Friday, May 17, 2019

Lilacs And Azaleas And Ant Hills

I have returned to the shores of Puget Sound after my visit to the shores of the Pacific, and I find myself in a burgeoned and burgeoning green World, a leafy Paradise.  But that is not all:  as ever, mid-May is the time of lilacs and azaleas and ant hills.  This is only a partial inventory, of course.  "World is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural."  (Louis MacNeice, "Snow.")

The lilacs and the azaleas are lovely, but it is the ant hills that are dearest to my heart.  The never-failing punctuality of those intent beings annually impresses and moves me.  Yes, yes, I am quite aware of the dangers of anthropomorphization.  But the sight of the humble yet brave sand mounds rising in the seams of the sidewalks right on schedule each May provokes tender feelings, and I cannot help but feel that we and the ants are companions in this journey of ours. Which means that I can be accused of sentimentality as well, I suppose.  So be it.  An anthropomorphizing sentimentalist I am.

I do know this:  long after I have returned to the dust, the ant hills will continue to rise each May.  I find this comforting, a source of serenity and equanimity.

   Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River

The evening river is level and motionless --
The spring colours just open to their full.
Suddenly a wave carries the moon away
And the tidal water comes with its freight of stars.

Yang-ti (Seventh Century) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).

Fairlie Harmar (1876-1945), "L'Aveyron" (c. 1932)

Monday, May 6, 2019


As was the case around this time last year, a thousand-mile road trip has brought me to the shores of the Pacific on the Central Coast of California.  I have once again left the James Dean Memorial Junction (the fateful crossing of California 46 and California 41 out in the middle of a windy, dusty high plain) behind me.  From where I am staying, nothing but water lies between the edge of the continent and a point somewhere on the coastline of Honshu.  Small flocks of pelicans fly leisurely up and down the shoreline from morning until evening.  Inland, the slopes of the still spring-green hills -- usually dotted with live oaks (less so as one travels east) -- are covered in places with patches of purple, blue, orange, or yellow wildflower blossoms.

"As for our waking traffic with the world-at-large -- and how infinitesimal a fraction of that is solely ours -- what a medley this appears to be:  loose, chancey, piecemeal, formless.  From birthday to death-day we continue to collect and weave together the materials of our minute private universe, as a bird builds its nest, and out of a myriad heterogeneous scraps we give it a certain shape and coherence, wherein to lay our treasured brittle eggs.  But how little life itself respects the rational, adapts itself to our convenience, discloses its aim, explains the rules -- despite the fact that every thread of it that is ours is weaving itself into a gossamer fabric thinner even than dreamed-of moonshine, which we call the Past; and which, when in recollection we attempt to record and arrange it and to give it something of a pattern, we shall call autobiography. Nature, inscrutable mistress of her vast household, even although man assumes himself to be her fairy godchild, shows him a fickle favouritism, destroys him if he ignores her, and is indulgent only if he obeys to the last iota her every edict, her every whim.  She is; she perpetuates herself; as if she herself were bemused and in a dream -- with her seasons and her weather, her greenery and stars and her multitudes; creating, destroying, never at rest."

Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer! (Faber and Faber 1939), page 67.

The First of May, 2019

Ah, the conundrum of what books to bring along on a journey! Anthologies are always good choices.  Hence, I have with me Behold, This Dreamer!  But calling de la Mare's wonderful compendium an anthology does not do it justice.  The volume's full title has a classic English 17th or 18th century feel to it:  Behold, This Dreamer!  Of Reverie, Night, Sleep, Dream, Love-Dreams, Nightmare, Death, the Unconscious, the Imagination, Divination, the Artist, and Kindred Subjects.  "Kindred Subjects," indeed.  In fact, de la Mare's subjects include the whole of the World and all of Life.  Nothing lies outside the book's borders.


Even the owls are lyrical
     When the moon's right,
And we have no patience with the stars
     On a dusty night.

Love is dull with the mood wrong,
     And age may outsing youth,
For there is no measuring a song,
     Nor counting upon truth.

All's well, and then a flood of loss
     Surges upon delight,
While the rose buds upon the cross,
     And the blind have sight.

