Monday, December 31, 2018


The ways in which beauty places itself in our path are manifold and mysterious.  Early this morning, out of the blue, I received this gift:

"October 6, 1940.  Late in the season as it is, a dragonfly has appeared and is flying around me.  Keep on flying as long as you can  -- your flying days will soon be over."

Taneda Santōka (1882-1940) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, For All My Walking:  Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka with Excerpts from His Diaries (Columbia University Press 2003), page 102.

The passage is lovely in itself, but it moves into a deeper dimension when one considers the life of Taneda Santōka.  When he was eleven years old, his mother committed suicide by drowning herself in a well.  Santōka watched as her body was pulled from the well.  He attended Waseda University in Tokyo for a year, but was forced to leave due to a drinking problem, which persisted throughout his life. He married, but the marriage ended in divorce.  He entered into a business venture (a sake brewery) with his father, but the business failed.  After he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide by standing in front of a train, he was taken in by the head priest of a Zen Buddhist temple.  At the age of 43, he was ordained as a Zen priest.

After serving briefly as the caretaker of a temple, he became a mendicant monk, spending much of the remainder of his life on constant walking journeys throughout Japan, in all seasons -- walking and walking, forever walking.  He survived by begging and by sleeping in cheap inns or, often, out in the open air.  But he maintained a loyal group of friends who came to his aid when times were most difficult.  And, through it all, he wrote haiku -- lovely and moving haiku.  He died in his sleep at the age of 58.

Burton Watson appends the following note to the passage by Santōka quoted above:  "This is the last entry in Santōka's diary, written four days before his death."

Ian Grant (1904-1993), "Cheshire Mill" (1939)

As is usually the case, the arrival of beauty betokens an opening, not a closing.  Thus, Santōka's dragonfly brought this to mind:

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
          For know, all things
          Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
          Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (556-468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 234.

I apologize for repeating myself:  Simonides' poem appeared here last month.  But this is how beauty works:  one thing leads to another.  A dragonfly.  An ancient Greek poet born on the island of Ceos in the Aegean Sea.  A Japanese haiku poet-monk of the 20th century.  And here we are: all of us together at the turning of the year.

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

As midnight approaches on New Year's Eve in Japan, the bells in Buddhist temples are sounded 108 times:  once for each of the sins and desires that we should seek to rid ourselves of.  At this time each year I am reminded of a haiku:

     I intended
Never to grow old, --
     But the temple bell sounds.

Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 202.

So it is in this dragonfly World of ours, a World in which each year, each moment, is a gift.

Happy New Year, dear readers.

Dudley Holland (1915-1956), "Winter Morning" (1945)

Monday, December 24, 2018

"A Merry Christmas, Friend!"

At sunset, on nearly the shortest day of the year, I walked homeward through green, open fields, a row of bare big-leaf maples a few hundred yards off to the left.  A straight, narrow, shallow river of white cirrus cloud arched overhead from the far southeast corner of the horizon to the far northwest corner of the horizon, disappearing somewhere into Canada.  Or perhaps into the Pacific.

As the bright circle of the sun sank beyond the Olympic Mountains, the white river of cloud above me began to turn pinkish-orange.  But "pinkish-orange" is a wholly inadequate approximation of that heavenly, heart-catching glow, a not-long-for-this-world glow that lasted no more than a few minutes -- beginning to vanish as soon as it arrived.  Its essence was its evanescence.  And onward came nearly the longest night of the year.

     Christmas Poem

We are folded all
In a green fable
And we fare
From early
Plough-and-daffodil sun
Through a revel
Of wind-tossed oats and barley
Past sickle and flail
To harvest home,
The circles of bread and ale
At the long table.
It is told, the story --
We and earth and sun and corn are one.

Now kings and shepherds have come.
A wintered hovel
Hides a glory
Whiter than snowflake or silver or star.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

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

On this clear and cool Christmas Eve, the sunset was a dramatic red and orange spectacle, spread out above the dark, now snow-covered, mountains, the yet darker waters of Puget Sound in the foreground. Lines from John Masefield's "On Eastnor Knoll" came to mind:  "the red, lurid wreckage of the sunset/Smoulders in smoky fire, and burns on/The misty hill-tops."

Another short day, another long night.  But the houses in the neighborhood, and the trees in the yards, are strung with lights. Christmas.  May it never change.


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 of the Union House in Dorchester. J. O. Bailey, The Poetry of Thomas Hardy: A Handbook (University of North Carolina Press 1970), 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.

A Merry Christmas, friends!

