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Archive for August, 2011

Erminia Fuà Fusinato (1834-1876)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Woodworm.

 

Two years  have gone completely by, and in this room
For several months within that cupboard
With fierce persistence
O aged worm, I heard you gnawing away.
Returning I find you still concealed, alive
Within the worm-bored cabinet
From which to rip you out would be to no avail,
For reluctance to dismantle it piece by piece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Often in bitter vigils
I listen to you keeping time
Monotonous and dreary
With repeated musings of a forlorn heart
Wherein an even bolder worm came in to stay,
Pleasing itself to relentlessly devour away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While to each ear you make it known
That you are going about your labours
None can say but God himself
What fatal thing your counterpart brings back to this heart.
Externally is worn the gloss, the smiles,  and all the time
Internally  worm-eaten wood, devoured core.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then when the work is too-well done,
From the cupboard’s heart one sees the airy dust
Thence  falling to a fiercer distress the heart
Spilling and seeping  into the chilled pillow
Tears of two tired eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concealed and rodent-like, these slow gnawers
Proceeding strangely with the same accord
Cause insensible wood to issue a  lament
While the heart’s own quiet cry is stifled.
Thither lifeless matter is consumed, hither life
The parasitical worm
Almost impartially both discomposes
Till wood and heart each find their peace in dust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung

 

 

 

Il Tarlo

Due anni si compiro, e in questa stanza,
Entro codesto armario per più mesi,
Con feroce costanza,
O vecchio tarlo, rodere t’intesi;
Riedo, e vivente anco ti trovo e asconso
Nel mobile corroso,
Da cui strapparti tenterebbe invano

Chi ridur nol colesse a brano a brano.

Spesso tra veglie amare
Ascoltando il tuo metro
Sì monotono e tetro,
Ad un povero cor soglio pensare
Ove pur pentertave un tarlo audace

Che senza  tregua roderlo si piace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sol mentre ad ogni orecchio manifesto
Rendi il tuo lavorio,
Non conosce che Dio
Quanto l’altro a quel cor torni funesto:
Di fuori il riso e la vernice, e ognora
Di dentro il tarlo e legno e cor divora:

Allor che l’ opra eccede ,
Dal fondo dell’ armario una leggiera
Tritura uscir si vede;
Quando  l’ ambascia al cor scende più fiera,
Sopra freddo guancial cadon le stille
Di die stanche pupille.

Questi celati roditori e lenti
Così proseguon nello strano accordo:
Dall’ insensibili legno escon lamenti,
E il tace il core o il suo lamento è sordo.
Lì materia consuma e qui la vita
Il tarlo parrasita,
E quasi al par del legno si dissolve
Il cor che pace avrà col legno in polve.

 

 

 

Erminia Fuà Fusinato (1834 – 1876) was born of Jewish parents in Rovigo. Her father was in the medical profession. The family moved to Padua when she was very young.  Her education was undertaken by her uncle Benedict, who took great pains to stimulate and develop his niece’s intellect.  She began  to write early and was encouraged to publish her poetry (in 1852)  by the considerably  older  poet Arnaldo Fusinato who was then a widower and a Catholic, and whom she later married in 1856 despite strenuous parental objections.

After her marriage the couple went to live in Castelfranco Veneto, with her husband’s former mother-in-law the Countess Teresa Coletti Colonna

When her husband experienced financial problems she became a teacher in 1871 and taught Italian at the Scuola Normale in Rome. She later directed the Scuola Superiore Femminile , also in Rome. In addition to her poetry which was published in 1853 and 1874.

Erminia Fuà Fusinato had three children in 1857, 1860 and 1863.Between 1870 and 1876 she held various posts as an inspectress and director of schools.

She was  ahead  of her time in her thinking and writing, in that she  married despite the opposition of her parents, and she did not restrict herself to the sphere of domestic activities.

She wrote on the subject of education (Scritti educative, 1873). She believed women should be permitted to have time away from their domestic duties in order to study Literature.

She died of Tuberculosis  in 1876 in Rome.

Memorial placque placed on the facade of the Palazzo Montalto in Rovigo and dedicated to Erminia Fuà Fusinato.

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Walter De la Mare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Listeners

 

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;

‘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 his horse in the silence champed the grasses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head

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,

Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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;

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,

Ay, they heard his foot on the stirrup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,

And how the silence surged softly backward,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the plunging hoofs were gone.

When the plunging hoofs were gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walter De la Mare in 1924 in a photograph taken by Lady Ottoline Morrel

Once again we encounter in a poem the familiar underpinnings of distorted time.  This time however,  it is the subject rather than the reader who is trapped in the misperception.
The subject of the poem, the Traveler, is re-visiting the people who lived in this old an isolated residence, because he promised before his departure to come back.  But when he  finally returns there is no longer anyone there.
It would seem that many years have transpired between the making of his promise and the keeping of it – years in which the  deserted house has fallen to wrack and ruin, and its occupants long since passed away.
Astronomers tell us that objects with immense mass have the ability to warp the space time continuum, such that if for instance one were to get close enough to a black hole just this side of its event horizon, that time would be critically slowed down. The person returning back to earth from such a visit will have found that thousands of years have ticked away in the course of his own lifetime.
We must suppose that some matter of great weight drew the Traveler away from the life he shared with ‘The Listeners’, and ‘Time’ got away from him.

The Traveler returns to ‘keep his word’ he seems to have forgotten – or not to have realised  that many years have gone by. We get the feeling that the fate which befell the listeners was a result of his neglection of them.
Of course a man might like to fancy himself as being so esteemed that  a woman might patiently wait for him even as the years and decades rolled by on the strength of the perhaps lightly given promise of his return with all the expected consequent rejoicing etc, and if he failed to keep his word that she   and would wither and pine away in his absence like old Miss Havisham in Dickens’ “Great Expectations’.

But when I remember the effect this poem first had on my mind, and my inability to  forget it, I can easily bring myself  to set aside my cynical thoughts and moral scrupulosities. I remember the questions with which my mind seethed – Were ‘The Listeners’ the man’s kith and kin? or the family of his bethrothed? Did he leave for places far away to make his fortune, and when he had, did he then return thinking to resume his life where he left it ?

