Yesterday afternoon -- the sky absolutely clear -- I walked through a tunnel of trees, beneath a canopy of interwoven branches. Overhead, a thousand shades of green, shot through with blue and yellow. "Life is too short," I thought, "for anything but this."
we all are, but none of us
W. H. Auden, from "Shorts I," Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (Random House 1972).
In the early 1960s, Auden began to write short poems in imitation of haiku: seventeen syllables in three lines. He usually, but not always, used the traditional number of syllables per line: 5-7-5. The poems by Auden in this post are all in this form. Auden's "haiku" tend to be more philosophical and less imagistic than traditional haiku. But he captures well the coy, oblique directness of the form. No "symbols" or "metaphors" or "allegories," mind you. But depth upon depth of implication.
Reading Auden's short poems, I began to think of Robert Herrick, and then of Basho.
Upon Prew His Maid
In this little urn is laid
Prewdence Baldwin (once my maid)
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.
Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 782 (1648). A side-note: Herrick was fond of his maid Prewdence (or Prudence), and wrote several poems about her. This "epitaph" was actually written, with affection, while she was alive. In fact, she outlived Herrick by four years.
In the midst of the plain
Sings the skylark,
Free of all things.
Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 26.
Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)
All of us are walking the same paths, aren't we? Just as each human being has been doing for millennia. No wonder that a poet from the 20th-century and two poets from the 17th-century sometimes seem to echo each other.
Thoughts of his own death,
like the distant roll
of thunder at a picnic.
W. H. Auden, from "Marginalia," City Without Walls and Other Poems (Random House 1969). An aside: this is one of the "haiku" in which Auden uses the requisite 17 syllables, but alters the syllable count in each line to a non-traditional 5-5-7.
After Autumn, Winter
Die ere long I'm sure, I shall;
After leaves, the tree must fall.
Robert Herrick, Hesperides Poem 1058.
Ill on a journey;
My dreams wander
Over a withered moor.
Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 288.
Alfred Munnings (1878-1959), "Willows at Flatford, Suffolk"
Each "modern" era's self-flattering belief that it embodies the cutting-edge of humanity's "progress" is quaint and risible. As I have noted on more than one occasion: "Progress? What progress?" I suspect that your experience is similar to mine: if you turn on the television after the latest outrage has occurred somewhere in the world, a panel of "experts" will be expressing incredulity at the atrocity, and will be debating (with shock on their faces) how this sort of thing can be "explained" given the advanced state of enlightenment in which we now live.
Do poets live in a simpler world?
A signpost points him out his road:
But names no place,
Numbers no distance.
W. H. Auden, from "Symmetries and Asymmetries," About the House (Random House 1965).
Man's Dying-Place Uncertain
Man knows where first he ships himself; but he
Never can tell, where shall his landing be.
Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 468.
Along this road
Goes no one,
This autumn eve.
Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture, page 179.
Robert Ball, "Mrs Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)
Looking at the poems that appear in this post, I notice that there is no shortage of musing over our mortality. But how could it be otherwise? Poetry, unlike "progress," is about the individual human soul. The soul, unless distracted by the noise around it, is concerned with Love and Death. "All poetry is in a sense love-poetry." So says Edward Thomas. But I would respectfully and deferentially add this: elegiac love-poetry.
What is Death? A Life
smaller simpler ones.
W. H. Auden, from "Shorts I," Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems.
Some parts may perish; die thou canst not all:
The most of thee shall scape the funeral.
Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 554.
A clear waterfall;
Into the ripples
Fall green pine needles.
Basho (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 90.
Thomas Corsan Morton (1859-1928), "Sunny Woodlands"