Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?
Look at the moon
Do you want to hear what ears have never heard?
Listen to the birds cry
Do you want to touch what hands have never touched?
Touch the earth
Truly I say that God is about to create the world.

From The Theologians, Jorge Luis Borges

The opening lines of The Theologians:

After having razed the garden and profaned the chalices and altars, the Huns entered the monastery library on horseback and trampled the incomprehensible books and vituperated and burned them, perhaps fearful that the letters concealed blasphemies against their god, which was an iron scimitar. Palimpsests and codices were consumed, but in the heart of the fire, amid the ashes, there remained almost intact the twelfth book of the Civitas Dei, which relates how in Athens Plato taught that, at the centuries’ end, all things will recover their previous state and he in Athens, before the same audience, will teach this same doctrine anew. The text pardoned by the flames enjoyed special veneration and those who read and reread it in that remote province came to forget that the author had only stated this doctrine in order better to refute it.

Advertisements

“I have only once encountered pure evil in a person”: Auden on Yeats

Auden’s “In Memory of W B Yeats” is a great tribute poem, especially the closing lines:

Follow, poet, follow right

To the bottom of the night,

With your unconstraining voice

Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse,

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

Reading the poem, one may or may not be surprised to read of Auden’s ambivalence about Yeats, in this fascinating talk by Mike Douse to the Yeats Society in Sligo:

I sum up the complex and often contradictory nature of Auden’s perception of Yeats in the term, ‘vehement ambiguity’. This is an extreme example of a love/hate relationship, a more intense variety of the equivocal and fluctuating interactions that often exist between artists. WH’s feelings towards WB were complex, confusing, and contradictory. The elegy, which we shall shortly focus upon, contrasts sharply with many of WH’s expressed opinions of WB, such as: “Yeats spent the first part of his life as a minor poet, and the second part writing major poems about what it had been like to be a minor poet”; or his considered view that the version of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse edited by Yeats was “the most deplorable volume ever issued”; or, even more pointedly, “I have only once encountered pure evil in a person, and that was when I met Yeats”.

And yet Auden praised Yeats as the saviour of English lyric poetry and noted in a 1948 essay entitled ‘Yeats as an Example’ that he “… accepted the modern necessity of having to make a lonely and deliberate choice of the principles and presuppositions in terms of which [he made] sense of his experience.” Auden assigned Yeats the high praise of having written “some of the most beautiful poetry” of modern times. In that article he credited Yeats with transforming the occasional poem in English from an official performance of impersonal virtuosity, such as Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington,” into a serious reflective poem having at once personal and public interest; and he identified Yeats’s elegy for Robert Gregory as “something new and important in the history of English poetry…”.

But as the thirties wore on, Auden’s admiration for Yeats as poet was tempered by his dislike for his perception of Yeats’s fondness for the trappings of aristocracy and his flirtation with O’Duffy’s Blueshirts. In the second half of his life Auden developed an almost obsessive fear of the danger of Yeats’s kind of outlook, and much of the story of Auden’s development as a poet after 1940 is also the story of his struggle to exorcise the persistent spirit of Yeats: his hardening of the conviction that the greatest threats to individual freedom in the modern world were a direct legacy of the Romantic outlook upon which Yeats prided himself.

Dylan Thomas, Poem in October, read by Dylan Thomas

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
Summery
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sunlight
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singing birds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Versions of Alcman’s “Sleep”

At First Known When Lost, Stephen Pentz collects some versions of fragmentary lines by the Spartan lyric poem Alcman. This fragment was used by Edgar Allan Poe for the epigraph of his story Silence: A Fable.

Here are the selections from First Known When Lost:

The mountain-summits sleep, glens, cliffs and caves,
Are silent — all the black earth’s reptile brood —
The bees — the wild beasts of the mountain wood;
In depths beneath the dark red ocean’s waves
Its monsters rest, whilst wrapt in bower and spray
Each bird is hush’d that stretch’d its pinions to the day.

Alcman (translated by Thomas Campbell), in Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995). The poem was originally published in 1821 in The New Monthly Magazine.

Night

The far peaks sleep, the great ravines,
The foot-hills, and the streams.
Asleep are trees, and hivèd bees,
The mountain beasts, and all that dark earth teems,
The glooming seas, the monsters in their deeps:
And every bird, its wide wings folded, sleeps.

