Sunday, February 5, 2023

In Passing

"Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;/how long before you've lost it -- a scene like this?"  (Su Tung-p'o (1037-1101), "On a Boat, Awake at Night.")  One of the pleasures of reading classical Chinese lyric (shih) poetry is coming across lovely and evocative lines such as these.  This happens frequently.  Lines of this sort are not intended to be didactic, edifying, or admonitory.  Instead, they arrive quite naturally, as part and parcel of a contemplative poem that may be about, for instance, the beautiful particulars of the World in any season, parting from a friend, or simply passing through an ordinary day.

Interestingly, one sees the same thing occur in classical Japanese poetry and in the poems of The Greek Anthology.  One also notices that the classical Chinese, Japanese, and Greek lyric forms share a common feature: brevity.  The two predominant Chinese lyric forms are the chüeh-chü (four lines) and the lü-shih (eight lines).  The two basic Japanese lyric forms are the waka (five lines and 31 syllables) and the haiku (three lines and 17 syllables). The poems in The Greek Anthology generally range between two, four, six, or eight lines.  In addition, all of these short forms are governed by strict prosodic requirements.  Does this concision and craft encourage pensive reflection?

My thoughts are prompted by revisiting three poems by Shao Yung (1011-1077).  In his day, he was perhaps best known as a Confucian scholar and philosopher.  Yet he was also a fine poet.

               Arriving in Lo-yang Again

Those years, I was a green-youthed wanderer;
today I come again, a white-haired old man.
From those years to today makes one whole lifetime,
and in between, how many things have had their day and gone!

Shao Yung (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 335.

This poem, and the two poems by Shao Yung which appear below, are all in the chüeh-chü quatrain form.  This form requires rhyming of the second and fourth lines, as well as compliance with the complex rules of tonal parallelism that are an essential element of traditional Chinese lyric poetry.  Ibid, pages 8-11, 373.

Richard Wyndham (1896-1948), "Summer Landscape" (c. 1932)

But, putting aside matters of form and prosody, it is the affecting and redolent character of these poetic reflections that is so beguiling. Although classical Chinese poetry is, of course, the product of a unique ancient culture and of three interacting philosophies (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism), lines such as "Life passes swiftly, hedged by sorrow;/how long before you've lost it -- a scene like this?" and "From those years to today makes one whole lifetime,/and in between, how many things have had their day and gone!" do not move us because of their cultural origins or because they may arise out of a certain philosophical system.  Rather, they move us because they are True and Beautiful articulations of what it means to be a human being, and to live in, and to be fated to depart from, a wondrous and mysterious World -- at any time and in any place.

                 Thoughts on T'ien-chin Bridge

The countless great lords and statesmen of past regimes --
later ages know them merely as a list of names.
Only the water under T'ien-chin Bridge
goes on year after year, making the same sound.

Shao Yung (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid, page 336.

Richard Wyndham, "Tickerage Mill" (c. 1939)

This past week Spring began to emerge, in a place where I have become accustomed to see it first arrive: in a group of small bushes beside a pathway that passes through a grove of tall pines.  The bushes are sheltered within the dark, quiet, and windless grove, although sunlight and rain do filter through the deep canopy of pine boughs.  One day this week, in the late afternoon yellow light that angled down through the boughs, I noticed bright green leaf buds shining at the tips of the branches of the bushes.

   Song of the Water Willow in Front of Comfortable Den

In front of Comfortable Den, by a little crooked stream,
New rushes, a delicate willow, turn green year by year.
Before my eyes a procession of good sights pass --
Who says that life is so full of wants?

Shao Yung (translated by Burton Watson), in Kōjirō Yoshikawa, An Introduction to Sung Poetry (translated and edited by Burton Watson) (Harvard University Press 1967), page 83.  Shao Yung, who "lived all his life in semi-seclusion," gave his house the name "An-lo-wo," which may be translated as "Comfortable Den."  Ibid.

Richard Wyndham, "The Medway near Tonbridge" (1936)

Monday, January 16, 2023

How to Live, Part Thirty-Two: River

Human nature being what it is, the world has always been, and will always be, beset with utopian busybodies who have taken leave of their senses.  (As ever, I draw a strict distinction between the lower-case "world" in which we find ourselves by historical circumstance, and the upper-case "World" of Beauty, Truth, and Immanence.  More on this crucial distinction anon.)  I trust, dear readers, that you know of whom I speak: the new Puritans who, imagining themselves to have attained the highest stage of enlightenment, now presume to re-educate the rest of us, whether we like it or not. 

Because I am in the autumn (or is it, perhaps, winter?) of my life, I should be able to view this state of affairs from an Olympian height, having seen it all before -- to wit, yet another case study in human pathology and folly ("extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds").  Still, I confess that there are times when the effrontery, ignorance, bad faith, and mean-spiritedness of it all tries my patience.  When this happens, one can always turn to poetry for perspective.

          Leave Them Alone

There's nothing happening that you hate
That's really worthwhile slamming;
Be patient.  If you only wait
You'll see time gently damning

Newspaper bedlamites who raised
Each day the devil's howl,
Versifiers who had seized 
The poet's begging bowl.

The whole hysterical passing show 
The hour apotheosized
Into a cul-de-sac will go
And be not even despised.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2005), page 158.  The poem was first published in May of 1950.  Ibid, page 277.

But is Kavanagh being too sanguine?  A poem by another Irish poet is worth considering as well.

               The Pier

Only a placid sea, and
A pier where no boat comes,
But people stand at the end
And spit into the water,
Dimpling it, and watch a dog
That chins and churns back to land.

I had come here to see
Humbug embark, deported,
Protected from the crowd.
But he has not come today.
And anyway there is no boat
To take him.  And no one cares.
So Humbug still walks our land
On stilts, is still looked up to.

