Poems: Nature and Environment

Some Poems


A selection of poems about nature, the environment, and closely related concerns.  Most of my favorite poems are in here, but the message is really about the less humanized environment as experience, subject or backdrop, symbol or metaphor.  Many of these poems achieve the goal of late-medieval European verse: a poem should be a brilliant and clear direct image, but that image should be a symbol, the symbol a metaphor, and the metaphor an allegory.  The very first cut below—a traditional Delta Blues verse—does this perfectly; decode if you can.






I Got the Key to the Highway


I got the key to the highway, I’m booked out and goin’ to go,

Gone to leave here running, walkin got too doggone slow.

Gone walk the cold highway, until the break of day,

You don’t do nothin but drive a good man away.

When the moon gets over the levee, I’ll be on my way,

Gone roam this cold highway until the break of day.

Traditional blues song


The train done gone, and the Greyhound bus is run,

But walkin’ ain’t crowded, and I won’t be here long.

Traditional blues


I been down on the river in the year nineteen and fo’,

You could see a dead man, Lord, at every turnrow.

Traditional blues


I lay down, trying to take my rest,

My mind got to rambling like the wild geese from the west.

Traditional blues verse


On the Birth of His Son


When you were born into this world, my child,

Loud you did weep while all around you smiled;

So live that, going into your last sleep,

Calm you may smile while all around you weep.

Abu Said ibn Abu ‘l Khayr, medieval Arabic; tr. William Jones, modernized; I thought of this a lot when my grandchildren were born.






From the Book of Songs (ca 500 BCE):

The brown-pepper plant’s fruits

Spread and go out so far;

That gentleman over there,

He is great without equal.

(Karlgren 1950:75, 76, again retranslated; the brown-pepper plant’s fruits look exactly like miniature male genitalia, and were a standard euphemism for same in old China.  This type of gently erotic poetry, using natural symbols, is extremely common in Chinese tradition, far more so than the very proper translated anthologies suggest!)

On the Book of Songs: See Karlgren 1950 for scholarship and literal but hard-to-read translations.  It is worth explaining the actual title, Shi Jing.  “Shi” means a short lyric poem that is sung or chanted.  “Jing” means a basic text; the root meaning of the word is the warp of a fabric.  “Warp” books were the foundational classics in a given area of literature.  “Weft” books were commentaries and secondary literature.




The Best Advice


The clever man wears himself out,

The wise man worries.

But the man of no ability

Has nothing he seeks.

He eats his fill and wanders idly about.

Drifting like an unmoored boat,

Emptily and idly he wanders along.

Zhuang Zi (tr. Burton Watson, 1968, p. 354)



Tao Yuanming on Nature


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.  (Waley 1961:105)

Literal translation: I built my hut     among people’s dwellings,

Yet lack     horse coach sounds.

You ask    how can this be?

My heart is distanced     from the world.

I pick chrysanthemums    under the east fence,

Look far     to the south mountain.

Mountain air     freshens with evening,

Flying birds     together come home.

In this     lie thoughts of truth;

Want speak   Can’t remember words.

(Note the deliberate ambiguity: who wants to speak?  The poet?  The reader?  And has he forgotten just the words for this, or all words, or all language?)


Here are a few of the “Three Hundred Tang Poems,” a set of classical verses memorized by every educated Chinese, and some other Tang poems.  (The Tang Dynasty ran from 618 to 907 CE.  Westerners never realize just how widely known Chinese “elite” culture was.  I heard a semi-literate fisherman chant one of the 300 in Hong Kong in 1966, and the audience, most of them totally illiterate, recognized the poem and saw nothing unusual in the feat.)

The monk from Shu [Sichuan] with his green silk lute-case,

Walking west down O-mei Mountain,

Has brought me by one touch of the strings

The breath of pines in a thousand valleys.

I hear him in the cleansing brook,

I hear him in the icy bells,

And I feel no change thought he mountain darkens

And cloudy autumn heaps the sky.                         (Tr. Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu, 1929:57; free—“thousand” should be “myriad,” for instance—but captures the spirit better than other translations).



Liu Zongyuan:  The lonely boat


Thousand mountains     no bird flies

Ten thousand paths     no human track.

Solitary boat    old man, split-bamboo raincloak,

Fishing, alone   cold river snow.

My translation, to give some sense of the Chinese.  This poem is telegraphic and ambiguous even by classical Chinese standards, and I have tried to preserve that.  The anonymous figure (the poet?) is invisible; we see only his raincoat.  The doubled loneliness of “solitary” and “alone” is notably intense in the Chinese text, and became a famous image.  There are probably literally millions of Chinese paintings of this scene; a particularly beautiful one showed up in an exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art around 2012.


Liu was a great statesman, a major reformer of the Tang Dynasty.  Here is a longer poem by him, explicitly political—and the bad governance of the forest is intended to stand for the whole government:

“The official guardians’ axes have spread through a thousand hills,

At the Works Department’s order hacking rafter-beams and billets.

Of ten trunks cut in the woodlands’ depths, only one gets hauled away.

Ox-teams strain at their traces—till the paired yoke-shafts break.

Great-girthed trees of towering height lie blocking the forest tracks,

A tumbled confusion of lumber, as flames on the hillside crackle.

Not even the last remaining shrubs are safeguarded from destruction;

Where once the mountain torrents leapt—nothing but rutted gullies.

Timber, not yet seasoned or used, left immature to rot;

Proud summits and deep-sunk gorges—now brief hummocks of naked rock.” (Elvin 2004:18).


The Empty Room


In the morning I leave my empty room

And ride my horse to the censorate.

I spend the day there, working at trivial jobs,

Then return again to my empty room.

Bright moonlight glimmers through cracks in the dark wall.

My lamp burns down, the ashes crumble.

And I think of the road to Hsien-yang—

Her funeral hearse returning last night.

Yuan Zhen, tr. Jonathan Chaves

(Yuan Zhen is one of the most striking characters in Chinese history, a fearless defender of the right during a corrupt time.  He rose to very high position in government but was constantly in trouble for fearless and forthright criticism of the Emperor or anyone else who did wrong.  His devotion to his wife, and his poetry on losing her, stand as one of the emotional peaks in all world literature, and refute all the nonsense about the universality of Chinese male chauvinism.  This poem captures perfectly the complete devastation of having one’s whole life and world utterly destroyed.  One goes on automatic pilot, doing the “trivial jobs,” completely empty inside [the room is both real and metaphoric].  I’ve been there.  Believe me.  Some have asked how Yuan Zhen could write a perfect eight-line poem in that state.  The answer is: as one of the three or four greatest scholars in China in his time, he was so trained in poetry that it was like breathing.  He couldn’t not do it.)


Later, remembering, still devastated:

Remembering My Dead Wife


Oh youngest, best-loved daughter of Hsieh,

Who unluckily married this peniles scholr,

You patched my clothes from your own wicker basket, and I coaxed off your hairpins of gold, to buy wine with; for dinner we had to pick wild herbs

And to use dry locust-leaves for our kindling.

Today they are paying me a hundred thousand

And all that I can bring to you is a temple sacrifice.

Yuan Zhen, tr. Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu



Checking on a painting

This time I think

I got it:  one pine real

As the real.


Think about it:

Search in memory, is it

Real, or not?


Guess I’ll have to go

Back up the mountain…

South past Stonebridge,

The third one on the right….

(Ching Yun, late 9th century, tr. Jerome P. Seaton; Seaton and Maloney 1994:76).



Life and Death


If you want an image of life and death,

Look to ice and water.

Water cools, turns to ice,

Ice melts and again becomes water.

Whatever dies must be reborn,

Whatever is born must then die.

Ice and water do each other no harm;

Life and death are both beautiful.

Han Shan, 8th century; my translation.


More Han Shan


The Tiantai Mountains are my home

Mist-shrouded paths keep guests away

Thousand-meter cliffs make hiding easy

Above a rocky ledge mid ten thousand streams

With bark hat and wooden clogs I walk along the banks

With hemp robe and pigweed staff I walk around the peaks

Once you see through transience and illusion

The joys of roaming free are wonderful indeed.

(Tr. Bill Porter, “Red Pine.”  Zhuang Zi mentioned the pigweed staff—a walking stick made from a pigweed [=goosefoot] stalk—as a symbol of poverty and noble rustic life; it was, inevitably, picked up and replayed as a symbol, not only by Han Shan but by Du Fu and others, and even by Basho in Japan and by a self-pitying Korean singer who said it was his “only friend” (O’Rourke 2002:132).  Of course I had to make one, and I have it by me right now, wrapped in a Mongolian blue sacred cloth.)


