Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Dwelling

"Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse, as Epictetus used to say."  So writes Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations, Book IV, Section 41 (translated by George Long).  An earlier translator (Jeremy Collier in 1702) puts it even more colorfully:  "Would you know what you are?  Epictetus will tell you that you are a Living Soul, that drags a carcass about with her."

A startling image, yes, but no cause for distress.  It simply states a fact. Integrating this fact into our daily lives creates an opportunity for freedom. It is ancient news, studiously avoided by most moderns.

Like dew that vanishes,
like a phantom that disappears,
or the light cast
     by a flash of lightning --
so should one think of oneself.

Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

The opening line of Emperor Hadrian's death-bed poem comes to mind: animula vagula blandula.

Hubert Wellington, "Overhanging Tree, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

Accurate though it may be, the image of one's soul carrying around a corpse or a carcass may be difficult to come to grips with.  Is it something to idly contemplate as you drift off to sleep, or greet the dawn?  I think not.

Still, we all inhabit "a temporary lodging."  Perhaps, then, this is more palatable:  envision your "little soul" as residing within a dwelling that will one day be abandoned.  Which begs the obvious question:  what will remain of us when the soul has flown?

               A Tale

There once the walls 
Of the ruined cottage stood.
The periwinkle crawls
With flowers in its hair into the wood.

In flowerless hours
Never will the bank fail,
With everlasting flowers
On fragments of blue plates, to tell the tale.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

Thomas later substantially revised the poem:

               A Tale

Here once flint walls,
Pump, orchard and wood pile stood.
Blue periwinkle crawls
From the lost garden down into the wood.

The flowerless hours
Of Winter cannot prevail
To blight these other flowers,
Blue china fragments scattered, that tell the tale.

Edward Thomas, Ibid.

The rhyming of "flowerless hours" is risky, isn't it?  But lovely.  I can understand why Thomas retained this phrase, while changing nearly everything else.  His revisions to the lines about the china fragments are interesting.  He abandons "everlasting flowers/On fragments of blue plates" in favor of "these other flowers,/Blue china fragments scattered." Thus, rather than painted flowers on pieces of broken china, we have blue fragments of china scattered on the ground, replicating the blue flowers of the periwinkle.

So there you have it:  another way of looking at our soul's dwelling-place. Will we leave scattered blue flowers of broken china for posterity?

Hubert Wellington, "Summer Day, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

Thomas never directly mentions the prior inhabitants of the abandoned dwelling, but their unspoken presence dominates both versions of the poem:  there is, after all, "A Tale" to be told.  But all that remains is a trail of china fragments on the ground.  And silence.

                  Meng-ch'eng Hollow

A new home at the mouth of Meng-ch'eng;
old trees -- last of a stand of dying willows:
years to come, who will be its owner,
vainly pitying the one who had it before?

Wang Wei (701-761) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

Wang Wei is the occupant of the "new home."  He will also, in the future, be "the one who had it before."  Vanished.  A subject of speculation and pity.  "Flesh, breath, and the Inner Self -- that is all."  Marcus Aurelius (translated by Gerald Rendall), Meditations, Book II, Section 2.

A corpse, a carcass, a dwelling.  But still the soul flits and flutters.

                    Spring

That man's life is but a dream --
Is what we now come to know.

Its house abandoned,
the garden has become home
     to butterflies.

Sogi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).

Hubert Wellington, "The Big Barn, Frampton Mansell" (1915)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How To Live, Part Twenty-Five: Senescence

When it comes to aging, we can learn a thing or two from the ancient Chinese poets.  Yes, their poems do occasionally evince a sense of regret for, and a stoic resignation to, the passing of time, the loss of youthful vigor, and the approach of death.  But there is none of that "do not go gentle into that good night" business.  Too histrionic.  Instead, the overall message is that the best way to live out one's closing years is with equanimity, propriety, and serenity.

     In Answer to Vice-Magistrate Zhang

Late in my life I only care for quiet.
A million pressing tasks, I let them go.
I look at myself; I have no long range plans.
To go back to the forest is all I know.
Pine breeze:  I ease my belt.  Hill moon:  I strum
My lute.  You ask -- but I can say no more
About success or failure than the song
The fisherman sings, which comes to the deep shore.

Wang Wei (701-761) (translated by Vikram Seth), in Vikram Seth, Three Chinese Poets (Faber and Faber 1992).

