The phrases came to me again this past week when I finally got around to visiting a grove of trees that is one of my favorite autumn haunts. Alas, the trees were half empty. I was reminded of Ishikawa Jozan's lines about paying a late visit to the spring cherry blossoms: "When blossoms were at their finest I neglected to call./The blossoms did not betray me. I betrayed the blossoms." (Ishikawa Jozan, "Fallen Blossoms on the Eastern Hills.")
But the trees remain beautiful. The upper branches, exposed to the wind, are nearly bare; the lower boughs less so. In a breeze, one can still hear, if not a roar, at least a whoosh and a rustle. And the gold and red against a blue sky? Well, that's autumn, isn't it?
As I stood beneath the trees, I had another thought: All of this goes on quite well with or without us. No waiting around. Indifference? Impassivity? Those are human concepts.
How countlessly they congregate
O'er our tumultuous snow,
Which flows in shapes as tall as trees
When wintry winds do blow! --
As if with keenness for our fate,
Our faltering few steps on
To white rest, and a place of rest
Invisible at dawn, --
And yet with neither love nor hate,
Those stars like some snow-white
Minerva's snow-white marble eyes
Without the gift of sight.
Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).
When A Boy's Will was first published, Frost included, in the table of contents, a brief gloss for each poem. (The glosses were removed in subsequent reprintings.) His gloss for "Stars" was: "There is no oversight of human affairs."
David Muirhead (1867-1930), "The End of Autumn"
I do not intend to get bogged down in the critical discussion of whether Frost was the bucolic nature poet and the front-porch Yankee philosopher of caricature (a self-created caricature to a great extent) or whether he was, lo and behold, "dark," "bleak," and "harrowing." Like any great poet, he was capacious. I will say this: there is a thread of loneliness -- both personal and cosmic (consider, for a start, "Desert Places") -- that runs through everything he wrote.
On Going Unnoticed
As vain to raise a voice as a sigh
In the tumult of free leaves on high.
What are you in the shadow of trees
Engaged up there with the light and breeze?
Less than the coral-root you know
That is content with the daylight low,
And has no leaves at all of its own;
Whose spotted flowers hang meanly down.
You grasp the bark by a rugged pleat,
And look up small from the forest's feet.
The only leaf it drops goes wide,
Your name not written on either side.
You linger your little hour and are gone,
And still the woods sweep leafily on,
Not even missing the coral-root flower
You took as a trophy of the hour.
Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).
A coral-root is a lovely little thing, after all.
David Muirhead, "The Fen Bridge, near Dedham (Constable's Country)"
Is Nature beneficent? Or is it threatening? Both, of course. But, either way, it is keeping its thoughts to itself. Best to get used to the silence. The beauty is not lessened.
When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened. Birds, at least, must know
It is the change to darkness in the sky.
Murmuring something quiet in her breast,
One bird begins to close a faded eye;
Or overtaken too far from his nest,
Hurrying low above the grove, some waif
Swoops just in time to his remembered tree.
At most he thinks or twitters softly, 'Safe!
Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.'
Robert Frost, Ibid.
A side-note: please bear with me as I return to the continual conversation between Frost and Edward Thomas that I mentioned in my previous post. Here is Thomas in the final stanza of "Out in the Dark" (his final poem but one):
How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.
And Frost responds: "I have been one acquainted with the night."
David Muirhead, "A Lowland Landscape"