Friday, December 31, 2021

What Matters

In my post of November 30, I mentioned the green fields we are fortunate to have throughout winter in this part of the World. Whether the day is dull grey or bright blue, I never tire of that green. I suppose I am easy to please.  But always grateful, or so I hope.

Earlier this week, the fields came to mind when I happened upon this:

                       Fragrant Grass

Fragrant grass, who knows who planted you,
Already spread in several clumps there by the terrace?
You have no mind to compete with the world --
What need is there for this deep rich green?

Wang An-shih (1021-1086) (translated by Burton Watson), in Kōjirō Yoshikawa, An Introduction to Sung Poetry (translated by Burton Watson) (Harvard University Press 1967), page 97.

John Nash (1893-1977), "Dorset Landscape" (c. 1930)

Today, as the sun descended toward the long dark silhouette of the distant mountain peaks, I watched a million bare twigs and branches turn to gold in the late afternoon light.  At the end of my walk, a thin line of crimson clouds lay along the far horizon.

"Every one of those impressions is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a world."  (Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Macmillan 1893), page 249.)  Well, yes, true.  Nonetheless, the World is there.  It is not a chimera.  As Wang An-shih beautifully reminds us.

The green is always with us.  And I grow fonder and fonder of the ever green World with each passing year.  Where would we be without the green?

Happy New Year, dear readers, I wish you all the best.

John Nash, "A Path through Trees" (c. 1915)

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Revenants

It's wonderful how a poem you have long been familiar with -- a poem you think you "know" -- suddenly and unexpectedly moves you.  I have recently been browsing in The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, visiting old standbys and hoping to make new discoveries.  Among the former, I happened upon this:

                    Rondeau

Jenny kissed me when we met,
     Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
     Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
     Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,
     Jenny kissed me.

Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), in Christopher Ricks (editor), The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (Oxford University Press 1987).

A nice but slight thing, one might think.  Written by someone who is not usually thought of as a poet.  It is a standard presence in anthologies of all sorts, and, once read, is likely to be passed over as the years go by.  But I had been away from it for a long time.  So I decided to stop and read it.

And, unaccountably, it struck a chord with me.  Was it the cast of light in the sky that day?  The season?  Senescence?  The state of the world?  Who knows.  But I do know that catch of breath, that heart-pause: Well, then, here is life.

George Charlton (1899-1979)
"The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire: Spring" (1942)

As you have heard me say here before, dear readers: "In poetry, one thing leads to another."  After reading "Rondeau," this presently came to mind:

                           Memory

Is Memory most of miseries miserable,
Or the one flower of ease in bitterest hell?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), in William Rossetti (editor), The Collected Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Volume I (Ellis and Scrutton 1886).

Rossetti's meditation on memory is significantly less sanguine than Hunt's lovely preservation of a passing, ostensibly prosaic moment.  (Although Hunt has no illusions about the quiddities of life.)  I suspect that Rossetti's complicated and fraught romantic life might be the source of his gloominess.  Yet, still, even "one flower of ease in bitterest hell" is something.  And, in a life, it might be enough.

George Charlton
"The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire: Summer"

If we are fortunate, in time each of us ends up with a handful of these never-fading flowers.  I am not speaking of memories in general, which rise and fall within us incessantly.  Rather, I am thinking of the select few charmed revenants of our life, the moments of timelessness and of absolute clarity which haunt us, whether we want them to or not.  The winnowing process that leads to the handful is a mystery.  We play no conscious role in that process.  Oh, yes, what remains with us comes from within us.  But these moments -- which are indeed our life -- have a life of their own.

                        Revaluation

Now I remember nothing of our love
So well as the crushed bracken and the wings
Of doves among dim branches far above --
Strange how the count of time revalues things!

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

George Charlton
"The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire: Autumn"

Are these revenants as close as we come in this World to beauty and truth?

                      While You Slept

You never knew what I saw while you slept.
We drove up a wide green stone-filled valley.
Around us were empty heather mountains.
A white river curved quickly beside us.
I thought to wake you when I saw the cairn --
A granite pillar of that country's past --
But I let you sleep without that history.
You did, however, travel through that place:
I can tell you that your eyes were at rest
As the momentous world moved beyond you,
And that you breathed in peace that quarter hour.
We seldom know what is irreplaceable.
You sang old songs for me, then fell asleep.
I worried about what you were missing.
But you missed nothing.  And I was the one who slept.

sip (Glen Coe, Scotland, c. 1986.  For JAH.)

George Charlton
"The Churchyard at Leonard Stanley, Gloucestershire: Winter"

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

November

In this wet but temperate corner of the world, the short meadow grass, which turned pale-yellow and dry in the summer sun, is now green again.  The autumn and winter rains have arrived.  Over the weekend, I walked past a row of tall big-leaf maples -- a dozen or so, all of them emptied of leaves.  I was struck by the sight of the stout, grey and brown parti-colored trunks rising out of the deep-green grass.  

November was coming to an end, but the scene was one of illimitable life.  The long column of wide trunks stretched ahead beside the pathway, anchored in a sweep of bright grass, a canopy of countless empty branches overhead.  It was a matter of color and of light: the grey and brown of the trunks set against the green of the grass.  It felt like Spring.

               At Common Dawn

At common dawn there is a voice of bird
So sweet, 'tis kin to pain;
For love of earthly life it needs be heard,
And lets not sleep again.

This bird I did one time at midnight hear
In wet November wood
Say to himself his lyric faint and clear
As one at daybreak should.

He ceased; the covert breathed no other sound,
Nor moody answer made;
But all the world at beauty's worship found,
Was waking in the glade.

Vivian Locke Ellis, in Walter de la Mare (editor), Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages, Volume Two (Constable 1923), page 81.

