Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lament of the Farm-Wife of Wu

Su Tung P'o.


   Which in today's Chinese would be pronounced Soo Doong Bo, in the same way that Peking has become Beijing and feudal totalitarianism has become...feudal totalitarianism, but under a different name. "The Lament of the Farm-Wife of Wu" could be written in any province of contemporary China, though unlike in Su Tung P'o's time it is unlikely that the Communist authorities would allow it to be published (see the final paragraph of this blog!) and probably today's Farm-Wife would end up as a despised migrant worker in the shanty-suburbs of
Mei-shan rather than as a suicide in the local stream, though these two fates are not that easy to distinguish either.

   We are all raised in the canons of our native literature, not much encouraged in schools to look beyond the geographical boundaries, and even less encouraged by publishers, unless they can see a greater profit in old-and-foreign literature than in the novelties of today in our own tongue. What a vast gap that leaves in our knowledge of the world. And who would think of travelling in literature while also travelling to beaches, churches, art galleries, museums? Read Marquez next time you are resting on the beach at Cartagena, after a day's snorkelling among the coral of Las Islas de Rosarios; or Thomas Mann in Venice; Kafka on a long-weekend in Prague; Jane Austen in a Bath café; or Chinese poetry, which is some of the finest in the world, while waiting for your take-away on Spadina Avenue.

   Su Tung P'o, who was also called Su Shih, was born in Sichuan province in 1036, designed the parks that surround Lake Si in Hangzhou, practiced Buddhism in poetry as well as life, witnessed the reigns of five emperors, and rose to the rank of President of the Board of Rites, giving him authority over all imperial ceremonies and acts of worship. The portrait of him was painted two hundred years after his death, by Zhao Mengfu, the man whose name was later given to a volcanic crater on the planet Mercury, though why is not something I am able to explain.

   The translations below are by Burton Watson in "Selected Poems of Su Tung-P'o".

I Travel Day and Night

Past the places
where the Ying river
enters the Huai
and for the first time
saw the mountains along the Huai.
Today we reached Shou-chou.

I travel day and night towards the Yangtze and the sea.
Maple leaves, red flowers - Fall has endless sights.
On the broad Huai I cannot tell if the sky is near or far;
green hills keep rising and falling with the boat.
Shou-chou - already I see the white stone pagoda,
though short oars have not brought us around Yellow Grass Hill.
Waves calm, wind mild - I look for the landing.
My friends have stood a long time in the twilight mist.

Spring Night

Spring night - one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs - threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where night is deep and still.

Lament of the Farm-Wife of Wu

Rice this year ripens so late!
We watch, but when will frost winds come?
They come - with rain in bucketfuls;
the harrow sprouts mud, the sickle rusts.
My tears area ll cried out, but rain never ends;
it hurts to see the yellow stalks flattened in mud.
We camped in a grass shelter a month by the fields;
then it cleared and we reaped the grain, followed the wagon home,
sweaty, shoulders sore, casting it to town -
the price it fetched, you would think we came with chaff.
We sold the ox to pay taxes, broke up the roof for kindling;
we'll get by for the time, but what of next year's hunger?
Officials demand cash now - they won't take grain;
the long northwest border tempts invaders.
Wise men fill the court - why do things get worse?
I would be better off a bride to the River Lord.

   Sadly I can't find a copy in Chinese of the Lament; instead, because one has to see this poetry in its Chinese characters, "On Cold Meal at Huang-chou", a poem written after his banishment for taking the wrong side in a political dispute.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Ralph Waldo Emerson

   There are writers who one knows one ought to read, and tries, eventually, but somehow they remain unreadable. Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of these: transcendental poet (the term itself is sufficient to put one off), essayist (who reads essays anyway, unless teachers who are forced to mark them?), poet of Nature ("In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes, I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods" - O spare me, please, the constant harvesting of nature images, the drowning-flood of reiterations of the pathetic fallacy), and virtual inventor of the self-help manual...but wait, was it not Emerson who described, in precisely that self-help manual, "Self-Reliance", "the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow his or her own instincts and ideas" (so Wikipedia tells me, and Wikipedia is never wrong). Then maybe, maybe there is another kind of writer, heirs and disciples of Pascal ("Pensées"), writers like Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde and G.B. Shaw, whose works one does not need to read, because their genius does not lie in the totality of their writings, but only in their epigrams. Have I just invented, or discovered, a new genre?

   "A man is a god in ruins."

