Monday, January 11, 2021

Presence

As I have remarked here in the past, the feeling that the world is going to Hell in a hand-basket is a timeless feature of human nature. The world has always been, and will always be, going to Hell in a hand-basket.  Still, one pauses: after all, there was someone living an ordinary life in Rome when it was sacked by the barbarians.  It's a matter of timing.  You never know what you're in for.

                                 To Posterity

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

Louis MacNeice, Visitations (Faber and Faber 1957).

Thus wrote MacNeice sixty-four years ago.  He was not wrong. Moreover, as I have noted here on several occasions, Wordsworth was not wrong in his preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads:

"[A] multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.  The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies."  

Hence, the theme is not new.  Only the technology changes.  So here we are again.  But all is not lost.  Some of us continue to love, and attempt to preserve, what Wordsworth and MacNeice loved (and feared for).  Yet at times one does think of the Roman living contentedly, going about his or her daily business, seeing dust on the horizon, having never heard of Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals.

William Rothenstein (1872-1945)
"Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (c. 1925)

I try to keep things in perspective, but since 1968 (the year of the White Album, a memorable World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals, and nothing else good) I have been of the opinion that the world (as distinguished from the World) is indeed going to Hell in a hand-basket.  However, don't mind me: I suspect I had the same feeling as I emerged bawling from the womb, gasping for air, during the first term of the Eisenhower administration.  Withal, come what may, I have remained quite cheerful.  I simply step outside and take a look around at the World and its beautiful particulars.  How can one be anything but astonished and grateful?

   On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations

You'll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (Henry Holt and Company 1928).

William Rothenstein, "St Martin's Summer"

Nevertheless, one cannot help but take notice of certain things.  Of things that have permanently vanished.  Of irreplaceable things, now broken, that appear to be irreparable.  There's no help for it.  One does notice.  Is this merely a product of growing older, of feeling that it is time to leave the stage, an outdated relic?  Perhaps.  But that denizen of Rome haunts me.

Suddenly, another Roman arrives to remind me:

"If, I say, you separate from the governing principle within you those things which are, as it were, appended to it by its vehement passions, and the times past and future, you make yourself like the firm World of Empedocles, A sphere rejoicing 'midst the circling eddy.  Be solicitous only to live well for the present; and you may go on till death, to spend what remains of life, with tranquillity, with true dignity, and complacence with the divinity within you."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book XII, Section 3, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

Life is ever a matter of attention and gratitude, don't you think?

   On Something Observed

Torn remains of a cobweb,
     one strand dangling down --
a stray petal fluttering by
     has been tangled, caught in its skein,
all day to dance and turn,
     never once resting --
elsewhere in my garden,
     no breeze stirs.

Kokan Shiren (1278-1346) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume 2 (Columbia University Press  1976), page 27.

William Rothenstein, "Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (1933)

Monday, December 28, 2020

A Choice

Toward the end of November, the robins begin to gather in small flocks for the winter.  One hears the sound of constant twittering in a distant tree.  This seems unusual, since bird-sounds mostly vanish as autumn deepens.  But then one sees them: robins hopping from branch to branch, in conversation, debating their next step.  Once a plan of action has been agreed upon, they leave the tree one by one or in small groups, continuing their daily round.  Our winter companions.  A comforting sight.

                         Time Out

It took that pause to make him realize
The mountain he was climbing had the slant
As of a book held up before his eyes
(And was a text albeit done in plant).
Dwarf cornel, gold-thread, and maianthemum,
He followingly fingered as he read,
The flowers fading on the seed to come;
But the thing was the slope it gave his head:
The same for reading as it was for thought,
So different from the hard and level stare
Of enemies defied and battles fought.
It was the obstinately gentle air
That may be clamored at by cause and sect
But it will have its moment to reflect.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (Henry Holt 1942).

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Meadows by the Avon"

Yesterday, near twilight, I walked beside a long puddle filled with intricate, innumerable bare branches, pink-tinged white sunset clouds, and darkening blue sky.  The reflected world seemed to be another world entirely -- beautiful, but out of reach.  A few moments later, still walking, the brilliant puddle now behind me, I realized how completely wrong I had been: what I had seen was the World.  How could it be otherwise?  Do you sometimes find it hard to believe that the World is as beautiful as it is?  It is good to be reminded of one's ignorance.  I receive this reminder every day.  But the World never gives up on me.

