The Old Pond – Matsuo Basho

The Old Pond by Matsuo Basho is probably the most famous of all haikus ever written. I am sure it is the most translated at least. A Google search for The Old Pond throws up at least a few dozen varied translations of the haiku.

Haiku is, of course, a Japanese short poem format that has very specific rules regarding its subject and structure. It is typically composed of three phrases, one of which has to end with what they call as a cutting word or kireji. This word acts as a kind of pause between two phrases that convey distinct ideas but are still connected to the central theme of the haiku. The three phrases follow a 5-7-5 or 3-5-3 syllable (on in Japanese) pattern. Every haiku typically has a nature based theme and essentially includes a seasonal reference taken from a standard compendium of such words.

Haiku, as a poetic form, was developed in Japan over several centuries, having undergone so many variations to reach its currently recognized form. I will leave it up to you to read in detail about the highly convoluted history of the haiku’s origin on Wikipedia. But, all you need to know is that Matsuo Basho, a 17th century Japanese poet, was the one who popularized the haiku in its current format. It was called hokku then, I think.

What is amazing about this poetic form is the way a bare minimum of words is used, to bring up in our minds, the entire atmosphere of that moment in time captured in verse.

This haiku, for some reason, always conjures up an overcast, late afternoon in my mind. No breeze. The air heavy with humidity. A promise of rain, even. The old pond itself is dark and rich with moss, and lily pads floating around. The frog sitting quietly one of the lily pads, the entire world pregnant with its stillness. And then the frog jumps. A splash in the water! Shattering the tranquility of the scene. Ripples travelling across the pond, fading away. Silence again.

All that captured in just a handful of syllables, each and every one of them so lovingly curated to rightly deserve a place in the poem – beauty in brevity indeed!

Here is the poem in its original Japanese form:

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

The literal translation in English goes,

Old pond!
frog jumps in
water’s sound

A more rounded out translation is, perhaps,

The old pond;
a frog jumps in —
the sound of the water.

But there is a whole plethora of its translations out there, in various languages too, each one trying to outdo the others in finding the most perfect words (the mot juste, if you will) to as closely capture the essence of the original as possible. There have even been attempts to retain the 5-7-5 syllable pattern in English, though our definition of syllable is quite different from that of the Japanese on. I will leave it up to you to discover and enjoy them.

And such is the universal appeal of The Old Pond haiku that it seems to have found resonance in all the corners of the world. Why, there is even a reference to it in a Tamil movie song from the early 00s, in which a boy and a girl sing of the various ways in which love had hijacked their lives. The girl sings,

KalangAdha kuLam ena irundhavaL
Oru thavaLai thAn kudhithadhum vatrivitten

(I used to be a still pond; a frog jumped in and emptied me out!)

Personally speaking, I am particularly partial to this whimsical version by Allen Ginsberg.

The old pond
A frog jumped in,
Kerplunk!

It never fails to put a smile on my face.

Happy Thought – Robert Louis Stevenson

Happy Thought by Robert Louis Stevenson

I found this little gem, Happy Thought by Robert Louis Stevenson, in my daughter’s book of poems. It is all of two lines, written in loose iambic pentameter. But what an astounding bit of verse it is!

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

At first look, it sounds like a really happy thought, like the poet was having an especially happy day and *had* to condense all his joy into that perfect couplet for many others to enjoy.

Then you realize you could read the couplet a number of ways and get a very different mood out of it each time.

You could read it with smiling optimism, as you would any “happy thought“. You could also read it with breathless enthusiasm, all atwitter with wonder and excitement. Or with just a touch of whimsy. You could perhaps read it with righteous indignation (I mean, the world is so amazing. Why on earth aren’t we being happy about it?!).  You could even read it with bone-dry sarcasm (Right! The world is so amazing, we should be so “happy” – air quotes included – to be in it).

See, what I mean? Just from the tone of the reading, the mood of the couplet can go from quietly blissful to downright cynical! Doesn’t it feel like a mirror to the mind and personality of the reader? Or perhaps, just his or her mood that day.

What way did *you* read it?

Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

I think I read Ozymandias, a sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in my 8th grade for the very first time. It talks about a mutilated statue that the poet says he heard about, through “a traveller from an antique land”. I even remember the bizarre drawing that accompanied the poem. It was nowhere as detailed as the illustration that I managed to dig up from the internet and put on this post. It was a black and white sketch of the infamous “vast and trunkless legs of stone” and the “shattered visage” next to it looked quite dreadful, if my memory serves me right.

