Last week, I received the first hint that autumn was imminent. As I walked towards a favorite tree, I noticed a single spray of bright red leaves amidst its uppermost boughs. Then, just as I passed into the tree's shadow, a lone red leaf fluttered down in front of me and landed at my feet. This was a lovely and gentle signal.
This week, autumn arrived in earnest. As I passed through a meadow on my afternoon walk, a row of trees on my left, a sudden breeze crossed the field from the west. There was no mistaking the underlying chill -- however subtle -- in that breeze. Autumn had arrived.
Even in a person
most times indifferent
to things around him
they waken feelings --
the first winds of autumn.
Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watston, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 67.
In the original Japanese, the word that Burton Watson translates as "feelings" is kokoro. Kokoro is a wonderful word which means both "heart, feelings" and "mind, mentality." Kodansha's Romanized Japanese-English Dictionary (Kodansha 1993), page 263. I like to think of it as an amalgam: something along the lines of "heart-mind-soul."
Note that Saigyō uses kokoro, not a value-laden word such as "sadness" or "happiness." Kokoro is perfect, for it covers any and all of the emotions that may arise when we feel the first winds of autumn.
George Vicat Cole, "Iffley Mill" (1884)
The image of Robert Frost as a kindly, homily-spinning nature poet is by now a cliché. It is an image that Frost worked hard to create, probably to throw us off track. In fact, Nature and the Universe are often indifferent, and sometimes even threatening, in Frost's poetry.
Now Close the Windows
Now close the windows and hush all the fields:
If the trees must, let them silently toss;
No bird is singing now, and if there is,
Be it my loss.
It will be long ere the marshes resume,
It will be long ere the earliest bird:
So close the windows and not hear the wind,
But see all wind-stirred.
Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).
I've never known quite what to make of this poem. It appears to be set in autumn, just before the onset of winter: is there something foreboding in that prospect that makes the speaker want to shut out Nature? On the other hand, the speaker only desires Nature to be silent: he remains willing to "see all wind-stirred." There is something beautiful in seeing the trees "silently toss," isn't there? Is Frost telling us that we ought to keep all of our senses awake to what is around us? At this point I feel myself venturing close to "explanation" and "explication," the death of poetry. Time to stop.
Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"
As long-time readers of this blog know, I am very fond of the Poets of the Nineties, particularly Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson. Their dreamy world of wistful longing is one that I am willing to dwell in for days at a time.
Although the Poets of the Nineties are certainly not "nature poets," they are quite good at teasing out the emotional implications of those parts of Nature that are dear to their hearts: twilight, mists, autumn, birds twittering in the shadows, the sound of a stream flowing in the distance, wind . . .
The Lovers of the Wind
Can any man be quiet in his soul
And love the wind? Men love the sea, the hills:
The bright sea drags them under, and the hills
Beckon them up into the deadly air;
They have sharp joys, and a sure end of them.
But he who loves the wind is like a man
Who loves a ghost, and by a loveliness
Ever unseen is haunted, and he sees
No dewdrop shaken from a blade of grass,
No handle lifted, yet she comes and goes,
And breathes beside him. And the man, because
Something, he knows, is nearer than his breath
To bodily life, and nearer to himself
Than his own soul, loves with exceeding fear.
And so is every man that loves the wind.
How shall a man be quiet in his soul
When a more restless spirit than a bird's
Cries to him, and his heart answers the cry?
Therefore have fear, all ye who love the wind.
There is no promise in the voice of the wind,
It is a seeking and a pleading voice
That wanders asking in an unknown tongue
Infinite unimaginable things.
Shall not the lovers of the wind become
Even as the wind is, gatherers of the dust,
Hunters of the impossible, like men
Who go by night into the woods with nets
To snare the shadow of the moon in pools?
Arthur Symons, The Fool of the World and Other Poems (1906).
I realize that this sort of thing is not everybody's cup of tea. But I think it is a wonderful poem. It is the sort of poem that only a poet of the Nineties could write. I love the repetitions (a characteristic Nineties technique): "Can any man be quiet in his soul;" "How shall a man be quiet in his soul." And: "he who loves the wind;" "every man that loves the wind;" "all ye who love the wind;" "the lovers of the wind." I love the fact that Symons uses the word "soul" three times. It is a crucial word in Nineties poetry. And what a lovely image at the end: "like men/Who go by night into the woods with nets/To snare the shadow of the moon in pools." Yes, there is something in the poetry of the Nineties that cannot be found anywhere else.
Walter Goodin, "The River Beverley" (1938)
A return to spareness is in order as we consider autumn, and what follows.
To the Roaring Wind
What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (1923).
This poem provides a good counterpoint to Saigyō's poem. Stevens was not one to talk openly of "feelings." At first thought, I would not associate the word "kokoro" with Stevens's poetry: it is a pretty cerebral business. Yet I think my first thought does Stevens a disservice: he has a different way of bringing "feelings" and emotions into his poetry. But they are there.
Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"