Last time, I talked about Thanatopsis, the best-known poem by American poet William Cullen Bryant, who some considered, in his day, the first American poet to meet what had become the “British” standard. Today we will look at the other well-known poem by Bryant — To a Waterfowl.

This poem illustrates a common gimmick used in poetry of Bryant’s time and earlier. If you wanted to write a poem about a certain subject and then draw a lesson or moral or conclusion from it, the way to do it was to write it as though speaking directly to the person or thing you were talking about. That is why so many poems of the 19th century are are titled “to” this or “to” that. And it is why Bryant’s poem is To a Waterfowl.

Before we go on, remember another characteristic of poetry in Bryant’s time: the general feeling was that everyday language was too common for poetry, so the poets tended to sprinkle their verses heavily with bits of Elizabethan English, with “thee” (you) and “thou” (you) and “thy” (your) and lots of old-fashioned forms and endings to verbs, such as “dost” for “do” and “seekest” for “seek.” All of this can seem just too overblown for modern readers, and it is all too easy to imagine such a poem being declaimed by some artsy fellow with forefinger on right hand dramatically upraised.

Once we realize, however, that such artificially “high-flown” and deliberately archaic language was just a characteristic of the times and the prevalent notions, we may see through it to what lies beyond.

So here, part by part, is To a Waterfowl:

Whither, ‘midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, through their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?

Bryant is using the convention mentioned above of addressing the subject of the poem. It is an evening in December (as we shall see). The sky in the West still glows with the last light from the setting sun, and the ground is cooling, causing dew to form on the grasses and plants. In this setting, Bryant says to the bird, “whither (meaning ‘to where’) are you going on your way all alone?

“Whither” and its useful mate “whence” have unfortunately largely dropped out of modern English. I say “unfortunately” because they are very useful words, with “whence” meaning “from where,” and “whither” meaning “to where.” As the now largely-forgotten early Oregon poet Samuel L. Simpson wrote, life’s old questions are “whence” and “whither,” that is, where do we come from, and where are we going? As we shall see, that has a lot to do with today’s poem as well.

Vainly the fowler’s eye
Might mark thy distant flight, to do thee wrong,
As, darkly seen against the crimson sky,
Thy figure floats along.

The fowler — that is, the fellow out to hunt birds — might “mark” (notice) the distant flight of the waterfowl to do it wrong, meaning to shoot and kill it, because the dark form of the bird stands out sharply against the red sky of evening.

Seek’st thou the plashy brink
Of weedy lake, or marge of river wide,
Or where the rocking billows rise and sink
On the chaféd ocean side?

Bryant is still on the “whither” question: He asks the bird if it seeks the “plashy brink” of a weedy lake. “Plashy” here means both wet and “splashy” — where the waters of the lake splash gently against its edges (brink), its shore. Or does the bird seek the “marge” or bank of a wide river, or perhaps where the “rocking billows” — the rolling waves — rise and fall by the “chaféd ocean side,” meaning the shoreline of the ocean where the waves constantly rub against it. Bryant indicates by the accent in chaféd that he wants us to pronounce it as two syllables — chay-fed — instead of the usual one.

Now comes the first of two stanzas in which Bryant tells us what the poem is really about (he leaves the second for last):

There is a Power, whose care
Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,—
The desert and illimitable air
Lone wandering, but not lost.

There is some Power in the universe, Bryant says, that teaches the waterfowl its way along the coastline, even though there is no marked path — a Power (he capitalizes it for emphasis) that guides it through the “desert” (empty, deserted) and illimitable (endless) air — through the empty sky, that is, as the bird wanders alone in its flight, alone and seemingly wandering, but not lost.

All day thy wings have fanned,
At that far height, the cold thin atmosphere;
Yet stoop not, weary, to the welcome land,
Though the dark night is near.

The bird is on a long, migratory flight; its wings have flapped the air all day, up where it is cold and thin, yet the bird does not “stoop” (meaning “go downward” here) to the earth, though the bird should be weary, and dark night is near.

And soon that toil shall end,
Soon shalt thou find a summer home, and rest,
And scream among thy fellows; reeds shall bend,
Soon, o’er thy sheltered nest.

Soon, however, the toil (labor) of the long and wearying flight shall end, and the bird will find the end and goal of its migratory path in a land far in the South where the weather is that of summer, and it will then rest and raise its cries among other birds of its kind; and it will build a sheltered nest in a marshy place over which the reeds will bend.

Thou’rt gone, the abyss of heaven
Hath swallowed up thy form, yet, on my heart
Deeply hath sunk the lesson thou hast given,
And shall not soon depart.

The bird Bryant has been watching is gone; it has flown out of sight, its form vanished in the great emptiness (abyss) of the sky (heaven), but the poet tells us that it has left a message in his heart (by which he means his mind) that will not go away but will long be with him.

What is that lesson? Here we come to the second of the stanzas in which Bryant tells us what the poem is really about:

He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.

The lesson, Bryant tells us (through the fiction of talking to the bird), is that the same Power that guides the waterfowl on a sure path from one place to another through the endless sky, will also lead the poet himself through life and beyond, will be the unseen guide on the unmarked path which everyone must walk for himself or herself.

Bryant refers to this “Power” as “He” in the final stanza, which is the traditional way of speaking of the God of Christianity, but to Bryant it is more the Deistic “Nature and Nature’s God,” as we saw in the discussion of Thanatopsis. That is why this poem seems so very akin to the writings of the Transcendentalists, in which everything that happens is guided by a transcendent Power. It is the same faith in “Divine Providence” that moved Thoreau to say, when asked on his death bed if he did not want to make his peace with God, “I am not aware that we have ever quarreled.” So even though Bryant was slightly too early to be considered a part of the Transcendentalist Movement, he was certainly a precursor and kindred spirit to it.

And not a kindred spirit just to American Transcendentalism. I cannot read To a Waterfowl without thinking of the much earlier poem written by the Japanese Zen Master Dōgen (1200 – 1253), which R. H. Blyth translates as:

The water-bird
Wanders here and there
Leaving no trace
Yet her path
She never forgets.

Though Bryant would never have even heard of Dōgen, To a Waterfowl seems like just a longer and wordier version of the earlier and much shorter poem, with both having the same sense that a transcendent Power guides all paths, whether of bird or human.

J.R.R. Tolkien said in a poem in The Lord of the Rings, “Not all who wander are lost.” Bryant and Dōgen would have said that none who wander are really lost, even though they may seem to be. It is just that some trust their steps are guided while others do not.

Though Bryant is said to have had the experience that led him to write this poem in December of 1815, on seeing a lone duck flying against the evening sky, the poem was not published until 1818, when it appeared in The North American Review. Bryant was 24.

Michael Schmidt relates that when Charles Dickens arrived from England on his visit to New York, he is reputed to have asked, when coming down the gangplank, “Where’s Bryant?” That is because, as mentioned in my earlier discussion of Thanatopsis, Bryant was, again as Schmidt says, “the first American-born poet to be accorded relatively uncondescending recognition” by the British.



I was relaxing in the evening recently when these words began running through my head:

To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language;

I had read the poem, of course, as a boy, and in high school; but I don’t recall having a clear idea about its meaning. In fact this first sentence seemed to me rather complicated gibberish in those days, overdone “poetic” language. But obviously my mind was now suggesting that I revisit it and revise that youthful judgment, as indicated by presenting its opening lines to me suddenly in the still of night.

The poem is called Thanatopsis — a word borrowed from Greek thanatos, meaning “death,” with the suffix –opsis, meaning a view — so a thanatopsis is a “view of death.”

So here, dear reader, is a fresh look at that poem. Yes, its language is old-fashioned, but does it have anything to teach us? We shall see. I will deal with it part by part:


by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

To him who in the love of nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language;

It means simply that Nature speaks in different ways to the person, who, loving Nature, goes into it and experiences it, looking at and appreciating all its visible forms — the trees and hills and rocks and streams, and all things that make up Nature. Bryant speaks of Nature as “she,” something of a tradition in which Nature was seen as feminine — “Mother Nature.” Nature gives birth to all forms, and so we often think of it as mother.

…for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware.

When one is cheerful (“gay” used to mean “cheery” in the days before Gay Liberation), Nature speaks with a glad voice, with a smile, and with the eloquence we feel in beautiful things. And when one is in a more gloomy mood, Nature is experienced as mild and gentle, with a healing effect on us that eases such gloomy thoughts before one even notices what is happening. People often like to go out into Nature when things worry or stress or trouble them, because it is felt to be healing.

When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;–

When one thinks of one’s inevitable death coming in the future, one’s “last bitter hour,” such thoughts are killing to the spirit, like a blight on growing crops. We imagine the suffering, and in Bryant’s time the shroud in which the dead body was clothed and the pall — the cloth over the coffin — and the darkness of death and the coffin — the “narrow house,” and one shudders in fear and grows “sick at heart” — very depressed, as we would say today. But, Bryant continues, when such thoughts come, do this:

Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around–
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air–
Comes a still voice.

Go outside, he tells us, and be under the open sky, and listen to the unspoken teachings of Nature, as all around you, from the ground — from the waters — from the air — there comes a voice that speaks in silence:

…Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix forever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mold.

In only what is, in the vast deeps of time, but a few days, the sun will not shine down upon you as it arcs repeatedly through the sky, because you will be dead and buried; and your image, your form, will no longer exist in the cold ground where it is laid with all the tears of a funeral, nor will it exist if you should drown at sea. Instead, everything will return to its basic elements; your body will decompose and become earth again; every trace of you as human will dissolve, and your individuality as a person will vanish as your body returns to earth to “mix forever with the elements.” It will become soil again, and what previously was “you” will be like the rock that feels nothing, or the insensitive clod of earth that the uneducated man at his plough turns up with the plough blade, then steps upon. The oak tree will spread out its roots as it grows into the earth that formerly was “you” as an individual person, drawing nourishment from it.

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent.

But when you die, Bryant tells us, you will not be the first person to do so; you will not lay your body down alone, and the place where you lay down your body could not be a more magnificent bed on which to rest. Why?

Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world — with kings,
The powerful of the earth — the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.

When you die and are laid in the earth, you are placed there with the fathers of the young human race who lived thousands of years ago; you will lie down in the same earth with kings and with the great powerful men of the past, with the wise men and the good, with the beautiful, and with the aged and learned men of past ages — the earth, for all of you, becoming one vast and mighty tomb. What does this tomb look like? We already know:

The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun, — the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods — rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,–
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man

The ancient hills, the valleys that like quietly between them, the ancient forests, the majestic rivers and the babbling brooks that water the meadows as they grow green, and the great grey and melancholy empty surface of the sea all serve as decorations for the “great tomb of man” — our Earth itself.

The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death

The golden sun and the planets that revolve about it, and all of the seemingly infinite stars of heaven shine down on the sad realms of death — our Earth — and they do so

Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.

All of those people alive today, Bryant says, are only a handful compared to all the great numbers of people that have died and sleep the sleep of death within the ground.

— Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings — yet the dead are there:

“Take the wings of morning” is a biblical reference — Psalm 139:9, which in its context is:

7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

Bryant, like most children at that time, was brought up knowing the Bible. It was the foremost piece of household literature, and all families had a “family Bible” to be read and pondered. So he says if one were to “take the wings of morning,” that is, to fly far across the earth like the dawn to distant places,

And if one were to

Pierce the Barcan wilderness,

In many printings this reads instead:

Take the wings
Of morning–and the Barcan desert pierce,

What is the Barcan Desert? It is a geographical reference that Bryant got from a famous event in the news when he was a boy of eleven. It was during the American war with the Barbary Pirates in Tripoli (now Libya) that in March of 1805, a General William Eaton, of the same valley in Massachusetts as Bryant, took a party of about 400 men from Alexandria in Egypt across some five to six hundred miles of desert to the west; “six private marines, twenty-five cannoneers, thirty-eight Greeks, and some Arab cavalry” as well as a rival pasha and his followers, with baggage carried on 107 camels. With this bizarre army he managed to come from behind on land in the fight against the Barbary Pirates, while the American fleet was in position to attack from the front. This first Barbary War — specifically the Battle of Derna that resulted from Eaton’s crossing and the accompanying marine assault — gave us the “shores of Tripoli” reference in the Marine Hymn. So Bryant used this remembered reference to the burning Desert of Barca or Barcan Desert as an example of a very remote and distant, empty place.

He also used one other geographical reference in his poem, again to indicate a remote and distant place. It too came from a well-known news event of Bryant’s youth. The Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the West was sent out by President Jefferson in 1804. The party passed through a vast and lonely wilderness, at one stage not seeing a single human for some four months of travel. They came to and floated down “The Great River of the West,” which in those days was called the Oregon. Today it is called the Columbia River. When the news of this expedition came out in 1807, Bryant was thirteen. In 1811, at the age of seventeen, he wrote Thanatopsis.

So now you know what this means:

Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings — yet the dead are there:


“His own dashings” means the sound of the waters of the river, moving and dashing against the shore; Bryant is saying that one could even go to the vast and little known West of the continent, where the Columbia River rolls through great forests empty of the sounds of civilization, and even there the dead are buried. I live “where rolls the Oregon,” and there is a once well-known island in the river where it passes through the mountains of the Columbia Gorge, called Memaloose Island. Memaloose was Chinook Jargon — the native trade language — for “dead” It was an island of the dead, on which the native peoples of the Columbia placed the bodies of their departed — a place of silence and bleached bones in the midst of the river. So Bryant got that right.

You might wish to know that Bryant mentions the Oregon in another of his poems, The Prairies. In it are the lines

…The beaver builds
No longer by these streams, but far away,
On waters whose blue surface ne’er gave back
The white man’s face — among Missouri’s springs,
And pools whose issues swell the Oregon —
He rears his little Venice.

And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep — the dead reign there alone.

Millions of people, Bryant tells us, have died in those lonely places since time began, and that is a place where the dead reign alone — that is, the dead are more to be found than the living. Bryant, not knowing of all the tribes of the Columbia, was stretching things a bit again, but he wanted to emphasize the great loneliness and emptiness of the little-known far West.

So shalt thou rest — and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny.

Bryant tells us that we shall die just like those in the distant regions he has mentioned. And what if we die and no friend is there to witness it? Again the poet emphasizes, you won’t be alone in death, because everything that breathes has died or will die too.

And what will be the effect of our death, which we feel to be such a significant event?

The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom;

The people of cheerful and happy disposition will continue to be cheerful and happy and laughing, and the solemn “brood of care,” meaning “children of sorrow” — the people sad by disposition — will continue to plod sadly on through their lives, and each person will chase after the illusion he favors — some after money, some after power, some after romance, some after fame, and so on — all phantoms that appear only to vanish.

But what of these people, whether they are happy or sad, whom you leave behind on dying?

…yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee.

All of them will eventually have to leave behind their joy and their activities, and die and be buried in the earth just as you have been.

Bryant expands on just who it is that dies:

As the long train
Of ages glides away, the sons of men–
The youth in life’s fresh spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man–
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn, shall follow them.

As the long sequence of ages passes, all “sons of men” — all humans — will die; it does not matter whether they are youths in the springtime of life, or the mature person at the peak of vigor, or mother, or unmarried girl, or infant too young to speak, or the old man with gray hair, one by one they will all join you in death, buried by those who eventually will die themselves and be buried.

And now Bryant comes to the point of all of this talk of the earth being one huge tomb and everyone, past, present and future, dying:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

He tells us that now, knowing that life is brief and death is the common fate of humans and inevitable, we should live our lives in trust of that power which governs all things — Nature. When our time to die nears, when we too join that long line of those passing into death, everyone taking his own resting place in tombs and cemeteries and earth — in “the silent halls of death” — we should be careful how we die. As Confucius said, if we do not know life, how can we know death?

And how we die, Bryant indicates, will depend on how we have lived. If we live a life of trust in Nature and what the people of his time would have called “Divine Providence,” then when we go to our deaths we will not go like the poor slaves who spend their days digging rock in quarries, whipped to their resting places by cruel taskmasters, but instead we shall go peacefully, being a part of the natural process of things — of Nature — and trusting in that unfalteringly, we shall go to our deaths as peacefully and serenely as someone who wraps the covers of his bed around him and lies down to restful sleep and pleasant dreams. This is a very Transcendentalist view that would have been endorsed by Henry David Thoreau, though of course the poem itself was written shortly before the Transcendental movement, and is akin to the notions of “Nature and of Nature’s God” found in the Deism of the late 1700s and early 1800s. It is also tinged with the Roman stoicism that would have been known to young men educated in the classics in Bryant’s time.

Though he worded it all masterfully, in my opinion the youthful Bryant spent so much of the poem telling us of death and emptiness that his final point — that we are just to peacefully trust in Providence/Nature — rather suffers by comparison. Perhaps that is due to his youth and inexperience, but also to the fact, as we shall see, that the point of the poem was tacked on later.

Nonetheless, we must remember that in his time young people had experienced far more of the hard side of life than many of us today. Death was ever-present and far more obvious than it is now. Many children died before their fifteenth year. Sickness and plague came without warning, and formal medicine was so primitive that, as Daniel Scott Smith wrote, “In this epoch, going to the doctor was, if not irrelevant, a positive mistake.” Memorial pictures, showing someone grieving over a decorative tomb, were a common form of popular art. And often the young exposed to such things develop a tendency toward gloom, which, as we can see, Bryant was trying to offset by his advice to just “trust and fear not.” There is likely a considerable amount of whistling in the dark in his words — a conscious effort to convince himself as well as others — but his basic point is valid nonetheless.

In any case, Thanatopsis eventually became immensely popular, and was well-known both in Britain and in America. It became a milestone in American poetry, because there was a general belief at the time that American poets were inevitably inferior to British writers. Bryant’s grandiose language and serious theme was just the ticket to change that perception.

You will notice the archaic “thee” and “thy” language Bryant uses. He was, of course, brought up on the Elizabethan English of the Bible and of Shakespeare, and in his day ordinary “you” and “your” language was considered precisely that — too ordinary for the elevated subject of poetry. So poets continued to pepper their verses with bits of Elizabethan English vocabulary and grammar long after it had died out in common speech. You will also likely notice the influence of Wordsworth and his nature poetry on Bryant, including the notion of the dead being insensate as rocks and clods, as in Wordsworth’s A Slumber did my Spirit Seal:

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

And you will see the influence of such English verse as Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

Though Bryant is said to have written Thanatopsis in 1811 (some say shortly thereafter), it was first published in 1817, though not in the form we have it in today. The beginning of the poem — about the first 16-17 verses — were added later; the middle lines were originally spoken by the poet, but later changed to Nature speaking; and about the last 16 concluding lines — in which Bryant makes his stoic point about living in a manner that enables one to die serenely — were also added later.

It all began when Bryant’s father saw some verses written by his teenage son and eventually sent a copy off (as parents will do) to the literary magazine North American Review. That was the beginning of the poem as we know it today, and of Bryant’s position in the history of American poetry. When the poem appeared in print in 1817, it was only two years after the Review — the first American literary journal — was begun.



Today, two somewhat unconventional hokku on the same topic — the heat of summer:

First, a slightly loose translation of a famous hokku by Kakô, in keeping with the rising temperatures in my area today:

Carrying a load of wind
In this heat —
The fan-seller.

It is almost too clever for hokku, but is saved by the fact that the reader can feel both the heat of the day and the potential wind of the fans with which the seller is loaded down. It is an odd variation on just what I have been talking about in the past few postings — the use of opposites in hokku, thus showing the character of both elements. In this verse, the heat is a strong yang element, and the (potential) wind from the fans is the yin element. We can also sense the oppressiveness of the day’s heat in the words “carrying a load,” offset by the significance of that load. So the wind in this verse is both not there and there.

We see something similar in this second hokku, by Onitsura:

That mountain —
It’s where today’s heat
Has gone.

It was a hot day, but as it moves toward evening, the heat goes away. Where has it gone? Well, there is that high mountain; the heat is not here, and that is the only other obvious place, so it must be there.

For those who like seeing the originals with literal translations:

1. Kaze ikka ninau atsusa ya uchiwauri
Wind load carries heat ya fan-seller

2. Ano yama mo kyô no atsusa no yukue kana
That mountain mo today ‘s heat ‘s whereabouts kana



I have talked previously about how conservative in many ways the supposed “revolutionary” Masaoka Shiki really was. He was not a particularly happy or even likable person, and his “reform” of hokku consisted largely of divorcing it from any possibility of being used in linked verse, in giving his reformed version a new name (“haiku”) and in largely divorcing the hokku from its spiritual roots, at least in theory, as well as contributing toward the forgetting of its underlying principles.

In practice, however, Shiki continued to write hokku while just calling them “haiku.” He kept the traditional brevity and the traditional connection with the seasons. He even often kept — perhaps unconsciously — some of the same principles of construction used by earlier writers of hokku.

In the past couple of postings I have talked about the principle of contrast in hokku. Shiki obviously picked this up and used it occasionally in his own verses, though again, perhaps not consciously.

A very good example is the following verse, which in Japan would be an autumn hokku; fireworks are a subject for autumn there. In the United States, however, fireworks are largely a midsummer topic because of the Fourth of July — Independence Day — and its traditional celebration with parades and evening fireworks. That does not mean one cannot write hokku with fireworks about other seasons, but they are particularly appropriate to “The Glorious Fourth.”

Here is the verse:

Everyone has gone;
The darkness
After the fireworks.

Hito kaeru hanabi no ato no kuraki kana
People gone firework ‘s after ‘s darkness kana

It is not difficult to see that this uses the same principle of contrast discussed earlier. It shows us the nature of a thing by contrasting it with another. In this poem we have two things absent: 1. The people, who have all gone home from the fireworks display; 2. The fireworks, which have have ended.

In the first we have the contrast between the crowds of people who came to watch and the absence of those crowds. That gives us a very solitary and lonely feeling.

In the second we have the contrast between the bright, colorful explosions and bangs of the fireworks and the complete darkness and utter silence after. That only makes the darkness seem all the deeper.

