Sunday, May 29, 2016

Choristers And Companions

While out for an afternoon walk this past week, I realized that I often fail to listen to what is going on around me.  My path takes me through meadows and wooded areas in Discovery Park, which, although it is a city park, is akin to a nature reserve.  According to the Seattle Audubon Society, more than 250 species of birds have been seen in the Park, including thrushes, warblers, wrens, swallows, chickadees, goldfinches, nuthatches, tanagers, towhees, vireos, and waxwings.  And, of course, robins, sparrows, jays, and crows.

Not surprisingly, therefore, my walks take place amid a chorus of singing, twittering, chirping, chattering, whistling, and warbling.  But too often I am daydreaming, and the music passes me by.

"It was widely rumored that certain persons had heard celestial music coming down from heaven around two o'clock in the morning on New Year's Day.  And they say it has been heard every eighth night since.  Some told me in all seriousness that they actually heard the music at such and such a place on such and such a night.  Others dismissed it as simply a prank played by the wanton wind.  I, for one, was inclined to take the idea seriously, but could neither accept it as completely true or reject it as absolutely impossible.  For heaven and earth are filled with strange and mysterious powers. . . . In any event, I found myself intrigued, and invited a group of my friends to come to my humble cottage on the nineteenth day of March.  We all listened intently, from early evening on, but we heard nothing until the first sunbeams touched the far end of the eastern sky. Then all at once we heard a voice -- we heard music -- coming from the plum tree near my window.
                                             Only birds
                                        sing the music of heaven
                                             in this world."

Issa (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa), in Nobuyuki Yuasa, A Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa's Oraga Haru (University of California 1972). Oraga Haru was written in 1819.

Robert Ball, "Mrs. Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)

In his poem "Bird-Language" (which has appeared here previously), W. H. Auden speculates that "fear . . . rage, bravado, and lust" may be heard in "the words/Uttered on all sides by birds," but he ultimately concludes that "All other notes that birds employ/Sound like synonyms for joy."  Yes, I concede that all is not sweetness and light in the world of bird communication.  Yet, compared with human communication, all bird conversations (and soliloquies) sound like celestial music to me.  (Save, perhaps, for the cawing of crows and the screeching of jays.)

Call me sentimental, but I am inclined to the view that those unseen choristers -- hidden off in the tall grasses of the meadows or up in the leafy boughs of trees -- are indeed motivated by joy.  Joy and beneficence.

     To the Nightingale, and Robin Red-Breast

When I departed am, ring thou my knell,
Thou pitiful, and pretty Philomel:
And when I'm laid out for a corse, then be
Thou sexton (red-breast) for to cover me.

Robert Herrick, Poem 279, Hesperides (1648).  In the third line, Herrick uses the word "corse" rather than "corpse."

Herrick was wont to revisit his favorite themes.  He was particularly fond of robins.

                 To Robin Red-breast

Laid out for dead, let thy last kindness be
With leaves and moss-work for to cover me:
And while the wood-nymphs my cold corpse inter,
Sing thou my dirge, sweet-warbling chorister!
For epitaph, in foliage, next write this,
     Here, here the tomb of Robin Herrick is.

Robert Herrick, Poem 50, Ibid.

The image of birds providing kind offices to the dead was a common one in the Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan periods.  In the following poem by John Webster, those offices are performed by the robin and the wren.  (In a moment, we shall hear of the wren from Issa.)

                              A Dirge

Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole,
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And (when gay tombs are robbed) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.

John Webster, from the play The White Devil (1612).

Michael Garton (1935-2004), "Woodland Clearing"

I am well aware that the notion of birds as heavenly choristers is looked upon askance by modern products of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment." These moderns are equally troubled by the notion of a human soul.  For them, human beings, and human "reason" and "rationality," are the measure of all things.  How odd and how sad it is to constrict humanity, the World, and existence in such a fashion.

I am not in a position to make pronouncements about the existence or non-existence of heaven or of the soul.  Who would presume to do so?  These things are not matters of theology.  Nor are they matters of science. Theology and science both posit a certainty that does not exist.

                              Here Lies a Prisoner

               Leave him:  he's quiet enough:  and what matter
               Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
          that rave:
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
                              Over his grave.

Charlotte Mew, The Rambling Sailor (1929).

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

Sooner or later, one comes to the realization that there are no certainties in life.  Except one.  Our death.  Anyone who tells you otherwise -- theologians, scientists, politicians, social or political "activists" of any stripe -- is dissembling.  They know nothing.

In fact, this uncertainty is a glorious thing.  It is why we turn to poets and artists, poems and paintings.

Will we spend eternity listening to birds carrying on conversations above our graves?  Nobody knows.

     Look!  this lonely grave,
With the wren
     That is always here.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 342.

