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Sappho, Poems
Herodotus, History
The Bhagavad-Gita



Sappho, Poems

Since they began in the early days of the popular-education movement in nineteenth-century Britain, five-foot shelves, world classics, hundred best books, have hardly ever included poetry as such, and drama and epic have been distinguished for the trashiness of their translations, because these collections are all programmatic — “the great ideas that have influenced the progress of mankind.” I doubt if works of art as such do any such thing; yet no one would dare give his selections so vulgar and unimproving a label as One Hundred Books That Have Thrilled the Ages. Down the millennia since the cave painters the arts have sharpened and refined human sensibilities, yet no one can even be sure that this is a good thing. The screen of history, like the taste of politicians, churchmen and university presidents, has been programmatic. So we have a large collection of Aristotle’s lecture notes on politics and ethics, and we have only random fragments of Sappho’s poems.

Matthew Arnold said Homer was eminently rapid, plain, direct, in thought and expression, syntax, words, matter, and ideas, and that he was eminently noble. Arnold refused to define the ambiguous word “noble,” but he meant by it his own special virtue of his idealized Victorian ruling caste: disinterested responsibility. This final criterion eliminates Sappho, although she shares with Homer and Sophocles their splendor, clarity, and impetuosity. She, above all others, is bright, swift, and sure. She surpasses all other Greek poets in immediacy of utterance and responsiveness of sensibility.

The greatest Greek writers, read in Greek, seem hypersensitive to us and possessed of a higher irritability in the medical sense; amongst us this is considered a morbid condition, because it has been cultivated excessively or pretended to by modern decadents. There is no reason why it should not be thought of as quite the opposite — a symptom of superabundant health. Sappho is as exquisitely sensitive to objective reality as to her own subjectivity, and she organizes the poignancies of these interlocked realities with consummate taste. As Sophocles is a man, so she is a woman, functioning at maximum realization of potential.

Since we have only fragments of Sappho the size of Japanese poems, one short complete poem, and single words or phrases quoted by grammarians to illustrate the Aeolic dialect, is it possible that we delude ourselves with the Sapphic legend? If attention is focused sharply on anything whatever from which we expect aesthetic satisfaction, a process takes place similar to the raptures of nature mysticism. Our own hyperesthesia is exacerbated; we become hypnotized; the object of contemplation, like a crystal ball, acquires a significance with unlimited ramifications. Is this what we do with the shards and ruins we call Sappho?

. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down . . .

is, just as it is, a most impressive poem. Whatever its original context, it is as moving as any similar poem in classic Japanese. How about “more gold than gold,” “far whiter than an egg,” “neither honey nor the bee”?

The two Edwardian poetesses who wrote under the name of Michael Field expanded many of Sappho’s fragments into poems of great poignancy. The best was taken from a scholiast’s commentary on a line of Pindar’s, where the reference to Sappho is in indirect discourse: “Yea, gold is son of Zeus, no rust / Its timeless light can stain; / The worm that brings man’s flesh to dust / Assaults its strength in vain. / More gold than gold the love I sing, / A hard, inviolable thing.” Does the original justify this enraptured response?

It has been difficult to come at Sappho without the Greek. Nineteenth-century England swarmed with mediocre academicians and country clergymen, all in a conspiracy to prove to those without the tongues that Western Civilization had been founded by tenth-rate minds who wrote atrocious doggerel. Translations of Sappho, until recent years, have been fantastically inappropriate. Catullus, with Baudelaire and Tu Fu, in all the world’s literature most nearly approaches Sappho’s special virtues. His translation of her lessens her intensity.

Today a sufficient number of literal translations by modern poets may enable the reader of English to envelop Sappho and measure her as we do distant stars by triangulation from more mundane objects. It then becomes apparent that we are not deluding ourselves. There has been no other poet like this. Wherever enough words remain to form a coherent context, they give one another a unique luster, an effulgence found nowhere else. Presentational immediacy of the image, overwhelming urgency of personal involvement — in no other poet are these two prime factors of lyric poetry raised to so great a power.

