Coming up on the new year, I happened on this poem in an old book of my parents
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These are two poems I wrote maybe a year or so ago. I don't think I ever posted them on TGL before. (If I did, sorry!) I was thinking about elemental things with these and a few other poems I wrote at that time. Desire is pretty self explanatory. Explain The Sound was my effort to think about how sound affects thoughts and emotions.
Have just this.
When I write about poetry in this blog, it’s usually about standard poems that end up in books, not about pop songs. That’s not really because of any snobbery on my part. I think there are some very well-written songs out there. I just hadn’t thought of it before today.
So here are a few paragraphs about http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZt5Q-u4crc, a song that came out in 1967. I've linked to a live performance (at least she's singing it live - I think the music is canned) from The Smothers Brothers Show.
I’ve always like this song. It’s a snapshot of life in the American South with a mystery thrown in. The tune is hypnotic and the place names sound exotic to my northern ear.
Bobby Gentry was pretty good at listening to the way people talk and reproducing conversation in rhyme that sounds realistic. I highlighted in red the lines I think exemplify this.
The whole piece hangs together in feeling, the music creating a langorous mood that the words mirror. The first few lines and notes land us in a summer afternoon with the kids just knocking off from what sounds likes strenuous work and not running (too hot, no doubt) but walking back to a heavy Southern meal that includes blackeyed peas and biscuits and apple pie for dessert.
There isn’t anything sappy or hokey in this poem/song/short story. Bobby Gentry has more in common here with Flannery O’Connor than with Jeannie C. Riley.
Because Billie Joe’s suicide wasn’t explained, nor what was thrown off the bridge, people wanted to know what “really” happened. From Wikipedia, here’s what Bobby had to say about this song:
Those questions are of secondary importance in my mind. The story of Billie Joe has two more interesting underlying themes. First, the illustration of a group of peoples' reactions to the life and death of Billie Joe, and its subsequent effect on their lives, is made. Second, the obvious gap between the girl and her mother is shown when both women experience a common loss (first Billie Joe, and later, Papa), and yet Mama and the girl are unable to recognize their mutual loss or share their grief.
Pretty bleak assessment. But I hadn’t thought about that and it adds another dimension to this ode.
Ode to Billie Joe
It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin' cotton and my brother was balin' hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And Mama hollered out the back door "y'all remember to wipe your feet"
And then she said "I got some news this mornin' from Choctaw Ridge"
"Today Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"
And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas
"Well, Billie Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please"
"There's five more acres in the lower forty I've got to plow"
And Mama said it was shame about Billie Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin' ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billie Joe MacAllister's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge
And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn't I talkin' to him after church last Sunday night?
"I'll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don't seem right"
"I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge"
"And now you tell me Billie Joe's jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge"
And Mama said to me "Child, what's happened to your appetite?"
"I've been cookin' all morning and you haven't touched a single bite"
"That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today"
"Said he'd be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way"
"He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge"
"And she and Billie Joe was throwing somethin' off the Tallahatchie Bridge"
A year has come 'n' gone since we heard the news 'bout Billie Joe
And Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going 'round, Papa caught it and he died last Spring
And now Mama doesn't seem to wanna do much of anything
And me, I spend a lot of time pickin' flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge
This is a sad song and is sung to a melancholy melody. It's been done countless times and there is even a CD with different versions of it that I'd like to get. I first heard an Irish version of it, maybe done by Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers, many years ago. I memorized it then and would sing it at the top of my lungs while driving.
Here's a great version by Doc Watson. [This version is gone from youtube and I haven't found one near as good. When I do I'll put the link here again.]
THE UNFORTUNATE RAKE
As I was a-walking down by St. James' Hospital,
I was a-walking down by there one day,
What should I spy but one of my comrades
All wrapped up in flannel though warm was the day.
I asked him what ailed him, I asked him what failed him,
I asked him the cause of all his complaint.
"It's all on account of some handsome young woman,
'Tis she that has caused me to weep and lament.
"And had she but told me before she disordered me,
Had she but told me of it in time,
I might have got pills and salts of white mercury,
But now I'm cut down in the height of my prime.
"Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along.
"Don't muffle your drums and play your fifes merrily,
Play a quick march as you carry me along,
And fire your bright muskets all over my coffin,
Saying: There goes an unfortunate lad to his home."
