Friday, May 15, 2015


A week or so ago, I noticed the annual sign that Spring has arrived in earnest and that Summer is near:  tiny anthills began to emerge along the seams of the sidewalks.  We love Spring for its flowers and its blossoming trees, for its wide skies and its breezes, and for its changeableness.  But, for me at least, there is something reassuring, even touching, in knowing that the ants are once again going about their business.

Yes, I know there is a vast, clamorous World out there.  But, as I have observed on more than one occasion, there is something to be said for appreciating, and cultivating, the commonplace.


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

John Drinkwater, Tides (1917).

We mustn't fall prey to the Pathetic Fallacy, we are told.  But I unabashedly confess that ants are "invested in my mood/With constancy, and peace, and fortitude."  I cannot help myself.  I wait for their reassurance each Spring, and I am comforted when they provide it.

Robert Lillie (1867-1949), "Flower Study, Narcissi"

I have an uneasy feeling that I am about to make a pretentious and annoying Pronouncement About Poetry.  So let me first say that I deplore Pronouncements About Poetry.  That being said, here is my Pronouncement:  one of the benefits of good poetry is that it teaches us humility.

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower -- but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Alfred Tennyson, The Holy Grail and Other Poems (1869).  The poem is untitled.

William Blake preceded Tennyson:  "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower."  ("Auguries of Innocence.")  In our ironic "modern" world, this sort of thing is regarded as a cliché.  But it's all true, you know.

Robert Lillie, "Part of My Studio Mantel"

For real humility before the wonder of the World, consider this:

                              Morning Glories

By the well side, morning glories I transplanted,
wild tendrils climbing the rail, angling this way and that:
before I know it the well rope's been completely seized --
now I beg water from the house next door.

Rokunyo (1734-1801) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 48.

Rokunyo's poem was likely inspired by the following well-known haiku:

By morning glories
my well bucket's been seized --
borrowing water.

Chiyo-ni (also known as Kaga no Chiyo) (1703-1775) (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid.

Thus, perhaps Chiyo-ni and Rokunyo would not have plucked the flower in the crannied wall.  This is not intended to be a criticism of Tennyson, by the way.  I've plucked a flower or two in my day.  As it turns out, Japanese poets are themselves of two minds about whether flowers ought to be plucked.

     To pluck it is a pity,
To leave it is a pity,
     Ah, this violet!

Naojo (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 380.

     The violet:
Held in the hand,
     Yet more lovely.

Koshu (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 381.

Whether the flower is plucked or not plucked, the underlying lesson is one of humility.

Robert Lillie, "Japanese Anemones"

I know nothing about how to live.  I have no wisdom to impart.  But I have come to learn that truisms are, well, true.  The commonplace World -- the World right there in front of us at this moment -- is all that we need.  Its wonders are inexhaustible.  We owe it our humility.

                 Life Hurries By

Life hurries by, and who can stay
One winged Hour upon her way?
The broken trellis then restore
And train the woodbine round the door.

Walter Savage Landor, Dry Sticks (1858).

Robert Lillie, "The Paisley Shawl"


John Ashton said...

What a wonderful post Mr Pentz.
" The commonplace World -- the World right there in front of us at this moment -- is all that we need. Its wonders are inexhaustible. We owe it our humility.
Any words of words of my own would be superfluous. Thank you.

Fred said...


A few more about ambivalence re cutting flowers:

I raised my knife to it:
Then walked empty-handed on. . .
Proud rose of Sharon
-- Sampu --

Sadness at twilight. . .
Villain! I have let my hand
Cut that peony
-- Buson --

White chrysanthemum. . .
Before that perfect flower
Scissors hesitate
-- Buson --

All haiku are from The Little Treasury of Haiku, trans. by Peter Beilenson.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: As always, thank you very much for visiting and for the kind words about the post.

I believe this is a topic that you and I have discussed on occasion in the past. But I need to constantly remind myself in regard to these simple things. Paying attention is always difficult, with all of the distractions around us. And paying attention inevitably prompts humility, and gratitude.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for the haiku, which are all new to me. I'm not surprised: this seems like a natural subject for haiku poets (and one which reflects Japanese culture in general). You've now prompted me to burrow around in R. H. Blyth's four volumes to see if I can discover others in a similar vein.