   "There is creative reading as well as creative writing."

   "Do what you know and perception is converted into character."

   "A great part of courage is the courage of having done the thing before."

   "As men's prayers are a disease of the will so are their creeds a disease of the intellect."

   "Fame is proof that the people are gullible."

   "Every man alone is sincere; hypocrisy begins with the entry of the second person."

   "The stupidity of men always invites the insolence of power."

   "It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem. Every new relationship is a new word."

   "Fate, then, is a name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought, for causes which are unpenetrated."

   "No change of circumstances can repair a defect of character."

   "A man's style is his mind's voice. Wooden minds, wooden voices."

   "Enthusiasm is the leaping lightning, not to be measured by the horsepower of the understanding."

   "Necessity does everything well."

   "Every hero becomes a bore at last."

   "No great man ever complains of want of opportunity."

   But now I cease, because Ralph Waldo Emerson would not have approved of this. "I hate quotations," he once said, "tell me what you know."

   I guess, then, I shall have to go back and read him after all. I shall start with the poems (here) and first his translations from the Persian Hafiz.

The Departing

Heinrich Heine

    Dusseldorf, Germany, 1797. The town is under the hegemony of the great, the glorious, the liberator Napoleon Buonaparte, whose Edicts of Tolerance and regime of emancipation have thrown down the ghetto walls and welcomed Jewry into Europe. Eighteen hundred years of pent-up intellectual and creative energy, devolved into Bible study and the painting of New Year's cards until now, are busting to get out.

   Like every Jewish child, Samson and Betty Heine's little Chayim was a born genius, a ga'on, an il'ui. The boy would revive the family's fortunes - sadly his father did not have the acumen of others of his tribe - as a merchant, or a banker. No yeshiva bucher nor Holy Land pilgrim like his mother's uncle Simon van Geldern, Harry, as they called him in German, would go into his uncle Solomon Heine's business, after a proper Catholic education please. But sadly Harry's genius did not lie that way. Sadly Harry left his uncle bankrupt.

   Still, there are many ways for genius to manifest itself, and if a boy cannot be a child prodigy, perhaps he can still become an adult one. But in philosophy? Who is this goyische Hegel anyway that he takes Jewish disciples? Can you earn a decent living from such a life? And poetry noch? Have you made any money from these Gedichte? At least he mixes with Jews, Peira (Sammy always insisted on using his wife's given name, not her German one). Cultured Jews at that - Edouard Gans, Moses Moser, Leopold Zunz. So who wants him mixing with Jews already? We're out of the ghetto now; let him mix with cultured goyim. Let him be baptised a Lutheran - I told you that Catholic education would come to nothing; and think of how much money we wasted on it. And then let him be ashamed. Ashamed? He's always ashamed. Of being a Jew. Of being a convert. And what did converting gain him anyway? He only did it to get his doctorate at Goettingen, and they still refused him. A Jew is still a Jew, even if he has converted. To the goyim, and in his own confused heart and soul.

   Genius he was though - whatever that means. Read "Die Nordsee". Read "Buch der Lieder". Read his responses to the anti-Semitic polemics of Menzel and von Platen. Read the list of charges brought against him when they put him in gaol - a genius is always without honour in his own country. What do you mean it wasn't his own country? He was born there, wasn't he? Several generations native, nu? But a Jew, and a Jew is always a man without a country - as Gustav Mahler would put it, a hundred years later: "I am a threefold expatriate—a Czech among Austrians, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew in the whole world." Perhaps you're right, Sammy. After Goettingen they turned him down at Munich too. The police were after him for his satires. The German Diet prohibited publication of his work. Yet he still thought of all those years in France as exile.

   The French hailed him immediately as a genius, gave him space in Allgemeine Zeitung and Revue Des Deux Mondes, made him the leader of Jungdeutschland - still not what one looks for in a nice Jewish boy, though it was good to see his picture in the newspapers. And such friends, such cultured goyische friends - Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, Ferdinand Lassalle, George Sand, Karl Marx. He's getting married, Sammy. I don't want to hear. Eugénie Mirat - he calls her his Mathilde; isn't that sweet? I don't want to hear about a shiksah. She's a lovely girl. She's an illiterate shop-assistant. And Heinrich the greatest writer in Europe. Heinrich? Since when he is called Heinrich? It killed your father, Chaymele. He made me swear, on his death-bed, never to give you a pfennig if you say a single bad thing about the family. That's a good boy, I knew I could depend on you. Now come back to Germany. I can't mutti. Not because of Germany. My spine. Attacks of paralysis. I am condemned to a mattress grave. At least I can go on writing. Bury me in a Jewish grave, mutti. O, and mutti - we were wrong about Napoleon; we thought he liberated us from anti-Semitism and set us free in Christian Europe. We were wrong. They still spit on us. When we spit back, they burn our books. Take my word for it, where they start by burning books, they will sooner or later end by burning people.

