Showing posts with label Homer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Homer. Show all posts

Sunday, October 5, 2014


The Greek Anthology is, to a great degree, a chronicle of "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All"), woven through with a gentle and stoic thread of admonition:  Live well.  But be ever aware of That which awaits us all.  In other words, it is the perfect volume to peruse during the heart of autumn.  Doing so this week, I came upon this:

All human things are subject to decay;
And well the man of Chios tuned his lay,
"Like leaves on trees the race of man is found."
Yet few receive the melancholy sound,
Or in their breasts imprint this solemn truth;
For hope is near to all, but most to youth.
Hope's vernal season leads the laughing hours,
And strews o'er every path the fairest flowers.
To cloud the scene no distant mists appear,
Age moves no thought, and death awakes no fear.
Ah, how unmindful is the giddy crowd
Of the small span to youth and life allow'd!
Ye who reflect, the short-lived good employ,
And while the power remains, indulge your joy.

Simonides (translated by J. H. Merivale), in Robert Bland (editor), Collections from The Greek Anthology, and from the Pastoral, Elegiac, and Dramatic Poets of Greece (1813), page 185.

This sort of poem or epigram appears again and again in The Greek Anthology.  I readily confess that I cannot get enough of such things.  Mere truisms?  Yes, of course!  And wonderfully so.

James Torrington Bell (1898-1970), "Landscape"

The third line of Merivale's translation of Simonides' poem is taken from Alexander Pope's translation of Book VI of The Iliad.  "The man of Chios" (line 2) is Homer, who, by tradition, was thought to have been born on Chios, an island in the Aegean Sea in the region once known as Ionia. Which brings to mind (please pardon the digression) these lines from C. P. Cavafy's lovely poem "Ionic": "That we've broken their statues,/that we've driven them out of their temples,/doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead./O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,/their souls still keep your memory."  (Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.)

Here is Pope's line in context:

Like leaves on trees the race of man is found,
Now green in youth, now with'ring on the ground:
Another race the foll'wing spring supplies,
They fall successive, and successive rise;
So generations in their course decay,
So flourish these, when those are past away.

Here are the same lines of Homer as rendered by William Cowper:

For, as the leaves, such is the race of man.
The wind shakes down the leaves, the budding grove
Soon teems with others, and in spring they grow.
So pass mankind.  One generation meets
Its destined period, and a new succeeds.

James Sheard (1866-1921), "The Pride of Autumn"

All of this leads me inevitably to one of my favorite poems by Thomas Hardy, a poem that calls to me each year.  The poem has appeared here before, but, as long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers know, we need to circle back now and then to see how these things look in a new light.

   Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
     Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
     Springtime deceives, --
I, an old woman now,
     Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
     Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
     Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
     Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
     Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
     Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
     Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
     Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high --
     Earth never grieves! --
Will not, when missed am I
     Raking up leaves.

Thomas Hardy, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (1909).

I wonder:  did Hardy have Homer in mind when he wrote this?  Part of me hopes that he did not.  I love the thought of these two great poets arriving at the same place on their own, centuries apart.

Among the many beauties of the poem, this, in particular, always moves me:  "Earth never grieves!"

Andrew McCallum, "Oak Trees in Sherwood Forest" (1877)

I will close with two down-to-earth codas to this seasonal, generational, and cosmic falling and rising, rising and falling.

     Blowing from the west,
Fallen leaves gather
     In the east.

Yosa Buson (1716-1784) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido 1952), page 362.

     People are few;
A leaf falls here,
     Falls there.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) (translated by R. H. Blyth), Ibid, page 364.

