Nov 192010
 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thanks to the morning light,
Thanks to the seething sea,
To the uplands of New Hampshire,
To the green-haired forest free;
Thanks to each man of courage,
To the maids of holy mind,
To the boy with his games undaunted,
Who never looks behind.
Cities of proud hotels,
Houses of rich and great,
Vice nestles in your chambers,
Beneath your roofs of slate.
It cannot conquer folly,
Time-and-space-conquering steam,—
And the light-outspeeding telegraph
Bears nothing on its beam.

The politics are base,
The letters do not cheer,
And ’tis far in the deeps of history—
The voice that speaketh clear.
Trade and the streets ensnare us,
Our bodies are weak and worn,
We plot and corrupt each other,
And we despoil the unborn.

Yet there in the parlor sits
Some figure of noble guise,
Our angel in a stranger’s form,
Or woman’s pleading eyes;
Or only a flashing sunbeam
In at the window pane;
Or music pours on mortals
Its beautiful disdain.

The inevitable morning
Finds them who in cellars be,
And be sure the all-loving Nature
Will smile in a factory.
Yon ridge of purple landscape,
Yon sky between the walls,
Hold all the hidden wonders
In scanty intervals.

Alas, the sprite that haunts us
Deceives our rash desire,
It whispers of the glorious gods,
And leaves us in the mire:
We cannot learn the cipher
That’s writ upon our cell,
Stars help us by a mystery
Which we could never spell.

If but one hero knew it,
The world would blush in flame,
The sage, till he hit the secret,
Would hang his head for shame.
But our brothers have not read it,
Not one has found the key,
And henceforth we are comforted,
We are but such as they.

Still, still the secret presses,
The nearing clouds draw down,
The crimson morning flames into
The fopperies of the town.
Within, without, the idle earth
Stars weave eternal rings,
The sun himself shines heartily,
And shares the joy he brings.

And what if trade sow cities
Like shells along the shore,
And thatch with towns the prairie broad
With railways ironed o’er;—
They are but sailing foambells
Along Thought’s causing stream,
And take their shape and Sun-color
From him that sends the dream.

For destiny does not like
To yield to men the helm,
And shoots his thought by hidden nerves
Throughout the solid realm.
The patient Dæmon sits
With roses and a shroud,
He has his way, and deals his gifts—
But ours is not allowed.

He is no churl or trifler,
And his viceroy is none,
Love-without-weakness,
Of genius sire and son;
And his will is not thwarted,—
The seeds of land and sea
Are the atoms of his body bright,
And his behest obey.

He serveth the servant,
The brave he loves amain,
He kills the cripple and the sick,
And straight begins again;
For gods delight in gods,
And thrust the weak aside;
To him who scorns their charities,
Their arms fly open wide.

When the old world is sterile,
And the ages are effete,
He will from wrecks and sediment
The fairer world complete.
He forbids to despair,
His cheeks mantle with mirth,
And the unimagined good of men
Is yeaning at the birth.

Spring still makes spring in the mind,
When sixty years are told;
Love wakes anew this throbbing heart,
And we are never old.
Over the winter glaciers,
I see the summer glow,
And through the wild-piled snowdrift
The warm rose buds below

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Nov 192010
 

Tithonus

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man–
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, “Give me immortality.”
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was in ashes. Can thy love
Thy beauty, make amends, tho’ even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From any pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renew’d.
Thy cheek begins to redden thro’ the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosen’d manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.
Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek.

Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears,
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt,
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true?
“The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts.”

Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch – if I be he that watch’d –
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimson’d all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss’d
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.

Yet hold me not for ever in thine East;
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.

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Nov 192010
 

Conversation with Murasaki

Murasaki – I imagined
a dye the colour of mulberries.
A burnet moth’s underwing.

She brushes past Sei Shonagon.
Sleeves in tension.
Both brushes charged with silken resistance.

When she sang it was brocade.
When she modestly whispered,
a most delicate embroidery.

‘Her sash matched her robe.
But did you notice the lining of her sleeve?
I could have laughed all evening!’

The wisteria in its tub, whose ancient stem
and transient clusters you comprehended clearly,
but which you did not know how to prune.

How many such cultivated
and also promiscuous ladies
have I wished to have been acquainted with?

