Week 78: Vento sulla mezzaluna, by Eugenio Montale

I find the Italian writer Eugenio Montale one of the most interesting voices of the last century, a poet who moves easily between the physical world and the world of the mind, making a gnarly, intellectual music. Here is one of his love poems, set in Edinburgh: the bridge in question is the Forth Bridge. I like how it conveys a mind struggling to retain its grip on the reality of love though separated and on alien ground. The translation that follows is my own.

Vento sulla mezzaluna   

Il grande ponte non portava a te.
T’avrei raggiunta anche navigando
nelle chiaviche, a un tuo comando. Ma
già le forze, col sole sui cristalli
delle verande, andavano stremandosi.

L’uomo che predicava sul Crescente
mi chiese «Sai dov’è Dio?». Lo sapevo
e glielo dissi. Scosse il capo. Sparve
nel turbine che prese uomini e case
e li sollevò in alto, sulla pece.

Wind on the Crescent

The great bridge did not lead to you.
I would have come to you although the way
Led me through the sewers, had you asked.
But already my powers, like the declining sun
Reflected in the windows, were ebbing away.

The man who was preaching on the Crescent
Asked me ‘Do you know where God is?’ I did
And told him. But he shook his head, disappearing
In a blast of wind that caught up men and houses
And whirled them aloft, under the pitch-dark sky.

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Week 77: From ‘Exequy on his Wife’, by Henry King

Something rather odd happens three quarters of the way through Henry King’s poem ‘Exequy on his Wife’. It starts off with the usual working out of elaborate conceits that is the bane of so much metaphysical poetry – King was a contemporary and friend of John Donne – and then suddenly he seems to forget all about being a clever poet and simply speaks from the heart as a real husband full of grief and desire for a beloved spouse. It doesn’t last – we are soon back in a contrivance of tides and compasses and vanguards – but those few lines of art without artifice that have come down to us across the centuries are as powerful an elegy for conjugal love as any I know.

Sleep on, my Love, in thy cold bed
Never to be disquieted!
My last good-night! Thou wilt not wake
Till I thy fate shall overtake:
Till age, or grief, or sickness must
Marry my body to that dust
It so much loves; and fill the room
My heart keeps empty in thy tomb.
Stay for me there: I will not fail
To meet thee in that hollow vale.
And think not much of my delay:
I am already on the way,
And follow thee with all the speed
Desire can make, or sorrows breed.

Week 76: Herbsttag, by Rainer Maria Rilke

Just before I went up to Cambridge for my entrance examinations in 1962, my headmaster took me to one side. He was aware of my admiration for the work of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and equally aware of my devotion to Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Just a word of advice’ he said. ‘Go with the Rilke. Don’t mention Tolkien!’. I was then as cheerfully ignorant of the OK-ness of writers in academic circles as I am now cheerfully indifferent to it, so I was a little puzzled, but it seemed only polite to talk to other people about things they too were interested in, so I duly obliged. And Rilke really is very good, though I prefer the sensuous, concrete shorter lyrics to the more philosophical ‘Duino Elegies’, just as I prefer Tolkien’s weather and landscapes to his theology (sorry, Cambridge, just had to slip that one in). Here’s one of my favourites. The translation that follows is my own.

Herbsttag

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südliche Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

Autumn Day

Lord, it is time. The great summer is done.
Let loose the winds upon the meadows, let
Your shadows count the last hours of the sun.

Bid the late fruits to swell upon the vine,
Allow them two more days of southern heat,
Cram the last ripeness into them, complete
Their sweet fulfilment in full-bodied wine.

Who has no house now shall not make a home,
Again; who is alone now long shall be so,
Will sit up, read, will write long letters, go
Along the autumn avenues to roam
Restless, as the leaves drift, to and fro.

Week 75: From ‘A Welsh Childhood’ by Alice Thomas Ellis

Occasionally one comes across a piece of writing so raw and private that to reproduce it seems a kind of trespass, yet one must assume that by publishing it the author wished it to be shared. Such I deem to be the case with this extract from ‘A Welsh Childhood’ by Alice Thomas Ellis, the pen name of Anna Haycraft, concerning the death of her son Joshua, killed in his teens by a fall.

We were living here when our second son, Joshua, died, and his death formed a hinge in existence. Everything that had happened before led up to it, and everything that has happened since is only afterwards. He lies in the graveyard across the fields and one day I shall lie beside him and it won’t matter any more. I do not know how people contain such pain. His father wrote this epitaph for him:

Joshua Haycraft
who died 21 May 1978
aged nineteen years
after a fall

IOSVE
CVI.PRAECIPITI.DECIDENTI
NON.STETIT.SOL
SED.PRAECEPS.OCCIDIT
SOLIBUS.REDEVTIBVS
IPSE.REDITVRVS
IN.NOMINE.IESV
NOMINE.TVO
CARISSIME.DULCISSIME.
RESVRGES

Joshua
for whom the sun
did not stand still
but as you fell headlong
so set for you,
as suns return
you too, most sweet beloved
will return
and in the name of him
whose name is yours
rise again.

Alice Thomas Ellis