Thursday, May 03, 2007

`The Sharp Blade of the Axe of Time'

I’m periodically drawn to the poems of David Ferry, just as Ferry returns with some regularity to the work of Samuel Johnson. Best known for his translations of Horace and Virgil and of Gilgamesh, Ferry is also a serious, unclassifiable poet, and most of his life’s work was published in 1999 as Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations. Included is “The Lesson,” a translation from the Latin poem “In Rivum a Mola Stoana Lichfieldiae diffuentem,” by Johnson:

“The stream still flows through the meadow grass,
As clear as it was when I used to go in swimming,
Not good at it at all, while my father’s voice
Gently called out through the light of the shadowy glade,
Trying to help me learn. The branches hung down low
Over those waters made secret by their shadows.
My arms flailed in a childlike helpless way.

“And now the sharp blade of the axe of time
Has utterly cut away that tangle of shadows.
The naked waters are open to the sky now
And the stream still flows through the meadow grass.”

In Samuel Johnson: The Latin Poems, editor and translator Niall Rudd renders the title as “On the Stream at Stowe Mill, Lichfield,” referring to the small city in Staffordshire, about 110 miles northwest of London, where Johnson was born in 1709. Here is Rudd’s prose translation:

“The river, still glassy, flows through the green meadows in which as a boy I so often bathed my young limbs. Here I would vainly thrash my arms, which got nowhere with their inexpert movements, while my father with his calm voice taught me to swim. The branches made a hiding place, and an overhanging tree covered the hidden waters in darkness even by day. Now the shadows of old have fallen victim to cruel axes; and the bathing place lies exposed to distant eyes. The water, however, unwearyingly continues on its course from year to year, and where it once flowed unseen it now still flows, though in the open. You too, Nisus, continue your daily course, indifferent to what swift time may bring in from the world outside, and what it may wear away.”

Judging from Rudd’s trot, Johnson’s original is a fairly traditional meditation on time’s bittersweet passing, lost youth and so forth. What Ferry writes is more transformation than translation, and a first-rate English poem. He jettisons “cruel axes” and replaces it with the much superior “the sharp blade of the axe of time.” He dispenses with the obligatory Virgilian allusion and reverses the conventional duality of darkness and light. Here, the shadows are comforting, an emblem of Edenic childhood; light exposes memories and leaves everything vulnerable. Some form of “shadow” shows up three times. But for “and,” Ferry’s poem starts and concludes with the same sentence – appropriate in a poem about the unending flow of a river, with the Heraclitean caveat that’s it’s not the same river. We know from anecdotal evidence that Johnson was, in fact, a powerful swimmer, and we know his father, Michael Johnson, had died in 1731, long before his son wrote the Latin poem.

Ferry injects Johnson into another poem, “That Evening at Dinner.” Go here to read all of it, but this is the pertinent portion that most concerns me:

“The books there on the bookshelves told their stories,
Line after line, all of them evenly spaced,
And spaces between the words. You could fall through the spaces.
In one of the books Dr. Johnson told the story:
`In the scale of being, wherever it begins,
Or ends, there are chasms infinitely deep;
Infinite vacuities. . .For surely,
Nothing can so disturb the passions, or
Perplex the intellects of man so much,
As the disruption of this union with
Visible nature, separation from all
That has delighted or engaged him, a change
Not only of the place but of the manner
Of his being, an entrance into a state
Not simply which he knows not, but perhaps
A state he has not faculties to know.'”

The start of the quoted passage, preceding the ellipsis, is drawn from Johnson’s review of Soame Jenyn’s A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, written in 1759. The balance of the quote is from The Rambler #78, published Dec. 15, 1750. The sentence preceding it, and filling in the antecedents, is:

“Milton has judiciously represented the father of mankind, as seized with horror and astonishment at the sight of death, exhibited to him on the mount of vision.”

The reference is to Paradise Lost, Section XI, lines 461-465. Two paragraphs later, Johnson writes:

“…a perpetual meditation upon the last hour, however it may become the solitude of a monastery, is inconsistent with many duties of common life. But surely the remembrance of death ought to predominate in our minds, as an habitual and settled principle, always operating, though not always perceived; and our attention should seldom wander so far from our own condition, as not to be recalled and fixed by sight of an event, which must soon, we know not how soon, happen likewise to ourselves, and of which, though we cannot appoint the time, we may secure the consequence.”

We see a similar tension in “The Lesson” – the obligation to attend to the “many duties of common life” (learning to swim, for instance, and obeying our parents’ wishes), coupled with a vigilant awareness of our mortality.

A third instance of Ferry using Johnson is “Johnson on Pope,” a skein of lines lifted from his great life of Alexander Pope in Lives of the Poets. Pope (1688-1744) was born a Roman Catholic at a time when Catholics were a legally and socially abused minority in England. Beginning in early childhood, Pope was often sickly. Tuberculosis of the spine left him deformed and undersized, he never grew taller than four feet, six inches, and he became one of the greatest poets in the language. Here’s Ferry’s poem:

“He was protuberant behind, before;
Born beautiful, he had grown up a spider;
Stature so low, he could not sit at table
Like taller men; in middle life so feeble
He could not dress himself, nor stand upright
Without a canvas bodice; in the long night
Made servants peevish with his demands for coffee;
Trying to make his spider’s legs less skinny,
He wore three pair of stockings, which a maid
Had to draw on and off; one side was contracted.
But his face was not displeasing, his eyes were vivid.

“He found it very difficult to be clean
Of unappeasable malignity;
But in his eyes the shapeless vicious scene
Composed itself; of folly he made beauty.”

This portrait of one poet by a collaboration of two poets reminds me of the great drummer and swing band leader Chick Webb, who discovered and mentored Ella Fitzgerald. He, too, suffered from childhood tuberculosis that left his spine deformed. His birth date is disputed but Webb was about 34 when he died in 1939. The examples of Pope and Webb inspire not pity but admiration and wonder. As Imlac, Johnson’s stand-in in The History of Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia, says:

“A man used to vicissitudes is not easily dejected.”


mike zim said...

Re: "But surely the remembrance of death ought to predominate in our minds, as an habitual and settled principle, always operating, though not always perceived;"
After getting my new cell phone yesterday, I taped my contact info to it, as well as Johnson's "The night cometh", which you may have made me aware of. He inscribed that New Greek Testament quote on the first watch he bought, after he got his pension.

Marly Youmans said...

I like this piece so much, and I especially like that first Ferry version, where the sheltering shadows are stripped away.