Thursday, May 30, 2013

Life As A Work Of Art, Part Six: "Only The Disconsolate Hero Survives"

As one ages, commonplaces become eternal verities.  Truisms are recognized as being true.

For instance:  the longer one lives, the more one gets the uneasy feeling that Reality consists of bad actors appearing in an ill-conceived sequel to a movie that wasn't very good in the first place.  Or, alternatively, that it consists of unconvincing characters in one of those novels that are awarded prizes and are described as "lyrical and moving" in reviews and blurbs.

Commonplaces, yes.  But here is the proverbial rub (of which we are all aware):  how do we avoid becoming one of those bad actors or unconvincing fictional characters?  Alas, dear reader, we don't.

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

            Novels I Have Never Written

From novels I have never written
The ghosts have long departed,
Leaving tenantless the Sussex country houses
And the palazzo steps green with moss.
Only the foundations remain
On which were to have risen
The towers and cloisters of the fatal school.
In the unfinished rooms
The conversations have shivered into silence.
The moving incidents,
The revealing situations,
The moments of profound psychological insight --
All are lost, unwanted,
Like garden furniture rusting in a summer-house.
All the ghosts have departed, unaccounted for,
Some perhaps for South America,
Others to get what employment they can
As car-park attendants and waiters in seaside hotels,
Or they have simply died.

Only the disconsolate hero survives,
Sitting on an upturned packing-case in an empty house,
With the electricity and the telephone cut off,
Nothing to eat, no money, and nowhere to go.
Too round a character to disappear quietly,
Too big a man to be pensioned off or eased into a sinecure.
Presently, perhaps, he will reappear in Oxford
As one of those dusty, forgotten dons whom I have heard
Talking to themselves in the High,
Or a faded roue living on the Cote d'Azur
On the savings of a discarded opera-singer --
Someone who can sustain the pretence
Of having been influential in former days,
The intimate of writers, friend of diplomats . . .

James Reeves, The Password and Other Poems (Heinemann 1952).

George Charlton, "Welsh Chapel" (c. 1950)

The Life imitates Art/Art imitates Life motif is, of course, an ancient one. And, as I have noted before, each generation tends to have the erroneous view that its own age is uniquely wise and/or uniquely cursed in comparison with prior ages.  Perspective is required.

That being said, I do think that a bad actor in a small hamlet in medieval Swabia had less capacity for creating mischief than a bad actor with a website (or a blog?) in today's "global village."  Moreover, today's bad actors and unconvincing characters number in the millions, and are always clamoring for attention.  What's worse, many of them become heads of state, politicians, media mouthpieces, "journalists," social scientists, and celebrities.

Osmund Caine, "Wedding at Twickenham Parish Church" (1948)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Perspective, Part Six: "A Lover Of Mere Privacy"

From Oklahoma to Woolwich, the World has gone about its usual business the past week.  It has ever been thus.  But the genius of our age is that we are able to view each new horror in "real time" via cell phone cameras, and then have each horror "explained" to us -- with an eye toward "preventing" such occurrences in the future -- by the usual cast of media, political, and social scientific "experts."

From these "experts," one learns that tornadoes are caused by "global warming," and that we can be rid of them by solving that particular "crisis." Yes.  Of course.  One also learns that adequately-funded educational and social programs will put an end to murder in the name of religion (which is, we are told, provoked by cultural misunderstanding on our part, which is in turn a product of our own obdurate intolerance).  Yes.  Of course.

All of this makes one yearn for a quiet, cant-free, ingenuous life.  A life far away from the explainers.

Bernard Ninnes (1899-1971), "Nancledra"

                             The Hermit

What moves that lonely man is not the boom
     Of waves that break against the cliff so strong;
Nor roar of thunder, when that travelling voice
     Is caught by rocks that carry far along.

'Tis not the groan of oak tree in its prime,
     When lightning strikes its solid heart to dust;
Nor frozen pond when, melted by the sun,
     It suddenly doth break its sparkling crust.

What moves that man is when the blind bat taps
     His window when he sits alone at night;
Or when the small bird sounds like some great beast
     Among the dead, dry leaves so frail and light;

Or when the moths on his night-pillow beat
     Such heavy blows he fears they'll break his bones;
Or when a mouse inside the papered walls,
     Comes like a tiger crunching through the stones.