We don’t know, and so we must guess at the fate which befell ‘The Listeners”, and whatever may have happened to their hopes and dreams and loves while they waited patiently – or not –  for the Traveler’s  return. De la Mare allusive offering suggests that they returned in sad passivity to the dust from which their creator fashioned them.

But then again, I wonder, perhaps ‘The Listeners’, whom we might  suppose to have been the traveler’s betrothed and her family had a story with a different ending….

Perhaps, when the Traveler did not return as expected, or even ever send a postcard,   she – and if we wish we could even rescue her form the anonymity to which she was consigned by De la Mare and return to her her rightful name of Eugenia -– decided  rather than spending  the shrinking remainder of the family fortune on repairs and renovations of the old manor, that it was best for her and her small family of two loving parents (William Henry and  Emilia Sophia)  and  and a sister and brother, (Clara and Frederick)  to leave their old home and set off for a more promising destination -– such as Canada – where land was cheap and wheat grew well. Either that, or go New Zealand, where fortunes could be made in sheep and cattle, or even Ceylon, where a tea estate in the mountains  could be had for an affordable if not modest sum, and  a leisurely contented life could be attained without much effort at all….

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Sappho on an Attic red-figure vase by the Brygos painter.

Sappho on an Attic red-figure vase by the Brygos painter.

True poetry is a separate language, and it has from earliest times been the twin of magic, born in the shadow of love.

Robert Graves, one of the few true poets of our time, believed that “Poems must be bounced off the moon”. He was also of the opinion that there was no perfect poem. What Graves meant by “ Bounced of the moon” was that poems should speak to us in the language of lunar wisdom, as opposed to solar intellect, and that they should appeal to the element in our psyches that bestrides the magical realm between the knowable and expressible, and the inexpressibly known and un-sayable.

What Graves alluded to when he said there was no perfect poem, was the taint of contemporaneity that all poems suffer, unless they are stripped of all contextual clues unique to their age and time, and thereby reduced to pure abstractions. This of course reduces a poem to its skeletal form, and leaves it as merely a suggestion of what it might have been.

However, we know from experience that contemporaneousness ipso facto is not a flaw. Besides the obvious fact that some elements of human nature are timeless, human beings of all epochs posses a degree of atavism which poetry and art have the ability to instantly, powerfully and effortlessly resurrect.  When we come into full mind and body contact with these psychic artifacts, we are made to plunge like divers into the deep waters, which are the realms of our wordless selves, and transcend the limitations of tired, everyday consciousness. We then may make our way into what Vladimir Nabokov called “The unreal estate of memory and Art”

Twenty six hundred years ago, in a small peninsula far away from the Greek mainland, across the Aegean sea, during a little remarked upon period of Greek history, prior to the better-known historical periods of the classical age and the Peloponnesian wars, four lines of poetry were “bounced off the moon”, and the result was a poem which has never been surpassed for its compressed beauty, clarity, brevity, perfection and poignancy:  the moon-born echo of a plangent cry.

Thasos, Aegean Islands

This was the world of ancient Greece, immediately before the classical age, when the Greek expansion was hitting its stride, and Sicily a Greek colony.  The first Greek coins were being minted, the Etruscans were devising a script derived from the Greek, in which they wrote their still undecipherable language, Rome was just beginning to be an urban center, and developing her own alphabet, Nikosthenes was painting his wine cups in the renowned red and black slipware still admired today, The prophet Jeremiah was fulminating in far away Judea, and his opposite, the compassionate Buddha was proclaiming his timeless precepts in Bodh Gaya.

Far north of the Cyclades, in the city of Mytilene, on the eastern coast of Lesbos, around 600 BCE, the woman whom Plato called the tenth muse was writing her extensive canon of poetry:  nine books each consisting of 330 four line stanzas: 1320 lines each. From twelve thousand lines of poetry, 700 intelligible lines exist today. Among those 700 lines is this poem:

Moonset and Pleiades

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The moon has set, and the Pleiades:
Tis midnight,
The hours pass, and yet –
I lie alone.

 

 

The writer of the poem wrote her name in the Mytilenian way as Psappfo, but the world knows her as Sappho.

 

Bust inscribed 'Sappho Esesia' (Sappho of Eressos)

Could anything be simpler! A poem with no adjectives, no emotions named, one image, two tenses, three simple declarative sentences, and four lines, which take about five seconds to read. Yet, an interminable age of waiting, and the passing of the whole gamut of emotions from expectancy to disappointment is suggested.

The form is as terse as an epitaph; the feelings as stoical as a soul awaiting judgement; the poet an anguished lover wrung out by disappointment.  The whole night has passed – the ancient night of a world now no more, which we can hardly now imagine; with no visible light except for the moon and the faint blue stars, which now having set, leave behind them a near palpable darkness. The lover awaiting her beloved has watched the moon’s progress as it rose over the narrow strip of peninsular land, and traversed the whole of the night sky before setting over the western horizon of the Aegean Sea, its waters now transformed from their daytime cerulean to the unrelieved blackness of midnight.   From the persistent ache of love, and the deep cup of her loneliness Sappho pours out this poem.

The translator has been sensitive and adept. She has chosen her words and selected one internal rhyme and one paired set of vowels to place this jewel for the inward eye – this indelible image, in a setting of sounds, which fall like pure music on both the inner and outer ear.

This poem seems to me like a drop of dark ink, which when dropped in a bowl of water, spreads itself to the very rim and then pushes at it, while the central threads and swirls of colour undulate until the colourless water is completely transformed to a tint by that single drop of pigment. For me, this single instant seems to colour eternity.

The Pleiades

A young girl, waits throughout a lonely night, for a lover who is still expected, though perhaps beyond recall. Still, it is a poem so modern it could have been written today, were the poet, like Sappho the beloved of her Muse, Cyprian Aphrodite arising from the sea of desire.

A perfect poem, like a perfect gem, is precious, unflawed, brilliantly cut, glittering, achingly beautiful, and unforgettable. Time and memory become visible in its depths.
Perhaps the reason for its unforgetableness is explained in this observation by Milan Kundera:  “In existential mathematics… experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory. The degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting”

This next poem, also by Sappho, is her most celebrated, and one of the very few to have survived in its entirety.   I have chosen three translations of it, plus the version by Catullus, and its translation.

