Sunday, November 30, 2014


Irony rules the modern world, together with its noisome colleagues: cynicism, sarcasm, solipsism, and narcissism.  Of course, I recognize that irony has always been a part of human nature.  And I confess at the outset of this harangue that I am no saint.  I am ironic (and cynical, sarcastic, solipsistic, and narcissistic) on a daily basis.  But I like to think I am in recovery.

The defining feature of irony is this:  it divorces the ironist from the World, and from feeling.  Ironists are interested in appearing unillusioned, knowing, sophisticated, and (most importantly) smarter than the rest of us. But human emotion frightens and confuses them.  Here is an example from the world of "Modernist" literature:  T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound are as cold as ice.  (I say this as one who retains a fondness for some of the poetry of Eliot and Pound.  But I admit that I have no time for Joyce and his empty parlor games with words.)

When I read the poetry of, say, T'ao Ch'ien, Basho, or John Clare I feel that I am reading the words of real human beings who inhabit a World that is real.  They are not always irony free.  Such is human nature.  But they never take the final soulless step of the modern ironist:  standing in judgment of everyone and everything, leaving the World behind.

David Young Cameron (1865-1945), "Western Isles"

All of this brings me back (perhaps unaccountably) to the topic of my previous post:  idleness.  Ironists can never be idle in a self-reflective, detached, meditative sense.  They require an audience.  That audience usually consists of fellow ironists.  Irony is a never-ending world of performance.

Imagine an ironist daydreaming.  Imagine an ironist in reverie.

Imagine an ironist taking the following poem at face value.

                    The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

W. B. Yeats, The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1893).

Now, I acknowledge that the idea of W. B. Yeats -- he of the fur coats and Renaissance capes -- tending his nine bean-rows beside his hand-built clay-and-wattle cabin is to some extent risible.  Further, as I have noted in the past, I have my doubts about his eccentric philosophical forays and his haughtiness.  But I have no doubt that he wrote the poem without irony.  I am willing to take the poem on its own beautiful terms.

David Young Cameron, "Affric"

For ironists, sentimentality and nostalgia are epithets.  Hence, William Wordsworth mostly gives them fits.  "My heart leaps up when I behold/A Rainbow in the sky."  "I wandered lonely as a Cloud."  "To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."

And certainly this sort of thing is beyond the pale for modern ironists.

                    The Reverie of Poor Susan

At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
There's a Thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the Bird.

'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her?  She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.

Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripped with her pail;
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove's,
The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.

She looks, and her heart is in heaven: but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade:
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all passed away from her eyes.

William Wordsworth, Poems (1815).

Ironists are incapable of understanding, or accepting, a poem such as this on its own terms.  It belongs to a way of thinking and a way of living that they have left behind.  Not that they are aware of having suffered any loss, mind you.

David Young Cameron, "The Summer Isles" (1935)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How To Live, Part Twenty-Three: Idleness

Most of the pre-modern Chinese poets were civil servants.  Thus, their lives are generally similar in outline.  First came the rigorous civil service examination, which required extensive knowledge of the Chinese poetic tradition, including its strict rules of prosody.  (The next time you are pondering whether humanity has "progressed" over the past few millennia, consider whether the civil servants of the country in which you live are required to demonstrate knowledge of poetry as a condition of employment.)

Next came a career of shifting bureaucratic postings, often to far-flung provinces of the kingdom.  This accounts for the numerous poems of departure, and of longing for home, that appear in Chinese poetry, as well as for the many laments for family members and friends who will never be seen again. These careers were often marked by periods of exile for running afoul of higher authorities, followed by reinstatement, and assignment to yet another remote district.

Finally, if a poet was fortunate, came retirement, often to the countryside. This was seldom a prosperous retirement:  poets might earn some degree of fame, but they were hardly ever wealthy.

I am very fond of the poetry of T'ao Ch'ien (also known as T'ao Yuan-ming) (365-427), whose life followed this course, with a difference that is crucial to his poetry:  he left the civil service after only 13 years, and moved to the country to become a farmer.

