Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Rocks And Stones

One of my long-term projects is to work my way through Coleridge's notebooks.  My progress has been fitful, but I intend to persist, since the rewards are great.  I have been keeping a commonplace book in which I enter gems that I come across.  In preparation for my latest visit, I reviewed some of my entries, and found this:

"The rocks and Stones seemed to live put on a vital semblance; and Life itself thereby seemed to forego its restlessness, to anticipate in its own nature an infinite repose, and to become, as it were, compatible with Immoveability."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1802 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 1189 (April-May, 1802).

The striking-through of "seemed to live," with the change to "put on a vital semblance," is interesting.  Coleridge's observation appeals to the pantheist in me, to the part of me that is prepared to encounter Immanence at any moment.  On another note, the observation demonstrates why Coleridge and Wordsworth developed (at least for a time) such a close bond.  (More on Wordsworth in a moment.)

James Whitelaw Hamilton (1860-1932), "Glen Fruin"

But it is the movement from the opening clause to the conclusion that makes Coleridge's entry so wonderful:  "Life itself thereby seemed to forego its restlessness, to anticipate in its own nature an infinite repose, and to become, as it were, compatible with Immoveability." This is a beguiling, moving, and beautiful thought.

The word "Immoveability" brings to mind Wallace Stevens' "This Solitude of Cataracts":  "He wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest//In a permanent realization . . . Without the oscillations of planetary pass-pass,/Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury center of time."  However, the comparison is not wholly apt:  Stevens' conception is colder and more abstract than the warmth and emotion in Coleridge's observation -- in Coleridge, one senses a poignant longing for serenity, for a home.  "Infinite repose."  Of course, Coleridge's thoughts and emotions were a maelstrom and a universe unto themselves, so I am not trying to reduce him to a single strand of his personality.  But I do think this feeling is one that often recurs in his prose and poetry.

In mid-December, I read the following poem, and I immediately thought of it when I came upon Coleridge's entry.

            The Stone on the Hilltop

Autumn wind:  ten thousand trees wither;
spring rain:  a hundred grasses grow.
Is this really some plan of the Creator,
this flowering and fading, each season that comes?
Only the stone there on the hilltop,
its months and years too many to count,
knows nothing of the four-season round,
wearing its constant colors unchanged.
The old man has lived all his life in these hills;
though his legs fail him, he still clambers up,
now and then strokes the rock and sighs three sighs:
how can I make myself stony like you?

Lu Yu (1125-1210) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Lu Yu (Columbia University Press 1973), page 42.

James Whitelaw Hamilton, "Upper Wharfedale"

In his selected edition of Coleridge's notebooks, Seamus Perry provides this comment on Notebook Entry 1189:

"Rocks and stones are invested with life in [William Wordsworth's] poetry: there is a sea-beast-like stone in 'Resolution and Independence' . . .; and the Pedlar, an idealized self-portrait [Wordsworth] had described in blank verse written in the Coleridgean spring of 1798, enjoys the same sort of enlivening vision: 'To every natural form, rock, fruit, and flower,/Even the loose stones that cover the highway,/He gave a moral life' ('The Pedlar,' ll. 332-4: Jonathan Wordsworth, The Music of Humanity (1969), 182)."

Seamus Perry (editor), Coleridge's Notebooks: A Selection (Oxford University Press 2002), page 172.

The lines that Perry quotes first appeared in Wordsworth's manuscript of "The Ruined Cottage" before making their way into "The Pedlar" (and eventually into Book Third of "The Prelude").  This is the passage in which the lines are originally found:

To him was given an ear which deeply felt
The voice of Nature in the obscure wind,
The sounding mountain and the running stream.
To every natural form, rock, fruit and flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
He gave a moral life, he saw them feel
Or linked them to some feeling.  In all shapes
He found a secret and mysterious soul,
A fragrance and a spirit of strange meaning.

William Wordsworth, "The Ruined Cottage," Part 1, lines 273-281, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Five (Oxford University Press 1949), page 388.

I am aware that there are those who have no time for these sorts of passages in Wordsworth.  I am not out to convince anyone to change their opinion.  As for me, passages such as this are what keep me coming back to Wordsworth's long narrative poems.  I confess that I avoided the poems for years.  And I will not deny that they can at times be prolix and tedious.  But then I arrive at lines like these, and the effort is rewarded.

