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.
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)