Morning wisdom vanishes,
     And dusk brings dread
That stalwart sleep banishes
     Ere primes are said.

He who is sure, has all to learn;
     Who fears, but fears in vain?
For never a day does the year turn,
     But it shall turn again.

John Drinkwater, in Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer!, page 656.  The poem was originally published in Drinkwater's Summer Harvest: Poems 1924-1933 (Sidgwick & Jackson 1933).

The First of May, 2019

A few days ago, while strolling on the Pismo Beach pier, I passed an elderly gentleman sitting on a bench in the sun, strumming a guitar and singing:  "Oh, sweet darling, you get the best of my love . . ."  I suspect this elderly gentleman and I hail from the same vanished time and place.  Having spent the years from 1967 through 1978 (aged 11 through 22) along the southern and central California coast, a song such as this has a certain evocative quality for me.  There comes a time in one's life when entire eras return in an instant, exactly as they were, with all emotions intact.  This can be a mixed blessing.  But, of course, being here to experience the blessing, mixed or not, is, in and of itself, the greatest blessing of all.

Look downward in the silent pool:
The weeds cling to the ground they love;
They live so quietly, are so cool;
They do not need to think, or move.

Look down in the unconscious mind:
There everything is quiet too
And deep and cool, and you will find
Calm growth and nothing hard to do,
And nothing that need trouble you.

Harold Monro, in Walter de la Mare, Behold, This Dreamer!, page 549.  The poem was originally published in Monro's Real Property (The Poetry Bookshop 1922) as the fifth poem in a sequence titled "The Silent Pool."

The First of May, 2019

Friday, April 19, 2019


On a grey, cool morning earlier this week I ran a few errands.  My drive home took me along a street that runs straight up a hill for a quarter-mile or so.  I noticed that, a few blocks ahead, the gutters on both sides of the street were white.  Water reflecting the grey sky? Cement or sand washed down to the street from a home construction site?  Neither.  The gutters were filled with white petals.  The cherry trees lining the sidewalks on either side of the street were nearly empty of blossoms.

A brief sigh of wistfulness passed through me.  But I did not hear or feel "the strumble/Of the hungry river of death."  (Hilaire Belloc, "From the Latin (but not so pagan.")  The sight of the petals was too beautiful for that.  We live in a World in which, each spring, the gutters of the streets are filled with the fallen petals of cherry blossoms.

               The Drift of Petals

Firm-footed, small, she thrust my pram
its endless uphill, downhill way,
intent on country air.

I can recall our sheltering
beneath a hawthorn in a lane,
a dark cloud dowsed the sky.

And as we watched the slanting drops
a drift of petals settled on
my buttoned coverlet.

A wide road now that lane, with cars;
the hedges rooted out; the fields,
on either side, built-up.

And of that moment what survives
in these numb syllables, except
an old man's gratitude?

John Hewitt, Time Enough: Poems New and Revised (Blackstaff Press 1976).

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Roofing a New House"

Later in the week, I walked past two large Yoshino cherry trees that stand in the front yard of a nearby house.  The boughs of the trees extend over the sidewalk, creating a white-blossomed canopy at this time each year.  The sidewalk is now covered with a carpet of petals. We live in a World in which, each spring, we can fill our cupped hands with the fallen petals of cherry blossoms.

               Fallen Blossoms on the Eastern Hills

Cherry blossoms filling the ground, sunset filling my eyes:
blossoms vanished, spring old, I feel the passing years.
When blossoms were at their finest I neglected to call.
The blossoms did not betray me.  I betrayed the blossoms.

Ishikawa Jōzan (1583-1672) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "From My Studio" (1959)

The camellia bushes along the north side of the house -- one with pink blossoms, one with white blossoms -- bloomed late this year, likely due to a winter that was longer, colder, and snowier than usual. But their petals are now falling, fallen, as well.  The squirrels scamper over them.

A few years ago, a pair of doves nested in one of the bushes.  In the mornings, I could hear their soft coos outside the window.  I miss their company.  But who knows what may happen?  Spring has hardly begun.

                Black and White

A blackbird flew to a hawthorn bush
and brushed a flutter of petals down;
they tumbled and turned like a flurry of snow
and settled slow on the waiting stone.

