Saturday, March 26, 2022

Empires. Animula. Blossoms and Warblers.

Given the situation in which the world now finds itself, I had thought to descant upon the folly and evil of self-appointed emperors and their imaginary, ultimately chimerical empires.  I had intended to begin with this:

        The Fort of Rathangan

The fort over against the oak-wood,
Once it was Bruidge's, it was Cathal's,
It was Aed's, it was Ailill's,
It was Conaing's, it was Cuilíne's,
And it was Maeldúin's:
The fort remains after each in his turn --
And the kings asleep in the ground.

Anonymous (translated by Kuno Meyer), in Kuno Meyer (editor), Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry (Constable 1913).  I first discovered the poem in Walter de la Mare's anthology Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages (Constable 1923).

I planned to eventually arrive at this:

                         In Yüeh Viewing the Past

Kou-chien, king of Yüeh, came back from the broken land of Wu;
his brave men returned to their homes, all in robes of brocade.
Ladies in waiting like flowers filled his spring palace
where now only the partridges fly.

Li Po (701-762) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

But I soon realized, dear readers, that I would only be telling you something you already know.  Moreover, of what value is historical "perspective" (or the "perspective" of immutable human nature) when singular and irreplaceable lives are being lost, or forever damaged, at this moment?  I no longer had any heart for the project.  "Perspective" is an inappropriate indulgence for someone who is out of harm's way, living in a place that is not at war.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "A Castle in Scotland"

Around the same time, for reasons unknown, I remembered this:


No one knows, no one cares --
An old soul
In a narrow cottage,
A parlour,
A kitchen,
And upstairs
A narrow bedroom,
A narrow bed --
A particle of immemorial life.

James Reeves, Poems and Paraphrases (Heinemann 1972).  "Animula" is usually translated into English as "little soul."  

Reeves' poem prompted me to return to a poem purportedly written by the Emperor Hadrian (ah, an emperor) on his deathbed.  The poem begins: "animula vagula blandula."  It has been translated into English dozens of times over the centuries.  My favorite version is that of Henry Vaughan:

My soul, my pleasant soul and witty,
The guest and consort of my body,
Into what place now all alone
Naked and sad wilt thou be gone?
No mirth, no wit, as heretofore,
Nor jests wilt thou afford me more.

Henry Vaughan, "Man in Darkness, or, A Discourse of Death," in The Mount of Olives: or, Solitary Devotions (1652), in Donald Dickson, Alan Rudrum, and Robert Wilcher (editors), The Works of Henry Vaughan, Volume I: Introduction and Texts, 1646-1652 (Oxford University Press 2018), page 318.

As a preface to his translation of the poem, Vaughan writes:

"You may believe, he was royally accommodated, and wanted nothing which this world could afford; but how far he was from receiving any comfort in his death from that pompous and fruitless abundance, you shall learn from his own mouth, consider (I pray) what he speaks, for they are the words of a dying man, and spoken by him to his departing soul."

Ibid, page 318.

Finally, Hadrian and Vaughan led me to T. S. Eliot's "Animula," and, in particular, these lines:

'Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul'
To a flat world of changing lights and noise,
To light, dark, dry or damp, chilly or warm;
Moving between the legs of tables and of chairs,
Rising or falling, grasping at kisses and toys,
Advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
Retreating to the corner of arm and knee,
Eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
In the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,
Pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea.
     *     *     *     *     *
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
Irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame,
Unable to fare forward or retreat, 
Fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
Denying the importunity of the blood,
Shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom,
Leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
Living first in the silence after the viaticum.

T. S. Eliot, "Animula," lines 1-10 and 24-31, in Collected Poems 1909-1935 (Harcourt, Brace and Company 1936).

James McIntosh Patrick, "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

There is yet another way of considering this matter: "You are a little soul, carrying around a corpse, as Epictetus used to say."  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IV, Section 41 (translated by W. A. Oldfather).

Marcus Aurelius' quotation from Epictetus may be read in light of the section of the Meditations which immediately precedes it, and which is quite wonderful:

"Cease not to think of the Universe as one living Being, possessed of a single Substance and a single Soul; and how all things trace back to its single sentience; and how it does all things by a single impulse; and how all existing things are joint causes of all things that come into existence; and how intertwined in the fabric is the thread and how closely woven the web."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book IV, Section 40 (translated by C. R. Haines).

Empires.  Animula.  And yesterday afternoon I walked through Spring, which persists in being here, despite everything.  "How intertwined in the fabric is the thread and how closely woven the web."

A man of the Way comes rapping at my brushwood gate,
wants to discuss the essentials of Zen experience.
Don't take it wrong if this mountain monk's too lazy to open his
late spring warblers singing their heart out, a village of drifting

Jakushitsu Genkō (1290-1367) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, "Poems by Jakushitsu Genkō," The Rainbow World: Japan in Essays and Translations (Broken Moon Press 1990), page 127.

What are we to do?  "It's a sad and beautiful world."  (Mark Linkous (performing as Sparklehorse), "Sad and Beautiful World.")

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 (editor), Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 134.

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

Friday, March 4, 2022


I am content to live my life in accordance with certain truisms.  For instance: Human nature has never changed, and never will.  And one of its corollaries: Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward.  Both of these seem quite apt in light of the events of the past week.  