Here is another translation of the same poem.

          An Answer to Assistant Magistrate Zhang

In the sunset years of my life, all I desire is quietude;
The ten thousand affairs of this world no longer involve my heart.
As to my future?  I have no better plan
Than to retreat to my old forest.
There the pine wind will loosen my girdle
And the mountain moon will smile on me as I pluck my lute.
Sir, do you ask the principle behind success and failure?
Listen to the fisherman's song drifting up from the deep river estuary.

Wang Wei (translated by Chang Yin-nan and Lewis Walmsley), in Chang Yin-nan and Lewis Walmsley, Poems by Wang Wei (Charles E. Tuttle Company 1958).

This version sounds more formal and quaint than Seth's version, but I think it is lovely.  I particularly like:  "The ten thousand affairs of this world no longer involve my heart."  (A side-note:  "ten thousand," not "million" (as used by Seth), is the correct literal translation.  It makes sense that Wang Wei would use "ten thousand":  he was a devout Buddhist, and "the ten thousand things" is a phrase that is used in Buddhist thought to describe the distractions of the world.)

John Lawson, "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

English translations of Chinese poetry often end up sounding fairly relaxed and colloquial.  However, it is important to remember that traditional Chinese poetry was governed by strict rules of prosody relating to the number of lines, the number of characters per line, end-rhyme, and verbal and tonal parallelism within and across lines.  Wang Wei's poem is in the form known as "regulated verse":  an eight-line poem containing five characters in each line, with a single rhyme appearing at the end of the even-numbered lines.  In addition, verbal parallelism is required in the second and third couplets.

Bearing all of this in mind, consider a third translation of the poem.

     In Response to Vice-Magistrate Zhang

In late years I care for tranquility alone --
A myriad affairs do not concern my heart.
A glance at myself:  there are no long-range plans.
I only know to return to the old forest.
Pine winds blow, loosening my belt;
The mountain moon shines as I pluck my zither.
You ask about reasons for success and failure:
A fisherman's song enters the shore's deeps.

Wang Wei (translated by Pauline Yu), in Pauline Yu, The Poetry of Wang Wei (Indiana University Press 1980).

Yu's use of end-stopped lines of a similar length has the virtue of reproducing the image-by-image and thought-by-thought flow of the original text, and thus to some extent echoes the formal structure of the original.  When it comes to form, perhaps this is the best one can hope to achieve in translation, since the other prosodic features (five characters per line, end-rhyme, and tonal parallelism) are impossible to replicate in English.

James Paterson, "Moniaive" (1885)

As I was writing this post, the following poem by W. B. Yeats came to mind.

   The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water

I heard the old, old men say,
"Everything alters,
And one by one we drop away."
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
"All that's beautiful drifts away
Like the waters."

W. B. Yeats, In the Seven Woods (Macmillan 1903).

It is wonderful how one can read a poem in one's youth, have it lodge in one's mind, and then have it reappear when one least expects it.  I'm not saying that it came back to me in whole:  first the title floated up, then the phrase "their knees/Were twisted like the old thorn-trees."

Alas, I am not capable of drawing a brilliant parallel between Yeats's poem and Wang Wei's poem to Vice-Magistrate Zhang.  I'll have to simply leave the two of them side-by-side.  Which is perfectly fine.  This morning I looked out over the deep-blue waters of Puget Sound as row after row of brilliant white cumulus clouds moved slowly across a sky-blue sky.  This afternoon, I noticed that the lilacs -- creamy white and soft purple -- have come into bloom.

Sidney Vincent North (1873-1930), "White Houses"

As I have noted in the past, during the Edo Period in Japan (1603-1867) a tradition developed of writing poems in Chinese.  These poems are known as kanshi.  The poets who composed kanshi were steeped in Chinese poetry, and they strictly followed the requirements of Chinese prosody.  Not surprisingly, therefore, the best kanshi often sound like poems written centuries earlier in China.  Yet there is still a Japanese sensibility present, an underlying hint, say, of the unique concreteness and implication of waka and haiku.

The following poem was written by Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672), who is generally regarded as the finest of the kanshi poets.  It is his last recorded poem.

          Leaning on a Cane, Singing

Leaning on a cane by the wooded village,
trees rising thick all around:
a dog barks in the wake of a beggar;
in front of the farmer, the ox plowing.
A whole lifetime of cold stream waters,
in age and sickness, the evening sun sky --
I have tasted every pleasure of mist and sunset
in these ten-years-short-of-a-hundred.

