Thursday, June 23, 2011

"How Sordid Is This Crowded Life"

My previous post about the poetry of Ryokan and Wang Wei brought to mind a poem by W. H. Davies (1871-1940).  Davies's poetry is mostly forgotten now, but his work was praised by the likes of Edward Thomas.  (Thomas provided financial assistance to Davies, even though Thomas's own finances were always precarious.  They became friends, and Davies wrote "Killed in Action (Edward Thomas)" after Thomas's death in 1917.)  Davies's style is perhaps quaint by "modern" standards, but there are gems to be found in his work.          

       How Sordid Is This Crowded Life

How sordid is this crowded life, its spite
And envy, the unkindness brought to light:
It makes me think of those great modest hearts
That spend their quiet lives in lonely parts,
In deserts, hills and woods; and pass away
Judged by a few, or none, from day to day.
And O that I were free enough to dwell
In their great spaces for a while; until
The dream-like life of such a solitude
Has forced my tongue to cry 'Hallo!' aloud --
To make an echo from the silence give
My voice back with the knowledge that I live.

W. H. Davies, Complete Poems (1963).

Davies (who was a sociable fellow) suggests that, in the end, a life of retreat might be too much for him.  In this regard, Ryokan, who lived in his hut for 25 years, is forthright in his depiction of such a life, and faithfully records both the good and the bad.  But his contentment, I think, underlies everything he wrote.

The vicissitudes of this world are like the movements of the clouds.
Fifty years of life are nothing but one long dream.
Sparse rain:  in my desolate hermitage at night,
Quietly I clutch my robe and lean against the empty window.

John Stevens (translator), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan (1977).

                    Robin Tanner, "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

4 comments:

Tim Kendall said...

There's a very good scholarly chapter on Davies in Peter Howarth's British Poetry in the Age of Modernism. Most Brits can quote Davies, without ever having heard of him: 'What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare'. Are those lines known in the States?

William A. Sigler said...

Love that Ryokan one - a whole life a momentary illusion, then the intensest attention on the smallest thing, all in one short poem, very zen

Stephen Pentz said...

As always, thank you for visiting, Tim.

I wasn't aware of Howarth's book. I was able to find most of the Davies chapter on Google Books. Both it and the entire book look very interesting. Thank you very much for the reference.

As for the lines from "Leisure": I fear that those lines aren't well-known over here, but I shouldn't presume to speak for my fellow countrymen and countrywomen.

Thanks again, Tim.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: thank you for stopping by again.

Yes, that does seem to be common in Ryokan's poetry and in much of traditional Japanese and Chinese poetry, doesn't it? As much as I love the poetry, I have always worried that there is an unbridgeable gap between the originals and the translations that I am dependent upon when it comes to the attention to small things that you refer to.

Part of this worry stems from having studied Japanese (including some study of kanji, the Chinese characters) while living in Japan for a year: there seems to be so much that is implied (and perhaps untranslatable) in the characters. Hence, of course, the sometimes wide variations in translations.

As always, thank you for your thoughts.