For a train journey the other day, I needed a book that would fit easily into my pocket. I decided to choose randomly from my library. Spinning around and pointing my finger, I arrived at a little book I had possessed for many years always intending to read it but never getting round to it – there are a few of those to be going on with. The book was John Ruskin’s Frondes Agrestes which my schoolboy Latin works out to mean roughly Leaves of the Field. The first fifty pages yield up a lot of interesting things which, it suddenly became clear to me, make for at least a provisional description of the necessary attributes of a true haiku writer; I had not at all anticipated this outcome from my train journey! It seemed similar to the happy accident that makes a haiku.
For a start, Ruskin (1819-1900) asked one of his ‘dearest friends’ whose name is strangely not mentioned in the book itself, but who, we are told, ‘…in advanced age retains the cheerfulness and easily delighted temper of bright youth’, to add to a collection of passages from his big work Modern Painters she’d already copied out for her own benefit so as to make a little new anthology.
Frondes Agrestes consists of all her selections with Ruskin’s comments in footnotes written by him aged 55, relating to parts of the original text written when he was 24.
Looking back at one’s own past scribblings is always a strange experience! But well worth doing regularly I find: a diligent awareness of the significance of words related to oneself, a passion for recording things of moment for future reference, a keenness for extracting meaning from one time apparently insignificant things – these are necessary contributions to the growth of the haiku-spirit.
The book begins with a discussion about ‘good taste’ which seems to me to be a rather tricky amorphous, perhaps outdated, concept these days. What Ruskin writes about in these opening pages boils down to what I consider to be something about the conditions conducive to an open and wide-rangingly mature intellectual-emotional grasp of things in general; a way of seeing the world that’s an emergent property of having long worked with a proper balanced combination of knowledge & being, issuing into understanding, as Gurdjieff would say. I suppose that as a whole it could be allotted the shorthand abstraction ‘The Approach to Wisdom’, which is something the current masters of the universe signally lack. Such a disposition, more or less in Ruskin’s own words,
• is characteristically patient
• dwells lengthily upon what is submitted to it
• does not trample upon it – lest it should be pearls, even though it looks like husks
• is penetrable & retentive
• does not send up thorns of unkind thoughts to choke a perhaps weak seed
• is hungry & thirsty too, and drinks all the dew that falls on it
• has an honest and good heart, that shows no too ready springing before the sun be up, but fails not afterwards
• is distrustful of itself, so as to be ready to believe and to try all things before any kind of commitment
• is yet so trustful of itself, that it will neither quit what it has tried, nor take anything without trying
• cannot possibly be led aside by any tricks of fashion or diseases of vanity
• cannot be cramped in its conclusions by partialities and hypocrisies [hidden agendas?]
• has visions & delights too penetrating, too living, for any white-washed object or shallow fountain long to endure or supply
• clasps all that it loves so hard that it crushes it if it be hollow
• is never egotistic
• has a positive strength that depends upon losing sight and feeling of its own existence
• becomes a mere witness and mirror of truth and a scribe of visions
• is always passive in sight, passive in utterance
• laments continually that it cannot completely reflect nor clearly utter all it has seen
A taxonomy like this, relevant to the writing of haiku, might well form the basis of an educational primer designed to contribute to a curriculum for youth intended to produce intelligent beings who are not consumed by instant gratification, or mental satisfaction with the latest fashionable set of soundbites, abstract lies, delivered to the mass media by our masters, but who possess the beginnings of a passion for finding out what it’s really all about, ‘played on a blue guitar’. Ruskin writes with the old assumption that everybody is a male, so I have changed all his pronouns:-
She who habituates herself in her daily life to seek for the stern facts in whatever she hears or sees, will have these facts again brought before her by the involuntary imaginative power, in their noblest associations; and she who seeks for frivolities and fallacies, will have frivolities and fallacies again presented to her in her dreams.
By ‘facts’ I take it that Ruskin is not being a Gradgrind but is simply referring to things as they are, unfiltered by preconceived notions; in any case identification with ‘frivolities and fallacies’, ‘A Influences’ in Gurdjieff’s terms, like sport, ambition, and all kinds of what is conventionally described as fun, is bound to result in an A influence mentality, focussed, for example, on making a name for oneself or cornering a market in something new-fangled or building an empire. Our new educational primer will optimistically help to prevent people sinking into the slough of meaninglessness, with great benefits for civilisation.
