Friday, September 27, 2019


At a certain point in one's life, the deaths begin to accumulate, don't they?  Family members and relatives, close and distant.  Friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, classmates, neighbors.  In the public sphere, nearly every week brings news of the deaths of musicians, assorted entertainers, sports heroes, and other figures who one "grew up with."  (Ah, the vanishing rock stars, carrying away our youth!)

One grieves to a greater or a lesser extent, but, on a purely self-interested level, one also begins to get the message.  Something along these lines:

     An autumn evening;
Without a cry,
     A crow passes.

Kishū (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 345.

Or, in the context of a different season, this:

     Spring has departed;
Where has it gone,
     The moored boat?

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 286.

Buson's haiku leads naturally to this waka, which was written nine centuries before Buson's time (the continuity of Japanese poetry is a wonderful thing):

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
     rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

Sami Mansei (early 8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 51.

Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935), "Corn Stooks" (c. 1880)

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius now and then posts lists of the illustrious and not-so-illustrious dead in order to remind himself that all is vanity and that all living things, including the emperor of Rome, are evanescent bubbles.  For instance:

"Hippocrates, after conquering many diseases, yielded to a disease at last.  The Chaldeans foretold the fatal hours of multitudes, and fate afterwards carried themselves away.  Alexander, Pompey, and Caius Caesar, who so often razed whole cities, and cut off in battle so many myriads of horse and foot, at last departed from this life themselves. Heraclitus, who wrote so much about the conflagration of the universe, died swollen with water, and bedaubed with ox-dung. Vermin destroyed Democritus, and another sort of vermin destroyed Socrates."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book III, Section 3, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

I understand what the emperor is getting at:  "Then stop, and ask, where are they all now?  Smoke, and ashes, and an old tale; or, perhaps, not even a tale."  (Meditations, Book XII, Section 27.)  Yes, understood.  But, as Marcus knew, this recognition is only the starting point for leading a good life and arriving at a good death. And now, Philip Larkin chimes in:  "Death is no different whined at than withstood."  ("Aubade.")  Yes, understood as well.  One will never be prepared.  With an apology for being self-referential:  "How little we know!  It leaves you breathless."

In the meantime, I prefer lovely intimations.  A crow passing silently overhead in the evening sky of autumn.  A still pond and a departed boat.  A seaside town in late September.

       September in Great Yarmouth

The woodwind whistles down the shore
Piping the stragglers home; the gulls
Snaffle and bolt their final mouthfuls.
Only the youngsters call for more.

Chimneys breathe and beaches empty,
Everyone queues for the inland cold --
Middle-aged parents growing old
And teenage kids becoming twenty.

Now the first few spots of rain
Spatter the sports page in the gutter.
Council workmen stab the litter.
You have sown and reaped; now sow again.

The band packs in, the banners drop,
The ice-cream stiffens in its cone.
The boatman lifts his megaphone:
"Come in, fifteen, your time is up."

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

Joseph Farquharson, "Harvesting, Forest of Birse" (c. 1900)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Autumn Evening

For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the calendar tells us that autumn will arrive next Monday.  However, as we all know, the timing of the turning of the seasons is a matter of the heart and of the spirit, not of the calendar.  Equinoxes and solstices are of no moment.  Light and color -- and darkness, contrasting or complementary -- are everything.

         The Trees at Night

Under vague silver moonlight
The trees are lovely and ghostly,
In the pale blue of the night
There are few stars to see.

The leaves are green still, but brown-blent:
They stir not, only known
By a poignant delicate scent
To the lonely moon blown.

The lonely lovely trees sigh
For summer spent and gone:
A few homing leaves drift by,
Poor souls bewildered and wan.

William Kerr, in Edward Marsh (editor), Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 (The Poetry Bookshop 1922).

I am fond of "The Trees at Night," and I try to visit it each autumn.  It is a waif of a poem, hidden away in the middle of the final installment of Georgian Poetry, a series of anthologies that was popular in its day, but is now a footnote to "literary history."  As for William Kerr, he published (to my knowledge) only a single volume of poetry (in 1927), and his appearance in Georgian Poetry 1920-1922 represents the peak of his visibility as a poet.  "Literary critics" have had no occasion to debate whether Kerr was a "major" or a "minor" poet:  he briefly appeared and then disappeared.

But I have no interest in "literary history."  Nor is the spurious taxonomy of "major" and "minor" poets of concern to me.  At the risk of trying the patience of long-time readers, I am afraid I must repeat my First Poetic Principle:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  As I say, I am fond of "The Trees at Night."  I understand the objections that might be forthcoming from moderns:  the poem is "sentimental" and "romantic," and its anthropomorphism ("The lonely lovely trees sigh"; "A few homing leaves drift by,/Poor souls bewildered and wan") places it beyond the pale.  We have progressed beyond such things, the undeceived and knowing moderns say, all irony and self-regard.  They are wrong, of course.

William Knight (1872-1958), "Autumn Afternoon"

Ah, yes, the loneliness of autumn.  Kerr knows it well:  "By a poignant delicate scent/To the lonely moon blown."  And:  "The lonely lovely trees sigh/For summer spent and gone."  He is in good company:  the Japanese haiku poets know a thing or two about autumn loneliness. For instance:

     Still lonelier
Than last year;
     Autumn evening.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume 1 (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 283.

