Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Of gods and humans in Homer's Iliad

The siege of Troy is in its ninth year, and the Greeks have nothing to show for it but some loot from other cities allied with Troy, and most of that has been appropriated by Agamemnon, the king. There is muttering in the ranks, by Thersites especially, which is brutally put down. This business takes up the better part of a day. The next day, as the armies are getting ready to resume battle, a curious interlude occurs: Alexandros (a.k.a. Paris) leaps forth from the Trojan ranks and issues a challenge "to the best of the Argives [Greeks] to fight man to man with him in bitter combat." On seeing Menelaos (the man he has wronged by running off with his wife, Helen) looking like a lion that has seen his prey and is getting ready to eat it, Paris shrinks back into the ranks hoping no one will notice. His brother Hektor sees it all, however, and rebukes him in the harshest terms:

Evil Paris, beautiful, woman-crazy, cajoling,
Better had you never been born, or killed unwedded.
Truly I could have wished it so; it would be far better
Than to have you with us to our shame, for others to sneer at.
Surely now the flowing-haired Achaians laugh at us,
Thinking you are our bravest champion, only because your
looks are handsome, but there is no strength in your heart, no courage.
Were you like this that time when in sea-wandering vessels
Assembling oarsmen to help you you sailed over the water,
and mixed with the outlanders, and carried away a fair woman
from a remote land, whose lord's kin were spearmen and fighters,
to your father a big sorrow, and your city, and all your people,
to yourself a thing shameful but bringing joy to the enemy?
And now you would not stand up against warlike Menelaos?
Thus you would learn of a man whose blossoming wife you have taken.
The lyre would not help you then, nor the favors of Aphrodite,
Nor your locks, when rolled in the dust, nor all your beauty.
(Bk 3, lines 39-55)

Paris is not a weakling, however, and, fully recognizing the justice of Hektor's rebuke, agrees to do battle with Menelaos; the winner keeps Helen and the war will be over:

                                                                           . . . . do not
bring up against me the sweet favors of golden Aphrodite.
Never to be cast away are gifts of the gods, magnificent,
which they give of their own will, no man could have them for wanting them.
Now though, if you wish me to fight it out and do battle,
make the rest of the Trojans sit down, and all the Achaians,
and set me in the middle with Menelaos the warlike
to fight together for the sake of Helen and all her possessions.
That one of us who wins and is proved stronger, let him
take the possessions fairly and the woman, and lead her homeward. . .
So he spoke, and Hektor hearing his word was happy
and went into the space between and forced back the Trojan battalions
holding his spear by the middle until they were all seated.
But the flowing-haired Achaians kept pointing their bows at him
with arrows and with flung stones striving ever to strike him
until Agamemnon lord of men cried out in a great voice:
'Argives, hold: cast at him no longer, o sons of the Achaians.
Hektor of the shining helm is trying to tell us something.'
   So he spoke, and they stopped fighting and suddenly all fell
silent; but Hektor between them spoke now to both sides:
'Hear from me, Trojans and strong-greaved Achaians, the word
of Alexandros, for whose sake this strife has arisen.
He would have all the rest of the Trojans and all the Achaians
lay aside on the bountiful earth their splendid armor
while he himself in the middle and warlike Menelaos
fight along for the sake of Helen and all her possessions.
That one of them who wins and is proved stronger, let him
take the possessions fairly, and the woman, and lead her homeward
while the rest of us cut our oaths of faith and friendship.
   So he spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence;
but among them spoke out Menelaos of the great war cry:
'Listen now to me also; since beyond all others this sorrow
comes closest to my heart, and I think the Argives and Trojans
can go free of each other at last. You have suffered much evil
for the sake of this my quarrel since Alexandros began it.
As for that one of us two to whom death and doom are given,
let him die: the rest of you be made friends with each other.
(3.63-102)

And right then and there the whole damn war might have ended, if the gods would only allow their human playthings to settle their own affairs. This the gods are unwilling to do, however, for, as Homer makes very clear, the Gods have no lives of their own; without their human subjects or slaves, through whom they live vicariously (or parasitically), their lives would be empty, meaningless—an eternity of boredom. So, just as Menelaos is about to kill Paris, Aphrodite whisks him off to his bedroom in Troy, to which she summons Helen, who at first is so ashamed that she dares, in an act of extraordinary courage, to defy her patroness—but only for a moment.

