Monday, February 4, 2019

A Different World

The snow began to fall yesterday afternoon.  It fell into the night.  It fell through the night.  This morning, the World was transformed.  A north wind swept down the street, through the trees, and across the dark, white-capped waters of Puget Sound.  Late in the day, the sky cleared a bit, and the horizon at sunset was a narrow strip of dull yellow beneath a grey cloud ceiling.

Snow is rare in this land of unremitting mist and drizzle.  When it arrives, this poem usually comes first to mind:

                              River Snow

From a thousand hills, bird flights have vanished;
on ten thousand paths, human traces wiped out:
lone boat, an old man in straw cape and hat,
fishing alone in the cold river snow.

Liu Tsung-yüan (773-819) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 282.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Mount Yuga in Bizen Province"

I am a creature of habit, and thus the following poem by Robert Frost (not "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which I am indeed quite fond of) invariably appears next:

                       Desert Places

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

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

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

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

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936).

Of course, Robert Frost being Robert Frost, there is a great deal more afoot here than a bucolic snow scene.  But what brings the poem back to me when snow begins to fall are memories of my childhood in Minnesota -- the early 1960s, when we had real snowfalls (says the aging man):  snow that often began to fall at twilight (or so it seems in selective memory), and fell and fell and fell, unceasing, as we slept. "Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast."  Exactly.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Travellers on Horseback in the Snow"

The feeling of those snowy Minnesota twilights and nights was one of peace and tranquility, not dread.  No loneliness; no "empty spaces;" no "desert places."  This has never changed for me.  I lived in Tokyo from 1993 to 1994.  While I was there, I experienced a snow storm in February of 1994.


And so at last it has come.  Quietly.
Has quietly come and changed everything.
This, as we watch, is what we always say:
"It changes everything.  Now we can live."
And we all want to walk out into it.
Walk out into it, at night, and look up,
Thinking that this world is a simple world
While all around us it never ceases.
We can walk for miles down an empty road
And see it swirl down beneath each streetlight.
We can turn and watch our path disappear.
And it continues to quietly come.
It has come, at last, and changed everything.

sip (written in February, 1994, in Tokyo).

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Snow Falling on a Town"

Sunday, January 27, 2019

In Time

A few weeks ago, when it was particularly wet and cold here (as opposed to our standard wetness and coldness), bird sounds nearly vanished from the woods and the fields.  There were occasional lone calls from off in the distance, or brief twitters from within nearby bushes or clumps of wild grass.  No lively conversations.  No music.

But the past week the World was full of chattering and singing.  This likely had something to do with the unseasonably warm and dry weather, together with the ever-lengthening hours of daylight. Whatever the cause, the sounds were charming and touching.  One felt the force of Life that is always around us, but can sometimes be difficult to find.  The voices seemed to have a resolute tentativeness, a hesitant confidence.  One could sense the beginning of a change.  But not quite yet.

My soul, sit thou a patient looker on;
Judge not the play before the play is done:
Her plot has many changes:  ev'ry day
Speaks a new scene; the last act crowns the play.

Francis Quarles (1592-1644), Emblems, Divine and Moral (1635).

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Window"

Yes, we are well-advised to patiently wait for the denouement.  In the meantime, it is best not to jump to conclusions, or to take anything for granted.  We live in a time when there is far too much preternatural self-assurance abroad in the human world.  There is something to be said for the acceptance, and cultivation, of uncertainty.  We are, after all, abiding in "the vale of Soul-making." Only one thing is certain.

Patience.  "All in good time, all in good time," say the voices in the woods and in the fields.

Poor little, pretty, fluttering 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 (1664-1721), Poems on Several Occasions (1709).  The poem is untitled.  It is Prior's version of the Emperor Hadrian's death-bed poem ("animula vagula blandula"), which is addressed to his soul.

Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)

Thursday, January 17, 2019


I am conservative by nature.  But please take note, dear readers:  that is not a political statement.  I have no interest whatsoever in the acts or omissions of presidents, prime ministers, premiers, princes, or other potentates.  I feel the same way about utopian political schemes of any stripe, together with their mad inventors, purveyors, and true believers.  We all know the ultimate end of chimerical, delusive, and disingenuous dream-worlds.

No, my conservatism is a matter of temperament.  The modern world has always seemed to me to be an unsatisfactory place.  Hence, I often find myself mourning the passing of, and harboring nostalgia for, human things that vanished either before my time on earth began or during my short (and ever-shortening) stay here.

This, for instance:


Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty,
     A hundred years ago,
All through the night with lantern bright
     The Watch trudged to and fro.
And little boys tucked snug abed
     Would wake from dreams to hear --
"Two o' the morning by the clock,
     And the stars a-shining clear!"
Or, when across the chimney-tops
     Screamed shrill a North-east gale,
A faint and shaken voice would shout,
     "Three!  and a storm of hail!"

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

When I read this, I cannot help but feel that the human world has taken a grievous and irremediable wrong turn.

Charles Oppenheimer (1875-1961)
"From a Tower, Kirkcudbright"

Some of you (perhaps nearly all of you) may say:  "But what of the innumerable human accomplishments over the past millennia, the advances in knowledge, and the progress humanity has made?"  Yes, I am indeed quite pleased with the state of modern plumbing, thank you.  I am also fond of physicians and other health care professionals, and their craft.  And I am delighted with the promptness and efficiency of pizza delivery services.  I can come up with other examples as well, if pressed.  But my unease persists.

                  On a Vulgar Error

No.  It's an impudent falsehood.  Men did not
Invariably think the newer way
Prosaic, mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church?  Did anybody say
How modern and how ugly?  They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror?  They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

C. S. Lewis, Poems (Geoffrey Bles 1964).

Charles Oppenheimer, "Kirkcudbright under Snow" (1934)

So, there you have it:  I long for watchmen and bell-men, for human cries and bell-ringing far off in the deep of night.  I'm afraid I shall never change.  But that's just me.

                  The Bell-man

From noise of Scare-fires rest ye free,
From Murders Benedicitie.
From all mischances, that may fright
Your pleasing slumbers in the night:
Mercy secure ye all, and keep
The Goblin from ye, while ye sleep.
Past one aclock, and almost two,
My Masters all, Good day to you.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648), in Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume I (Oxford University Press 2013).

Charles Oppenheimer, "The Old Tolbooth, Kirkcudbright" (1931)

Tuesday, January 8, 2019


A few days ago, a big-leaf maple that I have walked past, and beneath, for nearly 24 years fell in a wind storm.  A friend who follows the same paths as I do came across it the morning after the storm.  I received a photograph, and felt hollowed out, breathless.

I didn't have the heart to go see it right away, but yesterday, toward sunset, I paid it a visit.  There it was:  laid out upon the wide green meadow, its roots open to the air, its trunk shattered and splintered, bits and pieces of it scattered about.  Silence.  Stillness.  In all those years I had never known it to be so silent and so still.  Ah, friend, I foolishly took it for granted you would always be standing there.  The thought of this never occurred to me.


To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one's own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One's Being deceptively armored,
One's Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word --
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also -- though there has never been
A critical tree -- about the nature of things.

Howard Nemerov, Mirrors and Windows (University of Chicago Press 1958).

Am I being "sentimental"?  Was it "just" a tree?  Well, the sadness of loss comes as it comes.

Farewell, companion.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

Monday, December 31, 2018


The ways in which beauty places itself in our path are manifold and mysterious.  Early this morning, out of the blue, I received this gift:

"October 6, 1940.  Late in the season as it is, a dragonfly has appeared and is flying around me.  Keep on flying as long as you can  -- your flying days will soon be over."

Taneda Santōka (1882-1940) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, For All My Walking:  Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka with Excerpts from His Diaries (Columbia University Press 2003), page 102.