[A side-note: one cannot speak of rocks and stones and Wordsworth without mentioning this:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
     I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
     The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
     She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
     With rocks, and stones, and trees.

William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Two (Oxford University Press 1952), page 216.

I have written about this poem previously.  Hence, I will not repeat myself, other than to say that the poem is indeed a marvelous thing.]

James Whitelaw Hamilton, "Loch Long Hills"

In Chinese poetry, one often hears of recluses living in the mountains amidst the rocks and stones and trees and mists and white clouds. They might be Buddhist monks or Taoist adepts or woodcutters. Chinese poets would go in search of them in order to obtain wisdom, but would usually come back without having found them.  They would then write a poem about their journey.

However, a few of the recluses were themselves poets.  They are more circumspect than Coleridge and Wordsworth when it comes to the place of rocks and stones in the larger scheme of things.  They are not fond of abstractions and explanations.  They point things out.

                   In Reply to Questions

I happened to come to the foot of a pine tree,
lay down and slept soundly on pillows of stone.
There are no calendars here in the mountain;
the cold passes but I don't know what year it is.

The Recluse T'ai-Shang (T'ang Dynasty; dates of birth and death unknown) (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 294.

James Whitelaw Hamilton, "Wharfedale"

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A New Year

I've never been one for participating in New Year's Eve celebrations. But I am not a curmudgeon about it:  if others find the countdown to the arrival of the New Year exciting, I wish them well in their merrymaking.  I, however, will be sound asleep as the year turns.

Mind you, I am not insensible to the Inexorable March of Time or to "the strumble/Of the hungry river of death."  For example, on Sunday evening Marcus Aurelius brought me this:

"Remember also that each man lives only the present moment:  The rest of time is either spent and gone, or is quite unknown.  It is a very little time which each man lives, and in a small corner of the earth; and the longest surviving fame is but short, and this conveyed through a succession of poor mortals, each presently a-dying; men who neither knew themselves, nor the persons long since dead."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book III, Section 10, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

After reading the passage, I sought out Jeremy Collier's translation. Although Collier has been criticized for his lack of fidelity to the emperor's Greek text, his late 17th century-early 18th century English prose is often lovely and colorful.  And such is the case in this instance:

"Remembering withal, that every Man's Life lies all within the Present; For the Past is spent, and done with, and the Future is uncertain:  Now the Present if strictly examin'd, is but a point of Time.  Well then!  Life moves in a very narrow Compass; yes, and Men live in a poor Corner of the World too:  And the most lasting Fame will stretch but to a sorry Extent.  The Passage on't is uneven and craggy, and therefore it can't run far.  The frequent Breaks of Succession drop it in the Conveyance:  For alas! poor transitory Mortals, know little either of themselves, or of those who were long before them."

Marcus Aurelius, Ibid, in Jeremy Collier (1650-1726) (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

James Paterson (1854-1932),"Moniaive" (1885)

Marcus Aurelius' thoughts in turn bring this to mind:

            The Old Year

The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
     Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
     And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
     In every cot and hall --
A guest to every heart's desire,
     And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
     Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
     Are things identified;
But time once torn away
     No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
     Left the Old Year lost to all.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).

I recognize that the combination of the emperor's thoughts and Clare's poem may not be everyone's cup of tea on the cusp of the New Year.  You'll certainly not find me criticizing those who wish to sing "Auld Lang Syne" in good cheer with their fellows at the stroke of midnight.  We are in "the vale of Soul-making," after all, and there is more than one path through it.

James Paterson, "Autumn in Glencairn, Moniaive" (1887)

Here is a final New Year thought from yet another time and place:

     Swift is their passage
as the flow of the Asuka,
     "Tomorrow River" --
the long months I spend saying,
"yesterday," "today," "tomorrow."

Harumichi Tsuraki (d. 920) (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), in Helen Craig McCullough (editor and translator), Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (Stanford University Press 1985), page 82.

The poem (which is a waka) appears in Kokin Wakashū, an anthology that was compiled in approximately 905.  (Ibid, page v.) The headnote to the poem states that it was "composed at year-end." (Ibid, page 82.)  "Tomorrow River" is an alternative translation of Asukagawa ("Asuka River"), and is based "on the pun inherent in its name -- the sound asu meaning 'tomorrow'."  (Steven Carter (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 480.)

There are many paths.  And all of those yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows.  Happy New Year, dear readers!