Der Scheidende (The Departing)

It has died in me, as it must,
Every idle, earthly lust,
My hatred too of wickedness,
Utterly now, even the sense,
Of my own, of other men’s distress –
All that’s living in me is Death!
The curtain falls, the play is done,
And my dear German public’s gone,
Wandering home, and yawning so,
Those good folk are not stupid though:
They’ll dine happily enough tonight,
Drink, and sing, and laugh – He’s right,
The noble hero in Homer’s book,
Who said once that the meanest schmuck,
The lowest little Philistine there,
In Stuttgart (am Neckar), is happier
Than I, son of Peleus, the hero, furled,
The shadow prince in the Underworld.

   Not Heine's best poem, but irresistible in the context of this piece. The translation is by A.S. Kline, and you can find many more at Poetry In Translation.

A Pilgrimage to Beethoven

Rainer Maria Rilke

   The title belongs to Wagner, but the essay below to Rainer Maria Rilke, whose "Der Panther" is already on these shelves (here). Beethoven died in 1827; Rilke was born in 1875, so his witnessing of the great man was not his live face but his death mask - a poor copy actually, on the outside wall of a Parisian shop, next to that of a young woman who had drowned in the Seine; years later, Rilke commissioned an improved version for his own Private Collection - which had been cast by Josef Dannhauser, two days after the composer's death.

   "His face, which knows," Rilke wrote. "That hard knot of senses drawn tightly together. That inexorable self-condensing of a music continually trying to evaporate. The countenance of a man whose hearing a god had closed up, so that there might be no sounds but his own; so that he might not be led astray by what is turbid and ephemeral in noises - he who knew in himself their clarity and permanence. So that only the soundless senses might carry the world in to him, silently, a world in suspense, waiting, unfinished, before the creation of sound.

   "World-consummator: as that which comes down as rain over the earth and upon the waters, falling carelessly, at random - inevitably rises again, invisible and joyous, out of all things, and ascends and floats and form the heavens: so our precipitations rose out of you, and vaulted the world with music.

   "Your music: it could have encircled the universe; not merely us. A grand-piano could have been built for you in the Theban desert, and an angel would have led you to that solitary instrument, through mountain-ranges in the wilderness, where kings are buried and courtesans and anchorites. And he would have flung himself up and away, for fear that you would begin.

   "And then you would have streamed forth, unheard, giving back to the universe what only the universe can endure. Bedouins in the distance would have galloped by, superstitiously; but merchants would have flung themselves to the ground at the edges of your music, as if you were a storm. Only a few solitary lions would have prowled around you at night, in wide circles, afraid of themselves, menaced by their own excited blood.

   "For who will now withhold you from lascivious ears? Who will drive them from the concert halls, these corrupted ears whose sterile hearing fornicates and never conceives, as the semen spurts out onto them and they lie beneath it like whores, playing with it; or it falls onto the ground like Onan's, while they writhe in their abortive pleasures.

   "But master, if some pure spirit with a virgin ear were to lie down beside your music: he would die of bliss; or he would become pregnant with infinity, and his fertilised brain would explode with so much birth."

   This passionate exercise in acolyte idolatry can be found in "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge" (here).

    My own "A Pilgrimage To Bayreuth", alongside a narrative version of Wagner's Ring Cycle, "The Book of the Ring", are published by TheArgamanPress.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved

The Argaman Press

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gateaux and ale

Sir Walter Scott


   Speaking of great food in literature (see the previous blog entry: Speed-Reading), I have already shared Colin Thubron’s gastronomic waverings over Chinese python (Number 63 With Rice)…but no one does it better than Sir Walter Scott, and Scott was also the first to point out that we use Anglo-Saxon names for animals on the farm and still alive, but French names once they reach the table: calf becomes veal, pig becomes pork, bull becomes beef, sheep becomes mutton, deer becomes venison, snail becomes escargot, beer becomes wine, melted chocolate becomes mousse, and uncouth turns surprisingly quickly into bourgeois.

