Friday, November 23, 2018


Is the primary office of poetry to remind us of our mortality?  I sometimes think so.  My thought is prompted by my continued meanderings through ancient Greek verse, where one comes across lines such as these:

Alas and alas, when the mallow dead in the garden lies,
Or the pale-green parsley withers, or the lush-curled anise dies,
Yet they rise anew and quicken when spring returns again.
But we the strong, the mighty, the wise, we sons of men,
When we die and the earth is o'er us, ah then how long, how deep,
Unhearing, unawaking, night without end we sleep!

Anonymous (2nd century B. C.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 332.  The lines are from "Lament for Bion."  The poem was formerly attributed to Moschus.  However, after it was discovered that Moschus antedated Bion, the poem is now attributed to an unknown poet who may have been a follower of Bion.

Here is an alternative translation of the same lines:

Alas, when mallow in the garden dies,
Or parsley green or crinkled anise dear,
They live again, they rise another year:
But we, the tall, the mighty and the wise,
Once dead, beneath the hollow ground must keep
A long dumb changeless unawakening sleep.

Anonymous (translated by Gilbert Murray), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 754.  Murray's comma free final line is wonderful.

The passage from "Lament for Bion," though unsparing in its message, arguably has a reassuring aspect to it:  the mallow, the parsley, and the anise will return to blossom again; hence, our fate unfolds within a larger context, which we ought to bear in mind.  As I have noted here in the past, the thought that the seasons will continue to come and go after we have returned to the dust can be a source of equanimity and serenity (or so it is for me, at least).

The epigrams on our mortality in The Greek Anthology tend, on the whole, to withhold consolation.  For instance:

Life is the fool of hope, till one last morning
Sweeps all our schemes away, without a warning.

Julius Polyaenus (1st century A. D.) (translated by Hugh Macnaghten), in Hugh Macnaghten, Little Masterpieces from The Anthology (Gowans & Gray 1924), page 19.

Thomas Mostyn (1864-1930), "Memory's Garden" (1900)

On the other hand, I am perfectly willing to consider an alternative: Is the primary office of poetry to remind us of the joy of living an evanescent life?  Joy.  Not mere happiness (a misused and delusive chimera).  One can be miserable, even in despair, and still experience joy.  "The word 'joy.'  Take the time to think about this word.  I'm surprised that it suddenly comes back to me."  Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Tess Lewis), notebook entry (May of 1979), in Philippe Jaccottet, Seedtime: Notebooks 1954-1979 (Seagull Books 2013), page 336.

Cool waters tumble, singing as they go
Through appled boughs.  Softly the leaves are dancing.
Down streams a slumber on the drowsy flow,
               My soul entrancing.

Sappho (7th century B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 210.

Most of Sappho's poetry comes to us in fragments.  Thus, the lines translated by T. F. Higham are all that remain of a poem that has otherwise vanished.  But there is something both apt and affecting in the joy embodied in the beautiful particulars of the fragments.  Such small beauties are what we are most likely to encounter in our day-to-day, quotidian, commonplace life.  (Mind you, as I have noted here in the past, I never use the words "quotidian" or "commonplace" in a pejorative sense.)  "We live in a constellation/Of patches and of pitches."  (Wallace Stevens, "July Mountain.")  Fragmentary, momentary beauty.

Sit all beneath fair leaves of spreading bay,
     And draw sweet water from a timely spring,
And let your breathless limbs, this summer day,
     Rest, in the west wind's airy buffeting.

Anyte (4th century B. C.) (translated by Robert Furness), in Robert Furness, Translations from The Greek Anthology (Jonathan Cape 1931), page 38.

Just as a thread of mortality runs through ancient Greek verse, so does a thread of joy.  An evanescent joy, yes.  Yet a timeless joy as well.  A joy shot through with eternity.

I fear I am wandering too far afield, but consider this:  "If thou shouldst live three thousand years, or as many myriads, yet remember this, that no man loses any other life than that he now lives; and that he now lives no other life than what he is parting with, every instant."  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 14, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742).  Or, looked at from a different angle:  "If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present."  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) (translated by C. K. Ogden).

But let us return to the beautiful particulars, and to joy:

                                   Ah, what joy
Can out-joy this -- to reach the land -- and then,
Safe-lodged, with happy drowsing sense to hear
The raindrops pattering on the roof outside!

Sophocles (5th century B. C.) (translated by Walter Headlam), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 383.  The lines are from Tympanistae, a play by Sophocles that has been lost, save for a few fragments. Headlam's translation of the lines first appeared in A. C. Pearson (editor), The Fragments of Sophocles, Volume II (Cambridge University Press 1917), page 264.

David Baxter (1876-1954), "Woodland Scene"

In my part of the world, nearly all the leaves have fallen.  Bare branches clack and creak in the wind.  The sun sets earlier and earlier.  Out on a late afternoon walk this week, I felt that the World was a bit diminished.  But, as I emerged out of a dark wood, I suddenly saw the white moon, waxing gibbous, in the pale blue eastern sky.

The thread of mortality and the thread of joy are intertwined.  And wondrously so.  In life and in poetry.

Being but man, forbear to say
Beyond to-night what thing shall be,
And date no man's felicity.
          For know, all things
          Make briefer stay
Than dragonflies, whose slender wings
          Hover, and whip away.

Simonides (556-468 B. C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 234.

