Lafcadio Hearn.

Books and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn online

. (page 17 of 19)
Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 17 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

wind of death now come and snap them." Yet, after all, why should he
complain? Did he not have the beautiful experience of loving, and was she
not in that time at least well worthy of the love that she called forth
like music?

There are several other poems referring to what would seem to be the same
experience, and all are beautiful, but one seems to me nobler than the
rest, expressing as it does a generous resignation. It is called
"Deteriora," a Latin word signifying lesser, inferior, or deteriorated
things - not easy to translate. Nor would you find the poem easy to
understand, referring as it does to conditions of society foreign to
anything in Japanese experience. But some verses which I may quote you
will like.

If fate and nature screen from me
The sovran front I bowed before,
And set the glorious creature free,
Whom I would clasp, detain, adore, -
If I forego that strange delight,
Must all be lost? Not quite, not quite.

_Die, Little Love, without complaint,
Whom honour standeth by to shrive:
Assoilèd from all selfish taint,
Die, Love, whom Friendship will survive.
Not hate nor folly gave thee birth;
And briefness does but raise thy worth._

This is the same thought which Tennyson expressed in his famous lines,

'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

But it is still more finely expressed to meet a particular personal mood.
One must not think the world lost because a woman has been lost, he says,
and such a love is not a thing for any man to be ashamed of, in spite of
the fact that it has been disappointed. It was honourable, unselfish, not
inspired by any passion or any folly, and the very brevity of the
experience only serves to make it more precious. Observe the use of the
words "shrive" and "assoiled." These refer to the old religious custom of
confession; to "shrive" signifies to forgive, to free from sin, as a
priest is supposed to do, and "assoiled" means "purified."

If this was a personal experience, it must have been an experience of
advanced life. Elsewhere the story of a boyish love is told very prettily,
under the title of "Two Fragments of Childhood." This is the first

When these locks were yellow as gold,
When past days were easily told,
Well I knew the voice of the sea,
Once he spake as a friend to me.
Thunder-rollings carelessly heard,
Once that poor little heart they stirred,
Why, Oh, why?
Memory, memory!
She that I wished to be with was by.

Sick was I in those misanthrope days
Of soft caresses, womanly ways;
Once that maid on the stair I met
Lip on brow she suddenly set.
Then flushed up my chivalrous blood,
Like Swiss streams in a mid-summer flood.
Then, Oh, then,
Imogen, Imogen!
Hadst thou a lover, whose years were ten.

This is evidently the charming memory of a little sick boy sent to the
seaside for his health, according to the English custom, and unhappy
there, unable to play about like stronger children, and obliged to remain
under the constant care of nurses and female relatives. But in the same
house there is another family with a beautiful young daughter, probably
sixteen or eighteen years old. The little boy wishes, wishes so much that
the beautiful lady would speak to him and play with him, but he is shy,
afraid to approach her - only looks at her with great admiring loving eyes.
But one day she meets him on the stairs, and stoops down and kisses him on
the forehead. Then he is in Heaven. Afterward no doubt she played with
him, and they walked up and down by the shore of the sea together, and
now, though an old man, whenever he hears the roar of the sea he remembers
the beautiful lady who played with him and caressed him, when he was a
little sick child. How much he loved her! But she was a woman, and he was
only ten years old. The reference to "chivalrous blood" signifies just
this, that at the moment when she kissed him he would have given his life
for her, would have dared anything or done anything to show his devotion
to her. No prettier memory of a child could be told.

We can learn a good deal about even the shyest of the poets through a
close understanding of his poetry. From the foregoing we know that Cory
must have been a sickly child; and from other poems referring to school
life we can not escape the supposition that he was not a strong lad. In
one of his verses he speaks of being unable to join in the hearty play of
his comrades; and in the poem which touches on the life of the mature man
we find him acknowledging that he believed his life a failure - a failure
through want of strength. I am going to quote this poem for other reasons.
It is a beautiful address either to some favourite student or to a beloved
son - it is impossible to decide which. But that does not matter. The title
is "A New Year's Day."

