Tuesday, June 18, 2024

One Thing Leads to Another, Part Two: Two Poems on a Spring Day

Each morning, I read a poem.  A long-time habit.  I began a recent spring day with this:

     Tilling the field;
From the temple among the trees,
     The funeral bell tolls.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 161.

In his four-volume Haiku, R. H. Blyth collects haiku relating to each season into chapters based upon general categories (e.g., "Sky and Elements"; "Fields and Mountains"; "Human Affairs"; "Birds and Beasts"; "Trees and Flowers").  Within each category, the haiku are in turn organized by specific subjects.  This description sounds much more rigid than how things play out in practice.  Blyth translates hundreds of haiku, but he does not simply provide an anthology. Rather, as I have noted here in the past, Blyth's journey through haiku is accompanied by a wide-ranging and impressionistic (yet learned and thorough) running commentary.  The entire World, past and present, is open to examination and contemplation.  Therein lies the beauty and charm of Blyth's achievement.

Making the journey in the company of the World's beautiful particulars makes perfect sense.  Say, for instance: willows; skylarks; cicadas (semi in Japanese); the River of Heaven (what is called in English "the Milky Way").  ("River of Heaven" is one way of translating the Japanese phrase ama no gawa.  Ama means "the heavens" or "the sky"; no is a particle corresponding to "of"; gawa is the euphonic version of the word kawa, which  means "river."  After coming across ama no gawa years ago, I no longer had need for "the Milky Way.")

On the morning in question, I had decided to return to the haiku collected by Blyth in a section titled "Tilling the Field" in the "Human Affairs" chapter of his Spring volume.  I did not go specifically in search of Buson's haiku, but I know it well.  One of those poems that is not likely to be forgotten, once it has come into your life.  A lovely way to start the day.

Samuel Birch (1869-1955), "Nancledra: Old Cornish Village" (1931)

I am a creature of habit: in addition to reading a poem each morning, I read one in the evening.  I have returned to the poetry of Andrew Young of late, having been away from it for too long a time.  On the day that I read Buson's "tilling the field" haiku in the morning, I came upon this in the evening:


I never noticed, till I saw today
How budding birches stand in their green spray
And bracken like a snake from earth upheaves,
How many in this wood are last year's leaves.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (Secker & Warburg 1985), page 127.

As was the case with Buson's haiku, I hadn't gone in search of "Spring."  But, suddenly, there they were: two poems on the same theme (or so it seems to me) arriving on the same day.  A matter of mere happenstance.  But evidence, perhaps, that there are indeed benefits to growing old.  Sometimes (as long as memory remains intact), the poems that have accumulated within us over the years find their way to each other.  Where do they reside in the meantime? In the mind, in the heart, in the soul?  All of the above.

A small bit of serendipity in the larger scheme of things, one might say.  But one might also say that seven lines of poetry (three lines from Japan in the 18th century; four lines from England in the 20th century) may go some way to articulating, with beauty, what it means to spend our short time here in Paradise.  "Gifts are still occasionally given us, particularly when we have not asked for them, and I cling to the hope of understanding the link between certain of them and our inner life, their meaning in relation to our most persistent dreams." (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 3.)

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "Blackmoor Vale" (1931)

"If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us!  The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.  Consider living creatures -- none lives so long as man.  The May fly waits not for the evening, the summer cicada knows neither spring nor autumn.  What a wonderfully unhurried feeling it is to live even a single year in perfect serenity!  If that is not enough for you, you might live a thousand years and still feel it was but a single night's dream."

Kenkō (1283-1350) Tsurezuregusa (Chapter 7), in Donald Keene (translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), pages 7-8.  Keene provides this note to "Adashino": "Adashino was the name of a graveyard, apparently situated northwest of Kyoto.  The word adashi (impermanence), contained in the place name, accounted for the frequent use of Adashino in poetry as a symbol of impermanence. The dew is also often used with that meaning."  Ibid, page 8.  Keene also provides a note to "Toribeyama": "Toribeyama is still the chief graveyard of Kyoto.  Mention of smoke suggests that bodies were cremated there."  Ibid, page 8.

I have certainly made quite a leap based upon two short poems, haven't I?  But they do go together well.  Daily consideration of our evanescence is always a good thing.  Who knows?  It may lead to equanimity and gratitude.  Dread or melancholy will get us nowhere.

In any case, as I have noted here in the past, when it comes to Beauty, one thing leads to another.  Hence, after encountering Buson's haiku, I followed its path, coming first to this:

     Even on a small island,
A man tilling the field,
     A lark singing above it.

Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 199.

Followed by this (another haiku by Buson):

     Tilling the field:
The cloud that never moved
     Is gone.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 167.

And, finally, Buson again:

     Tilling the field:
The man who asked the way
     Has disappeared.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 165.

Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall my fundamental poetic principle: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  Thus, no doubt wrenching his words completely out of context, I turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuiness).)

Roger Fry (1866-1934), "Village in the Valley" (1926)

"Remember what an Atom your Person stands for in respect of the Universe, what a Minute of unmeasurable Time comes to your share, and what a small Concern you are in the Empire of Fate!"  (Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book V, Section 24, in Jeremy Collier (1650-1726), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701), page 78.)  "The Empire of Fate" is a wonderful touch by Collier.  Even more piquant is this: "Manage all your Actions and Thoughts in such a Manner as if you were just going to step into the Grave."  (Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book II, Section 11, Ibid, page 21.)

