Saturday, May 30, 2009

`Particles of Their Mystery'

In high-school physics class, while students plotted pressure versus density on a graph, I read Zbigniew Herbert’s touchingly autobiographical “Prayer of the Traveler Mr Cogito” (from The Collected Poems 1956-1998, translated by Alissa Valles):

I thank You for creating the world beautiful and various

and for allowing me in Your fathomless goodness to visit places which were not the sites of my daily torment”

[I enjoy the echo – unintended, I’m certain -- of John Berryman’s “Eleven Addresses to the Lord,” the first section of which begins

“Master of beauty, craftsman of the snowflake,
inimitable contriver,
endower of Earth so gorgeous & different from the boring Moon,
thank you for such as it is my gift.”

and behind the Berryman, Hopkins. The second stanza recalls Herbert’s frequent visits to Western Europe, where he studied and reveled in the glories of our civilization, as inexpensively as possible – museums, cathedrals, libraries, Neolithic caves, taverns and restaurants. These he celebrates in his poems and essays. Herbert was a profoundly, fatally civilized man and poet. The next stanzas assemble anecdotal evidence to this effect.]

“—that at night in Tarquinia I lay in the square by the well and a gunmetal
pendulum rang out from the tower Your wrath or forgiveness

“and that a little donkey on the island Corkyra sang to me from the
unfathomable bellows of its lungs the melancholy of the landscape

“and that in the ugly city of Manchester I discovered kindhearted and sensible people

[On one level, this is travelogue. Herbert was a Pole but his soul was in Italy, Greece and England – a pan-Western nation not found on a map. Manchester is the city of Thomas de Quincey, Engels, Anthony Burgess and Elberry. He recites the names and attributes of holy places.]

“nature repeated its wise tautologies: the forest was a forest the sea the sea a cliff a cliff

“stars revolved and it was as it ought to be –Iovis omnia plena

[The Latin tag is from a line in Virgil’s Eclogues: “From the god Jupiter is the beginning; all things are full of the god.” For Herbert, the classical world is contemporary.]

“—forgive me – that I thought only of myself while the lives of others cruel and inexorable turned around me like the great astrological clock of St Pierre in Beauvais

“that I was lazy distracted too timid in labyrinths and caves

[These lines gloss Herbert’s first essay collection, Barbarian in the Garden. Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Beauvais: Famously uncompleted, the Gothic cathedral, parts of which date from the 10th to the 19th centuries, encapsulates European and Church history. Herbert humbles himself before its grandeur.]

“and forgive me also that I did not fight like Lord Byron for the happiness of oppressed peoples and studied only the rising moon and museums

“—I thank you that works created for Your greater glory yielded to me particles of their mystery and that with great presumption I thought that Duccio Van Eyck and Bellini painted for me also

[My favorite lines in the poem. Great artworks, at best, yield “particles of their mystery.” A Van Eyck can’t be reduced to essence. Its essence is irreducible mystery. In his essay “Siena,” Herbert approvingly quotes Berenson, who called Duccio “The last great painter of antiquity.” In his own words he describes Duccio as “one of those who produce new syntheses. The latter group is often underrated because they are less expressive. To notice them means to be thoroughly acquainted with their epoch and its artistic background.” Herbert might have been writing about himself.]

“and also that the Acropolis which I never fully understood patiently revealed to me its mutilated body

“—I ask You to reward the gray old woman who unbidden brought me fruit from her garden on the sunburned native island of the son of Laertes

[That is, Odysseus – like Herbert, the wanderer who always returns home.]

“and Miss Helen of the foggy island of Mull in the Hebrides for offering Greek hospitality and asking me to leave a lamp lit at night in the window facing Holy Iona so that the lights of earth would greet each other

[Herbert refers to five islands in the poem – six, if we count England.]

“and also those who gave me directions and said kato kyrie kato

[The Greek phrase is “that way, sir, that way.]

“and take under Your protection Mama from Spoleto Spiridion from Paxos the good student from Berlin who saved me from oppression and then when we met unexpectedly in Arizona drove me to the Grand Canyon which is like a hundred thousand cathedrals standing on their heads

[I would love to have accompanied Herbert the tourist at the Grand Canyon, a sight I have never seen. Even a geological wonder is likened to that pinnacle of Western architecture, the cathedral. In his essay “A Stone from the Cathedral,” Herbert writes, “Millions, millions of tons of stone” – a pithy description of the Grand Canyon.]

“—Lord let me not think of my moist-eyed gray deluded persecutors when the sun sets on the truly indescribable Ionian Sea

“let me understand other people other languages other sufferings and above all let me be humble that is to say one who longs for the source

“I thank You Lord for creating the world beautiful and various and if this is Your seduction I am seduced for good and past all forgiveness”

[In Greece, his true home, Herbert prefers not to think of the Stalinist thugs, the “moist-eyed gray deluded persecutors,” back in Poland. His prayer is the artist’s prayer of humility, a variation on St. Francis’, asking to understand rather than to be understood. Herbert is that rare bird, the compassionate cosmopolitan.]

Beneath her plotted graph, the girl seated beside me in physics class wrote: “Density is the mass of an object divided by its volume.”


Anonymous said...

Mancunians are often very decent - down-to-earth and kind. The city is now a fairly grand ritzy European city - but i gather that before the 1996 IRA bomb it was pretty ugly - the bomb blew a lot of the bad buildings up, no one was killed, and the rebuilding seems to have been a rare example of modern architects getting something right.

i'm not sure what it was like, say, 100 years ago - but i have a good feeling about it, it's a place with old roots, very old roots actually.

It would be fun to visit places Herbert visited and see how they are now.

William A. Sigler said...

That's one interesting Physics class!

It's like the day they showed the movie.

Herbert's humility, as with Odysseus, is also before himself, for the responsibility such experiences invest in him.

This dovetails nicely with today's Carolyn Myss message: "Fulfilling your highest potential actually means acting on your highest or deepest truth each moment of your life."