Friday, December 31, 2021

What Matters

In my post of November 30, I mentioned the green fields we are fortunate to have throughout winter in this part of the World. Whether the day is dull grey or bright blue, I never tire of that green. I suppose I am easy to please.  But always grateful, or so I hope.

Earlier this week, the fields came to mind when I happened upon this:

                       Fragrant Grass

Fragrant grass, who knows who planted you,
Already spread in several clumps there by the terrace?
You have no mind to compete with the world --
What need is there for this deep rich green?

Wang An-shih (1021-1086) (translated by Burton Watson), in Kōjirō Yoshikawa, An Introduction to Sung Poetry (translated by Burton Watson) (Harvard University Press 1967), page 97.

John Nash (1893-1977), "Dorset Landscape" (c. 1930)

Today, as the sun descended toward the long dark silhouette of the distant mountain peaks, I watched a million bare twigs and branches turn to gold in the late afternoon light.  At the end of my walk, a thin line of crimson clouds lay along the far horizon.

"Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world."  (Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Macmillan 1893), page 249.)  Well, yes, true.  Nonetheless, the World is there.  It is not a chimera.  As Wang An-shih beautifully reminds us.

The green is always with us.  And I grow fonder and fonder of the ever green World with each passing year.  Where would we be without the green?

Happy New Year, dear readers, I wish you all the best.

John Nash, "A Path through Trees" (c. 1915)

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Revenants

It's wonderful how a poem you have long been familiar with -- a poem you think you "know" -- suddenly and unexpectedly moves you.  I have recently been browsing in The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, visiting old standbys and hoping to make new discoveries.  Among the former, I happened upon this:

                    Rondeau

Jenny kissed me when we met,
     Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
     Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
     Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
     Jenny kissed me.

Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), in Christopher Ricks (editor), The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (Oxford University Press 1987).

A nice but slight thing, one might think.  Written by someone who is not usually thought of as a poet.  It is a standard presence in anthologies of all sorts, and, once read, is likely to be passed over as the years go by.  But I had been away from it for a long time.  So I decided to stop and read it.

And, unaccountably, it struck a chord with me.  Was it the cast of light in the sky that day?  The season?  Senescence?  The state of the world?  Who knows.  But I do know that catch of breath, that heart-pause: Well, then, here is life.

George Charlton (1899-1979)
"The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire: Spring" (1942)

As you have heard me say here before, dear readers: "In poetry, one thing leads to another."  After reading "Rondeau," this presently came to mind:

                           Memory

Is Memory most of miseries miserable,
Or the one flower of ease in bitterest hell?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), in William Rossetti (editor), The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Volume I (Ellis and Scrutton 1886).

Rossetti's meditation on memory is significantly less sanguine than Hunt's lovely preservation of a passing, ostensibly prosaic moment.  (Although Hunt has no illusions about the quiddities of life.)  I suspect that Rossetti's complicated and fraught romantic life might be the source of his gloominess.  Yet, still, even "one flower of ease in bitterest hell" is something.  And, in a life, it might be enough.

George Charlton
"The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire: Summer"

If we are fortunate, in time each of us ends up with a handful of these never-fading flowers.  I am not speaking of memories in general, which rise and fall within us incessantly.  Rather, I am thinking of the select few charmed revenants of our life, the moments of timelessness and of absolute clarity which haunt us, whether we want them to or not.  The winnowing process that leads to the handful is a mystery.  We play no conscious role in that process.  Oh, yes, what remains with us comes from within us.  But these moments -- which are indeed our life -- have a life of their own.

                        Revaluation

Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

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

George Charlton
"The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire: Autumn"

Are these revenants as close as we come in this World to beauty and truth?

                      While You Slept

You never knew what I saw while you slept.
We drove up a wide green stone-filled valley.
Around us were empty heather mountains.
A white river curved quickly beside us.
I thought to wake you when I saw the cairn --
A granite pillar of that country's past --
But I let you sleep without that history.
You did, however, travel through that place:
I can tell you that your eyes were at rest
As the momentous world moved beyond you,
And that you breathed in peace that quarter hour.
We seldom know what is irreplaceable.
You sang old songs for me, then fell asleep.
I worried about what you were missing.
But you missed nothing.  And I was the one who slept.

sip (Glen Coe, Scotland, c. 1986.  For JAH.)

