Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Life

A few months ago, I discovered a lovely and moving poem.  I have a little story to tell about how this discovery came about, but the poem itself is entitled to center stage.

'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23.'

The little meadow by the sand,
Where Tamsin lies, is ringed about
With acres of the scented thyme.
The salt wind blows in all that land;
The great clouds pace across the skies;
Rare wanderers from the ferry climb.
One might sleep well enough, no doubt,
        Where Tamsin lies.

Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,
And all in life she might not have,
The silence and the utter peace
That tempest-winnowed spirits find
On slopes that front the western wave.
The white gulls circle without cease
        O'er Tamsin's grave.

E. K. Chambers, Carmina Argentea (1918).

I suspect that many moderns will find the poem to be too old-fashioned and too sentimental, too unironic, for their tastes.  Not I.  As I have noted here in the past, I consider sentimentality to be a perfectly acceptable human emotion.  Further, I am firmly in favor of anything that is deemed to be "old-fashioned."  Moreover, I believe that self-regarding, soulless irony is the bane of our times.  In short, I do not consider myself to be a "modern."

I find the poem to be absolutely beautiful.

Ernest Ehlers, "Sea Pinks, Porth Joke, Cornwall, May 1898" (1898)

Edmund Kerchever Chambers (1866-1954) was a civil servant in what was then known as the Board of Education.  In addition (and on the side), he was a leading scholar of English literature and, in particular, of the English theatre.  His most important works were The Mediaeval Stage (two volumes) and The Elizabethan Stage (four volumes).  He also prepared updated editions of several of Shakespeare's plays, the poems of John Donne, and the poems of Henry Vaughan.

In January, I posted two poems by Vaughan.  To confirm the text, I consulted Chambers's edition of Vaughan's poems on the Internet Archive. In doing so, I noticed a link to a book by Chambers titled Carmina Argentea.  I was not familiar with the book, so I opened the link.  I discovered a 32-page pamphlet that was, according to the title page, "Printed for the Author" in 1918.  The pamphlet contains poems written by Chambers.  He likely distributed copies of the pamphlet to his family and friends.

An "Envoi" at the start of the collection provides context.  It begins:  "A sorry sheaf of verse to bring/For fifty years of wayfaring/About the waste fields and the sown,/Where harvest of the Muse is grown!"  The "Envoi" concludes:  ". . . let them rest,/Poor relics of a broken quest."  In the United Kingdom of Chambers's time, literate men and women were wont to turn their hand to verse when sufficiently moved, even if the writing of poetry was not their primary vocation.  Carmina Argentea ("Silver Poems" or "Silver Songs") preserves twenty-one poems written by Chambers over "fifty years of wayfaring."

I began to read the poems.  They consisted of reflections on the city and the country, nature and the turn of the seasons, love and life.  All pleasant enough.  However, everything suddenly changed when I arrived at page 22, where I came upon 'In memory of Thomasine Trenoweth.'  As I read the poem, I immediately realized that this was something of an entirely different order.  How did I know?  As in all such cases, the signs of being in the presence of beauty were physical and emotional:  a catch of breath, a feeling of being gently knocked back in my chair, and, as the poem came to an end, a shaking of the head in wonder and delight (together with, I confess, misty eyes and a lump in the throat).

Robert Borlase Smart, "Cornish Cliffs, Zennor" (1923)

Of course, I was curious about Thomasine Trenoweth, and how she came into the life of E. K. Chambers.  My internet researches led me nowhere.  I did discover that the poem was given the title "Lelant" (with "In Memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, aged 23" appearing under the title) when it was republished in 1922 in the anthology Poems of To-Day: Second Series. Lelant is a village in Cornwall on the Hayle Estuary, a few miles southeast of St Ives.  However, I could find nothing about Chambers's connection with Lelant in particular, or with Cornwall in general:  he was born in Berkshire, attended Oxford, spent his working life in London, and retired to a village in Oxfordshire.  Cornish locations are mentioned in three other poems collected in Carmina Argentea.  Perhaps Chambers took his holidays in Cornwall?

But I have decided that it is best to leave Thomasine Trenoweth a mystery. Chambers's affectionate shortening of her name to "Tamsin" from "Thomasine" tells us something about her.  As does:  "Tamsin has sunshine now and wind,/And all in life she might not have."  And there is this as well:  "The silence and the utter peace/That tempest-winnowed spirits find/On slopes that front the western wave."  She was a person who once walked through the World.  Her departure was an occasion of sadness.  But she was not forgotten.

The following haiku by Bashō appeared here earlier this year, and it comes to mind again.

At the news of the nun Jutei's death

never think of yourself
as someone who did not count --
festival of the souls

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 393.

Byron Cooper (1850-1933)
"Hayle Estuary, Cornwall (The Shadow of a Cloud)"

In my previous post, I repeated one of my poetic precepts (for which I claim no originality):  "It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet." Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth is a perfect instance of what I had in mind.  In his day, no one thought of Chambers as a poet. Yet he was moved by his feelings to preserve in a poem the memory of someone he affectionately referred to as "Tamsin," and to wish her a peaceful sleep.  "Parta Quies."

The poem saw the light of day in 1918, surfaced again in 1922, and then essentially disappeared.  But the poem -- and Tamsin -- have been there all along.  They now return in a new century.  This tells us something about the wondrous and patiently circuitous workings of life, art, and the World.

We meet only to part,
Coming and going like white clouds,
Leaving traces so faint
Hardly a soul notices.

Ryōkan (translated by John Stevens), in John Stevens, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryōkan (Shambhala 1996), page 91.

Samuel John Lamorna Birch (1869-1955), "A Cornish Stream"

Thursday, March 2, 2017

For Mary Coleridge

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog may recall, one of my oft-repeated precepts regarding poetry is this:  It is the individual poem that matters, not the poet.  Of course, I make no claim of originality for this thought.  Thus, for instance, I happened upon the following observation by Rosanjin (a Japanese potter and artist) this past week:

"The sort of person who, when shown a painting, steps up to examine the artist's seal understands nothing about paintings.  The same may be said of the sort who immediately asks who painted it."

Rosanjin (1883-1959) (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter), in Sidney Cardozo and Masaaki Hirano, The Art of Rosanjin (Kodansha 1987), page 120.

So it is with poems and poets.  Whether a poet is a "major" or a "minor" poet in the estimation of readers or critics is of no moment to me.  Likewise, I have no interest in debating which poets are "good," "better," or "best."  Do I have favorite poets?  Of course.  But I never think of them as being in competition with one another.  Again, it is the individual poem that matters.

I came to know Mary Coleridge by discovering the following poem in an anthology two or three decades ago (I don't recall the exact year).

               L'Oiseau Bleu

The lake lay blue below the hill.
     O'er it, as I looked, there flew
Across the waters, cold and still,
     A bird whose wings were palest blue.

The sky above was blue at last,
     The sky beneath me blue in blue.
A moment, ere the bird had passed,
     It caught his image as he flew.

