Friday 13 August 2021

'it was winter and he sailed quickly'

 Here's a poem for our times, although it was written more than half a century ago. 
The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (who claimed he was a distant descendant of our own George Herbert) was a modernist with a classical sensibility, his poetry constantly reaching back to the classics, partly in response to his own experience of the terrible history of Poland through much of the 20th century. He was all too aware of how destructive forces could wipe out countries and cultures, how history and its lessons could be forgotten or denied. His classicism is characterised by Al Alvarez as 'a strict and wary attitude to a situation which is at best prone to romanticism and at worst a violation of all sanity. It is a way of coping coolly with facts which could easily slide out of control.' 

Why the Classics

                         in the fourth book of the Peloponnesian War
                         Thucydides tells among other things
                         the story of his unsuccessful expedition

                         among long speeches of chiefs
                         battles sieges plague
                         dense net of intrigues of diplomatic endeavours
                         the episode is like a pin
                         in a forest

                         the Greek colony Amphipolis
                         fell into the hands of Brasidos
                         because Thucydides was late with relief

                         for this he paid his native city
                         with lifelong exile

                         exiles of all times
                         know what price that is

                         generals of the most recent wars
                         if a similar affair happens to them
                         whine on their knees before posterity
                         praise their heroism and innocence

                         they accuse their subordinates
                         envious colleagues
                         unfavourable winds

                         Thucydides says only
                         that he had seven ships
                         it was winter
                         and he sailed quickly

                         if art for its subject
                         will have a broken jar
                         a small broken soul
                         with a great self-pity

                         what will remain after us
                         will it be lovers' weeping
                         in a small dirty hotel
                         when wall-paper dawns

Herbert's poetry has the great advantage that it translates beautifully into English – that is to say that it reads as if it was written in English (maybe it's the ghostly influence of George Herbert). 

No comments:

Post a Comment