His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the category “Poetry”

When knowing Greek literature saves you

Bust of Euripides. Source.

Bust of Euripides. Source.

I recently read Plutarch’s Life of Nicias, Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War, and at the end of it come a few fascinating lines that show how knowing Greek literature, and knowing it by heart, may turn out to be a savior, so long as you happen to be at the mercy of others who also value it! A win for the humanities!

Here is the passage (29.2-3), my translation adapted from Bernadotte Perrin’s (LCL, Plutarch, Lives, 3, pp. 308-309), with the Greek below.

2 … Some [captives] were also saved for the sake of Euripides. For the Sicilians, it seems, more than any other Hellenes outside the home land, craved his poetry [mousa]: learning by heart the little samples and morsels that visitors brought them from time to time, they would happily share them with one another. 3 In the present case, at any rate, they say that many [Athenians] who reached home in safety kindly greeted Euripides and told him, some that they had been set free from slavery for thoroughly teaching what they remembered of his works, and some that when they were roaming about after the final battle they would get food and drink for singing some of his songs [melos]. It is not surprise, then, that they say [the Sicilians], when the Caunians’ ship was pursued by pirates and about to put in at the harbor [of Syracuse], at first did not allow them and kept them out, but when they asked if they knew any songs [asma] of Euripides, and [the Caunians] declared that they did, they allowed them entry and brought the ship in.

2 … ἔνιοι δὲ καὶ δι᾽ Εὐριπίδην ἐσώθησαν. μάλιστα γάρ, ὡς ἔοικε, τῶν ἐκτὸς Ἑλλήνων ἐπόθησαν αὐτοῦ τὴν μοῦσαν οἱ περὶ Σικελίαν: καὶ μικρὰ τῶν ἀφικνουμένων ἑκάστοτε δείγματα καὶ γεύματα κομιζόντων ἐκμανθάνοντες ἀγαπητῶς μετεδίδοσαν ἀλλήλοις. 3 τότε γοῦν φασι τῶν σωθέντων οἴκαδε συχνοὺς ἀσπάσασθαι τὸν Εὐριπίδην φιλοφρόνως, καὶ διηγεῖσθαι τοὺς μέν, ὅτι δουλεύοντες ἀφείθησαν ἐκδιδάξαντες ὅσα τῶν ἐκείνου ποιημάτων ἐμέμνηντο, τοὺς δ᾽, ὅτι πλανώμενοι μετὰ τὴν μάχην τροφῆς καὶ ὕδατος μετέλαβον τῶν μελῶν ᾁσαντες. οὐ δεῖ δὴ θαυμάζειν ὅτι τοὺς Καυνίους φασὶ πλοίου προσφερομένου τοῖς λιμέσιν ὑπὸ λῃστρίδων διωκομένου μὴ δέχεσθαι τὸ πρῶτον, ἀλλ᾽ ἀπείργειν, εἶτα μέντοι διαπυνθανομένους εἰ γινώσκουσιν ᾁσματα τῶν Εὐριπίδου, φησάντων ἐκείνων, οὕτω παρεῖναι καὶ καταγαγεῖν τὸ πλοῖον.

Italian with the poets II

Here’s an easy passage from Petrarch, 232, lines 12-14. Before these lines, Petrarch has given exemplars of damage and destruction wrought in individuals too heedless in their anger: Alexander, Tydeus, Sulla, Valentinianus, and Ajax.

Ira è breve furore; et chi nol frena,

è furor lungo che ‘l suo possessore

spesso a vergogna et talor mena a morte.


  • ira anger
  • furor(e) madness
  • nol = non la [ira]
  • frenare to restrain
  • spesso often
  • vergogna shame
  • talor(a) sometimes
  • menare to lead
  • morte death

Some online sources for classical Arabic poetry

I posted this page a few weeks ago that lists several easily accessible (older) books for studying Arabic poetry. In case anyone interested has missed it so far, now they are informed. Many of the sources have Arabic text, but there are also a few translations. Enjoy!