A long time ago
I went on a journey,
Right to the corner
Of the Eastern Ocean.
The road there
Was long and winding,
And stormy waves
Barred my path.
What made me
Go this way?
Hunger drove me
Into the World.
I tried hard
To fill my belly,
And even a little
Seemed a lot.
But this was clearly
A bad bargain,
So I went home
And lived in idleness.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).  The poem is untitled.

Roger Fry (1866-1934), "La Salle des Caryatides in the Louvre"

In his translation of the previous poem, Arthur Waley uses the word "idleness" to describe T'ao Ch'ien's life upon his return home to the countryside.  But we should be careful not to take the word in its sometimes pejorative sense.  I, for one, find idleness to be a positive state of being, allied with repose and serenity.  In this, I follow Robert Louis Stevenson:

"Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity."

Robert Louis Stevenson, "An Apology for Idlers," in William Lyon Phelps (editor), Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson (1906), page 27 (italics in the original).  I realize that there is an element of playfulness in Stevenson's essay, but I wholly agree with the sentiment expressed above.

Further, when it comes to traditional Chinese culture, it is essential to consider "idleness" in the context of Taoism and Buddhism, both of which place great emphasis upon a detached, contemplative life.

The following untitled poem by T'ao Ch'ien is the first in a series of four poems in a sequence titled "Returning to My Home in the Country."

In youth I couldn't sing to the common tune;
it was my nature to love the mountains and hills.
By mistake I got caught in that dusty snare,
went away once and stayed thirteen years.
The winging bird longs for its old woods,
the fish in the pond thinks of the deeps it once knew.
I've opened up some waste land by the southern fields;
stupid as ever, I've come home to the country.
My house plot measures ten mou or more,
a grass roof covering eight or nine spans.
Elm and willow shade the back eaves,
peach and damson ranged in front of the hall.
Dim dim, a village of distant neighbors;
drifting drifting, the smoke from settlements.
A dog barks in the deep lanes,
chickens call from the tops of mulberry trees.
Around my door and courtyard, no dust or clutter;
in my empty rooms, leisure enough to spare.
After so long in that cage of mine,
I've come back to things as they are.

T'ao Ch'ien (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).

Watson provides this note to lines 9 and 10:  "The mou, a land measure, differed at different times and places; T'ao's plot was probably about one and a half acres.  A span is the distance between two pillars in a Chinese style house."  Ibid, page 129.  Repetitions of the sort that appear in line 13 ("dim dim") and line 14 ("drifting drifting") are a common feature of Chinese poetry from its earliest days.

Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)

The active "idleness" of a contemplative life of repose is embodied in this untitled poem.

I built my hut in a zone of human habitation,
Yet near me there sounds no noise of horse or coach.
Would you know how that is possible?
A heart that is distant creates a wilderness round it.
I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
Then gaze long at the distant summer hills.
The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of day;
The flying birds two by two return.
In these things there lies a deep meaning;
Yet when we would express it, words suddenly fail us.

T'ao Ch'ien (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918).

Line 4 is lovely, but Waley's phrase "a heart that is distant" might be subject to misinterpretation.  I do not think it is intended to suggest coldness or a lack of emotion.  Burton Watson translates the line in this fashion:  "With a mind remote, the region too grows distant."  Waley and Watson are the two best translators of Chinese poetry into English, so their different versions of the line suggest that T'ao Ch'ien's words are subtle. My best guess is that the concept here is one of detachment from worldly affairs:  the "noise" of the World, with which we are all familiar.

Roger Fry, "Market in a Disused Church in France" (1928)

Saturday, November 22, 2014


The approach of winter has got me to thinking about the small things I will miss until spring returns.  The sudden whirr-vibration of a hummingbird -- often unseen, only heard and felt.  The kingdoms of sand painstakingly constructed by ants along the seams in the sidewalks.  Butterflies "flying crooked" (as Robert Graves puts it).  The list is not exhaustive.

