enter silence one should shut the eyes to the events and movements of the outer world, because they hold back and confuse true sight, the simple “primary” sight that is the inner vision of the divine not seen by physical eyes.

Now he moves on to addressing the inside of the mouth:

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

He tells the palate, which he calls the cage (hutch) of the desire (lust) for pleasant tastes, not to desire to be “rinsed with wine,” not to desire to drink wine. That is because, he imagines, the can (here it means a cup or cup-like container) must be so sweet, and the crust (bread) so fresh when one is abstaining from food in a religious fast. Hopkins is saying that abstaining from the physical pleasures of food and drink brings spiritual pleasures of “divine” food that are far sweeter and more fresh than material food. So we see that in this poem he speaks paradoxically of silence as the “true” sound, looking inward as the “true” sight, and fasting (abstaining from food) as the “true” food.

Now he turns to addressing the nose:

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

He tells the nostrils that waste their breath on the arousing and maintaining of pride (like someone with his “nose in the air”), that there is something far better for them if one turns inward — then what “relish” (great enjoyment) shall the censers (incense burners) send along the sides of the sanctuary (within the church) — what a spiritual fragrance one will breathe during the celebration of the mass.

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street

And you unhouse and house the Lord.

By his elaborate “feel-of-primrose” hands, Hopkins is addressing simply the sense of touch in the hands that can feel a primrose plant; and he speaks of the same sense of touch in the feet that want the sensation of soft grass (“plushy sward”) beneath them.  “Want” here may also be understood as the lack (feet are denied) the feel of soft grass after one has become a monk.  One may read it with either or both meanings.  Instead of these sensory perceptions, Hopkins says the feet will “walk the golden street,” that is, they will walk in Heaven, and the hands will “unhouse and house the Lord.” In Roman Catholicism, the round and flat “host,” the bread used in the mass, is traditionally believed to become the body of Jesus when it is consecrated. It is kept in small cabinet (the “tabernacle”) with a door on it, and when the priest takes the bread out of the tabernacle or puts it back in, he is “unhousing” and “housing” the Lord, in the Catholic view.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

When someone becomes a Catholic monk, he takes a vow of poverty. So Hopkins pictures this becoming a monk as a marriage ceremony in which the monk marries poverty. And in that symbolic marriage celebration, Hopkins asks Poverty (St. Francis used to speak of her as “Lady Poverty”) to provide “lily-colored” clothes for her husband, clothes “not laboured-at nor spun.” So he means he wants to be clothed in spiritual clothing, not clothes that have been made from cloth spun and woven on a loom. This is actually a biblical reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:28, which in the Douai-Rheims version reads:

And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin. But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.

So what is this poem all about? It is about a person choosing a monastic and priestly life, turning away from the pleasures of the senses to the (in Hopkins’ view) superior pleasures of spiritual things, which are just the opposite: Instead of speech, there is silence; instead of pleasant sights, the is the inward “uncreated light” of God; instead of the taste of food and drink, there is the “taste” of not eating for religious reasons — of fasting; instead of the breath perpetuating arrogance, the nostrils will smell divine fragrance; instead of earthly objects pleasant to touch with the fingers or feet, there will be the streets of heaven (metaphorical and literal) and using the hands to place the “host” in the tabernacle; and finally, instead of material clothing, there is the “spiritual clothing” of the monk in poverty.

It is not a perfect poem.  Hopkins stretches things a bit too far at points, such as in his association of the nostrils and arrogance, and the odd preference of walking on golden streets (even if metaphorical) to walking on soft grass, but nonetheless he makes his point that in the religious life, the spiritual is to be preferred to the material.  It seems like the kind of poem a young person would write in a religious enthusiasm, and without the actual experience.  The Habit of Perfection was written in the middle of January, 1866, when the young Hopkins already had becoming a monk on his mind.  Hopkins was only 22 years old, and shortly after the middle of October of that same year, he officially converted to Catholicism.  In September of 1870 he entered the Jesuit order, and the unhappy reality of the rest of his life as a Jesuit did not live up to the youthful and  romanticized idealism of this early religious poem.

 

David

THE WASHING OF THE WORLD: WHITMAN’S “RECONCILIATION”

In the previous posting, I discussed Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d. I think of today’s much shorter poem by the same writer as a companion to that longer work. It seems to complete and lay to rest, in peace and simple beauty, the turbulent emotions expressed in the first poem. Both are in his book Sequel to Drum-Taps. The final surrender of Confederate troops had taken place on June 2, 1865, marking the end of the terrible American Civil War that had divided friends, family members, and the country.

When the war first broke out, Whitman began visiting the wounded in New York hospitals. Near the end of 1862, he received word that his brother George had been wounded at Fredericksburg, and was in Falmouth,Virginia. Whitman went to care for him, and got his first look at a field hospital and the results of the hasty and primitive surgery of the day. He saw “a heap of feet, legs, arms, and human fragments, cut bloody, black and blue, swelled and sickening…

From there, Whitman went to Washington, and for the next three years devoted much of his time there as a volunteer nurse and comforter to the wounded and dying of the war. His loving and compassionate nature gave the suffering a care that they desperately needed in those cruel days. He wrote to a friend, “The doctors tell me I supply the patients with a medicine which all their drugs & bottles & powders are helpless to yield

Finally, the great tragedy of the Civil War came to and end, and with it came the time for a nation broken by years of violent enmity to unite. Whitman, with his experience of the suffering and death in the war, and with his compassion, wrote this poem:

RECONCILIATION

Word over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:
… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

“Reconciliation” is the word over all, the word that covers all the wounds and suffering and death, and to Whitman, it is — with the sentiments it evokes — “beautiful as the sky.” Its beauty is

that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world.

Whitman recognizes the place of time in this, as in the old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” And with time work “the sisters Death and Night.” We have seen Whitman’s praise of Death in When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” praised because it brought an end to the suffering of the dying; and here Death’s sister, Night, brings ease through sleep, forgetfulness of the horrors of war. It is beautiful how Whitman personifies them as two sisters, patiently and lovingly washing,

again, and ever again, this soil’d world.

They cleanse the world soiled by hate and war, a task completed not immediately, but by the repetition of their labors through time, so that

war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost.

Whitman shows us the end of the war and the beginning of reconciliation in this symbolic image:

… For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;
I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

To Whitman, human life was sacred. He wrote in Song of Myself,

Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

It is a view that reflects not only the Quakerism of his childhood, in which every human has the divine within, called the “Inward Light,” but also the influence of Transcendentalism, in which the world is an expression of divinity, and humans all parts of the “Over-soul.”

Reconciliation is made vivid and immediate to us by the image of Whitman walking to the coffin where his enemy lies — in his bending down, and gently kissing the face in the coffin.

Vengeance is a terrible and soul-destroying thing, and Whitman knows that. But beyond that knowledge is the feeling of his inherent sameness with the former enemy,

“a man divine as myself is dead…”

And Whitman sees the great tragedy in that hard fact, the tragedy that was the Civil War. We feel the end of that war in the man lying there; and in Whitman’s kiss, the seal that completes it: Reconciliation.

WHITMAN’S TRINITY OF REMEMBRANCE: WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOOR-YARD BLOOM’D

T. S. Eliot wrote:
April is the cruelest month,
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land…

Though he has his memorable phrases, I always have the feeling that Eliot is writing in a room hermetically sealed off from Nature, as though he lives more in the mind than in the world. His is a dry poetry of the intellect.

With Walt Whitman, on the other hand, the reader is thrust immediately into the real world, into the midst of life and emotion. Today we will look at one of his best-known poems,

WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOMED

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

At first glance we might think this is just a poem about lost love, but there is far more to it than that.

We must begin by recalling two apparently unrelated things in the month of April:
1. Lilacs bloom in April.
2. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the evening of April 14, 1865. After lying in a coma for nine hours, he passed away on April 15, 1865. He had guided the young United States through the major part of the greatest crisis and upheaval since its founding — the Civil War.

It used to be common for houses — particularly farmhouses — to have a lilac planted nearby, so that its fragrance and beauty might be easily enjoyed. Whitman looks back on that April and its strange mixture of the scent of lilacs in the yard by the house door, and the death of Lincoln.

That death accounts for Whitman’s mourning. Each spring will bring blooming lilacs, and with them will inevitably come the memory of the death of Lincoln, the shocking death that happened

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d….

But something else accompanies the lilacs: the great star — the evening star, which is the planet Venus — hanging low in the western sky on an April night. This star is a symbol of Lincoln to Whitman, a star that will set in the West. Those of you who are long-time readers here will recall that from time immemorial, the West has been associated with death, as has the evening star.

O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Each spring, like this one, will bring a trinity, a threeness of things to Whitman. Those three things are the lilac blooming perennial, the drooping star in the West, and the thought of “him I love” — that is, of Lincoln.

And here Whitman is overwhelmed by emotion, by a grief he expresses in these words:

O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!

The powerful, western fallen star is Lincoln. The shades of night are the dark shadows cast across the country by his assassination and death, a dark night of the spirit, a tearful night. The great star has disappeared; a black murk, an impenetrable gloom of sorrow and death has hidden the star. These bitter facts, the death and the deep, painful sorrow, are the “hands that hold me powerless.” Whitman is caught in the reality that Lincoln is dead, and nothing can change that. He feels helpless in his dark grief, the “harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.”

Now Whitman turns from his profound grief to the lilac:

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle……and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.

He sees a lilac bush blooming in the yard of a simple old farmhouse, a bush planted near the white-washed picket fence that marks off the yard. It stands tall, with rich green leaves in the shape of a heart (a hint of Whitman’s deep emotions in this poem), and with spire-shaped, delicate blossoms with their wonderful, strong fragrance. From this farmyard bush, with its heart-shaped green leaves, Whitman picks a sprig of lilac. We shall see why later in the poem.

And now Whitman turns again, this time to a seemingly unrelated scene:

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

This is the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), a plain-looking bird with a very beautiful song. It is called a “Hermit” because it likes to hide away in leafy, forested areas and tends to solitary habits except during the mating season.

And what is its song?

Song of the bleeding throat!
Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear brother, I know
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)

Whitman hears the thrush’s song as a “song of the bleeding throat,” that is, a song of pain and suffering. The bird, he thinks, sings because if it did not express its sorrow in that way, it would surely die. That is why he calls its song “Death’s outlet song of life,” and speaks of the bird as his brother; Whitman too feels he must sing out his grief for Lincoln’s death in poetry, or else that grief would kill him.

And now we turn to another scene:

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes, and through old woods, (where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris;)
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes — passing the endless grass;
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprising;
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards;
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.

Whitman’s America was still a very rural America. He sees, passing through the land in spring, a journeying coffin. This is the funeral train that left Washington on April 21, 1865. It carried the coffin with Lincoln’s body on a long route that passed through Maryland, then Pennsylvania, then New Jersey, and into New York. Hundreds of thousands of people sadly witnessed the passing of the train and viewed the body in cities along the way. In New York City, on Tuesday, April 25th, the coffin was placed on a funeral wagon pulled by sixteen horses, and then it was drawn in procession down Broadway and other streets filled with mourning throngs. On return to the train, the coffin was carried on through New York and into Ohio, with more stops and processions along the way. It came to Indiana. On Sunday, April 30th, it passed through Richmond to the tolling of all the church bells. After more stops in Indiana, the funeral train proceeded into Illinois, where again thousands of mourners viewed the body. Finally it reached its destination: Springfield, Illinois — Lincoln’s hometown — where the body was at last laid to rest in its tomb.

So the funeral train passed through cities, lanes, woods, fields of grass and wheat, and through “apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,” that is, through blooming apple orchards. Everywhere mourners sadly watched its passing.