"Attachment to the self renders life more opaque.  One moment of complete forgetting and all the screens, one behind the other, become transparent so that you can perceive clarity to its very depths, as far as the eye can see; and at the same time everything becomes weightless.  Thus does the soul truly become a bird."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry (May, 1954), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 1.

Alfred Parsons, "Poplars in the Thames Valley"

Cloudy winter days sometimes end in a thin band of yellow sky at the edge of the horizon, along the blue-black silhouette of the peaks of the Olympic Mountains, beyond the waters of Puget Sound.  That narrow strip of brightness has a beckoning aspect to it.  A promise of sorts before a long winter night.

Reflections
of stars, on the riverbank?
Plum blossoms.

Sugiwara Sōi (1418-1485) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Haiku Before Haiku: From the Renga Masters to Bashō (Columbia University Press 2011), page 56.

Alfred Parsons,  "On the Cotswolds"

Friday, December 18, 2020

Companion

As autumn departs, a thought: 

All Night Long Regretting
      the End of Autumn

Regret as I may,
even the bell
has a different sound now,
and soon frost will fall
in place of morning dew.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 84.

I shall never quarrel with my beloved Saigyō, and his thought strikes home.  He and Marcus Aurelius are in agreement: "The world is a continual change."  (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IV, Section 3, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).)

And yet.  Last evening I saw a lovely crescent moon high in the southwestern sky over Puget Sound.  Constancy in the midst of change.  Apart from new meteor craters, cosmic debris, and human detritus scattered in a few places, has the moon altered over the millennia for those of us here on the ground, looking upward?  Hasn't it always been our unchanged, unchangeable, reliable companion?
  
     Autumn's bright moon,
However far I walked, still afar off
     In an unknown sky.

Chiyo-ni (1701-1775) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 388.

Of Chiyo-ni's haiku, Blyth writes: "There is a feeling of separateness here which is not to be denied.  The poetess realizes that she and the moon are two different entities, in a different sky, in a different world."  (Ibid, page 388.)  He then provides a waka which, as Blyth puts it, "expresses that other side of truth":

     Down from the mountain,
The moon
     Accompanied me,
And when I opened the gate,
The moon too entered.

Kotomichi (1798-1868) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 388.

One need not make a choice.  Both are beautiful.  Both are true.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Autumn" (1946)

Perhaps Chiyo-ni's view and Kotomichi's view are merged and reconciled in William Wordsworth's lunar encounter in the winter of 1798:

                    A Night-Piece

                            The sky is overspread
With a close veil of one continuous cloud
All whitened by the moon, that just appears,
A dim-seen orb, yet chequers not the ground
With any shadow -- plant, or tower, or tree.
At last a pleasant instantaneous light
Startles the musing man whose eyes are bent
To earth.  He looks around, the clouds are split
Asunder, and above his head he views
The clear moon and the glory of the heavens.
There in a black-blue vault she sails along
Followed by multitudes of stars, that small,
And bright, and sharp along the gloomy vault
Drive as she drives.  How fast they wheel away!
Yet vanish not!  The wind is in the trees;
But they are silent.  Still they roll along
Immeasurably distant, and the vault
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its interminable depth.
At length the vision closes, and the mind
Not undisturbed by the deep joy it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

William Wordsworth, 1798 manuscript, in Beth Darlington, "Two Early Texts: A Night-Piece and The Discharged Soldier," in Jonathan Wordsworth (editor), Bicentenary Wordsworth Studies in Memory of John Alban Finch (Cornell University Press 1970), page 431.

1798: that charmed year for William and Dorothy Wordsworth (and for Samuel Taylor Coleridge as well).  Commentators on the poem have noted that it has its origin in a journal entry made by Dorothy on January 25, 1798.  (See, for example: Lucy Newlyn, William and Dorothy Wordsworth: 'All in Each Other' (Oxford University Press 2013), pages 57-59; Kenneth Johnston, The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (W. W. Norton 1998), pages 552-553.)  The thought is that William and Dorothy witnessed the scene together while out walking.

"The sky spread over with one continuous cloud, whitened by the light of the moon, which, though her dim shape was seen, did not throw forth so strong a light as to chequer the earth with shadows.  At once the clouds seemed to cleave asunder, and left her in the centre of a black-blue vault.  She sailed along, followed by multitudes of stars, small, and bright, and sharp."

