Lafcadio Hearn.

Books and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn online

. (page 12 of 19)
Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 12 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Nevertheless, we shall soon perceive that this explanation will not cover
all the facts. You will naturally ask how it happens that, if the question
be a question of animal souls, birds, horses, dogs, cats, and many other
animals have been made the subject of Western poems from ancient times.
The silence is only upon the subject of insects. And, again, Christianity
has one saint - the most beautiful character in all Christian
hagiography - who thought of all nature in a manner that, at first sight,
strangely resembles Buddhism. This saint was Francis of Assisi, born in
the latter part of the twelfth century, so that he may be said to belong
to the very heart of the Middle Ages, - the most superstitious epoch of
Christianity. Now this saint used to talk to trees and stones as if they
were animated beings. He addressed the sun as "my brother sun"; and he
spoke of the moon as his sister. He preached not only to human beings, but
also to the birds and the fishes; and he made a great many poems on these
subjects, full of a strange and childish beauty. For example, his sermon
to the doves, beginning, "My little sisters, the doves," in which he
reminds them that their form is the emblem or symbol of the Holy Ghost, is
a beautiful poem; and has been, with many others, translated into nearly
all modern languages. But observe that neither St. Francis nor any other
saint has anything to say on the subject of insects.

Perhaps we must go back further than Christianity to guess the meaning of
these distinctions. Among the ancient races of Asia, where the Jewish
faith arose, there were strange and sinister beliefs about insects - old
Assyrian superstitions, old Babylonian beliefs. Insects seemed to those
early peoples very mysterious creatures (which they really are); and it
appears to have been thought that they had a close relation to the world
of demons and evil spirits. I suppose you know that the name of one of
their gods, Beelzebub, signifies the Lord of Flies. The Jews, as is shown
by their Talmudic literature, inherited some of these ideas; and it is
quite probable that they were passed on to the days of Christianity.
Again, in the early times of Christianity in Northern Africa the Church
had to fight against superstitions of an equally strange sort derived from
old Egyptian beliefs. Among the Egyptians, certain insects were sacred and
became symbols of divinity, - such as the beetle. Now I imagine that for
these reasons the subject of insects became at an early time a subject
which Christianity thought dangerous, and that thereafter a kind of
hostile opinion prevailed regarding any literature upon this topic.

However, to-day things are very different. With the development of
scientific studies - especially of microscopic study - it has been found
that insects, far from being the lowliest of creatures, are the most
highly organized of all beings; that their special senses are incomparably
superior to our own; and that in natural history, from the evolutional
standpoint, they have to be given first place. This of course renders it
impossible any longer to consider the insect as a trifling subject.
Moreover, the new philosophy is teaching the thinking classes in all
Western countries the great truth of the unity of life. With the
recognition of such unity, an insect must interest the philosophers - even
the man of ordinary culture - quite as much as the bird or any other

Nearly all the poems which I have quoted to you have been poems of very
modern date - from which we may infer that interest in the subject of
insects has been developing of late years only. In this connection it is
interesting to note that a very religious poet, Whittier, gave us in the
last days of his life a poem upon ants. This would have seemed strange
enough in a former age; it does not seem strange to-day, and it is
beautiful. The subject is taken from old Jewish literature.


Out from Jerusalem
The King rode with his great
War chiefs and lords of state,
And Sheba's queen with them;

Comely, but black withal,
To whom, perchance, belongs
That wondrous Song of Songs,
Sensuous and mystical,

Whereto devout souls turn
In fond, ecstatic dream,
And through its earth-born theme
The Love of Loves discern.

Proud in the Syrian sun,
In gold and purple sheen,
The dusky Ethiop queen
Smiled on King Solomon.

Wisest of men, he knew
The languages of all
The creatures great or small
That trod the earth or flew.

Across an ant-hill led
The king's path, and he heard
Its small folk, and their word
He thus interpreted:

"Here comes the king men greet
As wise and good and just,
To crush us in the dust
Under his heedless feet."

The king, understanding the language of insects, turns to the queen and
explains to her what the ants have just said. She advises him to pay no
attention to the sarcasm of the ants - how dare such vile creatures speak
thus about a king! But Solomon thinks otherwise:

"Nay," Solomon replied,
"The wise and strong should seek
The welfare of the weak,"
And turned his horse aside.