W. R. Rodgers, Awake! and Other Poems (Secker & Warburg 1941), page 10.

Yes, I'm afraid that Humbug will always be with us.  On the other hand, leaving the purveyors of Humbug alone is sound advice.  This is where the "World" versus "world" distinction comes in.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "The Ettrick Shepherd" (1936)

W. H. Auden devoted a great deal of attention to the Humbug that walks the modern world on stilts.  This attention was always present in his poems, but it took a turn in the 1940s, as he moved away from the political preoccupations of his younger years, with religion taking on more importance in both his life and poetry.  I don't intend to undertake an examination of Auden's complex views on the state in which humanity found itself in the 20th century.  However, I do think that many of the poems he wrote in the latter half of his life (particularly in the 1950s) can help us to place into perspective the antics (or is "depredations" the better word?) of our current clan of self-anointed saviors and inquisitors.

               The History of Truth

In that ago when being was believing,
Truth was the most of many credibles,
More first, more always, than a bat-winged lion,
A fish-tailed dog or eagle-headed fish,
The least like mortals, doubted by their deaths.

Truth was their model as they strove to build
A world of lasting objects to believe in,
Without believing earthernware and legend,
Archway and song, were truthful or untruthful:
The Truth was there already to be true.

This while when, practical like paper-dishes,
Truth is convertible to kilowatts,
Our last to do by is an anti-model,
Some untruth anyone can give the lie to,
A nothing no one need believe is there.

W. H. Auden, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973 (edited by Edward Mendelson) (Princeton University Press 2022), pages 485-486.  The poem was likely written in 1958. Ibid, page 987.  Auden preferred "the uncommon alternative form 'earthernware' [line 8] to 'earthenware'."  Ibid.

An earlier poem by Auden complements "The History of Truth" quite well:

                      The Chimeras

Absence of heart -- as in public buildings,
Absence of mind -- as in public speeches,
Absence of worth -- as in goods intended for the public,

Are telltale signs that a chimera has just dined
On someone else; of him, poor foolish fellow,
Not a scrap is left, not even his name.

Indescribable -- being neither this nor that,
Uncountable -- being any number,
Unreal -- being anything but what they are,

And ugly customers for someone to encounter,
It is our fault entirely if we do;
They cannot touch us; it is we who will touch them.

Curious from wantonness -- to see what they are like,
Cruel from fear -- to put a stop to them,
Incredulous from conceit -- to prove they cannot be,

We prod or kick or measure and are lost:
The stronger we are the sooner all is over;
It is our strength with which they gobble us up.

If someone, being chaste, brave, humble,
Get by them safely, he is still in danger,
With pity remembering what once they were,

Of turning back to help them.  Don't.
What they were once was what they would not be;
Not liking what they are not is what now they are.

No one can help them; walk on, keep on walking,
And do not let your goodness self-deceive you:
It is good that they are but not that they are thus.

W. H. Auden, Ibid, pages 375-376.  The poem was written in 1950 in Forio, on the island of Ischia.  Ibid, p. 934.  [As I have mentioned in the past, one of my two fundamental poetical principles is: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  But I sometimes violate that principle.  Hence, for anyone who may be interested, I recommend James F. G. Weldon's article "The Infernal Present: Auden's Use of Inferno III in 'The Chimeras,'" which appears in Quaderni d'italianistica, Volume V, No. 1 (1984), pages 97-109.  Weldon persuasively argues that "The Chimeras" echoes Canto III of Dante's Inferno in both text and theme.]

James McIntosh Patrick, "Winter in Angus" (1935)

What, then, is one to do?  As Auden suggests, we should "walk on, keep on walking."  The chimeras -- having nothing to do with Truth (or with Beauty) -- are best left to their fate.  As a baby boomer who grew up with the music of the Sixties and Seventies, these lines come to mind:

It was then that I knew I'd had enough,
Burned my credit card for fuel,
Headed out to where the pavement turns to sand.
With the one-way ticket to the land of truth
And my suitcase in my hand,
How I lost my friends I still don't understand.

Neil Young, "Thrasher," from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps (1979).

The hermetic life does have a certain appeal.  In my daydreams I can imagine nothing better than to spend my remaining days in a seacoast town or mountain village in Japan, watching the seasons come and go.  But burning one's credit cards for fuel and leaving the pavement behind is not a practical alternative.  Nor do I have the fortitude to become an eremite.

But, most importantly, isn't what a hermit longingly seeks right in front of us at this moment?

On the day after New Year's Day, I was startled to come upon a woolly bear caterpillar making its way across the pathway down which I walked.  In the grey light of the January afternoon its black and dark burnt-orange colors were striking -- seeming more vivid and more beautiful than usual, given the circumstances.  Because the pathway is frequented by both walkers and bicyclists, I picked the traveller up (it immediately rolled itself into a protective ball) and laid it among some fallen leaves beside the trunk of a nearby tree. (As I have noted here in the past, I am not seeking credit for this: it is something we all do.)  Woolly bears hibernate over the winter, so I wondered why it was out for a stroll at this time of year.  But what do I know?  

          The River

Stir not, whisper not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river,

Whose whispering willows,
Whose murmuring reeds
Make silence more still
Than the thought it breeds,

Until thought drops down
From the motionless mind
Like a quiet brown leaf
Without any wind;

It falls on the river
And floats with its flowing,
Unhurrying still
Past caring, past knowing.

Ask not, answer not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001), page 86.

"This calm-flowing river."  A woolly bear caterpillar unexpectedly appears, bright and beautiful, in the midst of winter.  The chimeras are nowhere to be found.  Therein lies the distinction between the World and the world.

                    The River

And the cobbled water
Of the stream with the trout's indelible
Shadows that winter
Has not erased -- I walk it
Again under a clean
Sky with the fish, speckled like thrushes,
Silently singing among the weed's 
Branches.
                   I bring the heart
Not the mind to the interpretation
Of their music, letting the stream
Comb me, feeling it fresh
In my veins, revisiting the sources
That are as near now
As on the morning I set out from them.