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Beslyn's Pond, Great Bardfield"

Friday, November 12, 2021

Reticence

I'm spending this week in the high desert to the east of the Cascades, in the town of Bend, Oregon.  A wide and open World of plains, buttes, and peaks, of Ponderosa pines, sagebrush, tufts of wild grass, and junipers.  A mostly quiet World.  Of course, the other world is continually going about its business, and it lurks here in this computer, and over there across the room in an iPhone.  

In the mornings and evenings, I travel to Japan to visit Kenkō and Ryōkan.  A quiet World as well.

"When people meet they are never silent a moment.  There is always talk about something.  If you listen to their conversations, most of what they say is meaningless chatter.  Their gossip about society and their criticisms of other people cause much harm and little profit, either for themselves or others.  When people are gabbling over these things, they never seem to realize that it does neither party any good."

Kenkō (1283-1350) (translated by Donald Keene), Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 164, in Donald Keene (editor and translator), Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Columbia University Press 1967), page 143.

During the last three decades of his life Ryōkan lived in a small hut in the hills near the Sea of Japan.  He was a kind and sociable man, but he was alone most of the time.

Twilight — the only conversation
     on this hill
Is the wind blowing through the pines.

Ryōkan (1758-1831) (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens (editor and translator), One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (Weatherhill 1977), page 76.

David Murray (1849-1933), "Landscape" (1885)

One tries to keep the noisy world at arm's length and at bay, but the sheer volume of words is unstoppable and insidious, and always will be.  Being weak-willed, I am often undone by the briefest of forays into the electronic world: words, words, and ever more words (including the words I am writing at this moment).  One comes to value reticence.

"I wonder what feelings inspire a man to complain of 'having nothing to do.'  I am happiest when I have nothing to distract me and I am completely alone. . . . Even if a man has not yet discovered the path of enlightenment, as long as he removes himself from his worldly ties, leads a quiet life, and maintains his peace of mind by avoiding entanglements, he may be said to be happy, at least for the time being."

Kenkō (translated by Donald Keene), Tsurezuregusa, Chapter 75, in Donald Keene, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, pages 66-67.

Ryōkan found his path of enlightenment in the hills, but it was never an easy one, and he never claimed that it was the only path.

My hut lies in the middle of a dense forest;
Every year the green ivy grows longer.
No news of the affairs of men,
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
The sun shines and I mend my robe;
When the moon comes out I read Buddhist poems.
I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan, page 43.

David Murray, "Crofts on the Island of Lewis" (1921)

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Leaves

Ah, ever redolent autumn, realm of memory and of reflection!  Who knows what the leaves -- fallen, falling, or holding fast -- will awaken or evoke?

A few days ago I walked past a big-leaf maple.  About thirty feet tall, it had only a few hundred yellow and brown leaves remaining on its branches.  I stopped to look up at the leaves, which were set against a blue sky scattered with white and grey clouds, remnants of a storm that had recently passed through.  The blue above was bright, illuminated by the rays of the late afternoon sun, which was hidden by the clouds.  The yellow emanations from an unseen source seemed to give the blue a greater depth, a greater distance. Unreachably beautiful.

As I looked, suddenly, but only for an instant, I was a child on a cold autumn afternoon in Minnesota, gazing up at the leaves of a tree against a blue and grey sky.  1962?  1963?  I couldn't say.  But I was not "remembering" that childhood day in Minnesota: in that instant, I was there.  It was a matter of feeling, not of recollection.  I was in two times and in two places at once.  For better or worse, nothing had changed.  There I was and here I am.  One and the same.  And then the instant was gone.

                  Leaves

The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.

It is autumn, and dead leaves
On their way to the river
Scratch like birds at the windows
Or tick on the road.

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Somewhere in the heaven
Of lost futures
The lives we might have led
Have found their own fulfilment.

Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (Oxford University Press 1975).

William Samuel Jay (1843-1933)
"At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

My beloved tree tunnels are not what they were three months ago. But they remain lovely.  The leaves that are left still rustle in the wind, but in a different key.  One walks toward, and into, an open, mottled world of gold and red and brown, a patchwork of colors overhead and at one's feet, not into a closed, deep-green world.  The light and air within take on the color of the leaves.  "The world is a continual change," Marcus Aurelius tells us.  (Meditations, Book IV, Section 3; translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742.) "Earth never grieves!"  So Thomas Hardy reminds us.  ("Autumn in King's Hintock Park.")  And, finally, Ryōkan quietly says: "The wind has brought/enough fallen leaves/to make a fire."  (Translated by John Stevens, 1977.)  Nothing is awry.

                       Under Trees

Yellow tunnels under the trees, long avenues
Long as the whole of time:
A single aimless man
Carries a black garden broom.
He is too far to hear him
Wading through the leaves, down autumn
Tunnels, under yellow leaves, long avenues.

Geoffrey Grigson, The Collected Poems of Geoffrey Grigson 1924-1962 (Phoenix House 1963).

John Milne Donald (1819-1866), "Autumn Leaves" (1864) 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

All Is Well With The World

This week I saw my first woolly bear caterpillars of the year: one on Monday afternoon and another this afternoon.  The traveler I encountered today was crossing a pathway frequented by walkers and bicyclists.  As with all woolly bears at this time of year, it was charmingly, touchingly intent upon its singular, solitary journey. 

Fearing that it might be crushed by an inattentive passer-by, I stayed beside it as it made its way toward the meadow beyond the pathway. (This is something we all do if the occasion arises.  I am not seeking praise.)  I watched it disappear safely into the fallen leaves and the short grass beneath a maple tree, the grass now green again with the autumn rain.

                Shinto

When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street, 
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

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

Samuel Palmer (1805-1881), "The Gleaning Field" (c. 1833)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Awake

Matsuo Bashō and his haiku are with me throughout the year.  Their companionship is particularly delightful and moving in autumn, for many of Bashō's finest haiku were written in this season.  But I must catch myself, for I am always in danger of getting carried away when it comes to talking about Bashō, and his importance in my life.