A poem by Mīḫāʾīl Nuʿaymah

Mīḫāʾīl Nuʿaymah (1889-1988) — his last name is sometimes spelled Naimy in English — was born of Christian heritage in Lebanon in the village of Baskinta. He was educated early on in Russian Orthodox schools and later spent around twenty years in America (1911-1932) where he was closely associated with Al-Rābiṭah al-qalamiyyah, “The Pen League,” whose most well-known member was Kahlil Gibran. Nuʿaymah later returned to Lebanon and to this day is considered a luminary of Arabic letters. He is known for The Book of Mirdad, which, I confess I’ve not read yet, but when I was first learning Arabic I studied closely his short story Sāʿat al-kūkū (“The Cuckoo Clock”), of which, as far as I know, there is still unfortunately no English translation. Finally, I will say that there is available here a paper on Nuʿaymah, in particular his views on America and the west, which (despite some irksome typos) is worth the half hour it will take to read it. Nuʿaymah’s work is often of a mystical and pantheistic bent, and whether one is moved by his general philosophical approach or not, there are probably some good hints and reminders for everyone in it, almost all of it in very fine language (at least in Arabic).

This poem comes from a collection titled Hams al-ǧufūn (The Whispering of Eyelids). An English translation of it by Roger Monroe (along with the Arabic text) will be found in Mounah A. Khouri and Hamid Algar, An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry (1974). Here I offer my own translation, not because there’s anything wrong with the aforementioned one, but as an exercise for myself and because there’s often merit in variety of renderings. I include the Arabic text in transliteration so that those who don’t know Arabic or its script can at least have some idea of the poem’s sound patterns, notably the line-ending -a/āk.

daḫala ‘l-šayṭānu qalbī fa-raʾá fīhi malʾak
wa-bi-lamḥi ‘l-ṭarfi mā baynahumā ‘štadda ‘l-ʿirāk
ḏā yaqūlu ‘l-baytu baytī fa-yuʿīdu ‘l-qawla ḏāk
wa-ʾanā ʾašhadu mā yaǧrī wa-lā ʾubdiya ḥarāk

sāʾilan rabbī ʾa-fī ‘l-ʾakwāni min rabbi siwāk
ǧabalat qalbī mina ‘l-badʾi yadāhu wa-yadāk

wa-ʾilá ‘l-yawmi ʾarānī fī šukūkin wa-‘rtibāk
lastu ʾadrī ʾa-raǧīm fī fuʾādī ʾam malʾak

Satan entered my heart and saw there an angel,
And in the blink of an eye a quarrel intensified between them.
One said, “This house is mine!” and the other answered back,
I watching without movement,

Asking my Lord, “Is there in all that exists a Lord like you,
Whose hand, and yours, formed my heart?”

Till today I see myself in doubt and bewilderment,
Not knowing whether the Cursed or an angel is in my mind.

A few remarks: The first line about Satan entering the heart may be a reflection of Luke 22:3 (Εἰσῆλθεν δὲ σατανᾶς εἰς Ἰούδαν τὸν καλούμενον Ἰσκαριώτην), John 13:2 (τοῦ διαβόλου ἤδη βεβληκότος εἰς τὴν καρδίαν ἵνα παραδοῖ αὐτὸν Ἰούδας Σίμωνος Ἰσκαριώτου), and/or 13:27 (εἰσῆλθεν εἰς ἐκεῖνον ὁ σατανᾶς). The phrase at the beginning of the second line may hark back to 1 Corinthians 15:52 (but the widely propagated Smith-Van Dyke version differently hasفي لحظة في طرفة عين, which strikes me as rather unnatural). In the last line, the word Cursed is an old epithet of Satan in Arabic. The theme of conflicting influences or presences in one’s mind or heart (two words are used in the poem here: qalb in lines 1 and 6, fuʾād in line 8) is, of course, not unique. I’m not in a philosophical enough temperament at the moment to muse on the subject much, so I’ll leave the poet’s words with you for you to have the opportunity to do so when it suits you!

French with the poets I

I’ve given here before some poems in other languages — I don’t know if anyone else appreciates these little presentations, but at least they’re fun for me! — and having just read through Jean de La Fontaine‘s (1621-1695) fable (in verse) on the tortoise and the hare (“Le lièvre et la tortue” [VI, 10], also in Aesop, but I don’t think it’s in the Panchatantra) with my two oldest sons, it occurred to me that it would be a nice one to do in French. The Fables are, of course, quite fun, and you’ll find the French text of all of them with some annotations (in French) here. The text follows immediately below, followed by some remarks on grammar and vocabulary; the rhymes will be obvious. As always, read aloud!

Let’s begin: first the texte intégral, followed by some hints, mostly lexical, tied to the text. I confess that I’d like to give more commentary than I am giving, but time and tiredness make me settle for what’s here; hopefully it will be useful to someone.

