Editorial from PN Review 165

Editorial from PN Review 165

'I hate extremes,' said John Donne, whose life consisted of them; 'I hate extremes, yet I had rather stay/With tombs than cradles, to wear out a day.' It is not pathologically morbid to meditate in graveyards, for those of us who like to chance upon unexpected verses, or to be surprised at a grave with a known name on it. A soberly Jacobean quite as much as a sentimental Romantic impulse might lead a visitor to Paris into the pathways of Pere Lachaise or Montmartre. The mortal wealth of Bunhill Fields is exhilarating, too, even if the monuments have been shuffled a bit for convenience (literally, the construction of a public toilet), so that Blake may not be quite where we reverence him, and Defoe's obelisk has been relocated for reasons of landscaping. To come across Anna Wickham's touching headstone by chance in Hampstead is almost like finding her fresh footprint. Lancelot Andrewes lies in patient wait of the resurrection outside Southwark Cathedral when the object of our pilgrimage was the ornate tomb of John Gower within… In Rome a constant stream of tourists, the water upon which John Keats's name was writ, flows through the Protestant Cemetery, with Shelley's inscription a further object of veneration. And, accessible again since 1996, the Protestant Cemetery in Florence, known to the English, of course, as the English Cemetery, has welcomed the traveller.

There, for a little longer, the literary necrophile will gain admission to admire the ponderous table tomb devised for Robert Browning by Lord Leighton. It marks Elizabeth Barrett Browning resting place. Her presence here has provided the focus for a campaign to reverse the decision to close this remarkable Victorian anthology of death. The costs of maintaining it open exceed the means of the Swiss order that administers the site: serious money must be found if visitors are to retain access.

There are other notables whose presence, or rather, marmoreal absence, make the Protestant Cemetery especially eloquent to Anglophone tourists. Here is Arthur Hugh Clough, who wittily nuanced feelings, affections, fears and reticences like a proto-James, and whose inscription is from a poem by his bosom friend Matthew Arnold. Over there lies the acerbic dust of Walter Savage Landor; that of his estranged son Arnold, for whom Swinburne provided an epitaph, is at the other end of the cemetery, brooded over by a terrifyingly lifelike sculpture of Mrs Landor, her back, forever unforgiving, turned to her husband's grave. Elizabeth Barrett's friend and fellow-radical Isabella Blagden, who invested her life not in her own talents but in Bulwer Lytton's, is nearby, and Theodosia Trollope. Holman Hunt provided his wife Fanny with a sarcophagus. The American sculptor Hiram Powers rests here, with his three children. And here too, it is claimed, lie the remains of the last descendants of Shakespeare.

'Thou met'st with things dying, I with things newborn.' The ancient Greek poets continue to surprise us, papyruses of their poems rising out of the sands, fragmentary yet no less eloquent for that. Thus to the evanescent body of Sappho's work a significant piece was recently added. In the Times Literary Supplement (24 June 2005) the lines were presented by the excellent M.L. West. He reminds us that only 264 fragments of Sappho remain, sixty three containing complete lines, twenty-one whole stanzas, and at most three in nearly complete form. To these three is added a fourth, identified by scholars at Cologne, part of a roll containing her poetry and recycled by the Egyptians, our great benefactors, into 'mummy cartonnage'. It is the earliest Sappho text to have been found, set down a mere three centuries after her time.

The poem is a dozen lines, the last eight almost complete. West makes literal sense of them, restoring a word here and there:

[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses' lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair's turned [white] instead of dark;

my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world's end,

handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o'ertook him, husband of immortal wife.

Sappho is writing 'a poem to grow old in', in Eavan Boland's celebrated phrase. The American poet Jim Powell sent PN Review a less reticent version, entitling it The Wife of Tithonus or Sappho's Knees:

The violet-lapped Muses' lovely gifts belong
to you now, children, and the piercing lyre, the friend of song.

My body that, before, was supple, age already
has taken by surprise, my raven tresses are turned white,

my spirit has grown heavy and my knees too weak
to carry me, that once were quick to dance as fawns.

I grumble at them frequently but what good does that do?
For human beings to be ageless is not possible.

They say that once, ignited by desire, the Dawn
carried Tithonus in her rosy arms to the world's end

when he was young and handsome, but all the same gray age
caught up with him, although he had a goddess for his wife.

-- Michael Schmidt (01/09/2005)

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