To provide some distance, I will offer this by R. H. Blyth:

"The position which haiku has or should have in world literature may be brought out by comparing and contrasting Bashō with Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Goethe and Cervantes.  If he can hold his own with these, the 17-syllabled haiku may well claim an equality with the world masterpieces of epic, drama, and lyric.
*     *     *     *     *
"In what point is Bashō equal or superior to these great men?  In his touching the very nerve of life, his unerring knowledge of those moments in time which, put together, make up our real, our eternal life.  He is awake in the world that for almost all men exists as a world of dreams.

"Bashō gives us the same feeling of depth as Bach, and by the same means, not by noise and emotion as in Beethoven and Wagner, but by a certain serenity and 'expressiveness' which never aims at beauty but often achieves it as it were by accident.  This comparison between Bashō and Bach may seem to be far-fetched.  They have little in common except their profound understanding of vital inevitability, and the meaning of death.  As Confucius implies, he who understands either life or death, understands both.  The hymn says, in its rather sentimental way,
         Days and moments, quickly flying,
         Blend the living with the dead,
and Bach and Bashō felt this so deeply that the average mind finds the one too intellectual and difficult, the other too simple."

R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), pages i and iii.

There is a great deal to digest in those passages, and I suspect there are many who would take issue with Blyth's assertions.  I will concede that Blyth was quite opinionated, but I would also suggest that there are very few who have known and understood both Japanese and Western literature and culture as well as Blyth has.  I am content to leave what he says about Bashō as it stands.

However, what is ultimately important is the poetry and the individual poem, not a contest between cultures.  Thus, as an introduction to Bashō and autumn, consider this:

     This autumn,
How old I am getting:
     Ah, the clouds, the birds!

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 334.

Or this:

     The autumn moon;
I wandered round the pond
     All night long.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 385.

Or this: 

     Along this road
Goes no one,
     This autumn eve.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 342.

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

These three haiku may give the impression that Bashō was a precursor of the English Romantic poets, meditating upon himself as he walked alone through the natural world.  "I wandered lonely as a cloud .  . ."  This would be a mistaken conclusion.  What it means to live and die as a human being, in the company of other human beings, is at the heart of Bashō's poetry.  

Thus:

     Deep autumn;
My neighbour, --
     How does he live?

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 336.

Or this:

     Turn this way;
I also am lonely,
     This evening of autumn.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page xxvii.  

The poem is preceded by a prose introduction by Bashō:

"Unchiku, a monk living in Kyoto, had painted what appeared to be a self-portrait.  It was a picture of a monk with his face turned away.  Unchiku showed me the portrait and asked me for a verse to go with it.  Thereupon I wrote as follows --
     You are over sixty years of age, and I am nearing fifty.  We are both in a world of dreams, and this portrait depicts a man in a dream, too.  Here I add the words of another such man talking in his sleep."

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 298.

An additional passage from R. H. Blyth touches upon the essential human element in Bashō's haiku:

"He has an all-round delicacy of sympathy which makes us near to him, and him to us.  As with Dr. Johnson, there is something in him beyond literature, above art, akin to what Thoreau calls homeliness.  In itself, mere goodness is not very thrilling, but when it is added to sensitivity, a love of beauty, and poetry, it is the irresistible force which can move immovable things."

R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Volume One: From the Beginnings up to Issa (Hokuseido Press 1963), page 110.

Edward Waite, "Autumn Colouring" (1894)

Bashō's humanity (his "delicacy of sympathy" and "goodness") is intertwined with, and inseparable from, his love of the World and of its beautiful particulars.  In the best of his haiku, what it means to live (and die) as a human being is the unspoken heart of a poem which, at the same time, presents the Beauty and the Truth of the World as it passes in a fleeting moment.  I believe this is what Blyth is getting at when he states that Bashō "is awake in the world that for almost all men exists as a world of dreams."  And here is a wonderful thing: when we read a haiku by Bashō, we are awakened as well.

Well, then, where does one go from here?  To Bashō, of course.  And into autumn.

     A flower unknown
To bird and butterfly, --
     The sky of autumn.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4, Autumn-Winter, page xxxii.

Or this:

     The flowers of the bush clover
Do not let fall, for all their swaying,
     Their drops of bright dew.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 101.  Bush clover (lespedeza; hagi in Japanese), which blooms in autumn, is a traditional autumn seasonal word (kigo) in Japanese poetry (both haiku and waka).

Bush clover again:

     In the surf,
Mingled with small shells,
     Petals of the bush clover.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 102.

And, finally:

     From far and near,
Voices of waterfalls are heard,
     Leaves falling.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 357.

I said above: "when we read a haiku by Bashō, we are awakened as well."  But that is not the end of it, is it?  What Bashō is telling us is: "Go out into the World.  Pay attention.  Live."

Edward Waite, "Fall of the Year"

Monday, October 4, 2021

October

And so we find ourselves in October, that brilliant month, the heart of autumn.  Yet the leaves have long since begun to turn red and gold. Those that have already fallen have been rattling at our heels for weeks, spun along the ground by a wind that carries a chill thread. The tree shadows have been steadily lengthening across the fields since late August.  Still, October is something else altogether, isn't it? We have arrived.  As I am wont to say each year (and I beg your forbearance once again, dear readers): we are now well and truly in the season of bittersweet wistfulness, wistful bittersweetness.

I am fond of the poets of the Nineties.  Theirs is a world of twilight and mists, a melancholy world of lost or unattainable love and conflicted faith; a dream-haunted, Death-haunted world.  Have I frightened you away from them?  I hope not, for their poetry can be quite moving and lovely.  And, as one might expect, they are in their element in autumn.

             Autumn Twilight

The long September evening dies
In mist along the fields and lanes;
Only a few faint stars surprise
The lingering twilight as it wanes.