[A side-note: Collier's translation of the Meditations has been criticized for its lack of strict fidelity to the original text.  However, his late 17th century/early 18th century prose style is marvelous. In a review of George Long's now-standard 19th century translation of the Meditations, Matthew Arnold chides Long for being "a great deal too hard" on Collier.  (Matthew Arnold, "Marcus Aurelius," in Essays in Criticism (Macmillan 1865), page 275.)  Arnold contends that Collier's translation "deserves respect for its genuine spirit and vigour, the spirit and vigour of the age of Dryden.  Jeremy Collier too, like Mr. Long, regarded in Marcus Aurelius the living moralist, and not the dead classic; and his warmth of feeling gave to his style an impetuosity and rhythm which from Mr. Long's style (I do not blame it on that account) are absent."  (Ibid, pages 275-276.)  I usually rely upon the 1742 translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (a product of the Scottish Enlightenment).  However, I agree with Arnold's view, and often turn to Collier's version in order to enjoy (to use Arnold's phrase) "its genuine spirit and vigour."]

Just as one thing led to another when it came to Buson's "tilling the field" haiku, Andrew Young's "Spring" led me to several other poems by Young.  First, I remembered this:

     Walking in Beech Leaves

I tread on many autumns here
     But with no pride,
For at the leaf-fall of each year
     I also died.

This is last autumn, crisp and brown,
     That my knees feel;
But through how many years sinks down
     My sullen heel.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young, page 53.

But, beyond the lingering dead leaves of vanished years, I thought next of this:

                    The Nest

Four blue stones in this thrush's nest
I leave, content to make the best
Of turquoise, lapis lazuli
Or for that matter of the whole blue sky.

Andrew Young, Ibid, page 54.

And, as always, I soon found my way to this, my favorite among Young's poems:

               A Dead Mole

Strong-shouldered mole,
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?

Andrew Young, Ibid, page 63.

Yes, when it comes to Beauty, one thing leads to another.  I think of something written by Kenkō: "A certain hermit once said, 'There is one thing that even I, who have no worldly entanglements, would be sorry to give up, the beauty of the sky.'  I can understand why he should have felt that way."  (Kenkō, Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 20, in Donald Keene (translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, page 22.)  The sky: blue, grey, mottled with white clouds, or otherwise.  "Manage all your Actions and Thoughts in such a Manner as if you were just going to step into the Grave."  "The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty."

William Birch (1895-1968)
"Morning in June, the Vale of Dedham, Essex"

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Current Events

On a recent afternoon walk, I heard an unseen owl call from somewhere off in the forest: "Hoo-hoo . . . hoo-hoo."  This seemed to be a gentle inquiry, a tentative "How do you do?"  After about ten seconds of silence, a crow -- also unseen, but from another part of the forest -- replied  emphatically: "Caw-caw-caw."  The meaning of this response seemed less clear.  Was it a warning, a threat?  But this is unfair to the crow: perhaps it was merely a corvine way of saying "Pleased to meet you."

The conversation repeated itself in the same fashion as I walked on. "Hoo-hoo . . . hoo-hoo."  Brief silence.  "Caw-caw-caw."  Quite civilized, I concluded.  The exchange had not come to an end as I passed out of earshot.  I had developed a fondness for both of them. For their part, they were likely unaware of my existence.  I take no offense at this.  The three of us were just passing through the World on an afternoon near the end of winter.  We crossed paths and continued on our separate ways.  But I now think of the title of a poem by Robert Frost: "For Once, Then, Something."


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

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

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

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

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

Norman MacCaig, The Poems of Norman MacCaig (edited by Ewen McCaig) (Polygon 2005), page 452.

MacCaig's "Crofter" always brings to mind this:

           The Shepherd's Hut

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

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

Andrew Young, The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (edited by Edward Lowbury and Alison Young) (Secker & Warburg 1985), page 65.

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

My daily walk takes me through the grounds of what was once a post of the United States Army, an important embarkation point for troops bound for the Pacific during the Second World War.  The post has long since been converted into a city park.  But a number of large wooden buildings constructed early in the last century have been preserved.  They have been painted a pleasing pale yellow, with white trim on the windows, doors, and eaves.  They stand here and there amidst the meadows and trees, beside the wide concrete paths that wind through the grounds of the former post.

On a sunny day this week, as I walked through a budding grove of trees, a distant yet clear solo saxophone rendition of "The Girl from Ipanema" wafted through the air.  I knew the source: over the past few months, a lone saxophonist has been practicing on the front porch of one of the buildings, which is set back on a lawn, surrounded by big-leaf maple trees.  This was the first time I had heard him play a song all the way through.

                                   The Just

A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wished.
He who is grateful for the existence of music.
He who takes pleasure in tracing an etymology.
Two workmen playing, in a café in the South, a silent game of chess.
The potter, contemplating a color and a form.
The typographer who sets this page well, though it may not please him.
A woman and a man, who read the last tercets of a certain canto.
He who strokes a sleeping animal.
He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for the existence of Stevenson.
He who prefers others to be right.
These people, unaware, are saving the world.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alastair Reid), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999), page 449.

"The Girl from Ipanema."  A fine choice of music by the saxophonist. I was alive when the song became a hit in this country in 1964.  Sixty years ago.  Imagine that.  At this point, as a member of the Baby Boom Generation, I feel compelled to observe that, when it comes to music, I lived through a charmed time.  Or am I being "sentimental"? (A state of being which some sophisticated moderns find unacceptable.  I've often wondered why this is so.)

But I did not engage in this internal back-and-forth as "The Girl from Ipanema" arrived unexpectedly on the breeze, passing through the warm sunlight and the boughs of the trees on its way, a few days before the beginning of Spring.  I simply received a wonderful gift.


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), Ibid, page 451.

John Nash, "The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall" (c. 1958)

A conversation between an owl and a crow.  A song from sixty years ago, borne on the wind.  As I have often said here in the past: in this World in which our time is short, we should pay attention and, above all, be grateful.

         Message Taken

On a day of almost no wind,
I saw two leaves falling almost, not quite,
perpendicularly -- which
seemed natural.

When I got closer, I saw
the leaves on the tree were
slanted by that wind, were pointing
towards those that had fallen.