W. H. Davies, The Bird of Paradise and Other Poems (1914).

Raymond James Coxon (1896-1997), "Penrhyndeudraeth"

                    A Recluse

Here lies (where all at peace may be)
A lover of mere privacy.
Graces and gifts were his; now none
Will keep him from oblivion;
How well they served his hidden ends
Ask those who knew him best, his friends.

He is dead; but even among the quick
This world was never his candlestick.
He envied none; he was content
With self-inflicted banishment.
'Let your light shine!' was never his way:
What then remains but, Welladay!

And yet his very silence proved
How much he valued what he loved.
There peered from his hazed, hazel eyes
A self in solitude made wise;
As if within the heart may be
All the soul needs for company:
And, having that in safety there,
Finds its reflection everywhere.

Life's tempests must have waxed and waned:
The deep beneath at peace remained.
Full tides that silent well may be
Mark of no less profound a sea.
Age proved his blessing.  It had given
The all that earth implies of heaven;
And found an old man reconciled
To die, as he had lived, a child.

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (1945).

Roger Fry, "Village in the Valley" (1926)

Friday, May 24, 2013

"I Desired My Dust To Be Mingled With Yours Forever And Forever And Forever"

I knew nothing of Chinese poetry until I encountered the following poem by Li Po (701-762) in the mid-1970s, when I was in college.  I thought then, and I still think, that it is one of the loveliest poems that I have ever read.

Richard Eurich, "Docks at Goole, Early Morning" (1971)

          The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.  I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
                              As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

Li Po (translated by Ezra Pound), in Ezra Pound, Cathay (1915).

Richard Eurich, "Robin Hood's Bay in Wartime" (1940)

Whatever one may think of Ezra Pound, he deserves our gratitude for having played a key role in introducing Chinese poetry to English-speaking audiences.  He, along with Arthur Waley (whose work I have commented upon before), pioneered the translation of Chinese poetry into English at the beginning of the 20th century.

In general, I tend to share Philip Larkin's view of Pound's less-than-beneficent influence on Western culture.  Pound was one of the infamous "three Ps" identified by Larkin:

"This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker [Charlie], Pound or Picasso:  it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only by being more mystifying and more outrageous:  it has no lasting power."

Philip Larkin, All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961-1971 (Faber and Faber 1985), page 27.  Larkin includes the following footnote to the above passage:  "The reader will have guessed by now that I am using these pleasantly alliterative names to represent not only their rightful owners but every practitioner who might be said to have succeeded them."  Ibid.

However, I think that Pound did not go off the deep end poetically, philosophically, politically, and psychologically until he abandoned lyric poetry for The Cantos around 1917 or so.  Prior to that time he wrote some fine poems.  Further, his exploration of non-English poetry led him to Chinese poetry, which resulted in the beautiful translations contained in Cathay.  Although Pound has been criticized for not always being faithful to the original Chinese texts, he did bring an instinctive poetic sensibility to the translations, which is evident in "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter."

Richard Eurich, "Dorset Cove" (1939)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"I Have Been A Hazel-Tree, And They Hung The Pilot Star And The Crooked Plough Among My Leaves"

There was a time (during my college years and immediately thereafter) when I was in love with the poetry of Yeats.  I'm sure that many others have had the same experience.  A few lines can capture the essence of this youthful infatuation.  "When you are old and grey and full of sleep . . ."  "A pity beyond all telling/Is hid in the heart of love . . ."  "The trees are in their autumn beauty,/The woodland paths are dry . . ."  "And the white breast of the dim sea/And all dishevelled wandering stars."  It is easy to see why I was beguiled.

But at some point it all seemed too high-pitched.  Added to that was Yeats's penchant for self-dramatization and for oracular pronouncements based upon questionable cosmologies.  And then I discovered, in turn, Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, and Philip Larkin.  I immediately felt:  "This is more like real life."

Don't get me wrong:  in terms of sheer volume of beautiful and memorable poems, Yeats has few (or, perhaps, no) equals.  His poetry still delights me when I read it.  But, as the saying goes, the thrill is gone.  I am perfectly willing to concede that my falling out of love is due to a spiritual, emotional, and/or aesthetic failure on my part.  Or perhaps I just grew old. (After all, The White Album no longer means to me what it once did.)

All of this leads up to a lovely poem by Yeats -- a poem that goes well with Ezra Pound's "I stood still and was a tree amid the wood."