Mary Coleridge, in Theresa Whistler (editor), The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

Mary Coleridge was the great-grandniece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  She was born in 1861, and she died in 1907 at the age of 45.  Hence, one might be tempted to describe her as a "Victorian poet."  But that would be a mistake.  The use of terms such as "Victorian," "Romantic," or "Modernist" is over-simplistic, and often provides an excuse for not reading and appreciating individual poems.  I think that "L'Oiseau Bleu" is a lovely poem that happens to have been written in the Victorian era.  To me it seems timeless.

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)
"The Festival of St Swithin (The Dovecot)" (1866)

Now, having just pontificated upon the need to focus upon poems rather than poets, I am going to contradict myself (perhaps).  To wit:  I find it very comforting to spend time in the company of Mary Coleridge.  She is thoughtful, sensitive, sensible, and self-effacing.  These are qualities that I admire in any poet -- and in any person.

A comment made by Kingsley Amis about Edward Thomas (which has appeared here on more than one occasion) comes to mind:

"How a poet convinces you he will not tell you anything he does not think or feel, since you have only his word for it, is hard to discover, but Edward Thomas is one of those who do it."

Kingsley Amis, The Amis Anthology (Hutchinson 1988), page 339.  For me, Mary Coleridge does this as well.

We never said farewell, nor even looked
     Our last upon each other, for no sign
Was made when we the linkèd chain unhooked
          And broke the level line.

And here we dwell together, side by side,
     Our places fixed for life upon the chart.
Two islands that the roaring seas divide
          Are not more far apart.

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge.  The poem is untitled.

William Holman Hunt, "The Haunted Manor" (1849)

A thread of unrequited, disappointed, and lost love runs through Coleridge's poetry.  It is a hint, not a preoccupation.  There is no woe-is-me melancholy or complaint.  She was clear-eyed about life.

"It comes to me that what we seem to need we are not given.  Joy cannot be born of necessity.  There is need of patience and need of peace, but no cry of need will bring joy."

Mary Coleridge, in Edith Sichel (editor), Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge (Constable 1910), pages 277-278.

Death and transience were often on her mind, but, again, not in a melancholy way.  She had an enviable perspective on things:  "Birthdays now seem to me to be like the lamp-posts along a road when you are nearing the end of a long, dark, delicious drive."  Mary Coleridge, in The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge, page 73.  Or, consider this:

"Art is an odd thing, isn't it?  It's almost the only thing that seems to me to remain unchanged throughout one's life, and it does away with all possibility of hell, and all necessity of heaven.  You forget the dead too, and yet you know it is no treason to forget them there.  And you forget yourself."

Mary Coleridge, Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge, pages 267-268.

Yet she was ever mindful of a larger context as well:

"More and more as life goes on I feel as if one of the big temptations of it were to rest content with negative ease and freedom from worry, and to forget that that's only the body of happiness and not the soul.  Looking into the fluffy white heart of an oleander, the other day, a kind of rapture at its uselessness came over me, at the divine heedlessness of anything but glory and beauty at the making of it."

Mary Coleridge, Ibid, page 276.


Is this wide world not large enough to fill thee,
     Nor Nature, nor that deep man's Nature, Art?
Are they too thin, too weak and poor to still thee,
                         Thou little heart?

Dust art thou, and to dust again returnest,
     A spark of fire within a beating clod.
Should that be infinite for which thou burnest?
                         Must it be God?

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge.

William Holman Hunt, "Our English Coasts, 1852" (1852)

Each poem that we read has unknown possibilities within it.  We never know where it will lead us.  It may very well change our life.  I will be forever grateful for having long ago encountered "L'Oiseau Bleu."  Without it, I might never have known of Mary Coleridge, and my life would be much diminished.

"When we were out this afternoon, we saw the larks descending to the ground, almost without a flutter of their wings, as if they flew upon their singing.  Some people's lives are like that; they progress by harmony rather than movement."

Mary Coleridge, Gathered Leaves from the Prose of Mary E. Coleridge, page 229.

She is buried in Grove Road Cemetery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.  She and her family were on holiday in Harrogate when she died of complications from surgery for acute appendicitis.  The epitaph on her gravestone reads: "Perfect Love."

Some in a child would live, some in a book;
     When I am dead let there remain of me
Less than a word -- a little passing look,
Some sign the soul had once, ere she forsook
     The form of life to live eternally.

Mary Coleridge, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge.  The poem is untitled.

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), "The Vale of Rest" (1858)

Saturday, February 18, 2017


Earlier this week I saw the first crocuses of the year:  white and purple (three white inner petals; three pale purple outer petals) set within deep green leaves.  Daffodil stalks have begun to emerge from the earth, and the furred buds on the tips of the magnolia branches are growing larger.

All of this activity takes place within the low-angled golden sunlight of late February and early March, the counterpart of the slanting sunlight of late August and early September.  The light of Paradise.  A World aglow, in which all colors take on deeper and richer hues.  This is particularly true of the meadows and the lawns, which are heartbreakingly and wistfully green.

For now, I am here,
but can one trust the future?
No, not in a world
     that teaches us its ways
          with the morning glory.

Izumi Shikibu (c. 970 - c. 1030) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 120.

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

The joy of arrival and the sadness of departure.  At all times, and in every season, this is what the World teaches us.  It is the story of our life, isn't it?

Each spring, I am delighted to come upon the first crocuses.  Implicit in this delight (but unstated) is the knowledge that this arrival betokens an eventual departure.  But seeing the crocuses is never an occasion for sinking into a melancholy meditation on mortality.  Quite the opposite.

And so it goes with each of the beautiful particulars of the World.

Betty Corrigall lived on the island of Hoy in Orkney in the 18th century. When she was in her late twenties, she was abandoned by her lover after becoming pregnant.  She committed suicide.  Given the circumstances of her death, a kirkyard burial was not permitted.  She was buried in an unmarked grave out on the moor.  In the early 1930s, her coffin was discovered by peat diggers.  In 1949, a visiting American minister performed a burial service for her.  A white marker was placed on her grave in 1976.  It reads:  "Here Lies Betty Corrigall."

George Mackay Brown wrote a short story about her, an imaginative rendering of the final months of her life.  The story begins with an introductory paragraph:

"In the moorland of the island of Hoy in Orkney, right on the boundary that separates the two parishes of Voes (Walls) and North Hoy, a gravestone and fence have recently been erected by some islanders.  Underneath lay, peat-preserved for well over a century, the body of a young woman who had obviously committed suicide.  Only her name survives:  Betty Corrigall."

George Mackay Brown, "Betty Corrigall", in Northern Lights: A Poet's Sources (edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray) (John Murray 1999), page 225.

Brown also wrote a poem about her.

          Betty Corrigall

The girl buried in the moor

     in the blue scarf of wind
          begin to dance

     in the yellow coat of sun
          ripeness is here

     in the gray sheet of water
          steep your griefs

     lie robed from looms of earth

George Mackay Brown, Ibid, page 231.