The passage is lovely in itself, but it moves into a deeper dimension when one considers the life of Taneda Santōka.  When he was eleven years old, his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in a well.  Santōka watched as her body was pulled from the well.  He attended Waseda University in Tokyo for a year, but was forced to leave due to a drinking problem, which persisted throughout his life. He married, but the marriage ended in divorce.  He entered into a business venture (a sake brewery) with his father, but the business failed.  After he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide by standing in front of a train, he was taken in by the head priest of a Zen Buddhist temple.  At the age of 43, he was ordained as a Zen priest.

After serving briefly as the caretaker of a temple, he became a mendicant monk, spending much of the remainder of his life on constant walking journeys throughout Japan, in all seasons -- walking and walking, forever walking.  He survived by begging and by sleeping in cheap inns or, often, out in the open air.  But he maintained a loyal group of friends who came to his aid when times were most difficult.  And, through it all, he wrote haiku -- lovely and moving haiku.  He died in his sleep at the age of 58.

Burton Watson appends the following note to the passage by Santōka quoted above:  "This is the last entry in Santōka's diary, written four days before his death."

Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Cheshire Mill" (1939)

As is usually the case, the arrival of beauty betokens an opening, not a closing.  Thus, Santōka's dragonfly brought this to mind:

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
          For know, all things
          Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
          Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (556-468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 234.

I apologize for repeating myself:  Simonides' poem appeared here last month.  But this is how beauty works:  one thing leads to another.  A dragonfly.  An ancient Greek poet born on the island of Ceos in the Aegean Sea.  A Japanese haiku poet-monk of the 20th century.  And here we are: all of us together at the turning of the year.

Malcolm Midwood Milne (1887-1954), "Barrow Hill" (1939)

As midnight approaches on New Year's Eve in Japan, the bells in Buddhist temples are sounded 108 times:  once for each of the sins and desires that we should seek to rid ourselves of.  At this time each year I am reminded of a haiku:

     I intended
Never to grow old, --
     But the temple bell sounds.

Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 202.

So it is in this dragonfly World of ours, a World in which each year, each moment, is a gift.

Happy New Year, dear readers.

Dudley Holland (1915-1956), "Winter Morning" (1945)

Monday, December 24, 2018

"A Merry Christmas, Friend!"

At sunset, on nearly the shortest day of the year, I walked homeward through green, open fields, a row of bare big-leaf maples a few hundred yards off to the left.  A straight, narrow, shallow river of white cirrus cloud arched overhead from the far southeast corner of the horizon to the far northwest corner of the horizon, disappearing somewhere into Canada.  Or perhaps into the Pacific.

As the bright circle of the sun sank beyond the Olympic Mountains, the white river of cloud above me began to turn pinkish-orange.  But "pinkish-orange" is a wholly inadequate approximation of that heavenly, heart-catching glow, a not-long-for-this-world glow that lasted no more than a few minutes -- beginning to vanish as soon as it arrived.  Its essence was its evanescence.  And onward came nearly the longest night of the year.

     Christmas Poem

We are folded all
In a green fable
And we fare
From early
Plough-and-daffodil sun
Through a revel
Of wind-tossed oats and barley
Past sickle and flail
To harvest home,
The circles of bread and ale
At the long table.
It is told, the story --
We and earth and sun and corn are one.

Now kings and shepherds have come.
A wintered hovel
Hides a glory
Whiter than snowflake or silver or star.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), "1930 (Christmas Night)" (1930)

On this clear and cool Christmas Eve, the sunset was a dramatic red and orange spectacle, spread out above the dark, now snow-covered, mountains, the yet darker waters of Puget Sound in the foreground. Lines from John Masefield's "On Eastnor Knoll" came to mind:  "the red, lurid wreckage of the sunset/Smoulders in smoky fire, and burns on/The misty hill-tops."

Another short day, another long night.  But the houses in the neighborhood, and the trees in the yards, are strung with lights. Christmas.  May it never change.