Another translation of the same poem:


My home base is in Heaven’s Terrace;

Misty paths, foggy depths, cut short guests’ arrival.

Thousand-foot cliffs and crags, where I can hide deep inside,

Ten thousand streams and torrents, stone towers and ledges.

In bark hat and wooden clogs I walk beside brooks,

With hemp robe and pigweed staff, I go round the mountain and return.

Once you see through floating reality, illusion and change in all,

The sharp joys of roaming the Way are truly marvelous indeed.



Passing through South Lake Again:  A Buddhist Prayer


Approaching South Lake, I already begin to dread the journey.

A place of old memories; each corner reopens a wound.

Watching plum blossoms in a small courtyard could be but a dream fulfilled;

Listening to rain in a quiet room is like entering another life.

Autumn waters are bluer for reflecting my graying temples;

The evening bells sound crisper for breaking a sorrowful heart.

Lord of Emptiness, take pity on this homeless soul—

Out of this incense smoke make me the City of Refuge.

Anonymous, 18th century Chinese, tr. Shirleen S. Wong



The Woodpecker


Where is the woodpecker?

Far in the high trees.

Fragile, he works so hard;

All day I hear his sound.

He works so the woods will flourish,

No worms gnawing trees away.

Woe to the crowds of humans—

Never a heart like this bird’s.

Ni Zan (a great Yuan Dynasty artist and writer)


This inspired a much more famous, but (sadly) anonymous, Korean poem:


Can tiny insects

devour a whole great spreading pine?

Where is the long-billed

woodpecker?  Why is he not here?

When I hear the sound of falling trees

I cannot contain myself for sorrow.

(Trans. Richard Rutt, 1971, poem 15.  In both poems the insects are symbols of evil courtiers, the trees are the country’s welfare.  This is not just metaphor, it is ganying, resonance or homology: the insects are exactly the courtiers in their desires and actions, the trees really are valuable.)



Anchored Overnight at Maple Bridge


Crows caw the moon sets frost fills the sky

River maples fishing fires care-plagued sleep

Comgimn from Cold Mountain Temple outside the Suchou wall

The sound of the midnight bell reaches a traveler’s boat.

Chang Chi, tr. Red Pine (Bill Porter); wonderful example of how a literal translation, lack of punctuation and all, can really work



Drinking Wine on Grave-Sweeping Day (Qing Ming Day)


North and south of the mountain peak, many graves in the fields,

Qing Ming sweeting graves, much mess and noise.

Paper ashes fly, become white butterflies,

Tears from broken hearts stain azaleas red.

Sun sets, foxes and wildcats sleep in the tombs,

Night, going home, boys and girls play in the lamplight.

Everyone born, if you have wine, drink till drunk—

Not one drop reaches the Nine Springs.

Kao Chu, tr. Red Pine but heavily modified.  The Nine Springs is the Other World.  The poem is a bitter parody of the sappy sentimentalism of most Qing Ming poems, but it goes far beyond bitterness.


Daoist Poem


Stone pools and pure water are my mind.

Spreading and all-covering peach flowers: their reflections sink down.

One road to Gui Mountain, the office left empty,

In leisure or red dust, the seven-string qin.

Attributed to Lu Dongbin (not even close to believably); see Mark Halperin, Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, p. 117




I fish for minnows in the lake.

Jiust born, they have no fear of man.

And those who have learned,

Never come back to warn them.

Su Dongpo, tr. Kenneth Rexroth, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, p. 84

(The west sees big fish eating little fish as its classic fish metaphor for people; this is the classic Chinese metaphor, in its greatest poetic statement)



Planting Trees


Seventy, and still planting trees….

Don’t laugh at me, my friends.

I know I’m going to die.

I also know I’m not dead yet.   (Yuan Mei, 18th century; tr. J. P. Seaton, 1997:92; I planted an almond on my seventieth birthday, reciting this.)


Chan Master Whitecloud:
A fly drawn by the light bumps the window paper

Uanble to pass it tastes much suffering

Suddenly it chances on the route it came by

And knows its eyes have fooled it all through life.

cited by Yuan Mei; tr Denis Mair; V. Mair et al, p 571.


And by Li Xiaocun:

Garden Gone to Waste


Whose courtyard consummates its own spring?

Moss on windowsill, dust on desk

At least the dog next door still cares

Over the fence barks at a flower thief.

Denis Mair in V. Mair et al., p 570

(The first line means that the garden left to celebrate itself, no one else being there)

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) produced enormous amounts of superb nature poetry, but it broadly followed Tang patterns.  Song travel literature has been beautifully described and translated by Cong Ellen Zhang (2011).  Chinese loved to travel and enjoy the scenery, and especially to visit places made famous by earlier poets, to share the experience.  Chinese officials were reassigned to new posts every three years or so, and also were subject to exile for being too outspoken.  They thus had many opportunities to travel—more than they wanted, since going to a remote and isolated post could take months and could be dangerous.  Most of our information on Song travel comes from poems and accompanying literary accounts, which gives a skewed but still revealing view.

Interestingly, the most productive poets were also some of the greatest moral teachers in Song.  Let Su Shi, generally considered the greatest poet Song, sum it up:

The old monk has already died, they’ve already built a new pagoda.

There is no way to see the old poem on the ruined wall.

The rough going of that past day, do you still recall?

The road was long, the people in difficulty, and the lame donkey brayed.

(Zhang 1997, p. 97.)

The old monk’s poem is lost, the rough trail forgotten.  What remains is Su’s warm and compassionate identification with the suffering people and the suffering donkey, the latter a symbol for Su himself.  (Su’s compassion morality came from Buddhism and Confucianism, but went well beyond the usual teachings.  He may, in fact, be recording here one of his exiles for emphasizing the costs of imperial policy in terms of the sufferings of the common people.)




Japan followed Chinese conventions in much of its poetry, but from the beginning there was a split between Chinese poetry—written in Chinese and imitating Tang styles—and Japanese poetry, often in much less regular patterns.  The Japanese developed an even more direct, fresh, intense way of viewing nature than the Chinese usually achieved.  Contemporary with the Song poets of China, Saigyö, hearing a cricket when he was in a sad mood, combined Japanese love of insects with recognition of the brevity of life:

“At that time

on my pillow

under roots of mugwort

then too may these insects

cheer me with friendly notes”

(tr. Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, Columbia University Press, 1991, p. 129).  This poem requires some ecological unpacking; medieval Japanese would have known that mugwort is edible but intensely bitter, and that it grows on ground that has been disturbed and then abandoned—such as neglected graves.


However, ossification occurred in Japan as in China.  Tanka, haiku and other poetic forms became so forced into conventional modes that they could be, and were, endlessly generated by formulas like those of modern computer-generated music.  The cherry blossoms signal spring, the hawk-cuckoo cries for sorrow.  Bush-clover, miscanthus grass and spring rain are even commoner in haiku than in reality.  Possibly the greatest haiku writer, Matsuō Bashō, wrote in 1686:  “Like a rootless plant without flower or fruit, [poetry] today is merely vulgar banter and sporting with words” (Bashō 2005:103).  He was able to bring real originality to it, but even his work sometimes gives us layer on layer of references to older poets and shopworn images.  Still, his genius in turning a cliché into a spark for a striking new image revived poetry for another century.  The old Chinese proverb, “a bird in a whole forest can perch on only one branch,” inspired him:

“Wren on a single branch:

fragrance of its apricot flowers

throughout the world”

(Bashō 2005:101, tr. David Barnhill, slightly corrected).


Written on a Painting of the Chinese Zen Master Raisan (ca. 8th century)

(Landscape art and poetry came together in paintings with poems inscribed on them, and here the philosophy of Buddhism, nature mysticism, and nature appreciation was combined.  A Japanese example in the Los Angeles Museum of Art shows a Chinese Buddhist sage meditating in mountains, with the verse–in Chinese, though by a Japanese author):

Deep in the emerald cloud of Meng Peak

The recluse Raisan dwells alone.

Emperor Te-tsung himself addressed words to him

But the Zen master never even rose.

Imperial messengers came and urged him repeatedly;

Not once did he answer them.

His face glistening with cold tears,

His world was that of the wild yam;

Beyond that he did not seek enlightenment

Nor did he shun birth and death.

Nothing whatever bothered him,

No vexatious matter entered his ears.

There was no self and no others;

No troubles. No good.

No shouts issued form his mouth,

No blows from his fists.

He was one dark hard old man.

(Takuan Sōhō [1573-1645], tr. Stephen Addiss in notes to this painting in Los Angeles County Museum of Art)



On the Chinese proverb “A bird in a forest can perch on only one branch”:


Wren on a single branch:

fragrance of its apricot flowers

throughout the world  (Bashō 2005:101, translation slightly corrected).



