13 February 2013

The Halfway Point in the Unmeasurable

Again: a poem that used to be attributed to Sappho, and though now removed from her canon remains perhaps the best-known of Greek quatrains--

The moon has set, and the Pleiades,
It is the middle of the night
Hour follows hour.  I lie alone.
Guy Davenport, who made this translation, remarks that two lines of Robert Burns seem to answer the Greek as though from beneath the same moon but by another sea in another age:

The wan moon is setting behind the white wave,
           And Time is setting with me, oh. 
And W. B. Yeats raised Burns' lines (slightly misquoted) to current fame in perceiving in them the supreme efficacy of the Symbolist aesthetic:

Take from them the whiteness of the moon and of the wave, whose relation to the setting of Time is too subtle for the intellect, and you take from them their beauty.  But, when all are together, moon and wave and whiteness and setting Time and the last melancholy cry, they evoke an emotion which cannot be evoked by any other arrangement of coulours and sounds and forms.  We may call this metaphorical writing, but it is better to call it symbolic writing...
Yeats might equally well have been explaining how men can respond as they do to 17 Greek words that appear to say such unrelated things: that the moon and the Pleiades have set, that time flows, that I lie in my bed alone.  Mona: alone: we may recall its resemblance to the other Greek word for moon, the one not use in the poem, mene.  Ego de mona kateudo: and my loneliness comports with that of the cold moon and the remote stars, now gone, borne on their great circles down under the horizon: a loneliness to fill the dark empty sky.  So we read it, forgetting once again how much has dropped out.  For what Greek forgot that the moon sleeps nightly with Endymion, or that the Pleiades visit the bed of Ocean?  They go to their appointed partners, but I have no one; and "alone" means "unlike them."

The word "golden," the word "time," the word "alone": three words set free for chemical interaction: set free, however from explicit structures we happen to be able to reconstitute, a folk idiom, a chronology, a habit of apprehending the heavens through myth.  Restored to those structures, they act as schoolteachers assert words normally act, name things, making comparisons, completing rational squares by means of paraphrasable sentences. 

But if we continue to expect the paraphrasable once these structures have dropped away we shall find that bits of nonsense confront us; for what is a golden lad or a golden girl, and where do we place the halfway point in the unmeasurable, and what have two propositions about my lack of company and about the location of eight heavenly bodies to do with one another?

But we do not discern nonsense.  We locate each such detail in a structure of another kind, a structure of words, where the words exchange dynamisms in the ecology of language.

--Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era, 124-126.

No comments:

Post a Comment