Greek mirror circa 600 B.C.

Version 1.
Godlike the one who
watches and catches
that laughter
which (softly) tears me
to tatters: nothing is
left of me: each time
I see her
…tongue numbed: arms, legs
melting, on fire: drum
drumming in ears head –
lights gone black.

Version 2.
To me he seems as a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh

in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For  now
as I look at you, my voice
is empty and

can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin.  My eyes are dead
to light. My ears

pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse greener than grass
and feel my mind slip, as I
go close to death.

Version 3)
Blest beyond earth’s bliss, with heaven I deem him
Blest the one that in your presence near you
Face to face may sit and while you speak,
Listening may hear you.

And your sweet-voiced laughter – in my bosom
The rapt heart trembles, wildly stirred:
Let me see you, but a glimpse – and straightaway
Utterance of word

Fails me; no voice comes; my tongue is palsied;
Thrilling fire all through my flesh has run;
My eyes cannot see, my ears make dinning
Noises that stun.

The sweat streams down, – my whole frame seized with
Shivering – and wan paleness over me has spread
Greener than grass; I seem with faintness
Almost as dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before going to the next version, it might be useful to include a little aside on the Sapphic stanza. Using ‘s’ for stressed and ‘u’ for unstressed syllables, and x for the caesura: it is as follows:

s u s  x  s u u s u s s
s u s  x  s u u s u s s
s u s  x  s u u s u s s
s u u s s u u

The Roman poets Horace and Catullus both attempted this metre.

As poets such as Alexander Pope discovered, when they attempted to endow their own poetry with the gloss of Virgilian hexameters,  it is nearly impossible to adapt classical poetical meters of one language to conform  to  the poetry of other languages. This is particularly true of a language like English, thickly strewn as it is  with  irregular stresses. Nonetheless, the next two versions of the poem reach a creditably high standard of success, despite the added burden involved in their  translation.

Version 4)
by Catullus

Ille mi par esse deo uidetur
Ille si fas est superare diuos
Qui sedens aduersus identidem te
Spectat et audit

Dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
Eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te
Lesbia aspexi, nihil est super mi
Lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
Flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
Tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
Lumina nocte.

And its translation…

He is changed to a god, he who looks on her
Godlike he shines when he’s seated beside her
Immortal joy to gaze and hear the fall of
Her sweet laughter.

All of my senses are lost and confounded;
Lesbia rises before me and trembling
I sink, into the earth and swift dissolution
Seizes my body.

Limbs are pierced with fire and the heavy tongue fails.
Ears resound with the noise of distant storms and shaking
This earth, eyes gaze on stars that fall forever
Into deep midnight.

In Sappho's time, the Greek Islands had not yet been denuded of their trees....

The condition Sappho documents in this poem is uniquely described in poetic terms. Why unique? Because she is relating to us the same mystical transformation told of by St  John of the Cross,  Rumi, Ramakrishna, St Teresa of Avila and many others, but to Sappho, disclosure comes in poetic form. True poetry, which is mystical to its core, does not shy away from bringing our reluctant awareness to bear upon the realization that love and death lie but a hair’s breath apart from each other. Intense love, and the entrancement it engenders, brings about the mystical transformation wherein one dies to the former self.

The intense, suffused and unfettered consciousness, which blossoms in the presence of the beloved  (St John’s  ‘la noche dischosa’) brings in its wake a unique unphysical death, which begins when the night has ended.  Then lover and beloved are torn apart.

This singular death, this sundering, the passing away of familiar awareness, is the entire, and undeniable, – though completely unspoken subscript of the poem.

And who is the woman who makes as a god the one admitted to her presence?

She is the  Immortal Muse.

Consider the setting of this poem. ‘He’ sits passive, and receptive before her  (in Catullus’s poem ‘aduersus’, which carries the connotation of ‘paying attention to’).
She speaks and laughs, and he listens. He is not sitting next to her, or lying beside her as a lover, but across from her as a votary, worshipper or supplicant.
He is not permitted to touch her. The two senses permitted him are sight and hearing.

If this ‘god’   is satisfied at being granted the bliss of his beloved’s physical and erotic embrace, he will be less fortunate than Sappho, because the swiftly passing bliss of carnality might be all he is allowed to have.  Then, unlike Sappho, he will not drown in the deep waters of persistent ecstatic love, die to his gross nature in the searing flame of separation, and experience the transformation of self, which accompanies the sacramental baptism into the poetic element.

I am led to inquire of this man, even in the direct presence of the Goddess, is he aware of his privilege? I ask if he could ever love his muse as does Sappho, for whom love is an intense affliction, and therefore for her, a true passion.

As Sappho observes the spectacle before her, she does   not express the least trace of invidiousness or jealousy.  She does   not question or challenge the other’s right to access.  We can feel that the sharp edge of longing in her has not ceased to bite, and feel as well that the dagger of this relinquishment hurts just as much coming out as it did going in, but if she is witnessing a rival enjoying the favours which once were hers, she shows no hatred or bitterness towards him. She simply takes us into her confidence, and relates her painful predicament, without any self – pity and with all the brutal honesty that only an unflinching dedication to the  ‘way of the poet’ can evince.

One of the many remarkable things about this starkly, and even pitilessly self – observant second poem, is the almost clinically described progression, in the third and fourth verses, of the transformative events culminating in trance/seizure.  Beyond question we have here a disclosure of the gripping sequence in which ordinary consciousness is transformed to poetical and mystical consciousness. This is a description of the physiological and psychological changes experienced when the outer physical world slips into the inner mystical realm. Sappho takes us as far as she can, to the very threshold of the mystery, and then draws the veil, for, what follows is surely beyond the scope of language to encompass.

Sappho's recently discovered poem on old age ( lines 9-20), assigned to Book IV based on its metre. Third century B.C papyrus, from an exibit of the Altes Museum.

There is one thing here of which we may be certain: The man in this poem, whom Sappho views as being ‘greater than a god’, derives his greatness solely in relation to the intimacy he is given to share with the beloved. Sappho is describing a state of grace, yet, this too will end, because soon even this man, who is now elevated to the level of a god, will fall victim to the phenomenon saint John of the Cross describes as “withdrawal ecstasy”, and this is the suffering embodied in ‘passion’: It is a thundering echo of the first poem: It is ‘the dark night of the soul’.