When I got closer than that, I saw
the leaves on the tree
were trembling.

And that seemed natural too.

Norman MacCaig, The Poems of Norman MacCaig, page 245.

John Nash, "The Barn, Wormingford" (1954)

Monday, January 1, 2024

At the Turning of the Year

Solely by happenstance, this observation surfaced out of my memory during the past week: "The future's uncertain and the end is always near."  An unexpected message for the New Year?  And who might be the source of this thought?  Perhaps Schopenhauer or Leopardi, those cheerful, happy-go-lucky characters?  Or, further back in time, should we look to Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius?  And what of the poets?  For instance, one might imagine Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, or R. S. Thomas arriving at such a conclusion.  (Although I do think that all three of them have been unfairly and inaccurately caricatured as hopeless pessimists.)

The answer is: "None of the above."  Instead, as a member of the baby boom generation (born during the first term of the Eisenhower administration), I am proud to report that Jim Morrison and The Doors permanently planted this unforgettable line in my brain around 1970 or so.  The source (as many of you no doubt already know) is "Roadhouse Blues" from the album (which is what we called those circular vinyl artifacts back then) Morrison Hotel.  And a fine album it was, and remains.  But, have no fear, I don't intend to embark upon one of those by now tiresome baby boomer paeans to the wondrous music of my youth.  (Well, it was wondrous.)

I will, however, say this: "After all, it's true.  The future's uncertain and the end is always near.  And, although it is a truism -- the substance of which has been repeated many times in many ways over many centuries -- there is a certain frisson in having it suddenly arrive near the end of "Roadhouse Blues."  You never know in what guise Beauty and Truth will present themselves.  Be grateful for small and unexpected gifts."

Having listened to "Roadhouse Blues" numerous times this past week, I found myself remembering a lovely poem (which has appeared here in the past):

                         Garramor Bay

Now the long wave unfolded falls from the West,
The sandbirds run upon twittering, twinkling feet:
Life is perilous, poised on the lip of a wave,
And the weed that lay yesterday here is clean gone.

O visitor, fugitive creature, thing of a tide,
Make music, my heart, before the long silence.

L. A. G. Strong, Northern Light (Victor Gollancz 1930).

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)

"Garramor Bay" in turn led me to this (which has also appeared here on more than one occasion):

            Out There

Do they ever meet out there,
The dolphins I counted,
The otter I wait for?
I should have spent my life
Listening to the waves.

Michael Longley, The Ghost Orchid (Jonathan Cape 1995).

"Roadhouse Blues," followed by "Garramor Bay," followed by "Out There": such has been the turning of the year for me.  

Happy New Year, dear readers!

Richard Eurich (1903-1992), "The Road to Grassington" (1971)

Monday, December 25, 2023


At Christmas, I turn to Thomas Hardy.  (As well as to George Mackay Brown (for instance, "Christmas Poem": "We are folded all/In a green fable . .  .") and R. S. Thomas (a bit astringent, as one might expect, but lovely; for instance, "Blind Noel": "Yet there is always room/on the heart for another/snowflake to reveal a pattern").)  When it comes to Hardy, I invariably visit this:

                      The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
     "Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
     By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
     They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
     To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
     In these years!  Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
     "Come; see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
     Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
     Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy, Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (Macmillan 1917).  A "barton" is a farmyard.  The poem was first published in The Times on December 24, 1915.  (J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (University of North Carolina Press 1970), page 370.)

At some point in his life, Hardy lost his faith.  But he wrote "The Oxen" without irony.  This may be difficult for most irony-afflicted moderns to believe (in the unlikely event they should ever come across the poem).  But I take Hardy at his word.  And I would do as he says he would do.

Edmund Blunden writes this of "The Oxen":

"Like so many of his poems, this one sprang from lonely musing on scenes of the past and their application to the present. . . . The picture is one to delight us still in troubled times.  A quiet Christmas Eve almost a hundred years ago, in a Dorset cottage, by firelight, and an old man, unaware of anything remarkable in his talk, says that the cattle in the shed are on their knees now.  Everyone agrees silently.  A boy looks especially attentive.  The years run by, and there is the attentive boy Hardy himself grown an old man, realizing the universal appeal in that local superstition, the reviving life in it."

Edmund Blunden, Thomas Hardy (Macmillan 1941), page 153.

Blunden was a friend of Hardy's, and was quite fond of him.  One senses respect, but also a bit of skepticism, in his discussion of "The Oxen."  Given Blunden's experiences in the trenches during the First World War, and the date on which the poem was published, this is understandable.  But, again, I take Hardy on his word.

"Reason is great, but it is not everything.  There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life."  (Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (Heinemann 1897), page 272.)

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982), "1930 (Christmas Night)" (1930)

In writing of his admiration for Hardy's poetry, Thom Gunn notes that, in reading the poetry, he has a "feeling of contact with an honest man who will never lie to me."  (Thom Gunn, "Hardy and the Ballads," in The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography (North Point Press 1985), page 105.)  Kingsley Amis says something uncannily similar about Edward Thomas: "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 (Arena 1989), page 339.)  I completely agree with what Amis says of Edward Thomas, and I believe it is true of Thomas Hardy as well.  

These comments about poetic honesty are complemented quite well by this fine observation about Hardy and his poetry by F. L. Lucas: "He deliberately took for his subjects the commonest and most natural feelings; but by an unfamiliar side, and with that insight which only sensitiveness and sympathy can possess.  This sympathy is important; for, as I have said, if truthfulness is one main feature of Hardy's work, its compassion is another."  (F. L. Lucas, Ten Victorian Poets (Cambridge University Press 1940), page 192.)

All of this leads us in a roundabout way back to Hardy's Christmas poetry, which is where we ought to be: 


The rain-shafts splintered on me
     As despondently I strode;
The twilight gloomed upon me
     And bleared the blank high-road.
Each bush gave forth, when blown on
     By gusts in shower and shower,
A sigh, as it were sown on
     In handfuls by a sower.