The rain-shafts splintered on me
     As despondently I strode;
The twilight gloomed upon me
     And bleared the blank high-road.
Each bush gave forth, when blown on
     By gusts in shower and shower,
A sigh, as it were sown on
     In handfuls by a sower.

A cheerful voice called, nigh me,
     "A merry Christmas, friend!" --
There rose a figure by me,
     Walking with townward trend,
A sodden tramp's, who, breaking
     Into thin song, bore straight
Ahead, direction taking
     Toward the Casuals' gate.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (Macmillan 1928).

"The Casuals' gate" refers to a gate of the Union House in Dorchester. J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook (University of North Carolina Press 1970), page 581.  "In Hardy's time any 'casual' (pauper or tramp) could apply to the police for a ticket, with which he would be admitted for supper, a bed, and breakfast."  Ibid.

A Merry Christmas, friends!

Robin Tanner (1904-1988), "Christmas" (1929)

Sunday, December 9, 2018


In this part of the world, any clear day between November and April is considered a gift.  One feels compelled to walk out into it, for its like may not be seen again for who knows how long.

In deepening December, darkness arrives ever earlier each day, of course.  On clear December days darkness falls in the blink of an eye. The light is extinguished.  As I walked home in cold twilight one evening this past week, I thought of the Venerable Bede's fleeting sparrow.

"The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.  The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again.  So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.  If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."

The Venerable Bede (translated by A. M. Sellar), in A. M Sellar, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England (George Bell and Sons 1907), pp. 116-117.

William Wordsworth versified the Venerable Bede's passage in the following sonnet.  The poem appeared here a few years ago, but it is always worth revisiting.


"Man's life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!
That -- while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire -- is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest.  Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes.  Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!"

William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Three (Oxford University Press 1946).

"The Stranger" referred to in line 13 is Paulinus, who, in 601, was sent to England by Pope Gregory I to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.  The incident (which may or may not be apocryphal) took place during Paulinus's visit to King Edwin of Northumbria in 625 or thereabouts (the date is not certain).

The Venerable Bede's "but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all" and Wordsworth's "But whence it came we know not, nor behold/Whither it goes" bring this to mind:

Thou gavest me birth, Eileithyia; Earth, thou wilt hide me sleeping.
     Farewell to you both.  I have finished the race you measured me.
I go, not knowing whither.  For whence I came to your keeping,
     I know not, neither who made me, nor yet who I may be.

Macedonius (6th century A. D.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 386. Eileithyia, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, is the Greek goddess of childbirth.

Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"

From darkness into light, thence back into darkness.  "Passing from winter into winter again."  But there are always compensations along the way.  On one of last week's clear afternoons, a half-hour or so before the sun disappeared beyond the Olympic Mountains, I walked north down an avenue of bare trees.  The stout grey-brown trunks of the trees were already wrapped in the shadows of dusk.  But the branches overhead were bathed in yellow sunlight, shining in the pale blue sky.  The smallest twig was gilded in gold.

     Bird in the Lighted Hall

The old poet to his lute:
"Bright door, black door,
Beak-and-wing hurtling through,
This is life.
(Childhood lucent as dew,
The opening rose of love,
Labour at plough and oar,
The yellow leaf,
The last blank of snow.)
Hail and farewell.  Too soon
The song is mute,
The spirit free and flown.
But you, ivory bird, cry on and on
To guest and ghost
From the first stone
To the sag and fall of the roof."

George Mackay Brown, Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

Due to our temperate climate, most of the robins stay here all winter. But their behavior changes:  rather than living on their own, or as couples and families, they gather together in small flocks.  They fly in a group from tree to tree, chattering all the while, with no quarrels. Now and then, they fly together out onto the meadows, where they hop and peck their way -- still amiably chattering -- across the green grass (thanks to the rain, our grass returns to green in the winter).

               The Long Hall

The skald tuned his harp.  The riff-raff
     Lounged between the barrel
     And the hearth (the Earl
          That winter night

Sat with the Bishop, a golden
     Cup between them, a loaf
     Tasting of honey, flames
          Eating the spitted ox).