'Is it because Menelaos has beaten great Alexandros
and wishes, hateful even as I am, to carry me homeward,
is it for this that you stand in your treachery now beside me?
Go yourself and sit beside him, abandon the god's way,
turn your feet back never again to the path of Olympos
and stay with him forever, and suffer for him and look after him
until he makes you his wedded wife, or makes you his slave girl.
Not I. I am not going to him. It would be too shameful.
I will not serve his bed, since the Trojan women hereafter
would laugh at me, all, and my heart even now is confused with sorrows.'
   Then in anger Aphrodite the shining spoke to her:
'Wretched girl, do not tease me lest in anger I forsake you
and grow to hate you as much as now I terribly love you,
lest I encompass you in hard hate, caught between both sides,
Danaans and Trojans alike, and you wretchedly perish.' (3.403-17)

And so Helen obeys, returns to Paris, for whom she has as much contempt as she has for herself, and disappears from the poem—as tragic a figure in her way as Achilles is in his.

These (attempted) rebellions have not gone unnoticed by Zeus and the other gods. He is prepared to be forgiving, or so he says, knowing that his words will enrage his wife, Hera, and daughter, Athena, whose hatred of Troy is unappeasable.

'Let us consider then,' he says, 'how these things shall be accomplished,
whether again to stir up grim warfare and the terrible
fighting, or cast down love and make them friends with each other.
If somehow this way could be sweet and pleasing to all of us,
the city of lord Priam might still be a place men dwell in,
and Menelaos could take away with him Helen of Argos.'
   So he spoke; and Athene and Hera muttered, since they were
sitting close to each other, devising evil for the Trojans.
Still Athena stayed silent and said nothing, but only
sulked at Zeus her father, and savage anger took hold of her.
But the heart of Hera could not contain her anger, and she spoke forth:
'Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken?
How can you wish to make wasted and fruitless all this endeavor,
the sweat that I have sweated in toil, and my horses worn out
gathering my people, and bringing evil to Priam and his children.
Do it then; but not all the rest of us gods will approve you'
   Deeply troubled, Zeus who gathers clouds answered her:
'Dear lady, what can be all the evils done to you
by Priam and the sons of Priam, that you are thus furious
forever to bring down the strong-founded city of Ilion?
If you could walk through the gates and towering ramparts
and eat Priam and the children of Priam raw, and the other
Trojans, then, then only might you glut at last your anger.
Do as you please then. Never let this quarrel hereafter
be between you and me a bitterness for both of us.
And put away in your thoughts this other thing that I tell you:
whenever I in turn am eager to lay waste some city,
as I please, one in which are dwelling men who are dear to you,
you shall not stand in the way of my anger, but let me do it,
since I was willing to grant you this with my heart unwilling. . . .
   Then the goddess the ox-eyed Lady Hera answered:
'Of all cities there are three that are dearest to my own heart:
Argos and Sparta and Mykenai of the wide ways. All these,
whenever they become hateful to your heart, sack utterly. (4.14-53)

Meanwhile, as Zeus and Hera are settling their own jurisdictional disputes, the truce established by Hektor is still in effect; if nothing is done it might become permanent: the two sides might, for example, begin to understand that they have nothing to fight about and are merely entertaining the gods. Hera is the first to say, in effect, let's get back to business:

