His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the category “Translation(s)”

/Portrait of Jennie/ and Euripides, fr. 833

I recently saw for the first time Portrait of Jennie (1948), directed by William Dieterle and produced by David O. Selznick. In the main rôles are Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, with an essential supporting performance by Ethel Barrymore. I don’t know if I’ll write about it further, but I’m still thinking over the film, which I found both haunting and comforting. (Has anyone compared it with Vertigo, I wonder?) I’m already looking forward to watching it again. (See The Nitrate Diva here for some reflections on the film that will make you want to watch it, too.)

The film opens with a kind of spoken philosophical proem, and includes onscreen quotations by Euripides and Keats, the latter the well-known “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” The former quotation is far less known. On the screen, only the author is named, no source, but a little searching reveals that it is a fragmentarily surviving set of lines from the playwright’s Phrixus. (On Phrixus, whose actions will be necessary for the later Golden Fleece tale, in Greek mythology, see here.) These lines — now known as Euripides, fr. 833 — survive thanks to their having been quoted by the great topical anthologist Stobaeus (5th cent. CE), whom we have to thank also for many other lines that would otherwise be lost.

So here is the fragment in Greek from Stobaeus, Anth. 4.52b.38, and my own translation.

Εὐριπίδου Φρίξῳ (fr. 833)

Τίς δ’ οἶδεν εἰ ζῆν τοῦθ’ ὃ κέκληται θανεῖν,
τὸ ζῆν δὲ θνῄσκειν ἐστί; πλὴν ὅμως βροτῶν
νοσοῦσιν οἱ βλέποντες, οἱ δ’ ὀλωλότες
οὐδὲν νοσοῦσιν, οὐδὲ κέκτηνται κακά.

My translation:

Who knows if life is that called death,
If living is dying? But in any case, mortals
That live suffer, while those who’ve died
Neither suffer nor own any ills.

There are no real difficulties in the text, but for budding Greek readers, here are a couple of notes:

  • βλέπω here, to live (ellip. for βλέπω φάος to see light)
  • ὀλωλότες perf ptcp mpl ὄλλυμι : ὄλωλα to have perished, to be dead, ruined

There are similar ideas about death in Epicurus‘ famous Letter to Menoeceus. Note these lines (Greek from D.A. Russell, An Anthology of Greek Prose, pp. 142-144; Eng. tr. is my own):

Συνέθιζε δὲ ἐν τῷ νομίζειν μηδὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς εἶναι τὸν θάνατον· ἐπεὶ πᾶν ἀγαθὸν καὶ κακὸν ἐν αἰσθήσει, στέρησις δέ ἐστιν αἰσθήσεως ὁ θανατός. ὅθεν γνῶσις ὀρθὴ τοῦ μηθὲν εἶναι πρὸς ἡμᾶς τὸν θάνατον ἀπολαυστὸν ποιεῖ τὸ τῆς ζωῆς θνητόν, οὐκ ἄπειρον προστιθεῖσα χρόνον ἀλλὰ τὸν τῆς ἀθανασίας ἀφελομένη πόθον. οὐθεν γάρ ἐστιν ἐν τῷ ζῆν δεινὸν τῷ κατειληφότι γνησίως τὸ μηδὲν ὑπάρχειν ἐν τῷ μὴ ζῆν δεινόν. ὥστε μάταιος ὁ λέγων δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον οὐχ ὅτι λυπήσει παρών, ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι λυπεῖ μέλλων· ὃ γὰρ παρὸν οὐκ ἐνοχλεῖ, προσδοκώμενον κενῶς λυπεῖ, τὸ φρικωδέστατον οὖν τῶν κακῶν ὁ θάνατος οὐθὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ἐπειδήπερ ὅταν μὲν ἡμεῖς ὦμεν, ὁ θάνατος οὐ πάρεστιν, ὅταν δὲ ὁ θάνατος παρῇ, τὀθ᾽ ἡμεῖς οὐκ ἐσμέν. οὔτε οὖν πρὸς τοὺς ζῶντάς ἐστιν οὔτε πρὸς τοὺς τετελευτηκότας, ἐπειδήπερ περὶ οὓς μὲν οὐκ ἔστιν, οἳ δ᾽ οὐκέτι εἰσίν.

Learn to think of death as nothing for us, since everything good or bad is so in perception, and death is the privation of perception. From this a proper thinking about death as nothing for us makes life’s liability to death enjoyable, not because it has added limitless time to life, but because it has taken away the longing for deathlessness, for there is nothing frightful in living for one who has really grasped the fact that there is nothing frightful in not living. So it is pointless to tell people to fear death, not because it will cause distress when it comes, but because it causes distress when it is yet to come, for anything that is not bothersome when it is present, causes distress for no reason when it is only expected. The most terrible of evils, then, death, is nothing for us, since, when we are, death is not present, and when death is present, then we are not. It has nothing to do, then, with the living, nor with those who have died, since for the former it does not exist, and the latter themselves no longer exist.

This is all well and good, but there is nothing here about the pain for the living caused by the absence of the dead.

