Friday, July 11, 2008


Kenneth Rexroth, Mrs. Manley, and Sappho

Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), An Autobiographical Novel (New York: New Directions, 1991), chapter 14:
[W]e all took Latin from Mrs. Manley. She was one of the few perfect pedagogues I've ever met. She taught Latin by the direct method. If you couldn't ask to go to the toilet in Latin, you had to sit and swelter. Her classes were extremely hard and much in advance of the Chicago curriculum requirements. In the second year you were reading Ovid in addition to the required Caesar. But anyone with any pretension to brains in the school studied with her. She didn't only teach Latin but everything else. She was a heavy, gray-haired woman with the face of a benevolent St. Bernard, and she had opinions, all of them absolutely sound, on every subject under the sun. She was a sort of female Sam Johnson and we were her Boswells. We believed everything she said about everything from birth control to arctic exploration, and well we might, because as I look back I can think of no one who ever gave me more useful lessons in life and living. I have known other schoolteachers who were of help to me in a small way, but not many of them. She is the only teacher I ever knew who was a major help and who really aided me to start off in the kind of life I wanted to live. I can still remember her oratorical pronouncements—a compound of Johnson, Cherterton, Belloc, and Clarence Darrow—on manners and morals and the understamding and use of life.
Mrs. Manley was probably Florence B. Manley, who taught Latin at Englewood High School in Chicago. In 2005 Englewood High School had the lowest test scores of any high school in Chicago, and it was on a list of schools to be closed. The school web site has an alumni hall of fame, but it doesn't include Rexroth, who was expelled from Englewood and never graduated.

Rexroth also mentions Mrs. Manley in this passage about learning Greek (chapter 16):
About this time, under the stimulus of Plato, I started to teach myself Greek. I got some help from Mrs. Manley, but mostly I did it on my own. Eventually I was able to read the lustrous opening pages of the Republic, the starlike watchfires of the Greeks before the walls of Troy, and a poem of Sappho's. In spite of the crossword puzzle method by which I ferreted them out, I can still relive the ecstacy those words gave me.

Having taught myself the rudiments of Greek, I sat down to translate what are left of the poems of Sappho. One of the great experiences of my life is a long evening spent with a friend who was an undergraduate student of Paul Shorey's. Working on that Japanese-like fragment about the apple orchard, we analyzed and weighed and discussed exhaustively every word. A whole night was spent in a kind of fury and for the next few days I wandered around in a trance, overcome with joy.
Here is Rexroth's translation:
... about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down....
When Rexroth made his translation, only four lines survived of this poem by Sappho, but more were later discovered scratched on an Egyptian potsherd, first published in 1937. The poem is now known to be a prayer to Aphrodite (numbered as fragment 2 in Voigt's collection). The bibliography on this poem is enormous. My knowledge of it comes primarily from the discussion in Anne Pippin Burnett, Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho (London: Duckworth, 1983; rpt. 1988), pp. 259-276. Here is Burnett's translation (p. 259):
Come, [if to Cretans you came,]
for here in this sacred haunt
apple trees crowd in a gracious grove, shrines
    are perfumed with smoke.

Here the cool water sings its song
deep in the apple-boughs;
all is rose-shadowed and restless leaves
    drop sleep like a spell.

Here is a meadow fit for horse,
thriving with early bloom; sweet
breezes are blowing their honied breath

Take up a [crown] then, Cyprian;
Pour, for our cups of gold,
suave mixture of nectar with festive joy —
    be thou our bearer of wine!
For comparison, see also C.M. Bowra's translation, from his Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides, 2nd rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p. 197:
Come hither from Crete to this holy temple, where is your graceful grove of apple-trees, and altars smoking with frankincense. In it cool water sounds through apple-boughs; all the place is shadowed with roses, and from the quivering leaves sleep comes down. In it a meadow blossoms with spring flowers, where horses pasture, and there the breezes breathe sweetly....There, Cyprian, take chaplets and pour softly in gold cups nectar mingled with our feasting.

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