In this next segment Whitman describes the arrival of the train in towns and cities filled with sorrowing throngs, cities “draped in black.” He imagines the States themselves standing like “crape-veiled women,” that is, like women dressed in the black cloth and garments of mourning. He describes the funeral processions, the “flambeaus” (torches) at night — countless torches lit, sad and silent watching faces, funeral dirges, church services, tolling bells, the whole land in mourning. And as the coffin passes, Whitman reaches out his hand to place his plucked sprig of lilac upon it as a sign of his love and his grief:

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night, with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags, with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves, as of crape-veil’d women, standing,
With processions long and winding, and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit—with the silent sea of faces, and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn;
With all the mournful voices of the dirges, pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—Where amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang;
Here! coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

Whitman wrote this poem in the summer of 1865, when the memory and shock of Lincoln’s death and of the Civil War were still fresh. In offering his sprig of lilac, he says he offers it

(Nor for you, for one, alone;
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring:
For fresh as the morning—thus would I carol a song for you, O sane and sacred death.

That is, he makes his offering of lilac not just to Lincoln, but symbolically to all the coffins of the dead. And in doing so, he desires to sing a song, an ode to “sacred death.” He brings (in his mind) bouquets of roses and lilies, but mostly, at this time in spring, the lilac that is the first-blooming of them. He imagines himself breaking sprig after spring of lilac blossom, filling his arms with it, and bringing it all to pour the fragrant flowers upon the coffins of all the dead:

All over bouquets of roses,
O death! I cover you over with roses and early lilies;
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious, I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes;
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you, and the coffins all of you, O death.)

He recalls the great star that drooped in the Western sky:

O western orb, sailing the heaven!
Now I know what you must have meant, as a month since we walk’d,
As we walk’d up and down in the dark blue so mystic,
As we walk’d in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell, as you bent to me night after night,
As you droop’d from the sky low down, as if to my side, (while the other stars all look’d on;)
As we wander’d together the solemn night, (for something, I know not what, kept me from sleep;)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west, ere you went, how full you were of woe;
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze, in the cold transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul, in its trouble, dissatisfied, sank, as where you, sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.

He muses that the star, declining in the sky night after night, had been a sign with something to tell him as he walked in the evenings, unable to sleep. He sees now that star was filled with woe (sadness, misfortune), and as it sank to disappear in darkness, so Whitman’s spirit sank with it as well.

Now he returns to the Hermit Thrush:

Sing on, there in the swamp!
O singer bashful and tender! I hear your notes—I hear your call;
I hear—I come presently—I understand you;
But a moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me;
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.

He feels the thrush is calling to him, and he says he understands, and will come, but he wants to wait a moment beneath the star that reminds him of Lincoln, because the memory “holds and detains me.”

He sees himself as a kind of hermit bird, and he asks,

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be, for the grave of him I love?

How shall Whitman sing for the dead Lincoln? How shall he ornament his song for the departed soul? And how shall he make the grave fragrant? His answer:

Sea-winds, blown from east and west,
Blown from the eastern sea, and blown from the western sea, till there on the prairies meeting:
These, and with these, and the breath of my chant,
I perfume the grave of him I love.

The perfume for the grave shall be winds from the sea, winds that blow from the East and From the West, and meet on the prairies of the Midwest. Those, together with the breath of Whitman’s poem, shall be (symbolically) the perfume for Lincoln’s grave.

But, Whitman asks, what shall he hang (again symbolically) on the walls of the tomb in which Lincoln is buried?

O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?

He answers:

Pictures of growing spring, and farms, and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air;
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific;
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there;
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows;
And the city at hand, with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life, and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.

He will deck it with pictures of spring growth, of farms, homes, of the Fourth Month (April) evening at sunset, with grey smoke, with the gold of the setting sun, with fresh grass and the leaves of trees, with the glassy flow of the river, dappled by wind, and hills and shadows, and the nearby city with its houses and chimneys, with all of the activity of life, of workshops, and of workmen returning to their homes. In short, he will ornament it with America:

Lo! body and soul! this land!
Mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships;
The varied and ample land—the South and the North in the light—Ohio’s shores, and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies, cover’d with grass and corn.

Lo! the most excellent sun, so calm and haughty;
The violet and purple morn, with just-felt breezes;
The gentle, soft-born, measureless light;
The miracle, spreading, bathing all—the fulfill’d noon;
The coming eve, delicious—the welcome night, and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.

He speaks to the thrush, urging it to sing:

Sing on! sing on, you gray-brown bird!
Sing from the swamps, the recesses—pour your chant from the bushes;
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.

Sing on, dearest brother—warble your reedy song;
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.

O liquid, and free, and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul! O wondrous singer!
You only I hear……yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart;)
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.

To Whitman the voice of the Hermit Thrush, a song filled with woe, is like a human voice — a reflection of his own sorrow.

He talks about how, in the midst of everyday life, there came the dark cloud of word of the assassination, and suddenly he felt he knew Death:

Now while I sat in the day, and look’d forth,
In the close of the day, with its light, and the fields of spring, and the farmer preparing his crops,
In the large unconscious scenery of my land, with its lakes and forests,
In the heavenly aerial beauty, (after the perturb’d winds, and the storms;)
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the voices of children and women,
The many-moving sea-tides,—and I saw the ships how they sail’d,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor,
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with its meals and minutia of daily usages;
And the streets, how their throbbings throbb’d, and the cities pent—lo! then and there,
Falling upon them all, and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear’d the cloud, appear’d the long black trail;
And I knew Death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.

Shocked and saddened by the news of Lincoln’s death, he wanted to leave human company, to go down to the swamp in the evening’s dim light, down to where the Hermit Thrush sang its lonely song:

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle, as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night, that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars, and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv’d me;
The gray-brown bird I know, receiv’d us comrades three;
And he sang what seem’d the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.

By “us comrades three” he means the lilac, the evening star, and the thought of the dead Lincoln. And there in the swamp and shadows, Whitman listens, and his feelings become one with the song of the bird:

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars, and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held, as if by their hands, my comrades in the night;
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.

Whitman feels the song of the thrush is a song in honor of Death:

DEATH CAROL.

Come, lovely and soothing Death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate Death.

Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious;
And for love, sweet love—But praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding Death.

Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?

Whitman sees that Death is a part of life — of existence — and should be honored and welcomed for its service as the “Dark Mother” who eventually receives all into her embrace. If others will not praise Death, Whitman will, and sings his song:

Then I chant it for thee—I glorify thee above all;
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

Approach, strong Deliveress!
When it is so—when thou hast taken them, I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving, floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss, O Death.

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose, saluting thee—adornments and feastings for thee;
And the sights of the open landscape, and the high-spread sky, are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night, in silence, under many a star;
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave, whose voice I know;
And the soul turning to thee, O vast and well-veil’d Death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song!
Over the rising and sinking waves—over the myriad fields, and the prairies wide;
Over the dense-pack’d cities all, and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death!

Whitman’s song to Death and the song of the Hermit Thrush join:

To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure, deliberate notes, spreading, filling the night.

Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist, and the swamp-perfume;
And I with my comrades there in the night.

As he sings, Whitman sees images, visions of the Civil War and its battles, its suffering and its fields of the dead:

While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed,
As to long panoramas of visions.

I saw askant the armies;
And I saw, as in noiseless dreams, hundreds of battle-flags;
Borne through the smoke of the battles, and pierc’d with missiles, I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody;
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter’d and broken.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men—I saw them;
I saw the debris and debris of all the dead soldiers of the war;
But I saw they were not as was thought;
They themselves were fully at rest—they suffer’d not;
The living remain’d and suffer’d—the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child, and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

Whitman knew what he was talking about; he had been a nurse in the Civil War, and saw suffering and death first-hand and immediate. But, he says, all those dead young men were at last at peace. They no longer suffered. It was the living who suffered now for the loss of those precious lives — the mothers, the wives, the children, the friends of the dead and the armies of those who fought but survived.

And with this, Whitman is at last free. He has remembered the sorrow the lilac evoked, and the mourning with the appearance of the star, and the thoughts of the death of Lincoln and of all those who died in the Civil War. He has sung his song of praise to Death, who has released them from their suffering. He can now leave, can pass by the visions of the dead, pass by the night, pass on from the holding of his comrade’s hands; he can leave the song of the Hermit Thrush, and his own song. He can leave the lilac and its heart-shaped leaves, and he can end his song of sorrow and turn from the evening star shining low in the western sky:

Passing the visions, passing the night;
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands;
Passing the song of the hermit bird, and the tallying song of my soul,
(Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying, ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth, and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,)
Passing, I leave thee, lilac with heart-shaped leaves;
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring,
I cease from my song for thee;
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous, with silver face in the night.

But though his song is over, and his mourning complete with the praise of Death and its release from suffering, he will not forget the experience:

Yet each I keep, and all, retrievements out of the night;
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous’d in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star, with the countenance full of woe,
With the lilac tall, and its blossoms of mastering odor;
With the holders holding my hand, nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine, and I in the midst, and their memory ever I keep—for the dead I loved so well;
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands…and this for his dear sake;
Lilac and star and bird, twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.

He takes with him the memory of what that night has brought: the song of the Hermit Thrush, his own chant/song united with it, the luminous evening star, the tall lilac with its heavily-fragrant blossoms. The lilac, star and his thoughts are his comrades, holding his hand, saying visually what the the call of the thrush says in song. They are to be his lifelong comrades — his companions, because with them he will always remember, every spring, the dead that he loves so well: the soldiers who died in the war, and Lincoln, “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” He will remember the lilac, the star, and the hermit bird’s song joined with his own,

“There in the fragrant pines, and the cedars dusk and dim.”

SPOKEN AND UNSPOKEN: WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR AND HOKKU

In much of Western poetry, an event is used simply as a lead-in to talking about another subject somehow related to the first. An example is this poem by Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864):

DEATH OF DAY

My pictures blacken in their frames
As night comes on,
And youthful maids and wrinkled dames
Are all now one.

Death of the day! a sterner Death
Did worse before;
The fairest form, the sweetest breath,
Away he bore.

Landor has begun with the light of day departing from a room in which paintings hang, and in them are women both young and old. But as the light fades, the pictures all turn gradually black as night falls. All of this, however, is just an introduction to his real subject:

Landor calls the end of day the “death” of the day. And he immediately moves on to his main subject by saying that a sterner, a more real and harsh death than that of day was when Death took away a beautiful person that he obviously loved, someone beautiful in form and face. By “sweetest breath” he does not mean only that this beautiful person had a fresh and inoffensive breath. In biblical usage (and Western poets were once heavily influenced by the Bible, which in translation was considered the primary book of English literature), when the breath departs the life departs, so Landor is using “breath” to mean that the sweetest life is gone, the life of the beloved one.

“Away he bore” is of course a personification of Death as a dark, male figure; Death carried away the life of the beloved one.

In the previous posting, a variation on a hokku by Buson, we also had an “ending event” — a spring evening. And if you are a regular reader here, you will recall that evening, which is the end of day, also corresponds to the waning of the Yang energies that cause all the growth and life in spring and summer. So early evening corresponds to autumn. It does not symbolize autumn, it just has that feeling of being the same in some way. That is why when we talk about an evening in autumn, we are using harmony of similarity. When we talk about an evening in spring, however, we are using harmony of contrast, because evening is a time of ending, but spring is a time of beginning.

Landor obviously felt the same similarity — end of day, end of life (Death). But the big difference is that Landor comes right out and says it: “Death of the day,” which of course hokku does not, because hokku is much more subtle, more filled with unspoken implications, and that is a great part of the beauty of hokku. In hokku it is more important to FEEL such connections and rather too crude and blunt to actually SAY them.

I remember my Chinese teacher, who was brought up in the old way, telling us that in the China of her day, people would not say “I love you” to another. That was considered vulgar and brash, because saying something is easy; the far more meaningful way is to show someone that you love them through your actions toward them, how you treat them. That is very much the attitude of hokku. It is far more meaningful, more fitting the hokku aesthetic, to imply something while leaving it unspoken. “Show me, don’t tell me.”

So what would a hokku writer do with the event Landor experienced, but used as his introduction to talking about the death of his beloved? The writer of hokku would reduce it to the brevity of hokku, and would use only the event itself, an event filled with unspoken implications.

We could make it an autumn verse, if we wanted harmony of similarity, like this:

Day darkens;
All the paintings on the wall
Become the same.

