Monday, October 29, 2018

Small Gods

For the past month or so, I have been reading ancient Greek poetry in translation -- mostly poems from The Greek Anthology, but other lyric poetry as well.  I recently came across these lovely lines by Hesiod:

To spirits thrice ten thousand by God's will 'tis assigned
Through all the fruitful earth to watch o'er humankind.
Deathless, hidden in darkness, wandering everywhere,
They watch all judgments given, all evil that men dare.

Hesiod (translated by F. L. Lucas), from Works and Days (lines 252-255), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 205.

The lines brought to mind a passage from Giacomo Leopardi's Zibaldone, the collection of thoughts that Leopardi entered in notebooks between 1817 and 1832:

"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 (translated by Kathleen Baldwin, Richard Dixon, David Gibbons, Ann Goldstein, Gerard Slowey, Martin Thom, and Pamela Williams) (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013), page 69.

Leopardi is perhaps best known for his dire and unremitting pessimism about the nature of human existence.  His philosophical pessimism has an important historical element.  He believes that the modern world (for Leopardi, who lived from 1798 to 1837, the modern world was the first three decades of the nineteenth century) is a shadow of its ancient former self -- to wit, the world of Greece and the world of Rome.  Leopardi held this view at the tail end of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.  Where, then, does that leave us?

I turn to Hesiod again:

Earth bare the long-ridged mountains, within whose fair depths dwell
The Nymphs divine, in the valleys that run 'neath peak and fell.

Hesiod (translated by F. L. Lucas), from Theogony (lines 129-130), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 206.  "Bare" is used in the sense of "bore," or "gave birth to."

Leopold Rothaug (1868-1959), "Classical Landscape" (1939)

I can hear, faintly, the cry of enlightened moderns (which, dear readers, may include some (most?) of you):  "But we have progressed beyond such fanciful fairy tales!  Get with the program."  Ah, yes, I am well aware of the "progress" humanity has made in the intervening centuries.  I can look around and see all that we have wrought.  Which is why I do my best to look for Immanence in the beautiful particulars of the World.  Which is why I am open to the possibility of small gods dwelling in vales, meadows, groves, springs, and rills.

I am the god of the little things,
     In whom you will surely find,
If you call upon me in season,
     A little god who is kind.
You must not ask of me great things,
     But what is in my control,
I, Tychon, god of the humble,
     May grant to a simple soul.

Perses (4th century B.C.) (translated by Rennell Rodd), in Rennell Rodd, Love, Worship and Death: Some Renderings from The Greek Anthology (Edward Arnold 1919), page 23.

Here is an alternative translation:

Little am I among lesser gods; but call in season
     Even on me, and I hearken.  Yet ask me for nothing grand.
Things that a god of the people may look to give in reason,
     When a poor labourer prays him -- these lie in Tychon's hand.

Perses (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 280.

The humble, nature-dwelling gods who appear in the poems of The Greek Anthology generally wish us well, and have no hidden agendas.  Is this simply a human attempt to put a benign face upon nature, to construct a comforting fiction?  Perhaps.  Mortality is, after all, the thread that runs through the Anthology, and through most of ancient Greek verse.  But it seems to me that Leopardi's observation is beautifully correct:  the Greeks viewed -- and inhabited -- the World in a way that we can never fully comprehend.

Here at the three-ways, near the foam-white strand,
I, Hermes, by the breezy orchard stand.
Rest from the road to weary men I bring:
Beneath me wells a cool, untroubled spring.

Anyte (3rd century B.C.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology (Jonathan Cape 1931), page 39.

Another translation of the same poem:

Beside the grey sea-shingle, here at the cross-roads' meeting,
     I, Hermes, stand and wait, where the windswept orchard grows.
I give, to wanderers weary, rest from the road and greeting:
     Cool and unpolluted from my spring the water flows.

Anyte (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman, page 319.

This much is certain:  we are not entitled to think of the ancient Greeks as "naive" or "quaint," nor are we in a position to patronize them.  Look around you.

I, Pan the Shoreman, on this foreland wet,
Pan, warden of this good anchorage, was set
By fishermen.  Anon I mind the creel;
Anon I watch these long-shore netters' weal.
But sail you on; and I shall send behind,
For this beneficence, a gentle wind.

Archias (1st to 2nd century A.D.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology, page 43.

Friedrich König (1857-1941), "The Silent Pond" (1910)

Have I taken leave of my senses?  That is entirely possible.  Or perhaps I am not willing to foreclose any possibilities.  Think of it as a pantheistic variation on Pascal's Wager.  Or let's just say that I am persuaded by this poem, of which I am quite fond, and which has appeared here in the past.


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.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1975), page 63.

Leopold Rothaug, "Far Away" (1945)

Hesiod's phrase "spirits thrice ten thousand," in addition to bringing to mind the passage from Leopardi, prompted me to think of this as well:


When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999), page 451.

As I walked down an avenue of emptying trees recently, it occurred to me that our life unfolds between the dry leaves scattered on the ground and the limitless sky overheard (on that day, blue, streaked with long wispy lines of white cloud feathers).  This is where the small gods may dwell.  "Thrice ten thousand" or "eight million," who can say?

