Archive for the Poetry Category

From Sappho to Babbage

Posted in Astrohype, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 24, 2016 by telescoper

The English mathematician Charles Babbage, who designed and built the first programmable calculating machine, wrote to the (then) young poet Tennyson, whose poem The Vision of Sin he had recently read:

BabbageToTennyson

I like to think Babbage was having a laugh with Tennyson here, rather than expressing a view that poetry should be taken so literally, but you never know..

Anyway, I was reminded of the above letter by the much-hyped recent story of the alleged astronomical “dating” of this ancient poem (actually just a fragment) by Sappho:

Tonight I’ve watched
the moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

It is a trivial piece of astronomical work to decuded that if the “Pleiades” does indeed refer to the constellation and “the night is now half-gone” means sometime around midnight, then the scene described in the fragment happened, if it happened at all, between January and March. However, as an excellent rebuttal piece by Darin Hayton points out, the assumptions needed to arrive at a specific date are all questionable.

More important, poetry is not and never has been intended for such superficial interpretation.  That goes for modern works, but is even more true for ancient verse. Who knows what the imagery and allusions in the text would have meant to an audience when it was composed, over 2500 years ago, but which are lost on a modern reader?

I’m not so much saddened that someone thought to study the possible astronomical interpretation an ancient text, even if they didn’t do a very thorough job of it. At least that means they are interested in poetry, although I doubt they were joking as Babbage may have been.

What does sadden me, however, is the ludicrous hype generated by the University of Texas publicity machine. There’s far too much of that about, and it’s getting worse.

 

 

The Moon is Distant from the Sea

Posted in Poetry, Uncategorized with tags , , on May 19, 2016 by telescoper

The moon is distant from the sea,
And yet with amber hands
She leads him, docile as a boy,
Along appointed sands.

He never misses a degree;
Obedient to her eye,
He comes just so far toward the town,
Just so far goes away.

Oh, Signor, thine the amber hand,
And mine the distant sea, —
Obedient to the least command
Thine eyes impose on me.

by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

 

Afterwards, by Thomas Hardy

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on May 3, 2016 by telescoper

When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
“He was a man who used to notice such things”?

If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid’s soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
“To him this must have been a familiar sight.”

If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
One may say, “He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.”

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
“He was one who had an eye for such mysteries”?

And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
Till they rise again, as they were a new bell’s boom,
“He hears it not now, but used to notice such things”?

by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

 

Child of Europe

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 14, 2016 by telescoper

The poet Czeslaw Milosz was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. He was born in Lithuania, in 1911, to a family of Polish origin.  He experienced at first hand the suffering caused by the Nazi terror and genocide, the war, and later, Stalinist tyranny.  His Nobel Prize citation states that he ” with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts”. This example of his poetry, written (I believe) in Poland in 1945, is a particularly powerful example.

1

We, whose lungs fill with the sweetness of day,

Who in May admire trees flowering,
Are better than those who perished.

We, who taste of exotic dishes,
And enjoy fully the delights of love,
Are better than those who were buried.

We, from the fiery furnaces, from behind barbed wires
On which the winds of endless Autumns howled,
We, who remember battles where the wounded air roared in paroxysms of pain,
We, saved by our own cunning and knowledge.

By sending others to the more exposed positions,
Urging them loudly to fight on,
Ourselves withdrawing in certainty of the cause lost.

Having the choice of our own death and that of a friend,
We chose his, coldly thinking: let it be done quickly.

We sealed gas chamber doors, stole bread,
Knowing the next day would be harder to bear than the day before.

As befits human beings, we explored good and evil.
Our malignant wisdom has no like on this planet.

Accept it as proven that we are better than they,
The gullible, hot-blooded weaklings, careless with their lives.

2

Treasure your legacy of skills, child of Europe,
Inheritor of gothic cathedrals, of baroque churches,
Of synagogues filled with the wailing of a wronged people.
Successor of Descartes, Spinoza, inheritor of the word “honor,”
posthumous child of Leonidas,
Treasure the skills acquired in the hour of terror.

