26 March 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/13 (part 3)

Sappho: Fragment 104, variations on a theme

Part 1 may be found here and Part 2 here.

Here are some poems that reference in various ways Sappho's evening star fragment. These are all from English-language traditions, so for example Catullus 62 is not included. They are presented in the order in which they were first (to the best of my knowledge) published.

Oh Hesperus, thou bringest all good things:
   Home to the weary, to the hungry cheer,
To the young bird the parent's brooding wings,
   The welcome stall to the o'erlaboured steer.
Whate'er of peace about our hearthstone clings,
   Whate'er our household gods protect of dear
Are gathered round us by thy look of rest;
Thou bring'st the child, too, to the mother's breast.

from Don Juan, Canto III, stanza 107, Lord Byron (1821)

A moment of rest in a turbulent poet. Incorporating a well-known classical fragment was a recognized flourish in a poem, and not considered plagiarism, or the result of inadequate original ideas. The reader is supposed to notice the borrowing and admire the way the poet has referenced, repurposed, or extended the original. And unlike the related practice in earlier times of re-using Greek or Roman ruins as material with which to build new walls or fences, the original was not only left unharmed, but was enhanced by the prestige of becoming a poetic trope.

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Low-flowing breezes are roaming the broad valley dimm'd in the gloaming:
Thoro' the black-stemm'd pines only the far river shines.
Creeping thro' blossomy rushes and bowers of rose-blowing bushes,
Down by the poplar tall rivulets babble and fall.
Barketh the shepherd-dog cheerily; the grasshopper carolleth clearly;
Deeply the wood-dove coos; shrilly the owlet haloos;
Winds creep; dews fall chilly: in her first sleep earth breathes stilly:
Over the pools in the burn water-gnats murmur and mourn.
Sadly the far kine loweth: the glimmering water outfloweth:
Twin peaks shadow'd with pine slope to the dark hyaline.
Low-throned Hesper is stayed between the two peaks; but the Naiad
Throbbing in mild unrest holds him beneath in her breast.
The ancient poetess singeth, that Hesperus all things bringeth,
Smoothing the wearied mind: bring me my love, Rosalind.
Thou comest morning and even; she cometh not morning or even.
False-eyed Hesper, unkind, where is my sweet Rosalind?

from Leonine Elegiacs, Alfred Tennyson (1830)

This is an early poem by Tennyson, later dropped by him from his official catalogue. Instead of extending and elaborating Sappho's lines, as Byron did, Tennyson refers to her and quotes her lines, with the further dismayed reflection that life does not always work the way poetry does. Hyaline at the end of line 10 means something having a glassy, translucent appearance, so presumably the reference is to a lake. And of course it's there to rhyme with pine in the middle of the line. There's some fancy mid-line/end-line rhyming going on throughout this poem. I wonder if the water-gnats murmuring and mourning in line 8 flew in from the Keats ode To Autumn.

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Happy bridegroom, Hesper brings
All desired and timely things.
All whom morning sends to roam,
Hesper loves to lead them home.
Home return who him behold,
Child to mother, sheep to fold,
Bird to nest from wandering wide:
Happy bridegroom, seek your bride.

from Epithalamium in Last Poems, A E Housman (1922)

An epithalamium is a song or poem written to celebrate a wedding. Housman, by profession a classics scholar, exuberantly plays on that aspect of Sappho's lines. Poets love to add birds to this fragment. Birds are always poetical.

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The Evening Star
Penelope's maidens sing of the old father of the absent Odysseus yearning for his son's return:

His eyes toward the even
     Age ever turns
Where fair in the heaven
     Hesperus burns:
Hesper the herald
     Who brings to their rest
Sheep to the sheepfold,
     Babe to the breast;
For Hesper will gather
     What Eos hath strown:
The son to his father,
     The prince to his own!

from The Songs of Sappho, Marion Mills Miller (1925)

As mentioned yesterday, this particular edition of Sappho included prose translations of the Greek, accurate if archaic in style, by David Moore Robinson, along with more fanciful repurposings by Miller: in this case, the lines are imagined as a song for Penelope's maids, singing of Odysseus's father's longing for his son's return, when he will come into his own kingdom. Eos is the goddess of the dawn.

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The Evening Star
in memory of Catherine Mercer, 1994 - 1996

The day we buried your two years and two months
So many crocuses and snowdrops came out for you
I tried to isolate from those galaxies one flower:
A snowdrop appeared in the sky at dayligone;

The evening star, the star in Sappho's epigram
Which brings back everything that shiny daybreak
Scatters, which brings the sheep and brings the goat
And brings the wean back home to her mammy.

Michael Longley, included in Sappho Through English Poetry, edited by Peter Jay and Caroline Lewis (1996)

Longley is a contemporary Irish poet. Dayligone means twilight and a wean is a young child. The same lines that served Tennyson for melancholy recriminations and Housman for a joyful song serve Longley as the source of terrible pathos and irony: recollecting Sappho's lines, he also recollects a child that will never come home again.

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At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime

from The Waste Land, ll 220 - 222, T S Eliot (1922)

And we'll end with Eliot's sardonic repurposing of Sappho's lines; he even draws attention to the origin in his footnotes to The Waste Land, to make sure you see.

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