It is said that Betty Corrigall's body, having been interred in peat, was well-preserved when it was discovered.  "And while that generation of islanders withered slowly into death, one after another, and after death rotted more urgently until they achieved the cleanness of skeletons, the deep peat moss kept the body of Betty Corrigall uncorrupted; though stained and darkened with the essences that had preserved it."  George Mackay Brown, "Betty Corrigall," Ibid, page 230.  Persephone in Orkney:  queen of the underworld and goddess of spring.

Stanley Cursiter (1887-1976), "Orkney Landscape" (1952)

Yesterday afternoon I stood at the entrance to an avenue of trees.  The two rows of trees are bare, but beautiful, at this time of year:  an endlessly complex network of branches, not a twig out of place, set against the sky. For a moment, I brought to mind how the avenue looks in each of the seasons, and I imagined that I could see an entire year of branches and leaves pass in sequence before my eyes.

We are time-bound, but it is possible to experience timelessness and eternity.  "They will endure beyond our vanishing;/And they will never know that we have gone."  (Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Stephen Kessler), "Things.")  I find comfort in that thought.

The Ring of Brodgar is a stone circle located on the Mainland of Orkney. George Mackay Brown wrote a sequence titled "Brodgar Poems," which consists of 28 short poems, each bearing the number of one of the standing stones in the circle.  The sequence begins with a prose introduction:

"The poem sees the work on this Neolithic stone circle as lasting two or three generations at least.  'She who threw marigolds over you . . . is a crone now with cindery breath . . .'

"It may have been a meeting-place, a temple, a hymn to the sun and the stars.

"Even as a civilisation is being established, its history is beginning to crumble.  Strange boats from time to time sailed along the horizon, going north and west, threatening the precarious settlements.

"But a circle has no beginning or end.  The symbol holds.  People in AD 2000 are essentially the same as the stone-breakers and horizon-breakers of 3000 BC."

George Mackay Brown, from "Brodgar Poems" (1992), in Archie Bevan and Brian Murray (editors), The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray 2005).

"A circle has no beginning or end."  We can be acutely -- and heartbreakingly -- aware of the arrival and departure of the World's beautiful particulars, yet still feel a sense of constancy and continuity.  Is it possible that nothing ever truly vanishes?

               The Eleventh Stone

They say, never such loveliness between the lochs
As that girl.
In the pause between two stones
She became a swan.
She flew from us into sunset and stars.

George Mackay Brown, Ibid.

"The Eleventh Stone" brings this to mind:

The beauty of Xi Shi's countenance -- where is it now?
In the tips of the wild grasses, swaying in spring wind.

Yüan Chen (779-831) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 127.

Ian MacInnes, "Yesnaby" (1979)

Are these ruminations about arrivals and departures, timelessness and eternity, nothing but wishful thinking?  Whistling past the graveyard? Perhaps.  Yet why eliminate any possibilities?

I harbor no illusions: we live in a crocus and morning glory world.  Silence awaits.  But is silence the end?


Suddenly a stone chirped
Bella's goodness,
The numbers
Of Bella's beginning and end.
It sang like a harp, the stone!

James-William of Ness
Put a shilling
In the dusty palm of the carver,
Fifty years since.

Wind, snow, sun grainings.

The stone's a whisper now.
The stone will be silence.

George Mackay Brown, from "Seal Island Anthology, 1875," in Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

Stanley Cursiter, "A Farm in Orkney" (1952)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


A certain segment of the American population has worked itself into quite a tizzy over our new political state of affairs.  How can I tell?  The old standby clichés are being paraded on a daily basis.  "Hitler"!  "Nazi"!  "Fascism"! And we mustn't forget:  "Nineteen Eighty-Four"!   "Orwellian"!  (Because this is high volume outrage, exclamation marks are mandatory.)

Words such as these empty our culture of all reason and reasonableness.     I am tempted to embark upon a rant at this point, but I have no desire to add to the clamor.  Instead, the words of Marcus Aurelius come to mind:

"Say thus to thyself every morning:  today I may have to do with some intermeddler in other men's affairs, with an ungrateful man; an insolent, or a crafty, or an envious, or an unsociable selfish man.  These bad qualities have befallen them through their ignorance of what things are truly good or evil.  But I have fully comprehended the nature of good, as only what is beautiful and honourable; and of evil, that it is always deformed and shameful; and the nature of those persons too who mistake their aim; that they are my kinsmen, by partaking, not of the same blood or seed, but of the same intelligent divine part; and that I cannot be hurt by any of them, since none of them can involve me in anything dishonourable or deformed.

"I cannot be angry at my kinsmen, or hate them.  We were formed by nature for mutual assistance, as the two feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth.  Opposition to each other is contrary to nature:  All anger and aversion is an opposition."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 1, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742), pages 62-63.

Our time here is short.  Were we placed here to repeat meaningless clichés?

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
     rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

Sami Mansei (early 8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 51.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

Please do not read any political partisanship into these thoughts, dear reader.  As I mentioned in my post of November 11, I did not vote in the presidential election.  Moreover, as I have stated here on more than one occasion, this is not a political blog.  But I have often commented on the destruction of the human by the politicization of people's lives.  Hence:  the shouting of contentless clichés in the streets and through the electronic air.

A thought by Epictetus:

"That which gives men disquiet, and makes their lives miserable, is not the nature of things as they really are, but the notions and opinions which they form to themselves concerning them."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section 5, in  George Stanhope (translator), Epictetus, His Morals, with Simplicius, His Comment (Fifth Edition, 1741), page 60.

The politicization of culture and of human beings involves the creation of competing fictitious versions of reality.  This contrived way of viewing the world persuades the politicized that their lives are defined, even validated, by the political beliefs they espouse.  In a politicized world of empty words, where does the individual human soul fit in?  It doesn't.

One cannot be sure of living
     even until the evening.

In the dim dawn light
     I watch the waves in the wake
          of a departing boat.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, page 291.

Anthony Eyton, "A Kitchen Range" (1984)

As I have noted here in the past, I am quite content to live my life in accordance with certain truisms.  Why?  Because they are true.  Here is a truism by which I try to live (failing every day):  The best way to effect change is through individual acts of kindness and decency.

"Spend your time no longer in discoursing on what are the qualities of the good man, but in actually being such."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book X, Section 16, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, page 243.

Most of us know these things.  Human beings have known them for millennia.  But we are diverted by trifles.  The identity of the President of the United States is a trifle, as is the identity of the Prime Minister of X, the Premier of Y, and the Emperor of Z.  Another truism:  Life is too short for trifles of this sort.

Over waves now at peace --
a boat seen rowing away.

Sōgi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, page 318.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "The Cottage Window"

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


On the subject of beauty, this is as good a place as any to begin:

"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" ("Blason Vert et Blanc"), in Philippe Jaccottet, And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions 2011), page 53.

On a late afternoon this past week I walked between two meadows.  The meadow on my left, the parade ground of a former army post, was open and expansive.  It has been mown recently, and the winter rains have turned it deep green.  On my right, a broad field of brown and gray wild grasses sloped down to the bluffs above Puget Sound.