Rien ne sert de courir ; il faut partir à point.
Le Lièvre et la Tortue en sont un témoignage.
Gageons, dit celle-ci, que vous n’atteindrez point
Si tôt que moi ce but. Si tôt ? Êtes-vous sage ?
Repartit l’Animal léger.
Ma Commère, il vous faut purger
Avec quatre grains d’ellébore.
Sage ou non, je parie encore.
Ainsi fut fait : et de tous deux
On mit près du but les enjeux.
Savoir quoi, ce n’est pas l’affaire ;
Ni de quel juge l’on convint.
Notre Lièvre n’avait que quatre pas à faire ;
J’entends de ceux qu’il fait lorsque prêt d’être atteint
Il s’éloigne des Chiens, les renvoie aux calendes,
Et leur fait arpenter les landes.
Ayant, dis-je, du temps de reste pour brouter,
Pour dormir, et pour écouter
D’où vient le vent, il laisse la Tortue
Aller son train de Sénateur.
Elle part, elle s’évertue ;
Elle se hâte avec lenteur.
Lui cependant méprise une telle victoire ;
Tient la gageure à peu de gloire ;
Croit qu’il y va de son honneur
De partir tard. Il broute, il se repose,
Il s’amuse à toute autre chose
Qu’à la gageure. À la fin, quand il vit
Que l’autre touchait presque au bout de la carrière,
Il partit comme un trait ; mais les élans qu’il fit
Furent vains : la Tortue arriva la première.
Eh bien, lui cria-t-elle, avais-je pas raison ?
De quoi vous sert votre vitesse ?
Moi l’emporter ! et que serait-ce
Si vous portiez une maison ?

Gageons. “to wager”; the related noun la gageure occurs later. Ma Commère, il vous faut purger//Avec quatre grains d’ellébore. The last word, which derives from Greek and occurs in English as “hellebore”, refers to a variety of medicinal plant sometimes mentioned in folklore of various cultures; it was thought to cure madness. Surely these lines might serve as a fine reprimand to ambitious or boasting interlocutors, but of course they’d need to get it to be meaningful! je parie. parier is “to bet.” les enjeux. An enjeu is a “stake”. aux calendes. Oftener, I think, aux calendes grecques, as in English, an idiom referring to a point in time that will never come. arpenter. to go up and down. brouter. to nibble, graze; the verb comes again a few lines later. s’évertue. to try one’s best. la carrière. Not really “career” as commonly now, but the meaning is pretty clear from the context. un trait. “line, stroke, dash”; the phrase means something like “straightaway”. les élans. “momentum, impetus, rush”. emporter. “to sweep away”; the expression here expresses surprise, perhaps somewhat feigned.

So much for this fun little tale. The poetry itself is nothing stellar, but it’s not bad. I learned some new vocabulary myself, and perhaps you did, too. Maybe the lesson itself will also come in useful for us all someday!
Till next time!

A trilingual epigram on music

The few lines I share here are from my own pen — and yes, I did write them before typing them! — and partly an exercise in composition. I first put them to paper a couple of weeks ago in Latin unversified, and thus they remain in that language (but I’m hoping to make them elegiac), then I English’d them, and finally I put them into Syriac in the dodecasyllabic meter of Jacob of Serug (451-521). I find the less strict system of Syriac meter easier to write verse in than that of either Greek or Latin, but in all three of these specific cases, once the ideas are there, it’s a question of one’s own knowledge of the language’s flexibility, that is, how to say the same or similar things in different ways, ways made up of differing numbers of syllables, different orders of long and short syllables, &c.
Here, then, are the quatrains in the order in which they were composed. The sentiment of all three is surely the same, though the exact wording of each line is a little different for each language.

Musica salus est dolentibus,
remedium et cura tristibus;
amplectitur animum maestum,
barathro decarpit pectus claudum.


Music to the hurting is a balm indeed,
A remedy and cure for saddened hearts;
She embraces tight the woeful soul,
And from the pit delivers the halting breast.


Musiqārutā (h)y ḥulmānā la-d-keryat l-hon,
sumsāmā w-yaṣṣiputā l-ʿayyiqay lebbā;
mṭappyā gēr l-ḥadyhon kmirā d-hānon da-šḥiqin,
men dēn hawtā mšawzbā l-napšā hāy d-ḥaššišin.

Addendum: After writing the few lines above, I just happened to read the beginning of an anonymous Hebrew poem that touches on the same theme from another angle (see T. Carmi, Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, 364; translation slightly adapted):

אמרו לראש פתן: הבה צרי
ולשון דוה לבב: שיר דברי
You might as well say to the poisonous asp: “Give me balm,”
As to say to one sick at heart, “Let out a song!”