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals (Oxford University Press 2002), page 142.

The "vision" recounted by Wordsworth brings to mind one of the fragments of blank verse in his Alfoxden notebook, which he kept during the first three months of 1798:

Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.

William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), pages 340-341.

John Aldridge, "First Frost"

The moon is constant.  But, ah, dear readers, what of us?  

                    The Limit

The silent friendship of the moon
(I misquote Virgil) has kept you company
since that one night or evening
now lost in time, when your restless
eyes first made her out for always
in a patio or a garden since gone to dust.
For always?  I know that someday someone
will find a way of telling you this truth:
"You'll never see the moon aglow again.
You've now attained the limit set for you
by destiny.  No use opening every window
throughout the world.  Too late.  You'll never find her."
Our life is spent discovering and forgetting
that gentle habit of the night.
Take a good look.  It could be the last.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alan Trueblood), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

This is no cause for gloom, or melancholy.  Our quickly passing interval of "silent friendship" with the moon, with all the beautiful particulars of the World, is no small thing.  And the thought that the World will go on without us, the moon and the seasons forever coming and going, can be a source of comfort and serenity.

But Saigyō -- wonderful Saigyō -- takes us in another direction altogether:

Were we sure of seeing
a moon like this
in existences to come,
who would be sorry
to leave this life?

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 158.

John Aldridge, "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Late

I often walk past a long, stately row of thirty tall cottonwoods.  (Yes, once upon a time I counted them.)  They always seem to be the last to lose their leaves.  On a sunny, breezy afternoon, as the season begins to depart, the noble old-timers take on the look of young aspens. Their remaining yellow leaves — high up in swaying boughs — flicker, tremble, and shine in the blue sky, in the honey sunlight.  But now, as December begins, they are nearly empty, and the path beside them is littered in gold.

     Fallen leaves
Come flying from elsewhere:
     Autumn is ending.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 355.

Yet no "Alas!" is called for.  Unannounced and unexpected, gifts are always arriving "from elsewhere," be it autumn, winter, spring, or summer.  Nothing is to be regretted or mourned.  "Earth never grieves!"

Onto the rain porch
     from somewhere outside it comes —
a fallen petal.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 443.

Edward Waite (1854-1924)
"The Mellow Year Is Hastening To Its Close" (1896)

As the solstice approaches, my afternoon walks have become twilight walks.  All is quiet and dark within the groves of pine trees, save for occasional twitters, or brief songs, from far off in the shadows.  Now and then a solitary crow flies overhead, sometimes silent, sometimes cawing.  The immemorial solitary crow of autumn.

     An autumn evening;
Without a cry,
     A crow passes.

Kishū (1743-1802) (translated by R. H. Blyth) in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 345.

At some point in the season, one feels the melancholy pull of decline. The bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness of early autumn and high autumn are long gone, irrecoverable.  Funereal but tempting, the late autumn emptiness and darkness beckon.

     Dirge in Woods

A wind sways the pines,
        And below
Not a breath of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine-tree drops its dead;
They are quiet, as under the sea.
Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
        And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
        Even we,
        Even so.

George Meredith,  A Reading of Earth (Macmillan 1888).

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

But there shall be no dirges as autumn fades.  As ever in the World of beautiful particulars, departures are followed by arrivals, there is no loss without an attendant gain.  One afternoon this week it seemed for a moment that the long tree shadows laid across the bright green grass of a meadow were the essence of loss and sorrow.  Until one saw the trunks and empty branches of the trees, which had suddenly turned gold in the angled sunlight -- each and every twig glittering, aflame.

               The Last Leaf

I saw how rows of white raindrops
   From bare boughs shone,
And how the storm had stript the leaves
   Forgetting none
Save one left high on a top twig
   Swinging alone;
Then that too bursting into song
   Fled and was gone.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (Secker & Warburg 1985).

Yes, gifts never cease to arrive from elsewhere.

     Leaning against the tree,
Branches and leaves are few:
     A night of stars.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 365.

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

How To Live, Part Thirty: Happenstance

A few nights ago, as I drove to a restaurant to pick up dinner, a small grey rabbit, white-tailed, began to cross the street in front of me -- distant, in no danger.  I stopped to let it pass.  Illuminated in the headlights, it paused for a moment, looked in my direction, then continued on, scampering toward the bushes in someone's yard.  We went our separate ways.