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


In his poems, Norman MacCaig occasionally takes good-natured digs at modern philosophers and academics, digs that serve as reminders and cautions to the rest of us as well.

    Woodcocks and Philosophers

The woodcock I startled yesterday
clattered off through the birch trees
without starting to philosophise
and write a book about it.

That's his way.
And that's how he survives.
It amazes me that loafing philosophers
Don't all die young.

Unless, of course, when reality
saunters by, they crash off
through book after book, without reading
one blessed word.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2005).

A side-note:  like a great deal else, philosophy isn't what it used to be, is it?  One longs for those passionate, not-suffering-fools-gladly, intemperate, entertaining, exasperating, eccentric characters of yore: Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Leopardi (a poet-philosopher or a philosopher-poet, as you wish), and Wittgenstein come to mind.  Or, to go back even further:  Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Heraclitus.

When it comes to sensibilities such as these, one has the feeling that philosophy is a matter of life and death, that it has something vital to do with how we live and how we die.  Now, we have academic philosophy.  Shot through with politics, social "science," and semantics, as one would expect.  Posturing and word-play.  No wonder MacCaig was skeptical, in his kindly way.

John Noble Barlow (1861-1917), "Autumn at Lamorna, Cornwall"

Here is MacCaig again:

    Compare and Contrast

The great thinker died
after forty years of poking about
with his little torch
in the dark forest of ideas,
in the bright glare of perception,
leaving a legacy of fourteen books
to the world
where a hen disappeared
into six acres of tall oats
and sauntered unerringly
to the nest with five eggs in it.

Norman MacCaig, Ibid.

He is exaggerating for effect, of course.  We are not woodcocks or hens:  we are not as at home in ourselves, or as elegant, as they are. He is not calling for an Edenic "return to nature."  His poems are full of human beings -- their joys and sorrows, their goodness and badness, and everything in between.  "The great thinker" and the "loafing philosophers" are us.  As are his crofters, shepherds, postmen, bus drivers, old men in pubs.  Still, nature is ever-present in his poetry:  mountains, lochs, trees, the sea, flowers, rain and snow, the moon, the stars, and the planets -- and the birds, always the birds.  There is a back-and-forth, a balance.  Human beings and nature are, by turns, the foreground and the background.

John Noble Barlow, "Marazion Marshes, Cornwall"

In an interview, MacCaig said something wonderful:  "I'm bombarded with things that are loveable."  (Ibid, "Quotations from MacCaig," page xlviii.)  This is a capacious and beautiful view of the World, of existence.  "When reality saunters by . . ."   When reality saunters by, as it does each day, we should be receptive and attentive. And grateful.

Onto the rain porch
     from somewhere outside it comes --
a fallen petal.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 443.

John Noble Barlow, "Dewerstone, Shaugh"

Monday, December 9, 2019


Each week I watch a 30-minute episode of a series titled Document 72 Hours on NHK World.  In each episode, a film crew records the human activity in a particular place in Japan over a 72-hour period. The locations have been various and interesting:  a post office, a restaurant, a bargain shoe store, a wig shop, a Shinto shrine, a butcher shop, a traveling library truck, et cetera.  The emphasis is on the people in these places:  the crew politely draws them out, and they tell their stories.  The episodes are always moving.

In this week's episode, the crew followed home care nurses on their visits to patients in Higashikurume, a suburb in western Tokyo.  In one segment, a nurse visited a boy with cerebral palsy.  It was his sixth birthday.  She sang him a song, and gave him and his mother a birthday card she had made for him.  She then bathed him (an event he always looks forward to, according to his mother).

After the visit, while driving her car to the home of her next patient, she said this (as translated into English subtitles):  "Since starting this job, I've often thought about the true meaning of happiness. Everybody is completely different.  Nurses try to help each patient find small moments of joy.  I always try to ask myself what would make my patients happy.  I hope to continue helping them that way."

Ah, these human stories.  These glimmers all around us.

Earlier in the week, I had read this poem:

                              Sitting Up at Night

Spinners' lights from house to house brighten the deep night;
here and there new fields have been plowed after rain.
Always I feel ashamed to be so old and idle.
Sitting close by the stove, I hear the sound of the wind.

Lu Yu (1125-1210) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Old Man Who Does As He Pleases: Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Lu Yu (Columbia University Press 1973), page 67.  Lu Yu wrote the poem at the age of 83.

