Tag Archives: Pessimism

Fatality

After last week’s brace of Ancient Greek poetic pessimism, I trawled the annals of world literature to find something even more negative and despairing. Why? I don’t know – I was just in that kind of mood, that’s all.

And on a page long ago marked in my Penguin book of Spanish poetry, I found the satisfyingly cheerless ‘Lo Fatal’, by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Darío is not much known in the English speaking world, but is a big name in Spanish literature for being the man who transmitted 19th Century French symbolism into Spanish poetry, giving it a new lease of life and inaugurating a period of modernist poetry that would eventually give the world the better known names Antonio Machado and Federico García Lorca. Which is all to the good, obviously, but how’s his poetry?

It’s melodramatic, for one thing. HisWiki biography mentions his twin influences as Verlaine and Hugo. To the modern ear, the Hugo influence seems more prominent- doom laden, heavy handed, seeking after meaning and spiritual succour. Whether or not we recognise the style as modernist, it is modern in another sense – and in that same sense which Hugo can be called modern – in that it locates man in a universe of doubtful meaning, without the old certainties, possibly without God, Nietzsche lurking in the shadows of the library ready to perform an autopsy.

I’ve translated the poem using the prose translation of J.M Cohen to help me, and attempted where possible to follow the rhyme scheme of the original, though I’ve put sense ahead of rhyme where to maintain both is impossible.

Happy is the tree that is insensitive to feeling,

Still happier, for it feels nought, the solid stone.

There is after all no pain greater than living.

Conscious life itself is the very worst affliction:

 

Being, knowing nothing, with no certain path,

Loathing what has past, for the future feeling terror

With a keen dread of (tomorrow perhaps) death,

And suffering for life, the foreshadow of death, for…

 

What we do not know, of which we’re barely conscious

And the flesh tempting us with its tender fruits

And the tomb awaiting with its funeral branches

And knowing neither where we’re going

Nor from whence we came.

 

For the hispanophones among you, here is the original Spanish poem:

 

Dichoso el árbol, que es apenas sensitivo,

y más la piedra dura porque esa ya no siente,

pues no hay dolor más grande que el dolor de ser vivo,

ni mayor pesadumbre que la vida consciente.

 

Ser y no saber nada, y ser sin rumbo cierto,

y el temor de haber sido y un futuro terror…

Y el espanto seguro de estar mañana muerto,

y sufrir por la vida y por la sombra y por

 

lo que no conocemos y apenas sospechamos,

y la carne que tienta con sus frescos racimos,

y la tumba que aguarda con sus fúnebres ramos,

 

¡y no saber adónde vamos,

ni de dónde venimos!…

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‘Best of all…’

Theognis is a lyric poet of the Greek archaic era, a good few centuries before the florescence of Greek culture and philosophy, the Golden age of Athens and the great city states. Nothing is known of him outside what can be garnered from his poetry. It isn’t quite agreed even where he was from – he is known as Theognis of Megara, but there are two Megaras, one in Greece proper, and the other a Greek colony in Sicily. We do know that he was an aristocrat who regretted the commercialisation of life in the period he lives in, that he was a passionate but generally cynical man who was not shy about advertising his woes, and that a great deal of these woes sprung from his relationship with a young, unfaithful lover (a boy, naturally) to whom he addresses many of his lines.

He is a poet of many moods, ranging from nostalgia and regret to avuncular advice to sulky self-pity (which was not viewed as negatively in ancient Greece as it is in modern society). We can’t say for sure why he says some of the things he’s saying – is he really so negative as he appears, or is he expressing his mood after a really bad day? Enough of his poetry survived, however, for us to recognise that he has a marked predilection for metaphor, so we needn’t take every piece of his advice too literally, which must have been a relief for contemporary readers of this little gem:

For man the best thing is never to be born,

Never to look upon the sun’s hot rays

Next best, to speed at once through Hades’ gates

And lie beneath a piled up heap of earth.

(Transl. Dorothea Wender, Penguin Books)

One senses through the imagery some kind of burning shame here, and the desire not just to die, but to hide oneself from the world and to bury one’s face in shame. Perhaps when he wrote this, Theognis had just suffered a great public indignity – something to do with that wandering lover of his,  perhaps?  Dorothea Wender tells us that Theognis, despite his fondness for metaphor, used plain language… but this didn’t stop the American translator Sherod Santos producing his own more florid translation:

Best of all is never to be born, never to see the blood-orange sun swelter the hills and high meadows.

But once you’re born then best of all is to hurry on through the gates of hell and, once inside, lie down under a caprocked gash of mouldering earth.

(Sherod Santos, Greek Lyric Poetry, Norton)

This was actually the first translation I read of Theognis, and it is still my favourite, however accurate it might or might not be. The language heightens that sense of burning shame and wounded feeling whilst also being redolent of the sensuality that may have brought on this shame in the first place…

Below is my own 21st Century pastiche, a ‘best of all’ for the working man (or woman). Readers are of course invited to submit their own versions.

Best of all is never to get out of bed

Never to let the cruel sunlight peek through the curtains.

Next best, to speed downstairs and make a cuppa

And lie beneath a pile of warm duvets.

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