Harp sang the swallowflight
     Through the lighted hall,
     A small troubling
          Between two dark doors.

Barnmen came in.  Fishermen
     Shifted into the shadows.
     A kitchen girl carried
          A plate of bones

To the hungry hound.  A keg
     Was broached.  Outside
     Children went by, chanting
          Of snowflakes and apples.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Walter Ashworth (1883-1952)
"Carnival Night, Memorial Park, Coventry" (1937)

"A small troubling/Between two dark doors."

As I returned home on one of my twilit walks this past week, I heard behind me -- over my right shoulder -- an unmistakable honking:  a small flock of Canadian geese.  I could not see them for the darkness. But I could follow them by the progress of their ancient cries.  They flew low across the fields, curving down toward the bluffs above the waters of Puget Sound.  As they headed south, their honking slowly faded away.

I kept walking.  Beside the path were snowberry bushes, empty of leaves, but filled with cream-white berries, bright in the dusk.  Far off, in the tall grass at the edge of a field, a solitary unknown bird clucked a few times and then fell silent.

                              Winter Evening

Over the wintry fields the snow drifts; falling, falling;
        Its frozen burden filling each hollow.  And hark;
        Out of the naked woods a wild bird calling,
                On the starless verge of the dark!

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

Charles Warren Eaton (1857-1937), "Winter" (1892)

Friday, November 23, 2018


Is the primary office of poetry to remind us of our mortality?  I sometimes think so.  My thought is prompted by my continued meanderings through ancient Greek verse, where one comes across lines such as these:

Alas and alas, when the mallow dead in the garden lies,
Or the pale-green parsley withers, or the lush-curled anise dies,
Yet they rise anew and quicken when spring returns again.
But we the strong, the mighty, the wise, we sons of men,
When we die and the earth is o'er us, ah then how long, how deep,
Unhearing, unawaking, night without end we sleep!

Anonymous (2nd century B. C.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 332.  The lines are from "Lament for Bion."  The poem was formerly attributed to Moschus.  However, after it was discovered that Moschus antedated Bion, the poem is now attributed to an unknown poet who may have been a follower of Bion.

Here is an alternative translation of the same lines:

Alas, when mallow in the garden dies,
Or parsley green or crinkled anise dear,
They live again, they rise another year:
But we, the tall, the mighty and the wise,
Once dead, beneath the hollow ground must keep
A long dumb changeless unawakening sleep.

Anonymous (translated by Gilbert Murray), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 754.  Murray's comma free final line is wonderful.

The passage from "Lament for Bion," though unsparing in its message, arguably has a reassuring aspect to it:  the mallow, the parsley, and the anise will return to blossom again; hence, our fate unfolds within a larger context, which we ought to bear in mind.  As I have noted here in the past, the thought that the seasons will continue to come and go after we have returned to the dust can be a source of equanimity and serenity (or so it is for me, at least).

The epigrams on our mortality in The Greek Anthology tend, on the whole, to withhold consolation.  For instance:

Life is the fool of hope, till one last morning
Sweeps all our schemes away, without a warning.

Julius Polyaenus (1st century A. D.) (translated by Hugh Macnaghten), in Hugh Macnaghten, Little Masterpieces from The Anthology (Gowans & Gray 1924), page 19.

Thomas Mostyn (1864-1930), "Memory's Garden" (1900)

On the other hand, I am perfectly willing to consider an alternative: Is the primary office of poetry to remind us of the joy of living an evanescent life?  Joy.  Not mere happiness (a misused and delusive chimera).  One can be miserable, even in despair, and still experience joy.  "The word 'joy.'  Take the time to think about this word.  I'm surprised that it suddenly comes back to me."  Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry (May of 1979), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 336.

Cool waters tumble, singing as they go
Through appled boughs.  Softly the leaves are dancing.
Down streams a slumber on the drowsy flow,
               My soul entrancing.

Sappho (7th century B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 210.

