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.
Walter John James (1869-1932), "Troughend near Otterburn"
I am always bemused and puzzled when I hear someone proclaim that our age is one in which we are witnessing "the death of poetry" or, more broadly, "the death of culture." How can poetry and culture be in their death throes if we can read Alcman or Simonides today, Bashō or Saigyō tomorrow, Robert Herrick or Thomas Hardy the day after that, and T'ao Ch'ien or Wang Wei the day after that? Enough of this death business.
In fact, the creation and preservation of Beauty and Truth by means of poetry and other works of art has always been -- and will always be -- a near run thing. At any given time in the history of humanity, the survival of Beauty and Truth has depended upon the love and good offices of a few thousand, a few hundred, or even a few dozen people. These people are not saints, nor are they in any way superior to their fellow human beings. They have simply (to their surprise and delight) stumbled upon something of the greatest importance.
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.
There you have it: by reading six lines of verse written over 2,500 years ago, you have prevented the death of poetry. All is now well with the World.
George Reid (1841-1913), "Evening" (1873)
Please bear with me as I state the obvious: the best poetry is timeless. When I read Alcman's fragment, I do not feel that I am reading something that is alien to the World as I know it. And here is something marvelous: a good poem's timelessness is directly related to the fact that it is the product of a fleeting moment of revelation. "Now is the all-sufficing all/Wherein to love the lovely well,/Whate'er befall." By virtue of poetry, a vanished moment becomes imperishable.
"In old-fashioned novels, we often have the situation of a man or a woman who realizes only at the end of the book, and usually when it is too late, who it was that he or she had loved for many years without knowing it. So a great many haiku tell us something that we have seen but not seen. They do not give us a satori, an enlightenment; they show us that we have had an enlightenment, had it often, -- and not recognized it."
R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 322.
Although Blyth's observation relates to haiku in particular, I would suggest that it is applicable to all forms of poetry, in all ages and in all places.
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).
Walter John James, "Evening" (1913)
As I was thinking about poetry as enlightenment or revelation, as the product of an evanescent moment, this appeared out of the blue:
Dust of Snow
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
Robert Frost, New Hampshire (Henry Holt 1923). (A word of caution: I am not suggesting that "Dust of Snow" is "about" poetry. I am merely reporting its unexpected arrival on the scene.)
But let us return to a night in Greece two millennia ago. Which is tonight.
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,
Alcman (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951). Lucas added the title "Vesper."
Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "Nightfall"