Night creeps across the darkening vale;
On the horizon tree by tree
Fades into shadowy skies as pale
As moonlight on a shadowy sea.

And, down the mist-enfolded lanes,
Grown pensive now with evening,
See, lingering as the twilight wanes,
Lover with lover wandering.

Arthur Symons (1865-1945), London Nights (Leonard Smithers 1895).

Too florid or too Romantic for modern tastes?  No doubt.  But who in their right mind pays any attention to modern tastes?  Of what account are Beauty and Truth in the news of the world that appears each day, or in the daily world of endless, empty distraction?  Of no account whatsoever, as far as I can tell.  This is not a misanthropic comment on humanity.  Rather, it is a description of our current "culture."  Yet, come what may, I have faith in individual human souls.  Beauty and Truth will always find their preservers.

"Autumn Twilight" has its share of the Beauty and Truth of autumn. But, if the poets of the Nineties are not your cup of tea, autumn's Beauty and Truth can be found in a sparer, more restrained (but still passionate) form as well:

Even in a person
most times indifferent 
to things around him
they waken feelings --
the first winds of autumn.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 67.  The poem is a waka.

Duncan Cameron (1837-1916), "Harvest Time in Lorne" (1888)

Saigyō and Arthur Symons were both moved by autumn.  I have no interest in deciding which of the two poems contains a more beautiful, or a more truthful, articulation of what autumn can mean to a human being.  A fool's errand, that.  Separated by seven centuries, on opposite sides of the planet, the human truth of autumn, and its beauty, is the same.  

I am reminded of what Edward Thomas wrote about poetry and poets:

"What [poets] say is not chosen to represent what they feel or think, but is itself the very substance of what had before lain dark and unapparent, is itself all that survives of feeling and thought, and cannot be expanded or reduced without dulling or falsification.  If this is not so, and if we do not believe it to be so, then poetry is of no greater importance than wallpaper, or a wayside drink to one who is not thirsty. But if it is so, then we are on the way to understand why poetry is mighty; for if what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death."

Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), page 86.  

This is the finest, and most beautiful, description of poetry I have ever come across.  (A side-note: I presume that "for if what poets say is true and not feigning" is an echo, transformed, of Shakespeare's "for the truest poetry is the most feigning" from Act III, Scene iii of As You Like It.)

With that, it is time to return to autumn with Arthur Symons:

                  Autumn

There is so little wind at all,
The last leaves cling, and do not fall
From the bare branches' ends; I sit
Under a tree and gaze at it,
A slender web against the sky,
Where a small grey cloud goes by;
I feel a speechless happiness
Creep to me out of quietness.

What is it in the earth, the air,
The smell of autumn, or the rare
And half reluctant harmonies
The mist weaves out of silken skies,
What is it shuts my brain and brings
These sleepy dim awakenings,
Till I and all things seem to be
Kin and companion to a tree?

Arthur Symons, The Fool of the World and Other Poems (William Heinemann 1906).

And, once more, Saigyō:

Crickets --
as the cold of night
deepens into autumn
are you weakening? your voices
grow farther and farther away.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 82.  The poem is a waka.

"True and not feigning."  At any time, and in any season, human messages such as these are few and far between.

George Vicat Cole (1833-1893), "Harvest Time" (1860)

I look forward to the coming brilliance, melancholy, exhilaration, and sadness of October.  But, a few days ago, I stumbled upon this:

             On the Road on a Spring Day

There is no coming, there is no going.
From what quarter departed?  Toward what quarter bound?
Pity him! in the midst of his journey, journeying --
Flowers and willows in spring profusion, everywhere fragrance.

Ryūsen Reisai (d. 1365) (translated by Marian Ury), in Marian Ury, Poems of the Five Mountains (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan 1992), page 33.  

The poem is a kanshi: a poem written in Chinese characters by a Japanese poet.  Ryūsen Reisai was a Zen Buddhist monk.  Ury provides the following note to the poem: "The poem begins with a Zen truism, which is expanded into a personal statement."  Ibid, page 33.

The poem feels like a coda of sorts to the emotions evoked by October, and autumn.  Or a comment upon them.  Scraps from T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton" (from Four Quartets) come to mind: "at the still point of the turning world;" "neither from nor towards." Whatever the season, there it is: the World.  As ever, there is only one appropriate response: gratitude.

Joseph Farquharson (1846-1935)
"Harvesting, Forest of Birse, Aberdeenshire" (1900)

Saturday, September 18, 2021

No, Thank You

Day after day, modern "civilization" casts its flotsam and jetsam upon our shores.  There is no help for it.  Each of us maintains our own inventory of which pieces of detritus have caught our attention of late, or over the course of a lifetime.  The arrivals will never cease: "everything that can be imagined is bound to be realized at least once -- everything that mankind is capable of conceiving, it seems compelled to do."  (Saul Bellow, "Writers, Intellectuals, Politics: Mainly Reminiscence," in Saul Bellow, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About: Collected Nonfiction (edited by Benjamin Taylor) (Viking 2015), page 407.)  

Bellow's assertion cuts both ways, doesn't it?  Human nature harbors a boundless capacity for both good and evil.  Who knows which of the two will appear next, and in what form?  Caught up in the daily distraction (the latest political and media "crisis"), we are encouraged to bounce back and forth between hope and dread, anxiously awaiting "news."  This is no way to live.

Nearly every day I walk past a small round meadow, about fifty feet wide, which is surrounded on all sides by tall pines.  A single young maple stands near the center of the circle of grass and wildflowers. Each year I watch the maple change through the seasons, out there alone in the open.  Who knows what will happen to it?  It will likely outlive me, which is a comfort.  We each go on in our own way.