A cheerful voice called, nigh me,
     "A merry Christmas, friend!" --
There rose a figure by me,
     Walking with townward trend,
A sodden tramp's, who, breaking
     Into thin song, bore straight
Ahead, direction taking 
     Toward the Casuals' gate.

Thomas Hardy, Winter Words in Various Moods and Metres (Macmillan 1928).  "The Casuals' gate" refers to a gate at the Union House, a workhouse in Dorchester, Dorset.  (J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary, page 581.)  "In Hardy's time any 'casual' (pauper or tramp) could apply to the police for a ticket, with which he would be admitted for supper, a bed, and breakfast."  (Ibid.)

With that (and with a grateful thank you to Thomas Hardy): "A merry Christmas, friend!"

Robin Tanner (1904-1988) "Christmas" (1929)

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

No Grieving

Most of the leaves have fallen.  One day last week -- a proverbial "brilliant autumn day" -- I walked past a grove of big-leaf maples bordering a small glade.  The ground beneath the maples was covered with red, russet, and yellow leaves.  There was no wind.  Now and then, a few of the remaining leaves drifted down.  Each one made a soft tick as it landed on the dry, deep leaf-carpet.

     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 (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 364.

A single leaf falls in a sunlight-pierced, shadowed grove, joining its predecessors.  I cannot help but return to the lines from Yeats which appeared in my most recent post: ". . . and the yellow leaves/Fell like faint meteors in the gloom."  (W. B. Yeats, "Ephemera.")  There is something to be said for waning autumn.

     Leaves falling,
Lie one on another;
     The rain beats on the rain.

Gyōdai (1732-1793) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 365.

The haiku by Issa and Gyōdai are statements of fact.  Lovely statements of fact.  Records of two evanescent moments made by two evanescent human beings.  But there is much more afoot.  "The real nature of each thing, and more so, of all things, is a poetical one. . . . Haiku shows us what we knew all the time, but did not know we knew; it shows us that we are poets in so far as we live at all."  (R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page x.)  

And this:

"In old-fashioned novels, we often have the situation of a man or a woman who realizes only at the end of the book, and usually when it is too late, who it was that he or she had loved for many years without knowing it.  So a great many haiku tell us something that we have seen but not seen.  They do not give us a satori, an enlightenment; they show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, -- and not recognized it."

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 322 (the italics are in the original text).

In noting that Issa's and Gyōdai's haiku are "statements of fact," I am not suggesting that the poems are emotionless observations, devoid of feeling.  Any fine haiku is an embodiment of kokoro, a Japanese word (based on the Chinese character for the Chinese word xin) which can mean "heart," "mind," or "spirit" or, in certain contexts, all three of them at once: heart-mind-spirit.  Thus, the distinctive melancholy of autumn inhabits both of the two haiku: that combination of heartbreaking beauty and resigned acceptance each of us knows so well.  

Alexander Jamieson (1873-1937)
"The Old Mill, Weston Turville" (1927)

Autumn's particular form of melancholy is, not surprisingly, present in my favorite autumnal poem by Thomas Hardy.  As is so often the case (at least for me) when reading Hardy's poetry, the poem contains a line which, once encountered, stays with you for a lifetime.

   Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, --
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high --
     Earth never grieves! --
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (Macmillan 1909).  Hardy added the subscript "1901" at the bottom of the poem. The date may be put into context by Hardy's comment on the poem in a letter he wrote to a friend in December of 1906: "I happened to be walking, or cycling, through [the park] years ago, when the incident occurred on which the verses are based."  (J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook and Commentary (University of North Carolina Press 1970), page 207.) 

"Earth never grieves!"  This is the line that has stayed with me for several decades.  Years after having first come across it, I was delighted to discover this passage in a letter written by Philip Larkin to Monica Jones, his long-time companion: "Earth never grieves, I thought, walking across the park, watching seagulls cruising greedily above the ground looking for heaven knows what.  Don't you think it's a good line?  A very good line."  (Philip Larkin, letter to Monica Jones (January 29, 1958), in Philip Larkin, Letters to Monica (edited by Anthony Thwaite) (Faber and Faber 2010), page 235.)  I also heartily agree with another comment made by Larkin relating to Hardy (which has appeared here on more than one occasion): "[M]ay I trumpet the assurance that one reader at least would not wish Hardy's Collected Poems a single page shorter, and regards it as many times over the best body of poetic work this century so far has to show?"  (Philip Larkin, "Wanted: Good Hardy Critic" (1966), in Philip Larkin, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982 (Faber and Faber 1983), page 174.)  Larkin's comment was correct at the time he wrote it in 1966.  It remains correct.

[A side-note.  Hardy's comment on the source of "Autumn in King's Hintock Park" brings to mind a statement attributed to him in The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (a biography which was ascribed to his wife, Florence Hardy, when it was first published, but which was actually written mostly by Hardy): "I believe it would be said by people who knew me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred."  (Thomas Hardy and Florence Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 408.)  These lines from one of Hardy's poems come to mind: "O the regrettings infinite/When the night-processions flit/Through the mind!"  (Thomas Hardy, "The Peace-Offering.")  We each have our own "regrettings infinite" and flitting "night-processions," don't we?

A poem about Hardy by Siegfried Sassoon, who often visited Hardy at his home in Dorset, provides an evocative glimpse of Hardy and his haunting, ever-present past.

                     At Max Gate

Old Mr. Hardy, upright in his chair,
Courteous to visiting acquaintance chatted
With unaloof alertness while he patted
The sheep dog whose society he preferred.
He wore an air of never having heard
That there was much that needed putting right.
Hardy, the Wessex wizard, wasn't there.
Good care was taken to keep him out of sight.