The Prediction - Mark Strand
That night the moon drifted over the pond,
turning the water to milk, and under
the boughs of the trees, the blue trees,
a young woman walked, and for an instant
the future came to her:
rain falling on her husband's grave, rain falling
on the lawns of her children, her own mouth
filling with cold air, strangers moving into her house,
a man in her room writing a poem, the moon drifting into it,
a woman strolling under its trees, thinking of death,
thinking of him thinking of her, and the wind rising
and taking the moon and leaving the paper dark.
This melancholic poem, rich in imagery, attracts me. It pulls me into its breathless scene which has the tense quiet of a Bergman film.
There is a whisper of the rhythm of a Patti Smith poem for me or somehow her presence. She is the young woman, but I see her young and old in my mind and both incarnations fit.
I think also of the long scene in To the Lighthouse when time passes and the house slowly falls to ruin.
Croesus asked Solon if he thought him (Croesus) a happy man, arrayed as he was in his kingly best. According to Plutarch, as quoted in The Life of Greece, here's Solon's reply:
The gods, O King, have given the Greeks all other gifts in moderate degree; and so our wisdom, too, is a cheerful and a homely, not a noble and kingly, wisdom; and this, observing the numerous misfortunes that attend all conditions, forbids us to grow insolent upon present enjoyment, or to admire any man's happiness that may yet, in course of time, suffer change. For the uncertain future has yet to come, with every possible variety of fortune; and him only to whom the divinity has continued happiness unto the end do we call happy; to salute as happy one that is still in the midst of life and hazard we think as little safe and conclusive as to crown and proclaim as victorious the wrestler that is as yet in the ring.
The above reminded me of Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
January 9, 2008
Hear the year begin
with a harsh and damaging wind,
a dangerous dark groan.
History is wrenched
from its towering edifice
to splinter in the gale.
Every so often I write poetry. I'm not able to do it with regularity. When I try to, the poems seem to increase in mediocrity and I leave off. Usually something I read or see gets me started but then I am unable to sustain the energy involved.
I wrote the above after reading He Held Radical Light that I found in a book I came across titled "The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry" that has the work of 65 poets from the 20th century. Each poem I've read from this book so far has been subtle and interesting. Poets like Howard Nemerov, Richard Wilber, Anne Sexton, Donald Justice.
What makes for a compelling poem is the poet's ability to take an idea and connect it with something unexpected so it can be seen as an idea, maybe for the first time. That is our best feature I think. We make connections that other animals and our computing machines can't do, at least so far.
Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
There is a stack of books on my kitchen table that just keeps growing and I can't seem to finish reading a single one. They're an interesting group, poetry, fiction and non, contemporary and ancient. They have seductive covers in colors that for an unknown reason tend almost overwhelmingly to red or reddish orange and black.
The titles are seductive too: Book of Longing; The Sculpture and Sculptors of the Greeks; The Golden Ass; Shop Class as Soulcraft; Metomorphoses; Athenian Red Figure Vases; The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass; Lords of the Sea; History of the Peloponnesian War; The Omnivore's Dilemma.
I need to pick one. There are reasons for each. A couple of them are due back at the library soon; another I'm already more than halfway through and it's been very interesting so I should just finish it; etc... Reasons, but apparently not true motivation.
Sappho: Lyrics in the Original Greek with translations by Willis Barnstone
In the introduction to this volume, Barnstone compares Sappho and Homer:
This week I read Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind:
O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O Thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!
Thou on whose stream, 'mid the steep sky's commotion,
Loose clouds like Earth's decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Mænad, even from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith's height,
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou Dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain and fire and hail will burst: O hear!
Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his chrystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ's bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave's intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic's level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O hear!
If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O Uncontrollable! If even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne'er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
Oh! lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither'd leaves, to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
It's hard to read this poem in the 21st century with a mind free of irony. I didn't love this poem. I was a little bored by Shelley's raptures. Section V stood out though. The idea of the wind playing on objects or people as if they are instruments is cliche now. Maybe it was old then, too. I don't know. But I enjoyed this development of that idea and Shelley's taking it beyond that to the point where the narrator implores the west wind to blow through his mouth, sending his words into the world. That's a different image.
The first four sections of the poem I have difficulty reading without wincing some. That may be because of the poets that came after Shelley (and Byron and Keats) who, following in their literary footsteps, went on rapturous flights over every damn thing they came across. Their legacy has come down to us in cartoons and other spoofs.