I suspect that the utility of truisms becomes more apparent as one ages.  This is not necessarily a matter of attaining wisdom (I can attest to that).  Rather, it reflects a paring away of that which is inessential, beside the point.  There is little time left.  Why expend any of it on the sophistries of the world?

                      The Truisms

His father gave him a box of truisms
Shaped like a coffin, then his father died;
The truisms remained on the mantelpiece
As wooden as the playbox they had been packed in
Or that other his father skulked inside.

Then he left home, left the truisms behind him
Still on the mantelpiece, met love, met war,
Sordor, disappointment, defeat, betrayal,
Till through disbeliefs he arrived at a house
He could not remember seeing before.

And he walked straight in; it was where he had come from
And something told him the way to behave.
He raised his hand and blessed his home;
The truisms flew and perched on his shoulders
And a tall tree sprouted from his father's grave.

Louis MacNeice, Solstices (Faber and Faber 1961).

Charles Ginner (1878-1952), "Hartland Point from Boscastle" (1941)

The truisms mostly provide a framework for the world of humans, happenstance, and history, the world of fortune and of fate.  As for the World -- the World of beautiful particulars -- that is something else entirely.  I expect no explanations, answers, or solutions to arrive.  That being said, I am always on the lookout for glimmers and glimpses, calls and whispers, from near or far.  Yesterday, I came across thousands of tangled bare branches, a few passing white clouds, and a blue sky -- all floating on the surface of a puddle along the edge of a pathway.  Birdsong was with me wherever I walked.

Still, there are truisms that apply both to the world and the World.  For example: One thing leads to another.  As I have noted here in the past, one of the charms of poetry is that you never know where a poem will take you.  A few mornings ago, I read this:

        Evening Rain by the Bridge

Showering, the rain by the bridge,
Under shadow, at nightfall is not yet hushed.
A fisherman in straw coat waits hesitant on the bluff;
The monks' gong sounds across the central stream.
Sad and still, bush clover at twilight --
Blue into the distance, water oats in autumn.
How beautiful is the clear shallow water!
Tranquil: a single sand gull.

Ichū Tsūjo (1349-1429) (translated by Marian Ury), in Marian Ury, Poems of the Five Mountains: An Introduction to the Literature of the Zen Monasteries (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan 1992).

The poem is a kanshi: a poem written in Chinese characters by a Japanese poet.  The writing of kanshi developed due to the popularity of classical Chinese poetry in Japan.  A kanshi replicates the formal structures and prosodic features of Chinese poetry (the number of lines in a particular lyric form, the prescribed number of characters in each line, as well as requirements relating to rhyme, tonal patterns, and verbal parallelisms).  

Although very few of the Japanese poets who wrote kanshi were fluent in, or spoke, Chinese, they were familiar with Chinese characters (known as kanji in Japanese) given that the characters are used in the Japanese writing system.  For many years (particularly during the 14th and 15th centuries), the writing of kanshi was popular among Zen Buddhist monks due to Zen's origin in Chinese Ch'an Buddhism.  A number of these monks had traveled to China to study Ch'an, and, while living there, had also grown fond of Chinese poetry.

Charles Ginner, "Dahlias and Cornflowers" (1929)

Ichū Tsūjo's "Tranquil: a single sand gull" soon brought to mind one of Tu Fu's best-known, most-beloved poems:

   A Traveler at Night Writes His Thoughts

Delicate grasses, faint wind on the bank;
stark mast, a lone night boat:
stars hang down, over broad fields sweeping;
the moon boils up, on the great river flowing.
Fame -- how can my writings win me that?
Office -- age and sickness have brought it to an end.
Fluttering, fluttering -- where is my likeness?
Sky and earth and one sandy gull.

Tu Fu (712-770) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984).

Very little has been written about Ichū Tsūjo in English, so I am not qualified to opine upon his familiarity either with Chinese poetry in general or with Tu Fu's poetry in particular.  However, I suspect that he was familiar with both Tu Fu's poetry and with "A Traveler at Night Writes His Thoughts."  I would also not be surprised if "Tranquil: a single sand gull" is a conscious echo of "Fluttering, fluttering -- where is my likeness?/Sky and earth and one sandy gull."

Charles Ginner, "Novar Cottage, Bearley, Warwickshire" (1933)

Tu Fu's "one sandy gull" in turn brought me to this, one of my favorite poems of spring:

   The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush

Before the first visitor comes the spring
Softening the sharp air of the coast
In time for the first seasonal 'invasion.'
Today the place is as it might have been,
Gentle and almost hospitable.  A girl
Strides past the Northern Counties Hotel,
Light-footed, swinging a book-bag,
And the doors that were shut all winter
Against the north wind and the sea-mist
Lie open to the street, where one
By one the gulls go window-shopping
And an old wolfhound dozes in the sun.

While I sit with my paper and prawn chow mein
Under a framed photograph of Hong Kong
The proprietor of the Chinese restaurant
Stands at the door as if the world were young,
Watching the first yacht hoist a sail
-- An ideogram on sea-cloud -- and the light
Of heaven upon the hills of Donegal;
And whistles a little tune, dreaming of home.

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

Gulls.  One thing leads to another: from the banks of a village stream in 14th century Japan, to a boat anchored in a great river in 8th century China, and, finally, to a seaside town in 20th century Northern Ireland.  Are such journeys idle indulgences in a world of misery, calamity, and evil?  Or are such journeys absolute necessities in a world of misery, calamity, and evil?

Charles Ginner, "Yellow Chrysanthemums" (1929)