Saturday, May 12, 2018

`Good Night Marcus Put Out the Light'

“Where others inflate the particular, he belittles the overwhelming.”

Reading old quarterly journals can be tedious but at the same time humbling and educational. In the Spring 1963 issue of The Hudson Review you’ll find Theodore Roethke (who died later that year) and Robert Bly, John Simon (still with us), the late lamented Hilton Kramer almost two decades before he founded The New Criterion, and a review of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Sidney Monas. Most interesting are what must be among the earliest translations into English of Zbigniew Herbert’s poems, by Peter Dale Scott. The sentence quoted above comes from his introduction.

Herbert had published his first collection -- Struna światła (Chord of Light) – just seven years earlier. In 1968, Scott collaborated with Czesław Miłosz and published Herbert’s Selected Poems as part of the Penguin Modern European Poets series. This was the first Herbert in book form many of us read. In the Hudson Review, Scott writes of Herbert:

“Using the long perspectives of his historical and philosophical-legal training, he presents terse sketches of World War II and its related disasters in a guise of detached candor, with the ironist’s technique of control by understatement. Yet in this perspective it is not the individual but history itself, with its merely collective pressures, which shrinks in the dim folds of a larger pattern.”

Scott already has a useful grasp of Herbert’s manner and intent. He translates one of the Pole’s best-known poems, “To Marcus Aurelius,” dedicated to Henryk Eizenberg, a survivor of Mauthausen and a philosophy professor who served as one of Herbert’s mentors:

“Good night Marcus put out the light
and shut the book For overhead
is raised a gold alarm of stars
while heaven talks some foreign speech
this the barbarian cry of fear
your Latin cannot understand
Terror continuous dark terror
against the fragile human land

“begins to beat It’s winning Hear
its roar The unrelenting stream
of elements will drown your prose
until the world's four walls go down
As for us?-to tremble in the air
blow in the ashes stir the ether
gnaw our fingers seek vain words
and drag the fallen shades behind us

“Well Marcus better hang up your peace
give me your hand across the dark
Let it tremble when the blind world beats
on senses five like a failing lyre
Traitors-universe and astronomy
reckoning of stars wisdom of grass
and your greatness too immense
and Marcus my defenseless tears”

Scott writes: “The poet does not reckon the tragedy, but he is reasonable: perhaps after all there is a world familiar and even gentle beyond this terror.”

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