Samuel Palmer, "The Gleaning Field" (c. 1833)

   He Thinks of His Past Greatness when a Part
                of the Constellations of Heaven

I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young
And weep because I know all things now:
I have been a hazel-tree, and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind:
I became a rush that horses tread:
I became a man, a hater of the wind,
Knowing one, out of all things, alone, that his head
May not lie on the breast nor his lips on the hair
Of the woman that he loves, until he dies.
O beast of the wilderness, bird of the air,
Must I endure your amorous cries?

W. B. Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

Nobody does this sort of thing better than Yeats.  I confess that I can still feel the pull.

Samuel Palmer, "Harvest Moon" (c. 1833)

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"I Stood Still And Was A Tree Amid The Wood"

In "The Trees," Philip Larkin writes:  "The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said."  The lines bring to mind two lines from Wallace Stevens's "The Motive for Metaphor":  ". . . you were happy in spring,/With the half colors of quarter-things."

As spring progresses, the leaves of the trees move through innumerable shades of green.  On a sunny day, the larger leaves are diaphanous, with all the variations of green taking on a tinge of sun-shot yellow.  If it is breezy, their green shadows sway and flutter against each other, flowing like a stream.

Stephen McKenna, "An English Oak Tree" (1981)

                        The Tree

I stood still and was a tree amid the wood,
Knowing the truth of things unseen before;
Of Daphne and the laurel bow
And that god-feasting couple old
That grew elm-oak amid the wold.
'Twas not until the gods had been
Kindly entreated, and been brought within
Unto the hearth of their heart's home
That they might do this wonder thing;
Nathless I have been a tree amid the wood
And many a new thing understood
That was rank folly to my head before.

Ezra Pound, A Lume Spento (1908).

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Daphne (line 3) is transformed into a laurel tree as she is pursued by Apollo.  The "god-feasting couple old" (line 4) refers to the story of Baucis and Philemon in Metamorphoses.  The couple provided a meal to Zeus and Hermes when no one else in their village would do so. As a reward, Zeus spared their lives when he destroyed the village and its inhospitable residents.  He also granted their wish that, should one of them die, the other would die at the same time.  Much later, as they died of old age, they embraced, and as they did so they were transformed into intertwining trees:  an oak and a lime.  Pound uses "elm-oak" (line 5).

Stephen McKenna, "Foliage" (1983)

Friday, May 17, 2013

"Consider The Grass Growing" (Once Again)

In my previous post, I stated that Philip Larkin's "The Trees" is my "May poem."  However, I remembered today that there is another poem to which I pay a visit each May.

     Consider the Grass Growing

Consider the grass growing
As it grew last year and the year before,
Cool about the ankles like summer rivers,
When we walked on a May evening through the meadows
To watch the mare that was going to foal.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).  The poem was first published in The Irish Press on May 21, 1943.

George Price Boyce, "Anstey's Cove, South Devon" (1853)

The following untitled poem by Saigyo (1118-1190) is one of a series of ten poems.  The sequence is titled "Ten Poems on Impermanence."

Since I no longer think
of reality
as reality,
what reason would I have
to think of dreams as dreams?

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

At this point, I have to be careful.  I do not wish to fly off into obscure metaphysical space.  More importantly, I do not wish to over-simplify a poem that is the product of thousands of years of Buddhist philosophy and Japanese culture.  (With centuries of Taoist philosophy and Chinese culture in the background.)  All of which is beyond my competence.  The risk of presumption on my part is substantial.

With those caveats (and with the added caveat that I am relying upon a translation), I will humbly offer a tentative (and all-too-obvious) thought. Saigyo is not saying that reality is not reality.  Nor is he saying that dreams are not dreams.

Well, then, what is he saying?  Walk off into the meadows.  Consider the grass growing.  Stop all of your thinking.  Stop putting a name to everything.

Henry Holiday, "Hawes Water" (c. 1859)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Like Something Almost Being Said"

As some long-time readers may recall, I make it a habit to visit two particular poems in May and November of each year.  My November poem is Wallace Stevens's "The Region November."  My May poem is "The Trees" by Philip Larkin.

Why revisit a poem that we know quite well?

At the outset, let's be clear:  poetry is not life.  (Likewise, art is not life and books are not life.)  We do not read poems in order to live.

But, at the risk of sounding highfalutin', I will go out on a limb and suggest that a good poem can do two things.  First, it can help us to understand what it means to be a human being amidst other human beings.  Second, it can give us an inkling of how we, as human beings, fit into the World -- the earthly paradise that surrounds us.  A good poem puts us in our place. Thus, it makes sense to pay it a visit now and then.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Ashley Burn, Spring"

                 The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old?  No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin, High Windows (Faber and Faber 1974).

