Sunday, January 31, 2021


A distant, recurring sound on an autumn night.  A human sound, redolent, mysterious, evanescent.

             In Early Autumn, Alone at Night

The leaves of the paulownia move in the cool breeze;
The neighbour's fulling mallet sends out the voice of autumn.
I turn and sleep beneath the eaves;
Waking, the moonlight is half across my couch.  

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 179.

Another translation of the poem:

            Early Autumn, Alone at Night

Parasol tree by the well, cold leaves stirring;
nearby fulling mallets that speak an autumn sound:
I sleep alone facing the eaves,
wake to find moonlight over half the bed.

Po Chü-i (translated by Burton Watson), in Po Chü-i, Selected Poems (edited and translated by Burton Watson) (Columbia University Press 2000), page 7.

The sound of fulling mallets (or, as they are also called, "fulling blocks") in the night signifies autumn in traditional Chinese poems. "It was customary in the autumn to pound cloth in the process known as fulling to make it suitable for use in winter clothes."  (Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 176.) Often, the sound is made by women who are preparing cloth for use in the winter clothes of their lovers or husbands, who are away in the army, anticipating a winter campaign.

A small thing?  Perhaps.  But it gives one pause.  "A thing is beautiful to the extent that it does not let itself be caught."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), from "Blazon in Green and White," in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.)

Claude Hayes (1852-1922), "Evensong" (1903)

Given the considerable influence of Chinese poetry (particularly the poetry of the T'ang dynasty) on Japanese poetry, fulling blocks are also a common presence in Japanese poems (both waka and haiku) of autumn.  (In Japan, Po Chü-i was the most popular T'ang dynasty poet.  Thus, it is likely that the poem which appears above was well known to Japanese poets.)  The Japanese word for fulling blocks is kinuta. "Kinuta, a wooden mallet and block used to full cloth in the autumn. In poetry, the sound of fulling was associated with the loneliness of a woman left waiting for a traveling husband." (Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 136.)

          Fulling Block

When the wind passes
     in the pines, autumn already
          seems lonely enough —
and then a fulling block echoes
     through Tamakawa Village.

Minamoto no Toshiyori (1055-1129) (translated by Steven Carter), Ibid, page 136.

The poem above is a waka, but the theme appears in haiku as well. For instance:

     Walking along the narrow path,
Listening to the far-off
     Fulling block.

Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Winter-Autumn, page 32.

Buson is chronologically the second of the four traditional great haiku poets: he follows Bashō, and precedes Issa.  The fourth of the greats is Shiki, who wrote this:

     In one house,
A voice of weeping,
     The sound of the fulling block.

Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 34.

A disembodied sound from somewhere out in the night.  Yet there is a slender human thread.  One pays attention.

     Unheard, these two days,
The fulling block
     Of my neighbour.

Buson (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 336.

George Clausen (1852-1944), "The Village Green at Night"

The World consists of slender threads, doesn't it?  Earlier this week, I saw two sparrows bathing in a puddle, in the morning sun.  I couldn't help but feel they were the first sign of Spring.  Yesterday I noticed that buds have appeared on a row of pear trees in front of a nearby house.  The blue herons have returned to their nests high in the tall pines beside the Ship Canal.  And soon the crocuses will begin to emerge.  "From now on, listening only to the flowers' counsel, antecedent to all knowledge . . ."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry in September, 1983 (ellipses in the original text), in Philippe Jaccottet, The Second Seedtime: Notebooks 1980-1994 (Seagull Books 2017), page 57.)

Why should little things be blamed?
Little things for grace are famed;
Love, the winged and the wild,
Love is but a little child.

Anonymous (translated by Thomas Percival Rogers), in Henry Wellesley (editor), Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from The Greek Anthology (John Murray 1849), page 259.

Slender threads.  Little things.  They all add up.

     The clear voice 
Of the fulling block echoes up
     To the Northern Stars.

Bashō (1644-1694) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, p. 31.

Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"

Monday, January 11, 2021


As I have remarked here in the past, the feeling that the world is going to Hell in a hand-basket is a timeless feature of human nature. The world has always been, and will always be, going to Hell in a hand-basket.  Still, one pauses: after all, there was someone living an ordinary life in Rome when it was sacked by the barbarians.  It's a matter of timing.  You never know what you're in for.

                                 To Posterity

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

Louis MacNeice, Visitations (Faber and Faber 1957).

Thus wrote MacNeice sixty-four years ago.  He was not wrong. Moreover, as I have noted here on several occasions, Wordsworth was not wrong in his preface to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads:

"[A] multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.  The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies."  

Hence, the theme is not new.  Only the technology changes.  So here we are again.  But all is not lost.  Some of us continue to love, and attempt to preserve, what Wordsworth and MacNeice loved (and feared for).  Yet at times one does think of the Roman living contentedly, going about his or her daily business, seeing dust on the horizon, having never heard of Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals.

William Rothenstein (1872-1945)
"Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (c. 1925)

I try to keep things in perspective, but since 1968 (the year of the White Album, a memorable World Series between the Tigers and the Cardinals, and nothing else good) I have been of the opinion that the world (as distinguished from the World) is indeed going to Hell in a hand-basket.  However, don't mind me: I suspect I had the same feeling as I emerged bawling from the womb, gasping for air, during the first term of the Eisenhower administration.  Withal, come what may, I have remained quite cheerful.  I simply step outside and take a look around at the World and its beautiful particulars.  How can one be anything but astonished and grateful?

   On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations

You'll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
The sun and moon get crossed, but they never touch,
Nor strike out fire from each other, nor crash out loud.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves,
But nothing ever happens, no harm is done.
We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last tonight.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (Henry Holt and Company 1928).

William Rothenstein, "St Martin's Summer"

Nevertheless, one cannot help but take notice of certain things.  Of things that have permanently vanished.  Of irreplaceable things, now broken, that appear to be irreparable.  There's no help for it.  One does notice.  Is this merely a product of growing older, of feeling that it is time to leave the stage, an outdated relic?  Perhaps.  But that denizen of Rome haunts me.

Suddenly, another Roman arrives to remind me:

"If, I say, you separate from the governing principle within you those things which are, as it were, appended to it by its vehement passions, and the times past and future, you make yourself like the firm World of Empedocles, A sphere rejoicing 'midst the circling eddy.  Be solicitous only to live well for the present; and you may go on till death, to spend what remains of life, with tranquillity, with true dignity, and complacence with the divinity within you."

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

Life is ever a matter of attention and gratitude, don't you think?

   On Something Observed

Torn remains of a cobweb,
     one strand dangling down --
a stray petal fluttering by
     has been tangled, caught in its skein,
all day to dance and turn,
     never once resting --
elsewhere in my garden,
     no breeze stirs.

Kokan Shiren (1278-1346) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Japanese Literature in Chinese, Volume 2 (Columbia University Press  1976), page 27.

William Rothenstein, "Oakridge Farm, Late Summer" (1933)