I have a Korean pop song in my head, or a part of one, and it won’t go away. It’s not Gangnam Style. It’s something much older, the music of the generation now reaching late middle age, that they call ‘Trot’. It goes like this:
꽃피는 동백섬에 Flowers are blooming on Camellia Isle
봄이 왔건만 Spring has arrived, but
형재 던나 부산항에 My brother has just left from Busan Harbour
갈매기가 슬패 운네 A seagull cries sadly
(From ‘Come back to Busan harbour’ by Jo Yong-Pil)
After which it launches into a melodramatic chorus, whose lyrics I can never recall… Korean listeners might surmise that the singer’s brother had left to fight in the war (during the most desperate part of the war, when the North was winning, Busan was the South’s last redoubt) or perhaps on military service. But the sadness also has a classical element to it: the singer’s sadness is all the worse because spring is blooming around her.
This is a trope of much great poetry. For me, the very best is Edward Thomas’s ‘In Memoriam, Easter 1915’, which I blogged about a couple of years ago. But here is another, same poet, same theme, similar imagery:
The Cherry Trees
The cherry trees bend over and are shedding
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.
… and same quietly devastating impact, I think. These two Thomas poems have brought me close to tears on more than one occasion (once when I was using it in a tutorial). It brings home – quite literally home – the impact of the war on the towns and villages of England in such a vivid, and such a sad way. And again, there is spring, and natural rebirth, while men lie dead and women heartbroken. There is no need to analyse it any further: it is sad because it is true – this really happened. What makes the poem even more poignant, was that Edward Thomas died in the war too
I can’t help thinking of this poem quite often at the moment because the cherry blossom is out here in Korea – everywhere, in fact, still beautiful between concrete and telegraph poles, and just this week starting to wither. There’s a lot more of this pink blossom here than home in England. A few years ago, I lived in Durham in England, near the council buildings and the hospital, where the roads are lined with horse chestnut trees, which have I think the strangest kind of blossom, clumped in tittle towers pointing straight upwards. There’s a poem in there somewhere, I think, but perhaps I would have to fight in a war to write a good one…
Recently, I have come across another poem about blossom, this one by a Russian poet. Alexey K. Tolstoy saw some service in the Crimean War, though his experiences were cut short through contracting typhoid – not uncommon during that conflict. I don’t know if his experiences in the war affected this poem at all, but here is one more poem where spring comes with rebirth and rejuvenation, but the poet’s feelings run in another direction…
My Little Almond Tree
My little almond tree
Is gay with gleaming bloom,
My heart unwillingly
Puts forth its buds of gloom.
The bloom will leave the tree,
The fruit, unbidden, grow.
And the green boughs will be
By bitter loads brought low.
Alexey Tolstoy, trans. B. Deutsch and A. Yarmolinsky
Tolstoy’s take on the gulf between nature and man is a little different. Man is fated – cannot help but – follow the same cycles as nature. As the almond tree blossoms and brings forth fruit, so too does Tolstoy; but where the almond tree – and from the sound of it, Tolstoy refers to a real almond tree that he owns – is unconscious, and perhaps because of this, ‘gay’ and ‘gleaming’, Tolstoy grows reluctantly, his fruit bitter, his foliage heavy.
I have an inkling that Tolstoy’s gloom was inspired not by war, but by work – the burdens of the very public life he had, as a high-ranking civil servant, and a poet and playwright embroiled in arguments about aesthetics, politics, the fate of the nation, the very meaning of life… but who knows – he could have been sad about a woman. We just don’t know. It is interesting however, that he projects a kind of unconscious joy onto nature, and contrasts this with his own conscious misery…
In fact, he wasn’t always negative about human emotions. One quote that jumps out from his wikipedia page is the following: ‘What I believe in is that God gave us the power of emotion so we could go further than our mind leads us. As a leading force, human emotion is preferable to thought, just as music is more perfect than a spoken word.’ Those are the sentiments of a poet, all right… and many poets would agree, I think, that in poetry emotion must lead thought. Nevertheless, Alexey was, like his cousin Leo, an interesting thinker – a feeling thinker, too.
He was also, so it is said, an innovative poet, though it is difficult to know whether this comes through the translation.
And he was right about almond trees being gay and gleaming. I have a fondness for apple blossom too… and walnut trees – there’s one in a certain car-park by the Tyne in Northumberland, un-noticed by most of the people who pass by. I could start blathering about hawthorn and blackthorn too, but before we know it spring will be over, and we will start to feel gloomy about summer.
Blossom and Sunlight: Me, on my phone
Horse Chestnut blossom: public domain pictures
Almond Blossom: Just a casual dabbing of mine from my old art class. Just kidding, it’s Vincent Van Gough.