Tuesday, October 11, 2011

`Before Our Eyes Stood All the Promise of the Year'

A friend is about to become a grandmother for the first time. The due date is Oct. 20. Monday morning, thinking of her daughter, soon-to-be granddaughter and the world they inherit, my friend started to read Yeats’ “Among School Children,” but after a couple of lines she began to cry and closed the book. “I can’t read poetry now. It scares me,” she said. Early in the poem Yeats writes of

“...a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy –"

Hardly a Hallmark sentiment for an incipient grandmother. We thought we had switched topics by talking about the impending centennial celebration at Rice University. What would the university’s first president, Edgar Odell Lovett, think of the place if he were to return to campus in 2011? “He would be horrified,” my friend said, and I had to agree. “He would be scared and appalled.” Ours is not a world he could have foreseen.

We tried another conversational gambit and found a happier subject. Despite pornography, Facebook, computer games and other horrors, we agreed the Internet is a wonderful invention. My friend’s mother is eighty-four and cyber-phobic. She challenged her mother to name any subject that interested her. “The Old Gold Dancers,” the octogenarian replied. In seconds, my friend came up with this.

I shared my most recent Internet triumph. Over the weekend I had reread The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly and marked this passage:

“Fallen leaves lying on the grass in the November sun bring more happiness than daffodils. Spring is a call to action, hence to disillusion, therefore is April called `the cruellest month.’ Autumn is the mind's true Spring; what is there we have, `quidquid promiserat annus’ and it is more than we expected.”

I got the Eliot but the source of the Latin tag stumped me. A few keystrokes took me to a disputed scrap of verse by Petronius, author of Satyricon. Go here and scroll down to Fragment XXX for the Latin. Here is a translation by Harold Edgeworth Butler (Post-Augustan Poetry: From Seneca to Juvenal, 1909):

“Now autumn had brought its cool shades, Phoebus’ reins glowed
less hot and he was looking winterward. The plane was beginning
to shed her leaves, the vine to count its clusters, and its
fresh shoots were withered. Before our eyes stood all the
promise of the year.”

And here is a version by R. Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney (Satryica, University of California Press, 1996):

“Autumn had broken summer’s sweltering shadows
and Phoebus steered a cooler course toward winter;
the plane-tree had begun to shed, the vine
to cast its leaves and reckon up its bunches;
before our eyes there hung the whole year’s promise.”

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