When I read in this poem about "bright hair uplifted from the head of some Maenad;" or night as "the dome of a vast sepulcher;" or, weirdly, "the sapless foliage of the ocean" that grow "gray with fear" and "tremble and despoil themselves" when the wind blows the waves above them, I can't help but think things like, did he really mean (see the last example) that the "ocean plants, crapped their pants"?
The thee's and thou's, the drama, the phrases or images or styles that have been overused sound silly now. To really appreciate the poetry of this time period I guess we have to try very hard to let go of all that's been written since then and also let go of the current mode of having an ironic twist to our thoughts every minute of the day.
Still, it could be that some of this poetry won't stand the test of time. Maybe it only spoke to the people of that time and a few decades after but not very far into the 20th century. New words and ways to order language began to emerge leaving these older words and ways behind.
There aren't a huge number of older texts that still get read often and most of what has been published or read or sung during the last century and this one will pass into oblivion long before the sun decays or the earth becomes lifeless for other reasons. One of the interesting things about reading the works of writers long dead though is that it lets you look into the past and try to put yourself there and feel what was being felt at the time by the writer. That's a good exercise even if you don't love what you're reading.
This week I read Il Penseroso by John Milton. The following text is copied from Project Gutenberg's The Poetical Works of John Milton. I read it in Understanding Poetry, by Cleanth Brooks, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren, in which the spelling was updated (i.e.: "joyes" to "joys"; "bright-hair'd" to "bright-haired").
The antique language and, to my ear, convoluted grammar makes this poem tough for a 20th/21st century reader. A standard dictionary is some help with the references to various ancient gods, goddesses, persons and ideas (Philomel - nightingale; Cynthia - Artemis, moon) but not always (Camball, Algarsife, Canace). Milton is a bit of a name dropper.
The title was not that helpful to me since my knowledge of the Romance languages is weak. Does it mean "the thinker"? The poem is a tour of Night from twilight to dawn using allusions to ancient ideas. The poem's speaker may be the thinker or maybe the title means something else. I haven't yet tried to find out more than I could by using a dictionary. I wanted to see how much I could understand using just that tool and what's already available in my head. When I did a quick online search, I found sites with studies of this poem and other works by Milton. Here's one that I may look at after I have read this a couple more times. One problem with the Internet is that it makes something like reading such a poem just another series of mouse clicks for those with already shortened attention spans (I include myself in that group), reading work that others have already done. I'd like to make this poem feel more personal. I think it will be worthwhile.
One thing I did learn from a quick scan of the site noted above is that this is one of a pair of poems, the other titled L'Allegro. That is helpful. I don't have that in any books here, but of course Project Gutenberg has it so I can read it also. This is my first time reading Milton. I figured I'd sometimes use Poetry Sunday to read those poets I've always been fearful of reading. Milton is one, Dante is another.
Hence vain deluding joyes,
The brood of folly without father bred,
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;
Dwell in som idle brain
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
Or likest hovering dreams
The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train. 10
But hail thou Goddess, sage and holy,
Hail divinest Melancholy
Whose Saintly visage is too bright
To hit the Sense of human sight;
And therefore to our weaker view,
Ore laid with black staid Wisdoms hue.
Black, but such as in esteem,
Prince Memnons sister might beseem,
Or that Starr'd Ethiope Queen that strove
To set her beauties praise above 20
The Sea Nymphs, and their powers offended.
Yet thou art higher far descended,
Thee bright-hair'd Vesta long of yore,
To solitary Saturn bore;
His daughter she (in Saturns raign,
Such mixture was not held a stain)
Oft in glimmering Bowres, and glades
He met her, and in secret shades
Of woody Ida's inmost grove,
While yet there was no fear of Jove. 30
Com pensive Nun, devout and pure,
Sober, stedfast, and demure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestick train,
And sable stole of Cipres Lawn,
Over thy decent shoulders drawn.
Com, but keep thy wonted state,
With eev'n step, and musing gate,
And looks commercing with the skies,
Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes: 40
There held in holy passion still,
Forget thy self to Marble, till
With a sad Leaden downward cast,
Thou fix them on the earth as fast.
And joyn with thee calm Peace, and Quiet,
Spare Fast, that oft with gods doth diet,
And hears the Muses in a ring,
Ay round about Joves Altar sing.