We often find verses or lines in Western poetry that by themselves have something of the spirit of hokku, but generally, as I first mentioned and as we see in Landor’s poem, they are only the lead-in to, the excuse or inspiration for, talking about something else. But in hokku it is the EVENT ONLY that we want, because such events in a season, in a life, are filled with unspoken meaning. That is why we say of hokku that it is “much in little.”

The hokku variation on Landor’s “event” would require someone to be very quiet and aware to experience and think worthy of notice something as simple as the light fading in a room and the paintings gradually losing their colors and images with the coming of night. One has the sense of someone sitting there alone in the dim silence as the minutes slowly pass and everything blackens all around, someone who, for reasons unknown, does not rise to turn on a light (or light a candle in earlier times), but just continues sitting there in solitude, gradually enveloped by the night.

David

SPRING CONTRAST, SPRING SIMILARITY

Here is a variation on a hokku by Buson:

The heavy doors
Of a temple gate close;
The spring evening.

What is behind appreciation of this verse?

First, it is set in the season of spring, which is a time of new beginnings, freshness, and growth. But in contrast to this, we see the heavy, old wooden doors of a temple creaking shut. The weight of the doors is in contrast to the physical lightness of spring. The age of the doors, which being temple doors means they are quite old, is also in contrast with the newness of spring. Further, the time of the hokku is evening, when light (Yang) gradually gives way to darkness (Yin).

Now we know that spring, in the cycle of Yin and Yang, is increasing Yang. Evening, on the other hand, is increasing Yin. The weight of the doors is a downward, passive pressure, another Yin impression.

Obviously this verse uses harmony of contrast, a common hokku technique. The point of the verse is the combination of spring, the time of beginnings, with the closing of the great doors and the coming of evening, both “ending” events. So in this one brief verse we have Yin contrasted with Yang, beginnings contrasted with endings, and that is what gives the verse its effect.

In it we feel that even in the freshness of spring, there is already the sense of impermanence and things aging and ending.

That is how to understand hokku. A hokku, you will recall, expresses a season through an event happening in that season. And in this hokku we feel the sense of transience that is so essential a part of both life and of hokku.

Here is another variation on the same verse:

The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close;
Spring is ending.

In spite of the setting still being spring, the effect now is predominantly a harmony of similarity: the closing of the great doors (at the end of the day), and the ending of spring. Now the weight of the great doors reflects our feelings of reluctance, our sense of time’s inexorable passing, at the departing of spring.

All of that in three short lines, eleven words, fourteen syllables.

We could rephrase the second variation, like this:

Spring ending;
The heavy doors
Of the temple gate close.

That way it flows a bit more smoothly.

David

NOT LONG TO STAY: HOUSMAN’S LENTEN LILY

If you read the earlier posting on Alfred Edward Housman’s poem Loveliest of Trees, you will notice a similarity of spirit with today’s poem, which is the 29th in his collection A Shropshire Lad. Also a “spring” poem, it is called The Lent Lily, or from the first line, “‘Tis spring; come out to ramble.”

“Lent Lily” is another name for the wild daffodil that grows in the British Isles and is, along with the leek, a plant symbol of Wales. It is the daffodil that Wordsworth wrote of in his “I wandered lonely as a cloud” poem. Its alternate name “Lent/Lenten Lily” comes from the belief, often fact, that the daffodil would go through its blooming between Ash Wednesday and Easter, by which time the flowers would have faded.

The Lent Lily


’Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.

wildprimrose

The speaker gives an invitation: spring is here, so come out and ramble through the hilly brakes. A brake, as used here, means bushes and thickets. He tells us that the reason for rambling the brakes is that in them, under the thorns and brambles (both prickly plants) about the “hollow ground,” one can find wild primroses growing.  “Hollow ground” is an old term for a narrow dale or valley, though it can also mean a cemetery — “hallowed/hollow ground.”

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

anemonenemorosa

In addition to wild primroses, one can also find the simple, pale-white windflower (Anemone nemorosa) on its delicate stalk that nods to and fro as the still chilly winds of spring blow; and there is the Lenten Lily — the daffodil — that traditionally fades and dies by Easter Sunday

And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,

In the countryside the girls used to “go maying,” to gather together to celebrate the arrival of May with garlands and with dancing and celebration. So the speaker tells us that up until as late as May, one may still find the primroses blooming, and still find the windflowers dancing in the wind — but one will no longer find the daffodils in bloom. Therefore, he advises,

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring’s array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.

“To sally” means to leap suddenly forth, to bound forth or dance,” but here the speaker means simply to go energetically out into Nature, to advance upon the wildflowers with which spring is arrayed (clothed, ornamented), and to pick the daffodils blooming in the hills and valleys before they are faded and gone.

This is a less strong version of the lines from Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees”:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

It is the same sense of transience and the consequent underlying sadness of things that we find in Japanese hokku about cherry blossoms, which also call to mind the brevity of life and how quickly beauty passes.

Note the irony in the repetition that the daffodil “dies on Easter day.” Easter, of course, is the traditional Christian day of resurrection, of supposed new life; but for Housman, who was an agnostic, it is not that at all, but rather a day on which another beautiful thing dies.

David

YIN AMID YANG: BUSON’S MISTY GRASSES

Here is a spring hokku by Buson. Whenever I read it, it reminds me of 19th-century American paintings of the rural countryside as it was in those quieter, greener days:

The grasses are misty,
The water silent;
Evening …

It gives a very good impression of the stillness of evening.

Though this is a spring hokku, it uses the hokku technique of “harmony of contrast,” because while spring is a time of increasing Yang energy (active, growing, warm), evening by contrast is an increasing Yin time of day (passive, receding, cool). Such a hokku expresses that even in the time of year when Yang is growing, Yin is nonetheless present, giving us a subtle feeling of aging, of transience amid the freshness, warmth, and new growth of spring. The mist, the water, and the silence are all Yin, as is the fading of the light of day. That predominance of Yin elements amid the growing Yang of spring is what makes this hokku effective in its very quiet way.

I always like to remind everyone that no knowledge of Japanese is needed to write hokku in English. I only add the Japanese version here because I have one particular faithful reader who always writes me a note if I do not include it.

The word translated here as “grasses” is kusa, which is somewhat more inclusive and general than the Engish, comprising not only grass but also other short plants below the level of shrubs. Higure is the time of sunset, of twilight.

Here is the transliterated Japanese with a literal translation:

Kusa kasumi mizu ni koe naki higure kana
Grasses mist water at voice is-not evening kana

David

WHEN SMOKE STOOD UP FROM LUDLOW

The River Teme, Evening near Ludlow – The Clee Hills in the Distance:  by Philip Wilson Steer ;Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)
The River Teme, Evening near Ludlow – The Clee Hills in the Distance: by Philip Wilson Steer; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

Today’s poem, the seventh in A Shropshire Lad, is often found in school anthologies. It is titled

WHEN SMOKE STOOD UP FROM LUDLOW

When smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off from Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team,

The narrator is recalling a morning in the fields near the market town of Ludlow. which in 1887 had a population of about 5,935.

He tells us that “smoke stood up from Ludlow,” meaning the morning fires were lit in the houses and shops of the town, and their smoke was rising into the sky from the chimneys. And “mist blew off the Teme”; the mists that had gathered over the Teme River that flows through and past Ludlow during the cool of night were dispersing as the rising sun began to warm the air. Our narrator is a young farmer, and he has gone “blithe afield to ploughing,” happily enough off to the work of ploughing the field in preparation for planting. So we know it is spring as well. He is walking with his team of work horses “against the morning beam,” that is toward the East, toward the beams of the rising sun.

The blackbird in the coppice
Looked out to see me stride,
And hearkened as I whistled
The trampling team beside,
And fluted and replied:

As the young man walks along vigorously with his team, whistling a tune, a blackbird looks out from a coppice, which is a little grove of trees, and the bird “flutes,” that is, sings out, as if in reply to the young man’s whistling. The blackbird is a poetic device that reveals a gnawing doubt deep in the young man’s mind, his doubt about life. This is what the blackbird, which we can take as a symbol of the dark unconscious, sings:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise.’

A yeoman is a man who owns and cultivates his own property.

What point is there, the thought comes to the young man via the blackbird, in this constant rising every morning, day after day? What purpose is there in rising and going off to work, when inevitably one must at last lie down in death?

This is the same ancient concern about the ultimate futility of life that we find at the beginning of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose…

We find it expressed also in Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes — or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two — is gone.

Our hopes may be fulfilled or not fulfilled, but no matter, it all turns to nothing in the end.

It is the old question: We work to eat, and eat to live, but for what do we live? It is a question each person must answer.

I heard the tune he sang me,
And spied his yellow bill;
I picked a stone and aimed it
And threw it with a will:
Then the bird was still.

The young man sees the blackbird, with its yellow beak, picks up a stone, and throws it with such force and accuracy that he kills the bird, and it is silent. But that is not the end of the doubt:

Then my soul within me
Took up the blackbird’s strain,
And still beside the horses
Along the dewy lane
It sang the song again:

The same doubt about life that was heard through the blackbird’s song now is perceived to come out of its real source, the mind of the lad. And he hears the doubt repeated as a song over and over as he walks along the dewy morning lane, a kind of temptation to nihilism:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
The sun moves always west;
The road one treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest,
And that will be the best.’

You may recall from the discussion of William Blake’s poem Sunflower Weary of Time that since time immemorial the West has symbolized the end of life, the place of death. The sun is always moving west, always moving toward rest and for humans, ultimately death. So the same road that leads the lad eastward to work, will lead him at last home to rest, and finally home to death, “eternal rest.”

The point of the poem is the seeming purposelessness of life, which, as the old saying goes, is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.

Young people in their late teens and early twenties often go through a period of this kind of existential Angst, of questioning the point of it all. It can also happen later, in what psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the “Mid-life Crisis,” when one realizes one’s youthful hopes either have not been achieved and never will be, or else one has achieved them and found them to have “turned ashes,” as Fitzgerald wrote. The important thing is to get beyond this and to search for what is beyond both material acquisition and beyond one’s limited idea of “self.” But one can go through a lot of suffering in the process.

David

WHEN smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off from Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team,

The blackbird in the coppice
Looked out to see me stride,
And hearkened as I whistled
The trampling team beside,
And fluted and replied:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise.’

I heard the tune he sang me,
And spied his yellow bill;
I picked a stone and aimed it
And threw it with a will:
Then the bird was still.

Then my soul within me
Took up the blackbird’s strain,
And still beside the horses
Along the dewy lane
It sang the song again:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
The sun moves always west;
The road one treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest,
And that will be the best.’

WHEN THE LAD FOR LONGING SIGHS

The next poem from A Shropshire Lad relates in spirit to the previous posting. Again we have the subject of a young man (a lad) and a young woman (maid) — When the Lad For Longing Sighs:

When the lad for longing sighs,
Mute and dull of cheer and pale,
If at death’s own door he lies,
Maiden, you can heal his ail.

When the young man sighs because of his longing for a girl, when he goes about silent and unhappy and pale, and if he becomes so “lovesick” that it seems to affect his health and make him very ill, then you, young woman, can cure him.

Lovers’ ills are all to buy:
The wan look, the hollow tone,
The hung head, the sunken eye,
You can have them for your own.

All of the symptoms of lovesickness are a young woman’s for the taking. If she regards them seriously, and takes them on as HER responsibility, then they become hers, just as if she bought them off a peddlar’s cart or at a booth in a country fair.

Buy them, buy them: eve and morn
Lovers’ ills are all to sell.
Then you can lie down forlorn;
But the lover will be well.

Buy them! the speaker advises (but his meaning is just the opposite); no matter the time of day, one can have all a young man’s troubles as one’s own responsibility. They are yours to accept (“buy”). But be aware that if you buy what is being sold, then you can lie down forlorn, but the young man will be cured of his lovesickness.

What does all this mean? Well, men know that a good deal of the interest in a romance lies in the chase; if the young man does not get what he wants, he feels despondent and downcast (or sometimes just pretends to be). But if he does get what he wants, if the girl gives in to him, then she has cured him of his problem, and he is free to go on to look for someone new to chase, while she is left alone to deal with and suffer the consequences. That is one possible application, though no doubt you can think of several others. Housman has left the details deliberately vague.