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

The poem is, coincidentally, written in the same "regulated verse" form as Wang Wei's poem to Vice-Magistrate Zhang:  eight lines, with five characters in each line.  More importantly, the mood of the poem is, I think, quite reminiscent of Wang Wei's poem:  equanimity, propriety, and serenity.

Robert McGown Coventry, "The Haven" (1908)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

From A Window

I am always skeptical of people who display a high degree of certainty about how the World works.  Such certainty is often grounded in politics, science, or theology.  Or narcissism.  Or madness.

How can they be so certain?  Part of me (a very small part) on occasion envies them:  such certainty makes things seem simpler.  It appears to provide an explanation for what confounds us.  (Seem and appears are the operative words.)  The World is beyond peradventure a confounding place, so I understand certainty's attraction.

Alas, my sole certainty is this:  the World shall for ever remain a mystery to me.  Take a look out the window.   Everything before you is a beautiful enigma.

                              From My Window

Now when the University students have abandoned
their game of bowls in the garden, with their cries of "Two" or "Six"
and the evening sky goes soured milk,

There are left the brightening windows of the rich owners of flats;
their meaningless finny gestures, dumb departures and entries;
a deaf man's theatre twenty times.

And quite indifferent towards the students or the rich
there are left the children of the poor, playing tag on a sandy waste,
and miles off southward ring the trams.

Alone on a building site a watchdog stalks by the fire,
wooed and repulsed by the jump-away flames, or raises its head
at a barking that chips a hole in distance.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder and Stoughton 1963).

Carlo Pedreschi, "View from Duncan of Jordanstone College" (1976)

The quotidian (I use "quotidian" in an entirely affirmative, non-pejorative sense) is suffused with ineffable mystery.  Each of us, for instance: quotidian souls, each with infinite value.

               From My Window

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

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

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

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

I admire Coleridge's deference and discretion.  She speculates, but she does not attempt to caricature or pigeon-hole the man.  And her speculations are gentle and lovely:  "I think his heart is tranquil, from it springs/A dreamy watchfulness of tranquil things,/And not unblest."

Cedric Morris, "From a Window at 45 Brook Street, London" (1926)

Do we ever truly know ourselves?  How, then, can we presume to know others?  The worst sort of certainty is that certainty which makes assumptions about the soul of another.

                    Neighbours

From the bay windows
Of the mouldering hotel across the road from us
Mysterious, one-night itinerants emerge
On to their balconies
To breathe the cool night air.

We let them stare
In at our quiet lives.
They let us wonder what's become of them.

Ian Hamilton, Fifty Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

James McIntosh Patrick, "The Tay Bridge from My Studio Window" (1948)

"A single grain of rice falling -- into the Great Barn."  So writes Po Chu-i. Such a realization is a source of freedom, not a sentence of doom.

                                               At the Window

But then I drew up the curtain and looked out of the window.  Yes, there it still was, the old External World,  still apparently quite unaware of its own non-existence.  I felt helpless, small-boyish before it:  I couldn't pooh-pooh it away.

Logan Pearsall Smith, All Trivia (1934).

There it is.  Out into the World you go.

                          The Window

Looking through a narrow window day by day
They behold the world go by on holiday;
Maid to man repeating "Love me while you may,"
All go by them, none returns to them:  they stay.

They behold love pass, and life passing away,
And each day puts on the face of yesterday,
And their hearts are sighing "Love me while you may,
Love is lovely, life is passing:  'tis to-day."

All shall be to-morrow, still the elders say;
Many lenten morrows come and pass away,
And the world goes by, and as of old time they
Looking through a narrow window watch the way.

Arthur Symons, Love's Cruelty (1923).

Anthony Eyton, "Open Window, Spitalfields" (1981)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Moments

The fact that our life consists of a collection of moments, some more redolent than others, is not an argument for hedonism.  Hedonism gets in the way of appreciating the scene-by-scene movement of our lives.

The pursuit of pleasure or happiness or money or any of the other chimeras that are the staples of popular culture (and of its all-pervasive partner-in-crime, advertising) is an empty, ultimately unsatisfying, diversion. Frenetic hedonism has nothing to do with our soul.  We really ought to stop trying so hard.