Alcman (translated by H. T. Wade-Gery), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938). Wade-Gery added the title “Night” to the fragment.

The mountain-tops are asleep, and the mountain-gorges,
Ravine and promontory:
Green leaves, every kind of creeping things
On the breast of the dark earth, sleep:
Creatures wild in the forest, wandering bees,
Great sea-monsters under the purple sea’s
Dark bosom, birds of the air with all their wings
Folded, all sleep.

Alcman (translated by Walter Headlam), in Walter Headlam, A Book of Greek Verse (Cambridge University Press 1907).

Vesper

Now sleep the mountain-summits, sleep the glens,
The peaks, the torrent-beds; all things that creep
On the dark earth lie resting in their dens;
Quiet are the mountain-creatures, quiet the bees,
The monsters hidden in the purple seas;
And birds, the swift of wing,
Sit slumbering.

Alcman (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951). Lucas added the title “Vesper.”

I found another version on the Poetry Foundation site
:

A Version of Alcman’s (fl. 630 BCE) “Sleep” poem . . .
BY JOHN KINSELLA
Dormant are pinnacles and streams of the mountains,
Chasms and bluffs and crawlers fed by the dark earth;
Dormant are wild animals and that tribe of bees
And monsters out of the sea’s dark syntax;
Dormant are clans of birds with wings that envelop.

The Campbell translation seems to be the dominant one on the internet, but there is this whose provenance I am trying to track down:

Slumbering are the mountains, crest and chasm,
Ravine and precipice,
And every creeping thing on the earth’s dark breast,
Beasts in their forest lairs and the tribes of the bees,
And monsters within the depths of the purple seas:
Slumbering too are the birds
Their swift wings laid to rest.

(UPDATE – it is a translation by R C Trevelyan from The Bride of Dionysus, A Music Drama, And Other Poems

If you followed the link to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Silence” you would note that the epigraph is worded slightly differently to any of these versions (well, only the Campbell could possible have been used by Poe)

The mountain pinnacles slumber; valleys, crags and caves are silent

I cannot trace the rest of this translation, perhaps Poe’s own?

Alcman (sometimes transliterated as Alkman) is known only from fragments – this page collects these fragments. These particular lines come from Apollonius’ Homeric Lexicon:

Apollonius Homeric Lexicon :
Some writers give the name of beast to lions, leopards, wolves, and all similar animals, that of creeping-thing generically to the various kinds of snakes, that of monster to cetaceans such as whales; which is the distinction made by Alcman in the lines:

Alseep lie mountain-top and mountain-gully, shoulder also and ravine; the creeping-things that come from the dark earth, the beasts whose lying is upon the hillside, the generation of the bees, the monsters in the depths of the purple brine, all lie asleep, and with them, the tribes of the winged birds.

Finally, a few years ago the poet Sherod Santos published his own translations of Ancient Greek Lyric poetry, evidently a rather loose one from the poet of view of the text. This attracted the opprobium of the critic Gary WIlis and a defence by Rosanna Warren. From Warren’s defence:

Occasionally, Santos’s delight in the poems, coupled with his lack of feel for Greek, can lead to inflated phrasing. It is an effect of generosity, of ebullience, and it overruns the economy essential to Greek lyric beauty. Yet in most of these cases Santos has not betrayed the originals so much as amplified them in his imagination. So in Alcman’s fragment about the sleeping creatures of the night, Santos expands the landscape to include “the low scrub thickets and the riverine glades” and several other features absent from the original, and concludes in a lush line of summation (“all are asleep in the depthless conjuring of that sound”), whereas Alcman ended simply with the long-winged birds. Why begrudge the modern poet his riff? It has its own beauty, and Alcman’s birds survive.

Warren goes on to write:

It is not as if Sappho & Co. had fared so very well in the classicizing centuries. Each era imposes its own poetic conventions and inventions upon the classics. Sappho’s first appearance in English, in 1652 in John Hall’s version of her famous “Phainetai moi” (“He seems to me equal to the gods”), traded in all the clinical specificities of the Greek for sausage links of clichés (“sweet languors to my ravish’d heart”) far worse than Santos’s occasional indulgences. And if one traces the history of that poem in English, one finds betrayal after betrayal.

