Sunday, October 23, 2016

`Like a Page of the Iliad'

Last Thursday, Hungary dedicated busts of Zbigniew Herbert and Hannah Arendt in Budapest’s Széchenyi Square. The occasion was the sixtieth anniversary, on Oct. 23, of the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet domination. Daily News Hungary reports:

“U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell told the inauguration ceremony that the writings and ideas of Arendt and Herbert are still the subject of discourse. She cited a letter written by Arendt about the 1956 revolution, in which she said `In any case, Hungary is the best thing that has happened for a long time.’ Commenting on Herbert, she said the Communist regime silenced him several times but he was still fighting against repression with his poems. They both used their knowledge to educate and inspire young people, Bell added.”

That’s a stretch, but we can’t expect a diplomat to be a close reader of poetry. Herbert’s first collection of poems, Chord of Light, was published in Poland in 1956, the year of the Hungarian revolt. Included is “Three Poems by Heart.” In the third section, as translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, Herbert writes:

“the pigeons—
                  softly gray

“a Poet’s statue was in the park
children would roll their hoops
and colorful shouts
birds sat on the Poet’s hand
read his silence”

You probably think you know where the convergence of statue and pigeons is going, but Herbert leaves it unstated. Pigeons are roughly to public monuments as dogs are to fire plugs. Dictators love to see their image in public, preferably in outsized dimensions. Poets understand the experience can be unexpectedly humbling. Herbert’s poem continues:

“pigeons fell lightly
         like shot down air

“now the lips of the Poet
form an empty horizon
birds children and wives cannot live
in the city’s funereal shells
in cold eiderdowns of ashes”

A much-touted “thaw” was proclaimed in 1956, following Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress, but those remained bleak years in Poland, Hungary and the rest of the Soviet bloc. Anything resembling freedom was many years away. Herbert concludes his poem:

“the city stands over water
smooth as the memory of a mirror
it reflects in the water from the bottom
and flies to a high star
where a distant fire is burning
like a page of the Iliad”

1 comment:

Sugarloaf said...

Thank you for reminding us of the dean, and for the link to Verses on the Death of Dr Swift - a comical piece which (largely) passes the test of time.
Re the translations for the epitaph: my six-inch-thick and six-pound-heavy copy of Harper's Latin Dictionary had been under my computer screen, as a height-raiser, for a number of years. However, I manoeuvred it out from underneath, and found that under "virilis" (II) (in addition to: worthy of a man, manly, manful) it gives: firm, vigorous, bold, spirited. I think the dean would have been happy with this latter emphasis of the word, rather than Damrosch's "manly", or Yeats's anaemic "human". I cannot think the dean would have regarded liberty as having only male, rather than male and female, characteristics.
I must remember to keep the Latin dictionary ready and more accessible in future.