Saturday, March 23, 2019


At 7:45 this evening I sat in a chair, reading a poem by W. B. Yeats. As I looked to the left out the front window, I could see the last light of the day -- pale pink-blue, with an undertone of yellow -- above the silhouettes of the Olympic Mountains to the west.  The waters of Puget Sound, which had been dotted with sailboats in the morning and afternoon (the first race of the season), were still and empty, save for a single freighter leaving port, headed north.  Bound where?

At that moment, to my right, beyond the window that faces the back garden, a robin began to sing.  The garden, in the shadow of the house, was already dark.  Yet the robin -- somewhere in a cherry tree or an apple tree (I could not see him or her) -- sang and sang.

As the robin sang, I read this poem:

   Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

W. B. Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (Macmillan 1933).


Giffard Lenfestey (1872-1943), "Evening, the Stream"

Thursday, March 14, 2019

How Little We Know

Ah, what bundles of quirks and tics, impulses and imaginings, hopes and delusions, we are.  In short, individual human souls.  Abiding for a brief time in "the vale of Soul-making."

On the other hand, we live in a politicized culture in which a predominant tendency is to place people into groups based upon various characteristics.  This taxonomization of human souls proceeds apace.  History tells us something about where this sort of thing leads, but I shall refrain from commenting further.

haiku by Masaoka Shiki comes to mind:

   After I'm Dead

Tell them
I was a persimmon eater
who liked haiku.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems (Columbia University Press 1997), page 63.

Shiki wrote the poem in the autumn of 1897.  He had contracted tuberculosis in 1889, and had been in nearly constant pain since that time.  He died in 1902 at the age of thirty-four.  He did indeed love to eat persimmons.  And he did indeed love haiku.  In 2009, the Japanese postal system issued a stamp with an illustration of two persimmons hanging on a branch, accompanied by one of Shiki's best-known haiku:

   Stopping at a Teashop
      at Hōryū-ji Temple

I eat a persimmon
and a bell starts booming --

Masaoka Shiki (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems, page 42.

I am wholly in favor of placing oneself into categories such as "persimmon eater" or "lover of haiku."  Or "rain gazer."

Evening shower --
and gazing out into it,
a woman alone.

Kikaku (1661-1707) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 377.

Or "snow watcher."  Two centuries after Kikaku wrote his haiku, Shiki wrote this:

From a rear window
in the falling snow
a woman's face looks out.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems, page 22.

Helen Johnstone (1888-1931), "Tolbooth Close"

Back in early December, I wrote about the robins that gather here in small flocks in winter.  I have grown increasingly fond of them.  For now, they still congregate in flocks, but, when spring arrives, I expect to see them pair off into couples.  On a sunny afternoon earlier this week, I saw a group of them spread out across a wide field of grass (green from the winter rain), feeding.  The robin world seems a simple world, but I'm sure it is not.  Yet, on that warm, nearly-spring day, they seemed at peace in their robin lives.

          Once Seen, and No More

Thousands each day pass by, which we,
Once past and gone, no more shall see.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 671, in Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume 1 (Oxford University Press 2013).

As I walked beside the flock, I focused my attention on one of the robins.  I believe it was a female, because her breast feathers were a paler orange.  She made her way across the field with her companions, slowly but steadily, pecking the ground, occasionally lifting her head to look around, hopping forwards and sideways, chattering now and then.  I thought of the spark of Life she was.  I suddenly realized that she was this robin, not a robin.  There was nothing else like her in the world.

               The Railway Junction

From here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; and one of these
Wheels onward into darkening hills,
And one toward distant seas.

How still it is; the signal light
At set of sun shines palely green;
A thrush sings; other sound there's none,
Nor traveller to be seen --

Where late there was a throng.  And now,
In peace awhile, I sit alone;
Though soon, at the appointed hour,
I shall myself be gone.

But not their way:  the bow-legged groom,
The parson in black, the widow and son,
The sailor with his cage, the gaunt
Gamekeeper with his gun,

That fair one, too, discreetly veiled --
All, who so mutely came, and went,
Will reach those far nocturnal hills,
Or shores, ere night is spent.

