Sunday, December 15, 2013

`Ah, Happy Littleness!'

More than most of us, poets seem drawn to the very small, and to perceive within minute worlds still smaller worlds. Conceived as fractals in Mandelbrot’s sense, Blake’s grains of sand display levels of self-similarity. The conceit has a playful appeal, like matryoshka dolls, and suggests the existence of a busily mysterious universe. It leaves unresolved the question of where on the scale of worlds we humans dwell. How small are we, and how big? Richard Leigh (1649-1728) was a late and rather minor metaphysical poet who poses the question memorably in the beautiful Greatness in Little,” as in these lines: 

“Ah, happy littleness! that art thus blest,
That greatest glories aspire to seem least.
Even those installed in a higher sphere,
The higher they are raised, the less appear,
And in their exaltation emulate
Thy humble grandeur and thy modest state.” 

Leigh goes on to liken these new worlds to the New World: “What new Americas of light have been / Yet undiscovered there, or yet unseen.” And he returns to the theme in the poem’s concluding lines: “These Atom-Worlds found out, I would despise / Colombus, and his vast Discoveries.” A contemporary poet, Eric Ormsby, tells a similar story in a modern guise in “Microcosm” (Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems, 2007) :

“The proboscis of the drab grey flea
Is mirrored in the majesty
Of the elephant’s articulated trunk. There’s a sea
In the bed-mite’s dim orbicular eye.
Pinnacles crinkle when the mountain-winged, shy
Moth wakes up and stretches for the night.
Katydids enact the richly patterned light
Of galaxies in their chirped and frangible notes.
The smallest beings harbor a universe
Of telescoped similitudes. Even those Rocky Mountain goats
Mimic Alpha Centauri in rectangular irises
Of cinnabar-splotched gold. Inert viruses
Replicate the static of red-shifted, still chthonic
Cosmoi. Terse
As the listened brilliance of the pulsar’s bloom
The violaceous mildew in the corner room
Proliferates in Mendelian exuberance.
There are double stars in the eyes of cyclonic
Spuds shoveled and spaded up. The dance
Of Shiva is a cobbled-soled affair –
Hobnails and flapping slippers on the disreputable stair.
Germinate on Wal-Mart windowsills.”

The Canadian poet Bruce Taylor in “Little Animals” (No End in Strangeness: New and Selected Poems, 2011), a poem about the inventor of the microscope and Leigh’s Dutch contemporary, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723): 

“So here was a man who looked
at pieces of his world and found
more worlds inside them,
which is the natural order: worlds
that roost in tiny apertures on worlds
where dainty worldlings
dwell, and each one
is a world as well…” 

And the late Tom Disch in “The Dot on the i” (About the Size of It, 2007): 

“…But what is this O but
A dot with a hole in it? Wherein
Other dots may blossom into other O’s,
A rose of infinite regressions like
The marvelous Mandelbrot transformations…”

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