And -- ah, yes -- the criss-crossing threads left by spiders as they traverse the gardens and the meadows.

            Early Morning

The path
The spider makes through the air,
Until the light touches it.

The path
The light takes through the air,
Until it finds the spider's web.

Janet Lewis, in R. L. Barth (editor), The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (Swallow Press 2000).

Christopher Nevinson (1889-1946), "Near Leatherhead" (c. 1939)

The following poem is often characterized as one of Robert Frost's "dark" poems.  But this whole "dark Frost" versus "light Frost" dichotomy has always puzzled me.  There is darkness and lightness throughout his poetry, beginning with the first poem in his first volume.  And often in the same poem.  Here, then, is a meditation upon a spider going about its business. Dark?  Light?  Both?  Neither?  


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth --
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth --
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? --
If design govern in a thing so small.

Robert Frost, A Further Range (1936).

All that build-up about a calculating, perhaps malevolent, perhaps heartless Universe, and then the sleight-of-hand in the final line.  But it is not as though Frost has not warned us:

It takes all sorts of in and outdoor schooling
To get adapted to my kind of fooling.

Robert Frost, In the Clearing (1962).

Christopher Nevinson, "The Weir, Charenton"

I have never been able to muster a great deal of enthusiasm for the poetry of Walt Whitman.  I appreciate his cosmos-wide, visionary energy.  But he wears me out.  It is all at too high a pitch.  He reminds me of one of those insistent, often over-educated, self-styled prophets one occasionally encounters in public spaces.  But there are times when he lowers the register a bit.

                    A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect             them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1881).

Whitman being who he is, "O my soul" necessarily makes an appearance. But the conceit here is a lovely one.  And the particulars are lovely as well: "filament, filament, filament" and "the ductile anchor," for instance.

Christopher Nevinson, "A Winter Landscape" (1926)

As long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers may recall, I have often commented upon the knack of Chinese and Japanese poets for getting to the heart of the matter in as few words as possible, with no loss of depth or intimation.  To wit:

Drops of dew
strung on filaments
of spider web --
such are the trappings
that deck out this world.

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

Christopher Nevinson, "View of the Sussex Weald" (c. 1927)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


I cannot claim to have gained any wisdom during my time on earth.  The most I have done is to recognize (vaguely) the truth of certain truisms.  And even that recognition is fitful, here and then gone.

There is one thing I do know:  "All is vanity."  This is as good a starting point as any on the journey to here-today-gone-tomorrow wisdom.  The world needs fewer people who are full of themselves.  A utopian dream, of course.  For starters, we will never be free of heads of state and politicians, will we?  Moreover, I suppose that Twitter and Facebook are here to stay. (As are blogs!)  And please don't get me started on what are called, unironically, "smartphones."  "Selfie."  End of discussion.

Although it has appeared here before, the following statement (epigram? prose poem?) by Czeslaw Milosz is always worth revisiting.


To believe you are magnificent.  And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent.  Enough labor for one human life.

Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1998).

Albert Goodwin (1845-1932), "Lincoln" (1902)

To live in a way that embodies this sort of realization is indeed the work of a lifetime, never finished.  One would think that autumn would be enough to convince us of our evanescence.  Or rivers.

                  Thoughts on T'ien-chin Bridge

The countless great lords and statesmen of past regimes --
later ages know them merely as a list of names.
Only the water under T'ien-chin Bridge
goes on year after year, making the same sound.

Shao Yung (1011-1077) (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).

Albert Goodwin, "View on the Canal, Dort" (1882)

It comes in fits and starts, but, as one ages, it is possible to develop the habit of letting things go.  We carry with us a certain amount of dross that has accumulated over the years.  A great deal of that dross is bound up with vanity.  Mind you, I harbor no illusions that I will ever be free of vanity. Can we attain the repose of rivers?  Unlikely.  But weigh that attempt, quixotic though it may seem, against accepting the wares that the Modern World has to offer.