I have no doubt that "The Trees" is well-loved by many people.  But those of us who love it do so for reasons that are peculiar to each of us.  Many of us may find the same phrases in the poem beautiful and moving:  "Like something almost being said" or "Their greenness is a kind of grief" or "Yet still the unresting castles thresh" or (of course) "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."  But how we feel about those words arises out of our own separate lives.

Hence, any attempt to articulate the reasons for our love of the poem is doomed to failure.  Our love is inextricably bound up with our life.  Should you be so lucky as to cross the path of someone who tells you that they love "The Trees," it is best to say "Yes, I know what you mean" and leave it at that.

Besides, as I have often said, explanation and explication are the death of poetry.  If someone attempted to explain to me that the beauty of "The Trees" lies in this-or-that aspect of its meter or in this-or-that aspect of its rhyme, I would regard them as the Grim Reaper of poetry.

I would instruct them to step outside, in May, and have a look at the trees.

James McIntosh Patrick, "City Garden" (1979)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Four-Line Poems, Part Seven: "Sighs Nature An Alas? Or Merely, Amen?"

If I take my daily walk in the late afternoon or early evening, I can watch the swallows take their dinner above the open fields that I pass through. They rise and fall and dive and curve at the same time each day.  Their single-mindedness, swiftness, and precision are wonderful to behold:  a beautiful unchoreographed ballet.

Then again, who am I to say that they are not choreographed?  All of their movements may be perfectly planned in a way that is well beyond my ken.

Anna Isabella Brooke, "Wharfedale from above Bolton Abbey" (1954)

            The Spotted Flycatcher

Gray on gray post, this silent little bird
Swoops on its prey -- prey neither seen nor heard!
A click of bill; a flicker; and, back again!
Sighs Nature an Alas?  Or merely, Amen?

Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion: Poems (1950).

De la Mare's use of "alas" in "The Spotted Flycatcher" brings to mind another of his poems.

                  Harvest Home

A bird flies up from the hayfield;
Sweet, to distraction, is the new-mown grass:
But I grieve for its flowers laid low at noonday --
        And only this poor Alas!

I grieve for War's innocent lost ones --
The broken loves, the mute goodbye,
The dread, the courage, the bitter end,
The shaken faith, the glazing eye.

O bird, from the swathes of that hayfield --
The rancid stench of the grass!
And a heart stricken mute by that Harvest Home --
        And only this poor Alas!

Walter de la Mare, The Burning-Glass and Other Poems (1945).

Joseph Kavanagh (1856-1918), "Gypsy Encampment on the Curragh"

Saturday, May 11, 2013

"Look Thy Last On All Things Lovely, Every Hour"

In a recent post, I suggested that Elizabethan poets were preoccupied with the transience of our lives.  But transience is the implicit subject of all poetry, isn't it?  Any good poem is an attempt to arrest life as it escapes our grasp.  The same is true of any good painting.

A poet or a painter embarks upon this effort knowing that it is doomed to failure.  But therein lies the beauty of the undertaking.  (Pun not intended.) This fleeting World is -- despite human nature, despite our daily dose of the dispiriting news of the world -- an earthly paradise.  Would an unchanging Paradise be a paradise?

John Humphrey Spender, "Staked Rose" (1953)

                  Fare Well

When I lie where shades of darkness
Shall no more assail mine eyes,
Nor the rain make lamentation
     When the wind sighs;
How will fare the world whose wonder
Was the very proof of me?
Memory fades, must the remembered
     Perishing be?

Oh, when this my dust surrenders
Hand, foot, lip, to dust again,
May these loved and loving faces
     Please other men!
May the rusting harvest hedgerow
Still the Traveller's Joy entwine,
And as happy children gather
     Posies once mine.

Look thy last on all things lovely,
Every hour.  Let no night
Seal thy sense in deathly slumber
     Till to delight
Thou have paid thy utmost blessing;
Since that all things thou wouldst praise
Beauty took from those who loved them
     In other days.

Walter de la Mare, Motley and Other Poems (1918).

Our own individual transience is a given.  Time is short.  But humanity's attempt to momentarily halt that transience through poetry and painting is an unchanging constant that is bequeathed to all of us.

Josephine Bowes (1825-1874), "A Cornfield near Calais"

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"When I Look At Lovely Things Which Pass"

Perhaps I am easy to please, but I never cease to be amazed at the way these things work.  Now -- just as the last of the cherry, apple, and pear blossoms drift to the ground -- on come the lilacs, the rhododendrons, and the azaleas (to name but a few).