Our planet runs through liquid space,
And sweeps us with her in the race;
And wrinkles gather on my face,
And Hebe bloom on thine:
Our sun with his encircling spheres
Around the central sun careers;
And unto thee with mustering years
Come hopes which I resign.

'Twere sweet for me to keep thee still
Reclining halfway up the hill;
But time will not obey the will,
And onward thou must climb:
'Twere sweet to pause on this descent,
To wait for thee and pitch my tent,
But march I must with shoulders bent,
Yet further from my prime.

_I shall not tread thy battlefield,
Nor see the blazon on thy shield;
Take thou the sword I could not wield,
And leave me, and forget.
Be fairer, braver, more admired;
So win what feeble hearts desired;
Then leave thine arms, when thou art tired,
To some one nobler yet._

How beautiful this is, and how profoundly sad!

I shall return to the personal poetry of Cory later on, but I want now to
give you some examples of his Greek work. Perhaps the best of this is
little more than a rendering of Greek into English; some of the work is
pure translation. But it is the translation of a very great master, the
perfect rendering of Greek feeling as well as of Greek thought. Here is an
example of pure translation:

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

What are "thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales"? They are the songs which
the dear dead poet made, still sung in his native country, though his body
was burned to ashes long ago - has been changed into a mere handful of grey
ashes, which, doubtless, have been placed in an urn, as is done with such
ashes to-day in Japan. Death takes away all things from man, but not his
poems, his songs, the beautiful thoughts which he puts into musical verse.
These will always be heard like nightingales. The fourth line in the first
stanza contains an idiom which may not be familiar to you. It means only
that the two friends talked all day until the sun set in the West, and
still talked on after that. Tennyson has used the same Greek thought in a
verse of his poem, "A Dream of Fair Women," where Cleopatra says,

"We drank the Libyan sun to sleep."

The Greek author of the above poem was the great poet Callimachus, and the
English translator does not think it necessary even to give the name, as
he wrote only for folk well acquainted with the classics. He has another
short translation which he accompanies with the original Greek text; it is
very pretty, but of an entirely different kind, a kind that may remind you
of some Japanese poems. It is only about a cicada and a peasant girl, and
perhaps it is twenty-four or twenty-five hundred years old.

A dry cicale chirps to a lass making hay,
"Why creak'st thou, Tithonus?" quoth she. "I don't play;
It doubles my toil, your importunate lay,
I've earned a sweet pillow, lo! Hesper is nigh;
I clasp a good wisp and in fragrance I lie;
But thou art unwearied, and empty, and dry."

How very human this little thing is - how actually it brings before us the
figure of the girl, who must have become dust some time between two and
three thousand years ago! She is working hard in the field, and the
constant singing of the insect prompts her to make a comical protest. "Oh,
Tithonus, what are you making that creaking noise for? You old dry thing,
I have no time to play with you, or to idle in any way, but you do nothing
but complain. Why don't you work, as I do? Soon I shall have leave to
sleep, because I have worked well. There is the evening star, and I shall
have a good bed of hay, sweet-smelling fresh hay, to lie upon. How well I
shall sleep. But you, you idle noisy thing, you do not deserve to sleep.
You have done nothing to tire you. And you are empty, dry and thirsty.
Serves you right!" Of course you recognize the allusion to the story of
Tithonus, so beautifully told by Tennyson. The girl's jest has a double
meaning. The word "importunate" has the signification of a wearisome
repetition of a request, a constant asking, impossible to satisfy.
Tithonus was supposed to complain because he was obliged to live although
he wanted to die. That young girl does not want to die at all. And she
says that the noise of the insect, supposed to repeat the complaint of
Tithonus, only makes it more tiresome for her to work. She was feeling, no
doubt, much as a Japanese student would feel when troubled by the singing
of _semi_ on some very hot afternoon while he is trying to master some
difficult problem.