Ferdinand Brunner (1870-1945), "The Summer Morning" (1913)

Sunday, October 14, 2018

What The Leaves Say

We have now well and truly entered the season of bittersweet wistfulness, the season of wistful bittersweetness.  Is there anything more heartbreakingly beautiful than a sunny, wind-swept brilliant autumn day?  Here, in this corner of the World, we have had five of them in succession, with more on the way.  How can so much joy and so much sadness abide together?

"A brilliant autumn day."  "The brilliant autumn sky."  "The brilliant autumn leaves."  Yes, cliché after cliché:  at times like these, I am only capable of evocation, not exact and accurate description.  I will offer this as an excuse:  you had to have been there; words fail.  Of course, dear reader, you can say the same thing to me, from wherever you are.  Each of us has our own "brilliant autumn day," incommunicable, ineffable.  Some beauty (all beauty?) is beyond words.  In the presence of autumn, anything other than silence is a diminishment.

Still, we have the human urge to articulate . . . something.  What, for instance, do the leaves say?


Far from your own little bough,
Poor little frail little leaf,
Where are you going? -- The wind
Has plucked me from the beech where I was born.
It rises once more, and bears me
In the air from the wood to the fields,
And from the valley up into the hills.
I am a wanderer
For ever: that is all that I can say.
I go where everything goes,
I go where by nature's law
Wanders the leaf of the rose,
Wanders the leaf of the bay.

Giacomo Leopardi (translated by J. G. Nichols), in Giacomo Leopardi, The Canti (Carcanet Press 1994).

The poem is a translation of "La Feuille" ("The Leaf") by the French poet Antoine-Vincent Arnault (1766-1834).  Hence the title "Imitation."

John Milne Donald (1819-1866), "Autumn Leaves" (1864)

On leaves, Wallace Stevens (he of the wonderful poem titles) gives us this:  "Continual Conversation with a Silent Man."  There are "many meanings in the leaves,//Brought down to one below the eaves . . . It is not a voice that is under the eaves./It is not speech, the sound we hear//In this conversation, but the sound/Of things and their motion."  A caveat, however:  Stevens was of two (or three or four) minds about this conversation with the World.  Thus, for example, there is this from "The Motive for Metaphor":  "You like it under the trees in autumn,/Because everything is half dead./The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves/And repeats words without meaning." (As for the identity of the "silent man" in this "continual conversation," that is something else altogether, and is beyond my ken.)

Yet, if the leaves are saying something, why not listen?  The message may be beguiling.  It may be comforting.  Or full of portent.

            Fast Fall the Leaves

Fast fall the leaves: this never says
To that, "Alas! how brief our days!"
All have alike enjoy'd the sun,
And each repeats, "So much is won:
Where we are falling, millions more
Have dropt, nor weep that life is o'er."

Walter Savage Landor, Dry Sticks (James Nichol 1858).

Alexander Docharty (1862-1940), "An Autumn Day" (1917)

"I sometimes look upon all things in inanimate Nature as pensive mutes."  (Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 117.)  So wrote Thomas Hardy in a notebook entry made on May 30, 1877, in his thirty-sixth year.  He lived nearly 51 more years.  As one might expect, during that half-century Hardy's thoughts on the volubility of inanimate Nature underwent further elaboration and qualification, as evidenced in his poetry.  (He, like Wallace Stevens, was of many minds.)  Moreover, as is characteristic of Hardy, the observation contains its own qualifications.  "I sometimes look upon . . ."  And, of course, "pensive mutes":  incapable of speech, but nevertheless capable of thought and reflection.

This brings us in a roundabout way to a poem which has appeared here several times in the past.

   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 (Macmillan 1909).

"Earth never grieves!" is what the poem leads to.  But, for me, the loveliest and most affecting words in the poem are the six words that come next:  "Will not, when missed am I."  Simple, piercing, serene. Is this what the leaves say?  You will have lived your life well if you can come to speak those words and know their truth in your heart.

William Samuel Jay (1843-1933)
"At the Fall of Leaf, Arundel Park, Sussex" (1883)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Madness And Life

A native of any country goes through periods when he or she becomes convinced that his or her nation has gone stark, raving mad.  The past few weeks have done it for me.

I am not here to discuss the details, for they are of no moment. (Should you encounter a person who feels otherwise, give them a wide berth.)  The madness is the point.  Mind you, most of the country's inhabitants have not taken leave of their senses.  But they know full well where the madness resides.

For me, the solution is simple.  Tonight, I sought out some beloved lines, sat down and read them, and all was well with the World.

Constant Penelope sends to thee, careless Ulysses.
Write not again, but come, sweet mate, thyself to revive me.
Troy we do much envy, we desolate lost ladies of Greece;
Not Priamus, nor yet all Troy, can us recompense make.
Oh, that he had, when he first took shipping to Lacedaemon,
That adulter I mean, had been o'erwhelmed with waters:
Then had I not lain now all alone, thus quivering for cold,
Nor used this complaint, nor have thought the day to be so long.

Anonymous, in William Byrd, Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs of Sadness and Piety (1588), in E. H. Fellowes (editor), English Madrigal Verse 1588-1632 (Oxford University Press 1920).  The eight lines are untitled.  They are a translation of the opening lines of the First Epistle of Ovid's Heroides.  E. H. Fellowes (editor), English Madrigal Verse 1588-1632, page 254.

As I fall asleep tonight I will be thinking of constant Penelope and her lovely complaint, and of nothing else.

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"