Week 205: An Ancient To Ancients, by Thomas Hardy

At first sight one is tempted by its sprightly tone and dancing measure to take this as one of Hardy’s lighter poems, like the morbidly cheerful ‘Voices From Things Growing In A Churchyard’. Yet really it has such a blend of pathos, nostalgia and defiance that it can well stand as a valediction not just to the poet’s own life but to the life of a whole age. And I wonder if this was the last time when our society had a sufficient cultural unity to make such a poem possible – it is hard to imagine an equivalent leave-taking being written now.

An Ancient to Ancients 

Where once we danced, where once we sang,
Gentlemen,
The floors are sunken, cobwebs hang,
And cracks creep; worms have fed upon
The doors. Yea, sprightlier times were then
Than now, with harps and tabrets gone,
Gentlemen!

Where once we rowed, where once we sailed,
Gentlemen,
And damsels took the tiller, veiled
Against too strong a stare (God wot
Their fancy, then or anywhen!)
Upon that shore we are clean forgot,
Gentlemen!

We have lost somewhat of that, afar and near,
Gentlemen,
The thinning of our ranks each year
Affords a hint we are nigh undone,
That shall not be ever again
The marked of many, loved of one,
Gentlemen.

In dance the polka hit our wish,
Gentlemen,
The paced quadrille, the spry schottische,
‘Sir Roger’–And in opera spheres
The ‘Girl’ (the famed ‘Bohemian’),
And ‘Trovatore’ held the ears,
Gentlemen.

This season’s paintings do not please,
Gentlemen
Like Etty, Mulready, Maclise;
Throbbing romance had waned and wanned;
No wizard wields the witching pen
Of Bulwer, Scott, Dumas, and Sand,
Gentlemen.

The bower we shrined to Tennyson,
Gentlemen,
Is roof-wrecked; damps there drip upon
Sagged seats, the creeper-nails are rust,
The spider is sole denizen;
Even she who voiced those rhymes is dust,
Gentlemen!

We who met sunrise sanguine-souled,
Gentlemen,
Are wearing weary. We are old;
These younger press; we feel our rout
Is imminent to Aides’ den,–
That evening shades are stretching out,
Gentlemen!

And yet, though ours be failing frames,
Gentlemen,
So were some others’ history names,
Who trod their track light-limbered and fast
As these youth, and not alien
From enterprise, to their long last,
Gentlemen.

Sophocles, Plato, Socrates,
Gentlemen,
Pythagoras, Thucydides,
Herodotus, and Homer, –yea,
Clement, Augustin, Origen,
Burnt brightlier towards their setting-day,
Gentlemen.

And ye, red-lipped and smooth-browed; list,
Gentlemen;
Much is there waits you we have missed;
Much lore we leave you worth the knowing,
Much, much has lain outside our ken;
Nay, rush not: time serves: we are going,
Gentlemen

Thomas Hardy

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Week 204: El Aghir, by Norman Cameron

I think that what captivates me about this deceptively relaxed, almost throwaway poem with its casual half-rhymes is the intense physicality of its vision and its celebration of water; I know of few poems where that taken for granted substance has such a living presence.

El Aghir

Sprawled on the bags and crates in the rear of the truck,
I was gummy-mouthed from the sun and the dust of the track;
And the two Arab soldiers I’d taken on as hitch-hikers
At a torrid petrol-dump, had been there on their hunkers
Since early morning. I said, in a kind of French
‘On m’a dit, qu’il y a une belle source d’eau fraiche.
Plus loin, a El Aghir.’ It was eighty more kilometres.

Until round a corner we heard a splashing of waters,
And there, in a green, dark street, was a fountain with two facets,
Discharging both ways, from full-throated faucets,
Into basins, thence into troughs and thence into brooks.
Our Negro corporal driver slammed his brakes,
And we yelped and leapt from the truck and went at the double
To fill our bidons and bottles and drink and dabble.
Then, swollen with water, we went to an inn for wine.
The Arabs came, too, though their faith might have stood between.
‘After all,’ they said, ‘it’s a boisson,’ without contrition.

Green, green is El Aghir. It has a railway station,
And the wealth of its soil has borne many another fruit,
A mairie, a school and an elegant Salle de Fetes.
Such blessings, as I remarked, in effect, to the waiter,
Are added unto them that have plenty of water.