Head propped on hand, he sat with me alone,
Silent, the log fire flickering on his face.
Here was the seer whose words the world had known.
Someone had taken Mr. Hardy's place.

Siegfried Sassoon, Collected Poems: 1908-1956 (Faber and Faber 1961).  "Max Gate" was the name of Hardy's home in Dorchester.  The younger poets of Hardy's time often tended to make their way to Hardy in his later years.  For instance, in addition to Sassoon, Walter de la Mare and Edmund Blunden became his friends, and were invited for visits.  Like Sassoon, both of them wrote poems about Hardy.]

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "A City Garden" (1940)

"Earth never grieves!"  As for us, there is no escape from grief and grieving, is there?  This is neither a complaint nor a lament.  Grief and grieving are part and parcel of the beauty of the World.  What can one do?  Continue to pay attention to the beautiful particulars of the World.  Above all else, remain grateful.

When I was young, not knowing the taste of grief,
I loved to climb the storied tower,
loved to climb the storied tower,
and in my new songs I'd make it a point to speak of grief.

But now I know all about the taste of grief.
About to speak of it, I stop;
about to speak of it, I stop
and say instead, "Days so cool -- what a lovely autumn!"

Hsin Ch'i-chi (1140-1207) (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 371. The poem is untitled.

"Days so cool -- what a lovely autumn!"  One can only hope to find the equanimity of Hsin Ch'i-chi.  Or the equanimity (and the beauty and truth) of this:

"Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless?  To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring -- these are even more deeply moving.  Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration. Are poems written on such themes as 'Going to view the cherry blossoms only to find they had scattered' or 'On being prevented from visiting the blossoms' inferior to those on 'Seeing the blossoms'? People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say, 'This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms.  There is nothing worth seeing now.'

"In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting.  Does the love between men and women refer only to the moments when they are in each other's arms?  The man who grieves over a love affair broken off before it was fulfilled, who bewails empty vows, who spends long autumn nights alone, who lets his thoughts wander to distant skies, who yearns for the past in a dilapidated house -- such a man truly knows what love means."

Kenkō (1283-1350) (translated by Donald Keene), Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 137, in Donald Keene (editor), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), pages 115 and 118.

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

After all my long-windedness, I find myself returning once again to my favorite poem of autumn.  (For which I beg the forbearance of long-time -- and much-appreciated! -- readers of this blog.)


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).

Come to think of it, "Leaves" has something to say about grieving, equanimity, and beauty.

As does this:

The wind has brought
     enough fallen leaves
To make a fire.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (Weatherhill 1977), page 67.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979)
"Burdens Farm, with Melbury Beacon" (1943)

Wednesday, October 18, 2023


Has any poet written as many beautiful and memorable lines as Yeats?  I confess that I am biased by circumstances.  I discovered the poetry of Yeats at an impressionable age: in my sophomore year of college, in a course titled "Yeats, Pound, and Eliot."  I was smitten from the start.  Imagine a melancholic, romantic lad, 19 years of age, reading this: "A pity beyond all telling/Is hid in the heart of love." ("The Pity of Love.")  Or this: "And bending down beside the glowing bars,/Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled/And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars." ("When You Are Old.")  Or this: "She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;/But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears." ("Down by the Salley Gardens.")  Or this: "I have spread my dreams under your feet;/Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."  ("He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.")  Prior to taking the course, I had a fitful interest in poetry.  But, when I came upon Yeats, that was it: my life changed.

As I have noted here in the past, I am fondest of the fin de siècle Yeats, the Yeats of the Celtic Twilight.  This no doubt suggests that I have failed to progress emotionally over the past five decades.  The "critical consensus" favors middle and late Yeats: the "mature" Yeats. But I don't find these sorts of critical assessments to be helpful.  (Am I to look askance at "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" because Yeats wrote it at the age of 25?)  There is great beauty to be found in all of Yeats -- early, middle, or late.  Best to just read the poems.

Thinking of poems by Yeats set in autumn, this comes first to mind: "Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,/And over the mice in the barley sheaves . . ."  ("The Falling of the Leaves.")  And then this: "The woods were round them, and the yellow leaves/Fell like faint meteors in the gloom, and once/A rabbit old and lame limped down the path;/Autumn was over him . . ."  ("Ephemera.")  These two poems appear beside each other in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, which was published in 1889, the heart of Yeats's Celtic Twilight period.

Still, despite my fondness for the younger Yeats, I am more than willing to concede that, when it comes to his autumn poems, this (from his middle years) is the finest:

         The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount 
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

W. B. Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole (Macmillan 1919).

As I asked at the outset: has any poet written as many beautiful and memorable lines as Yeats?  Each stanza of "The Wild Swans at Coole" has lines that one is unlikely to forget, having read them but once.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998)
"Stobo Kirk, Peeblesshire" (1936)

The autumn mood is the autumn mood at all times and in all places. Thus, reading "The trees are in their autumn beauty,/The woodland paths are dry," I think of this, from China in the Ninth Century, during the great T'ang Dynasty period of poetry:

                           The Cranes

The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919), page 57.  The poem is written in the eight-line lü-shih ("regulated verse") form, which, in addition to having tonal and rhyming requirements, calls for verbal parallelism in the second and third couplets.  (See Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), pages 8-12, 374.)

Waley's More Translations from the Chinese and Yeats's collection The Wild Swans at Coole were both published in 1919.  It is lovely to think that the two of them may have been working on "The Cranes" and "The Wild Swans at Coole" during the same period of time.  Po Chü-i had written "The Cranes" ten centuries earlier.  Twilight. Bright leaves.  Dry paths.  Swans and cranes.  Nothing had changed. Nothing has changed.

