Lafcadio Hearn.

Books and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn online

. (page 13 of 19)
Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 13 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Hugo; and he had to make his living by writing for newspapers, so that he
had no time to become the great poet that nature intended him to be.
However, he did find time to produce one volume of highly finished poetry,
which is probably the most perfect verse of the nineteenth century, if not
the most perfect verse ever made by a French poet; I mean the "Emaux et
Camées." But the little poem which I am going to read to you is not from
the "Emaux et Camées."

Souffle, bise! Tombe à flots, pluie!
Dans mon palais tout noir de suie,
Je ris de la pluie et du vent;
En attendant que l'hiver fuie,
Je reste au coin du feu, rêvant.

C'est moi qui suis l'esprit de l'âtre!
Le gaz, de sa langue bleuàtre,
Lèche plus doucement le bois;
La fumée en filet d'albàtre,
Monte et se contourne à ma voix.

La bouilloire rit et babille;
La flamme aux pieds d'argent sautille
En accompagnant ma chanson;
La bûche de duvet s'habille;
La sève bout dans le tison.

* * * * *

Pendant la nuit et la journée
Je chante sous la cheminée;
Dans mon langage de grillon
J'ai, des rebuts de son aînée,
Souvent console Cendrillon.

* * * * *

Quel plaisir? Prolonger sa veille,
Regarder la flamme vermeille
Prenant à deux bras le tison,
A tous les bruits prêter l'oreille,
Entendre vivre la maison.

Tapi dans sa niche bien chaude,
Sentir l'hiver qui pleure et rôde,
Tout blême, et le nez violet,
Tachant de s'introduire en fraude
Par quelque fente du volet!

This poem is especially picturesque, and is intended to give us the
comfortable sensations of a winter night by the fire, and the amusement of
watching the wood burn and of hearing the kettle boiling. You will find
that the French has a particular quality of lucid expression; it is full
of clearness and colour.

"Blow on, cold wind! pour down, O rain. I, in my soot-black palace, laugh
at both rain and wind; and while waiting for winter to pass I remain in my
corner by the fire dreaming.

"It is I that am really the spirit of the hearth! The gaseous flame licks
the wood more softly with its bluish tongue when it hears me; and the
smoke rises up like an alabaster thread, and curls itself about (or
twists) at the sound of my voice.

"The kettle chuckles and chatters; the golden-footed flame leaps, dancing
to the accompaniment of my song (or in accompaniment to my song); the
great log covers itself with down, the sap boils in the wooden embers
("duvet," meaning "down," refers to the soft fluffy white ash that forms
upon the surface of burning wood).

"All night and all day I sing below the chimney. Often in my
cricket-language, I have consoled Cinderella for the snubs of her elder
sister.

"Ah, what pleasure to sit up at night, and watch the crimson flames
embracing the wood (or hugging the wood) with both arms at once, and to
listen to all the sounds and to hear the life of the house!

"Nestling in one's good warm nook, how pleasant to hear Winter, who weeps
and prowls round about the house outside, all wan and blue-nosed with
cold, trying to smuggle itself inside some chink in the shutter!"

Of course this does not give us much about the insect itself, which
remains invisible in the poem, just as it really remains invisible in the
house where the voice is heard. Rather does the poem express the feelings
of the person who hears the cricket.

When we come to the subject of grasshoppers, I think that the French poets
have done much better than the English. There are many poems on the field
grasshopper; I scarcely know which to quote first. But I think you would
be pleased with a little composition by the celebrated French painter,
Jules Breton. Like Rossetti he was both painter and poet; and in both arts
he took for his subjects by preference things from country life. This
little poem is entitled "Les Cigales." The word "cigales," though really
identical with our word "cicala," seldom means the same thing. Indeed the
French word may mean several different kinds of insects, and it is only by
studying the text that we can feel quite sure what sort of insect is
meant.

Lorsque dans l'herbe mûre ancun épi ne bouge,
Qu'à l'ardeur des rayons crépite le frement,
Que le coquelicot tombe languissament
Sous le faible fardeau de sa corolle rouge,

Tous les oiseaux de l'air out fait taire leur chants;
Les ramiers paresseux, au plus noir des ramures,
Somnolents, dans les bois, out cessé leurs murmures
Loin du soleil muet incendiant les champs.

