Saturday, January 25, 2014

Millennia

Two of my recent posts have featured poems by Callimachus, who wrote in Greek in the third century B. C. (to the best of our knowledge).  For all of their antiquity, Callimachus's poems are not outdated.  Although we are quite enamored with our modern selves, and have deceived ourselves into believing that humanity has "progressed" in the past few millennia, nothing has changed when it comes to the human heart (for good or evil).

With respect to Greek sepulchral epigrams in particular (for instance, Callimachus's epigrams on a dead shipwrecked sailor and a dead poet), the following passage is worth considering:

"[The sepulchral epigrams of The Greek Anthology] have such a natural dignity and delicacy of feeling about death that no change of nationality or even religion can estrange us wholly from them.  What else is the achievement of Greece than this, that her people thought beautifully and justly, and expressed their thought in a most sure-fingered adequacy of form, about matters which flesh and blood can never cease to be concerned with, all apparent revolutions and progresses of civilization notwithstanding?  About all such bottomless contrasts as the difference between town and country, night and day, sea and land, youth and age, life and death, nobody writes the better for all the development of human ingenuity."

J. S. Phillimore, "Crinagoras of Mitylene," The Dublin Review, Volume CXXXIX (1906), page 82.

Yes, "human ingenuity" (exalted -- nay, worshipped -- in our time; see, e.g., science and technology) and "humanity" are two entirely different things, aren't they?

Jan Beerstraten (1622-1666), "A Winter Landscape near Castle Buren"

  To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

I who am dead a thousand years,
     And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
     The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
     Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
     Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
     And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
     And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer?  Like a wind
     That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
     Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
     Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
     I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
     And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
     To greet you.  You will understand.

James Elroy Flecker, Forty-Two Poems (1911).  "Old Maeonides the blind" (line 15) refers to Homer, who is said to have been from Maeonia (Lydia), and was thus a Maeonide.

Although the poem is directed "to a poet" and although it speaks in terms of "our sweet English tongue," I think that it can apply as well to readers of poetry, in any tongue.

Jan Beerstraten, "Skating Scene"

On a broader note:

                                    To Posterity

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

Louis MacNeice, Visitations (Faber and Faber 1957).

"Other, less difficult, media."  Sounds about right.  It has happened more quickly than MacNeice might have imagined.  And, although he never experienced ebooks, Kindles, and iPads, MacNeice was inadvertently prescient in one particular:  "when books have all seized up like the books in graveyards."  (I apologize to those who swear by such contraptions. Personally, I require the feel of paper and the turning of pages.  Except for blogs, of course!)

Jan Beerstraten, "The Castle of Muiden in Winter" (1658)

11 comments:

Fred said...

Stephen,

Great poems, both of them.


"But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?"

That's humanity.

By the way, I have only a desktop PC. I'm such a Luddite that I don't use a mobile phone, for I want some time alone.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I'm glad you liked the poems. I lean towards being a Luddite as well, although I do carry a cell phone. (In the event of a dead battery in my car or a stroke while I'm out for a walk! At least that's how I rationalize it.)

Thanks for stopping by.

Mathias Richter said...

Dear Stephen,

You made a point about Flecker’s poem which let me reassess the celebrated early song by Gerald Finzi. Stephen Banfield, his biographer, remarked that Finzi set the word “English” in “our sweet English tongue” with a Lydian inflection. I don’t want to bother you too much with musicological detail but the Lydian mode is an ancient scale with a raised fourth degree. This has a magic effect, as Banfield remarks.
Listen esp. at 3:30

Now, the name refers of course to the ancient kingdom of Lydia. I can’t help but think that Finzi may have intended this strange element as a bridge to reach from old Greece to modern England or, as you said, “to readers of poetry, in any tongue.”

Stephen Pentz said...

Mathias: thank you very much for that thought-provoking piece of information, and for the link to the recording of Finzi's setting. As a result of your comment, I did some quick research on "the Lydian mode," but, given my musical ignorance, I'm not sure that I grasped much!

Nonetheless, your observation is lovely to contemplate: if Finzi intended to emphasize the Homeric/Lydian/Greek element, it is a wonderful touch by him. And, even if it occurred by chance (subconsciously), it is equally wonderful.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

I was delighted to see Gerald Finzi's name mentioned in the comments. He is on my short list of favorite 20th century composers.

While I, too, appreciate the sensuous pleasure of a book in hand, I am completely sold on e-book readers. Carrying a 7-ounce NOOK reader allows me to read anywhere, anytime--in line at the grocery store, waiting in an office for an appointment, while sitting on a bench on a forest path.

Stephen, my thanks to you for your always-enjoyable blog.

Tim Guirl

Bob said...

Finzi has a few gems, and certainly many fine lines. And since to inspire parody one must first be an important writer (for only an important writer's work would be recognized in the parody), I offer in compliment to Finzi, John Heath-Stubbs’ “To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence”:

I who am dead a thousand years
And wrote this crabbed post-classic screed
Transmit it to you—though with doubts
That you possess the skill to read,

Who, with your pink mutated eyes,
Crouched in the radioactive swamp,
Beneath a leaking shelter, scan
These lines beside a flickering lamp;

Or in some plastic paradise
Of pointless gadgets, if you dwell,
And finding all your wants supplied
Do not suspect it may be Hell.

But does our art of words survive—
Do bards within that swamp rehearse
Tales of the twentieth century,
Nostalgic, in rude epic verse?

Or do computers churn it out—
In lieu of songs of War and Love,
Neat slogans by the State endorsed
And prayers to them, who sit above?

How shall we conquer—all our pride
Fades like a summer sunset’s glow:
Who will read me when I am gone—
For who reads Elroy Flecker now?

Unless, dear poet, you were born,
Like me, a deal behind your time,
There is no reason you should read,
And much less understand, this rhyme.

Bob said...

Gads, I wrote "Finzi" when of course I meant "Flecker." Feel free to edit or add this correction.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: thank you very much for your kind words about the blog -- I appreciate your taking the time to visit.

As for Finzi: I am fortunate to have a number of readers (such as Mr. Richter) who know infinitely more than I do about composers who have set poems to music. Thus, over the past few years I have been introduced to a great deal of music of which I was ignorant, including that of Finzi. I am always surprised and pleased to discover that so many of the poems I like have been given musical settings, particularly in the first half of the 20th century in England.

As for ebooks, etc.: I fear that I sounded too curmudgeonly and churlish. Obviously, someone who maintains a blog is being a bit hypocritical when picking on other technologies! I don't judge others for using them, mind you. I just don't like their feel and look. But that's just me. Also, I don't possess your power of concentration: I need to find my way to a favorite chair or sofa beneath lamplight in order to focus my attention.

Thank you very much for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Bob: thank you very much for the poem by Heath-Stubbs: wonderful! And far more realistic than Flecker's, I'm sorry to say. I don't know when Heath-Stubbs wrote it, but the world he describes sounds like ours. But the last stanza moves beyond our world to a fundamental truth (I'm afraid) about those of us who love poetry: "born . . . a deal behind your time" sounds exactly right.

As ever, thank you for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

The Heath-Stubbs poem appeared in 'The Watchman's Flute', 1979.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you, I wasn't aware of that.