This is a very old principle. The Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao-zi (pronounced LA-o dzuh) wrote:

When the people of the Earth all know beauty as beauty,
There arises (the recognition of) ugliness.
When the people of the Earth all know the good as good,
There arises (the recognition of) evil.

Being and non-being interdepend in growth;
Difficult and easy interdepend in completion;
Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position;
Tones and voice interdepend in harmony;
Front and behind interdepend in company.

(Tao Teh Ching; Lin Yutang translation)

In other words, contrasts give significance. We know what cold is after we have become accustomed to warmth; we know what kindness really is only because we have experienced cruelty; the same could be said of countless other contrasting things in the universe.

So in hokku, something that is NOT there can be just as significant, perhaps even more at times, than something that IS there. That is why in Shiki’s verse, we feel the aloneness very deeply after all the people have gone, and we feel the darkness and silence all the more because of the contrast with the previous colorful explosions of “flower-fire.” as the Japanese call fireworks.

This is something everyone knows, but people tend to forget the most obvious things. Joni Mitchell wrote a song with the words

“Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone…

It reminds me of the great American trilogy novel The Awakening Land by Conrad Richter. In the beginning, the female main character feels the deep forests and ancient trees of early frontier Ohio to be threatening and gloomy. But later on, when the forests are cleared and towns of streets and houses and shops are built, and she is far along in years, she begins to sense what had been lost with the cutting of the trees.



Even the “bong”
Of the cracked bell is hot;
The summer moon.

The functioning of this hokku by Hokushi lies in the use of the perceived similarity of the uncomfortable summer heat — so oppressive that it is felt even in the evening — and the oddly “off” bong of the large, cracked bell, a discordant sound that is also felt to be uncomfortable, and only adds to the discomfort of the evening. One bothers the skin, the other bothers the hearing, and so they are akin, with the sound of the bell manifesting audibly the discomfort felt in the evening heat.

In contrast to these, high above, serene and calm and flawless, floats the summer moon, perceived as cool and perfect but too distant to do more than represent a visual contrast to the dominance of the first two elements in the senses of touch and hearing. The first two elements of heat (touch) and sound (hearing) are disagreeable here, the moon is not, and in that simple fact lies the point of the poem.

Hokushi tells us how hot the evening is indirectly: ““Even the “bong” / Of the cracked bell is hot;

Of course one is just to feel this, and to explain it at length, as I have done, is like explaining a joke; inevitably something is lost. But I explain it nonetheless so that students may see how different hokku are constructed and how they work. And by learning that, students can then apply the same principles to the making of new hokku.

For readers who want the original Japanese (and I have one who always chides me if I don’t give it), literally the verse is:

Waregane no hibiki mo atsushi natsu no tsuki

cracked-bell ‘s sound too hot summer ‘s moon



Summer heat;
The drip — drip of water
In the shadows.


This verse illustrates a fundamental technique used in many hokku — harmony of contrast. It is simple. One just combines things that are opposite in nature — heat is yang, shadows and water are yin. Using it, one can effectively convey many experiences. The technique is a good way to bring out the character of the heat, and also that of shade and of water.



Buson wrote an effective hokku that, like many good summer hokku, deals with the heat of the season:

higaeri no hageyama koyuru atsusa kana
Day-trip ‘s bald-mountain crossing heat kana

A day’s journey
Across a bare mountain;
The heat!

The elements of the verse go together well.

We could be a bit looser with the translation, like this:

A day’s journey
Over a treeless mountain —
The heat!

We feel the weariness of the traveller and his discomfort in that high place with no shelter from the hot summer sun.



Today I would like to talk about a rather fascinating poem by the unique British writer Walter de la Mare.

It is a simple poem, and does not require much explanation. Its fascination lies in its atmosphere of that mixture of the sense of the passage of time and of sadness in solitude, a feeling we often find in hokku verses. The Japanese call it sabishisa, but we have no adequate single word for it in English, though the translation of the the old Latin expression lacrimae rerum — “the tears of things” — meaning the sadness inherent in the world as it is — points us in the right direction.

Here is the poem:


This blue-washed, old, thatched summerhouse —
Paint scaling, and fading from its walls —
How often from its hingeless door
I have watched — dead leaf, like the ghost of a mouse,
Rasping the worn brick floor —
The snows of the weir descending below,
And their thunderous waterfall.

Fall — fall: dark, garrulous rumour,
until I could listen no more.
Could listen no more — for beauty with sorrow
Is a burden hard to be borne:
The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there;
That music, remote, forlorn.

De la Mare shows us a summerhouse — one of those light and simple outdoor structures in which one can sit out of the direct heat and glare of the sun in summer. It is painted a pale blue, and its paint, applied long ago, is peeling and flaking off the walls. That alone gives us the feeling of time having passed, of a depth of years.

“How often,” he says, “from its hingeless door I have watched the snows of the weir descending below, and their thunderous waterfall.”

He is there now, but he is also — mentally — there in the past. He looks out of the opening in the summerhouse, a “door” that is not really a physical door, just an open doorway — down the slope toward the river and its weir. A weir is a kind of low dam built across a river, over which the waters pour continuously, with a pool held behind it and the flow of the river continuing beyond it. The poet recalls how he has gazed out at that weir in times past, watching its “snows” — meaning the white fall of water cascading over the weir –and listening to “their thunderous waterfall,” the sound of the water plunging down from all along the top of the weir to the river below.

But in telling us that, de la Mare inserts a parenthetical statement to tell us that as he watched the weir, a dry leaf caught in a swirl of wind inside the summerhouse made a dry, rasping sound on the worn bricks of the summerhouse floor, a movement and sound “like the ghost of a mouse.” That too gives us a sense of the passing of time, because the rasp is not “like a mouse,” but rather slightly eerie, like “the ghost of a mouse.” De la Mare enjoys injecting a sense of the eerie into his verses.

He again gives us the sense of the passage of time as he describes further his attention focused on the weir and its falling waters, and what he experiences is

Fall — fall, dark, garrulous rumour.

The sound of the plunging waters is continuous, and though their appearance is white, their sound to him is dark, a garrulous (like continuous, pointless babble) rumour. Here rumour is used to mean a persistent noise.

The poet hears this sound until he can listen no more, and here we get to the heart, the essence of the poem:

–for beauty with sorrow
is a burden hard to be borne:

That is an idea we do not often hear, but it is commonplace in hokku; that in beautiful things there is also sorrow, because beauty is transient in this world. As Robert Frost wrote, “nothing gold can stay.” Every adolescent who has a first crush on some beautiful person knows from experience — even though it may be in retrospect — that with beauty comes a pain so deep as to be felt physically.

For de la Mare, that beauty is the faded summerhouse, the rasping leaf swirling on the brick floor, the white water cascading over the weir and its continuous, loud “dark” murmur, and with those,

The evening light on the foam, and the swans, there;

And then

That music, remote, forlorn.

Does he hear a distant, lonely melody from a nearby house? Or does he mean only the music of the weir and its sights, or perhaps a remembered melody from the past?

I like to think he means the first, with the sound of the water coming from the river, and the thin, lonely sound of someone playing a piano drifting, half heard, across the lawn to the summerhouse.

A characteristic of de la Mare’s poetry is that he often does not wish to tell us the whole story; he just presents us with an atmosphere, with things caught in the sense of time long passing, and then he lets us feel the emotions and think the thoughts thus aroused within us. Did he come to the summerhouse with sorrow? Or did the sorrow come with the summerhouse?



To understand this poem, first remember that Gerard Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889) lived in Britain before the invention of the flashlight (or “torch” as it is called in British English). Those going about outdoors at night then used lanterns, commonly a lit candle enclosed in a framework of metal and glass, with a handle at the top by which it might be held without burning the fingers. It was a weak light, but it did the job.

Hopkins muses on seeing the passing light of a lantern in the darkness:hhcat


Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?

At times one sees a lantern moving outside in the darkness, and it attracts the poet’s curiousity, “interests our eyes.” And the question arises in the mind, “Who goes there?” Who is passing in the black of night? Where did the person come from, and where is he going out there with his light, though the vast blackness, “all down darkness wide”? We might think “wading” a misprint for “waving,” but it is not. It is used here in an old and rather obscure sense meaning “to penetrate, to proceed through.” So the lantern light both penetrates and proceeds through the darkness. Hopkins is saying, “Where is the holder of the lantern from, I wonder, and where is he bound, with his light penetrating all down the wide darkness?”

Hopkins then comments on such an experience, using it as an analogy for life:

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Hopkins encounters men who pass through his life in the same manner. They come into and out of his life either with handsome physical form (“beauty bright in mould”) or with beauty of mind, of intellect, or with some other exceptional or unusual quality (“what not else makes rare”) that causes them to stand out in our dark lives like the light of a lantern in the night.

Such people cast their light (“they rain…rich beams”) on the gloom and boredom of stale, daily life (“against our much thick and marsh air.” Until they pass out of our lives either by dying or by leaving, moving on to some far other place (“till death or distance buys them quite”). “Buys” here means, “takes possession of.”

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.

Life is short; so one way or another, by death or departure, people leave us, the lantern-light they cast on our lives through their physical appearance or their mental qualities and character soon is gone (“Death or distance soon consumes them”)

And, Hopkins laments, no matter how closely he may follow their movements with his eyes (“Wind what most I may eye after”) — like watching a passing lantern outside in the dark of night, he cannot be there after the light passes to see where they go, what becomes of them (“be in at the end I cannot”). Hopkins uses “wind” (with a long “i” here to rhyme with “mind” two lines later) to mean the movement of the eye as it follows the passing lantern.

He adds the old saying, “Out of sight is out of mind.” Once they are gone, there is no more connection. He cannot go after them to see what their destination, their ultimate fate might be, he cannot be there to help or to guide or advise; they are apparently on their own on their journey.

Christ minds: Christ’s interest, what to avow or amend
There, éyes them, heart wánts, care haúnts, foot fóllows kínd,
Their ránsom, théir rescue, ánd first, fást, last friénd.

But, Hopkins the Roman Catholic convert tells us, they are not alone. He cannot go with them himself, but another does. That other is Christ. While those who pass through are lives are “out of sight” and “out of mind” once they are gone, Christ minds where they are going, Christ is interested in them. He knows what to try to accept (“avow”) in them and what needs change (“amend”). He watches them (“eyes them”), his heart longs for them (“heart wants”), his feet follow them lovingly on their journey (“foot follows kind”). He is their rescuer, their redeemer (“ransom”), and their first (both chronologically and in importance), firm (“fast”) friend in life, and also their last friend at its end and beyond.

It is a rather simple little poem about Hopkins’ personal religious view that Christ accompanies people on the journey of life far better and more surely than other humans can or will, and also that he is their truest friend. So this poem is a kind of little sermon in words, but Hopkins says it so nicely (though with some cart-before-the-horse phrasing) that it does not grate on the ear as religious sermons tend to do. One always has the underlying feeling, however, that Hopkins half believes what he says in such religious verses, half tries to convince himself that what he says is true. He obviously feels that life tends to be a dark, dank, murky, uncomfortable affair, (“much thick and marsh air”), and his odd little analogy likening a stranger passing with a lantern in the outer darkness with the passage of other people through our lives is a rather pleasant one because of the simple contrast of darkness and light.


Certain of the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins require a considerable amount of unscrambling. To some they are often just hopelessly obscure at first or even second reading, and I would counsel those people not to give up. Often several readings of a Hopkins poem, sometimes more intent readings, sometimes more relaxed readings, will allow the meaning to come through, just as a developing bath in an old photography studio will gradually bring a sensible picture out of the surface of what seems at first merely blank paper.

There are certain helpful keys to reading Hopkins:

1. Remember that he often arranges words in unusual order, and when you rearrange them in the “right” order, a line will frequently make more sense.
2. Remember that he likes to use old words, and also likes to use familiar words with more old-fashioned or unusual definitions, sometimes not the primary definition one finds in a dictionary. For this, checking with the Oxford English dictionary and reading all of the definitions and examples for a word is frequently helpful.
3. Remember that Hopkins will often say something very simple in what seems a complicated way; he does this for poetic reasons, and because he is so fascinated with the sounds of words and their ranges of meaning.
4. Hopkins tends to repeat a thought in different ways from poem to poem, so the more of his poetry you read, the easier it becomes to understand a given poem.

Today’s poem is one of those requiring patience, but before one can understand it, it helps to know certain things.

1. Hopkins was very fond of the music of the baroque English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). He even wrote a poem in Purcell’s honor.
2. In this poem he expresses his view of the purpose of physical beauty, of “good looks” in humans, and he bases his conclusions largely on an event in the history of the English Church that used to be known to every English schoolboy — the encounter of pope-to-be Gregory with young English slaves in Rome.
3. Hopkins had a love of Nature, but being very “religious,” he thought that seeing beauty in Nature was seeing God manifesting in Nature. He repeats this concept in various poems, and we find it in today’s poem.

So before we even read it, we know that it gives Hopkins’ opinion of the purpose of physical beauty. For Hopkins, who was a lover of beauty but still very religious and also homosexual, it was a matter of concern. We can say that this poem is Hopkins attempting to reconcile his love of beauty with his religious beliefs.

Let’s take a look:


To what serves mortal beauty | dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood the O-seal-that-so | feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to? | See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means–where a glance
Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest–men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

To make things a bit easier, let’s look at the beginning this way, rearranging the lines:

To what serves mortal beauty — dangerous —
does set dancing blood — the O-seal-that-so | feature —
flung prouder form Than Purcell tune lets tread to?

First Hopkins gives his question:
What use is the dangerous beauty of mortals? What end does it serve?
Hopkins knows that physical beauty can, on the one hand, be dangerous, because it “sets the blood dancing” — it can excite and attract.
And what is it that does the exciting, that sets the blood dancing?

It is the “O, seal that so” feature, the face that makes us wish it to be “sealed” like a letter and kept “so,” kept as it is; the beauty that has been flung into “prouder form” [put into more magnificent form] than “Purcell tune lets tread to.” By that Hopkins means that the visible form of physical beauty has greater magnificence than the stately steps (tread) of a dance composed by Henry Purcell.

Now Hopkins begins his defense of physical beauty, his justification for it:

See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; | what good means–where a glance
Master more may than gaze, | gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

“See,” Hopkins tells us, “Physical beauty does this: it keeps man’s consciousness attentive to “things that are” — to the material world, not just to intellectual abstractions. Remember that for Hopkins, we can see God in and through the beauty of the material world.

“What good means,” Hopkins tells us, meaning “What good means” to an end physical beauty is. Why? Because beauty is so striking that “a glance may master [may affect one] more than a long gaze. By this Hopkins means that a mere glance at physical beauty can have a stronger effect than a long but unaffected gaze at something not strikingly beautiful.

Hopkins now gives us the historical example upon which his conclusions are based, his “proof” that a striking glance at physical beauty can have effects far beyond the ordinary:

Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh | windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

Hopkins expects his readers to know what he is referring to here, and any Englishman educated in history would have known. He is referring to an incident from the history of the English church as recorded by the Venerable Bede, an incident in the slave markets of Rome. Gregory, who was to become Pope (“father”) of the Catholic Church, happened to be passing through the slave markets when he saw some very striking youths with blondish hair and pale skin. Having never seen such people before, he asked what they were. He was told they were Angles — “English.” When Gregory, who was much given to punning, heard the reply “Angli” (“Angles,” i. e. “English”) in Latin, he responded, Non Angli sed angeli — “Not Angles but angels,” … if they were Christians.

That chance encounter, that attraction of Gregory’s glance by the young slaves, was said to have led to Gregory’s efforts as Pope toward the conversion of England to Christianity. “Windfalls” here means something knocked down by the winds of war, as farmers speak of “windfall apples” that fall from trees to the ground in a strong wind, and may then be picked up. So then, Hopkins tells us, if it were not for Gregory being struck by the physical beauty of the “Anglish” lads, how else could he have “gleaned” them — that is, how could he have selected them to become Christians, marked them out from all the rest of the swarms of humanity in Rome?

How then should Gregory, a father, | have gleanèd else from swarmed Rome?

Here is a rather idealized image of Gregory seeing the young Angles. The real slave market would have been considerably rougher and far less clean and tidy than we see here, I suspect.


So, when the glance of Gregory happened to fall on the “Anglish” lads, and he was struck by their looks, in that chance meeting — “that day’s dear chance” — their beauty was what ultimately resulted in the conversion of the English nation to Christianity —

But God to a nation | dealt that day’s dear chance.

To man, that needs would worship | block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are | love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest–men’s selves. Self | flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

Man, Hopkins opines, is by nature so moved to worship that he would worship a block of wood or an uncarved stone. But “our law,” that is, the law of human nature, tells man to love instead what is worthiest of love, if all were known, and what is worthiest of love is “men’s selves,” humans themselves. “Self,” Hopkins adds, flashes off frame and face.” Now we know from our reading of another Hopkins poem that expressing “self-nature” was important to him, and in this “self” of humans, Hopkins sees a manifestation of God, because according to the Bible, man was made “in the image of God.” And the greatest “self” to Hopkins was that in which God and his grace are most clearly seen. Remember these lines from his poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his going graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

So humans naturally love beauty in the appearance of other humans, in the face and “frame,” (body) because, Hopkins feels, they sense God behind it.

But here naturally arises the problem of what to do with such beauty. Hopkins certainly does not take the course of hedonism and physical desire. Instead he sees human beauty as useful in the Platonic sense that it leads us gradually beyond itself to the divine:

What do then? how meet beauty? | Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; | then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, | God’s better beauty, grace.

How, then, should we react when we encounter beauty in human form and face? Hopkins tells us to “merely meet it,” that is, just see it, recognize and appreciate it, “home at heart” (untroubled by it, secure in ourselves) as the sweet gift of heaven, BUT, and this is “Hopkins’ big but,” as PeeWee Herman would say, once one has seen and appreciated physical beauty in a human through just looking at it, then one should “LEAVE, LET THAT ALONE.” In other words, see it, enjoy its beauty, then let it go and do not become attached to it — “Look, don’t touch.” Why? Because beyond it is something more to be wished for, the “better beauty” than the physical, the grace which comes from God — the “unmerited favor of God,” as Christians would put it.

So that is Hopkins’ notion of physical beauty in humans; it is naturally attractive to us and we can see God manifesting in it, but we should not become attached to the physical form or we shall miss that which is even more beautiful in it and through it, the grace of God.

It is a sentiment much like that found in William Blake’s poem:


He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

It is not a surprising view for a sensitive soul who became a Jesuit. What is surprising is that, like Blake, Hopkins makes poetry of it.



Tomorrow is Candlemas — Imbolc — the old beginning of spring. Yesterday was the lunar New Year, celebrated in Asia, which is also the traditional beginning of spring. So we can see, as I have said before, that if one follows the old European seasonal calendar, with its quarter and cross-quarter days, one is, with only slight variation, following the same calendar as the old hokku writers of Japan.

Here is a hokku for the beginning of spring, written by Gyôdai:

A crow cawing
In the cloudy hills.

The Wheel of the Year has turned, and whether or not there are signs of spring where you are, the Yin forces of Nature have begun to diminish, and the Yang forces are growing. Where I live, snowdrops have already sprouted their short green leaves above the earth and have put forth their drooping, snow-white blossoms. The days are growing longer, the nights ever shorter.

In today’s hokku, we see the increase of Yang and decrease of Yin in the melting of the snow. And by a happy chance, in the repetition of the same initial consonant in “crow,” “cawing,” and “cloudy” we also hear the cawing of the crow.



Today, one of the simplest and most effective poems of Alfred Edward Housman, from the collection A Shropshire Lad. Like other poems in that anthology, it has deep undertones of loss and bittersweet nostalgia. It is titled

With Rue My Heart is Laden

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

I will explain it part by part, though the overall sentiments are immediately clear:

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

The poet is recalling the boys and girls — the lads and lasses — he knew earlier in life, and is saddened. He tells us that his heart is laden — loaded, weighted down — with rue, that is, with sorrow and regret. It has a double meaning in that there is an herb called rue, a plant with a bitter fragrance that also traditionally symbolizes loss and regret. So we know the writer is made very sorrowful by remembering the “golden friends” he once had but has no more. By “golden” he means both precious and also beautiful in his memory, using “golden” as people do who recall pleasant days in the past and say, “Those were the golden years.” He remembers the dear friends of his youth.

And who were those friends? “Many a rose-lipt maiden” and “many a lightfoot lad.” He recalls the young girls he knew in the days when they had the beauty of youth, with their lips the pinkish-red color of rose petals. “Rose-lipt” is just a variant spelling of “rose-lipped.” They had rosy lips, which has undertones of the fragrance and fresh beauty of the rose flower, but also of its fragility and brevity. And he recalls “many a lightfoot lad,” many boys he once knew who were fleet of foot and agile in running and leaping, with all the energy youth and vitality gave them.

So the poet has told us first who he is saddened by remembering, and now, he finishes by telling us why he is saddened by the memory:

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

He is speaking metaphorically. It was common, in the English countryside, for village lads to entertain themselves by seeing who could leap across small streams, sometimes with the assistance of a long pole that was pushed down into the water. The boy would come running with pole in hand, like a pole vaulter, and then would push the end of the long pole down into the stream and swing himself up into the air and across to the other bank. Of course either way, anyone who did not do it just right or was not agile enough would fall into the water. But now, the poet is saying, those lightfoot lads he once knew are laid by “brooks too broad for leaping.” By that he means they have died, their years ended by obstacles in life that they could not overcome, whether illness, or death in war, or some other fatal, impassable barrier. There were just some “brooks” in life they could not leap over, and so they now lie dead and buried.

Similarly, Housman tells us that “the rose-lipt girls” are sleeping “in fields where roses fade.” They too have died, because they were, in spite of their beauty and youth, mortal after all; and this world of change and impermanence is “the fields where roses fade.” All things that come into existence in our world, whether roses on a bush or metaphorical roses on the lips of girls, are fated to fade and die.