          The River

Stir not, whisper not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river,

Whose whispering willows,
Whose murmuring reeds
Make silence more still
Than the thought it breeds,

Until thought drops down
From the motionless mind
Like a quiet brown leaf
Without any wind;

It falls on the river
And floats with its flowing,
Unhurrying still
Past caring, past knowing.

Ask not, answer not,
Trouble not the giver
Of quiet who gives
This calm-flowing river.

Patrick MacDonogh, Poems (edited by Derek Mahon) (The Gallery Press 2001).

Albert Goodwin, "The Friars, Aylesford, Maidstone"

Will an ongoing meditation upon rivers cure us of vanity?  No.  But rivers are like the congregation of a dozen or so robins that I saw this afternoon, chattering and bobbing on a path that runs beside a meadow as the sun descended.  A gentle -- but insistent -- reminder that we need to get outside of ourselves.


Remember for me the river,
Flowing wide and cold, from beyond Sugar Island,
Still and smooth, breathing sweetness
Into still air, moving under its surface
With all the power of creation.

Remember for me the scent of sweet-grass
In Ojibway baskets,
Of meadow turf, alive with insects.

Remember for me
Who will not be able to remember.
Remember the river.

Janet Lewis, in R. L. Barth (editor), The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (Swallow Press 2000).

Albert Goodwin, "Durham Cathedral" (1910)

Friday, November 14, 2014

"Fall Leaves Fall"

In this part of the world, autumn has thus far been benign, wistful and benign.  The winds have rattled the casements now and then.  And for some reason the term "polar vortex" (whatever that means) has captured the imagination of the media.  But the final ever-so-slight step has not yet been taken.

There are those who revel in that final step.  Or so they say.

Fall leaves fall die flowers away
Lengthen night and shorten day
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day

Emily Bronte, in Janet Gezari (editor), Emily Bronte: The Complete Poems (Penguin 1992).

The text above is as it appears in Bronte's manuscript, untitled and without punctuation.  The poem was not published until 1910.  It often appears in editions of Bronte's poems and in anthologies with punctuation added by modern editors.  For instance:

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me,
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night's decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

Clement Shorter (editor), The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte (1910).

Being used to the punctuated version of the poem, the unpunctuated version seemed a bit odd when I first encountered it in the Penguin edition.  But I now prefer it:  the lack of punctuation seems to create a force and a flow that fit well with the emotion expressed in the poem.  One senses the rush of feelings.

Rex Vicat Cole (1870-1940), "The Mill" (1922)

I had never thought of the following poem in conjunction with Bronte's poem.  But, by chance, I read them a few days apart recently, and I was struck by the similarities.  But I may be mistaken.

            My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
     Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
     She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
     She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted gray
     Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
     The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
     And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
     The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
     And they are better for her praise.

Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).  (A side-note:  in my previous post, I mentioned that, when A Boy's Will  was first published, Frost included, in the table of contents, a one sentence gloss for each poem.  His gloss for "My November Guest" was:  "He is in love with being misunderstood.")

I am not suggesting that there is any intentional echoing of Bronte by Frost.  I have no idea whether he was even aware of the poem.  Rather, I am thinking of "my Sorrow."  I'd say that "my Sorrow" is something that the two of them had in common.

Rex Vicat Cole, "Landscape with Farm" (c. 1938)

Finally, although I remain firm in my oft-stated position that it is unfair to pigeonhole Thomas Hardy as a "pessimist," he can conjure up a dark and stormy Dorset autumn night that is every bit as harrowing and portentous as a dark and stormy Bronte Yorkshire moor autumn night.

                 Night-Time in Mid-Fall

It is a storm-strid night, winds footing swift
          Through the blind profound;
     I know the happenings from their sound;
Leaves totter down still green, and spin and drift;
The tree-trunks rock to their roots, which wrench and lift
The loam where they run onward underground.

The streams are muddy and swollen; eels migrate
          To a new abode;
     Even cross, 'tis said, the turnpike-road;
(Men's feet have felt their crawl, home-coming late):
The westward fronts of towers are saturate,
Church-timbers crack, and witches ride abroad.