That is pure Greek - pure as another mingling of the Greek feeling with the
modern scholarly spirit, entitled "An Invocation." Before quoting from it
I must explain somewhat; otherwise you might not be able to imagine what
it means, because it was written to be read by those only who are
acquainted with Theocritus and the Greek idylists. Perhaps I had better
say something too, about the word idyl, for the use of the word by
Tennyson is not the Greek use at all, except in the mere fact that the
word signifies a picturing, a shadowing or an imagining of things.
Tennyson's pictures are of a purely imaginative kind in the "Idyls of the
King." But the Greek poets who first invented the poetry called idyllic
did not attempt the heroic works of imagination at all; they only
endeavoured to make perfectly true pictures of the common life of peasants
in the country. They wrote about the young men and young girls working on
the farms, about the way they quarrelled or rejoiced or made love, about
their dances and their songs, about their religious festivals and their
sacrifices to the gods at the parish temple. Imagine a Japanese scholar of
to-day who, after leaving the university, instead of busying himself with
the fashionable studies of the time, should go out into the remoter
districts or islands of Japan, and devote his life to studying the
existence of the commoner people there, and making poems about it. This
was exactly what the Greek idylists did, - that is, the best of them. They
were great scholars and became friends of kings, but they wrote poetry
chiefly about peasant life, and they gave all their genius to the work.
The result was so beautiful that everybody is still charmed by the
pictures or idyls which they made.

Well, after this disgression, to return to the subject of Theocritus, the
greatest of the idylists. He has often introduced into his idyls the name
of Comatas. Who was Comatas? Comatas was a Greek shepherd boy, or more
strictly speaking a goatherd, who kept the flocks of a rich man. It was
his duty to sacrifice to the gods none of his master's animals, without
permission; but as his master was a very avaricious person, Comatas knew
that it would be of little use to ask him. Now this Comatas was a very
good singer of peasant songs, and he made many beautiful poems for the
people to sing, and he believed that it was the gods who had given him
power to make the songs, and the Muses had inspired him with the capacity
to make good verse. In spite of his master's will, Comatas therefore
thought it was not very bad to take the young kids and sacrifice to the
gods and the Muses. When his master found out what had been done with the
animals, naturally he became very angry, and he put Comatas into a great
box of cedar-wood in order to starve him to death - saying, as he closed
and locked the lid, "Now, Comatas, let us see whether the gods will feed
you!" In that box Comatas was left for a year without food or drink, and
when the master, at the end of the year, opened the box, he expected to
find nothing but the bones of the goatherd. But Comatas was alive and
well, singing sweet songs, because during the year the Muses had sent bees
to feed him with honey. The bees had been able to enter the box through a
very little hole. I suppose you know that bees were held sacred to the
Muses, and that there is in Greek legend a symbolic relation between bees
and poetry.

If you want to know what kind of songs Comatas sang and what kind of life
he represented, you will find all this exquisitely told by Theocritus; and
there is a beautiful little translation in prose of Theocritus, Bion and
Moschus, made by Andrew Lang, which should delight you to read. Another
day I shall give you examples of such translations. Then you will see what
true idyllic poetry originally signified. These Greeks, although trained
scholars and philosophers, understood not only that human nature in itself
is a beautiful thing, but also that the best way to study human nature is
to study the life of the peasants and the common people. It is not to the
rich and leisurely, not to rank and society, that a poet must go for
inspiration. He will not find it there. What is called society is a world
in which nobody is happy, and in which pure human nature is afraid to show
itself. Life among the higher classes in all countries is formal,
artificial, theatrical; poetry is not there. Of course no kind of human
community is perfectly happy, but it is among the simple folk, the country
folk, who do not know much about evil and deceit, that the greater
proportion of happiness can be found. Among the youths of the country
especially, combining the charm of childhood with the strength of adult
maturity, the best possible subjects for fine pure studies of human nature
can be found. May I not here express the hope that some young Japanese
poet, some graduate of this very university, will eventually attempt to do
in Japan what Theocritus and Bion did in ancient Sicily? A great deal of
the very same kind of poetry exists in our own rural districts, and
parallels can be found in the daily life of the Japanese peasants for
everything beautifully described in Theocritus. At all events I am quite
sure of one thing, that no great new literature can possibly arise in this
country until some scholarly minds discover that the real force and truth
and beauty and poetry of life is to be found only in studies of the common
people - not in the life of the rich and the noble, not in the shadowy life
of books.

