Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Farewell, September. Welcome, October.

For as long as I can remember, October has been my favorite month. But each year I find myself growing fonder and fonder of September. The "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All") of the movement from summer to autumn is wonderful: is it still summer, or have we well and truly arrived in autumn?  For instance, this week the temperatures have been in the 70s in this part of the world, the days bright and brilliant, yet there is an unmistakable thread of coolness in the breeze.  And fallen leaves follow in our footsteps.

Yesterday and today I was delighted to cross paths with two woolly bear caterpillars, banded black-dark orange-black, with four black dots running down the middle of their orange sections, and long white hairs angling out from their black front and back bands.  Both of them were headed toward the dry grasses of the meadows, trees in the distance, with single-minded intent.  I concluded that the two of them, on their missions, are among the most important things in the World.

     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, The Snow Party (Oxford University Press 1975).

September puts us in two minds and in two hearts, heart and mind alternating between summer and autumn.  Last weekend, I walked past puddles from a night of rain.  The puddles lay in a long row beneath a line of maples whose boughs are still mostly full.  The dark surface of the water was a beautiful brocade of green leaves and brown leaves, floating in intricate, unrepeatable patterns, full of intimation.

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"

Are some of us born with autumnal souls?  As a few long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers may recall, I have often described autumn as the season of bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness.  But it is not a season of sadness or melancholy. True, the line may be a fine one.  But how could such beauty be an occasion of mourning?  And so we welcome October.

          A Day in Autumn

It will not always be like this,
The air windless, a few last
Leaves adding their decoration
To the trees' shoulders, braiding the cuffs
Of the boughs with gold; a bird preening
In the lawn's mirror.  Having looked up
From the day's chores, pause a minute,
Let the mind take its photograph
Of the bright scene, something to wear
Against the heart in the long cold.

R. S. Thomas, Poetry for Supper (Rupert Hart-Davis 1958).

[Update on Friday, October 2.  I published this post on September 30.  I was shocked and greatly saddened to learn this morning that Derek Mahon passed away yesterday.  His poems have appeared here dozens of times over the years.  If I turn my head to the right, I can see a long line of his books on the shelf.  I am at a loss for words.  I will write more at another time.  May he rest in peace.] 

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

Saturday, September 19, 2020


For most of the past week the foghorns of the ships out on Puget Sound have been blowing day and night.  Not on account of any fog banks, but in order to make their way safely through the wildfire smoke enveloping sky and water and earth.  Centuries ago, an event such as this might have called for a sacrifice to the gods in order to avert an impending apocalypse.  Or prompted a hurried journey to the oracle at Delphi for a quick consultation.  We moderns, emptied of enchantment, politicize events of this sort.  Oh, how I long for the gods and the oracles.

It is enough to drive one into the arms of Giacomo Leopardi for relief: "What is life?  The journey of a crippled and sick man walking with a heavy load on his back up steep mountains and through wild, rugged, arduous places, in snow, ice, rain, wind, burning sun, for many days without ever resting night and day to end at a precipice or ditch, in which inevitably he falls."  (Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, pages 4162-4163 (January 17, 1826) (edited by Michael Caesar and Franco D'Intino) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 1809.)

Or, alternatively, one can pay a visit to Leopardi's soulmate, the always antic Arthur Schopenhauer:  "Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself as an individual in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, and erring; and, as if through a troubled dream, it hurries back to the old unconsciousness."  (Arthur Schopenhauer, "On the Vanity and Suffering of Life," in The World as Will and Representation, Volume II (1844) (translated by E. F. J. Payne) (The Falcon's Wing Press 1958), page 573.)  Schopenhauer wrote of Leopardi:  "[E]verywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence.  He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect."  (Ibid, page 588.)  Two peas in a pod.

But I'm afraid Leopardi and Schopenhauer simply won't do.  As entertaining as they are (their harrowing doom shot through with truth, and so unremittingly dire that one cannot help but smile), I have continued to spend most of my time with Walter de la Mare and the Japanese poets.  Calmness and equanimity.  A few days ago, I read this:

                  The Last Chapter

I am living more alone now than I did;
This life tends inward, as the body ages;
And what is left of its strange book to read 
Quickens in interest with the last few pages.

Problems abound.  Its authorship?  A sequel?
Its hero-villain, whose ways so little mend?
The plot? still dark.  The style? a shade unequal.
And what of the dénouement?  And, the end?

No, no, have done!  Lay the thumbed thing aside;
Forget its horrors, folly, incitements, lies;
In silence and in solitude abide,
And con what yet may bless your inward eyes.

Pace, still, for pace with you, companion goes,
Though now, through dulled and inattentive ear,
No more -- as when a child's -- your sick heart knows
His infinite energy and beauty near.

