Although the nights have been cold of late, the peonies in our perennial garden are energetically pushing up. Their crimson stalks are nearly knee-high; their white flowers will soon be in bloom. That is the nature of hardy perennials and the origin of their name: they come back every year. Having watched this happen, year after year, can we still greet the return of spring flowers with the excitement, joy, and awe we felt when we were younger?
That is the question addressed by two poems written in two very different times and places. The first is a waka by the Japanese poet Saigyo (1118-1190), a one-time samurai who became a wandering Buddhist monk:
Hana ni somu
kokoro no ika de
sute hateteki to
omou waga mi ni
Why should my heart
this passion for cherry flowers,
I who thought
I had put all that behind me?*
For anyone who has looked closely at cherry blossoms, whether in Kyoto or Washington, D.C., it may be hard to imagine not being moved by the flowers’ evanescent beauty. What astonishes Saigyo, however, is his own response. A mature adult, he had thought his heart was jaded. Instead, he found his passion for natural beauty unabated.
Quite another perspective may be seen in “When We Were Children,” a poem by the modern Irish poet Louis MacNeice (1915-1963):
When we were children words were colored
(Harlot and murder were dark purple)
And language was a prism, the light
A conjured inlay on the grass,
Whose rays today are concentrated
And language grown a burning-glass.
When we were children Spring was easy,
Dousing our heads in suds of hawthorn
And scrambling the laburnum tree—
A breakfast for the gluttonous eye;
Whose winds and sweets have now forsaken
Lungs that are black, tongues that are dry.
Now we are older and our talents
Accredited to time and meaning,
To handsel joy requires a new
Shuffle of cards behind the brain
Where meaning shall remarry color
And flowers be timeless once again.**
Revisiting his childhood, MacNeice remembers a time when he experienced words as colors. Harlot and murder, words with dark connotations, were heard, read, and felt as the color purple. Words were wedded to the language of the senses, and language itself was experienced as a “prism”—a multicolored wonder rather than a tool of the concentrated mind.
Recalling the perceptions of his childhood, MacNeice also remembers its sensuous joys. Playing near a hawthorn bush or climbing a laburnum tree, he relished the scents and colors of the natural world, as if he were eating them for breakfast. Sadly, the middle-aged adult can no longer see, smell, or taste in quite the same way. Whether from smoking or some other cause, his lungs are black. His tongue no longer savors what it encounters. In an ironic reversal of agency, MacNeice attributes the loss of sensory acuity to the “winds and sweets” that have “forsaken” the aging narrator. In its absence, Spring is no longer “easy.”
In his closing stanza, MacNeice returns to his central theme: the lost unity of language and the senses. A skeptical modernist with a keen awareness of history, MacNeice was well-accustomed to using analytic language in the service of “time and meaning.” Yet he also found pleasure in the life of the senses, whether his subject was a bowl of roses in a bay window, seen against a background of snow, or a stream of images seen from a fast-moving train. Both as poet and literary intellectual, MacNeice endeavored to close the gap between word and thing, abstract concepts and the “incorrigibly plural” world of the senses, but as he acknowledges in his closing lines, that task requires a shift of orientation, a “shuffle of cards behind the brain.”
For Saigyo, a poet-monk accustomed to the language and practice of non-duality, the direct apprehension of natural beauty may have come naturally. But for those of us who habitually divide subject from object, self from other, a direct encounter with natural phenomena is often impeded by language and dualistic thought, not to mention years of conditioning. “I must become a child again,” wrote the poet Thomas Traherne. But in what way is one to do that? By what means may we rekindle and cultivate a sense of awe?
For the American essayist Scott Russell Sanders, one such way is the practice of bowing. In his essay “A Private History of Awe,” Sanders recalls the recurrent experience, beginning in childhood, of losing all sense of a separate self. At such moments, “the fidgety self dissolves, as if it were a wave sliding back into the water, and there is only the swaying, shimmering sea.” Now in his sixties, Sanders has come to realize that this experience of oneness, accompanied by a sense of awe, is “life’s deepest truth.” In keeping with that realization, he has made it a practice to sit in meditation every morning, trying only to be present, attentive, and open to whatever might occur. At the end of each sitting, Sanders rises, looks out at the waking world, and bows. This “little ritual,” as he calls it, is a way of cultivating respect and reverence for “all that lives.” It is also a way of honoring the “energy and glory in creation,” which causes the cherry tree in his yard to break into bloom and the seeds in his garden to push toward the sun.***
* Saigyo, Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press, 1991), 39.
** Louis MacNeice, Selected Poems, ed. W.H. Auden (Faber, 1988), 80.
“*** Scott Russell Sanders, Earth Works: Selected Essays (Indiana University Press, 2012), 253-263.
“I must become a child again” is the closing line of Thomas Traherne’s poem “Innocence.”
Photo by STA3816, Creative Commons