"If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us!  The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty."

Kenkō (1283-1350), Tsurezuregusa (Chapter 7), in Donald Keene (translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), page 7.  

Keene provides this note to "Adashino": "Adashino was the name of a graveyard, apparently situated northwest of Kyoto.  The word adashi (impermanent), contained in the place name, accounted for the frequent use of Adashino in poetry as a symbol of impermanence. The dew is also often used with that meaning."  Ibid, page 8.  With respect to "Toribeyama," Keene notes: "Toribeyama is still the chief graveyard of Kyoto.  Mention of smoke suggests that bodies were cremated there."  Ibid, page 8.

An ancient Chinese burial song comes to mind:

How swiftly it dries,
The dew on the garlic-leaf,
The dew that dries so fast
To-morrow will fall again.
But he whom we carry to the grave
Will never more return.

Anonymous (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 38.

Who knows what will come our way?  In this year, of all years, I need not remind you of that, dear readers.

The wind has brought
     enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (Weatherhill 1977), page 67.

Alexander Jamieson (1873-1937)
"Halton Lake, Wendover, Buckinghamshire"

Something about the encounter with the rabbit touched my heart: there was a sudden, sighing catch of breath inside me as I watched it move across the road, pause briefly, glance at the headlights, then go on in its careful, intent way.  Why?  What had happened?  Some may say it was merely a rabbit crossing a road, an everyday occurrence. Others may say I'm a sentimental old fool.

I'm afraid I have to conclude that this is where words end.  Think of the handful of luminous moments that remain in your memory.  Your life.  You know them well.  Can you put into words why they are brilliantly clear, unchanged and unchangeable?

"Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene."

Epictetus, Encheiridion (Section 5), in Epictetus, Discourses, Books III-IV; The Encheiridion (translated by W. A. Oldfather) (Harvard University Press 1928), page 491.

Best to keep silent, wait, and pay attention.  

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

Alexander Jamieson, "The Old Mill, Weston Turville" (1927)

Just a rabbit crossing a road on a night in late autumn.  Fragile, precious, tenuous, irreplaceable, hung by a gossamer thread.  Fare thee well, dear friend.  Be safe, and live a long rabbit life.

                         Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Alexander Jamieson, "Doldowlod on the Wye" (1935)

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Elections

Of course, one should never expect to witness the disappearance of human folly, malice, and bad faith while one is still above ground. "The vale of Soul-making" is no picnic, after all.  Not unexpected are the perennial ways of humanity: it has all been done, seen, and said before.  But it is tiresome nonetheless.  Best to let it all go.

   Autumn Night: Depicting Busyness in the Midst of Silence

White-haired, in clear autumn touched by scenes and emotions,
among hills, moon my companion, living out the last of my life:
night deepens, no lingering echoes from the ten thousand pipes;
all I hear is the sound of the sōzu tapping the rock.

Ishikawa Jōzan (1583-1672) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 25.  

Watson provides a note on the sōzu: "The sōzu is a device made of a bamboo tube that periodically fills with water from a stream, tips to pour out the water, and then returns to its original position, striking a rock and producing a sharp rapping sound as it does so.  It was intended to scare deer away from the garden."  Ibid, page 25.

Eustace Nash (1886-1969), "Poole Quay from Hamworthy, Dorset"

Watson also provides a note to the phrase "ten thousand pipes" in the third line of the poem:  "The 'ten thousand pipes' . . . is a reference to the famous passage on the noises made by the wind in the forest in the second chapter of Chuang Tzu."  Ibid, page 25.  Here is a portion of the chapter referred to by Watson:

"Tzu-yu said, 'By the piping of earth, then, you mean simply [the sound of] these hollows, and by the piping of man [the sound of] flutes and whistles.  But may I ask about the piping of Heaven?'

"Tzu-ch'i said, 'Blowing on the ten thousand things in a different way, so that each can be itself — all take what they want for themselves, but who does the sounding?'