As a start one might practise cleansing the six senses of all the presuppositions that get in the way of registering what’s ‘out there’ so that it appears once more in its original pristine form. Gurdjieff refers to all impressions we take in as the highest form of food, a long way above fish & chips. The reception of pure impressions helps us see/hear/feel things as they really are instead of their being channelled down the old ways with all the old associations obstructing progress. Seeking the purity of impressions has the effect of clearing the mind of its dross.
To get down to brass tacks, Ruskin asks us specifically to ‘…consider seriously what [it would be like] to have the power of arresting the fairest scenes, those which so often rise before [us] only to vanish; to stay the cloud in its fading, the leaf in its trembling, and the shadows in their changing; to bid the fitful foam be fixed upon the river, and the ripples be everlasting upon the lake…’ Might it not turn out to be nothing less than the ability to transport oneself into any scene like ‘a disembodied spirit’. We might even find ourselves able ‘…to enter into the very bodily presence of people long since gathered to the dust; to behold them in act as they lived… to see them fastened at our will in the gesture and expression of an instant, and stayed on the eve of some great deed…’
Being like ‘a disembodied spirit’ reminds me of Leonardo da Vinci’s advice to ‘be like smoke’ (sfumato) that wafts from a bonfire, a facility that enables you to enter everything without disturbing it in the least, to see behind, below, roundabout, to see all things as they are in utter reality without at all disturbing them. True haiku happen when there is no gap between observer and observed; when you enter into the thing itself. This is what Bashō always advocated; it is Zen-think.
Perhaps the result of applying the above taxonomy is to become a creature endowed with humility – or perhaps one would need to be thus endowed to see the sense of taking the items in the taxonomy seriously for oneself. Perhaps it is systemic: first take some of the items in the taxonomy into your soul, then practise them, developing the humility to do so, which will in turn help you to take the rest of the items on board.
Humility is an attribute Ruskin much admires, by which he does not mean ‘doubt of her own power, or hesitation of speaking opinions; but a right understanding of the relation between what she can do and say, and the rest of the world’s sayings and doings…’ Knowing what you’re at, knowing that you are right but not thinking ‘much of [yourself] on that account…’ Not wanting to laud it over others but just pursuing a quiet path towards understanding.
People operating with humility ‘…do not expect their [associates]… to fall down and worship them. They have a curious under-sense of powerlessness, feeling that greatness is not in them, but [perhaps] through them… and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful…’ Humility holds back from describing feelings, says Ruskin; she ‘…tells you whom she met, and what they said, leaving you to make out from that what they feel… but goes into little detail…’ It’s easy to indulge oneself in expressing feelings openly but much more difficult to maintain ‘…plain recording of what people said, and did…’ It’s difficult to observe without ruminating and desiring to include the expression of an opinion which comes from what Gurdjieff called ‘Internal Considering’, the conjuring up of ‘False Imagination’. The lurch towards ‘phone-ins’ in the last twenty years, say, which encourage the desire to ‘have your say’ (as though it were likely to be of significance) works against humility. Burying your thinking in abstractions is an easy capitulation to group think – ultimately it starts wars which have the aim of establishing ‘democracy’ or fighting for ‘freedom’ (two prime abstractions or ‘category mistakes’ in Ryle’s terms – failure to focus on the right things). Unpack abstractions into specific actions & examples that are lazily dumped under what sound like beefy headings.