And that is why our writer is saddened, thinking of the impermanence of things in life, and of how the lively young girls and vigorous young boys he once knew and loved, his “golden friends,” are gone from his life and will not come again.

And of course we know that in mourning them, the writer is also mourning the loss of his own youth and the years that are no more.

That is the reality of life in the world. Nothing lasts, no matter how pleasant, no matter how beautiful. Part of our spiritual path in life is accepting that hard reality without letting the realization become destructive. We must not be too weighed down by the rue of remembrance of things past, but instead must learn to live in the present and appreciate our loved ones while we have them, knowing they will not be with us always.

That is a lesson hard for young people to learn, because it is the nature of the young to feel emotionally that they will live forever, even though their rational minds tell them otherwise. But inevitably, we all come to “brooks too broad for leaping,” and are laid in “fields where roses fade.”

The great gift of Alfred Edward Housman was the beautiful simplicity of his verse and how faithfully it reveals the bittersweet impermanence of life, the temporary nature of all things.




Tomorrow brings New Year’s Eve, followed by the calendar year 2014.

The old Romans had a god — Janus — for whom our month of January is named. He had two faces looking in opposite directions, one forward, one backward. That conveys well the feeling one has at the closing of the present year, when we consider what is past and what is yet to come. One is known, the other is not.

The ending of the year also brings the feeling of transience and impermanence so common to hokku. Nothing stays. New children will come into the world, and many people will leave it. Those remaining will continue to age and change, as do all things.

There is a winter poem by Robert Frost that reflects the passage of time, but in an unusual way. It is called

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten —
If I ever read it.

The poet sees a patch of snow lingering in a shadowed place after it has melted elsewhere. It is just a left-over, small scrap of snowy ground, and if one did not know better, from a distance it would look like a newspaper blown by the wind that finally settled in the corner when it was wetted and made heavy by rain.

It is not particularly lovely, but is dirtied by little specks of grime “as if small print overspread it,” that is, as if it were in fact a newspaper speckled all over with little black letters of print. That is simile, recognizable by the “as if” which is Frost’s equivalent here of saying that the scrap of remaining snow looks like a newspaper covered with specks of type.

That leads to the little “point” of the poem, which Frost speaks in metaphor, by saying that the patch of leftover snow is “the news of a day “I’ve forgotten — / If I ever read it.”

This little poem is Frost’s way of pointing out, very simply, the passage of time. The remaining scrap of snow speckled with grime is (metaphor) “the news of a day I’ve forgotten,” that is, it is a remnant of a snowy day that is past, a day the poet has already forgotten and would not even be reminded of were not the snow lying there in the protected corner. But the most significant words are the last:

If I ever read it.

By that he means, “If I was ever really aware and paying attention to what happened on that day.” He is not talking about world news or even local news. He is talking about the small events of the day — the flight of birds, the pause in snowfall, the tracks of some animal in the snowy yard.

That is often the case with us. The days pass us by without our really being present and aware in them. Like the god Janus, we are too often either looking to the past or looking to the future, seldom in the present day and the present moment. So the “news” of the present all too often goes “unread,” the little things of life all too often pass unnoticed as we go about our busy lives.

Frost’s poem is a good reminder to spend, in the coming year, more time in the present, and less in regrets for the past or concerns about what the future may bring. We can be certain it will bring both news we may like and news we may not, but that is an old story constantly repeated; thus things have aways been in human life.

I do not want to let this moment pass by without thanking all of you who regularly and faithfully read my site, as well as those of you who are new here. I am always pleased to receive your comments, and I read them all, whether you receive a return message from me or not. I also pay attention to requests for articles on a particular poem or topic, so I am always open to suggestions.

I hope the New Year may prove beneficial to all of us, not necessarily in material ways, but certainly in matters of the spirit.



New readers here may wonder why I call the old verses written by Bashō, Buson, Issa, and all the rest of the gang hokku, while elsewhere they are often called “haiku.” There are two main reasons for that, the second even more significant than the first:

1. All of the old Japanese writers prior to the end of the 19th century called such verses hokku, so “haiku” is both historically incorrect and anachronistic.

2. “Haiku” is a word that has become so widely applied to a number of disparate kinds of verse that, unlike the old hokku, to use it is often merely to confuse the reader.

If you have any doubts about #2, you need only look in a recent anthology (Haiku in English; the First Hundred Years) covering the last century (somewhat haphazardly) in the history of the Western haiku (not hokku) movement. When you see everything from a short poem by Ezra pound to one-line and even one-word poems called “haiku,” it is obvious that the definition of “haiku” has changed drastically since Shiki began using it near the end of the 19th century. One amateur reviewer, after reading the book, wrote, “The book almost gives the impression that haiku has devolved.”  What we can definitely say is that the definition of haiku has become unmanageably vague and various.

Westerners seem to have been confused by the hokku from their first exposure, and re-made it according to their preconceptions derived largely from English-language avant-garde poetry in the first half of the 20th century. The modern “haiku” movement that began in the latter half of the 20th century is largely the consequence of that.

The bulk of modern haiku no longer have a connection with the season, which was essential in hokku. Many also no longer have a connection with Nature and the place of humans within Nature, again an essential of the old hokku. Often, modern haiku emphasize the ego of the writer, something avoided in hokku. And one can find many other differences between hokku and all that is called “modern haiku” today.

So, to avoid that labyrinth of confusion, I use only the historically-correct term, hokku, and I use it only for those verses that maintain the aesthetic essentials of the old hokku, the connection with Nature and the seasons, with simplicity and selflessness. I regard hokku and modern haiku as two very different things that should never be confused.

Here is an old hokku by Bashō. As you see, it is written for a particular season, and it has as its subject matter Nature (and the place of humans within Nature):


Cold rain —
Enough to blacken the stubble
In the fields.

In the old original, it is in transliteration:

Shigeruru ya ta no arakubu no kuromu hodo

Shigeruru means the cold rains that come in the late autumn through early winter are falling. Ya is a cutting word, used to give the reader a meditative pause in which to feel and see the early winter rain. Ta no arakubu — “field’s stubble” means the short stubble left in the fields after the harvest. And arakubu no kuromu hodo means “enough (hodo) to blacken (kuromu) the “new” stubble (ara-kubu).

Even though this verse is over three hundred years old, it could have been written as a new hokku now, this very day. That is how close modern hokku is in spirit to the basic aesthetics of the old hokku tradition, in great contrast to the multiplicity of form and content found in modern haiku.



Autumn’s end;
The west wind fills
With falling leaves.

Soon we shall be at the end of October, and with it comes Halloween, with its more ancient name Samhain, pronounced SAH-win.

longleafbrWe all know about the traditional association of Halloween with ghosts and spirits and supernatural creatures of all kinds, but did you ever wonder why that association exists?

Halloween — as Samhain — begins, appropriately enough, at the disappearance of the sun on the evening of October 31st, and it extends through the next day of the Old Calendar, the day later called All Hallows.  It marks the end of autumn and the beginning of winter.

Now as you know from all the talk of Yin and Yang here, the forces of Yang — of light and warmth — decline through autumn, as the Yin element grows and reaches its maximum point in midwinter, at the time of the winter solstice.  Samhain lies halfway between the Autumn Equinox, when the daylight hours have declined until they are the same length as those of night, and Midwinter’s Day, the Winter Solstice.

So in terms of Yin and Yang, we can think of Halloween — of Samhain — as the doorway to the most Yin time of year, the time ruled by cold and the time when the days are shorter and the nights — the darkness — longer and felt most deeply.

Now you may recall as well that the so-called “spirit world” is Yin, in contrast to that of the living, which is Yang.  So traditionally, Samhain is the time when the doorway between the worlds of the living and the dead is said to open, thus its association with ghosts and the supernatural.  We can think of it as the doorway also to the most Yin time of the year, the time when Yin darkness and cold predominate instead of the Yang light and warmth of summer.

Because the old calendar of the West is so very close to the old hokku calendar of the East, Halloween also marks the end of the time of reading and writing autumn hokku and the beginning of the period for reading and writing winter hokku.

At the beginning of this posting is a hokku about the autumn wind and falling leaves.  In old hokku, falling leaves were an autumn subject, while fallen leaves were a topic for winter.  In the place where I live, Nature seems to be very much on schedule in that regard, because the leaves have been falling heavily for several days now, and it will not be long before the hardwood trees are quite bare, heralding the poverty and simplicity of winter, the time when the energies of life retreat to the root, the time of silence and solitude, the time of turning inward instead of outward.

I hope everyone has a very happy Halloween, and a good beginning to the inwardness of the winter season.



Some old Japanese hokku do not work very well in English because we are not familiar with all of the elements, for example in this autumn hokku by Sesshi:

Oriori ya            amado ni     sawaru     hagi no koe

Occasionally ya shutters at touching  bush-clover ‘s voice

Here is a rather loose translation, which English requires in this case:

Now and then,
The sound of the bush clover
Rubbing on the shutters.

Because this is an autumn hokku, we should intuit, as students of hokku, that it is the autumn wind causing the bush clover to rub against the shutters, making a scratching, rasping noise.  But the problem for most of us in the West is that we have never actually seen or experienced bush clover, which detracts somewhat from the effect.

That problem, however, can be turned to an advantage.  As students, this gives us a good opportunity to make some changes in order to practice writing new hokku.  Begin by asking yourself what would be likely to rub against the shutters where you live, and what would be in keeping with autumn?

We could just be general and a little vague, for example,

Now and then,
The sound of branches
Rubbing on the shutters.

Or we could be more descriptive:

Now and then,
Bare branches scratching
On the shutters.

Or we could be more definite:

Autumn gusts;
The sound of pine needles 
Brushing the shutters.

There are many possible variations involving, in some way, Autumn, the wind, shutters, and the sound of something against the shutters.  We could even go farther afield, being more inventive:

A shutter slams
On the abandoned house;
The autumn wind.


The sound of wind
Through tattered curtains;
The abandoned house.

As you can see, using an old hokku as a model for practice in writing new verses can lead us off in many directions.  That is how we use models in writing, as jumping-off points for many different possible variations and new hokku.

In the original verse, the shutters are likely more what we would think of as storm doors that go over the sliding doors on a Japanese house.  In the West, however, they would be the shutters that close over windows to protect them from storm and wind.

When using old hokku as models, always bring the elements in them to where you are, to your own biosphere and local cultural background.

Again, do not forget that in writing hokku in English, you should always label the finished verse by season, like this:


Now and then,
The scratch of bare branches
On the shutters.



It may seem odd that we can use some verses of Masaoka Shiki to demonstrate how to write hokku, given that Shiki provided the impetus for what became the erratic “haiku” movement, but as I have said many times, much of what Shiki wrote was just hokku under a different name.  Shiki’s verses were in general quite different from all that people now know as modern haiku in English.

Here is one such verse, which is an autumn hokku.  Usually I use my own translations, but in this case one can hardly better the translation by R. H. Blyth:

A pear

Peeling the pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife. 

Shiki was likely seeing an Asian pear (Pyrus pyrifolia), one of those yellowish round ones that have both a shape similar to an apple and something of its crispness.  But the verse is even better in English, because we picture one of the more soft and juicy Western pears (Pyrus communis), which are what we traditionally think of as “pear-shaped.”

But the point I want to make today is what students of hokku can learn from this verse, which is in every respect not only a hokku but also quite a good one.

First, we can see that it has the necessary two parts of a hokku, one long, one short, separated in Japanese by a cutting word and in English by its functional equivalent, a punctuation mark.

1.  Peeling a pear,

2.  Sweet drops trickle down the knife.

Pyrus pyrifolia
Pyrus pyrifolia

Of course these are fitted into the standard English-language three-line hokku form.

The first part of the hokku functions as the setting.  What is a setting in hokku?  It is the overall environment or circumstance or context in which something takes place.  In this verse that context — that situation — is “Peeling a pear.”

Next, this verse is quite typical of the most common hokku structure in that it has both a subject and an action, placed within the context of the setting.

The subject is “Sweet drops.”

The action (something moving or changing) is “…trickle down the knife.”

So that is it.  An absolutely normal but quite good hokku written by the fellow people think of (somewhat confusedly) as the founder of the modern haiku movement, in spite of the fact that most of Shiki’s verses have little or nothing in common with much that is written as “modern haiku” in English and other European languages today.

The other respect in which this verse is a good model for hokku is that it simply shows us an event related to Nature (the pear and the sweet drops) and humans as a part of Nature (the peeling action and the knife).  No commentary or explanation is added, and there is no symbolism or metaphor.  And it has very good sensation.  Remember that sensation in hokku is an experience of one or more of the five senses — seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling.

Think of it as seeing a closeup of the event in a clear mirror.  It reflects exactly what is happening:

Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.

Now imagine that the clear mirror is really the mind of the hokku writer.  Just like a real mirror reflecting what is there, the writer presents us with just what is happening, without adding frills or comments, and does so in very simple, easy-to-understand, everyday language.  That is what a writer of hokku does.  He or she is a mirror reflecting events happening in the context of the seasons.

Blyth tells us that this verse is also an example of what he feels to be the “real function of poetry, — to hold the mirror up to nature in such a way that we perceive its workings.

That is very different from what we are accustomed to in Western poetry, which often has quite a different purpose.  But this verse does in fact show us, as Blyth says, “the nature of a pear, the nature of a knife, the relation between the two….

All these are reasons why this verse makes a very good model for students of hokku — something that cannot be said of all of Shiki’s verses.

It is very important to keep in mind that hokku are written in one of the four seasons, and that the season is the underlying subject of the verse, which as a whole thereby expresses the character of that season.  So when you write hokku in English or other non-Japanese languages, you should always mark them with the season in which they are written, like this:


Peeling a pear,
Sweet drops trickle down
The knife.






Shiki, who set the “haiku” off on its increasingly erratic course near the beginning of the 20th century, wrote a great many verses  that are actually just hokku under a different name.  They still have a focus on Nature and are set within a particular season.  Some are good, some mediocre.  But Shiki also wrote verses that can show us what to avoid in hokku.

The one I discuss today is actually rather atypical of Shiki’s style, which on the whole favored realism, even if at times unattractive and boring realism.  But it is useful for showing the distinction between what hokku should not be and what hokku should be.

To make it brief, hokku should not be about fantasy or imagination.  Even when verses are not based on a single actual experience, they should be based on past actual experiences of Nature and the place of humans within Nature.

This autumn verse by Shiki, however, is bare fantasy:

Rice sparrows;
Shot by the scarecrow,
They fall into the sea.

To understand it, you must know that rice sparrows flock to the rice fields at harvest time to eat.  Old Japanese scarecrows were often given fake bows and arrows in an attempt to frighten the birds away from the grain.  But Shiki imagines that sparrows flying past the scarecrow and down over a bluff toward the sea have been shot by the scarecrow and are falling into the sea.

Well yes — you are right.  It is a rather ridiculous verse, but again, it shows us what not to do in hokku.

Blyth gives a good example by Shôha of the hokku approach to a similar subject.  Instead of indulging in flights of fantasy, the writer of hokku becomes like a reflecting mirror.  Here is the verse in my translation:

In the morning wind,
Its bow has turned the other way;
The scarecrow.

The wind has shifted the position of the scarecrow on his support, so now he is aiming his bow in a different direction.

It is easy to see that the unrealistic imagination of the writer has not intruded in that hokku, and that is the approach we want in hokku, which should not be “fantasy” verse.  It should take us into Nature, rather than into the mind and imagination of the writer.



An autumn hokku by Issa:

English: harvest moon
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Standing unaffected
Beneath a Harvest Moon —
The scarecrow.

Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet that nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.  We admire and ooh! and ah! over the large, bright Harvest Moon, but the scarecrow just stands there unconcerned.  Full moon or no moon, it is all one to him because he does not think.  When it is warm he warms, when it is cold he cools; he is equal to all circumstances because he does not have a mind that prefers one thing and dislikes another.

Robert Burns wrote:

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us.

To see ourselves as others see us would indeed be helpful.  But it would also be useful to know how other people see the world in general.  We do not all see the same world, nor are we even consistent as to how we see the world from day to day.  When we are sad the world looks sad, when we are happy the world looks happy.

As the Dao De Jing says, without ugliness, how could we know beauty?  Without sorrow, how could we know happiness?

But none of this affects the scarecrow, who in his way is like is said of God, that he rains on the just and unjust alike.  To the scarecrow it is all one whether there is a beautiful Harvest Moon or an ink-black night.  And the reason he is in this hokku is because humans, as with dolls, cannot help the feeling that because of the human-like form of scarecrows, there must be some undefined thing about them that is in some way “human.”  That is why they move us more than do mere piles of sticks or of old clothing.

The old Ch’an Buddhist treatise Xin Xin Ming says,

To attain the Great Way is not difficult;
Just beware of liking and not liking.
When there is nothing you love or detest
Then everything becomes bright and clear.

The Harvest Moon, by the way, is the full moon closest to the Autumn Equinox, which this year has already come and gone.  Now the days are growing ever shorter and the nights longer as the Yang of summer has given way to the increasing Yin of Autumn.









Today I would like to talk about morning glory hokku.

Why?  Because I happened to pass a blooming morning glory vine this morning, as you can see from the above photo.  Also, in old Japanese hokku, the morning glory was generally considered an autumn flower.  They called it asagao, “morning face,” — asa = morning, gao = face.

The morning glory is particularly appropriate for autumn hokku because it is so ephemeral, so transient, with blossoms that appear in the morning and are gone by afternoon.  That made a deep impression on the old hokku writers, because transience — the impermanence of things, was one of the main underlying aesthetic principles of old hokku, as it is of modern hokku.  That came from watching Nature and life, and it came also from the fundamental principal of Buddhism that all things change and eventually pass away, and we cannot really keep anything, least of all our own lives.

Moritake, an early writer of hokku, wrote this:

Asagai ni                     kyō wa miyuran        waga yo kana
Morning-glory as     today wa may seem   my    life  kana

Like the morning glory
It may seem today —
My life.

It is not very good as a hokku, but it makes an interesting point about the brevity of life.

Issa wrote:

Asagao no            hana de           fuitaru iori kana
Morning glory’s flowers by       covered  hut kana

Covered over
By morning glory flowers —
The hermitage.

That one always reminds me of my college years, when I too lived in a tiny cottage, its roof covered with blooming blue morning glories.

Taigi wrote:

Chirizuka ni   asagao sakinu                 kure no aki
Dust-heap on  morning glory blooms  end ‘s autumn

Out of the trash heap
A morning glory has bloomed;
Autumn’s end.

Autumn, you will recall, is the season when we particularly feel the transience of life, because it is the time of year when things begin to wither and return to the root.  It corresponds, in human life, to the early to mid “senior” years, and in the day it corresponds to evening.  So the morning glory, enjoyed in the dawn but gone by evening, is very appropriate for early autumn hokku where I live.



To the large numbers of  Westerners who began to read old hokku (usually misnamed “haiku”) in one or another English translation in the middle of the 20th century, it all looked so simple and quick.  All one had to do was to write a fast little poem in three lines, most likely in 17 syllables.  Of course that was a complete misunderstanding of the hokku that led to the creation of modern haiku, which tended to jettison completely any seasonal connection.

Modern hokku, however, saw the essential connection between hokku and the seasons in the old tradition, and kept it by simplifying it to remove the needless complexity and frequent artificiality of the overgrown “season word” system.

Ryôta (1718-1787) wrote this early autumn hokku:

Ie-ie ni   asagao sakeru   hazuki kana
house-house at morning-glory blooms leaf-month kana

At every house
A morning glory blooms;
The month of leaves.

The “month of leaves” was August.

There is a very similar verse by Buson (1716-1783)

Mura hyak-ko kiku naki kado mo mienu kana
Village hundred-houses chrysanthemum is-not gate also not-seen kana

A hundred-house village;
Not a gate to be seen
Without chrysanthemums.

The point of each verse is the popularity, in village life, of flowers that express and manifest the season.

In old hokku, both asagao (morning glory) and kiku (chrysanthemum) were words that indicated the season of autumn when used within a verse.  Today, of course, we follow the simplified hokku method of just categorizing each verse by season.  Otherwise we would be stuck, as modern Japanese “haiku” writers are (at least those who maintain a seasonal connection — most American haiku writers do not), with a list of some five thousand or more season words to deal with, not to mention seasonal attributions often far more artificial than the more natural connection of morning glories and chrysanthemums with autumn.

The result is that Ryôta’s hokku, if written today as a modern hokku, would appear like this:

Morning glory flower, species Ipomoea nil


At every house
A morning glory blooms;

The month of leaves.

That way, no one writing hokku now needs to memorize long lists of season words or to go through the needless complexities that such a system creates for both reader and writer.

Of course, being Westerners, we would no longer say “month of leaves.”  Instead, we might come up with something like this:


At every house
A morning glory blooms;
Autumn begins.






Many people think of Masaoka Shiki as a writer of haiku, but much of what Shiki wrote was simply hokku under a different and now very misleading name.

Because they were generally still hokku in form and content, Shiki’s verses were not at all like much of the modern haiku one finds on the Internet.  They even retained the season words that were essential to traditional Japanese hokku.

Shiki, however, was very influenced by the concept of Western “open air” painting — making a quick sketch out in the fields or forests  — that had become so popular in the Europe and America in the 19th century.  That accounts for why Shiki’s verses often are like illustrations, like woodcut scenes from Nature and life in general.

Shiki was very good at writing such “block print” verses, which are pleasant in their own way, even though they may lack the depth of earlier hokku.

Here is one of my favorite autumn verses by Shiki:

Aki ie no              to ni neru inu ga              yanagi chiru
Empty house ‘s   door at sleeping dog ga   willows fall/scatter

A dog asleep
At the door of the empty house;
Falling willow leaves.

Autumn is the time when the active energy — Yang — of life diminishes.  It is the time when the great dying in Nature begins, when the energy of life begins returning to the root in preparation for winter.