[For anyone who may be interested, the episode of Document 72 Hours mentioned above is available until December 17 in the On Demand section of the NHK World website.  The title of the episode is:  "Nurse Visits: Home Is Where the Heart Is."]

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935)
"Winter Night in the Mountains" (1914)

Lights that "brighten the deep night."  Please bear with me, dear readers, as I return to lines that have appeared here on several occasions in the past:  "we should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."  (Philip Larkin, "The Mower.")  It really is as simple as that.

There is a great deal to complain of in our age, isn't there?  Yet, each successive "modern" age seems clamorous, base, and hollow to a large number of its inhabitants.  For instance, the politicized world that surrounds us is paltry and mean.  How could it be otherwise?  It has always been thus, and it will always be thus.  It is one manifestation of human nature, and it will never change.

But none of this is cause for despair.  And so, as I return to Philip Larkin, I must also return to John Keats:  we are in "the vale of Soul-making."  Which leads to this:  "There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,/A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry."  (W. B. Yeats, "Paudeen.")


Last thing at night
he steps outside to breathe
the smell of winter.

The stars, so shy in summer,
glare down
from a huge emptiness.

In a huge silence he listens
for small sounds.  His eyes
are filled with friendliness.

What's history to him?
He's an emblem of it
in its pure state.

And proves it.  He goes inside.
The door closes and the light
dies in the window.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2005).

"Crofter" is paired in my mind with this:

             The Shepherd's Hut

Now when I could not find the road
Unless beside it also flowed
This cobbled beck that through the night,
Breaking on stones, makes its own light,

Where blackness in the starlit sky
Is all I know a mountain by,
A shepherd little thinks how far
His lamp is shining like a star.

Andrew Young, Speak to the Earth (Jonathan Cape 1939).

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1901)

This afternoon, while out on my walk, a thought occurred to me: "The greyest of grey days."  As I walked on, similar thoughts arose.  "A day of a thousand greys."  "The greyest day imaginable."  Such was my mood.

I continued to walk.  Lifting my eyes, I noticed a thin strip of pale yellow light far off, just above the northwestern horizon, below the unbroken ceiling of grey, darkening cloud.  Somewhere out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near the border of Canada, the World was aglow.

I was walking in that direction.  Moments later, a few of the robins who stay here for the winter began to chatter from within a grove of pine trees.  A dove flew across the path in front of me, and disappeared into the dim woods.  (I wonder: was it the same dove I saw a few weeks ago, and mentioned in my previous post?)

Yes, a grey day, but . . .

     The long night;
A light passes along
     Outside the shōji.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 356.

Shiki wrote several haiku that feature solitary gleams of light. Another:

     Farther and farther away it goes, --
The lantern:
     The voice of the hototogisu.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 168.  The hototogisu is the Japanese cuckoo.

The lantern vanishes.  The call of the cuckoo arrives.  As I have noted here before, the World tends to provide us with compensations, doesn't it?

And, finally, there is this:

     The light in the next room also
Goes out;
     The night is chill.

Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 328.

Harald Sohlberg, "Winter Night in the Mountains" (1924)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Our Place

A few days ago, I walked down an alley of trees that, in spring and summer, is my favorite tunnel of leaves.  I had been away for nearly a week.  I noticed that, in my absence, nearly all the leaves had fallen, save for a few lonely, rattling survivors here and there, hanging on, fluttering back and forth in the wind.

The day was grey and cold.  I was nearly embracing a feeling of bleakness when, suddenly, a grey dove flew up out of the brown wild grass meadow to the left of me, crossed over the path in front of me, and disappeared into the depths of a pine tree off in the meadow to the right.

These surprises -- reminders, messages, gifts -- often seem to arrive when we most need them, don't they?


I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

John Drinkwater, Tides (Sidgwick & Jackson 1917).

Joshua Anderson Hague (1850-1916), "Landscape in North Wales"

Please bear with me, dear readers:  "Reciprocity" is one of my favorite poems, and it has appeared here on several occasions.  After the encounter with the lone dove, I thought of it.  I also thought of it a few months ago, when I read this:


     Weighing the stedfastness and state
Of some mean things which here below reside,
Where birds like watchful Clocks the noiseless date
     And Intercourse of times divide,
Where Bees at night get home and hive, and flowers
               Early, as well as late,
Rise with the Sun, and set in the same bowers;

     I would (said I) my God would give
The staidness of these things to man!  for these
To his divine appointments ever cleave,
     And no new business breaks their peace;
The birds nor sow, nor reap, yet sup and dine,
               The flowers without clothes live,
Yet Solomon was never drest so fine.