His train, with quick alarm,
Curved with their leader round
The ant-hill's peopled mound,
And left it free from harm.

The jewelled head bent low;
"Oh, king!" she said, "henceforth
The secret of thy worth
And wisdom well I know.

"Happy must be the State
Whose ruler heedeth more
The murmurs of the poor
Than flatteries of the great."

The reference to the Song of Songs - also the Song of Solomon and Canticle
of Canticles - may require a little explanation. The line "Comely but black
withal," is borrowed from a verse of this song - "I am black but beautiful,
oh, ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of
Solomon." In another part of the song the reason of this blackness is
given: "I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me." From which we
can see that the word black only means dark, brown, tanned by the sun.
Perhaps you do not know that as late as the middle of the eighteenth
century it was still the custom in England to speak of a person with black
hair and eyes as "a black man" - a custom which Charles Lamb had reason to
complain of even at a later day. The tents referred to in the text were
probably tents made of camel-skin, such as the Arabs still make, and the
colour of these is not black but brown. Whether Solomon wrote the
so-called song or not we do not know; but the poet refers to a legend that
it was written in praise of the beauty of the dark queen who came from
Sheba to visit the wisest man of the world. Such is not, however, the
opinion of modern scholars. The composition is really dramatic, although
thrown into lyrical form, and as arranged by Renan and others it becomes a
beautiful little play, of which each act is a monologue. "Sensuous" the
poet correctly calls it; for it is a form of praise of woman's beauty in
all its details, as appears in such famous verses as these: "How beautiful
are thy feet in shoes, O prince's daughter; the joints of thy thighs are
like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman. Thy two breasts
are like two young roes that are twins which feed among the lilies." But
Christianity, instead of dismissing this part of the Bible, interpreted
the song mystically - insisting that the woman described meant the Church,
and the lover, Christ. Of course only very pious people continue to
believe this; even the good Whittier preferred the legend that it was
written about the Queen of Sheba.

I suppose that I ought to end this lecture upon insect poetry by some
quotation to which a moral or philosophical meaning can be attached. I
shall end it therefore with a quotation from the poet Gray. The poetry of
insects may be said to have first appeared in English literature during
the second half of the eighteenth century, so that it is only, at the
most, one hundred and fifty years old. But the first really fine poem of
the eighteenth century relating to the subject is quite as good as
anything since composed by Englishmen upon insect life in general. Perhaps
Gray referred especially to what we call May-flies - those delicate ghostly
insects which hover above water surfaces in fine weather, but which die on
the same day that they are born. He does not specify May-flies, however,
and we may consider the moral of the poem quite apart from any particular
kind of insect. You will find this reference in the piece entitled "Ode on
the Spring," in the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas.

Still is the toiling hand of care:
The panting herds repose:
Yet hark, how through the peopled air
The busy murmur glows!
The insect youth are on the wing,
Eager to taste the honied spring,
And float amid the liquid noon:
Some lightly o'er the current skim,
Some show their gaily-gilded trim
Quick-glancing to the sun.

To Contemplation's sober eye
Such is the race of man:
And they that creep, and they that fly,
Shall end where they began.
Alike the Busy and the Gay
But flutter through life's little day,
In fortune's varying colours dressed:
Brushed by the hand of rough Mischance,
Or chilled by Age, their airy dance
They leave, in dust to rest.

Methinks I hear in accents low
The sportive kind reply:
Poor moralist! and what art thou?
A solitary fly!
Thy joys no glittering female meets,
No hive hast thou of hoarded sweets,
No painted plumage to display:
On hasty wings thy youth is flown;
Thy sun is set; thy spring is gone -
We frolic, while 'tis May.

The poet Gray was never married, and the last stanza which I have quoted
refers jocosely to himself. It is an artistic device to set off the moral
by a little mockery, so that it may not appear too melancholy.



Last year I gave a lecture on the subject of English poems about insects,
with some reference to the old Greek poems on the same subject. But I did
not then have an opportunity to make any reference to French poems upon
the same subject, and I think that it would be a pity not to give you a
few examples.

