Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.
Sami Mansei (8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991).
I prefer this image to that of a three-masted Ship of Life, under full sail, cleaving the stormy waves of Time, et cetera. We all know the inevitable end of such a journey: "As a rule, everyone ultimately reaches port with masts and rigging gone." (Arthur Schopenhauer (translated by E. F. J. Payne), "Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Vanity of Existence," Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume 2 (Oxford University Press 1974; originally published in 1851), page 284.) An oceanic circumnavigation is far too dramatic. I fancy this instead: "a boat amid the ripples, drifting, rocking." (Christina Rossetti, "Pastime.")
Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "In Mevagissey Harbour, Cornwall"
Sami Mansei's boat is "rowing out at break of day," bound for a preordained end. But it is in no hurry, and the scene is suffused with tranquility. There is a great deal to be said for idle drifting, with a bit of occasional rowing. We will arrive when we arrive.
"These men you wander around with -- none will give you any good advice. All they have are petty words, the kind that poison a man. No one understands, no one comprehends -- so who can give any help to anyone else? The clever man wears himself out, the wise man worries. But the man of no ability has nothing he seeks. He eats his fill and wanders idly about. Drifting like an unmoored boat, emptily and idly he wanders along."
Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (Columbia University Press 1968), page 354.
Be assured: Chuang Tzu is advising us that "the man of no ability" who "emptily and idly . . . wanders along" -- "drifting like an unmoored boat" -- deserves our approbation, not our condemnation. "The clever man" and "the wise man" have both got it all wrong.
Naught moves but clouds, and in the glassy lake
Their doubles and the shadow of my boat.
The boat itself stirs only when I break
This drowse of heat and solitude afloat
To prove if what I see be bird or mote,
Or learn if yet the shore woods be awake.
Long hours since dawn grew, -- spread, -- and passed on high
And deep below, -- I have watched the cool reeds hung
Over images more cool in imaged sky:
Nothing there was worth thinking of so long;
All that the ring-doves say, far leaves among,
Brims my mind with content thus still to lie.
Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008). Thomas wrote the poem in May of 1915. Ibid, page 235.
China in the 4th century B. C., England in 1915, or now: there is no difference.
Walter Goodin, "Bridlington Harbour, East Riding of Yorkshire" (1951)
Chuang Tzu is correct: why aspire to be clever or wise? (Besides, who in their right mind would, or could, claim to be clever or wise?) If it is serenity and contentment that we seek (I see no reason to grasp after "happiness," whatever that may be), idle drifting seems to be the proper course of action. But one mustn't equate idleness with sloth, disinterest, or ennui: it is an active state of being that requires attention, patience, receptivity, and humility. One never knows when a message may arrive.
"Lessons from the world around us: certain localities, certain moments 'incline' us towards them; there seems to be the pressure of a hand, an invisible hand, urging a change of direction (of the footsteps, the gaze, or the thoughts); the hand could also be a breath, like the breath behind leaves, clouds, sailing boats. An insinuation, in an undertone like someone whispering 'look,' 'listen,' or merely 'wait'. But is there still the time, the patience to wait? And is 'waiting' really the right word?"
Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Cherry Tree (Le Cerisier) (The Delos Press 1991), pages 13-14.
Stanhope Forbes, "The Inner Harbour: Abbey Slip" (1921)
Given the distractions of the modern world, Jaccottet asks a valid question: "But is there still the time, the patience to wait?" Popular culture, the media, and technology all urge us to pursue ephemeral chimeras at ever-increasing speeds. But each of us has it in us to step into a drifting boat at any moment and to say good-bye to all that (to borrow from Robert Graves). In my experience, this becomes easier as one ages.
When little lights in little ports come out,
Quivering down through water with the stars,
And all the fishing fleet of slender spars
Range at their moorings, veer with tide about;
When race of wind is stilled and sails are furled,
And underneath our single riding-light
The curve of black-ribbed deck gleams palely white,
And slumbrous waters pool a slumbrous world;
-- Then, and then only, have I thought how sweet
Old age might sink upon a windy youth,
Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth,
Weathered through storms, and gracious in retreat.
Vita Sackville-West, Orchard and Vineyard (John Lane 1921).
"Quiet beneath the riding-light of truth." Well, I doubt that "old age" in itself leads us to the discovery of "the riding-light of truth" (intimations or glimpses of Truth perhaps -- if we pay attention and are lucky). But, as for "gracious in retreat": that is a laudable goal, and one that may be attainable as long as we keep our wits about us.
Frank Jowett, "A Sunlight Harbour"
As one who has no wisdom, and who knows nothing, my musings on being able to idly drift on calm waters are purely aspirational. There may be moments (mere instants) when such a life seems within reach. They immediately vanish.
Yet, we wouldn't wish it otherwise, would we?
The gate he built last year
hangs by its elbow from the wall.
The oar he shaped this summer
goes through the water with a swirl, a swivel.
The hammer in his great hand
pecks like fowl in the grain.
His haycocks are lopsided.
His lamp stands on the dresser, unlit.
One day the rope he has tied
will slither down the rock
and the boat drift off idly
dwindling away into the Atlantic.
Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).
Henry Moore, "Catspaws Off the Land" (1885)