Monday, January 04, 2010

`Manners, Virtue, Freedom, Power'

In its issue of Aug. 10, 1998, The New Yorker published “A Ballad That We Do Not Perish” from Zbigniew Herbert’s first book of poems, Chord of Light (1956). Herbert had died in Warsaw on July 28 at age 73. The poem, an appropriate choice – a young man’s prescient encomium to an old man and his poetic peers -- was translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, and later collected in Elegy for the Departure (1999):

“Those who sailed at dawn
but will never return
left their trace on a wave—

“a shell fell to the bottom of the sea
beautiful as lips turned to stone

“those who walked on a sandy road
but could not reach the shuttered windows
though they already saw the roofs—

“they have found shelter in a bell of air

“but those who leave behind only
a room grown cold a few books
an empty inkwell white paper—

“in truth they have not completely died
their whisper travels through thickets of wallpaper
their level head still lives in the ceiling

“their paradise was made of air
of water lime and earth an angel of wind
will pulverize the body in its hand
they will be
carried over the meadows of this world”

I was sent back to Herbert’s poem, written by a man in his early 30s, while rereading Milton’s short poems, which in turn sent me back to a poem about Milton. I’m not suggesting influence; rather, a tone among poets otherwise separated by language, culture and centuries of history. They share a seriousness in which pretention and self-pleading are absent. It’s a deportment scorned by most recent English-language poets, though I hear it occasionally in Geoffrey Hill. Call it a form of nobility. Reading Herbert’s poem in the shadow of Milton reminded me of Wordsworth’s “England, 1802,” a call from one poet to another, a plea for poetic and moral ministrations I always find moving:

“Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In chearful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on itself did lay.”

Herbert says of the poets, “in truth they have not completely died,” they are “carried over the meadows of this world.” This will remain true for so long as we read them. Only then can they teach us “manners, virtue, freedom, power,” precisely the qualities we most resist.

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