"Great understanding is broad and unhurried; little understanding is cramped and busy.  Great words are clear and limpid; little words are shrill and quarrelsome.  In sleep, men's spirits go visiting; in waking hours, their bodies hustle.  With everything they meet they become entangled.  Day after day they use their minds in strife, sometimes grandiose, sometimes sly, sometimes petty.  Their little fears are mean and trembly; their great fears are stunned and overwhelming. They bound off like an arrow or a crossbow pellet, certain that they are the arbiters of right and wrong.  They cling to their position as though they had sworn before the gods, sure that they are holding on to victory.  They fade like fall and winter — such is the way they dwindle day by day.  They drown in what they do — you cannot make them turn back.  They grow dark, as though sealed with seals — such are the excesses of their old age.  And when their minds draw near to death, nothing can restore them to the light."

Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (Columbia University Press 1964), page 32.  The brackets appear in Watson's original text.

Explaining Chuang Tzu's meaning, Watson says this about the use of the word "Heaven" in the passage: "Heaven is not something distinct from earth and man, but a name applied to the natural and spontaneous functioning of the two."  Ibid, page 32.

Charles Kerr (1858-1907), "Carradale"

Yes, it all becomes quite tiresome.  Best to let it go.  The soul's home is in other places.

In paddies among the mountains
girls transplant
rice seedlings —
the sound of their singing
drifts up from far away.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Ryōkan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan (Columbia University Press 1977), page 30.  The poem is a waka.

Robert Coventry (1855-1914), "The Haven" (1908)

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Leaves

With so many to choose from, I would never attempt to select my "favorite" autumn poem.  They are better thought of as parts of a tapestry.  Or a brocade.

     Unseen by men's eyes,
the colored leaves have scattered
     deep in the mountains:
truly we may say brocade
worn in the darkness of night!

Ki no Tsurayuki (c. 872-945) (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), in Helen Craig McCullough (editor), Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (Stanford University Press 1985), page 73.

A brocade of leaves.  Yes, let the autumn poems come as they may, and fall in random patterns!  That being said, I do have three touchstones that call to me each year.  The following poem invariably arrives with the season's first whispers:

                           The Cranes

The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

Po Chü-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919), page 57.

Those beguiling tell-tale hints of autumn: tentative, lovely. Inexorable.

Unable to sleep in the pre-dawn hours of the seventh of September, listening to a lone robin singing in the darkness, Edward Thomas later wrote this:

"Gradually I became conscious of nothing but the moan of trees, the monotonous expressionless robin's song, the slightly aching body to which I was, by ties more and more slender, attached.  I felt, I knew, I did not think that there would always be an unknown player, always wind and trees, always a robin singing, always a listener listening in the stark dawn: and I knew also that if I were the listener I should not always lie thus in a safe warm bed thinking myself alive. . . . And so I fell asleep again on the seventh of September."

Edward Thomas, from "Insomnia," in The Last Sheaf (Jonathan Cape 1928), page 43.  The ellipses appear in the original text.  Thomas was most likely writing of the early morning of September 7, 1913.  (Judy Kendall, Edward Thomas: The Origins of His Poetry (University of Wales Press 2012), pages 40-41.)

Samuel Sherwin (1846-1935)
"First Touch of Autumn, Rowditch, Derby" (c. 1917)

Of course, autumn would not be autumn without Thomas Hardy, would it?  And thus each year I return to this:

  Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, —
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high —
     Earth never grieves! —
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).

Very little escaped Hardy's notice.  After the poem was published in The Daily Mail on November 17, 1906, he wrote to a friend: "I happened to be walking, or cycling, through [the park] years ago, when the incident occurred on which the verses are based, and I wrote them out."  (J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (University of North Carolina Press 1970), page 207.)  The park was located near the village of Melbury Osmund in Dorset.

"Earth never grieves!"  Something to bear in mind when considering a meditation by Edward Thomas on autumn.

"The scent is that of wood-smoke, of fruit and of some fallen leaves. This is the beginning of the pageant of autumn, of that gradual pompous dying which has no parallel in human life yet draws us to it with sure bonds.  It is a dying of the flesh, and we see it pass through a kind of beauty which we can only call spiritual, of so high and inaccessible a strangeness is it.  The sight of such perfection as is many times achieved before the end awakens the never more than lightly sleeping human desire of permanence.  Now, now is the hour; let things be thus; thus for ever; there is nothing further to be thought of; let these remain.  And yet we have a premonition that remain they must not for more than a little while.  The motion of the autumn is a fall, a surrender, requiring no effort, and therefore the mind cannot long be blind to the cycle of things as in the spring it can when the effort and delight of ascension veils the goal and the decline beyond."

