THE DAYS DWINDLE DOWN: CAVAFY’S CANDLES

 

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

CANDLES

lineofcandles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.

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

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

 

FOREVER AUTUMN: THOMAS HARDY’S DURING WIND AND RAIN

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

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

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

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

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would
take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

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

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

Here is the poem:

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

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

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

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

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

This cheerful scene is followed by the first lament:

Ah, no; the years O!

— like the repeated refrain of a song.

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

Ah, no; the years, the years;

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

Ah, no; the years O!

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

Ah, no; the years, the years;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the original and a very literal translation:

Kanashisa ya
Shigure ni somaru
Haka no moji.

Sadness ya
Rain in is-dyed
Gravestone ‘s writing

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

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

Regarding this stanza of Hardy’s poem —

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

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

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

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

David

UNREAD NEWS OF BYGONE DAYS

sntr

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.

David

THE BASICS OF HOKKU AESTHETICS

In a previous posting, you will recall, I said that one may have a verse in the outward form of a hokku, with everything in it correct, and still not have a hokku.  That is because to be a real hokku, a verse must have the content — the aesthetics — of hokku.

Cupressus macrocarpa (Monterey Cypress) in Peb...

By aesthetics I mean the overall atmosphere of hokku.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that every aspect of hokku aesthetics must be seen or included in every hokku.  It is more subtle than that.

We can think of hokku aesthetics as the “taste” or the “fragrance” of a hokku.  It is the overall feeling one gets on reading a single hokku or a collection of hokku.  In some it may be fainter, in others stronger, but however faint or strong, it should always be there.

The most obvious characteristics of the overall hokku aesthetic are these:

1.  Poverty
2.  Simplicity
3.  Transience

Poverty applies both to the outward form and to the aesthetics of hokku content.  It means  a sense of spareness and ordinariness rather than a sense of luxury and the exotic.  Think of it like the simple — yet “plain” — beauty of Shaker furniture, or of the Walden of Thoreau, or of a Quaker meeting.  It means a sense of appreciation of the few things one has instead of a sense of unappreciated abundance.

We see poverty, for example, in Onitsura’s verse:

In the broken pot,
A water plantain —
Slenderly blooming. 

The water plantain is a very ordinary and “plain”  plant, not showy at all, or expensive.   Here we see it not in a costly or elaborate pot, but in an ordinary clay pot or crock, and that crock is even broken.  So the poverty of this hokku is easy to see.

Poverty overlaps and relates to the next aesthetic characteristic of hokku — simplicity.  We also see simplicity in Onitsura’s verse.  The hokku form itself exhibits simplicity.  By simplicity we mean that a hokku does not have a flavor of complexity or elaborateness.  It is not hard to “get,” and it is very ordinary in its words, which are not fancy or unusual or requiring a special education to understand.  Hokku should not seem sophisticated.  We should not think of a city dweller going to plays and art galleries and parties; instead we should think of a farmer or of a hermit in the woods, or of a dweller in a simple house with a garden in a small town.

Added and related to that, hokku should have a sense of naturalness rather than artificiality or contrivance.  A hokku should seem natural and unforced in its writing.  It should not give the appearance of being the result of much thought and manipulation.

We see simplicity in this verse by Buson:

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Do you notice that there is an underlying sense in that verse of “something happening”?  We see the rough cloth bags bulging with seeds getting soaked by the rain, but there is also a sense of latency; by that we mean a sense of something that is not said, but is still there nonetheless.  In this verse it is the underlying knowing that the soaked seeds are going to start swelling and sprouting in and through the holes in the weave of the cloth bag.  That gives this hokku the feeling of a kind of potential power that is not actually mentioned in the verse.  What is that power?  It is the sense of the growing Yang energy of spring.  I have talked about Yin and Yang in relation to hokku in other postings, and I will talk about them again in future postings, because they are something I often mention in my teaching of hokku. Keep in mind that we usually have that feeling of something left unsaid in hokku.