     Man hath still either toys, or Care,
He hath no root, nor to one place is ty'd,
But ever restless and Irregular
     About this Earth doth run and ride,
He knows he hath a home, but scarce knows where,
               He says it is so far
That he hath quite forgot how to go there.

     He knocks at all doors, strays and roams,
Nay hath not so much wit as some stones have
Which in the darkest nights point to their homes,
     By some hid sense their Maker gave;
Man is the shuttle, to whose winding quest
               And passage through these looms
God order'd motion, but ordain'd no rest.

Henry Vaughan, Silex Scintillans (1650), in Donald Dickson, Alan Rudrum, and Robert Wilcher (editors), The Works of Henry Vaughan, Volume I: Introduction and Texts 1646-1652 (Oxford University Press 2018).  "Toys" (line 15) likely means "whims." Donald Dickson, Alan Rudrum, and Robert Wilcher (editors), The Works of Henry Vaughan, Volume III: Commentaries and Bibliography (Oxford University Press 2018), p. 975 (citing The Oxford English Dictionary).

"Man" and "Reciprocity" both put me in mind of a phrase by William Wordsworth that appears near the end (lines 928 and 929) of Book I ("The Wanderer") of The Excursion:  "the calm oblivious tendencies of nature."

Joshua Anderson Hague, "Late Autumn"

Each autumn, I grieve for the loss of the leaves.   The ever-turning kaleidoscope of innumerable greens overhead.  The flickering, swaying patterns of light and shadow on the ground.  And the sound  -- at all times, and in all weathers, the sound.

But this afternoon, walking beneath the spacious empty branches of a long row of trees, I wondered about my grieving.  The day was windless and the trees were absolutely silent.  The silence was breathtaking.  As was the look of the declining yellow light on the trunks of the trees, on the thousands and thousands of twigs and branches.  The World was aglow.  Silent and aglow.

As I walked home, Philip Larkin's line from a poem about spring came to mind:  "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."  Well, that's the way of the World, isn't it?

                       The Spider

There is craft in this smallest insect,
with strands of web spinning out his thoughts;
in his tiny body finding rest,
and with the wind lightly turning.
Before the eaves he stakes out his broad earth;
for a moment on the hedge top lives through his life.
The ten thousand things should all be thus,
the way the Creator meant us to be.

Sugawara no Michizane (845-903) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume I: Poetry and Prose in Chinese by Japanese Writers of the Early Period (Columbia University Press 1975), page 107.

Joshua Anderson Hague, "Haymaking"

Friday, November 8, 2019


I usually pay a visit to Chinese poetry in autumn.  Not necessarily in search of autumn-themed poems (although there is no shortage of those), but rather for the equanimity and serenity one so often finds in Chinese poetry.  Yet, it is autumn, after all, and I look forward to an encounter with wistful bittersweetness and bittersweet wistfulness as well.  The season is what it is.

                    Planting Bamboos

I am not suited for service in a country town;
At my closed door autumn grasses grow.
What could I do to ease a rustic heart?
I planted bamboos, more than a hundred shoots.
When I see their beauty, as they grow by the stream-side,
I feel again as though I lived in the hills,
And many a time when I have not much work
Round their railing I walk till night comes.
Do not say that their roots are still weak,
Do not say that their shade is still small;
Already I feel that both in courtyard and house
Day by day a fresher air moves.
But most I love, lying near the window-side,
To hear in their branches the sound of the autumn wind.

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (George Allen and Unwin 1946), page 124.

As I have noted before, my two favorite translators of Chinese poetry are Waley and Burton Watson.  Here is Watson's translation of the poem:

               Newly Planted Bamboo

Aide to a magistrate, not my sort of job;
I close my gate, let autumn grasses grow.
What delights a man with country tastes like mine?
Planting bamboo, over a hundred stalks!
Gazing at their colors by the terrace stairs,
I think I'm far off in the mountains.
Sometimes, free of public duties,
I wander all day by the railings.
Don't say the roots aren't firm yet,
don't say they make no shade --
already I can feel in house and garden
little by little their pervading coolness.
And most of all I love, lying close by the window,
the sound of autumn wind in the branches.