The sum of the poem, however, is that the girl who takes a young man’s lovesickness as HER responsibility, is asking for trouble, one way or another. In Housman’s time this could mean the ruin of her reputation and her life if she were seduced and abandoned, or possibly being trapped in an unhappy marriage with someone she did not love.

In either case, HIS problem becomes HER problem.

It is, of course, a rather cynical view of male-female romance, but a view based on events all too common both then and now.

David

– – –

WHEN the lad for longing sighs,
Mute and dull of cheer and pale,
If at death’s own door he lies,
Maiden, you can heal his ail.

Lovers’ ills are all to buy:
The wan look, the hollow tone,
The hung head, the sunken eye,
You can have them for your own.

Buy them, buy them: eve and morn
Lovers’ ills are all to sell.
Then you can lie down forlorn;
But the lover will be well.

TILL LUDLOW TOWER IS DOWN: HOUSMAN’S RECRUIT

Yesterday I discussed the first poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s A Shropshire Lad collection. It was largely a remembrance of Shropshire men who died in the British military. The next poem in the collection, Loveliest of Trees, was discussed on this site quite some time ago, so today we shall proceed to The Recruit, which has much in common with the first poem. It is not at all difficult, but is a simple farewell to “one of the lads” who has joined the military:

Leave your home behind, lad,
And reach your friends your hand,
And go, and luck go with you
While Ludlow tower shall stand.

The first stanza is the parting. A young man is leaving his home, shaking the hands of his friends, and with him go the best wishes of the narrator, wishes for good luck “While Ludlow tower shall stand.”
We are of course in Shropshire, in the vicinity of “Ludlow tower,” which is in the town of Ludlow. Ludlow lies some distance southeast of Wenlock Edge (see the posting On Wenlock Edge), and a shorter distance southwest of Titterstone Clee (see the posting Fire on the Heights).

“Ludlow tower” is the bell tower of the very old Church of St. Laurence (founded in Norman times, rebuilt in 1199), which in Housman’s time was a high landmark seen from some distance. Here it is a symbol of endurance, applied to the loyalty of friends.

LUDLOW TOWER
LUDLOW TOWER

The next three stanzas are best discussed together:

Oh, come you home of Sunday
When Ludlow streets are still
And Ludlow bells are calling
To farm and lane and mill,

Or come you home of Monday
When Ludlow market hums
And Ludlow chimes are playing
‘The conquering hero comes,’

Come you home a hero,
Or come not home at all,
The lads you leave will mind you
Till Ludlow tower shall fall.

“Of Sunday” is an old way of saying “on Sunday.” People used to say things like “I like to read of a Sunday,” meaning “I like to read on Sundays.”

Sunday, in Housman’s time, was a quiet day of rest when the bells of churches rang to call people to worship. The streets of the town were thus largely still. On Monday the week’s labors resumed, and the outdoor market in Ludlow would be busy with sellers and buyers of farm produce and such things, and if the soldier would return on that day, the chimes in the tower would play “The Conquering Hero Comes.” “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” was a tune from a longer work by the composer George Frideric Handel titled Judas Maccabeus. It became a popular melody for important events in the 19th century. Here it signifies that the recruit would have returned “victorious” from the wars. The St. Laurence bells, aside from use by bellringers, were set by clock to play a different tune depending on the day of the week.

The third stanza recognizes the possibility that the recruit may not return at all, having been killed by battle or disease in some foreign land. But whether the recruit returns as a hero or whether he does not return at all, the Shropshire lads who are his friends will be faithful to his memory “Till Ludlow tower shall fall.” The poet does not say “forever,” because nothing is forever, but he uses Ludlow Tower, as we have seen as a symbol of long, long endurance and thus remembrance.

And you will list the bugle
That blows in lands of morn,
And make the foes of England
Be sorry you were born.

The narrator, as his friend leaves, looks ahead to what the recruit’s life will be. He will hear the bugle blown to call the soldiers “in lands of morn,” meaning in the far East, in places like India. He calls them “lands of morn” because the sun rises in the East. An old German term for the East was the Morgenland — the “Morning Land.” The recruit will be a fierce and brave fighter who will “make the foes of England,” England’s enemies, sorry that he was ever born, because of his prowess as a soldier.

But again, there is the possibility of death:

And you till trump of doomsday
On lands of morn may lie,
And make the hearts of comrades
Be heavy where you die.

The “trump of doomsday” is borrowed from the Bible. It is the trumpet blown by an angel to announce the ending of the world and the day of the Last Judgment (“Doomsday”), when all the dead are awakened and rise from their graves to be judged. The famous old 11th-century land and taxation census of England and Wales called the Domesday Book (“Domesday” is the older spelling) came to be so called because the taxpayers listed in it were thought as unlikely to evade paying their taxes as people were to evade their final sentences on the Day of Judgment, when the book recording the deeds of all humans was opened.

The narrator is saying that the recruit may be killed in the eastern lands, making his military companions sorrowful, and may lie in his foreign grave until the end of all things.

And now the narrator returns to a variation on lines in the first and third stanzas:

Leave your home behind you,
Your friends by field and town:
Oh, town and field will mind you
Till Ludlow tower is down.

This is the final parting word: As you leave your home behind, and leave your friends from town and country, those friends will “mind” you — that is, they will remember and not forget you — “Till Ludlow tower is down.” Their faithful remembrance will endure as long as Ludlow tower stands. This is, of course, hyperbole (exaggeration for effect), but it is sincere hyperbole to show lifelong, enduring loyalty.

(Courtesy of John Cartwright)

Here is an old pen and ink sketch from about 1909 by W. M. Meredith showing Broad Street in Ludlow as it was. In the background at right the top of “Ludlow tower” is visible.

BroadStreetLudlow

The ashes of A. E. Housman are buried on the grounds of St. Laurence Church in Ludlow.

(Courtesy of John Cartwright)

Here is a closer view of the memorial plaque:

(Courtesy of John Cartwright)

A reader has asked me to repeat each poem discussed at the end of the posting, so it may be read “all at one go” after the explanation. You will find it below.

David

COMMENTS:

ASH wrote:

The sketch by Meredith is wonderful as is the town of Ludlow today.

* * *

THE RECRUIT

Leave your home behind, lad,
And reach your friends your hand,
And go, and luck go with you
While Ludlow tower shall stand.

Oh, come you home of Sunday
When Ludlow streets are still
And Ludlow bells are calling
To farm and lane and mill,

Or come you home of Monday
When Ludlow market hums
And Ludlow chimes are playing
‘The conquering hero comes,’

Come you home a hero,
Or come not home at all,
The lads you leave will mind you
Till Ludlow tower shall fall.

And you will list the bugle
That blows in lands of morn,
And make the foes of England
Be sorry you were born.

And you till trump of doomsday
On lands of morn may lie,
And make the hearts of comrades
Be heavy where you die.

Leave your home behind you,
Your friends by field and town:
Oh, town and field will mind you
Till Ludlow tower is down.

FIRE ON THE HEIGHTS: HOUSMAN’S FROM CLEE TO HEAVEN

If you have seen the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, you may recall the rather thrilling scene when, in great need, a fire was lit atop a height to call far-off warriors to battle and to aid.  That fiery message was seen and transmitted in a sequence of fires lit from peak to peak across a great distance.

This was an ancient practice in Britain, and such a fire kindled on a height, called a beacon fire or simply a beacon, was also, at times over the years, lit in celebration.

That leads us to this first poem of the New Year and of Alfred Edward Housman’s landmark collection A Shropshire Lad.  It begins a series of poems with the simple title “1887.”

Why 1887?  Because that year, on the 20th and 21st of June, when Housman was nearly 28 years old, Britain celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria — 50 years of her reign.

Please keep in mind that the poems in A Shropshire Lad are very much poems of place, set in the landscape of the county of Shropshire, with its place names and landmarks. That does not mean Housman always used places with great literalness. He once said he had not spent much time in Shropshire. He uses Shropshire as a kind of topographical framework upon which he places his poetry. His home place was Bromsgrove, far to the east of Ludlow and across the border in Worcestershire, but Shropshire and its hills were for him his western horizon, and his Shropshire is both of the map and of the mind.

So here, part by part, we begin what I hope to be a discussion of the whole of A Shropshire Lad over time.  And we commence with From Clee to heaven the beacon burns:

From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.

There are two main Clee summits, both of which lie southeast of Wenlock Edge in Shropshire.  Brown Clee Hill is the higher, while Titterstone Clee lies farther south and closer to the town of Ludlow. Brown Clee itself has a higher and a lower prominence: that to the north is Abdon Burf, 1,790 feet, and that is where the beacon was lit to commemorate Queen Victoria; that to the south is Clee Burf, at 1,650 feet.

Housman tells us that the great beacon fire on Clee rises from hill to sky, clearly visible even from other shires.  Looking north and south, one sees other beacon fires on other heights, repeating the celebratory signal for Victoria’s Jubilee.

Look left, look right, the hills are bright, 
The dales are light between,
Because ’tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.

Looking to left and to right, one sees other hilltop beacon fires, and the villages in the dales — the lowlands between — are lit up as well, all in honor of 50 years of Victoria’s reign.  “That God has saved the Queen” repeats the old wish for good fortune for a British monarch, “God save the Queen!” (or King).  Thus fifty years have passed and the Queen’s reign over British territories remains secure.

So this seems, on the surface, to be a poem celebrating Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.  But is it?

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod, 
Lads, we ’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

This stanza may be a little confusing at first glance.  I will rearrange and rephrase it to make it clear.  The speaker in the poem is addressing his companions:

“Lads, we’ll remember the dead friends of ours who shared the work of saving the Queen with God; we’ll remember them now, when the beacon fires that they cannot see tower high above the soil of Shropshire, upon which they once walked.”  So he is speaking of dead soldiers, of Shropshire lads who fought to protect and maintain the British Empire.  To see how ironic the words “who share the work [of saving the Queen] with God” are, we must keep in mind that Housman is reported to have once said “I became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one.”  Whether one considers him an atheist or an agnostic, the irony in this poem is that it was not God who “saved the Queen,” it was the men who fought in her armies, as we shall see.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night 
Themselves they could not save.

The dead “Queen’s” soldiers, those who “saved” her and therefore are her “saviors” (American spelling), are not able to come home this Jubilee night to the Shropshire skies that “knit their heartstrings right,” (gave them the proper emotions and affections) and the Shropshire fields that “bred them brave” (gave birth and raised them to be brave).  The speaker wants to emphasize that the dead soldiers were the product of the land and air of Shropshire, and this shows a great pride in so being.  Though they “saved the Queen” (the Empire), they could not save themselves from death in that cause.

Anyone who studies English literature soon discovers the necessity of familiarity with the King James version of the Bible, which had a tremendous influence on the language.  In Housman’s time its phrases were easily recognized and often used.  So it is not difficult to see in

The saviours come not home to-night
Themselves they could not save

two biblical reflections: first the old practice of referring to Jesus — considered God as the second person of the Trinity — as “the Saviour,” and second, these words in reference to the crucifixion of Jesus from Mark 15:31:

“Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save.”

Of course in the poem it is the Shropshire soldiers who are the saviors who could not save themselves, not Jesus/God.

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.

Though it is Jubilee night in Shropshire, in Asia it is dawning.  There tombstones bear the names of dead soldiers from Shropshire.  And on the Nile River in Egypt, which makes its annual rise, soldiers from Shropshire are buried, soldiers born and raised where the Severn river flows.

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

Those celebrating Victoria’s jubilee in the farms and towns of Shropshire pledge their loyalty to her in a time of peace and set beacons afire in her honor, the same Queen those dead Shropshire lads served in her wars.  The beacons flame up and down Shropshire, the home for which the dead gave their lives.  The speaker is emphasizing the gulf, yet the link, the unity, between living and dead at this Jubilee time.

‘God save the Queen’ we living sing, 
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

The voices of all the living in Shropshire this Jubilee night sing the British anthem “God Save the Queen,” and their voices are heard from hill to hill.  And along with that great chorus are heard, in spirit, the voices of the dead “lads of the Fifty-Third.”  The 53rd was the Shropshire Regiment that in 1881 was united with the Buckinghamshire 85th Regiment to become part of the King’s Light Infantry, Shropshire Regiment. Under one name or the other, young Shropshire men fought in far-off places such as India, Egypt, the Sudan, and the 2nd Boer War.