Both the ancient legend of a romantic, tempestuous life and the Victorian one that portrayed her as a schoolmistress of an academy for brides were constructed from her poems. We know nothing surely except the poetry, which, on the face of it, is the passionate utterance of a woman whose life was spent as lover and guide to a small circle of younger girls. There is no evidence that this was an institutional relationship, like the thiasos, the dancing school, of her friend Alkaios. He is obviously a doting professional teacher of chorus girls; Sappho’s relationships are as obviously openly erotic. The poems certainly mean what they say.

Passionate love is the very substance of Sappho. In ancient Greece as in China, the love between men and women was of a totally different character where it existed at all, and seldom passionate. In most Greek poetry, however noble or erotic, relations between the sexes are institutionalized, whether Alkestis or the prostitutes of Paulos Silentiarios. Romantic love, with its destructive potential, is found only between members of the same sex.

Sappho’s poetry is not only intimate, it is secular. Myth hardly exists and is never the cohesive cement of institutions as it is in Pindar’s lyric odes, which are hieratic, hierarchic, and impersonal. The idylls of Theokritos are court poetry, like the eighteenth-century French Rococo poets who imitated him. Behind the flirtations of his deodorized shepherds and shepherdesses we always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near, loaded with marriage contracts arranged by treaty between warring dynasties. So Kallimachos was an Alexandrian Voltaire, one of a committee to construct the synthetic religion of Serapis for an atheist court. His one intimate poem is to a man. Erotic love returns in The Greek Anthology with late-born Levantines like Meleager and Isaurians with Hittite blood from the Anatolian highlands. Except for them, and a few passages in the choruses of Euripides, what we consider the proper subject for lyric poetry does not exist in Greek verse outside the fragments of Sappho and one tiny bit by the similar Erinna.

Central to the understanding of Sappho as of Plato is her sexuality. Critics down the ages have exerted themselves to deny this, most especially when they shared it. To judge by primitive song, legend, and epic, romantic love has commonly existed between members of the same sex, and seldom in the institutionalized relations between men and women until those institutions pass through formalization to etherealization, as in the court circle of The Tale of Genji. Romantic love appears between men and women only when it becomes economically feasible. The problem is neither to explain nor to explain away Sappho’s homosexuality. It is to explain the accelerating homosexualization of love between Western men and women since the eleventh century, with its culmination in the movies and the more urbane girlie magazines.

Although women in Lesbos were more free than their sisters in Athens or Sparta, they were far from free in our sense. Sappho’s poetry reveals the intensity of the hidden life of ancient Greek women. The curtain is raised for a moment and we see into purdah. For the rest, history and literature are silent.

[Rexroth translations of Sappho and other classic Greek poets]

[Diverse translations of a Sappho poem]



Herodotus, History

For a century or more, both historians and Greek scholars dismissed Herodotus as a teller of tales and, in comparison with Thucydides’ tightly structured history, a garrulous rambler. Most scholarship today has moved to the other side. Actually, debate over the merits of Thucydides and Herodotus as scientific historians is not very illuminating. It is really a question of taste, and there is no reason why a catholic taste should not admit them as equals. However, it is true that Herodotus is what today we would call more scientific. For many centuries he was to stand alone as the only historian of the Western World to think of the affairs of men in anthropological, sociological, economic, and ethnic terms.

A great deal of taste in Greek literature is shaped by the study of Plato, Aristotle’s Poetics, and the plays of Sophocles. It is a deliberately elitist taste, the core of all those systematic judgments we call Classicist. In human affairs, its emphasis is upon the interrelations of the highly privileged, where privilege means precisely the ability to indulge in such moral luxuries of conscience. So Werner Jaeger in his great study of the Greek ethos, Paideia, dismisses Herodotus as “quasi-anthropological” and as “an explorer of strange, half-understood new worlds.” We now have better information about even the remotest peoples, says Jaeger, and only in heroic political history, as written by Thucydides, “is it possible to achieve the true understanding of the inner nature of a race or epoch, to realize our common fund of mature social and intellectual forms and ideals,” regardless of the accidents of occasion. The idealist taste of this requirement is evident, and it effectually eliminates the pluralistic, polyvalent, democratic Herodotus no matter how up to date his information might be. Modern research has, it so happens, revealed Herodotus as an exceptionally accurate informant, even on such subjects as Egypt, Scythia, and the outer barbarians, where skeptical nineteenth-century critics assumed that he was romancing.