The afternoon was windless and quiet.  The declining sun was hidden behind a flat layer of motionless grey clouds out over the Sound, stretching away to the Olympic Mountains in the west.  Throughout my walk, my eyes kept returning to a glowing patch of pale yellow in the center of the cloud blanket, above, and dimly reflected in, the dark water below.

As I gazed at the patch yet again, I suddenly heard behind and above me a tiny creaking of wings.  A dozen or so sparrows soon flew over me with the sound of a soft rush of wind.  And those lovely creaking wings.  I lost sight of the sparrows as they disappeared into the woods up ahead.


What does it mean?  Tired, angry, and ill at ease,
No man, woman, or child alive could please
Me now.  And yet I almost dare to laugh
Because I sit and frame an epitaph --
'Here lies all that no one loved of him
And that loved no one.'  Then in a trice that whim
Has wearied.  But, though I am like a river
At fall of evening while it seems that never
Has the sun lighted it or warmed it, while
Cross breezes cut the surface to a file,
This heart, some fraction of me, happily
Floats through the window even now to a tree
Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,
Not like a pewit that returns to wail
For something it has lost, but like a dove
That slants unswerving to its home and love.
There I find my rest, and through the dusk air
Flies what yet lives in me.  Beauty is there.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

Eric Hesketh Hubbard (1892-1957), "The Cuckmere Valley, East Sussex"

A sparrow flying overhead is entirely and exactly what it is:  a sparrow flying overhead.  And yet . . .

"It is possible that beauty is born when the finite and the infinite become visible at the same time, that is to say, when we see forms but recognize that they do not express everything, that they do not stand only for themselves, that they leave room for the intangible."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 38.

One needn't be a mystic or an eremite in order to sense that we live in a World of immanence:  that, although each of the particulars of the World is wholly sufficient in and of itself, each of those particulars contains a hint of something that lies behind it and beyond it.  Something "intangible," to use Jaccottet's word.  Those who have been thoroughly modernized are wont to grow nervous at talk of a World of immanence.  This is perfectly fine.  I am not out to convert anyone to my sense of the World.  We each feel what we feel, and there is no accounting for it.

                            The One

Green, blue, yellow and red --
God is down in the swamps and marshes,
Sensational as April and almost incred-
        ible the flowering of our catharsis.
A humble scene in a backward place
Where no one important ever looked;
The raving flowers looked up in the face
Of the One and the Endless, the Mind that has baulked
The profoundest of mortals.  A primrose, a violet,
A violent wild iris -- but mostly anonymous performers,
Yet an important occasion as the Muse at her toilet
Prepared to inform the local farmers
That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God
Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.

Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (Longmans 1960).

Malcolm Midwood Milne, "Barrow Hill" (1939)

Patrick Kavanagh tells us that "God is down in the swamps and marshes." Any talk of immanence tends to provoke our human tendency to put a name to things.  Speaking solely for myself, I do not find this necessary. However, I have no objection whatsoever to Kavanagh (or anybody else) finding God in "a cut-away bog."  I think it is a beautiful thought, and it is entirely plausible.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
     As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
     Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
     Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
     Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me:  for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
     Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --
     Christ.  For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
     To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967). The poem is untitled.

Hopkins's vision of immanence is an ecstatic vision, and this is reflected in the extravagance of his language.  So unique is his vision that he felt compelled to invent the terms "inscape" and "instress" to articulate his sense of immanence.  "Inscape" may be described as "the 'individually-distinctive' inner essence or 'pattern' of a thing (an object, whether a tree, a flower, or a sonnet; a person; a scene)."  Lesley Higgins (editor), The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume III: Diaries, Journals, and Notebooks (Oxford University Press 2015), page 1, footnote 1 (quoting Hopkins).  "Instress" is "the force emanating from or expressed by the object, which the sensitive viewer can apprehend."  Ibid.  (For an introduction to the concepts of "inscape" and "instress," please see W. H. Gardner, "Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Poetry of Inscape," Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, Number 33 (October 1969), pages 1-16.)

With "inscape" and "instress" in mind, lines such as "Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:/Deals out that being indoors each one dwells," "Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells," and "Crying What I do is me:  for that I came" become less obscure.  But Hopkins's vision of immanence is perhaps best expressed in "Keeps grace:  that keeps all his goings graces" and "Christ plays in ten thousand places."  With respect to the phrase "ten thousand places," it is worth noting that the formulation "the ten thousand things" is used in Buddhism and Taoism to describe the variousness of the World, and is often found in Chinese and Japanese poetry.  Hopkins's Christ of "ten thousand places" is, of course, Catholic (Jesuitical, and seasoned with the thoughts of Duns Scotus and of the Greek philosophers).  Yet, as I suggested above, a World of immanence transcends both the names we place on things and our human systems of thought.

George Mackley (1900-1983), "Brackie's Burn, Northumberland"

Any hint of immanence is a matter of the passing moment:  evanescent, and vanishing even as we sense it.

"All I have been able to do is to walk and go on walking, remember, glimpse, forget, try again, rediscover, become absorbed.  I have not bent down to inspect the ground like an entomologist or a geologist; I've merely passed by, open to impressions.  I have seen those things which also pass  -- more quickly or, conversely, more slowly than human life. Occasionally, as if our movements had crossed -- like the encounter of two glances that can create a flash of illumination and open up another world -- I've thought I had glimpsed what I should have to call the still centre of the moving world.  Too much said?  Better to walk on . . ."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Paysages avec Figures Absentes) (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 4.  The ellipses appear in the original text.

How could it be otherwise?  Why would we want it otherwise?  This is how we receive our gifts.

       First Known When Lost

I never had noticed it until
'Twas gone, -- the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill.

It was not more than a hedge overgrown.
One meadow's breadth away
I passed it day by day.
Now the soil is bare as a bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut faggot ends
Of hazel make some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary's tributary, rises there.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

 James Torrington Bell, "Braes of Downie" (1938)

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Given the mystery of our own souls, we ought to be respectful of the souls of the strangers who share our time on earth.  Hence, a poet takes a risk when he or she presents us with a portrait of one of those strangers.  The dangers of presumption, condescension, oversimplification, and caricature are obvious.  Yet, if done with sensitivity and empathy, such portraits can tell us something about our own soul and the souls of our fellows, all wandering and unknowable, all with much in common.

               Tinker's Wife

I saw her amid the dunghill debris
Looking for things
Such as an old pair of shoes or gaiters.
She was a young woman,
A tinker's wife.
Her face had streaks of care
Like wires across it,
But she was supple
As a young goat
On a windy hill.

She searched on the dunghill debris,
Tripping gingerly
Over tin canisters
And sharp-broken
Dinner plates.

Patrick Kavanagh, Ploughman and Other Poems (Macmillan 1936).

In "Tinker's Wife," Kavanagh tells us what he has seen.  Some of us will find the poem to be sensitive and empathetic.  I do.  Others, particularly thoroughly ironic moderns, may feel that Kavanagh has moved past empathy into pity, and past sensitivity into sentimentality.  This is of no moment to me, for I have no objection to either pity or sentimentality, if they are grounded in a feeling of kinship with the souls in whose company we are passing through life.

