Courage to face despair.

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Tim Severin’s reconstruction of The Odyssey Ship

Jessie Redmon Fauset was born this day, April 27th in 1882 and was one of the contributing poets to the Harlem Renaissance.   More importantly her work portrayed images of African-Americans as working professionals, challenging embedded racial stereotypes.  As literary editor of the NAACP magazine “The Crisis” she promoted the work of writers including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay.

She taught a generation of African-Americans to honestly represent their racial qualities and to celebrate them; to be black, and be proud.  She challenged the inbuilt racism of African-Americans themselves where lighter toned people looked down upon the darker and few drops of mongrel white blood were valued over pure black ichor.

She tried but was arguably less successful at teaching women to represent their gender qualities and to celebrate them.  She is now recognised for her work as a feminist and her promotion of feminist writers.

The poem below derives from Homers Odyssey and the tale of the Lotus Eaters.  But it appears Fauset has taken her cue from Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote of Ulysses as opposed to Odysseus and used the ‘Lotos’ spelling in his poem “The Lotos-Eaters”.

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,
in the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined
on the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.

 

‘Courage!’ He Said; by Jessie Redmon Fauset

ULYSSES, debarking in the Lotos Land,
struck the one note that the hapless Ithacans
travel-sick, mazed, bemused, could understand,
and understanding, follow.

‘Courage,’ he said, ‘remember, is not Hope!’
He left the worn, safe ship, spume-stained and hollow.
‘To be courageous is to face despair.’
And through the groves and ‘thwart the ambient air
resounded reedy echoes:
‘Face despair!’
But this they understood.
And plunging on prepared for best, and most prepared
for worst, found only in their stride
a deep umbrageous wood,
and grassy plains where they disported; eased
and bathed lame’ feet within a purling stream
and murmured: ‘Here, Odysseus, would we fain abide!’
But neither the stream’s sweet ease
nor the shade of the vast beech-trees,
nor the blessed sense
of the sweet, sweet soil
beneath feet salt-cracked and worn
brought to them even then,
(still fainting and frayed and forlorn),
such complete recompense
as the knowledge that once again
facing the new and untried,
they had kept the courage of men!

Cavafy Birthday

Cavafy

Born in Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents on this day in 1863 Constantine Peter Cavafy is 100 and a half years older than me.  Below is a poem inspired by the Odyssey an enduringly favourite theme of mine.  It reads a little clunky because of course it is a translation from the Greek.

The theme is important and a lesson in a philosophy for life.  All life is a journey to a destination, the ultimate destination.  Make sure you stop and listen to the birds, smell the roses along the way.  Don’t rush headlong into your coffin and then complain that you missed out.

Ithaca; by Constantine P. Cavafy

When you set out for Ithaca
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raises them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy –
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaca always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to give you wealth.
Ithaca gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithacas mean.

Happy Birthday Petrarch

christ-on-the-sea-of-galilee

Eugene Delacroix : Christ on the sea of Galilee

Born on this day in 1304 Petrarch is called by some the father of the Renaissance, by others the father of Humanism and by still others as the father of the Sonnet.  It takes a great man indeed to father so many illustrious children.  Mountaineers consider him the first Alpinist as he is the first person recorded to ascend a mountain (Mont Ventoux) for recreation alone.

A latin scholar he encouraged other scholars to scour the libraries of the world for the writings of ancient Greece and Rome.  He acquired a copy of Homer’s Odyssey but lamented his lack of Greek saying that “Homer was dumb to me and I was deaf to Homer”.  He had more success with his discovery of a cache of the letters of Cicero, who is our key primary source for the political and judicial goings on in the late Roman Republic when Cicero wrote of the day to day doings of Julius Caesar, Pompeii, Brutus, Cassius, Cato, Marc Anthony et al.

As a writer he was a contemporary and a correspondent of Boccaccio.  His writings had a major impact on the evolution of the modern Italian language.  His use of the poetic form of the Sonnet had an enormous impact on the world of poetry and especially on the works of Shakespeare.  Sonnets are somewhat easier to rhyme in Italian than they are in English, but here is a translation of one of his poems.  It sits nicely in this blog site as it is a classic “Mind Ship” as he uses the metaphor of a storm battered ship to personify the ravages of age.