To return to the film, I’ll close with this clip from near its beginning, at the end of which is Jennie’s song:

Where I come from, nobody knows
And where I am going, everything goes
The wind blows,
The sea flows
Nobody knows
And where I am going, nobody knows

From Voltaire’s Remarques sur l’histoire de Charles XII

Yesterday I stumbled upon an interesting pericope in Voltaire’s Remarques sur l’histoire de Charles XII. It concerns an assassination that almost happened, but was averted when the would-be victim, the Polish Count Poniatowski, having learned of his impending murder by men pretending to be drunks, contrived a welcome for his assassins that turned them from their plan. (Before the events of the text given here, he also armed himself with two “pistolets de poche”, in case, perhaps, his hospitable treatment failed to confound his assassins!) Below is the text from the edition, Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Paris, 1826, p. 511, available here.

voltair_hist_charles_xii_p511Here’s the French text re-typed:

Précisément vers le midi, selon qu’il avait été averti, il vit venir les prétendus ivrognes droit à sa tente. Dès qu’ils furent entrés, il les reçut poliment. Appelant ensuite ses domestiques, avec une alégresse contrefaite, pour leur ordonner d’apporter du café, du tabac, des confitures, etc., il pria instamment des Turcs de s’asseoir, et les força obligeamment de prendre du café, de fumer du tabac, etc. Ceux-ci, étonnés sans doute d’une telle réception chez un homme qu’il allaient assassiner, ne firent que se regarder les uns les autres, sans proférer une seule parole. Tout d’un coup, le premier d’entre eux, celui apparemment qui devait commencer l’exécution se leva brusquement, et dit aux autres: Heydy gidelem, ce qui veut dire: Allons-noun-en. En sortant il se tourna vers le comte Poniatowski, et lui dit: Ne kiafir sen, ce qui signifie: Tu es un païen extraordinaire.

And here’s my English translation:

Just near midday, as he had been informed, he saw the supposed drunks coming straight toward his tent. As soon as they had entered, he received them politely. Then calling his servants, with a counterfeit enthusiasm, to have them bring coffee, tobacco, jams, etc., he instantly asked the Turks to take a seat and forced them obligingly to have some coffee, to smoke some tobacco, etc. Those men, certainly amazed at such a reception by a man they had come to assassinate, did nothing but look at each other, without offering a single word. All of a sudden, the first among them, who was to have begun the execution, got up quickly and said to the others, Heydy gidelem, which means, “Let’s go.” Going out, he turned toward Count Poniatowski and said to him, Ne kiafir sen, which means, “You are an extraordinary pagan!”

My attention was drawn to the story both for the events themselves and for its charm, including the hospitable proffering of coffee and tobacco, but also for its accurate representation of the Turkish phrases recorded. The first phrase (“Come on, let’s go!”) would be هايدى گدءلم (haydi gidelim) in Ottoman orthography, and the second (“What an infidel you are!”) نه كافر سن (ne kâfir sen). (The form gidelim is 1pl. optative of گتمك gitmek to go.)

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.

An epistolary request for reading suggestions

I’ve been reading through parts of the correspondence of Fronto (c. 100-170), and among his letters are some to Emperor-Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (or, Richard Harris for those whose concerns with Roman history do not reach far beyond Gladiator), and in one such letter,[1] he requests of his teacher:

Mitte mihi aliquid quod tibi disertissimum videatur, quod legam, vel tuum aut Catonis aut Ciceronis aut Sallustii aut Gracchi aut poetae alicuius, χρῄζω γὰρ ἀναπαύλης, et maxime hoc genus, quae me lectio extollat et diffundat ἐκ τῶν καταλειφυιῶν φροντίδων; etiam si qua Lucretii aut Ennii excerpta habes εὐφωνότατα, ἁδρά et sicubi ἤθους ἐμφάσεις.

An English rendering:

Send me something to read that seems most eloquent to you, either something of yours, Cato’s, Cicero’s, Sallust’s, Gracchus’, or some poet’s, for I need a break, and especially that kind the reading of which gives me a lift and cheers me up from confining cares. Also, if you have some bits from Lucretius or Ennius that sound the best, are extraordinary, and anywhere show their character, send those.

Fronto’s letters are littered with Greek phrases, as we see even in this short excerpt, and in the English translation, I’ve put the Greek phrases in bold.

[1] Epistulae, IV.1 (ed. M. van den Hout, Teubner, 1988, 105). Find more of Fronto’s letters here:

  • Latin text here
  • another text (Lat. and Fr.) here
  • LCL edition, with an older text and an Eng. tr. here from archive.org

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!

Here’s a post I wrote a few weeks ago that I thought might interest other readers: it’s on a short Arabic text (written in Syriac letters, a phenomenon known as Garshuni) that lists the effects of wine on the body and soul; English translation provided, along with images from the manuscript. Enjoy! Comments welcome.


Well-known are the biblical praises of wine from the Psalter, “wine that maketh glad the heart of man” (Ps 104:15, ויין ישׂמח לבב אנוש, καὶ οἶνος εὐφραίνει καρδίαν ἀνθρώπου) and from the line in a parable, where a vine says, “Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man?” (Judges 9:13, החדלתי את תירושי המשׂמח אלהים ואנשים, B Μὴ ἀπολείψασα τὸν οἶνόν μου τὸν εὐφραίνοντα θεὸν καὶ ἀνθρώπους, but Α differently, Ἀφεῖσα τὸν οἶνόν μου, τὴν εὐφροσύνην τὴν παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ τῶν ἀνθρώπων). I was pleased and surprised recently to find a few lines in Arabic (Garšūnī) from a fifteenth-century Psalter (parallel Syriac and Garšūnī) in the collection of Saint Mark’s Monastery in Jerusalem (no. 10, dated 1474/5) that list wine’s effects: five for the body and five for the soul. These lines are written at a ninety degree angle to the rest of the text, but they do…

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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!

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.

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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