Thomas Hardy, Human Shows, Far Phantasies, Songs and Trifles (1925).

Rex Vicat Cole, "Sompting Church, Sussex"

Monday, November 10, 2014

"You Linger Your Little Hour And Are Gone, And Still The Woods Sweep Leafily On"

This year, as autumn has turned, two phrases have been recurring to me. First:  "Slow, slow!"  (From Robert Frost's "October.")  And second:  "Earth never grieves!"  (From Thomas Hardy's "Autumn in King's Hintock Park.") By the way, the exclamation marks (which are appropriate, I think, given the sentiments expressed) appear in the originals.

The phrases came to me again this past week when I finally got around to visiting a grove of trees that is one of my favorite autumn haunts.  Alas, the trees were half empty.  I was reminded of Ishikawa Jozan's lines about paying a late visit to the spring cherry blossoms:  "When blossoms were at their finest I neglected to call./The blossoms did not betray me.  I betrayed the blossoms."  (Ishikawa Jozan, "Fallen Blossoms on the Eastern Hills.")

But the trees remain beautiful.  The upper branches, exposed to the wind, are nearly bare; the lower boughs less so.  In a breeze, one can still hear, if not a roar, at least a whoosh and a rustle.  And the gold and red against a blue sky?  Well, that's autumn, isn't it?

As I stood beneath the trees, I had another thought:  All of this goes on quite well with or without us.  No waiting around.  Indifference? Impassivity?  Those are human concepts.


How countlessly they congregate
     O'er our tumultuous snow,
Which flows in shapes as tall as trees
     When wintry winds do blow! --

As if with keenness for our fate,
     Our faltering few steps on
To white rest, and a place of rest
     Invisible at dawn, --

And yet with neither love nor hate,
     Those stars like some snow-white
Minerva's snow-white marble eyes
     Without the gift of sight.

Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).

When A Boy's Will was first published, Frost included, in the table of contents, a brief gloss for each poem.  (The glosses were removed in subsequent reprintings.)  His gloss for "Stars" was:  "There is no oversight of human affairs."

David Muirhead (1867-1930), "The End of Autumn"

I do not intend to get bogged down in the critical discussion of whether Frost was the bucolic nature poet and the front-porch Yankee philosopher of caricature (a self-created caricature to a great extent) or whether he was, lo and behold, "dark," "bleak," and "harrowing."  Like any great poet, he was capacious.  I will say this:  there is a thread of loneliness -- both personal and cosmic (consider, for a start, "Desert Places") -- that runs through everything he wrote.

          On Going Unnoticed

As vain to raise a voice as a sigh
In the tumult of free leaves on high.
What are you in the shadow of trees
Engaged up there with the light and breeze?

Less than the coral-root you know
That is content with the daylight low,
And has no leaves at all of its own;
Whose spotted flowers hang meanly down.

You grasp the bark by a rugged pleat,
And look up small from the forest's feet.
The only leaf it drops goes wide,
Your name not written on either side.

You linger your little hour and are gone,
And still the woods sweep leafily on,
Not even missing the coral-root flower
You took as a trophy of the hour.

Robert Frost, West-Running Brook (1928).

A coral-root is a lovely little thing, after all.

David Muirhead, "The Fen Bridge, near Dedham (Constable's Country)"

Is Nature beneficent?  Or is it threatening?  Both, of course.  But, either way, it is keeping its thoughts to itself.  Best to get used to the silence.  The beauty is not lessened.


When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened.  Birds, at least, must know
It is the change to darkness in the sky.
Murmuring something quiet in her breast,
One bird begins to close a faded eye;
Or overtaken too far from his nest,
Hurrying low above the grove, some waif
Swoops just in time to his remembered tree.
At most he thinks or twitters softly, 'Safe!
Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future.  Let what will be, be.'

Robert Frost, Ibid.

A side-note:  please bear with me as I return to the continual conversation between Frost and Edward Thomas that I mentioned in my previous post. Here is Thomas in the final stanza of "Out in the Dark" (his final poem but one):

How weak and little is the light,
All the universe of sight,
Love and delight,
Before the might,
If you love it not, of night.

