Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Song: To Lucasta, Going to the Wars

by Richard Lovelace

Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind,
To war and arms I fly.

True; a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more.

* * *

I've heard some objections to this poem. Some people say the last two lines are totally wrong--how could anyone love honor more than a real person? I say it depends on your definition of honor. If Lovelace just means he wants to be honored by others, than he is wrong to think that way. But if he means doing the honorable thing, he's absolutely right. Because how could he presume to offer himself to Lucasta if he wasn't willing to do his duty first? He wouldn't be worthy of her unless he was.

Chesterton's reply to this poem next ...

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Fragment of a Greek Tragedy

by A. E. Housman

CHORUS: O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in inquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Then wave your hand, to signify as much.

ALCMAEON: I journeyed hither a Boetian road.
CHORUS: Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?
ALCMAEON: Plying with speed my partnership of legs.
CHORUS: Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
ALCMAEON: Mud's sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.
CHORUS: To learn your name would not displease me much.
ALCMAEON: Not all that men desire do they obtain.
CHORUS: Might I then hear at what thy presence shoots.
ALCMAEON: A shepherd's questioned mouth informed me that--
CHORUS: What? for I know not yet what you will say.
ALCMAEON: Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
CHORUS: Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
ALCMAEON: This house was Eriphyle's, no one else's.
CHORUS: Nor did he shame his throat with shameful lies.
ALCMAEON: May I then enter, passing through the door?
CHORUS: Go chase into the house a lucky foot.
And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
For that is much the safest plan.
ALCMAEON: I go into the house with heels and speed.


In speculation
I would not willingly acquire a name
For ill-digested thought;
But after pondering much
To this conclusion I at last have come: LIFE IS UNCERTAIN.
This truth I have written deep
In my reflective midriff
On tablets not of wax,
Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there,
For many reasons: LIFE, I say, IS NOT
Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
This fact did I discover,
Nor did the Delphine tripod bark it out,
Nor yet Dodona.
Its native ingunuity sufficed
My self-taught diaphragm.

Why should I mention
The Inachean daughter, loved of Zeus?
Her whom of old the gods,
More provident than kind,
Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
A gift not asked for,
And sent her forth to learn
The unfamiliar science
Of how to chew the cud.
She therefore, all about the Argive fields,
Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,
Nor did they disagree with her.
But yet, howe'er nutritious, such repasts I do not hanker after:
Never may Cypris for her seat select
My dappled liver!
Why should I mention Io? Why indeed?
I have no notion why.

But now does my boding heart,
Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
A strain not meet for the dance.
Yes even the palace appears
To my yoke of circular eyes
(The right, nor omit I the left)
Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,
Garnished with woolly deaths
And many sphipwrecks of cows.
I therefore in a Cissian strain lament:
And to the rapid
Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
Resounds in concert
The battering of my unlucky head.

ERIPHYLE (within): O, I am smitten with a hatchet's jaw;
And that in deed and not in word alone.
CHORUS: I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
ERIPHYLE: He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.
CHORUS: I would not be reputed rash, but yet I doubt if all be gay within the house.
ERIPHYLE: O! O! another stroke! that makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
CHORUS: If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.

* * *

Maybe it's because I've been translating too much Eurpides and Sophocles lately, but this parody really tickles me. The long periphrastic ways of speaking (such as "Plying with speed my partnership of legs"), the random reflections on truths of life and unrelated myth, the unrealism of people shouting out that they're being killed, and the litotes of lines like "He splits my skull, not in a friendly way," are all common in Greek tragedy. Sometimes the effort of pulling the story out of Greek and into English dulls one's sense of humor, but sometimes a line just cracks me up. Here, all the funniest parts are mushed together in one brief snippet. I just love it.


by Robert Frost

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth-
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right.
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?
If design govern in a thing so small.

* * *

Sorry it's been so long since I've posted. Chances are people aren't even bothering to check anymore ... it's just that my thesis, and even more, student teaching, have kept me tremendously busy.

This poem is a counterexample to the idea that Frost's poetry is too optimistic and facile. In fact, many of his poems are deeply pessimistic. His happy nature poems have been the most popular, but they were far from all he wrote.

Here, Frost ponders the "co-incidence" of these three white things, a flower, a moth, and a spider. Can it really be coincidence? If it is design, that suggests a darker side to the one who designs it--for there is nothing uplifting about a spider feeding on its prey. Or does design really govern little things like this?

My answer is simply that design does govern even tiny things--like that line in the Silmarillion about those who consider only the vastness of the works of the Valar and not their fineness: to be truly great, an intelligence has to reach not only the vast, whirling stars but also each tiny speck of dust. But it is not the task of "design" (we can start saying God, here, I guess--we all know that's what it means, right?) to make sure things are always "uplifting." The mystery of sin in the world is a part of all this, of course. God's task in so much of creation is simply keeping us from completely destroying ourselves. It is our sin (I think--in a mysterious way) that taught the spider to eat the moth. But knowing that the spider needed this food, God really did guide the moth to its web. And in a larger design, God guided Frost to the same flower to ponder His design, that Frost's poem might inspire me to write this blog post today and maybe start someone thinking about the nature of evil and the goodness of God.

Makes you feel kind of small, doesn't it? But at the same time, very greatly cared for.