Fairlie Harmar, "The Bridge at Monxton" (1916)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Homage To Thomas Hardy

I grow fonder and fonder of Thomas Hardy -- both as a person and as a poet -- with each passing year.  Two or three (or more) times a year I find myself in a Hardy mood.  Given that he wrote more than 900 poems, I am happy to realize that I will never exhaust his riches.  Each time I return to his poetry, I enjoy old favorites, rediscover gems that I had forgotten, and come upon surprises that I had somehow overlooked.

For instance, this past week I discovered the following poem.  How had I missed it all these years?

   The Sun's Last Look on the Country Girl
                                (M. H.)

The sun threw down a radiant spot
        On the face in the winding-sheet --
The face it had lit when a babe's in its cot;
And the sun knew not, and the face knew not,
        That soon they would no more meet.

Now that the grave has shut its door,
        And lets not in one ray,
Do they wonder that they meet no more --
That face and its beaming visitor --
        That met so many a day?

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses (Macmillan 1922).

"M. H." refers to Mary Hardy, Hardy's sister, who died in November of 1915.  The poem was written in December of that year.  Ten years later, Hardy made the following journal entry:  "December 23.  Mary's birthday. She came into the world . . . and went out . . . and the world is just [the] same . . . not a ripple on the surface left."  Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 464 (ellipses in original).

How like Hardy to notice such a detail and then turn it into something so affecting.  Who but Hardy would have thought to create the lovely relationship between the country girl and the sun?  Too sentimental?  Of course not.  Here is a test:  please read the poem again, and, as you do so, think of someone you have loved who has passed away.

"Such, then, is the tenderness of Thomas Hardy.  I do not know any other English poet who strikes that note of tenderness so firmly and so resonantly.  You must forgive me for using what is called 'emotive language' about his work:  but, when one is deeply touched by a poem, I can see no adequate reason for concealing the fact.
* * * * *
Great poems have been written by immature, flawed, or unbalanced men; but not, I suggest, great personal poetry; for this, ripeness, breadth of mind, charity, honesty are required:  that is why great personal poetry is so rare. It is an exacting medium -- one that will not permit us to feign notable images of virtue.  False humility, egotism, or emotional insincerity cannot be hidden in such poetry:  they disintegrate the poem.  Thomas Hardy's best poems do seem to me to offer us images of virtue; not because he moralises, but because they breathe out the truth and goodness that were in him, inclining our own hearts towards what is lovable in humanity."

C. Day Lewis, The Lyrical Poetry of Thomas Hardy: The Wharton Lecture on English Poetry (The British Academy 1951) (italics in original).

William Anstice Brown, "In Purley Meadow, Sherborne, Dorset" (1979)

Day Lewis's use of the word "feign" in the preceding passage reminds me of a wonderful observation by Edward Thomas on the nature of poetry (an observation that has appeared here on more than one occasion):  "if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."  Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.

The phrase "true and not feigning" perfectly describes Thomas Hardy's poetry as a whole, both the well-known old chestnuts ("During Wind and Rain," "The Darkling Thrush," "The Convergence of the Twain," "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'," "The Oxen," for instance) and the lesser-known, out-of-the-way poems that often go unnoticed.  I believe that, in order to appreciate the truth, beauty, compassion, and charm of Hardy's poetry, one needs to become acquainted with the smaller hidden treasures.

               Just the Same

I sat.  It all was past;
Hope never would hail again;
Fair days had ceased at a blast,
The world was a darkened den.

The beauty and dream were gone,
And the halo in which I had hied
So gaily gallantly on
Had suffered blot and died!

I went forth, heedless whither,
In a cloud too black for name:
-- People frisked hither and thither;
The world was just the same.

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, with Many Other Verses.

"Because he was haunted by Time and transience, because he never saw the commonest thing without a vision of what it once had been, of what it one day would be, in return even the commonest things were lit for him with a gleam of tragic poetry.  He saw things as instinctively in three tenses as in three dimensions.  In this way he widened the domain of poetry till it became for him as wide as life itself, a life intensely sad and yet intensely real.  The comfort that religion failed to give, he found and thought that others might find, not necessarily in writing poetry about this world, but in seeing this world poetically, as anyone with an imagination can. . . . Hardy did not simply make poetry out of life; he made life into poetry.
* * * * *
He deliberately took for his subjects the commonest and most natural feelings; but by an unfamiliar side, and with that insight which only sensitiveness and sympathy can possess.  This sympathy is important; for, as I have said, if truthfulness is one main feature of Hardy's work, its compassion is another."

F. L. Lucas, Ten Victorian Poets (Cambridge University Press 1940).

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941)
"A View of Church Hill from the Mill Pond, Old Swanage, Dorset" (1931)

Ah, the things we see in this world!  Sights that cause us to catch our breath, and that return to haunt us at unexpected times.  Speaking for myself, I can testify to the urge to look away in order to avoid future hauntings.  Thomas Hardy never averted his eyes.

               At a Country Fair

At a bygone Western country fair
I saw a giant led by a dwarf
With a red string like a long thin scarf;
How much he was the stronger there
          The giant seemed unaware.