George Charlton
"The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire: Winter"

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

November

In this wet but temperate corner of the world, the short meadow grass, which turned pale-yellow and dry in the summer sun, is now green again.  The autumn and winter rains have arrived.  Over the weekend, I walked past a row of tall big-leaf maples -- a dozen or so, all of them emptied of leaves.  I was struck by the sight of the stout, grey and brown parti-colored trunks rising out of the deep-green grass.  

November was coming to an end, but the scene was one of illimitable life.  The long column of wide trunks stretched ahead beside the pathway, anchored in a sweep of bright grass, a canopy of countless empty branches overhead.  It was a matter of color and of light: the grey and brown of the trunks set against the green of the grass.  It felt like Spring.

               At Common Dawn

At common dawn there is a voice of bird
So sweet, 'tis kin to pain;
For love of earthly life it needs be heard,
And lets not sleep again.

This bird I did one time at midnight hear
In wet November wood
Say to himself his lyric faint and clear
As one at daybreak should.

He ceased; the covert breathed no other sound,
Nor moody answer made;
But all the world at beauty's worship found,
Was waking in the glade.

Vivian Locke Ellis, in Walter de la Mare (editor), Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages, Volume Two (Constable 1923), page 81.

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

Friday, November 12, 2021

Reticence

I'm spending this week in the high desert to the east of the Cascades, in the town of Bend, Oregon.  A wide and open World of plains, buttes, and peaks, of Ponderosa pines, sagebrush, tufts of wild grass, and junipers.  A mostly quiet World.  Of course, the other world is continually going about its business, and it lurks here in this computer, and over there across the room in an iPhone.  

In the mornings and evenings, I travel to Japan to visit Kenkō and Ryōkan.  A quiet World as well.

"When people meet they are never silent a moment.  There is always talk about something.  If you listen to their conversations, most of what they say is meaningless chatter.  Their gossip about society and their criticisms of other people cause much harm and little profit, either for themselves or others.  When people are gabbling over these things, they never seem to realize that it does neither party any good."

Kenkō (1283-1350) (translated by Donald Keene), Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 164, in Donald Keene (editor and translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), page 143.

During the last three decades of his life Ryōkan lived in a small hut in the hills near the Sea of Japan.  He was a kind and sociable man, but he was alone most of the time.

Twilight — the only conversation
     on this hill
Is the wind blowing through the pines.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens (editor and translator), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (Weatherhill 1977), page 76.

David Murray (1849-1933), "Landscape" (1885)

One tries to keep the noisy world at arm's length and at bay, but the sheer volume of words is unstoppable and insidious, and always will be.  Being weak-willed, I am often undone by the briefest of forays into the electronic world: words, words, and ever more words (including the words I am writing at this moment).  One comes to value reticence.

"I wonder what feelings inspire a man to complain of 'having nothing to do.'  I am happiest when I have nothing to distract me and I am completely alone. . . . Even if a man has not yet discovered the path of enlightenment, as long as he removes himself from his worldly ties, leads a quiet life, and maintains his peace of mind by avoiding entanglements, he may be said to be happy, at least for the time being."

Kenkō (translated by Donald Keene), Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 75, in Donald Keene, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, pages 66-67.

Ryōkan found his path of enlightenment in the hills, but it was never an easy one, and he never claimed that it was the only path.

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan, page 43.

David Murray, "Crofts on the Island of Lewis" (1921)

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Leaves

Ah, ever redolent autumn, realm of memory and of reflection!  Who knows what the leaves -- fallen, falling, or holding fast -- will awaken or evoke?