I mentioned naturalness in relation to simplicity.  Part of that is a sense of selflessness.  That means the writer should not “stand out” in a hokku.  Hokku is not about ego or self. That is why we minimalize the use of “I,” “me,” and “my.”  We usually avoid them unless they are necessary for clarity.

A third and very important characteristic of hokku aesthetics is a sense of transience.  Behind all of our practice of hokku there should be — sometimes fainter, sometimes stronger — the sense of evanescence, the sense that everything in this world is temporary, whether it be a blooming flower or a leaf on a tree or our lives.  There is nothing which we can hold on to always, because everything in life, everything in the universe, comes only to go.  It arises and then passes away.

That gives hokku another characteristic, which is something that is almost loneliness, but not quite, something with a feeling of solitude mixed into it.  It is almost sadness but again, not quite.  It is that feeling that arises in us when we realize that everything around us — our possessions, our friends, our surroundings — are transient and temporary.  That  too is very important in the aesthetics of hokku, the background feeling or flavor or subtle fragrance that is always behind our practice.  Imagine that you have been away for 30 years from the little town where you grew up; when you go back, you see that the small shops you remember are not there, certain buildings and houses are entirely gone, and you do not recognize the people in your old neighborhood.  Things are just different; it is no longer the place you remember.  That is the kind of feeling transience gives rise to.

Transience is obvious in Hyakuchi’s verse,

The sold cow
Leaving the village;
The haze. 

Associated with transience, please remember, is a sense of time passing.  That is why in hokku, things that are old or worn or weathered or broken are valued; they show the passage of time.  The transience of hokku is also why every hokku is set within a particular season, whether it is mentioned in the verse or used as its classification.  The seasons come and the seasons go, and what happens within the seasons is constantly changing.

There is of course much more to the aesthetics of hokku, but these characteristics are the basics, and every writer of hokku should know them.  Remember that they are not blatantly obvious in every hokku, but again are like the overall background taste or fragrance that permeates and pervades our practice of hokku.  If your verses have that subtle feeling, then that is what fills the correct form with what is really hokku and not some other kind of short verse.

Hokku leave us with the feeling that, even though they are very simple and ordinary, there is something significant in them that we cannot quite put our finger on, something deeper that is never said or explained in words.

Of course, of primary importance in hokku aesthetics is the overall subject matter of hokku, which we summarize as “Nature and the place of humans within, and as a part of, Nature.”

Many people read through these aesthetics, but they do not sink in; they do not really absorb them, and consequently fail in writing hokku.  So even though they seem and are very simple and ordinary, do not think they are unimportant.  To write hokku, you must realize what they mean in your life, and whether and to what extent your life reflects them.

David

DYLAN THOMAS: FERN HILL (part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

and

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

and

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

and

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

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

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

Sang/rang
Sabbath/pebbles
Slowly/holy

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

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman….

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FERN HILL

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

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

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

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

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house
Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long,
In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

David

CHILDHOOD’S END: DYLAN THOMAS AND FERN HILL

In English there are poets of the intellect, poets who use words and grammar with the precision and coldness of mathematics.  In contrast to these are the impressionists of poetry who use words as an artist uses broad dabs of color, a smear of scarlet for a stalk of flowers.

Among the most impressionistic poets in English are two associated with Wales — first Gerard Manley Hopkins, who studied Welsh at one time, and second Dylan Thomas, who was Welsh though he wrote in English.

Today I want to talk about Thomas.  His verbal impressionism was at its height in the poem Fern Hill. It is one of those works often initially mystifying to the high school or college level reader, a poem that seems to create an atmosphere rather than to convey information.  Many find it difficult to understand.

It is really quite easy, however, once one realizes that Thomas has taken a simple yet profound theme — childhood’s end — and has depicted it impressionistically, using words instead of pigments, repeating them and repeating phrasing and consonantal sounds to build up the overall image.  Thomas once wrote how as a child he fell in love with the sounds of words quite apart from their meaning.  In Fern Hill he combines sound and meaning and melody, not to make a clearly-defined statement, but rather to make his point through the overall impression given by his combination and use of words — his verbal impressionism:

In the following I have emphasized certain words and letters to draw your attention to the repetition of sounds and of certain key words, though I have not marked all that might be noted:

FERN HILL

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

You will want to know that a “dingle” is a small valley between hills, what would be called a “hollow” in the eastern United States.  Thomas has put the adjective “starry” after it instead of before it, but he means simply a little valley or dell with stars above it.

