Tuesday, November 08, 2011


What's the Best Life for a Man?

Robinson Jeffers, The Silent Shepherds:
What's the best life for a man?
— Never to have been born, sings the choros, and the next best
Is to die young. I saw the Sybil at Cumae
Hung in her cage over the public street —
What do you want, Sybil? I want to die.
Apothanein Thelo. Apothanein Thelo. Apothanein Thelo...
You have got your wish. But I meant life, not death.
What's the best life for a man? To ride in the wind. To ride horses and herd cattle
In solitary places above the ocean on the beautiful mountain, and come home hungry in the evening
And eat and sleep. He will live in the wild wind and quick rain, he will not ruin his eyes with reading,
Nor think too much.
                                         However, we must have philosophers.
I will have shepherds for my philosophers,
Tall dreary men lying on the hills all night
Watching the stars, let their dogs watch the sheep. And I'll have lunatics
For my poets, strolling from farm to farm, wild liars distorting
The country news into supernaturalism—
For all men to such minds are devils or gods—and that increases
Man's dignity, man's importance, necessary lies
Best told by fools.
                                         I will have no lawyers nor constables:
Each man guard his own goods: there will be man-slaughter,
But no more wars, no more mass-sacrifice. Nor I'll have no doctors,
Except old women gathering herbs on the mountain,
Let each have her sack of opium to ease the death-pains.

That would be a good world, free and out-doors.
But the vast hungry spirit of the time
Cries to his chosen that there is nothing good
Except discovery, experiment and experience and discovery: to look truth in the eyes,
To strip truth naked, let our dogs do our living for us
But man discover.
                                         It is a fine ambition,
But the wrong tools. Science and mathematics
Run parallel to reality, they symbolize it, they squint at it,
They never touch it: consider what an explosion
Would rock the bones of men into little white fragments and unsky the world
If any mind for a moment touch truth.
In lines 2-3, Jeffers recalls Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, in which the chorus sings (1224-1238, tr. R.C. Jebb):
Not to be born is, past all prizing, best; but, when a man hath seen the light, this is next best by far, that with all speed he should go thither, whence he hath come.

For when he hath seen youth go by, with its light follies, what troublous affliction is strange to his lot, what suffering is not therein? - envy, factions, strife, battles and slaughters; and, last of all, age claims him for her own, - age, dispraised, infirm, unsociable, unfriended, with whom all woe of woe abides.

μὴ φῦναι τὸν ἅπαντα νι-
κᾷ λόγον· τὸ δ᾽, ἐπεὶ φανῇ,
βῆναι κεῖθεν ὅθεν περ ἥ-
κει πολὺ δεύτερον, ὡς τάχιστα.
ὡς εὖτ᾽ ἂν τὸ νέον παρῇ
κούφας ἀφροσύνας φέρον,
τίς πλαγὰ πολύμοχθος ἔ-
ξω; τίς οὐ καμάτων ἔνι;
φθόνος, στάσεις, ἔρις, μάχαι
καὶ φόνοι· τό τε κατάμεμπτον ἐπιλέλογχε
πύματον ἀκρατὲς ἀπροσόμιλον
γῆρας ἄφιλον, ἵνα πρόπαντα
κακὰ κακῶν ξυνοικεῖ.
Sophocles in turn echoes Theognis 425-428 (tr. J.M. Edmonds):
The best lot of all for man is never to have been born nor seen the beams of the burning Sun; this failing, to pass the gates of Hades as soon as one may, and lie under a goodly heap of earth.

Πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
μηδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου·
φύντα δ᾽ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀίδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.
In lines 3-6 Jeffers refers to Petronius, Satyricon 48 (tr. Michael Heseltine):
Yes, and I myself with my own eyes saw the Sibyl hanging in a cage; and when the boys cried at her: 'Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you want?' 'I would that I were dead,' she used to answer.

nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα, τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: ἀποθανεῖν θέλω.
Frederic Remington,
Mounted Cowboy
in Chaps with Race Horse

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