To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (5): Dionysios Solomos Poem & Commentary

with Jeffrey C. Robinson


Solomos' poem "The Shark" (O Porphyras) is based on a newspaper account of the tragic death of a young English soldier whose remains were washed ashore the day after he was killed by a shark as he swam in the harbor of Corfu on July 19, 1847. A friend of the poet reported that he and other friends heard a recitation by the poet of the complete poem, but the work now survives primarily in two fragmented manuscripts catalogued in the National Library of Greece. Linos Politis presents the poem in his edition as a sequence of eight fragments, which have been separated by dashes but not numbered in this translation. The seventeen-line quotation is spoken by the young swimmer. [Translators' note]

Though watchful Hell's always out to get you,
it has none but a distant dominion
far from Paradise, and you have in you
a place in your heart--hear it yearning?
You look at the first bright rose of the sun,
yes, first, but that's second to your own face!
"May night send me thousands of stars to bathe with.
You, black cleft in the rocks, laugh among flowers.
Now downward and near wheels the golden-winged
that quickly left its branch for the rocky shore
and there takes in beauties of sea and sky,
and there heaves its voice with all its magic,
harmonizing sea with desolate stone,
and calls out the late night star that must rise.
Birdie, airing your voice of miracles,
if your marvelous song is not pure bliss,
nothing good has flowered here or in heaven.
Oh, if one stroke could get me where I'd go,
sea-foam, keep me afloat till my return,
with mother's kiss, native earth in my fist.
I kiss my hands and sweetly hug myself.
My soul's eyes are open wide and watching.
So whence springs your birth, fountain so graceful?"
Nature, you smiled at once and yielded to him.
Hope, you bound his mind with all your magic powers.
Lovely, new world full of joy and goodness.
He looked around to see .............................
Now confronts the youth the tiger of the sea,
and far, alas, from reach his sword and musket.
How easily it slices through the deep
and comes speeding ...................................
for the pure white throat gleaming like a swan's,
for the strong broad chest and for the fair head,
for the sweet magnanimous breath of youth,
and thus the young man ...............................
from Nature's gorgeous, powerful embrace,
in which she softly held and whispered him--
while in his free, naked glowing body
the crafts of swimmer and of warrior stirred.
Before it passed the great soul filled with joy,
in a bolt of light the young man knew himself.
Worlds around him opened, showering him with crowns.
Torso wondrous in your ruin and grandeur,
dear lovely stranger in the bloom of youth,
come, receive ashore the strong man's lament.

Translation from Greek by George Economou & Stavros Deligiorgis


I have nothing in mind except liberty and language. (D.S., in “Dialogue between the Poet and the Pedant”)

(1) “He has always been a beginning,” George Seferis wrote about him, looking back from both a Greek & modernist perspective. A “national poet” like Adam Mickiewicz & others (he is in fact the author of the Greek national anthem), he was also an extraordinary innovator, whose role in the revitalizing of Greek language & poetry – away from the classical & into the vernacular/oral – took effect in his own century, but whose greatest & most experimental work wasn’t recovered until seventy years after his death. He is in that sense a poet (like Smart & Blake & Dickinson) whose work, at least on an international scale, comes to fruition at a time beyond his own. Born on the Ionian island of Zante (Zakynthos) to an aristocratic Venetian father & a Greek mother, he went to Italy at the age of eight & stayed on until he was twenty. His early poems were in Italian, while many of his Greek writings show a non-conventional orthography & a sense of poetry as an oral phenomenon with prose as its post-facto written medium. Even as he sets a standard for a new literary Greek, his own work develops what one of his later editors Peter Mackeridge calls “a dialogue between languages” & an overwhelming sense of the demotic. Or Solomos himself: “Every language should necessarily have words from other languages.” And again: “The nobility of languages is like the nobility of a people … The kind of nobility that English words had before Shakespeare wrote, the one French words had before Racine did, the one Greek words had before Homer, and they all wrote the words of their time.”

(2) The events underlying Solomos’s two great poems, The Free Besieged & The Woman of Zante were the two Turkish sieges of Missolonghi & their repercussions, in the latter poem, on the island of Zante. Both of the longer poems were fragmentary – works in process – & both are major examples of experimental romanticism. In The Woman of Zante (1826-1833), Solomos turned to a form of free verse or short, numbered prose paragraphs, to carry his narrative: an account by the “monk Dionysios” of the Woman of Zante’s rejection of pleas from embattled Missolonghi that moves between realism & mirror-dream fantasy. But the total work, as recovered in manuscript in 1927, has a still further complexity. As translator Stavros Deligiorgis describes it: “Solomos's neatly copied text occupies the left hand column of the Ms., the right hand column containing texts which all scholars and editors have relegated either to the status of foot- or end-notes or to very private memos that Solomos wrote – a propos of the primary text in the opposite column – for the purposes of an eventual elaboration. The right-hand column, however, appears to contain vignettes and episodes that, beyond amplifying and commenting on the left column, may be observed to possess a large degree of narrative autonomy. It is … the intention of the translation … to elevate this neglected parallel text to the kind of visibility that Solomos's creative ‘intellection’ clearly prefigured.”

[ From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3: The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, edited by Jerome Rothenberg & Jeffrey C. Robinson (scheduled for publication in January 2009). A portion of the double-columned text, not shown here, will of course appear in Poems for the Millennium itself. A version of “The Shark” was published earlier in Lou Rowan’s Golden Handcuffs Review. Earlier excerpts from Poems for the Millennium appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, and July 6.]