And adde to these retired Leasure,
That in trim Gardens takes his pleasure; 50
But first, and chiefest, with thee bring,
Him that yon soars on golden wing,
Guiding the fiery-wheeled throne,
The Cherub Contemplation,
And the mute Silence hist along,
'Less Philomel will daign a Song,
In her sweetest, saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of night,
While Cynthia checks her Dragon yoke,
Gently o're th'accustom'd Oke; 60
Sweet Bird that shunn'st the noise of folly
Most musical!, most melancholy!
Thee Chauntress oft the Woods among
I woo to hear thy eeven-Song;
And missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven Green,
To behold the wandring Moon,
Riding neer her highest noon,
Like one that had bin led astray
Through the Heav'ns wide pathles way; 70
And oft, as if her head she bow'd,
Stooping through a fleecy cloud.
Oft on a Plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off Curfeu sound,
Over som wide-water'd shoar,
Swinging slow with sullen roar;
Or if the Ayr will not permit,
Som still removed place will fit,
Where glowing Embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom 80
Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the Cricket on the hearth,
Or the Belmans drowsie charm,
To bless the dores from nightly harm:
Or let my Lamp at midnight hour,
Be seen in som high lonely Towr,
Where I may oft out-watch the Bear,
With thrice great Hermes, or unsphear
The spirit of Plato to unfold
What Worlds, or what vast Regions hold 90
The immortal mind that hath forsook
Her mansion in this fleshly nook:
And of those Daemons that are found
In fire, air, flood, or under ground,
Whose power hath a true consent
With planet or with Element.
Som time let Gorgeous Tragedy
In Scepter'd Pall com sweeping by,
Presenting Thebs, or Pelops line,
Or the tale of Troy divine. 100
Or what (though rare) of later age,
Ennobled hath the Buskind stage.
But, O sad Virgin, that thy power
Might raise Musaeus from his bower,
Or bid the soul of Orpheus sing
Such notes as warbled to the string,
Drew Iron tears down Pluto's cheek,
And made Hell grant what Love did seek.
Or call up him that left half told
The story of Cambuscan bold, 110
Of Camball, and of Algarsife,
And who had Canace to wife,
That own'd the vertuous Ring and Glass,
And of the wondrous Hors of Brass,
On which the Tartar King did ride;
And if ought els, great Bards beside,
In sage and solemn tunes have sung,
Of Turneys and of Trophies hung;
Of Forests, and inchantments drear,
Where more is meant then meets the ear. 120
Thus night oft see me in thy pale career,
Till civil-suited Morn appeer,
Not trickt and frounc't as she was wont,
With the Attick Boy to hunt,
But Cherchef't in a comly Cloud,
While rocking Winds are Piping loud,
Or usher'd with a shower still,
When the gust hath blown his fill,
Ending on the russling Leaves,
With minute drops from off the Eaves. 130
And when the Sun begins to fling
His flaring beams, me Goddes bring
To arched walks of twilight groves,
And shadows brown that Sylvan loves
Of Pine, or monumental Oake,
Where the rude Ax with heaved stroke,
Was never heard the Nymphs to daunt,
Or fright them from their hallow'd haunt.
There in close covert by som Brook,
Where no profaner eye may look, 140
Hide me from Day's garish eie,
While the Bee with Honied thie,
That at her flowry work doth sing,
And the Waters murmuring
With such consort as they keep,
Entice the dewy-feather'd Sleep;
And let som strange mysterious dream,
Wave at his Wings in Airy stream,
Of lively portrature display'd,
Softly on my eye-lids laid. 150
And as I wake, sweet musick breath
Above, about, or underneath,
Sent by som spirit to mortals good,
Or th'unseen Genius of the Wood.
But let my due feet never fail,
To walk the studious Cloysters pale,
And love the high embowed Roof
With antick Pillars massy proof,
And storied Windows richly dight,
Casting a dimm religious light. 160
There let the pealing Organ blow,
To the full voic'd Quire below,
In Service high, and Anthems cleer,
As may with sweetnes, through mine ear,
Dissolve me into extasies,
And bring all Heav'n before mine eyes.
And may at last my weary age
Find out the peacefull hermitage,
The Hairy Gown and Mossy Cell,
Where I may sit and rightly spell 170
Of every Star that Heav'n doth shew,
And every Herb that sips the dew;
Till old experience do attain
To somthing like prophetic strain.
These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live.