R. S. Thomas,  H'm (Macmillan 1972), page 23.

James Mcintosh Patrick, "An Exmoor Farm" (1938)

One afternoon last week I walked down a different path, through a narrow meadow bordered on both sides by groves of pine trees.  My bird companions in winter are small flocks of chattering robins and sparrows who make their accustomed rounds throughout the day. But the meadow and trees were silent as I walked.  Suddenly, a single dove flew out of a bush to my left, landed on the path in front of me, hopped along the path for a few feet, and then flew off into the meadow.

     In the depths of night --
The sound of the river flowing on,
     And the moonlight
Shining clear above the village
Of Mizuno in Yamashiro.

Tonna (1289-1372) (translated by Robert Brower and Steven Carter), in Robert Brower and Steven Carter, Conversations with Shōtetsu (Shōtetsu Monogatari) (Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan 1992), page 120.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Arbirlot Mill, Near Arbroath"

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Beauty


" . . . like a dove/That slants unswerving to its home and love."

Earlier this week, about an hour before sunset, I was out for a walk, my attention drawn to the sky in the west.  The waters of Puget Sound were a dark slate-grey, with a slight undertone of purple. Beyond the Sound, on the horizon, the Olympic Mountains stood in a row.  The sky to the east was mostly clear.  But directly overhead was the leading edge of a layer of cloud which extended across the water, ending in a long straight line above the mountains.  

The descending sun was hidden.  Yet a glowing path of yellow sky ran from north to south between the silhouette of the mountain range and the far dark edge of the cloud layer.  That band of changing golden light -- soon to vanish -- demanded one's attention: what would come of it between now and sunset?

I kept walking, looking to the west.  The twilit road passed through a meadow, a scattering of trees on either side.  Suddenly, just ahead of me, an owl glided quickly and silently downward from left to right above the road, landing in a nearly leafless tree out in the meadow, beside a grove of pines.

Last week, I read this:

                               Beauty

What does it mean?  Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now.  And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph --
'Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.'  Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied.  But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening while it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me.  Beauty is there.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008), page 58. Thomas wrote the poem on January 21, 1915.  Ibid, page 186.

Ethelbert White (1891-1972), "Edge of the Village" (1924)

Edward Thomas' life story tends to draw attention away from his poetry.  This is not surprising.  Born to be a poet, he married at a young age, left Oxford without taking a degree, and became a prolific writer of prose in order to support his family.  He was beset with melancholy, misery, and dejection.  Then, in the autumn of 1913, came the fated and wondrous meeting with Robert Frost.  This friendship, coupled with the beginning of war in 1914 and his subsequent enlistment, led to a poetic flowering which lasted just over two years (the first of his poems was written on December 3, 1914; the final poem was written on January 13, 1917).  The tragic end -- which cannot help but be in the back of our minds as we read his poems -- came at Arras in France on April 9, 1917.

Yes, the short arc of his life is compelling and moving.  But it is the 140 or so poems he wrote during those two charmed years that deserve our attention.  "I may as well write poetry.  Did anyone ever begin at 36 in the shade?"  So he wrote in a letter to Eleanor Farjeon on August 2, 1914.  (Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years (Oxford University Press 1958), page 81.)  We are fortunate that he began "at 36 in the shade."  For he is in his poetry, and we are the better for it.  "Beauty" is a perfect instance.  The first ten lines are a harrowing and accurate account of who he was.  And yet the final eight lines (which begin with the wonderful turn at "This heart . . .") are an affecting, lovely, and equally accurate account of who he was.  He never dissembles or postures in his poetry.

Kingsley Amis (who was not easy to please) recognized this quality: "How a poet convinces you he will not tell you anything he does not think or feel, since you have only his word for it, is hard to discover, but Edward Thomas is one of those who do it."  (Kingsley Amis, The Amis Anthology (Hutchinson 1988), page 339.)  Amis' comment is reminiscent of something which Thom Gunn wrote of Thomas Hardy: "And we never for a moment doubt that Hardy means what he says. . . . [Y]ou never feel, even in Hardy's most boring and ridiculous poetry, that he is pretending -- he is never rhetorical. And there are not many poets of whom this can be said. . . . Much of what sustains me through the flatter parts of the Collected Poems is this feeling of contact with an honest man who will never lie to me." (Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," in Thom Gunn, The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (North Point Press 1985), pages 104-105.)  I believe that Gunn's comments apply equally well to Edward Thomas.  (It is not surprising to discover that Hardy admired Thomas' poetry, which he became aware of only after Thomas' death.)

As it happens, Amis' comment is in fact an echo of Thomas' own words about what it means to be a poet:

"Here, I think, in [John Clare's] 'Love lives beyond the tomb,' in this unprejudiced singing voice that knows not what it sings, is some reason for us to believe that poets are not merely writing figuratively when they say, 'My love is like a red, red rose,' that they are to be taken more literally than they commonly are, that they do not invent or 'make things up' as grown people do when they condescend to a child's game.  What they say is not chosen to represent what they feel or think, but is itself the very substance of what had before lain dark and unapparent, is itself all that survives of feeling and thought, and cannot be expanded or reduced without dulling or falsification.  If this is not so, and if we do not believe it to be so, then poetry is of no greater importance than wallpaper, or a wayside drink to one who is not thirsty.  But if it is so, then we are on the way to understand why poetry is mighty; for if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."

Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.

Ethelbert White, "The Farm by the Brook" (1929)

"What are days for?/Days are where we live. . . . Where can we live but days?"  (Philip Larkin, "Days.")  "For the days are long --/From the first milk van/To the last shout in the night,/An eternity."  (Derek Mahon, "Dream Days.")  Here is a further thought for consideration: days are where beauty dwells.  "Beauty is there."

