Sunday, March 26, 2017

Absence

My favorite poems from The Greek Anthology are the epitaphs and the elegies.  The best of them combine graceful, noble simplicity with deeply-felt, but restrained, emotion.  E. K. Chambers's poem in memory of Thomasine Trenoweth, which appeared in my previous post, prompted me to return to this lovely poem by Callimachus:

Their Crethis, with her prattle and her play,
The girls of Samos often miss to-day:
Their loved workmate, with flow of merry speech,
Here sleeps the sleep that comes to all and each.

Callimachus (c. 310 B.C. - c. 240 B. C.) (translated by A. H. Bullen), in      A. H. Bullen, Weeping-Cross and Other Rimes (Sidgwick & Jackson 1921).

This four-line poem accomplishes something remarkable in a brief space: it captures the essence of Crethis, of the personality which made her belovèd among her friends; it articulates, in a non-histrionic fashion, the grief of those friends upon losing her; and, finally, it places all of this within a context which embraces each of us, and which reminds us of a reality, often avoided, that we all must come to terms with, sooner or later.

Crethis, young prattler, full of graceful play,
Vainly the maids of Samos seek all day;
Cheerfullest workmate; ever talking; -- she
Sleeps here, -- that sleep, from which none born can flee.

Callimachus (translated by "F. H."), in The Classical Journal, Volume XXXIII (March and June, 1826), page 9.

Because I have no knowledge of Greek, I am not qualified to opine on the accuracy and fitness of the three translations that appear here.  I will only note that, despite the differences in the English words chosen by each of the translators, the emotional tenor of all three versions is quite consistent: we feel the charming vivacity of Crethis, and we also feel the aching and breathless sense of absence when a bright life is cut short.

The Samian maidens oft regret their friend,
     Sweet Crethis, full of play and cheer,
     Whose gossip lightened toil.  But here
She sleeps the sleep they all will sleep at end.

Callimachus (translated by Edward Cook), in Edward Cook, "The Charm of The Greek Anthology," More Literary Recreations (Macmillan 1919), page 317.

Algernon Cecil Newton (1880-1968), "The Avenue" (1944)

"All poetry is in a sense love-poetry."  Edward Thomas makes this suggestion at the end of a paragraph in which, discussing the unique power of poetry, he states:  "If what poets say is true and not feigning, then of how little account are our ordinary assumptions, our feigned interests, our playful and our serious pastimes spread out between birth and death. . . [Poetry] is the utterance of the human spirit when it is in touch with a world to which the affairs of 'this world' are parochial."  Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), pages 86-87.

I think that these are wonderful, and true, observations.  But might it not also be said that all poems are elegies?  This may be a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other:  an elegy is an expression of love (a greater or a lesser love, depending upon the nature of the relationship between the elegist and the departed).  There are various types and degrees of love, and the potential objects of our love are innumerable.  But what all love has in common is this:  the belovèd may leave us.  Hence, love poems.  Hence, elegies.  Edward Thomas again:  "First known when lost."

                           The Evening Star
     in memory of Catherine Mercer, 1994-96

The day we buried your two years and two months
So many crocuses and snowdrops came out for you
I tried to isolate from those galaxies one flower:
A snowdrop appeared in the sky at dayligone,

The evening star, the star in Sappho's epigram
Which brings back everything that shiny daybreak
Scatters, which brings the sheep and brings the goat
And brings the wean back home to her mammy.

Michael Longley, The Weather in Japan (Jonathan Cape 2000).  In a note, Longley explains that "dayligone" (line 4) is a "Scots (or Ulster Scots)" word which means "twilight, dusk."  Ibid, page 68.

"The evening star, the star in Sappho's epigram" likely refers to a two-line fragment by Sappho, which may be translated into prose as follows: "Evening, thou that bringest all that bright morning scattered; thou bringest the sheep, the goat, the child back to her mother."  Sappho (translated by Henry Thornton Wharton), in Henry Thornton Wharton, Sappho:  Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation (David Stott 1887), page 131.