Thomas is showing us his childhood, when everything was fresh and new, everything green (the color of youth and growth) and golden (the color of light and preciousness) and bright.  He gives it to us in a Welsh rural setting of green and wagons and apples and daisies and barley and “rivers of windfall light” that is, a world flooded with light that came without any effort on his part.  It was a time and place in which he felt princely and lordly — as though things were there to serve and please him.  Time was like a kind and doting grandfather, letting Thomas climb “golden in the heydays of his eyes” — in the golden days of youth.  “Heydays” means here the height of Thomas’ youthful vigor, his youthful “prime.”  He tells us this happened “once below a time” — a play upon “once upon a time,” used by Thomas to indicate his childhood was felt to be in a place “below” time — outside of  it — timeless.  We shall watch this interplay between his illusions and the realities of time.

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

In the second stanza, Thomas emphasizes by repetition:  In stanza one he said he was “young and easy.”  In stanza two it becomes “green and carefree.”  Now he repeats Time as a benevolent male figure who let Thomas “play and be golden.”  And he was, he says, “green and golden,” young and fresh and bright and precious.  As he was princely and lordly in the first stanza, in the second he is “famous” and singing — he is happy in this youthful paradise, in which time seems a kind and merciful figure.  The bawling of calves, the barking of foxes, the ringing of the church bells combine to make a music expressing a world that is peaceful,  joyous and holy — “the sabbath rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams.”  Keep in mind that the sabbath is a day of rest from labor, and Thomas uses it to indicate a seemingly everlasting tranquility.  We feel the slow passage of green and golden days that seem a part of eternity.  The streams are “holy” because everything in that childhood world is mysteriously “holy.”

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

Thomas uses words in unexpected ways, but we understand very clearly what he means when he says “all the sun long” — all the day long — only here the sun becomes a manifestation of time that seems ever-fresh and unending and un-aging.  Of his life at that time, he says, “It was running, it was lovely…it was air and playing,” evoking the great energy and joy of childhood.  Even fire was “green as grass.”

Then came the transition to the peace and forgetfulness of night, a passage like riding into sleep and dreams when, “under the simple stars,” waking consciousness would fade as though “owls were bearing the farm away.”  And again there is the sense of holiness, when “blessed among stables” Thomas would hear, dream-like, the nightjars “all the moon long” (for “all the night long”).

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

Thomas tells us that each morning was like the first morning of Creation.  He would return to waking consciousness and  find the farm, gone during the night, come back “like a wanderer white with dew,” the cock that cries the morning on his shoulder.  Not at all a prosaic statement like, “I woke on the farm and heard the rooster on the fence crowing.”

Again Thomas presents us with images of light and freshness: “It was all shining, /It was Adam and maiden.” That repeats his previous notion that each day was like the first day of Edenic creation.  The sun never aged, but was continually born afresh: “The sun grew round that very day.”

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

Thomas speaks here of “the sun born over and over,” which seems in direct contradiction to his earlier mention of “the sun that is young once only.”  The solution is that by “born over and over” he is referring to the actual individual days of his childhood, while by “the sun that is young once only” he is referring to his childhood as an entire period.  The sun of childhood is “young once only,” and then childhood with its bright, golden light is gone forever.