Dans le blé, cependant, d'intrépides cigales
Jetant leurs mille bruits, fanfare de l'été,
Out frénétiquement et sans trève agité
Leurs ailes sur l'airaine de leurs folles cymbales.

Trémoussantes, deboutes sur les longs épis d'or,
Virtuoses qui vont s'eteindre avant l'automne,
Elles poussent au del leur hymne monotone
Que dans I'ombre des nuits retentisse encore.

Et rien n'arrêtera leurs cris intarissables;
Quand on les chassera de l'avoine et des blés.
Elles émigreront sur les buissons brulés
Qui se meurent de soif dans les deserts de sable.

Sur l'arbuste effeuillé, sur les chardons flétris
Qui laissent s'envoler leur blanche chevelure,
On reverra l'insecte à la forte encolure,
Pleine d'ivresse, toujours s'exalter dans ses cris.

Jusqu'à ce qu'ouvrant l'aile en lambeaux arrachée,
Exasperé, brulant d'un feu toujours plus pur,
Son oeil de bronze fixe et tendu vers l'azur,
II expire en chantant sur la tige séchée.

For the word "encolure" we have no English equivalent; it means the line
of the neck and shoulder - sometimes the general appearance of shape of the
body.

"When in the ripening grain field not a single ear of wheat moves; when in
the beaming heat the corn seems to crackle; when the poppy languishes and
bends down under the feeble burden of its scarlet corolla,

"Then all the birds of the air have hushed their songs; even the indolent
doves, seeking the darkest part of the foliage in the tree, have become
drowsy in the woods, and have ceased their cooing, far from the fields,
which the silent sun is burning.

"Nevertheless, in the wheat, the brave grasshoppers uttering their
thousand sounds, a trumpet flourish of summer, have continued furiously
and unceasingly to smite their wings upon the brass of their wild cymbal.

"Quivering as they stand upon the long gold ears of the grain, master
musicians who must die before the coming of Fall, they sound to heaven
their monotonous hymn, which re-echoes even in the darkness of the night.

"And nothing will check their inexhaustible shrilling. When chased away
from the oats and from the wheat, they will migrate to the scorched bushes
which die of thirst in the wastes of sand.

"Upon the leafless shrubs, upon the dried up thistles, which let their
white hair fall and float away, there the sturdily-built insect can be
seen again, filled with enthusiasm, even more and more excited as he
cries,

"Until, at last, opening his wings, now rent into shreds, exasperated,
burning more and more fiercely in the frenzy of his excitement, and with
his eyes of bronze always fixed motionlessly upon the azure sky, he dies
in his song upon the withered grain."

This is difficult to translate at all satisfactorily, owing to the
multitude of images compressed together. But the idea expressed is a fine
one - the courage of the insect challenging the sun, and only chanting more
and more as the heat and the thirst increase. The poem has, if you like,
the fault of exaggeration, but the colour and music are very fine; and
even the exaggeration itself has the merit of making the images more
vivid.

It will not be necessary to quote another text; we shall scarcely have the
time; but I want to translate to you something of another poem upon the
same insect by the modern French poet Jean Aicard. In this poem, as in the
little poem by Gautier, which I quoted to you, the writer puts his thought
in the mouth of the insect, so to say - that is, makes the insect tell its
own story.

"I am the impassive and noble insect that sings in the summer solstice
from the dazzling dawn all the day long in the fragrant pine-wood. And my
song is always the same, regular as the equal course of the season and of
the sun. I am the speech of the hot and beaming sun, and when the reapers,
weary of heaping the sheaves together, lie down in the lukewarm shade, and
sleep and pant in the ardour of noonday - then more than at any other time
do I utter freely and joyously that double-echoing strophe with which my
whole body vibrates. And when nothing else moves in all the land round
about, I palpitate and loudly sound my little drum. Otherwise the sunlight
triumphs; and in the whole landscape nothing is heard but my cry, - like
the joy of the light itself.