Norman Cameron (1905-1953)

Week 203: Carmen 8, by Catullus

This is one of the best-known poems of the Latin poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 – 34 B.C.), written after the final break-up of his relationship with Lesbia, the name that he gave to his mistress, who is generally identified with Clodia Metelli, the wife of a Roman proconsul. Clodia appears to have been somewhat indiscriminate with her favours, and the relationship had been a stormy one. In this poem Catullus struggles to free himself of her spell, admonishing himself in a series of wild mood-swings. 

Such translations of the poem I have seen seem compelled, in deference to some notion of classical diction, to be rather prim and passionless. But this is not a prim and passionless poem: it is alive with the anguish of rejection and wavering resolve, it has, despite all the centuries that separate us, that raw immediacy of a speaking voice that one finds in Wyatt and Donne. Translation is a tricky business and one’s first duty must always be to the sense, but sometimes the more literal the less faithful; in my own translation that follows I have tried to find a balance between letter and spirit.

Carmen 8

Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
Fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,
cum ventitabas quo puella ducebat
amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla.
Ibi illa multa cum iocosa fiebant,
quae tu volebas nec puella nolebat,
fulsere vere candidi tibi soles.
Nunc iam illa non vult: tu quoque impotens noli,
nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser vive,
sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.
Vale puella, iam Catullus obdurat,
nec te requiret nec rogabit invitam.
At tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla.
Scelesta, vae te, quae tibi manet vita?
Quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella?
Quem nunc amabis? Cuius esse diceris?
Quem basiabis? Cui labella mordebis?
At tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura.

Catullus

Catullus, you poor fool, stop faffing about
And face the facts: she’s gone, the one you loved
More than any girl will ever be loved.
How bright the sun shone for you once, when she
Would lead and you would follow her whenever
Even to that place of many pleasures
That you desired, and she did not deny.
Indeed, the sun shone brightly for you then
And now, she does not want you. So, you too,
Left with no other power, learn not to want:
Don’t follow one who runs away, don’t live
A lovesick fool: man up, man, and endure.
Goodbye then, girl – Catullus is enduring –
He will not miss you, will not ask for you
Since you are loth. Let it be your turn, bitch,
To grieve when none desire you. For who now
Will come to you and call you beautiful?
Whom you will you love? Whose will they say you are?
Whom will you kiss? What lips now will you nibble?
Only, Catullus, stay strong and endure.

Week 202: The Death of Socrates, by Plato

I think it is possible to respond to philosophy in general and Plato in particular with that usefully indolent modernism ‘Whatever!’, but still to be moved by this account of the death of Plato’s mentor, which has a particularity and humanity that mark it out from the somewhat tedious discussions about the afterlife and immortality of the soul that form the bulk of the accompanying dialogue. 

And it is hard not to wonder about the Shakespearean echo here. Though Shakespeare had, according to Ben Jonson, ‘small Latin and less Greek’, there were certainly Latin translations available to him, from which he might have got enough to inspire the following lines from the account of the death of Falstaff in ‘Henry V’.

‘So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.’

The Death of Socrates

Socrates alone retained his calmness: ‘What is this strange outcry?’ he said. ‘I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet then, and have patience’.

When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end.

He was beginning to feel cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said – they were his last words – ‘Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?’

‘The debt shall be paid’, said Crito. ‘Is there anything else?’. There was no answer to this question.

From Plato’s ‘Phaedo’, translated by Benjamin Jowett

Week 201: The Homecoming, by Anna Wickham

Anna Wickham (the pen-name of Edith Alice Mary Harper, 1883–1947) wrote this sad poem after her husband was killed in an accident in 1929. The marriage had been a troubled one: he was a solicitor who would have preferred his wife to be less bohemian and was hostile to her poetry-writing, while she came to despise his middle-class respectability, which explains why her grief in the poem is compounded by more than the usual measure of regret for what might have been, should have been and had not been.

The Homecoming

I waited ten years in the husk
That once had been our home,
Watching from dawn to dusk
To see if he would come.

And there he was beside me
Always at board and bed;
I looked – and woe betide me
He I had loved was dead.

He fell at night on the hillside,
They brought him home to his place,
I had not the solace of sorrow
Till I had looked at his face.

Then I clasped the broken body
To see if it breathed or moved,
For there, in the smile of his dying,
Was the gallant man I had loved.

O wives come lend me your weeping,
I have not enough of tears,
For he is dead who was sleeping
These ten accursed years.

Anna Wickham