And, if that blackbird, all summer through,
could sing so long as there's light to see,
he would never fling a song as bright
as that lyric flight from the hawthorn tree.

John Hewitt, The Chinese Fluteplayer (1974).

Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959), "The Cornish April"

Monday, April 1, 2019


Each spring arrives in its own fashion.  The day before the equinox, we unexpectedly had a day of nearly 80-degree, sunny weather.  The World took this as a sign, and spring appeared overnight, right on schedule.

Now, above us, we have cherry, plum, pear, and magnolia blossoms. At our shoulders we have camellia blooms.  And at our feet we have -- joining the previously-arrived crocuses -- daffodils, hyacinths, and a few early tulips.  This is only a partial inventory.  As for the trees: they are still biding their time, although their branches are tipped with green leaf-buds, at the ready.

          Pear Blossoms by the Eastern Palisade

Pear blossoms pale white, willows deep green --
when willow fluff scatters, falling blossoms will fill the town.
Snowy boughs by the eastern palisade set me pondering --
in a lifetime how many springs do we see?

Su Tung-p'o (1036-1101) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Copper Canyon Press 1994), page 68.

"Snowy boughs."  The confusion of spring fruit tree blossoms with snow-filled branches is a venerable poetic conceit, isn't it?

For instance:

                    The Cherry Trees

Under pure skies of April blue I stood,
Where, in wild beauty, cherries were in blow;
And, as sweet fancy willed, see there I could
Boughs thick with blossom, or inch-deep in snow.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).  De la Mare uses the word "blow" (line 2) in a sense that is now, alas, considered archaic:  "to blossom; to bloom."

This also comes to mind:

                    Nailsworth Hill

The Moon, that peeped as she came up,
     Is clear on top, with all her light;
She rests her chin on Nailsworth Hill,
     And, where she looks, the World is white.

White with her light -- or is it Frost,
     Or is it Snow her eyes have seen;
Or is it Cherry blossom there,
     Where no such trees have ever been?

W. H. Davies, The Loneliest Mountain and Other Poems (Jonathan Cape 1939).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Glamis Village in April"

The blossom-snow confusion leads many of us to return to a poem we visit each spring.  Mere habit, perhaps.  Or ritual.  But, consider this: we are not who we were last spring, are we?  We have no way of knowing how the poem will make us feel this spring.  There is something to be said for habit and ritual in the midst of a feckless world.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy years a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, Poem II (Kegan Paul 1896).

"To see the cherry hung with snow."  For some of us, this line is the embodiment of spring.  The novelist J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country) served as the headmaster of a primary school in Kettering, Northamptonshire, for fifteen years.  Through the streets of Kettering, "under the cherry trees, Carr would march his entire school in the spring, all chanting, 'Loveliest of trees . . .'"  (Byron Rogers, The Last Englishman: The Life of J. L. Carr (Aurum Press 2003), page 153.)

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

So, dear readers, here we are again:  at the intersection of Beauty and Evanescence, in the land of bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness.  Also known as Life.

"In a lifetime how many springs do we see?"  Su Tung-p'o wrote that line in 1077.  Eight centuries later, in 1895, A. E. Housman wrote: "And since to look at things in bloom/Fifty springs are little room,/About the woodlands I will go/To see the cherry hung with snow."  The good poets, in all times and in all places, know what is humanly important, know where our attention should be directed. Human nature was the same in China in 1077 and in England in 1895.  And wherever you are at this moment.

                              Spring Night

Spring night -- one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs -- threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where night is deep and still.

Su Tung-p'o (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-P'o, page 19.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)

Saturday, March 23, 2019


At 7:45 this evening I sat in a chair, reading a poem by W. B. Yeats. As I looked to the left out the front window, I could see the last light of the day -- pale pink-blue, with an undertone of yellow -- above the silhouettes of the Olympic Mountains to the west.  The waters of Puget Sound, which had been dotted with sailboats in the morning and afternoon (the first race of the season), were still and empty, save for a single freighter leaving port, headed north.  Bound where?