'Come then, in this thing let us both give way to each other, 
I to you, you to me, and so the rest of the immortal
gods will follow. Now in speed give orders to Athene
to visit horrible war again on Achaians and Trojans,
and try to make it so that that the Trojans are first offenders
to do injury against the oaths to the far-famed Achaians.'
   She spoke, nor did the father of the gods and men disobey her,
but immediately he spoke in winged words to Athene:
'Go now swiftly to the host of the Achaians and Trojans
and try to make it so that the Trojans are the first offenders
to do injury . . . .'
Speaking so he stirred up Athene, who was eager before this,
and she went in a flash of speed down the pinnacles of Olympos. . . .
[and] in the likeness of a man merged among the Trojans assembled . . .
searching for godlike Pandaros, a man blameless and powerful,
standing still, and about him were the ranks of strong, shield-armored
people. . . 
Speaking in winged words she stood beside him and spoke to him:
'Wise son of Lykaon, would you let me persuade you?
So you might dare send a flying arrow against Menelaos
and win you glory and gratitude in the sight of all Trojans,
particularly beyond all else with prince Alexandros.
Beyond all besides you would carry away glorious gifts from him,
were he to see warlike Menelaos, the son of Atreus,
struck down by your arrow, and laid on the sorrowful corpse-fire.


And so the arrow is loosed, the truce treacherously broken, and the great war continues to its terrible and tragic conclusion. We should note, in passing, that Athena does not keep her promise to Pandarus, but treacherously brushes the arrow aside so that Menelaos merely suffers a superficial wound.

The significance of this moment—so close to the beginning of the great poem—seems not to have been sufficiently noticed: for the first time in human history, human beings try to break away from the tyranny of the Gods.

The only thing we know about Homer, besides his name, is that he was evidently the last of an ancient tradition of professional poetic singers or performers. We know he was the last, because he was the one who either fixed the poem forever by writing it down, sometime in the 8th century BC (which was when the Greek alphabet became established, and Greek became a written language), or by dictating it to someone who could. (There is a self-referential moment in the Odyssey, when Odysseus who is still unknown to his hosts on the island of Phaecia, is present at one of these performances of the poem that would become the Iliad. When his hosts see the tears running down the face of this stranger, they ask him who he is.)

Perhaps you should also know that the Iliad is the first tragedy. And what is tragedy? Aristotle's remarks in the Poetics are not very helpful, mainly I think because tragedy is about the basic irrationality of human existence—a very unAristotelian notion: a tragic choice is a choice in which reason is useless; a perfectly rational argument can be made for all the choices you face—and doing nothing is not an option. And it gets worse: equally rational arguments can be made for doing contradictory or inconsistent things. Such situations are not supposed to arise in Aristotle's Ethics. Homer's cosmos, founded on the amorality, unpredictability and arbitrariness of the Olympian gods, is antithetical to everything that Aristotle believed in. Nor, it seems to me, was life under Yahweh much better—despite the decalogue which always seemed to have been intended for other people. Job thought Yahweh pretty much the same as the devil and he wasn't far wrong. (The Palestinians certainly think so, justifiably.) After Job, Yahweh makes his exit, from the bible and from history. (I'd be inclined to say "good riddance" if it weren't for the fact that the Decalogue still makes pretty good sense; or would if we could alter the command to honor ones' father and mother in such a way as to give it serious moral force: "Don't dishonor your father and mother." All the other commands would then make sense for atheists as well as believers.)

So why was it that it was the Greeks, not the Jews, who invented tragedy?

Homer, at least, had no illusions about the gods; nor did Socrates, who was executed for saying far less subversive things about them than Homer does in the Iliad, one of the most widely read and admired poems of classical antiquity. You can see why, given a choice between the Olympian gods and Jesus, many Romans made the switch.






   











   

































































Friday, March 16, 2012

On the radical incompleteness of modern physics

Kurt Gödel published two theorems in 1930 that establish the inherent limitations of all but the most trivial axiomatic systems capable of doing arithmetic. The first of these famous "incompleteness" theorems (and here I quote from Wikipedia), "states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an "effective procedure (e.g., a computer program, but it could be any sort of algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the relations of the natural numbers.  For any such system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers (or irrational or complex numbers) that are true, but that are unprovable within the system." (Should one add axioms that make the truth or falsity of these statements provable, it will be possible to find more true statements that can not proved within the axiomatic structure of this new, enlarged axiomatic system.)The second incompleteness theorem, a corollary of the first, shows that such a system cannot demonstrate its own consistency. 


