Monday, December 28, 2020

A Choice

Toward the end of November, the robins begin to gather in small flocks for the winter.  One hears the sound of constant twittering in a distant tree.  This seems unusual, since bird-sounds mostly vanish as autumn deepens.  But then one sees them: robins hopping from branch to branch, in conversation, debating their next step.  Once a plan of action has been agreed upon, they leave the tree one by one or in small groups, continuing their daily round.  Our winter companions.  A comforting sight.

                         Time Out

It took that pause to make him realize
The mountain he was climbing had the slant
As of a book held up before his eyes
(And was a text albeit done in plant).
Dwarf cornel, gold-thread, and maianthemum,
He followingly fingered as he read,
The flowers fading on the seed to come;
But the thing was the slope it gave his head:
The same for reading as it was for thought,
So different from the hard and level stare
Of enemies defied and battles fought.
It was the obstinately gentle air
That may be clamored at by cause and sect
But it will have its moment to reflect.

Robert Frost, A Witness Tree (Henry Holt 1942).

Alfred Parsons (1847-1920), "Meadows by the Avon"

Yesterday, near twilight, I walked beside a long puddle filled with intricate, innumerable bare branches, pink-tinged white sunset clouds, and darkening blue sky.  The reflected world seemed to be another world entirely -- beautiful, but out of reach.  A few moments later, still walking, the brilliant puddle now behind me, I realized how completely wrong I had been: what I had seen was the World.  How could it be otherwise?  Do you sometimes find it hard to believe that the World is as beautiful as it is?  It is good to be reminded of one's ignorance.  I receive this reminder every day.  But the World never gives up on me.

"Attachment to the self renders life more opaque.  One moment of complete forgetting and all the screens, one behind the other, become transparent so that you can perceive clarity to its very depths, as far as the eye can see; and at the same time everything becomes weightless.  Thus does the soul truly become a bird."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry (May, 1954), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 1.

Alfred Parsons, "Poplars in the Thames Valley"

Cloudy winter days sometimes end in a thin band of yellow sky at the edge of the horizon, along the blue-black silhouette of the peaks of the Olympic Mountains, beyond the waters of Puget Sound.  That narrow strip of brightness has a beckoning aspect to it.  A promise of sorts before a long winter night.

of stars, on the riverbank?
Plum blossoms.

Sugiwara Sōi (1418-1485) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Haiku Before Haiku: From the Renga Masters to Bashō (Columbia University Press 2011), page 56.

Alfred Parsons,  "On the Cotswolds"

Friday, December 18, 2020


As autumn departs, a thought: 

All Night Long Regretting
      the End of Autumn

Regret as I may,
even the bell
has a different sound now,
and soon frost will fall
in place of morning dew.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 84.

I shall never quarrel with my beloved Saigyō, and his thought strikes home.  He and Marcus Aurelius are in agreement: "The world is a continual change."  (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IV, Section 3, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).)

And yet.  Last evening I saw a lovely crescent moon high in the southwestern sky over Puget Sound.  Constancy in the midst of change.  Apart from new meteor craters, cosmic debris, and human detritus scattered in a few places, has the moon altered over the millennia for those of us here on the ground, looking upward?  Hasn't it always been our unchanged, unchangeable, reliable companion?
     Autumn's bright moon,
However far I walked, still afar off
     In an unknown sky.

Chiyo-ni (1701-1775) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 388.

Of Chiyo-ni's haiku, Blyth writes: "There is a feeling of separateness here which is not to be denied.  The poetess realizes that she and the moon are two different entities, in a different sky, in a different world."  (Ibid, page 388.)  He then provides a waka which, as Blyth puts it, "expresses that other side of truth":

     Down from the mountain,
The moon
     Accompanied me,
And when I opened the gate,
The moon too entered.

Kotomichi (1798-1868) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 388.

One need not make a choice.  Both are beautiful.  Both are true.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Autumn" (1946)

Perhaps Chiyo-ni's view and Kotomichi's view are merged and reconciled in William Wordsworth's lunar encounter in the winter of 1798:

                    A Night-Piece

                            The sky is overspread
With a close veil of one continuous cloud
All whitened by the moon, that just appears,
A dim-seen orb, yet chequers not the ground
With any shadow -- plant, or tower, or tree.
At last a pleasant instantaneous light
Startles the musing man whose eyes are bent
To earth.  He looks around, the clouds are split
Asunder, and above his head he views
The clear moon and the glory of the heavens.
There in a black-blue vault she sails along
Followed by multitudes of stars, that small,
And bright, and sharp along the gloomy vault
Drive as she drives.  How fast they wheel away!
Yet vanish not!  The wind is in the trees;
But they are silent.  Still they roll along
Immeasurably distant, and the vault
Built round by those white clouds, enormous clouds,
Still deepens its interminable depth.
At length the vision closes, and the mind
Not undisturbed by the deep joy it feels,
Which slowly settles into peaceful calm,
Is left to muse upon the solemn scene.

William Wordsworth, 1798 manuscript, in Beth Darlington, "Two Early Texts: A Night-Piece and The Discharged Soldier," in Jonathan Wordsworth (editor), Bicentenary Wordsworth Studies in Memory of John Alban Finch (Cornell University Press 1970), page 431.

1798: that charmed year for William and Dorothy Wordsworth (and for Samuel Taylor Coleridge as well).  Commentators on the poem have noted that it has its origin in a journal entry made by Dorothy on January 25, 1798.  (See, for example: Lucy Newlyn, William and Dorothy Wordsworth: 'All in Each Other' (Oxford University Press 2013), pages 57-59; Kenneth Johnston, The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy (W. W. Norton 1998), pages 552-553.)  The thought is that William and Dorothy witnessed the scene together while out walking.

"The sky spread over with one continuous cloud, whitened by the light of the moon, which, though her dim shape was seen, did not throw forth so strong a light as to chequer the earth with shadows.  At once the clouds seemed to cleave asunder, and left her in the centre of a black-blue vault.  She sailed along, followed by multitudes of stars, small, and bright, and sharp."

Dorothy Wordsworth, The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals (Oxford University Press 2002), page 142.

The "vision" recounted by Wordsworth brings to mind one of the fragments of blank verse in his Alfoxden notebook, which he kept during the first three months of 1798:

Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.

William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume 5 (Oxford University Press 1949), pages 340-341.

John Aldridge, "First Frost"

The moon is constant.  But, ah, dear readers, what of us?  

                    The Limit

The silent friendship of the moon
(I misquote Virgil) has kept you company
since that one night or evening
now lost in time, when your restless
eyes first made her out for always
in a patio or a garden since gone to dust.
For always?  I know that someday someone
will find a way of telling you this truth:
"You'll never see the moon aglow again.
You've now attained the limit set for you
by destiny.  No use opening every window
throughout the world.  Too late.  You'll never find her."
Our life is spent discovering and forgetting
that gentle habit of the night.
Take a good look.  It could be the last.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Alan Trueblood), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

This is no cause for gloom, or melancholy.  Our quickly passing interval of "silent friendship" with the moon, with all the beautiful particulars of the World, is no small thing.  And the thought that the World will go on without us, the moon and the seasons forever coming and going, can be a source of comfort and serenity.

But Saigyō -- wonderful Saigyō -- takes us in another direction altogether:

Were we sure of seeing
a moon like this
in existences to come,
who would be sorry
to leave this life?

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 158.

John Aldridge, "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

Thursday, December 3, 2020


I often walk past a long, stately row of thirty tall cottonwoods.  (Yes, once upon a time I counted them.)  They always seem to be the last to lose their leaves.  On a sunny, breezy afternoon, as the season begins to depart, the noble old-timers take on the look of young aspens. Their remaining yellow leaves — high up in swaying boughs — flicker, tremble, and shine in the blue sky, in the honey sunlight.  But now, as December begins, they are nearly empty, and the path beside them is littered in gold.

     Fallen leaves
Come flying from elsewhere:
     Autumn is ending.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 355.

Yet no "Alas!" is called for.  Unannounced and unexpected, gifts are always arriving "from elsewhere," be it autumn, winter, spring, or summer.  Nothing is to be regretted or mourned.  "Earth never grieves!"

Onto the rain porch
     from somewhere outside it comes —
a fallen petal.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874-1959) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 443.

Edward Waite (1854-1924)
"The Mellow Year Is Hastening To Its Close" (1896)

As the solstice approaches, my afternoon walks have become twilight walks.  All is quiet and dark within the groves of pine trees, save for occasional twitters, or brief songs, from far off in the shadows.  Now and then a solitary crow flies overhead, sometimes silent, sometimes cawing.  The immemorial solitary crow of autumn.

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

Kishū (1743-1802) (translated by R. H. Blyth) in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 345.

At some point in the season, one feels the melancholy pull of decline. The bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness of early autumn and high autumn are long gone, irrecoverable.  Funereal but tempting, the late autumn emptiness and darkness beckon.

     Dirge in Woods

A wind sways the pines,
        And below
Not a breath of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine-tree drops its dead;
They are quiet, as under the sea.
Overhead, overhead
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
        And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
        Even we,
        Even so.

George Meredith,  A Reading of Earth (Macmillan 1888).

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

But there shall be no dirges as autumn fades.  As ever in the World of beautiful particulars, departures are followed by arrivals, there is no loss without an attendant gain.  One afternoon this week it seemed for a moment that the long tree shadows laid across the bright green grass of a meadow were the essence of loss and sorrow.  Until one saw the trunks and empty branches of the trees, which had suddenly turned gold in the angled sunlight -- each and every twig glittering, aflame.

               The Last Leaf

I saw how rows of white raindrops
   From bare boughs shone,
And how the storm had stript the leaves
   Forgetting none
Save one left high on a top twig
   Swinging alone;
Then that too bursting into song
   Fled and was gone.

Andrew Young, in Edward Lowbury and Alison Young (editors), The Poetical Works of Andrew Young (Secker & Warburg 1985).

Yes, gifts never cease to arrive from elsewhere.

     Leaning against the tree,
Branches and leaves are few:
     A night of stars.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn, page 365.

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"