Thoughts (Borrowed) While Overlooking a Mountain Valley in Peru

The Infinite

Always dear to me was this lonely hill,
And this hedgerow, which from many sides
Bars the gaze from the utmost horizon.
But sitting and looking out, endless
Spaces beyond that hedge, and superhuman
Silences, and profoundest quietude,
I in my mind forge for myself: where the heart
Is all but terrified.  And as I hear
the wind rustle beneath these plants,
That infinite silence to this voice I go on
To compare: and I recall the eternal,
And the dead seasons, and the present, living one,
And the sound of her. So in this
Immensity my thought drowns:
And shipwreck is sweet to me in this sea.

Giacomo Leopardi, Canti, 93
trans. Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests, 192

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The Listeners, Walter de la Mare

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.
Wonderfully eerie.

Annunciation

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharged from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding, IV

Never Forget that the World is Beautiful

You, and I, should read more poetry.

Your thoughts don’t have words every day
They come a single time
Like signal esoteric sips
Of the communion Wine
Which while you taste so native seems
So easy so to be
You cannot comprehend its price
Nor its infrequency

Emily Dickinson, 1452

Never forget that the world is beautiful, nor that there is more to this world than the world.

If they but knew!  They’re steeped in luck, country people,
being far removed from grinds of war, where earth that’s just
showers them with all that they could ever ask for.
So what if he hasn’t a mansion with gates designed to impress
and callers traipsing in and out all morning long.
So what if there’s not rabble gawking at the entrance with its gaudy tortoiseshell veneer,
and tapestries with gold filigree, and bronzes plundered on a march to Corinth.
So what if their wool’s merely bleached and not stained with Assyrian dyes,
and the olive oil they use hasn’t been diluted with that tint of cinnamon —
no, what they have is the quiet life — carefree and no deceit —
and wealth untold — their ease among cornucopia,
with grottoes, pools of running water and valleys cool even in warm weather,
the sounds of cattle and sweet snoozes in the shade.
There are glades and greenwoods, lairs of game,
young men wed to meagre fare but born and built for work.
Here, too, is reverence for God and holy fathers, and it was here
that Justice left her final footprints as she was taking leave of earth.
And as for me, my most ardent wish is that sweet Poetry,
whose devotee I am, smitten as I’ve been with such commitment,
would open up to me the courses of the stars in heaven,
the myriad eclipses of the sun and phases of the moon,
whence come earthquakes, which are the reason deep seas surge
to burst their bounds before receding peacefully,
and are why winter suns dash to dip themselves into the ocean
and are what causes long nights to last and linger.

Virgil, Georgics, II.458-83

Excited to Read Dante Again

I saw a sun above a thousand lamps;
it kindled all of them as does our sun
kindle the sights above us here on earth;

and through its living light the glowing Substance
appeared to me with such intensity-
my vision lacked the power to sustain it.

O Beatrice, sweet guide and dear! She said
to me: “What overwhelms you is a Power
against which nothing can defend itself.

This is the Wisdom and the Potency
that opened roads between the earth and Heaven,
the paths for which desire had long since waited.”

Even as lightning breaking from a cloud,
expanding so that it cannot be pent,
against its nature, down to earth, descends,

so did my mind, confronted by that feast,
expand; and it was carried past itself-
what it became, it cannot recollect.

Paradiso, Canto XXIII (Mandelbaum)

Loneliness on the Edge of the World

A passage in J.A. Baker’s obsessive, wonderful little book, The Peregrinebrought together a number of threads which have been tossing around my head lately.  He writes, describing his home in the south of England “out there at the edges of things,”

Farms are well ordered, prosperous, but a fragrance of neglect still lingers, like a ghost of fallen grass.  There is always a sense of loss, a feeling of being forgotten.  There is nothing else here; no castles, no ancient monuments, no hills like grey clouds.  It is just a curve of the earth, a rawness of winter fields.  Dim, flat, desolate lands that cauterize all sorrow.  (8)

The same sense, of loneliness, loss and exile, pervades the Anglo-Saxon poetry that I’ve been enjoying recently.  We might forget it today in the wake of England’s great empire, but the British Isles were truly at the edge of the world in the geographical consciousness of the Middle Ages.  Gerald of Wales in his Topography of Ireland puts it beautifully,

For beyond those limits [of Ireland] there is no land, nor is there any habitation either of men or beasts — buy beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in boundless space through its unsearchable and hidden ways. (31)*

Beautiful, but terrifying.  No wonder then that Anglo-Saxon poetry is so riven with sorrow and loneliness, a desperate craving for the warmth of home and fire.  No surprise also that there’s an almost overwhelming feeling of tenuousness in their poetry and in the writings of authors like Bede, a recognition of just how fragile the security that hall and hearth provide, think Heorot.  Against this background, Bede’s monasteries are anchors, squat fortresses of stability in an ever-shifting landscape.   One can see the appeal.**

At the edges of things, reality becomes frayed.  Gerald tells us

For sometimes tired, as it were, of the true and the serious, [Nature] draws aside and goes away, and in these remote parts indulges herself in these secret and distant freaks (31)

And not only are we at the edge of space but time as well.  The world has grown old and grey, the past faded and fallen into ruin

The days are gone
of all the glory
of the kingdoms of the earth;
there are not now kings,
nor Cæsars,
nor givers of gold
as once there were,
when they, the greatest, among themselves
performed valorous deeds,
and with a most lordly
majesty lived.
All that old guard is gone
and the revels are over
the weaker ones now dwell
and hold the world,
enjoy it through their sweat.
The glory is fled,
the nobility of the world
ages and grows sere,
as now does every man
throughout the world. (83-9)

Nature tires and warps in her decay,

This indeed was the true course of nature; but as the world began to grow old, and, as it were, began to slip into the decrepitude of old age, and to come to the end, the nature of almost all things became corrupted and changed for the worst. (53)

Unsurprising then that she might throw up monsters in the dark, against which all we can do is huddle around the slimmest glimmers of light.