"Like a butterfly I take up from the hearts of the flowers that pure water
which the night lets fall into them like tears. I am inspired only by the
almighty sun. Socrates listened to me; Virgil made mention of me. I am the
insect especially beloved by the poets and by the bards. The ardent sun
reflects himself in the globes of my eyes. My ruddy bed, which seems to be
powdered like the surface of fine ripe fruit, resembles some exquisite
key-board of silver and gold, all quivering with music. My four wings,
with their delicate net-work of nerves, allow the bright down upon my
black back to be seen through their transparency. And like a star upon the
forehead of some divinely inspired poet, three exquisitely mounted rubies
glitter upon my head."

These are fair examples of the French manner of treating the interesting
subject of insects in poetry. If you should ask me whether the French
poets are better than the English, I should answer, "In point of feeling,
no." The real value of such examples to the student should be emotional,
not descriptive. I think that the Japanese poems on insects, though not
comparable in point of mere form with some of the foreign poems which I
have quoted, are better in another way - they come nearer to the true
essence of poetry. For the Japanese poets have taken the subject of
insects chiefly for the purpose of suggesting human emotion; and that is
certainly the way in which such a subject should be used. Remember that
this is an age in which we are beginning to learn things about insects
which could not have been even imagined fifty years ago, and the more that
we learn about these miraculous creatures, the more difficult does it
become for us to write poetically about their lives, or about their
possible ways of thinking and feeling. Probably no mortal man will ever be
able to imagine how insects think or feel or hear or even see. Not only
are their senses totally different from those of animals, but they appear
to have a variety of special senses about which we can not know anything
at all. As for their existence, it is full of facts so atrocious and so
horrible as to realize most of the imaginations of old about the torments
of hell. Now, for these reasons to make an insect speak in poetry - to put
one's thoughts, so to speak, into the mouth of an insect - is no longer
consistent with poetical good judgment. No; we must think of insects
either in relation to the mystery of their marvellous lives, or in
relation to the emotion which their sweet and melancholy music makes
within our minds. The impressions produced by hearing the shrilling of
crickets at night or by hearing the storm of cicadæ in summer woods - those
impressions indeed are admirable subjects for poetry, and will continue to
be for all time.

When I lectured to you long ago about Greek and English poems on insects,
I told you that nearly all the English poems on the subject were quite
modern. I still believe that I was right in this statement, as a general
assertion; but I have found one quaint poem about a grasshopper, which
must have been written about the middle of the seventeenth century or,
perhaps, a little earlier. The date of the author's birth and death are
respectively 1618 and 1658. His name, I think, you are familiar
with - Richard Lovelace, author of many amatory poems, and of one
especially famous song, "To Lucasta, on Going to the Wars" - containing the
celebrated stanza -

Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more.

Well, as I said, this man wrote one pretty little poem on a grasshopper,
which antedates most of the English poems on insects, if not all of them.


THE GRASSHOPPER

O Thou that swing'st upon the waving ear
Of some well-filled oaten beard,
Drunk every night with a delicious tear
Dropt thee from heaven, where now th'art rear'd!

The joys of earth and air are thine entire,
That with thy feet and wings dost hop and fly;
And when thy poppy works, thou dost retire
To thy carved acorn-bed to lie.

Up with the day, the Sun thou welcom'st then,
Sport'st in the gilt plaits of his beams,
And all these merry days mak'st merry men
Thyself, and melancholy streams.

A little artificial, this poem written at least two hundred and fifty
years ago; but it is pretty in spite of its artifice. Some of the conceits
are so quaint that they must be explained. By the term "oaten beard," the
poet means an ear of oats; and you know that the grain of this plant is
furnished with very long hair, so that many poets have spoken of the
bearded oats. You may remember in this connection Tennyson's phrase "the
bearded barley" in the "Lady of Shalott," and Longfellow's term "bearded
grain" in his famous poem about the Reaper Death. When a person's beard is
very thick, we say in England to-day "a full beard," but in the time of
Shakespeare they used to say "a well filled beard" - hence the phrase in
the second line of the first stanza.

In the third line the term "delicious tear" means dew, - which the Greeks
called the tears of the night, and sometimes the tears of the dawn; and
the phrase "drunk with dew" is quite Greek - so we may suspect that the
author of this poem had been reading the Greek Anthology. In the third
line of the second stanza the word "poppy" is used for sleep - a very
common simile in Elizabethan times, because from the poppy flower was
extracted the opiate which enables sick persons to sleep. The Greek
authors spoke of poppy sleep. "And when thy poppy works," means, when the
essence of sleep begins to operate upon you, or more simply, when you
sleep. Perhaps the phrase about the "carved acorn-bed" may puzzle you; it
is borrowed from the fairy-lore of Shakespeare's time, when fairies were
said to sleep in little beds carved out of acorn shells; the simile is
used only by way of calling the insect a fairy creature. In the second
line of the third stanza you may notice the curious expression about the
"gilt plaits" of the sun's beams. It was the custom in those days, as it
still is in these, for young girls to plait their long hair; and the
expression "gilt plaits" only means braided or plaited golden hair. This
is perhaps a Greek conceit; for classic poets spoke of the golden hair of
the Sun God as illuminating the world. I have said that the poem is a
little artificial, but I think you will find it pretty, and even the
whimsical similes are "precious" in the best sense.




CHAPTER XII

NOTE ON THE INFLUENCE OF FINNISH POETRY IN ENGLISH LITERATURE


The subject of Finnish poetry ought to have a special interest for the
Japanese student, if only for the reason that Finnish poetry comes more
closely in many respects to Japanese poetry than any other form of Western
poetry. Indeed it is supposed that the Finnish race is more akin to the
Tartar races, and therefore probably to the Japanese, than the races of
Europe proper. Again, through Longfellow, the value of Finnish poetry to
English poetry was first suggested, and I think you know that Longfellow's
Indian epic, "The Song of Hiawatha," was modelled entirely upon the
Finnish "Kalevala."

But a word about the "Kalevala," which has a very interesting history. I
believe you know that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the
"Kalevala" was not known to exist. During the first half of the century,
Finnish scholars in the University of Helsingfors (where there is now a
great and flourishing university) began to take literary interest in the
popular songs of Finland. For years the people had been singing
extraordinary songs full of a strange beauty and weirdness quite unlike
any other popular songs of Europe; and for centuries professional singers
had been wandering about the country teaching these songs to the
accompaniment of a kind of _biwa_ called Kantela. The scholars of the
University began to collect these songs from the mouths of the peasants
and musicians - at first with great difficulty, afterwards with much
success. The difficulty was a very curious one. In Finland the ancient
pagan religion had really never died; the songs of the peasants were full
of allusions to the old faith and the old gods, and the orthodox church
had often attempted in vain to prevent the singing of these songs, because
they were not Christian. So the peasants at first thought that the
scholars who wanted to copy the songs were government spies or church
spies who wanted evidence to justify punishments. When the fears of the
people had been removed and when they came to understand that the
questioners were only scholars interested in literary beauty, all the
secret stores of songs were generously opened, and an immense collection
of oral literature was amassed in the University at Helsingfors.

The greatest of the scholars engaged in the subsequent work of arranging
and classifying was Doctor Lönnrot. While examining the manuscript of
these poems he was struck by the fact that, put together in a particular
order, they naturally made one great continuous story or epic. Was it
possible that the Finnish people had had during all these centuries an
epic unknown to the world of literature? Many persons would have ridiculed
the idea. But Lönnrot followed up that idea, and after some years' study
he disengaged from all that mass of song something in the shape of a
wonderful epic, the epic of the "Kalevala." Lönnrot was probably, almost
certainly, the only one who had even understood the idea of an epic of
this kind. The peasants did not know. They only had the fragments of the
whole; parts of the poem existed in one province, parts in another; no
Finnish musician had ever known the whole. The whole may have been made
first by Lönnrot. At all events he was the Homer of the "Kalevala," and it
was fortunate for Finland that he happened to be himself both a scholar
and a poet - qualifications seldom united in the same person.

What is the "Kalevala" as we now possess it? It is an epic, but not like
any other epic in the world, for the subject of it is Magic. We might call
it the Epic of Magic. It is the story of how the world and the heaven and
the sun and the moon and the stars, the elements and the races of living
creatures and all other things were created by magic; also how the first
inhabitants of the world lived, and loved, and fought. But there is
another thing to be said in a general was about this magic. The magic of
"Kalevala" is not like anything else known by that name in European
literature. The magic of "Kalevala" is entirely the magic of words. These
ancient people believed in the existence of words, by the utterance of
which anything might be accomplished. Instead of buying wood and hiring
carpenters, you might build a house by uttering certain magical words. If
you had no horse and wanted to travel rapidly, you could make a horse for
yourself out of bits of bark and old sticks by uttering over them certain
magical words. But this was not all. Beings of intellect, men and women,
whole armies of men, in fact, might be created in a moment by the
utterance of these mystical words. There is the real subject of the
"Kalevala."

I told you that the epic is not like anything else in European literature
and not like anything else in the world as to the subject. But this is not
the case as regards the verse. The verse is not like Japanese verse,
indeed, but it comes nearer to it than any other European verse does. Of
course even in Finnish verse, accents mean a great deal, and accent means
nothing at all in Japanese verse. But I imagine something very much like
Finnish verse might be written in Japanese, provided that in reciting it a
slight stress is thrown on certain syllables. Of course you know something
about Longfellow's "Hiawatha" - such lines as these:

And the evening sun descending
Set the clouds on fire with redness,
Burned the broad sky like a prairie,
Left upon the level water
One long track and trail of splendour,
Down whose stream, as down a river,
Westward, westward Hiawatha
Sailed into the fiery sunset,
Sailed into the purple vapours,
Sailed into the dusk of evening.

You will observe this is verse of eight syllables with four trochees to a
line. Now it is perhaps as near to Finnish verse as English verse can be
made. But the Finnish verse is more musical, and it is much more flexible,
and the rules of it can be better carried out than in English. There is
much more to be thought about than the placing of four trochaic feet to a
line. Not only must the verse be trochaic, it must also be alliterative,
and it must also be, to some extent, rhymed verse - a matter which
Longfellow did not take into consideration. That would have doubled his
difficulty. To make verse trochaic, alliterative and rhymed, is very
difficult indeed - that is, to do it well. Only one liberty is allowed; it
is not necessary that the rhyme shall be regular and constant; it is
necessary only that it should be occasional. But the interest of Finnish
verse does not end here. I have not yet mentioned the most important law
of Finnish poetry - the law of parallelism or repetition. Parallelism is
the better word. It means the repetition of a thought in a slightly
modified way. It is parallelism especially that makes so splendid the
English translation of the Bible, and the majesty of such passages in the
Book of Common Prayer as the Funeral Service. So that Finnish poetry is
anything but very simple. We may now sum it up thus - trochaic verse of
eight syllables, with alliteration and rhyme, a caesura in the same part
of every line, and every line reiterated in parallelism.

A little above I mentioned the English of the Bible. Long ago I explained
why that English is so beautiful and so strong. But remember that much of
the best of the Bible, in the original Hebrew, was not prose but verse,
and that the fine effects have been produced by translating the verse into
musical prose. The very effect can be produced by translating the
"Kalevala" into prose. Occasionally the passages are of surprising beauty,
and they are always of surprising strangeness.

It is in parallelism especially that Finnish poetry offers a contrast to
Japanese, but there is no reason whatever why, in the longer poems of
Japanese poetry, parallelism could not be used. All things have value
according to place and time, and this has value - provided that it has a
special effect on a special occasion. All through the "Kalevala," all
through five hundred pages, large pages, the parallelism is carried on,
and yet one never gets tired. It is not monotonous. But that is because
the subject is so well adapted to this form of poetry. See how the poem
opens, when the poet begins to talk about what he is going to sing:

"Anciently my father sang me these words in hewing the handle of his ax;
anciently my mother taught me these words as she turned her spindle. In
that time I was only a child, a little child at the breast, - a useless
little being creeping upon the floor at the feet of its nurse, its cheek
bedaubed with milk. And there are other words which I drew from the spring
of knowledge, which I found by the wayside, which I snatched from the
heart of the thickets, which I detached from the branches of the trees,
which I gathered at the edges of the pastures - when, In my infancy, I used
to go to guard the flocks, in the midst of the honey-streaming meadows,
upon the gold-shining hills, behind the black Murikki, behind the spotted
Kimmo, my favourite cows.

"Also the cold sang the songs, the rain sang me verses, the winds of
heaven, the waves of the sea made me hear their poems, the birds


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 13 of 19)