Thursday, September 21, 2017


I am easy to please.  Or so I like to think.  Perhaps this is merely a matter of growing old, evidence of a fond mind.  "Or else I'm gettin' soft."  Recently, for instance, I have spent a fair amount of pleasurable time mulling over various English translations of a six-line fragment (all that has been recovered) of a Greek poem written by Alcman, who lived in the late 7th century B. C., and who may or may not have been from Sparta.  Mind you, my preoccupation has not been a scholarly endeavor:  I find the lines lovely, and I have been loath to quickly leave them.

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,
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."

Reginald Brundrit (1883-1960), "Nightfall"


Fred said...

I think the reference to the death of poetry suggests that poetry is being read by fewer and fewer people today, at least in this country. I have lost track of almost all of my friends from the English Dept at the Univ. of Arizona, and nobody I know reads poetry. I have to get on-line to find a few, such as you, who still read poetry.

As for the "death of culture," I suspect that what is really meant is that their culture is disappearing and being replaced by something different--perhaps an electronic hi-tech culture.

As for Frost's poem, one I love, a sudden change outside produces one inside. One must be open to possibilities.

Fred said...


Forgot to mention--I can see why you spent time with this six line fragment. It is well worth it.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for those thoughts. As for poetry "being read by fewer and fewer people today," I think that poetry has always been a minority taste, and always will be. As for culture "disappearing," people have always complained about the degradation of "culture." For instance (and I have quoted the passage here on more than one occasion), Wordsworth speaks about this in his 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads: "For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor." Sound familiar? This is a perennial complaint. Only the technology changes. Each generation flatters itself by thinking it is unique in the history of humanity.

As you know, the best course of action is to live one's life in a way which is mindful of what is valuable, and do the best one can to preserve it.

As always, it is good to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the wonderful poetry and paintings that you post. Your blog is a joy to read and has enriched my life.

However, your assumption that "poetry has always been a minority taste" is debatable. Historian Mary Beard in "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome" (chap. 11) observes that "Virgil’s poetry was one shared cultural commodity, to be quoted, adapted and even used for jokes and play." Closer to our time period, during the US Civil War, letters from ordinary soldiers are filled with poetry, their own and others, and poetry was an integral part of American education into the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

I shouldn't make it a competition, but I like the second of the translations much better than the other three.
Something I can't resist telling about "Dust of Snow": When I was in 7th grade (in 1949!) we had a new teacher who spent a lot of time on poetry. I was such a little smart-alec (& I fear took advantage of knowing I was her favorite student); I vividly remember saying in class that I thought the last line of the poem spoiled it -- I didn't like the word "rued" & felt Frost had dragged it in just for a rhyme.
As you have commented in a more serious context -- amazing what one remembers.

Unknown said...

Mr Pentz

Thank you - as ever - for this post. As you write, "poetry is dead" is a rather lazy catchcall.

Recently I read something or other about the "lost art" of letterwriting (pen and paper letters, not emails!) And I thought, why lost? Paper exists. Pens exist. The postal service exists. So I have been busying myself writing letters to friends - even ones I am in regularly electronic touch with. I can't say I have harvested many replies yet! but there is a value to writing the letter, to a communication that is out of the reactive loop of the electronic world - I find my writing more reflective, more playful, more honest...

Anyway, something of a digression there! The point being that it is easy to get sucked into a lot of hype about such and such being "dead" or "dying" or obsolete... when it is just as available as ever!

I realised when I went to look up this poem that Poe used the opening as the epigraph for 'Silence: A Fable" - I have collected the versions you present here and also another modern one (and a correspondence about a controversial set of Greek Lyrics poem translations) here : - hope you don't mind.


Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog, which I greatly appreciate.

I certainly recognize that there have been times in history when poetry had a greater presence in the culture at large. (To your examples, I would add the T'ang Dynasty in China and the classical and medieval periods in Japan, when poetry was at the center of court and governmental culture.) But I don't think that your point and mine are necessarily contradictory. I would suggest that, even in the periods you cite, poetry was still a minority taste. But I certainly don't want to turn this into a debate about something we both love. (Having practiced law for 33 years, I have to constantly curb my by now natural tendency toward argumentation!)

Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: As for my favorite, I lean toward Wade-Gery's translation as well, although Campbell's is close.