Santos is not a classicist. He does not know Greek. But his poems plucked from the Greek Anthology have more vitality, strength, and delicacy than a good number of so-called original works that cram the pages of our magazines these days. Why not be grateful?

“Hell is where the damned stay, immobilized by their choices” – Rowan Williams on The Divine Comedy, TLS, September 12th 2017

s-pq4315-w7-purgatorio-xviii

From this review

There is still a tendency among not very attentive readers – not to mention people who have read almost nothing of the work but have picked up the odd juicy morsel – to think of the Inferno as the really “interesting” section of the poem, the part where recognizable human emotion is most dramatically depicted and evoked: guilty love, transgression, punishment, tragic disaster and horror. It is salutary to remember that we as readers are not meant to linger in Hell and that, for all Dante’s obsessional score-settling in the Inferno, this is not what he intends to write about. The first part of the Commedia represents a terrifying descent towards complete stasis, the frozenness of Lucifer: the circles of Hell put before us a more and more total paralysis of energy and movement, and it is only by way of the extraordinary acrobatic feat that takes Virgil and Dante into Purgatory that the poem is enabled to continue. Hell is where the damned stay, immobilized by their choices; and for just that reason it cannot be where the poem stays. The choices of writer and reader alike have to be released, thawed out, if the poem is not itself to be silenced like the appalling figures of Satan and the three traitors in the Ninth Circle, who can neither move nor speak.

Poem on Ballymanus Mine Disaster, 1943

On May 10th, 1943, a stray mine washed ashore in the Rosses of Donegal. What happened next is recounted in this Irish Times piece on a memorial unveiled in 1999:

Many watched the mine from the shore for several hours as it bobbed in the water. When it finally came ashore, they rushed to see what it was, despite warnings to keep clear.
Some climbed on top of it while others banged on it with stones in an attempt to crack its shell, unaware of what lay inside. Without warning, the mine exploded, killing 17 young men ranging in ages from 14 to 34, including three brothers. Two more died in hospital soon afterwards. The explosion was so loud it was heard over 40 miles away in Letterkenny.

Among those who died were two of my grand-uncles.

At the Donegal Heritage blog there is posted a poem by author unknown on the tragedy. I note that it refers to 18 deaths, not 19 (or 17) which I wonder may help with dating it.

Oh weird and wild the wail of woe now borne

Upon the startled night-winds from the west-

Deep gasps of grief and soul-sighs from men torn

By death, grim hideous unbidden guest-

From where great breakers piling on the shore

Awaken eerie echoes o’er the dunes. Fell waves!

Foul, treacherous for-ever more-

While lethal-laden, chanting […]

the rest is at The Mine at Ballymanus 1943 — Donegal Heritage

“Water”, Philip Larkin

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes.

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing
A furious, devout drench.

And I should raise in the East
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

There’s an interesting discussion here between poets A E Stalling and Daisy Fried. They rather good humouredly accuse themselves of “overthinking” at one stage, which is probably true, but there are some good insights:

Because art has many motivations and requirements which aren’t necessarily thematic. The poet wants that image. Or has some other desire more to do with aesthetics or formal necessities than with thematic content. Larkin may not have been much invested in constructing a religion at all. Poems aren’t necessarily made because we have something to get off our chests, or because we’re after a factual recording of experience. Maybe Larkin wanted to build contrast across the poem. Sousing and fording and drenching—those big-muscle, full-body actions—followed further on by the crystallization of light in water, in a contrastingly tiny vessel.

And maybe he wanted the beautiful inflection of “any-angled” and the way that multitude of angles fits into the tiny vessel. Could he have wanted everybody in the whole world who ever lived (“congregate endlessly”) also to fit in that glass?

Maybe the whole thing adds up to a simultaneously strenuous and weightless vision—and maybe that’s where the authentic experience of religion lies in this poem, or rather, an authentic desire for what religion might be. So that freshness or derivativeness of the ideas in “Water” may not be as important to Larkin as achieving the energies and contrasts in the poem, which seem to me to translate emotionally and (maybe) spiritually in a struggle both towards and away from faith.