Most of Sappho's poetry comes to us in fragments.  Thus, the lines translated by T. F. Higham are all that remain of a poem that has otherwise vanished.  But there is something both apt and affecting in the joy embodied in the beautiful particulars of the fragments.  Such small beauties are what we are most likely to encounter in our day-to-day, quotidian, commonplace life.  (Mind you, as I have noted here in the past, I never use the words "quotidian" or "commonplace" in a pejorative sense.)  "We live in a constellation/Of patches and of pitches."  (Wallace Stevens, "July Mountain.")  Fragmentary, momentary beauty.

Sit all beneath fair leaves of spreading bay,
     And draw sweet water from a timely spring,
And let your breathless limbs, this summer day,
     Rest, in the west wind's airy buffeting.

Anyte (4th century B. C.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology (Jonathan Cape 1931), page 38.

Just as a thread of mortality runs through ancient Greek verse, so does a thread of joy.  An evanescent joy, yes.  Yet a timeless joy as well.  A joy shot through with eternity.

I fear I am wandering too far afield, but consider this:  "If thou shouldst live three thousand years, or as many myriads, yet remember this, that no man loses any other life than that he now lives; and that he now lives no other life than what he is parting with, every instant."  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 14, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).  Or, looked at from a different angle:  "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).

But let us return to the beautiful particulars, and to joy:

                                   Ah, what joy
Can out-joy this -- to reach the land -- and then,
Safe-lodged, with happy drowsing sense to hear
The raindrops pattering on the roof outside!

Sophocles (5th century B. C.) (translated by Walter Headlam), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 383.  The lines are from Tympanistae, a play by Sophocles that has been lost, save for a few fragments. Headlam's translation of the lines first appeared in A. C. Pearson (editor), The Fragments of Sophocles, Volume II (Cambridge University Press 1917), page 264.

David Baxter (1876-1954), "Woodland Scene"

In my part of the world, nearly all the leaves have fallen.  Bare branches clack and creak in the wind.  The sun sets earlier and earlier.  Out on a late afternoon walk this week, I felt that the World was a bit diminished.  But, as I emerged out of a dark wood, I suddenly saw the white moon, waxing gibbous, in the pale blue eastern sky.

The thread of mortality and the thread of joy are intertwined.  And wondrously so.  In life and in poetry.

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
          For know, all things
          Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
          Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (556-468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 234.

Come to think of it, a third alternative now occurs to me:  Is the primary office of poetry to remind us to live each day of our life with gratitude?

Mary Jane Girardot (1863-1933), "Evening Glow" (c. 1900)

Monday, October 29, 2018

Small Gods

For the past month or so, I have been reading ancient Greek poetry in translation -- mostly poems from The Greek Anthology, but other lyric poetry as well.  I recently came across these lovely lines by Hesiod:

To spirits thrice ten thousand by God's will 'tis assigned
Through all the fruitful earth to watch o'er humankind.
Deathless, hidden in darkness, wandering everywhere,
They watch all judgments given, all evil that men dare.

Hesiod (translated by F. L. Lucas), from Works and Days (lines 252-255), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 205.

The lines brought to mind a passage from Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone, the collection of thoughts that Leopardi entered in notebooks between 1817 and 1832:

"What a marvelous time it was when everything was alive, according to human imagination, and humanly alive, in other words inhabited or formed by beings like ourselves; when it was taken as certain that in the deserted woods lived the beautiful Hamadryads and fauns and woodland deities and Pan, etc., and, on entering and seeing everything as solitude, you still believed that everything was inhabited and that Naiads lived in the springs, etc., and embracing a tree you felt it almost palpitating between your hands and believed it was a man or a woman like Cyparissus, etc., and the same with flowers, etc., just as children do."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 69.

Leopardi is perhaps best known for his dire and unremitting pessimism about the nature of human existence.  His philosophical pessimism has an important historical element.  He believes that the modern world (for Leopardi, who lived from 1798 to 1837, the modern world was the first three decades of the nineteenth century) is a shadow of its ancient former self -- to wit, the world of Greece and the world of Rome.  Leopardi held this view at the tail end of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.  Where, then, does that leave us?