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

Sunday, December 9, 2018


In this part of the world, any clear day between November and April is considered a gift.  One feels compelled to walk out into it, for its like may not be seen again for who knows how long.

In deepening December, darkness arrives ever earlier each day, of course.  On clear December days darkness falls in the blink of an eye. The light is extinguished.  As I walked home in cold twilight one evening this past week, I thought of the Venerable Bede's fleeting sparrow.

"The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad.  The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again.  So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.  If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."

The Venerable Bede (translated by A. M. Sellar), in A. M Sellar, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England (George Bell and Sons 1907), pp. 116-117.

William Wordsworth versified the Venerable Bede's passage in the following sonnet.  The poem appeared here a few years ago, but it is always worth revisiting.


"Man's life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!
That -- while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire -- is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest.  Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes.  Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!"

William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Three (Oxford University Press 1946).

"The Stranger" referred to in line 13 is Paulinus, who, in 601, was sent to England by Pope Gregory I to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.  The incident (which may or may not be apocryphal) took place during Paulinus's visit to King Edwin of Northumbria in 625 or thereabouts (the date is not certain).

The Venerable Bede's "but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all" and Wordsworth's "But whence it came we know not, nor behold/Whither it goes" bring this to mind:

Thou gavest me birth, Eileithyia; Earth, thou wilt hide me sleeping.
     Farewell to you both.  I have finished the race you measured me.
I go, not knowing whither.  For whence I came to your keeping,
     I know not, neither who made me, nor yet who I may be.

Macedonius (6th century A. D.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 386. Eileithyia, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, is the Greek goddess of childbirth.

Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"

From darkness into light, thence back into darkness.  "Passing from winter into winter again."  But there are always compensations along the way.  On one of last week's clear afternoons, a half-hour or so before the sun disappeared beyond the Olympic Mountains, I walked north down an avenue of bare trees.  The stout grey-brown trunks of the trees were already wrapped in the shadows of dusk.  But the branches overhead were bathed in yellow sunlight, shining in the pale blue sky.  The smallest twig was gilded in gold.

     Bird in the Lighted Hall

The old poet to his lute:
"Bright door, black door,
Beak-and-wing hurtling through,
This is life.
(Childhood lucent as dew,
The opening rose of love,
Labour at plough and oar,
The yellow leaf,
The last blank of snow.)
Hail and farewell.  Too soon
The song is mute,
The spirit free and flown.
But you, ivory bird, cry on and on
To guest and ghost
From the first stone
To the sag and fall of the roof."

George Mackay Brown, Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

Due to our temperate climate, most of the robins stay here all winter. But their behavior changes:  rather than living on their own, or as couples and families, they gather together in small flocks.  They fly in a group from tree to tree, chattering all the while, with no quarrels. Now and then, they fly together out onto the meadows, where they hop and peck their way -- still amiably chattering -- across the green grass (thanks to the rain, our grass returns to green in the winter).

               The Long Hall

The skald tuned his harp.  The riff-raff
     Lounged between the barrel
     And the hearth (the Earl
          That winter night

Sat with the Bishop, a golden
     Cup between them, a loaf
     Tasting of honey, flames
          Eating the spitted ox).

Harp sang the swallowflight
     Through the lighted hall,
     A small troubling
          Between two dark doors.

Barnmen came in.  Fishermen
     Shifted into the shadows.
     A kitchen girl carried
          A plate of bones

To the hungry hound.  A keg
     Was broached.  Outside
     Children went by, chanting
          Of snowflakes and apples.

George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).

Walter Ashworth (1883-1952)
"Carnival Night, Memorial Park, Coventry" (1937)

"A small troubling/Between two dark doors."

As I returned home on one of my twilit walks this past week, I heard behind me -- over my right shoulder -- an unmistakable honking:  a small flock of Canadian geese.  I could not see them for the darkness. But I could follow them by the progress of their ancient cries.  They flew low across the fields, curving down toward the bluffs above the waters of Puget Sound.  As they headed south, their honking slowly faded away.

I kept walking.  Beside the path were snowberry bushes, empty of leaves, but filled with cream-white berries, bright in the dusk.  Far off, in the tall grass at the edge of a field, a solitary unknown bird clucked a few times and then fell silent.

                              Winter Evening

Over the wintry fields the snow drifts; falling, falling;
        Its frozen burden filling each hollow.  And hark;
        Out of the naked woods a wild bird calling,
                On the starless verge of the dark!

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).

Charles Warren Eaton (1857-1937), "Winter" (1892)