    Among the Waverley tales are literally scores of menus, described in minute detail, of which my favourite is his account of a proper Highland breakfast:

   “Waverley found Miss Bradwardine presiding over the tea and coffee, the table loaded with warm bread, both of flour, oatmeal, and barley-meal, in the shape of loaves, cakes, biscuits, and other varieties, together with eggs, reindeer ham, mutton and beef ditto, smoked salmon, marmalade, and all the other delicacies which induced even Johnson himself to extol the luxury of a Scotch breakfast above all other countries. A mess of oatmeal porridge, flanked by a silver jug, which held an equal mixture of cream and buttermilk, was placed for the Baron’s share of this repast.”

Lots more examples can be found at

   Virginia Woolf was probably anorexic, though they didn’t have the term in her days. This did not stop her “salivating copiously”, to use Samuel Beckett’s mouth-watering phrase, in "To the Lighthouse".

   “…an exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish as Marthe, with a little flourish, took the cover off. The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs. Ramsay thought, diving into the soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats and its bay leaves and its wine . . . ‘It is a triumph,’ said Mr. Banks, laying his knife down for a moment. He had eaten attentively. It was rich; it was tender. It was perfectly cooked.”

   And then there is the decidedly non-kosher Bloomsday breakfast: 

   “Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.” 

   All of which you can cook and prepare yourself, following the very recipe that Joyce would have known and loved, by visiting TheOldFoodie at; he also provides details and recipes of other of Bloom's favourite repasts at

   The plum-pudding on the Christmas table offered as a redemptive gift by Ebenezer Scrooge to Bob Cratchit is the one best remembered from that great literary cartoonist, perhaps because his other exemplar of food with a bad conscience belongs to Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations", the cake that was still on the table all those years later when Pip was dragged into the Ariadne web of the gruesome Estella; leading one to wish to rename that novel Great Expectorations: 

   “As I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckled-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it . . . ‘I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.’ ‘It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!'”

   I could, and would happily go on, for there are thousands of these lyrical accounts of menus carnivorous and vegetarian, of appetisers as well as desserts, of fish as well as fowl, but instead I am pleased to recommend you to read Dinah Fried's delectable "Fictitious Dishes", which catalogues innumerable of them; a work that no self-respecting kitchen library should be without. Heidi's burnt toast and the Mad Hatter's Tea-Party are too good to be missed, the plate of cheese and pickle with toast in "Catcher in the Rye" is simply "phony", but I am planning to lunch today on avocado stuffed with cottage cheese, tomato and chives, in the style of Sylvia Plath's "TheBell-Jar". B'tei avon, as we say in Hebrew. Bon appetit.

I and Thou

Martin Buber

   "To Man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives what exists round about him - simply things, and beings as things; and what happens round about him - simply events, and actions as events; things consisting of qualities, events of moments; things entered in the graph of place, events in that of time; things and events bounded by others things and events, measured by them, comparable with them: he perceives an ordered and detached world. It is to some extent a reliable world, having density and duration. Its organisation can be surveyed and brought out again and again; gone over with closed eyes, and verified with open eyes. It is always there, next to your skin, if you look on it that way, cowering in your soul, if you prefer it so. It is your object, remains it as long as you wish, and remains a total stranger, within you and without. You perceive it, take it to yourself as the "truth", and it lets itself be taken; but it does not give itself to you. Only concerning it may you make yourself "understood" with others; it is ready, though attached to everyone in a different way, to be an object common to you all. But you cannot meet others in it. You cannot hold on to life without it, its reliability sustains you; but should you die in it, your grave would be in nothingness.