At that moment, to my right, beyond the window that faces the back garden, a robin began to sing.  The garden, in the shadow of the house, was already dark.  Yet the robin -- somewhere in a cherry tree or an apple tree (I could not see him or her) -- sang and sang.

As the robin sang, I read this poem:

   Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

W. B. Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (Macmillan 1933).


Giffard Lenfestey (1872-1943), "Evening, the Stream"

Thursday, March 14, 2019

How Little We Know

Ah, what bundles of quirks and tics, impulses and imaginings, hopes and delusions, we are.  In short, individual human souls.  Abiding for a brief time in "the vale of Soul-making."

On the other hand, we live in a politicized culture in which a predominant tendency is to place people into groups based upon various characteristics.  This taxonomization of human souls proceeds apace.  History tells us something about where this sort of thing leads, but I shall refrain from commenting further.

haiku by Masaoka Shiki comes to mind:

   After I'm Dead

Tell them
I was a persimmon eater
who liked haiku.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems (Columbia University Press 1997), page 63.

Shiki wrote the poem in the autumn of 1897.  He had contracted tuberculosis in 1889, and had been in nearly constant pain since that time.  He died in 1902 at the age of thirty-four.  He did indeed love to eat persimmons.  And he did indeed love haiku.  In 2009, the Japanese postal system issued a stamp with an illustration of two persimmons hanging on a branch, accompanied by one of Shiki's best-known haiku:

   Stopping at a Teashop
      at Hōryū-ji Temple

I eat a persimmon
and a bell starts booming --

Masaoka Shiki (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems, page 42.

I am wholly in favor of placing oneself into categories such as "persimmon eater" or "lover of haiku."  Or "rain gazer."

Evening shower --
and gazing out into it,
a woman alone.

Kikaku (1661-1707) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 377.

Or "snow watcher."  Two centuries after Kikaku wrote his haiku, Shiki wrote this:

From a rear window
in the falling snow
a woman's face looks out.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems, page 22.

Helen Johnstone (1888-1931), "Tolbooth Close"

Back in early December, I wrote about the robins that gather here in small flocks in winter.  I have grown increasingly fond of them.  For now, they still congregate in flocks, but, when spring arrives, I expect to see them pair off into couples.  On a sunny afternoon earlier this week, I saw a group of them spread out across a wide field of grass (green from the winter rain), feeding.  The robin world seems a simple world, but I'm sure it is not.  Yet, on that warm, nearly-spring day, they seemed at peace in their robin lives.

          Once Seen, and No More

Thousands each day pass by, which we,
Once past and gone, no more shall see.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 671, in Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume 1 (Oxford University Press 2013).

As I walked beside the flock, I focused my attention on one of the robins.  I believe it was a female, because her breast feathers were a paler orange.  She made her way across the field with her companions, slowly but steadily, pecking the ground, occasionally lifting her head to look around, hopping forwards and sideways, chattering now and then.  I thought of the spark of Life she was.  I suddenly realized that she was this robin, not a robin.  There was nothing else like her in the world.

               The Railway Junction

From here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; and one of these
Wheels onward into darkening hills,
And one toward distant seas.

How still it is; the signal light
At set of sun shines palely green;
A thrush sings; other sound there's none,
Nor traveller to be seen --

Where late there was a throng.  And now,
In peace awhile, I sit alone;
Though soon, at the appointed hour,
I shall myself be gone.

But not their way:  the bow-legged groom,
The parson in black, the widow and son,
The sailor with his cage, the gaunt
Gamekeeper with his gun,

That fair one, too, discreetly veiled --
All, who so mutely came, and went,
Will reach those far nocturnal hills,
Or shores, ere night is spent.

I nothing know why thus we met --
Their thoughts, their longings, hopes, their fate:
And what shall I remember, except --
The evening growing late --

That here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; of these
One into darkening hills leads on,
And one toward distant seas?

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (Constable 1933).

Catriona Barnett (1934-1972), Untitled

Rain gazers.  Persimmon eaters.  Snow watchers.  Haiku lovers.

The crocuses have now arrived in earnest.  A bit late due to an unusually cold winter.  They border the sidewalks in the neighborhood:  dark purple; white; deep yellow; pale purple streaked with white.  After I'm dead, tell them I waited each year for the crocuses.  And watched the flocks of robins in the winter.