And Frost responds:  "I have been one acquainted with the night."

David Muirhead, "A Lowland Landscape"

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Stranger

On several occasions in his poetry and prose Edward Thomas describes enigmatic meetings with strangers encountered during his walks through the countryside.  I use the word "enigmatic" because, although I take it on faith that the strangers actually existed, one also comes away with the feeling that Thomas has encountered a doppelgänger.  The strangers are not of the Other World, nor are they menacing.  Rather, they carry with them a sense of mystery and melancholy.  Which sounds a great deal like Edward Thomas himself.

In his poem "The Other" Thomas never actually meets the stranger. Instead, Thomas inadvertently discovers, through conversations with innkeepers, that someone resembling him has just passed that way. Thomas soon finds himself dogging the stranger's footsteps. The poem is too lengthy (at 110 lines) to post in full.  But here is the second stanza:

I learnt his road and, ere they were
Sure I was I, left the dark wood
Behind, kestrel and woodpecker,
The inn in the sun, the happy mood
When first I tasted sunlight there.
I travelled fast, in hopes I should
Outrun that other.  What to do
When caught, I planned not.  I pursued
To prove the likeness, and, if true,
To watch until myself I knew.

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

"To watch until myself I knew" is a quintessential piece of studied ambiguity by Thomas.  As is:  "What to do/When caught, I planned not." Is he the pursuer or the pursued?  Or both?  (Ambiguity worthy of Robert Frost.  But more on him later.)

John Nash, "The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall" (c. 1958)

The poem ends with this stanza:

And now I dare not follow after
Too close.  I try to keep in sight,
Dreading his frown and worse his laughter.
I steal out of the wood to light;
I see the swift shoot from the rafter
By the inn door: ere I alight
I wait and hear the starlings wheeze
And nibble like ducks: I wait his flight.
He goes: I follow: no release
Until he ceases.  Then I also shall cease.

I don't wish to overwork the image, but notice the reference to leaving "the dark wood" in the second stanza, as well as "I steal out of the wood to light" in the final stanza.  Dante's selva oscura comes to mind.  But we needn't go that far afield:  dark woods are a recurring element in Thomas's poetry. "Out in the dark over the snow/The fallow fawns invisible go."  ("Out in the Dark.")  "The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark."  ("The Combe.") "The green roads that end in the forest."  ("The Green Roads.")  "Dark is the forest and deep, and overhead/Hang stars like seeds of light/In vain." ("The Dark Forest.")

And, speaking of doppelgängers, dark woods inevitably bring to mind Robert Frost.  "One of my wishes is that those dark trees,/So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,/Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,/But stretched away unto the edge of doom."  ("Into My Own.")  And, of course:  "The woods are lovely, dark and deep."  ("Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.")  With each year that passes, my appreciation for the continual conversation between Thomas and Frost (a conversation that did not cease with Thomas's death) grows and grows.

John Nash, "The Barn, Wormingford" (1954)

A few days ago I came across one of these strangers in Thomas's The Icknield Way.  It is evening, and Thomas is walking southwest through the downs beyond Dunstable, Bedfordshire.

"The air was now still and the earth growing dark and already very quiet. But the sky was light and its clouds of utmost whiteness were very wildly and even fiercely shaped, so that it seemed the playground of powerful and wanton spirits knowing nothing of earth.  And this dark earth appeared a small though also a kingly and brave place in comparison with the infinite heavens now so joyous and so bright and out of reach.  I was glad to be there, but I fell in with a philosopher who seemed to be equally moved yet could not decide whether his condition was to be described as happiness or melancholy.  He talked about himself.  He was a lean, indefinite man; half his life lay behind him like a corpse, so he said, and half was before him like a ghost.  He told me of just such another evening as this and just such another doubt as to whether it was to be put down to the account of happiness or melancholy."

Edward Thomas, The Icknield Way (1913), page 137.