Late afternoon rain,
then sun on the raspberries –
I so wanted to show you.

How vulgar would you think it
to express my predilection
for these extra yellow quinces?

Please tell me: how, culturally, could we
be more different? Yet I, with minor, bemused
reservations, am drawn entirely to your aesthetic.

So many little rules.
How delicious to break one!
We’ll mend these fragments into something.

His long night’s escapade.
Does inherited custom demand
rupture of tradition?

Dilapidated mansion. Tangled thickets.
Behind a screen,
she waits for moon-rise.

Having sunk to this obscurity
she still plies the koto.
No one behind screens to listen.

Shut in from sunlight,
she keeps company with rain and music.
Wasting beneath powder.

What happens in the Genji?
Births, fixation, death and an eroticism by subterfuge
delayed tantalisingly by the complicated exchange of waka.

The plum which in the 16th century was
supplanted by the cherry. Aesthetically staggered,
do they now blossom in competition?

Lamp light. Moon-rise.
I look up. Does the moon, too,
say I?

The floating world.
We move within it.
It. We. Tangle and illusion.

High above the city, he searches out
two things that grow together:
wild herbs and the sutras.

It is comparatively simple to satisfy desire.
But to die without studying the sutras…
Still, it makes little difference.

A poignant meditation on the doctrine of the anicca.
Then all at once
they’re playing football.

Guarding against presenting things
only in the best possible taste,
thus he expressed an asymmetrical aesthetic.

A trunk that grew lichen.
A stone that happened to
lie on the mountain.

I know how loud and irregular noises
disturbed you. I too live
in your ideal silence.

To be old and still young.
At once female and male.
We are all one prison.

You would be astonished
at the squalor of European history.
But you would have liked Jane Austen.

Spirit possession.
The hysterical luxury
of existence as two people.

No longer even dust.
Your you became
someone else’s brush strokes.

Waley on his deathbed.
Neither he nor his space.
But now equal with not-you in north London traffic.

‘Genji was dead. And there was no one like him.’
Punks eat sushi.
Mono no aware. Lacrimae rerum.

These MSN and Myspace girls whose virtual selves
fire off keyboard fantasies: they, as with Genji’s
women, gossip apprehensively behind their screens.

There they all must be
in Ambitabha’s garden, where birds and rivers
sing unintelligibly in Sanskrit.

The Bridge of Dreams joins two absolute spaces.
We rush across the surface
not knowing where we were or where we’re headed.

Hokku faxed from a tobacconist.
Syllabically hopping,
to Tokyo they yo yo.

—————

Murasaki Shikibu was the 11th century author of The Tale of Genji, which contains almost a thousand classical verses. Sei Shonagon was her contemporary and the author of The Pillow Book.

Koto: a zither-like instrument
Waka: classical verses
Mono no aware: ‘the pitiful transcience of existence’
Anicca: impermanence
Ambitabha: the Buddha of the Western Paradise or Pure Land
Hokku: 17-syllable verse

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Nov 192010
 

Here are five different translations of a poem by Sappho. New discoveries have resulted in a nearly complete poem from fragment 58 and these poems are based on this new text.

The Beat Goes On

You, children, be zealous for the
beautiful gifts of the
violetlapped Muses
and for the clear songloving lyre.

But my skin once soft is now
taken by old age,
my hair turns white from black.

And my heart is weighed down
and my knees do not lift,
that once were light to dance as
fawns.

I groan for this. But what can I do?
A human being without old age is
not a possibility.

There is the story of Tithonos,
loved by Dawn with her arms of roses
and she carried him off to the
ends of the earth

when he was beautiful and young.
Even so was he gripped
by white old age. He still has his
deathless wife.

— Translation by Anne Carson. Published in NYRB, October 20, 2005.


[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark;

my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,

handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.

— Translation by Martin West


Those violet-wearing Muses’ lovely gifts
and tuneful lyres enjoy, O maidens dear!

My own once tender body’s hard with age;
this hair once ebony is changed to white.

A heavy heart – and slow, these faltering knees
that once would whirl me, dancing, like some fawn.

But why complain, when nothing can be done?
Necessity decrees we all grow old.