In Greek mythology, Hesperus (Venus) is the evening star.  Lord Byron adapts Sappho's lines, and links them to Hesperus, in Book III, Stanza 107, of Don Juan:

O Hesperus!  thou bringest all good things --
     Home to the weary, to the hungry cheer,
To the young bird the parent's brooding wings,
     The welcome stall to the o'erlaboured steer;
Whate'er of peace about our hearthstone clings,
     Whate'er our household gods protect of dear,
Are gathered round us by thy look of rest;
Thou bring'st the child, too, to the mother's breast.

A. E. Housman also incorporates the spirit of Sappho's lines (and Hesperus) into the third stanza of "Epithalamium":

     Happy bridegroom, Hesper brings
All desired and timely things.
All whom morning sends to roam,
Hesper loves to lead them home.
Home return who him behold,
Child to mother, sheep to fold,
Bird to nest from wandering wide:
Happy bridegroom, seek your bride.

A. E. Housman, Last Poems (Grant Richards 1922).

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

One  afternoon this past week, a heavy rain squall passed through about fifteen minutes before I headed out for my daily walk.  My course took me through a long avenue of trees.  By then, the sky had mostly cleared, and the green fields and bare trees glowed in the sunshine.

Wide puddles left by the just-departed storm ran continuously along both sides of the asphalt lane down which I walked.  As I have noted here in the past, to see the World reflected in a puddle, however small, is a wondrous thing.  But this was a replicated World of an entirely different magnitude: for two hundred yards or so the blue sky, the passing white clouds, and the intricate empty branches of the trees accompanied me, reflected in two bright ribbons of water.

As I walked, paused to gaze, and then walked on again, I was aware of the evanescence of the clear and brilliant World laid out at my feet.  Ripples, moving in tiny waves from south to north, occasionally disturbed the surface of the water as the wind gusted.  The blue sky and the white clouds and the tree branches reappeared when the wind subsided.  This bright and haunting World came to an end when the lane came to an end.  I could hear the rain water slowly gurgling into the storm drains.

"It is a commonplace of life that the greatest pleasure issues ultimately in the greatest grief.  Yet why -- why is it that this child of mine, who has not tasted half the pleasures that the world has to offer, who ought, by rights, to be as fresh and green as the vigorous young needles of the everlasting pine -- why must she lie here on her deathbed, swollen with blisters, caught in the loathsome clutches of the vile god of smallpox.  Being, as I am, her father, I can scarcely bear to watch her withering away -- a little more each day -- like some pure, untainted blossom that is ravished by the sudden onslaught of mud and rain.

"After two or three days, however, her blisters dried up and the scabs began to fall away -- like a hard crust of dirt that has been softened by melting snow.  In our joy we made what we call a 'priest in a straw robe.'  We poured hot wine ceremoniously over his body, and packed him and the god of smallpox off together.  Yet our hopes proved to be vain.  She grew weaker and weaker and finally, on the twenty-first of June, as the morning glories were just closing their flowers, she closed her eyes forever.

"Her mother embraced the cold body and cried bitterly.  For myself, I knew well it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return, and blossoms that are scattered are gone beyond recall.  Yet try as I would, I could not, simply could not, cut the binding cord of human love.

                              The world of dew
                         is the world of dew.
                              And yet, and yet -- "

Kobayashi Issa (prose translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa; haiku translated by Robert Hass), from A Year of My Life (1819), in Robert Hass, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, and Issa (The Ecco Press 1994), pages 227-228.

Visiting his daughter's grave a month after her death, Issa wrote this haiku:

Wind of autumn!
And the scarlet flowers are there
That she loved to pluck.

Kobayashi Issa (translated by Lewis Mackenzie), in Lewis Mackenzie, The Autumn Wind: A Selection from the Poems of Issa (John Murray 1957), page 100.

Here is another translation of the same haiku:

The red flower
you always wanted to pick --
now this autumn wind.

Kobayashi Issa (translated by Sam Hamill), in Kobayashi Issa, The Spring of My Life and Selected Haiku (translated by Sam Hamill) (Shambhala 1997), page 78.

Algernon Cecil Newton, "Landscape"

A lovely thought by William Cowper comes to mind:

"But it is a sort of April weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."