Cherry blossom

Most loved when it falls

Nothing is meant in this world

To last forever

Medieval Japanese, from the Tales of Ise



The mountain wind


Akikaze ya!

Hyoro hyoro kama

no kageboshi


The mountain wind!

It shakes

the mountain’s shadow

Issa (my favorite haiku; my translation; the image is a symbol of worldly power and what it is worth)



Also from Barnhill, p. 58:

The Takekuma pine was a noble pine tree.  The monk Nōin saw it, came back to find it cut down by a boorish governor to use for bridge pilings, and wrote:

“Pine of Takekuma:

at this time 

there is no trace of it;

have a thousand years passed

since I last came?”


It was replanted, and Kyohaku wrote, thinking of Noin:

“The Takekuma Pine:

show it to him,

late-blooming cherries”


Which caused Basho to seek it out (it had probably been replanted yet again by then):

“Since the cherries bloomed,

I’ve longed to see this pine:  two trunks

after three month’s passage.”


This poem exhibits fūryū, “’all art,’…an extraordinarily complex term, including associations of high culture, art in general, poetry, and music, as well as ascetic wayfaring and Daoist eccentricity.”  Barnhill, Basho’s Journey¸ 159



Korean  (The Koreans adopted Chinese civilization but with a distinct and frequently cynical eye, evaluating, so that when they state Chinese goals they have thought harder and do better than the Chinese ever did; or they can be world-class skeptics about it all.  Many of the best poems are anonymous.  Remember these are really songs: they rhyme, have meter, and have beautiful tunes in the original.)


I live at the foot of the mountain;

Even the cuckoo embarrasses me.

It laughs at the size of my cooking pot when it peeks into my house.

Believe me, bird,

It’s plenty big in terms of my interest in the world.                                     Anonymous, tr. Kevin O’Rourke (2002:166.)


Red-necked mountain pheasant over there,

Duck hawk perched on the branch,

White egrets watching for the fish

In the watered paddy field out in front,

If you were not around my grass roof

It wouldn’t be easy for me to pass the days.

Anonymous, tr. Jaihiun Kim (1994:190.)


Night falls


Night in a mountain village;

A dog barks far away.

I open the window and look:

The moon is a bright leaf.

Be still, stop barking at the moon

Drifting alone over the face of the mountain.

-Chungum, unknown woman poet, ca 1568; redone from a couple of translations


Old age (a poem with a very personal ring these days….)


Bamboo stick, the sight of you

Fills me with trust and delight.

Ah, boyhood days when you were my horse!

Stand there now

Behind the window, and when we go out,

Let me stand behind you.

Kim Kwang’uk, tr. Peter Lee


And another:

Even fools can know and do

Is it not easy then?

Yet even sages cannot know all.

Is it not difficult then?

Pondering whether it’s easy or hard

Makes me forget I grow old.

Yi Hwang (16C), tr. Richard Rutt  (What is “it”?  The Way, the Meaning, the Answer?  Or maybe just the question?  The point is the last line.)



The Koreans are the only people who seriously explored old age in poetry—here’s another:


Wine, why do you redden a white face?

Instead of reddening a white face why not blacken white hair?

Should you really

Blacken white hair, I’ll drink and drink, I’ll never sober up again.

Tr. Kevin O’Rourke


And another:


My ageing affections

I’ll beguile with chrysanthemums,

My tangled skein of worries

I’ll beguile with ink drawings of grapevines,

The white hair tarying under my ears

I’ll beguile with one long song.

Kim Sujang, tr. Richard Rutt; the grapevine is a “plant dragon,” and therefore paintings of it are protective and give good luck.


Getting away from old age, here is the world’s finest poem on tolerance:
Is the crow black because someone dyed it?

Is the heron white because someone washed it?

Are the crane’s legs long because someone pulled them out?  Are the duck’s legs short

because someone cut them off?

Black, white, long, short, what’s the point in endless wrangling?

Tr. Kevin O’Rourke


This anonymous woman’s poem just has to be the greatest love poem in the world:


Pass where the winds pause before going over,

Pass where the clouds pause before going over,

High pass of the peak of Changsong

Where wild-born falcons and hand-reared falcons,

Peregrine falcons and yearling hawks,

All pause before going over,

If I knew my love were across the pass

I would not pause a moment before I crossed.

Tr. Richard Rutt


Chong Ch’ol, a fearless political poet, writing the world’s absolutely greatest poem on loyalty to a movement:


We’ll strain sour wine and drink

Till we can’t abide the taste.

We’ll boil bitter greens and chew till they become sweet.

We’ll stay

On the road till the nails that hold the heels to our clogs are worn away.

Tr. Kevin O’Rourke


Yun Sundo, another political classic, referring to the age-old East Asian metaphor of measuring tools, correctly used, as symbols of good government:


How is a house built?

It is the work of a master carpenter. Why are the timbers straight?  They follow the line of ink and ruler.


Of this home truth will bring you long life.

Tr. Kevin O’Rourke (the poem refers to the Confucian use of architects’ tools as concrete examples of how to regulate the world)


But the inimitable Chong Ch’ol savagely satirized this theme:


Huge beams and rooftree timbers

Are rejected and thrown away;

While the house is falling down

They argue with one another.

Carpenters, when will you stop

Running around with your ink-cups and rules?

Tr. Richard Rutt


More loyalty, from Yu Huich’un:


A little bunch of parsley,

Which I dug and rinsed myself.

I did it for no one else,

But simply to give it to you.

The flavor is not so very pungent;

Taste it, once more taste it, and see.

Tr. Richard Rutt.  The parsley is a very modest gift; Yu offers his talents, such as they are, to the nation.  (In the event, this poem was probably his finest offering; it has inspired literally millions of Koreans since he wrote it in the 16th century.)


Another anonymous love poem, so understated that it’s ten times as powerful for the low key—I reread it after some deaths in the family and found it the most heartbreaking poem I could find, and it remains the greatest poem on age and grief that has ever been written.


In this world medicine is plentiful

And sharp knives abound, they say:

But there’s no knife to cut off affection, no medicines to forget true love.

So be it:

I’ll leave my cutting and forgetting till I go to the other world.

Tr. Kevin O’Rourke



Vietnam also produced great environmental poetry, usually but not always in Chinese style.


Less Chinese than most is a farmers’ folk song:


“Some folks transplant rice for wages,

But I have other reasons.

I watch the sky, the earth, the clouds,

Observe the rain, the nights, the days,

Keep track, stand guard till my legs

Are stone, till the stone melts,

Till the sky is clear and the sea calm.

Then I feel at peace.”

Tr. Nguyen Ngoc Bich (1975:40).


The Vietnamese were freed from the archaic, long-forgotten ancient pronunciations of Chinese.  Writing in Vietnamese, women could revive rhyme and tone schemes that actually sounded as they were supposed to sound, and they created world-class poetry.  Thus Ho Xuan Hu’o’ng in the early 19th century:

Dung cheo trong ra canh hat hiu

Du’o’ng di thien theo quan cheo leo

Lo’p leu mai co gianh xo xac

X ke keo tre dot khang khiu

Ba gac cay xanh hinh uon eo

Mot giong nu’o’c biec co leo teo

Thu vui quen ca niem lo cu

Kia cai dieu ai gio lon leo.


Leaning out, I look down on the valley,

path winding to a deserted inn,

thatch roof tattered and decayed.

Bamboo poles on gnarled pilings

bridge the green stream uncurling

little tufts in the wavering current. Happy, I forget old worries.

Someone’s kite is struggling up.

(Tr. John Balaban, 2000, 40-41)

Tone marks are left out here, because they are simply too confusing to a non-Vietnamese-speaker, but tone patterning was as complex and effective as the rhyme and alliteration visible in the transcription above.

Ho Xuan Hong, after her husband died, was supposedly reduced to being a high-class courtesan for a while, and seems to have taken to the role.  The double meaning of this poem should be easily penetrated (if you get my drift).  Again the tones carry half the beauty of the sound-poem, especially in the spectacular sound-cascade of the last line, but sadly must be ignored here.

Mot deo, mot deo, lai mot deo,

Khen ai kheo tac canh cheo leo.

Cua son do loet tum hum noc,

Hon da xanh ri lun phun reu.

Lat leo canh thong con gio thoc,

Dam dia la leiu giot suong gieo.

Hien nhan, quan tu ai ma chang…

Moi goi, cho chan van muon treo.


A cliff face.  Another.  And still a third.

Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene:

The cavern’s red door, the ridge’s narrow cleft,

The black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,

Showering a willow’s leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary

And shaky in his knees, to mount once more?

(Tr. John Balaban, 2000:46-47.  I do not know Vietnamese, but the poem is in Chinese characters, and I might respectfully suggest that the second line could read “Who could be so skilled as to delineate this craggy scene?”)


Ho Xuan Huong’s lament for her husband, who died after only a few months of marriage; tone marks left out, but the tone harmonies are as beautiful as the vowel sounds; together they make this one of the most devastatingly beautiful laments in the world.  Also, this gives you an idea of the incredibly complex and beautiful rhyme, internal rhyme, recurrent rhyme, rhythm, vowel harmony, and other poetic tricks that are lost in modern translations of classical Chinese and Korean songs.


Tram nam ong phu Vinh-Tuong oi

Cai no ba sinh da gia roi

Chon chat van chong ba thuoc dat

Nem tung ho thi bon phuong troi

Can can tao hoa roi dau mat

Mieng tui can khon that chat roi

Hai bay thang troi la may choc

Tram nam ong phu Vinh-Tuong oi


One hundred years.  Oh, prefect of Vinh-Tuong,

Now your love debt is all paid off.

Your poetic talents buried three feet down.

Your fine ambitions windstrewn.

The heavenly scales got dropped and lost.

The mouth of earth’s bag is cinched up.

Twenty-seven months seemed so short.

On hundred years.  Oh, prefect of Vinh-Tuong.

                        (Tr. John Balaban)



Love Poem


In our next life, we will take care to be born again as male and female,

But we will be two wildgeese flying high in heaven.

The blinding snow, the seas and waters, the mountains and clouds, the dust of the world

We will see from afar, but we will never fall.

Nguyen Khac Hieu   (early 20th C; from Huard, Pierre, and Maurice Durand.  1954.  Connaissance du Viet-Nam, p. 274.  Hanoi:  École Française de’Extrème-Orient; Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.  My trans. of their French trans.  My second favorite love poem.)



(As with the Asian poems, the translated ones below are masterpieces of rhyme, internal rhyme, off-rhyme, phoneme harmony, and so on in the original—If at all interested, pick up enough Celtic languages to get it)




Oh King of the starry sky,

Lest Thou from me withdraw Thy light,

Whether my house be dark or bright,

My door shall close on none tonight.

Irish, 9th century, tr. Sean O’Faolain



Creide’s lament for her husband Cael, drowned at sea:


The harbour roars out

over the fierce flow of Rin Dá Bharc.

The hero from Loch Dá Chonn drowned;

the wave mourns it against the shore.


The heron is crying

in the marsh of Druim Dá Thrén.

She cannot guard her young:

the two-colored fox is stalking them.


Mournful is the whistle

of the thrush on Druim Caín.

And no less mounrful is the call

of the blackbird on Leitir Laíg.


Mournful the music

of the stag on Druim Dáa Léis:

The doe of Druim Silenn is dead

and the great stag roars at her loss.


My grief

that hero dead, who lay with me,

that woman’s son from Doire Dá Dos

with a cross set at his head.


My grief that Cael

is fixed by my side in death,

that a wave has drowned his pale flank.

His great beauty drove me wild.


Mournful is the roar

the ebbing wave makes on the strand.

It has drowned a fine and noble man.

My grief Cael ever went near it.


Mournful the sound

the wave makes on the northern shore,             rough about the lovely rock,

lamenting Cael who is gone.


And mournful the fall

of the wave on the southern shore.

As for myself, my time is over,

my face the worse, for all to see.


There is unnatural music

in the heavy wave of Tulach Léis:

It is tellings its boastful tale

and all my wealth is as nothing.


Since Crimthann’s son was drowned

I will have no other love.

Many leaders fell at his hand

but his shield on the day of need was silent.

Tr. Ann Dooley and Harry Roe.

Creide’s lament for her drowned husband is one of the truly great poems in the Irish (Gaelic) language, and it’s very well worth learning to read it in the original, pronouncing it more or less correctly—we aren’t quite clear how it was pronounced in its own time, but one can get the idea.  Of course it’s always interesting that she could spontaneously mourn in perfect, extremely complex and high-styled Irish prosody…well, with a little help from a later writer (it is not even clear if Creide existed in the first place, since this poem is from a basically fictional work).



Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh’s lament for his wife, ca 1200 AD.


Last night my soul departed,

a pure body, most dear, in the grave,

her stately smooth bosom taken

from me in a linen sheet,


a lovely pale blossom plucked

from a limp downcurving stem,

my heart’s darling bowed low,

heavy branch of yonder house.


I am alone tonight, O God.

It is a crooked, bad world you see.

Lovely the weight of the young flank

I had here last night, my King.


That bed there, my grief,

The lively covers where we swam

–I have seen a fine lively body

and waved hair in your midst, my bed!


One of a gentle countenance

Lay and shared my pillow.

Only the hazel bloom is like

her womanly dark sweet shade.


Maol Mheadha of the dark brows,

my vessel of mead, by my side,

my heart, the shade who has left me,

a precious flower, planted and bowed.


My body is mine no longer.

It has fallen to her share:

a body in two pieces

since she left, fair, lovely and gentle


–one foot of mine, one flank

(her visage like the whitethorn;

nothing hers but it was mine):

one eye of mine, one hand;


half my body, a youthful blaze

(I am hjandled harshly, O King,

and I feel faint as I speak it)

and half of my very soul.


My first love her great slow gaze;

curved, ivory white her breast;

nor did her body, her dear side,

belong to another before me.


Twenty years we were as one

and sweeter our speech each year.

Eleven babies she bore me

–great slender-fingered fresh branch.


I am, but I do not live,

since my round hazel-nut has fallen.

Since my dear love has left me

the dark world is empty and bare.


From the day the smooth shaft was sunk

for my house I have not heard

that a guest has laid a spell

on her youthful brown dark hair.


Do not hinder me, you people.

What crime to hear my grief.

Bare ruin has entered my home

and the bright brown blaze is out.


The King of Hosts and Highways

took her away in His wrath.

Little those branched locks sinne,d

to die on her husband, young and fresh.


That soft hand I cherished,

King of the graves and bells,

that hand never forsworn

–my pain it is not beneath my head!


Tr. T. Kinsella , The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1989:95-97; note the level of passion after 20 years and eleven children).  The original Celtic of this poem is incredible—a torrent of rhyme, internal rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration, sound progressions, and every other word-music device, all with an extremely lamenting sound.  Only a handful of the greatest poets can make their sounds unite in driving the full emotional message of the poem, and this poem does it to a supreme degree, unique in the world to my experience.



Mad Sweeney’s Song of the Wild


There was a time when I preferred

the turtle-dove’s soft jubilation

as it flitted round a pool

to the murmur of conversation.


There was a time when I preferred

the mountain grouse crying at dawn

to the voice and closeness

of a beautiful woman.


There was a time when I preferred

wolf-packs yelping and howling

to the sheepish voice of a cleric

bleating out plainsong.


You are welcome to pledge healths

and carouse in your drinking dens;

I will dip and steal water

from a well with my open palm.


You are welcome to that cloistered hush

of your students’ conversation;

I will study the pure chant

of hounds baying in Glen Bolcain.


You are welcome to your salt meat

and fresh meat in feasting-houses;

I will live content elsewhere

on tufts of green watercress.

(Tr. Seamus Heaney, 1983:72-73.)

Kenneth Jackson memorably translates the last two verses:

“Though you think sweet, yonder in your church, the gentle talk of your students, sweeter I think the splendid talking the wolves make in Glenn mBolcáin.

“Though you like the fat and meat which are eaten in the drinking-halls, I like better to eat a head of clean water-cress in a place without sorrow…”  (Jackson 1971:255).

The “wolves” are actually “hounds” in the text, as translated by Heaney, but I think Jackson is right in assuming that “hounds” here is used, as it is in some other texts, to refer to God’s hounds—the wolves.



Mt. Cua


Sliabh gCua, haunt of wolves, rugged and dark, the wind wails about its glens, wolves howl around its chasms; the fierce brown deer bells in autumn arund it, the crane screams over its crags.

Early medieval Irish; traditional; tr. Kenneth Jackson.  Sliabh gCua means “Mt. Cua” and is pronounced “sleeve cua” or “sleeve gua”



Love song


She’s the white flower of the blackberry, she’s the sweet flower of the raspberry, she’s the best herb in excellence for the sight of the eyes.

She’s my pulse, she’s my secret, she’s the scented flower of the apple, she’s summer in the cold time between Christmas and Easter.