Alternative worlds are available to us.  Worlds free of flotsam and jetsam.  I have recently been spending time with poems set to music in England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Another world (not without its own good and evil, of course), but one which feels seemlier and nobler than the one in which we now find ourselves.  In the songs, one comes upon lines such as these:

Constant Penelope sends to thee, careless Ulysses.
Write not again, but come, sweet mate, thyself to revive me.
Troy we do much envy, we desolate lost ladies of Greece,
Not Priamus, nor yet all Troy can us recompense make.
Oh, that he had, when he first took shipping to Lacedaemon,
That adulter I mean, had been o'erwhelmed with waters.
Then had I not lain now all alone, thus quivering for cold,
Nor used this complaint, nor have thought the day to be so long.

Anonymous, in William Byrd, Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadness and Piety (1588), in E. H. Fellowes (editor), English Madrigal Verse 1588-1632 (Oxford University Press 1967), page 48. The eight lines are a translation of the opening lines of the First Epistle of Ovid's Heroides.  Ibid, page 683.

What shall it be: Bedlam, or a world in which a poet forever unknown to us wrote of "constant Penelope"?

Robin Tanner (1904-1988), "The Gamekeeper's Cottage" (1928)

The Elizabethan era may indeed be a different world, but I was pleased to encounter these lines, which are timeless, in one of the songbooks:

The love of change hath changed the world throughout;
     And what is counted good but that is strange?
New things wax old, old new, all turns about,
     And all things change except the love of change.
Yet find I not that love of change in me,
But as I am so will I always be.

Anonymous, in Richard Carlton, Madrigals to Fine Voices (1601), Ibid, page 77.  As is the case with many of the songs from the period, the identity of the poet is not known.

As one who is conservative in temperament (a temperament confirmed by six decades of watching the world), it is gratifying to discover a kindred soul from four centuries ago.  The lamenters of change are always with us, aren't they?  Mind you, the conservatism of which I speak has nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary politics, which are of no interest to me.

"Yet find I not that love of change in me" (a lovely line) in turn brings this to mind:

     The Metropolitan Underground Railway

Here were a goodly place wherein to die; --
     Grown latterly to sudden change averse,
All violent contrasts fain avoid would I
     On passing from this world into a worse.

William Watson (1858-1935), Epigrams of Art, Life, and Nature (Gilbert Walmsley 1884).

I concede that the Underground is no doubt a marvelous thing. Having once lived in Tokyo, I recognize the convenience and efficiency of subways and train lines.  But I sympathize with the sentiments expressed in the poem.  "Grown latterly to sudden change averse."  Yes.  A time comes when one feels prepared to quietly and permanently exit the wearisome world of change.

Robin Tanner, "June" (1946)

But I feel I've lost the thread.  The flotsam and jetsam of the modern world and aversion to change are ultimately of no moment.  As always, one should attend to one's soul.  Where does one start?  Best to return to the solitary maple tree in the clearing among the pines. Everything begins and ends with a single beautiful particular.

A quiet bell sounds --
and reveals a village
waiting for the moon.

Sōgi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, The Road to Komatsubara: A Classical Reading of the Renga Hyakuin (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University 1987), page 96.

Robin Tanner, "Martin's Hovel" (1927)

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Eight: Exile

Is the World we live in enchanted or disenchanted?  Happily, we cannot think, or reason, our way to an answer to this question. Moreover, the answer may be beyond words, which is appropriate. The World is mostly reticent.  But, if we pay attention to it, we may receive glimpses, glimmers, inklings. 

And, in the end, the answer we may stumble upon applies only to a single soul: our own.  Still, we may encounter kindred souls in our travels.  What would we do without them?

"What a marvelous time it was when everything was alive, according to human imagination, and humanly alive, in other words inhabited or formed by beings like ourselves; when it was taken as certain that in the deserted woods lived the beautiful Hamadryads and fauns and woodland deities and Pan, etc., and, on entering and seeing everything as solitude, you still believed that everything was inhabited and that Naiads lived in the springs, etc., and embracing a tree you felt it almost palpitating between your hands and believed it was a man or a woman like Cyparissus, etc., and the same with flowers, etc., just as children do."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 69.

As an unrepentant Wordsworthian pantheist (the Wordsworth of 1797 through 1807) and a lover of the poems in The Greek Anthology, I fully concur with Leopardi's thoughts.  How far we have fallen!  But some may say: "What of Progress?"  Ah, yes, "Progress."  We now find ourselves in the hands of political, scientific, technological, and media "experts."  That seems to be working quite well.

H. S. Merritt, "Woodford Bridge in the Avon Valley" (c. 1942)

I am also wholly in sympathy with Walter de la Mare:

                         Exile

Had the gods loved me I had lain
     Where darnel is, and thorn,
And the wild night-bird's nightlong strain
     Trembles in boughs forlorn.

Nay, but they loved me not; and I
     Must needs a stranger be,
Whose every exiled day gone by
     Aches with their memory.

Walter de la Mare, The Listeners and Other Poems (Constable 1912).

The pang of exile from a lost, ever unreachable world is a thread that runs throughout de la Mare's poetry.  But it never leads to a slighting of the World as we find it.  Nor does it lead to despair, or to lack of love for the beautiful particulars of the World.  Thus: "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall." ("Now.")  Or this: "Look thy last on all things lovely,/Every hour." ("Fare Well.")  

And, despite the sadness and the sense of irremediable loss expressed in "Exile," de la Mare still catches glimpses of the lost world in the English countryside:

           Echo 

Seven sweet notes
In the moonlight pale
Warbled a leaf-hidden
Nightingale:
And Echo in hiding
By an old green wall
Under the willows
Sighed back them all.

Walter de la Mare, Bells and Grass: A Book of Rhymes (Faber and Faber 1941).

This brings to mind a lovely poem from The Greek Anthology:

High up the mountain-meadow, Echo with never a tongue
Sings back to each bird in answer the song each bird hath sung.

Satyrus (c. 1st century B.C. - 1st century A.D.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 358.