Come to think of it, a third alternative now occurs to me:  Is the primary office of poetry to remind us to live each day of our life with gratitude?

Mary Jane Girardot (1863-1933), "Evening Glow" (c. 1900)


hart said...

Such an interesting post. You've made me want to find more ancient Greek poetry. I especially like reading the differing translations. Thanks and I forwarded it to several friends.

Anonymous said...

Keats finds comfort in knowing that even though we pass into nothingness beauty never will. “Beauty moves away the pall / from our dark spirits.” The lines below are the beginning of “Endymion.”

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Stephen Pentz said...

hart: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for forwarding it to your friends. I recommend both the Oxford anthology and F. L. Lucas's anthology as excellent sources for a wide range of Greek verse. I agree with your comment about reading various translations of the same poem: the differences can be interesting and instructive.

Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing the lines from Keats. I agree with your focus on the wonderful lines: " . . . yes, in spite of all,/Some shape of beauty moves away the pall/From our dark spirits." These lines seem like the heart of the passage to me, together with: "Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing/A flowery band to bind us to the earth." For some reason, Frost's lines from "Birches" suddenly come to mind: "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better."

I think the passage you quote goes well with the fragments by Sappho and Sophocles and the poem by Anyte, each of which seems to embody what Keats is getting at -- they "move away the pall/From our dark spirits."

Thank you again for sharing this passage, and for visiting.

Thomas Parker said...

I am cursed to live in Southern California, where all is one single, dull, too-hot season. A few years ago I read through the wonderful one volume selection of Thoreau's journals published by New York Review of Books Classics. What delighted me most about the book was living with Thoreau through thirty years of the cycle of the seasons. I found myself looking forward to each season in succession, searching eagerly for Thoreau's noting of the signs that heralded the arrival of spring, summer, autumn, winter, over and over.

So many of the Greek selections (and Thoreau) made me think of this poem of Edward Thomas, "There's Nothing Like the Sun":

There's nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me: November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning's storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang. But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March's sun,
Like April's, or July's, or June's, or May's,
Or January's, or February's, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said--
Or, if I could live long enough, should say--
"There's nothing like the sun that shines to-day"
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: Thank you very much for those thoughts. With regard to Southern California and the seasons, I know of what you speak. I was born in Minnesota, but, when I was 11, my family moved to Southern California, where I spent the years from 6th grade through high school; I then attended the University of California in Santa Barbara. I never stopped missing the Minnesota seasons (which remain with me after all these years). Having stayed in Seattle after attending law school here, I have always appreciated the seasons here, although they are not as distinct as the seasons in Minnesota (not as much snow, for one!).

I can understand why Thoreau's journals (which, unfortunately, I have not read) would have provided a seasonal substitute of sorts for you. For me, haiku perform a similar function. As you know, nearly every haiku contains a "seasonal" word. Thus, one can follow the change of the seasons through them. But of course, each of us has our own favorite seasonal poems in any language.

Which brings us to Thomas's "There's nothing like the sun": thank you very much for sharing it. "November has begun . . ." It is one of the poems that I try to revisit this time each year, so I'm delighted that you posted it here. Yes, "There's nothing like the sun till we are dead." That line does have an ancient Greek feel to it, doesn't it?

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

Todo Boffin said...

First of all I want to express my gratitude for your blog. I’ve spent many hours digging in your archives! I have turned up so many wonderful poems and pieces of wisdom which stay with me.

Thank you for another thought-provoking and inspiring post. Your remarks on the relationship of brevity and timelessness particularly resonated. ‘A joy shot through with eternity’ is excellent. Do you know the Portobello Sonnets by Harry Clifton? Here is number 3:

Overnight snow in the east. Already a thaw
By morning, and the blown grey smoke
Of dissipating cloud-cover, natural law
Unveiling itself, made infinite by the shriek
Of a seagull, a few rooftops, the steeples
Of two churches. Slowly the sun
Irradiates, warms. But where are all the people?
Why has the city shrunk to a point? I run
To overtake the moment, without ever moving
From the window-seat, or breaking out
In any kind of sweat, lest the will take over.
Listen, sit, be grateful for a day
When nothing happens. Time, pure light
And silence, the world looking the other way.

Depending on my mood I take it either as a plea for (more) time, or as urging us to snatch moments of stillness from chaotic life in which we may perceive timelessness and briefly bask in it. Surely another important office of poetry is to help us pay attention to the beauty and joy of the world.

Best regards

Stephen Pentz said...

Todo Boffin: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog and about the post, which I greatly appreciate.

And thank you as well for the lovely poem by Harry Clifton, which is new to me. I have only read a few of his poems in anthologies, but I have long been intending to explore his poetry more deeply. Your posting the poem here will prompt me to finally act. Portobello Sonnets seems like a good place to start. After receiving your comment, I read some reviews of it: it appears that the shade of Patrick Kavanagh is present in the collection, which is good to hear. (As you may have noticed from past posts, I am fond of Kavanagh's poetry.)

Your closing remark is perfect: "another important office of poetry is to help us pay attention to the beauty and joy of the world." I completely agree. In fact, that is probably its most important office. As I was writing the post, it occurred to me that one could go on at length with the question: "Is the primary office of poetry to [fill in the blank]?" I think your formulation hits the nail on the head.

Thank you very much for your thoughts, for sharing the poem, and for visiting. I hope you will return soon.