Traditional song (rhyming in Irish), tr. Kenneth Jackson, A Celtic Miscellany (1971); this just has to be the most beautiful of men’s love songs



Mythic encounter


“Another beautiful shining island appeared to them.  Bright grass was there, with spangling of purple-headed flowers; many birds and ever-lovely bees singing a song from the heads of those flowers.  A grave gray-headed man was playing a harp in the island.  He was singing a wonderful song, the sweetest of the songs of the world.  They greeted each other, and the old man told them to go away.”  (again from Kenneth Jackson, 1971:162).



An Irish poem from the 18th century uses a dead bittern as a symbol for the poet, Cathal Buidhe MacElgun.  The bittern is more than metaphor; it is an alter ego.  This is no raffish drinking song.  The poet is destroying himself by drink and he knows it.  He is trapped in grief—for the bittern, for himself, and and for a great deal of unspecified tragedy that the bittern symbolizes. The poet drinks in a notably unsuccessful attempt to drown the sorrow.  One reason to quote this poem here is that the translator successfully approximates the complex internal rhyme and alliteration of the original, thus giving readers a sense of what Irish poetry really sounds like.


The yellow bittern that never broke out

In a drinking-bout, might well have drunk;

His bones are thrown on a naked stone

Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.

O yellow bittern!  I pity your lot,

Though they say that a sot like myself is curst—

I was sober a while, but I’ll drink and be wise

For fear I should die in the end of thirst.


It’s not for the common birds that I’d mourn,

The blackbird, the corncrake or the crane,

But for the bittern that’s shy and apart

And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.

Oh! If I had known you were near your death,

While my breath held out I’d have run to you,

Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird

Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.


My darling told me to drink no more

Or my life would be o’er in a little short while;

But I told her ‘tis drink gives me health and strength,

And will lengthen my road by many a mile.

You see how the bird of the long smooth neck,

Could get his death from the thirst at last-

Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,

You’ll get no sup when your life is past.


In a wintering island by Constantine’s halls,

A bittern calls from a wineless place,

And tells me that hither he cannot come

Till the summer is here and the sunny days.

When he crosses the stream there and wings o’er the sea,

Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight—

Well, the milk and the ale are drunk every drop,

And a dram won’t stop our thirst this night.

(trans. Thomas MacDonagh; Kathleen Hoagland 1947:235-236.  This is a song, sung in both Irish and English today.)


The medieval Scots were Irish.  In ancient times Scotland was inhabited by the Picts, who spoke a Briton-type Celtic language.  The Scoti, an Irish tribe, invaded and took over in the early middle ages.  So their early Gaelic poetry was thoroughly Irish in background and quality.  This has persisted, in attenuated form, and much folk material demonstrating it has been collected.  Notable is Alexander Carmichael’s huge collection of folk charms (1992).  Carmichael provides countless charms involving plants, animals, and natural phenomena, and showing close relationships with them.  The sun, plants, and the sea are addressed personally (as St. Francis of Assisi did).  Carmichael notes that a young man going hunting was consecrated, and instructed not to kill wantonly or unnecessarily, nor “to kill a bird sitting, nor a beast lying down,…the mother of a brood, nor the mother of a suckling,” or young animals in general (Carmichael 1992:601).

Early Welsh poetry known to us is largely battle verse, rather thin on natural images, but in the high middle ages Welsh nature poetry explodes in pyrotechnic variety and virtuosity.  Usually, nature is merely a backdrop for light love.  However, wisdom literature, teaching texts, passages in long narratives, and sharp images in historical sources all indicate that Wales must not have been very different from Ireland in its early concern with forests and waters.  We have several early poems indicating this quite strongly (Jackson 1935).

In the meantime, there is one medieval Galician poem that sums it all up.  Galician (Gallego) is a language very close to Portuguese.  The word“Galician” is, however, cognate with Gaul, Gallic, Gaelic, and Galatian.  The language resulted from Celts learning proto-Spanish; it carries over Spanish innovations like borrowing the German plural –s from the Visigoths in place of Latin plurals.  But Galician and Portuguese maintained the Celtic fondness for complex vowel systems and for nasalization.  Also, they maintained a number of Celtic words, many of which—specifically tree names—migrated into Spanish.  A great deal of beautiful romantic poetry was written in Galician, which in fact became the language for romantic songs throughout the medieval Iberian Peninsula.  Richard Zenith (1995) has given us a study of this phenomenon, with translations.  The one that captures the spirit of Celtic poetry best, for me, is a brief, simple song (alas, we have lost the melody) titled “Song about a Girl’s Beloved Who Hunts.”  Most readers of the present work will be familiar enough with one or another Romance language to appreciate the wonderful prosody and rhyme of this work.  Since, alas, Gaelic poetry is impossible to read or sound out without some knowledge of the language, this is probably the reader’s best chance to get some sense of  Celtic word-music.  The poem is by Fernand’ Esquio, around 1300.


Vayamos, hirmana, vayamos dormir

Nas ribas do lago, hu eu andar vi

A las aves, meu amigo.


Vaiamos, hirmana, vaiamos folgar

Nas ribas do lago, hu eu vi andar

A las aves, meu amigo.


E nas ribas do lago, hu eu andar vi,

Seu arco na mano as aves ferir,

A las aves, meu amigo.


E nas ribas do lago, hu eu vi andar,

Seu arco na mano a las aves tirar,

A las aves, meu amigo.


Seu arco na mano as aves ferir,

E las que cantavan leixa las guarir,

A las aves, meu amigo.


Seu arco na mano a las aves tirar,

E las que cantavan non nas quer matar, a las aves, meu amigo.


(Come with me, sister, and we’ll go sit

Alongside the lake where I have seen

My beloved hunting for birds.


Come with me, sister, and we will walk

Alongside the lake where I have watched

My beloved hunting for birds.


Alongside the lake where I have seen

His arrows shooting birds in the trees,

My beloved hunting for birds.


His arrows shooting birds in the trees,

But he never aims at birds that sing,

My beloved hunting for birds.


His arrows shooting birds on the water,

But he never aims at birds that warble,

My beloved hunting for birds.

Tr. Richard Zenith, 1995:234-235.)

This poem perfectly captures, in very short space, three pillars of medieval Celtic life:  love, hunting, and song.  The focus on love and nature, the love of hunting, and the implied equation of all three, is pure Celt.  The equation of birds and young women is a standard Celtic and Germanic linguistic trope, seen in “bride”—originally the same word as “bird”—and of course in the endless slang uses of “bird” and “chick.”  Hunting for birds is still a metaphor in English.  The lover’s sparing of songbirds is also very Celtic.    The Irish and other medieval poems speak of hunting deer and other game, but never of killing a songbird. By contrast, many European peoples hunted songbirds assiduously.  Mediterranean people still do.  North Europeans such as the French and English did also, in the middle ages, and indeed until quite recently.



Now the holy lamp


Now the holy lamp of love

Or unholy if they will,

Lifes her amber light above

Cornamona’s hill.

Children playing round about

Decent doors at edge of dark

Long ago hve ceased to shout.

Now the fox begins to bark.


Cradling hands are all too small

And your hair is drenched with dew; Love though strong can build no wall

From the hungry fox for you.

Holy men have said their say

And those holy men are right,

God’s own fox will have his way

This night or some other night.

Patrick MacDonogh (20th century)


The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens


The king he sits in Dumferling town,

Drinking the blood-red wine;

“Oh where shall I get good sailors

To sail this ship of mine?”


Then up and spake an elder knight,

Sat at the king’s right knee:

“Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor

That sails upon the sea.”


The king has written a broad letter,

And signed it with his hand,

And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens

Was walking on the sand.


The first line that Sir Patrick read

A loud laugh laughed he;

But the second line Sir Patrick read

The tear did blind his eye.


“Make haste, make haste, my merry men all,

Our ship it sails the morn.”

“Oh say not so, my master dear,

I fear a dead ly storm.


Last night I saw the elder moon

With the new moon in her arm,

And I fear, I fear, my master dear,

That we will come to harm.”


The Scottish nobles were ich laith                  [very loath]

To wet their cork-heeled shoon;

But long long e’er the play were played

Their hats did swim aboon.                             [above their bodies]


Oh long long may their ladies wait

With their fans into their hand,

Awaiting for Sir Patrick Spens

Come sailing to the land.


And long long may their ladies wait

With their gold combs into their hair,

Awaiting for their own dear lords,

For them they’ll see nae mair.


Half oer, half oer, to Aberdour,

It’s fifty fathom deep,

And there lies good Sir Patrick Spens

With the Scots lords at his feet.


