Sunday, January 11, 2015

Poetry from the Brazen Bull

I. 

First, a poem. Sappho of Lesbos, a lyric poet of the seventh century BC, is sitting at a wedding-feast, watching the bride being fawned over by the groom. I’ll let her take it from here:

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν 
ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν τό μ’ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤς με φώναίσ’
οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει,

ἀλλά κὰμ μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ’ αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,

κὰδ’ δέ μ᾽ ἴδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ’πιδεύης
φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔτᾳ.
phainetai moi kênos isos theoisin
emmen’ ônêr ottis enantios toi
isdanei kai plâsion âdu phônei-
sâs upakouei

kai gelaisâs îmeroen to m’ ê mân
kardiân en stêthesin eptoaisen.
ôs gar es s’ idô brokhe’ ôs me phônais’
oud’ en et’ eikei,

alla kam men glôssa eâge lepton
d’ autika khrôi pur upadedromêken
oppatessi d’ oud’ en orêmm’ epirrom-
beisi d’ akouai,

kad de m’ idrôs kakkheëtai tromos de
paisan agrei khlôrotera de poiâs
emmi tethnâkên d’ oligô ’pideuês
phainom’ em’ autâi.

That man looks to me to be among the gods, who sits facing you, listening to your sweet voice and your entrancing laugh. But it makes my heart tremble in my chest, for when I look at you, all sound fails me, my tongue freezes, and a nimble fire rushes beneath my skin. My eyes are darkened, and I hear only a whir; sweat streams down me, and I’m seized with shaking. I become more pallid than the grass, and I find myself close to death. [My translation.]

This is one of the earliest complete love-poems that humanity has, and is strange for its utter lack of a philosophical resolution. Many ancient poems of this kind, including Catullus’ translation of this very poem, close with something like “yes, love sucks, but here’s why you should stop worrying.” Here, we only get a naked statement of Sappho’s inner longing, with no thin and dry philosophy intended to make sense out of any of it. And we get it in four elegant, rhythmic stanzas.


This is painted onto a wall in the Vatican, a witness to the
 Church’s traditional openness to every form of human love.

II.

I almost committed an act of plagiarism this week, which would have been fine in my eyes but not in some of yours. I was on a run the other day thinking about this post in my head. I decided to start with a short analogy that I’d thought of, comparing poetry to the bellowing of the Brazen Bull of Phalaris. Unfortunately (for me, not the world) the analogy was written 160 years ago by Søren Kierkegaard. I must have read this passage somewhere a few years ago, and it must have nestled itself so deep into my unconscious that I began to mistake it for my own original thought. Only a last-minute googling saved me from saying it without attribution.

That would have never troubled an ancient or medieval author. But in order not to be pitchforked by the priests of the modern cult of originality, I’ll have to make this post a commentary rather than a parable. So be it.

Here is the passage in full:
What is a poet? An unhappy man who in his heart harbors a deep anguish, but whose lips are so fashioned that the moans and cries which pass over them are transformed into ravishing music. His fate is like that of the unfortunate victims whom the tyrant Phalaris imprisoned in a brazen bull, and slowly tortured over a steady fire; their cries could not reach the tyrant’s ears so as to strike terror into his heart; when they reached his ears they sounded like sweet music. And men crowd around the poet and say to him, “Sing for us soon again”—which is as much as to say, “May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be fashioned as before; for the cries would only distress us, but the music, the music, is delightful. (Either/Or, Part I: “Either”.)
Phalaris, that is, built an enormous, hollow statue of a bull, and fitted out its mouth with a device that converted the screams of his enemies, whom he burned to death inside, into a delightful hum. And Kierkegaard’s poet is the man inside the bull.

This is an good explanation of what makes an large amount of poetry what it is. We have a formula for a certain kind of poem: 1) unbearable pain, and 2) a conversion of that pain’s expression from an inarticulate yell into a sweet, lyrical song.

I submit that when you don’t have the first element, you need an enormous amount of sheer cheer to be able to reach the emotional depth required for Muse-inspired writing. These are only a few good poets who can write outside of the bull, as it were, and cheerfully sing about the glee and pleasure of life. But when you have the emotional anguish but not the musical craft, you just get noise, passed off perhaps as experimental or “raw.”

Unrequited love, like in Sappho’s poem, is only one example of a painful spur to poetry. So is existential gloom:
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed. 
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan… 
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain. (Thomas Hardy, Hap)
Consider, meanwhile, Non mi dir from Don Giovanni, in which Donna Anna begs for mercy from a seemingly silent heaven, setting us up for the triumph of sensual evil over good. Or Corydon’s lament in Virgil’s second Eclogue. Or the end of Tristan und Isolde, which puts the audience on an increasingly painful musical torture-rack that caused even The Economist to gasp in delight. Or Goethe’s Faust, cursing the earth for failing to fill his unearthly desires:
I am too old to play life’s stupid games;
too young for freedom from my longing thirst.
What will the world allow to me?
Hold back! hold back! you must hold back!
That is the never-ceasing song
that tinkles in the whole world’s ears,
a song that hums our whole life long;
the hoarse refrain of every sunlit hour.
I wake up every morning filled with dread,
ready to pour out bitter tears,
for I must see another day, whose course
won’t slake a single wish of mine—not one—
a day that chokes the subtlest throb of joy
with all its cautionary scruples;
frittering the lyric heat that stirs my breast
with countless little cares of life.
Why do we do this? Why would a suffering poet clamber into the brazen bull, and why would we listen? Not, as Aristotle thought, to soothe the pain of life. I think that even the suggestion of consolation, in any sense except the fulfillment of the original desire, would have been insulting to Hardy, Sappho, and the others. Meanwhile, it’s near impossible to walk out of a tragedy feeling less torment than going in. Even Dido, who said the most beautiful poetry of all, wasn’t able to save herself from despair with her hexameter verses (performed here by my friends!) Evidently, there’s little psychological utility to be had from writing poetry. And yet the ancients—and the medievals and us—wrote poetry all the same.

I think there are two reasons for this. First, the Muse of poetry is a god. Human life is often terrible, and one of its great miseries is a feeling of exclusion from sacred satisfaction. We mortals are here in the mud, and can see—but not enter—the star-eyed vault of heaven. Our earthly pain compounds this frustration. But when pain becomes spoken through poetry, it becomes cosmic pain, and unites us briefly with what can seem like sacred heaven. As Nietzsche said about rhythm, “it produces an unconquerable desire to yield, to join in; not only the step of the foot, but also the soul itself follows the measure, probably the soul of the Gods also, as people thought!”

To have the gods join with us in rhythmic poetry doesn’t make anything better in a material sense. It can, though, make suffering sacred, and transform a prosaic wail into something noble and even picturesque. (Why would anyone want that? That’s a question I can’t answer.) Somewhat relevant: epilepsy used to be called the “sacred disease,” and considered to be a fount of godly poetry, until Hippocrates reduced it to the mechanical disorder that we know it as today. In order to understand why people had thought that it was godly communion in the first place, it helps to realize this: an epileptic trance was an extreme departure from the tiresome conventions of the world. It was the painful embrace of a terrible mystery. It was involuntary, too, which meant that it was truly instigated by a god beyond this world.

Second, and more comprehensible to a godless modernity, humanity can speak to itself through its verses. If you read a poem, you get to know that at least your suffering was also suffered by Homer and the Archpoet. If you own a stack of books, that is, you have thousands of years’ worth of friends to stand at your sickbed, all of whom know intimately what is happening to you. And if you go farther and memorize a poem, you can live part of your life to the rhythm of another man or woman’s inner experience. This is comfort, not consolation, but what comfort it is! A fellowship of humanity, a colorful parade of naked apes on a painful trek to the grave, is a noble thing to be part of. And the poetry of our ancestors is a tune that we can all march to. The tree of man was never quiet: then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

[Links updated July 4th, 2015]

1 comment:

George Herbert said...

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.