William Cowper, letter to Walter Bagot (January 3, 1787), in James King and Charles Ryskamp (editors), The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, Volume III: Letters 1787-1791 (Oxford University Press 1982), pages 5-6.

Yüan Chen (779-831) wrote a series of poems after the death of his wife. This is one of them.

          Bamboo Mat

I cannot bear to put away
the bamboo sleeping mat --

that first night I brought you home,
I watched you roll it out.

Yüan Chen (translated by Sam Hamill), in Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions 2000), page 191.

It is often the small things that matter, and that are not forgotten, as long as we remain here.  But they are not small things at all, are they?

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

12 comments:

James Owens said...

Stephen,

Thank you for this lovely post. I am especially grateful for the three versions of Callimachus and for the Longley poem, a very touching one of his that I had not seen before.

Recently I came across Martial's poems written on the occasion of the death of a child, Erotion --- perhaps his own child with one of his servants, though he doesn't make that explicit. The poems are tender and grieving in manner, far from Martial's usual abrasiveness --- one is a request to his own parents, that they care for this child when she arrives in the Underworld and keep her from being frightened by what she will see there --- and I was moved enough to attempt my own translations from his Latin.

On the Death of Erotion, a Child of Five
(Martial 5.34)

I commend this girl, this sweet one, my delight,
Fronto and Flaccilla, my parents, into your care,
so that with you little Erotion might not take fright
at Cerberus's triple roar or the phantoms there.
Had she lived six more days of winter cold,
she'd have prided herself on being six years old.
With such familiar protectors, let her trick and play
and still lisp my name, as she used to do.
May mellow sod veil her brittle bones --- and weigh
Lightly on her, kind earth; she was light on you.

.

Tim Davis said...

Yes! Even when poets write about the terrors of life (e.g., Frost and Dickinson), the outpourings are love poems. Your posting helped me see more clearly this reality. And today I offered something at my blog that touches upon that reality:
http://informalinquiries.blogspot.com/2017/03/the-marriage-of-heaven-and-hell.html
As we live our lives, we must learn to love both life and death in order to understand and embrace both Heaven and Hell; for those of us who need to learn how to understand, embrace, and love, poets are indispensable guides. Moreover, your always wonder-filled blog has been one of my indispensable guides. Thanks for all of your efforts and gifts.

Fred said...

Stephen,

A beautiful post.

The sources of the poems, coming from such a wide variety of places and cultures--Greece to Japan--really demonstrates that we are one species, regardless of external differences.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Owens: Thank you for the kind words about the post. I'm pleased you liked the poems, particularly the poems by Callimachus and Longley. I completely agree about Longley's poem. He is a modern master of the elegy, and this is one of his best.

And thank you as well for sharing your lovely translation of Martial's poem. It is quite moving, and, as you suggest, a surprise coming from Martial. I confess that I am woefully ignorant of his work, but my impression (based upon the few poems I have encountered in anthologies) is that he is, to borrow your description, "abrasive." But this poem is, as you say, "tender." I particularly like the conclusion: "and weigh/Lightly on her, kind earth; she was light on you." As you know, asking the earth to "lie lightly" on the departed is a recurring phrase in ancient Greek poetry, and, as you also know, the phrase worked its way into English poetry as well (particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries).

Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your translation. Please return soon.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, there are so many riches in this post. I am re-reading and savouring all you’ve written . Michael Longley’s poem is wonderful, particularly the second verse. The piece on the death of Issa’s daughter is almost unbearably touching. I cannot do better than repeat your own words “It is often the small things that matter, and that are not forgotten, as long as we remain here. But they are not small things at all”

Thank you for all your effort in putting together such an absorbing post.

Stephen Pentz said...

Tim: Thank you very much for your kind words. And thank you also for your thoughts about poetry: I heartily agree that "poets are indispensable guides" on our journey through life (and death). As you suggest in your post to which you provide a link, Dickinson is one of those (enigmatic) guides, particularly when it comes to the mystery of death.

Thank you for stopping by again. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: It's very nice to hear from you again. I greatly appreciate your kind words about the post. Thank you.