Something analogous seems to have happened to physics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.


The explanatory and predictive power of modern physics has and is being repeatedly demonstrated at both the relativistic and sub-atomic scales. The theories of special and general relativity have been tested again and again and not found wanting. The same can be said of The Standard Theory of Quantum Mechanics—the missing link of the Standard Theory, the Higgs Boson, will it seems, soon be cemented into place. But all is not well: there seems to be some inconsistency between Relativity and the Standard Theory. Every attempt to unify these two theories has failed. Both of these are field theories, which is to say that every particle or object in the universe is connected with a field and what these theories describe (if that's the word) is these fields. You can feel the electro-magnetic field of a bar magnet if you put an iron object near it and you can feel the field of gravity every time you fall; you can see it in the motion of a pendulum—or of the moon; if there is such a thing as the Higgs boson, and it seems that there is, you can feel the presence of the Higgs field, which is what gives matter its mass, every time you push someone on a swing and feel the inertia of his or her body.


The trouble is that the equations of the Standard Theory can't be used to describe relativistic fields and the equations of relativity can't be used to describe electromagnetic fields, or indeed any of the other fields described in the Standard Theory. 


So, there's a massive disconnect between Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. For a while it seemed that String Theory (which I do not understand at all) might be able to bring Relativity and Quantum Mechanics together: the equations of Relativity and those of Quantum Mechanics show up quite naturally in the mathematics of string theory. There's just one hitch, and it is not a small one: the mathematics of string theory has not produced a single verifiable prediction since it was first invented more than twenty years ago. And that's not for lack of trying.

Just as Gödel demonstrated the fundamental incompleteness of mathematics, so it would seem that we must now face the fact that physics too is fundamentally incomplete—not because of some radical fault in our assumptions or our thinking or our experimental procedures, but because nature is more mysterious than we can possibly understand. It's not that we have somehow or other asked the wrong questions but that nature is so strange that we will never, ever know how to ask the right ones. Maybe there aren't any. I find that last possibility not only interesting and amusing but also satisfying.


And then there's the fact that about 96% of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy, which cannot be accounted for in any of our theories.

I don't want to be misunderstood: none of this has anything to do with religion; if you want to fill in the empty blanks with the word 'god' that's your business, not mine.

Gödel's incompleteness theorem did not slow down the development of logic and mathematics, even slightly.
The incompleteness of physics will have no effect on the work that is now going on at the frontiers of science in Astronomy or condensed-matter physics or superconductivity.


(Since my ignorance of these matters while not total, is profound, I would welcome comments or corrections from those who really know what they are talking about. I doubt, however, that I am seriously mistaken on my main point, the radical incompleteness of modern physics.)



















Monday, March 12, 2012

Keats' Fall of Hyperion: Desperate Questions, Courageous Answers

When Keats knew he was dying he took a last look at himself and his fellow poets and he did not like what he saw; that at least is the conclusion I draw from one of his last (and incomplete) poems, "The Fall of Hyperion", which is grafted onto an earlier and also incomplete poem, "Hyperion", a sort of historical allegory written in Miltonic blank verse—a style and subject matter so remote from the astonishing poetry of, say, "The Ode To A Nightingale," that, not surprisingly, these "Hyperion" fragments have been largely forgotten.

The second of these fragments—"The Fall of Hyperion"—is what interests me here.

It begins somewhat oddly by drawing a distinction between the dreams of religious fanatics and savages, which are lost to posterity because they were never written down; and the melodious utterances of poets which survive simply because they were. And Keats goes on to claim that poetry is a universal human right: "Who alive can say,/ 'Thou art no Poet may'st not tell thy dreams?'"


Why "oddly"? Because, as you will see, should you go on to read the selection which I have printed below, dreamers, and especially poetic dreamers are looked upon with contempt by the priestess of the temple in the dream that Keats is here describing.