A few days ago I walked past a big-leaf maple.  About thirty feet tall, it had only a few hundred yellow and brown leaves remaining on its branches.  I stopped to look up at the leaves, which were set against a blue sky scattered with white and grey clouds, remnants of a storm that had recently passed through.  The blue above was bright, illuminated by the rays of the late afternoon sun, which was hidden by the clouds.  The yellow emanations from an unseen source seemed to give the blue a greater depth, a greater distance. Unreachably beautiful.

As I looked, suddenly, but only for an instant, I was a child on a cold autumn afternoon in Minnesota, gazing up at the leaves of a tree against a blue and grey sky.  1962?  1963?  I couldn't say.  But I was not "remembering" that childhood day in Minnesota: in that instant, I was there.  It was a matter of feeling, not of recollection.  I was in two times and in two places at once.  For better or worse, nothing had changed.  There I was and here I am.  One and the same.  And then the instant was gone.

                  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).

William Samuel Jay (1843-1933)
"At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

My beloved tree tunnels are not what they were three months ago. But they remain lovely.  The leaves that are left still rustle in the wind, but in a different key.  One walks toward, and into, an open, mottled world of gold and red and brown, a patchwork of colors overhead and at one's feet, not into a closed, deep-green world.  The light and air within take on the color of the leaves.  "The world is a continual change," Marcus Aurelius tells us.  (Meditations, Book IV, Section 3; translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742.) "Earth never grieves!"  So Thomas Hardy reminds us.  ("Autumn in King's Hintock Park.")  And, finally, Ryōkan quietly says: "The wind has brought/enough fallen leaves/to make a fire."  (Translated by John Stevens, 1977.)  Nothing is awry.

                       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).

John Milne Donald (1819-1866), "Autumn Leaves" (1864) 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

All Is Well With The World

This week I saw my first woolly bear caterpillars of the year: one on Monday afternoon and another this afternoon.  The traveler I encountered today was crossing a pathway frequented by walkers and bicyclists.  As with all woolly bears at this time of year, it was charmingly, touchingly intent upon its singular, solitary journey. 

Fearing that it might be crushed by an inattentive passer-by, I stayed beside it as it made its way toward the meadow beyond the pathway. (This is something we all do if the occasion arises.  I am not seeking praise.)  I watched it disappear safely into the fallen leaves and the short grass beneath a maple tree, the grass now green again with the autumn rain.

                Shinto

When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street, 
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), "The Gleaning Field" (c. 1833)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Awake

Matsuo Bashō and his haiku are with me throughout the year.  Their companionship is particularly delightful and moving in autumn, for many of Bashō's finest haiku were written in this season.  But I must catch myself, for I am always in danger of getting carried away when it comes to talking about Bashō, and his importance in my life.

To provide some distance, I will offer this by R. H. Blyth:

"The position which haiku has or should have in world literature may be brought out by comparing and contrasting Bashō with Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Goethe and Cervantes.  If he can hold his own with these, the 17-syllabled haiku may well claim an equality with the world masterpieces of epic, drama, and lyric.
*     *     *     *     *
"In what point is Bashō equal or superior to these great men?  In his touching the very nerve of life, his unerring knowledge of those moments in time which, put together, make up our real, our eternal life.  He is awake in the world that for almost all men exists as a world of dreams.

"Bashō gives us the same feeling of depth as Bach, and by the same means, not by noise and emotion as in Beethoven and Wagner, but by a certain serenity and 'expressiveness' which never aims at beauty but often achieves it as it were by accident.  This comparison between Bashō and Bach may seem to be far-fetched.  They have little in common except their profound understanding of vital inevitability, and the meaning of death.  As Confucius implies, he who understands either life or death, understands both.  The hymn says, in its rather sentimental way,
         Days and moments, quickly flying,
         Blend the living with the dead,
and Bach and Bashō felt this so deeply that the average mind finds the one too intellectual and difficult, the other too simple."

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), pages i and iii.

There is a great deal to digest in those passages, and I suspect there are many who would take issue with Blyth's assertions.  I will concede that Blyth was quite opinionated, but I would also suggest that there are very few who have known and understood both Japanese and Western literature and culture as well as Blyth has.  I am content to leave what he says about Bashō as it stands.