And they in turn will soon be replaced, until all of this rising and opening and fading and falling has its denouement in an empty December to come. But there is no need to dwell on that now.

William Callow (1812-1908), "Easby Abbey, Yorkshire" (1853)

                           In the Fields

Lord, when I look at lovely things which pass,
     Under old trees the shadows of young leaves
Dancing to please the wind along the grass,
     Or the gold stillness of the August sun on the August sheaves,
Can I believe there is a heavenlier world than this?
     And if there is
Will the strange heart of any everlasting thing
     Bring me these dreams that take my breath away?
They come at evening with the home-flying rooks and the scent of hay,
     Over the fields.  They come in Spring.

Charlotte Mew, Complete Poems (edited by John Newton) (Penguin 2000.) The poem was first published in 1923.

William Callow, "Old Avenue, Inveraray"

The following poem by Walter de la Mare (which has appeared here before, but which is worth revisiting) provides, I think, a nice complement to Mew's poem.


The longed-for summer goes;
Dwindles away
To its last rose,
Its narrowest day.

No heaven-sweet air but must die;
Softlier float,
Breathe lingeringly
Its final note.

Oh, what dull truths to tell!
Now is the all-sufficing all
Wherein to love the lovely well,
Whate'er befall.

Walter de la Mare, O Lovely England and Other Poems (1953).

William Callow, "Confluence of the Greta and the Tees" (1872)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

"In A Lifetime How Many Springs Do We See?"

I do not think that we ought to dwell unduly upon our mortality.  Unlike, say, the Elizabethans, I have no desire to place a skull on my mantelpiece as a reminder of where I am bound.  And I certainly do not wish to follow the example of John Donne, who is reputed to have occasionally slept in his coffin (which he kept inside his house).  Enough is enough.

Still, being mindful of the brevity of our days is, I think, a good idea.  If nothing else, it may help us to appreciate the moments as they fly away. Besides, in doing so, we keep ourselves in good company:  Su Tung-p'o and A. E. Housman, for instance.

Stanley Spencer, "Lilac and Clematis at Englefield" (1954)

       Pear Blossoms by the Eastern Palisade

Pear blossoms pale white, willows deep green --
when willow fluff scatters, falling blossoms will fill the town.
Snowy boughs by the eastern palisade set me pondering --
in a lifetime how many springs do we see?

Su Tung-p'o (1037-1101) (translated by Burton Watson), in Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Copper Canyon Press 1994).

"In a lifetime how many springs do we see?"  For some of us, the question is not an idle one.  To wit:  at a certain age, the number of springs that we have already seen without a doubt exceeds the number of springs that we have yet to see.  Simple arithmetic, I'm afraid.  But this is not a cause for despair. However, to borrow from Samuel Johnson, it does serve to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Stanley Spencer
"Wisteria at Englefield" (1955)

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad (1896).

A side-note:  on the poetic comparison of snow and blossoms ("snowy boughs by the eastern palisade;" "to see the cherry hung with snow"), please see my previous post on W. H. Davies's "Nailsworth Hill" and Po Chu-i's "Village Night" ("buckwheat blossoms are like snow").

Stanley Spencer, "Garden at Whitehouse, Northern Ireland" (1952)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Single Flower

As I was out walking this week, I noticed a single flower growing in a seam of the sidewalk.  It had five yellow petals, and was about three-eighths of an inch in diameter.  I searched, but I could not find any similar flowers nearby.

The world around us contains innumerable small dispensations of this sort, doesn't it?

Imagine this:  for the brief time that it blooms, that tiny yellow flower stands at the center of the surface of our spinning globe.  The flower is the mid-point:  everything else on Earth flows up to it and away from it.

Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Hyacinth Bulbs" (1966)

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower -- but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

Alfred Tennyson, The Holy Grail and Other Poems (1870).  Tennyson left the poem untitled.

Eliot Hodgkin, "Five Variegated Ivy Leaves" (1960)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Life Explained, Part Thirty-One: "Shall Then A Point In A Point Be So Vain As To Triumph In A Silly Point's Adventure?"

As I see it, Elizabethan poetry can be divided into three general categories. First, there are poems praising the poet's beloved in effusive language sprinkled with clever conceits.  Second, there are poems bemoaning the inconstancy of the poet's former beloved.  In this case, the poet either (1) professes his or her undying love, and begs the former beloved to reconsider, or (2) excoriates the perfidious former beloved in a fashion that makes any sort of reconciliation out of the question.