(Scottish traditional.  According to legend—unconfirmed—the king wished to get rid of Sir Patrick Spens and other nobles, and was too cowardly to do it directly, so he sent them on a death-voyage to Norway in winter.  This ballad was supposedly composed to rebuke him.  The old sailor in Verse 6-7 knows that the only time it is clear enough to see “the old moon in the new moon’s arms” on the foggy North Sea is when a howling north wind is blowing; such a wind can easily raise 50-foot waves, and to put out in such conditions in medieval sailing craft was frank suicide.  Dumfermline Castle—“Dumferling town”—still exists, a darkly brooding medieval ruin, and you can actually stand there and see the hall where the king sent Sir Patrick to death.  The tune is magnificent and mournful.  See Child 2:17.)



The Unquiet Grave


The wind blows cold today, my love,

And a few small drops of rain.

I never had but one true love,

In cold grave she was lain.


I’ll do as much for my true love

As any young man may;

I’ll sit and mourn all on her grave

For twelve month and a day.


The twelve month and a day being o’er,

The dead began to speak:

“Oh who sits mourning all on my grave

And will not let me sleep?”


Tis I, my love, sits on your grave,

And will not let you sleep;

I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips

And that is all I seek.


“You crave one kiss of my clay-cold lips

But my breath smells earthy strong;

If you had one kiss of my clay-cold lips

Your days would not be long.”


Tis down in yonder garden green,

Love, where we used to walk,

The finest flower that ever was seen

Is withered to a stalk.


“The stalk is withered dry, my love,

So will our hearts decay;

So many yourself content, my love,

Till God calls you away.”


(British Isles, traditional ballad, in many versions.  The tune to this one is sad and resigned, and incredibly beautiful.  See also Child 2:234.)



Poems by Edward Thomas (Welsh poet, early 20th century, died on the battlefield in WWI)




Yes. I remember Adlestrop—

The name, because on afternoon

Of heat the express train drew up there

Unwontedly.  It was late June.


The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.

No one left and no one came

On the bare platform.  What I saw

Was Adlestrop—only the name


And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,

No whit less still and lonely fair

Than the high cloudlets in the sky.


And for that minute a blackbird sang

Close by, and round him, mistier,

Farther and farther, all the birds

Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

(Note, for rhyme, the last word is pronounced “glostershur”)



The Ashgrove


Half of the grove stood dead, and those that yet lived made

Little more than the dead ones made of shade.

If they led to a house, long before they had seen its fall:

But they welcomed me; I was glad without cause and delayed.


Scarce a hundred paces under the trees was the interval—

Paces each sweeter than sweetest miles—but nothing at all,

Not even the spirits of memory and fear with restless wing,

Could climb down in to molest me over the wall


That I passed through at either end without noticing.

And now an ash grove far from those hills can bring

The same tranquillity in which I wander a ghost

With a ghostly gladness, as if I heard a girl sing


The song of the Ash Grove soft as love uncrossed,

And then in a crowd or in distance it were lost,

But the moment unveiled something unwilling to die

And I had what most I desered, without search or desert or cost.



Old Man

(The plant is southernwood,  Artemisia)


Old Man, or Lad’s-love: in the name there’s nothing

To one that knows not Lad’s-love, or Old Man,

The hoar-green feathery herb, almost a tree,

Growing with rosemary and lavender.

Even to one that knows it well, the names

Half decorate, half perplex, the thing it is:

At least, what that is clings not to the names

In spite of time.  And yet I like the names.


The herb itself I like not, but for certain

I love it, as some day the child will love it

Who plucks a feather from the door-side bush

Whenever she goes in or out of the house.

Often she waits there, snipping the tips and shrivelling

The shreds at last on to the path, perhaps

Thinking, perhaps of nothing, till she sniffs

Her fingers and runs off.  The bush is still

But half as tall as she, though it is as old;

So well she clips it.  Not a word she says;

And I can only wonder how much hereafter

She will remember, with that bitter scent,

Of garden rows, and ancient damson trees

Topping a hedge, a bent path to a door,

A low thick bush beside the door, and me

Forbidding her to pick.

As for myself,

Where first I met the bitter scent is lost.

I, too, often shrivel the grey shreds,

Sniff them and thin and sniff again and try

Once more to think what it is I am remembering,

Always in vain.  I cannot like the scent,

yet I would rather give up others more sweet,

With no meaning, than this bitter one.

I have mislaid the key. I sniff the spray

And think of nothing; I see and I hear nothing;

Yet seem, too, to be listening, lying in wait

For what I should, yet never can, remember:

No garden appears, no path, no hoar-green bush of lad’s-love, or Old Man, no child beside,

Neither father nor mother, nor any playmate;

Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

These poems are from The Works of Edward Thomas (Thomas 1994), a book I treasure, and I hope it goes to someone who cares.  This particular poem is intensely personal for me; I have the same responses to the plant, and my daughters had the same early experiences with it as Thomas’ daughter—because I planted it by our door in honor of the poem.





The Last Kamassian Poem

The Kamassian language (distantly related to Finnish and spoken by a tiny group of reindeer herders) died out in the early 20th century.  In 1914 one old man was located who still spoke it fluently, in a tiny community of speakers in the arctic Yenisei River area of Russia.  He gave a few word lists, then sang this song and would say no more.  (The final lines refer to coverings of the traditional lodge; they curl when long abandoned.)  So this is all we have of Kamassian.  It is a lament not only for his language and his people, but for the entire world, as much as he knew it.


My black mountains

Where I used to wander

Have remained behind.

The soil I walked on grew

A belt of golden grass.

My black mountains

Have remained behind,

My white mountains

Have remained behind,

Our strength

Has remained behind.

From many families

Have I remained behind.

I have gone astray from my kinsmen,

And I am left alone.

My lakes where I was wont to fish

Have remained behind.

I do not see them now.

The poles in the middle of my tent

Have gone rotten,

The birch-bark slices that were sewn together

Have all curled up.

(Tr. T. Vuorela 1964)





The crest of the mountain

Forever remains, forever remains

Though rocks continually fall

Paiute, tr. J. W. Powell (1970:123; many other almost as good Paiute songs there)



Ancient Greek:  Small farms immortalized


Here is Klito’s little shack.

Here is his little cornpatch.

Here is his tiny vineyard.

Here is his little woodlot.

Here Klito spent eighty years.

(Translated by Kenneth Rexroth; in Jay 1981:102.)


Dear earth, take old Amyntichus to your heart,

Remembering how he toiled upon you once:

Fixing in olive-stocks, and slips of vine,

And corn, and channels where the water runs.

He made you rich with herbs and fruit: in turn

Lie soft on his grey head; and bloom for him.

(Anonymous epitaph, trans. Alistair Elliot, in Jay 1981:327; “corn” means “any grain” here, the possibilities being wheat and barley, not maize.)


Spare the mother of acorns, man.  Cut down some paliurus,

old mountain pine or sea-pine, or ilex or dry arbutus.

But keep your axe out of the oak: remember our forefathers

said that once upon a time the oaks were our first mothers.

(Diodoros Zonas, ca. 100 BCE; trans. Alistair Elliot; Jay 1981:169.)


Medieval Provençal

In the late 12th century, the Provençal troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn perfectly summarized the new mood in a transcendently impulsive outburst of song:


Ca l’erba fresch’ e.lh folha par

E la flors boton’ el verjan,

E.l rossinhols autet e clar

Leva sa votz e mou so chan,

Joi ai de lui, e joi ai de la flor

E joi de me e de midons major;

Daus totas partz sui de joi claus e sens,

Mas sel es jois que totz autres jois vens.


(When fresh gass-blades and leaves appear

And flowers bud the branching plants,

And the nightingale most loud and clear

Uplifts its voice and song descants,

I joy in it, and in the flowered air

And take joy in my self and lady fair;

All round I’m wrapped with joy and girt indeed,

But this is a joy all other joys exceed.

Translation by Hubert Creekmore (1952:578.)







Most glorious Lord of life that on this day

Didst make thy triumph over death and sin,

And having harrowed hell didst bring away

Captivity thus captive, us to win:

This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,

And grant that we for whom thou diddest die

Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin

May live forever in felicity.

And that thy love we weighing worthily,

May likewise love thee for the same again;

And for thy sake that all life dear did buy

With love may one another entertain.

So let us love, dear love, like as we ought;

Love is the lesson that the Lord us taught.

Edmund Spenser


The Song of the Sky

I will sing the song of the sky.  This is the song of the tired salmon panting as they swim up the swift current.

I go around where the water runs into whirlpools.

They talk quickly, as if they are in a hurry.

The sky is turning over.  They call me.