And then I saw that the giant was blind,
And the dwarf a shrewd-eyed little thing;
The giant, mild, timid, obeyed the string
As if he had no independent mind,
          Or will of any kind.

Wherever the dwarf decided to go
At his heels the other trotted meekly,
(Perhaps -- I know not -- reproaching weakly)
Like one Fate bade that it must be so,
          Whether he wished or no.

Various sights in various climes
I have seen, and more I may see yet,
But that sight never shall I forget,
And have thought it the sorriest of pantomimes,
          If once, a hundred times!

Thomas Hardy,  Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (Macmillan 1917).

What are we to make of this poem?  Is it merely another example of Hardy the purported pessimist?  No, this is simply Hardy doing what he always does:  reporting what he sees.  What is the poem "about"?  Long-time readers of this blog will know my response:  explanation and explication are the death of poetry.

The most you will get from me is this:  the poem is about seeing a sight that forever haunts you.  Does such an experience change the world?  No.  Why should it?  Does such an experience change your soul?  We each have to answer that question for ourselves.

Eric Bray, "Allington, Dorset, from Victoria Grove" (1975)

The following passage by David Cecil articulates far better than I can what draws me to Hardy.  Cecil's remarks about Hardy are remarkably similar to those of C. Day Lewis and F. L. Lucas.  They all have their source, I think, in a great love for the man.

"His poems bear the recognisible stamp of his personality, simple, sublime, lovable.  Here we come to the central secret of the spell he casts.  It compels us because it brings us into immediate contact with a spirit that commands our hearts as well as our admiration.  It combines a special charm, a special nobility.  The charm unites unexpectedly the naïve and the sensitive.  Hardy addresses us directly, unreservedly, unselfconsciously; yet he is not unsubtle or imperceptive.  On the contrary he shows himself exquisitely appreciative of delicate shades of feeling and of fleeting nuances of beauty.  Similarly his nobility of nature fuses tenderness and integrity. His integrity is absolute.  He faces life at its darkest, he is vigilant never to soften or to sentimentalise; yet he never strikes a note of hardness or brutality.  His courage in facing hard facts is equalled by his capacity to pity and sympathise."

David Cecil, "The Hardy Mood," in F. B. Pinion (editor), Thomas Hardy and the Modern World (Thomas Hardy Society 1974).

Thomas Hardy is a human being (a lovable, sensitive, compassionate human being) speaking directly and without guile to other human beings. He is unfailingly honest.  This means that the truths he tells you will be both beautiful and harrowing by turns (or at the same time).  But he will never lie to you.  He knows that we are all in this together.  And he knows that our time is short.

   The Comet at Yalbury or Yell'ham

It bends far over Yell'ham Plain,
        And we, from Yell'ham Height,
Stand and regard its fiery train,
        So soon to swim from sight.

It will return long years hence, when
        As now its strange swift shine
Will fall on Yell'ham; but not then
        On face of mine or thine.

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

"May.  In an orchard at Closeworth.  Cowslips under trees.  A light proceeds from them, as from Chinese lanterns or glow-worms."

Thomas Hardy, journal entry for May, 1876, in Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 112.

Alfred Egerton Cooper (1883-1974), "Dorset Landscape"

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


I am easily pleased.  In that spirit, I come to you with my annual May report:  the ants have emerged from their winter hibernation and are going about their business again.  "What is of more interest to you, the American presidential election or the ants erecting mounds of particolored grains of sand in the seams of sidewalks on a sunny afternoon in May?"  My response to that question is obvious.


Ah, there is no abiding!
     Signs from heaven are sent,
Over the grass the wind went gliding,
     And the green grass grew silver as he went.

Ah, there is no remaining!
     Ever the tide of ocean ebbs and flows,
Over the blue sea goes the wind complaining,
     And the blue sea turns emerald as he goes.

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

The ants, in their antic and endearing fashion, remind me that there is constancy within change.  But I harbor no illusions:  this constancy is a qualified constancy.  Each year I am greeting a new generation of ants, not old acquaintances.  As for me, I am simply on a different schedule.  We are all walking in a straight line towards eventual dust.  This is not cause for alarm or sadness or brooding.  It is just something that we need to get used to, and accept.

"Reflect frequently upon the instability of things, and how very fast the scenes of nature are shifted.  Matter is in a perpetual flux; change is always, and everywhere, at work, it strikes through causes, and effects, and leaves nothing fixed, and permanent.  And then how very near the two vast gulphs of time, the past, and the future, stand together!  Now upon the whole, is not that man a blockhead that thinks these momentary things big enough either to make him proud, or uneasy?

Remember what an atom your person stands for in respect of the universe, what a minute of unmeasurable time comes to your share, and what a small concern you are in the Empire of Fate!"

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book V, Sections 23 and 24, in Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702).

