Above the brink
of that lamentable river I shall lean,
hesitant, unwilling to drink,
as I remember there for the last time.
Will a few drops on the tongue,
like a whirling flood submerge cities,
like a sea, grind pillars to sand?
Will it wash the color from the lips and the eyes
beloved? It were a thousand pities
thus to dissolve
the delicate sculpture of a lifted hand,
to fade the dye
of the world's color, to quench forever
the fires of earth in this river.
The living will forget
more quickly than I,
dead, lingering with lips unwet
Mary Barnard is probably best known for her 1958 translation of Sappho, a version which has held its own even against more recent translations, but she was also a poet in her own right. In this poem you can see the vivid phrasing and emotional intensity that drew her to the ancient Greek poet. You can also see the use of stripped-down and specific metaphorical images that drew her to the Imagist school of poetry, informally headed by Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell (Pound was a mentor to Barnard, and she writes about him in her memoir, Assault on Mount Helicon – in Greek mythology, Mount Helicon is sacred to the Muses).
This poem has a timeless quality; the speaker could be our contemporary, or it could be read as a translation of an imaginary lyric of ancient Greece, a time and place that are suggested not only by the subject but by some of the images. The river Lethe is one of the five rivers of Hades. each of which had different qualities: that of Lethe was forgetting, oblivion; the dead were required to drink from it before they could pass into the Underworld (as always with Greek mythology, there are variants on all the details). So the subject of this poem is the spirit of someone newly dead, pausing before she drinks the waters of oblivion that will wipe out all of her memories of her earthly existence.
In addition to the subject, though, there are specific details that conjure up for us the ancient world: the reference to the sea, so important to Mediterranean poetry; the reference to pillars (rather than something obviously modern but equivalently tall, like church spires or even skyscrapers); the reference to colors being washed away (ancient Greek sculpture was vividly painted in various colors; most of this polychrome has been worn off with time, except for a few traces that show what was once there); the reference to the "delicate sculpture of a lifted hand," a description reminiscent of the influential sculpture that is one of the first things many of us think of when we think of ancient Greece (even if the hands are one of the jutting protuberances that have been broken off over the years, their obvious absence makes us conscious that they are no longer there, that they have been snapped off by Time). The pillars (often the only part of ancient buildings left standing, stark against the sky) and the washed-away colors and broken sculptures conjure up ancient Greece for us, but of course that is not how an actual inhabitant of ancient Greece would have seen the place, so by using these images Barnard summons up not only ancient Greece but also our own time (we too have pillars, and sculptures) and the strange space between the two, the space of cultural memory in which we recall the things that summon up and sum up ancient Greece for us.
And all of these things that evoke the speaker's world, that she thinks about having to forget, are created by people: she thinks not of trees and flowers but of pillars and cities. The things of Nature – the whirling flood, the sea, the sand – are apart; destructive of human creation, but beautiful and lasting (the city is overtaken by the sea – a thought given new urgency by our sense of global climate change – and the pillars, pounded by the sea, end up as new layers of sand). The speaker's concentration on the loss of human artifacts rather than of Nature gives added poignancy to the final stanza, in which she reflects that she will be forgotten by the makers of those artifacts she treasures, even before she has drunk the waters that will wipe them out for her.
Another method Barnard uses to create a sort of timeless effect is a slightly formal diction: phrases like "it were a thousand pities," with its careful and correct use of the subjunctive, as well as the moderately old-fashioned phrase "a thousand pities," are not archaic or fustian or even "poetic" to our ears, but they are also not the words of colloquial speech or everyday writing. Ancient Greek poetry did not use rhyme, so it is a contemporary touch not only that she uses it, but that she uses it irregularly (the Imagist school favored free verse): in the first stanza we have brink/drink, and in the second, we have cities/pities, sand/hand, and harmonious but not exact rhymes like eyes/dye and forever/river; then in the third stanza we have forget/unwet. These words are sometimes in adjacent lines, sometimes separated by several lines.
Barnard also makes subtle and effective use of the lapping, liquid sound of l, which helps evoke the river: it is not only the first letter of its name, but the sound reappears throughout the lyric: first in lamentable (why lamentable? for many, forgetting might be a blessing – but the speaker resists forgetting her earthly life; for her, the river is lamentable in the sense that having to drink from it is something to be lamented, something regrettable or unfortunate; and perhaps there is also an implication that the river is lamentable in the sense of something that is full of or expressive of grief, meaning that perhaps Lethe has been absorbing and runs with the earthly sorrows it wipes out in the spirits of the dead). She shall lean over the lamentable river, unwilling to drink; we have shall and will and like, whirling, pillars, lifted, and so forth. In the third stanza, there is again a concentration of l sounds, particularly with living, lingering, lips, and, literally the last word on the subject, Lethe. (And in the middle of this final effluence of ls we get the reminder dead, emphasized by its placement at the beginning of a line, set off by commas, with its double d dropping the word down like a stone.)
The third line of the stanza, right before the close, ends with the striking usage unwet: why not simply dry? Because the speaker knows that, however much she tries to delay, with her spirit poised between the separate worlds of the living and the dead, now that she has died on earth the natural and inevitable condition of her lips is to be wet with Lethe's waters of oblivion. It is unclear exactly how long she has the power to delay before she must drink from the river, but already her lips are defined by what they are not yet, but must be. They can no longer be truly dry; they are merely not yet wet, potentially wet: unwet.
Having broken the poem down like this, let me pull it all together again by saying that I find this an incredibly moving and powerful lyric: the speaker is clearly someone marginal in the world, soon to be forgotten by the living (which means they didn't much remember her when she was still among them) – already almost entirely forgotten on earth, all that remains of her existence is her own memories, and in her last human act, she hesitates, she resists – resists the few (possibly merciful) drops that will wipe out the last trace of her existence, which is her own memory, this fragile, variable, precious thing that is her own.
I took this from the Collected Poems of Mary Barnard. I've linked above to her memoir and her translation of Sappho; if you're interested in the latter, you might want to read over some of her translations in my Sappho entries.