There is no telling what one might suddenly see out in a field:

                            Flood Water

What saw I -- crouching by that pool of water
     Bright-blue in the flooded grass,
Of ash-white sea-birds the remote resort, and
     April's looking-glass? --
Was it mere image of a dream-dazed eye --
That startled Naiad -- as the train swept by?

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

H. S. Merritt, "Bowerchalke" (c. 1942)

The ironic moderns among us have "progressed" too far to take any of this seriously.  They fancy themselves to be unillusioned and undeceived.  Products of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment."

Leopardi again: "[T]here has never been an age so tainted and corrupted that it did not believe itself to stand at the pinnacle of civilization and social perfection, and to be an example to the other ages, and, in particular, superior in every respect to all past ages, and at the farthest point in space yet traveled by the human spirit." (Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone, page 395.)  

Enchanted or disenchanted?  Each of us makes a choice in this matter every day.

                       Ionic

That we've broken their statues,
that we've driven them out of their temples,
doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1975).

H. S. Merritt, "Wishford, Wylye Valley" (c. 1942)

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Now

The angled, honey-yellow afternoon light has taken on the aspect of autumn, and the shadows of trees have begun to lengthen across the evening fields.  Yet still the swallows skim, swoop, and curve just above the dry meadow grasses.  Once again, the time has come to visit my favorite poem of August.

       A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur --

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten in the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of.  It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter.  The grass is full

And full of yourself.  The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone --
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

Wallace Stevens, Parts of a World (Alfred A. Knopf 1942).

I will not attempt to pick apart this thing of beauty.  Long-time readers of this blog may recall my position on these matters: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  As it happens, it appears that Stevens may share my view: "once a poem has been explained it has been destroyed."  (Wallace Stevens, letter to Hi Simons (January 9, 1940), in Holly Stevens (editor), Letters of Wallace Stevens (Alfred A. Knopf 1966), page 346.)  However, despite this statement, Stevens wrote several letters to critics and translators responding to their inquiries about what certain of his poems "mean."  This gives me license to offer two tentative thoughts. First, it may be helpful to recall Stevens' references in "An Old Man Asleep" (which appeared in my previous post) to "the two worlds": "the self and the earth."  Second, think of "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" and "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" (which also appeared in my previous post) as a lovely, complementary pair.  The self and the earth.

But we mustn't get carried away.  Consider this.  "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" was first published in the October, 1937, issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  Five months earlier, Stevens wrote this in a letter: "One side of my bed there is nothing but windows; when I lie in bed I can see nothing but trees.  But there has been a rabbit digging out bulbs: instead of lying in bed in the mornings listening to everything that is going on, I spend the time worrying about the rabbit and wondering what particular thing he is having for breakfast."  (Wallace Stevens, letter to Ronald Lane Latimer (May 6, 1937), in Holly Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, page 321.)  A rabbit.  Just a rabbit.  Or not.

Albert Woods (1871-1944), "A Peaceful Valley, Whitewell"

On a hot and windless afternoon, birdsong nearly ceases.  The swallows vanish.  But, if you walk beside a meadow, you can hear the clicking and crackling of grasshoppers, unseen, jumping in the tall grass.  If you enter a dark wood, you may notice rustling in the bushes beyond the path.  The source of the sound remains a mystery. Everything is in its place.

                         One Almost Might

Wouldn't you say,
Wouldn't you say: one day,
With a little more time or a little more patience, one might
Disentangle for separate, deliberate, slow delight
One of the moment's hundred strands, unfray
Beginnings from endings, this from that, survey
Say a square inch of the ground one stands on, touch
Part of oneself or a leaf or a sound (not clutch
Or cuff or bruise but touch with finger-tip, ear-
Tip, eyetip, creeping near yet not too near);
Might take up life and lay it on one's palm
And, encircling it in closeness, warmth and calm,
Let it lie still, then stir smooth-softly, and
Tendril by tendril unfold, there on one's hand . . .

One might examine eternity's cross-section
For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection?

A. S. J. Tessimond (1902-1962), Collected Poems (edited by Hubert Nicholson) (Bloodaxe Books 2010).

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "The River" (1924)

"To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time."  To "examine eternity's cross-section/For a second, with slightly more patience, more time for reflection."  Easier said than done, of course.  All of the ordinary days intervene.

"I wonder if you are haunted to the extremity that I am by this half-peaceful half-fretting sense of the incessant insecurity & fugitiveness of everything.  Every moment of the present wears a vaguely surmised suggestion that it is only pretending, that the conspiracy is just coming to an end.  I always seem to be on the brink of something; & so the future is hateful because it can't possibly come, or if it does, will only lead to other futures that can't.  And I long to get things over, to have them safe in memory -- beyond the guessings of foreboding and anxiety.  Even you are almost best in memory, where I cannot change you, nor you yourself."

Walter de la Mare, letter to Naomi Royde-Smith (April 24, 1911), in Theresa Whistler, Imagination of the Heart: The Life of Walter de la Mare (Duckworth 1993), page 183.

De la Mare wrote the passage in the letter the day before his thirty-eighth birthday.  In his eightieth year, this poem was published:

               Now

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).

De la Mare died in June of 1956.  Eleven months prior to his death, he said this: "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, page 443.)

John Lawson (1868-1909), "An Ayrshire Stream" (1893)

Friday, August 6, 2021

Here

Last week I took an afternoon walk on a warm, breezy, cloudless day. At times I paused beneath the trees, looking upward, listening to the leaves.  A thought suddenly occurred to me: it is enough to have been put into this World simply to see blue sky beyond swaying boughs of green leaves on a summer afternoon.  At last, there is nothing to be said, no thoughts worth thinking.

     The River of Rivers in Connecticut

There is a great river this side of Stygia, 
Before one comes to the first black cataracts
And trees that lack the intelligence of trees.

In that river, far this side of Stygia,
The mere flowing of the water is a gayety,
Flashing and flashing in the sun.  On its banks,

No shadow walks.  The river is fateful,
Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman.
He could not bend against its propelling force.