Tithonus, loved by rose-armed Dawn, we’re told,
was carried by his love beyond the world:

comely, young – but Age still found him there
in time, despite his deathless wife’s intent.

— Translation by Noetica, 2005


Sappho to Her Pupils

Live for the gifts the fragrant-breasted Muses
send, for the clear, the singing, lyre, my children.
Old age freezes my body, once so lithe,
rinses the darkness from my hair, now white.
My heart’s heavy, my knees no longer keep me
up through the dance they used to prance like fawns in.
Oh, I grumble about it, but for what?
Nothing can stop a person’s growing old.
They say that Tithonus was swept away
in Dawn’s passionate, rose-flushed arms to live
forever, but he lost his looks, his youth,
failing husband of an immortal bride.

— Translation by Lachlan Mackinnon


Sappho and the Weight of Years

Girls, be good to these spirits of music and poetry
that breast your threshold with their scented gifts.
Lift the lyre, clear and sweet, they leave with you.

As for me, this body is now so arthritic
I cannot play, hardly even hold the instrument.
Can you believe my white hair was once black?

And oh, the soul grows heavy with the body.
Complaining knee-joints creak at every move.
To think I danced as delicate as a deer!

Some gloomy poems came from these thoughts:
useless: we are all born to lose life,
and what is worse, girls, to lose youth.

The legend of the goddess of the dawn
I’m sure you know: how rosy Eos
madly in love with gorgeous young Tithonus

swept him like booty to her hiding-place
but then forgot he would grow old and grey
while she in despair pursued her immortal way.

— Translation by Edwin Morgan

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Nov 192010
 

Seamus Heaney

in memory of Czeslaw Milosz

His instruction calmed us, his company and voice
Were like high tidings in the summer trees.
Except this time he turned away and left us.
He walked to where the stream goes underground
And a steep bank paved with flagstones
Leads down to a lintel in the earthwork.
And there he stood, studying what next.
Between a stone cairn and a marble plaque
To the dead of our late wars.
Other wars and words were in my mind,
Another last look taken upon earth—
Roads shining after rain
Like uphill rivers
—so that I all but
Wept for his loneliness.
                        He loosed the girdle then
Off his scarecrow rags, called for his girls to fetch
River water for him, find a place
Where overhanging grass combed long and green
And dip their pitchers there. So off they went
And came with overbrimming vessels back
To pour a last libation and to wash
Their dear departing father, hand and foot,
Prepare his linen garment and do all
According to the custom for the dead.

And when all was done, and the daughters waiting,
There came a noise like water rising fast
Far underground, then a low blast and rush
As if some holy name were breathed on air,
A sound that when they heard it made the girls
Cry out, and made blind Oedipus
Gather them in his arms. “My children.” he said—
And the rest of us felt that we were his then too—
“Today is the day that ends your father’s life.
The burden I have been to myself and you
Is lifted. And yet it was eased by love.
Now you must do without me and relearn
The meaning of that word by remembering.”
Then the waterfall of sound behind him grew
Into an overwhelming cavern-voice
Shouting shouts that came from all directions:
“You there. What are you waiting for? You keep
Us waiting. It’s time to move. Come on.”

And now he was a stranger. He groped in air
As the daughters went to him, heads on his breast,
And he found and kissed their brows, instructing them
One final time: they were to turn and go
And (these were his words exactly) not look upon
Things that were not for seeing, nor listen to
Things not for hearing.
                        And what he said to them
We took again as meant for all of us,
So turned away together when he turned
Away, with the king accompanying him.

But after a few steps I and other ones
Halted to look hack. He was gone from sight:
That much I could see, and against the sky
The king had his arm up shielding his two eyes
As if from some brilliant light or blinding dread.
Next he was on his knees, head bowed to earth
In homage to those gods who dwell in it,
Then up again with his arms spread out to honour
The gods on high, like a windlass being turned
By every power above him and below,
Raised out knowledge into knowledge, sole
Witness of what passed.
                        No god had galloped
His thunder chariot, no hurricane
Had swept the hill. Call me mad, if you like,
Or gullible, but that man surely went
In step with a guide he trusted down to where
Light has gone out but the door stands open.


(adapted from Sophocles,
Oedipus at Colonus, lines 1586-1666)

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