Bertram Priestman, "The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

"What a small concern you are in the Empire of Fate!"  Yes, most of our life is a matter of getting over ourselves, isn't it?  Of course, we never truly get over ourselves.  (Perhaps mystics and saints do.  But I'm not sure about that.)  The best we can hope for is to gain perspective, bit by bit:  to recognize the contingency and the fragility of every breath we take.

                            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 (Gollancz 1930).

Bertram Priestman, "Wareham Channel, Dorset" (1910)

I am very lucky.  When I go out for my afternoon walk, I can, on the one hand, watch the wonderful progress of rising anthills in the seams of sidewalks.  On the other hand, I can turn a corner and see, to the west, the snow-covered Olympic Mountains towering beyond the blue and glittering expanse of Puget Sound.  We live our lives between these anthills and peaks.

Yesterday, I watched a single white sail move across the waters of the Sound from south to north, now in the sunlight, now in the shadow of a passing cloud.

                    Times Go By Turns

The loppèd tree in time may grow again,
Most naked plants renew both fruit and flower;
The sorriest wight may find release of pain,
The driest soil suck in some moistening shower;
Times go by turns, and chances change by course,
From foul to fair, from better hap to worse.

The sea of fortune doth not ever flow,
She draws her favours to the lowest ebb;
Her tides hath equal times to come and go,
Her loom doth weave the fine and coarsest web;
No joy so great but runneth to an end,
No hap so hard but may in fine amend.

Not always fall of leaf, nor ever spring,
No endless night, yet not eternal day;
The saddest birds a season find to sing,
The roughest storm a calm may soon allay:
Thus, with succeeding turns, God tempereth all,
That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall.

A chance may win that by mischance was lost;
The net that holds no great, takes little fish;
In some things all, in all things none are crossed;
Few all they need, but none have all they wish.
Unmeddled joys here to no man befall;
Who least, hath some; who most, hath never all.

Robert Southwell (1561-1595), in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (Sloane 1949).

Bertram Priestman, "The Great Green Hills of Yorkshire" (1913)

These things the poets and the ancient philosophers tell us about "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All") are regarded by many moderns as mere "truisms."  As if the modern world had advanced beyond them in all of its supposed knowingness and sophistication.  As for me, I am quite content to live by truisms.  They are, after all, true.

     Tilling the field:
The man who asked the way
     Has disappeared.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 165.

Life is not a matter of metaphysical speculation or of theory.  Science, politics, economics, and other modern (and utopian) preoccupations are of no relevance whatsoever in our soul's contingent world.  It is all beautifully simple.  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."

     When I looked back,
The man who passed
     Was lost in the mist.

Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 85.

Bertram Priestman, "Kilnsey Crag, Wharfedale, Yorkshire" (1929)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


The azaleas and the rhododendrons are in full bloom in my neighborhood. There are dozens of varieties on display, none of which I know by name. No matter:  the colors leave you speechless.  As I walked among them yesterday afternoon -- a sunny day, the scent of newly-mown grass in the air -- the meaning of life suddenly became clear to me:  our souls are placed upon the earth in order to watch the trees and flowers bloom each spring.

It makes perfect sense.  Consider the alternatives.  Have our souls been quickened so that we may watch television news shows on a daily basis?  Is the purpose of our existence to vote in elections?  Having emerged from eternity, and sensing that our time here is short, should we make a beeline to the nearest shopping mall?


To walk abroad is, not with eyes,
But thoughts, the fields to see and prize;
          Else may the silent feet,
                    Like logs of wood,
Move up and down, and see no good,
          Nor joy nor glory meet.

Ev'n carts and wheels their place do change,
But cannot see, though very strange
          The glory that is by:
                    Dead puppets may
Move in the bright and glorious day,
          Yet not behold the sky.

And are not men than they more blind,
Who having eyes yet never find
          The bliss in which they move?
                    Like statues dead
They up and down are carried,
          Yet neither see nor love.

To walk is by a thought to go,
To move in spirit to and fro,
          To mind the good we see,
                    To taste the sweet,
Observing all the things we meet
          How choice and rich they be.

To note the beauty of the day,
And golden fields of corn survey,
          Admire each pretty flow'r
                    With its sweet smell;
To praise their Maker, and to tell
          The marks of his great pow'r.

To fly abroad like active bees,
Among the hedges and the trees,
          To cull the dew that lies
                    On ev'ry blade,
From every blossom, till we lade
          Our minds, as they their thighs.

Observe those rich and glorious things,
The rivers, meadows, woods, and springs,
          The fructifying sun;
                    To note from far
The rising of each twinkling star
          For us his race to run.

A little child these well perceives,
Who, tumbling in green grass and leaves,
          May rich as kings be thought:
                    But there's a sight
Which perfect manhood may delight
          To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant paths we talk
'Tis that towards which at last we walk;
          For we may by degrees
                    Wisely proceed
Pleasures of love and praise to heed,
          From viewing herbs and trees.

Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), in H. I. Bell (editor), Traherne's Poems of Felicity (Oxford University Press 1910).  I have modernized the spelling. The italicized words are in the original.