It is not to be seen beneath the appearances
That tell of it.  The steeple at Farmington
Stands glistening and Haddam shines and sways.

It is the third commonness with light and air,
A curriculum, a vigor, a local abstraction . . .
Call it, once more, a river, an unnamed flowing,

Space-filled, reflecting the seasons, the folk-lore
Of each of the senses; call it, again and again,
The river that flows nowhere, like a sea.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf 1954), page 533.  

The Collected Poems, Stevens' final volume of poetry, was published on October 1, 1954, the day before he turned seventy-five.  "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is the penultimate poem in the book. It appears in a section titled The Rock, which contains the poems Stevens wrote after the publication of The Auroras of Autumn in 1950.  Stevens died on August 2, 1955.

I have been visiting Stevens' poetry recently, and at the same time I have been reading poetry written by Sōchō (1448-1532).  Sōchō's poems appear in a journal kept by him from 1522 to 1527, when he was in his seventies.  He was a renga (linked-verse) master, and spent much of his life traveling throughout Japan, participating in renga sessions, during a tumultuous and violent time.  Many of the poems in the journal are hokku, the three-line verse form which constitutes the opening link in a renga.  Hokku evolved into the free-standing poem we now know as haiku.

     Yet gently blows the wind,
and gently fall the leaves
     from the willow trees!

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō (Stanford University Press 2002), page 109.

By happenstance, I have discovered that Sōchō's poems and Stevens' late poems in The Rock go together well.  I am loath to depart from the two septuagenarians.  They are fine companions.

Paul Nash (1889-1946), "Berkshire Downs" (1922)

The evidence suggests that Stevens devoted a great deal of time to the arrangement of the poems that appear in The Rock.  He selected this as the opening poem:

                    An Old Man Asleep

The two worlds are asleep, are sleeping, now.
A dumb sense possesses them in a kind of solemnity.

The self and the earth -- your thoughts, your feelings,
Your beliefs and disbeliefs, your whole peculiar plot;

The redness of your reddish chestnut trees,
The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, page 501.

I am reluctant to venture beyond the words of Stevens' poems. Far too much ink has already been spilled by the Wallace Stevens academic-industrial complex.  What could I possibly add?  Alas, how can I resist?  First, "An Old Man Asleep" is lovely, which is all that matters.  The words and their sound.  Second, "the two worlds" ("the self and the earth") are something to bear in mind when reading any poem by Stevens.  Third, and wonderfully, a beautiful particular: "The river motion, the drowsy motion of the river R."  Again, best to leave beauty as it is, and the words as they are, without comment. Yet one should be aware of the lovely and important place that rivers occupy in Stevens' poetry. "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" is probably my favorite Stevens poem, but it has close competitors, one of which is "This Solitude of Cataracts": "He never felt twice the same about the flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice . . ."

With respect to "the drowsy motion of the river R" -- "an unnamed flowing" -- and its "gayety," "propelling force," and fatefulness, this may be worth considering:

"At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct.  Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young.  So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price?  It is as though one began to lose one's heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight."

Marcus Aurelius (translated by Robin Hard), Meditations, Book VI, Section 15 (Oxford University Press 2011), page 48.

That's enough of that.  A few words from Sōchō are in order:

     A morning glory --
like dreams or dew, the flower
     blooms but a moment.

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō, page 108.

Paul Nash, "Behind the Inn" (1922)

"It is enough to have been put into this World simply to see blue sky beyond swaying boughs of green leaves on a summer afternoon." So it seemed to me for a moment as I stood beneath a tree last week. Ah, merely a passing fancy.  A hasty, ill-considered conclusion. Pretentious and overly-dramatic as well.  There is much more to life than blue sky and green leaves, isn't there?

A few days later, something written by Walter Pater came to mind: "He has been a sick man all his life.  He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all."  (Walter Pater, "A Prince of Court Painters," in Imaginary Portraits (Macmillan 1887), page 48.)  But of course.

And yet there is the final poem in The Rock, which is also the final poem in The Collected Poems.  As is the case with "The River of Rivers in Connecticut" (which immediately precedes it) and "An Old Man Asleep," Stevens placed it where it is with intent.

   Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché . . .
The sun was coming from outside.

That scrawny cry -- it was 
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away.  It was like
A new knowledge of reality.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems, page 534.

This time I will stay silent, and defer to Sōchō:

     In the moon's clear light
all mundane desires
     are but a path of dreams.

Sōchō (translated by H. Mack Horton), in H. Mack Horton (editor and translator), The Journal of Sōchō, page 29.

Paul Nash, "Oxenbridge Pond" (1928)

Friday, July 16, 2021

The Latest News

Recently, as I walked abroad on a sunny afternoon, it occurred to me that I had not read "Adlestrop" in quite some time.  I have no idea why this thought arose.  Was it because I was walking beneath a canopy of leaves, surrounded by birdsong?  ". . . And for that minute a blackbird sang/Close by, and round him, mistier,/Farther and farther, all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire."  Perhaps.

In any case, I resolved to return to "Adlestrop" that evening.  But the truth is that it has never left me, nor have I left it, after having stumbled upon it forty or so years ago, after which I became steeped for a long period of time in the beauty and the melancholy of Edward Thomas' poetry.  Each of us carries these worlds inside of us, don't we?  Having made my resolution, I walked on.  Within a few minutes, this came to me:

                   Period

It was a time when wise men
Were not silent, but stifled
By vast noise.  They took refuge
In books that were not read.

Two counsellors had the ear
Of the public.  One cried 'Buy'
Day and night, and the other,
More plausibly, 'Sell your repose.'

R. S. Thomas, H'm (Macmillan 1972).

Nearly fifty years have passed since "Period" was published.  Here we are.  It is a good time to sit down and read "Adlestrop."