Duncan Grant, "Girl at the Piano" (1940)

The utopian, inhuman worlds of politics and social science are concerned with groups and categories, not with individual human beings.  Thus, many of those who are unhappy with the outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the American presidential election have reacted in a way that reveals a great deal (none of it good) about how they view their fellow human beings: they see caricatures and stereotypes, not individual souls.  What the unhappy fail to realize is that, by objectifying others, they are at the same time objectifying themselves, and have in turn transformed themselves into caricatures and stereotypes.  This is what happens when one becomes politicized.

Good poets and artists, on the other hand, are concerned with individual human souls.  Which is not to say that they are saviors or saints.  Nor are they out to edify us.  Rather, they simply ask us to look at the beautiful particulars of the World.  Those particulars may at times cause us to catch our breath in sadness and, yes, in pity.  But this is life, not theory.

                               A Stranger

Her face was like sad things: was like the lights
Of a great city, seen from far off fields,
Or seen from sea: sad things, as are the fires
Lit in a land of furnaces by night:
Sad things, as are the reaches of a stream
Flowing beneath a golden moon alone.
And her clear voice, full of remembrances,
Came like faint music down the distant air.
As though she had a spirit of dead joy
About her, looked the sorrow of her ways:
If light there be, the dark hills are to climb
First: and if calm, far over the long sea.
Fallen from all the world apart she seemed,
Into a silence and a memory.
What had the thin hands done, that now they strained
Together in such passion?  And those eyes,
What saw they long ago, that now they dreamed
Along the busy streets, blind but to dreams?
Her white lips mocked the world, and all therein:
She had known more than this; she wanted not
This, who had known the past so great a thing.
Moving about our ways, herself she moved
In things done, years remembered, places gone.
Lonely, amid the living crowds, as dead,
She walked with wonderful and sad regard:
With us, her passing image: but herself
Far over the dark hills and the long sea.

Lionel Johnson, Ireland, with Other Poems (Elkin Mathews 1897).

Gilbert Spencer
"The School on Peggy Hill, Ambleside" (1952)

I am fond of robins.  I grow even fonder of them in winter, when they gather together in flocks.  I was delighted this past week when, on a sunny afternoon, I saw a large group of them (50 or so) spread out over a newly-mown meadow.  They were a companionable lot, chirping and clucking their leisurely way across the green field in the golden light.  A few sparrows had worked their way into the strolling congregation.  The robins had no objection.

I was once again reminded:  we never know what the World will bestow upon us.  With that in mind, we should be attentive, receptive, and -- above all -- grateful for the abiding mystery of it all.


Deaf and dumb lovers in a misty dawn
On an open station platform in the Dordogne
Watched each other's hands and faces,
Making shapes with their fingers, tapping their palms
Then stopped and smiled and threw themselves
Open-mouthed into each other's arms

While the rest of us waited, standing beside our cases.
When it arrived she left him and climbed on the train
Her face like dawn because of their conversation.
She suddenly turned, grabbed his neck in the crook of her arm,
Gave him the bones of her head, the bones of her body, violently,
Then climbed on again alone.  Her face hardened
In seconds as the train moved away from her island.
Tight lipped she looked around for a seat on the sea.

P. J. Kavanagh, Edward Thomas in Heaven (Chatto & Windus 1974).

Stanhope Forbes, "The Harbour Window" (1910)

At the beginning of 1694, the final year of his life, Bashō was living in Tokyo (then known as Edo).  His health was poor.  In April of the previous year, his beloved nephew Tōin, who Bashō had taken into his home and cared for, had died of tuberculosis.  In the same year, he had "begun to look after a woman named Jutei and her three children, although, except for one of the children, they lived separately from him.  Surviving records are vague on Jutei's identity, but they suggest Bashō had had some kind of close relationship with her in his young days.  Her children, however, do not seem to have been fathered by Bashō."  Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 348.

Sensing that his death was approaching, on June 3, 1694, Bashō set off on a journey to Ueno (his hometown), which is located approximately 350 kilometers southwest of Tokyo.  He intended to see his relatives and friends for the last time.  He arrived on June 20.  Late in July, while still in Ueno, he learned that Jutei had died suddenly in Tokyo.  Bashō never returned to Tokyo.  He died in Osaka on November 28.

At the news of the nun Jutei's death

never think of yourself
as someone who did not count --
festival of the souls

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), Ibid, page 393.

The Japanese word for "festival of the souls" is tamamatsuri. "Tamamatsuri, more commonly known as urabon (the bon festival), is an annual Buddhist rite at which each family offers prayers to the souls of its ancestors.  In Bashō's time it was held for four days, beginning on the thirteenth of the lunar seventh month.  In 1694, that day was September 2." Ibid, page 393.

What a beautiful thing Bashō has given us.  I hesitate to say anything more, but these lines just came to mind:

There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

W. B. Yeats, "Paudeen," Responsibilities and Other Poems (Macmillan 1916).

Stanley Spencer, "The Roundabout" (1923)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Another Time

I have spent a fair portion of the new year in the 17th century.  My sojourn began when I returned to one of my favorite anthologies:  Norman Ault's Seventeenth Century Lyrics.  Browsing through it, I came upon this:

                  The Retreat

Happy those early days! when I
Shined in my angel-infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white, celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And looking back, at that short space
Could see a glimpse of his bright face;
When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound,
Or had the black art to dispense
A sev'ral sin to every sense,
But felt through all this fleshly dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
          Oh, how I long to travel back,
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain,
Where first I left my glorious train;
From whence the enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees;
But ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk, and staggers in the way.
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move;
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.

Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), in Norman Ault (editor), Seventeenth Century Lyrics (William Sloane Second Edition, 1950); originally published in Silex Scintillans, Part I (1650).

"Sev'ral" (line 18) means "individual," "different," or "separate and distinct."  Robert Herrick uses the word in this sense in his lovely two-line poem "Dreams":  "Here we are all, by day; by night we're hurl'd/By dreams, each one, into a sev'ral world."  "Stay" (line 27) means "delay" in this context.

"Bright shoots of everlastingness" is wonderful, and is not likely to be forgotten once encountered.  "A white, celestial thought" is lovely.  But I am also fond of:  "Some men a forward motion love,/But I by backward steps would move."  Wise counsel, I think.

Not surprisingly, "The Retreat" puts many in mind of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."  For a time (particularly in the 19th century), it was believed that Wordsworth had been directly influenced by "The Retreat," as well as by other poems by Vaughan with a similar theme.  However, this conclusion is questionable. Still, even though there may not be a direct influence at work, the similarity of feeling and thought in the two poets is at times remarkable.  (For an interesting discussion of this topic, please see Helen McMaster, "Vaughan and Wordsworth," The Review of English Studies, Volume 11, Number 43 (1935), pages 313-325.)

Roland Pitchforth (1895-1982), "Bainbridge" (1928)

After reading "The Retreat," the following poem by Thomas Traherne, another 17th century poet, came to mind.  It has appeared here before, but it is always worth a revisit.