Po Chü-i (translated by Burton Watson), in Po Chü-i, Selected Poems (Columbia University Press 2000), page 5.

Waley was an Englishman who produced most of his translations of Chinese poetry in the first half of the 20th century (with the lion's share of them completed during, and just after, the First World War). Watson was an American who produced his translations in the second half of the 20th century and on into this century.  I do not find critical assessments using the word "best" to be very useful. Hence, although I am tempted to do so, I will refrain from saying that Waley and Watson are the "best" translators of traditional Chinese poetry.  However, I will say that, in my humble opinion, they have the finest poetic sensibilities of any translators I have come across. These sensibilities (one recognizably English and one recognizably American) are coupled with a fidelity to, and a respect for, the text, form, meaning, and feeling of the original poems.  Their work is a gift to us all.

James Humbert Craig (1877-1944), "Dunlewey, County Donegal"

I have said this before:  it seems to me that simple peace and quiet is what many of us are in search of.  How do we find it?  Plant bamboo. Listen to the sound of the autumn wind in the branches.  This has never been an arcane secret.  Over the centuries, in all places, poets and philosophers, and even a Roman emperor, have placed stepping stones for us.  Following them is another matter entirely, of course.

"They seek retirements in the country, on the sea-coasts, or mountains:  you too used to be fond of such things.  But this is all from ignorance.  A man may any hour he pleases retire into himself; and no where will he find a place of more quiet and leisure than in his own soul."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IV, Section 3 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

This observation goes hand-in-hand, I think, with one of the emperor's injunctions:

"Manage all your actions and thoughts in such a manner as if you were just going to step into the grave."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 11 (translated by Jeremy Collier), in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

James Humbert Craig, "Windy Day, Donegal"

The present age (whenever one is alive) is always full of noise, distraction, and false gods.  Our "modern" world is no different, although moderns harbor the self-flattering notion that they are unique beings living in a unique time, the vanguard of "progress" and "enlightenment."  No.  The  particulars of the noise and the distraction may have altered over the millennia (due solely to technology, not to a change in human nature), but the false gods remain the same.  Better to let it all go.

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.

T'ao Ch'ien (365-427) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 76.  The poem is untitled.

This is Burton Watson's translation of the same poem:

I built my hut in a place where people live,
and yet there's no clatter of carriage or horse.
You ask me how that could be?
With a mind remote, the region too grows distant.
I pick chrysanthemums by the eastern hedge,
see the southern mountain, calm and still.
The mountain air is beautiful at close of day,
birds on the wing coming home together.
In all this there's some principle of truth,
but try to define it and you forget the words.

T'ao Ch'ien (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 135.

James Humbert Craig, "Drumfresky, Cushendun"

Monday, October 21, 2019


Autumn encourages reflection, don't you think?  More so than any other season, perhaps.  All of this passing and vanishing, all of this melancholy beauty and beautiful melancholy.  Even haiku poets, who tend not to be self-referential, are liable to look inward.

     The autumn of my life;
The moon is a flawless moon,
     Nevertheless --

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 396.  Although the phrase "the autumn of my life" could be written at any time of the year, the reference to "a flawless moon" places the poem in autumn.

The final word of the poem is nagara, which Blyth translates as "nevertheless."  Following his translation of the haiku, Blyth notes: "Issa was fond of using nagara."  Ibid, page 396.  However, he does not mention Issa's use of the word in what is likely Issa's best-known poem, although he does translate the poem later in the same volume:

     This dewdrop world --
It may be a dewdrop,
     And yet -- and yet --

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 433.

Nagara appears twice at the end of the haiku, this time translated by Blyth as "and yet," rather than as "nevertheless."  Blyth writes:  "This verse has the prescript, 'Losing a beloved child.'  This child was Sato-jo, and Issa's feelings at this time are portrayed in Oragaharu [a prose diary containing haiku].  He had already lost two or three children when this baby girl died."  Ibid, page 433.  Issa's moving description of his daughter's sudden illness and death appears in an earlier post.

Here is an alternative translation of the haiku:

     The world of dew
is the world of dew.
     And yet, and yet --

Issa (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 228.

Autumn is indeed the season of "and yet -- and yet --" and of "nevertheless."  A song by Mark Linkous (performing as Sparklehorse) comes to mind:  "Sad and Beautiful World."