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "Little Park, Lyme Regis" (1956)

I sometimes feel that the sadness and tragedy of Edward Thomas' life has come to overshadow his poetry.  Which is why we need to read his poems.

                    Adlestrop

Yes.  I remember Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems (edited by Edna Longley) (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

The origins of the poem can be traced back to an entry in one of Thomas' "field notebooks":

"24th [June 1914] a glorious day from 4.20 a.m. and at 10 tiers above tiers of white cloud with dirtied grey bars above the sea of slate and dull brick by Battersea Park -- then at Oxford tiers of pure white with loose large masses above and gaps of dark clear blue above haymaking and elms.

"Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.

"Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willowherb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel -- looking out on grey dry stones between metals and the shining metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass -- one man clears his throat -- a greater than rustic silence.  No house in view  Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

"Another stop like this outside Colwell on 27th with thrush singing on hillside above on road."

Edward Thomas, Ibid, page 176 (punctuation (or lack thereof) as in original text).

A vanished world.  Even then, Thomas knew it was a world that was vanishing.  Thus, the beauty and the melancholy.  (Although the source of both in Thomas' life was a great deal more complicated than that.)

Gilbert Spencer, "The Cottage Window" (c. 1937)

I am wary of reductiveness when discussing a poet's poems. Moreover, long-time (and much appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall one of my two fundamental poetic principles: "Explanation and explication are the death of poetry."  (The second, for those who may be curious, is: "It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.")  Accordingly, I am tempted to leave "Adlestrop" as it is.  In a time when the world appears to be taking leave of its senses (which is always the case), it is enough that it appear here for a few souls to read.  Civilization has always been preserved by a handful of the quiet, patient, and devoted.

Still, I will offer a thought about what lies at the heart of Edward Thomas' poetry, of its beauty and melancholy and truth.  We live evanescent lives amidst the beautiful particulars of a flitting, fleeting World, a World that will outlast us.  A moment is all we have.  We should be attentive and grateful.  Hence, "Adlestrop."  Hence, nearly every poem that Thomas wrote.

     Bright Clouds

Bright clouds of may
Shade half the pond.
Beyond, 
All but one bay
Of emerald
Tall reeds
Like criss-cross bayonets
Where a bird once called,
Lies bright as the sun.
No one heeds.
The light wind frets
And drifts the scum
Of may-blossom.
Till the moorhen calls
Again
Naught's to be done
By birds or men.
Still the may falls.

Edward Thomas, Ibid.  The poem was written in June of 1916.  Ibid, page 303.

"No one heeds."  "Still the may falls."  Exactly.  We owe the World our attention and gratitude.

Gilbert Spencer, "Wooded Landscape"

I am drawn once more to a thought that has appeared here on several occasions: "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).)  An alternative translation (by David Pears and Brian McGuinness): "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present."

It would seem that we now find ourselves "stifled/By vast noise." There is nothing new about this.  Only the bedlamites making the noise change.  We should never surrender our repose to them.  Which is likely why I felt the need to read "Adlestrop."  Which is why I often return to a waka written more than a thousand years ago:

To a mountain village
   at nightfall on a spring day
      I came and saw this:
blossoms scattering on echoes
   from the vespers bell.

Nōin (988-1050) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

Gilbert Spencer, "From My Studio" (c. 1959)

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A Blade of Grass

I recently read the following haiku by Bashō:

a dragonfly
vainly trying to settle
onto a blade of grass

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 297.

Ueda's book consists of a selection of Bashō's haiku, each followed by excerpts of commentaries on the poem offered by Japanese critics over the years.  Of this haiku, one critic writes: "This looks like a simple descriptive poem, and yet it makes us wonder whether Bashō's eyes were not observing something important in the very heart of nature."  (Ibid, page 297, quoting Momota Sōji (1893-1955).)

True, but a bit of an understatement, R. H. Blyth might say, for he wrote this of Bashō (in comparing him to Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes, in that order):  "In what point is Bashō equal or superior to these great men?  In his touching the very nerve of life, his unerring knowledge of those moments in time which, put together, make up our real, our eternal life.  He is awake in the world that for almost all men exists as a world of dreams."  (R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page iii.) (Blyth's observation brings Wordsworth's "spots of time" to mind.) Many of you may be skeptical of Blyth's claim.  After all, he devoted much of his life to writing about haiku, and thus was not a disinterested party.  Knowing Blyth, he was likely also exaggerating for effect.  Still, I confess I am not unsympathetic.

But let's leave all that aside.  It is simply a matter of a blade of grass, of a dragonfly.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959)
"Bluebells, Cornflowers, and Rhododendrons" (1945)

About a week later, having decided to travel to the world of W. B. Yeats, I came upon this:

   Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

W. B. Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (Macmillan 1933).

This poem has its source in Yeats' esoteric philosophical explorations. A daunting world in which to venture.  It tends to leave me befuddled.  However, I have been fond of Yeats from an impressionable age, and I will never cease returning to him.

But, there it was again, out of the blue: "a blade of grass."  Poetry is a wonderful thing, isn't it?  You never know what will happen the next time you open a book of poems.  A week earlier, I had been marveling at a dragonfly and a blade of grass.  Now, suddenly, serendipitously (I hadn't gone looking for "Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors"), there it was: "a blade of grass."

Stanley Spencer, "Peonies" (1939)

Yet, there was one more step to take.  A blade of grass.  A dragonfly. Something was nagging at me.  In poetry, one thing always leads to another.  Ah, yes, a dragonfly:

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 (c. 556-c. 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.

One of the joys of poetry is the way in which a poem you have read remains inside of you, waiting patiently.  A poem from 17th century Japan.  A poem written by an Irish poet in the 20th century.  A poem born in Greece 2,500 years ago.

It is all a matter of a blade of grass.  Or of a dragonfly.

Stanley Spencer, "Scarecrow, Cookham" (1934)