Edward Thomas, The South Country (J. M. Dent 1909), page 272.

William Samuel Jay (1843-1933)
"At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

My third autumn perennial is by Derek Mahon.  Given that he passed away at the beginning of this month, my visit to it this year comes with sadness.  Yet, we never lose the poets who move us, do we?  I have been living with this poem (and with many others by him) for years, and that will never change.

               Leaves

The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have led
Have found their own fulfilment.

Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (Oxford University Press 1975).

Just a few weeks ago, when the day was windy the trees still made the sound of the sea, green billows and swells swaying overhead.  Now, a strong breeze brings only a dry rustling, a rattling and scraping of individual leaves, each hold-out with its own voice.  In a dwindling choir.

"In November I returned for a day to a lonely cottage which I had known in the summer, and all its poppies were gone.  Here and there, in the garden, could be found a violet, a primrose, a wood sorrel, flowering; the forget-me-nots and columbines had multiplied and their leaves were dense in the borders; the broad row of cabbages gleamed blue in a brief angry light after rain; the black-currant leaves were of pure, translucent amber at the ends of the branches.  In the little copses the oaks made golden islands in the lakes of leafless ash, and the world was very little in a lasting mist.
*     *     *     *     *
It is a commonplace that each one of us is alone, that every piece of ground where a man stands is a desert island with footprints of unknown creatures all round its shore.  Once or twice in a life we cry out that we know the footprints; we even see the boats of the strangers putting out from the shore; we detect a neighbouring island through the haze, and creatures of like bearing to ourselves moving there.  On that night a high tide had washed every footprint away, and we were satisfied, raising not a languid telescope to the horizon, nor even studying the sands at our feet."

Edward Thomas, from "St. Martin's Summer," in The Heart of England (J. M. Dent 1906), pages 131-132.

Donald Floyd (1892-1965), "The Wye Valley below Wynd Cliff"

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Two Worlds

A politicized culture (or, more properly, "culture") inevitably tends toward puritanism: the elect and the impure.  Ever-recurring, the latest iteration of the self-anointed is upon us.  O, Tychon, god of small things, god of the humble, please grant us relief.

Earlier this week, revisiting The Complete Poems of Walter de la Mare (948 wonderful pages), I discovered this:

                           Arrogance

I saw bleak Arrogance, with brows of brass,
Clad nape to sole in shimmering foil of lead,
Stark down his nose he stared; a crown of glass
Aping the rainbow, on his tilted head.

His very presence drained the vital air;
He sate erect -- stone-cold, self-crucified;
On either side of him an empty chair;
And sawdust trickled from his wounded side.

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1945).

A thought from Walter Pater comes to mind:

"Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions, is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of personality through which no real voice has ever pierced on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only conjecture to be without.  Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world."

Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Macmillan 1893), page 249.

"Each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world." The temptation is great to conclude that one is wise and virtuous.  A comforting delusion.

                                           Learning

To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998), page 60.

Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935)
"Harvesting, Forest of Birse, Aberdeenshire" (1900)

The trees are still mostly full, still mostly green.  Yesterday afternoon, in a gusty wind, their boughs tossed and roared.  The day was clear and brilliant, and dappled light and shadow turned and turned on the ground.  It could have been a summer day.  But, at intervals, lines of fallen leaves rushed along the sidewalks and the streets, carried away by the wind.

What has become of the two woolly bear caterpillars who appeared in my last post?  I encountered two more of the lovely, endearing creatures last week.  Like their companions, they were crossing a path, headed off toward the trees, full of intent, going about their appointed business.  As for humanity, we always have been, and always will be, a scold-ridden species, confused and grasping, forever meddling, never content.  Best to keep one's own counsel.  A woolly bear caterpillar.  "Everything Is Going To Be All Right."

         Mute Opinion

                    I
I traversed a dominion
Whose spokesmen spake out strong
Their purpose and opinion
Through pulpit, press, and song.
I scarce had means to note there
A large-eyed few, and dumb,
Who thought not as those thought there
That stirred the heat and hum.

                      II
When, grown a Shade, beholding
That land in lifetime trode,
To learn if its unfolding
Fulfilled its clamoured code,
I saw, in web unbroken,
Its history outwrought
Not as the loud had spoken,
But as the mute had thought.

