Night Rain -- Worrying About the Flowers
I sigh on this rainy late spring night:
the reds and whites that filled the forest are falling to the dust!
Late at night, my soul in dream becomes a butterfly,
chasing after each falling petal as it flutters to the earth.
Ishikawa Jōzan (1583-1672) (translated by Jonathan Chaves), in J. Thomas Rimer, Jonathan Chaves, Stephen Addiss, and Hiroyuki Suzuki, Shisendo: Hall of the Poetry Immortals (Weatherhill 1991), page 49.
As I have noted here before, during the Edo (or Tokugawa) period (1603-1868) a significant number of Japanese poets devoted themselves to writing poems in Chinese. The poems they wrote are known as kanshi (a Japanese word meaning -- no surprise -- "Chinese poem"). Ishikawa Jōzan is perhaps the most admired kanshi poet. He possessed a deep knowledge of both Chinese poetry (including its intricate and demanding prosodic rules) and Chinese philosophy. Hence, it is not unlikely that he had the following passage from Chuang Tzu in mind when he wrote "Night Rain -- Worrying About the Flowers."
"Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn't know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou."
Chuang Tzu (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings (Columbia University Press 1964), page 45. A note: Chuang Tzu's family name was "Chuang;" his given name was "Chou." He later came to be known as "Chuang Tzu" ("Master Chuang") because of his philosophical teachings.
Allusions to Chuang Tzu's butterfly dream appear often in traditional Japanese poetry, particularly in haiku. Here is one instance:
What are you dreaming there,
Fanning your wings?
Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) (translated by R. H. Bkyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 257.
James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)
When it comes to the seasons, the wistfulness and bittersweetness quotients for spring and autumn are, as I have observed in the past, quite high. So many reminders of our transience, and of the constancy of change! Thus arises the irrational (or is it irrational?) desire to freeze things in place.
Here's a thought: what if we could transform our existence into a spring or an autumn version of a snow globe? Shake the globe, and you can live in an eternity of fluttering pink and white blossoms or, alternatively, in an eternity of flying and falling yellow, red, and orange leaves. Would we in time find these eternal worlds monotonous? I think so. Wistfulness and bittersweetness are wonderful and essential human things, sorrow and all.
Fallen Blossoms on the Eastern Hills
Cherry blossoms filling the ground, sunset filling my eyes:
blossoms vanished, spring old, I feel the passing years.
When blossoms were at their finest I neglected to call.
The blossoms did not betray me. I betrayed the blossoms.
Ishikawa Jōzan (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 16.
Here is an alternative translation:
Falling Cherry Blossoms at Higashiyama
Filling the ground -- cherry blossoms,
Filling the eyes -- pink clouds;
the blossoms have faded, spring grown old,
I feel the passing of years.
When the blossoms were at their peak,
I did not come to visit:
it's not that the blossoms are unfaithful to me;
I was unfaithful to them.
Ishikawa Jōzan (translated by Jonathan Chaves), in J. Thomas Rimer, et al., Shisendo: Hall of the Poetry Immortals, page 43. A note: Higashiyama is a district in Kyoto. Higashi means "east." Yama means "mountain."
James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)A
It's funny how life works. When you are young, an afternoon can seem to last for ever. But at some point you come to notice that a year -- even a decade! -- can pass in the blink of an eye. The fluttering petals are trying to tell us something.
A Contemplation upon Flowers
Brave flowers -- that I could gallant it like you,
And be as little vain!
You come abroad, and make a harmless shew,
And to your beds of earth again.
You are not proud: you know your birth:
For your embroidered garments are from earth.
You do obey your months and times, but I
Would have it ever spring:
My fate would know no winter, never die,
Nor think of such a thing.
Oh, that I could my bed of earth but view
And smile, and look as cheerfully as you!
Oh, teach me to see death and not to fear,
But rather to take truce!
How often have I seen you at a bier,
And there look fresh and spruce!
You fragrant flowers, then teach me, that my breath
Like yours may sweeten and perfume my death.
Henry King (1592-1669), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics (William Sloane 1950), page 57.
These lines in King's poem seem to anticipate what Stevens would say three centuries later in "This Solitude of Cataracts": "You do obey your months and times, but I/Would have it ever spring:/My fate would know no winter, never die,/Nor think of such a thing." A fond but futile hope.
James McIntosh Patrick, "City Garden" (1979)
It seems to me that the appropriate response to all of this "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All") is gratitude. Gratitude (and joy) amidst the wistfulness and bittersweetness (and sorrow) of this fluttering world.
Recalling Blossoms After They've Scattered
Once I see
the new green leaves,
my heart may take to them too --
if I think of them as mementos
of blossoms that scattered.
Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 46.
Is life as complicated as we make it out to be? Are the particular times in which we live uniquely parlous and complex? I wonder.
Do not also the petals flutter down,
Just like that?
Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring, page 363.
James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)