Sunday, October 31, 2021


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.


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.


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


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.  


     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


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:


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)