The subject of the ruined colossus was, of course, Ramesses II, reportedly the greatest and most powerful of all Egyptian pharaohs, so much so, that his descendants often referred to him as the “Great Ancestor”. According to Wikipedia, Ozymandias is the Greek transliteration of his Egyptian throne name, “Usermaatre Setepenre” meaning “The justice of Re is powerful – chose of Re”, Re (or Ra) being the Egyptian sun god. He is famous for his innumerable successes on the battlefield and was largely responsible for securing and expanding Egyptian influence in the region. Ozymandias is also known for his obsession with building, transforming the landscape of Egypt with huge monuments to himself especially the temple complex of Ramesseum. Some ruins are all that is left of his buildings now.

Coming back to the poem, the sonnet itself has an interesting origin story. It was written as part of a competition that Shelley had had with his friend, the poet and writer Horace Smith, seemingly influenced by the impending arrival of a broken statue of Ramesses II at a London museum. They each penned a sonnet of the same name and had it published anonymously or using a pen name. We can clearly tell who won that competition now, hands down. Smith’s poem is not so well known, most likely mentioned only in the context of the aforementioned competition. On the other hand, this one by Shelley has for sure withstood the test of time – quite unlike the works of the titular character of the poem.

The poem uses an iambic pentameter (five iambs per line), though rather loosely. It follows an unusual ababa cdcedefef rhyme pattern as against the abbaabba cdc cdc (or cde cde) of most English sonnets written in the Italian tradition. Its structure also breaks away from the usual octave-sestet format of sonnets.

The poem begins with the preamble, “I met a traveller from an antique land” and quickly transfers the point of view to the said traveller, who narrates,

“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert”

Now, that immediately catches our attention as well as our imagination, as we grapple with the word vast in our minds, trying to gauge how big the statue really had been. The pause that Shelley makes in the middle of the 3rd line is almost as if to give us the time get our heads around the truly colossal nature of the monument, standing in the middle of nowhere.

Stand in the dessert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies”

It must have been a really eerie sight, the legs standing tall all by themselves, and nothing but the fractured face of the once whole statue for company.

Then we get to the “shattered visage” and what an expression it had! What arrogance and disdain and self-satisfaction?

Whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command

The poet uses minimal details to bring out all the contempt and condescension etched into the lines and grooves of the once proud face.

The sculptor who created the statue must have made a close study of his subject indeed, to bring to life these qualities, so befitting the powerful and self-aggrandizing monarch that Ozymandias was.

“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things”

He seems to have understood the very essence of the Ozymandias’s soul and brought it out so accurately on the face of the statue using his evidently considerable skill.

“The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed”

This is probably the most famous line in the poem. “The hand that mocked them” obviously belongs to the sculptor and “the heart that fed” to his subject. It is a very interesting line too, because the word “mocked” can be interpreted in two different ways. In using the word, did Shelley mean to say “laughed at”? (Not out loud, of course, unless the sculptor had a death wish) If so, would that mean that the sculptor held the monarch in contempt for his all-too-human frailties of pride and ego and hence brought those qualities to the forefront? Or did the poet just mean “imitated”, and the sculptor simply replicated these “passions” as evidenced on the face of the pharaoh, and “fed” by his ambitious heart. Now no one will ever know what the poet intended. But my belief is that Shelley deliberately used the wordplay to lend itself to both the readings.

The traveller continues his narrative, talking now about the inscription on the pedestal of the statue. It apparently said,

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

which is very much in keeping with our understanding so far of Ozymandias’s character. The poet, in actuality, has used a loose rewording of the inscription given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica as “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” The pharaoh had been so sure of the permanence of his earthly works, that he practically challenged his successors to surpass them in scale and grandeur. He had sought to immortalize himself in stone, even to the point of deifying himself. He had thought all those grandiose monuments he had built would live on forever bearing testimony to his greatness for all eternity to come. But alas, nothing beside remains. The last 3 lines perfectly encapsulate the desolation and ruin of the once great king’s legacy.