William Dyce (1806-1864), "Sketch of a Doorway with a Water Barrel"

At the heart of A. E. Housman's poetry is an unassuageable grief.  For this reason, there are those who feel that his poetry is "gloomy," or that it lacks "variety."  I respectfully disagree.  By the time we reach a certain age (that age differs in each of us), the themes that govern our mind, heart, and soul can be counted on the fingers of a hand (or less).

Bashō is, I think, correct:

     Journeying through the world, --
To and fro, to and fro,
     Harrowing the small field.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 290.

Harrowing one's own small field is an excellent way to spend a life.  There are too many busybodies abroad in the world, most of whom seem compelled to tell us how we ought to live our lives, while their own fields are full of brambles and tares.

Is Housman's grief attributable to unrequited love?  Or does it reflect a preoccupation with our mortality?  Neither?  Both?  It doesn't matter. Whether we want to or not, and whether we are aware of it or not, we each develop our own philosophy of life.

I find nothing wrong with Housman's view of existence.  He is harrowing his field.  Moreover, we must be careful not to be too reductive.  If one sees only "gloom" in Housman's poetry, then one has not looked closely enough.  He could enjoy a walk in spring as much as any of us.

When green buds hang in the elm like dust
     And sprinkle the lime like rain,
Forth I wander, forth I must
     And drink of life again.
Forth I must by hedgerow bowers
     To look at the leaves uncurled
And stand in the fields where cuckoo-flowers
     Are lying about the world.

A. E. Housman, Poem IX, More Poems (Jonathan Cape 1936).

Albert Rutherston, "The Pump, Nash End" (1931)

Have no fear, gentle readers, I do not intend to turn this blog into "The Diary of My Hip Replacement."  But I must say that my recent foray into medical technology has given me a renewed appreciation of the simple wonder of being able to walk, without pain, among rhododendrons and azaleas on a spring afternoon.  I say this as someone who has, in the past, expressed skepticism about the modern gods of Progress and Science.  The technological products of Science and Progress can indeed be blessings. Blogs?  Yes!  Hip replacements?  Yes!  "Selfies"?  No.

Where does one draw the line in this technology business?  I don't know.  I suspect that it has something to do with whether -- like poetry, like art in general -- a particular product of technology brings us a renewed gratitude for the world around us, and for the human beings who inhabit that world. One step at a time.

          The Stepping Stones

I have my yellow boots on to walk
Across the shires where I hide
Away from my true people and all
I can't put easily into my life.

So you will see I am stepping on
The stones between the runnels getting
Nowhere nowhere.  It is almost
Embarrassing to be alive alone.

Take my hand and pull me over from
The last stone on to the moss and
The three celandines.  Now my dear
Let us go home across the shires.

W. S. Graham, Collected Poems, 1942-1977 (Faber and Faber 1979).

Harold Jones, "The Black Door" (1935)

Saturday, April 23, 2016


Gentle readers, I beg your indulgence for the brevity of this post.  By way of explanation for the brevity, I must also beg you to indulge a brief foray into the personal.  First, nothing dire has occurred!  Rather, I am the grateful recipient of one of the many Modern Miracles of Medicine:  a hip replacement (right) as of this past Monday morning.

Given all that goes on in the world from moment to moment, I feel embarrassed for even having provided this information.  I consider myself both fortunate and coddled to live during a time, and in a place, in which such miracles are available.  I have nothing to complain about.  And I do not for a second take anything for granted.

     What a strange thing,
To be thus alive
     Beneath the cherry blossoms!

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 350.

Charles Ginner (1878-1952)
"Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex"

Everything is a matter of perspective.  A hip replacement amounts to absolutely nothing in this world of ours, but it does provide an occasion for perspective.

I can only feebly echo Patrick Kavanagh, who was a trillion times more entitled than I to feel gratitude after having dodged death by lung cancer in 1955.  Soon after, he wrote this:

                              The Hospital

A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital:  square cubicles in a row,
Plain concrete, wash basins -- an art lover's woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.

This is what love does to things:  the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love's mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.

Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (Longmans 1960).  Kavanagh was a patient at the Rialto Hospital in Dublin in March and April of 1955.  The Rialto Bridge spans Dublin's Grand Canal, which Kavanagh walked along during his recovery period.

Charles Ginner, "Chrysanthemums" (1929)

As I have stated here in the past, I know nothing whatsoever about how to live.  But, as one ages, certain key themes begin to emerge, however thick-headed one might be.  This week, one word keeps returning to me: Gratitude.


That shining moon -- watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.

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

Charles Ginner, "Plymouth Pier from the Hoe" (1923)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Some Trees Of Scotland And Japan

Trees are wonderful providers of perspective.  This past week, I have been preoccupied with various mundane errands and chores.  Then, a few days ago, I looked out into the backyard and noticed that the apple tree is now in full white bloom.  I thought to myself:  "When did that happen?  Where was I?"

