It is July, and the sweet peas -- purple-pink, pink-purple, and, now and then, white -- are in bloom on both sides of a path I walk along between two large meadows, one sloping down to Puget Sound, the other bounded on its eastern edge by a long row of big-leaf maples. In the afternoon, the swallows dive and curve and rise across the path as they fly quickly back and forth over the meadows, feeding. On a day with wind, the dry grass rustles and whispers. Bird sounds can be heard overhead, and from all corners of the World.
The past few weeks, I have returned to ancient Greek poetry. (Alas, in translation, I'm afraid.) As I walk through the meadows, I am apt to fancy that I have returned to that golden land and time, surrounded by small and beneficent gods inhabiting the fields and trees and sky. Am I in Arcadia? Ionia? Attica? Somewhere in the Cyclades?
Ah voices sweet as honey, ah maiden songs divine,
Faint grow my limbs and fail me! Would the halcyon's lot were mine!
Wherever the white foam flowers, with my fellow-birds to fly,
Sea-purple bird of the springtime, blithe heart where no cares lie.
Alcman (7th century B.C.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman
(J. M. Dent 1951), page 235.
Oh, to abide in Alcman's world of halcyons and flowering white foam! The prevailing modern world-view (a spawn of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment") is reductive and soulless. Whether one accepts this state of affairs is a matter of choice. Fortunately, there are alternative paths on which to make one's way through "the vale of Soul-making":
"The longer we contemplate that Hellenic ideal, in which man is at unity with himself, with his physical nature, with the outward world, the more we may be inclined to regret that he should ever have passed beyond it, to contend for a perfection that makes the blood turbid, and frets the flesh, and discredits the actual world about us."
Walter Pater, from "Winckelmann," in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry
(Macmillan 1893), pages 235-236.
Another translation of Alcman's four lines:
No more, O maiden voices, sweet as honey, soft as love is,
No more my limbs sustain me. -- A halcyon on the wing
Flying o'er the foam-flowers, in the halcyon coveys,
Would I were, and knew not care, the sea-blue bird of spring!
Alcman (translated by H. T. Wade-Gery), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra, The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation
(Oxford University Press 1938), page 190.
William York MacGregor (1855-1923), "Summer Landscape"
Pater is exactly right: one of the many evils of the modern world-view is this "contend[ing] for a perfection that . . . discredits the actual world about us." I couple "perfection" with the modern gospels of Progress and Science. No room for halcyons, white foam-flowers, and small and kindly gods in that world. Pantheism is out of the question, beyond the pale. Wordsworth continually reminds us of what has been lost. One small instance, in a fragment of verse:
Of unknown modes of being which on earth,
Or in the heavens, or in the heavens and earth
Exist by mighty combinations, bound
Together by a link, and with a soul
Which makes all one.
William Wordsworth, fragment from the Alfoxden Notebook, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Five
(Oxford University Press 1949), pages 340-341.
[A side-note: one might be surprised, but Pater was actually quite sympathetic with Wordsworth's poetry, and with the view of the World that is embodied in it. I recommend reading his essay "Wordsworth" in Appreciations
(Macmillan 1889). Among many other fine things, he says this: "Against this predominance of machinery in our existence, Wordsworth's poetry, like all great art and poetry, is a continual protest." Appreciations
, page 61.]
But it is time to return to Greece:
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 (556-467 B.C.) (translated by T. F. Higham), in The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation
, page 234.
Consider Simonides' poem in the context of another passage from Pater:
"Modern science explains the changes of the natural world by the hypothesis of certain unconscious forces; and the sum of these forces, in their combined action, constitutes the scientific conception of nature. But, side by side with the growth of this more mechanical conception, an older and more spiritual, Platonic, philosophy has always maintained itself, a philosophy more of instinct than of the understanding, the mental starting-point of which is not an observed sequence of outward phenomena, but some such feeling as most of us have on the first warmer days in spring, when we seem to feel the genial processes of nature actually at work; as if just below the mould, and in the hard wood of the trees, there were really circulating some spirit of life, akin to that which makes its energies felt within ourselves"
Walter Pater, from "The Myth of Demeter and Persephone," in Greek Studies: A Series of Essays
(Macmillan 1895), page 96.
Pater qualifies his statement: "as if
just below the mould, and in the hard wood of the trees, there were really circulating some spirit of life." (He had been accused of being a pagan based upon the controversial "Conclusion" of The Renaissance
. Perhaps he did not want to fight that battle again.) Still, the dichotomy he posits is clear: a "mechanical conception" of the World as opposed to "an older and more spiritual" view of the World, a World in which "some spirit of life" circulates. Again, the choice is ours.
Democritus slept soundly, thanks to me
Of silver sounds the wingèd minister,
And thanks to him this little grave you see,
Nigh to Oropus, holds his grasshopper.
Phaennus (3rd century B.C.) (translated by Hugh Macnaghten), in Hugh Macnaghten, Little Masterpieces from the Anthology
(Gowans & Gray 1924), page 113.
William York MacGregor, "Oban Bay"
But who am I to judge? I have never been at home in the modern world, and never will be. Not surprisingly, this feeling intensifies with age. One reaches a point where one becomes comfortable with the idea of departing. In the meantime, I am, and will be, quite content with ancient Greek poets, Walter Pater, and William Wordsworth. And with all those others who you see pass through here.
Though little be the tombstone, O passer-by, above me,
Though it lies thus lowly in the dust before your feet,
Give honour to Philaenis, good friend, that she did love me,
Her once wild thistle-climber, her clamberer in the wheat,
Her cricket, her sweet songster, whom for two years she cherished,
Loving the sleepy music of my whirring wing.
has not forgot me: she gave me, when I perished,
This tiny tomb in honour of so versatile a thing.
Leonidas of Tarentum (3rd century B.C.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman
, page 316.
Another passage from Pater, which is a continuation of the passage quoted immediately above:
"Starting with a hundred instincts such as this, that older unmechanical, spiritual, or Platonic, philosophy envisages nature rather as the unity of a living spirit or person, revealing itself in various degrees to the kindred spirit of the observer, than as a system of mechanical forces. Such a philosophy is a systematised form of that sort of poetry (we may study it, for instance, either in Shelley or in Wordsworth), which also has its fancies of a spirit of the earth, or of the sky, -- a personal intelligence abiding in them, the existence of which is assumed in every suggestion such poetry makes to us of a sympathy between the ways and aspects of outward nature and the moods of men."
Walter Pater, from "The Myth of Demeter and Persephone," Greek Studies: A Series of Essays
, pages 96-97.
Halcyons, dragonflies, grasshoppers, crickets. And cicadas as well:
To the Cicada
From the Greek of an
We bless you, cicada,
When out of the tree-tops
Having sipped of the dew
Like a king you are singing;
And indeed you are king of
These meadows around us,
And the woodland's all yours.
Man's dear little neighbour,
And midsummer's envoy,
The Muses all love you,
And Apollo himself does --
He gave you your music.
Age cannot wither you,
The world, flesh and devil
Accost you so little,
That you might be a god.
Edmund Blunden, Halfway House
William York MacGregor, "Nethy Bridge"