For mystics, the propinquity of love and death, is viewed with a sense of familiarity and even friendliness. Even St Paul, whom we can hardly accuse of being a poet, said “ I die daily”. In part XII of the Iliad where Sarpedon courageously and unflinchingly urges Glaucus to battle, he does so by expressing sentiments that the Muse poet and mystic find to be equally apt in the context of confronting their own mortality. Since death is inevitable, it is better that we face it bravely rather than running away.

Sarpedon says, “Man, could we survive this war and live forever deathless and strong, I would not be fighting out in front, nor would I urge you to this fray which gives us glory. But death in myriad forms is closing in – no matter if another may boast over us or we over him”

We are familiar with the word ‘passion’ as used in a religious context to describe intense suffering willingly and deliberately undertaken, and this is yet another juncture at which poetry and mysticism unite.  Ecstasy cannot be bought at the price of cowardice. Sarpedon seems to suggest that only cowards return from battle in the same guise as they entered it, nor do the brave and glorious dead return to boast of victory.  One cannot gaze into the face of passion without also gazing at the face of death.. Freud was not the first to observe that eros and thanatos were opposite facets of the same coin. Sappho beat him to it by about two and a half millennia!

The immortal gods are god-like because they are free of death and decay. Their immortality spares them from the bodily dissolution humans are heir to, and they are thereby removed from the fateful and tragic context of mortality. Wth nothing to either venture or lose, all their desires and conflicts and activities become merely petty and capricious.

Perhaps it is in order to comprehend the vital element missing in their own divine natures that the gods obsessively involve themselves in the affairs of humans, and repeatedly seek to observe how mortal beings handle or mishandle the fragile thread of life, which the fates spin and wind and snip. They know that our worst follies are redeemed and dignified by our inescapable mortality.

Perhaps this is the essence of the dramatic interplay between Muse and poet, that they are caught up together in a dance, which neither can suspend, nor perform alone.  This may be why she laughs as she sits facing us in the moments of our lives when she makes us god-like:  She is just asking us to dance.

To be a true poet, one has to accept the invitation to dance, and to retain one’s humanity in its entirety. A poet does not surrender to God as the Muslims do, obey God’s law as the Jews do, merge with God as the Hindu Vedantists do, or accept God as a saviour as the Christians do. The poet’s hope is both noble and humble: it is to be inspired by the Muse, and all dedicated poets must worship her in secret, and not in full view of the marketplace as the Pharisee whom Jesus decried. True poems are essentially private acts. There are no easy answers in poetry. There is no beam of light trained to the heavens where the celestial answers to terrestrial conundrums may be found. Instead the beam is directed inwards, and the path to transcendence is shown to lie amidst the tangled thickets of our own interiority.  Our willingness to enter into the depths of ourselves, alone, and unaided, and feel and love throughout the length of the journey, is the key with which we can unlock the poetry within ourselves, and to partake and participate in the singular treasure of humanity bequeathed to us by true poets.

Here  are  some things  they have said:

“True love and wisdom spring only from calamity.”
Robert Graves.

“Now in my
heart I
see clearly
a beautiful
face
shining

etched.
by  love”
Alkaios.

“…never succumb to panic
or miserable flight, but
steel the heart in your
chests with magnificence
and courage. Forget your
own life.”
Tyrtaios.

“The dice of love are
shouting and madness”
Anakreon.

Roman bust of Sappho presently in the Istanbul Archeological Museum, copied from a Hellenistic original.

We do not know if Sappho wrote any duds  (after all, even Shakespeare did, “And every fair from fair sometimes declines”),  but I very much doubt it.  She said  “The golden Muse gave me true riches: when dead I will not be forgotten” and,  “ Someone, I tell you, will remember us”.  And after all, such assurance must have an ample justification.

Hundreds of years after her death, the famous personages of classical Greece, and even later the Romans, still talked about Sappho. Plato considered Sappho the tenth muse.  Aristotle grudgingly observed, that “The Mytileans honoured Sappho although she was a woman” Ovid wryly commented  “Lesbia quid docuit Sappho nisi amare puellas”

The central elements embodied in Sappho’s poems are universal and timeless. All true poems in some sense echo hers, which include every single essential poetic element.  Seen in this light, her accomplishments were not merely poetical triumphs, but triumphs in the beautiful and difficult endeavour of being fully human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sapphic stanza.

Faded every violet all the roses;
Gone the promise glorious, and the victim,
broken in this anger of Aphrodite
Yields to the victor.

 

 

And so  to finish in a  slightly lighter vein!

'Le Lit', Henri de Tolouse Lautrec

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sapphics.

Sappho, poet of the Isle of Lesbos
Shaped a stanza which eschews rhyme but uses
Pairs of trochees sandwiching one gay dactyl
Three times repeated.

Followed by a pithier fourth line, placing
Dactyl, trochee  (one of each) riding tandem
Known afar for loving her girl disciples,
Was she a Lesbian,

Or from the tall Ionian cliff top falling,
Did she die a hetero, mad for handsome
Boatman Phaon?  Scholars reject this twee too
Bitter-sweet ending.

Tom Aitken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though Sappho’s exile in Sicily ( around  604-594 B.C)  pre-dated the temples of Agrigento and elsewhere about a hundred and fifty to two hundred years, , I have chosen to sprinkle this post with some  contemporary pictures of  the Mediterranean and Aegean world that must have been familiar to her.  They include pictures of Sardinia, Sicily,  Greece the Dalmation coast etc.

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Amadeo Modiglliani 'Head of a Young Girl (detail).

The mother was small and thin, with shoulders, which were a bit bent. She always wore a blue smock and a pink wool blouse. She had short curly hair, which she always smoothed with oil in order to keep it from puffing out. Each day she plucked her eyebrows and drew two wavy black lines like two little fishes  squiggling up to her temples. She powdered her face with yellow face powder. She was very young. They did not know how old she was, but she appeared much younger than the mothers of their schoolmates, The children were always surprised to see how fat and old the mothers of their companions at school were. She smoked a lot, and her fingers were stained yellow from the smoke. She also smoked in bed in the evening before going to sleep. They all three slept together in the large double bed, with the yellow coverlet. The mother stayed on the side by the door, and the little bedside table had a lampshade covered with a pink rag because she read and smoked at night, and sometimes returned home very late, and the children would wake up and ask her where she had been, but she almost always answered “ At the cinema” or else “With a girl friend”, but they did not know this friend because no friend ever visited their home to find her. She told them that they had to turn the other way while she undressed. They heard the quick rustle of her clothes and the shadows danced on the wall as she climbed into bed next to them, her thin body cold in the silk nightgown. They left some space between her and themselves because she always complained that they kicked her in their sleep.  Sometimes she would turn down the light and lie down and smoke silently in the dark.

