Longfellow: A Psalm of Life

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A Psalm of Life

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
“Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act to each to-morrow
Finds us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,–act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait.

Robert Frost: Birches

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“Earth’s the right place for love”

Is your user in a pathless wood or swinging on birches?  — relationary

Birches

by Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-coloured
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree~
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Zen: Don’t Think Good or Evil

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If you think good and evil,

You become a person of good and evil.

I recently chanced upon a book sale and was able to purchase a book of Zen koans and a book of Haiku poetry for a fair price.  I had read about Zen in the past, but I had not read actual works by Zen masters.

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I have completed reading Zen Inspirations: Essential Meditations and Text, by Dr. Miram Levering for the first time.  It includes the complete text of The Gateless Gate a thirteenth century collection of koans, commentary and poetry by Ekai, known as Mumon.  The book also includes The Ten Ox-herding Pictures accompanied by ten poems by the twelfth century Chinese monk K’uo-an Shih-yuan It is definitely not something you read only once.  I enjoyed the Zen masters’ admonitions to read the koan and permit yourself to solve it quickly and without hesitation to discover the enlightenment that comes from honesty.  As I read the koans, I let myself be honest about my inner response and the wisdom of the Zen masters became increasingly amusing.  I think I came to be enlightened many times by their frank honesty about the human condition, the Buddha and the Tao.  I think one admonition by Zen master Mumon, that if you encounter someone filled with the Tao, strike him in the face with all the strength you have, sums up what I have learned.

The Zen koans and Taoism I find agree with the philosophy of science, the philosophy of Karl Popper, skepticism, the evolutionary biology of Charles Darwin, the physics of Werner Heisenberg and the mathematics of Kurt Goedel seamlessly.  Uncertainty remains the only certainty.

There is origin without origin, direction without direction, destination without destination.  Any sense of order is localized and transient.  That is the Tao Te and not the Tao Te, and that is what the adherents to Zen struggle with daily.

I don’t claim understanding or overstanding of this paradox.

Leonard Cohen: Poetry That Rhymes

Leonard Cohen, Canadian Poet and Songwriter, often found himself at odds with his contemporaries by writing poetry that rhymes. It turns out that the opposition to rhyming poetry finds its roots in Soviet propaganda that didn’t want to deal with the difficulties in translation.  Here is my favorite of his songs whose chorus belongs in Hofstader’s Godel, Escher and Bach.

“Anthem”

Leonard Cohen

The birds they sing
at the break of day
“Start again”
I hear them say
“Don’t dwell
on what has passed away
or what is yet to be.”

Ah the wars
they will be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah, the widowhood
of every government —
signs for all to see.

I can’t run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.