                              Pino

Pino, a hill-top village, slanting street
and at the corner a wall where gossips sit
in a row at sunset, like migrating birds,
backed by the sky and forty miles of plain.

Buses heading for somewhere else; the words
cart wheels grind and jerk or a peasant cries
as the white oxen lift their swinging throats,
somnambulists with long Egyptian eyes.

The 'National' inn, the sleepy, smiling maid,
the queenly, fat Madame in a dress of spots;
simple kindnesses like that harsh strong wine;
and two weeks blank of great events.  In fine

A time of waiting.  Most of our life is that.
But waiting sometimes vivid with the sign
of things amazingly connected; whether some
day of thunder or night with the Plough slung over
the road of foreboding and of dreadful hope,
the road to the towns and what there was to come.

Bernard Spencer, Complete Poetry, Translations and Selected Prose (edited by Peter Robinson) (Bloodaxe Books 2011).  The poem was probably written in 1947, although the date is uncertain. The village that Spencer writes of is Pino Torinese in the Piedmont of Italy.

Spencer has a wonderful habit of moving from exact, evocative description to a gently-realized piece of wisdom.  Not a "moral" intended for our edification, mind you.  Rather, the observations of a sensitive man thinking to himself; someone who has lived, and who now finds himself considering where his life has led him, and what he has learned.

Thus, the lovely passage beginning:  "In fine//A time of waiting.  Most of our life is that./But waiting sometimes vivid with the sign/of things amazingly connected . . ."  There is no pontificating or posturing.  This is simply the product of a life lived.

Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)

Think about the moments in your life that have the most resonance for you, that mean the most to you.  I'd wager that few of those moments were planned:  they just happened.

                              The Boats

Five boats beside the lake,
pulled bows first up the shore; how hard it is
to draw them, from each angle changing, elegant:
their feminine poise, the 'just so' lifting sweep
of the light timbers round the flanks sucked thin
into the thirsty bows;
                                          the same or nearly
as makes no difference, since men settled first
near these magnolias, lived the different life
that is always the same; fished, traded, hammered, gossiped
wanted their food and wine, appeased the Powers,
meditated journeys
or turned and turned in their minds some woman's image,
lost or distant.
                                            Near this bench and the keels
someone has scratched in the dust the name ELSA.

Bernard Spencer, With Luck Lasting (Hodder and Stoughton 1963).

As I have mentioned in the past, Spencer lived a peripatetic life.  He was employed by the British Council, and his postings took him to Greece, Egypt, Spain, and Austria.  While on those postings, he holidayed in various countries in Europe.  Hence, his poetry can be seen as a travelogue of sorts, consisting of vignettes of his experiences along the way.

But the words "travelogue" and "vignette" are far too limiting:  Spencer's poems are never merely reportage of local color.  They are, as noted above, exact and evocative in their descriptions of places and people.  Yet -- as in the poems that appear in this post -- his observations of the particular nearly always lead Spencer toward a low-key truth about how we humans live.  "Near this bench and the keels/someone has scratched in the dust the name ELSA."

Algernon Newton, "Canal Scene, Maida Vale" (1947)

I am very fond of the following poem, which has appeared here before.  But, because it exemplifies what I have been attempting (inarticulately) to say about Spencer's poetry, now is a good time to pay it another visit.

                              On the Road

Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care,
it had brought us there
to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
if time any more existed, was that river
of so profound a current, it at once
both flowed and stayed.

We two.  And nothing in the whole world was lacking.
It is later one realizes.  I forget
the exact year or what we said.  But the place
for a lifetime glows with noon.  There are the rustic
table and the benches set; beyond the river
forests as soft as fallen clouds, and in
our wine and eyes I remember other noons.
It is a lot to say, nothing was lacking;
river, sun and leaves, and I am making
words to say 'grapes' and 'her skin.'

Bernard Spencer, Ibid.

If we have been fortunate and blessed, we know exactly what Spencer is talking about.  I first read this poem 25 or so years ago, but I have never gotten over these beautiful lines, and the truth they tell:  "We two.  And nothing in the whole world was lacking./It is later one realizes."

Algernon Newton, "The House by the Canal" (1945)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

One Thing Leads To Another

I am in the midst of one of my recurrent avoid-the-news-of-the-world periods.  To steel my resolve, I paid a visit to a favorite poem:

               No Newspapers

Where, to me, is the loss
     Of the scenes they saw -- of the sounds they heard;
A butterfly flits across,
     Or a bird;
The moss is growing on the wall,
     I heard the leaf of the poppy fall.

