Wednesday, December 21, 2016


I often walk past a small meadow of wild grasses that ends in a forest of evergreens and deciduous trees.  At this time of year, it is a tawny, brown, and russet world, save for the dark green pines and cedars in the distance, rising above the bare branches of the other trees.

On a grey and windless day, the meadow appears to be lifeless.  Everything has come to an end.  Or so it would seem.  One afternoon this past week I stood beside the still and silent grasses, beneath a dull sky, and entertained just such thoughts.  Then, suddenly, I realized how wrong I was:  I felt all at once the vitality that emanated from the meadow, and from everything around me.

Yet, we must give the seasons, and the feelings they evoke in us, their due. The late autumn emotions that I felt on the edge of the meadow are to be expected.  "The question that he frames in all but words/Is what to make of a diminished thing."  (Robert Frost, "The Oven Bird.")  Diminished, yes, but not dead.

                                A Dirge

Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo's calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
          For their far off flying
          From summer dying.

Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples' dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
          And all winds go sighing
          For sweet things dying.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875).

Herbert Hughes-Stanton (1870-1937), "The Mill in the Valley" (1892)

I am not given to imagining that the beautiful particulars of the World are whispering in my ear.  Still, the seemingly lifeless end-of-autumn meadow that I stood beside was neither reticent nor impassive.  They did not occur to me at the time, but two thoughts now come to mind.  "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Course of a Particular.")  "The infinite is the breath that animates us."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 37.)

And there is this:  "Days are where we live."  (Philip Larkin, "Days.") Seasons are where we live as well.  No wonder that each of us is likely to have a particular season (or a short passage within a season) that quickens our senses and our emotions.

But it is difficult to choose, isn't it?  I have observed here in the past that I would be willing to spend eternity lying on the grass beneath a tree in midsummer, looking up at the ever-changing kaleidoscope of blue, green, and yellow overhead, listening to the never-ending rustling of leaves.  But I can also imagine spending a perfectly acceptable eternity lying beneath the same tree in spring, autumn, or winter.

Let me die in spring
under the blossoming trees,
let it be around
that full moon
of Kisaragi month.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 40.

Watson appends this note to the poem:

"Kisaragi is the Japanese name for the second month of the lunar year. Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have died on the fifteenth day of the second month.  Saigyō fulfilled the wish expressed in his poem in a striking manner by dying on the sixteenth day of the second month of 1190, a feat that greatly impressed the people of his time, who were familiar with this poem."

Burton Watson, Ibid, page 40.

Here is an alternative translation of the poem:

This is what I want:
to die in the springtime,
beneath the blossoms --
midway through the Second Month,
when the moon is at the full.

Saigyō (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 165.

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Chateau Gaillard, Les Andelys" (1907)

I am an extremely slow learner.  Thus, as I begin my daily afternoon walk, I often caution myself:  "Look, but don't look for anything."  This is a corollary to another important principle:  "Don't think."  (As I have stated here on more than one occasion:  thinking is highly overrated.)  Of course, I invariably fail to heed both of these internal admonitions.

We require only two things as we set off into the World:  receptivity and gratitude.  We are reminded of this on a daily basis by the seasons, whose losses are always accompanied by compensations.  Each year I am saddened as the last of the leaves disappear from the trees in autumn.  But, when I see the bare branches against the winter sky, I realize that I have lost nothing.


We carved our names
in a courtyard near the river

when you were the youngest
of all our guests.

But you will never see
bright spring again,

or the beautiful apricot
blossoms that flutter past

the open temple door.

Chang Chi (768-830) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 177.

Losses and compensations.  Do they balance each other out?

              In Obitum M S, X° Maij, 1614

May!  Be thou never grac'd with birds that sing,
                    Nor Flora's pride!
In thee all flowers and roses spring,
                    Mine only died.

William Browne of Tavistock (c. 1591-c. 1645), in Gordon Goodwin (editor), The Poems of William Browne of Tavistock, Volume II (Lawrence & Bullen 1894), page 289.

I am not in a position to second-guess William Browne's grief at his loss. But I do think of compensations.  "The beautiful apricot blossoms that flutter past the open temple door."

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Mons" (1918)

In early June of 1801, Kobayashi Issa returned to his birthplace, the mountain village of Kashiwabara (in modern-day Nagano Prefecture), to care for his ailing father, who died less than a month later.  During this time, Issa maintained a journal, to which he gave the title Chichi no Shūen Nikki ("Journal of My Father's Last Days").  He gives this account of his father's death on a July morning:

"The night moved brightly into dawn, and about six o'clock, as though he had fallen into a deep sleep, Father breathed his last.

"I took hold of his empty, pitiful body.  Would that this was all a dream from which I might soon awake!  But dream or reality, I felt as though I was wandering in darkness without a lamp, on this cold dawn in this fleeting world.

"The impermanent spring flowers are seduced and scattered by the wind; this ignorant world's autumn moon is surrounded and hidden by clouds. The world knows -- need I repeat it? --, 'That which lives must perish; that which is joined together will certainly fall apart.'  And although this is the road that all must travel eventually, I was foolish enough not to believe that my own father could go as soon as yesterday or today."