   Written on Seeing the Garden Pines in the Rain
                    on the Morning of May 21st

Pine needles,
each needle strung with its
drop of bright dew,
forming, then falling,
falling, then forming again.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems, page 104.  Shiki wrote the poem in 1900.

Mary McCrossan (1865-1934), "Umbrellas and Barges, Venice"

Monday, February 25, 2019


There is something to be said for paring life down to a handful of precepts.  After all, the work has already been done for us over thousands of years by those who are far wiser than us.  It is a matter of tracking the precepts down and trying them on for size.  I have discovered that the winnowing process becomes easier the older one gets:  the ever-present matter at hand tends to focus one's attention.

While this winnowing of precepts goes on, I intend to spend as much time as possible walking, and idling, beneath trees.  When not beneath those innumerable beautiful trees, I shall be reading poems. All the while (whether beneath trees or not beneath trees) I hope to be in a state of reverie, blissfully absent from the modern world.  But I know full well that nothing will go according to plan, particularly the denouement of the ever-present matter at hand.

Speaking of the ever-present matter at hand, here is a fine precept with which to begin:  "Undertake each action as one aware he may next moment depart out of life."  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 11 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742).  Or, translated differently:  "Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."  (Jeremy Collier, 1701.)  Collier's version has a nice piquancy, and is both affecting and lovely.

This advice is neither doleful nor terrifying.  Quite the opposite: it reminds us that the possibility of joy is present in each moment.  Why not live?  The commonplace is never commonplace.

   Encountering Snow, I Spend the Night
         with a Host on Lotus Mountain

Deep in green mountains.
The weather is cold,
This thatched hut is poor.

Out at the gate
Of rough brushwood
A dog barks.
Someone comes home
On this night
Of wind and snow.

Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing (c. 710 - c. 785) (translated by Greg Whincup), in Greg Whincup, The Heart of Chinese Poetry (Anchor Books 1987), page 165.

Anonymous, "A Field Gate in Moonlight"

"Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."  If we pay heed to this precept, each moment becomes a miracle.  Consider Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing's poem.  Snow falls.  A thatched hut in green mountains.  A dog barking by a gate.  Out in the night, a stranger returns home.  After reading the poem, someone might say:  "Nothing happens."  Or:  "So what?"

I would say:  "Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing has presented us with a miracle." This leads to another precept:  "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words.  They make themselves manifest.  They are what is mystical."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.522 (italics in the original) (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness, 1961).  An alternative translation: "There is indeed the inexpressible.  This shows itself; it is the mystical."  (Translated by C. K. Ogden, 1922.)

Liu Ch'ang-ch'ing, like all poets, must rely upon words.  In doing so, he has created a thing of beauty.  But a beautiful poem is a finger pointing at the moon (to borrow a phrase from Buddhist thought).  I would not wish to live without all of these beautiful poems.  Yet there is more in each moment, more in the World.


There was that headland, asleep on the sea,
The air full of thunder and the far air
Brittle with lightning; there was that girl
Riding her cycle, hair at half-mast,
And the men smoking, the dinghies at rest
On the calm tide.  There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break.

Why do I remember these few things,
That were rumours of life, not life itself
That was being lived fiercely, where the storm raged?
Was it just that the girl smiled,
Though not at me, and the men smoking
Had the look of those who have come safely home?

R. S. Thomas, Tares (Rupert Hart-Davis 1961).

Frank Jowett (1879-1943), "A Sunlit Harbour"

So.  At each moment, we stand at the edge of the grave, surrounded by miracles that cannot be put into words.  What shall we do?  Live. With gratitude.  A third precept comes to mind:  "Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene." Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section 8 (translated by W. A. Oldfather, 1928).

To a mountain village
     at nightfall on a spring day
          I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
     from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988 - c. 1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

James Leslie Brooke (1903-1973)
"Early Autumn, Castle Hill from the South-West"

Monday, February 4, 2019

A Different World

The snow began to fall yesterday afternoon.  It fell into the night.  It fell through the night.  This morning, the World was transformed.  A north wind swept down the street, through the trees, and across the dark, white-capped waters of Puget Sound.  Late in the day, the sky cleared a bit, and the horizon at sunset was a narrow strip of dull yellow beneath a grey cloud ceiling.