‘Beauty’ is another abstraction that gets unthinking acceptance. Ruskin unpacks it nicely into what are its constituent parts on the occasions he chooses. There might be something you could call ‘beauty’ in a scene, for example, yet
…often what impresses us most will form but a very small portion of that visible beauty. [It] may, for instance, be composed of lovely flowers, and glittering streams, and blue sky and white clouds; and yet the thing that impresses us most, and which we should be sorriest to lose, may be a thin grey film on the extreme horizon, not so large, in the space of the scene it occupies, as a piece of gossamer on a near-at-band bush, nor in any wise prettier to the eye than the gossamer; but because the gossamer is known by us for a little bit of spider’s work, and the other grey film is known to mean a mountain ten thousand feet high, inhabited by a race of noble mountaineers, we are solemnly impressed by the aspect of it, and yet all the while the thoughts and knowledge which cause us to receive this impression are so obscure that we are not conscious of them…
I always remember Shiki’s advice to the haiku novice to look down at the violet at your feet and then look up at the distant mountain – conditions for haiku are thus created. Here is Ruskin describing the same kind of process: one can go from scrutinising the nearby spider’s web to comparing it to the similar grey film of a mountain on the distant horizon and suddenly experience some obscure inexpressible feeling – an other-than-conscious awareness of being connected with the cosmos is a possibility.
This is haiku intelligence or ‘spirit’, if you like.
Ruskin analyses it thus:-
… you find all the brightness of… emotion hanging, like dew on a gossamer, on a curious web of subtle fancy and imperfect knowledge. First you nave a vague idea of [the mountain’s] size, coupled with… an apprehension of its eternity, a pathetic sense of its perpetualness, and your own transientness, [akin to] the grass upon its side; then, and in very sadness, a sense of strange companionship with past generations, in seeing what they saw. They did not see the clouds that are floating over your head, nor the cottage wall on the other side of the field, nor the road by which you are travelling. But they [did see the] wall of granite in the heavens – it was the same to them as to you. They have ceased to look upon it; you will soon cease to look also, and the granite wall will be for others… and all the chalets that gleam among its clouds, and happy farmsteads couched upon its pastures ; while, together with the thoughts of these, rise strange sympathies with all the unknown of human life, and happiness, and death, signified by that narrow white flame of the everlasting snow, seen so far in the morning sky…
Ruskin suggests that this is the power of imagination, the facility we have of marshalling images that represent the way things are rather than the creation of what’s not there.
His analysis perfectly fits Haruo Shirane‘s Horizontal/Vertical Axis model for haiku writing.
this spider’s web catches
the distant mountain
in morning light
It is in quiet and subdued passages of unobtrusive majesty, the deep and the calm, and the perpetual; that which must be sought ere it is seen, and loved, ere it is understood ; things which the angels work out for us daily, and yet vary eternally; which are never wanting, and never repeated; which are to be found always, yet each found but once; it is through these that the lesson of devotion is chiefly taught, and the blessing of beauty given.
Ruskin often strays into some kind of peculiar religiosity but if we take ‘angels’ as meaning what the original Greek gives us they are just ‘messengers’ – in the case of haiku they simply present us with gifts.
I wouldn’t mind betting that the next 130 pages of Frondes Agrestes mostly contain additional selections made by Susan Beever. They have the feeling of being merely assembled; they provide straightforward illustrations of specificity in relation to natural events and objects. The kind of thing dear to true haiku-writers. For example, Ruskin addresses sky and clouds:-
Intense clearness, whether, in the north, after or before rain, or in some moments of twilight in the south, is always, as far as I am acquainted with natural phenomena, a notable thing. Mist of some sort, or mirage, or confusion of light or of cloud, are the general facts; the distance may vary in different climates at which the effects of mist begin, but they are always present … Our happiness as thinking beings must depend on our being content to accept only partial knowledge oven in those matters which chiefly concern us… Our whole happiness and power of energetic action depend upon our being able to breathe and live in the cloud; content to see it opening here and closing there; rejoicing to catch through the thinnest films of it, glimpses of stable and substantial things; but yet perceiving a nobleness even in the concealment, and rejoicing that the kindly veil is spread where the untempered light might have scorched us, or the infinite clearness wearied… Knowledge is good, and light is good: yet [so the scriptures tell us] man perished in seeking knowledge, and moths perish in seeking light; and if we, who are crushed before the moth, will not accept such mystery as is needful to us, we shall perish in like manner. But, accepted in [humility], it instantly becomes an element of pleasure; and I think that every rightly constituted mind ought to rejoice, not so much in knowing anything clearly, as if feeling that there is infinitely more which it cannot know…
We live in mere glimpses of things. It is a characteristic of the true haiku writer to have a high toleration of ambiguity (See Frenkel-Brunswick)
gathering in the east
bare hornbeam branches