I turn to Hesiod again:

Earth bare the long-ridged mountains, within whose fair depths dwell
The Nymphs divine, in the valleys that run 'neath peak and fell.

Hesiod (translated by F. L. Lucas), from Theogony (lines 129-130), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 206.  "Bare" is used in the sense of "bore," or "gave birth to."

Leopold Rothaug (1868-1959), "Classical Landscape" (1939)

I can hear, faintly, the cry of enlightened moderns (which, dear readers, may include some (most?) of you):  "But we have progressed beyond such fanciful fairy tales!  Get with the program."  Ah, yes, I am well aware of the "progress" humanity has made in the intervening centuries.  I can look around and see all that we have wrought.  Which is why I do my best to look for Immanence in the beautiful particulars of the World.  Which is why I am open to the possibility of small gods dwelling in vales, meadows, groves, springs, and rills.

I am the god of the little things,
     In whom you will surely find,
If you call upon me in season,
     A little god who is kind.
You must not ask of me great things,
     But what is in my control,
I, Tychon, god of the humble,
     May grant to a simple soul.

Perses (4th century B.C.) (translated by Rennell Rodd), in Rennell Rodd, Love, Worship and Death: Some Renderings from The Greek Anthology (Edward Arnold 1919), page 23.

Here is an alternative translation:

Little am I among lesser gods; but call in season
     Even on me, and I hearken.  Yet ask me for nothing grand.
Things that a god of the people may look to give in reason,
     When a poor labourer prays him -- these lie in Tychon's hand.

Perses (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 280.

The humble, nature-dwelling gods who appear in the poems of The Greek Anthology generally wish us well, and have no hidden agendas.  Is this simply a human attempt to put a benign face upon nature, to construct a comforting fiction?  Perhaps.  Mortality is, after all, the thread that runs through the Anthology, and through most of ancient Greek verse.  But it seems to me that Leopardi's observation is beautifully correct:  the Greeks viewed -- and inhabited -- the World in a way that we can never fully comprehend.

Here at the three-ways, near the foam-white strand,
I, Hermes, by the breezy orchard stand.
Rest from the road to weary men I bring:
Beneath me wells a cool, untroubled spring.

Anyte (3rd century B.C.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology (Jonathan Cape 1931), page 39.

Another translation of the same poem:

Beside the grey sea-shingle, here at the cross-roads' meeting,
     I, Hermes, stand and wait, where the windswept orchard grows.
I give, to wanderers weary, rest from the road and greeting:
     Cool and unpolluted from my spring the water flows.

Anyte (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 319.

This much is certain:  we are not entitled to think of the ancient Greeks as "naive" or "quaint," nor are we in a position to patronize them.  Look around you.

I, Pan the Shoreman, on this foreland wet,
Pan, warden of this good anchorage, was set
By fishermen.  Anon I mind the creel;
Anon I watch these long-shore netters' weal.
But sail you on; and I shall send behind,
For this beneficence, a gentle wind.

Archias (1st to 2nd century A.D.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology, page 43.

Friedrich König (1857-1941), "The Silent Pond" (1910)

Have I taken leave of my senses?  That is entirely possible.  Or perhaps I am not willing to foreclose any possibilities.  Think of it as a pantheistic variation on Pascal's Wager.  Or let's just say that I am persuaded by this poem, of which I am quite fond, and which has appeared here in the past.


That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1975), page 63.

Leopold Rothaug, "Far Away" (1945)

Hesiod's phrase "spirits thrice ten thousand," in addition to bringing to mind the passage from Leopardi, prompted me to think of this as well:


When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999), page 451.

As I walked down an avenue of emptying trees recently, it occurred to me that our life unfolds between the dry leaves scattered on the ground and the limitless sky overheard (on that day, blue, streaked with long wispy lines of white cloud feathers).  This is where the small gods may dwell.  "Thrice ten thousand" or "eight million," who can say?