                       The Salutation

                    These little limbs,
          These eyes and hands which here I find,
This panting heart wherewith my life begins,
          Where have ye been?  Behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long?
Where was, in what abyss, my new-made tongue?

                    When silent I
          So many thousand thousand years
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
          How could I, smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears, perceive?
Welcome ye treasures which I now receive.

                    I that so long
          Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear or tongue
          To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Such eyes and objects, on the ground to meet.

                    New burnished joys
          Which finest gold and pearl excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs of boys,
          In which a soul doth dwell:
Their organizëd joints and azure veins
More wealth include than the dead world contains.

                    From dust I rise,
          And out of nothing now awake;
These brighter regions which salute mine eyes
          A gift from God I take:
The earth, the seas, the light, the lofty skies,
The sun and stars are mine; if these I prize.

                    A stranger here
          Strange things doth meet, strange glory see;
Strange treasures lodged in this fair world appear,
          Strange all and new to me:
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.

Thomas Traherne (1636-1674), in H. I. Bell (editor), Traherne's Poems of Felicity (University of Oxford Press 1910).

In contrast with Vaughan's backward-glancing soul, Traherne's blithe soul is content -- nay, delighted -- to be abroad in the World.  But then, Traherne is writing from the perspective of childhood, in the absence of experience.  Traherne's use of "strange" (as well as of "stranger" and "strangest") in the final stanza is lovely.  I am reminded of Vaughan's quotation, in one of his prose works (a translation of Johannes Nierembergius), of an unnamed "divine":  "Excellent is that advice of the divine:  To live a stranger unto life."  Henry Vaughan, Flores Solitudinis (1654).

Reading "The Salutation" and "The Retreat," I am compelled to report, dear readers, that the 17th century is a nobler, more gracious and graceful, and altogether more civilized place than the world we inhabit today.  Yes, I know:  those moderns who believe in the gods of Progress, Science, and political and social utopianism will howl in disagreement.  They will say: "For  centuries, humanity has been ridding itself of its ignorant and superstitious ways.  We in the modern world have arrived at the apex of human progress and enlightenment."  Well, no.

Roland Pitchforth, "Hebden, Yorkshire"

At this point, with the soul's wayfaring under consideration, I can hear two of my beloved poets of the fin de siècle calling to me.  Hence, please bear with me as we spend a brief idyll (a wistful and melancholic idyll, I concede) in the 1890s.

                    The Soul's Progress

It enters life it knows not whence; there lies
     A mist behind it and a mist before.
     It stands between a closed and open door.
It follows hope, yet feeds on memories.
The years are with it, and the years are wise;
     It learns the mournful lesson of their lore.
     It hears strange voices from an unknown shore,
Voices that will not answer to its cries.

Blindly it treads dim ways that wind and twist;
     It sows for knowledge, and it gathers pain;
          Stakes all on love, and loses utterly.
Then, going down into the darker mist,
     Naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,
          It staggers out into eternity.

Arthur Symons, Days and Nights (Macmillan 1889).

Yes, the poets of the Nineties had a different view of things than Vaughan, Traherne, and the other poets of the 17th century.  Although melancholy is not absent from 17th century poetry, the fin de siècle poets made an art of evoking and cataloguing it.  As I have stated here on more than one occasion, I am not ashamed to say that I am quite willing to surrender myself to them.

            Vitae summa brevis spem nos
                    vetat incohare longam

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
          Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
          We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
          Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
          Within a dream.

Ernest Dowson, Verses (Leonard Smithers 1896).  The title of the poem is taken from Book I, Ode 1, of Horace's Odes.  It may be translated as:  "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope."  Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by  R. K. R. Thornton) (Birmingham University Press 2003), page 225.  

The correspondences between the two poems are wonderful.  Ah, the fate of the soul!  In Symons's view, "there lies/A mist behind it and a mist before," and, in time, "naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,/It staggers out into eternity."  ("Into the darker mist," mind you.)  Dowson takes (perhaps) a marginally more hopeful view of the soul's journey:  "Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes/Within a dream."

But, for all of the differences between Symons and Vaughan, Dowson and Traherne, we mustn't forget this:  for each of them the soul is real, and we owe it our attention.

Roland Pitchforth, "Burnsall" (1925)

In our time, the word "soul" is viewed in much the same way as the word "evil":  both words make most moderns nervous.  Not me.  This is one of the reasons why the 17th century seems congenial to me, as does the fin de siècle world of Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson.  Vaughan, Traherne, Symons, and Dowson can speak of the soul without doubt and without irony.  Why should it be otherwise?

There was a time when a person could as a matter of course address his or her own soul.  This was not necessarily a product of religious fervor, nor was it a sign of madness.  It was simply the way of the world.

For instance, the Emperor Hadrian (76-138) did so in what is purported to be his death-bed poem, which begins with the phrase animula vagula blandula.  John Donne, another poet of the 17th century, translated the opening two lines of Hadrian's poem as follows:

My little wandering sportful soul,
Guest and companion of my body.

John Donne, in E. K. Chambers (editor), The Poems of John Donne (Lawrence and Bullen 1896).

Henry Vaughan translated the entire poem:

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, The Mount of Olives: Or, Solitary Devotions (1652).

We live in an age of technological miracles.  But a great deal of what it means to be human has gone missing.

Roland Pitchforth, "Cottage, Bainbridge" (1928)

Sunday, January 1, 2017


One sunny afternoon this past summer, as I walked beneath a big-leaf maple, I was struck by the thought that we live in a World in which everything is in motion.  The thought was prompted by the sight of the leaves of the tree moving in the breeze.  Not the swaying of the boughs, not the rustling of sprays of leaves.  What I saw -- for only an instant -- was each of the thousands of leaves fluttering in the wind.

What took me aback was a sudden recognition that each of the leaves was unique and uniquely alive.  It is easy to say:  The leaves fluttered.  But such a statement omits a great deal.

     The stars on the pond;
Again the winter shower
     Ruffles the water.

Sora (1648-1710) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 223.

Stars and leaves.  Ever in motion.  Uncountable.  But each one sovereign and irreplaceable.

Patrick Symons, "Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common)" (1981)

One thing always leads to another in the World in which we live.  From leaves to stars to winter showers to the ruffling water of a pond to . . .


Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon, Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998).

The Chinese character for "heart" is xin.  The same character is used in the Japanese language, and is known as kokoro.  As I have noted here in the past, the character is a wonderful one:  in both Chinese and Japanese it can mean "heart," but it can also mean "mind."  It can also carry connotations of "spirit," "soul," or "core."  (For an interesting discussion of the various manifestations of xin in the Chinese language and in the culture of China, please see Jing Li, Christer Ericsson, and Mikael Quennerstedt, "The Meaning of the Chinese Cultural Keyword Xin," Journal of Languages and Culture, Volume 4, Number 5 (2013).)

In Jaccottet's poem, it is "the heart" that "flies from tree to bird,/from bird to distant star,/from star to love."  This is a lovely thought.  But it becomes even lovelier when one thinks of xin and kokoro:  it is an indivisible compound of heart, soul, spirit, and mind that flies from leaf to star to bird to . . .

Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight Through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)

The motion of the World is a motion of imminence, immanence, and emanation.  It is a motion of the present moment.  It has nothing to do with change or transformation.  Our human mortality does not enter into it.  In fact, human beings do not enter into it.  We are ever prone to analyze, categorize, and explain the World in terms of ourselves.  But the World can get along quite well without us, thank you.

   The Curtains in the House of the Metaphysician

It comes about that the drifting of these curtains
Is full of long motions; as the ponderous
Deflations of distance; or as clouds
Inseparable from their afternoons;
Or the changing of light, the dropping
Of the silence, wide sleep and solitude
Of night, in which all motion
Is beyond us, as the firmament,
Up-rising and down-falling, bares
The last largeness, bold to see.

Wallace Stevens, Harmonium (Alfred A. Knopf 1923).

Of course, we humans are here.  I do not deny that.  But our first duty to the World is to leave well enough alone.

The World is aquiver.  This is what I belatedly discovered on that summer afternoon when, in my usual slow-witted fashion, I at long last noticed the singularity of each leaf's movement in the wind.

     The Place of the Solitaires

Let the place of the solitaires
Be a place of perpetual undulation.

Whether it be in mid-sea
On the dark, green water-wheel,
Or on the beaches,
There must be no cessation
Of motion, or of the noise of motion,
The renewal of noise
And manifold continuation;
And, most, of the motion of thought
And its restless iteration,

In the place of the solitaires,
Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation.

Wallace Stevens, Ibid.

Stephen McKenna, "Foliage" (1983)

I do not make New Year's resolutions.  Instead, on New Year's Eve I have gotten in the habit of reading the following two haiku.

     I intended
Never to grow old, --
     But the temple bell sounds.

Jokun (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter, page 202.  In Japan, the bells of Buddhist temples are rung 108 times at the turning of the year as a reminder of the 108 sins and desires that we should seek to rid ourselves of.

     Journeying through the world,--
To and fro, to and fro,
     Harrowing the small field.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 290.

A small field, yes, but inexhaustible.  More than enough beauty for one lifetime.

Robert Ball, "Mrs. Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


I often walk past a small meadow of wild grasses that ends in a forest of evergreens and deciduous trees.  At this time of year, it is a tawny, brown, and russet world, save for the dark green pines and cedars in the distance, rising above the bare branches of the other trees.

On a grey and windless day, the meadow appears to be lifeless.  Everything has come to an end.  Or so it would seem.  One afternoon this past week I stood beside the still and silent grasses, beneath a dull sky, and entertained just such thoughts.  Then, suddenly, I realized how wrong I was:  I felt all at once the vitality that emanated from the meadow, and from everything around me.

Yet, we must give the seasons, and the feelings they evoke in us, their due. The late autumn emotions that I felt on the edge of the meadow are to be expected.  "The question that he frames in all but words/Is what to make of a diminished thing."  (Robert Frost, "The Oven Bird.")  Diminished, yes, but not dead.

                                A Dirge

Why were you born when the snow was falling?
You should have come to the cuckoo's calling,
Or when grapes are green in the cluster,
Or, at least, when lithe swallows muster
          For their far off flying
          From summer dying.

Why did you die when the lambs were cropping?
You should have died at the apples' dropping,
When the grasshopper comes to trouble,
And the wheat-fields are sodden stubble,
          And all winds go sighing
          For sweet things dying.

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market, The Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1875).

Herbert Hughes-Stanton (1870-1937), "The Mill in the Valley" (1892)

I am not given to imagining that the beautiful particulars of the World are whispering in my ear.  Still, the seemingly lifeless end-of-autumn meadow that I stood beside was neither reticent nor impassive.  They did not occur to me at the time, but two thoughts now come to mind.  "One feels the life of that which gives life as it is."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Course of a Particular.")  "The infinite is the breath that animates us."  (Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 37.)

And there is this:  "Days are where we live."  (Philip Larkin, "Days.") Seasons are where we live as well.  No wonder that each of us is likely to have a particular season (or a short passage within a season) that quickens our senses and our emotions.

But it is difficult to choose, isn't it?  I have observed here in the past that I would be willing to spend eternity lying on the grass beneath a tree in midsummer, looking up at the ever-changing kaleidoscope of blue, green, and yellow overhead, listening to the never-ending rustling of leaves.  But I can also imagine spending a perfectly acceptable eternity lying beneath the same tree in spring, autumn, or winter.

Let me die in spring
under the blossoming trees,
let it be around
that full moon
of Kisaragi month.

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 40.

Watson appends this note to the poem:

"Kisaragi is the Japanese name for the second month of the lunar year. Shakyamuni Buddha is said to have died on the fifteenth day of the second month.  Saigyō fulfilled the wish expressed in his poem in a striking manner by dying on the sixteenth day of the second month of 1190, a feat that greatly impressed the people of his time, who were familiar with this poem."

Burton Watson, Ibid, page 40.

Here is an alternative translation of the poem:

This is what I want:
to die in the springtime,
beneath the blossoms --
midway through the Second Month,
when the moon is at the full.

Saigyō (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 165.

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Chateau Gaillard, Les Andelys" (1907)

I am an extremely slow learner.  Thus, as I begin my daily afternoon walk, I often caution myself:  "Look, but don't look for anything."  This is a corollary to another important principle:  "Don't think."  (As I have stated here on more than one occasion:  thinking is highly overrated.)  Of course, I invariably fail to heed both of these internal admonitions.

We require only two things as we set off into the World:  receptivity and gratitude.  We are reminded of this on a daily basis by the seasons, whose losses are always accompanied by compensations.  Each year I am saddened as the last of the leaves disappear from the trees in autumn.  But, when I see the bare branches against the winter sky, I realize that I have lost nothing.


We carved our names
in a courtyard near the river

when you were the youngest
of all our guests.

But you will never see
bright spring again,

or the beautiful apricot
blossoms that flutter past

the open temple door.

Chang Chi (768-830) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 177.

Losses and compensations.  Do they balance each other out?

              In Obitum M S, X° Maij, 1614

May!  Be thou never grac'd with birds that sing,
                    Nor Flora's pride!
In thee all flowers and roses spring,
                    Mine only died.

William Browne of Tavistock (c. 1591-c. 1645), in Gordon Goodwin (editor), The Poems of William Browne of Tavistock, Volume II (Lawrence & Bullen 1894), page 289.

I am not in a position to second-guess William Browne's grief at his loss. But I do think of compensations.  "The beautiful apricot blossoms that flutter past the open temple door."

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Mons" (1918)

In early June of 1801, Kobayashi Issa returned to his birthplace, the mountain village of Kashiwabara (in modern-day Nagano Prefecture), to care for his ailing father, who died less than a month later.  During this time, Issa maintained a journal, to which he gave the title Chichi no Shūen Nikki ("Journal of My Father's Last Days").  He gives this account of his father's death on a July morning:

"The night moved brightly into dawn, and about six o'clock, as though he had fallen into a deep sleep, Father breathed his last.

