Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Seafarer, part II

And who could believe, knowing but
The passion of cities, swelled proud with wine
And no taste of misfortune, how often, how wearily,
I put myself back on the paths of the sea.
Night would blacken; it would snow from the north;
Frost bound the earth and hail would fall,
The coldest seeds. And how my heart
Would begin to beat, knowing once more
The salt waves tossing and the towering sea!
The time for journeys would come and my soul
Called me eagerly out, sent me over
The horizon, seeking foreigners' homes.

But there isn't a man on earth so proud,
So born in greatness, so bold with his youth,
Grown so grave, or so graced by God,
That he feels no fear as the sails unfurl,
Wondering what Fate has willed and will do.
No harps ring in his heart, no rewards,
No passion for women, no worldly pleasures,
Nothing, only the ocean's heave;
But longing wraps itself around him.
Orchards blossom, the towns bloom,
Fields grow lovely as the world springs fresh,
And all these admonish that willing mind
Leaping to journeys, always set
In thoughts traveling on a quickening tide.
So summer's sentinel, the cuckoo, sings
In his murmuring voice, and our hearts mourn
As he urges. Who could understand,
In ignorant ease, what we others suffer
As the paths of exile stretch endlessly on?

And yet my heart wanders away,
My soul roams with the sea, the whales'
Home, wandering to the wildest corners
Of the world, returning ravenous with desire,
Flying solitary, screaming, exciting me
To the open ocean, breaking oaths
On the curve of a wave.

* * *

The first part continues the contrast of the previous section between the gentle life of land and the hard life of sea. There is more discussion of cold and weariness. Then the mood shifts with "And how my heart would begin to beat." We see that the speaker is excited by the sea as well. The cold and danger only challenge him to continue. The exhilaration of the tossing waves and the thrill of going where he has never gone make him go to sea once again.

The next part is about the dangers of the sea, enough to humble any man on earth and make him afraid. A man who wishes to court the sea must leave, temporarily at least, any desire for rewards or pleasure. Spring comes on land, lovely and fresh, but the coming of spring also means it is time again for journeys. The song of springtime birds call the seafarer, not to enjoy the blooming earth, but to return once again to the exile that is his life.

But the last part contrasts with the thought of exile. The seafarer wants to go. When he is not at sea, he dreams of it. His heart is always at sea, exploring it, roaming with the whales among the waves.

I don't understand the lines "breaking oaths / On the curve of a wave." I'll have to look up the original and see if it makes things clearer. Can anyone guess what it might be referring to?

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Seafarer, part I

Anonymous, translated from Anglo-Saxon

This tale is true, and mine. It tells
How the sea took me, swept me back
And forth in sorrow and fear and pain,
Showed me suffering in a hundred ships,
In a thousand ports, and in me. It tells
Of smashing surf when I sweated in the cold
Of an anxious watch, perched in the bow
As it dashed under cliffs. My feet were cast
In icy bands, bound with frost,
With frozen chains, and hardship groaned
Around my heart. Hunger tore
At my sea-weary soul. No man sheltered
On the quiet fairness of earth can feel
How wretched I was, drifting through winter
On an ice-cold sea, whirled in sorrow,
Alone in a world blown clear of love,
Hung with icicles. The hailstorms flew.
The only sound was the roaring sea,
The freezing waves. The song of the swan
Might serve for pleasure, the cry of the sea-fowl,
The death-noise of birds instead of laughter,
The mewing of gulls instead of mead.
Storms beat on the rocky cliffs and were echoed
By ice-feathered terns and the eagles screams;
No kinsman could offer comfort there,
To a soul left drowning in desolation.

* * *

I know this is probably not the best translation available, but it's the one I learned in school. I liked it so well I've memorized close to half of the whole poem (so far).

I am going to post the whole poem, hopefully, spread out over my next few posts.

The first part of the poem is very simple: it deals with the desolation of the sea. This is no romanticized poem about sailing. It is about "sorrow and fear and pain." The ocean is cold; it is unsympathetic. One who sails must go hungry, be lonely, endure the cold. There is nothing comforting here, only the crying of birds.