Eleanor Farjeon writes that Thomas' "secret self pined for beauty." (Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, page 41.) Yet, as Larkin perceptively observes: "What a strange talent his was: the poetry of almost infinitely-qualified states of mind."  (Philip Larkin, letter to Andrew Motion (May 16, 1979), in Anthony Thwaite (editor), Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985 (Faber and Faber 1992), page 599.)  These two characteristics often appear together in Thomas' poems.  

But perhaps this gets to the heart of the matter for Thomas (and indeed for us as well):

"I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination -- What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth -- whether it existed before or not -- for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love[:] they are all[,] in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty."

John Keats, letter to Benjamin Bailey (November 22, 1817), in Robert Gittings (editor), Letters of John Keats (Oxford University Press 1970), pages 36-37.  

As one might expect, Thomas was aware of the passage from Keats' letter.  He wrote a literary biography of Keats.  In a chapter titled "Keats and His Friends," Thomas mentions Benjamin Bailey, and then notes: "It was in a letter to Bailey that Keats said he was certain of nothing but 'the holiness of the Heart's affections, and the truth of imagination'."  (Edward Thomas, Keats (T. C. & E. C. Jack 1916), page 30.)

                               The Ash Grove

Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made
Little more than the dead ones made of shade.
If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:
But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.

Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval --
Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles -- but nothing at all,
Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,
Could climb down in to molest me over the wall

That I passed through at either end without noticing.
And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring
The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost
With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing

The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,
And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,
But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die
And I had what most I desired, without search or desert or cost.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, page 108.  The poem was written on February 4 through February 9, 1916.  Ibid, page 272.

Ethelbert White, "Landscape with Cows and a Punt"

We all pine for beauty, don't we?  But, as Thomas reminds us in so many of his poems, beauty is not beauty without qualifications, without the contingency of evanescence.  Perhaps evanescence is at the heart of beauty -- is its essence.  "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.)

                    Over the Hills

Often and often it came back again
To mind, the day I passed the horizon ridge
To a new country, the path I had to find
By half-gaps that were stiles once in the hedge,
The pack of scarlet clouds running across
The harvest evening that seemed endless then
And after, and the inn where all were kind,
All were strangers.  I did not know my loss
Till one day twelve months later suddenly
I leaned upon my spade and saw it all,
Though far beyond the sky-line.  It became
Almost a habit through the year for me
To lean and see it and think to do the same
Again for two days and a night.  Recall
Was vain: no more could the restless brook
Ever turn back and climb the waterfall
To the lake that rests and stirs not in its nook,
As in the hollow of the collar-bone
Under the mountain's head of rush and stone.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, page 52.  Thomas wrote the poem on January 9, 1915, the day after he wrote "Adelstrop," and twelve days before he wrote "Beauty."  Ibid, pages 176, 179, and 186.

Would that Edward Thomas had begun writing poetry earlier in his life.  Would that he had not died at so young an age.  How many more days in which he came upon beauty might he have given us in his poetry?  But we should be grateful for what he was able to give us from the days he spent in the countryside of England and Wales.   

Ethelbert White, "Landscape"  

Friday, November 25, 2022

Passers-by

Reading Chinese poetry of past centuries, one often encounters poems of parting, as well as poems of longing for a family member or friend who is far away in a distant corner of the kingdom, perhaps never to be seen again.  This is attributable to the fact that nearly all of the Chinese poets whose poems have survived were governmental bureaucrats -- but bureaucrats of a sort unknown to us.  They attained their positions only after years of rigorous study of literature and philosophy, culminating in a difficult series of civil service examinations, which many aspirants failed.  One of the chief subjects of examination was poetry: this required knowledge of past poetry, and, importantly, the ability to write poems in accordance with the strict and complex rules of Chinese prosody.  Imagine that.

Over the course of their careers, it was the lot of most poet-civil servants to be suddenly and unexpectedly relocated by the government to obscure cities and provinces in the hinterlands. This was generally due to standard bureaucratic practice: periodic relocations prevented the accumulation of influence and power. Alternatively (and not uncommonly), the relocation was due to the imposition of exile as a punishment for running afoul of the ruling clique -- perhaps by writing a poem containing a too thinly veiled criticism of the clique.  Either way, the life of a poet in governmental service was one of departures and separations.

As but one example, here is one of the best-known, and most admired, poems of farewell:

                Seeing a Friend Off

Green hills sloping from the northern wall,
white water rounding the eastern city:
once parted from this place
the lone weed tumbles ten thousand miles.
Drifting clouds -- a traveler's thoughts;
setting sun -- an old friend's heart.
Wave hands and let us take leave now,
hsiao-hsiao our hesitant horses neighing.

Li Po (701-762) (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 212.

George Vicat Cole (1833-1893), "Autumn Morning" (1891)

As is the case with "Seeing a Friend Off," the poems of parting and separation are often affecting and lovely: the sense of loss and sorrow is genuine, and is much more than a matter of poetic convention. Moreover, there is a wider context for the parting and separation, for the loss and sorrow.

     Dreaming that I Went with Li and Yü to Visit Yüan Chen

At night I dreamt I was back in Ch'ang-an;
I saw again the faces of old friends.
And in my dreams, under an April sky,
They led me by the hand to wander in the spring winds.
Together we came to the ward of Peace and Quiet;
We stopped our horses at the gate of Yüan Chen.
Yüan Chen was sitting all alone;
When he saw me coming, a smile came to his face.
He pointed back at the flowers in the western court;
Then opened wine in the northern summer-house.
He seemed to be saying that neither of us had changed;
He seemed to be regretting that joy will not stay;
That our souls had met only for a little while,
To part again with hardly time for greeting.
I woke up and thought him still at my side;
I put out my hand; there was nothing there at all.

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919), page 46.  According to a note by Waley, the poem was "written in exile."  Arthur Waley, Chinese Poems (George Allen & Unwin 1946), page 159.