Issa (translated by Robert Huey), in Robert Huey, "Journal of My Father's Last Days: Issa's Chichi no Shūen Nikki," Monumenta Nipponica, Volume 39, Number 1 (Spring 1984), pages 49-50.

Issa concludes the journal with this haiku:

If Father were here,
We'd be looking out at dawn
Across these wide green hills.

Issa (translated by Robert Huey), Ibid, page 54.

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Welsh Hills near Barmouth" (1918)


Mudpuddle said...

sometimes i feel that "truth" is only present in the emptiness between the galaxies... reading your latest post awakens me to present and local beauty.. many tx..

Fred said...


I may have said this before, but anyway I find autumn to be the most confusing? complex? of the seasons--a mix of sadness and mournfulness but also with an underlying sense of hope. This too shall pass.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: Thank you. Your first thought immediately brought to mind Frost's "Desert Places": "They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/Between stars -- on stars where no human race is." And your second thought about "present and local beauty" brought to mind these lines from "Birches": "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better." (Or perhaps I have pulled them a bit out of context!) Your point is an excellent one.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I agree with that characterization. As you know, I tend to use the word "wistfulness" to describe my predominant autumn feeling -- to some extent this is a combination of the "sadness," "mournfulness," and "underlying sense of hope" you mention. Since Frost seems to be on my mind this morning, here is something that your comment stirred up (from "In Hardwood Groves," which I know you are familiar with):

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. Merry Christmas!

Mudpuddle said...

stephen: WOW! a poem with nous!

George said...

If I double posted this, please delete this. My network connection dropped while I was writing the first version.

I like all of the seasons. However, it occurred to me long ago that it must be easier to enjoy winter when one is assured of warmth and dry clothes indoors. Similarly, I can still run (on shady routes) on the hottest, muggiest days of a Potomac summer. But if I couldn't sleep in air conditioning, would I still enjoy the summer?

We are having a mild winter so far. The predominant colors are the green of grass and evergreens, and the tawny brown of leaves fallen or dead but still hanging--the city planted many scarlet oaks along our block. There is not the sharp contrast of a snowier climate, there is not the predominance of green that there might be in the Pacific Northwest, but it is a palette I have grown used to and come to love, partly no doubt from familiarity. Yet I think the right painter can demonstrate its attractions to those from elsewhere.

For a sharp and jocular contrast between seasons, there is the song at the end of Love's Labours Lost. I thought of it last year on a Sunday when coughing drowned the parson's saw, as it has not yet done this year. The force of "And milk comes frozen home in pail" only just occurred to me: in the winters outside of Cleveland it was not unusual to find glass bottles of milk frozen and broken; but they did not start off at body temperature.

Fred said...


That's perfect! Thanks for reminding me of it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: I fear I'm slow on the uptake: my acquaintance with the various meanings of "nous" is limited. But, from what little I know, I'd say that it is a quality that is found in a great number of Frost's poems. Thank you for the follow-up thought.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much for those seasonal thoughts, and for the reference to the song from Love's Labours Lost, which is a wonderful evocation of winter. I spent my earliest years in Minnesota, so it bears the ring of truth for me. (Although, at that age, it was all fun and games.) I envy you the scarlet oaks. Oaks are few where I live. But I remember them fondly -- again, from my early years in Minnesota.

Your description of the seasons put me in mind of Edward Thomas's listing of the months in "There's nothing like the sun," (which I presume is an echo of Shakespeare's "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," and is thus coincidentally apt in light of your own reference), which ends:

"There's nothing like the sun that shines today."
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

As always, I appreciate hearing from you. Thank you for stopping by again. Merry Christmas!

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: It popped into my head right away when I read your comment. I have posted it here in the past, and, if I recall correctly, I believe that you have posted it on your blog as well. So it's a favorite we share. It's the kind of poem that stays with you. (Which, as you know, is true of a great many of Frost's poems.) Thanks for the follow-up thought.

John Ashton said...

Stehen, You mention that we each of us are likely to have a favourite season, or a time within that season. I'm not sure if that's true, though naturally I can only speak for myself. When I'm living through a season I rarely hanker after another, each seems to contain its own small delights that until it is upon us I think we easily forget, and each as you say has its own particularities that waken our senses and speak to us, perhaps in ways that are too individual to convey to others.

Yesterday, late afternoon I was working on my allotment, digging potatoes. The sun was going down in a fiery orange blaze, the sky streaked with red and pink, and countless crows were gathering very noisily above the trees beside the reservoir preparing to roost. It was such a marvellous combination of so many things,and I alone there to witness it. At that moment I could imagine it stretching out to an eternity that I might be better able to savour it.