Thomas Hardy, Poems of the Past and the Present (Macmillan 1901).

David MacKay (1853-1904), "Crail at Harvest Time"

"The imperceptible movement of an invisible soul and the enormous sun."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-79 (Seagull Books 2013), page 159.)  There is the world.  And then there is the World.  Where does one reside?

          From My Window

An old man leaning on a gate
Over a London mews -- to contemplate --
Is it the sky above -- the stones below?
     Is it remembrance of the years gone by,
     Or thinking forward to futurity
That holds him so?

Day after day he stands,
Quietly folded are the quiet hands,
Rarely he speaks.
     Hath he so near the hour when Time shall end,
     So much to spend?
What is it he seeks?

Whate'er he be,
He is become to me
A form of rest.
     I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs
     A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,
And not unblest

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis  1954).

Duncan Cameron (1837-1916), "Harvest Time in Lorne" (1888)

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Farewell, September. Welcome, October.

For as long as I can remember, October has been my favorite month. But each year I find myself growing fonder and fonder of September. The "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All") of the movement from summer to autumn is wonderful: is it still summer, or have we well and truly arrived in autumn?  For instance, this week the temperatures have been in the 70s in this part of the world, the days bright and brilliant, yet there is an unmistakable thread of coolness in the breeze.  And fallen leaves follow in our footsteps.

Yesterday and today I was delighted to cross paths with two woolly bear caterpillars, banded black-dark orange-black, with four black dots running down the middle of their orange sections, and long white hairs angling out from their black front and back bands.  Both of them were headed toward the dry grasses of the meadows, trees in the distance, with single-minded intent.  I concluded that the two of them, on their missions, are among the most important things in the World.

     September in Great Yarmouth

The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.

Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold —
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.

Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.

The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
'Come in, fifteen, your time is up.'

Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (Oxford University Press 1975).

September puts us in two minds and in two hearts, heart and mind alternating between summer and autumn.  Last weekend, I walked past puddles from a night of rain.  The puddles lay in a long row beneath a line of maples whose boughs are still mostly full.  The dark surface of the water was a beautiful brocade of green leaves and brown leaves, floating in intricate, unrepeatable patterns, full of intimation.

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

Are some of us born with autumnal souls?  As a few long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers may recall, I have often described autumn as the season of bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness.  But it is not a season of sadness or melancholy. True, the line may be a fine one.  But how could such beauty be an occasion of mourning?  And so we welcome October.

          A Day in Autumn

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees' shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn's mirror.  Having looked up
From the day's chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper (Rupert Hart-Davis 1958).

[Update on Friday, October 2.  I published this post on September 30.  I was shocked and greatly saddened to learn this morning that Derek Mahon passed away yesterday.  His poems have appeared here dozens of times over the years.  If I turn my head to the right, I can see a long line of his books on the shelf.  I am at a loss for words.  I will write more at another time.  May he rest in peace.] 

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Awake

For most of the past week the foghorns of the ships out on Puget Sound have been blowing day and night.  Not on account of any fog banks, but in order to make their way safely through the wildfire smoke enveloping sky and water and earth.  Centuries ago, an event such as this might have called for a sacrifice to the gods in order to avert an impending apocalypse.  Or prompted a hurried journey to the oracle at Delphi for a quick consultation.  We moderns, emptied of enchantment, politicize events of this sort.  Oh, how I long for the gods and the oracles.

It is enough to drive one into the arms of Giacomo Leopardi for relief: "What is life?  The journey of a crippled and sick man walking with a heavy load on his back up steep mountains and through wild, rugged, arduous places, in snow, ice, rain, wind, burning sun, for many days without ever resting night and day to end at a precipice or ditch, in which inevitably he falls."  (Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, pages 4162-4163 (January 17, 1826) (edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 1809.)

Or, alternatively, one can pay a visit to Leopardi's soulmate, the always antic Arthur Schopenhauer:  "Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring; and, as if through a troubled dream, it hurries back to the old unconsciousness."  (Arthur Schopenhauer, "On the Vanity and Suffering of Life," in The World as Will and Representation, Volume II (1844) (translated by E. F. J. Payne) (The Falcon's Wing Press 1958), page 573.)  Schopenhauer wrote of Leopardi:  "[E]verywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence.  He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect."  (Ibid, page 588.)  Two peas in a pod.