If we look at Shiki’s verse, that decline of active energy is present in its three elements:

1.  In the sleeping (inactive) dog;
2.  In the emptiness of the house;
3.  In the falling of the willow leaves.

So we can see that this verse is very much in keeping with the character of autumn.  But keep in mind that none of these things are symbols or metaphors.  We just feel these connections because of the layers of associations such things have for us.

There is a kind of overall loneliness in the verse, which again is in harmony with autumn.  Where have the people gone who once lived in the house?  Was the sleeping dog abandoned when they left, or is he a wandering stray who has found a place to sleep where no one will chase him away?  We are not told what the past was, which makes us just focus on what is before us, yet leaving us with the underlying feeling of something left unspoken.

In Nature, autumn is the waning of the year;
In human life, autumn is our years of growing old after middle age.
In the daily cycle, autumn is the late afternoon and early evening.

I always see this verse of Shiki as happening n the golden light of a late autumn afternoon, with everything quiet and drowsy, and the yellow willow leaves slowly scattering through the air.  This is the peaceful pause before the cold and hardness of winter.

But in learning hokku we do not let sleeping dogs lie.  Instead we take an old hokku and we play with it, trying different options and possibilities and substitutions.  That is a very good way to learn how to write new hokku.

For example, we could make this change:

A cat asleep
On the porch of the empty house;
Autumn rain.


A broken doll
In the window of the empty house;
The autumn evening.

There are many, many possibilities, and of course much of what we come up with in this practice exercise may not be as good as the original model, but that does not matter.  The point is that we are learning how to form hokku, and also learning to see what is effective and what is not.  Now and then we may hit upon something that works very well.  And of course, very importantly, we are seeing how changing the elements in a hokku also changes the relationship among them, and how by doing so we alter the whole effect of the verse.

Shiki wrote another autumn “empty house” verse that is not nearly as good:

Asagao no chi wo haiwataru   aki ya kana
Morning-glory ‘s earth wo rambling  empty house kana

A morning glory
Rambling over the ground;
The empty house.

One reason this verse is less interesting is that it tells us everything.  What you see is what you get.  There is no sense of anything deeper, of anything left unspoken.

In the “sleeping dog” verse, by contrast, we feel that there is much we are not told.  Where did the dog come from?  What will become of him?  And because of the dog, we wonder what happened to the people who lived there that caused them to abandon the house.  Not knowing all of that gives the verse a kind of latent energy.  But we do not feel nearly so invested in the “morning glory” verse.  It is just an untended garden plant wandering across the unkempt ground around a vacant house in autumn.  In that sense, it is far more “just a picture” than the “sleeping dog” verse.  There is no significant latent energy in it.

That missing sense of unspoken depth makes all the difference between a hokku that is just “flat” and a hokku that holds our interest.  Shiki often fell into the kind of verse that is just a lifeless photograph, but in the “sleeping dog” verse, he succeeded in writing something that affects us more deeply.  That underlying feeling of something left unsaid, combined with the overall harmony and unity of the verse, helps to express quite well the character of autumn.




Woman at left is painter Suzanne Valadon

The woman Sogetsu-ni wrote:


After the dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

This is a good example of two things.  First, it shows us the very old hokku technique of using two things united by a third.  The two things here are the wind in the pines and the cries of insects, and the uniting third element is “after the dance.”

Second, it shows us is how a hokku can take on quite a different meaning in the West than it originally had.  When we read this hokku, we perhaps picture an outdoor dance in the open air, with strings of lights and lots of couples having a good time, with perhaps a hint of young romance.  There is a sense of nostalgia that the dance has ended, that people have dispersed, and after all that rhythmic human sound and activity, one is left with the vastness of the evening, the sound of wind through the pines, and here and there the cries of crickets.

Originally, however, what is translated here as “the dance” was Bon Odori, which refers to an annual folk form of circle dance — not in couples — that was part of the celebration to welcome back the spirits of the dead.  We would think of it as rhythmic walking in a circle with hands thrown alternately up to one side and down to the other in time to the music.

Bon odori ato wa       matsu-kaze mushi no koe
Bon Dance after wa    pine-wind   insect  ‘s   voice

So literally, the hokku is:

After the Bon Dance,
The wind in the pines —
The cries of insects.

Given its connection with the dead and the fact that this dance began very early in autumn by the old hokku calendar (which placed the beginning of autumn in August), we can think of it as a ceremony recognizing that the coming of autumn meant a waning of the Yang energies of life and the coming of the Yin energies of the dying of the year.  The living are Yang; the dead are Yin.  So the dance is one welcoming the other.

Bon Odori Dancers (August 2004 at Imazu Primar...

That is something no one would even imagine by reading the verse in English, in the West, and without its original cultural background.

That raises the whole matter of the reading of old hokku by Westerners who generally have no notion of their intended cultural context.  Sometimes such old hokku can take on a meaning quite different from that originally intended.

If one is studying old hokku and its original significance in the cultural and literary traditions of Japan, knowing the actual context is very important.  But if, on the other hand, one is looking at what an old hokku can mean to Westerners today, in a European, Australian, New Zealand, or American cultural context, then we must just take the hokku as it stands, without its old cultural context, and see what it means to us now.  Many old hokku will have no meaning at all, because they are too closely linked to the old Japanese culture.  But many will take on quite a different context when read in the West, and that is as it should be, because we want to write new hokku in a Western cultural context.

There are two approaches to hokku, then.  One is to see it only in its old Japanese context.  The other is to take it, read it, and see what it means to us in a Western context, without necessarily any reference to what it meant originally.  In doing so, we may feel free to modify the text to allow it to become Western instead of Japanese.  We could even make it:

After the barn dance,
The wind in the pines —
The crickets chirping.

Of course a Bon dance and a barn dance are two completely different things, but again, we are using the original to learn to write hokku in English, not trying to translate literally now.

My view of the matter is that if old hokku are to be read and appreciated only in their original cultural context, then they become literary museum pieces, interesting for what they are (or rather, were), but of little use to people writing verse today.  But if, on the other hand, they are used, sometimes with appropriate modifications, as examples to show us how to write new hokku today, in the English language and in a Western cultural context, then they still have a purpose in the world beyond simply being curious antique literary artifacts.

That has always been my approach to hokku — that old hokku can provide us with good models for writing new hokku, if we use them for learning rather than regarding them merely as interesting relics of the past.  By doing so, we keep the old hokku tradition alive, along with its very important connection to Nature and the seasons, and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.



TANUKI IMAGES (Photo credit Wikipedia)
(Photo credit Wikipedia)

Ordinarily, I do not dwell much on specifically Japanese cultural aspects of the hokku, because my primary purpose in talking about hokku here is to teach how to write good new hokku in English, and in a non-Japanese environment.  But it might be interesting for readers to see some of the problems inherent in translating old Japanese hokku, particular those with cultural elements that may be unfamiliar to people in other countries.

Buson, in addition to a few good hokku and a number of mediocre hokku, also wrote some rather peculiar fanciful hokku based on Japanese folklore.  If one does not know anything about that subject, it is very easy to misunderstand or misinterpret these verses.

There is, for example, this one:

Aki no kure hotoke ni bakeru tanuki kana
Autumn ‘s nightfall Buddha into changed tanuki kana

We could translate it as:

The autumn evening;
It has turned into a Buddha —
The tanuki.

Most translators usually render tanuki as “badger,” but the tanuki is not really a badger.  It is actually an odd member of the dog family (Canidae).  An English term sometimes used for it is  “raccoon dog,” but that is a bit long, though the tanuki really does look somewhat like a cross between a raccoon and a dog.  My personal opinion is that when one is translating hokku about tanuki, it is likely best to just use the Japanese term, because chances are one is going to have to explain the hokku anyway, as I am about to do here.

Now if you looked at the translation I gave above, you are likely still wondering what the hokku means.  Is Buson saying the tanuki has become a Buddha, like in some old Zen story?  Or does it mean something else?

It might help a bit to tell you that in Japanese folklore, there are two animals noted for being able to change their form, to “shapeshift,” to take on the appearance of something completely different.  The first shapeshifting animal is the fox, but even better at shapeshifting than the fox is the tanuki.  So when Buson says the tanuki has “turned into a Buddha,” does he really mean that it has transformed itself — shapeshifted — into the appearance of an image of the Buddha?  Hotoke in Japanese means “Buddha,” but its secondary meaning is “Buddha image.”

Before we decide, I would like to give a slightly different translation, now that you know what a tanuki is and does in folklore:

The autumn evening;
It has transformed into a Buddha! —
The tanuki.

By “Buddha,” in this case, Buson would have meant a Buddha image.

In the Japanese version given at the beginning of this posting, I loosely translated  bakeru as “changed,” but it really means to transform one’s appearance, to change one’s form, even to disguise one’s self.

Knowing that, we could try a third translation:

The autumn evening;
Disguised as a Buddha —
A tanuki!

I think I like that one best of all, so far.

Now what inspired this odd hokku?  We might keep in mind that stone or pottery images of tanuki standing on their hind legs, from about one to three feet in height, were (and are) quite popular in Japan, and were often to be found outdoors, including in gardens and near temple sites.

We might then think that Buson was in such a place as the evening darkness was coming on, and that as he walked in the growing shadows, he saw a dark image that he thought at first to be an image of a Buddha, but on getting closer, he was amused to see that it was actually just a tanuki image.

Conversely, we could suppose that Buson perhaps saw the dark shape of a standing Buddha image outdoors near dusk, and fancifully imagined that a tanuki was trying to fool him by taking on that form.

Either interpretation is possible.  Of course it is also very possible that Buson just created the whole scene in his mind for the fun of it, for the effect.  He rather liked to create what he thought were “artistic” verses out of his imagination.

Fact is, however, that Buson left a story connected with this particular hokku.  He tells how he was spending a night on his own at a large, shrub-surrounded house in town, and had just pulled the quilt over himself and gone to sleep when there was a frightful banging and pounding that went on repeatedly.  Buson got up and toddled to the door, but no one and nothing was there.

He had barely gotten back to his bed when the pounding began again.  So once more he got up and checked the door, and once more no one was there.

At this point Buson was so unnerved that he found the caretaker of the place, who told him it was a tanuki, and that if the noise began again, Buson should quickly open the door and chase the tanuki, while the caretaker would be waiting in the shrubs.  But when the noise began again and Buson hurriedly opened the door and the caretaker ran out  from the shrubs, not even a shadow was to be seen.

Now the bothersome thing is that this pounding went on for five nights.  Buson, with bloodshot and bleary-eyes from lack of sleep, had just decided that enough was enough and he and was going to leave the place when a servant of the owner of the house appeared and reported that an old tanuki had been killed in Yabushita village — and that it was probably the one who had been making all the night noise.

And indeed there was no more pounding and banging that night.  But Buson began to think of the unfortunate tanuki that had come to him for five nights, and began to feel compassion for him.  So he called a priest named Zenkubo and paid him to perform a ritual so that the spirit of the tanuki might have peace.

Then, after giving this little story of his experience, Buson presents the hokku we have been discussing.

Knowing this additional information, should we decide that our very first thought that the tanuki might have become a Buddha in some religious or Zen sense was correct? In that case, we could just translate it as:

The autumn evening;
It has become a Buddha —
The tanuki.

Of course the notion that just a ritual could make a tanuki into a Buddha is unrealistic, so perhaps what Buson really intended was a kind of hyperbolic euphemism in which “become a Buddha” really meant “has died.”

Now do you see how tricky translating unclear hokku can be?  A hokku should never require a “backstory” to be understood.  And we should never have to sit and ponder to figure out the meaning of a hokku.  We should be able to grasp it immediately.  That is why, as hokku, Buson’s verse is lacking.  Even knowing all that we know at this point about the tanuki in folklore and about Buson’s experience of pounding in the night, we still are not quite certain what he intended with this verse.

In any case, now you know several possibilities for what the hokku means, and also what a tanuki is.  But the most important things you should take away from this discussion are:

1.  Never write a hokku that requires additional information to be understood.
2.  Never write a hokku that cannot be quickly grasped by the reader.

Given that we cannot determine for certain what Buson meant by this verse, we can safely move on to a more important question:  Which of the possible translations we have seen makes the best hokku?

That is easy.  It would be one based on the notion that Buson either saw a tanuki statue and mistook it for a Buddha image in the twilight, or he saw a Buddha image and imagined that a shapeshifting tanuki had taken on that form to trick him.

So my favorite, with one small change, is still:

The autumn evening;
Disguised as a Buddha image —
A tanuki!

It is a playful verse, nothing serious, but to understand it, a reader would still have to know that in Japanese folklore a tanuki is a notorious shapeshifter.

If for some reason you have been intrigued by the tanuki and want to know more, here is a link to a very useful page explaining the evolution of its folklore and representation in Japan over time:




In recent postings I have talked about how important unity is to hokku– how a relationship must be felt by the reader among the elements included in the verse.  And I have talked about how the reader must make a small intuitive leap in order to “put everything together,” to see how those elements relate.

Here is another basic example.  There are numbers of hokku which have to do with human psychology, and even use the words “I” or “me,” which ordinarily we avoid, but which treat these  (or should) objectively, the same way one would write about a buzzing fly or a croaking frog.

This summer example is by Taigi:

“There goes a firefly!”
I almost said;

The key to this verse is the last line, which is really the setting in which the event happens.  You will recall that in hokku, the “setting” is the wider environment or context in which something occurs.  Here it is solitude, and in this solitude the writer suddenly sees a firefly flitting past.  In the childlike excitement of the moment, his first urge is to call it to the attention of someone.  But even before the words can escape his mouth, he remembers that there is no someone; he is alone, and so the words remain unspoken.

The focus in this verse should not be on any kind of emotionalism, not “Poor me!  Here I am all alone!”  Instead, it should be on the natural urge to share something exciting with someone else, a common human trait.

It is very easy for Westerners to wrongly focus on the personal aspect of such verses, because so much of Western poetry deals with the “I”  — “I think,” “I want,” “I like,” “I hate,” “I love,” but in hokku, humans are just a part of Nature, and their emotions are not to be exalted above it.  Hokku is more like the rarer Western poetry that treats human psychology objectively.

In that regard, Taigi’s hokku is a shorter and eastern version of the objective sentiments found in Robert Frost’s poem The Pasture, only in Taigi the “you” is present only by its absence:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf 
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.



As most of you know, Bashō wrote this spring hokku, which R. H. Blyth translated as:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in, —
The sound of the water.

Buson wrote a summer hokku, which Blyth rendered thus:

In the old well,
A fish leaps up at a gnat:
The sound of the water is dark.

What is not obvious from these translations is that both Bashō and Buson used a similar beginning in the original:

Furu ike ya = The old pond;

Furu ido ya = The old well;

Also, both used a verb meaning “leap/jump” — tobu — though Bashō used it in the form tobi.

In addition, both used the sound of something:

Mizu no oto = the sound of water (literally “water’s sound”)
Uo no oto – the sound of a fish (literally “fish’s sound”)

We can better see these similarities in English if we translate more literally than Blyth.  Here is Bashō:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in — 
The sound of water.

And here is Buson:

The old well;
The sound of a fish leaping at a gnat
Is dark.

It is not hard to see that the middle line of Buson is awkwardly long in English.  But interestingly, if we take away his added “dark,” we are left with a hokku remarkably like that of Bashō, even though we are forced to move the “leap/jump” to the last line to avoid  syntactical problems in English:

The old well;
The sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

That in itself, without Buson’s added comment that the sound is “dark,” works quite well as a hokku.  And it also shows beginning students how interesting variations on the same form are easily possible, and can have quite a different effect depending on the elements one uses.

Buson’s hokku was possible in Japanese, because “hokku” Japanese (not the same as modern Japanese) was very telegraphic, and much could be crammed into seventeen phonetic units:

Furu ido ya  ka ni tobu   uo no oto kurashi
Old pond ;    gnat at leap fish ‘s sound dark

Bashō’s hokku was:

Furu ike ya   kawazu tobi-komu   mizu no oto
Old pond ;   frog       jump-in         water ‘s sound

If Buson had followed Bashō’s form more strictly, he would have had:

Furu ido ya   ka ni tobu   uo no oto
Old well ;    gnat at leap  fish’s sound

That makes only fourteen phonetic units in Japanese, whereas the standard for old Japanese hokku was seventeen; so Buson filled up the missing units by adding the word kurashi — “dark” — which really is superfluous.  A reader educated in hokku will intuit the darkness of the well (and consequently of the sound) without the addition.

What this demonstrates is one reason why, in modern hokku, we do not have a rigidly fixed number of syllables that must be included in a verse.  We just keep the verse brief and simple, and that matter takes care of itself.

If anyone wonders what happened to the word ya in the last two literal English translations, it is represented by the semicolon, which gives us the same effect of a meaningful pause, and thus serves the same function of separating the longer and shorter parts of these hokku.

If I were to render Buson’s full verse into English, it would be like this:

An old well;
The dark sound of a fish
Leaping at a gnat.

The Japanese word translated “gnat” here — ka — is actually the word for “mosquito.”  But not only would those three syllables really complicate keeping a translation of this verse short, but also, in common usage, “gnat” and “mosquito” in England and America are virtual synonyms.  That is why both Blyth and I have chosen to use “gnat” here.

Of course no one needs to know old Japanese in order to write hokku in English.  One only needs to know the principles and techniques of hokku.  I just include the Japanese here to show how structure and language affect composition.

I should also add that using the preposition “in” as Blyth did in his Buson translation beginning “In the old well” is not really necessary in modern English language hokku.  Because of the principle of unity in hokku, an educated reader will automatically know that the fish leaping at a gnat is IN the old well.  That enables us to use the original beginning quite literally, with “The old well” or “An old well” as both the first line and the setting of the verse.



People often forget that in learning hokku, one does not just learn how to write them, but also how to read them. The same principles that apply to writing apply also to reading, and both are important.  If one does not know how to read a hokku, it will fail just as miserably as if it were the creation of a person who does not know how to write hokku.

One very significant characteristic of hokku is unity. That means, as I have said before, that a hokku is not just a random assemblage of things tossed together into a brief verse. For example, I could write

The dog barks;
A bouquet of dried flowers
In a window.

That would not be a hokku, in spite of the fact that it is in three lines, and despite correctly having a longer and a shorter part separated by punctuation (which also ends the verse). So merely having the correct “format” does not make a hokku, just a poor imitation.

What is wrong with it? It has no unity. There is a barking dog, and a bouquet of dried flowers in a window, but there is no relationship felt between them. They are just things and events thrown together. It does not matter that in the “real world” these may have actually been experienced. The fact remains that for the reader, there is no perceived relationship, no sense of unity, and that is why it fails as hokku.

This is something that people new to hokku, particularly those coming to it from other kinds of brief verse, tend not to grasp until it is pointed out to them.

Issa wrote a hokku that is a very basic lesson in unity, because we can easily see in it how the parts of the verse must relate to one another for it to make sense. If the reader does not make that connection, there is no hokku. That means the reader must trust that there is a connection, and the writer must know the aesthetics and principles of hokku well enough to make sure that the connection is there. If either writer or reader fails in this, the hokku will also be a failure.

English: Housefly

So here is Issa’s verse — only eight words in English. It is a summer hokku (remember that a hokku should always be marked with the season):

One man
And one fly;
The big room.

Knowing that in hokku things relate to one another, a reader familiar with this principle will intuit that the man and the fly are IN the big room. It does not need to be stated in words. And further, from his or her own experience, the reader will immediately feel the bothersomeness of that tiny fly to the one man in the very large room. We do not have to be told that the fly will keep lighting on the man’s forehead, or on his book, and the man will swat at it with his hand and it will fly away, only to be back again to trouble him repeatedly. And all of this is only made more bothersome by the fact that it is a summer day. One can even hear the buzzing of the fly in the  warm silence of the room.

In addition to unity —  the relationship between room, man, and fly — this hokku demonstrates rather obvious humor, which we feel in the “big” man in the much bigger room at the mercy of a tiny fly.

That does not mean all hokku should have this kind of psychological humor that is really very close to senryu. That is not the lesson of this verse for us. What we should learn from it is that everything in a hokku should be felt to relate to everything else in a meaningful way, so that we see the underlying unity and harmony of life that we so often do not notice in the apparent disparateness of things.

Today, for example, it is pouring rain where I am, even though it is the middle of June. I am staying indoors, quietly writing this posting. My remaining indoors relates to the rain, because when it rains, particularly when it pours, people tend to react by staying under shelter. And the rain seems to encourage quiet in us rather than action, which is precisely why I am sitting here tapping these keys to tell you about it instead of occupying myself with something else.

So please keep in mind, as you begin to learn hokku, that things should relate to one another in a verse, and that when a verse is read, the reader should be able to see that relationship. Otherwise, if the writer does not understand this principle of hokku, there will be nothing for the reader to “put together,” no threads uniting everything in the verse. That leaves us with just a three-line brief verse, a random assemblage of unrelated things. Whatever one may call it, it cannot be legitimately called a hokku.



Bashō wrote:

In the morning dew,
Muddied and cool —
The melons.

Just one look at that should tell readers that hokku is nothing at all like what we think of as “poetry” in the West, which is why I generally do not refer to hokku as “poems.”  To think of them as “poems” or “poetry” just confuses the reader unfamiliar with hokku.

This is a particularly stark example.  It just presents the reader with four elements — morning dew, mud, coolness, and melons, but those all combine to form one harmonious unity, one sensory impression.

R. H. Blyth used this verse (but in his own translation) as an example of verses that “baffle the commentator.”  He then says,

All he might say is legs to the snake, horns to the rabbit, for these lines bring us as close to the thing-in-itself as possible.”

What he means is that such a hokku is so very close to the primary sensory experience that anything added would take away from or distort it needlessly, like trying to add legs to a snake or put horns on a rabbit.

This verse is a primordial sensory experience, and it is the kind of verse that would come from the mind of child, from the early years when sensory experience is so important — the taste of a thing, its feel when touched, its sound, its visual appearance, its smell — before we grow older and begin adding our own mental elaboration and ornamentation to everything we see.  Or as we say in hokku, “Before thinking and commentary are added.”