We require receptivity and gratitude as you say, but would also add attentiveness, the time to notice. Look, but don't look for anything"." Don't think", reminded me of some words from a poem by Fernando Pessoa;

My gaze is clear as a sunflower.
It is my habit to walk along the roads
Looking right and left,
And from time to time looking back...
And what I see at any moment
Is something that I have never seen before,
And I can notice very well...
I can know the essential wonder

...I believe in the world like a marigold,
Because I see it. But I don’t think about it
Because to think is to not understand...
The world was not made for us to think about it
(To think is to have pain in the eyes)

Perhaps the final line is a little overstated, but I think I understand what he is saying.

Thank you for another though provoking post.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you for those late autumn/early winter thoughts -- there are those crows again, which we spoke of recently. I take your point about the difficulty in selecting a "favorite" season. I love them all. But, for as long as I can remember, autumn has been special for me. For what reason, I don't know. (Well, of course the beauty, but there is something on an emotional level as well.)

And thank you as well for the poem by Pessoa, which is new to me. (I'm embarrassed to say that I have never read anything by him, although I have been aware of him.) It is a marvelous poem, and perfect in this context. The lines "And what I see at any moment/Is something I have never seen before" resonate for me: although my walks take me past scenes I see nearly every day, I always have the feeling that things are new, and I always know that I will come across something unexpected. This is why I mentioned cautioning myself not to "look for" anything on my walks: something unexpected always appears. I know that you have expressed similar thoughts in our correspondence here over the years.

I also particularly like: "Because to think is to not understand . . ./The world was not made for us to think about it." This sounds like something a Chinese or a Japanese poet might say, and it reflects a Taoist or a Buddhist conception of the World. But I am not suggesting that Pessoa was directly influenced by Taoism or Buddhism (I know nothing about him). Rather, this is further confirmation that these fundamental truths have been, and are, present in all places and at all times.

As for "To think is to have pain in the eyes": I find it to be a lovely line. I will definitely try to rectify my ignorance of Pessoa. Thank you for the introduction.

Thank you again for your thoughts, and for the poem. And, again, Merry Christmas!

Mudpuddle said...

the Pessoa poem is extraordinarily good; many tx for sending it... i've heard of him but know little of his work...

Stephen Pentz said...

Mudpuddle: I concur; I am very grateful to Mr. Ashton for sharing the poem. I will be exploring Pessoa's work in the new year. Thanks for stopping by again. Merry Christmas!

Fred said...


A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and yours.

The Solitary Walker said...

I have just discovered your excellent blog, Stephen, and would like to add it to my blog list, if that's OK. (I found it after searching jointly for Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas.)

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you. A (belated) Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your loved ones as well. I look forward to further exchanges in the coming year.

Stephen Pentz said...

The Solitary Walker: Thank you for the kind words. I would be delighted to be added to your blog list. Thank you. I'm pleased you found your way here, and I hope you'll return. Happy holidays.

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you, belatedly, for yet another wonderful rumination with well-chosen poetry. As for myself, I'm a sort of "death is the mother of beauty" kind of person, followed by "a terrible beauty is born". When I was quite young I was convinced that I had already arrived at "That time of year ... when yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hand / Upon those boughs which shake against the old". My life has been led in a perpetual late November of the spirit.

It is only great art, like the poems you quote and the illustrations you find, and your blog in general that gives me snippets of May or June.

I hope you have an excellent 2017.

Stephen Pentz said...

sunt_lacrimae_rerum: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thank you for the kind words about the post.

I am sympathetic with the autumnal tone you describe. "My life has been led in a perpetual late November of the spirit." Your description is wonderful, and resonates greatly with me. Each of us is unique, but I have some familiarity with the state of being you describe. But, as you say, we do let May and June (and all the rest) in as well.

Happy New Year, and I wish you all the best in the coming year.

erin said...

Stephen, i decided to come back to this post today before it was too late:) i have been thinking a great deal about what George wrote, "I like all of the seasons. However, it occurred to me long ago that it must be easier to enjoy winter when one is assured of warmth and dry clothes indoors."

our luxury is a bridge both ways, isn't it? we become untethered and unseeing at times about our relationship with the environment in this distance. but also, without the luxury we might not have enough distance to reflect.

there is an incredibly wonderful art documentary that can be found on youtube about our relationship with cold, "Tales of Winter: The Art of Snow and Ice." i wanted both you and George to know about it.

best wishes to you in the new year))

Stephen Pentz said...

erin: Don't worry, comments are never "too late" here! Your observation about "our luxury [being] a bridge both ways" is an excellent one. This may not be exactly on point, but it reminds me of a feeling I had recently when out for a walk on a cold (for this part of the world), windy day: I was uncomfortable, but I then realized that I should enjoy the feeling of being able to be out in the cold. On the other hand, it is also nice to sit by the window and watch the snow falling outside!

Thank you very much for the reference to "Tales of Winter: The Art of Snow and Ice." I have only been able to watch part of the first of six installments on YouTube, but it is wonderful! I was hooked as soon as Brueghel's "The Hunters in the Snow" appeared on the screen: Brueghel is a favorite of mine, as is that particular painting. Of course, the photography of the winter scenes is beautiful. It reminds me of my childhood in Minnesota.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I wish you all the best in the new year as well.