Housman finishes with,

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you ’ve been, 
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.

The speaker (as we know) has no faith in God, so he says ironically, “Oh, God will save her,” don’t fear!  For as long as the men of Shropshire continue to be of the quality that they were and are, as long as they beget the same kind of sturdy and brave and loyal fellows to which their fathers gave birth, “God” will “save the Queen.”

So Housman is giving us another version, in poetry, of the old saying “God helps those who help themselves” — “Get you the sons your fathers got, and God will save the Queen.

Thus we find that instead of a poem in praise of Queen Victoria, this is actually a poem in memory of  Shropshire’s dead in far-flung wars — the preservers, representative of other “ordinary” British soldiers, of Britain and the Queen’s empire — and simultaneously a praise of the living people of Shropshire, who through their celebration and the lighting of the beacons felt and demonstrated their bond and unity in spirit with the dead.

It would be easy to read this poem, from our 21st-century perspective, as a criticism of the now-disgraced notion of Empire, but that was not Housman’s purpose.  Instead it was to honor the patriotrism and the loyalty of Britain’s soldiers, exemplified by the brave lads of Shropshire who had preserved and made secure the Britain Housman knew in his day.  His focus in this poem is not on the politics of the matter, but rather on basic traits he honored, traits which ideally were taught in the schools of his time — loyalty, bravery, and love of the land, traits as old as the Latin classics Housman taught.

It is worth noting that on June 4, 2012, the beacons of Shropshire were again set aflame in honor of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, 60 years of reign in times and circumstances vastly different than those of Victoria.

There used to be an oft-heard but modified quote in praise of the schooling of the English aristocracy, which stated that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.  Housman draws our attention instead to the role of the farming fields of Shropshire, giving us a far more balanced and realistic view.

Incidentally, I began this posting with mention of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. One can perhaps overlook his changes to Tolkien’s classic work with the excuse that he was summarizing a very long and detailed book, and that he did create some very effective scenes such as that of the lighting of the beacons, and that the film no doubt encouraged many to read Tolkien’s original. But I must add that there is no excuse adequate to overlook the abomination he performed on Tolkien’s book The Hobbit by needlessly expanding a much shorter text into three separate, highly-padded movies, in the process degrading Tolkien’s sprinkling of light humor amid the seriousness of the original book into mere offensively ridiculous absurdity.

So my advice for movie watchers is to see The Lord of the Rings if you will (but be sure to go back and read Tolkien’s original work after); however, you are cautioned to avoid the movie version of The Hobbit entirely. It does not have enough redeeming qualities to warrant viewing, at least not for those who care about Tolkien’s legacy. Read the book instead.

David

COMMENTS:

ASH wrote:

An excellent piece David. It is good to remind readers that research of past works is often eye-opening.

MAKING UNEVENNESS EVEN: LONDON SNOW

It is very possible that if Robert Bridges had not developed an appreciation for the poems of his friend Gerard Manley Hopkins (they met while at Oxford), we might not have the body of Hopkins poems we have today.

Paradoxically, Hopkins is now much more widely known than Bridges. Bridges (October 23, 1844 – April 21 1930) had money and became a physician, so he was not at all the “starving poet” of the romantic imagination. Better known in his day than ours, he is still quite worth reading for such poems as the one discussed here, one of the best “snow” poems in the English language, though it is set in an urban rather than a rural scene.

At least in this poem, Bridges seems to fall halfway between traditional English verse and more modern verse, and this is perhaps due in part to the influence of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But Bridges uses a vocabulary much more ordinary than the often archaic and stretched meanings we find so frequently in Hopkins. Bridges is less adventurous with words, but also considerably easier to understand.

In fact, this poem is for the most part very straightforward and descriptive. It consequently requires little in explanation, but nonetheless I shall add a bit to it.

(Written 1890)

LONDON SNOW

When men were all asleep the snow came flying,
In large white flakes falling on the city brown,
Stealthily and perpetually settling and loosely lying,
Hushing the latest traffic of the drowsy town;
Deadening, muffling, stifling its murmurs failing;
Lazily and incessantly floating down and down:
Silently sifting and veiling road, roof and railing;
Hiding difference, making unevenness even,
Into angles and crevices softly drifting and sailing.

It is worth noting that this poem is written in several long, extended sentences. The first segment describes how snow fell in London during the night, while all were asleep. It fell slowly, softly and continuously (“lazily and incessantly”) muffling all sounds. The snow hushed (made quiet) the “latest traffic,” that is, the last movement of vehicles during the night; and in 1890 those would have been horse-drawn vehicles, wagons, and carts. This was in the days before the automobile. It sifts down (as one would think of flour or sugar falling through a sifter in those days), covering (“veiling”) roads, roofs, and railings.  One of the best phrases is the simple description of how the snow falls high and low, “Hiding difference, making unevenness even,” which is precisely what snow does.  It fills in gaps and evens horizontal outlines.

All night it fell, and when full inches seven
It lay in the depth of its uncompacted lightness,
The clouds blew off from a high and frosty heaven;
And all woke earlier for the unaccustomed brightness
Of the winter dawning, the strange unheavenly glare:
The eye marvelled — marvelled at the dazzling whiteness;
The ear hearkened to the stillness of the solemn air;
No sound of wheel rumbling nor of foot falling,
And the busy morning cries came thin and spare.

The snow fell all through the night, and when it had reached a depth of seven inches, the sky cleared, and at dawn the bright light reflected by the snow made everyone wake earlier than usual. People marvelled at how white everything was, and noticed how still the snow had made the city. One could not hear the customary rumbling of wheels on the streets nor the feet of passers-by, and even the sounds of human voices were fewer and seemed quieter than usual.

Then boys I heard, as they went to school, calling,
They gathered up the crystal manna to freeze
Their tongues with tasting, their hands with snowballing;
Or rioted in a drift, plunging up to the knees;
Or peering up from under the white-mossed wonder,
‘O look at the trees!’ they cried, ‘O look at the trees!’

The poet suddenly heard schoolboys on their way to school, crying out to one another, picking up the “crystal manna” — that is, the snow — in their hands, chilling their tongues as they tasted it, chilling their hands as they made snowballs to throw at one another, or jumping into deep drifts of snow up to their knees; or they looked up from beneath the trees into the “white-mossed” — that is, the snow-covered branches, in wonder, crying, “O look at the trees!” Some suggest that in the repeated “O look at the trees” line, Bridges was influenced by these lines in The Starlight Night poem by Hopkins:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air! The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!

The metaphor “manna” for snow is a biblical reference. In the story of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt with Moses, manna was a miraculous white food substance that appeared every morning, and had to be gathered and eaten before the sun melted it.


With lessened load a few carts creak and blunder,
Following along the white deserted way,
A country company long dispersed asunder:
When now already the sun, in pale display
Standing by Paul’s high dome, spread forth below
His sparkling beams, and awoke the stir of the day.

More people appear. Early on a few carts from the countryside creak by with difficulty, carrying lesser loads than usual to market because going through snow is more difficult. They pass along the “white deserted way,” that is, along the largely empty snow-covered street, and disperse and disappear long before the sun rises high enough to stand by the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, spreading its light and awaking more human activity.

For now doors open, and war is waged with the snow;
And trains of sombre men, past tale of number,
Tread long brown paths, as toward their toil they go:
But even for them awhile no cares encumber
Their minds diverted; the daily word is unspoken,
The daily thoughts of labour and sorrow slumber
At the sight of the beauty that greets them, for the charm they have broken.

With the sun now higher in the clear sky, doors of houses and shops open, and people begin trying to clear away (“war is waged”) the snow as lines of innumerable men head off to work, making long brown paths in the whiteness. Yet even they, on seeing the world made new and different by the snow, find their thoughts taken away for a while from their ordinary worries about life and work, and they are unusually quiet. Why? Not only because of the unaccustomed beauty of the snowy morning, but also because they sense that by walking through it to work and disturbing — “spoiling” — the snow, they are breaking a beautiful spell.

David

CRIES OF WILD GEESE: A HOKKU FOR THE BEGINNING OF WINTER

A foggy morning;
From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

This is the time of year when I am often pleasantly surprised, when out walking in the morning, by the cries of migrating flocks of geese and ducks passing high overhead. It is also a time of frequent fog.

I often wonder how many out there are learning or practicing hokku. I know that still, comparatively speaking, few people even know what it is.

As I often repeat, hokku are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the context of the seasons.

Unlike modern haiku, the hokku accepts certain boundaries. It does not include violence or sex or romance or other such things that disturb the mind, because hokku is a “contemplative” kind of verse. It also avoids emphasis on the writer, and tends to use the words “I” “me” and “my” seldom. When talking about one’s self, it is treated in the same objective way one would talk about a tree, a stone, or a fox.

Hokku at times has a subtle humor, but never the “milk spurting out the nose” kind of intentionally funny poetry such as limericks.

Underlying all of the practice of hokku, all its verses, is a sense of transience, of the passage of time and the impermanence of all things. Impermanence is the character of everything in the universe, from the life of a mayfly to that of stars. Being set in the seasons, hokku has an inherent sense of time and its movements, and that is why we pay attention to the Hokku Calendar, which approximates very closely the old agricultural calendar of the British Isles and elsewhere.

Hokku also keeps us aware, in this impermanence, of the interplay of the two cosmic forces, Yin and Yang, and how they manifest in the changing seasons.

Now we have entered the last phase in the declining of Yang energies from their height in summer. We are moving into the increasing Yin of winter.

All hokku have a longer part and a shorter part, separated by an appropriate punctuation mark. The longer part may come first or second, whatever works best.

A hokku in English begins each line with a capital letter, and ends with another appropriate punctuation mark.

In today’s hokku the short part comes at the beginning:

A foggy morning;

Then follows the longer part:

From somewhere above,
Cries of wild geese.

Notice that even though the two parts of the hokku are separated by an appropriate punctuation mark, there may be more than one punctuation mark in the body of the verse. Only one of them, however, functions as the separating mark or “cut” between the longer and shorter parts of the verse.

Hokku is not difficult to write. It does, however, require one to follow certain aesthetic guidelines, such as those already mentioned. Once one gets the spirit of these, then hokku becomes quite easy.

It is a very important verse form for these times in which there are so many threats to Nature and to world climate, and in which people are increasingly alienated from Nature and from the cycle of the seasons. It takes us away from materialism and back to the basic and important things in life.

David

FOREVER AUTUMN: THOMAS HARDY’S DURING WIND AND RAIN

Today we shall take a look at Thomas Hardy’s poem During Wind and Rain.

It might be puzzling at first glance, but one quickly notices that the first five lines of each stanza depict a pleasant scene of middle-class family life in rural England roughly at the beginning of the Edwardian period, while the last two lines of each stanza consist of a ballad-like lament (repeated in two different forms) followed by an image of transience. These latter images, when combined, show us the coming and arrival of a storm, quite in contrast to the bright and happy scenes, but nonetheless, we shall see, related.

This odd combination of pleasant family vignettes combined with images of storm have, as their point, very much the same as that of the poem Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas. In the latter we are shown the happy childhood of a boy quite unaware that even as he is enjoying his simple pleasures, time is already gradually killing him. In Hardy’s poem the family similarly are engaged in their domestic pleasures, quite unaware that a storm is arriving. The storm is time and death.

So that is Hardy’s point, very close to that of Dylan Thomas, who wrote:

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.

You will find it helpful, I think, to read my posting on Fern Hill in the archives of this site.

This notion of humans heedlessly going about their little pleasures, unaware that time is engaged in killing them, is found also in the very old Buddhist parable of the children playing in a house. They are so absorbed in their play that they fail to notice that the house is aflame. In Fern Hill these children are the boy Dylan Thomas; in During Wind and Rain they are the happy middle-class family.

Here is the poem:

They sing their dearest songs–
He, she, all of them–yea,
Treble and tenor and bass.
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face….
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!