Traditional Tsimshian song as sung by William Beynon (Tsimshian chief); tr. by Beynon and Benjamin Munroe, early 20th century.  Recall that the salmon give birth and die.  The sense of sacrificing one’s life for one’s people is clear in the poem.



Education is all right, I’ll tell you before you start,

Before you educate the head, try to educate the heart.

Washington Phillips, Texas bluesman (recorded 1930)



Life and Death


My heart is a lamp, moving in the current,

Drifting to some landing-place I do not know.

Darkness moves before me on the river,

It moves again behind,

And in the moving darkness

Only ripples’ sounds are heard,

For underneath the ripples moves

The current of the quiet night.

My lamp, as if to seek a friend, goes drifting

By the shore.  Both day and night

My drifting lamp moves searching

By the shore.  My Friend is ocean to this river.

My friend is the shore to this shoreless river.

The current bends again.

At one such bending he will call to me,

And I will look upon his face,

And he will catch me up in his embrace,

And then my flame, my pain, will be extinguished.

And on his breast will be extinguished, in my joy,

My flame.

Bengal folk song (Tr. Edward Dimock 1966)



On the story of how the tale of the Buddha’s conversion to religion got into the Christian world, and the Buddha and his charioteer wound up being considered Christian saints, Sts. Barlaam and Josaphat (saints’ day Nov. 27):

Was Barlaam truly Josaphat,

And Buddha truly each?

What better parable than that

The Unity to preach—


The simple brotherhood of souls

That seek the highest good:

He who in kingly chariot rolls,

O wears the hermit’s hood.


The Church mistook?  The heathen once

Among her saints to range?

The deed of that diviner dunce

Our wisdom would not change.


For Culture’s pantheon they grace

In catholic array.

Each saint hath had his hour and place

But now ‘tis All Saints Day.

Israel Zangwill (a great Jewish author), 1895 (quoted Lang1966:7)

(This is, in the end, my favorite religious poem)



The Slidin’ Delta


The Slidin’ Delta run right by my do’,

I’m leavin here, baby, honey don’t you want to go.

I’m leavin here, baby, honey don’t you want to go,

I’m goin somewhere I never been befo’.

My bag is packed, my trunk’s already gone,

I can’t see, baby, honey what you waitin on.

I’m leavin here, baby, don’t you want to go,

I’m goin up the country and I ain’t comin back no mo’.

John Hurt (blues singer; from traditional material, elaborated by him.  The Slidin’ Delta was a local train.  The train is a standard symbol in blues for parting, and thus for death, and thus for mystic experience—all of which are fully invoked here.  The Medieval “image, symbol, metaphor, and allegory” all perfectly captured.  Hurt’s performance of this song on his record “Worried Blues,” 1963, is to my mind the greatest blues performance ever recorded)



A Young Girl’s Tomb


Wir gedenkens noch.  Das ist, als muste

Alles dieses einmal wieder sein.

Wei ein Baum an der Limonenkuste

Trugst du deinen kleinen leichten Brüste

In deas Rauschen seines Bluts hinein:


–jenes Gottes.  Und es war der schlanke

Flüchtling, der verwöhnende der Fraun,

Süss und glühend, warm wie dein Gedanke,

überschattend deine frühe Flanke

Und geneigt wie deine Augenbrau’n.


(We think of it still.  It is as if

All of this must be again.

Like a tree on the lemon coast

You raised your small light breasts

Into the rushing of his blood—

That God.  And it was the slender

Fugitive, ravisher of girls,

Sweet and glowing, warm like your thought,

Overshadowing your free flank,

Arched above you like your eyebrows.)

Rainer Maria Rilke (my translation, but be sure to read the exquisitely beautiful German.  Compare “The Unquiet Grave” and the laments by Yuan Zhen and O’Dalaigh, above.  Love drives the hardest grief, and the greatest poems about it do not hide the sexual loss.)



Robinson Jeffers


Bixby’s Landing


They burned lime on the hill and dropped it down here in an iron car

On a long cable; here the ships warped in

And took their loads from the engines, the water is deep to the cliff.  The car

Hangs half way over in the gape of the gorge,

Stationed like a north star above the peaks of the redwoods, iron perch

For the little red hawks when they cease from hovering

When they’ve struck prey; the spider’s fling of a cable rust-glued to the pulleys.

The laborers are gone, but what a good multitude

Is here in return: the rich-lichened rock, the rose-tipped stonecrop, the constant

Ocean’s voices, the cloud-lighted sspace.

The kilns are cold on the hill but here in the rust of the broken boiler

Quick lizards lighten, and a rattrlesnake flows

Down the cacked masonry, over the crumbled fire-brick. In the rotting timbers

And roofless platforms all the free companies

Of windy grasses have root and make seed; wild buckwheat blooms in the fat

Weather-slacked lime from the bursted barrels.

Two duckhawks darting in the skiy of their cliff-hing nest are the voice of the headland.

Wine-hearted solitude, our mother the wilderness,

Men’s failures are often as beautiful as men’s triumphs, but your returnings

Are even more precious than your first presence.




That Nova was a moderate star like our goo0d sun; it stored no doubt a little more than it spent

Of heat and energy until the increasing tension came to the trigger-point

Of a new chemistry; then what was already flaming found a new manner of flaming ten-thousandfold

More brightly for a brief time; whjat was a pin-point fleck on a sensitive plate at the great telescope’s

Eye-piece now shouts down the steep night to the naked eye, a nine-day super-star.

It is likely our moderate

Father the sun will sometimes put off his nature for a similar glory.  The earth would share it; these tall

Green trees would become a moment’s torches and vanish, the oceans would explode into invisible steam,

The ships and the great whales fall through them like flaming meteors into the emptied abysm, the si-mile

Hollows of the Pacif sea-bed might smoke for a moment.  Then the earth would be like the pale proud moon,

Nothing but vitrified snad and rock would be left on earth.  This is a probable death-apssion

For the sun’s planets; we have no knowledge to assure us it may not happen at any moment of time.


Meanwhile the sun shines wisely and warm, trees flutter green in the wind, girls take their clothes off

To bathe in the cold ocean or to hunt love; they stand lughing in the white foam, they have beautiful

Shoulders and thighs, they are beautiful animals, all life is beautiful.  We cannot be sure of life for one moment; We can, by force and self-discipline, by many refusals and a few assertions, in the teeth of fortune assure oiurselves

Freedom and integrity in life or integrity in death.  And we know that the nermous invulnerablle beauty of things

Is the face of God, to live glady loin its presence, and die without grief or fear knowing it survives us.



Hooded Night   [at his house at the tip of Monterey Peninsula]


At night, toward dawn, all the lights of the shore have died,

And a wind moves.  Moves in the dark

The sleeping power of the ocean, no more beastlike than manlike,

Not to be compared; itself and itself.

Its breath blown shoreward huddles the world with a fog; no stars

Dance in heaven; no ship’s light glances.

I see the heavy granite bodies of the rocks of the headland,

That were ancient here before Egypt had pyramids,

Bulk on the gray of the sky, and beyond them the jets of the young trees

I planted the year of the Versailles peace.

Bnut here is the final unridiculous peace.  Before the first man

Here were the stones, the ocean, the cypresses,

And the pallid region in the stone-rough dome of fog where the mooon

Falls on the west.  Here is reality.

The other is a spectral episode; after the inquisitive animal’s

Amusements are quiet:  the dark glory.



Oh, Lovely Rock


We stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek, up the east fork.

The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest above our heads, maple and redwood,

Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian firs that stare up the cataracts

Of slide-rock to the star-color precipices.

We lay on gravel and kept a little camp-fire for warmth.

Past midnight only two or three coals glowed red in the cooling darkness; I laid a clutch of dead bay-leaves

On the ember ends and felted dry sticks across them and lay down again.  The revived flame

Lighted myh sleeping son’s face and his companion’s, and the vertical face of the great gorge-wall

Across the stream. Light leaves overhead danced in the fire’s breath, tree-trunks were seen:  it was the rock wall

That fascinated my eyes and mind.  Nothing strange:  light-gray diorite with two or three slanting seams in it,

Smooth-polished by the endless attrition of slides and floods; no fer nor lichen, pure naked rock…as if I were

Seeing rock for the first timde.  As if I were seeing through the flame-lit surface into the real and bodily

And living rock.  Nothing strange…I cannot

Tell you how strange:  the silent passionk the deep nobility and childlike loveliness:  this fate going on

Outside our fates.  It is here in the mountain like a grave smiling child.  I shall die, and my boys

Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid agonies of change and discovery; this age will die,

And wolves have howled in the snow around a new Bethlehem: this rock will be here, grave, earnest, not passive:  the energies

That are its atoms will still be bearing the whole mountain above:  and I, many packed centuries ago,

Felt its intense reality with love and wonder, this lonely rock.