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

Ozymandias – Percy Bysshe Shelley

Ozymandias - Percy Bysshe Shelley

Source: genius.com

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The Tyger – William Blake

Reading The Tyger by William Blake never fails to send a shiver up my spine. Probably more so since I heard it recited as a voice over in a tiger documentary that I stumbled upon while channel surfing on TV. The documentary featured the tiger at its magnificent best with some really candid close-up footage of the beast in its element and at the height of its powers. And this poem, rendered over it, added an extra dimension of myth and mystery to this elusive creature of the forest.

The poem is made up of six quatrains, each of which follows an aabb rhyme pattern except for the second b lines in the first and last which incidentally are identical to each other but for one word. They rhyme only when you use an older pronounciation of the word symmetry.

Most of the poem follows a trochaic tetrameter catalectic – four trochees per line, trochee being a metric foot made up of a long stressed syllable followed by a short unstressed one. It is catalectic because the last trochee in each line drops the short unstressed syllable. But some of the lines slip up and use iambs instead of trochees, like the line, “Could frame thy fearful symmetry?“, and its near identical twin in the last stanza. All these irregularities only add to the fierce beauty of the poem.

Every time I read The Tyger, I am also struck by the notion that the poet must have had a very close brush with the subject of his poem in real life.

Now I do not even know what the poet looks like. But I can conjure up the whole supposed encounter in my imagination. I see him standing there, in a thick tropical jungle, a hunting rifle dangling, forgotten, from his hand, waiting with bated breath, having spotted and having been spotted in return, by a member of that magnificent species. He is rooted in his spot, in fear and awe of the majestic animal, too enthralled to make even the slightest move. I can almost feel the beast’s tawny stare myself, from across the clearing, as if contemplating, in a particularly feline manner, if it should attack the petrified human hiding among the bushes or let him live to tell the tale. In the end, after what feels like an eternity of tense moments, it turns away, with a mighty roar, and dissolves into the forest in the blink of an eye.

Well, I do not know if William Blake ever went hunting in his life or ever had such a close encounter with a tiger in the wild but whatever the case was, I am convinced it must have one hell of an meeting.

For how else could one explain the fearful reverence the poet shows for the tiger throughout the poem? How else could one account for the powerful imagery and startling detail the poet uses to describe the tiger? How indeed does he bring in the sense of awe he feels for the tiger and infects us with the same?

The very first lines set the tone and theme for the rest of the poem. I feel the archaic spelling Tyger only enhances the near mythical status of the beast in question.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night;

The poet cannot seem to help but marvel at the supreme being that was responsible for bringing to life such a thing of perfection.

What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

He likens the Creator to a blacksmith forging the tiger out of fire and brimstone and wonders at the lengths that even He had to go, to make the tiger the magnificent beast it is. Where did He get the fire to make the tiger’s smouldering eyes from? How far did He have to fly to find that fire? The sun itself? And finding it, how did He capture it with His hands? What mighty shoulders and art were required to weave the strands of a tiger’s heart? What dread to make its hands and feet and terrible grasp? And what tools did He use? And we ask, what word wizardry has the poet been up to, to deliver the force of his awe in the form of such sublime lines?

On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?

At the end of it, spent from all the effort, did the Creator sit back, quietly proud of creating his best work ever? Also, was it indeed the same hand that created the sweet docile Lamb too? How is that even possible?

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

In the end, the poet returns to reiterate his first stanza, where he mused about the God that could have created the tiger. But now in the last stanza he wonders how did He even dare to create the tiger at all even if He could.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

To think these splendid beings are being counted in mere numbers now! If, God forbid, these beautiful beasts ever get wiped out in the world, the future generations can take a little comfort in reading this poem about the ferocious creatures that once ruled the “forests of the night”.

The Tyger – William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The Charge of the Light Brigade – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Another poem from my childhood. “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is Lord Tennyson’s narrative poem about a disastrous battle charge carried out by a company of British light cavalry during the Crimean war against Russia.

A light brigade is typically mounted on fast, light and unarmoured horses and armed to take part in minor skirmishes. However, due to miscommunication of orders down the chain of command, instead of going off on a mission to secure the guns in captured Turkish redoubts, they ended up charging head on into the direct fire of a fully engaged Russian artillery. Needless to say, the light brigade suffered some heavy casualties (pardon the pun) and their heroics recorded in this poem for posterity.