Among the traditional four masters of haiku (the other three being Bashō, Issa, and Shiki), Buson is perhaps the least prone to the melancholy of loneliness.  Having said this, I must immediately qualify my statement:  melancholy, whether it be the melancholy of loneliness, the melancholy of each of the seasons (and of autumn in particular), or the melancholy of mortality, is never in short supply in any of these four wonderful poets.  We are speaking of a matter of degree.  Moreover, given that the essence of any haiku is its embodiment and presentation of a single moment in all of its evanescence -- an ephemeral moment in an ephemeral life in an ephemeral World -- one might naturally expect a high quotient of melancholy in each of the four masters.  And yet . . .

     An autumn eve;
There is joy too,
     In loneliness.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 1: Eastern Culture (Hokuseido Press 1949), page 229.

We must never lose sight of the fact that the melancholy of haiku is, above all, a joyful melancholy, a beautiful melancholy, a grateful melancholy.  How could it not be?  It is life.

     Not quite dark yet
and the stars shining
     above the withered fields.

Buson (translated by Robert Hass), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), page 104.

William Knight, "Autumn Evening"

Monday, September 9, 2019

All There Is

This afternoon I sat beside an open window, reading a poem.  I heard rain falling on the leaves of the maple, apple, and cherry trees in the garden.  Softly.  This is what I read:

            Rest Eternal

I shall not forget that place
Where the dead were:
Only the rain, the rain,
No-one astir,
None with me when I found
The church in its fallow ground;

Oh there was nothing there
But nettles and rain and grass,
So tangled you could not tell
Where the churchyard was,
And below in the plain
Grey fields and fields of rain.

Only the ebony rooks
Into the early light
Out of the ebony trees
Silent took flight.
I was afraid to hear
A voice in my ear.

No sound but a rook on the wing,
And of endless summer rain
The vasty whispering,
Yet close to my ear again,
(No stir from the tangled weed),
I heard, "Perpetual seed,"
And still, "Perpetual seed."

Joan Barton, The Mistress and Other Poems (The Sonus Press 1972). A subscript to the poem states: "November 1931."  Joan Barton turned 23 in that year.  For more about her, please see my post from March of 2011.  "Rest Eternal" previously appeared here in November of 2011.

Rain on the leaves.  A poem.  A late summer September afternoon. These things arrive in their own time and after their own fashion, don't they?

John Mitchell (1862-1922), "The Waterfoot, Carradale" (1921)

Last Friday morning, I read this waka:

On an evening
     set aglow with the crimson
          of plum blossoms,
the willow boughs sway softly;
and the spring rain falls.

Kyōgoku Tamekane (1254-1332) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 244.

Of the many wonderful things about Japanese waka and haiku, perhaps the most wonderful is that each poem you read provides you with a beautiful reminder that life is to be lived in the present moment, and that the entire World is present in that moment.

Charles Kerr (1858-1907), "Carradale"

Sunday, September 1, 2019


The signs are here.  The telltale angled golden light.  The tree shadows lengthening across the meadows.  In a wind still warm, the first few dry fallen leaves scraping along the sidewalk, dogging one's path.

               "Summer Is Ended"

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
          Scentless, colourless, this!
     Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
               Thus with our bliss,
        If we wait till the close?

Tho' we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
          Sooner, later, at last,
     Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
               An end locked fast,
        Bent we cannot re-bend.

Christina Rossetti, A Pageant and Other Poems (Macmillan 1881). The title comes from Chapter 8, Verse 20, of the Book of Jeremiah (King James Version):  "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."

I have been reading Christina Rossetti's poems and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius for the past week or so.  The poet and the emperor have provided me with daily reminders of our transience, evanescence, and mortality.  They are two peas in a pod.  One Christian, one pagan, but more alike than one might imagine.

"Consider frequently, how swiftly all things which exist, or arise, are swept away, and carried off.  Their substance is as a river in a perpetual course.  Their actions are in perpetual changes, and the causes subject to ten thousand alterations.  Scarce any thing is stable. And the vast eternities, past and ensuing, are close upon it on both hands; in which all things are swallowed up.  Must he not, then, be a fool, who is either puffed up with success in such things; or is distracted, and full of complaints about the contrary; as if it could give disturbance of any duration?"

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book V, Section 23, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

Eleanor Hughes (1882-1959), "Boleigh Farm"

The following poem is one of Christina Rossetti's many strange and wonderful contemplations, part autobiography, part religious confession, but withal a thing of Beauty and Truth.  It is also a fine end of summer poem.  The final two lines are two of the loveliest I know.

               From Sunset to Star Rise

Go from me, summer friends, and tarry not:
     I am no summer friend, but wintry cold,
     A silly sheep benighted from the fold,
A sluggard with a thorn-choked garden plot.
Take counsel, sever from my lot your lot,
     Dwell in your pleasant places, hoard your gold;
     Lest you with me should shiver on the wold,
Athirst and hungering on a barren spot.
For I have hedged me with a thorny hedge,
     I live alone, I look to die alone:
Yet sometimes when a wind sighs through the sedge
     Ghosts of my buried years and friends come back,
My heart goes sighing after swallows flown
     On sometime summer's unreturning track.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress, and Other Poems (Macmillan 1875).  There will be no attempt at explanation or explication from me.  One thought, however:  it is well to consider how the title of the poem relates to the poem itself.

"Sometime summer's unreturning track."  "An end locked fast,/Bent we cannot re-bend."  Ah, well, time will tell.  Perhaps.

"Observe continually, that all things exist in consequence of changes. Enure yourself to consider that the nature of the universe delights in nothing more than in changing the things now existing, and in producing others like them.  The things now existing are a sort of seed to those which shall arise out of them.  You may conceive that there are no other seeds than those that are cast into the earth or the womb; but such a mistake shews great ignorance."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book IV, Section 36, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Eleanor Hughes, "Boleigh Farm"