The hardest thing, of course, is to be aware enough to note a subject like this, one that is so completely simple yet nonetheless has an inexpressible sense of significance to it.  Move away from that ever so slightly, and it is all lost.

If we were to analyze this verse structurally, it breaks down like this:

Setting: In the morning dew
Subject: The melons
Action: Muddied and cool

Now you may say that technically, “muddied and cool” are descriptive words, not literally “action.”  But remember that in hokku “action” is just a reminder word that hokku should have something moving or changing.

“Well,” you may say, “I don’t see anything moving or changing in this.”  Technically you would be right, but intuitionally we feel the change that early morning brings, with its cool dewdrops that turn the dust on the melons to mud.  And so that is our “action” in this verse.




If you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know how important an understanding of Yin and Yang are to the practice of hokku.  And you will know that speaking very broadly, Yin is cold and passive, while Yang is warm and active.

We are now entering the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, and that means we are entering the most Yang season of the year.

We must remember, however, that Yin and Yang are relative terms.  So even though summer is, overall the “Yangest” of months (well, that word seems to work in English) nonetheless it too has its stages; and here they are:

Early summer is increasing Yang and decreasing Yin, so we may say that it is a “Yin” time of summer, but note that “decreasing Yin.”

The height of summer is the most Yang time, but as you will recall, when Yang reaches its maximum, it begins to turn into its opposite; so just when summer Yang gets to its highest point, that bit of Yin begins to grow in it, which takes us to late summer.

Late summer is decreasing Yang and increasing Yin, which you can see is just the opposite of spring.  So to summarize (should I say “summerize” in this case?), for convenience we can divide summer into three parts:

Early summer is growing/increasing Yang, the height of summer is maximum Yang, and late summer is decreasing Yang.

Those descriptions should call to mind the “set phrases” for the three phases of a season in hokku — “begins,” “deepens,” and “departs” (or their equivalents), that may be used for the setting of a hokku,  for example:

Summer begins;
Summer deepens;
Summer departs;

Now, having gotten through that background, we can take a look at what all this means in practical terms for hokku.

It applies to the two kinds of harmony in hokku — harmony of similarity and harmony of contrast.  Harmony of similarity means using elements in a hokku that are similar in some way.  Harmony of contrast means using elements that we tend to think of as “opposites” in some way.

To make that plain, a hot cup of tea and a hot summer day are “similar,” so if we put them both in a hokku, we have harmony of similarity.

A cold block of ice and a hot summer day are contrasts/opposites, so if we put them together we have harmony of contrast.

You may be wondering why we speak of opposite or contrasting things put together in a hokku as  still having harmony — why aren’t they inharmonious?  It is because we tend to feel that such opposites naturally go together, therefore harmony.

Now a very important part of Yin and Yang is that each calls forth its opposite.  What does that mean?  It is easy to understand once I tell you about it, and you are already aware of it, though you may have never thought of it in these terms.  It is simply that living things react to strong Yang in a Yin way, and they react to strong Yin in a Yang way.

That is why, on a hot summer day (Yang), you want to jump in a lake or river (Yin); similarly, on a cold winter’s night (Yin) you want a blazing fire on the hearth and a warm blanket (Yang).  It also explains why people in very sunny climates (Yang) tend to develop darker skin (Yin) as protection, and why people in very cloudy climates (Yin) tend to develop lighter skin (Yang), such as is found in Ireland, for example.  Of course that is something that happens over thousands of years, but it happens nonetheless.

So now you know what is behind this summer hokku by Taigi:

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

It is the middle of a hot summer day, and that calls forth a Yin reaction, which in this case is to take a nap — to become inactive.  And we see that through the gradual slowing and eventual motionlessness in sleep of the hand that was fanning the drowsy subject of the verse.  It is a Yin reaction to a Yang environment.

We see a similar, though less obvious example, in a summer hokku by Buson (I translate loosely here):

What joy!
Striding through a stream,
Sandals in hand.

Now that would lose its significance if we did not know it as a summer hokku, because it is the contrast between the warmth of the day and the coolness of the stream on his bare feet that gives the writer such delight.

So now you have a basic understanding of the Yin and Yang of summer, and how it applies to hokku.  Of course there is more to be said on that subject, but for now I will just close with the last words from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen:

Der sad de begge To Voxne og dog Børn, Børn i Hjertet, og det var Sommer, den varme, velsignede Sommer.

“There sat the two of them, grown up yet still children, children at heart, and it was summer, the warm, blessed summer.”



Issa wrote a hokku for the end of spring:

Sough, sough —
Spring departs;
The grass of the fields.

If you do not like the respectable old word sough for the rustling, sighing sound of the wind through the grasses, you might prefer something else that is onomatopoeic:

Sssss, sssss —
Spring departs;
The grass in the fields.

But actually, for me the first one is problematic because few people know the meaning or pronunciation of “sough” these days.  And the “Sssss” of the second one might be just meaningless and confusing to readers untrained in hokku, who are not likely to intuit that it is the sound of the (unmentioned) wind in the grasses.

So I will go with a translation more obvious and easily grasped, yet very effective:

Departing spring;
The wind bends the grasses
Of the fields

Issa watches the high grasses in the fields, bending and sighing in waves as a gentle wind rustles across them, and he realizes that spring is ending.

Edward FitzGerald, in his reinterpretation of Omar Khayyam, saw the end of spring and expressed openly what is only latent in Issa:

Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang,
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows!

It is a lamentation of the passing of spring, and with it, of the passing of youth, the springtime of our lives.  The days of our youth are a tale in a book with fragrantly-scented pages, but that brief story ends, that book closes, never to be opened again.  That, of course, is metaphor.


To emphasize that finality, he gives another metaphor for the passing of something sweet, for the passing of springtime and youth:  the nightingale that sang so beautifully, yet briefly, in the branches — where did it come from?  And where has it gone? Why does he lament that spring vanishes with the rose? Because until relatively recent times, the roses of the Middle East and of Europe bloomed in the spring, and then were gone. When they went, so did spring. Our modern “ever-blooming” roses are the result of the introduction of previously unknown kinds and of hybridization into Europe and America.

We see some of the techniques of hokku in this, though used in a far more obvious way.  We see the reflection of spring in the time of youth, and we find a very strong sense of transience, of the brevity of life as it passes. But hokku would never present these things in so obvious a manner.  Instead, hokku just shows us something happening in Nature, and in that happening, as in Issa’s hokku, we feel everything expressed about that time of year, that time of life.

And of course with spring having passed, this means we are now in the season of summer hokku.




Translating Japanese verses is not always a simple matter.  Some translate easily and well, others present problems.  For example, I might translate a verse by Shiki as

People keep resting
On the one stone there;
The summer fields.

R. H. Blyth, however, translates the same verse as

One after another,
People rest on this stone
On the summer moor.

The truth is that both translations are compromises, because Shiki wrote it in very telegraphic syntax which reads literally

Consecutive persons repose summer fields’ stone single

In my verse, I chose to emphasize the presence of only one stone.  That is why travelers through the fields keep stopping to rest on it.  It is their only chance.  Blyth, however, chose instead to emphasize the “consecutiveness” of the stopping people, which is why he says “one after another.”  He ignores the singularity of the stone.

Blyth even gives an extended commentary on the verse, in which he tells us that “the stone is under a tree, in the shade, and it is just the right height and shape, so that it seems to invite everyone to sit on it.”

Well, as readers here know, I have great admiration for Blyth, and so I understand why he  mentions — creatively adds, really — a tree and its shade over the stone, even though there is not a word about them in the original.   Blyth is intuiting why everyone would stop and sit on that stone, and a tree and its shade would certainly make it more inviting on a hot summer day in the fields.

In my translation, however, I am perhaps more of a cruel realist, more like Thomas Hardy.  The passers-by sit on that stone not because there is a tree shading it (there is not), but simply because it is the only big rock in all the wide fields, their last and only chance to sit and rest their weary feet, whether the sun has heated the stone to a summery temperature or not.

I cannot bring myself, in translation, to add a tree and its shade that are not in the original, but I must admit that to really convey all that is found in the original verse, one has to break out of the hokku form, perhaps

One after another,
People stop to sit on it —
The single stone
In the summer fields.

So there is another way of writing Nature verse for you, a kind of combination of the hokku and the quatrain.  Should I call it a “quakku”?







Buson wrote a pleasant summer hokku:

An evening breeze;
The water laps against
The heron’s legs.

R. H. Blyth made a very pertinent comment on this verse, a remark precisely in keeping the principles of modern hokku:

English: Adult Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodia...

Buson’s intuitions are strong and clear and quick enough to avoid the colouring of his mind by emotion, or its distortion by intellection.”

Blyth is, of course, talking about just what we practice in modern hokku. We write our verses without any “coloring of the mind” — without using them as symbols or metaphors or allegories — presenting them in all their simplicity and purity. And we present them without “thinking” added, which Blyth here terms intellection. That means we do not use hokku to preach, or to advocate political or social change, nor do we use them to make some abstract point.

Of course there will be people who will say, “This is not poetry! It is just an event with nothing added!”

Precisely. That event with nothing added is the point. If you take pleasure in it without all the obvious frills of poetry, without the clever additions of a “poet,” then it is likely you have the kind of mind that appreciates hokku for what it is.

I always say we should not think of hokku as poetry, because if we do, we automatically haul in all the baggage one has grown up associating with poetry in the West. But hokku is nothing like the bulk of Western poetry. In hokku the poetry lies in the event itself, not in anything a poet may say about it.  That is why the writer of hokku must be quick in grasping only that essential event, before the mind begins to add all kinds of thoughts about it, before it begins to decorate it with mental ornaments.

It is always helpful to ask why a particular hokku is effective.  In this one, not only do we have the absence of the coloring of the imagination and the absence of “thinking,” we also have a very straightforward harmony of similarity.  It lies in the movement of the evening breeze combined with the movement of the water lapping against the heron’s legs.  That is all we need when these two elements are united by the heron, who stands in them both.



We are moving (depending on where you are), from spring to summer.  In my region we have already had some very warm days, and so it is a good idea, in my postings about hokku, to now use the “summer” setting.

As readers know, the kind of hokku I teach is based on the best of old Japanese hokku, but for practical teaching purposes I sometimes modify them to fit an American environment (and you can do the same for your environment, wherever that may be, whether Australia or Austria or Finland or India or some other locale).

Shiki once wrote a spring verse:

The spring day;
Not a person stirring
In the village.

I would like to change it, however, to make it a more effective hokku by setting it in the season of summer, rewriting it like this:


The hot afternoon;
Not a soul stirring
In the neighborhood.

I hope you feel the improvement made by that change.  But do you know why it is better?

Let’s look again at Shiki’s “spring” version:

The spring day;
Not a person stirring
In the village.

If you are a regular reader here, you will recall that a hokku should manifest the character of a particular season through something happening in it.  The problem with Shiki’s verse is that it is inharmonious.  It first presents us with spring — the time of growing Yang — that is, of freshness, of increasing energy and growth.  But then Shiki tells us that not a person is stirring in the village.  That is contrary to the character of spring, which is increasing activity after the quiet of winter.  That is why Shiki’s verse does not feel right, even though he may actually have seen such a scene.

But remember, a hokku does not show us just any event, but rather an event that manifests the character of the season, and thereby makes us feel its significance.

That is why the change of season is a big improvement.  Let’s look again at the revised version:

The hot afternoon;
Not a soul stirring
In the neighborhood.

First it presents us with the heat of the afternoon — a strong physical sensation.  Then it gives us that heat (Yang) reflected in its opposite — inactivity (Yin).

Summer hokku are generally of two main kinds — harmony of similarity and harmony of opposites.  Harmony of similarity is the putting of two similar things together, like heat (Yang) and movement (Yang).  Harmony of opposites is putting together two things which, though opposite, are nonetheless perceived to be harmonious together.  Think of a warm fire (Yang) in winter (Yin), or dipping your hand into a cool stream (Yin) in the heat of summer (Yang).  Even though they manifest opposites, we naturally feel they go together.

So the revised verse uses harmony of opposites:

The hot afternoon;
Not a soul is stirring
In the neighborhood.

The inactivity of the neighborhood residents is very much in keeping with the heat of the afternoon.  We can say it “negatively reflects” the heat of the afternoon by showing us its opposite, just as drinking a hot cup of herbal tea when it is snowing outside also shows us a harmony of opposites, with one “negatively reflecting” the other (cold outside, heat in the cup of tea).

If you are familiar with R. H. Blyth’s work, you will note that I have borrowed his alliterative combination “soul stirring,” instead of Shiki’s less effective “person.”

Once you begin to understand how and why harmony and unity in hokku are important and why they work, you can easily put them to use in improving your own practice of hokku.




One more Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and then I will move on to something else.  It seems odd to be discussing a poem about autumn, given that it is spring now, but here it is nonetheless.

In this poem, we note something Hopkins frequently does; he talks about Nature, but applies his (Catholic) religion to it, believing that God is revealed in Nature.  William Wordsworth had as his theory of poetry that one should use the words of everyday language, “and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination.” Hopkins, with his often strange and creative vocabulary, cannot be accused of using only “everyday language,” but he is certainly guilty of throwing  a “coloring of the imagination” (his Catholic religion) over his subject matter (Nature).  I tend to think of it as “smearing God all over Nature.”  It is quite the opposite of the aesthetics of hokku, in which Nature is preferred without any “coloring of the imagination” (you will note that Wordsworth uses the British spelling “colouring,” while I use the American “coloring.”).

But on to the poem, which I shall discuss part by part — Hurrahing in Harvest.  A “hurrah” is a shout, an exclamation of joy and approval, so we could say this means “Rejoicing in the Harvest.”

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks arise

Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour

Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier

Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

The poet stands looking over the golden fields.  It is the end of summer.  He sees the stooks standing all over the now-harvested fields of grain.  Stooks are sheaves of grain placed upright together in a shape like a teepee.  Hopkins finds them beautiful in a barbarous (“unsophisticated, rough, wild”) way.

Then he looks up to the sky above, and comments,

what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour

Of silk-sack clouds!

The “wind-walks” are the sky itself, the open sky, the various routes through which the moving clouds pass as well as the gaps between them.  Hopkins likens the white clouds to smooth and shiny sacks made of silk, remarking on the the beauty of their changes as they drift across the sky.

…has wilder, wilful-wavier

Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

He asks himself, has there ever been anything so wild and wilful and wavy as this “meal-drift” that  moulds itself, then melts across the skies?  He is speaking of the shapes and transformations in shape of the clouds.  He likens them to “meal-drift,” that is, to the white dust that drifts in the air and gathers here and there in an old-fashioned mill when grain is being ground into flour.  He likens the clouds to this fine, white powder, and describes it as moulding (American spelling “molding”) itself together into one cloud form, then melting, changing shape, into another form.  Again, he is speaking of the visual transformations of the clouds as they pass across the sky.

But now Hopkins brings in religion and begins smearing it over all he sees:

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, 

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

Hopkins walks along, and as he walks he raises his eyes to the clouds and the sky, and simultaneously, he says, he lifts up his heart — his emotions.

This phrase “lift up heart,” would have come easily to Hopkins, because he would have heard it often in the Roman Catholic mass, when, in a preface to the consecration of the host (bread), the old Latin mass ran like this:

Priest: Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you).

People: Et cum spiritu tuo (And with your spirit).

Priest: Sursum corda (Lift up [your] hearts).

People: Habemus ad Dominum (We lift them up to the Lord).

So Hopkins lifts up his eyes and his heart to the skies, and looks

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour;

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

So he is doing just what the Catholic mass says:  he is lifting up his heart to the Lord (Jesus), whom he finds in the clouds and sky.  He looks at the gloriously beautiful scene of passing clouds in the blue sky in order to “glean our Savior,” that is, to see Jesus in their beauty.  “To glean” is an old term from grain harvesting.  It meant originally to gather stalks of grain accidentally or even intentionally left behind by the reapers, a practice of benefit to the poor, as in chapter two of the biblical story of Ruth; here Hopkins uses it to mean “gather.”  Like a gleaner, he looks at the beauty of the skies at summer’s end to “gather” Jesus, to see him there.  And he fancies that he also sees a response from Jesus in the clouds:

And, éyes, heárt, what looks, what lips yet gave you a

Rapturous love’s greeting of realer, of rounder replies?

He asks his eyes and his heart what looks (of a person) and what lips (of a person) ever before gave him a rapturous greeting of love in “realer, rounder replies” — in replies more “real” and more “round” (both roundish in shape and round as meaning “full, complete.”  In other words, he sees the clouds in the sky as the replies, the unspoken but real and visible “words” of Jesus to Hopkins, as he gazes up at them.  So Hopkins is not only fantasizing that he is seeing Jesus in the sky and clouds, but he also imagines that he sees Jesus expressing love back to him and speaking to him in the changing shapes of the roundish clouds.

But Hopkins does not stop his imaginings there:

And the azurous hung hills are his world-wielding shoulder

Majestic—as a stallion stalwart, very-violet-sweet!—

Now Hopkins looks to the low hills, blue in the distance, calling them “azurous hung hills” — hills hung with blue (azure).  He wrote this poem on the 1st of September in the year 1877, on his way home from fishing in the Elwy River in the Vale of Clwyd (pronounced “Clooid”) in Wales, so we may easily picture hills in the distance.  And these bluish hills, Hopkins imagines, are the shoulder of Jesus, who carries the world.  Hopkins sees them thus as majestic, both strong as a stallion (male horse), but also “sweet” — gentle and pleasant — as violets. We may also think of “azurous hung hills” as meaning the distant hills with the blue (azurous) sky above them and forming their background.

One cannot help thinking that Hopkins seeing Jesus in the clouds of the sky as someone giving a “rapturous love’s greeting,” and seeing him in the hills as “strong as a stallion” yet sweet and mild, expresses a thinly-veiled homosexuality, and after all, Hopkins was homosexual by nature.

Hopkins says of the sky, the clouds, the hills,

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting; which two when they once meet,

The heart rears wings bold and bolder

And hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

That is, the beauty of the sky with its passing clouds and the blue hills were things already there before Hopkins paused to notice them.  But before he was there, a beholder was wanting — was lacking.  But when these two things — the scene and its beholder — meet, then the heart suddenly “leaps up” as Wordsworth would say, as though it has wings carrying it upward with wild, beating emotion, and it

...hurls for him, O half hurls earth for him off under his feet.

Or, as we would say today, the beauty of the scene nearly knocks him off his feet.



Long-time readers here will recall that the hokku I teach is derived only from the best aspects of the old Japanese hokku — those that tend to objectivity, poverty, simplicity, and selflessness.  That is why not everything one may find in old hokku is included in the new.

To better explain that, we might look at some verses from two widely-separated periods of hokku — that of Matsuo Bashō in the 1600s, and that of Masaoka Shiki, who died in 1902.

What I would like to point out today is that each wrote more than one kind verse in hokku form, and not all of them fit what we continue in modern hokku.

First there is Bashō.  He wrote some verses that are overtly “poetic,” while others are more objective.  Let’s look at some examples.

If held in my hand,
My hot tears would melt it;
Autumn frost.

To understand that verse it is essential to know that Bashō is visiting his old home, and is being shown a lock of his dead mother’s white hair.  That hair is what he says would melt if he took it in his hand.

Now we can see immediately that there is an unreality, a fantasy element to the verse.  Bashō is expressing both his personal sorrow over his mother’s passing and the transience of all things, but he is doing it subjectively by altering reality in his imagination.  We know the grey hair would not be melted by his tears; that is just a poetic exaggeration used to show his sorrow, similar to the kind of thing we find in Western poetry.  We can characterize verses such as this as his “poetic” side taking over.

The very last line — “Autumn frost” — would ordinarily be appropriate to more objective hokku, however here Bashō is not using it entirely objectively.  Instead, he parallels the autumn frost with his mother’s white hair — and autumn frost melts in warmth, while hair does not.  And note that we would NEVER write hokku today that require knowledge of the background — knowledge not included in the verse itself — in order to be understood.  In this verse we must know that Bashō is really speaking of his dead mother’s white hair in order to grasp what the verse is about.  In modern hokku such a verse fails, because a hokku should be able to stand on its own.

Bashō also wrote verses about his personal life, verses which, though more objective, are not good hokku.  For example:

One thing —
My life is light.
A gourd.

Again, this requires some explanation.  It would be clearer if we add a little more to the literal translation:

Owning one thing,
My life is light —
A hollow gourd.

This too is a poetic exaggeration.  Bashō not only owned this gourd, but also his clothing and his writing implements and papers, etc.  But he wants to emphasize that his few possessions make his life easier — lighter — than it would be if he owned a lot of things.  The hollow gourd was used as a container for rice used in cooking, though it could also be used to store liquids.

By the way, those who have seen the recent book Bashō: the Complete Haiku rendered by Jane Reichhold will find this “gourd” verse very misleadingly and inaccurately rendered there, a caution one should keep in mind when reading the rest of her renderings of Bashō.  I do not recommend her book for those who want the “real” Bashō.  A far more reliable translation of Bashō’s hokku is that of David Landis Barnhill, even though his book also uses the anachronistic term “haiku” in its title for what were really hokku.

We find more poetic exaggeration in this rather well-known verse by Bashō:

The sea darkens;
The wild duck’s cry
Is a faint white.

That, again, is the “poetic” mind at work.  Bashō wants to make an interesting contrast between the darkness and the “voice,” the cry of the wild duck that comes out of it.  We want to avoid that kind of manipulation in modern hokku.

Contrast the preceding verses with his best-known verse:

The old pond;
A frog jumps in —
The sound of water.

Note the objectivity.  Bashō has stopped talking about himself, has stopped his poetic exaggerating, and has presented us with a hokku that just reflects an event in Nature, in the context of the season — spring.  Even though this verse, according to tradition, was reworked and not experienced just as it is written, it nonetheless reflects the realities of Nature rather than Nature made unrealistic by the “poetic” imagination.  Such verse is the best of Bashō, and that is why it is in keeping with the principles underlying modern hokku.  So again, modern hokku does not include everything ever written as hokku as exemplary, but rather only the best.