"I took hold of his empty, pitiful body.  Would that this was all a dream from which I might soon awake!  But dream or reality, I felt as though I was wandering in darkness without a lamp, on this cold dawn in this fleeting world.

"The impermanent spring flowers are seduced and scattered by the wind; this ignorant world's autumn moon is surrounded and hidden by clouds. The world knows -- need I repeat it? --, 'That which lives must perish; that which is joined together will certainly fall apart.'  And although this is the road that all must travel eventually, I was foolish enough not to believe that my own father could go as soon as yesterday or today."

Issa (translated by Robert Huey), in Robert Huey, "Journal of My Father's Last Days: Issa's Chichi no Shūen Nikki," Monumenta Nipponica, Volume 39, Number 1 (Spring 1984), pages 49-50.

Issa concludes the journal with this haiku:

If Father were here,
We'd be looking out at dawn
Across these wide green hills.

Issa (translated by Robert Huey), Ibid, page 54.

Herbert Hughes-Stanton, "Welsh Hills near Barmouth" (1918)

Friday, December 9, 2016


The sight of a solitary bird crossing the sky is a common occurrence in Chinese poetry.  These lone birds are seldom the main subject of the poem. Rather, they pass through in a single line of verse:  a few brushstrokes in a larger landscape.

     Lu-lung Village, Autumn

Refusing worldly worries,
I stroll among village strollers.

Pine winds sing, the evening village
smells of grass, autumn in the air.

A lone bird roams down the sky.
Clouds roll across the river.

You want to know my name?
A hill.  A tree.  An empty drifting boat.

Hsu Hsuan (916-991) (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 212.

One of the distinctive (and beautiful) features of Chinese poetry, particularly poems in the chüeh-chü (quatrain) form and in the lü-shih (eight-line, regulated verse) form, is its immediacy:  we share a moment in time with the poet.  The World unfolds in the present tense.  But this immediacy mustn't be mistaken for extemporaneous artlessness:  the prosodic elements of Chinese poetry are strict and demanding.

Thus, the lü-shih form requires (1) the same number of characters per line (five or seven), (2) tonal parallelism, (3) a single rhyme (appearing at the end of the second, fourth, sixth and eighth lines), and (4) verbal parallelism in the second and third couplets of the poem.  The chüeh-chü form requires (1) the same number of characters per line (five or seven), (2) tonal parallelism, and (3) a single rhyme (appearing at the end of the second and fourth lines).  The rules of tonal parallelism may be generally described as follows:

"In principal they decree that a single line shall not have more than two, or at the very most three, syllables or words in succession that belong to the same tonal category, and that in the second line of a couplet the words in key positions shall be opposite in tone to the corresponding words in the first line of the couplet.  This latter results in the second line of the couplet producing, in terms of tone, a mirror image of the first line."

Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 10.

These formal characteristics cannot be replicated in English translations. This is not to say that good translations cannot capture the spirit of the originals.  Accomplished translators (for instance, Arthur Waley, Burton Watson, and Sam Hamill) have produced lovely versions of Chinese poems. But it is important to bear in mind that the apparent spontaneity of the poems is the product of great artistic effort.

Dudley Holland, "Winter Morning" (1945)

The immediacy of traditional Chinese poetry causes the thousand or so years that separate us from the poets to instantly vanish.  My own experience confirms this marvelous timelessness:  the following poem by Tu Fu was written more than twelve centuries ago, but I see essentially the same scene each autumn when, in the early evening, I look across the waters of Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains rising in the west.

             Watching the Distances

I watch the limitless distance of autumn,
the far-off dark rising up in layers

where icy waters merge with the frozen sky
and the city is blurred with mist.

Last leaves are torn into flight by winds,
and sunless, distant peaks fade fast.

A lone crane flops home at dusk.
The trees are full of crows.

Tu Fu (712-770) (translated by Sam Hamill), Ibid, page 140.

A single difference distinguishes Tu Fu's 8th century China from 21st century Seattle:  Tu Fu sees a lone crane flying home at dusk; I see a lone great blue heron flying at dusk towards its nest high in a cedar.  And, yes, there are often crows in the trees.

"He who sees things present, has seen all things which either have been from eternity, or shall be to eternity; for all are of the like nature, and similar."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VI, Section 37, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).

Here is a lovely alternative translation of the same passage:

"He that has taken a view of the present age, has seen as much as if he had began with the World, and gone to the end on't; for all things are of a kind, and of a colour."

Jeremy Collier (translator), The Emperor Marcus Antoninus: His Conversation with Himself (1701).

John Haswell (1855-1925), "Whitnash Church"

I am not suggesting that this quality of immediacy is unique to Chinese poetry.  It is found in many good English poems.  ("Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Lying Awake" (Thomas Hardy), and "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" come immediately to mind, but there are hundreds of others.)  And immediacy is arguably the defining feature of haiku: existence and the World embodied in a singular image -- a 17-syllable moment of enlightenment rendered in the present tense.  Still, there is a certain serene matter-of-factness underlaid with deep emotion in Chinese poetry that, for me at least, sets it apart from all other forms of verse.

   Watching a Lonely Wild Goose at Nightfall

There are few stars north of the Milky Way.
One wild goose calls, "Where am I going?"

If he'd known he'd lose his flock,
he would have begun his journey alone.

Hsiao Kang (503-551) (translated by Sam Hamill), Ibid, page 62.

Wild geese, like lone birds, appear frequently in Chinese poetry.  As one might expect, they tend to bring a sense of longing and wistfulness into a poem (all of that endless journeying).  But we should resist the temptation to turn them into "symbols," "metaphors," or "allegories."  They are there because they are there:  a part of the World.  Yet every part of the World, wherever and whenever it appears, means something, doesn't it?

Allan Gwynne-Jones, "Spring Evening, Froxfield" (1922)

The World is by turns breathtakingly immense and breathtakingly tiny.  So it is with our life.  One afternoon last week I looked up into the sky:  yellow-bordered white clouds, lit from behind by the setting sun, set against endless pale-blue; clouds and sky seen through the black, twisted, empty branches of a row of tall maples.  I suddenly felt a comforting, welcoming, reassuring immensity.  This was not something I put into words; I felt it.

     Night Thoughts While Traveling

Thin grass bends on the breezy shore,
and the tall mast seems lonely in my boat.

Stars ride low across the wide plain,
and the moon is tossed by the Yangtze.

What is fame and literary status --
the old and infirm should leave office.

Adrift, drifting:  what is left for the lone gull
adrift between earth and heaven.

Tu Fu (translated by Sam Hamill), Ibid, page 166.

One day this week, as I walked down a wide path within a wood, I noticed the leaves of several types of trees spread out on the ground before me.  The leaves did not lay in piles.  Instead, they had landed apart on the path, several inches of empty space between each of them.  They separately gleamed on the ground in the dim light of dusk.  I thought of them as planets and stars in a small universe.  Unique and irreplaceable, each of them.

     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 (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century, page 233.

Charles Dawson, "Accrington from My Window" (1932)