Sunday, December 05, 2010


A Word in an Index

Jorge Luis Borges, To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology (tr. W.S. Merwin):
Where now is the memory
of the days that were yours on earth, and wove
joy with sorrow, and made a universe that was your own?

The river of years has lost them
from its numbered current; you are a word in an index.

To others the gods gave glory that has no end:
inscriptions, names on coins, monuments, conscientious historians;
all that we know of you, eclipsed friend,
is that you heard the nightingale one evening.

Among the asphodels of the Shadow, your shade, in its vanity,
must consider the gods ungenerous.

But the days are a web of small troubles,
and there is a greater blessing
than to be the ash of which oblivion is made?

Above other heads the gods kindled
the inexorable light of glory, which peers into the secret parts and discovers each separate fault;
glory, that at last shrivels the rose it reveres;
they were more considerate with you, brother.

In the rapt evening that will never be night
you listen without end to Theocritus’ nightingale.
The Spanish (A un poeta menor de la antología):
¿Dónde está la memoria de los días
que fueron tuyos en la tierra, y tejieron
dicha y dolor y fueron para ti el universo?

El río numerable de los años
los ha perdido; eres una palabra en un índice.

Dieron a otros gloria interminable los dioses,
inscripciones y exergos y monumentos y puntuales historiadores;
de ti sólo sabemos, oscuro amigo,
que oíste al ruiseñor, una tarde.

Entre los asfódelos de la sombra, tu vana sombra
pensará que los dioses han sido avaros.

Pero los días son una red de triviales miserias,
¿y habrá suerte mejor que la ceniza
de que está hecho el olvido?

Sobre otros arrojaron los dioses
la inexorable luz de la gloria, que mira las entrañas y enumera las grietas,
de la gloria, que acaba por ajar la rosa que venera;
contigo fueron más piadosos, hermano.

En el éxtasis de un atardecer que no será una noche,
oyes la voz del ruiseñor de Teócrito.
Who was this minor poet? I made a quick search through the Greek Anthology and couldn't find a likely candidate. Does the minor poet mention just a nightingale, or Theocritus' nightingale in particular? Here is what Norman Douglas, Birds and Beasts of the Greek Anthology (London: Chapman and Hall, 1927), has to say about the nightingale (pp. 87-90):
Though the ancients had a great affection for both nightingale and swallow, and bound one to the other by a complicated and tragic association, I find nothing here of outstanding merit on either of these birds. Northern poets have sung of the former with more depth of feeling than have those of the Anthology, who content themselves for the most part with similes, or with references to the tale of Procne and Philomela (such as 9,451 and 452)—a domestic scandal which puts the claim of these birds to our sympathy on a broader and, so to speak, humanitarian basis; it would have us love their music not for its sound alone but for its sad legendary memories as well.

Christodorus says that a nightingale settled on the lips of Stesichorus at birth (to explain the melodiousness of his verse); Herodotus is described as the "inspired nightingale of Halicarnassus"; Alcman is also compared to this bird; Nossis speaks of the comic writer Rhintho as a "small nightingale of the Muses"; a mother too bereaved of her six children mourns like a "nightingale on the grave-stones"; in the well-known lines by Callimachus the poems of Heraclitus are called "Nightingales", and Marianus Scholasticus tells of the nightingales and cicadas answering each other in a famous pleasaunce called Eros.

The song of this bird, as well as that of the swallow, is likened (for instance, in 6,247) to something not very intelligible—the regular noise made in weaving by the kerkis, which small dictionaries translate as "the weaver's comb, the shuttle containing the spindle". I should observe that these are two quite different objects, and that with old-fashioned looms, whether high-warp or low-warp, I have never heard any noise save the irregular creaking of the woodwork. Be that as it may, no modern poet would contrive such a metaphor, nor dream of bringing what seems to have been a purely mechanical sound into connection with the music of any song-bird. That the nightingale's voice, in spite of its beauty, can become a source of annoyance by driving away sleep, is discovered—not for the first time, I should think—by an anonymous writer (12,136); he inveighs against the nocturnal concert of these birds, which he calls "talkative women" in allusion to Philomela, and in disregard of the fact that the male alone is responsible for the uproar—

Ye chattering birds, why clamour so? Don't vex
Me as I lie warmed by my love's soft skin:
Leaf-loving nightingales, loquacious sex,
Sleep quietly, I beg, and cease your din!

I delay a moment, to refer to what might be said of the danger of diluting the "epigraphical flavour" of such poems. In the version just quoted the quatrain is translated as I think it should be. Here is another rendering, printed some twelve years ago in London, in which that pitfall of redundancy has not been avoided—

Ye chattering birds, O why disturb my rest,
While I am lying nigh the tender breast
Of my dear lad? I pray ye cease to vex:
Though, songsters by the ivy hid, the female sex
May always chatter loud, 1 pray that ye
Will cease your song and bring back peace to me.

If Simmias of Rhodes be author of the lines known as the "Dorian Nightingale's Egg" (15,27) and others of that kind, he is a literary phenomenon; the precursor of those later poets who indulged in similar vers figurés. He cut his poems into the shape of what they described, besides inventing other complexities which make them read like nonsense until you hit upon the key. This particular freak of his imitates with success the form of a nightingale's egg; it contains approximately the same amount of substance.
See also D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, A Glossary of Greek Birds (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895), s.v. ἀηδών, pp. 10-14. I haven't seen Albert R. Chandler, "The Nightingale in Greek and Latin Poetry," Classical Journal 30.2 (Nov. 1934) 78-84.

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