Yes, that is one of the wonderful things about poetry, isn't it? The more poetry that I come to know, the more I realize the truth of what you say.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much. That's very nice of you to say.

I'm pleased you liked the post. The poem about Crethis led me from one thing to another -- these are all favorites of mine, and they just seemed to go together. Yes, the passage by Issa is heart-wrenching, isn't it? It never fails to move me. But, as sad as all these poems are, I feel a sense of comfort and peace when I read them. Perhaps this has something to do with the shared sense of humanity they awaken. I'm not certain.

It's always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again.

Anonymous said...

Sir,

I'd wager that most of your readers find your description of the world you saw reflected in the pools of water as lovely, if not more so, that any of the poems you quoted. It's quite lovely, this account of your walk after a fierce thirty minutes of hard rain and high wind. Frankly, I always enjoy your prose as much as I relish the poems you quote in your blog. You are the equal of what you quote, and together, this confluence of superb poetry by others and your own splendid prose make for a blog of eloquence, an eloquence, I might add, buttressed with a profound sensibility and a superlative intelligence. I look forward to reading each new blog of yours, for I know you will bravely and elegantly take up literary arms against the inexplicable human predicament, a plight that poetry, at its best, can reveal in a shadowy way, not to our minds but to, rather, some mysterious lump at the core of ourselves.

To your collection of poems about loss (see below), allow me to add Ben Jonson's sad poem about the death of his seven-year-old son. Certainly other poems about loss have been more lyrical, more fraught with sorrow and bewilderment, but Jonson's straight-forward poem about his loss is replete with sincerity. The poem elicits not tears but, rather, a sad nod of a man recognizing a truth. We know that behind the poem, in the heart of the man who wrote it, lies an enormous mountain of grief, raw sorrow, a sadness a man cannot reason himself out of.

On my First Son

By Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years tho' wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say, "Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your extremely kind thoughts -- although I'm afraid you are far too kind! For instance: I would never consider anything that I write to be remotely "the equal of what [I] quote." (Although it is, again, kind of you to say so.) As I have noted here in the past, I see myself solely as a messenger, bringing the poems and the paintings here for the enjoyment (I hope) of those who find their way to this location. Anything that I write is merely makeshift, rickety scaffolding, cobbled together. Finally, I hasten to add (again, as I have noted here in the past) that I know absolutely nothing. Everything that appears here is part of what we all are doing: making our way through the World as best we can.

Thank you for sharing the poem by Jonson, which is lovely and moving. As I'm sure you know, Jonson also wrote a touching poem in memory of his daughter:

On My First Daughter

Here lies, to each her parents' ruth,
Mary, the daughter of their youth;
Yet all heaven's gifts being heaven's due,
It makes the father less to rue.
At six months' end, she parted hence
With safety of her innocence;
Whose soul heaven's queen, whose name she bears,
In comfort of her mother's tears,
Hath placed amongst her virgin-train:
Where, while that severed doth remain,
This grave partakes the fleshly birth;
Which cover lightly, gentle earth!

Thank you again for your thoughts, which I greatly appreciate.

Monophthalmos Rex said...

Another lovely post--just the thing to brighten a cloudy, cold spring morning in Maine.

This is coals to Newcastle, to be sure, but your mention of the sky reflected in pools reminds me of Housman's lilting lines (which you've probably quoted elsewhere), from "Spring Morning" (also from Last Poems:

Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter's pains.
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains

Thank you, as always, for broadening and deepening my feelings and thoughts!

Stephen Pentz said...

Monophthalmos Rex: It's very nice to hear from you again. I greatly appreciate your kind words. Thank you.

And thank you as well for the lines from Housman, which fit well here. As you say, they are "lilting lines" (and lovely ones) -- but with a characteristic Housman twist at the end of the poem: "Blue the sky from east to west/Arches, and the world is wide,/Though the girl he loves the best/Rouses from another's side." Ah, well, such is Housman's world (much, but not all, of the time). Yet, it is a beautiful world nonetheless. It's part of what makes his poetry lovable (for me, at least).

As ever, thank you very much for visiting. It is always a pleasure to have you stop by.