And notably, in this stanza Thomas introduces the first hint that all is not well.  He repeats his feeling of high status, that he was “honoured among foxes.”  He tells us he was “happy as the heart was long” under the “sun born over and over,” — as the seemingly endless days passed, each one fresh and new — but he tells us, abruptly, that he ran “heedless” — unaware of something of great significance behind it all.  And then he presents us, clearly and simply, with the serpent in the garden, with the discovery that death is, even in Arcadia:

“…nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace…”

“Nothing I cared at my sky-blue trades.”  By those words, Thomas indicates he was occupied with his childish activities and play beneath the blue sky — “at my sky-blue trades.” And so did not heed what was gradually happening.  Like all children, he thought youth and its freshness were eternal, but he has a stunning realization here.  He is to fall out of the apparent grace that was given him, he is to lose Eden.   That is to be repeated with bitter painfulness in the following stanza:

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

By “lamb-white days” he again paints with a broad, impressionistic brush as he did with “sky-blue trades”  Here he indicates the youthfulness, innocence, and purity (“lamb-white” of the days of his childhood.  Thomas realizes that while he ran and played beneath the sun that always seemed reborn, or slept beneath the moon that seemed always rising, it happened eventually that he realized Time was leading him by the hand to the loft and sleep, and that when he woke childhood would have ended, that he would wake not to another day fresh and new and white with dew, but instead would wake to “the farm fled forever from the childless land” — his childhood’s end, the loss of innocence, and the knowledge of the real state of things in this transitory world — “Nevermore.”

And Thomas finishes with the lines that almost bring tears to one’s eyes, the realization that he had been foolish and naive, that even while he was young and happy and seemed to be the favored child of Time, it was not so.  I shall not add any emphatic marks to these last lines, because in them you will see the key points of the poem all brought together in the final truth:  that even while he was young and fresh and happy and heedless and rejoicing, Time held him captive and dying, in spite of his freshness, joy and innocence that seemed as free and flowing as the sounding sea:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Those last three lines are engraved on a stone in Cwmdonkin Park in Swansea, Wales, near Thomas’ childhood home.

“Dylan,” by the way, is a Welsh name correctly pronounced “Dullan,” but Thomas preferred the English pronunciation of his first name, with the “y” like the “i” in “still.”

As for the title and setting of the poem, it is interesting (but not essential) to know that though Thomas lived as a child in the city of Swansea, Wales, he spent considerable time in his youth with relatives who lived in a farmhouse near the village of Llangain, in Carmarthenshire, Wales.  The name of that farm was “Fernhill.”

If you found this posting interesting, you may wish to read Part II of it as well:
https://hokku.wordpress.com/2011/03/16/dylan-thomas-fern-hill-part-ii/

David

DEEP OR MEDIOCRE?

Depth in hokku depends on both writer and reader.  We can see that on examining two verses of Bashō written in two different years, both winter hokku.  Here is the first:

Byōbu ni wa    yama o egaite    fuyugomori
Screen on wa mountain o painted   winter-seclusion

On the screen,
A mountain is painted;
Winter seclusion.

On the surface this is a really mediocre verse.  Remember, not everything Bashō wrote was worth keeping — in fact only a fraction of his verses are memorable.  But this is where season and context come in, so let’s look closer.

Imagine that you are forced to stay indoors because of icy or snowy winter weather, day after day.  In that case, your eyes turn to the painted mountain on the folding screen, because you cannot go out to see the hills or mountains.  The stillness of the painting is in keeping with the stillness of your seclusion and isolation.  In such a case, suddenly the verse becomes significant.  The painted mountain reflects your winter seclusion, your isolation from the world outside.  Without this, the verse is a waste of time.

Now we must ask ourselves, was this in fact what Bashō intended, or is it something we are reading into the hokku?  That is a matter of concern only to academics.  We, as readers, have found the meaning in the verse, whether Bashō consciously put it there or not.  But if we do not have the perception to see the meaning, the verse remains flat and tasteless.  So a great deal in hokku depends not only on the writer but on the reader.

That is the explanation for the peculiar fact that sometimes people who are just beginning hokku will come up with a really significant verse, and then their other verses will simply be wasted ink.  It is often the case that a reader will perceive a meaning there that the writer was completely unaware of, creating a good hokku quite by accident.  Of course one cannot find significance in any verse.  There must be something there to trigger the aesthetic perception of the reader of hokku.

