Look, the World Is Poetic!—Part 2

Report by Miriam Mondlin of an Aesthetic Realism Class given by Eli Siegel

Part 2

What Mr. Siegel said as he compared the slowness of motion in Poe’s lines to the swiftness of motion in When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed by Walt Whitman is new to literary criticism. As Mr. Siegel read Section VI, we were with the moving train, carrying Lincoln’s coffin, so still, going West across towns and cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois to his home in Springfield. All along the route, people gather by the stations, waiting. “The lines move,” said Mr. Siegel.

“[It has] the greatness of flowingness, the greatness of reality going anywhere, flowing or moving as wind moves in space or a cloud in the way it moves [reflected] in the Missouri River. How these two things can be in music—the go and stop—is grand, astounding and persisting.”

[Here it is.]

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the unlooped flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veiled women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the somber faces,
With dirges through the night,
With the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges poured around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

Like thousands of others, I have cared for this poem since I was a child, and I am so grateful to learn why: it’s because of the way opposites come together! “While things are in motion,” Mr. Siegel explained, “We have three kinds of stillness—1) The waiting depot 2) the arriving coffin 3) the somber faces.”

Mr. Siegel discussed several Arabian poems about love, showing how an Arabian person is affected by the feeling one can take or leave love, which is an aspect of stopping and going on. Then, Mr. Siegel made, what he said, was a leap or jump to France. We learned there was a great desire in 15th century French literature “to make poetry definite and have the structure of a well-built church.” Francois Villon, born 1431, wrote “one of the great poems that has stopping and going on Des Dames du Temps Jadis.” The Ballad of Dead Ladies, was published in 1489, after Villon died. Mr. Siegel’s grasp of literary history, his understanding of Villon’s accomplishment, and his appreciation of it was breathtaking. He observed:

“It’s part of the great testament. This is Villon seeing himself as a point spreading out….The human being is a center in terms of the things one knows. I was affected by the French years ago.”

(Here is the 1st stanza in the 15th century French “Des Dames Du Temps Jadis”)

Dictes-moy ou, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Rommaine;
Archipiad, ne Thais,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine.
Echo, parlant queant bruyt on maine
Dessus riviere ou sus estan
Qui beaulte ot[eut]trop plus qu’humaine —
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan!

Mr. Siegel read a free verse translation he had written of this great poem, in which he so musically translated the first lines “Dictes-moy ou, n’en quel pays, / Est Flora, la belle Rommaine;” as “Tell me where or in what land / Is Flora, the beautiful Roman girl;” The standard translation of this poem is in the Van Doren book, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which Mr. Siegel read next.

Tell me now, in what hidden way is.
Lady Flora, the lovely Roman?
Where’s Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman—
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,—
She whose beauty was more than human—
But where are the snows of yester-year?

The last line is famous and appears as a refrain throughout, “But where are the snows of yester-year?”

In this class we had the joy of hearing Mr. Siegel read a translation in ballade form. In it, he boldly changed the last line, stating,

“It was “one of the toughest jobs I ever did….The reason I translated it as “But how can rains of once awake?” is there is a misty sound in the French.”Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan!”

Mr. Siegel’s adherence to the strict rules of the French ballade form was masterful, deep, so honoring of what Villon intended! This is the first stanza of:Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis by Francois Villon paraphrased by Eli Siegel June 1971:

Tell me where or in what land,
Is Flora, of Rome and lightsomeness;
See Thais, Archipiada stand
In time and near relatedness.
Echo speaking, when sound, unplanned,
Is felt by river and by lake:
Her beauty we don’t understand:
But how can rains of once awake?

In the discussion following, Ellen Reiss commented on the tremendous accomplishment of Mr. Siegel in his translation:

“It happens to be easier to rhyme in French, Spanish or Italian than it is in English. The reason is there are more words that exist with the same ending. In English there is more variety of ending sounds, so as difficult as it is to write a ballade in French, it is much more difficult to do it in English.”

This class was rich in the poetry of the world, and the relation of sound as flowing and stopping, like the world itself. We heard poems from the ancient Sanskrit of India, and then to end this amazing class, Mr. Siegel read and discussed with such pleasure the tremendous achievement in 1880 of Edward Fitzgerald, coming to a new music in translating the 12th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, This is the first Verse:

Wake! For the Sun, who scattered into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heaven, and strikes
The Sultan’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

With wonder and exactitude, Mr. Siegel stated:

“This…has wideness and it is Fitzgerald’s own finding. A new thing — Two lines rhyming then the third not, and then the fourth line rhyming (with the first two). There’s nothing like it and it has affected people as if it were as old as anything. After a while people took the stanza form to themselves and loved it….”

Perhaps the most popular verse is XII. “It is a sign,” Mr. Siegel observed. “…that a poem can be popular and definitely be poetic.”

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

It was an unforgettable experience to hear Mr. Siegel’s critical opinion of the meaning of this musical first in poetry.

“However popular this is with persons not given much to caring for poetry—the team of Fitzgerald and Omar Khayyam is like Night and Day, Cup and Saucer, and so on.”

I am grateful to report on this remarkable class, for what Eli Siegel showed about the opposites of stop and go, flowing and strictness in world poetry and in reality was a first in literary criticism and life.

>> To return to Part 1 of Look, the World is Poetic, click here