The mother was not important.  The ones who were important were the grandmother, the grandfather, and their Aunt Clementina who lived in the country.

Aunt Clementina who lived in the country

Also important was the servant Diomira and Giovanni the doorman who had TB, and who made chairs with seats of straw. All these people were very important; they were very important to the two children because they were strong people they could trust, people who could permit and forbid, very competent in all they undertook, and always full of wisdom and force; people who could defend them from storms and thieves.

Also important was the servant Diomira

But when they were alone at home with their mother, the children were just as afraid as if they had been by themselves.  As much as she tried to permit or prohibit, she could not permit or prohibit anything. At best she complained in a tired voice that they should not make so much noise because she had a headache, and when they asked her permission to do something, she always responded by telling them to ask their grandmother. Or else she first said “yes” and then “no” which left them in complete confusion.  When they went out alone with their mother they felt uncertain and insecure because she always lost her way in the street, and had to ask the policeman for directions, and thus she had a manner always timid and foolish of going into the markets and asking about the things to buy, and she always forgot something – her gloves or her purse, and had to return to search for them, and the boys were ashamed of this.

And Giovanni the doorman who had TB

The mother left her drawers in complete disorder, and left her things scattered about, and when she arranged the room in the morning, Diomira grumbled about her. She summoned the grandmother to see, and together they would pick up the socks and clothes and sweep the ashes, which were scattered everywhere. The mother went out to do the shopping in the morning.  She banged the string bag on the marble table in the kitchen, and flung herself on her bicycle, and ran off to the office where she was a clerk. Diomira looked at everything that was in the bag, and touched the oranges one by one and grumbled and called the grandmother to see how bad the meat was. The mother came back home around two when they all had already eaten, and ate in a hurry with the newspaper leaned against her glass and rushed off again to the office on her bicycle and returned home for a little bit at dinner, but almost always she rushed away again.  The boys did their homework in the bedroom. There was a large portrait of their father at the head of the bed, with a square black beard and a bald head and wearing glasses with tortoise shell frames, and also another on the table with the younger child with his arms wrapped around his neck. The father had died when they were very small, and they did not remember anything about him. The older boy remembered a little better the shade of a distant afternoon in the country, at the house of their Aunt Clementina, when he pushed him around the meadow in a little green cart.

They did not know much about this father...

He had found some pieces of this carriage, the handle and the wheels, in the attic of his Aunt Clementina. It was a beautiful little cart when it was new, and he was happy to have it. The father pushed him in it, running with his beard swaying in the breeze. They did not know much about this father, but thought that he must have been one of those strong people, with the power to permit and forbid.  When the grandfather or Diomira became angry at the mother, the grandmother, said they must have pity on her because she was very unfortunate, and if Eugenio the father of the children had been around she might have been completely another woman, but instead, she had had this misfortune to lose her husband whilst she was still such a young girl.  There was also for a while their paternal grandmother, whom they never saw because she lived in France, but she wrote and sent little gifts at Christmas, but in the end she died, because she was very old.

if Eugenio the father of the children had been around she might have been completely another woman,

At snack time they ate chestnuts, or bread with olive oil. When they had done their homework they could go down to play in the little square by the ruins of the public baths which had been blown up in the bombing.  In the little square there were many pigeons, and they brought some bread or made Diomira give them a little box of leftover rice. There they met all the children of the neighbourhood, their schoolmates and the others who came back from the Sunday recreation center, and they played ball with don Vigliani who drew his black soutane over his knees and kicked the ball. Also in the square they sometimes played at cops and robbers. Their grandmother from time to time leaned over the balcony and called out to them to not hurt themselves. It was lovely to see in the dark piazza the lighted windows of the house there on the third floor, and know that they could return there to warm themselves by the heater and be safe from the night.

The grandmother sat in the kitchen with Diomira and darned the sheets. The grandfather stayed in the dining room and smoked his pipe, with a beret on his head. The old lady was very fat, dressed all in black, and she wore on her chest a large medallion with a portrait of uncle Oreste who died in the war. She was very good at cooking pizzas and other things. The grandmother sometimes took them on her knees, which were also pretty big. She was fat, and had a large chest, which was altogether soft. They could see beneath the neckline of her black dress a large white wool sweater with a border she had decorated herself. She took them on her knees, and spoke to them in her dialect, words which were tender and a little piteous. Then she drew out of the coil of her hair a metal hairpin, and cleaned their ears, and they ran screaming fleeing to escape and the grandfather would come to the doorway with his pipe.

The grandfather used to be a teacher of Latin and Greek at the Lyceum.  Now he was retired, and had written a Greek grammar, and every so often, many of his old students would come in search of him.  Then Diomira had to make coffee; there were found in the john pages of notebooks with versions of Latin and Greek, and his corrections in red and blue. The grandfather had a white beard a little like a goat’s, and they durst not make a noise because his nerves were frayed from many years of teaching in school. He was always a little startled at the increasing prices, and the grandmother always had to argue with him a little in the morning. Because he was always a little shocked at how much money she wanted. He said that perhaps Diomira was pilfering the sugar, and hid the coffee, and Diomira would hear it and run to him crying out that the coffee was used on the students who always dropped by, but these were minor incidents, that quieted down immediately, and the children were not scared of them. They were frightened when there was a fight between the mother and the grandfather.

And she said "I don't care"....