Updated, same day:
Okay, I've tried to understand this first section:
Hence vain deluding joyes,
The brood of folly without father bred,
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;
Dwell in som idle brain
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
Or likest hovering dreams
The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train.
My interpretation is of the ideas and isn't poetic:
Go away, happy thoughts.
You're nothing but foolish.
You're hardly better than nothing.
You're toys for those not able to really think.
Go to someone who doesn't think much,
Who'll love your many foolish "incarnations,"
Much like dreams, that will fade.
Later still, same day:
The rest of the poem is an ode to Melancholy sometimes using aspects of night as metaphor. A cult of melancholy was a feature of arts and letters beginning in the 17th century.
I read through this several times today. It is dense with imagery and allusions and to really make it be something I know well, I'll need to read it more times and also read the other poem mentioned above. I'm going to try to do that this week and hopefully add more information here as I do.
Also, I've been trying to insert an image of Albrecht Durer's Melencolia but haven't been successful. Here's a link to it if you'd like to see it.
A few weeks ago I decided to read poetry on Sunday mornings. I'm trying to get to the library each week to pick a poet or poets whose work I've never read before or maybe read a long time ago. A couple of weeks ago I came across Billy Collins. He wrote a couple of poems about artists. Here's an excerpt from one about Goya:
from Candle Hat
But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.
To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.
Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
then laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.
Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.
Francisco Goya, self-portrait with candle hat
Here's an excerpt from a poem about John Constable:
from Student of Clouds
The emotion is to be found in the clouds,
not in the green solids of the sloping hills
or even in the gray signatures of rivers,
according to Constable, who was a student of clouds
and filled shelves of sketchbooks with their motion,
their lofty gesturing and sudden implication of weather.
John Constable, Weymouth Bay
Another poem by Mr. Collins, Walking Across the Atlantic,ends with the stanza:
But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.
I don't want to interpret or evaluate these at this point. I just wanted to mention the poet who seems worth reading.
From Book IV:
39. Your evil does not consist in another
The text I'm using of Marcus A's Meditations is this:
Oxford World's Classics Paperback (pub.1998)
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
Translated by the late A. S. L. Farquharson
Marcus: How all things are vanishing swiftly, bodies themselves in the Universe and the memorials of them in Time; what is the character of all things of sense, and most of all those which attract by the bait of pleasure or terrify by the threat of pain or are shouted abroad by vanity, how cheap, contemptible, soiled, corruptible, and mortal: these are for the faculty of mind to consider. To consider too what kind of men those are whose judgements and voices confer honour and dishonour; what it is to die, and that if a man looks at it by itself and by the separating activity of thought strips off all the images associated with death, he will come to judge it to be nothing else but Nature
From Book II
A meditation using the fleetness of our experience of time to come to grips with death.
14. Even were you about to live three thousand years or thrice ten thousand, nevertheless remember this, that no one loses any other life than this which he is living, or lives any other than this which he is losing. Thus the longest and the shortest come to the same thing. For the present is equal for all, and what is passing is therefore equal: thus what is being lost is proved to be barely a moment. For a man could lose neither past nor future; how can one rob him of what he has not got? Always remember, then, these two things: one, that all things from everlasting are of the same kind, and are in rotation; and it matters nothing whether it be for a hundred years or for two hundred or for an infinite time that a man shall behold the same spectacle; the other, that the longest-lived and the soonest to die have an equal loss; for it is the present alone of which either will be deprived, since (as we saw) this is all he has and a man does not lose what he has not got.
Marcus is thinking about time, saying that all we have is the present moment. His contention is that when we die, we
Marcus: Of man
Marcus: Each hour be minded, valiantly as becomes a Roman and a man, to do what is to your hand, with precise
Marcus: The work of the gods is full of Providence: the work of Fortune is not divorced from Nature or the spinning and winding of the threads ordained by Providence. All flows from that other world; and there is, besides, necessity and the well-being of the whole universe, whereof you are a part. Now to every part of Nature, that is good which the nature of the Whole brings, and which preserves that nature; and the whole world is preserved as much by the changes of the compound bodies as by the changes of the elements which compose those bodies. Let this be sufficient for you, these be continually your doctrines. But put away your thirst for books, that so you may not die murmuring, but truly reconciled and grateful from your heart to the gods.