One can see from this that the aesthetic perception of the reader plays a great part in the evaluation of any hokku.  A good writer of hokku will be able to write more good hokku than simply one fortunate accident, but a good reader of hokku may sometimes transform a lack on the writer’s part into something significant.

Here is the second of the two hokku by Bashō:

Kinbyō no    matsu no furusa yo    fuyugomori
Gold-screen ‘s  pine  ‘s  oldness yo winter-seclusion

On the gold screen,
The pine is ancient;
Winter seclusion.

We can easily see how close it is to the first.  But there are differences.  First, the screen is gold, and as a screen with gold ages, it takes on a slightly different cast.  Added to that is the aged pine painted upon it.  This combination makes us feel the slow passage of time through many long years.  That reflects the feeling when one is shut in and isolated for a long duration in the middle of the cold and frost and snow of winter.  So we have here a strong sense of time and transience, of time passing with almost painful slowness.

We can liken that to what I call “Coomler’s Theory of Relativity.”  It is simply that work time passes far more slowly than free time.  Any office worker may verify this experientially.  Compare two hours at work (work one does not particularly enjoy) to two hours of watching an interesting movie or talking with friends.

There is a variant of the verse that uses “aging” instead of “aged”:

The pine
On the golden screen ages;
Winter seclusion.

I prefer this version.  The effect is like sitting in a room, hour after hour, with the slow tick of a grandfather clock in the background.  It gives us a remarkable sense of the drawn-out passage of time, unenlivened by television or music or chatter or any other distractions.  In such circumstances we begin to get a much clearer picture of what our minds are like, of how much they crave distraction.

All of this is a kind of lead-in to telling you that in the past, I have discussed hokku very much in the context of its history — of what this or that writer did to make a good verse.  From now on — to the extent that I post here — I will advocate simply my approach to hokku.

That takes us completely away from discussions of what Onitsura meant by sincerity, what Bashō meant by not imitating, and all the other things with which people interested in the history of hokku like to occupy their minds.

That does not mean the kind of hokku I present here will change much.  It just means that I will concentrate on the approach to hokku that is meaningful to me, and not waste time with anything else that may ever have been written as hokku — examples that may diverge from that approach in one way or another.  I will generally not bother with mediocre verses by any writer, no matter how famous, because my interest will not be in illustrating the range of old hokku.  I may, however, occasionally throw in a bad verse just to show what not to do.

What I am intending, of course, is defining a “school” of hokku, which again means a particular aesthetic approach to writing hokku, along with all others who share the same general aesthetic considerations and preferences.

Perceptive readers will perhaps think, well, isn’t that what he has been doing all along?  To a great extent it is.  But  a major difference will be that I will make no effort to justify this or that historically (though in most cases that can be done).  I will simply present what I think is the best way to read and write hokku.

In doing so, I will no doubt continue with old hokku used as models, because they do such a good job of conveying the matter.  But I will feel perfectly free to depart from conventional translation and understanding of such verses whenever doing so fits the needs of explaining the kind of hokku that really make the matter as a whole worthwhile for me.

Hokku must relate to life.  If it does not relate to life, it loses its value.  Yesterday I was thinking about Chinese brush painting, and how one can become proficient in it by learning to paint things one has never seen.  But does one really want paintings of  a stork by someone who has never seen a stork, paintings of a wild goose by someone who has never seen a wild goose, paintings of a water lily by someone who has never seen a water lily?  Such things are worse than imitation of life — they are simply imitations of imitations.  Our hokku should never be like that.  That is why we must write from our own experiences, constantly deepening and maturing as we walk the path of hokku.

I have often thought that I would like to write what I would call “American talks on Japanese hokku.”  Well, what I will do from now on — again to the extent that I am moved to do so and my time permits — will be pretty much that, except there will be no emphasis whatsoever on the “Japanese” part of it.  Instead, whether I am talking about hokku originally written in Japan or not, it will be simply one American’s talks on hokku.

I hope you will join me if what I have to say on the subject speaks to your condition.

David