Malcolm Midwood Milne (1887-1954), "Barrow Hill" (1939)

In February of 1694, Matsuo Bashō wrote to a friend in Ueno (the town in which Bashō had been born and raised): "I feel my end is drawing near."  (Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 370.)  In June of that year, he made the long journey from Edo (now known as Tokyo) to Ueno (which is located near Kyoto).  In November, Bashō was still in Ueno, staying in a small cottage located behind his brother's house.  On November 13, he wrote this haiku:

     Along this road
Goes no one,
     This autumn eve.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 342.  Bashō included this headnote to the haiku: "Expressing how I feel."  (Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters, page 406.)  The Japanese word which Blyth translates as "eve" is kure.  Kure can mean "sunset," "dusk," or "evening;" it can also mean "end" or "close."  Hence, the final line of the haiku has sometimes been translated as, for instance, "the end of autumn" or "autumn's close."

On the same day, Bashō wrote this:

this autumn
why am I aging so?
to the clouds, a bird

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters, page 407.  The poem is prefaced by this headnote: "A wanderer's thought."  (Ibid, page 407.)  Bashō does not identify the type of bird.

Swans and cranes.  And, finally: "to the clouds, a bird."  Autumn.

[A postscript.  Bashō died on November 25.  This is his final haiku:

on a journey, ailing --
my dreams roam about
on a withered moor

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), Ibid, page 413.]

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2023


Once again, September.  The past few weeks, the afternoons have sometimes been as warm as midsummer.  But the leaves -- ah, the leaves: green going to gold, and to brown, amber, orange, and red. Fallen, falling, ready to fall.  Before long, they will "Scratch like birds at the windows/Or tick on the road."  (Derek Mahon, "Leaves.")  Not quite yet.  And where have the swallows gone?

Speaking of Derek Mahon, I recently realized that I have been remiss: it has been a few years since we last visited my favorite September poem.

     September in Great Yarmouth

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

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

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

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

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

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "The River" (c. 1924)

Late September, and the green leaves still outnumber those that have turned.  As the boughs sway in a breeze, one hears a susurration, a sea-sound, not a rattling.  On a clear day, leaf-shadows and patches of sunlight continue to revolve on the ground, kaleidoscopic, unceasing.

But yesterday afternoon I noticed dry yellow leaves gathering in the gutters as I walked through what was otherwise a green tunnel of trees.  A group of three maples I have come to know as the earliest heralds of autumn began their transformation at the beginning of the month: the highest boughs and the leaves out at the tips of the lower branches are scarlet; only a dwindling inner core of summer green remains.  "Now it is September and the web is woven./The web is woven and you have to wear it."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Dwarf.")

                         The Crossing

September, and the butterflies are drifting
Across the sky again, the monarchs in
Their myriads, delicate lenses for the light
To fall through and be mandarin-transformed.

I guess they are flying southward, or anyhow
That seems to be the average of their drift,
Though what you mostly see is a random light
Meandering, a Brownian movement to the wind,

Which is one of Nature's ways of getting it done,
Whatever it may be, the rise of hills
And settling of seas, the fall of leaf
Across the shoulder of the northern world,

The snowflakes one by one that silt the field . . .
All that's preparing now behind the scene,
As the ecliptic and equator cross,
Through which the light butterflies are flying.

Howard Nemerov, Gnomes & Occasions (University of Chicago Press 1973).

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

I have a vague notion of what occurs when "the ecliptic and equator cross."  Something to do with the movement of spheres, I suspect. But I'm reminded of my oft-repeated first principle of poetry: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  Here is a wider principle I have adopted at this moment: Explanation and explication are the death of enchantment.  The enchantment of the World, of course.  Mind you, I accept the existence of the ecliptic and the equator.  This is not an anti-scientific manifesto.  I simply prefer, for instance, a single butterfly or a single leaf, with no explanations attached.

In a headnote to a haiku, Bashō (1644-1694) writes: "As we look calmly, we see everything is content with itself."  (Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 153.)  The haiku is: "Playing in the blossoms/a horsefly . . . don't eat it,/friendly sparrows!"  (Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), Ibid, page 153.)  Ueda provides this annotation: "The headnote is a sentence that often appears in Taoist classics, although Bashō probably took it from a poem by the Confucian philosopher Ch'eng Ming-tao."  (Ibid, p. 153.)

Bashō's headnote brings to mind a notebook entry written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "September 1 -- the beards of Thistle & dandelions flying above the lonely mountains like life, & I saw them thro' the Trees skimming the lake like Swallows --."  (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon 1957), Notebook Entry 799 (September 1, 1800).  The text is as it appears in the notebook.)

All of which leads us to a single leaf:


When in still air and still in summertime
A leaf has had enough of this, it seems
To make up its mind to go; fine as a sage
Its drifting in detachment down the road.

Howard Nemerov, Gnomes & Occasions.

A single leaf.  Or a single butterfly.  No explanations required, or necessary.

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

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Bashō (Twayne 1970), page 50.

Henry Justice Ford (1860-1941)
"A View of Church Hill from the Mill Pond, Old Swanage" (1931)

[A coda. "The boatman" calling in someone out on the water whose "time is up" in Derek Mahon's "September in Great Yarmouth" makes an appearance in another poem:

               Yorkshiremen in Pub Gardens

     As they sit there, happily drinking,
their strokes, cancers, and so forth are not in their minds.
     Indeed, what earthly good would thinking
about the future (which is Death) do?  Each summer finds
     beer in their hands in big pint glasses.
     And so their leisure passes.

     Perhaps the older ones allow some inkling
into their thoughts.  Being hauled, as a kid, upstairs to bed
     screaming for a teddy or a tinkling
musical box, against their will.  Each Joe or Fred
     wants longer with the life and lasses.
     And so their time passes.

     Second childhood; and 'Come in, number 80!'
shouts inexorably the man in charge of the boating pool.
     When you're called you must go, matey,
so don't complain, keep it all calm and cool,
     there's masses of time yet, masses, masses . . .
     And so their life passes.