They clear the creeping moss–
Elders and juniors–aye,
Making the pathways neat
And the garden gay;
And they build a shady seat….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
See, the white storm-birds wing across!

They are blithely breakfasting all–
Men and maidens–yea,
Under the summer tree,
With a glimpse of the bay,
While pet fowl come to the knee….
Ah, no; the years O!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them–aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

The first stanza shows us a group, likely a family, father, mother, children and perhaps some friends, gathered together and happily singing familiar songs, something that was very common in the days before radio and television and the Internet. They sing in harmonious parts, high voices, medium voices, and low voices, and the candlelight shines on their faces, making them glow like moons in the shadowy pre-electrified room. One person plays accompaniment on a musical instrument, perhaps an upright cottage piano with its two candleholders placed above the music rack, to left and right, and the candles lit.

This cheerful scene is followed by the first lament:

Ah, no; the years O!

— like the repeated refrain of a song.

Next comes the second stanza, another pleasant scene. We see them, some older, some younger, tidying up a garden, removing moss, cleaning the paths, building a pleasant seat for conversation or contemplation in the shade of a vine or beneath the boughs of a tree. But that is followed by the second lament:

Ah, no; the years, the years;

Then comes a third pleasant scene. Here both males and females are lightheartedly having their breakfast outdoors beneath a tree. The waters of the bay glitter in the distance, and wandering pet chickens approach the legs of the sitters curiously, hoping for some stray bit of food to eat. And after it the first lament is repeated:

Ah, no; the years O!

Finally we see the last pleasant scene. The family has come up in the world; it is the day of their moving into a larger and more commodious house, a big event for a rising middle-class family. All the furniture and bright belongings are placed outside the door on the lawn, the sunlight shining on it and warming it all, clocks and carpets and chairs, as the interior of the house is gradually tidied and arranged and things are brought in piece by piece to be placed in their new locations. And then comes a repetition of the second lament:

Ah, no; the years, the years;

In each case, in each stanza, the ballad-like lament is followed by a scene contrasting with the happy family scenes. If we put all four together, we can see that they gradually build up a storm, a sense of impending unpleasantness, to a final climax:

How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
See, the white storm-birds wing across!
And the rotten rose is ripped from the wall.
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

First we see a multitude of leaves falling from the trees, and next “storm-birds” — birds flying across the sky ahead of the coming storm; a wind rips an aged but decayed rose stalk from the wall against which it had been growing for years; and finally we see tombstones in the beating rain, the drops streaming down and through the grooves of the carved names of the same family we have seen in the preceding happy times.

Notice that Hardy connects this rising storm with autumn. That is because autumn, as in hokku, is the time of withering, decay, and ultimate death. It is also because in England storms tend to come from the West, off the Atlantic. That also gives us the connection with the wind in the poem, which likely was the wind from the West. We see that autumn/wind connection expressed in Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, which begins,

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing…

And that, of course, gives us the beginning autumn image Hardy uses in the last line of the first stanza — leaves blown from the trees.

What is the meaning of all this? It is that human joys and human lives are fleeting, that even while we are in the midst of our pleasures there are unheeded signs that it will not last. Hardy’s method was to show us those hints of coming distress after each happy scene, preceded always by a lament of the swift passage of the years, of inexorable time:

Ah, no; the years O!
Ah, no; the years, the years;

It is the years, it is time that is the destroyer of temporary human joys, the taker of brief human lives. It is the same view, untinted by romanticism, that we find in Hardy’s remarkable novels, a view exemplified by his statement “… my sober opinion — so far as I have any definite one — of the Cause of Things, has been defined in scores of places, and is that of a great many ordinary thinkers: that the said Cause is neither moral nor immoral but unmoral: ‘loveless and hateless’ I have called it, ‘which neither good nor evil knows’” Hardy considered himself “a harmless agnostic.”

This poem achieves its end, its point, by mixing happy scenes of the dead past with the result of it all, rain streaming down tombstones. The pleasant scenes are all counterbalanced by scenes of autumn and storm. Hardy is saying that in spite of its superficial spring-summer appearance, life is really forever autumn. As Omar Khayyam says in Fitzgerald’s version,

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

The meaning of Hardy’s poem is, in one word, impermanence — the same theme that underlies all good hokku.

The old Japanese writer of hokku, Rōka, wrote a verse which, though it long precedes Hardy’s, nonetheless expresses the same sentiment more subtly by concentrating only on the present moment:

Sadness;
Cold rain dyes the letters
On the grave-stone.

Here is the original and a very literal translation:

Kanashisa ya
Shigure ni somaru
Haka no moji.

Sadness ya
Rain in is-dyed
Gravestone ‘s writing

You will recall, if you are a regular reader here, that ya is an untranslatable particle indicating a meditative pause, indicated in English here by a semicolon.

The word shigure means the cold rain of late autumn to early winter. Traditionally this is considered a winter hokku, but remember that according to the Hokku Calendar, winter begins about the time of Halloween.

Regarding this stanza of Hardy’s poem —

They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them–aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs….
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the raindrop plows.

— you may have read the interpretation that “a high new house” means the family has died and has moved to heaven, and the furniture placed out upon the lawn signifies the sale of their belongings. I do not think that is a legitimate or reasonable understanding. Hardy the self-declared agnostic was not a believer in a heaven. His view as we have seen, was that the tiny, brief lives of humans take place on the vast stage of a universe neither moral nor immoral, but “un-moral.”

Some see the “pleasant parts” of the four stanzas as representing the four seasons, beginning with winter, progressing to a spring garden cleaning, then to a summer breakfast, and finally autumn, but I do not think there is enough evidence for that. Instead it would appear that aside from the last line of each stanza, all can be placed in a spring through summer setting, thus contrasting with the “forever autumn” theme of the poem as a whole.

That theme also explains the title of the poem, During Wind and Rain. The family going about their domestic pleasures are quite unaware that their actions are all happening as an “autumn” storm (time) is rising that will sweep all away.

David

THE LONG NIGHT: DARKNESS AND SOUND IN GOCHIKU

As autumn deepens, the days grow ever shorter, the nights longer.

Our bodies, if not constrained by trying to follow “clock time,” gradually adjust to this, but nonetheless sometimes we find ourselves waking in the night, unable to go back to sleep.

In that time of dark stillness, any sensory event makes a much stronger impression than usual, like a pebble falling into a well.

Gochiku wrote a hokku expressing this silence of the mind into which a sensory experience falls, and one can hardly do better than the translation of R. H. Blyth:

The long night;
The sound of water
Says what I think.

Gochiku does not mean that the sound of water dripping, flowing, or falling (he does not specify which) in the night is in keeping with thoughts, with images running through his mind. He means instead that the sound of water expresses the silence of his mind, an empty darkness in which that sound becomes magnified by the absence of both active thinking and other sensory input — again, like a pebble falling into a deep dark well, creating only a resonant splash and waves moving outward in a circle and being reflected inward again.

drip

Everyone experiences a hokku differently, depending on our individual stores of memories and impressions. While this hokku retains its essential meaning no matter whether one hears a slow dripping of water, like that of rain dripping from a roof, or the gurgling of a nearby stream, or that of a very small waterfall, I like to hear the slow dripping of water. It is a sound that comes into consciousness, disappears, then appears again, a kind of ticking of the world clock in which we feel what is always happening, things arising and passing away, the constant movement from this moment to the next, a repeating birth and death.

We should not, however, think of this sound of water in the night as a symbol or metaphor of anything. It expresses itself, but in it we feel the nature of all existence.

In form, this is a standard hokku, meaning it has a setting, a subject, and an action:

The long night; (setting)
The sound of water (subject)
Says what I think. (action)

One can write countless hokku using this setting/subject/action model. Just remember that the setting is the place, condition or circumstance in which something happens. The subject is the main “actor” in the verse (a noun), and the action is precisely that, something moving or changing, generally characterized by a verb.

One can simplify this in terms of a play:

The setting is the stage, which can show us day, night, rain, a time of year, etc. etc.;
The subject is the actor on that stage, what the “play” is about;
The action is what the actor does, what happens on stage.

That is, of course, a simplified way of approaching the subject, but it may be helpful to those who wish to learn to write real hokku.

For those who like to see originals, here it is transliterated and with a literal translation, in “western” three line form:

Nagaki yo ya
Omou koto iu
Mizu no oto

Long night ya
Thought thing says
Water ‘s sound

David

INVICTUS: THE VICTORY OF WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) wrote a poem about a very difficult time in his life, a work that has been both praised and (unjustly) derided over the years. Its subject is the human spirit and its response to difficult circumstances.

londoneng

We all have seen how differently people react to the same trying event, such as the death of a dear family member or a terrible accident: some just regard it quietly, with grim, dry-eyed stoicism, while others fall apart completely and can barely function. How one responds gives a very good picture of one’s psychological makeup.

In such times of trial — we commonly speak of them as “dark” times — we are forced to see the negative side of life, the side we try to ignore or forget about for our own mental health. But Henley could not forget about it or overlook it. As a boy he suffered so severely from tubercular arthritis that doctors eventually removed one of his legs. Medicine in those days was still primitive and germ-ridden, and the result of surgery was often infection and death. When, in 1873, doctors wanted to remove his other leg, Henley managed to get another opinion, which fortunately was that of Joseph Lister, the man who pioneered the new technique of antiseptic surgery. By that decision Henley saved his remaining leg.

Because of all his difficulties, Henley was “in hospital” as the British say, for a very long time, almost two years, and one can imagine how this must have affected the young man. He began to write poetry about those troubling months, a series of verses called In Hospital.

Henley had certainly known dark times. He could truly say, as Robert Frost wrote in a poem, “I have been one acquainted with the night.” He must have felt like those unfortunates spoken of in William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

What follows is the most famous of his “hospital” poems. It was written in 1875, and was later given a title that summarizes it well — Invictus, Latin for “Unconquered”:


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

We have seen that “night” is a metaphor for dark and difficult times. So dark were those times for Henley that he described them as night so black that it “extended from pole to pole,” that is, it darkened his whole world.

He speaks of that darkness as “black as the pit.” What is “the pit”? At that time the Bible was well known in Britain, and so immediately a reader would have recognized “the pit” as a synonym for death, the grave, as in Job 17:16:

They shall go down to the bars of the pit, when our rest together is in the dust.

But again for those in Britain, it was a common term among coal miners, for whom “to go down the pit” meant to descend into a coal mine, and there was nothing blacker than the depths of a coal mine when a lamp went out, no darkness, at least no physical darkness, greater. So this usage by Henley was, in its time, very strong and expressive.

But in that darkness, he did not just give in to utter despair. He did not let his emotions rule him; instead, he took charge of his thoughts, guiding himself through those black times like a captain in control of his ship. For this ability he is so grateful that he thanks whatever in the universe gave him the ability to manifest this inner strength; he thanks whatever gods there might be, whatever the reasons were, for his unconquerable spirit.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Henley used the old word “fell,” as did J.R.R. Tolkien, to mean “deadly, terrible.” In the terrible and deadly grasp of the circumstances that beset him, Henley did not wince, did not shrink back, nor did he cry out in anguish. He kept his composure. And under the beatings that fortune had dealt him, he took those blows but did not give in or submit. Metaphorically speaking, his head was wounded, but he kept it erect and did not bow to the forces besetting him, he did not give in to despair. These words “My head is bloody, but unbowed” have become famous and are often quoted. One thinks of the old Christian hymn by Bach, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” “O Head full of blood and wounds,” referring to the passion of Jesus, and Henley may have had that image of the Passion in mind.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

Henley’s attitude is much like that of the pre-Christian Romans. They did not know what came after death, but often pictured the afterworld as a dark place. He sees this world as a “place of wrath and tears,” a place of suffering and sorrow, and beyond that comes death, “the Horror of the shade.” “Shade” here means darkness, shadows, but it also has undertones of the old use of the word, meaning a departed spirit. So he cannot see what lies before him; all is shadowed. Yet he has survived so far, and “the menace of the years,” the threat both of life and of what lies beyond, “finds and shall find me unafraid.” Henley has survived the trials of life, and he will go through the trials of death, whatever they may be, with the same strength of spirit. His attitude here is both courageous and agnostic (literally “not-knowing”) — he is confident that he will deal with whatever comes.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

Henley begins his final stanza with a biblical allusion, Matthew 7:13 in the King James Version:

Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

“Strait” is an old word meaning narrow and constricted. The biblical reference means that the way to eternal life is so narrow and difficult that very few will find it and be able to make it though.

