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