The old crow lingers
on his cold and barren branch
although I draw near.
The old crow lingers
on his cold and barren branch
although I draw near.
That Bleak Season
That bleak season the cold creek ceased to run,
Grey weeds withered beside the roadside ditch,
Flat leaden clouds obscured a sullen sun,
Winds lashed ice-lacquered leaves without a twitch.
Field stalks bowed down to winter’s weary weight,
The world conspired to pile pang upon pang,
Even the crusted snow cried, “Much too late!”
Caged by a skeleton hedge, no bird sang.
That bleak season love went the way of leaves,
Good green seeming, but poised to take the fall,
First frost stunned then assailed by windy thieves,
Some futile few sought stubborn to forestall
The impending end ’til a fell gust cleaves
Asunder with only a scrawny squall.
Notes: If you read enough Gerard Manley Hopkins, it can mess up your iambic pentameter. That’s because he often wrote in what he called “sprung rhythm,” which involved tossing out the sing-song metric rules that so many of his Victorian contemporaries followed.
Sprung rhythm was not free verse. Hopkins followed his own complex set of rules, but he was wildly eccentric for those times.
I do not claim to follow Hopkins or his rules here. This poem is more like “disjointed rhythm” than sprung rhythm. But this seems to me to be very appropriate for the subject matter of a world and a love wrenched all out of joint.
This poem still faintly resembles a sonnet. It still has 10 syllables to each line. It still rhymes in a familiar pattern, close to the English sonnet, but ending in an e-f rhyme instead of g-g.
FROST IN MORNING
When the willow world is with hoarfrost hung,
And the white fog lifts leaving trees bright new,
The foliage flashes with a crystal clue
Of how the world looked when light first leaped young.
Before man’s weight and weakness had begun
To break the branch or bruise the sodden slough,
The garden grew unburdened, bathed in dew,
Grew like a canticle, perfectly sung.
NOTES: Many years ago and many miles away, I awoke one Minnesota winter morning to the most astounding display of hoarfrost I had ever seen. The world was completely coated, clothed in white.
This was approximately 35 years ago. Garrison Keillor was just getting traction with his Prairie Home Companion show. He still had a day job on the local public radio station, and that morning, he celebrated the frosty morning by reading a poem.
I regret that I do not remember the name, or author of the poem he read that day. Perhaps it could have been this poem, Hoarfrost and Fog, by Barton Sutter. But I don’t think so.
It might have been his own work. But his efforts inspired the modest 8 lines I’ve posted above.
This fall, I’ve been writing a lot about how the death of summer is a metaphor for the inevitable death we all as humans face. This might be the single most-used image in all of literature.
Hopkins also wrote a 2-part poem, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, that gets at something even more. The first part, The Leaden Echo, sets up the problem of the decline and decay of beauty. It ends with despair.
But, in The Golden Echo, we come back to hope for redemption, for eternal life, and for the love of a Heavenly Father who restores.
“When the thing we forfeit is kept with fonder a care
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it ….”
(For a real treat, listen to Richard Burton read this poem. He reads poetry as it should be read, not with whiny, tinny detachment, but with passion.)
So, as I look at nature, there are signs of both despair and hope. Leaden echoes and golden echoes alike.
When I see the world covered in frost, I think of a more perfect world. A world like what may have been before sin and death entered into it. Or the world that is to come.
Afternoon in late September
Shows us signs we both can follow,
Shadows where there were no shadows
Days before, encroach on meadows,
Turning brittle brown and yellow.
Six o’clock’s a dying ember
Causing grown men to remember
Another fall’s disturbing echo.
When, unnoticed, fell the first leaves,
Yellow elm leave tired of sunshine?
Who suspected seeing such ease
When the first chill stunned the green vine?
Is embarrassment the reason
Sumac’s crimson hides its poison?
When was foliage last so supine?
Rainy night in mid-October
Brings the icy confirmation —
Twigs encased in shiny coffins
Clenched in cold that never softens.
Even daylight’s ministration
Alters no repose so sober
As the sleep of mid-October,
Sleep of spreading desolation.
Notes: Written years ago and far away, when I lived in a much different climate. My Puget Sound friends and neighbors might find it hard to relate to an autumn that leaves twigs encased in icy coffins, but my friends back in Minnesota understand all to well.
I recall one Halloween when my son and I set out at dusk to trick or treat in Minneapolis. We made our way about two blocks as it began to snow hard, then harder. We almost didn’t make it back home as we trudged through calf-deep drifts.
Autumn has its beauty. “Every leaf is a flower,” is a beautiful sentiment.
Bit the fall is also one of God’s great metaphors. And that makes it poignant, even as it is achingly beautiful.
We come now to the winter of our years
(Where did the autumn with its pleasures go?)
Our roof will all too soon be cloaked with snow,
So, come, let’s stoke our fire against the fears.
It seems another life ago, my dear,
That full of grace you pilgrim sat aglow
Enkindled so this prodigal would know
That grace was free and grace was very near.
Midsummer’s eve brought more epiphanies
Of spotless bride adorned, redeemed, in white,
Too ill for customary liberties,
So wan, yet still for these sore eyes a sight.
Then! Over Lake Champlain the full moon sees
A railway sleeper car rock through the night.
When love is good and it lasts, it can be tempting to idealize its beginnings.
But, the very first time I saw my wife, she was glowing. I kid you not. Sitting in the second row of a darkened auditorium listening to the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, there she was — surrounded by a golden aura.
At the time, I was a reporter for a small suburban weekly paper, and was there on assignment. I had a camera, but was so befuddled I failed to get the shot. You might argue I was imagining things, but I don’t think so. I’m not given to visions nor hallucinations. I’ve never witnessed anything like it before or since.
I kept my eye on her while I got my story. But at the end of the program, she went right up to the speaker. I figured she must be with the group of important people who had accompanied him from Washington, D.C.
So, I put The Glowing Girl out of mind and tried to forget about her.
Fortunately for me, she turned up again a couple of weeks later at church. She was a friend of a friend, who introduced us and immediately left us alone. I didn’t let her get away a second time.
I think the whole experience was a special gift for a fellow a bit slow on the uptake, who needed a sign to notice a good thing right under my nose.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
We were married at Midsummer. She was sick and only made it through the festivities with the help of cold medicine. The next morning we flew out of town to New York, and the very next night, took an overnight train to Montreal.
I’ve been a fan of railway travel ever since.
Hard Times Haiku
I guess we were poor.
Didn’t know what we were missing.
Quite unlike today.
~ Crow Haiku ~
Slanting winter sun
Catches crows gliding above
Gilding black wings white.