The phrase "a continual farewell" returned to me when I read Po Chü-i's poem a few days ago.  It appears in the closing lines of W. B. Yeats' poem "Ephemera": "Before us lies eternity; our souls/Are love, and a continual farewell."  "Ephemera" is an autumnal poem ("the yellow leaves/Fell like faint meteors in the gloom") about the pain of the loss of youthful love, written during Yeats' fin de siècle Celtic Twilight period.  It has nothing to do with Chinese poetry.  Yet I think the two lines -- and particularly the beautiful "a continual farewell" -- tell us something about why poems written centuries ago by poet-civil servants in another land continue to speak to us so movingly about our life and fate.

John Haswell (1855-1925), "Whitnash Church"

Yüan Chen (779-831) was Po Chü-i's dearest friend.  After passing their civil service examinations, they spent their younger years together while serving in governmental positions in Ch'ang-an, which was the capital of China at that time.  Over the course of more than three decades, Po Chü-i wrote a number of poems about their separations, which were occasioned by their periodic reassignments and banishments.  This, for instance, is one of the most beloved poems in Chinese literature:

             On Board Ship: Reading Yüan Chen's Poems

I take your poems in my hand and read them beside the candle;
The poems are finished, the candle is low, dawn not yet come.
My eyes smart; I put out the lamp and go on sitting in the dark,
Listening to waves that, driven by the wind, strike the prow of the ship.

Po Chü-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 142.

Yüan Chen died at the young age (even for those times) of 52.  Nine years after Yüan Chen's death, Po Chü-i, at the age of 68, wrote this:

   On Hearing Someone Sing a Poem by Yüan Chen

No new poems his brush will trace;
   Even his fame is dead.
His old poems are deep in dust
   At the bottom of boxes and cupboards.
Once lately, when someone was singing,
   Suddenly I heard a verse --
Before I had time to catch the words
   A pain had stabbed my heart.

Po Chü-i (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, Ibid, page 165.

Po Chü-i does not identify which poem of Yüan Chen's he heard being sung.  But, who knows, perhaps it was this, written by Yüan Chen after the death of his wife:

          Bamboo Mat

I cannot bear to put away
the bamboo sleeping mat --

that first night I brought you home,
I watched you roll it out.

Yüan Chen (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 191.

Henry Morley (1869-1937), "Lifting Potatoes near Stirling"

Among poetry's many wonders, perhaps the most wondrous is the echoing and reaffirmation of Beauty and Truth throughout the ages and in all corners of the World.  Every poet writes his or her poems in times which are parlous, full of clamorous madness, and beset with evil, ill-will, duplicity, and bad faith.  Yet through it all runs the serene thread of Beauty and Truth.  "Together we came to the ward of Peace and Quiet."  (Thank you, Po Chü-i and Arthur Waley.)

In the Ninth Century, during the T'ang Dynasty (the greatest period of Chinese poetry), Po Chü-i wrote this about his dream of Yüan Chen:

He seemed to be saying that neither of us had changed;
He seemed to be regretting that joy will not stay;
That our souls had met only for a little while,
To part again with hardly time for greeting.

In Japan, approximately ten centuries later, Ryōkan wrote this:

We meet only to part,
Coming and going like white clouds,
Leaving traces so faint
Hardly a soul notices.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryōkan (Shambhala 1996), page 91.

Ryōkan was a Zen Buddhist monk who elected to live a life of penury in a mountain hut.  He was well-educated, and had studied Chinese philosophy and literature.  Chinese poetry had long been admired by Japanese waka and haiku poets, and Po Chü-i was a particular favorite of many of those poets.  It is not unlikely that Ryōkan was familiar with Po Chü-i's poetry.  Had he read "Dreaming that I Went with Li and Yü to Visit Yüan Chen"?  We have no way of knowing.  It would be lovely to discover that Ryōkan did indeed have Po Chü-i's four lines in mind when he wrote his own poem.  But it is also wonderful to think that two human beings -- in different lands and at different times -- recognized, and articulated in a beautiful fashion, a fundamental truth about what it means to live in the World.

And, nearly a century later in Ireland, W. B. Yeats wrote this:

Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.

W. B. Yeats, "Ephemera," Poems (T. Fisher Unwin 1895).

The thread is continuous and consistent, and remains unbroken: souls; partings; a continual farewell.

For me, who go,
for you who stay behind --
two autumns.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems (edited by Burton Watson) (Columbia University Press 1997), page 44.

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Meadows by the Avon"

Monday, October 31, 2022

Autumn

I beg your pardon, dear readers, for the lengthy silence.  I fell ill upon returning from an early September journey to Southern California to attend a nephew's wedding.  Of course, the usual suspect came to mind, but several tests over two weeks were negative.  Whatever it was, it was unpleasant.  Emerging from the fog, other commitments required my attention.  

I now return, having survived a paucity of beauty and truth over the past two months by reading haiku -- one in the morning and one in the evening -- from R. H. Blyth's four-volume Haiku, and by eventually returning to my walks.  I became accustomed to brevity followed by silence.  Not a bad thing.

One day earlier this month, I returned to a favorite passage:

"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Archibald Constable & Co. 1903), pages 13-14.

Of course, this sort of thing (a variation on Pascal) is unrealistic and irresponsible, isn't it?  A pernicious daydream, deluded and selfish. And yet . . .

     The stillness;
A bird walking on the fallen leaves:
     The sound of it.

Ryūshi (d. 1681) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 365.

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

Until a week or so ago, autumn here was unusually sunny and rain-free.  The leaves on many of the trees remain green, but they have dried out.  The leaf-shadows and sunlight still sway together on the ground, but with less definition, less depth.  On a breezy day, the sound overhead has changed: little by little, sibilance has turned to a faint rustling.

                 Leaves

The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have led
Have found their own fulfilment.

Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (Oxford University Press 1975).

For me, autumn is not autumn without a visit to Mahon's "Leaves."  I return for the poem as a whole, but -- ah! -- the last two lines of the second stanza: the very heart of autumn.  