 

 

*Strangely, Irish literature seems to display less awareness of this.  Perhaps they’re so on the edge that they don’t realize they’re on the edge.

**You get a similar sense in a very different context in Richer of Saint-Rémi’s Histories, a book I hope to write about at length later.

The Poem of the Cid

Ultimately, I found The Poem of the Cid rather disappointing.  The straightforward style lacked both the grandeur of other classic medieval epics–The Song of Roland, The Alexandreis–and the sparse, haunting beauty of the Anglo-Saxon poetry that I enjoy so much.  The first part of the poem, perhaps 50 lines, has apparently been lost, and this loss creates my favorite moment, the opening stanzas which suggest an air of mystery that is unfortunately present nowhere else.

Tears streamed from his eyes as he turned his head and stood looking at them.  He saw doors left open and gates unlocked, empty pegs without fur tunics or cloaks, perches without falcons or moulted hawks.  The Cid sighed, for he was weighed down with heavy cares.  Then he said, with dignity and restraint: ‘I give Thee thanks, O God, our Father in Heaven.  My wicked enemies have contrived this plot against me.’

First Cantar, I

 

Poems I like

Recently I promised myself that I would post at least once a week.  Unfortunately, I’ve been extremely busy lately, and haven’t had much time to compile even the bare amount of material I’ve been posting recently.  Nevertheless, to satisfy the obligation, here are some poems I discovered recently and enjoy.

From The Essential Haiku,by Basho

Even in Kyoto-
hearing the cuckoo’s cry-
I long for Kyoto
(11)
This moves me anew every time I read it.  I’m surprised how much I enjoy haiku, although I have no idea why I’m surprised.
Another Basho, especially appropriate for the season if not actually for the weather.  It evokes nicely what I most appreciate about the winter.
Winter solitude-
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.
(33)
Finally, a fragment of Sappho, from Anne Carson’s thoroughly enjoyable translation
34
stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth
silvery
Reading these over, there seems to be a theme here.

The Alexandreis, Book X

At the close of Book IX, Alexander has conquered the world, and sets his sites on more distant pastures:
The boundary of the world lies near at hand.
Not to provoke the ill will of the gods,
the world’s too narrow, and the breadth of the earth
is insufficient for its only lord.
Bu when I’ve passed beyond this conquered universe,
I’ll undertake to open to my followers
another world.  The strong man finds no goal
insuperable.  I hasten now to penetrate
the shores of the Antipodes, and view
the other Nature. Though you begrudge your arms,
I cannot fail in duty to myself.
I’ll think the entire world my theater,
and move my troops throughout its length, ennobling
ignoble lands and peoples by my wars.
While I stand as your duke, your feel will trample
lands hidden from all races by great Nature.
IX.655-69
This troubles Nature, who decides she must put a stop to the Macedonian before he shatters the rightful order of things even more:
That same while, Nature with a mindful grief
recalled how both the world and she herself
had suffered insult from the prince, who’d called
the earth too narrow and prepared armed throngs
to lay open her secret parts.  Distressed,
her noble white hair tangled, she left off
her latest works, the figures she’d begun
to form of Matter, and in rage she ceased
instilling souls into diverse limbs.  Veiled
in cloudy mantle, toward the Styx she turned,
and to the hidden kingdoms of the second world.
The elements gave quarter where she trod
and rose to meet their Shaper. Newly calmed,
the air worshiped the advent of the goddess.
In vernal pleasure Earth’s flowers burst forth,
the sea reined in the waves more than its wont,
and now the tumid billows held their silence.
All things bestowed on Nature worth honor,
praying that what she’d sown she’d multiply,
and grant increase unto the seeds of things,
infusing warmth and moisture.  Paying thanks
to her creatures, she bade them keep her laws
and in nothing exceed the bounds she’d set.
X.6-28
So, Nature goes to Hell (!) and enlists Leviathan, “the father of all crimes and their avenger”, by threatening him with the possibility of Alexander laying siege to Paradise itself, “What praise is yours, serpent, what glory, that you cast the first man out, if such a garden should yield its honors up to Alexander?” (X.116-8) Can Hell be far behind?
Everything about this is fascinating.  The way Nature is portrayed – veiled, shaping matter, all created things growing calm at her advent – especially so (there’s an interesting parallel between creation’s reaction to Nature and the nations of the world’s reactions to Alexander later in the book).
Plus, I love the descriptions of Hell:
Without delay, he roused the shadowy town
and called a council, bellowing across
the ancient plain of evils, which there lay
hardened by ice, and ravaged by the snows,
unconquered by the sun or gentle breeze.
X.123-9
Anyway, as you might expect, the Devil is all about killing Alexander and sets Treachery to the task.  Stirred by treachery, Antipater does the actual killing and the rest is, literally, history.
There’s one more passage I found especially poignant.  Alexander knows that when he conquers the whole world he will die, yet he refuses to stop, unquenchable is his desire for glory and conquest:
No otherwise, the tiger sees far off
a herd of horses, and a bitter thirst
burns in he flashing jaws; then is she lashed
by hunger’s goad to drink in living blood,
and savagely devours the shredded limbs;
but if, perchance, upon a hidden path
the tracking hunter’s spear pierces her flank,
she wails, he blood poured out, and dies upon
the grass, still thirsting, still unslaked with gore.
X.299-307
What better way to describe the end of Alexander?