Well, our English poet felt with the Greek idylists, and in the poem
called "An Invocation" he beautifully expresses this sympathy. All of us,
he says, should like to see and hear something of the ancient past if it
were possible. We should like, some of us, to call back the vanished gods
and goddesses of the beautiful Greek world, or to talk to the great souls
of that world who had the experience of life as men - to Socrates, for
example, to Plato, to Phidias the sculptor, to Pericles the statesman.
But, as a poet, my wish would not be for the return of the old gods nor of
the old heroes so much as for the return to us of some common men who
lived in the Greek world. It is Comatas, he says, that he would most like
to see, and to see in some English park - in the neighbourhood of Cambridge
University, or of Eton College. And thus he addresses the spirit of

O dear divine Comatas, I would that thou and I
Beneath this broken sunlight this leisure day might lie;
Where trees from distant forests, whose names were strange to thee,
Should bend their amorous branches within thy reach to be,
And flowers thine Hellas knew not, which art hath made more fair,
Should shed their shining petals upon thy fragrant hair.

Then thou shouldst calmly listen with ever-changing looks
To songs of younger minstrels and plots of modern books,
And wonder at the daring of poets later born,
Whose thoughts are unto thy thoughts as noontide is to morn;
And little shouldst them grudge them their greater strength of soul,
Thy partners in the torch-race, though nearer to the goal.

* * * * *

Or in thy cedarn prison thou waitest for the bee:
Ah, leave that simple honey and take thy food from me.
My sun is stooping westward. Entranced dreamer, haste;
There's fruitage in my garden that I would have thee taste.
Now lift the lid a moment; now, Dorian shepherd, speak;
Two minds shall flow together, the English and the Greek.

A few phrases of these beautiful stanzas need explanation. "Broken
sunlight" refers, of course, to the imperfect shade thrown by the trees
under which the poet is lying. The shadow is broken by the light passing
through leaves, or conversely, the light is broken by the interposition of
the leaves. The reference to trees from distant forests no doubt intimates
that the poet is in some botanical garden, a private park, in which
foreign trees are carefully cultivated. The "torch race" is a simile for
the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Greek thinkers compare the
transmission of knowledge from one generation to another, to the passing
of a lighted torch from hand to hand, as in the case of messengers
carrying signals or athletes running a mighty race. As a runner runs until
he is tired, or until he reaches the next station, and then passes the
torch which he has been carrying to another runner waiting to receive it,
so does each generation pass on its wisdom to the succeeding generation,
and disappear. "My sun is stooping westward" is only a beautiful way of
saying, "I am becoming very old; be quick, so that we may see each other
before I die." And the poet suggests that it is because of his age and his
experience and his wisdom that he could hope to be of service to the dear
divine Comatas. The expression, "there is fruitage in my garden," refers
to no material garden, but to the cultivated mind of the scholar; he is
only saying, "I have strange knowledge that I should like to impart to
you." How delightful, indeed, it would be, could some university scholar
really converse with a living Greek of the old days!

There is another little Greek study of great and simple beauty entitled
"The Daughter of Cleomenes." It is only an historical incident, but it is
so related for the pleasure of suggesting a profound truth about the
instinct of childhood. Long ago, when the Persians were about to make an
attack upon the Greeks, there was an attempt to buy off the Spartan
resistance, and the messenger to the Spartan general found him playing
with his little daughter, a child of six or seven. The conference was
carried on in whispers, and the child could not hear what was being said;
but she broke up the whole plot by a single word. I shall quote a few
lines from the close of the poem, which contain its moral lessons. The
emissary has tried to tempt him with promises of wealth and power.