     People are few;
A leaf falls here,
     Falls there.

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 364.

Adam Bruce Thomson (1885-1976), "Harvesting in Galloway"

Every autumn, there is a particular view that I treasure.  My usual walking route takes me along the brow of a low hill, about a quarter-mile long.  The hill slopes down toward a meadow to the west.  As I approach the end of the brow to descend, the highest boughs of three maples that lie in the meadow below appear just beyond the edge of the brow.  Their leaves are a brilliant deep-red at this time of year.  As I get closer to the edge, the trees are revealed bit-by-bit, from tip to trunk.  And, finally, there they are: standing in a serene row as I walk downward toward them. 

          A Day in Autumn

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees' shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn's mirror.  Having looked up
From the day's chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper (Rupert Hart-Davis 1958).

"Life that is led in thoughtful stillness."  This is neither indolence nor impassivity.

     The wind brings
Enough of fallen leaves
     To make a fire.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 357.

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

As I have said here in the past: this is the season of bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness.  "You sound like a broken record."  This is a phrase that was common in the days of my youth (the Sixties and the Seventies).  I'm afraid that it applies to me, a nattering Baby Boomer who looks back on a lost world.  Before long, I will be recounting fond memories of neighborhood families raking oak leaves into piles, and setting them ablaze as dusk fell on a Minnesota evening.  And, yes, I do remember quite well the smell of burning leaves.  

                    Under Trees

Yellow tunnels under the trees, long avenues
Long as the whole of time:
A single aimless man
Carries a black garden broom.
He is too far to hear him
Wading through the leaves, down autumn 
Tunnels, under yellow leaves, long avenues.

Geoffrey Grigson, The Collected Poems of Geoffrey Grigson, 1924-1962 (Phoenix House 1963).

Am I being sentimental about autumn?  One sometimes hears derisive comments about "sentimentality."  Oh well.

     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.

Adam Bruce Thomson, "Still Life at a Window" (1944)

Saturday, September 3, 2022

How to Live, Part Thirty-One: Repose

Reading the poetry of Robert Herrick always helps to put our day-to-day world into perspective.  For instance:

                         Nothing New

Nothing is new: we walk where others went.
There's no vice now, but has his precedent.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648), in Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume I (Oxford University Press 2013), page 132.  

The most recent editors of Hesperides suggest two possible sources for Herrick's poem.  First, Ecclesiastes I.9-10: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.  Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us."  Second, Juvenal I.147-149: "Posterity will add nothing more to the ways we have, our descendants will do and desire the same things, all vice stands [always] at its high point."  (Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 627.)

Of course, the fact that there is nothing new under the sun provides cold comfort amidst the daily welter -- the horror and the folly -- of the news of the world.  But perhaps we should at least add a line to Herrick's couplet in order to provide a semblance of balance.  Something like this: "There's no virtue now, but has his precedent."

More importantly, beyond the dichotomy of vice and virtue, good and evil, there is -- at any and every moment -- something else, something further, something of another sort altogether.

                 On the Road on a Spring Day

There is no coming, there is no going.
From what quarter departed?  Toward what quarter bound?
Pity him! in the midst of his journey, journeying --
Flowers and willows in spring profusion, everywhere fragrance.

Ryūsen Reisai (d. 1365) (translated by Marian Ury), in Marian Ury (editor), Poems of the Five Mountains: An Introduction to the Literature of the Zen Monasteries (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan 1992), page 33.

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

This "something else" is where words come to an end.  Yet still we persist.  This is what human beings do.

"The old philosophy distinguished between knowledge achieved by effort (ratio) and knowledge received (intellectus) by the listening soul that can hear the essence of things and comes to understand the marvelous.  But this calls for unusual strength of soul.  The more so since society claims more and more and more of your inner self and infects you with its restlessness.  It trains you in distraction, colonizes consciousness as fast as consciousness advances.  The true poise, that of contemplation or imagination, sits right on the border of sleep and dreaming."

Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift (Viking 1975), page 306.

Bellow's passage is absolutely wonderful.  Still, he is only reaffirming what has been said before, in many times and places and languages.  And, for all his acuity, eloquence, good humor, and wisdom, we ultimately arrive at this (which, I acknowledge, raises questions about the value of what I am doing at this moment):

The more talking and thinking,
The farther from the truth.

Seng-ts'an (d. 606 A. D.) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 68.  

Seng-ts'an was the Third Patriarch of Ch'an Buddhism.  The lines appear in a work by him titled Hsin Hsin Ming.  Hsin Hsin Ming has been translated as (for example) "Faith in Mind," "On Trust in the Heart" (Arthur Waley), "Inscription on Trust in the Mind" (Burton Watson), and "Faith Mind Inscription."  (Blyth identifies the source of the lines as "Shin Jin Mei," which is the Japanese transliteration of Hsin Hsin Ming.  The Japanese transliteration of Seng-ts'an is "Sōsan.")

John Aldridge, "February Afternoon"

At some point, does one simply leave the welter behind, turn away, and keep quiet?

                    A Recluse

Here lies (where all at peace may be)
A lover of mere privacy.
Graces and gifts were his; now none
Will keep him from oblivion;
How well they served his hidden ends
Ask those who knew him best, his friends.

He is dead; but even among the quick
This world was never his candlestick.
He envied none; he was content
With self-inflicted banishment.
'Let your light shine!' was never his way:
What then remains but, Welladay!

And yet his very silence proved 
How much he valued what he loved.
There peered from his hazed, hazel eyes
A self in solitude made wise;
As if within the heart may be
All the soul needs for company:
And, having that in safety there,
Finds its reflection everywhere.

Life's tempests must have waxed and waned:
The deep beneath at peace remained.
Full tides that silent well may be
Mark of no less profound a sea.
Age proved his blessing.  It had given
The all that earth implies of heaven;
And found an old man reconciled
To die, as he had lived, a child.