             Message Taken

On a day of almost no wind,
I saw two leaves falling almost, not quite,
perpendicularly -- which
seemed natural.

When I got closer, I saw
the leaves on the tree were
slanted by that wind, were pointing
towards those that had fallen.

When I got closer than that, I saw
the leaves on the tree
were trembling.

And that seemed natural too.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

As I have noted in the past, I have no objection to anthropomorphism in poetry.  I am completely comfortable with the Pathetic Fallacy as well.  This is especially true when it comes to trees.  We humans need all the resources we can muster in our futile attempts to articulate the beauty of these wondrous beings.  And, thankfully, we will only ever scratch the surface.

Take a good look:
even the blossoms
of the old cherry seem sad --
how many more times
will they see the spring?

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 43.

Patrick Symons, "Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common)" (1981)

Science?  Botany?  They are of no account in this matter of trees.  The poems by Norman MacCaig and Saigyō that appear in this post are all about individual trees, not about "the tree" as a concept.  I understand the human compulsion to "explain" how the natural world works, and to classify everything in it.  But part of me doesn't see the point.

I am more sympathetic with, for instance, the Shinto belief that particular trees are sacred because they are inhabited by, or serve as a portal for, spirits (kami).  Shimenawa (ropes made of rice straw) are wrapped around such trees in order to notify people that they are approaching a sacred space.

               Old Poet

The alder tree
shrivelled by the salt wind
has lived so long
it has carried and sheltered
its own weight
of nests.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig.

I have been acquainted with the apple tree in the backyard for nearly 21 years.  I don't know how old it is, since it was here when I arrived.  Some of its branches are now lichen-covered.  At times I imagine that it is feeling a bit weary.  But year after year, following the dark and soaking winter, its magnificent cloud of white appears.  Perspective.

A seedling pine in the garden
when I saw it long ago --
years have gone by
and now I hear the storm winds
roaring in its topmost branches.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 214.

Leslie Duncan, "Birchwood"

I received yet another gift earlier this week:  stepping outside the back door to open the mailbox, I suddenly smelled lilacs.  In addition to missing the blooming of the apple tree, I had also missed the blooming of the purple lilac tree that stands between two yew trees along the side of the yard.  Too much daydreaming and sleepwalking.

                  In Memoriam

On that stormy night
a top branch broke off
on the biggest tree in my garden.

It's still up there.  Though its leaves
are withered black among the green
the living branches
won't let it fall.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig.

Paying attention seems simple, but it can be difficult to do in a distracting world.  The media and entertainment and political worlds have no interest whatsoever in repose, reflection, or serenity.  Their stock-in-trade is agitation, restlessness, and empty desire:  a grasping that never ends.  All of these trees around us have no part in those worlds.  They gently shake us by the shoulders and say:  Wake up!

In a tree that stands
on the crag
by abandoned paddies,
a dove calling to its companion
in the desolate twilight.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 154.

Walter Schofield, "Godolphin Pond in Autumn" (1940)

I harbor no illusions:  "beneath/[My] feet are implacable fate, and panic at night, and the strumble/Of the hungry river of death."  That is not going to change.  But these trees that all of us come to know along the way provide perspective.  There is a certain reassurance in their yearly rise and fall. Constancy within constant change.

                  Rowan Berry

I'm at ease in my crimson cluster.
The tree blazes
with clusters of cousins --
my cluster's the main one and I
am the important berry in it.

Tomorrow, or tomorrow's tomorrow,
a flock of fieldfares
will gobble our whole generation.

I'm not troubled.  My seed
will be shamelessly dropped
somewhere.  And in the next years
after next year, I'll be a tree
swaying and swinging
with a genealogy of berries.  I'll be
that fine thing, an ancestor.
I'll spread out my branches
for the guzzling fieldfares.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig, The Poems of Norman MacCaig.

At some point, the apple tree, the lilac tree, and I will all be gone.  This makes perfect sense.

         On Looking at the Pine
  that Stands in Front of My Hut

Live through the long years,
pine, and pray for me
in my next existence,
I who'll have no one
to visit the places I once was.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 184.

W. G. Poole, "Savernake Forest" (1939)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Staying Put

I suppose that most of us played this game as children:  close your eyes, spin the globe, and choose with a finger the exotic place to which you will travel in your future life.  As an inveterate daydreamer, I still play the game in my mind.  Thus, for instance, nearly every painting that I have ever posted here is one that I have walked into in my imagination.  I suppose there are worse habits and vices.

With these dubious credentials, I am not well-qualified to extol the virtues of staying put.  Nonetheless, that is what I intend to do.  Albeit with a fair amount of hemming and hawing.

     In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, --
     There is everything!

Sodō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 34.