Me: Everything flows from the gods: fortune, necessity, and the unbroken fabric of the universe, which includes you. That universal wholeness is preserved by change both visible and invisible. These truths of the universe should be enough to satisfy you. Don
Marcus: Men are not easily seen to be brought into evil case by failure to consider what passes in another's soul; but they who do not read aright the motions of their own soul are bound to be in evil case.
Me: Know thyself.
This is a bit of a cheat on my part, but that's what he's saying here. Anything more would be superfluous.
Marcus: Do things from outside break in to distract you? Give yourself a time of quiet to learn some new good thing and cease to wander out of your course. But, when you have done that, be on your guard against a second kind of wandering. For those who are sick to death in life, with no mark on which they direct every impulse or in general every imagination, are triflers, not in words only but also in their deeds.
Me: If you can
Marcus: In the conviction that it is possible you may depart from life at once, act and speak and think in every case accordingly. But to leave the company of men is nothing to fear, if gods exist; for they would not involve you in ill. If, however, they do not exist or if they take no care for man
Marcus: You are doing yourself violence, violence, my soul; and you will have no second occasion to do yourself honour. Brief is the life of each of us, and this of yours is nearly ended, and yet you do not reverence yourself, but commit your well-being to the charge of other men's souls.
The term 'violence' here is explained later in Book II:
Marcus: The soul of a man does violence to itself, first and foremost when it becomes so far as in it lies, a separate growth, a blain as it were upon the Universe. For to turn against anything that comes to pass is a separation from Nature, by which the natures of each of the rest are severally comprehended. Secondly, when it turns away from any human being or is swept counter to him, meaning to injure him, as is the case with the natures of those who are enraged. It violates itself, thirdly, when it is the victim of pleasure or pain; fourthly, when it acts a part, and says or does anything both feignedly and falsely. Fifthly, when, failing to direct any act or impulse of its own upon a mark, it behaves in any matter without a plan or conscious purpose, whereas even the smallest act ought to have a reference to the end. Now the end of reasonable creatures is this: to obey the rule and ordinance of the most venerable of all cities and governments.
In # 6, Marcus is scolding himself for doing violence to his own soul by straying from the Stoics' path. He explains this view of violence to the soul in #16 which I have reworked below. For clarity of meaning, I sometimes reworded a statement in the affirmative and sometimes kept the negative.:
Firstly: Take what comes, as it comes. In this way you will be one with Nature, able to understand the Universe, rather than to be separate from, and a detriment to, it.
Secondly: Violence to the soul also entails turning away from other human beings, or trying to hurt them, as do those who are enraged.
Thirdly: Don't allow yourself to become a victim, either of pleasure or of pain.
Fourthly: Don't be false or act a part.
Fifthly: Don't do anything thoughtlessly. Pay attention and be sure your actions are in accord with your purpose.
So in #6, Marcus is saying that he's been doing violence to his soul. He reminds himself again of the brevity of life, that there's little time left for him to do what's right, and admonishes himself for allowing others to have control over him.
I was having difficulty understanding this section. It seemed disjointed and I couldn't catch the meaning of it. To get a different perspective, I went to www.gutenberg.org and looked at a translation they have by M
Marcus: The soul of a man does violence to itself, first and foremost when it becomes so far as in it lies, a separate growth, a blain as it were upon the Universe. For to turn against anything that comes to pass is a separation from Nature, by which the natures of each of the rest are severally comprehended. Secondly, when it turns away from any human being or is swept counter to him, meaning to injure him, as is the case with the natures of those who are enraged. It violates itself, thirdly, when it is the victim of pleasure or pain; fourthly, when it acts a part, and says or does anything both feignedly and falsely. Fifthly, when, failing to direct any act or impulse of its own upon a mark, it behaves in any matter without a plan or conscious purpose, whereas even the smallest act ought to have a reference to the end. Now the the end of reasonable creatures is this: to obey the rule and ordinance of the most venerable of all cities and governments.
Me: A person does herself injury when, firstly, she strives against or abhors anything that's happened. This goes against nature and will incur the pain of separation from reality. Secondly, by being always angry at others, blaming them and wanting to hurt them, she will cause herself pain. A person who, thirdly, allows either pain or pleasure to overcome her and, fourthly, says or does to others what she doesn't believe in or knows to be false, does herself and injury. Fifthly, she hurts herself when she behaves carelessly or impulsively and doesn't adhere to goals. She should always keep to her plan. Finally, a reasonable person will follow her area's customs and the government's laws.
See also this entry.