I shall try to summarize this dream here (or rather, as we shall see, a dream within a dream): the dreamer finds himself in a sort of Edenic paradise, where it looks as if an inconceivably luxurious picnic has just been hurriedly, and recently, abandoned—for the food and drink spread out in such abundance is still perfectly fresh and the dreamer proceeds to satisfy his hunger and thirst. The food is harmless but the beverage he sips knocks him out—indeed, it almost kills him, and he is soon to have another near-death experience. Poetry, it seems, is a dangerous trade.

When the dreamer wakes up, (in his dream), he finds himself inside an incomparably vast and ancient temple; far off, he sees a colossal statue with an altar between its feet with a priestess whose presence is never very well explained since there are no worshippers anywhere to be seen—and perhaps there hadn't been any for a very long time. As the dreamer approaches, the priestess tells him, in effect, that he has fallen into a trap, and that if he can't climb the steps leading to the altar in about two seconds he's going to die.

When he reaches the top step just in time and life returns to his half-dead body, and he asks the priestess what this test has been all about, she tells him—and this seems to be the heart of the matter—that
"None can usurp this height . . . 
But those to whom the miseries of the world 
Are misery, and will not let them rest."

No one had ever defined the poetic calling in these revolutionary terms before, and had Keats been content to let his poem end with this courageous manifesto, the world might have had to sit up and take note. The trouble is, Keats own extraordinary genius had not and could not have taken this implicitly revolutionary turn. Moreover, he was too intellectually honest to let Moneta (the name of this priestess)  have the last word:

"Are there not thousands in the world," said I, 
Encourag'd by the sooth voice of the shade, 
"Who love their fellows even to the death; 
"Who feel the giant agony of the world; 
"And more, like slaves to poor humanity, 
"Labour for mortal good? I sure should see 
"Other men here; but I am here alone."

To which Moneta replies:

"Those whom thou spak'st of are no vision'ries,"
Rejoin'd that voice; "they are no dreamers weak; 
"They seek no wonder but the human face, 
"No music but a happy noted voice; 
"They come not here, they have no thought to come; 
"And thou art here, for thou art less than they: 
"What benefit canst thou do, or all thy tribe, 
"To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing, 
"A fever of thyself think of the Earth; 
"What bliss even in hope is there for thee? 
"What haven? every creature hath its home; 
"Every sole man hath days of joy and pain, 
"Whether his labours be sublime or low 
"The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct: 
"Only the dreamer venoms all his days, 
"Bearing more woe than all his sins deserve. 
"Therefore, that happiness be somewhat shar'd, 
"Such things as thou art are admitted oft 
"Into like gardens thou didst pass erewhile, 
"And suffer'd in these temples: for that cause 
"Thou standest safe beneath this statue's knees."

Keats, after all is nothing but a dreamer—the lowest of the low, a "thing", who "venoms all his days, bearing more woe than all his sins deserve." Therefore he has been admitted to this temple as a kind of favor (some favor considering the fact that he damn near dies of it.) 

But surely, he says "not all 
"Those melodies sung into the world's ear 
"Are useless: sure a poet is a sage; 
"A humanist, physician to all men. 
"That I am none I feel, as vultures feel 
"They are no birds when eagles are abroad. 
"What am I then? Thou spakest of my tribe: 
"What tribe?" 

To which Moneta replies, mercilessly,

"Art thou not of the dreamer tribe? 
"The poet and the dreamer are distinct, 
"Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes. 
"The one pours out a balm upon the world, 
"The other vexes it."

This is more than Keats can take:
"Then shouted I 
"Spite of myself, and with a Pythia's spleen, 
"Apollo! faded! O far flown Apollo! 
"Where is thy misty pestilence to creep 
"Into the dwellings, through the door crannies 
"Of all mock lyrists, large self worshipers, 
"And careless Hectorers in proud bad verse. 
"Though I breathe death with them it will be life 
"To see them sprawl before me into graves."

(I take it that Keats here is referring to Wordsworth, among others.)

And this effectively ends the poem and the argument in which nothing has been concluded; though it is worth noting that it is Keats who has the last word.



The Fall of Hyperion - A Dream


CANTO I

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect; the savage too
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at Heaven; pity these have not
Trac'd upon vellum or wild Indian leaf
The shadows of melodious utterance.
But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
'Thou art no Poet may'st not tell thy dreams?'
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.
Whether the dream now purpos'd to rehearse
Be poet's or fanatic's will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.