Dane Maw (1909-1989), "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"

Mind you, I do not wish to be thought of as a stick-in-the-mud or a curmudgeon.  I am as subject to wanderlust as the next person.  I concur with the old saw that "travel broadens the mind."  But Pascal's well-known pronouncement also comes to mind:  "I have often said, that all the Misfortune of Men proceeds from their not knowing how to keep themselves quiet in their Chamber."  Blaise Pascal, Pensées (translated by Joseph Walker) (1688).

                          Against Travel

These days are best when one goes nowhere,
The house a reservoir of quiet change,
The creak of furniture, the window panes
Brushed by the half-rhymes of activities
That do not quite declare what thing it was
Gave rise to them outside.  The colours, even,
Accord with the tenor of the day -- yes, 'grey'
You will hear reported of the weather,
But what a grey, in which the tinges hover,
About to catch, although they still hold back
The blaze that's in them should the sun appear,
And yet it does not.  Then the window pane
With a tremor of glass acknowledges
The distant boom of a departing plane.

Charles Tomlinson, Jubilation (Oxford University Press 1995).

The title "Against Travel" should be taken with a grain of salt:  Tomlinson travelled extensively during his life, and he wrote dozens of fine poems about the places that he visited (which included Italy, Greece, Portugal, Japan, Mexico, and various locations in the United States).  Yet, the poems of his which seem the most heartfelt and evocative are those in which he writes about his native England.  (Of course, other admirers of Tomlinson's poetry may disagree with this assessment.)

Eric Bray, "Allington, Dorset, from Victoria Grove" (1975)

Perhaps what I am circling around is the distinction between the living of an "extensive" or an "intensive" life that Hilaire Belloc makes in his essay "On Ely":

"Everybody knows that one can increase what one has of knowledge or of any other possession by going outwards and outwards; but what is also true, and what people know less, is that one can increase it by going inwards and inwards."

Hilaire Belloc, "On Ely," Hills and the Sea (1906), page 44.

In connection with travel, Belloc suggests that, either way, you will likely end up in much the same place:

"You may travel for the sake of great horizons, and travel all your life, and fill your memory with nothing but views from mountain-tops, and yet not have seen a tenth of the world.  Or you may spend your life upon the religious history of East Rutland, and plan the most enormous book upon it, and yet find that you have continually to excise and select from the growing mass of your material."

Hilaire Belloc, Ibid, page 45.

I have no answers.  On certain days, I feel that I ought to spend the remainder of my life immersed in, say, the four volumes of R. H. Blyth's Haiku or Thomas Hardy's Collected Poems.  There is more than enough in those books to fill a lifetime.  On the other hand, if someone I trust knocked on my door tonight and asked me to travel with them tomorrow to a village in the Carpathian Mountains or to one of the former cities of the Hanseatic League, I would be sorely tempted.

                         Angle of Vision

But, John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea --
Giotto's tower and the dome of St. Peter's?

No, but I've seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it.

Robert Rendall, Shore Poems (Kirkwall Press 1957).

Myrtle Broome (1888-1978), "A Cornish Village"

The Siren song of an escape to paradise is nothing new.  The choice between views from mountain-tops and the religious history of East Rutland seems obvious.  But we mustn't be too hasty.

"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), pages 13-14.

Don't get me wrong:  we need to get out.  I'm not suggesting that we should hole up in a roomful of books.  But, in a world that encourages short attention spans and ephemeral desires, there is something to be said for staying in place.

     The Man from the Advertising Department

There's more to see
In the next field.
Not much here
But grass and daisies
And a gulley that lazes
Its way to the weir --
Oh there's much more to see
In the next field.

There are better folk
In the next street.
Nobody here
But much-of-a-muchness people:
The butcher, the blacksmith,
The auctioneer,
The man who mends the weathercock
When the lightning strikes the steeple --
But they're altogether a better class
In the next street.

There'll be more to do
In the next world.
Nothing here
But breathing fresh air,
Loving, shoving, moving around a bit,
Counting birthdays, forgetting them, giving
Your own little push to the spin of the earth;
It all amounts to
No more than living --
But by all accounts
There'll be more to do
And more to see
And VIP neighbours
In the next world.

Norman Nicholson, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1994).

William Peters Vannet, "Arbroath Harbour" (1940)

There is a restlessness that comes with being human.  There is also a natural tendency to think that something is missing in our life.  Hence the allure of movement, of travelling in search of paradise.

Is this an argument for staying put?  I don't know.  But perhaps this is where poetry, and art in general, come in.  They are not a substitute for life. Nor are they aesthetic trifles.  For all of their beautiful variety, their message is actually quite simple.  In one of our ears they whisper:  Pay attention.  In the other ear they gently remind us:  Time is short.

                          In the Same Space

The setting of houses, cafés, the neighborhood
that I've seen and walked through years on end:

I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.

And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.

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

Bernard Ninnes (1899-1971), "Nancledra"

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Many of the blossoming trees -- cherries, plums, magnolias, dogwoods -- are now at their peak.  Above, below, and all around, it is a pink and white world.  Ah, if this world could freeze in place!  I understand what Wallace Stevens is getting at in "This Solitude of Cataracts":  "He wanted to feel the same way over and over. . . . He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest/In a permanent realization . . . Just to know how it would feel, released from destruction . . ."  Not in the cards, of course.