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

Stanley Spencer, "Bluebells, Cornflowers and Rhododendrons" (1945)

When it comes to poetry, one thing leads to another.  Thus, after I read "No Newspapers," I realized that I had not visited this poem in quite some time:

A newspaper is a collection of half-injustices
Which, bawled by boys from mile to mile,
Spreads its curious opinion
To a million merciful and sneering men,
While families cuddle the joys of the fireside
When spurred by tale of dire lone agony.
A newspaper is a court
Where every one is kindly and unfairly tried
By a squalor of honest men.
A newspaper is a market
Where wisdom sells its freedom
And melons are crowned by the crowd.
A newspaper is a game
Where his error scores the player victory
While another's skill wins death.
A newspaper is a symbol;
It is feckless life's chronicle,
A collection of loud tales
Concentrating eternal stupidities,
That in remote ages lived unhaltered,
Roaming through a fenceless world.

Stephen Crane, War Is Kind (1899).  The poem is untitled.

Newspapers still survive (barely).  But in their place (how fortunate for us!) we have any number of electronic purveyors of "news."  Of course, other than the technology of distribution, absolutely nothing has changed, has it?  "A court/Where every one is kindly and unfairly tried/By a squalor of honest men."  Exactly.  "A market/ Where wisdom sells its freedom/And melons are crowned by the crowd."  Perfect.  ("Melons are crowned by the crowd" is wonderful.)  "A collection of loud tales/Concentrating eternal stupidities."  Ah, yes.

Stephen Crane bucked me up:  I have abandoned The News of the World altogether.  I am quite certain that something is going on out there, but I have no reason to inquire.

Stanley Spencer, "The Ferry Hotel Lawn, Cookham" (1936)

But it turned out that I was not finished with Mary Coleridge yet.  I was preoccupied with newspapers and their ilk when I came to the poem.  But what stayed with me was the final line:  "I heard the leaf of the poppy fall."

Where would we be without poetic serendipity?  A week or so later, I happened upon this:

     The poppy flowers;
How calmly
     They fall.

Etsujin (1656-1739) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 318.

Imagine those two poems existing independently of each other, going about their beautiful business in their own perfect way.  And then, by sheer accident, they come together.  Their coming together does not change the World.  Events of this sort shall never appear in the daily news.  Which is perfectly fine.

Stanley Spencer, "Peonies" (1939)

Finally, this week, the poppies of Coleridge and Etsujin led to this:

     Stillness:
The sound of the petals
     Sifting down together.

Chora (1729-1780) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 361.

Chora does not specify what sort of petals are falling:  he simply uses the phrase hana no oto.  Hana means "flower" or "blossom"; oto means "sound"; no means "of."  Hence:  "sound of flower" or "sound of blossom."  But the haiku is a Spring haiku, and thus cherry or plum petals are implied.

Do falling petals make a sound?  Perhaps so.  I know that falling snow can whisper.  I have heard it.

Does Chora's poem bring this excursion to an end?  Of course not.  This is how poetry works.

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Tranquillity

A week or so ago, I read this haiku:

     The blossoms have fallen:
Our minds are now
     Tranquil.

Koyu-ni (18th century) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 365.

The lines in Japanese which Blyth renders as "our minds are now tranquil" contain the words hito-gokoro (which may be translated as "human mind, heart, soul, or core") and shizuka (which may be translated as "calm, quiet, peaceful, or still").  The kanji (Chinese characters) used for these words convey all of these different senses at once.  Choosing a single English word for each kanji is a compromise that had to be made by Blyth, and I am not in a position to second-guess him.

Blyth suggests that Koyu-ni's poem may have its source in a waka written nearly a century earlier:

Were there no cherry blossoms
     In this world of ours,
The hearts of men in spring
     Might know serenity.

Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 365.

However, this does not mean that Koyu-ni simply recast Ariwara no Narihira's poem into a haiku:  her poem is the product of a moment of awareness, and her memory of the earlier poem was part of that moment of awareness.  This is something akin to writing a poem about a loved one who has passed away and having Wordsworth's "A slumber did my spirit seal" come to mind at the same time.