He falters; for the waves he fears,
The roads he cannot measure;
But rates full high the gleam of spears
And dreams of yellow treasure.
He listens; he is yielding now;
Outspoke the fearless child:
"Oh, Father, come away, lest thou
Be by this man beguiled."
Her lowly judgment barred the plea,
So low, it could not reach her.
_The man knows more of land and sea,
But she's the truer teacher._

All the little girl could know about the matter was instinctive; she only
saw the cunning face of the stranger, and felt sure that he was trying to
deceive her father for a bad purpose - so she cried out, "Father, come away
with me, or else that man will deceive you." And she spoke truth, as her
father immediately recognized.

There are several more classical studies of extraordinary beauty; but your
interest in them would depend upon something more than interest in Greek
and Roman history, and we can not study all the poems. So I prefer to go
back to the meditative lyrics, and to give a few splendid examples of
these more personal compositions. The following stanzas are from a poem
whose Latin title signifies that Love conquers death. In this poem the
author becomes the equal of Tennyson as a master of language.

The plunging rocks, whose ravenous throats
The sea in wrath and mockery fills,
The smoke that up the valley floats,
The girlhood of the growing hills;

The thunderings from the miners' ledge,
The wild assaults on nature's hoard,
The peak that stormward bares an edge
Ground sharp in days when Titans warred;

Grim heights, by wandering clouds embraced
Where lightning's ministers conspire,
Grey glens, with tarns and streamlet laced,
Stark forgeries of primeval fire.

These scenes may gladden many a mind
Awhile from homelier thoughts released,
And here my fellow men may find
A Sabbath and a vision-feast.

_I bless them in the good they feel;
And yet I bless them with a sigh;
On me this grandeur stamps the seal
Of tyrannous mortality._

_The pitiless mountain stands so sure.
The human breast so weakly heaves,
That brains decay while rocks endure.
At this the insatiate spirit grieves._

But hither, oh ideal bride!
For whom this heart in silence aches,
Love is unwearied as the tide,
Love is perennial as the lakes.

Come thou. The spiky crags will seem
One harvest of one heavenly year,
And fear of death, like childish dream,
Will pass and flee, when thou art here.

Very possibly this charming meditation was written on the Welsh coast;
there is just such scenery as the poem describes, and the grand peak of
Snowdon would well realize the imagination of the line about the girlhood
of the growing hills. The melancholy of the latter part of the composition
is the same melancholy to be found in "Mimnermus in Church," the first of
Cory's poems which we read together. It is the Greek teaching that there
is nothing to console us for the great doubt and mystery of existence
except unselfish affection. All through the book we find the same
philosophy, even in the beautiful studies of student life and the memories
of childhood. So it is quite a melancholy book, though the sadness be
beautiful. I have given you examples of the sadness of doubt and of the
sadness of love; but there is yet a third kind of sadness - the sadness of
a childless man, wishing that he could have a child of his own. It is a
very pretty thing, simply entitled "Scheveningen Avenue" - probably the
name of the avenue where the incident occurred. The poet does not tell us
how it occurred, but we can very well guess. He was riding in a street
car, probably, and a little girl next to him, while sitting upon her
nurse's lap, fell asleep, and as she slept let her head fall upon his
shoulder. This is a very simple thing to make a poem about, but what a
poem it is!

Oh, that the road were longer
A mile, or two, or three!
So might the thought grow stronger
That flows from touch of thee.

_Oh little slumbering maid,
If thou wert five years older,
Thine head would not be laid
So simply on my shoulder!_

_Oh, would that I were younger,
Oh, were I more like thee,
I should not faintly hunger
For love that cannot be._

A girl might be caressed
Beside me freely sitting;
A child on knee might rest,
And not like thee, unwitting.

Such honour is thy mother's,
Who smileth on thy sleep,
Or for the nurse who smothers
Thy cheek in kisses deep.

And but for parting day,
And but for forest shady,
From me they'd take away
The burden of their lady.

Ah thus to feel thee leaning
Above the nursemaid's hand,
Is like a stranger's gleaning
Where rich men own the land;

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17 19

Online LibraryLafcadio HearnBooks and Habits from the Lectures of Lafcadio Hearn → online text (page 17 of 19)