Gavin Ewart, in Philip Larkin (editor), Poetry Supplement Compiled by Philip Larkin for the Poetry Book Society (Poetry Book Society 1974).  Ewart and Larkin were friends.  The poem has a Larkinesque feel to it, doesn't it?  It's not surprising that Larkin chose to include it in the Poetry Book Society's annual Christmas anthology.

But I like to think that if Larkin had written the poem he would have softened it a bit, and made beautifully clear that we are all Yorkshiremen in pub gardens, each in our own way.  He likely would have done so in the final stanza: one long, lovely sentence hedged with one or two qualifications and perhaps containing a reversal -- but absolutely, humanly true.  He is not the misanthropic, dour caricature he is often incorrectly made out to be by the inattentive. For example: "Something is pushing them/To the side of their own lives."  (Philip Larkin, "Afternoons.")  Or: "As they wend away/A voice is heard singing/Of Kitty, or Katy,/As if the name meant once/All love, all beauty."  (Philip Larkin, "Dublinesque.")  And this: "we should be careful//Of each other, we should be kind/While there is still time."  (Philip Larkin, "The Mower.")

For some reason, I find myself reminded of a poem by Su Tung-p'o. It is a poem of spring, and thus may seem out of season.  But the final line is apt in any season, and at any time, in any place.

          Pear Blossoms by the Eastern Palisade

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

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

In a lifetime, how many Septembers do we see?]

Alexander Jamieson (1873-1937)
"Halton Lake, Wendover, Buckinghamshire"

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Life and Art. Art and Life.

One morning this week, as I walked along a shadowy but sun-dappled path through a grove of trees, I came upon a single golden pine needle hovering vertically in mid-air, at eye-level, above the path. The needle was suspended on a single gossamer thread.  Unmoving, it captured the angled morning sunlight of late August.

I walked on.  A few minutes later, I remembered this (which has appeared here in the past):

    On Something Observed

Torn remains of a cobweb,
     one strand dangling down --
a stray petal fluttering by
     has been tangled, caught in its skein,
all day to dance and turn,
     never once resting --
elsewhere in my garden,
     no breeze stirs.

Kokan Shiren (1278-1346) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume II: Poetry and Prose in Chinese by Japanese Writers of the Later Period (Columbia University Press 1976), page 27.  Kokan Shiren was a Zen Buddhist monk.

So goes our brief stay in Paradise.

Josephine Haswell Miller (1890-1975), "Studio Window" (1934)

Monday, July 31, 2023

One Thing Leads To Another, Part One: Bells

As I am wont to do several times a year, I recently returned to the poetry of Walter de la Mare.  At the beginning of last week, I revisited an old favorite:

                     The Bells

Shadow and light both strove to be
The eight bell-ringers' company,
As with his gliding rope in hand,
Counting his changes, each did stand;
While rang and trembled every stone,
To music by the bell-mouths blown:
Till the bright clouds that towered on high
Seemed to re-echo cry with cry.
Still swang the clappers to and fro,
When, in the far-spread fields below,
I saw a ploughman with his team
Lift to the bells and fix on them
His distant eyes, as if he would
Drink in the utmost sound he could;
While near him sat his children three,
And in the green grass placidly
Played undistracted on: as if
What music earthly bells might give
Could only faintly stir their dream,
And stillness make more lovely seem.
Soon night hid horses, children, all,
In sleep deep and ambrosial.
Yet, yet, it seemed, from star to star,
Welling now near, now faint and far,
Those echoing bells rang on in dream,
And stillness made even lovelier seem.

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

As is often the case in de la Mare's poetry, the poem is an evocation of Beauty, coupled with a meditation upon how each moment of Beauty we experience can continue to resonate -- and remain -- in our lives in ways we can never anticipate.  This coarse description of the poem is the sort of thing I always counsel against.  To wit: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  I should follow my own advice. Best to read the poem, keep silent, and rejoice in the particulars.  

For instance, consider the repetition of the "dream"/"seem" rhymes in lines 19 and 20 and in lines 25 and 26, with the accompanying repetition of line 20 ("And stillness make more lovely seem") -- with slight modifications -- in line 26 ("And stillness made even lovelier seem").  And, of course, where would we be without de la Mare's fondness for the word "lovely"?  "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour."  ("Fare Well.")  "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall."  ("Now.")  The "modernists" of de la Mare's day and the moderns of our own day (with their own fondness for supercilious irony) have no use for a word such as "lovely."  No surprise there.

Bertram Priestman (1868-1951), "Suffolk Water Meadows" (1906)

Philippe Jaccottet died on February 24, 2021 at the age of 95.  On March 4 of that year, his two final works were published in France: an essay (although "essay" seems too prosaic a word) (La Clarté Notre-Dame) and a collection of poems (Le Dernier Livre de Madrigaux).  The two works have been translated into English by John Taylor and have been published together in a single volume.  I ordered a copy of the book, and it arrived last Friday.

That evening I started to read La Clarté Notre-Dame.  It begins:

"Note dated 19 September 2012: 'This spring, don't forget the little vesper bell of La Clarté Notre-Dame, which sounds incredibly clear in the vast, grey, silent landscape -- truly like a kind of speech, call or reminder, a pure, weightless, fragile, yet crystal-clear tinkling -- in the grey distance of the air.'

"(Indeed, this: I must keep it alive like a bird in the palm of my hand, preserved for a flight that is still possible if one is not too clumsy, or too weary, or if the distrust of words doesn't prevail over it.)" 

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), in Philippe Jaccottet, 'La Clarté Notre-Dame' and 'The Last Book of the Madrigals' (Seagull Books 2022), page 5.  The italics appear in the original text.