However, what is ultimately important is the poetry and the individual poem, not a contest between cultures.  Thus, as an introduction to Bashō and autumn, consider this:

     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 (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 334.

Or this:

     The autumn moon;
I wandered round the pond
     All night long.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 385.

Or this: 

     Along this road
Goes no one,
     This autumn eve.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 342.

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

These three haiku may give the impression that Bashō was a precursor of the English Romantic poets, meditating upon himself as he walked alone through the natural world.  "I wandered lonely as a cloud .  . ."  This would be a mistaken conclusion.  What it means to live and die as a human being, in the company of other human beings, is at the heart of Bashō's poetry.  

Thus:

     Deep autumn;
My neighbour, --
     How does he live?

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 336.

Or this:

     Turn this way;
I also am lonely,
     This evening of autumn.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page xxvii.  

The poem is preceded by a prose introduction by Bashō:

"Unchiku, a monk living in Kyoto, had painted what appeared to be a self-portrait.  It was a picture of a monk with his face turned away.  Unchiku showed me the portrait and asked me for a verse to go with it.  Thereupon I wrote as follows --
     You are over sixty years of age, and I am nearing fifty.  We are both in a world of dreams, and this portrait depicts a man in a dream, too.  Here I add the words of another such man talking in his sleep."

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 298.

An additional passage from R. H. Blyth touches upon the essential human element in Bashō's haiku:

"He has an all-round delicacy of sympathy which makes us near to him, and him to us.  As with Dr. Johnson, there is something in him beyond literature, above art, akin to what Thoreau calls homeliness.  In itself, mere goodness is not very thrilling, but when it is added to sensitivity, a love of beauty, and poetry, it is the irresistible force which can move immovable things."

R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume One: From the Beginnings up to Issa (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 110.

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

Bashō's humanity (his "delicacy of sympathy" and "goodness") is intertwined with, and inseparable from, his love of the World and of its beautiful particulars.  In the best of his haiku, what it means to live (and die) as a human being is the unspoken heart of a poem which, at the same time, presents the Beauty and the Truth of the World as it passes in a fleeting moment.  I believe this is what Blyth is getting at when he states that Bashō "is awake in the world that for almost all men exists as a world of dreams."  And here is a wonderful thing: when we read a haiku by Bashō, we are awakened as well.

Well, then, where does one go from here?  To Bashō, of course.  And into autumn.

     A flower unknown
To bird and butterfly, --
     The sky of autumn.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4, Autumn-Winter, page xxxii.

Or this:

     The flowers of the bush clover
Do not let fall, for all their swaying,
     Their drops of bright dew.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 101.  Bush clover (lespedeza; hagi in Japanese), which blooms in autumn, is a traditional autumn seasonal word (kigo) in Japanese poetry (both haiku and waka).

Bush clover again:

     In the surf,
Mingled with small shells,
     Petals of the bush clover.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 102.

And, finally:

     From far and near,
Voices of waterfalls are heard,
     Leaves falling.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 357.

I said above: "when we read a haiku by Bashō, we are awakened as well."  But that is not the end of it, is it?  What Bashō is telling us is: "Go out into the World.  Pay attention.  Live."

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"

Monday, October 4, 2021

October

And so we find ourselves in October, that brilliant month, the heart of autumn.  Yet the leaves have long since begun to turn red and gold. Those that have already fallen have been rattling at our heels for weeks, spun along the ground by a wind that carries a chill thread. The tree shadows have been steadily lengthening across the fields since late August.  Still, October is something else altogether, isn't it? We have arrived.  As I am wont to say each year (and I beg your forbearance once again, dear readers): we are now well and truly in the season of bittersweet wistfulness, wistful bittersweetness.

I am fond of the poets of the Nineties.  Theirs is a world of twilight and mists, a melancholy world of lost or unattainable love and conflicted faith; a dream-haunted, Death-haunted world.  Have I frightened you away from them?  I hope not, for their poetry can be quite moving and lovely.  And, as one might expect, they are in their element in autumn.

