Context: T.S Eliot (1888-1965) born Thomas Stearns Eliot in Missouri, was an English-American writer of plays, poetry and Essays. He was educated at Harvard and did graduate work in philosophy at the Sorbonne, Harvard, and Merton College, Oxford. He finally settled in England and became a teacher. In 1927 Eliot became a british citizen. Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 with the motivation: “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”. His most famous cycle of poetry is perhaps The Waste Land. The poem “The Footfalls of Memory” was published in Four Quartets and contains four poems produced between 1935-1942. It appears in the poem Burnt Norton (1935).
Themes: Memory, time, past and present
The Footfalls of Memory
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
The poem is reproduced from Four Quartetsavailable through wikiquote.
Context: The German title of the poem is “An die Entfernte”, translated here as “The Distant One”. Written in 1788 and published one year later in Goethes Schriften. Achter Band, G. J. Göschen. 1789; it’s also known as one of Goethes famous Songes (Lieder) and Schubert made some nice music of it. This is my own very humble translation into English.
Themes: Love, obsession, lost love, unanswered love
Context: William Shakespeare (1564-1616) needs no further introduction. This sonnet makes fun of the ideals of love. In the final sentence the narrator describes his love for the woman or “mistress” as something that is rare and wish not to compare her to other things associated with love. He’s also ironical. In the previous lines we read: “I love to hear her speak, yet well I know That music hath a far more pleasing sound”. Deeply influenced by the Petrarchan way of writing the perfect poem and the ideal Petrarchan woman in a poem is a goddess. Notice how Shakespeare play with this ideal. His woman, his mistress doesn’t fulfill the ideal. Pay attention to this line: “I grant I never saw a goddess go; My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:”.
Themes: satire of conventional love, female beauty, irony
Words: dun – dull brownish gray; belied – misrepresented
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Context: This poem by Edgar A. Poe (1809-1849) was incorporated in the story “The Fall of the House of Usher”, published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine (Sept. 1839). It’s presented as a song written by the main protagonist Roderick Usher. The poem is an Allegory about a king, his palace and the kingdom. The palace is the main object in focus and is described through a romantic scenery of pittoresque nature sorrounding it. People living in the valley are happy and the king has wit and wisdom. There are also beauty and music. But bad times comes and the king is nolonger happy. Unamed sorrows struck the king and the poem takes on a darker theme. The valley is no longer beautiful, but scary.
Themes: Happiness, sadness, memory, past, present, ghosts, Music and Madness. Notice that Music and Madness is also a main theme of the novel The Fall of the House of Usher.
The Haunted Palace
In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion,
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A wingèd odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tunèd law,
Round about a throne where, sitting,
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn!—for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.
LIVING THE BUSY city life or moving to the quiet life on the countryside? That’s the question. Even during the late Antiquity people pondered over this. Let’s take a look on a letter from the well-known Jerome (347-420) who lived in Rome while busy spreading Christianity through teaching and writings on Christian morality. He also liked to befriend Roman ladies from the Aristocracy who had promised to remain virgins for the rest of their lives. He eventuelly became a Saint and is regared as a Father of the Church.
This letter is adressed to Marcella (325-410), a Christian widow. As wikipedia comments on her life: “After her husband’s early death, Marcella decided to devote the rest of her life to charity, prayer, and mortification of the flesh and was convinced that God was directing her to a life of poverty and service. She left behind her fashionable dresses for a coarse brown garment and abandoned her usual extravagant hair styling and makeup. Along with other women, Marcella formed a community known as the brown dress society, spending their time praying, singing, reading the Bible, and serving the needy. Her palatial home was now a refuge for weary pilgrims and for the poor.” I will not quote the entire letter, but simply point out a few sentences.
Date: Rome, 385 A.D.
II. The Letter
“Wherefore, seeing that we have journeyed for much of our life through a troubled sea, and that our vessel has been in turn shaken by raging blasts and shattered upon treacherous reefs, let us, as soon as may be, make for the haven of rural quietude. There such country dainties as milk and household bread, and greens watered by our own hands, will supply us with coarse but harmless fare. So living, sleep will not call us away from prayer, nor satiety from reading. In summer the shade of a tree will afford us privacy. In autumn the quality of the air and the leaves strewn under foot will invite us to stop and rest. In springtime the fields will be bright with flowers, and our psalms will sound the sweeter for the twittering of the birds. When winter comes with its frost and snow, I shall not have to buy fuel, and, whether I sleep or keep vigil, shall be warmer than in town. At least, so far as I know, I shall keep off the cold at less expense. Let Rome keep to itself its noise and bustle, let the cruel shows of the arena go on, let the crowd rave at the circus, let the playgoers revel in the theatres and— for I must not altogether pass over our Christian friends— let the House of Ladies hold its daily sittings.”
Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. 12 vols. Ed. David Hugh Farmer and Paul Burns. New full ed., Tunbridge Wells, UK: Burns & Oates and Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1995–2000.
Select Letters of St. Jerome. Jerome, Saint. F.A. Wright. William Heinemann Ltd.; Harvard University Press. London; Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1933.
Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.)
Cleopatra VII Philopator (Greek: Κλεοπάτρα Φιλοπάτωρ; 69-30 BC), known to history simply as Cleopatra, was the last active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, briefly survived as pharaoh by her son Caesarion. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the recently established Roman Empire. Her title in Greek philopátōr means the one who loves the father. On the etymology of her given name wikipedia informs Cleopatra is derived from the Greek name Κλεοπάτρα (Kleopatra) which meant “she who comes from glorious father” or “glory of the father” in the feminine form, derived from κλέος (kleos) “glory” combined with πατήρ (pater) “father” (the masculine form would be written either as Kleopatros (Κλεόπατρος), or Patroklos (Πάτροκλος). She was a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty who ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great. Unlike her Ptolemaic predecessors who spoke Greek only; Cleopatra also learned the Egyptian language. She married her biological brother which was custom but didn’t produce any offspring until she met Julius Caesar.
B. THE POEM
Horace on Cleopatra and his Ode
Horace or Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC. – 8 BC), was on of the most famous Roman poets. He achieved great fame through his Odes [Carmina] but wrote also in Hexameter. He’s considered to be the first person who wrote an autobiography since he talks so much about himself through his poetry. According to English wikipedia: “Horace left Rome, possibly after his father’s death, and continued his formal education in Athens,[…] The Academy was now dominated by Epicureans and Stoics, whose theories and practises made a deep impression on the young man from Venusia.” The Odes were developed as a conscious imitation of the short lyric poetry of Greek originals – Pindar, Sappho and Alcaeus are some of Horace’s models.
The poem is a praise and celebration over the defeat of Cleopatra who comitted suicide and Egypt was then taken over by the Roman Empire. The news of her death likely reached Horace in Rome in the Autumn 30 BC. There are many interpretations of this poem. I quote John Cornington’s interpretation of Ode 1:37, published for the first time in 1882:
Now drink we deep, now featly tread
A measure; now before each shrine
With Salian feasts the table spread;
The time invites us, comrades mine.
‘Twas shame to broach, before today,
The Caecuban, while Egypt‘s dame
Threaten’d our power in dust to lay
And wrap the Capitol in flame,
Girt with her foul emasculate throng,
By Fortune’s sweet new wine befool’d,
In hope’s ungovern’d weakness strong
To hope for all; but soon she cool’d,
To see one ship from burning ‘scape;
Great Caesar taught her dizzy brain,
Made mad by Mareotic grape,
To feel the sobering truth of pain,
And gave her chase from Italy,
As after doves fierce falcons speed,
As hunters ‘neath Haemonia’s sky
Chase the tired hare, so might he lead
The fiend enchain’d; she sought to die
More nobly, nor with woman’s dread
Quail’d at the steel, nor timorously
In her fleet ships to covert fled.
Amid her ruin’d halls she stood
Unblench’d, and fearless to the end
Grasp’d the fell snakes, that all her blood
Might with the cold black venom blend,
Death’s purpose flushing in her face;
Nor to our ships the glory gave,
That she, no vulgar dame, should grace
A triumph, crownless, and a slave.
Horace. The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace. John Conington. trans. London. George Bell and Sons. 1882.
For the Latin version of Horace’s ode; published by wellesley.edu, please visit this link.
Context: The German writer and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is perhaps not known as any great poet in particular but he did compose a few ones. In this poem which I’ve translated from German we encounter a narrator with sleeping problems. Themes and motives in the poem are not uncommon for this period.
Themes: Sleep, the Night, Lucid dreaming, sleeplessness. Nietzsche had problems with not sleeping well and in 1882 he consumed a lot of Opium to get rid off his sleeping problems. The poem entitled “Das Nächtliche Geheimniss” comes also with the introductory line ‘Idyllen aus Messina’//idylls from Messina.
The Nightly Secret
Previous nights, when everyone slept, scarcely the wind with uncertain sighs through the streets, Gave me peace not the pillow Still poppy, still, what else make a deep sleep – a good conscience.
Finally the sleep hit me
Senseless and ran to the beach
It was moonlight and mild – I met
A man and a rowing boat
Both sleepy, Herdsman and Sheep:
Sleepy pushed the rowing boat from land.
An hour, lightly two, Or was it a year? – there sank Suddenly my mind and thoughts In an eternal simplicity, And an abyss without barriers Open up: – it was over! –
Tomorrow came: From the black depths Stands a rowing boat and rests and rests What happened? So shouts, so shouted One hundred soon – what was it? Blood? – Nothing happened! We slept, slept All – oh, so good, so good!
For the German version of this poem published in Der Spiegel, please visit this link.