The third category consists of poems about our fate as human beings.  To wit:  meditations upon the transience and brevity of Life and/or upon the ever-lurking specter of Death.  Memento mori and all that.  Pithy explanations of Life.

The following poem (which originated as a song) belongs to the third category.  Although it has been attributed to Thomas Campion, that attribution is likely incorrect.  A. E. H. Swaen, "The Authorship of 'What if a day,' and Its Various Versions," Modern Philology, Volume IV, No. 3 (January 1907).  Thus, the author is best identified as Anonymous.

Evan Charlton (1904-1984), "Early Morning" (1956)

What if a day, or a month, or a year
     Crown thy desire with a thousand sweet contentings;
Cannot the chance of a night or an hour
     Cross thy delight with as many sad tormentings?
                    Fortune, honour, beauty, youth,
                         Are but blossoms dying;
                    Wanton pleasures, doting love,
                         Are but shadows flying.
                              All our joys
                              Are but toys,
                         Idle thoughts deceiving.
                              None have power
                              Of an hour
                         In their lives' bereaving.

Earth's but a point to the world; and a man
     Is but a point to the earth's compared centre.
Shall then a point in a point be so vain
     As to triumph in a silly point's adventure?
                    All is hazard that we have,
                         Here is no abiding;
                    Days of pleasure are but streams
                         Through fair meadows gliding.
                              Weal or woe,
                              Time doth go,
                         In time is no returning.
                              Secret fates
                              Guide our states
                         Both in mirth and mourning.

Anonymous, in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (1949).

The first published version of the poem appeared in 1566.  The version above is from a manuscript dating from approximately 1599.  "The world" (line 15) is used in the sense of "the material universe; the cosmos."  OED.

Yes, something to bear in mind:  we are all, each and every one of us, nothing but "silly points" in the universe, endearingly intent upon our "adventures."

Evan Charlton, "Hotel Garden"

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


In both Japanese and English poetry, dew is an emblem of the fragility and the transience of our lives.  My previous post included the following poem by Saigyo:

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

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

George Price Boyce, "Thorpe, Derbyshire" (1879)

Perhaps the best-known Japanese poem on the subject of dew is the following haiku by Issa.

     The world of dew
is the world of dew.
     And yet, and yet --

Issa (1763-1827) (translated by Robert Hass), in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994).

The English transliteration (i.e., romaji) of the original Japanese is:

     Tsuyu no yo wa
tsuyu no yo nagara
     sari nagara

Tsuyu is "dew."  No is a particle that means, in this context, "of."  Yo is "world."  Wa is a particle that identifies the first occurrence of tsuyu no yo as the subject.  However, given that (1) there is no verb in the first two lines, and (2) the second occurrence of tsuyu no yo is the object (sort of), wa ends up serving as "is" (sort of).  As for nagara sari nagara, I am told (adamantly) by a native speaker that the phrase is untranslatable, but that "yet," "then again," or "on the other hand" will suffice.  Please note that these glosses are based upon my inexpert and limited knowledge of the Japanese language.

George Price Boyce, "Tithe Barn" (c. 1878)

Issa's haiku stands on its own as a beautiful expression of how we live. However, we should remember that it was written within the context of Issa's own life.  The poem originally appeared at the end of the following prose passage from his book A Year of My Life (1819).  He is writing about Sato, his one-year-old daughter, who had contracted smallpox.

"After two or three days, however, her blisters dried up and the scabs began to fall away -- like a hard crust of dirt that has been softened by melting snow.  In our joy we made what we call a 'priest in a straw robe.'  We poured hot wine ceremoniously over his body, and packed him and the god of smallpox off together.  Yet our hopes proved to be vain.  She grew weaker and weaker and finally, on the twenty-first of June, as the morning glories were just closing their flowers, she closed her eyes forever.

Her mother embraced the cold body and cried bitterly.  For myself, I knew well it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return, and blossoms that are scattered are gone beyond recall.  Yet try as I would, I could not, simply could not, cut the binding cord of human love.

                                        The world of dew
                                   is the world of dew.
                                        And yet, and yet --"

Issa (prose translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa; haiku translated by Robert Hass), Ibid, pages 227-228.

George Price Boyce, "Landscape at Wotton, Surrey: Autumn" (1864)