   "Or, on the other hand, Man meets what exists and becomes as what is over against him, always simply a single being and each thing simply as being. What exists is opened to him in happenings, and what happens affects him as what is. Nothing is present for him except this one being, but it implicates the whole world. Measure and comparison have disappeared; it lies with yourself how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. These meetings are not organised to make the world, but each is a sign of the world-order. They are not linked up with one another, but each assures you of your solidarity with the world. The world which appears to you in this way is unreliable, for it takes on a continually new appearance; you cannot hold it to its word. It has no density, for everything in it penetrates everything else; no duration, for it comes even when it is not summoned, and vanishes even when it is tightly held. It cannot be surveyed, and if you wish to make it capable of survey you lose it. It comes, and comes to bring you out; if it does not reach you, meet you, then it vanishes; but it comes back in another form. It is not outside you, it stirs in the depth of you; if you say 'Soul of my soul' you have not said too much. But guard against anything wishing to remove it into your soul - for then you annihilate it. It is your present; only while you have it do you have the present. You can make it into an object for yourself, to experience and to use; you must continually do this - and as you do it you have no more present. Between you and it there is mutual giving: you say Thou to it and give yourself to it, it says Thou to you and gives itself to you. You cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it, you are alone with it. But it teaches you to meet others, and to hold your ground when you meet them. Through the graciousness of its comings and the solemn sadness of its goings it leads you away to the Thou in which the parallel lines of relations meet. It does not help to sustain you in life, it only helps you to glimpse eternity."


   I could, easily enough, have gone to the Internet to find the text, and cut-and-pasted it into this blog; but I have typed out every word myself, because it seems to me that this is what Buber is telling us, that the act of direct and immediate personal engagement is what life, and the understanding of life, is all about. The difference between standing on the football terrace to support a team, and being out there on the field playing for the team. The difference between the vicarious and the lived. The business of intensity, which Jewish Buber would probably have preferred to call "kavanah", a word that contains two meanings, both inward concentration and sincerity. The act of typing out required me to focus on his every word, to recognise that every word had been selected where another word might have been and therefore meant precisely what it meant and nothing else; to listen to the internal arguments, with their resolutions of internal contradictions, their minor clarifications within the total act of clarification; to notice every element of punctuation - and to observe the several occasions when, it seemed to me, the punctuation, and once or twice perhaps the translation too, was faulty. To write by hand, or type by fingers, focuses more deeply than the act of reading, and the act of reading more deeply than the act of looking, at a TV or a movie screen, let alone reality. It is a matter of igniting the cognitive machinery. The same, in Buber's view, applies to love, to family, to friendship, to neighbourliness, to politics, to life. Intensity - kavanah - always intensity. To write at the level that one wants to write, one must first learn to live at the level that one wants to write. And vice versa.

   Buber published "I and Thou" in Vienna in 1923. Where other philosophers require volumes to explain their conception of life in all its forms, Buber contrived the minor miracle of saying everything he had to say in a slim volume of less than a hundred pages. The consequence, of course, of applying his own theories to himself.

Tonight We Improvise

Luigi Pirandello

   Unlike Lampedusa, who wrote a kind of sophisticatedly modern historical novel; unlike Primo Levi, who reinvented journalism as a literary genre; unlike Calvino, who did what all the world would like to do but only the truly great can get away with, which is to write whatever and however words came into his head and have them turn out brilliant; unlike D’Annunzio, who wanted to be Wagner but settled for being Wilhelm Meister; unlike Croce, who mistook literature for philosophy; unlike any of these other geniuses of Italian writing, Pirandello saw literature as a branch of psychology, and used the theatre much as Freud used the psychiatric couch: as a locus for confession, revelation, psychic exploration and the unravelling of the madness of this world. Being completely insane himself was clearly a factor and an aide, but who has ever met a serious professional in the field of the human psyche who wasn’t clinically certifiable? Each scene of each act of each play affords another layer of, another perspective on reality – the sliding-doors that Durrell tried to impose upon the time-continuum in Alexandria; only here it is mental, not temporal.

   In "Tonight We Improvise" he created what was really an essay on the theatre, or at least on the gap between being and seeing, which may not after all be the same thing. “Six Characters In Search Of An Author”, which had its premiere in 1921, went even further, dissociating reality from reality as well as unreality from unreality by staging a play within a play; and a play about the putting-on of the outer play by the inner one at that. The absolute antonym to anything by Brecht, Beckett was clearly influenced, right down to the staging, but especially dialogue such as:

FATHER: We’re looking for an author

PRODUCER (angry and astonished): An author? Which author?

FATHER: Any author will do, sir.