La vita fugge, et non s’arresta una hora; by Francesco Petrarch (Trans A.S. Kline)

Life flies, and never stays an hour,
and death comes on behind with its dark day,
and present things and past things
embattle me, and future things as well:
and remembrance and expectation grip my heart,
now on this side, now on that, so that in truth,
if I did not take pity on myself,
I would have freed myself already from all thought.
A sweetness that the sad heart knew
returns to me: yet from another quarter
I see the storm-winds rattling my sails:
I see no chance of harbour, and my helmsman
is weary now, and my masts and ropes are broken,
and the beautiful stars, I used to gaze on, quenched.

Happy Birthday Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Famous in his own lifetime and famous ever since, Alexander Pope is the second most frequently quoted author in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after William Shakespeare.   Poet, essayist and translator of both Odyssey and Iliad by Homer.

It is funny the things that lead to a ‘revival’ for a writer.  Recently Kirsten Dunst played Mary in a film about a couple who undergo a mind wipe procedure to erase the pain of their memories of a love affair.  She trots out a quote from the Pope poem “Eloisa to Abelard”.  Overnight Pope was popular again.  I can’t remember the name of the movie but the quote in question is this:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot! 
The world forgetting, by the world forgot
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.

 

 

Ode on Solitude; by Alexander Pope

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose heards with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me dye;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lye.

eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind

Choices

In our lives we face many choices.  Some we get right, some we get wrong.  What defines us is how we deal with the negative outcomes.  Do I play victim, or do I accept responsibility for my choice, embrace it and move on?

There are many types of choices.  Some of them we claim are not a choice at all.  This is especially useful if you want to play victim in your life.  “I had no real choice” is a great excuse.

Hobsons Choice

Thomas Hobson (1544-1631)was the operator of a livery stable in Cambridge, England. When asked for a horse to hire, Hobson would bring the customer a single option, the next horse in his rotation. The customer’s “choice” was then essentially “to take it or leave it,” in other words no choice at all.  Or was it?  Hobson’s Choice is still a choice.  In “The Godfather” Hobsons Choice is represented by the statment “The Don made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Achilles Choice

In Homer’s Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles tells the embassy that wants him to return to the battle against the Trojans that he has been given an important choice in his life.

“My mother, the goddess Thetis of the silver feet, has told me that
a dual-fate carries me until the day of my death.
If I remain here and wage war against the city of Troy,
I will never survive to go home, but my fame will be immortal.
Yet if I leave here to return to my dear homeland,
I shall have no noble fame, but my life will be long
and the end of death will not reach me quickly.” (Iliad 9.410-416)

Achilles choice is a great dinner party ice breaker.  Which would you choose, a long, content but unremarkable life, or to go out in a blaze of glory and be remembered forever?

Sophie’s Choice

Another choice we face might be termed as “the lesser of two evils”.  In the Odyssey the hero must choose to travel nearer Scylla or Charybdis, each a potential killer.  In the movie “Sophie’s Choice” the heroine must choose to keep either her son or her daughter as she enters Auschwitz camp.  Failure to choose results in both being taken away.  So she chooses, and let’s face it, it is not a choice that you can NOT regret.  We often call such a situation being “between a rock and a hard place” or being “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”

The latter, I believe is from sailing lore.  The “devil” is the longest seam on a wooden ship.  If it needed to be caulked when underway the caulker was suspended in a very difficult position!

Mortons Fork

A specious piece of reasoning where contradictory arguments lead to the same (unpleasant) conclusion. It is said to originate with the collecting of taxes by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the late 15th century.  He visited lords with his entourage, and they could either plead poverty, and entertain him modestly, or they could try to win him over with their generosity and hospitality.  He held that a man living modestly must be saving money and could therefore afford taxes, whereas if he was living extravagantly then he was obviously rich and could still afford them.  We might also call this choice “being on the horns of a dilemma.”

Lawyers often try to impale a witness or defendant on a Mortons Fork.  My favourite is a question phrased such as “Stop evading the question, answer the court with a Yes or a NO, do you still beat your wife?”

So we face some difficult choices in life, and ultimately the real choice we face is how to deal with the aftermath.  Do you moan and wail or do you shrug your shoulders, brush off the dirt and get back on the horse?

One Art; by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant to travel.
None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.