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)