When it happened sometimes that the mother returned very late at night, he always came out of his room with his overcoat over his pyjamas and sandals on his feet, and shouted at the mother. He cried, “ I know where you have been, I know where you have been. I know what you are.” And she said “ I don’t care: there, you have woken up the children”. He said, “ Is this how you care for your children? Don’t talk because I know what you are. You are a bitch, and you run around at night with other bitches who are crazy like you.”  Then the grandmother would come out, and Diomira in her nightdress, and they would push the grandfather in his room and make him hush, and the mother would rush into the room and sob beneath the sheets, and her loud sobs would ring in the dark room. The children thought that the grandfather was certainly correct. They thought that it was wrong of the mother to go to the cinema and to her friend’s house at night. They felt very unhappy, and scared and unhappy, and they curled up close in the warm bed, soft and deep. The older child clenched himself on his side of the bed to not be touching his mother’s body. It seemed perhaps that that there was something shameful in his mothers crying into the wet pillow. A boy is ashamed of his mother when she cries. They never spoke among themselves of these fights between the mother and grandfather. They carefully avoided speaking of them. But they wanted to embrace each other tightly during the night, when the mother cried. They were a little ashamed of themselves in the morning, because they embraced each other so tightly, to be safe, and it was about this that they were ashamed to speak. However, they soon forgot to stay unhappy, the day would begin and they would go to school, and along the way they would find their friends and play for some moments outside the school gates.

The mother rose in the greyness of the morning. With her chemise rolled down to her waist, she soaped herself – her neck and arms, standing bent over the wash basin, They tried not to look at her while she did this, but they noticed in the mirror her skinny tanned shoulders and her small naked breasts.  Her dark nipples hardened and stood out in the cold, She raised her arms and powdered the thick curly hair of her armpits.

When she was completely dressed she began plucking her eyebrows and defined them precisely, leaning close to the mirror and compressing her lips. She then smeared her face with cream, and firmly shook the bright pink swans feather powder puff and powdered herself. Then her face turned completely yellow.

Sometimes she was pretty happy in the morning, and she would like to talk with the children. She would question them about school, and their companions, and chat about the time when she was in school herself, when she had a teacher who was called Miss. Dirce who was an old spinster who tried to act like a young girl.

Then she would fling on her overcoat and seize the mesh shopping bag, and bend down to kiss the boys, and she would dash away with her scarf sometimes wrapped around her head and her face perfumed and completely covered with the yellow powder.

The children thought it strange that they were born to her.  They felt it would have been much less strange if they had been born to their grandmother or to Diomira, with their large warm bodies, which could shield them from fear and protect them from storms and robbers. It was very strange to think of their mother this way, that she could have contained them at one time in her small belly, when they found out that children were in the stomachs of their mothers before they were born. They felt amazement, and were slightly ashamed that at one time this belly had contained them.  And also that she had given them milk from her breasts, and this seemed even more unreal. But then, she no longer had any babies to nurse and rock, and every morning after the shopping, they would see her leave to go away on her bicycle, released and free, with a physical happiness… She certainly did not belong to them, nor could they count on her.  They could not ask her anything.  It was clear that their companions could ask their mothers about a world of things.  They would run to their mothers after school and ask them a world of things.  They would have their noses wiped, and their overcoats buttoned, and they would show them their homework and their little magazines. These mothers were pretty old, with their hair, and their collars of velvet or fur, and almost every day they came to talk with the teachers. They were people like their grandmother or Diomira, with the large mild bodies of imperious people who did not make mistakes: People who did not lose things, or leave their drawers in disorder, and who did not return late at night. But then their mother left to go away free after the shopping, and figured out the change incorrectly if she was taken advantage of by the butcher, and many times she would bring the wrong change. She went away, and it wasn’t possible to reach her where she went. In fact, they very much admired where she went, when she was there in that office where they did not talk about shopping, and where she typed on a machine and wrote letters in French and English, and maybe she was pretty smart.

One day they went for a walk with don Vigliani and the other kids from the recreation, and on their way back, they saw the mother in a café at the outskirts of the city. She was seated in the café, and they saw her in the window, and a man was seated with her. The mother had laid her tartan scarf and old alligator purse they knew so well on the table.

The man had on a large light coloured overcoat, and a brown moustache

The man had on a large light coloured overcoat, and a brown moustache, and was laughing and talking with her. The mother was relaxed and happy, as they had never seen her at home. She looked at the man, as they held hands, and she did not see the children. The children continued walking beside don Vigliani, who told them they should hurry up to catch the tram,. When they were in the tram, the smaller of the children came close to his brother and said, “Did you see Mama”? and his brother said “No I did not see her”. The younger one laughed softly and said,   “Yes you saw her.  She was our mother, and there was a gentleman with her. The older child turned around. He was a big boy, almost thirteen years of age. The younger boy irritated him, and he pitied him, and it troubled him that he did not understand why it was that he felt pity, and he himself did not want to think about what he had seen. He wanted to make it seem that he had not seen anything.

They did not say anything to the grandmother. The next morning, while the mother was getting dressed, the little one said “ Yesterday when we were taking a walk with don Vigliani we saw you and the man who was with you. The mother turned around as she was leaving. Her face became ugly. The thin, fish-like black lines on her forehead twisted and came together. She said:  “ It wasn’t me.  Think about it: You know that I have to stay in the office until the end of the evening. You can see that you are mistaken. The older boy then spoke in a voice that was tired and calm – “ No it wasn’t you – it was someone resembling you”.  And both children then understood that this memory had to be made to disappear. They both inhaled deeply and blew it away.

.... and they blew it away.

But one time the man with the light overcoat came to the house. He was not wearing the coat because it was summer. He had blue eyes, and wore a suit of light material. He asked permission to remove his jacket, and they prepared to have lunch. The grandfather and grandmother had gone to Milano to meet some relatives, and Diomira had returned to her village.  Therefore they were alone with the mother. Then the man came. There was a pretty good lunch. The mother had bought almost all of it from the rosticceria. There was chicken and fried potatoes. The mother had prepared pasta and tomato sauce and it was good. Only the sauce was a little burned. There was also wine. The mother was nervous and gay. She wanted to say many things at once. She wanted to speak to the children and to the man, and she wanted him to speak with them. The man was called Max, and he lived in Africa. He had lots of photographs of Africa, which he showed them. There was a photograph of his monkey. The children asked him a lot about the monkey.  He was so smart, and he acted funny and cute.  But he had left it behind in Africa because it was sick and he was afraid it would die on the steamer.  The children made friends with this Max. He promised he would take them to the cinema sometime. They showed him their books, of which they did not have many. He asked if they had read Saturnino Farandola and they said no they had not, and he said that he would make them a gift of them, and also of ‘Robinson of the prairies’ because it was very beautiful. After lunch the mother said they should go to the recreation center to play, though they would have wanted to stay a bit longer with Max. They protested a bit, but the mother and also Max said they should go. When they returned home in the evening Max was no longer there. The mother hurriedly prepared dinner, coffee with milk and potato salad: they were happy and wanted to talk more about Africa and about the monkey. They were extraordinarily happy, though they did not understand exactly why, and also the mother appeared happy, and recounted that she had once seen an organ grinder’s monkey dancing.  She told them to go lie down and she said she was leaving for a little while, and that they should not be afraid because there was no reason to be. She bent down and kissed them and told them that it was not necessary to tell the grandfather and grandmother about Max, because they would not be pleased that she had invited people to the house.