Methought I stood where trees of every clime,
Palm, myrtle, oak, and sycamore, and beech,
With plantain, and spice blossoms, made a screen;
In neighbourhood of fountains, by the noise
Soft showering in my ears, and, by the touch
Of scent, not far from roses. Turning round
I saw an arbour with a drooping roof
Of trellis vines, and bells, and larger blooms,
Like floral censers swinging light in air;
Before its wreathed doorway, on a mound
Of moss, was spread a feast of summer fruits,
Which, nearer seen, seem'd refuse of a meal
By angel tasted or our Mother Eve;
For empty shells were scattered on the grass,
And grape stalks but half bare, and remnants more,
Sweet smelling, whose pure kinds I could not know.
Still was more plenty than the fabled horn
Thrice emptied could pour forth, at banqueting
For Proserpine return'd to her own fields,
Where the white heifers low. And appetite
More yearning than on earth I ever felt
Growing within, I ate deliciously;
And, after not long, thirsted, for thereby
Stood a cool vessel of transparent juice
Sipp'd by the wander'd bee, the which I took,
And, pledging all the mortals of the world,
And all the dead whose names are in our lips,
Drank. That full draught is parent of my theme.
No Asian poppy nor elixir fine
Of the soon fading jealous Caliphat,
No poison gender'd in close monkish cell
To thin the scarlet conclave of old men,
Could so have rapt unwilling life away.
Among the fragrant husks and berries crush'd,
Upon the grass I struggled hard against
The domineering potion; but in vain:
The cloudy swoon came on, and down I sunk
Like a Silenus on an antique vase.
How long I slumber'd 'tis a chance to guess.
When sense of life return'd, I started up
As if with wings; but the fair trees were gone,
The mossy mound and arbour were no more:
I look'd around upon the carved sides
Of an old sanctuary with roof august,
Builded so high, it seem'd that filmed clouds
Might spread beneath, as o'er the stars of heaven;
So old the place was, I remember'd none
The like upon the earth: what I had seen
Of grey cathedrals, buttress'd walls, rent towers,
The superannuations of sunk realms,
Or Nature's rocks toil'd hard in waves and winds,
Seem'd but the faulture of decrepit things
To that eternal domed monument.
Upon the marble at my feet there lay
Store of strange vessels and large draperies,
Which needs had been of dyed asbestos wove,
Or in that place the moth could not corrupt,
So white the linen, so, in some, distinct
Ran imageries from a sombre loom.
All in a mingled heap confus'd there lay
Robes, golden tongs, censer and chafing dish,
Girdles, and chains, and holy jewelries.