Just as in the case of English poems about insects, nearly all the French
literature upon this subject is new. Insect poetry belongs to the newer
and larger age of thought, to the age that begins to perceive the great
truth of the unity of life. We no longer find, even in natural histories,
the insect treated as a mere machine and unthinking organism; on the
contrary its habits, its customs and its manifestation both of
intelligence and instinct are being very carefully studied in these times,
and a certain sympathy, as well as a certain feeling of respect or
admiration, may be found in the scientific treatises of the greatest men
who write about insect life. So, naturally, Europe is slowly returning to
the poetical standpoint of the old Greeks in this respect. It is not
improbable that keeping caged insects as pets may again become a Western
custom, as it was in Greek times, when cages were made of rushes or straw
for the little creatures. I suppose you have heard that the Japanese
custom is very likely to become a fashion in America. If that should
really happen, the fact would certainly have an effect upon poetry. I
think that it is very likely to happen.

The French poets who have written pretty things about insects are nearly
all poets of our own times. Some of them treat the subject from the old
Greek standpoint - indeed the beautiful poem of Heredia upon the tomb of a
grasshopper is perfectly Greek, and reads almost like a translation from
the Greek. Other poets try to express the romance of insects in the form
of a monologue, full of the thought of our own age. Others again touch the
subject of insects only in connection with the subject of love. I will
give one example of each method, keeping the best piece for the last, and
beginning with a pretty fancy about a dragonfly.


En te voyant, toute mignonne,
Blanche dans ta robe d'azure,
Je pensais à quelque madone
Drapée en un pen de ciel pur.

Je songeais à ces belles saintes
Que l'on voyait au temps jadis
Sourire sur les vitres peintes,
Montrant d'un doigt le paradis:

Et j'aurais voulu, loin du monde
Qui passait frivole entre nous,
Dans quelque retraite profonde
T'adorer seul à deux genoux.

This first part of the poem is addressed of course to a beautiful child,
some girl between the age of childhood and womanhood:

"Beholding thee, Oh darling one, all white in thy azure dress, I thought
of some figure of the Madonna robed in a shred of pure blue sky.

"I dreamed of those beautiful figures of saints whom one used to see in
olden times smiling in the stained glass of church windows, and pointing
upward to Paradise.

"And I could have wished to adore you alone upon my bended knees in some
far hidden retreat, away from the frivolous world that passed between us."

This little bit of ecstasy over the beauty and purity of a child is
pretty, but not particularly original. However, it is only an
introduction. Now comes the pretty part of the poem:

Soudain un caprice bizarre
Change la scène et le décor,
Et mon esprit au loin s'égare
Sur des grands prés d'azure et d'or

Où, près de ruisseaux muscules
Gazouillants comme des oiseaux,
Se poursuivent les libellules,
Ces fleurs vivantes des roseaux.

Enfant, n'es tu pas l'une d'elles
Qui me poursuit pour consoler?
Vainement tu caches tes ailes;
Tu marches, mais tu sais voler.

Petite fée au bleu corsage,
Que j'ai connu dès mon berceau,
En revoyant ton doux visage,
Je pense aux joncs de mon ruisseau!

Veux-tu qu'en amoureux fidèles
Nous revenions dans ces prés verts?
Libellule, reprends tes ailes;
Moi, je brulerai tous mes vers!

Et nous irons, sous la lumière,
D'un ciel plus frais et plus léger
Chacun dans sa forme première,
Moi courir, et toi voltiger.

"Suddenly a strange fancy changes for me the scene and the scenery; and my
mind wanders far away over great meadows of azure and gold.

"Where, hard by tiny streams that murmur with a sound like voices of
little birds, the dragon-flies, those living flowers of the reeds, chase
each other at play.

"Child, art thou not one of those dragon-flies, following after me to
console me? Ah, it is in vain that thou tryest to hide thy wings; thou
dost walk, indeed, but well thou knowest how to fly!

"O little fairy with the blue corsage whom I knew even from the time I was
a baby in the cradle; seeing again thy sweet face, I think of the rushes
that border the little stream of my native village!

"Dost thou not wish that even now as faithful lovers we return to those
green fields? O dragon-fly, take thy wings again, and I - I will burn all
my poetry,

"And we shall go back, under the light of the sky more fresh and pure than
this, each of us in the original form - I to run about, and thou to hover
in the air as of yore."