The speaker knows this: "This tale is true, and mine." He has experienced the suffering the sea has inflicted on him. He is not so much complaining as pointing out, "This is how it is. Take it from me, it's not easy."

Saturday, June 18, 2005

from Brideshead Revisited

by Evelyn Waugh

I am attempting the impossible; to give a significant excerpt of a novel without spoiling it. Thus I have omitted the names. Still, if you mean to read this book and don't want it spoiled, I suggest you skip at least my commentary, and perhaps the whole post.

A summary is this: the main speaker, in rediscovering her faith, has realized that she can't go through with her planned marriage to the other speaker, because it is against Church law. The other speaker has no faith.

'Oh, my dear, if you could only understand. Then I could bear to part, or bear it better. I should say my heart was breaking, if I believed in broken hearts. I can't marry you . . . I can't be with you ever again.'

. . .

'What will you do?'

'Just go on -- alone. How can I tell what I shall do? You know the whole of me. You know I'm not one for a life of mourning. I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable -- like things in the school-room, so bad they were unpunishable, that only mummy could deal with -- the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I'm not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God's. Why should I be allowed to understand this, and not you . . . ? It may be because of mummy, nanny . . . keeping my name in their prayers; or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won't quite despair of me in the end.

'Now we shall both be alone, and I shall have no way of making you understand.'

'I don't want to make it easier for you,' I said; 'I hope your heart may break, but I do understand.'

* * *

It was this scene, and a few others, which made this book so extremely worth reading. To find a book this good, and simultaneously this Catholic, seemed nearly miraculous. And it also happened to be exactly what I needed at the moment I read it.

This dialogue carries one of the most important ideas in the book: God is more important than anything, even more important than being with the one you love. Secular books have to let the characters get married, or else it's a tragedy. This book shows that being able to give up one of the best human things possible is not a tragedy -- it's a triumph. It's a sacrifice; it hurts very much, but it is worth it.

Because what is worth more than God? If one was to possess God and nothing else in the world, he would have everything. With everything else in the world, and without God, he has nothing.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


by C.S. Lewis

No; the world will not break,
Time will not stop.
Do not for the dregs mistake
The first bitter drop.

When first the collar galls
Tired horses know
Stable's not near. Still falls
The whip. There's far to go.

* * *

I can't quite figure out C.S. Lewis. Some of his poems are pessimistic, like the one above. Others are wry and funny, like this one:

"Lady, a better sculptor far
Chiselled those curves you smudge and mar,
And God did more than lipstick can
To justify your mouth to man."

Either way, he has a plain-spoken style not diluted in the least by his sharp metaphors. His subjects deal a lot with classical themes, but sometimes he talks about futuristic ones. He is a modern, as Tolkien, though chronologically modern, was not. (He has some modern traits, but in a way, he was living in the middle ages, still. It's one of the things I like about Tolkien.)

This poem deals with suffering far more pessimistically than Hopkins did in one of his sonnets: "Let me be fell; force I must be brief." Lewis doesn't see why if suffering is fell, it must be brief. He gives no comfort, only a reminder that things will yet get worse.

But in a way, he's very much right. It's not at 4:45 I think I can go on at work no longer. It's at 1:00, when I still have four hours ahead of me. And yet somehow I do.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

On this day I complete my thirty-sixth year

by George Gordon, Lord Byron

’TIS time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!

My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!

The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze—
A funeral pile.

The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of love, I cannot share,
But wear the chain.

But ’tis not thus—and ’tis not here—
Such thoughts should shake my soul, nor now,
Where glory decks the hero’s bier,
Or binds his brow.

The sword, the banner, and the field,
Glory and Greece, around me see!
The Spartan, borne upon his shield,
Was not more free.

Awake! (not Greece—she is awake!)
Awake, my spirit! Think through whom
Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake,
And then strike home!

Tread those reviving passions down,
Unworthy manhood!—unto thee
Indifferent should the smile or frown
Of beauty be.