Robinson Jeffers (1937:124-125.)


One who sees giant Orion, the torches of winter midnight,

Enormously walking above the ocean in the west of heaven;

And watches the track of this age of time at its peak of flight

Waver like a spent rocket, wavering toward new discoveries,

Mortal examinations of darkness, soundings of depth;

And watches the long coast mountain vibrate from bronze to green,

Bronze to green, year after year, and all the stream

Dry and flooded, dry and flooded, in the racing seasons;

And knows that exactly this and not another is the world,

The ideal is phantoms for bait, the spirit is a flicker on a grave;

May serve, with a certain detachment, the fugitive human race,

Or his own people, his own household; but hardly himself;

And will not wind himself into hopes nor sicken with despairs.

He has found the peace and adored the God; he handles in autumn

The germs of far-future spring.

Sad sons of the stormy fall,

No escape, you have to inflict and endure; surely it is time for you

To learn to touch the diamond within to the diamond outside,

Thinning your humanity a little between the invulnerable diamonds,

Knowing that your angry choices and hopes and terrors are in vain,

But life and death not in vain; and the world is like a flight of swans.







How cruel it is, I think, that men will take the name of “dog” in vain,

When of all creatures dogs will least forget good deeds.

Surely, if some person makes you cross enough to curse,

The proper insult is “You man, son of a man”!


(and in another poem)

I set off with Qatmir, my dog, a fellow traveler

Whose presence warmed my heart along the way.

For every time I paused to rest, he’d pause by me,

Regarding me with looks of love and tenderness.

Fulfilling all the dues of good companionship,

As if he were of all friends the most true.

And this while my own people—of the human race—

All treat me with a meanness that’s insatiable….

Abu’l-Barakat al-Balafiqi, medieval Andalusian; tr. Tim Mackintosh-Smith (in Saudi Aramco World, 2013.  I have a big dog named Kitmir, a variant of Qatmir.  I didn’t know about this poem when I named him!)


The Hare Hunt (excerpt)

In his several-volume poem Polyolbion, Michael Drayton (ca 1600) describes a rural hare hunt.  He says of the hare:             She riseth from her nest, as though on earth she flew,

Forced by some yelping cute to give the greyhounds view.

He explains “cute” as a local dialect word for a mongrel dog.  It has no connection with the modern word.




The good old days (Mexican folksong)


Este es un son que bailaba Carmelita

Aquellos tiempos, los tiempos de don Simón,

Que amarraban los perros con longaniza

Y ni siquiera les ponían atención.

(This is a song that Carmelita danced

Back in the days of Don Simón,

When they tied up the dogs with sausages

And they didn’t even pay attention.)

(My tr.  Times were so good the dogs didn’t even notice the sausages.  For exaggeration of the goodness of the old days, this is rivaled only by a line heard by Alan Beals in India:  “Yeah, back then if you needed rain you just reached up and pulled down the edge of a cloud.”)


The World


I asked of the Sage the nature of this world.

He said:  “As long as you live it is wind and incantation.”

I said:  “What do you call him who sets his heart on it?”             He said:  “He is either intoxicated, or blind, or mad.”

Medieval Arabic (from a history of Oman in the old days)


Knowledge and wealth are like narcissus and rose,

They never blossom in one place together;

The man of knowledge possesses no wealth,

The wealthy man has scant store of knowledge.

Medieval Persian song verse, trans. A. J. Arberry (probably from his Persian Poems; I’ve lost the reference)


Two poems on gratitude:  Great minds run in the same channels (no chance of mutual influence here)


Medieval India:


You gave me feet to tire of travel,

A wife to leave me, a voice for begging

And a body of decrepitude.

If you never are ashamed oh God,

Do you not at least grow weary of your gifts?

Rajasekhara (medieval India), tr. W. Ingalls (1968)


Nineteenth-Century Russia:


My thanks for all Thou gavest through the years:

For passion’s secret torments without end,

The poisoned kiss, the bitterness of tears,

The vengeful enemy, the slanderous friend,

The spirit’s ardor in the desert spent,

Every deception, every wounding wrong;

My thanks for each dark gift that Thou has sent;

But heed Thou that I need not thank Thee long.

Mikhail Lermontov (tr. Babette Deutsch; in Creekmore 1952)



Anonymous Daoist Poem; the most absolutely cynical poem I know


The grain cart enters, the manure cart exits,

They take turns coming and going.

When will it come to an end?

Even if (people can) cause their life to span over a hundred years,

That is only 36,000 days.

Tr. Erlandson 2004



Partial List of Sources (for this and Environment Poetry; many of my sources are long lost and range from personal communications to field recordings)


Balaban, John. 2000.  Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Hong.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.

Bashō, tr. David Landis Barnhill.  2005.  Bashō’s Journey.  Albany:  SUNY Press.

Basho, Matsuo.  2008.  Basho:  The Complete Haiku.  Tr. Jane Reichhold.  Tokyo:  Kodansha.

Bynner, Witter, and Kiang Kang-Hu.  1929.  The Jade Mountain.  New York:  Knopf.

Child, Francis James.  1965 (orig. 1885).  The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.  Vol. 2 (of 5 v).  New York:  Dover.

Creekmore, Hubert (ed.).  1952.  A Little Treasury of World Poetry.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Dimock, Edward.  1966.  The Place of the Hidden Moon.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Elvin, Mark.  2004.  The Retreat of the Elephants:  An Environmental History of China.  New Haven:  Yale University Press.

Erlandson 2004:  God only knows where I found this one.  Some anthology of Chinese writing.

Han-shan.  2000.  The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain.  Tr. Red Pine (Bill Porter).  Revised edn.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.

Hoagland, Kathleen.  1947.  1000 Years of Irish Poetry. New York: Welcome Rain.

Huard, Pierre, and Maurice Durand.  1954.  Connaissance du Viet-Nam, p. 274.  Hanoi:  École Française de’Extrème-Orient; Paris: Imprimerie Nationale.

Ingalls, W. H.  1968.  Sanskrit Poems.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone.  1935.  Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

—ururls  1971.  A Celtic Miscellany.  Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin.

Jay, Peter (ed.).  1981.  The Greek Anthology.  Rev. edn.  Harmondsworth (England):  Penguin.

Jeffers, Robinson.   1929.  Dear Judas.  New York: Horace Liveright.

—  1937.  Such Counsels You Gave to Me.  New York:  Random House.

Karlgren, Bernhard.  1950.  The Book of Odes.  Stockholm:  Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities.

Kim Jaihiun.  1994.  Classical Korean Poetry.  Fremont, CA:  Asian Humanities Press.

Kinsella, Thomas.  1989.  The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Lang, David M.  1966.  The Balavariani (Barlaam and Josaphat): A Tale from the Christian East.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Lee, Peter.  1974.  Poems from Korea.  Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Mackintosh-Smith, Tim.  2013.  “A Menagerie.”  Saudi Aramco World, Jan.-Feb., 10-13.

Mair, Victor; Nancy Steinhardt; Paul R. Goldin (eds.).  2005.  Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture.  Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press.

Nguyen Ngoc Bich.  1975.  A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry.  New York: Knopf.

O’Rourke, Kevin.  2002.  The Book of Korean Shijo.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rutt, Richard.  1971.  The Bamboo Grove:  An Introduction to Sijo.  Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Seaton, J. P.  1997.  I Don’t Bow to Buddhas: Selected Poems of Yuan Mei.  Port Townsend, WA:  Copper Canyon Press.

Seaton, Jerome P., and Dennis Maloney.  1994.  A Drifting Boat:  Chinese Zen Poetry.  Fredonia, NY:  White Pine Press.

Thomas, Edward.  1994.  The Works of Edward Thomas.  Ware, Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions.

Vuorela, Toivo.  1964.  Finno-Ugric Peoples.  Tr. John Atkinson.  Ind. U. Res Center, Uralic and Altaic Series, Vol. 39.

Waley, Arthur.  1961.  Chinese Poems.  London: George Allen and Unwin.

Wong, Shirleen (alas, lost the ref, an obscure article years ago)

Zenith, Richard.  1995.  113 Galician-Portuguese Troubadour Poems.  Manchester, England:  Carcanet is association with Calouste Gulbenkain Foundation and Instituto Camões.

Zhang, Cong Ellen.  2011.  Transformative Journals:  Travel and Culture in Song China.  Honolulu:  University of Hawai’i Press.

Zhuang Zi.  1968.  The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu.  Tr. Burton Watson.  New York: Columbia University Press.

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