The sad may not be so willing themselves to sing, but they can at least drink up the music made by someone else, dirges most especially.
As always, comments are welcome! Thanks for reading!

Prometheus and Aeneas on relating pain

Pretty early in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (lines 197-198), the titular character, having been asked by the Chorus to give the reasons for his tight incarceration in adamantine chains on a crag at the edge of the world —

Χθονὸς μὲν εἰς τηλουρὸν ἥκομεν πέδον,
Σκύθην ἐς οἶμον, ἄβροτον εἰς ἐρημίαν.

as Might (Κράτος), Zeus’ yes-man and messenger, puts it in the play’s first two lines— responds

ἀλγεινὰ μέν μοι καὶ λέγειν ἐστὶν τάδε,
ἄλγος δὲ σιγᾶν, πανταχῆι δὲ δύσποτμα.

Here’s my English version of the lines. (I cheated a little by stretching the two Greek lines into three in English.)

It’s painful to me these things to tell,
Yet a pain, too, in silence to dwell:
All around are things ill-starred!

These lines require almost no commentary, thanks to their reality known by everyone at some time or other. We might, though, compare Aeneas’ seemingly different remarks before he gets on with the tale of Troy and the Greeks in response to Dido’s request for it (Aeneid II.3-12); for him, bitterness is only explicit, at least, in the telling, not in keeping silent about it.

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui. quis talia fando
Myrmidonum Dolopumve aut duri miles Ulixi
temperet a lacrimis? et iam nux umida caelo
praecipitat suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.
sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,
quamquam animus meminisse horret luctuque refugit, incipiam.

A fresh rendering:

Unspeakable, O queen, is the sorrow you bid me renew,
How the Danaeans overthrew the Trojans, their wealth
And wept-for kingdom: things most unhappy that I myself saw
And was a great part of. In telling them, which even of the Myrmidons
Or Dolopians, or Ulysses’ hard soldiers,
Might hold back from tears? Now, too, the moist night from heaven
Goes forth and the falling stars urge sleep,
Yet if there’s such a desire to know our calamities
And briefly to hear the final throes of Troy,
Although my mind shutters to relate them and runs back in grief, I shall begin.

Aeneas, too, was most probably burdened in the silence of his memories, even though he doesn’t say so, but in any case, for Vergil the thrust of Aeneas’ pain is in telling his doleful memories, not merely in having them in his head. More realistically, I think, not to say more concisely, Aeschylus shows that pain is present in silence and in speech, in memory and in making known. Good literature, not least poetry, reminds us of those experiences and emotions common to humanity, including the nasty ones, though the circumstances be as multifarious as you can imagine. Any dourness we know, we know well whether we say it or hold it, but it’s surely worth highlighting that the two Greek lines quoted above from Prometheus are not the end of his part there: he goes on to tell the story, opting for the pain of telling over the pain of tacitness. But whether we speak our pain or stay mute, we can take some small solace in the expressed trials of others, even the trials of a god.

A few lines on the devil in Old English

Some of the most appealing parts of ancient and mediaeval — I use these adjectives chronologically, not necessarily culturally — literature are descriptions of gods, heroes, monsters and warlike meetings between any combination of members of those groups. Mythic tales are full of all sorts of such engagements, not infrequently in formulaic language. Of specific battles, the struggle with and defeat of some especially unsavory baddy marks an especial milestone of victory for a hero (see further Neil Forsyth, Satan and the Combat Myth.) One such encounter is described below in one of the Old English poems from the Exeter Book, the poem known as The Panther (lines 58b-64a), in which Jesus’ victory over Satan in the Harrowing of Hell is recounted and celebrated.

                        Þæt is se ealda fēond,
þone hē ġesǣlde on sūsla grund
and ġefeterode fȳrnum tēagum,
beþeahte þrēanīedum, and þȳ þriddan dæġe
of dīgle arās, þæsþe hē dēaþ fore ūs
þrēo niht þolode, Þēoden engla,
sigora Sellend.