After this two-sentence introduction, Jaccottet continues:

"On a day perhaps at the end of winter (after checking it was 4th of March, thus about a year ago), while walking with friends and barely talking in a vast landscape heading down a gentle slope to a remote valley, under a grey sky, and it's another kind of greyness that predominates in such a season in these otherwise empty fields where no one is working yet, where we're the only ones walking, with no haste and no other goal than getting some fresh air.
                                    *     *     *     *     *     *
"Up until then, nothing particularly strange, or that might have moved us.  At best, perhaps, a kind of prelude to something we didn't know. Until the little vesper bell of La Clarté Notre-Dame Convent, which we still couldn't see at the bottom of the valley, began to ring far below us, at the heart of all this almost-dull greyness.  I then said to myself, reacting in a way that was both intense and confusing (and so many times in similar moments I'd been forced to bring together the two epithets), that I'd never heard a tinkling -- prolonged, almost persistent, repeated several times -- as pure in its weightlessness, in its extreme fragility, as genuinely crystalline. . . . Yet which I couldn't listen to as if it were a kind of speech -- emerging from some mouth. . . . A tinkling so crystalline that it seemed, as it appeared, oddly, almost tender. . . . Ah, this was obviously something that resisted grasping, defied language, like so many other seeming messages from afar -- and this frail tinkling lasted, persisted, truly like an appeal, or a reminder . . ."

Ibid, pages 5-7.  The italics and ellipses appear in the original text.

Reading the passages above, I am reminded of this: "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.)

Bertram Priestman, "The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

Having the vesper bell of the convent of La Clarté Notre-Dame arrive unexpectedly just a few days after reading "The Bells" was a nice bit of serendipity.  I know nothing about how to live, and I possess no wisdom, but age has taught me that, when it comes to Beauty, one thing leads to another.  Whether this happens by chance, or by placing oneself in the way of Beauty, or by a combination of both, I don't know.  But I do know that, when the stepping stones of Beauty appear, one ought to follow their path.

Thus, the bells of the English countryside and a vesper bell chiming from a valley in France set me to thinking about the sound of bells. Eventually, again by way of Walter de la Mare -- this time through Come Hither, his wonderful anthology of poetry -- this came to mind:

         Against Oblivion

Cities drowned in olden time
Keep, they say, a magic chime
Rolling up from far below
When the moon-led waters flow.

So within me, ocean deep,
Lies a sunken world asleep.
Lest its bells forget to ring,
Memory! set the tide a-swing!

Henry Newbolt (1862-1938), in Walter de la Mare (editor), Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages (Constable 1923), page 214.  In Come Hither, de la Mare gives the poem the title "Cities Drowned."  However, when the poem was originally published, Newbolt titled it "Against Oblivion."  (Henry Newbolt, Songs of Memory and Hope (John Murray 1909), page 50.) Newbolt and de la Mare were close friends, and Newbolt encouraged de la Mare when he embarked upon his literary career.  "Against Oblivion" in fact sounds like something de la Mare himself could have written.

"Against Oblivion" is the penultimate poem in the section of Come Hither titled "Dance, Music and Bells."  I proceeded to the poem which follows it:

                  The Bell-man

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

Robert Herrick, in Walter de la Mare (editor), Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages, page 215. "Benedicite" is "an expletive of good omen, used after the mention of some evil word or thing."  (Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 611 (quoting the Reverend Charles Percival Phinn).)  The Reverend Phinn (who died in 1906) was an indefatigable and thorough annotator of Herrick's poetry.  His annotations were never published, but were preserved in the margins of his copy of Herrick's poems.  (Ibid, Volume I, page 432.)  The annotations have been praised, and relied upon, by modern editors of Herrick's poetry.

Herrick's poem provided another stepping stone, leading once again to Walter de la Mare:


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

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

Bertram Priestman, "Wooded Hillside" (1910)

One thing leads to another: from the bells of sunken cities and of night watchmen my thoughts turned, for no apparent reason, to the sound of bells in Japanese poetry.  A set of two haiku written by Issa (1763-1828) provided the next stepping stones.

     The evening cool;
Not knowing the bell
     Is tolling our life away.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume III: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 124.

     The evening cool;
Knowing the bell
     Is tolling our life away.

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 125.

Of the "four masters" of haiku (the other three being Bashō, Buson, and Shiki), Issa is the most down-to-earth and playful, and is by turns tragic and comic.  Commenting on the two haiku, R. H. Blyth writes: "only the enlightened man knows, as part of his hearing the bell, as part of every breath he draws, as part of the coolness, that all is fleeting and evanescent."  (Ibid, page 125; the italics appear in the original text.)  But who would presume to describe himself or herself as "enlightened"?  We know, but we don't know, isn't that the case? It depends on the moment.

I can't imagine that Walter de la Mare would have ever referred to himself as being "enlightened."  But he was well aware "that all is fleeting and evanescent."  Two days prior to his death, he "wrote to a friend of the midsummer leaf and blossom: 'One looks at it partly with amazed delight and partly with anticipatory regret at its transitoriness'."  (Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare (Duckworth 1993), page 445 and page 459 (footnote 13).)  De la Mare's comment in the letter articulates the essence of much of his poetry.
Issa's complementary and provocative haiku were not the stopping point.  At a certain stage in your life, you learn to be patient and wait for things to float up.  In time, two beloved treasures arrived.

The first treasure:

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. The poem is a link in a renga hyakuin (a sequence of one hundred linked verses).  Renga consist of alternating three-line and two-line verses (links).  The three-line verses/links in renga were the precursors of what eventually became a new poetic form: free-standing haiku.

The second treasure:

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

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

Both of these poems have appeared here before (the latter on several occasions).  They are two of my favorite poems.  They speak for themselves.  

The sound of bells.  Yes, when it comes to Beauty, one thing leads to another.

Bertram Priestman, "The Great Green Hills of Yorkshire" (1913)