It's always good to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by.

Brian said...

Your posts are always a refreshment. Your site and Anecdotal Evidence are the stars of my feed reader.

Yesterday my neighbour was hanging a line of wash. It instantly brought to mind Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." Being fetched by a poem is serendipitous delight.

Stephen Pentz said...

Brian: Thank you very much for the kind words about the blog. I greatly appreciate your visits. And thank you as well for the reference to the poem by Wilbur, which I was not familiar with, but which I have now found on the Internet: lovely! It fits very well with the subject matter of the post.

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

Knowledge is proud that he has learn'd so much;
Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.
--William Cowper

Wisdom is hard to define, but we might suspect that when one stands alone under the might sky, thinks one place in the cosmic scale of things, one cannot, if one is wise, avoid humility, a pitiful sense of insignificance, the harrowing truth of one's essential loneliness--a finite creature struck dumb by infinity. The rising sun enscorcels most of us, the old deceit come again. The wise person, however, sits quietly and finds as much truth as exists in the blooming of flowers. We know nothing, except the inexplicable veneer of beauty that can charm us for a moment or two.

Fred said...


I think your best best would be in the Summer volume. In the smaller collections I looked through, I found them all in the summer section, if there was a seasonal breakdown.

mary f.ahearn said...

Another word on the dilemma of cutting flowers, most especially wildflowers - "The Book of Tea" by Okakura Kakuzo. The chapter on flowers is -although quite flowery- sorry, couldn't resist - is an interesting read.
I find in my older years that I just can't cut flowers anymore. I hate to take them away from the blue skies, their gardens. More sentimental by the day, I believe.
Thank you for your lovely blog - it is such a pleasure.

Anonymous said...

"The only wisdom is the wisdom of humility."

From T.S. Eliots' "East Coker":

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the lines from Cowper, and for your thoughts on humility. However, I'm not certain that wisdom and humility (to the limited extent that we are able to attain a trace of either of them) necessarily involve a realization that "we know nothing," or that beauty is a "veneer." I'd say (in my humble opinion) that the beauty of the World is real, not a "veneer," and that to be aware of that beauty is to "know" a great deal indeed (whatever "know" means).

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Agreed. I haven't had a chance to look yet, but Blyth has a volume devoted to summer and autumn, and an entire volume devoted to spring as well. I'll be on the look out for the haiku you shared, to see how Blyth translates them. Thanks for the follow-up comment.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: Thank you for the reference to The Book of Tea: it's a book that I've had on my shelf for years, but I have never gotten around to reading it. I will take a look at the chapter on flowers.

As for not cutting flowers: I don't find that "sentimental," merely a natural response. A side-note (not directed at you or at your comment): I think it is unfortunate that "sentimental" and "sentimentality" tend to be used in a pejorative sense in our ironic "modern" world. I see nothing wrong with either emotion.

As ever, thank you very much for your thoughts, and for your kind words about the blog. It is always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the wonderful passage from Eliot. Perfect. (It also reminds me that it has been way too long since I last read Four Quartets.)

Thanks again.

Fred said...


I have the Spring volume by Blythe also but really haven't looked into it. Too many books. . .

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I know the feeling. The good thing about Blyth's four-volume haiku set is that you can open any of the volumes at random and find something of interest. But, as I'm sure you've noticed, he also arranges each of the seasonal volumes by collecting the haiku into season-specific subjects: specific flowers, trees, birds, insects, et cetera. Very helpful, and enlightening.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I've been in the country for a lovely May week, my first time in over a year.
Walking on my cousin's driveway, I noticed the fresh anthills, & thought of your comment, which I read just before leaving. Along with the perfect lilacs, apple blossoms & finally lilies of the valley in an old garden, I enjoyed thinking of the anthills as also a sign of spring.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm very happy to hear from you again. I'm delighted that you were able to spend some time in the country this spring -- particularly after the harsh winter you had! It sounds wonderful.

I hope you'll be able to get out into the parks and gardens in the city during what remains of the spring. As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.