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

The cherry trees and plum trees have been in full blossom here for the past few weeks, and their petals are now beginning to fall.  Hence, I have been mulling over Koyu-ni's haiku quite a bit, while being mindful that one mustn't think too much about haiku:  they speak for themselves.

There is nothing lovelier than walking through a shower of cherry or plum petals, is there?  Just as there is nothing lovelier than walking through a shower of falling leaves in autumn.  These passing wonders are beautiful in large part because of our knowledge of their transience, and we do our best to wring all that we can from their beauty, to try to hold on to what we know is departing before our eyes.  A great deal of emotion is involved.

When the petals vanish, the beauty vanishes, but a reminder of transience (ours, the world's) vanishes as well.  (Although transience never vanishes; it only changes form.)  Thus:  "Our minds are now tranquil."

On the other hand, she may simply have been thinking of the joy that accompanies the sight of the blossoming trees:  the beauty makes it hard to keep one's wits.  Tranquillity follows excitement.

But I do not intend to bind Koyu-ni to this single moment of awareness captured in a haiku.  I will presume to say on her behalf that this moment was, for her, part of all that is passing, and that this was a fact she was well aware of.  There is a larger context to the falling petals and the falling leaves.

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

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 350.

Here is another way of looking at it:

     To wake, alive, in this world,
What happiness!
     Winter rain.

Shoha (1727-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 217.

Or consider this:

     The autumn wind is blowing;
We are alive and can see each other,
     You and I.

Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 413.

Wonder and gratitude are at the heart of all haiku.

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

The larger context includes, of course, mortality.  "There will be dying, there will be dying,/but there is no need to go into that."  (Derek Mahon, "Everything Is Going To Be All Right.")  If we wish to be dramatic (but nonetheless accurate), we can say that the petals and the leaves are whispering "Death" as they spin to earth.  Albeit beautifully.

Here, again, is that larger context.

     The cherry flowers bloom;
We gaze at them;
     They fall, and . . .

Onitsura (1660-1738) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 361.

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

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 363.  Note the use of "also" in the second line.

If we are lucky -- very lucky -- we may one day, for a moment, experience the tranquillity of which Koyu-ni speaks.

     Calm days,
The swift years
     Forgotten.

Taigi (1709-1771) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 42.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

April

I can assure you that my fondness for April is not attributable to the fact that I was born in this month (an Aries born in the Year of the Monkey). No, I am fond of April because of its sprightly fickleness:  anything can happen (even snow in some climes).  In my opinion, it is manifestly not "the cruellest month."

William Cowper is in the main correct about both April and life:  "It is a sort of April-weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."  Still, despite its changefulness and "chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All"), I believe that April carries with it an overall sense of blue- and yellow-hued promise.

                                   April, 1885

Wanton with long delay the gay spring leaping cometh;
The blackthorn starreth now his bough on the eve of May:
All day in the sweet box-tree the bee for pleasure hummeth:
The cuckoo sends afloat his note on the air all day.

Now dewy nights again and rain in gentle shower
At root of tree and flower have quenched the winter's drouth.
On high the hot sun smiles, and banks of cloud uptower
In bulging heads that crowd for miles the dazzling south.

Robert Bridges, The Shorter Poems (1896).

Note the internal rhymes within lines (delay/gay, now/bough, et cetera), the combination of end rhymes and internal rhymes across three lines (cometh/starreth/hummeth, shower/flower/uptower), and the internal rhymes across lines (smiles/miles, cloud/crowd).

Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959), "The Cornish April"

On my afternoon walk yesterday, I noticed that the tulips are beginning to peak.  The daffodils are on the wane.  Sidewalks and green lawns are strewn with the fallen creamy-white petals of magnolia trees.  April is a series of arrivals and departures.

              In the Valley

On this first evening of April
Things look wintry still:
Not a leaf on the tree,
Not a cloud in the sky,
Only a young moon high above the clear green west
And a few stars by and by.

Yet Spring inhabits round like a spirit.
I am sure of it
By the swoon on the sense,
By the dazzle on the eye,
By the long, long sigh that traverses my breast
And yet no reason why.

O lovely Quiet, am I never to be blest?
Time, even now you haste.
Between the lamb's bleat and the ewe's reply
A star has come into the sky.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Time Importuned (1928).