Therefore they remained alone with their mother for some days. Because their mother did not want to cook they ate prosciutto and jam and coffee with milk, and some fried food from the rosticceria. Then they washed their plates together. But when the grandfather and grandmother returned, they felt their spirits lift, There was a new tablecloth on the table at lunch, and glasses, and everything was as they wished. The grandmother was seated once more on the armchair, and they were dandled on her lap, close to her mild body and the scent of her body. The grandmother could not escape and go away. She was too old and fat to escape and go away.

The children did not say anything to the grandmother about Max. They waited for the books by Saturnino Farrandola and waited for Max to take them to the cinema, and to show them other photographs of the monkey. Once or twice they asked the mother when they would go to the cinema with Mr Max.  But the mother responded harshly that Mr Max had now left.  The younger boy asked if perhaps he had left for Africa. The mother made no reply, but he thought that for sure he had returned to Africa to rejoin his monkey. He imagined that one day or another he would come and take him to school with a black servant with a monkey on his shoulder. They began school again, and Aunt Clementina came to stay with them awhile. She had brought a sack of pears, which she baked in the oven with sweet red wine and sugar.  The mother was in a very bad mood, and fought continually with the grandfather. She came home very late, and stayed awake smoking. She grew even thinner and didn’t eat anything.  Her face seemed even smaller and more yellow, and now she also put black on her lashes.  She spat into a small box, and drew the lines with what she had spat. She put on a great deal of powder, so that the grandmother raised her handkerchief to wipe it away, but she averted her face. She almost never spoke, and when she spoke she appeared to be very tired, and her voice came weakly.

her voice came weakly....

One day she came home around six one afternoon.  She entered the bedroom very late, and shut herself in the bedroom, turning the key. The smaller boy went to knock on the door because he needed a notebook. The mother replied in an angry voice that she wished to sleep, and that they should leave her there in peace.  The little one asked timidly if he could have his notebook. Then when she came to open the door he saw that her face was swollen and wet. The boy understood that she had been crying, and he went back to the grandmother and said the mother was crying, and the grandmother and Aunt Clementina spoke softly for a long time about the mother, but one could not understand what they said.

The boy understood that she had been crying.

One night the mother did not come back home. The grandfather went many times in his sandals, and in his pyjamas and housecoat to look, as did the grandmother, and the children slept badly. They listened to the grandmother and grandfather walking through the house and opening and closing the window. The children were very afraid. In the morning they telephoned the police headquarters. They had found the mother dead in a hotel. She had taken poison, and had left a letter addressed to the grandfather and Aunt Clementina. The grandmother cried aloud. The children were sent to the old lady who lived on the floor below them who continually repeated how heartless it was to leave these two creatures in this way.  They brought the mother back to the house. The children went to see her laid out on the bed. Diomira had dressed her in shiny shoes and the suit of red silk in which she was married. She was small – a little dead doll.

It seemed strange to see flowers and candles in the familiar room.  Diomira and Aunt Clementina and the grandmother were on their knees praying. They made it known that she had taken poison by mistake, otherwise the priest would not come to give the blessing if he knew she had taken it on purpose. Diomira told the children that they should kiss her.  They were terribly ashamed. And the kissed her one after the other on her cold cheek. After the funeral it was very hard walking through the city, and they felt very tired. Also present were don Vigliani and many children from the school and recreation center.  The weather turned cold. A strong wind sprang up at the cemetery. When they returned home the grandmother commenced to weep and moan at the bicycle in the corridor, and they all seemed to see her when she rushed away, with her free body and her scarf fluttering in the wind. Don Vigliani said she was now in paradise, but he did not know what she had done on purpose – or if he did he pretended that he knew nothing.  But the children did not know for certain if indeed there was a paradise, because the grandfather said there was not and the grandmother said there was, and the mother had once said that there was no paradise, with little angels and beautiful music, and that once you die you go to a place where there is no good and no bad, and where you desire nothing, and because you desire nothing there is great peace.

Don Vigliani said she was now in paradise.

The children went to spend some time in the country with Aunt Clementina. Everyone was very kind to them. They kissed them and caressed them, and they felt very shy. The never spoke about the mother among themselves, and neither of Mr. Max. In the attic at Aunt Clementina’s they found a book by Saturnino Farrandola, and the read it and found it very beautiful. But the older boy thought many times about the mother, as he had seen her that day in the cafe with Max when they held hands and her face was relaxed and happy.

The older boy thought many times about the mother...

He thought then that the mother had taken the poison because of Max and perhaps because he was returning to Africa forever. The children played with Aunt Clementina’s dog, a beautiful dog called Bubi, and they learned to climb trees, which at first they were not able to do. They also went to bathe in the river, and it was lovely to come back in the evening and do crosswords together with Aunt Clementina. The children were very happy to be with Aunt Clementina.  Then they were happy when they returned home to the grandmother. The grandmother sat in the armchair and dandled them on her knee, and cleaned their ears with her hairpin. On Sunday they went to the cemetery, and Diomira came too. They bought flowers, and on their return they stopped at the bar and had a hot punch. When they were in the cemetery in front of the tomb, the grandmother prayed and cried, and it was very difficult to think that the grave and the cross and the cemetery was a place which when they entered it was where they were with their mother, who argued with the butcher and rushed away on her bicycle, and smoked and lost her way in the street, and sobbed at night. The bed was now very big for them and they each had a pillow. They did not think often of the mother, because it made them feel hurt, and a little shy.  They tried one time to remember how she used to be, each one in his own way, and they both laboriously tried together more and more to recreate the short curly hair and the little black lines on the forehead, and the lips. This they remembered well:  that she put on a lot of yellow powder. Little by little she became a little yellow spot, and it was impossible to recall the cheek, and the face. They came to think that they did not love her very much, because neither had she loved them very much, because if she had she would not have taken the poison. This they had heard from Diomira and the doorkeeper and the lady on the floor below them, and from several other people.  The years went by and the children grew up and many more things happened and this face that they did not love very much disappeared forever.

and this face that they did not love very much disappeared forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung.