If we turn to Masaoka Shiki, we tend to find elements in some of his verses that we found also in Bashō — for example the presence of the personal:

Getting a shave —
On a day when Ueno’s
Bell is misty.

It is obviously objective even though Shiki is writing about himself; the flaw in it is that it is also awkward and rather pointless; we don’t feel any real connection between Shiki getting a shave and the bell standing in mist.  We learn from this that objectivity without deeper significance can be boring.  Shiki never quite learned that simply recording an event objectively, whether personal or impersonal, does not of itself make good verse.  That is why some of his verses tend to be very flat and two-dimensional, like a picture in a book.

A better verse is one he wrote in 1896:Hasuiml.

The old garden;
Emptying the hot water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That is more connected to Nature because we feel a connection between the transparent water and the moon.  It would be better, however, if it were not a hot water bottle being emptied, but simply a water bottle:

The old garden;
Emptying a water bottle
Beneath the moon.

That way we do not have the word “hot” which is in conflict with the Yin character of the moon; removing it makes a greater harmony between the Yin water sparkling as it is emptied in the moonlight, and the moon itself.

Shiki also wrote:

Spring rain;
Umbrellas all uneven
In the ferry boat.

We see the ferry boat in the spring rain, its passengers all holding opened umbrellas at different heights.  We also feel the connection, though it is very obvious, between the spring rain and the umbrellas.  So there is a unity in this verse not found in his “being shaved” verse.

Put very bluntly, there was never a period when all hokku were equally good.  Only a minority of Bashō’s hokku are still worth reading, and all through the years from Bashō up to Shiki we find hokku that are too “poetic,” too “personal,” and some with the same thing we find in Shiki — verses that are objective but lack any depth or sense of deeper significance.

That is why, again, in modern hokku we use only the best of old hokku as models, and keep only the deeper principles of these as standards for writing new hokku.

When you read the older posts in the archive here, you will see what those deeper principles are — harmony, unity, reflection of the character of a season, and of course a sense of poverty, simplicity, and selflessness combined with the feeling of transience that has always been a part of hokku at its best.



You will recall that in addition to hokku, there is another and visually very similar kind of verse called senryu.

How does one tell a senryu from a hokku?  First, senryu does not have a seasonal setting. Second, while hokku deals with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, senryu deals instead with the quirks of human psychology, usually in a satirical way that highlights human foolishness.  I often say that senryu is the “evil twin” of hokku.

Here is an example:

The new bridge opens;
Timidly they dirty it
With their footsteps.

To understand this, one must know that it was written in the pre-automobile era of wooden bridges, not the concrete and asphalt kind we know today.  So the point of the senryu is that it is opening day for a newly-constructed bridge.  The wooden bridge is all fresh and clean and newly-finished wood.  The first people to cross it do so hesitantly, timidly, because they sense there is something not quite right in dirtying the new bridge.  The foolishness of this lies in the fact that bridges are made for walking.

Many of us feel the same odd sense that there is something not quite right in violating what is fresh and new.  For example, I know of someone whose old slippers were completely worn out, but when new ones were delivered, he hesitated to wear them “because they are new.”  It is the story of the wooden bridge all over again.

The point to remember in this is that while hokku deals in subtle states of mind created by experiencing events in Nature, in the context of a particular season, senryu is really only interested in poking fun at the quirks of human psychology.

That is very evident in another old senryu about someone who relies on another for food and shelter:

It is uncomfortable to eat,
And painful not to eat;
The dependent.

There were and are countless family (and some non-family) situations in which this happens.  The brother who has no job and lives in the house of his sister and brother-in-law, for example, feels this when all are sitting around the dinner table.   He is not comfortable in putting all the food he would like to eat on his own plate, and yet when he does not do so, he suffers at the sense of lack.

Writing senryu requires a different kind of mindset than that for writing hokku.  One cannot help feeling that there is always something a little “mean” about the writer of senryu.  Nonetheless, in reading them we frequently recognize the psychological peculiarites of ourselves and our friends, of humans in general.



In the late 1800s and first third of the 1900s, it was common for students in elementary and secondary schools to do “recitations,” a dramatic reading of a poem before a group, with the intent to make it have a strong effect on the listeners.  Often these were recited as “show pieces” for school programs and other events.  Poems chosen for this purpose were generally narrative poems, that is, poems that tell a story.  So there were countless amateur performances of poems then popular among ordinary people, such as “The Wreck of the Hesperus,”  “The Highwayman,” and of course “Casabianca,” with its once well-known beginning:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.

The flames rolled on–he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

Now such poems are generally considered very dated and “old-fashioned” and, to use an expressive American term, rather “corny.”  You may even have heard the satire on the beginning of “Casabianca”:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Eating peanuts by the peck.
The deck grew hotter,
His feet got toasted;
But he kept on eating — 
He liked ’em roasted.

The “roasted” is of course referring to the peanuts the boy is eating.

All of this is just a lead-in to a narrative poem from 1912 that has held its interest over the years.  It is in most of the standard anthologies.  But it differs from other narrative poems in that it is a story not fully told, but only hinted at, and the effectiveness of the poem lies in its combination of the incomplete narrative with a very poetic use of words to create a mysterious atmosphere.  So it is the atmosphere thus created that keeps this poem popular and interesting.

English: Ruined house at Swinthorpe The chimne...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was written by the British poet Walter de la Mare (1873-1956), who composed many poems (like this one) that are works of romantic fantasy, intended to delight by evoking a mood.  Today’s poem, which I shall discuss in parts, is called


‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor.
And a bird flew up out of the turret, 
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.

The poem begins with a mystery.  We are shown a traveller,  but we do not know who he is, or where he is from, or why he has come.  This immediately raises a questioning in the  mind of the reader that continues throughout the poem; but, as we shall see, it is a question that is never answered.  The poet increases the sense of mystery by setting the event at night, in the moonlight.  The Traveller knocks on the door of a house (we are not told whose it is or where exactly it is) that seems abandoned.  The only response to his knock is a bird that flies up out of a turret on the house.  But there is no human response.  It is so quiet that we hear the Traveller’s horse chomping on the grass “of the forest’s ferny floor.”  That just adds to the mystery — a house in a forest?  Is the house beginning to be overgrown by weeds and trees?

But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.

Notice the importance given what is NOT there in the poem:
No one descends — comes downstairs — to the Traveller.
No one looks out over a window sill (the ledge at the bottom of a window), now overgrown by leaves, into the Traveller’s grey eyes.

The Traveller stands there in the silence, puzzled by the absence of a response.

But now we find what the poem is really about.  It is a ghost story:

But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call. 

There are beings in the silent, moonlit house, but they are not the living; they are phantoms — ghosts — spirits of the dead.  The poet tells us there is a “host,” a large number of them.  And they listen in the quiet shadows, pierced here and there by moonlight, to the Traveller’s “voice from the world of men,” that is, to a voice from the world of the living.  The dead hear the voice of the living Traveller, as they throng the dark stairway with faint moonbeams falling on it, the stairway that goes down to an empty hall.  They listen in the “air stirred and shaken” by the “lonely Traveller’s call.”  The noise of his knocking and the sound of his call disturb the deathly silence in the house.

And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even 
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.

In the silence, in the absence of any answer to his loud knocking or to his call, the Traveller somehow senses there are beings inside the house, but that there is something strange and uncanny about them.  He can feel their presence, even though all is so still that the only motion and sound he notices is that of his horse still biting off and chewing the dark grasses.

The voice of the Traveller reverberates loudly in the stillness as he raises his head and calls out to whoever — whatever — is inside,  asks the strange residents to “Tell them I came,” to tell them “That I kept my word.”  Obviously there is a much larger unspoken story here, and the poet is giving us only a hint of it, which makes it all the more mysterious.

Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake 
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:

The listeners — the phantoms in the house, make not the slightest motion or response, even though every word the traveller speaks echoes his words through the shadows of the house, words from “the one man left awake.”  That means “the one man left alive.”  Left alive?  One left alive of many now dead?  What is the larger tale the poet is not telling us?  Why is the Traveller the only one left alive?  What is his connection to this house and those who once lived there? Why do ghosts — and so many of them — remain in the abandoned house?

All we have are these unanswered questions, the silence, the moonlight.

Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

The Traveller realizes there is nothing more he can do.  He had tried to fulfill some important, past promise, for some unexplained purpose, but the response is only silence.  Too much time has passed.  But the phantoms inside the shadowed house, are aware of everything.  They hear his foot touch the stirrup of the horse when he mounts it to leave.  They hear the sound of the iron horsehoes on stone cobbles as the horse turns to go with its rider.  And the phantoms hear

…how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

The alliteration — the repeated “s” sounds — are like a last whisper, replaced by the heavy silence that surges back like a wave to replace the temporary disturbance, when the last sound of the horse’s pounding hoofs (“plunging hoofs”) fades away.

The overall effect of the poem is to make us deeply feel a rather “spooky” but nonetheless strangely beautiful mystery in all this.  Who is the Traveller?  What promise had he made, and to whom, and why?  And what happened in the intervening years, leaving only ghosts within an abandoned and decaying house in a forest?  None of this is explained, and it leaves us wondering in the silent moonlight, which is exactly what the poet intended, and why the poem is so successful that it is still read today.

As you can see, there is not a great deal to this poem, nothing really profound or intellectual.  There is nothing difficult to understand.  It is just a mood, an atmosphere, a “poem of the imagination,” and the poet’s chief tool in creating that atmosphere is his lack of explanation, his refusal to tell us more.  It is a poem created out of shadows and moonbeams and spider webs, a word picture of deep silence and stillness troubled only momentarily by sound and movement, like a small pebble tossed into a quiet, dark well.

It is not surprising that Walter de la Mare, in addition to his poetry, wrote a few ghost stories, though nothing much remembered today.  But if you like an occasional movie with a shivers-up-the-spine feeling somewhat similar to this poem, you would probably enjoy the film “The Others,” which came out in 2001.




R. H. Blyth, to whom I often refer, called the following verse by Shiki “Shiki at his best” (Shiki would have called it a “haiku,” in keeping with his odd ideas of reform, even though it is a hokku in form and substance).

It is, of course, a spring verse.  In the original (romanized) it is:

Shimajima ni   hi wo tomoshi-keri   haru no umi
Island-island on / lights wo lit have-been / spring ‘s sea

Translated very literally, it would be:

On every island,
Lights have been lit;
The spring sea.

Blyth, in his translation, actually improved the verse by changing “every island” to “islands far and near,” thereby adding visual depth, even though Shiki says nothing about “far and near.”  Blyth’s version:

The lights are lit
On the islands far and near:
The spring sea.

Blyth also permits a bit of ambiguity between completed action and progressive action.  Does Blyth’s The lights are lit mean “The lights have been lit and are burning?”  Or does it mean “The lights are being lit”?

I suspect Blyth’s answer would have been “Yes.”  He would include both meanings, leaving it to the reader to choose.

The original, however, indicates a completed action, so without taking liberties, I would probably translate it as

On every island
Lights have been lit;
The spring sea.

I would not say the effect, even though closer to the original, is better than Blyth’s rendering, however.  If I wanted to put it into English with Blyth’s improvement, I would make it

Lights being lit
On islands far and near;
The spring sea.

That gives us a progression similar to what we experience in Blyth’s version, letting us see all the scattered islands, and tiny lights appearing and multiplying in the dusk throughout the whole vista.

I often say that Shiki really did little to hokku except to forbid it being used as the beginning of a linked sequence, and to advocate a more superficial style; yet even in his aesthetics in practice, one can find traces of what preceded his “reforms.”  In this verse we can see that the action does fit spring, even though Shiki may not himself have consciously realized the implications of what he was writing, as he tried so publicly to leave old traditions behind.

In any case, seen as hokku, the verse would indicate the growing Yang energies of spring, because even though the verse takes place at dusk, which is a Yin time of day, we see the appearance and gradual spread and multiplication of dots of light (increasing Yang) on each island in the growing darkness.  So the appearing and spreading points of light are in harmony with the gradual increase of Yang energies in spring.

The  setting of the verse also shows us the importance of season on the effect of a hokku.  Shiki made it:

Haru no umi — The spring sea.

The verse would have quite a different effect if set in other seasons.




In a previous posting we took a look at the poetry of Ernest Dowson, who sadly lost himself in drink and other excesses and died at age 32.  It puts us in mind of Dylan Thomas, who similarly was afflicted by alcoholism and died at 39.  That should be a warning to those who are sensitive souls to avoid alcohol completely.

We might also note that a strong theme in both Dowson and Dylan Thomas was a focus on youth as a golden time from which they did not really want to part.  Carl Jung, the Swiss psychotherapist, developed the theory of the Puer Aeternus, the “eternal child,” — we might also think of it as “perpetual child” — a man who cannot quite make the psychological transition from childhood to genuine adulthood, and consequently lives life in a reckless and often dangerous way, and frequently dies young as a consequence.  Such people behave as though they are invulnerable.

A classic example in literature, according to Jung’s student Marie-Louise von Franz, is the character of the Little Prince,  in the the popular story of the same name by  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry — an author and adventurer who also drank too much and took too many risks, and again died rather young, at age 44.

I had my own experience of a Puer Aeternus in a young man I met many years ago. I recall how together we went to see Crater Lake, in Oregon, which is a very deep and  blue lake in the caldera of an ancient volcano.  There was a protective wall marking off the viewing area at the high edge of the crater, but this young fellow climbed over the wall and walked some distance down a slope of loose rubble just above a sheer drop of several hundred feet into the caldera.  When I saw him climbing over the wall onto that unstable and slippery edge, it made me extremely uncomfortable, and I urged him again and again to come back, but he refused; he had to go peek over, closer to the very edge.  Fortunately he survived that day, and managed to climb back to safety (but only after he had done as he wished) without falling to his death.  But this risky behavior, I gradually found as I got to know him better, manifested in other ways in his life as well, and within about three years he was dead.  I always think of him whenever I hear the term Puer Aeternus.

This poem by Ernest Dowson shows us a view of life through the eyes of such a person.  It is titled in French: La Jeunesse N’a Qu’un Temps.  It means literally, “Youth Has But One Time.”  In other words, youth only happens once, never to be repeated.  That is the constant refrain of this poem:

Swiftly passes youth away
Night is coming, fades the day,
All things turn to sombre grey

This reminds one of the beginning of the poem by Lorenzo de’ Medici:

How beautiful is youth
Which nonetheless is fleeting…

Notice how Dowson sees nothing between the time of youth and the time of death.  Youth quickly passes, only to be replaced by the end of day (the end of life) and death (All things turn to sombre grey).

Pass the cup and drink, friends, deep
Roses upon roses heap,
Soon it will be time to sleep.

This is precisely the attitude of the “Eternal Child”;  youth is short and already passing, so, as is said in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 15:32, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Soon it will be time to sleep).  And we know what this life of excess did for and to Dowson.

Man, poor man, is born to die,
Love and all things fair will fly;
Fill the cup and drain it dry.

This is the same “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die” sentiment, and it is repeated in the next two stanzas:

Make ye merry, while ye may;
Snatch the sweetness of the day,
Pluck life’s pleasures while they stay.

When our youth has taken flight,
When the day is lost in night,
There can be no more delight.

Then comes the last stanza, a rather black and bleak drinking toast:

Here’s a glass to memory
Here’s to death and vanity,
Here’s a glass to you and me.

The memory of youth and happiness, the anticipation of death, the realization that all of life seems pointless and vain, and that all of this applies “to you and me” — such hopelessness is the despairing attitude of the perpetual child, the Puer Aeternus, who like Peter Pan, refuses to grow up — but who, unlike Peter Pan, has to try to live in the real world, but cannot adjust.

It is a sad tale, and a caution that we should learn to recognize that there is life after youth.  If one does not learn this in good time, it is all too easy to fall into the hedonistic and fatalistic trap that caught Dowson and has similarly caught many other sensitive young people who have trouble making the transition from youth to adulthood.




A noteworthy difference between hokku as it was practiced in old Japan and hokku as it is practiced today in English is the method of dealing with season.

The seasons are essential to hokku, one of its defining characteristics.  Every hokku is set in a particular season, whether it is an old Japanese hokku or a new English-language hokku.

The difference in method between old and new is this:

In old Japanese hokku, season was indicated by a “season word” that automatically indicated a particular seasonal setting.  Unfortunately, this system, over time, became very artificial and cumbersome, requiring elaborately long lists of words and the seasons they indicate, as well as years of study on the part of writers and educated readers, in order to use and understand those words correctly.

In modern English-language hokku, we keep the all-important connection of a hokku with a particular season, but we no longer use long lists of often artificial-seeming season words.  Instead, each hokku is marked with the season in which it is written.  Then when it is shared with others or published, that seasonal categorization goes along with it.

What that means, in practical use, is that instead of the whole book of season words and their meanings required for old hokku, the writer and reader of modern hokku now only has to know the standard four seasons:  spring, summer, autumn/fall, and winter.  It takes away the artificiality and the cumbersomeness and the years of study necessary for writing and reading old hokku, and makes it all very free and practical, yet it is still completely in keeping with the spirit of old hokku that requires it be connected to a season.

Perhaps you have noticed that generally, when I discuss old hokku here, I mention the seasons to which they belong.  And perhaps you have noticed that I usually discuss spring hokku in the springtime, summer hokku in summer, autumn hokku in autumn, and winter hokku in winter.  That too is a part of the old hokku tradition.  So hokku are to be both written and read in their appropriate seasons.  The only common exception is when out-of-season hokku are used for educational purposes.  The rest of the time we read and write a hokku within its correct season.  The aesthetic principle behind that practice is that it keeps us in harmony with what is happening in Nature.  It also prevents the awkwardness and inappropriateness an aesthetically-educated hokku enthusiast senses on reading an out-of-season verse, the same kind of awkwardness one feels when one sees Christmas lights up in July, or Halloween decorations in the spring.

Our modern practice also, I may add, is often an aid in translating old hokku without awkwardness.  For example, here is a spring hokku by Shōha:

Asa kochi ni   tako uru mise wo  hiraki keri
Morning east-wind at/ kite sell shop wo /open has

If we try to put that in English, we find a problem.  A ko-chi is literally an “east wind.”  But kochi — “east wind” — is also a season word indicating spring.  So under the “old” system we would have to include all of the following as the setting of the hokku in translation:

A morning spring wind

R. H. Blyth, in his translation of Shōha, includes all of that in this order:

A spring breeze this morning:

That makes the first line of the hokku awkwardly long, even though Blyth accurately conveyed the overall meaning (avoiding the literalness of “east wind,” which Western readers would not recognize as a spring season word).

Flying Kites at Cesar Chavez Park.
(Photo credit: adhocbot)

In modern English-language hokku, however, our categorization of each hokku avoids that problem, because Shōha’s verse would appear under its seasonal heading, like this:


The morning breeze;
A shop selling kites
Has opened.

The seasonal indication, which must be included within the old hokku, is instead present as the seasonal categorization preceding the hokku in the new system.

A sequence of several spring hokku by the same or various authors would have the seasonal categorization at the beginning of the sequence, so that readers would know automatically that all the hokku in the sequence are set in spring.

As for the significance of Shōha’s “Morning breeze” hokku, it indicates a unity between Nature and human activity.  It is somewhat the opposite of the “If you build it, they will come” used in the movie Field of Dreams.  In this case, it is, “If the spring wind blows, a kite shop will open.”  It is like “When the weather warms in spring, flowers will bloom.”  The combination of the breeze and the shop opening gives us a feeling of the activity of spring — of the Yang (active) aspect of Nature increasing, as yin (passive) decreases.



One of the most difficult things for the beginning student of hokku to grasp is the difference in what we might call “levels” of hokku.  It is common for someone unfamiliar with the principles of hokku to read hundreds of old verses from the time of Bashō and Onitsura in the 17th century up to the time of Shiki and his “haiku” revolt near the turn of the last century, without ever having noticed the differences in “level.”

What do I mean by “level” in hokku?  Put very simply, some verses, however pleasant they may be, are little more than illustrations, “pictures” in words.  In others, however, one has the feeling that there is more going on in the verse than is stated in words.  There is a feeling of hidden “depth.”

Hokku with “depth” were appreciated through most of the history of hokku.  But near the end of the 19th century, with the “reforms” of Shiki, verses became more and more like “pictures,” without depth.  Everything was on the surface, so we speak of such verses as “superficial,” even though they may still be pleasing.

Shiki was a great admirer of the earlier writer Buson, who was a painter as well as a composer of hokku.  But even Buson came up with verses with “depth,” while those of Shiki himself tend to be superficial, to be little more than pleasant illustrations.  I often compare hokku of this kind to those attractive Japanese woodblock prints one finds by Hasui and Yoshida.  It does not mean they are bad, it just means that they lack depth.

Here, for example, is a “spring” verse by Shiki:

Spring rain;
Holding an umbrella,
Looking at picture books in a shop.

You have to picture a man standing just inside one of those old-fashioned, Japanese open-fronted book shops, looking at the books laid out flat on tables as he holds the kind of paper-and-bamboo umbrella that used to be typical of that time and place.  This verse is a “picture,” with not much more in it than that.

If we look at another spring verse of approximately the same late period, we find that even though it is written by someone else, in this case Otsuji, we still get a kind of illustration:

Torrey Pines State Reserve
(Photo credit: slworking2)

Spring rain;
Seen between the trees —
A path to the sea.

It is pleasant and quiet and undemanding, and though we may think at first that it too is only an illustration, notice that we at least feel behind it the vastness and power of the (hidden) sea.  So while it is still largely a “picture,” it is less superficial than the verse by Shiki.

Now we can turn to the person Shiki so admired — Buson — who lived in the 18th instead of the 19th-20th century:

Bags of seeds
Becoming soaked;
The spring rain.