Snow is rare in this land of unremitting mist and drizzle.  When it arrives, this poem usually comes first to mind:

                              River Snow

From a thousand hills, bird flights have vanished;
on ten thousand paths, human traces wiped out:
lone boat, an old man in straw cape and hat,
fishing alone in the cold river snow.

Liu Tsung-yüan (773-819) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 282.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Mount Yuga in Bizen Province"

I am a creature of habit, and thus the following poem by Robert Frost (not "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," which I am indeed quite fond of) invariably appears next:

                       Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it -- it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less --
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars -- on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (Henry Holt 1936).

Of course, Robert Frost being Robert Frost, there is a great deal more afoot here than a bucolic snow scene.  But what brings the poem back to me when snow begins to fall are memories of my childhood in Minnesota -- the early 1960s, when we had real snowfalls (says the aging man):  snow that often began to fall at twilight (or so it seems in selective memory), and fell and fell and fell, unceasing, as we slept. "Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast."  Exactly.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Travellers on Horseback in the Snow"

The feeling of those snowy Minnesota twilights and nights was one of peace and tranquility, not dread.  No loneliness; no "empty spaces;" no "desert places."  This has never changed for me.  I lived in Tokyo from 1993 to 1994.  While I was there, I experienced a snow storm in February of 1994.


And so at last it has come.  Quietly.
Has quietly come and changed everything.
This, as we watch, is what we always say:
"It changes everything.  Now we can live."
And we all want to walk out into it.
Walk out into it, at night, and look up,
Thinking that this world is a simple world
While all around us it never ceases.
We can walk for miles down an empty road
And see it swirl down beneath each streetlight.
We can turn and watch our path disappear.
And it continues to quietly come.
It has come, at last, and changed everything.

sip (written in February, 1994, in Tokyo).

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Snow Falling on a Town"

Sunday, January 27, 2019

In Time

A few weeks ago, when it was particularly wet and cold here (as opposed to our standard wetness and coldness), bird sounds nearly vanished from the woods and the fields.  There were occasional lone calls from off in the distance, or brief twitters from within nearby bushes or clumps of wild grass.  No lively conversations.  No music.

But the past week the World was full of chattering and singing.  This likely had something to do with the unseasonably warm and dry weather, together with the ever-lengthening hours of daylight. Whatever the cause, the sounds were charming and touching.  One felt the force of Life that is always around us, but can sometimes be difficult to find.  The voices seemed to have a resolute tentativeness, a hesitant confidence.  One could sense the beginning of a change.  But not quite yet.

My soul, sit thou a patient looker on;
Judge not the play before the play is done:
Her plot has many changes:  ev'ry day
Speaks a new scene; the last act crowns the play.

Francis Quarles (1592-1644), Emblems, Divine and Moral (1635).

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Window"

Yes, we are well-advised to patiently wait for the denouement.  In the meantime, it is best not to jump to conclusions, or to take anything for granted.  We live in a time when there is far too much preternatural self-assurance abroad in the human world.  There is something to be said for the acceptance, and cultivation, of uncertainty.  We are, after all, abiding in "the vale of Soul-making." Only one thing is certain.

Patience.  "All in good time, all in good time," say the voices in the woods and in the fields.

Poor little, pretty, fluttering thing,
     Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling wing,
     To take thy flight thou know'st not whither?

Thy humorous vein, thy pleasing folly,
     Lies all neglected, all forgot;
And pensive, wav'ring, melancholy,
     Thou dread'st and hop'st thou know'st not what.

Matthew Prior (1664-1721), Poems on Several Occasions (1709).  The poem is untitled.  It is Prior's version of the Emperor Hadrian's death-bed poem ("animula vagula blandula"), which is addressed to his soul.

Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)

Thursday, January 17, 2019


I am conservative by nature.  But please take note, dear readers:  that is not a political statement.  I have no interest whatsoever in the acts or omissions of presidents, prime ministers, premiers, princes, or other potentates.  I feel the same way about utopian political schemes of any stripe, together with their mad inventors, purveyors, and true believers.  We all know the ultimate end of chimerical, delusive, and disingenuous dream-worlds.