Natalia Ginsberg (July 14 1 916 Palermo - October 7 1991 Rome.)

There is a poem by Giovanni  Pascoli,  (December 3, 1855 –  April 6, 1912),  called The Two Children’  about two little brothers whose pleasant play ends unexpectedly in fisticuffs.
When they are disciplined and sent to bed by their mother, their mutual fear of the shadowy darkness that surrounds them prompts each to seek the comfort and security of his brother.
When the mother enters the room with lamp in hand in order to tuck them in, she sees the little boys, their quarrel now forgotten, sleeping peacefully side by side.
This is Pascoli’s warning to men that they must set aside their quarrels, and instead turn to each other for support,  because unless they do so death with its ‘lamp’ will come upon them unexpectedly, to find each individual ending his life in loneliness and alienation.
For her part Natalia Ginsburg uses the same props – two  little boys,  their mother, the darkness of a bedroom, a lamp, and the shadow of death to tell a rather more nuanced and complex story.  Hers is not a cautionary tale: It is much more ambiguous, and one might say even stark – because she casts an unwavering and unsentimental light on the subjects of childhood, human nature and human relationships which other writers (such as Pascoli)  seek to simplify and even neaten-up, in order to derive from them a lesson,  a moral or a shred of comfort.  In ‘La Madre’, all of these easy reassurances are denied to us by the unflinching honesty of this wonderful writer.

 

 

Ginsburg in her own words….

Natalia Ginsburg

“When I write stories I am like someone who is in her own country, walking along streets that she has known since she was a child, between walls and trees that are hers.”

“As soon as we see our dreams betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality, and we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.”

 

 

 

 

The illustrations in this post are all by Amadeo Modigliani, one of Europe’s greatest modern painters, and like Natalia Ginsburg an Italian Jew.

Amadeo Modigliani

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A corpse's frigid hand to kiss...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is, indeed, neither the time nor the place
For victory celebrations. Victory over what?
Over Death, his grinning image and manifesto
Of which, as children, we have been forewarned
And offered a corpse’s frigid hand to kiss.

A Toast....

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contrariwise, let me raise this unsteady glass
In a toast to Death, the sole deviser of life.
Our antenatal witness when each determined
Sex, colour, humour, religion, limit of years,
Parents, place, date of birth –
A full conspectus, with ourselves recognized
Never to perish, time being irrelevant,
And reason for which the sole excuse, is love –
Tripled togetherness of you with me.

Our antenatal witness....

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Robert Graves

A Slice of Wedding Cake

Why have such scores of lovely, gifted girls
Married impossible men?
Simple self-sacrifice may be ruled out,
And missionary endeavour, nine times out of ten.

Repeat ‘impossible men’: not merely rustic,
Foul-tempered or depraved
(Dramatic foils chosen to show the world
How well women behave, and always have behaved).

Impossible men: idle, illiterate,
Self-pitying, dirty, sly,
For whose appearance even in City parks
Excuses must be made to casual passers-by.

Has God’s supply of tolerable husbands
Fallen, in fact, so low?
Or do I always over-value woman
At the expense of man?
Do I?
It might be so.

The Day of the Wedding

The Day of the Wedding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Slice of Wedding Cake

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Robert Graves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Corner Knot

I was a child and overwhelmed; Mozart
Had snatched me up fainting and wild at heart
To a green land of wonder, where estranged
I dipped my feet in shallow brooks, I ranged
Rough mountains, and fields yellow with small vetch;
Of which, though long I tried, I could not fetch
One single flower away, nor from the ground
Pocket one pebble of the scores I found
Twinkling enchanted there. So for relief
“I’ll corner-knot,” said I, “this handkerchief,
Faithful familiar that, look, here I shake
In these cool airs for proof that I’m awake.”
I tied the knot, the aspens all around
Heaved, and the riverbanks were filled with sound;
Which failing presently, the insistent loud
Clapping of hands returned me to the crowd.
I felt and, fumbling, took away with me
The knotted witness of my ecstasy,
Though flowers and streams were vanished past recall,
The aspens, the bright pebbled beach and all.

But now grown older, I suspect Mozart
Himself had been snatched up by curious art
To my green land: estranged and wild at heart
He too had crossed the brooks, essayed to pick
That yellow vetch with which the plains are thick;
And being put to it (as I had been)
To smuggle back some witness of the scene,
Had knotted up his cambric handkerchief
With common music, rippling, flat and brief;
Then, home again, had sighed above the score
“Ay, a remembrancer, but nothing more.”

Marianne Stokes 'A Young Girl Picking Flowers'

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Graves’ poem about of the musical ‘transport’ he experienced as a child listening to Mozart  is appositely allusive  to the the ‘trance’ in which genuine poems take their form. The swirling galactic  indeterminate fields of dust and gas where stars are born, and the shadowy ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ (‘La Noche Oscura’) described by St. John of the Cross,  also relate to to this rich and fertile state and place  – this dream-like ground of transcendent mystery and creativity – this mystical reality from which it is so difficult to retrieve and return scarcely any but a shredded scrap back to our ordinary realm: A scrap hastily torn from a vision entire which shimmers and dissolves and disappears much as the world of a dream does upon awakening.

The test of a true poem is that it is able to restore in great part to the reader that other realm which stubbornly refuses to accompany us back into our dreamless world – or only does so in the tantalising shadowy fragments of ‘through a glass darkly’. The true poem accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of paradoxically forming with words an evanescent world in which what is the most real effortlessly unfolds without them.

Mozart Aged Eight, Holding a Bird's Nest.

 

 

 

The Corner Knot

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