Friday, August 16, 2013

Enchanted Or Disenchanted, Part Two: "Humanly Alive"

In a recent post, I used C. P. Cavafy's poem "Ionic" to raise the question whether we live in a disenchanted world.  I am not suggesting that, like Yeats, we go searching for fairies in the gloaming.  But it is worthwhile to consider how much the deification of Progress and Science has cost us in terms of human truth.

"What a marvelous time it was when everything was alive, according to human imagination, and humanly alive, in other words inhabited or formed by beings like ourselves; when it was taken as certain that in the deserted woods lived the beautiful Hamadryads and fauns and woodland deities and Pan, etc., and, on entering and seeing everything as solitude, you still believed that everything was inhabited and that Naiads lived in the springs, etc., and embracing a tree you felt it almost palpitating between your hands and believed it was a man or a woman like Cyparissus, etc., and the same with flowers, etc., just as children do."

Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 77.

Yes, I realize there is no turning back.  And I also realize that the soft golden light of Classical Greece is itself a myth.  For instance, we know from Herodotus that, when the Persian heralds sent by Darius asked the Athenians and the Spartans for a tribute of earth and water (signifying obeisance), the Athenians threw the herald into a barathrum ("pit of punishment") and the Spartans threw theirs into a well.  The heralds were told (a paraphrase):  "There's plenty of earth and water down there." Herodotus, The Histories, Book VII, Chapter 133.  Thus, I harbor no illusions.  (Well, perhaps a few.)  But we have lost something.

Charles Mahoney (1903-1968)
"Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden" (c. 1936)

                    Echoes of Hellas

O choir of Tempe mute these many years,
O fountain lutes of lyric Hippocrene,
On whose polluted brink no Muse is seen.
No more, between the gleaming vales, one hears

Apollo's footfall or the sobbing tears
Of Daphne budding finger-tips of green.
No nymphs are bathing with their huntress Queen
In the warm shallows of the mountain meres,

Great Pan is dead:  he perished long ago:
His reedy pipes these uplands never heard.
What trembling sounds from yonder coppice come?

Some ravished queen, who tells the dale her woe?
Nay, since the maids Pierian here are dumb,
The nightingale is nothing but a bird.

John Leicester Warren (Lord de Tabley), Collected Poems (1903).

A note:  I have previously posted John Leicester Warren's poem "The Knight in the Wood," which I highly recommend.

Charles Mahoney, "The Artist's Hand"


The chair squeaks in a high wind,
Rain falls from its branches;
The kettle yearns for the mountain,
The soap for the sea.
In a tiny stone church
On a desolate headland
A lost tribe is singing 'Abide With Me'.

Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Penguin/The Gallery Press 1991).

Charles Mahoney, "The Garden" (1950)


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, thank you for the wonderful quote from Leopardi's Zibaldone, such wonderful truths' expressed in that passage.
I don't know this book at all, though I have read much of his poetry.
I agree with you that science and progress have done much to disenchant the world. It is a mania for explaining and telling every last detail that has become so pervasive in the modern world.
This, in my opinion, is very much in evidence in cinema, where lots of extras are added to a film to tell how every shot and special effect was achieved. Surely the magic of film works precisely because we don't know how it was done and in those moments of watching we are both enthralled and enchanted by what we see on the screen.
Thanks also for the Derek Mahon poems, as so often when I look at your posts you prompt me to take a volume of poetry from my shelf that I have'nt opened in a while.


Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: as always, thank you very much for your thoughts.

I confess that I am more familiar with Leopardi's prose (e.g., Pensieri, Operette Morali, and Zibaldone) than with his poetry -- although recently I have been trying to catch up on the latter. As I mentioned in a previous post, I recommend the recently-published translation of Zibaldone.

It has been a while since I have visited Mahon's poems, but "Nostagias" came to mind for some reason. He is a wonderful poet.

It's always good to hear from you. Thank you again.

Fionnghula Thel said...

Yes, we have lost something. I am greatful for your blog. It serves as some kind of light that shines on who we once were, we we might still be. Not just this post but your blog as a whole is a wonderfully rich alter of sorts to beauty, the search for truth and the human psyche and soul.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Thel: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope that you will return. Thanks again.