His, too, a World, though viewless save in glimpse;
He, too, a book of imagery bears;
And, as your halting foot beside him limps,
Mark you whose badge and livery he wears.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).

Harry Epworth Allen (1894-1958)
"A Derbyshire Farmstead" (c. 1933-1934)

Who, then, is this "companion" keeping pace with de la Mare?  His poetry is full of such secret sharers:  shadows, strangers, wayfarers, wraiths, ghosts.  I am content to leave the question unanswered, but I have inklings.

                         Things to Come

The shadow of a fat man in the moonlight
     Precedes me on the road down which I go;
And should I turn and run, he would pursue me:
     This is the man whom I must get to know.

James Reeves, The Questioning Tiger (Heinemann 1964).

"The man whom I must get to know."  This brings to mind the purported death-bed poem of the Emperor Hadrian, which begins: animula vagula blandula.  The poem has been translated many times.  Here is Matthew Prior's version:

Poor little, pretty, flutt'ring thing,
     Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling wing,
     To take thy flight thou know'st not whither?

Thy humorous vein, thy pleasing folly
     Lies all neglected, all forgot:
And pensive, wav'ring, melancholy,
     Thou dread'st and hop'st thou know'st not what.

Matthew Prior, Poems on Several Occasions (1709).

Finally, I cannot forbear bringing in Marcus Aurelius: "You are a little soul, carrying around a corpse, as Epictetus used to say." Marcus Aurelius (translated by W. A. Oldfather), Meditations, Book IV, Section 41.  

These are things we each must puzzle out in our own solitude. Hence, dear readers, please feel free to ignore my meanderings.  I am willing to leave de la Mare's "companion" a mystery.  Which is what the World is, what our life is, as de la Mare so often reminds us in his poems.  Which is what we are to ourselves?

Harry Epworth Allen, "Summer" (1940)

"The Last Chapter" was published when de la Mare was 65 years old. Yet, despite its self-elegiac subject matter and tone, he lived another eighteen years, and never lost his love for the beautiful particulars of the World.  In the year prior to his death, he said to a visitor: "My days are getting shorter.  But there is more and more magic.  More than in all poetry.  Everything is increasingly wonderful and beautiful."  (Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare (Duckworth 1993), page 443.)  The plea to us to love the World while we can is a constant refrain in his poetry.  It appears in what are perhaps his best-known lines: "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour.

He reminds us once more in his final volume of poems, published when he was in his eightieth year:


The longed-for summer goes;
Dwindles away
To its last rose,
Its narrowest day.

No heaven-sweet air but must die;
Softlier float,
Breathe lingeringly
Its final note.

Oh, what dull truths to tell!
Now is the all-sufficing all
Wherein to love the lovely well,
Whate'er befall.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1953).

Perhaps de la Mare sold himself short in the lines from "The Last Chapter" about his "companion": "No more -- as when a child's -- your sick heart knows/His infinite energy and beauty near."  The poetry he wrote before and after these lines belies this thought: I find no waning of energy or beauty in de la Mare from beginning to end. Thoughts such as those in "The Last Chapter" inevitably come and go as one ages.  But I do not think de la Mare ever lost his passion for the World.  He gently but firmly reminds us again and again to love, to pay attention to, and to be grateful for what is before us Now.

Harry Epworth Allen, "The Road to the Hills"

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Heraclitus in Japan

I've long felt that anything worth knowing with respect to how to live in the World has been known for centuries, and that our task is to seek out those who possessed that knowledge.  This feeling increases with age, particularly in times when human folly and malice make themselves more noisomely evident than they usually are. Comparisons (nearly always unflattering to the present age) are inevitable.

Better, then, to leave this age behind, and embark upon a search in more congenial regions.  For instance, one may discover Heraclitus in 13th century Japan:

"The river flows on unceasingly, but the water is never the same water as before.  Bubbles that bob on the surface of the still places disappear one moment, to reappear again the next, but they seldom endure for long.  And so it is with the people of this world and with the houses they live in.

"In the shining capital, ridgepoles soar side by side, roof tiles vie for height, and the dwellings of eminent and lowly alike seem to endure for generation on generation.  But if you inquire into the matter, you find that old houses are in fact very rare.  This one burned down a year ago and has just been rebuilt this year; that great mansion fell into ruin, to be replaced by smaller houses.  And it is the same with the people who live in them.  The sites are unchanged; the people occupying them are many.  But of those I used to know, hardly one or two out of twenty or thirty remain.  One dies in the morning, another is born at evening -- they come and go like froth on the water.

"These persons who are born and die -- no one knows where they come from or where they go.  And these dwellings of a moment -- no one knows why their owners fret their minds so over them or are so anxious to make them pleasing to the eye.  For both owner and dwelling are doomed to impermanence, no different from the dew on the morning glory.  Perhaps the dew may fall and the flower remain; yet though it remains, it will wilt in the morning sun.  Perhaps the flower may wither before the dew has dried; but though undried now, it will vanish by evening."

Kamo no Chōmei (1153-1216) (translated by Burton Watson), Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut (Hōjōki) (1212), in Burton Watson, Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life (Shambhala 2002), pp. 47-48.

Of course, Kamo no Chōmei knew nothing of Heraclitus.  His river meditation is the product of centuries of Japanese culture coupled with centuries of Buddhism, the Buddhism in turn flowing from China (with Taoism mixed in for good measure) by way of India.  And yet we have Heraclitus in Japan.  It is all one.

Alexander Jamieson (1873-1937), "Doldowlod on the Wye" (1935)

We do not know exactly what Heraclitus said about rivers, since all of his thoughts come to us second-hand: reports of what somebody said he said.  Plutarch gives us this: ". . . for it is impossible to step twice into the same river according to Heraclitus, or to lay hands twice on mortal substance in a fixed condition."  (G. S. Kirk, Heraclitus: The Cosmic Fragments (Cambridge University Press 1962), page 381.)

Plutarch's version finds its way into this:

               Heraclitus on Rivers

Nobody steps into the same river twice.
The same river is never the same
Because that is the nature of water.
Similarly your changing metabolism
Means that you are no longer you.
The cells die; and the precise
Configuration of the heavenly bodies
When she told you she loved you
Will not come again in this lifetime.

You will tell me that you have executed
A monument more lasting than bronze;
But even bronze is perishable.
Your best poem, you know the one I mean,
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these things will pass away in time.

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

Given what Kamo no Chōmei tells us, we could perhaps change the title of Mahon's poem to "Kamo no Chōmei on Rivers."  "The same river is never the same/Because that is the nature of water."  "The river flows on unceasingly, but the water is never the same water as before."  "All these things will pass away in time."  "For both owner and dwelling are doomed to impermanence, no different from the dew on the morning glory."  

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "Autumn by the River"

But let us return to Heraclitus in Japan:

"The world is as unstable as the pools and shallows of Asuka River. Times change and things disappear: joy and sorrow come and go; a place that once thrived turns into an uninhabited moor; a house may remain unaltered, but its occupants will have changed.  The peach and the damson trees in the garden say nothing -- with whom is one to reminisce about the past?"

Kenkō (1284-1350) (translated by Donald Keene), in Donald Keene, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), pages 25-26.  The Tsurezuregusa was likely written between 1330 and 1332.  (Ibid, page xiii.)

The passage is quite reminiscent of Kamo no Chōmei's passage.  One wonders if Kenkō had it in mind as he wrote.  On the other hand, Kenkō and Kamo no Chōmei both became Buddhist monks late in life, so the similarity may simply reflect their common spiritual pursuits.

Keene provides this note on the first sentence of the passage: "The Asuka River, a stream near Nara, figures prominently in Japanese poetry.  Reference is made here to the anonymous poem in Kokinshū, 'In this world what is constant?  In the Asuka River yesterday's pools are today's shallows'."  (Ibid, page 26.) The Kokinshū (a shortening of its longer title, Kokin Wakashū), which appeared in or about 905, was an imperial anthology of 1,100 poems.

The poem translated by Keene is a waka, and has been alternatively translated as follows:

     In this world of ours
what is there of constancy?
     Yesterday's deep pool
in the River of Tomorrow
today becomes a rapid.

Anonymous (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), in Helen Craig McCullough, Kokin Wakashū: The First Imperial Anthology of Japanese Poetry (Stanford University Press 1985), page 205.

This is the romanized (romaji) Japanese text of the waka: "yo no naka wa/nani ka tsune naru/asukagawa/kinō no fuchi zo/kyō wa se ni naru."  (Ibid, page 205.)  Asukagawa means "Asuka River." However, McCullough translates it as: "the River of Tomorrow."  She provides this explanation:  "The first part of the river name Asuka is homophonous with asu ('tomorrow').  This famous poem made the Asuka and its vagrant channel a symbol of change."  (Ibid, page 205.)

"The River of Tomorrow" is quite lovely, isn't it?  It also appears in another poem from the Kokinshū:

     Swift is their passage
as the flow of the Asuka,
     "Tomorrow River" --
the long months I spend saying
"yesterday," "today," "tomorrow."

Harumichi Tsuraki (d. 920) (translated by Helen Craig McCullough), Ibid, page 82.

On a sunny afternoon last week I came upon a spray of five green oak leaves that had fallen to the ground. Beside the spray lay an acorn.  I walked on, and soon a single rusty leaf rattled toward me on the asphalt pathway, spun by the wind.  A long thin river of feathery white cloud stretched from west to east.  The sky suddenly seemed to be an autumn sky: a slightly deeper blue.

Fred Stead (1863-1940), "River at Bingley, Yorkshire"