I am an escapist. The past month I've spent a great deal of time in 17th century Japan in the company of Gensei, a Buddhist monk-poet, and in Victorian England in the company of Christina Rossetti. From what world am I fleeing? I suspect you know.
"I have not yet looked at the newspaper. Generally I leave it till I come back tired from my walk; it amuses me then to see what the noisy world is doing, what new self-torments men have discovered, what new forms of vain toil, what new occasions of peril and of strife. I grudge to give the first freshness of the morning mind to things so sad and foolish."
George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Archibald Constable & Co. 1903), page 7.
Unlike Henry Ryecroft, I am not amused by what appears in the newspapers (or in their modern electronic successors). Hence, I am content to leave news out of my life entirely. "Where, to me, is the loss/Of the scenes they saw -- of the sounds they heard." (Mary Coleridge, "No Newspapers.") Of course, in this day and age snippets inevitably seep through -- insidious, noisome. Our life is now akin to being forever stranded in an airport departure lounge, forced to listen to the ever-present cable news presenters dissembling from an unasked-for television screen hovering in the air somewhere above us. Ah, welladay!
But we have it within us to live a seemlier life, a life of peace and quiet, of small things.
Trailing my stick I go down to the garden edge,
call to a monk to go out the pine gate.
A cup of tea with my mother,
looking at each other, enjoying our tea together.
In the deep lanes, few people in sight;
the dog barks when anyone comes or goes.
Fall floods have washed away the planks of the bridge;
shouldering our sandals, we wade the narrow stream.
By the roadside, a small pavilion
where there used to be a little hill:
it helps out our hermit mood;
country poems pile one sheet on another.
I dabble in the flow, delighted by the shallowness of the stream,
gaze at the flagging, admiring how firm the stones are.
The point in life is to know what's enough --
why envy those otherworld immortals?
With the happiness held in one inch-square heart
you can fill the whole space between heaven and earth.
Gensei (1623-1668) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Grass Hill: Poems and Prose by the Japanese Monk Gensei (Columbia University Press 1983), page 70. The poem is untitled.
"The point in life is to know what's enough." Exactly. "September 1 -- the beards of Thistle & dandelions flying above the lonely mountains like life, & I saw them thro' the Trees skimming the lake like Swallows." Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804 (Pantheon Books 1957), Notebook Entry 799 (September, 1800).
James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Glamis Village in April"
On his walk, Gensei misses nothing. "In the deep lanes, few people in sight;/the dog barks when anyone comes or goes." A mere commonplace? But perhaps Gensei is echoing a line in a poem written in China twelve centuries earlier by T'ao Ch'ien (who was revered by Japanese poets): "A dog barks somewhere in the deep lanes." ("Returning to the Fields" (line 15) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 78.) Or perhaps he is simply (and not so simply) paying attention to the World. Never underestimate the commonplace, the quotidian. These terms are not pejorative.
A singing firework; the sun's darling;
Hark how creation pleads!
Then silence: see, a small gray bird
That runs among the weeds.
Edmund Blunden, Poems, 1930-1940 (Macmillan 1940).
While out walking yesterday afternoon I heard no larks singing in the cloudless sky. But I did hear an unseen woodpecker far off in the woods, hammering. A small thing. "There have been times when looking up beneath the sheltring [sic] Trees, I could Invest every leaf with Awe." Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Kathleen Coburn (editor), The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 1: 1794-1804, Notebook Entry 1510 (September, 1803).
James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)
An aside, in closing. I am ever in search of those who have found serenity and equanimity. This is why I have long been fond of Gensei, and of his poetry. Thus, I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, I unexpectedly came upon this, which was previously unknown to me.
Homage to Gensei
Last night I lay awake
From some sound in the night
And pictured I could take
(Knowing that I could not)
The firm and quiet way
Of the gentle monk Gensei,
Who watched from his Grass Hill
(Three hundred years away)
Beneath a favorite tree,
Or from his leaky hut,
Travels of crow, cloud, sail;
With some food and wine
Welcomed the always rare
Visit from old friends; wrote
His poems, though unwell
Much of the time; read; gave
Lessons, again while sick,
Kept clear of pedantry
(And all he wrote of it
Rings true of it today),
With his goose-foot walking stick
To keep him company
Took walks, kept his mind free
And agile as the air,
Under his bent old pine
With writing brush in hand
Quiet at close of day
Saw out the evening sun
Across the shadowy land.
* * * * *
Slight rustlings in a tree
And a slow car going by
Returned me to what's mine,
What it had all come to,
What I still had to do
With my own dwindling days.
Alan Stephens, Collected Poems, 1958-1998 (Dowitcher Press 2012). The ellipses are in the original text.
James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)