To the novice, that might seem to be little different from the other two verses, but really it is worlds apart.  Like them, it is an event in spring, but in this case we sense the power inherent in the bags of seeds, and we know that the spring rain is going to affect them if they are left in it for long; they are going to begin to swell and sprout with abundant new life.  So even without it being said, we feel a kind of hidden power in this verse, something “big” going on that is not even mentioned in the words of the verse.  That unspoken part of a hokku, which is really all the better for being left unspoken, is what gives depth.  In Buson’s verse we really feel the nature and character of spring, which we do not in the other two.

Of course not all hokku are quite that obvious.  In general we can say, however, that older hokku tend to have more depth than verses written after Shiki’s propaganda urged writers to make “sketches from life.”  And of course Shiki liked to call those “new” verses by a different name — “haiku,” even though they were still essentially hokku in form and often in content.

It is useful, then for the student of hokku to look through lots of old hokku, comparing them to see which have a sense of depth, and which are just “pictures” in words, with little beyond that.  The key to determining depth is to look for something unspoken in the hokku, for something beyond what is actually written.  If it is not there, the hokku — like the first example by Shiki, is superficial, no matter how pleasant it may be otherwise.




Today’s poem is a bit tricky, because it begins (with one possible exception) as one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ simpler poems, yet turns, at the very end, into one of his most difficult.


Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; 
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

As usual, I shall deal with it part by part:

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

First, Hopkins tell us that nothing is as beautiful as spring.  It is the time when green weeds shoot up long and lovely and thickly through old wheels — at least that is the simple, straightforward explanation.  Why wheels?  Because Hopkins still lived in the time of the wooden-spoked wheels common on wagons and carriages, and in the countryside around farmyards, it was common to see a large old wheel leaning against an outbuilding or lying on the ground.

An alternative explanation one often reads (found in Commentary on the Complete Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, by Paul L. Mariani) opines that by “weeds, in wheels,” Hopkins meant the stalks of the plant known as Solomon’s Seal, the flowers of which “hang down at intervals of several inches, bending the stem into an arc so that they ‘look so much like the spokes of a wheel.’”  I have to say that I find this alternative explanation completely unconvincing, because the ordinary Solomon’s Seal, with which gardeners are familiar, looks nothing at all like a wheel, even when bent in its natural arc.

However, I would propose, as a more likely alternative, the rather esoteric possibility that Hopkins could indeed have been referring to the Solomon’s Seal, but not at all the kind (Polygonum multiflorum) interpreters assume, which grows in a sideways arc.  Instead, I would suggest a particular and lesser-known variety of Solomon’s Seal that grows wild in parts of Wales (Hopkins spent considerable time there).   It is Polygonum verticillatum, or  “Whorled Solomon’s Seal.”  It is an

Whorled Solomon's Seal / Polygonum verticillatumPicture by Andrea Moro / Dipartimento di Scienze della Vita, Università di Trieste
“Weeds, in wheels” –Whorled Solomon’s Seal / Polygonum verticillatum
Picture by Andrea Moro / Dipartimento di Scienze della Vita, Università di Trieste

unusual kind of Solomon’s Seal that does not grow in an arc, but rather grows upright on a long, straight stalk.  The notable thing about it is that, somewhat like the horsetail rush, the upright stalk has whorls of thin green leaves spaced at intervals along its height, so that it would fit precisely the notion of “weeds, in wheels, that shoot long and lovely and lush,” if one uses the term “weeds” with a bit of poetic license to mean the wild Whorled Solomon’s Seal.  The green whorls would be the “wheels.”  Now obviously, it would be extremely unlikely for anyone reading the poem to make that jump of association, unless he or she were familiar with the wild flora of Wales; there is certainly nothing else in the poem to indicate it.  So one may opt for the more natural-seeming “old wooden wheels” explanation, if one wishes, even though the possibility remains that Hopkins may have really intended a reference to Polygonum verticillatum.

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

A thrush is a small bird.  Its eggs, which one sees in its spring nest in low bushes or in trees, are a bright, turquoise blue (with a few small black speckles); that is why they look like “little low heavens,” that is, they look like the blue sky come down to earth.  The song of the thrush, heard echoing through the forest trees (timber), is so sweet and pure that it seems to cleanse the ears.  Hopkins uses laundry words — “rinse” and wring” to indicate this, but he just means that hearing it has  a “clean” and pure effect on the ear.  Because of that, it’s song seems to strike the ear like lightning, with the surprise of freshness and suddenness.  Note the emphasis on cleanness and purity, which is a major theme of the poem, and a characteristic, in it, of spring.

It is worth adding here that given Hopkins’ fondness for the old in language, by “timber” he might alternatively mean the resonance or distinctive tone of the song of the thrush.  Though seldom found, “timber” was sometimes used as an alternate spelling of “timbre,” which definitely has this “musical” meaning.  Hopkins may even have intended a double meaning of “timber.” — both trees and resonance.

The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness:

By “glassy,” Hopkins means “shiny and glossy.”  the new leaves and the blossoms of the pear tree seem to brush the blue spring sky that forms their background, “the descending blue.”

“All in a rush with richness” — now that winter has passed; suddenly, “all in a rush” the sky becomes a rich, deep blue.

… the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

The spring lambs leaping and playing also have “fair their fling,” their own beautiful time to exult in spring by their gamboling, their playful leaping about.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.

What is all this freshness, the new sap in tree and leaf, the life-giving rush of  similar “juice” in grasses and weeds, all the joy and gladness that spring brings to humans and other creatures?  It is a “strain,” a kind of related descendant, of “earth’s sweet being in the beginning in Eden garden.”  It is all that is left of the purity and sweetness of the “Garden of Eden,” of the earth at the Creation (in traditional Christian teaching), before the Fall of Man (again in Christian teaching) destroyed all that purity and joy.  So Hopkins presents us with Nature in spring as an example of divine purity, But as we shall see, he worries that it is all to be spoiled.

And now we come to the most difficult part of the poem, difficult because Hopkins’ language here is so garbled and obscure in syntax.  We should not blame the reader for this — it is just that Hopkins’ liking for odd phrasings got so out of hand in these last lines that the result is confused obscurity.  As responsible readers, we should not pretend that they are perfectly clear when they obviously are not; nor should we suppose that there is any virtue in such a lack of clarity, which cannot be defended here as a poetic effect, as it can be in other poems by Hopkins.  It is simply a flaw in the poem.  Hopkins was not infallible.

For what it is worth, here is how I untangle it:

—Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

If one understands these lines as the poet first speaking to ordinary people, and in the last line speaking to Jesus (Christ), then one would understand it to mean this:

Spring, in all its freshness and life and beauty, offers humans a last trace and remainder of the pure earth before the fall, and consequently it is an aspect of the heavenly, of Christ.  Therefore, Hopkins urges people to have that pure “Christ” essence found in spring, to get it while it is fresh and new, before it changes and loses its appeal.  Get it before it clouds and obscures Christ (lord), before the human tendency to sin sours the innocent minds of girls and boys, and therefore sours Mayday (not only the literal day, but also that pure experience of spring).  And most of all, people should get it before its “fall” from that initial freshness and purity affects their choosing of Christ over sinning (and here Hopkins addresses Jesus — “before it sours THY choice” — before it ruins people’s ability to choose Christ and heaven, — the only choice (in Hopkins’ view) that is “worthy of”  (worth) winning.

So I would loosely paraphrase the last lines like this:

Have, get it, before our sinning makes it go bad,
Before wrong actions and thoughts sour and darken the innocent minds and Mayday for boys and girls —
Above all, Son of the Virgin (maid) Mary, before its souring prevents them from choosing you, the only  choice worth making, the prize worth winning.

That is very much in keeping with Hopkins’ Roman Catholic view of sin and its effects, and May was particularly meaningful to him as the month in which Catholics honor Mary.  But is that interpretation what Hopkins intended?  I think it is close, but in these last lines he has stated his view so confusedly that his precise meaning is likely forever obscured.

There is a slightly different, alternative explanation found in some sources, which treats the last four lines as all being in the “vocative” in relation to Christ, that is, understanding them to be addressing Christ only.  If one follows that interpretation, then it would go like this, in paraphrase:

—O Christ, O lord, have and get this period of freshness and innocence in humans before it goes bad,
Before sinning clouds both  the innocent minds of girls and boys and May Day (both the day and the time of youth);
And most of all, O son of the virgin Mary, get them before sin clouds/affects your choice of them (as your followers), because they are worth your winning them (as Christians).

That latter interpretation seems unlikely and rather forced to me, but I present it here as one found in various sources.

In any case, the obscurity of phrasing that leads to such variations in interpretation should be a good lesson to poets not to let their poetic license get so far out of hand that it makes their writing near incoherent.  The result, in this case, is that the simpler bulk of the poem (excepting the “weeds in wheels” uncertainty) tends to be spoiled by its nearly indecipherable ending.

Hopkins was often good in composition, but not always great, and sometimes made bad choices (in life, as well as in poetry).



To better understand today’s poem we must first put ourselves into the mindset of Gerard Manley Hopkins in the year 1864, when the poem was written.    He was a sensitive fellow for whom life in the everyday world was difficult and trying.  He sought (but unfortunately did not find) in conversion to Roman Catholicism, in 1866, a refuge from those daily stresses.

It is also essential that we look at a segment of a much earlier poem by the English poet  (born in Wales) George Herbert (1593-1633), who ended his work The Size with these lines:

Then close again the seam
Which thou has open’d: do not spread thy robe
In hope of great things.  Call to minde thy dream,
And earthly globe,
On whose meridian was engraven,
These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.

Herbert’s poem, in essence, advises the ordinary person not to expect material happiness in this world, but rather to accept lack of material things in this life so that there might be spiritual rewards in the next.  He says one should not expect joys both in this world and in heaven, because even God (incarnated as Jesus) “was hungrie (hungry) here” (during his lifetime in this world).

So from Herbert’s poem, we should take the notion that to enjoy the pleasures of heaven one must give up material pleasures and strong joys on this earth.  It is an old concept — “self-denial,” — and it is on that notion that Gerard Manley Hopkins based this, one of his best-known poems.  Hopkins even took the title of his poem from the last line of Herbert’s poem: Heaven-Haven.

Hopkins’ poem has as its preface the words “A nun takes the veil,” meaning a young woman commits herself to a lifetime as a nun, leaving the “world” and its pleasures behind in hope of joy in heaven, just as Herbert had advised.  This world, as written in The Size, is nothing but “seas of tears,” and a person on his or her voyage of life through those seas will only find a quiet haven in heaven.  That is the view common to both poems, that of Herbert and that of Hopkins, based on Herbert.

So now you understand Hopkins’ poem before you have even read it; but let’s take a look nonetheless:


A nun takes the veil

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be 
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

 We shall approach it part by part.  

The poem is spoken by the nun who is taking the veil, choosing to spend her life as a “bride of Christ.”  She tells us why she is doing it.  She has decided to “leave this world,” to go “where springs not fail,” which is Hopkinsese for “where springs do not fail.”  In the New Testament, water is a symbol of the spiritual and genuine life.  We understand why springs are mentioned by Hopkins (which were also mentioned earlier in Herbert’s poem) when we look at the words of Jesus to the “woman at the well” in the Gospel attributed to John (13-14):

“Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.”

So in this material world, the springs from which we drink fail, and do not permanently satisfy.  It is only the “waters of life” — of spirituality — that  do “not fail,” and that is what the woman in Hopkins’ poem is seeking.

She wants to go to “fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,” to a place away from the harsh and painful storms of earthly life, where one is no longer subject to the unpleasant hazards and unhappinesses (hailstones are sometimes rounded, but also can be angular, pyramidal, flat, etc. — “sharp-sided,” or in Hopkinsese, “sharp and sided”).  Thinking of heaven as “fields” is a concept as old as the ancient Greeks, with their Elysian Fields.

And a few lilies blow.”

English: Lilium regale 'Album', Parc Floral de...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia

These words are often misunderstood simply because word usage comes into and goes out of fashion over time.  “Blow” is the critical word.  Here it is used in the old sense, meaning “to bloom.”  So the woman leaving the world is saying she wants fields where a few lilies bloom.  She is not saying she wants lilies blowing in the wind.  Lilies are old symbols of purity in Christianity, and the fact that the nun says “a few” is an indication of her modesty and “ascetic” expectations.  She does not expect whole fields of them — just a few, which we may think of as modest pleasures of purity and spirituality.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

In that stanza Hopkins directly addresses the statement of George Herbert:

“These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.”

The nun speaking says (remember the hail?) that she has asked to be in a place “where no storms come.”  We should recall the old days of sailing ships, when to be caught in a storm at sea (here the “sea of life”) was dangerous and violent.  At such a time, a ship would seek a haven, a port out of the reach of the violence of the waves.  But our nun is not looking for “any old port in a storm.”  The haven she seeks is heaven, a place where “no storms come.”

It is a place where “the green swell,” meaning the rising and falling waves of the sea of life, are “in the havens dumb.”  “Dumb” here is used in its old sense of “silent,” and it modifies not “havens,” but rather “the green swell.”  Put into modern English it would be, “Where the green, swelling waves are quiet in the havens.”  In a haven, the great waves found on the sea become small and calm, because the haven is a port, like a bay, that offers a ship protection, a place “out of the swing of the sea,” out of the great motions and upheavals and risings and fallings of the waves on the open sea.

So in essence, “Heaven-Haven” is a brief poem about a nun who “takes the veil” permanently, joining convent life and leaving the temporary pleasures and many pains of the material life behind in hope of the simple and pure and protected joys of the spiritual life, ultimately of heaven.  One cannot, she believes (as Mary told Bernadette in the story of the apparitions at Lourdes), be happy both in this world and the next.  So our nun is giving up this life for her humble hopes of joy in the next life.

Well, that is the religiously romantic view of things, and it is the view Hopkins had as a convert to Catholicism.  He had a rather miserable life after conversion and becoming a Jesuit, and he must have often told himself, when in the depths of depression, that one should not expect to be happy in this world, only in the next.

The poem takes on a rather darker face when seen against the backdrop of Hopkins’ own unhappy religious life, but the poems we read are also affected by our own personal experiences in life.

For me, Heaven-Haven will always remind me of a sunny day in my college years, when I stopped at a Carmelite convent near the sea, just south of what was then a much quieter town, Carmel, in California.  There I interviewed a nun for a project I was doing.  I wanted to know her view of why one would spend one’s life in that way.  She was a calm and very pleasant person, and the location itself was quiet and peaceful.  A short distance to the west of the convent lay a pleasant little sandy bay “out of the swing of the sea,” and the air of the whole region was fragrant with the wild artemisia that scented the coastal lowlands and hills in those warm days.

Thinking of the nuns in that quiet place by the sea, I recall lines from another poem about the 6th-century Celtic saint Govan, who lived as a hermit by the sea in Wales:

St Govan still lies in his cell
But his soul, long since is free,
And one may wonder – and who can tell-
If good St Govan likes Heaven as well
As his cell by that sounding sea?

By the way, George Herbert’s poem The Size also contains an old English proverb that goes back before his time.  In telling people that they should not expect to be happy both in this world and the next, Herbert says,

Wouldst thou both eat thy cake, and have it?

If that phrase puzzles you, it means, “Do you want to both eat your cake and still keep it?”  One obviously cannot do both, and that is why our nun in Heaven-Haven gives up earth for heaven.



The connection of plum blossoms and spring, historically, is well known.  As I have written before, however, the ume no hana spoken of in old Japanese hokku — conventionally translated as “plum blossoms,” were not really plum blossoms as we generally think of them, but rather the flowers of the Japanese apricot (Prunus mume).  In spite of that, when an English speaker reads Japanese spring hokku about plum blossoms, it is perfectly natural to envision the blossoms of Prunus domestica, which gives us our edible plums and prunes, or perhaps those of Prunus salicina, the “Satsuma” plum, which is native to China, but is grown both in Japan and in the West now.

As regular readers here know, I often “westernize” hokku in translation, though I note the fact to avoid confusion.  So of course it does not bother me in the least that we think of these other plums, rather than of the Japanese apricot, when we read old spring hokku.  Further, what applies to that tree applies also to the plums grown in the West, so for practical and aesthetic purposes it is really advantageous for us to think of “our” kinds of plums instead of what the original hokku technically signified.

Having gotten through all that dull introduction, we are ready to take a look at some spring plum hokku.  The significant thing about the plum in that context is that it is an early bloomer, flowering often when the weather still can be cold and unsettled, in that time of the yearly transition from winter weather to that of early spring.

We see that period of change in a hokku by Buson:

In every nook and corner
The cold lingers;
Plum blossoms.

In the original, “every nook and corner” is really a repetition of the same word — sumi, meaning “corner.”  When used twice (zumi the second time for euphony) as sumizumi, it literally is “corner-corner,” but the “every nook and corner” understanding of the term is what it signifies.

Regular readers here know that spring is a time of increasing Yang energy.  The cold Yin energy of winter is waning, but as Buson tells us here, when the plum begins to bloom, the cold still lingers in all the little shady spots and corners and hollows.  The word I translate here as “lingers” is nokoru in the original, which means “to remain, to be left over or left behind.”

Mirabelle plum (Prunus x domestica var. syriac...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The blooming of the plum tree of course has a direct relationship to the amount of warmth and light present.  The warmer the air, the more blossoms will pop open.  That is why Ransetsu wrote what I call his “thermometer” hokku:

A plum blossom —
One blossom’s worth
Of warmth.

What I translate as “blossom’s worth” — the word hodo — means “an extent or degree or measure” of something.  So we could be playful, and translate it as

A plum blossom —
One blossom degree
Of warmth.

The concept behind this hokku is the notion that the more plum blossoms open, the higher the temperature of the air and the farther along the advancement of spring.  It shows a unity between the blossoms and the growing warmth, in contrast to our “rational” way of thinking in terms of action (the warming of the air) and consequence (a plum blossom opens), cause and effect.



I often speak of poets in terms of schools of painting.  Some, for example, are like Impressionists in their use of words.  Others, like today’s poet, Alfred Tennyson, are more like Pre-Raphaelites, writers who look back to medieval times as being a very poetic and beautiful period.  Of course that is simply a very limited and illusory view of those times, and that is exactly what our poet intended — a romanticized view, with everything neither beautiful nor conventionally poetic removed from sight.

The result, of course, is not reality, but rather an idealized fantasy image.  And such an idealized image was very much in fashion in the mid to late 19th century and on into the very beginning of the 20th.

Today’s poem, Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, is actually a brief poem within a story within a narrative poem that is much longer than the extract given here.  The whole work is titled The Princess, and if you have a good deal of time and patience, you might wish to read it.  But this excerpt was written to function as a “separate” poem, even though it is only a small part of the whole work.

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal is not only an excellent example of romanticism in poetry, but it also demonstrates, as I have said before, what a consummate craftsman Tennyson was.  He reminds me of those Italian workmen who used to cover whole table tops in carefully shaped and polished semiprecious stones, each so carefully worked that it contributes its part to the picture all the pieces together form.  That is the precision and workmanship we find in Tennyson.

So here is Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars,
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

Let’s look at it part by part:

Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white;
Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:
The fire-fly wakens: wake thou with me.

The poet is creating a peaceful and beautiful picture of twilight.  That is the “now” of which he speaks, and in that “now” the flowers close, some with crimson petals, some with white.  Tennyson uses “petal” to mean not only the flower as a whole, but also all the other flowers like it in the garden.  Using a part of something to indicate the whole is a poetic technique called synechdoche (pronounced sin-EK-doh-kee).  The first line should not be read as a sequence, with the crimson petals sleeping first, followed by white petals sleeping, but rather both happen at the same time, in the same “now.”

To paraphrase it simply:
Now the crimson flowers and the white flowers close for the night.
But of course putting it that bluntly does not give the poetic effect Tennyson achieved in his phrasing.

The cypress tree is the first of two “nors,” the poet gives us, presenting the stillness and beauty of the evening in negatives:

Nor waves the cypress in the palace walk;
Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font:

That, paraphrased in ordinary English, would be:
The wind has gone still, no longer bending the cypress trees in the palace walk.
The goldfish in the porphyry stone basin have gone still and out of sight for the night.

Saying “the gold fin” is again synechdoche, and by saying that we no longer see the light of day flashing gold on the moving fish, Tennyson is giving us a picture both of daylight having gone and of rest and stillness.

So this first part of the poem is telling us this:

Not a breath of wind stirs the tall, slender cypress trees.  And not single shining glitter of light off a fin of the goldfish in the porphyry stone (a kind of purplish rock) basin/pool can be seen.  Everything is still and silent, and the afterglow of day is disappearing.

Did you notice that Tennyson repeatedly uses one thing to mean many? He says “the crimson petal,” “the white [petal],” “the cypress,” “the gold fin,” and “the firefly,” but he is really speaking of these in the plural. He only uses the singular for poetic effect.

The firefly wakens: waken thou with me.

The fireflies have begun to appear as points of light in the shadows.  The young man who speaks the poem calls on the young woman he loves to “waken” with him, meaning to walk through the beauty of the twilight garden with him — but also to “waken” to what he is telling her through the poem about his love for her.

Now droops the milk-white peacock like a ghost,
And like a ghost she glimmers on to me.

Instead of using a peacock of the usual colors, Tennyson instead very cleverly offers a white peacock, which is in keeping with the loss of color that comes with the loss of light, when everything goes shades of white, grey, and black.  He tells us that the white peacock lowers its head and of course its long tail feathers, and this drooping is another indication of the rest and quiet of the evening.  And like a ghost whose apparition continues to appear in the gathering darkness, the white peacock continues to glimmer, reflecting the last of the vanishing afterglow of twilight.

Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars
And all thy heart lies open unto me.