The sight of a child's face has revived for the poet very suddenly and
vividly, the recollection of the village home, the green fields of
childhood, the little stream where he used to play with the same little
girl, sometimes running after the dragon-fly. And now the queer fancy
comes to him that she herself is so like a dragon-fly - so light, graceful,
spiritual! Perhaps really she is a dragon-fly following him into the great
city, where he struggles to live as a poet, just in order to console him.
She hides her wings, but that is only to prevent other people knowing. Why
not return once more to the home of childhood, back to the green fields
and the sun? "Little dragon-fly," he says to her, "let us go back! do you
return to your beautiful summer shape, be a dragon-fly again, expand your
wings of gauze; and I shall stop trying to write poetry. I shall burn my
verses; I shall go back to the streams where we played as children; I
shall run about again with the joy of a child, and with you beautifully
flitting hither and thither as a dragon-fly."

Victor Hugo also has a little poem about a dragon-fly, symbolic only, but
quite pretty. It is entitled "La Demoiselle"; and the other poem was
entitled, as you remember, "Ma Libellule." Both words mean a dragon-fly,
but not the same kind of dragon-fly. The French word "demoiselle," which
might be adequately rendered into Japanese by the term _ojosan_, refers
only to those exquisitely slender, graceful, slow-flitting dragon-flies
known to the scientist by the name of Calopteryx. Of course you know the
difference by sight, and the reason of the French name will be poetically
apparent to you.

Quand la demoiselle dorée
S'envole au départ des hivers,
Souvent sa robe diaprée,
Souvent son aile est déchirée
Aux mille dards des buissons verts.

Ainsi, jeunesse vive et frêle,
Qui, t'égarant de tous côtés,
Voles ou ton instinct t'appele,
Souvent tu déchires ton aile
Aux épines des voluptes.

"When, at the departure of winter, the gilded dragon-fly begins to soar,
often her many-coloured robe, often her wing, is torn by the thousand
thorns of the verdant shrubs.

"Even so, O frail and joyous Youth, who, wandering hither and thither, in
every direction, flyest wherever thy instinct calls thee - even so thou
dost often tear thy wings upon the thorns of pleasure."

You must understand that pleasure is compared to a rose-bush, whose
beautiful and fragrant flowers attract the insects, but whose thorns are
dangerous to the visitors. However, Victor Hugo does not use the word for
rose-bush, for obvious reasons; nor does he qualify the plants which are
said to tear the wings of the dragon-fly. I need hardly tell you that the
comparison would not hold good in reference to the attraction of flowers,
because dragon-flies do not care in the least about flowers, and if they
happen to tear their wings among thorn bushes, it is much more likely to
be in their attempt to capture and devour other insects. The merit of the
poem is chiefly in its music and colour; as natural history it would not
bear criticism. The most beautiful modern French poem about insects,
beautiful because of its classical perfection, is I think a sonnet by
Heredia, entitled "Épigramme Funéraire" - that is to say, "Inscription for
a Tombstone." This is an exact imitation of Greek sentiment and
expression, carefully studied after the poets of the anthology. Several
such Greek poems are extant, recounting how children mourned for pet
insects which had died in spite of all their care. The most celebrated one
among these I quoted in a former lecture - the poem about the little Greek
girl Myro who made a tomb for her grasshopper and cried over it. Heredia
has very well copied the Greek feeling in this fine sonnet:

Ici gît, Etranger, la verte sauterelle
Que durant deux saisons nourrit la jeune Hellé,
Et dont l'aile vibrant sous le pied dentelé.
Bruissait dans le pin, le cytise, ou l'airelle.

Elle s'est tue, hélas! la lyre naturelle,
La muse des guérets, des sillons et du blé;
De peur que son léger sommeil ne soit troublé,
Ah, passe vite, ami, ne pèse point sur elle.

C'est là. Blanche, au milieu d'une touffe de thym,
Sa pierre funéraire est fraîchement poseé.
Que d'hommes n'ont pas eu ce suprême destin!

Des larmes d'un enfant la tombe est arrosée,
Et l'Aurore pieuse y fait chaque matin
Une libation de gouttes de rosée.

"Stranger, here reposes the green grasshopper that the young girl Helle
cared for during two seasons, - the grasshopper whose wings, vibrating
under the strokes of its serrated feet, used to resound in the pine, the
trefoil and the whortleberry.

