Monday, August 19, 2013

Perspective, Part Ten: "O Little Waking Hour Of Life Out Of Sleep!"

Cosmic facts and theories leave me cold.  My interest is not piqued when I hear a scientist proclaim in wonder that some heavenly body in the universe is x billion light years away from Earth or that our solar system constitutes x-trillionth of the total matter in the universe and that each of us in turn constitutes x-quadrillionth of the total matter in the solar system. To borrow from Walker Percy, I believe that our time is better spent figuring out how to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.

Still, I understand the allure of cosmic immensity.  I have fond memories of sitting in a dark planetarium on a school trip, listening to the narrator intone about the grandeur and the mystery of the universe as the constellations spun through their seasons overhead.  And more than once I have pondered the fact that the starlight reaching our eyes tonight began its journey here hundreds or thousands of years ago.  Which means, of course, that the starlight beginning its journey tonight will arrive here long after we have turned to dust.  I have not yet decided whether these facts are edifying or frightening.  I suppose they could be both.

Algernon Newton, "The House by the Canal" (1945)

As a young man, Giacomo Leopardi was wont to take a Romantic view of our cosmic situation.  "His amusement was to count the stars as he walked."  Zibaldone, page 280 (October 16, 1820).  Or this: "A house hanging in the air suspended by ropes from a star."  Zibaldone, page 256 (October 1, 1820).  He wrote the following poem in 1819, when he was 21. (Some perspective: Keats turned 24 in that year.)

                       The Infinite

This lonely hill was always dear to me,
And this hedgerow, that hides so large a part
Of the far sky-line from my view.  Sitting and gazing,
I fashion in my mind what lie beyond --
Unearthly silences, and endless space,
And very deepest quiet; then for a while
The heart is not afraid.  And when I hear
The wind come blustering among the trees
I set that voice against this infinite silence:
And then I call to mind Eternity,
The ages that are dead, and the living present
And all the noise of it.  And thus it is
In that immensity my thought is drowned:
And sweet to me the foundering in that sea.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by John Heath-Stubbs), in Giacomo Leopardi, Selected Prose and Poetry (edited and translated by Iris Origo and John Heath-Stubbs) (1966).

Algernon Newton, "The Regent's Park Canal, Paddington" (1930)

For comparison, here is another translation:


This lonely hill was always dear to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view
of so much of the last horizon.
But sitting here and gazing, I can see
beyond, in my mind's eye, unending spaces,
and superhuman silences, and depthless calm,
till what I feel
is almost fear.  And when I hear
the wind stir in these branches, I begin
comparing that endless stillness with this noise:
and the eternal comes to mind,
and the dead seasons, and the present
living one, and how it sounds.
So my mind sinks in this immensity:
and foundering is sweet in such a sea.

Giacomo Leopardi, Canti (translated by Jonathan Galassi) (Farrar Straus Giroux 2010).

The different approaches to a phrase in lines 7 and 8 of the original ("ove per poco/Il cor non si spaura") are puzzling to this non-Italian speaker. Heath-Stubbs gives us: "then for a while/The heart is not afraid." Galassi gives us:  "till what I feel/is almost fear."  Frederick Townsend (in his 1887 translation) gives us:  "and for a moment I am calm."  The choice between "not afraid" and "almost fear" and "calm" leaves me perplexed.  I would opt for "calm" solely for emotional reasons (and with absolutely no linguistic authority), but what do I know?

Algernon Newton, "Canal Scene, Maida Vale" (1947)

Here is another way to look at cosmic immensity:  less Romantic perhaps, but dreamy and resigned (with a melancholy sigh) in a lovely 1890s fashion.


O little waking hour of life out of sleep!
When I consider the many million years
I was not yet, and the many million years
I shall not be, it is easy to think of the sleep
I shall sleep for the second time without hopes or fears.
Surely my sleep for the million years was deep?
I remember no dreams from the million years, and it seems
I may sleep for as many million years without dreams.

Arthur Symons, Images of Good and Evil (1899).

Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)


B. Floyd said...


When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: very apropos! Thank you very much -- I had completely forgotten about this. I'm not much of a Whitman fan, but I have always liked this poem. Probably because of its brevity: I confess that he tends to wear me out.

It's always good to hear from you. Thanks again.

Bob said...

But Emily Dickinson reminds us (from memory, so the punctuation is surely wrong):

Faith is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see --
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: thank you very much for the Dickinson. As is often the case, I am left feeling befuddled and stupid as to what she is getting at. The fault is mine, not hers, of course. This is as far as I get: "Science and scientists: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em." Which confirms my obtuseness.

A few textual variations may complicate things even further. (Based on Internet research, so buyer beware.) A number of texts use "Faith" (in quotation marks). The second line is usually given as: "For Gentlemen who see," with "see" often italicized. As I say, these wrinkles may complicate (or, better, deepen) things even further.

Thank you for the poem, and for visiting again.

Bob said...

My somewhat anachronistic translation would be:

"Christian Science is fine, until you get sick."

Clarissa Aykroyd said...

Great poems in this post - I've been thinking I need to read more of Leopardi - and I like the paintings too (I know those areas - actually used to live near Regent's Canal in west London.)

I agree with you, science doesn't mean a lot to me either. But there are moments when aspects touch me, when I can relate it to my life and the lives of those I care about, to questions of faith and so forth. Also, I like to speak with/hear from people who are passionate about things I'm not passionate about, such as science and mathematics. When I get a glimpse of their feelings for those subjects, it makes me realise that they feel about those things the way I do about literature, the arts, etc, and it's quite a mind-opening experience.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: I believe that you and I are probably thinking along the same lines. Thanks for the follow-up.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Aykroyd: thank you for visiting again. I'm pleased that you liked the poems and the paintings.

As I mentioned in another series of comments, I'm more familiar with Leopardi's prose than I am with his poetry. I need to read more of his poetry as well.

As for science, I probably should have made clear that my lack of interest in scientific facts is tied to an underlying concern about how the scientific worldview has assumed such a disproportionately large role in the "modern" world. In general, I have no bone to pick with those who are enthusiastic about such things. (As long as they aren't trying to draw up agendas for the rest of us based upon scientific "truth," of course.)

Thanks again. It's always good to hear from you.