With those lines, Tennyson moves again from setting the atmosphere to the little “love story” within the poem.  “Now lies the Earth all Danaë to the stars” is an allusion to an ancient Greek myth.  Danaë was the lovely daughter of a king named Acrisius.  The king was worried by a prophecy given by the oracle of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, who said that said Danaë  would have a son who would kill Acrisius, so to prevent this, the fearful king locked her in a room made of bronze, where no man could reach her.  He did not, however, take into account the lusty ruler of the gods, Zeus, who supernaturally came through the ceiling of the bronze room and fell on  Danaë as a shower of gold.  So Tennyson is telling us that like Danaë, who was open and vulnerable to the shower of gold falling on her, the earth in evening is all open to the sky that is filled with a multitude of stars.  And then Tennyson returns to the “love story” of the poem:

And all thy heart lies open unto me.

As we can tell from the  Danaë allusion, this is a man talking to a woman.  He tells her that like the earth at evening is open and vulnerable to the starry sky, like Danaë open and vulnerable to her lover coming upon her as a shower of gold, even so this unnamed woman, in the still beauty of evening, is open and emotionally vulnerable to him.

Now Tennyson returns to his lovely “now” imagery:

Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves
A shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.

Now a silent shooting star crosses (“slides…on”) the evening sky, leaving a golden trail like the furrow made in the earth by a plow.  And just as the passing meteor leaves a shining trail, so in our young man, his thoughts of the young woman leave a shining trail in his mind.  This is a way of saying that even a thought of her is as beautiful and shining as the trail left by a shooting star.

Nénuphar blanc
(Photo credit: gelinh)

Now folds the lily all her sweetness up,
And slips into the bosom of the lake:
So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip
Into my bosom and be lost in me.

This is the last of the repeated “nows” of the poem.  Tennyson tells us that the water lily folds up “all her sweetness,” closes its beautiful petals, and slips “into the bosom of the lake,” meaning it slips below the surface of the water.  But notice how Tennyson cleverly uses the term “bosom,” meaning the breast/chest of a human, to signify the lake surface into which the waterlily sinks.  That enables him to move quickly on to his last line, the “point” of the whole poem, in which the young man invites the woman to similarly fold herself against his chest and be embraced by his arms and his love, and be “lost” in him.  He wants her to yield to his love as all things have yielded to the stillness and rest of the twilight.

This was walking a rather narrow line for Victorian England, particularly with the  Danaë simile, but Tennyson got away with it because in the end what the young man wants, at least in the poem, is for the young woman to be silently enfolded in his arms and submerged in his love.  He does not take it beyond that, and so Tennyson managed to give the Victorian period a romantic thrill while avoiding the social censors.

The most important quality of the poem is, of course, its carefully plotted imagery, with all things falling into beautiful rest and quiet; and Tennyson uses all of that to make his “love story” point, which of course is completely tinted with the same beautiful and quiet atmosphere of twilight and a gathering darkness filled with stars.

It is worth noting that everything in this poem is visual, emphasizing the sense of sight.  There is no mention at all of sound.  This absence deepens the sense of stillness and quiet.

Did you notice that the word “me,” preceded by a preposition, ends a line five times throughout the poem?

…with me.
…to me.
…unto me.
…in me.
…in me.

That repetition adds to the lulling effect of the whole, as does the repetition of the words “now” and “nor.”

Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal is reminiscent of the much shorter old Japanese waka, which was a poetic form focused only on the beautiful and aesthetically elegant, and often expressed romantic love through lovely, if bittersweet, nature imagery.  The hokku, of course, is quite different in its elimination of romantic love and its more realistic approach that no longer tries to eliminate all that is not conventionally beautiful.  But of course Tennyson’s wish is precisely that — to eliminate all that is not beautiful, to use only the conventionally poetic in painting his word picture of a twilight romance in today’s poem, which was published, by the way, in 1847.  Queen Victoria had been on the British throne for some ten years.

It is also worth noting the traditional association of the color crimson with passion, and that of white with purity and fidelity and innocence.



One of the old standards of English poetry is THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US, by the romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850).  The romantic movement tended to emphasize personal feelings, and often associated those feelings with Nature — mountains and waterfalls, lakes and woods, and all that is (or was) in them.  We see this emphasis in today’s poem.

As for the mechanics of the poem, we need only take a quick look at the pattern of rhyming to see how those rhymes influenced his phrases.  I will mark the rhymes here with numbers, each number corresponding to groups of rhyming words.  As you see, there are four rhymes made:

1.  soon, boon, moon, tune (yes, they are not precise rhymes, but close enough for Wordsworth)
2.  powers, ours, hours, flowers
3.  be, lea, sea
4.  outworn, forlorn, horn

The world is too much with us; late and soon (1)
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: (2)
Little we see in Nature that is ours; (2)
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! (1)
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; (1)
The winds that will be howling at all hours, (2)
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;(2)
For this, for everything, we are out of tune; (1)
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be (3)
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; (4)
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, (3)
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; (4)
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; (3)
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn. (4)

And now for the meaning:

The world, he tells us, is too much with us.  By “the world,” he means the human world of commerce and industry, of business, of running to and fro to make a living, to buy and sell (getting and spending) at all hours of the day (“late and soon”), of being too involved in such things.  Why?  Because in doing so, we lose and gradually destroy (“lay waste”) what Wordsworth considered to be the important “powers” in humans — the emotional and spiritual side of our nature as opposed to the completely material and rational and “practical.”  We can also think of “getting and spending” as meaning getting our vital energy from Nature, but wasting it in purely material pursuits rather than aesthetic or spiritual pursuits.

The result of this one-sided life is that we lose touch with Nature, we “see little in Nature that is ours,” little that we can relate to and feel as a part of us.  Now we might ask why Wordsworth felt this way, but we need only recall that he was born at just the right (or wrong) time to see the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which turned good parts of England from quiet fields and woods to “dark satanic mills,” as William Blake put it.

Wordsworth tells us “we have given our hearts away,” and he does not mean this in a good way.  We have given our hearts — or emotional being, our wishes and innermost desires — away in exchange for the getting and spending and industry of the human world, which is most evident in city life.  That, the poet remarks, is “a sordid boon,” — a gain (boon) that is felt to be immoral and depressing (sordid).

Wordsworth gives examples of what we have lost:

The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

We are, he says, out of harmony — “out of tune” with Nature, with the sea rising and falling in the moonlight with its surface (bosom) bare to the moon, with the wind, whether it howls at times throughout the day and night (“at all hours”) or whether it is silent and still, like flowers that have closed their petals (“sleeping flowers”).  We are out of tune with all these and with the rest of nature — “It moves us not” — it has no emotional effect on us, on our spirits.  We have lost our connection with Nature.

moon and surf and a rocky shore
(Photo credit: R. S.)

The poet finds this separation of humans and Nature abnormal and intolerable.  He protests against it:

Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

“Great God!” he exclaims — just as we today might say “Good grief!” or something similar — “I’d rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”  He is thinking back to Greek and Roman antiquity.  He tells us he would rather have been born and nourished (“suckled”) and raised in pagan religion (creed).  He speaks of it as “a creed outworn” because the old Greco-Roman religion, seen as old and no longer adequate by Christians, was replaced by Christianity, which seldom encouraged love of Nature).

If he had been raised as a pagan, he tells us, then he could stand there on the pleasant lea (meadow, grassy area) and see things that would make him less forlorn — less depressed and unhappy:

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Three views of the Triton Fountain
Triton Fountain (Photo credit: Dog Company)

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Proteus was an ancient Greek sea god who could change his form.
Triton was also a sea god, the son of Poseidon, and his messenger.  By blowing his conch shell horn he could calm or raise the waves of the sea.

Wordsworth is telling us, then, that he is so weary of the human separation from Nature that he sees and feels around him that he would rather have been raised a pagan.  Then he would be able again to see the power and wonder in Nature, as manifested in the gods that were once felt to be a part of it; he might see the god Proteus rise up from the sea, or perhaps hear the sea god Triton blow on his horn to command the waves.  Nature would once more have force and power and significance, which Wordsworth felt it had largely lost in his day.

Imagine, then, how much worse things are now in our own time, when humans have polluted air and soil and water with toxic chemicals and radiation, and cities and growing populations are forever encroaching on farmlands and forests.

As for the rhyme, Wordsworth obviously stretched things a bit by his simile of winds

 up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

That is one of the pitfalls of rhyme in verse.  It leads all too often to such inadequate or unlikely comparisons, but Wordsworth felt he needed “flowers”; what else was he to rhyme with “powers,” “ours,” and “hours”?  When using rhyme, a poet must be very careful to remain its master rather than its servant.

Be sure, when you read the line

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn,

that you read “wreathed” as two syllables (wreath-ed) instead of the usual one, which is what Wordsworth intended here.  By “wreathed” horn he just means that the horn was ornamented by some kind of garland, in this case perhaps of seaweed.



Romance is a very strange thing.

It is a kind of psychological obsession with another person — an obsession so strong that it gives that other person control over whether the obsessed is happy or unhappy.  It gives one soaring emotional highs and abyssal emotional lows.  It can lead to the most bizarre behavior.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about romance is that it is not voluntary.  One does not consciously choose to be “in love” with another person.  Instead, it is something happening on a largely unconscious level — something that seems to unaccountably happen to a person, the passive victim.

The Greeks and Romans thought of it as being shot by the arrow of Eros, the god of love, who lives on in our modern images of Cupid.  As in the old cartoons, once one is shot with Cupid’s arrow, one no longer has control over one’s feelings, and is led on a wild roller coaster ride of emotion.

To the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the process of falling in love involved the unconscious projection of one’s ideal inner concept of a male or female on another person.  Now that person was unlikely to really possess all of those idealized qualities, but as long as that “outer” person made a good screen onto which the unconscious mind could project those qualities, what the obsessed person saw was not the male or female as he or she actually was, but rather only the projection of the unconscious ideal.

English: Cupid with a Bow by François Joseph B...
Cupid with a Bow by François Joseph Bosio at the Hermitage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That accounts for all the stupid things people do when “in love.”

The American psychologist Dorothy Tennov — in her book Love and Limerence – the Experience of Being in Love —  had a very sensible approach to the whole matter.  She made a useful distinction between genuine love and what she called “limerence.”  Limerence is what we ordinarily think of as “falling in love,” the obsession with another person that fills our thoughts and forces us through those emotional highs and lows, depending on whether we think our “love” is being sufficiently reciprocated or not.  Real love, however, is something else — something less exciting but far more lasting than limerence, which glows with such a strong flame that it eventually burns itself out, leaving one wondering what he or she previously saw in the other person.

Now one can discuss all of this intellectually; one can warn the young against it, explaining the difference between real, lasting love and the obsession of limerence.  But such explanations are not likely to prevent the occurence of “falling in love,” simply because it is a largely unconscious process.  As Carl Jung wrote, we are not master in our own house.  It is all too easy for unconscious obsession to take control, in spite of the conscious will.

Alfred Edward Housman wrote one of the best-known poems about the first experience of this unconscious obsession with another.  It is called When I was One-and-Twenty:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;

A young man 21 years old hears a wise and experienced older person warning against “falling in love.”  It is better, he is told, to give away one’s money than to give away one’s heart — better, that is, than to allow one’s self to “fall in love” with another, to give them control over one’s emotional state.

“Crowns and pounds and guineas” were units in the British monetary system of Housman’s day (and right up to 1971).  A pound, when a gold coin, was called a sovereign; when paper, it was a pound note or in slang, a “quid.”  A pound consisted of 20 shillings, which in slang were “bob.”  A crown coin (seldom actually used) was five shillings, “five bob.”  A guinea was considered a more “formal” unit, more “gentlemanly,” though it may seem an odd concept.  Works of art, for example, were customarily priced in guineas.  Years ago, when I was quite young, I was in an English town on market day, and was examining some paintings in one of the open-air stalls.  I noticed that the prices were all in “guineas,” which puzzled me; I had seen pence and sixpence and shillings and half crowns and pound notes, but not guineas.  So I asked the young man in charge what that meant.  He promptly and correctly informed me that a guinea was a pound and a shilling (the equivalent of 21 shillings).

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

Now the wise man, continuing his advice, “ups the ante,” as is said in card playing.  He increases the amount one should be willing to part with before one parts with one’s heart.  Now it is not just crowns and pounds and guineas, but very precious things — pearls and rubies.  This is a way of saying, “Give anything away before you give your heart away to someone.”  In short, do not fall in love.

The advice is “to keep your fancy free,” that is, do not fixate and put all your attention on one person, but keep your mental options open:  continue meeting various people, experience them as individuals, get to know their good and bad points, enjoy being with them and do not be in a hurry to commit yourself.

But our young man is only 21 years old, inexperienced and not yet wise in the ways of the world.  Young people hear the advice to be cautious and slow and patient and careful in avoiding premature relationships with those of the sex to whom one is attracted, but do they take it to heart?  Do they take it seriously enough?

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again, 
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty, 
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Our wise counselor tells the young man that whenever one gives one’s heart to another, that is, whenever one falls in love, there will be consequences.  Giving one’s heart was never done “in vain,” which here means “without results.”  And what are those results, those consequences?

Again, Housman speaks in monetary terms, but this time a different kind of coin — negative emotions.  Falling in love is paid for with “sighs a plenty,” that is, with many sad sighs of remorse.  And one’s heart is “sold for endless rue,” that is, traded for endless regrets.

In the last two lines, we find that our young man did not heed the warning:

And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

What a difference a year can make.  In just that short time, our young man has found by experience that the pain and regret he had been warned would follow “falling in love” were not just vain imaginings.  He has since allowed it to happen; he has fallen in love, and has experienced its pains.  And now he can tell us from his own bitter experience,

And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

First-hand experience is often the best, but also the most bitter teacher.



In spite of her cleverness and uniqueness, I have never been very fond of the poetry of Emily Dickinson, though I respect it for what it is.  I know she has earned her own place in the history of poetry, but I find her in general too abstract — too much living in her mind — which is no doubt due in part to her rather reclusive and withdrawn lifestyle.  One cannot help but be impressed, however, by her insistence on the right to her own individuality.

English: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dicki...
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I would like to discuss one of her “didactic” poems.  A didactic poem is one that has teaching as its purpose rather than aesthetic pleasure alone.  And what this poem teaches is very important.  It is called Much Madness is Divinest Sense.

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails. 
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

To me, the chief application of this poem is to the distinction between the thoughts and beliefs and actions of the masses in contrast to those of the individual.

It is all too common in human history, that when the majority of a society were set on a given course of belief or action, any individual who spoke out against it did so at his or her own risk.

We can trace this lesson back far in human history.  The Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death in Athens for “corrupting the youth” and “impiety.”  His method of reasoned questioning and its results ran contrary, so the authorities held, to the best interests of the people of Athens.

There are countless examples of the persecution of individuals who have held opinions contrary to those of the dominant religion, particularly when that religion had (or has) strong state or political support.

However, many of the great advances of humankind have come about precisely because of individuals who held opinions contrary to those held by the masses in general.  We need only recall Galileo, who found by observation that the traditional view of the earth being the center of the Solar System was quite mistaken; and Charles Darwin, whose investigations revealed unquestionably that all creatures were not created in a few days time a few thousand years previously, but instead had evolved from lower forms of life over eons of time.

Then too, there were those like the Quaker John Woolman, who spoke out very early against the abomination of slavery.  And there were the women who first began speaking for the right of women to vote, and often suffered terribly for it.

One can think of innumerable causes in which individuals stood against the majority, much to the eventual benefit of society.  But for those few who speak out, life can be very difficult.  They are often stigmatized as radical or as mad.  In the Soviet Union and Communist China, one way of treating dissidents has been to remove them from society and shut them away in psychiatric wards, as though they were mental patients.

Dickinson points out in her poem, however, that the madness of such people is often actually the most heavenly of common sense, to the “discerning eye,” that is, to those who can see clearly and rationally, distinguishing what is real from what is merely illusion  and mass opinion.

She tells us further that “much sense” can be “the starkest madness,” that is, what the majority finds sensible and “true” can be the plainest, strongest insanity.

We do not have to look far for examples of that.  Look at the people of Nazi Germany caught up in the idolization of Hitler and his lunacy.  It was very risky to take an individual position then against the position of the masses.  Look at the American South at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, and how those who spoke in favor of equal rights did so at peril of their lives.

It still goes on today.  Those holding a view different from that of the masses, particularly in any matter relating to politics or religion, are often stigmatized, stereotyped as “crazy” in order to discredit their ideas and push them out of the public mind and view.  But it is often precisely these individuals, who think for themselves and not by what everyone else is saying and doing, who lead humankind forward in sudden, bold steps.

Individualism in thought has always been, and still is, in some societies, dangerous.  Whether someone is perceived as sane or mad can depend on whether his or her views fit those of the majority or not:

’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.

It is the majority — that is, the beliefs and will of the majority — that prevail, that have the stronger position.  If the majority decides that supposed witches are to be burned and homosexuals put in prison, or women kept isolated and at home, then that is considered “sane” and all opposition madness or impiety.

’T is the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

So, those who want to be accepted, those who don’t want trouble, know which way the wind blows, as did Dickinson:

Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
And handled with a chain.

Agree with the masses, with those in social, political or religious power, and you are considered “sane.”  But if you “demur,” if you show reluctance or refusal in going along with the accepted belief or behavior, you suddenly become perceived as dangerous, like someone with severe mental illness, and you are “handled with a chain,” treated accordingly.

“Handled with a chain” takes us back to the evil days when the mentally ill could be placed in asylums and chained.

Take the case of Plympton House Lunatic Asylum, in England:

In July 1843 a woman who had given birth to a child but five or six weeks before was found to be confined in ‘a straight waistcoat and chained by the arm and leg to a bench’.  Ten curable patients and two idiots were being looked after by a lunatic who was himself kept in chains to prevent him from escaping.  As if that was not bad enough, later that year the lady mentioned above was found to be chained not only by her leg but by another passing around her waist and an iron ring with two hand locks restraining her hands.  In total, two private patients and nineteen paupers were found to be chained to their beds each night at that time.”

Of course Dickinson’s poem applies also to the person in ordinary society who is “different” in opinions and actions, like Dickinson herself, with her seclusion and her “innovative and unorthodox” beliefs and opinions.  It is likely this smaller scale she had in mind, given that no doubt many in her time and place considered her odd, but it applies as well to the greater scale, in which a person who stands against the prevailing beliefs often pays for it dearly.  And yet it is often these same people who have led humans to transcend pettiness and ignorance and irrationality.

That is why freedom of belief (including freedom from belief) and freedom of speech and expression are so critically important to a free and progressive society.  And we should include in that universal freedom of education — the right of anyone, male or female, to learn to read and write, and to be exposed to all kinds of contrary views and opinions in the open marketplace of ideas.  And of course the right to come to one’s own conclusions and personal beliefs, and to express them freely and openly.



Today’s poem is by Ernest Dowson (1867-1900).  Merely discussing him is a sad matter, because, like Sebastian Flyte in Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, Dowson was both a student at Oxford for a time and a severe alcoholic whose life ended far too early.  We can extend the parallel further in that both were Roman Catholic, in Dowson’s case by conversion.

English: Portrait photo of English poet Ernest...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We should not be surprised that he titled his poem in Latin; this was in the days, after all, when a knowledge of Latin was considered indispensable to a good education.  So that is why students of English poetry find themselves faced with these Latin words at the head of the poem:

Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetat Incohare Longam

It means, essentially, that the brief (brevis) sum (summa) of life (vitae) forbids/prevents (vetat) us (nos) beginning (incohare) a long (longam) hope (spem).  But we can think of it  as meaning simply:

The Shortness of Life Forbids Us Long Hopes

The phrase comes from lines in Ode 1.4, by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 b.c.e.):

pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas       
regnumque turris. o beate Sesti,
vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam;

“Still pallid Death is knocking at the hovels of paupers
And the towers of kings.  O happy Sestius,
The short span of life forbids us undertaking long hopes.”

But now to the poem:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
   Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
   We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
    Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
   Within a dream.

Yesterday I discussed Wenlock Edge, by A. E. Housman, in which he tells us that the emotional gale of human life soon wears itself out from its own force and disappears.  Dowson is similarly speaking of the brevity of human emotions.  Weeping and laughter, love and desire and hate, he says, do not last long, and he thinks they end with death (“passing the gate”).

In like manner, he tells us, the days of pleasure and happiness, which he poetically terms “the days of wine and roses,” are not long either.  And as for our short life, it is like a path seen coming out of a mist, then disappearing into that same mist.

It is a variation on an old simile.  The Venerable Bede tells the story of the comment of an advisor to King Edwin of Northumberland:

Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a moment of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”

But Bede’s simile is more bleak and far less beautiful than Dowson’s “path out of mist” metaphor, which has more the flavor of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s lines:

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.             What is life?  A frenzy.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,           What is life?  An illusion,
una sombra, una ficción,                    A shadow, a fiction,
y el mayor bien es pequeño:             And its greatest good is small.
que toda la vida es sueño,                  For all of life is a dream,
y los sueños, sueños son.                    And dreams are dreams.

Dowson’s metaphor reminds me also of a hokku I once wrote from experience, with his poem not at all in mind, and without metaphor:

The river;
It flows out of and into
The fog.

Dowson’s poem is undeniably beautiful:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Happiness is brief, life is short and vague and a mystery, but in reading those lines by Dowson we must say that, as R. H. Blyth once remarked, put that way, it doesn’t sound too bad.

Dowson did have a sense for the poetic phrase.  Many who have never read his poem know the words “the days of wine and roses,” which were used for the title of a movie about a descent into alcoholism.  And it is from another poem by Dowson (Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae) that the words come which gave the title to Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the famous film of the Civil War, Gone With the Wind:

I have forgot much, Cynara!  gone with the wind,
Flung rose, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind…

One writer calls Ernest Dowson “The incarnation of dissipation and decadence,” which combined with the sad beauty of today’s poem, brings to mind the rather indelicate expression that a rose may grow out of a manure pile — the “pile” in this case being Dowson’s decadent and deadly habits.  For him, the combination of an excessive lifestyle and alcoholism with his tuberculosis proved quickly fatal.  He died a few months beyond his 32nd year.