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1945).

For those of you, dear readers, who may not be acquainted with the poetry and prose of Walter de la Mare, I would suggest that the final two lines of "A Recluse" should not be taken as a criticism of the recluse.  I would argue that, in de la Mare's world, the lines are arguably the highest form of praise (shot through with wistfulness and loss).

John Aldridge, "The Pant Valley, Summer, 1960"

In a deceptive way, it seems so very simple.  It has all been said (and done -- rarely) before.  But Bellow is right: "this calls for unusual strength of soul."  I certainly cannot, and will never, claim to have that strength.  As I have said here in the past, if one is lucky, and in the right place at the right time, one may catch glimpses, see glimmers.  

A dreamy and elusive World it is.  Like late August and early September: afternoon tree shadows lengthening each day across a bright meadow, new umber tints in green leaves, a thin thread of coolness in the wind, a slight but unmistakable change in the angle of the sunlight.

     A butterfly flits
All alone -- and on the field,
     A shadow in the sunlight.

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō (Kodansha 1982), page 50.

John Aldridge, "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

Monday, August 1, 2022

What You Leave Behind

Virtually nothing is known about the Greek poet Praxilla, who, it is conjectured, lived in the middle of the Fifth Century, B. C.  Of her poetry, only scattered fragments survive: a few lines quoted here and there in Greek prose works written by others.  But a single fragment may be enough to ensure poetic immortality.  And we shall help, in our small way, to preserve that immortality today.

One of Praxilla's fragments:

I lose the sunlight, lovely above all else;
Bright stars I loved the next, and the moon's face,
Ripe gourds, and fruit of apple-tree and pear.

Praxilla (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 465.

The fragment is believed to be from Praxilla's "Hymn to Adonis." (Ibid, p. 725.)  The words are spoken by Adonis in the underworld, after his death.  As it happens, the context in which the lines appear led to Praxilla being mocked, but, at the same time (and in a wonderful turnabout), preserved the fragment.  The lines are found in this passage by Zenobius, from his prose work Proverbs:

"Sillier than Praxilla's Adonis: -- This saying is used of fools.  Praxilla of Sicyon, according to Polemon, was a lyric poetess.  This Praxilla, in her Hymns, makes Adonis, when asked by the people in Hades what was the most beautiful thing he had left behind above, reply as follows: 

'The fairest thing I leave is the sunlight, and fairest after that the shining stars and the face of the moon, aye and ripe cucumbers and apples and pears.'

For none but a simpleton would put cucumbers and the like on a par with the sun and the moon."

Zenobius and Praxilla (translated by J. M. Edmonds), in J. M. Edmonds (editor), Lyra Graeca: Being the Remains of All the Greek Lyric Poets from Eumelus to Timotheus, Excepting Pindar, Volume III (Heinemann 1927), pages 73-75.

T. F. Higham disagrees with the assessment that Praxilla's lines are "silly": "the Greeks, according to Zenobius, thought [the lines] very ridiculous.  But regrets which couple gourds and the sun are not inappropriate to the year-god Adonis."  (T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 725.)  I completely concur with Higham's conclusion, although I would not rely solely upon his technical explanation relating to Adonis' status as a "year-god": the lines are lovely, and make perfect sense -- whether they be spoken by Adonis, or by any of us.

Frederick Whitehead (1853-1938), "Hayfield" (1918)

A few years after coming across Praxilla's lines, I was surprised and delighted to discover this:

                             Praxilla

Sunlight strews leaf-shadows on the kitchen floor.
Is it the beech tree or the basil plant or both?
Praxilla was not 'feeble-minded' to have Adonis
Answer that questionnaire in the underworld:
'Sunlight's the most beautiful thing I leave behind,
Then the shimmering stars and the moon's face,
Also ripe cucumbers and apples and pears.'
She is helping me unpack these plastic bags.
I subsist on fragments and improvisations.
Lysippus made a bronze statue of Praxilla
Who 'said nothing worthwhile in her poetry'
And set her groceries alongside the sun and moon.

Michael Longley, Snow Water (Jonathan Cape 2004) (italics in original text).  Longley's reference to Lysippus' bronze statue of Praxilla has its source in this excerpt from Tatian's Against the Greeks (First Century, A. D.): "Praxilla was portrayed in bronze by Lysippus, although she spoke nonsense in her poetry."  (Translated by J. M. Edmonds in Lyra Graeca, Volume III, page 73.)

Longley is exactly right: the Greeks who mocked Praxilla's lines had it all wrong.  But that's how it goes: poetry is not, and has never been, everyone's cup of tea.  This is not a moral failure on their part, nor is it the end of the world: it is simply a fact.  But Edward Thomas articulates what they are missing: "[Poetry] is the utterance of the human spirit when it is in touch with a world to which the affairs of 'this world' are parochial.  Hence the strangeness and thrill and painful delight of poetry at all times, and the deep response to it of youth and of love; and because love is wild, strange, and full of astonishment, is one reason why poetry deals so much in love, and why all poetry is in a sense love poetry."  (Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), pages 86-87.)

Frederick Whitehead, "Cottage in Landscape" (1920)

The sparrows and chickadees are a year-round presence on my walks, and I've realized that I've been taking them for granted.  Imagine the generations of sparrows and chickadees with whom we have shared our time in the World.  They have always been with us: lovely, charming, and antic.  

But this summer (why did it take so long?) I've been noticing how companionable they can be.  Shy, but amiable, they may flit beside you for a bit as you walk along, cocking their heads as they briefly perch on a branch beside the path, having a look at you as you pass: dark eyes inquiring, it would seem.  I am anthropomorphizing, aren't I?  As "foolish" as Praxilla?  (But not as eloquent, needless to say.) 

     Equal Mistress

The tiny daisies are
Not anything
Less dear than the great star
Riding in the west afar
To their Mistress Spring.