You have a clever mind which sees instantly
The good and bad of any situation.
You have an elegant, skeptical mind which enjoys pleasures
Quite unknown to primitive races.

Guided by this mind you cannot fail to see
The soundness of the advice we give you:
Let the sweetness of day fill your lungs.
For this we have strict but wise rules.

3

There can be no question of force triumphant.
We live in the age of victorious justice.

Do not mention force, or you will be accused
Of upholding fallen doctrines in secret.

He who has power, has it by historical logic.
Respectfully bow to that logic.

Let your lips, proposing a hypothesis,
Not know about the hand faking the experiment.

Let your hand, faking the experiment,
Not know about the lips proposing a hypothesis.

Learn to predict a fire with unerring precision.

Then burn the house down to fulfill the prediction.

4

Grow your tree of falsehood from a small grain of truth.
Do not follow those who lie in contempt of reality.

Let your lie be even more logical than the truth itself,
So the weary travelers may find repose in the lie.

After the Day of the Lie gather in select circles,
Shaking with laughter when our real deeds are mentioned.

Dispensing flattery called: perspicacious thinking.
Dispensing flattery called: a great talent.

We, the last who can still draw joy from cynicism.
We, whose cunning is not unlike despair.

A new, humorless generation is now arising,
It takes in deadly earnest all we received with laughter.

5

Let your words speak not through their meanings,
But through them against whom they are used.

Fashion your weapon from ambiguous words.
Consign clear words to lexical limbo.

Judge no words before the clerks have checked
In their card index by whom they were spoken.

The voice of passion is better that the voice of reason.
The passionless cannot change history.

6

Love no country: countries soon disappear.
Love no city: cities are soon rubble.

Throw away keepsakes, or from your desk
A choking, poisonous fume will exude.

Do not love people: people soon perish.
Or they are wronged and call for your help.

Do not gaze into the pools of the past.
Their corroded surface will mirror
A face different from the one you expected.

7

He who invokes history is always secure.
The dead will not rise to witness against him.

You can accuse them of any deed you like.
Their reply will always be silence.

Their empty faces swim out of the deep dark.
You can fill them with any features desired.

Proud of dominion over people long vanished,
Change the past into your own, better likeness.

8

The laughter born of the love of truth
Is now the laughter of the enemies of the people.

Gone is the age of satire. We no longer need mock
The senile tyrant with false courtly phrases.

Stern as befits the servants of a cause,
We will permit ourselves only sycophantic humor.

Tight-lipped, guided by reasons only,
Cautiously let us step into the era of the unchained fire.

by Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004).

Sonnet No. 98

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , on April 5, 2016 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I posted any of Shakespeare’s sonnets. A brief mention on the radio this morning that William Shakespeare died 400 years ago this month convinced me to rectify that omission and, since it is April, I thought I’d put up this one, No. 98. As with the rest of the first 126 of these poems, it is addressed by the poet to a “fair youth”, i.e. from an older man to a younger one. These sonnets deal with such themes as love, beauty, mortality, absence and longing, framed by the affectionate relationship between two men of very different ages:

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.

 

Far Out

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on March 14, 2016 by telescoper

Beyond the dark cartoons
Are darker spaces where
Small cloudy nests of stars
Seem to float on air.

These have no proper names:
Men out alone at night
Never look up at them
For guidance or delight,

For such evasive dust
Can make so little clear:
Much less is known than not,
More far than near.

by Philip Larkin (1922-85)

 

 

The Ways We Touch

Posted in Mental Health, Poetry on March 8, 2016 by telescoper

Have compassion for everyone you meet,
even if they don’t want it.
What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism
is always a sign of things no ears have heard,
no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets
the bone.

by Miller Williams (1930-2015)

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,051 other followers