Thank you for sharing your anecdote about "Dust of Snow": I envy you having such a fine introduction to poetry at an early age. And, yes, it is strange how some things remain in our memory, isn't it?

As ever, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again. I hope you have a lovely autumn in your part of the world.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sweeney: It is very good to hear from you again. First, thank you very much for mentioning this post on your blog (as well as for your previous references to First Know When Lost). I intended to post a comment thanking you, but since you have appeared here first, I will take this opportunity to express my gratitude.

I wasn't aware that Poe had used Alcman in one of his works (my ignorance of Poe's work is nearly total, I'm ashamed to say), and I'm pleased to learn of it. Thank you as well for sharing the additional translations by John Kinsella and R. C. Trevelyan, which I hadn't come across. By the way, Edmund Blunden also translated Alcman's lines. I decided not to use his translation in the post, since it was getting long. Now, however, your post inspires me to quote it here:

A Night-Piece

Asleep; the pinnacles and the precipices of the mountains,
Headlands, and torrents, and all that walk and creep
On the shadowy earth that breeds them; the beasts that haunt in the mountains,
The world of bees, the kraken in the blue deep;
Even the orders of birds of widest wing are asleep.

Blunden's translation appeared in his collection Halfway House (1932).

Finally, I completely agree with you about it being "easy to get sucked into a lot of hype about such and such being 'dead' or 'dying' or obsolete . . . when it is just as available as ever." And I applaud you for writing letters! As you say: "a communication that is out of the reactive loop of the electronic world": exactly. Speaking for myself, it is all too easy to get caught up in that "reactive loop."

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you are enjoying a beautiful autumn in your lovely part of the world.

Denise Hay said...

Thank you as always Stephen for your wonderful post. Robert Frost is one of my favourite poets and the poem you have chosen is wonderful. I am a musician and the rhythm of it pleases me a great deal. One of the first poems I learned by heart (circa 1959) is 'Stopping by woods on a snowy evening' (which he apparently wrote in the Summer!) I'm afraid culture is not surviving in the UK. Arts funding is at an all time low and schools are exam factories with no time for the arts. It's dismal. I wish I could share your optimism. Thank you Stephen. Your posts always inspire and delight me.

Jeff said...

I love Blyth's observations about having moments of revelation but failing to recognize them, or "seeing" things we never really stopped to see. I observed my city neighborhood intensely for 21 years. I knew its human and automotive rhythms, its subtle sounds, the routes taken by its small mammals, and tiny signs that the seasons were set to change. I thought I knew the place better than just about anyone else. Then I moved an hour away into the woods and realized: birds. For 21 years, I hadn't learned a dang thing about the birds. And now I wonder: What else did I overlook?

Stephen, good for you for hand-writing letters. I send my niece and nephew handwritten postcards, and I've done it for so long that I'm not sure they realize it's odd. I like that.

Stephen Pentz said...

Denise: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm pleased you liked "Dust of Snow" in this context. Although we both reference winter poems by Frost, this is a wonderful time to visit his autumn poems, isn't it?

As for the state of poetry and of culture, my view is that we can only do what we do as individuals. But I confess that I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to the role of the government and of schools in the preservation of poetry and art.

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

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: I agree with your thoughts about Blyth's passage. The passage echoes in general his thoughts about haiku, which, as I noted, I think apply in general to poetry and to other works of art. In the Preface to Volume 1 of Haiku he writes: "Haiku is a kind of satori, or enlightenment, in which we 'see into the life of things' [Wordsworth, "Tintern Abbey"]. We grasp the inexpressible meaning of some quite ordinary thing or fact hitherto entirely overlooked." Haiku, Volume 1, p. vii.

Your thoughts about noticing birds after your move to the country are wonderful. I am always reminding myself to pay attention to them, but I often forget of their beautiful presence. In a post earlier this year, I noted how, upon coming to the end of a walk, I suddenly realized that I had been accompanied by the sound of birds the entire time. This is the sort of thing that Blyth is getting at, I believe.

As for hand-writing letters, I cannot take credit for that: it is Mr. Sweeney who is reinvigorating that practice. (As are you.) I merely expressed my admiration for his actions.

I trust you are, and will be, enjoying, autumn in the countryside. As always, thank you very much for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts.