Saturday, December 13, 2008

This Week's Blinding Thought (IV)

There are few experiences in life as pleasant as a nocturnal walk on a moonlit beach in winter (pleasant in a quiet and contemplative way, as opposed to an ale-fuelled, red-lit, damn-I’ll-be-sore-tomorrow way). It’s also very hard to write about; even as I type these words a pushy and unruly mob of clichés are pounding at the flimsy wooden door of this article, yelling “Use me! I’m soooo poetic!” You know the sort of adjectives that inevitably muscle their way into any rhapsodizing about the Moon (especially by a sensitive, blushing soul such as myself): ghostly, mysterious, cold, eerie, silvery, pallid, bone-white, or that old Gothic favourite, gibbous. This is immensely frustrating, because even with their assistance my language simply isn’t capable of communicating just how beautiful the experience is, unless, of course, I was to get all Finnegans Wake on its ass and start combining words into arresting new juxtapositions, but I lack both the linguistic skill and the verbal range to do that. So I’ll take the advice of a greater authority than myself: “…what barbarian would go bawling into the night to welcome the moon? We tread softly; look and think with caution; as if to be in keeping with this stealthy and motionless lustre.”
Anyway: there I was, wandering along the (ghostly) moonlit beach, pondering (and trying to keep an eye on the red bicycle light attached to the dog’s collar, which bobbed erratically in and out of sight as he bounded through the darkness). There is something of eternity in such an experience; at any time in history, any human being, just like me, could have wandered along such a moonlit beach and heard and seen precisely what I did (minus the bicycle light, obviously...). As I watched my dog gambol away into the distance, he was visible only for a few minutes, then an indistinct smudge on the charcoal sand, then gone; I'd be calling him for five minutes at a time, only to discover that he was right beside me, padding along in the shadow of the dunes. Listening to the noise of the surf and the wind, I started thinking about Sappho, who may be (and I’m guessing here) the first poet to write about the beauty of the moon (or at least the earliest that’s still survived). Sappho is such an elusive, opaque figure (we know next to nothing about her) that her presence can be felt most strongly on a bright moonlit night, when landscape is at its most spectral and uncertain, like a chill dream. (I strongly recommend the books by Reynolds, Carson, and Balmer listed below for more information about this most well-known yet unknown of poets). Here are several translations of Fragment 34, a scrap of a poem in which she sings of how the stars retreat when the moon shines at full brightness. Pick out your favourite (mine is Carson's) and, if you're sufficiently capable, take them as a template and make your own translation!
(I'd just like to comment that the following section was an appalling pain in the face to format - when I put the text in block quotes spaces were removed and added arbitrarily, and lines were jumbled together or spread out at random. I don't think Blogger is designed for poetry! So I've put it in as normal text, which is irritating because it ignores where the poets have words or lines starting in the middle rather than at the edge of the page, and thus my apologies to all. With most it's not a major problem, but in Carson's poem the two last lines should start under the "e" in "whenever" I recommend writing it out by hand on a blank sheet of paper, or (better yet) buying her book!).

Stars above their faces in awe are hiding,
While the Moon, with beauty the world adorning,
At the full, with silvery beams delightful,
Shines from Olympus.

(Percy Osborn, 1909)

Stars around the luminous moon – how soon they
hide away their glitter of diamond light, when
she floats over, and at the full, refulgent,
glamours the landscape …

(John Frederick Nims, 1990)

(Both from The Sappho Companion, by Margaret Reynolds, Vintage 2001)

The stars around the lovely moon
hide their brightness when it is full
and shines the clearest over all
the earth

(Josephine Balmer, from her book of translations, Sappho: Poems and Fragments, Bloodaxe, 1992)

stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth


(Anne Carson, from her book of translations, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Virago, 2002)

The gleaming stars all about the shining moon
Hide their bright faces, when full-orbed and splendid
In the sky she floats, flooding the shadowed earth
with clear silver light.

(Edwin Marion Cox, 1925. The rest of his translations, if you're so inclined, are here)

Planets, that around the beauteous moon
Attendant wait, cast into shade
Their ineffectual lustre, soon
As she, in full-orbed majesty arrayed,
Her silver radiance pours
Upon this world of ours.

(John Hermann Merivale)

The stars around the lovely moon
Their radiant visage hide as soon
As she, full-orbed, appears to sight,
Flooding the earth with her silvery light.


The stars about the lovely moon
Fade back and vanish very soon,
When, round and full, her silver face
Swims into sight, and lights all space.

(Edwin Arnold, 1869)

Stars that shine around the refulgent full moon
Pale, and hide their glory of lesser lustre
When she pours her silvery plenilunar
Light on the orbed earth.

(JA Symonds, 1883)

(All of the above are taken from Henry Thornton Wharton's collection of Sappho fragments from 1895, including translations by the above writers and others, which can be found here.)


Sean Jeating said...

Praised be (the rose fingered) Eos. :)

Well, and the author of this post. Lovely introduction, D.E., thanks.

A Doubtful Egg said...

I read 'Chac Mool' during the week and was very impressed. I must find a copy of Los Días Enmascarados to read over the holidays! But not by moonlight...

Claudia said...

Wow! Your walk on the beach, under the moon, is as evocative as the one Robert Frost took in the woods.

As you say, the moon is stereotyped with adjectives. Also with situations, either romantic or sinister. It was refreshing to see her immortalized for her unique beauty.

As I didn't know Shappho, until your impressive introduction, on a walk alone on a beach, I might have thought, with the famous psalmist, "The Heavens declare the Presence of God."

In my past secret life, I dared, now and again, to write a poetic line. To express love and awe, I simply said, "The moonlight is speechless..."

No need for words. Un clair de lune is sufficient...

Thank you for sharing.

Claudia said...

It's Sappho, of course. Sorry for the mistake. The French have an enormous problem with H, to see it at the proper place, and to pronounce it with a twist of the tongue

Thanks again.

Sean Jeating said...

And afterwards (perhaps) 'Terra Nostra', preferable to be read while it's raining in Paris (or elsewhere).
Hm, not that I wished your holiday getting spoilt by rain, though.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Claudia: The differences between languages are a fascinating thing (part of the fun of translation, although I'm sadly monolingual). While we tend to pronounce Sappho softly (as in saffron), apparently the Greek pronunciation is much harder, closer to Psap-op-o. Her name has been softened to fit in with ideas about femininity which have been around since first her poems were translated. (Again, this fact comes from Margaret Reynold's excellent book, The Sappho Companion).

Sean: If only I were in Paris (raining or not), but I am going to Cambridge, which is good enough for the moment!