No, my conservatism is a matter of temperament.  The modern world has always seemed to me to be an unsatisfactory place.  Hence, I often find myself mourning the passing of, and harboring nostalgia for, human things that vanished either before my time on earth began or during my short (and ever-shortening) stay here.

This, for instance:


Twenty, forty, sixty, eighty,
     A hundred years ago,
All through the night with lantern bright
     The Watch trudged to and fro.
And little boys tucked snug abed
     Would wake from dreams to hear --
"Two o' the morning by the clock,
     And the stars a-shining clear!"
Or, when across the chimney-tops
     Screamed shrill a North-east gale,
A faint and shaken voice would shout,
     "Three!  and a storm of hail!"

Walter de la Mare, Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes (Constable 1913).

When I read this, I cannot help but feel that the human world has taken a grievous and irremediable wrong turn.

Charles Oppenheimer (1875-1961)
"From a Tower, Kirkcudbright"

Some of you (perhaps nearly all of you) may say:  "But what of the innumerable human accomplishments over the past millennia, the advances in knowledge, and the progress humanity has made?"  Yes, I am indeed quite pleased with the state of modern plumbing, thank you.  I am also fond of physicians and other health care professionals, and their craft.  And I am delighted with the promptness and efficiency of pizza delivery services.  I can come up with other examples as well, if pressed.  But my unease persists.

                  On a Vulgar Error

No.  It's an impudent falsehood.  Men did not
Invariably think the newer way
Prosaic, mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church?  Did anybody say
How modern and how ugly?  They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror?  They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

C. S. Lewis, Poems (Geoffrey Bles 1964).

Charles Oppenheimer, "Kirkcudbright under Snow" (1934)

So, there you have it:  I long for watchmen and bell-men, for human cries and bell-ringing far off in the deep of night.  I'm afraid I shall never change.  But that's just me.

                  The Bell-man

From noise of Scare-fires rest ye free,
From Murders Benedicitie.
From all mischances, that may fright
Your pleasing slumbers in the night:
Mercy secure ye all, and keep
The Goblin from ye, while ye sleep.
Past one aclock, and almost two,
My Masters all, Good day to you.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648), in Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume I (Oxford University Press 2013).

Charles Oppenheimer, "The Old Tolbooth, Kirkcudbright" (1931)

Tuesday, January 8, 2019


A few days ago, a big-leaf maple that I have walked past, and beneath, for nearly 24 years fell in a wind storm.  A friend who follows the same paths as I do came across it the morning after the storm.  I received a photograph, and felt hollowed out, breathless.

I didn't have the heart to go see it right away, but yesterday, toward sunset, I paid it a visit.  There it was:  laid out upon the wide green meadow, its roots open to the air, its trunk shattered and splintered, bits and pieces of it scattered about.  Silence.  Stillness.  In all those years I had never known it to be so silent and so still.  Ah, friend, I foolishly took it for granted you would always be standing there.  The thought of this never occurred to me.


To be a giant and keep quiet about it,
To stay in one's own place;
To stand for the constant presence of process
And always to seem the same;
To be steady as a rock and always trembling,
Having the hard appearance of death
With the soft, fluent nature of growth,
One's Being deceptively armored,
One's Becoming deceptively vulnerable;
To be so tough, and take the light so well,
Freely providing forbidden knowledge
Of so many things about heaven and earth
For which we should otherwise have no word --
Poems or people are rarely so lovely,
And even when they have great qualities
They tend to tell you rather than exemplify
What they believe themselves to be about,
While from the moving silence of trees,
Whether in storm or calm, in leaf and naked,
Night or day, we draw conclusions of our own,
Sustaining and unnoticed as our breath,
And perilous also -- though there has never been
A critical tree -- about the nature of things.

Howard Nemerov, Mirrors and Windows (University of Chicago Press 1958).

Am I being "sentimental"?  Was it "just" a tree?  Well, the sadness of loss comes as it comes.

Farewell, companion.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"