When I think back on that summer, what often comes to mind is the constant shrill cry of the semi and the sight of dozens of hotaru floating above the grass beside a river that I sometimes walked along in the evening. I will save the cicadas for another occasion. Today I would like to consider the fireflies.
As one might expect, fireflies often find their way into haiku.
The first fire-fly!
It was off, away, --
The wind left in my hand.
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido 1952), page 214.
A fire-fly flitted by:
"Look!" I almost said, --
But I was alone.
Taigi (1709-1772) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 216.
Here and there,
The night-grass is green
From the fire-flies.
Hojo (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 218.
The first two haiku capture wonderfully the childlike joy I suspect most of us have felt when we come upon fireflies. "Look!" And then the urge to chase after them. But the third haiku is something else entirely. About it, I will keep my mouth shut and let it speak for itself.
Eugene Jansson, "View from Kattgrand" (1894)
Of course, the fascination with fireflies knows no boundaries of time or space. In the final sentences of his last published work, John Ruskin writes:
"We . . . walked together that evening on the hills above [Siena], where the fireflies among the scented thickets shone fitfully in the still undarkened air. How they shone! moving like fine-broken starlight through the purple leaves. How they shone! through the sunset that faded into thunderous night as I entered Siena three days before, the white edges of the mountainous clouds still lighted from the west, and the openly golden sky calm behind the Gate of Siena's heart, with its still golden words, 'Cor magis tibi Sena pandit,' and the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightning, and more intense than the stars."
John Ruskin, Praeterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life, Volume III (1900), pages 181-182 (italics in original). Ruskin translated "Cor magis tibi Sena pandit" as follows: "More than her gates, Siena opens her heart to you." John Ruskin, Val d'Arno (1890 edition), page 26.
It is lovely that Ruskin ended his literary endeavors with this image of the fireflies of Tuscany. The image haunted him. Here it is again, in an earlier work:
"The Dominican convent is situated at the bottom of the slope of olives, distinguished only by its narrow and low spire; a cypress avenue recedes from it towards Florence . . . No extended prospect is open to it; though over the low wall, and through the sharp, thickset olive leaves, may be seen one silver gleam of the Arno, and, at evening, the peaks of the Carrara mountains, purple against the twilight, dark and calm, while the fire-flies glance beneath, silent and intermittent, like stars upon the rippling of mute, soft sea."
John Ruskin, On the Old Road, Volume I, Part 1 (1885), pages 112-113.
Harald Sohlberg, "Night" (1904)
And now, from Japan and Italy, onward to New England.
Fireflies in the Garden
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.
Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).
This is vintage Frost: inflation combined with deflation. And perhaps (although I may be mistaken) there is one of those Frostian ambiguities. To wit: what does "start" mean in "Achieve at times a very star-like start"? A "start" as in a "beginning"? Or a "start" as in a "sudden involuntary movement of the body, occasioned by surprise, terror, joy or grief, or the recollection of something forgotten"? OED. But I may simply be slow on the uptake (as well as being in violation of my own oft-stated strictures about over-interpreting poems).
Eugene Jansson, "Riddarfjarden, Stockholm" (1898)
To close, here is Ruskin once more, in a letter written from Pistoia:
"I have just come in from an evening walk among the stars and fireflies. One hardly knows where one has got to between them, for the flies flash, as you know, exactly like stars on the sea, and the impression to the eye is as if one was walking on water. I was not the least prepared for their intense brilliancy. They dazzled me like fireworks, and it was very heavenly to see them floating, field beyond field, under the shadowy vines."
John Ruskin, Letter to John James Ruskin (May 28, 1845), in E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (editors), The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, Volume XXXV (Praeterita and Dilecta), page 562, footnote 1.
Harald Sohlberg, "Midsummer Night"