Thomas then recounts the stranger's story.  He had been "digging all day in a heavy soil."  Then, at evening, he heard "a woman's voice singing alone somewhere away from where he stood.  He forgot who and where he was." The singer "was among the dark trees."  The singing went on for a while, then stopped.  He heard the sound of "a low laugh drawn out very long an instant afterwards."  The woman never appeared.

"He shivered in the cold.  The last dead leaves shook upon the beeches, but the silence out there in that world still remained.  She was walking or she was in her lover's arms, for aught he knew.  No sound came up to him where he stood eager and forlorn until he knew that she must be gone away for ever, like his lyric desires, and he went into his house and it was dark and still and inconceivably empty."

Ibid, pages 142-143.

With that, Thomas concludes the stranger's story.  The next sentence brings his encounter with the stranger to an end:

"As I turned into the inn and left him he was inclined either to put down that evening half to happiness and half to melancholy, or to cross out one or other of those headings as being in his case tautological."

Ibid, page 143.

Again, I take it on faith that this stranger who Thomas "fell in with" on the Icknield Way actually existed.  But I think that he bears more than a passing resemblance to Thomas.  "He was a lean, indefinite man; half his life lay behind him like a corpse, so he said, and half was before him like a ghost."  This is Thomas through and through.  As is:  "he was inclined either to put down that evening half to happiness and half to melancholy, or to cross out one or other of those headings as being in his case tautological."  Thomas was never one to be easy on himself.

John Nash, "The Garden" (1951)

The stranger's story of the elusive, mysterious singing woman finds its parallel in a poem by Thomas.

          The Unknown

She is most fair,
And when they see her pass
The poets' ladies
Look no more in the glass
But after her.

On a bleak moor
Running under the moon
She lures a poet,
Once proud or happy, soon
Far from his door.

Beside a train,
Because they saw her go,
Or failed to see her,
Travellers and watchers know
Another pain.

The simple lack
Of her is more to me
Than others' presence,
Whether life splendid be
Or utter black.

I have not seen,
I have no news of her;
I can tell only
She is not here, but there
She might have been.

She is to be kissed
Only perhaps by me;
She may be seeking
Me and no other: she
May not exist.

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

This sounds a great deal like the stranger's "lyric desires," doesn't it?  Yet Thomas was, if such a thing exists, a realistic romantic.  To wit:  "this dark earth appeared a small though also a kingly and brave place in comparison with the infinite heavens."

Earlier in The Icknield Way, Thomas engages in a bantering conversation with another stranger about the possibility of living on the moon.  Thomas says: "I should like to try."  The stranger responds: "Would you?"  Thomas replies:  "Yes, provided I were someone different.  For, as for me, this is no doubt the best of all possible worlds."  The Icknield Way, page 115.  Or, as he says in another poem:  "There's nothing like the sun till we are dead." And Frost has something to add here as well:  "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better."  ("Birches.")

John Nash, "Autumn, Berkshire" (1951)

Sunday, November 2, 2014

"Those Spring Splendors, Like Dreams, Are Gone Beyond Recall"

There is a plainspoken serenity to traditional Chinese lyrical poetry that provides a beautiful counterpoint to the ofttimes declamatory and rhetorical character of traditional English poetry.  I realize that this is a huge generalization.  I can only say that there comes a time when, in search of peace and quiet, I need to turn from the thinking and the emoting of English verse to the (relatively) straightforward statements one finds in Chinese poetry.

But this is not a matter of simplicity versus complexity.  On the surface, Chinese poetry, especially when translated into English, may appear "simple."  However, from the standpoint of thought and emotion, the best Chinese poetry is every bit as allusive and as full of implication as the best English poetry.  Moreover, from the standpoint of prosody and formal structure, a great deal of traditional Chinese poetry is arguably more complex than English poetry.  (More on this in a moment.)

During the Edo (or Tokugawa) period (1603-1868), a significant number of Japanese poets devoted themselves to writing poems in Chinese.  The poems they wrote are known as kanshi (a Japanese word meaning -- no surprise -- "Chinese poem").  All of the poems that appear in this post are kanshi.

