Except in some ways they are. They were today, down in the Lye Valley. In among the “warm thick slobber/of frogspawn that grew like clotted water” as Seamus Heaney puts it, were maybe a hundred frogs. Alerted by a notice from social media, I took Ivy, keen and energetic to see the frogs spawning in the fenny ponds near our house.
They weren’t Heaney’s “slime kings,” “their blunt heads farting,” but a congregation of animals, a welcome sign of spring on a warm afternoon. Not coarse, and not apocalyptic, just frogs: welcome, exuberantly sexual and productive. One watched us carefully as she sat in her grey cloud of eggs, her sides heaving; others climbed, swam, grabbed, and croaked like a distant motorbike starting up.
My immediate thought is that Bashō has it right: keep to the bare thing itself (a nice explanation of Bashō’s famous frog haiku and some translations are to be found here; more, with Zen comments, here) in a few terse lines: eschew the grandiose. Today at Mass, the preacher interrupted his own flow to correct his phrasing around a (very good) point of his sermon on Christology and spirituality and say “O dear, what pretentious twaddle!” – and perhaps Bashō does better with his short invitation to join him by the pond.
But it is hard not to allegorise or to turn their plopping, scrambling desperation into something bigger – grosser or symbolic. Gerard Manley Hopkins would see nature as sacramental fire; Heaney’s natural world (here at least) is slimy and malevolent; Mary Oliver’s poems often take a subtle path between the two, through looking at the human in a natural context, and in her poem This World she is openly trying to avoid the transcendent and mythical:
“ …so I tried with my eyes shut, but of course the birds were singing.
And the aspen trees were shaking the sweetest music out of the leaves.
And that was followed by, guess what, a momentous and beautiful silence
As comes to all of us in little earphones if we’re not too hurried to hear it…
So fancy is the world, who knows maybe the stars sing too…
There is important project here: Mary Oliver tries to depict a world which is “nothing fancy,” and maybe its importance lies in her failure. Because of the beauty she sees in the minute happenings of the ants and the distant singing of the stars, or (elsewhere) in the “slick black oaks” or “wild geese, high in the clean blue air,” Oliver cannot help but write that “the world offers itself to your imagination,” and join Hopkins in seeing beauty “fathered-forth” by the transcendent.
“Before this world was as we know it now
Before the land and sea were formed at all
Before the stars were made to burn and shine
Little love of mine, darling one
Who can pretend to understand at all
No one can both inside and outside be
Who can suppose he knows the way this goes
Little lamb, never mind
So let us love and let us not delay
The world is old and it will never last
Our share of joy is in this moment past…”
In this “thin moment” of appreciating the world can we take a breath of the Spirit and be by the same pond as Bashō?