Vocabulary and notes

  • eald old (cf. the vowel in “elder”)
  • fēond fiend, enemy. The word is a common epithet of Satan in OE literature (cf. Bosworth-Toller 277), and Luther’s “der alte böse Feind” (from “Ein feste Burg”) also comes immediately to mind.
  • þone masc. acc. sg of the pronoun se “this, that one, he”
  • ġesǣlan to tie up, bind
  • sūsl torment. Often of hell, see Bosworth-Toller 938.
  • grund not only “ground” but, as here, also “abyss”
  • fȳren fiery, from fȳr fire
  • tēag cord, chain (cf. mod. Eng. “tie”)
  • beþeahte is pret. of beþeċċan to cover
  • þrēanīed affliction
  • þȳ masc. instr. sg. of se
  • of note the meaning from, out of, not mod. Eng. “of”
  • dīgol grave (cf. also deāgol, basically “secret, hidden”; note, too, the name of Sméagol’s (i.e. Gollum’s) erstwhile companion and the prior Ring-bearer)
  • arās pret of arīsan to (a)rise
  • þæsþe = when
  • þolian endure, suffer (the pret. here following the conjunction þæsþe probably best rendered with pluperfect)
  • Þēoden prince, lord, chieftain. Cf. the name of Tolkien’s king of Rohan, Théoden.
  • sigor victory
  • sellend giver. The phrases Þēoden engla and sigora Sellend make a nice parallelism with formal chiasm, that is, we have nominative+genitive then genitive+nominative.


He is the old enemy,
Whom the Prince of angels and victories’ Giver
Bound in the abyss of torments,
Fettered with fiery chains,
Covered with grievous afflictions,
And when for us he’d suffered three nights’ death,
On the third day from the grave arose.

Orlando Furioso and the Hulk

I recently had the opportunity to look through a 1584 Venetian edition of Ludovico Ariosto’s (1474-1533) Orlando Furioso, a classic of Italian and European literature, and a really long poem: it is written in ottava rima, an eight-line rhyming stanza with the pattern abababcc and goes for 38,736 lines, noticeably longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. Continuing Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato of 1495, the poem is set among the Frankish-Saracen wars with Charlemagne, with elements of the Arthurian and Carolingian cycles (“the Matter of Britain” and “the Matter of France”) fused together. This edition by Francesco Franceschi that I examined has decorative engravings (from metal) at the beginning of each of the poem’s forty-six cantos, and very brief annotationi end each one. The book is almost entirely in italic. In the copy I saw, a commentary is bound with the text of the poem itself: Alberto Lavezvola’s Osservationi sopra il Furioso, also from Venice in the same year. The annotations to the edition of the poem, Lavezvola’s Osservationi, and another book I also perused, the almost 800-page La spositione sopra l’Orlando Furioso di M. Ludovico Ariosto (Florence, 1549/50; 1549 is on the title page, June 1550 in the colophon) of Simon Fornari da Rheggio, bear witness to the close attention readers devoted to Ariosto’s work. The first English translation of the poem (also in verse), the work of John Harrington, was published in 1591; there have been a number of subsequent translations, including John Hoole’s in rhyming couplets, an excerpt of which appears below.

Orlando’s madness, which gives the poem its name — remember, too, how Achilles’ wrath, a kind of madness, is the very first thing we meet in the Iliad — is born in the wake of his learning that the beautiful Angelica, whom he’s been chasing, has run off in marriage to the Saracen knight Medoro, whom she’s healed (see the end of Canto 23). Upon seeing their joined names inscribed in trees, mountains, etc. (“Infelice quell’antro, ed ogni stelo // In cui Medoro e Angelica si legge!”), he goes mad. While it does not include, I think, many other elements of the Hulk mythology, the scene of Orlando’s entering his raging madness makes a close parallel of the Bruce Banner-Hulk metamorphosis, and when I read Ariosto’s account of Orlando’s unhinged response to Angelica’s marriage with Medoro, the Hulk is just what I thought of. Here are some lines from the event in Hoole’s rendering:

The fourth dire morn, with frantic rage possest,
He rends the armour from his back and breast:
Here lies the helmet, there the bossy shield,
Cuishes and cuirass further spread the field;
And all his other arms, at random strow’d,
In divers parts he scatters through the wood;
Then from his body strips the covering vest,
And bares his sinewy limbs and hairy chest;
And now begins such feats of boundless rage,
As far and near th’ astonished world engage.

His sword he left, else had his dreadful hand
With blood and horror fill’d each wasted land:
But little pole-axe, sword, or mace he needs
T’ assist his strength, that every strength exceeds.
First his huge grasp a lofty pine up-tears
Sheer by the roots; the like another fares
Of equal growth; as easy round him strow’d,
As lowly weeds, or shrubs, or dwarfish wood.
Vast oaks and elms before his fury fall;
The stately fir, tough ash, and cedar tall.
As when a fowler for the field prepares
His sylvan warfare; ere he spreads his snares,
From stubble, reeds, and furze, th’ obstructed land
Around he clears: no less Orlando’s hand
Levels the trees that long had tower’d above,
For rolling years the glory of the grove!
The rustic swains that ‘mid the woodland shade
Heard the loud crash, forsook their flocks that stray’d
Without a shepherd, while their masters flew
To learn the tumult and the wonder view.