One frost cleared the air, drove away the hovering shadows,
slimmed down the shape of the hills, reddened the groves.
Finest of all, the scene in the persimmon orchards:
in late sun, on tree after tree ten thousand dots of gold.

Rokunyo (1734-1801) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).  The poem is untitled, and is the first in a sequence titled "Three Poems Composed as I Walked Through the Village."

William MacGeorge (1861-1931), "Riverscape, Autumn"

The Japanese kanshi poets rigorously applied the strict rules of Chinese prosody.  The four poems that appear here are all in the form known in Chinese as chueh-chu (zekku in Japanese).  This form consists of a quatrain in which each line consists of the same number of Chinese characters (five, seven, or, rarely, six).  The second and fourth lines must rhyme.  A rhyme is optional in the first line.

Green thoughts, the feel of pink -- remembered in the mind;
but those spring splendors, like dreams, are gone beyond recall.
The whole village in yellow leaves, I shut the gate, lie down --
once again the year is already deep into fall.

Kashiwagi Jotei (1763-1819) (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid.

As if the prosodic features that I have mentioned were not enough, there is an additional layer of complexity in the chueh-chu form (and in most Chinese poetry):  the rules of "tonal parallelism" must be followed.  To quote Burton Watson, "the rules for tonal regulation, or tonal parallelism, as it is sometimes called, are highly complex."  Burton Watson (editor and translator), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), page 10.  The rules may be broadly summarized 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 [i.e., "level" tones or "deflected" tones], 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."

Ibid, page 10.

Whew!  This is the basis for my earlier statement that traditional Chinese poetry is arguably more technically complex than English poetry.  (If one wishes to delve further into this subject, I highly recommend Watson's Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century (Columbia University Press 1971), which combines an excellent historical examination of Chinese poetry with fine translations by Watson of exemplary poems.)  This brief explanation should also demonstrate that, although English translations of Chinese poetry are usually almost conversational in tone, they belie a complexity that can never be replicated in translation.

William MacGeorge, "Kirkcudbright"

One of the things that I find interesting about kanshi is that they have the "feel" (a purely subjective term, I concede) of classic Chinese poetry, while having, at the same time, a Japanese sensibility (again, a purely subjective term).  The following poem by Ishikawa Jozan, perhaps the most well-known kanshi poet, provides a good example of what I am trying to get at.

               Falling Leaves Mingle with the Rain

Frosted leaves, trailing the wind, fly, scatter in a tumble,
tumbling with the sudden shower, now this way, now that.
Parting from branches, leaf after leaf raps at my door and window,
joining with the sound of drops from the tall eaves of my study.

Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) (translated by Burton Watson), in Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jozan and Other Edo-Period Poets.

It is important to remember that, during the Edo period, haiku was transformed into an important art form by Basho (1644-1694).  The lives of Basho and Ishikawa Jozan overlapped.  (In terms of its poetic and artistic importance, the period is remarkably similar to the Elizabethan era.)  Thus, the imagery in "Falling Leaves Mingle with the Rain" has (to me, at least) a Japanese quality to it that is quite distinctive, and that has affinities with haiku.

William MacGeorge, "River Landscape on a Sunny Day"

But I feel that I have gotten way off into the explanatory weeds!  Let's return to poetry.  The purpose of this post, believe it or not, is to share four lovely poems about autumn.

             Returning at Night from an Autumn Village

River village where they held the fair, moon just coming up,
little path skirting the woods, leading into field embankments:
some family's old graves deep among the trees,
the single gleam of a votive lamp, cold and mournful.

Tate (pronounced ta-tay) Ryuwan (1762-1844) (translated by Burton Watson), Ibid.

"The single gleam of a votive lamp" brings to mind the grey stone lanterns that one sees in Japanese cemeteries.  "Cold and mournful" perhaps, but lovely to behold at night.

William MacGeorge, "Autumn near Kirkcudbright with Children"