"She is silent now, alas! that natural lyre, muse of the unsown fields, of
the furrows, and of the wheat. Lest her light sleep should be disturbed,
ah! pass quickly, friend! do not be heavy upon her.

"It is there. All white, in the midst of a tuft of thyme, her funeral
monument is placed, in cool shadow; how many men have not been able to
have this supremely happy end!

"By the tears of a child the insect's tomb is watered; and the pious
goddess of dawn each morning there makes a libation of drops of dew."

This reads very imperfectly in a hasty translation; the original charm is
due to the perfect art of the form. But the whole thing, as I have said
before, is really Greek, and based upon a close study of several little
Greek poems on the same kind of subject. Little Greek girls thousands of
years ago used to keep singing insects as pets, every day feeding them
with slices of leek and with fresh water, putting in their little cages
sprigs of the plants which they liked. The sorrow of the child for the
inevitable death of her insect pets at the approach of winter, seems to
have inspired many Greek poets. With all tenderness, the child would make
a small grave for the insect, bury it solemnly, and put a little white
stone above the place to imitate a grave-stone. But of course she would
want an inscription for this tombstone - perhaps would ask some of her
grown-up friends to compose one for her. Sometimes the grown-up friend
might be a poet, in which case he would compose an epitaph for all time.

I suppose you perceive that the solemnity of this imitation of the Greek
poems on the subject is only a tender mockery, a playful sympathy with the
real grief of the child. The expression, "pass, friend," is often found in
Greek funeral inscriptions together with the injunction to tread lightly
upon the dust of the dead. There is one French word to which I will call
attention, - the word "guérets." We have no English equivalent for this
term, said to be a corruption of the Latin word "veractum," and meaning
fields which have been ploughed but not sown.

Not to dwell longer upon the phase of art indicated by this poem, I may
turn to the subject of crickets. There are many French poems about
crickets. One by Lamartine is known to almost every French child.

Grillon solitaire,
Ici comme moi,
Voix qui sors de terre,
Ah! réveille-toi!
J'attise la flamme,
C'est pour t'égayer;
Mais il manque une âme,
Une âme au foyer.

Grillon solitaire,
Voix qui sors de terre,
Ah! réveille-toi
Pour moi.

Quand j'étais petite
Comme ce berceau,
Et que Marguerite
Filait son fuseau,
Quand le vent d'automne
Faisait tout gémir,
Ton cri monotone
M'aidait à dormir.

Grillon solitaire,
Voix qui sors de terre,
Ah! réveille-toi
Pour moi.

Seize fois l'année
A compté mes jours;
Dans la cheminée
Tu niches toujours.
Je t'écoute encore
Aux froides saisons.
Souvenir sonore
Des vieilles maisons.

Grillon solitaire,
Voix qui sors de terre,
Ah! réveille-toi
Pour moi.

It is a young girl who thus addresses the cricket of the hearth, the house
cricket. It is very common in country houses in Europe. This is what she

"Little solitary cricket, all alone here just like myself, little voice
that comes up out of the ground, ah, awake for my sake! I am stirring up
the fires, that is just to make you comfortable; but there lacks a
presence by the hearth; a soul to keep me company.

"When I was a very little girl, as little as that cradle in the corner of
the room, then, while Margaret our servant sat there spinning, and while
the autumn wind made everything moan outside, your monotonous cry used to
help me to fall asleep.

"Solitary cricket, voice that issues from the ground, awaken, for my sake.

"Now I am sixteen years of age and you are still nestling in the chimneys
as of old. I can hear you still in the cold season, - like a
sound - memory, - a sonorous memory of old houses.

"Solitary cricket, voice that issues from the ground, awaken, O awaken for
my sake."

I do not think this pretty little song needs any explanation; I would only
call your attention to the natural truth of the fancy and the feeling.
Sitting alone by the fire in the night, the maiden wants to hear the
cricket sing, because it makes her think of her childhood, and she finds
happiness in remembering it.

So far as mere art goes, the poem of Gautier on the cricket is very much
finer than the poem of Lamartine, though not so natural and pleasing. But
as Gautier was the greatest master of French verse in the nineteenth
century, not excepting Victor Hugo, I think that one example of his poetry
on insects may be of interest. He was very poor, compared with Victor

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 12 of 19)