Ferdinand Brunner (1870-1945), "The Summer Morning" (1913)

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What The Leaves Say

We have now well and truly entered the season of bittersweet wistfulness, the season of wistful bittersweetness.  Is there anything more heartbreakingly beautiful than a sunny, wind-swept brilliant autumn day?  Here, in this corner of the World, we have had five of them in succession, with more on the way.  How can so much joy and so much sadness abide together?

"A brilliant autumn day."  "The brilliant autumn sky."  "The brilliant autumn leaves."  Yes, cliché after cliché:  at times like these, I am only capable of evocation, not exact and accurate description.  I will offer this as an excuse:  you had to have been there; words fail.  Of course, dear reader, you can say the same thing to me, from wherever you are.  Each of us has our own "brilliant autumn day," incommunicable, ineffable.  Some beauty (all beauty?) is beyond words.  In the presence of autumn, anything other than silence is a diminishment.

Still, we have the human urge to articulate . . . something.  What, for instance, do the leaves say?


Far from your own little bough,
Poor little frail little leaf,
Where are you going? -- The wind
Has plucked me from the beech where I was born.
It rises once more, and bears me
In the air from the wood to the fields,
And from the valley up into the hills.
I am a wanderer
For ever: that is all that I can say.
I go where everything goes,
I go where by nature's law
Wanders the leaf of the rose,
Wanders the leaf of the bay.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by J. G. Nichols), in Giacomo Leopardi, The Canti (Carcanet Press 1994).

The poem is a translation of "La Feuille" ("The Leaf") by the French poet Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834).  Hence the title "Imitation."

John Milne Donald (1819-1866), "Autumn Leaves" (1864)

On leaves, Wallace Stevens (he of the wonderful poem titles) gives us this:  "Continual Conversation with a Silent Man."  There are "many meanings in the leaves,//Brought down to one below the eaves . . . It is not a voice that is under the eaves./It is not speech, the sound we hear//In this conversation, but the sound/Of things and their motion."  A caveat, however:  Stevens was of two (or three or four) minds about this conversation with the World.  Thus, for example, there is this from "The Motive for Metaphor":  "You like it under the trees in autumn,/Because everything is half dead./The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves/And repeats words without meaning." (As for the identity of the "silent man" in this "continual conversation," that is something else altogether, and is beyond my ken.)

Yet, if the leaves are saying something, why not listen?  The message may be beguiling.  It may be comforting.  Or full of portent.

            Fast Fall the Leaves

Fast fall the leaves: this never says
To that, "Alas! how brief our days!"
All have alike enjoy'd the sun,
And each repeats, "So much is won:
Where we are falling, millions more
Have dropt, nor weep that life is o'er."

Walter Savage Landor, Dry Sticks (James Nichol 1858).

Alexander Docharty (1862-1940), "An Autumn Day" (1917)

"I sometimes look upon all things in inanimate Nature as pensive mutes."  (Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 117.)  So wrote Thomas Hardy in a notebook entry made on May 30, 1877, in his thirty-sixth year.  He lived nearly 51 more years.  As one might expect, during that half-century Hardy's thoughts on the volubility of inanimate Nature underwent further elaboration and qualification, as evidenced in his poetry.  (He, like Wallace Stevens, was of many minds.)  Moreover, as is characteristic of Hardy, the observation contains its own qualifications.  "I sometimes look upon . . ."  And, of course, "pensive mutes":  incapable of speech, but nevertheless capable of thought and reflection.

This brings us in a roundabout way to a poem which has appeared here several times in the past.

   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).

"Earth never grieves!" is what the poem leads to.  But, for me, the loveliest and most affecting words in the poem are the six words that come next:  "Will not, when missed am I."  Simple, piercing, serene. Is this what the leaves say?  You will have lived your life well if you can come to speak those words and know their truth in your heart.

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