James Bateman, "Lulington Church" (1939)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Stationary Clouds": John Ruskin And Homer

John Ruskin could be a bit obsessive, as well as a bit prickly.  Take, for instance, the subject of "stationary clouds":

When, in the close of my lecture on landscape last year at Oxford, I spoke of stationary clouds as distinguished from passing ones, some blockheads wrote to the papers to say that clouds never were stationary. . . . Those foolish letters were so far useful in causing a friend to write me the pretty one I am about to read to you, quoting a passage about clouds in Homer which I had myself never noticed, though perhaps the most beautiful of its kind in the Iliad.  In the fifth book, after the truce is broken, and the aggressor Trojans are rushing to the onset in a tumult of clamour and charge, Homer says that the Greeks, abiding them, "stood like clouds."

The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, Volume XXXIV, pages 11 and 12.

                    Aelbert Cuyp, "The Maas at Dordrecht" (c. 1650)

Ruskin then silences his critics by quoting his friend's letter:

"Sir, -- Last winter when I was at Ajaccio, I was one day reading Homer by the open window, and came upon the lines -- 'But they stood, like the clouds which the Son of Kronos establishes in calm upon the mountains, motionless, when the rage of the North and of all the fiery winds is asleep.'  As I finished these lines, I raised my eyes, and looking across the gulf, saw a long line of clouds resting on the top of its hills.  The day was windless, and there they stayed, hour after hour, without any stir or motion.  I remember how I was delighted at the time, and have often since that day thought on the beauty and the truthfulness of Homer's simile.  Perhaps this little fact may interest you, at a time when you are attacked for your description of clouds.  I am, sir, yours faithfully, G. B. Hill."

Ibid, page 12.  Thus ends the dispute over whether clouds can indeed be stationary!  (An aside: "G. B. Hill," the letter-writer, is none other than George Birkbeck Hill, the Samuel Johnson scholar who edited numerous excellent editions of Johnson's works during the 19th century.)

                     Aelbert Cuyp, "The Valkhof at Nijmegen" (c. 1650)

Monday, April 12, 2010

In Praise Of "Blockhead"

There was a time -- a time more dignified than our own -- when commonly-used epithets were not invariably vulgar.  And thus I come in praise of "blockhead."

As is the case with most things under the sun, one can do no better than to start with Samuel Johnson.  And, sure enough, he is (in my humble opinion) the place to start when it comes to the use of "blockhead" as an insult.  First, The Great Cham's definition:  "A stupid fellow; a dolt; a man without parts."  "Part" is in turn defined by him as follows:  "[In the plural.]  Qualities; powers; faculties; or accomplishments."  Clear enough.

Now, let us (briefly) see Johnson in action.  In Boswell's Life, he is reported to have said of the poet Charles Churchill:  "No, Sir, I called the fellow a blockhead at first, and I will call him a blockhead still."  (Boswell, Life of Johnson (edited by George Birkbeck Hill), Volume I, page 35.)  In an amusing footnote to Johnson's comment, Birkbeck Hill states:  "See post, ii, 173, where Johnson called Fielding a blockhead."  (It is at times like this when one realizes what a treasure George Birkbeck Hill is: did anything about Johnson escape his notice?)

But please note this interesting observation by "Miss Reynolds":  "his dislike of any one seldom prompted him to say much more than that the fellow is a blockhead, a poor creature, or some such epithet."  (Birkbeck Hill, Johnsonian Miscellanies, Volume II, page 270, footnote 6, emphases in original text.)   This suggests that Johnson did not often resort to vulgar insults.

As a worthy successor to Johnson in the nineteenth century, I give you John Ruskin:  "When, in the close of my lecture on landscape last year at Oxford, I spoke of stationary clouds as distinguished from passing ones, some blockheads wrote to the papers to say that clouds never were stationary."  The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, Volume XXXIV, page 11.  Needless to say, Ruskin then went on to prove those "blockheads" wrong.  (I will save that story for another time.  Interestingly, George Birkbeck Hill and a passage from Homer figure in Ruskin's successful rebuttal of the "blockheads.")

So, the next time that you are provoked by someone, may I respectfully suggest that you consider the use of "blockhead."  You shall be in good company.