Reportedly, the news article that the poem is based upon, contained the clause “someone had blundered”. This line lent itself to a similar line in the poem and thus determined the metre of the poem as well – dactylic dimeter, in case you are interested. (Dactyl is yet another metric foot like the iamb, but having one stressed syllable followed two unstressed syllables. Since there are two of these metric feet per line, it is a dimeter.)

Tennyson uses a fairly irregular rhyme pattern in the poem with plenty of couplets, triplets and slant rhymes thrown in. It only adds to the drama of the poem. And what a drama it is!

From the get go, you really have the feeling of being in the thick of things, almost as if you were riding with the light brigade yourself. You can almost hear the thunder of the horses’ hooves as the six hundred (670 to be exact, but hey, you can’t rhyme that with anything!) ride into the “valley of Death”.

“Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”

It was most assuredly a suicidal mission, but there was nary a word of dissent or doubt from the ranks as the charge command was given and the light brigade rode against withering direct fire to reach the Russian guns.

“Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.”

The above lines are probably heavily quoted by bosses around the world to get their minions to do their bidding, however ridiculous the demands may be. Memorably, they are used in the Steven Spielberg movie “Saving Private Ryan” by one of Tom Hanks’ men during an argument as to why the team had to go on a mission to save the eponymous soldier. But they indeed mark the cornerstone of discipline in any army.

Anyway, back to the poem. More drama follows as the poet describes how light brigade is bombarded with cannon fire left, right and centre.

“Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them”

But the soldiers still ride on bravely to near certain death, while fellow men fell by the wayside. Miraculously, a lot of them do manage to reach the Russian gunners, cutting down as many of them as possible, their light sabres (not the star wars ones) flashing in the air. They fought well,

“Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.”

And then the light brigade returns, albeit down a few hundreds of horses and men, while the cannons still “volleyed and thundered” after them.

“Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell”

Tennyson uses several phrases like “valley of Death”, “jaws of Death” and “mouth of hell” to describe the valley between two elevated positions that the light brigade rode through and back. Probably to reiterate to the reader, how hopeless a cause it had been, to go on such a reckless charge that could have had only one possible outcome.

In the end, a mere 195 men of the original 670 strong cavalry remained, along with their horses. The rest had all lost their mounts or were wounded, captured or killed in the calamitous charge.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Bravery? Or foolishness, as some would argue. There is but a thin line between the two.

The Charge of the Light Brigade – Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Source: Wikipedia

I
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

II
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

III
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.

IV
Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

V
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

VI
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Daffodils – William Wordsworth

Daffodils, a nature poem by William Wordsworth, is probably one of my earliest exposures to poetry. The tinge of nostalgia has always made this a very special poem for me. If I sat down to it, I can probably recall the exact setting of my classroom when I first read the opening lines of the poem:

“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills”
I remember being bothered by the o’er bit for a long while, at least until I realized that the line did indeed sound better with o’er than o-ver.

This was way before I knew anything about poetic form or metre. It was only many years later, thanks to the Wondering Minstrels, I found out about terms like iambs and trochees and understood why the poet went for o’er instead of o-ver. He obviously made the two syllable word into a single syllable to preserve the metre of the poem – iambic tetrameter, in this case. (An iamb is a metric foot that contains a short unstressed syllable followed by a long stressed syllable. Each line of this poem made up of four iambs and hence the tetrameter.)

The poem’s stanzas follow a simple ababcc pattern (the technical name of this form is a sextilla). The cc lines make for some really nice couplets,

“Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”

“I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought”

“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”

I particularly love the dramatic way the poet describes his chancing upon the flowers. There he was, happy in his own company, traipsing through the country side, when his solitude was interrupted “all at once” by a “crowd” of daffodils. It was no gradual change of scenery for him. He mirrors the same in the last stanza, where, once again he is wallowing in his own company, and the daffodils “flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude”.

The other thing that strikes me is that the poet seems to have been quite a loner in his lifetime, seemingly taking immense pleasure from the company of nature rather than from that of fellow men. That would explain his long sojourns on his own in the countryside and the following two lines in the poem.

A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company

The daffodils must have been quite a sight indeed, to have affected him so profoundly and to have moved him to write such a beautiful poem, that has withstood the test of time over so many generations.

Here is the poem in its entirety.

Daffodils – William Wordsworth

Daffodils by William Wordsworth

Source: Pixabay

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.