Edward Waite (1854-1924)
"The Mellow Year Is Hastening To Its Close" (1896)

Depending upon one's mood at the moment, or one's overall view of life, "nevertheless" may be an exclamation of joy, a cry of despair, or a sigh of acceptance (or some combination of each of these, in varying degrees).  Consider, for instance, this haiku by Bashō:

     This autumn,
How old I am getting:
     Ah, the clouds, the birds!

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 334.

Bashō wrote the poem on November 13, 1694, during his final illness. He died two weeks later, at the age of 50.  The poem is preceded by this title:  "A wanderer's thought."  (Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 407.)

Nagara does not appear in the haiku.  However, "Ah, the clouds, the birds!" functions as a "nevertheless," as an "and yet -- and yet --," to Bashō's opening observation.  But what sort of "nevertheless" is this? One of joy, despair, or acceptance?  Well, that's best left for each of us to decide.

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

What a wonderful and breathtaking circumstance:  each year, the seasons play out for us the arc of our life.  This beautiful and mysterious gift should give us pause.  One might fancy that we are part of something that is beyond our ken, and beyond words.  In the meantime, autumn and winter and spring and summer come and go, each with its own "and yet -- and yet --," its own "nevertheless."  How lucky we are.


Leaves talked in the tree
"It will be,"
Wind with lifted tune
A squirrel shook the bough,
"Quick," "Now."

Branch is not changed:
Stands the high stairway where the squirrel ranged,
Just as it stood.
Wind, on fallen key,
"It had to be;"
Leaves drift through the wood.

Geoffrey Scott (1884-1929), Poems (Oxford University Press 1931).

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"

Monday, October 7, 2019


It's funny how a poem will return out of the blue, for no apparent reason.  Not the whole poem (my memory is too feeble for that), but an image from it, or the feeling it evokes.  Early last week, this floated up unaccountably:

                     The Fountains

Suddenly all the fountains in the park
Opened smoothly their umbrellas of water,
Yet there was none but me to miss or mark
Their peacock show, and so I moved away
Uneasily, like one who at a play
Finds himself all alone, and will not stay.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg 1941).

The poem struck me when I first came across it years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since.  I have no desire to pick it apart in order to come to a conclusion as to what it "means."  It is simply (but not so simply) a lovely thing, best left alone.

When out walking -- in any place, under any sky, at any time of day or night, in any season -- have you ever had the feeling that the World is too beautiful to bear?

John Quinton Pringle (1864-1925), "Springtime, Ardersier" (1923)

A few days after I visited "The Fountains," this appeared:

     Just being here,
I am here,
     And the snow falls.

Issa (1763-1827) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 359.

On a recent grey afternoon, a strong wind blew steadily when I took my afternoon walk beneath the trees.  The boughs (still leafy, still mostly green, but not for long) tossed and roared overhead.  It seemed as though some sort of denouement was close at hand.  But I immediately realized I was mistaken.  As I often do, I reminded myself to stop thinking.  The World.  There it is.

John Quinton Pringle, "The Window" (1924)

Friday, September 27, 2019


At a certain point in one's life, the deaths begin to accumulate, don't they?  Family members and relatives, close and distant.  Friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, classmates, neighbors.  In the public sphere, nearly every week brings news of the deaths of musicians, assorted entertainers, sports heroes, and other figures who one "grew up with."  (Ah, the vanishing rock stars, carrying away our youth!)

One grieves to a greater or a lesser extent, but, on a purely self-interested level, one also begins to get the message.  Something along these lines:

     An autumn evening;
Without a cry,
     A crow passes.

Kishū (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 345.

Or, in the context of a different season, this:

     Spring has departed;
Where has it gone,
     The moored boat?

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 286.

Buson's haiku leads naturally to this waka, which was written nine centuries before Buson's time (the continuity of Japanese poetry is a wonderful thing):

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 (early 8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 51.

Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935), "Corn Stooks" (c. 1880)

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius now and then posts lists of the illustrious and not-so-illustrious dead in order to remind himself that all is vanity and that all living things, including the emperor of Rome, are evanescent bubbles.  For instance:

"Hippocrates, after conquering many diseases, yielded to a disease at last.  The Chaldeans foretold the fatal hours of multitudes, and fate afterwards carried themselves away.  Alexander, Pompey, and Caius Caesar, who so often razed whole cities, and cut off in battle so many myriads of horse and foot, at last departed from this life themselves. Heraclitus, who wrote so much about the conflagration of the universe, died swollen with water, and bedaubed with ox-dung. Vermin destroyed Democritus, and another sort of vermin destroyed Socrates."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book III, Section 3, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

I understand what the emperor is getting at:  "Then stop, and ask, where are they all now?  Smoke, and ashes, and an old tale; or, perhaps, not even a tale."  (Meditations, Book XII, Section 27.)  Yes, understood.  But, as Marcus knew, this recognition is only the starting point for leading a good life and arriving at a good death. And now, Philip Larkin chimes in:  "Death is no different whined at than withstood."  ("Aubade.")  Yes, understood as well.  One will never be prepared.  With an apology for being self-referential:  "How little we know!  It leaves you breathless."

In the meantime, I prefer lovely intimations.  A crow passing silently overhead in the evening sky of autumn.  A still pond and a departed boat.  A seaside town in late September.

       September in Great Yarmouth

The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.

Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold --
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.

Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.

The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
"Come in, fifteen, your time is up."

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Joseph Farquharson, "Harvesting, Forest of Birse" (c. 1900)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Autumn Evening

For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the calendar tells us that autumn will arrive next Monday.  However, as we all know, the timing of the turning of the seasons is a matter of the heart and of the spirit, not of the calendar.  Equinoxes and solstices are of no moment.  Light and color -- and darkness, contrasting or complementary -- are everything.

         The Trees at Night

Under vague silver moonlight
The trees are lovely and ghostly,
In the pale blue of the night
There are few stars to see.

The leaves are green still, but brown-blent:
They stir not, only known
By a poignant delicate scent
To the lonely moon blown.

The lonely lovely trees sigh
For summer spent and gone:
A few homing leaves drift by,
Poor souls bewildered and wan.

William Kerr, in Edward Marsh (editor), Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 (The Poetry Bookshop 1922).

I am fond of "The Trees at Night," and I try to visit it each autumn.  It is a waif of a poem, hidden away in the middle of the final installment of Georgian Poetry, a series of anthologies that was popular in its day, but is now a footnote to "literary history."  As for William Kerr, he published (to my knowledge) only a single volume of poetry (in 1927), and his appearance in Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 represents the peak of his visibility as a poet.  "Literary critics" have had no occasion to debate whether Kerr was a "major" or a "minor" poet:  he briefly appeared and then disappeared.

But I have no interest in "literary history."  Nor is the spurious taxonomy of "major" and "minor" poets of concern to me.  At the risk of trying the patience of long-time readers, I am afraid I must repeat my First Poetic Principle:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  As I say, I am fond of "The Trees at Night."  I understand the objections that might be forthcoming from moderns:  the poem is "sentimental" and "romantic," and its anthropomorphism ("The lonely lovely trees sigh"; "A few homing leaves drift by,/Poor souls bewildered and wan") places it beyond the pale.  We have progressed beyond such things, the undeceived and knowing moderns say, all irony and self-regard.  They are wrong, of course.

William Knight (1872-1958), "Autumn Afternoon"

Ah, yes, the loneliness of autumn.  Kerr knows it well:  "By a poignant delicate scent/To the lonely moon blown."  And:  "The lonely lovely trees sigh/For summer spent and gone."  He is in good company:  the Japanese haiku poets know a thing or two about autumn loneliness. For instance:

     Still lonelier
Than last year;
     Autumn evening.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 283.

Among the traditional four masters of haiku (the other three being Bashō, Issa, and Shiki), Buson is perhaps the least prone to the melancholy of loneliness.  Having said this, I must immediately qualify my statement:  melancholy, whether it be the melancholy of loneliness, the melancholy of each of the seasons (and of autumn in particular), or the melancholy of mortality, is never in short supply in any of these four wonderful poets.  We are speaking of a matter of degree.  Moreover, given that the essence of any haiku is its embodiment and presentation of a single moment in all of its evanescence -- an ephemeral moment in an ephemeral life in an ephemeral World -- one might naturally expect a high quotient of melancholy in each of the four masters.  And yet . . .

     An autumn eve;
There is joy too,
     In loneliness.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 229.

We must never lose sight of the fact that the melancholy of haiku is, above all, a joyful melancholy, a beautiful melancholy, a grateful melancholy.  How could it not be?  It is life.

     Not quite dark yet
and the stars shining
     above the withered fields.

Buson (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 104.

William Knight, "Autumn Evening"