He continues with the old notion that all of a human’s deeds in life, both good and bad, are written down in a book or on a scroll. We find this notion in the Bible, in Revelation 20:12

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”

So Henley is using old allusions to signify that it does not matter how difficult the passage into the afterlife may be, nor does it matter what awaits him there, even if it be punishment. Through it all he will maintain his inner strength, and nothing will cow (intimidate) him.

Some people may see this, incorrectly, as a very egotistical poem, because we know that many difficult circumstances in life, and certainly ultimate death, are quite beyond our control. But Henley is not saying he controls the great events of life and death; he is saying simply that whatever life or death may bring, he has already been through the fire, he has already been tested by suffering, and that has given him unconquerable strength. For him the old saying of Friedrich Nietzsche has proved true:

Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker
“What does not kill me, makes me stronger.”

Because of his previous suffering, he now has the courage to face whatever may come. As Buddhism teaches, that which we no longer fear has no real power over us.

David

INCREASING YIN: THE LIGHT GOES OUT

lightdark

I often mention that Shiki, who is generally considered (inaccurately) the founder of the modern haiku movement, just continued to write hokku, for the most part, though he called them “haiku.”

Not only were his verses hokku in form, they also continued the seasonal connection (which most writers of modern haiku have abandoned entirely) and, whether Shiki himself realized it or not, they often continued the aesthetic approach of hokku, so were hokku for all practical purposes, whatever he wished to call them.

Here is a good example, which in form and content is really nothing other than an autumn hokku:

The light in the next room
Goes out too;
The cold of night.

If you read my previous postings on the Hokku Wheel of the Year and the importance of Yin and Yang in hokku, you will easily grasp the significance of this verse.

It is set in autumn, the time when Yang energy (light, warmth, movement) is fading and Yin energy (dark, cold, stillness) is increasing. It is late night. the writer extinguishes his own lamp, and then, after some time in silence, he sees the faint glow from the light in the next room go out too.

This verse expresses very well the fading of Yang energy, as first one light goes out — adding to the darkness — and then the light in the other room also goes out, making the darkness complete. And in that darkness one suddenly perceives deeply the chill of the autumn night, not yet as piercing as that of winter, but affecting in its expression that light and warmth are fading from the world. This increasing of darkness and cold parallels the waning of Yang and the increasing dominance of Yin in the season of autumn. So we could say quite honestly that this little verse manifests the character of deepening autumn very well.

It is all such deeper connections that have been forgotten and lost in the modern haiku movement, which on the whole has a completely different spirit and aesthetic than the practice of hokku. It already began to be lost in the time of Shiki, but we still find it in this verse.

As I have mentioned before, I have one reader who chides me if I do not add the originals for Japanese hokku I translate here, so for him and any others who may wish it, here is Shiki’s verse in a literal translation (in Western lineation) and in transliteration.

Next’s room’s
Light also extinguished
Night-cold kana

Tsugi no ma no/ tomoshi mo kiete/ yosamu kana
Next ‘s room ‘s/ lamp also extinguished/ night-cold kana

We are getting closer to the next major calendar point in the hokku year, which is Halloween/Samhain; it marks the end of autumn by the old calendar, and the beginning of winter, the season when Yang forces are weakest and Yin forces dominant. Shiki’s verse of increasing darkess and cold makes a good lead-in to that.

David

AUTUMN: RETURNING TO THE ROOT

The autumn equinox has passed. That means the days are growing shorter, the nights longer.

In my recent discussion of the hokku Wheel of the Year, I emphasized how very important the seasons are to hokku. It is a new concept for many people — writing in keeping with the seasons — but it is nonetheless a very old practice.

Hokku, you will recall, are about Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, set in the changing seasons. In autumn, autumn hokku are written. To do that, one has to understand the character of autumn — what it is like, and how it manifests in Nature.

As are all seasons, autumn is a stage in the interplay of the two forces, Yin and Yang. In autumn Yang is decreasing and Yin increasing, and that is particularly obvious after the autumn equinox has passed. Withering and dying are Yin, and in autumn we see plants and leaves begin to wither and die. Cold is Yin, and in autumn we feel the air growing ever cooler as the sun declines lower and lower in its arc across the sky. Darkness is Yin, and in autumn darkness (night) grows while light (the day) wanes. Things that retreat or fall are Yin, and in autumn the sap retreats from twigs and branches in trees and leaves begin to fall; in annual plants the energy has gone into the seeds, and in many perennial plants the life energy leaves the withering, visible part of the plant and retreats to the root.

So in autumn, the general feeling is of withdrawal, of “returning to the root.” It is a preparation for the quiet and chilly days of winter, the beginning of a natural turning inward.

It may interest you, in this regard, to know the basics of the traditional Five Elements associated with seasonal change. Summer was a “fire” season, as you might guess from its very Yang character. As Yang began to weaken in late summer, the element changed to earth. Now that autumn is here, the predominant element is metal. And when winter comes, the element will be water, to be followed in spring by the wood element. These are significant because all relate to processes in the human body and its cycles of energy. For example, now is a good time to begin adding lots of “black” foods to your diet. Why? Because foods black in color relate to and strengthen the “water” element in your body, and after the “metal” season of autumn comes the “water” season of winter, so eating black foods now helps you to prepare your system for winter; that is good for your kidneys and your basic energy, which are also “water” element-related. There is much more to say about this and the relationship between the seasons and health, but this aspect is not so important to writing hokku, except in so far as it helps to keep you even more attuned to the seasons and their changes. So I will not talk more about it now, but encourage those interested to learn at least the simple basics of the traditional Five Elements Theory. You will find many web sites that give charts showing the interrelationships of the seasons, the five elements, appropriate helpful seasonal foods, and the cycle of the body.

Of course hokku written in autumn should be in keeping with and expressing the character of the season. Buson wrote this autumn hokku:


Going out the gate,
I too become a traveller;
The autumn evening.

Autumn is often thought of as a time of travel, of migration. That is because it is the time when migratory birds take the long journey to where they will spend the winter, and animals move from their summer haunts to places where they will winter. So that feeling of “changing homes,” of being a rootless traveller, is very in keeping with the atmosphere of autumn. So Buson says that just by walking out his gate in autumn, he too becomes a part of this feeling of “migration,” and now you understand better why this is a hokku appropriate to the season.

It is appropriate too that the hokku is set in the evening, when the light is waning and darkness coming on, because of course increasing darkness is increasing Yin, and autumn itself is a time of increasing Yin. So this verse uses two things associated with autumn — travel and the waning of the day. You will recall that in hokku correspondences, Autumn relates to the time from late afternoon to early evening, and in human life to the time past middle age through the onset of old age. So we can see that Buson’s verse uses “harmony of similarity,” the putting together in a hokku of things that reflect one another by having a similar character. In this verse both travel and the coming of evening relate to autumn.

To get a better grasp of this relationship between hokku and the seasons, you might wish to again visit the recent posting on the Hokku Wheel of the Year, which you will find here:

https://hokku.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/a-review-of-hokku-basics-the-wheel-of-the-year-and-its-significance/

David

REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: THE FORM

There are two aspects to hokku:

1. The form
2. The content

Of these two aspects, the content takes some time to absorb, particularly the aesthetic spirit characterizing hokku. The form, on the other hand, takes only a few minutes.

It can easily be described and learned.

An English language hokku is:

1. Written in three lines.

The first letter of each line is capitalized.

2. Fully punctuated.

A hokku has one or more internal punctuation marks, and an ending punctuation mark.

3. Divided into two parts, one longer, one shorter.

The long part consists of two lines, the short part of only one line.
The short part may begin or end the verse.
An appropriate punctuation mark separates the two parts of a hokku.

Punctuation in hokku is simple.

A period (.) or other appropriate punctuation ends a hokku.
A semicolon (;) is used for a meditative pause.
A dash (–), typed as two hyphens, indicates a longer meditative pause. Ellipses (…) may serve a similar function.
A comma (,) indicates a short, connective pause.
An exclamation point (!) indicates something unusual, unexpected, surprising, or strongly emphasized. It is used rarely.
A question mark (?) indicates an asked but unanswered question.

The simplicity and practicality of the hokku form in English enables the writer to concentrate on form.

Let’s take a look at a verse — in this case a slight variation on a hokku by Issa:

Autumn

Evening clearing;
Against the pale blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

At the top of the verse comes its overall seasonal setting, in this case autumn.

The first line gives us the particular setting — “Evening clearing” — the clearing of the sky at evening. The sky having cleared, we see the subject of the verse in the second and third lines:

Against the pale blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

The primary punctuation mark that separates the two parts of the verse is the semicolon at the end of the first line:

Evening clearing;

There is a secondary punctuation mark at the end of the second line, which in this case not only connects the second and third lines but also gives us a rather long meditative pause:

Against the pale-blue sky —
Rows of autumn hills.

We could also use a comma if a shorter pause is desired:

Against the pale-blue sky,
Rows of autumn hills.

Many verses have no secondary punctuation before the ending mark, but they always have the primary punctuation mark separating the long and short parts of the hokku.

Just which punctuation mark to use in a given case depends upon how the writer wishes the verse to be read. Punctuation is used to guide the reader through the verse easily and without confusion, but it also provides fine shades of pause and emphasis that vary depending on which mark is employed.

Now you know the outer form of hokku, and you should be able to easily use it. The trick, however, is to learn how to put good and effective content into that form, and learning that comprises all the rest of hokku.

David

THE BEAUTY BEEN: HOPKINS AND BINSEY POPLARS

In March of 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins was working as a parish priest’s assistant in Oxford, England. It was familiar territory for him, having studied Greek and Latin at Oxford from 1862-1867. In wandering north of the city he came to the little village of Binsey, with which he had long been familiar. There he found to his horror that the long line of tall trees he was accustomed to seeing along the River Thames was gone; all had been cut down. He was so moved by this that he wrote the following poem:


BINSEY POPLARS

felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

Hopkins, in speaking of the vanished trees, says Their “airy cages,” meaning their intertwined leaf-covered branches, sometimes made the bright sunlight more subdued (“quelled”), sometimes blocked the light entirely. By “leaping sun” he may mean the illusion caused by the moving of branches and fluttering of leaves, which makes the light seen through them seem to leap from place to place; or he may mean simply the sun rising in the East and passing over the line of trees (they were oriented in a northwesterly direction) to sink again in the West.

Not one of the “fresh and following folded rank” of trees was spared, he tells us.  By “following folded rank” he means simply the line of trees with their individual heights and gaps between them making a vertical “fold”; Not one was spared, not one that “dandled [“dangled”] a sandalled shadow.” He seems to liken the trees to a person dangling a sandalled foot lightly against the water, he may mean simply the “footprint” of the shadow on shore and water, or he even may, as some say (though it seems rather unlikely), be referring to the interlacing shadows of branches, likened to the lacings on a sandal. He says the shadow “swam or sank on meadow and river…and bank,” meaning the shadow appeared both on the surface and beneath the surface of the water, as well as rising or falling with the little swells and depressions in the land.

When he calls the bank “wind-wandering” and “weed-winding,” we may wonder if he intends “wind-” in the first case to have a short “i,” meaning “breeze,” or if he intends it with a long “i” (meaning “meandering”) as used in “weed-winding.” I think he means “wind” as in “breeze,” — signifiying not only that the wind wanders along the bank but also that the bank wanders like the wind. And when he says “weed-winding bank,” he seems to again use a double meaning, signifying the weeds winding (tangling) on the bank, as well as the bank wandering like a weed (the Thames curves at Binsey). We should not be surprised at the vagueness of Hopkins, who seems to often leave us with multiple and intertwining possibilities of meaning.