             Autumn Twilight

The long September evening dies
In mist along the fields and lanes;
Only a few faint stars surprise
The lingering twilight as it wanes.

Night creeps across the darkening vale;
On the horizon tree by tree
Fades into shadowy skies as pale
As moonlight on a shadowy sea.

And, down the mist-enfolded lanes,
Grown pensive now with evening,
See, lingering as the twilight wanes,
Lover with lover wandering.

Arthur Symons (1865-1945), London Nights (Leonard Smithers 1895).

Too florid or too Romantic for modern tastes?  No doubt.  But who in their right mind pays any attention to modern tastes?  Of what account are Beauty and Truth in the news of the world that appears each day, or in the daily world of endless, empty distraction?  Of no account whatsoever, as far as I can tell.  This is not a misanthropic comment on humanity.  Rather, it is a description of our current "culture."  Yet, come what may, I have faith in individual human souls.  Beauty and Truth will always find their preservers.

"Autumn Twilight" has its share of the Beauty and Truth of autumn. But, if the poets of the Nineties are not your cup of tea, autumn's Beauty and Truth can be found in a sparer, more restrained (but still passionate) form as well:

Even in a person
most times indifferent 
to things around him
they waken feelings --
the first winds of autumn.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 67.  The poem is a waka.

Duncan Cameron (1837-1916), "Harvest Time in Lorne" (1888)

Saigyō and Arthur Symons were both moved by autumn.  I have no interest in deciding which of the two poems contains a more beautiful, or a more truthful, articulation of what autumn can mean to a human being.  A fool's errand, that.  Separated by seven centuries, on opposite sides of the planet, the human truth of autumn, and its beauty, is the same.  

I am reminded of what Edward Thomas wrote about poetry and poets:

"What [poets] 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.  

This is the finest, and most beautiful, description of poetry I have ever come across.  (A side-note: I presume that "for if what poets say is true and not feigning" is an echo, transformed, of Shakespeare's "for the truest poetry is the most feigning" from Act III, Scene iii of As You Like It.)

With that, it is time to return to autumn with Arthur Symons:

                  Autumn

There is so little wind at all,
The last leaves cling, and do not fall
From the bare branches' ends; I sit
Under a tree and gaze at it,
A slender web against the sky,
Where a small grey cloud goes by;
I feel a speechless happiness
Creep to me out of quietness.

What is it in the earth, the air,
The smell of autumn, or the rare
And half reluctant harmonies
The mist weaves out of silken skies,
What is it shuts my brain and brings
These sleepy dim awakenings,
Till I and all things seem to be
Kin and companion to a tree?

Arthur Symons, The Fool of the World and Other Poems (William Heinemann 1906).

And, once more, Saigyō:

Crickets --
as the cold of night
deepens into autumn
are you weakening? your voices
grow farther and farther away.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 82.  The poem is a waka.

"True and not feigning."  At any time, and in any season, human messages such as these are few and far between.

George Vicat Cole (1833-1893), "Harvest Time" (1860)

I look forward to the coming brilliance, melancholy, exhilaration, and sadness of October.  But, a few days ago, I stumbled upon this:

             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, Poems of the Five Mountains (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan 1992), page 33.  

The poem is a kanshi: a poem written in Chinese characters by a Japanese poet.  Ryūsen Reisai was a Zen Buddhist monk.  Ury provides the following note to the poem: "The poem begins with a Zen truism, which is expanded into a personal statement."  Ibid, page 33.

The poem feels like a coda of sorts to the emotions evoked by October, and autumn.  Or a comment upon them.  Scraps from T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" (from Four Quartets) come to mind: "at the still point of the turning world;" "neither from nor towards." Whatever the season, there it is: the World.  As ever, there is only one appropriate response: gratitude.

Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935)
"Harvesting, Forest of Birse, Aberdeenshire" (1900)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

No, Thank You

Day after day, modern "civilization" casts its flotsam and jetsam upon our shores.  There is no help for it.  Each of us maintains our own inventory of which pieces of detritus have caught our attention of late, or over the course of a lifetime.  The arrivals will never cease: "everything that can be imagined is bound to be realized at least once -- everything that mankind is capable of conceiving, it seems compelled to do."  (Saul Bellow, "Writers, Intellectuals, Politics: Mainly Reminiscence," in Saul Bellow, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction (edited by Benjamin Taylor) (Viking 2015), page 407.)  

Bellow's assertion cuts both ways, doesn't it?  Human nature harbors a boundless capacity for both good and evil.  Who knows which of the two will appear next, and in what form?  Caught up in the daily distraction (the latest political and media "crisis"), we are encouraged to bounce back and forth between hope and dread, anxiously awaiting "news."  This is no way to live.

Nearly every day I walk past a small round meadow, about fifty feet wide, which is surrounded on all sides by tall pines.  A single young maple stands near the center of the circle of grass and wildflowers. Each year I watch the maple change through the seasons, out there alone in the open.  Who knows what will happen to it?  It will likely outlive me, which is a comfort.  We each go on in our own way.

Alternative worlds are available to us.  Worlds free of flotsam and jetsam.  I have recently been spending time with poems set to music in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Another world (not without its own good and evil, of course), but one which feels seemlier and nobler than the one in which we now find ourselves.  In the songs, one comes upon lines such as these:

Constant Penelope sends to thee, careless Ulysses.
Write not again, but come, sweet mate, thyself to revive me.
Troy we do much envy, we desolate lost ladies of Greece,
Not Priamus, nor yet all Troy can us recompense make.
Oh, that he had, when he first took shipping to Lacedaemon,
That adulter I mean, had been o'erwhelmed with waters.
Then had I not lain now all alone, thus quivering for cold,
Nor used this complaint, nor have thought the day to be so long.

Anonymous, in William Byrd, Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadness and Piety (1588), in E. H. Fellowes (editor), English Madrigal Verse 1588-1632 (Oxford University Press 1967), page 48. The eight lines are a translation of the opening lines of the First Epistle of Ovid's Heroides.  Ibid, page 683.

What shall it be: Bedlam, or a world in which a poet forever unknown to us wrote of "constant Penelope"?

Robin Tanner (1904-1988), "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

The Elizabethan era may indeed be a different world, but I was pleased to encounter these lines, which are timeless, in one of the songbooks:

The love of change hath changed the world throughout;
     And what is counted good but that is strange?
New things wax old, old new, all turns about,
     And all things change except the love of change.
Yet find I not that love of change in me,
But as I am so will I always be.

Anonymous, in Richard Carlton, Madrigals to Fine Voices (1601), Ibid, page 77.  As is the case with many of the songs from the period, the identity of the poet is not known.

As one who is conservative in temperament (a temperament confirmed by six decades of watching the world), it is gratifying to discover a kindred soul from four centuries ago.  The lamenters of change are always with us, aren't they?  Mind you, the conservatism of which I speak has nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary politics, which are of no interest to me.

"Yet find I not that love of change in me" (a lovely line) in turn brings this to mind:

     The Metropolitan Underground Railway

Here were a goodly place wherein to die; --
     Grown latterly to sudden change averse,
All violent contrasts fain avoid would I
     On passing from this world into a worse.

William Watson (1858-1935), Epigrams of Art, Life, and Nature (Gilbert Walmsley 1884).

I concede that the Underground is no doubt a marvelous thing. Having once lived in Tokyo, I recognize the convenience and efficiency of subways and train lines.  But I sympathize with the sentiments expressed in the poem.  "Grown latterly to sudden change averse."  Yes.  A time comes when one feels prepared to quietly and permanently exit the wearisome world of change.

Robin Tanner, "June" (1946)

But I feel I've lost the thread.  The flotsam and jetsam of the modern world and aversion to change are ultimately of no moment.  As always, one should attend to one's soul.  Where does one start?  Best to return to the solitary maple tree in the clearing among the pines. Everything begins and ends with a single beautiful particular.

