Friday, July 1, 2011

"The Absurdity Of Stretching Out Our Arms Incessantly To Grasp That Which We Cannot Keep"

A few posts back, I quoted the following line of verse by Ryokan:  "If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things."  This bit of advice has been around in all ages and in all places.  Acting upon it in one's own life is, of course, another matter entirely.

The line kept bouncing around my head.  I seemed to recall that Samuel Johnson had said something along the same lines.  (As Walter Jackson Bate writes in his biography of Johnson:  "Whatever we experience, we find Johnson has been there before us, and is meeting and returning home with us.")  I eventually found what I was looking for in one of my journals:  I had recorded Johnson's thoughts for future reference. 

"Every man has experienced, how much of this ardour has been remitted, when a sharp or tedious sickness has set death before his eyes.  The extensive influence of greatness, the glitter of wealth, the praises of admirers, and the attendance of supplicants, have appeared vain and empty things, when the last hour seemed to be approaching; and the same appearance they would always have, if the same thought was always predominant.  We should then find the absurdity of stretching out our arms incessantly to grasp that which we cannot keep, and wearing out our lives in endeavours to add new turrets to the fabrick of ambition, when the foundation itself is shaking, and the ground on which it stands is mouldering away."

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, Number 17 (May 15, 1750).

The Chinese poet Su Tung-P'o (also known as Su Shih) (1037-1101) beautifully expresses the same thought in a more oblique fashion:

Misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko --
Before you have been there, you have many regrets;
When you have been there and come back,
It is just simply misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko.

Su Tung-P'o (translated by R. H. Blyth), in Haiku, Volume One: Eastern Culture (1949).  I think that perhaps Blyth should have omitted the phrase "it is just simply" from the final line.

                                  Gilbert Spencer, "Bedroom Window"


Fred said...

Are you suggesting something like the following?

Misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko --
Before you have been there, you have many regrets;
When you have been there and come back,
Misty rain on Mount Ro, the incoming tide at Sekko.

I think I can see why you might want to drop it, but it doesn't seem right without it. Well, I need to think on this some more.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: my suggestion is based upon the original Chinese text that Blyth prints above his translation in Haiku, Volume 1: the characters in the first line and the forth line are the same. I don't know Chinese, but I suspect that Su Tung-P'o repeated the first and fourth lines. I would guess (and this is only a guess) that Blyth decided that his Western audience wouldn't "get it" unless he added "it is just simply." I emphasize that this is purely speculation on my part.

As always, thank you for stopping by.

Fred said...

I am reminded of the following poem by Wallace Berry--a bit more talky and explanatory than Su Tung-P'o.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

-- Wendell Berry --

Stephen Pentz said...

Thank you very much, Fred. I particularly like the phrase "forethought of grief." In another of his Rambler essays, Johnson writes about the folly of thinking/worrying too much about what calamities might come upon us in the future. Lying down with ducks and herons might be a good remedy for that!