Jupiter, the Pleiades
To her equal
With celandine and cress,
Stone-crop, freckled pagles
And birdseye small.

Since in her heart of love
No rank is there,
Nor degree aught, hers is
The most willing service
And free of care.

Violets, stars, birds
Wait on her smile, all
Too soon shall August come
Sheaves, fruit, be carried home,
And the leaves fall.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

Frederick Whitehead, "Middlebere Farm, Poole Harbour" (1929)

The things we leave behind.  Flowers and stars, sparrows and chickadees, gourds and cucumbers, apples and pears, the sun and the moon.  Praxilla was no fool.  

                 Aboard a Boat, Listening to Insects

As though delighting, as though grieving, each with its own song --
an idler, listening, finds his ears washed completely clean.
As the boat draws away from grassy banks, they grow more distant,
till the many varied voices become one single voice.

Ōkubo Shibutsu (1767-1837) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 92.

Frederick Whitehead, "Avebury" (1925)

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Glimmers

"Yet still the unresting castles thresh."  This line by Philip Larkin came to me a few days ago as I walked through a grove of trees, looking up at the highest boughs swaying in the wind against blue sky and white clouds.  The ground at my feet was alive as well: light and shadows -- leaf-shadows and bough-shadows -- restlessly moving. This is what the World tells us (Larkin again, in the same poem): "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."

               For Once, Then, Something

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths -- and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out.  What was that whiteness?
Truth?  A pebble of quartz?  For once, then, something.

Robert Frost, New Hampshire (Henry Holt 1923) (italics in original text).

"Me myself in the summer heaven godlike/Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs."  Narcissus is implied here, I would presume. Frost has it right, doesn't he?  And he doesn't spare himself from the recognition.  There is indeed something out there in the World, but we are often ill-suited to engage in the search for it.  I can personally (and ruefully) attest to that.  All of this internal and external noise and gesticulation and distraction, signifying nothing.

Of course, one must take what Frost says in his poems with a grain of salt.  He was, after all, a master of qualifications, reversals, and qualified reversals.  (As was his dear friend Edward Thomas.)  What does "For Once, Then, Something" really mean?  Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my two fundamental poetic principles: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  (For those who may be interested, the other principle is: It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.)  Hence, I will leave the poem alone.  

But, despite my principles, I do forage around in "literary criticism" now and then.  In doing so, I discovered an article about a poetry reading that Frost gave at Harvard on October 16, 1962.  "For Once, Then, Something" was one of the poems he read that day.  After reciting it, Frost said:  "Well, that's one of the humblest poems I ever wrote."  (Robert W. Hill, Jr., "Robert Frost: A Personal Reminiscence," The Robert Frost Review, Number 8 (Fall 1998), page 13.)  Something to consider.

"Attachment to the self renders life more opaque.  One moment of complete forgetting and all the screens, one behind the other, become transparent so that you can perceive clarity to its very depths, as far as the eye can see; and at the same time everything becomes weightless.  Thus does the soul truly become a bird."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 1.

Alexander Jamieson (1873-1937), "Doldowlod on the Wye" (1935)

Best to keep still, silent, and attentive.  You never know what may arrive, and when.

                     The Most of It

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.
And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff's talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush — and that was all.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (Henry Holt 1942).

The World is reticent and coy.  Yet, now and then, it unexpectedly sends us a message, makes a brief appearance.  For Frost, these are not divine revelations.  I cannot imagine him using the word "immanence."  "For once, then, something."  But what?  ". . . and that was all."  Nothing more?  On the other hand, a common phrase does come to mind: "Make the most of it."

I have my own story related to "The Most of It," which I recounted here in August of 2014.  Many years before I encountered the poem, I spent a summer living beside a lake in northern Idaho.  On a regular basis, a moose would enter the lake from the opposite shore, swim across, emerge from the water near the cabin, and walk off into the woods.  Imagine my delight when I first read "The Most of It."

"All I have been able to do is to walk and go on walking, remember, glimpse, forget, try again, rediscover, become absorbed.  I have not bent down to inspect the ground like an entomologist or a geologist; I've merely passed by, open to impressions.  I have seen those things which also pass -- more quickly or, conversely, more slowly than human life.  Occasionally, as if our movements had crossed -- like the encounter of two glances that can create a flash of illumination and open up another world -- I've thought I had glimpsed what I should have to call the still centre of the moving world.  Too much said? Better to walk on . . ."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), in Philippe Jaccottet, Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press 1997), page 4 (ellipses in original text).

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

At this time of year, as I walk in the afternoon down a path between two wide meadows, swallows climb and dive and curve all around me, then skim just above the tall grass on each side of the path, feeding on insects.  Last week, on another path, I saw a small, dark field mouse hurry into a clump of wild sweet peas, now in purple bloom.  Yesterday evening, a raccoon climbed up into the cherry tree in the back garden, where the fruit is now ripe.  Two of the neighborhood crows loudly complained about this activity.  This morning I saw a robin walking in the garden, holding a cherry in its beak.  

"I have learned from long experience that there is nothing that is not marvellous and that the saying of Aristotle is true -- that in every natural phenomenon there is something wonderful, nay, in truth, many wonders.  We are born and placed among wonders and surrounded by them, so that to whatever object the eye first turns, the same is wonderful and full of wonders, if only we will examine it for a while."

John de Dondis, quoted in John Stewart Collis, The Worm Forgives the Plough (The Akadine Press 1997), page 170.  "John de Dondis" is the anglicized name of Giovanni de' Dondi (c. 1330-1388).

Little things.  Glimmers and glimpses.

Fireflies flying
in gaps between branches --
a grove of stars.

Ikkadō Jōa (1501-1562) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter (editor), Haiku Before Haiku: From the Renga Masters to Bashō (Columbia University Press 2011), page 108.

Fred Stead (1863-1940), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"