             Night Rain -- Worrying About the Flowers

I sigh on this rainy late spring night:
the reds and whites that filled the forest are falling to the dust!
Late at night, my soul in dream becomes a butterfly,
chasing after each falling petal as it flutters to the earth.

Ishikawa Jōzan (1583-1672) (translated by Jonathan Chaves), in J. Thomas Rimer, Jonathan Chaves, Stephen Addiss, and Hiroyuki Suzuki, Shisendo: Hall of the Poetry Immortals (Weatherhill 1991), page 49.

As I have noted here before, during the Edo (or Tokugawa) period (1603-1868) a significant number of Japanese poets devoted themselves to writing poems in Chinese.  The poems they wrote are known as kanshi (a Japanese word meaning -- no surprise -- "Chinese poem").  Ishikawa Jōzan is perhaps the most admired kanshi poet.  He possessed a deep knowledge of both Chinese poetry (including its intricate and demanding prosodic rules) and Chinese philosophy.  Hence, it is not unlikely that he had the following passage from Chuang Tzu in mind when he wrote "Night Rain -- Worrying About the Flowers."

"Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased.  He didn't know he was Chuang Chou.  Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou.  But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou."

Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (Columbia University Press 1964), page 45.  A note: Chuang Tzu's family name was "Chuang;" his given name was "Chou."  He later came to be known as "Chuang Tzu" ("Master Chuang") because of his philosophical teachings.

Allusions to Chuang Tzu's butterfly dream appear often in traditional Japanese poetry, particularly in haiku.  Here is one instance:

     O butterfly,
What are you dreaming there,
     Fanning your wings?

Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) (translated by R. H. Bkyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 257.

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

When it comes to the seasons, the wistfulness and bittersweetness quotients for spring and autumn are, as I have observed in the past, quite high.  So many reminders of our transience, and of the constancy of change!  Thus arises the irrational (or is it irrational?) desire to freeze things in place.

Here's a thought:  what if we could transform our existence into a spring or an autumn version of a snow globe?  Shake the globe, and you can live in an eternity of fluttering pink and white blossoms or, alternatively, in an eternity of flying and falling yellow, red, and orange leaves.  Would we in time find these eternal worlds monotonous?  I think so.  Wistfulness and bittersweetness are wonderful and essential human things, sorrow and all.

                 Fallen Blossoms on the Eastern Hills

Cherry blossoms filling the ground, sunset filling my eyes:
blossoms vanished, spring old, I feel the passing years.
When blossoms were at their finest I neglected to call.
The blossoms did not betray me.  I betrayed the blossoms.

Ishikawa Jōzan (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 16.

Here is an alternative translation:

      Falling Cherry Blossoms at Higashiyama

Filling the ground -- cherry blossoms,
     Filling the eyes -- pink clouds;
the blossoms have faded, spring grown old,
     I feel the passing of years.
When the blossoms were at their peak,
     I did not come to visit:
it's not that the blossoms are unfaithful to me;
     I was unfaithful to them.

Ishikawa Jōzan (translated by Jonathan Chaves), in J. Thomas Rimer, et al., Shisendo:  Hall of the Poetry Immortals, page 43.  A note: Higashiyama is a district in Kyoto.  Higashi means "east."  Yama means "mountain."

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)A

It's funny how life works.  When you are young, an afternoon can seem to last for ever.  But at some point you come to notice that a year -- even a decade! -- can pass in the blink of an eye.  The fluttering petals are trying to tell us something.

             A Contemplation upon Flowers

Brave flowers -- that I could gallant it like you,
          And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless shew,
          And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud:  you know your birth:
For your embroidered garments are from earth.

You do obey your months and times, but I
          Would have it ever spring:
My fate would know no winter, never die,
          Nor think of such a thing.
Oh, that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!

Oh, teach me to see death and not to fear,
          But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
          And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers, then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.

Henry King (1592-1669), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics (William Sloane 1950), page 57.

These lines in King's poem seem to anticipate what Stevens would say three centuries later in "This Solitude of Cataracts":  "You do obey your months and times, but I/Would have it ever spring:/My fate would know no winter, never die,/Nor think of such a thing."  A fond but futile hope.

James McIntosh Patrick, "City Garden" (1979)

It seems to me that the appropriate response to all of this "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All") is gratitude. Gratitude (and joy) amidst the wistfulness and bittersweetness (and sorrow) of this fluttering world.

     Recalling Blossoms After They've Scattered

Once I see
the new green leaves,
my heart may take to them too --
if I think of them as mementos
of blossoms that scattered.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 46.

Is life as complicated as we make it out to be?  Are the particular times in which we live uniquely parlous and complex?  I wonder.

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

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 363.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)