If thou regret’st thy youth, why live?
The land of honourable death
Is here:—up to the field, and give
Away thy breath!

Seek out—less often sought than found—
A soldier’s grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest.

(At Missolonghi, January 22, 1824)

* * *

First Byron laments that now that he is old, he is no longer loved. His loves were not of a kind that lasted, and so although he still appreciates beauty, he has none himself, and so is not loved.

Then he reproaches himself for still caring about love. He should be caring about glory, he says. Death in battle will be the only cure for his strong feelings.

Interestingly enough, he died soon after writing this poem, carried away by sickness while fighting in Greece.

I'm not quite sure if he was trying to be funny in the line, "Not Greece--she is awake!" It's his style of humor, but it's a serious poem. Probably after all his funny poetry, he couldn't think of a rhyme that wasn't a little odd -- his sense of humor indulges greatly in odd rhymes.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Lanquan li jorn

by Jaufré Rudel

Lanquan li jorn son lonc en may
M’es belhs dous chans d’auzelhs de lonh,
Et quan mi suy partitz de lay
Remembra.m d’un’ amor de lonh:
Vau de talan embroncx e clis
Si que chans ni flors d’albespis
No.m platz plus que l’yverns gelatz.

(During May, when the days are long,
I admire the song of the birds from far away
and when I have gone away from there
I remember a love far away.
I go scowling, with my head down
so much that songs and hawthorn flowers
aren't better, to me, than the frozen Winter.)

Be tenc lo senhor per veray
Per qu’ieu veirai l’amor de lonh;
Mas per un ben que m’en eschay
N’ai dos mals, quar tant m’es de lonh.
Ai! car me fos lai pelegris,
Si que mos fustz e mos tapis
Fos pels sieus belhs huelhs remiratz!

(I trust the Lord's fairness
in having formed this faraway love,
but for each consolation I achieve
I get two ills, because I am so far away.
Ah! Why didn't I go there as a pilgrim,
so that my staff and hooded cloak
would be beheld by her beautiful eyes!)

Be.m parra joys quan li querray,
Per amor Dieu, l’aberc de lonh:
E, s’a lieys platz, alberguarai
Pres de lieys, si be.m suy de lonh:
Adonc parra.l parlamens fis
Quan drutz lonhdas er tan vezis
Qu’ab bels digz jauzira solatz.

(It will certainly feel like joy when I ask her,
for the love of God, [the lodging-place far away];
and, if she likes it, I shall lodge
near her, although I come from far away.
Conversation is so pleasant
when the faraway lover is so close
that he would long to be welcome with kind intentions.)

*Translation (slightly altered) from here.

* * *

I dedicate this troubadour song to Meredith of Basia Me, Catholica Sum, to whom I've sung it at least once, I think. (If your mother could get me a better translation, I'd be forever indebted.)

According to the story, Rudel never saw the lady, who was the Countess of Tripoli, but he fell in love with her just from hearing about her loveliness.

Thursday, June 02, 2005


A picture is worth a thousand words, and the words these pictures are worth form a poem. I can't write the poem, but here are the pictures, taken in the evenings I spent at a cabin on Lake Wenatchee over Memorial Day weekend.

A calm evening

The evening after a violent storm

As the Ruin Falls

by C.S. Lewis

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love--a scholar's parrot may talk Greek--
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

* * *

I wouldn't have known, from the Narnia books, how very pessimistic Lewis can be. He has many poems like this, that in their plain-spoken way are more despairing than Hopkins.

And yet, he's right, you know. Anyone who has loved knows that they have never really loved. When one tries loving, he tries loving better. And when he does this, he sees the way love ought to be: completely selfless. Yet being human, he never pulls up his love to this level.

The fact that he struggles to perfect his love is in itself a good thing. But it causes a great deal of suffering to know that it will never be perfect.

Worst of all is when the love bears no fruit. It is clear from "the bridge is breaking" and "the ruin falls" that this love did not work somehow. The speaker blames himself because his love was not perfect. Yet even as this suffering pains him, he realizes it is teaching him something.