   The metaphor as metaphor! And later, in Act Two, a monologue that could be Malone’s or Molloy’s:

MOTHER: No! It’s happening now, as well: it’s happening all the time. I’m not acting my suffering! Can’t you understand that? I’m alive and here now, but I can never forget that terrible moment of agony, that repeats itself endless and vividly in my mind. And these two little children here, you’ve never heard them speak have you? That’s because they don’t speak any more, not now. They just cling to me all the time; they help to keep my grief alive, but they don’t really exist for themselves any more, not for themselves…

    “Six characters” begins on an empty stage, with no set and no wings, in almost total darkness and the stage manager building what will be the set for a play entitled “The Game As He Played It”, encouraging the audience to worry that they have come to the wrong event, unsettling them psychologically. Pirandello could not have done this without Brecht, but neither could Brecht have written “Six Characters”. An actor, playing the part of an actor, who is representing someone who denies that they are acting: once the metaphor goes that far the fourth wall simply implodes and there is no longer a space between the real and the unreal – which is to say the imaginary, the fictitious, the fantastical – the metaphorical itself.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved

The Argaman Press


Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d

Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port: the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

   The 19th century nurtured a Romanticism that excelled in heroes, often backward-looking, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, steeped in a mythical heroism that was at once Biblical and Greco-Roman, or occasionally, like Wagner’s heroes, steeped in the pagan myths of western Europe. But heroes. O yes, we must have heroes. Byron at Messalonghi, Clive of India, statues to innumerable unknown soldiers who raised the Kiplingesque flag over sunsets never to be completed, and trained for the purpose on the playing fields of Eton. An era in which men endow heroes is an era of supreme self-confidence, and from the aura of the heroes is emitted an energy that can drive others beyond their own boundaries, into the infinitudes of further exploration, greater achievement, deeper insight, higher understanding.

   The 20th century, by contrast, excelled in anti-heroes, taking their cues from Machiavelli or Caligula, rather than Alexander the Great or Richard the Lion Hearted. It was, perhaps, the consequence of World War I, in which more than 2 million idealisms died from gas or gunshot or dysentery in the trenches; or of World War 2, which bombed any remaining idealisms into Zyklon-B and hydrogen, and fed the cynical mediocrity of universal proletarian revolution. Ulysses remained a hero in the 2oth century, but now reduced to the analogy of Leo Bloom, plodding through the banalities of his daily life, trying less to make ends meet than to find any sort of ends at all. After Auschwitz, the deconstructionist philosophers told us, there can be no more heroes – or only the fantasy of super-heroes, impossible übercreatures like Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne.

   And as to the 21st century? Elsewhere I have offered my personal philosophy of the Immaculate Failure, and shall not restate it here. Yet it seems to me that Tennyson has captured the Immaculate Failure perfectly in this poem. I invite you to read it, not through 19th century eyes, as he intended it, but through 21st century eyes, as we still need it.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved

The Argaman Press

Helicon and Hippocrene

Heaney and Beckett

   Ireland does not have too many Nobel laureates, so it is a remarkable coincidence that two that they do have were born on the same day, Samuel Beckett in 1906, in Dublin, Seamus Heaney in 1939, in County Derry. April 13th the day.

   Great poet though he was, Heaney's readings of his own works reduce them to banality and infer, quite erroneously, a lack of skill in the poetry. He adopts, as so many bad readers of verse do, a maudlin, lugubrious tone that is somewhere between "Woe is me" and "Out damned spot", as if they were delivering the obloquy at their poem's funeral rather than chanting into the alive and listening air (you can hear him, inter alia, at The Internet Poetry Archive:, which also provides a link to his gloriously evocative Nobel Prize speech). The voice is flat, which is an especial achievement for a man of County Derry, for the Irish accent lilts and resonates inherently, and you can hear the rhythms and the cadences in the text upon the page, even though he has pressed a steam iron against them in the recitation. Flat, deadpan as a character from Samuel Beckett, lacking intonation, lacking exuberance. At times you feel that Heaney has missed his own point, failed to understand his own meaning, but it is only lack of talent; and not as a poet, but as an actor.

   The readings at The Internet Poetry Archive open with:

Personal Helicon

(For Michael Longley)

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

   Wonderful poetry, if only he could have invited someone else to read it! But also a fascinating contrast with the intentionally lugubrious Beckett, the Eeyore of modern literature, from whom I have drawn these lines, originally from "Molloy", and not a poem at all, though with Beckett it isn't always easy to tell. The title is mine:

Aganippe and Hippocrene

   "And once again I am I will not say alone, no, that's not like me, but, how shall I say, I don't know, restored to myself, no, I never left myself, free, yes, I don't know what that means but it's the word I mean to use, free to do what, to do nothing, to know, but what, the laws of the mind perhaps, of my mind, that for example water rises in proportion as it drowns you and that you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery."

   Beckett was awarded his Nobel in 1969, Heaney his in 1995.