But I'm afraid Leopardi and Schopenhauer simply won't do.  As entertaining as they are (their harrowing doom shot through with truth, and so unremittingly dire that one cannot help but smile), I have continued to spend most of my time with Walter de la Mare and the Japanese poets.  Calmness and equanimity.  A few days ago, I read this:

                  The Last Chapter

I am living more alone now than I did;
This life tends inward, as the body ages;
And what is left of its strange book to read 
Quickens in interest with the last few pages.

Problems abound.  Its authorship?  A sequel?
Its hero-villain, whose ways so little mend?
The plot? still dark.  The style? a shade unequal.
And what of the dénouement?  And, the end?

No, no, have done!  Lay the thumbed thing aside;
Forget its horrors, folly, incitements, lies;
In silence and in solitude abide,
And con what yet may bless your inward eyes.

Pace, still, for pace with you, companion goes,
Though now, through dulled and inattentive ear,
No more -- as when a child's -- your sick heart knows
His infinite energy and beauty near.

His, too, a World, though viewless save in glimpse;
He, too, a book of imagery bears;
And, as your halting foot beside him limps,
Mark you whose badge and livery he wears.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).

Harry Epworth Allen (1894-1958)
"A Derbyshire Farmstead" (c. 1933-1934)

Who, then, is this "companion" keeping pace with de la Mare?  His poetry is full of such secret sharers:  shadows, strangers, wayfarers, wraiths, ghosts.  I am content to leave the question unanswered, but I have inklings.

                         Things to Come

The shadow of a fat man in the moonlight
     Precedes me on the road down which I go;
And should I turn and run, he would pursue me:
     This is the man whom I must get to know.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (Heinemann 1964).

"The man whom I must get to know."  This brings to mind the purported death-bed poem of the Emperor Hadrian, which begins: animula vagula blandula.  The poem has been translated many times.  Here is Matthew Prior's version:

Poor little, pretty, flutt'ring thing,
     Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling wing,
     To take thy flight thou know'st not whither?

Thy humorous vein, thy pleasing folly
     Lies all neglected, all forgot:
And pensive, wav'ring, melancholy,
     Thou dread'st and hop'st thou know'st not what.

Matthew Prior, Poems on Several Occasions (1709).

Finally, I cannot forbear bringing in Marcus Aurelius: "You are a little soul, carrying around a corpse, as Epictetus used to say." Marcus Aurelius (translated by W. A. Oldfather), Meditations, Book IV, Section 41.  

These are things we each must puzzle out in our own solitude. Hence, dear readers, please feel free to ignore my meanderings.  I am willing to leave de la Mare's "companion" a mystery.  Which is what the World is, what our life is, as de la Mare so often reminds us in his poems.  Which is what we are to ourselves?

Harry Epworth Allen, "Summer" (1940)

"The Last Chapter" was published when de la Mare was 65 years old. Yet, despite its self-elegiac subject matter and tone, he lived another eighteen years, and never lost his love for the beautiful particulars of the World.  In the year prior to his death, he said to a visitor: "My days are getting shorter.  But there is more and more magic.  More than in all poetry.  Everything is increasingly wonderful and beautiful."  (Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare (Duckworth 1993), page 443.)  The plea to us to love the World while we can is a constant refrain in his poetry.  It appears in what are perhaps his best-known lines: "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour.

He reminds us once more in his final volume of poems, published when he was in his eightieth year:

               Now

The longed-for summer goes;
Dwindles away
To its last rose,
Its narrowest day.

No heaven-sweet air but must die;
Softlier float,
Breathe lingeringly
Its final note.

Oh, what dull truths to tell!
Now is the all-sufficing all
Wherein to love the lovely well,
Whate'er befall.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1953).

Perhaps de la Mare sold himself short in the lines from "The Last Chapter" about his "companion": "No more -- as when a child's -- your sick heart knows/His infinite energy and beauty near."  The poetry he wrote before and after these lines belies this thought: I find no waning of energy or beauty in de la Mare from beginning to end. Thoughts such as those in "The Last Chapter" inevitably come and go as one ages.  But I do not think de la Mare ever lost his passion for the World.  He gently but firmly reminds us again and again to love, to pay attention to, and to be grateful for what is before us Now.

Harry Epworth Allen, "The Road to the Hills"