Turning from these with awe, once more I rais'd
My eyes to fathom the space every way;
The embossed roof, the silent massy range
Of columns north and south, ending in mist
Of nothing, then to eastward, where black gates
Were shut against the sunrise evermore.
Then to the west I look'd, and saw far off
An image, huge of feature as a cloud,
At level of whose feet an altar slept,
To be approach'd on either side by steps,
And marble balustrade, and patient travail
To count with toil the innumerable degrees.
Towards the altar sober paced I went,
Repressing haste, as too unholy there;
And, coming nearer, saw beside the shrine
One minist'ring; and there arose a flame.
When in mid May the sickening East wind
Shifts sudden to the south, the small warm rain
Melts out the frozen incense from all flowers,
And fills the air with so much pleasant health
That even the dying man forgets his shroud;
Even so that lofty sacrificial fire,
Sending forth Maian incense, spread around
Forgetfulness of everything but bliss,
And clouded all the altar with soft smoke,
From whose white fragrant curtains thus I heard
Language pronounc'd: 'If thou canst not ascend
'These steps, die on that marble where thou art.
'Thy flesh, near cousin to the common dust,
'Will parch for lack of nutriment thy bones
'Will wither in few years, and vanish so
'That not the quickest eye could find a grain
'Of what thou now art on that pavement cold.
'The sands of thy short life are spent this hour,
'And no hand in the universe can turn
'Thy hourglass, if these gummed leaves be burnt
'Ere thou canst mount up these immortal steps.'
I heard, I look'd: two senses both at once,
So fine, so subtle, felt the tyranny
Of that fierce threat and the hard task proposed.
Prodigious seem'd the toil, the leaves were yet
Burning when suddenly a palsied chill
Struck from the paved level up my limbs,
And was ascending quick to put cold grasp
Upon those streams that pulse beside the throat:
I shriek'd; and the sharp anguish of my shriek
Stung my own ears I strove hard to escape
The numbness; strove to gain the lowest step.
Slow, heavy, deadly was my pace: the cold
Grew stifling, suffocating, at the heart;
And when I clasp'd my hands I felt them not.
One minute before death, my iced foot touch'd
The lowest stair; and as it touch'd, life seem'd
To pour in at the toes: I mounted up,
As once fair angels on a ladder flew
From the green turf to Heaven. 'Holy Power,'
Cried I, approaching near the horned shrine,
'What am I that should so be saved from death?
'What am I that another death come not
'To choke my utterance sacrilegious here?'
Then said the veiled shadow 'Thou hast felt
'What 'tis to die and live again before
'Thy fated hour. That thou hadst power to do so
'Is thy own safety; thou hast dated on
'Thy doom.' 'High Prophetess,' said I, 'purge off,
'Benign, if so it please thee, my mind's film.'
'None can usurp this height,' return'd that shade,
'But those to whom the miseries of the world
'Are misery, and will not let them rest.
'All else who find a haven in the world,
'Where they may thoughtless sleep away their days,
'If by a chance into this fane they come,
'Rot on the pavement where thou rottedst half.'
'Are there not thousands in the world,' said I,
Encourag'd by the sooth voice of the shade,
'Who love their fellows even to the death;
'Who feel the giant agony of the world;
'And more, like slaves to poor humanity,
'Labour for mortal good? I sure should see
'Other men here; but I am here alone.'
'Those whom thou spak'st of are no vision'ries,'
Rejoin'd that voice; 'they are no dreamers weak;
'They seek no wonder but the human face,
'No music but a happy noted voice;
'They come not here, they have no thought to come;
'And thou art here, for thou art less than they:
'What benefit canst thou do, or all thy tribe,
'To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing,
'A fever of thyself think of the Earth;
'What bliss even in hope is there for thee?
'What haven? every creature hath its home;
'Every sole man hath days of joy and pain,
'Whether his labours be sublime or low
'The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct:
'Only the dreamer venoms all his days,
'Bearing more woe than all his sins deserve.
'Therefore, that happiness be somewhat shar'd,
'Such things as thou art are admitted oft
'Into like gardens thou didst pass erewhile,
'And suffer'd in these temples: for that cause
'Thou standest safe beneath this statue's knees.'
'That I am favour'd for unworthiness,
'By such propitious parley medicin'd
'In sickness not ignoble, I rejoice,
'Aye, and could weep for love of such award.'
So answer'd I, continuing, 'If it please,
'Majestic shadow, tell me: sure not all
'Those melodies sung into the world's ear
'Are useless: sure a poet is a sage;
'A humanist, physician to all men.
'That I am none I feel, as vultures feel
'They are no birds when eagles are abroad.
'What am I then? Thou spakest of my tribe:
'What tribe?' The tall shade veil'd in drooping white
Then spake, so much more earnest, that the breath
Moved the thin linen folds that drooping hung
About a golden censer from the hand
Pendent. 'Art thou not of the dreamer tribe?
'The poet and the dreamer are distinct,
'Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes.
'The one pours out a balm upon the world,
'The other vexes it.' Then shouted I
Spite of myself, and with a Pythia's spleen,
'Apollo! faded! O far flown Apollo!
'Where is thy misty pestilence to creep
'Into the dwellings, through the door crannies
'Of all mock lyrists, large self worshipers,
'And careless Hectorers in proud bad verse.
'Though I breathe death with them it will be life
'To see them sprawl before me into graves.