I nothing know why thus we met --
Their thoughts, their longings, hopes, their fate:
And what shall I remember, except --
The evening growing late --

That here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; of these
One into darkening hills leads on,
And one toward distant seas?

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (Constable 1933).

Catriona Barnett (1934-1972), Untitled

Rain gazers.  Persimmon eaters.  Snow watchers.  Haiku lovers.

The crocuses have now arrived in earnest.  A bit late due to an unusually cold winter.  They border the sidewalks in the neighborhood:  dark purple; white; deep yellow; pale purple streaked with white.  After I'm dead, tell them I waited each year for the crocuses.  And watched the flocks of robins in the winter.

   Written on Seeing the Garden Pines in the Rain
                    on the Morning of May 21st

Pine needles,
each needle strung with its
drop of bright dew,
forming, then falling,
falling, then forming again.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems, page 104.  Shiki wrote the poem in 1900.

Mary McCrossan (1865-1934), "Umbrellas and Barges, Venice"

Monday, February 25, 2019


There is something to be said for paring life down to a handful of precepts.  After all, the work has already been done for us over thousands of years by those who are far wiser than us.  It is a matter of tracking the precepts down and trying them on for size.  I have discovered that the winnowing process becomes easier the older one gets:  the ever-present matter at hand tends to focus one's attention.

While this winnowing of precepts goes on, I intend to spend as much time as possible walking, and idling, beneath trees.  When not beneath those innumerable beautiful trees, I shall be reading poems. All the while (whether beneath trees or not beneath trees) I hope to be in a state of reverie, blissfully absent from the modern world.  But I know full well that nothing will go according to plan, particularly the denouement of the ever-present matter at hand.

Speaking of the ever-present matter at hand, here is a fine precept with which to begin:  "Undertake each action as one aware he may next moment depart out of life."  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 11 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742).  Or, translated differently:  "Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."  (Jeremy Collier, 1701.)  Collier's version has a nice piquancy, and is both affecting and lovely.

This advice is neither doleful nor terrifying.  Quite the opposite: it reminds us that the possibility of joy is present in each moment.  Why not live?  The commonplace is never commonplace.

   Encountering Snow, I Spend the Night
         with a Host on Lotus Mountain

Deep in green mountains.
The weather is cold,
This thatched hut is poor.

Out at the gate
Of rough brushwood
A dog barks.
Someone comes home
On this night
Of wind and snow.

Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing (c. 710 - c. 785) (translated by Greg Whincup), in Greg Whincup, The Heart of Chinese Poetry (Anchor Books 1987), page 165.

Anonymous, "A Field Gate in Moonlight"

"Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."  If we pay heed to this precept, each moment becomes a miracle.  Consider Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing's poem.  Snow falls.  A thatched hut in green mountains.  A dog barking by a gate.  Out in the night, a stranger returns home.  After reading the poem, someone might say:  "Nothing happens."  Or:  "So what?"

I would say:  "Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing has presented us with a miracle." This leads to another precept:  "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.522 (italics in the original) (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness, 1961).  An alternative translation: "There is indeed the inexpressible.  This shows itself; it is the mystical."  (Translated by C. K. Ogden, 1922.)

Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing, like all poets, must rely upon words.  In doing so, he has created a thing of beauty.  But a beautiful poem is a finger pointing at the moon (to borrow a phrase from Buddhist thought).  I would not wish to live without all of these beautiful poems.  Yet there is more in each moment, more in the World.


There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).

Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "A Sunlit Harbour"

So.  At each moment, we stand at the edge of the grave, surrounded by miracles that cannot be put into words.  What shall we do?  Live. With gratitude.  A third precept comes to mind:  "Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene." Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section 8 (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

To a mountain village
     at nightfall on a spring day
          I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
     from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988 - c. 1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

James Leslie Brooke (1903-1973)
"Early Autumn, Castle Hill from the South-West"

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)