A quiet bell sounds --
and reveals a village
waiting for the moon.

Sōgi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, The Road to Komatsubara: A Classical Reading of the Renga Hyakuin (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University 1987), page 96.

Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927)

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Eight: Exile

Is the World we live in enchanted or disenchanted?  Happily, we cannot think, or reason, our way to an answer to this question. Moreover, the answer may be beyond words, which is appropriate. The World is mostly reticent.  But, if we pay attention to it, we may receive glimpses, glimmers, inklings. 

And, in the end, the answer we may stumble upon applies only to a single soul: our own.  Still, we may encounter kindred souls in our travels.  What would we do without them?

"What a marvelous time it was when everything was alive, according to human imagination, and humanly alive, in other words inhabited or formed by beings like ourselves; when it was taken as certain that in the deserted woods lived the beautiful Hamadryads and fauns and woodland deities and Pan, etc., and, on entering and seeing everything as solitude, you still believed that everything was inhabited and that Naiads lived in the springs, etc., and embracing a tree you felt it almost palpitating between your hands and believed it was a man or a woman like Cyparissus, etc., and the same with flowers, etc., just as children do."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 69.

As an unrepentant Wordsworthian pantheist (the Wordsworth of 1797 through 1807) and a lover of the poems in The Greek Anthology, I fully concur with Leopardi's thoughts.  How far we have fallen!  But some may say: "What of Progress?"  Ah, yes, "Progress."  We now find ourselves in the hands of political, scientific, technological, and media "experts."  That seems to be working quite well.

H. S. Merritt, "Woodford Bridge in the Avon Valley" (c. 1942)

I am also wholly in sympathy with Walter de la Mare:

                         Exile

Had the gods loved me I had lain
     Where darnel is, and thorn,
And the wild night-bird's nightlong strain
     Trembles in boughs forlorn.

Nay, but they loved me not; and I
     Must needs a stranger be,
Whose every exiled day gone by
     Aches with their memory.

Walter de la Mare, The Listeners and Other Poems (Constable 1912).

The pang of exile from a lost, ever unreachable world is a thread that runs throughout de la Mare's poetry.  But it never leads to a slighting of the World as we find it.  Nor does it lead to despair, or to lack of love for the beautiful particulars of the World.  Thus: "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall." ("Now.")  Or this: "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour." ("Fare Well.")  

And, despite the sadness and the sense of irremediable loss expressed in "Exile," de la Mare still catches glimpses of the lost world in the English countryside:

           Echo 

Seven sweet notes
In the moonlight pale
Warbled a leaf-hidden
Nightingale:
And Echo in hiding
By an old green wall
Under the willows
Sighed back them all.

Walter de la Mare, Bells and Grass: A Book of Rhymes (Faber and Faber 1941).

This brings to mind a lovely poem from The Greek Anthology:

High up the mountain-meadow, Echo with never a tongue
Sings back to each bird in answer the song each bird hath sung.

Satyrus (c. 1st century B.C. - 1st century A.D.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 358.

There is no telling what one might suddenly see out in a field:

                            Flood Water

What saw I -- crouching by that pool of water
     Bright-blue in the flooded grass,
Of ash-white sea-birds the remote resort, and
     April's looking-glass? --
Was it mere image of a dream-dazed eye --
That startled Naiad -- as the train swept by?

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

H. S. Merritt, "Bowerchalke" (c. 1942)

The ironic moderns among us have "progressed" too far to take any of this seriously.  They fancy themselves to be unillusioned and undeceived.  Products of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment."

Leopardi again: "[T]here has never been an age so tainted and corrupted that it did not believe itself to stand at the pinnacle of civilization and social perfection, and to be an example to the other ages, and, in particular, superior in every respect to all past ages, and at the farthest point in space yet traveled by the human spirit." (Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, page 395.)  

Enchanted or disenchanted?  Each of us makes a choice in this matter every day.

                       Ionic

That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1975).

H. S. Merritt, "Wishford, Wylye Valley" (c. 1942)