Ariosto’s fantastical poem — it includes hippogriffs, for example, and a trip, not only to Ethiopia (surely fantastic at the time), but even to the moon (this was not the first trip to the moon in European literature, though: the 2nd-cent. CE author Lucian had already described such a voyage in his Greek True Story) — seems, while certainly known to and cherished by some littérateurs, generally to be on the further end of literary ken, a position undeserved. Maybe this little highlight will go some small way toward rectifying that state.

In my next “Italian with the Poets” post I’ll go through this passage with a little commentary. Till then, happy metamorphoses, into and out of madness.

An Italian and a German poem on quiet nature

I recently read for the first time Tasso’s (1544-1595) poem the first line of which is “Tacciono i boschi e i fiumi”, and it reminded me immediately of Goethe’s (1749-1832) famous 1780 poem known as “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (also Schubertized), which I and hosts of other students memorized in school (however much we may remember it still!). Here I want to put the two poems side-by-side.

Tasso’s words are as follows:

Tacciono i boschi e i fiumi,
E ‘l mar senza onda giace,
Ne le spelonche i venti han tregua e pace,
E ne la notte bruna
Alto silenzio fa la bianca luna;
E noi tegnamo ascose
Le dolcezze amorose:
Amor non parli o spiri,
Sien muti i baci e muti i miei sospiri.

Here’s a rough attempt at Englishing:

The woods and rivers are silent,
And the sea, waveless, lies still;
In the caves the winds hold their peace, tranquil;
In the darkish night
Deep quiet doth make the moon while white;
And we, we keep unseen
Lovely sweetnesses:
Let love neither speak nor emanate,
Let kisses be quiet, my sighs faint to hear.

Before discussing anything in either poem, I’m happily compelled to give, too, Goethe’s little poem

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

The rhyme scheme (ABABCDDC) is mirrored exactly in Longfellow’s translation, than which I can do no better, so I give it here:

O’er all the hill-tops
Is quiet now,
In all the tree-tops
Hearest thou
Hardly a breath;
The birds are asleep in the trees:
Wait, soon like these
Thou, too, shalt rest.

The poems both conceive places of silence, and both with nature as evidence of this silence — note that what Longfellow translates as “trees” is really “forests” in German, something that serves as a verbal similarity between Goethe and Tasso, who in the first line has “boschi”, i.e. “woods” — but the most striking point of difference between the poems is that Tasso has in mind more than one person in this silence, Goethe a lone individual. Tasso not only includes among his cast elements of nature and someone(s) to experience them, as does Goethe some centuries thereafter, but lovers, albeit quiet lovers. There’s sweetness, love, and kisses, but they lie fallow at just this point, at least visibly and audibly: while these things are still there — somebody who has kissing in mind still kisses, just imperfectly compared to the real thing — no one else has any knowledge of them. These amorous matters are hidden still more with Goethe, if they exist with him at all, who in his poem shows us only nature, and nature with an addressed observer of it, who is anachronously in tune with it: the stillness of those natural representatives (hill-tops, tree-tops, birds) will soon, but not yet, reach Goethe’s observer. We know nothing of why that observer and participant is missing quiet stillness, but that doesn’t matter: as there are enough times in nature absent of tranquility, so, too, any human being who thinks about his or her life beyond the slightest film of superficiality knows those intranquil seasons and events. But as nature goes on, so does life, especially as considered beyond the individual.

As for the characters, Tasso himself, or some nonspecific narrator, at least, takes part in a role. He says “we” (noi), that is, the speaker and the lover; he speaks of “my” (miei) sighs, and the kisses, though missing any possessive pronoun, are, of course, those shared between him and his lover. There is, however, no first person, whether singular are plural, in Goethe’s lines: it’s only the singular addressee (du). Goethe (or, again, a nonspecific narrator) takes part as speaker, but he takes no otherwise scripted part in the poem.

Both of these memorable poetic bits highlight the possibility of a consonance between humanity and the rest of nature, whether that representative of humanity be lone or companioned. Whichever of the two you are now, I hope you’ll read the poems aloud, as always!

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