Monday, February 09, 2009

The Eagle and the Idea of the Eagle

Last July 28, in observance of the 10th anniversary of Zbigniew Herbert’s death, Poland issued a postage stamp commemorating the poet. The first day cover includes an image of a stone on which is printed Herbert’s poem “Kamyk” in the poet’s handwriting. “Kamyk” is a perfect homophone of the English “comic,” though the poem’s title is customarily translated “The Pebble.” Here is Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz’s version:

“The pebble
is a perfect creature

“equal to itself
mindful of its limits

“filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

“with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

“ its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

“I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

“- Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye”

Scott was among Herbert’s first English translators. In an interview he says:

“I would say that of all the many Polish poets I translated, Herbert was probably the easiest. This was because of the intellectual structure of his poetry which transcended language differences. His poetry of ideas was immediately accessible to Westerners; and did not depend, in the way that Miłosz’s did, on the uniqueness and syllabic density of Polish. For example the matter-of-fact lucidity of Herbert’s `kamyk jest stworzeniem / doskonałym’ is immediately transferable into English: `a pebble is a perfect creature.’”

“The Pebble” is from Herbert’s third book, Study of the Object (1961), and might be judged more private, more philosophical than his later work, in which the public realm – Poland and its burden of Communism – grows more insistent in its pressure. The “intellectual structure” of Hebert’s poems, Scott says, keeps them inexhaustible even in translation – an observation I accept on faith, as I don’t read Polish. But Herbert’s thought, steeped in the Western tradition and dedicated to preserving that tradition against barbarian encroachments, seems to me pan-national. Any thoughtful, educated reader can appreciate it. In “The Pebble” he praises the self-contained nobility of stones, implicitly contrasting them with human beings. A pebble, unlike us, is its essence.

Such heft of significance seems absent from much of the poetry written today – one of the reasons I return so often to Herbert. What American poet would praise, without irony or false sentiment, the nobility of anything? How long is it since we read a new poem (or essay, or novel, etc.) that achieved the degree of greatness Herbert’s so often did? Who writes essentially today? Who has the nerve? Why are we willing to settle for so little? In his Harper’s interview last year, essayist/critic Arthur Krystal addresses this failure of the age:

“You could argue that the idea of `greatness’ is itself a false category, an artificial and socially constructed yardstick. [It’s not, of course, and Krystal knows it.] But if we’re talking about the human need to create and respond to momentous works of human endeavor, then, please, show me a poet or a novelist of whom one can say, as Eliot said of Yeats: `He was one of those whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them?’”

“Momentous works of human endeavor?” Of late, precious few. I suggest Geoffrey Hill’s poems. Krystal continues:

“In talking about Energy, which he thinks the essential quality of poetry, Keats says `and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy–For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as truth.’ What an astonishing thing to say by a poet whose work is distinguished by imaginative imagery and sensuous particulars. But Keats himself doesn’t find a radical disconnect between intelligence and poetry. He believes the mind derives its character from the quality of the emotions it experiences. At the same time, he also recognizes that the real or the concrete, however beautiful, is still a hint, a foreshadowing, of the Ideal. The great thing about Keats is that he responds emotionally both to the eagle and to the Idea of the eagle.”

Krystal is quoting the letter Keats wrote to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, who had settled in Kentucky, on March 19, 1819. Here’s the context:

“Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel – By a superior being our reasoning[s] may take the same tone – This is the very thing in which consists poetry; and if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy – For the same reason that an eagle is not so fine a thing as a [in his interview, Krystal omits the indefinite article] truth – Give me this credit – Do you not think I strive – to know myself?”

After quoting lines from Milton’s Comus, Keats adds: “Nothing ever becomes real
till it is experienced – Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it.”

The rapid-fire sequence of associations is typical of Keats. He starts with a street fight, condemns it but admires its passion. What he would like to see is not a rant or tantrum but a grace-filled argument – a rarity not only in poems. “It is not so fine a thing as poetry” -- “fine,” I think, is tinged with gentle sarcasm. As always, Keats’ sensibility is capacious, elastic enough to hold poetry and philosophy, eagles and truth. “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced”: not the words of an ethereal sprite. Keats is tough-minded, empirical, trained in medicine. He was already sick with the tuberculosis that would kill him less than two years later.

I’ve quoted this passage before, from “The Price of Art,” an essay by Herbert in Still Life with Bridle, but it always stirs me. I think Keats would have appreciated it:

“It is we who are poor, very poor. A major part of contemporary art declares itself on the side of chaos, gesticulates in a void, or tells the story of its own barren soul.

“The old masters – all of them without exception –could repeat after Racine, `We work to please the public.’ Which means they believed in the purposefulness of their work and the possibility of interhuman communication. They affirmed visible reality with an inspired scrupulousness and childish seriousness, as if the order of the world and the revolution of the stars, the permanence of the firmament, depended on it.

“Let such naïveté be praised.”

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