I hadn't noticed this until I placed the two poems together in this post:  "the dazzling south" of Bridges and "the dazzle on the eye" of Warner.  And, coincidentally, Warner employs the same technique of end rhymes and internal rhymes across three lines used by Bridges:  sky/high/by; eye/sigh/why.

Lucien Pissarro, "April, Epping" (1894)

April's mutability is embodied in the trees:  their branches are still mostly bare, but, from a distance, they seem to be enveloped in a yellow-green haze.  Mutability and promise.  "Nature's first green is gold."

                      April

Exactly:  where the winter was
The spring has come:  I see her now
In the fields, and as she goes
The flowers spring, nobody knows how.

C. H. Sisson, What and Who (Carcanet Press 1994).

Victor Elford, "April Sunshine" (1971)

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall, I have a May poem (Philip Larkin's "The Trees"), a November poem (Wallace Stevens's "The Region November"), and an April poem that I annually revisit in each of those months.  Please humor me as we pay a return visit to my April poem.

                      Wet Evening in April

The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).  The poem was first published in Kavanagh's Weekly on April 19, 1952.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Glamis Village in April"

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

For Children Of All Ages

I think of nursery rhymes as pleasant ditties that one recites to children in order to keep them entertained on an idle afternoon or to lull them to sleep at night.  Thus, I find the subject matter of some of the poems in Christina Rossetti's Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book to be a bit eccentric.  For instance, ten poems into the collection one comes across this:

Dead in the cold, a song-singing thrush,
Dead at the foot of a snowberry bush, --
Weave him a coffin of rush,
Dig him a grave where the soft mosses grow,
Raise him a tombstone of snow.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book (1872).

A few poems later, one finds this:

A baby's cradle with no baby in it,
     A baby's grave where autumn leaves drop sere;
The sweet soul gathered home to Paradise,
     The body waiting here.

Ibid.

My knowledge of children's literature is negligible, but I do know that fairy tales can sometimes be frightening, or have dark subtexts.  Perhaps the same is true of nursery rhymes.  I don't know.  But I can't imagine reading either of these poems to a child as he or she nods off to sleep.

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

However, I will say this:  although the subject matter of the two poems may make them odd "nursery rhymes," there is no denying that they are lovely poems in and of themselves.  And for this I give Rossetti a great deal of credit:  she does not alter her poetic style in a way that patronizes children. She does not resort to baby-talk.  If one were to encounter the poems outside of a book of "nursery rhymes," it would not be apparent that they were written for children.

Here is another example:

Why did baby die,
Making Father sigh,
Mother cry?

Flowers, that bloom to die,
Make no reply
Of "why?"
But bow and die.

Ibid.

The first stanza is perhaps sing-songy (making due allowance for the appearance of death, of course), but the second stanza would be right at home in any number of "adult" poems written by Rossetti.  (The lines also sound like something that Robert Herrick might have written.)

Charles Oppenheimer, "Kirkcudbright under Snow" (1934)

How often does Charon, the ferryman who bears souls to Hades across the rivers Styx and Acheron, appear in nursery rhymes?

"Ferry me across the water,
     Do, boatman, do."
"If you've a penny in your purse
     I'll ferry you."

"I have a penny in my purse,
     And my eyes are blue;
So ferry me across the water,
     Do, boatman, do."

"Step into my ferry-boat,
     Be they black or blue,
And for the penny in your purse
     I'll ferry you."

Ibid.

According to tradition, Charon requires a penny in payment for his services.  A poem by A. E. Housman comes to mind.

Crossing alone the nighted ferry
     With the one coin for fee,
Whom, on the far quayside in waiting,
     Count you to find?  not me.

The fond lackey to fetch and carry,
     The true, sick-hearted slave,
Expect him not in the just city
     And free land of the grave.

A. E. Housman, More Poems (1936).

Which is the nursery rhyme and which is the "adult" poem?

Charles Oppenheimer, "From a Tower, Kirkcudbright"

As I have noted on prior occasions, Rossetti was deeply religious, and a great deal of her poetry consists of devotional verse which is intended to instruct and enlighten, and to provide solace.  I suspect that she intended her nursery rhymes to serve the same ends.  She may have believed that mortality is something that children as well as adults ought to face up to. Seems reasonable to me.

What are heavy?  sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief?  today and tomorrow:
What are frail?  Spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep?  the ocean and truth.

Christina Rossetti, Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book.

Charles Oppenheimer, "My Garden at Twilight"