Then Hopkins laments,

O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew—
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:

“Oh,” he says, if we only knew what we do when we delve (“dig) or hew (“cut”) Nature, when we “hack and rack the growing green.” Hopkins uses the word “rack” here in an unusual sense that is based more on its meaning as a noun (“destruction, ruin”) than on its usual meaning as a verb.

The rural countryside is so tender that to touch “her,” given that she/it is so “slender” (meaning “delicate, sensitive” here) is as risky as pricking the smooth ball of the human eye, which can destroy it. So even if we mean to mend (“repair”) Nature, we often instead merely do harm when we dig or excavate. There are abundant examples of the results of interfering with Nature, some of them well intended, some not — in the history of human interaction with the natural environment, and we see them still in the daily news.

And then, having altered Nature with hacking and digging,


After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc únselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.

Those who come after cannot guess how beautiful the countryside had been before humans got at it. Only ten or twelve strokes of havoc (“destruction, disorder”), ten or twelve strokes of an axe, can “unselve” (un-self, “take away the character of, ruin”) the sweet especial (“special, pre-eminent”) rural country scene. And Hopkins emphasizes his recollection of the beauty that had been at Binsey but was no more by repeating,

“Sweet especial rural scene.”

“Binsey Poplars” is one of those Hopkins poems that is rather simple in subject but complicated by his unusual use of language. Nonetheless, in spite of his occasional vagueness and implied multiple meanings, the overall sense of the poem is quite clear, and we can easily relate to his feelings on the matter.

Nonetheless, we should be aware that though Hopkins knew poplars well poetically, he did not know them well botanically. European poplars (Populus tremula) decline and decay within a period of about 100-150 years, requiring replacement by replanting if one wants to maintain an avenue of them. In fact not long after Hopkins passed through the apparent devastation of the felled Binsey poplars, they were replanted. By 2004 the poplars at Binsey had again begun to decline, and so replanting was begun again. So in this case, the “sweet especial rural scene” was more resilient than Hopkins knew.

That does not, however, obviate the point of his poem, which is that humans should be more sensitive to Nature, to natural beauty, and to what is done to it. We can see what happens when humans abuse Nature in countless cases of destruction and disaster that are immeasurably more difficult to mend than the cutting of the poplars at Binsey.

THE HARDY-HANDSOME FARRIER: HOPKINS AND FELIX SPENCER

In the spring of 1880 Gerard Manley Hopkins was working as a Catholic priest in a slum district of Liverpool, a district which, at that time, was a very unpleasant place with an appallingly high disease and death rate.

This was in the days before the car, a time when dray horses — “work” horses — hauled goods in wooden wagons with iron-rimmed wheels. Work horses are strikingly unlike ordinary horses; they are high and massive, standing some six feet high at the shoulder — and very strong.

Today’s poem is an odd combination; on the one hand it is quite businesslike, dealing matter-of-factly with the rites and services a Catholic priest was expected, as his duty, to provide to the seriously ill, but behind that it seems to be a tender and rather loving meditation on the death of one particular man.

That man was Felix Spencer, a sturdily-built young farrier. A farrier was one who could do the blacksmith’s work of making horseshoes, fitting and nailing them to the horse’s hooves, as well as undertaking the skilled trimming and tending of the hooves. It was a very “masculine” profession in feeling and required a good deal of strength as well as practical anatomical knowledge of horses.

Felix Spencer, in spite of his imposing physical build, came down with tuberculosis, which in those days and the damp British climate often proved fatal — at the young age of 31 he died. In this poem Hopkins changes the surname Spencer to “Randal.”

Let’s look at the poem part by part:

FELIX RANDAL

Felix Randal the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Hopkins ponders the death of Felix Randal, and he puts it in the form of two questions:
1. “O is he dead then?”

2. “Is my duty as priest to him ended…?” But he does not stop there; he recalls “his mould (“kind,” “form”) of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome,” he sees in memory the sturdy body of Felix, handsome in a hardy, well-built and imposing way. But he sees also the changes wrought by illness — that sturdy body “pining, pining,” meaning declining and weakening. And finally he sees the time when about four ultimately fatal physical disorders (what we call today “complications”) manifested in his body (“fleshed there”). These disorders all struggled with one another and ultimately killed the poor man, so ill near the end that his mind had become confused (“reason rambled in it”). Though it may seem peculiar to us, Hopkins puts the question mark not after “my duty all ended,” but all the way at the end of the long description of the body and its fading.

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

The illness, as we can easily imagine, was just too much for the young man as his body broke down. He lost his calm and cursed and swore, but became more resigned to death (“but mended”) after “being anointed and all,” that is, after having received the Catholic rite of extreme unction during which a person in danger of death was marked with blessed oil on his forehead. Hopkins believed Felix had actually begun to become more spiritual (“a heavenly heart began”) some months earlier when Hopkins had given him (“tendered to him”) the Eucharist, the bread Catholics believe to be changed into the body of Jesus, which Hopkins calls “our sweet reprieve and ransom.”

Hopkins finishes the verse with an exclamation:
“Ah, well, God rest him all road ever he offended!” Hopkins is using “rest” here with a double meaning. First he means “God keep him,” using “rest” with the meaning it has in the old Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”; second he means “God give him rest,” as is sung in the mass for the dead:

Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine…
“Rest eternal give them, Lord…”

And Hopkins’ wish is that God may keep Felix and give him rest “all road ever he offended.” Here Hopkins uses a regional northern English usage, ” all road,” meaning “all ways.” So the meaning is, “May God give him peace and rest no matter all the ways in which he may have offended in life.”

Hopkins continues his pondering:

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

Hopkins remarks on his visits to Felix in a general way, saying “This seeing the sick endears them to us” — we develop an affection for the ill when we visit them and see their suffering, yet it also “endears” us — not only endearing us to the ill, but we tend to become better, more compassionate ourselves. Hopkins had comforted Felix with soothing words (“My tongue had taught thee comfort”), had laid his hand upon him fondly (touch had quenched thy tears,” and the tears Felix shed also touched Hopkins deeply, as we see in the lamenting, simple words, “child, Felix, poor Felix Randal.” Hopkins had developed a real affection for the man, and I suspect that he is underplaying it here because he does not want to admit its depth to himself or to others — remember that Hopkins was homosexual. He seems to have been struck by how different a man Felix was in form and function from the quiet, physically undeveloped and bookish nature of Hopkins himself.

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Hopkins ponders how far Felix was, in the weak and broken condition of his last days, from the boisterous years of his previous life when he stood working at the “random grim forge.” “Random” here is used in its old meaning of “with great force or violence,” and “grim” in its old sense of “fierce.” Hopkins deliberately blurs the application of the adjectives so that they apply not only to the fiery forge but also to the hammering of the horseshoe on the anvil and to Felix himself. Hopkins sees Felix standing, powerful and grim, before the fierce fire of the forge, violently beating the white-hot metal of the horseshoes with great force behind the blows of the hammer.

There he stood in those happier, earlier days, “powerful amidst peers,” that is, he stood strong amid the strength of fire and iron and massive horses, as well as being strong among other sturdy men of his kind. He could have had no forethought in those days of strength of his future illness and final fatal weakness. So blissfully unaware of what lay in store for him, he fettled ( using “fettle in its sense of “to make ready”) a horseshoe for the great, gray drayhorse (a horse that pulls a dray, a large wagon for transporting goods). Hopkins calls the horseshoe “his (the horse’s) bright and battering sandle,” because horseshoes not only become bright when they are forged white-hot, but also become bright when polished by wear. The horseshoe is “battering” not only because the farrier batters it with a hammer when making it, but also because the iron shoe batters against the cobblestones of the streets as the horse pulls the wagon.

I suspect that Hopkins is merely using “sandle” here because it is a word he likes (he uses it elsewhere), and because it makes a pleasant contrast when combined with the word “battering”; but some think he is also referring to a particular type of 19th century horseshoe that was once literally called a “sandal.”

Well, that is the poem. I do not think it is one of his best, and that, I suspect, is because Hopkins held back a bit, being of two minds, either consciously or unconsciously, about revealing to himself and to others too much about his feelings concerning the once “hardy-handsome” Felix Spencer — “Felix Randal” in the poem. But of course we must be careful not to read too much into this.

As he often does, Hopkins makes things more difficult than need be by his liking for old meanings of words and unusual expressions, but without that he would not be Hopkins, would he?

David

REVIEW OF HOKKU BASICS: HARMONY OF CONTRAST

In recent review postings I discussed internal reflection in hokku — how similar things interact within a verse — and I discussed the technique of harmony of similarity. You will recall that harmony of similarity is the combining of things with similar characteristics, for example an assemblage of things that are aging or old, or things that are Yin in nature or things that are Yang in nature.

When we combine things with similar characteristics (such as the billowing sail on a boat and billowing clouds) or energies (such as an old woman and autumn — both increasing Yin), that creates a very harmonious feeling.

Today we will add to that another technique, harmony of contrast.

Harmony of contrast is the use of elements that are felt to be contrasting or opposite in their characteristics (such as an old woman looking at apple blossoms in spring) or energies (such as stepping into a cool stream — Yin — on a hot day — Yang).

As you might imagine, the combining of contrasting things can be particularly effective in the two seasons when energies reach their maximum — Yang in summer and Yin in winter. But it can also be used in the two seasons when Yang is increasing as Yin declines (spring) and when Yang is declining and Yin is increasing (autumn).

The moon is a silent, passive and tranquil element. The pecking of a bird, by contrast, is active and jerky. Though we feel these things to be contrasting in character, we can combine them, as did Zuiryu in this hokku (I translate a bit loosely here):

Autumn

A water bird
Pecking and breaking it —
The moon on the water.

Here is an example of a hokku using contrary actions, this time by Ryuho:

Autumn

Scooping up
and spilling the moon;
The washbasin.

Of course it is the moon seen at night in the water of the basin.

One can also mix contrasting and similar things; for example, here is a hokku by the woman Sogetsu-ni:

Autumn

After the dance,
The wind in the pines,
The crying of insects.

We see harmony of contrast between the boisterous music and activity of the dance (now ended) and the peaceful, quiet sounds of the wind in the pines and the crying insects. But there is also similarity between the “natural” sound of the wind and that of the insect cries.

Here is a slight variation on an old hokku by Issa in which we again see harmony of similarity:

Autumn

Withered pampas grass;
Wisps of my hair
Quiver with it.

There is a mild similarity between hair and the feathery plumes of pampas grass trembling in the (implied) wind, but if we think of the writer as OLD, the effect becomes even stronger — the grey, long and unkempt wisps of an old man’s hair trembling in the same autumn wind that blows the white, withered pampas grass. But if the hair trembling in the autumn wind is that of a YOUNG man, then the feeling of the verse becomes quite different, not nearly so harmonious with the season.

In using harmony of contrast, you can even use something that is there combined with something that is not, as in this verse by Fugyoku:

Autumn

The bright moon;
No dark place
To dump the ashes
.

The reason it works is that the absence of something can often be just as strong, or sometimes even stronger, than something that is present. Imagine, for example, seeing the empty and silent rocker in which a beloved grandmother used to sit. That is a very meaningful absence.

What these techniques teach us, aside from being frequently useful in composition, is to pay great attention to the interrelationships among the elements you put into a hokku. You should always remember that a good hokku is not just an assemblage of random elements. It is not just picking anything you see and writing about it in three lines. It is noticing events in which we FEEL the relationship among the elements and their relationship with the season, whether that relationship is one of similarity or contrast, or even a mixture of the two. That is what gives a hokku depth and significance.

Keep in mind too, that the feeling of an element changes with the season. Spring rain is very different in feeling from summer rain; and autumn rain has its own feeling, as does winter rain, which is quite different than spring rain. That is why we should keep in mind that underlying the obvious subject of a hokku is also the more encompassing subject — the season in which the verse is written.

All hokku, you will remember, should be written in the appropriate season. We do not write winter hokku in summer or fall hokku in spring. And we ordinarily also read hokku in the appropriate season. We do not read summer hokku in winter or spring hokku in autumn. This practice keeps us in harmony with the seasons, and avoids creating the sense of inappropriateness we feel when seeing artificially grown spring flowers in an autumn bouquet, or when dried autumn plants and seed pods are used in a spring bouquet.

David