The subject of Herodotus’ History is the successful defense of a democratic, rational, secular society against the onslaughts of what Gibbon in another context altogether was to call barbarism and superstition. However far the narrative may wander, its center is always Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, the yeomen and merchant seamen in their little bands defying the perfumed might of the Persian Empire — the King of Kings with half the East at heel; illimitable piles of arms, armor, and armament; gold for bridle ornaments and Greek brides; and silk for tents — and all the mysterious gods and priests and shamans gathered up from four thousand years of a hundred dead and living civilizations and innumerable barbarisms. Herodotus’ book is as closely structured as Thucydides’. It is simply not so obviously schematized a tableau of the conflict of personal vices and virtues. It is the story of the triumph of an idea of civilization. Without this initial concept of the good society as a nursery of integrity and freedom, the stage for the conflicts of Thucydides’ stylized heroes would never have existed.

Again and again Herodotus drives home his point with crucial anecdotes. Solon confronts Croesus not as an aristocratic lawgiver but as a spokesman, in the court of an oriental despot of incredible wealth and absolute power, of the independent yeomanry of a land so poor that hard work, the cooperation of equals, and ingenuity in outwitting nature were virtues essential to survival. When the Great King crosses the Hellespont, his flying arrows dim the sun like any massive inhumane natural phenomenon, like an act of God, one of Homer’s gods, the embodiment of the frivolity of the nonhuman.

Herodotus’ tone has misled many critics. It is almost colloquial, folkloristic — another Odysseus spellbinding an audience of prosperous farmers with the tall tales of The Odyssey. The narrative is so exciting that it has taken the careful archeology of this century to overcome our tendency to disbelief. Today we know that the Scythians of the Ukraine or the nomads of the desert and the merchants of the oasis cities of the far northeast inter-Asian frontier of the Persian Empire were really as Herodotus describes them. It is amazing that at the beginning of historical and geographical writing in the Western World one man could so carefully have sifted and judged his evidences.

One man did not. The most significant thing about Herodotus is that he is the literary expression of a whole people, as cunning in their ability to deal with facts as their prototype, Odysseus, was cunning to deal with monsters. Herodotus traveled widely and judged rationally of all he saw, but in the vast scope of his story he perforce relied mostly on hundreds of other Greeks who had gone to all the limits of the world with which he dealt, or who had lived before him and handed down to him information on the past, and who were as questioning and as sane as he.

The epic subject of Herodotus will haunt the philosophy of history from his day to ours. The conflict of the molar, obliterative mass civilization emanating from a single power center versus the dynamism of the manifold-centered city-state — eighteenth-century America versus 1968 USA — Herodotus’ History is the first large-scale anti-imperialist indictment. But what is wrong with imperialism? Did not Persian ecumenical egalitarianism, so like the empire of the Incas, ensure a greater good to a greater number than did the anarchic communalism of Greece? Eventually the city-state failed so completely that there was no other solution than the takeover of the Persian Empire itself by Alexander.

This would certainly be the utilitarian judgment; but the “Senatorial party” — Herodotus, Tacitus, Cicero, de Tocqueville, Lord Acton — have always disagreed. The heroic drama of Thucydides, with its Classicist stage and its limited cast, would be impossible in a monolithic society. Thucydides’ drama is tragic but, in his eyes, worth it. Tragedy is impossible in the oriental palace, where man’s fate depends on the incomprehensible wrangles of incomprehensible forces. Nor are there tragedies of the masses — themselves an incomprehensible force. In the Greek community, man’s fate depended on himself, on his follies and his virtues in his relations with his fellows.

Herodotus’ History is a prologue; the denouement lies ahead of him in the next generation. If he could have seen the breakdown of Greek polity in the hundred years following the Persian Wars, certainly he would not have said it were better had Xerxes prevailed. There have always been those who, though they see tragedy as the outcome of freedom, will nevertheless judge that tragedy is not too high a price to pay.



The Bhagavad-Gita

“Action shall be the sister of dream and thought and deed shall have the same splendor.” So said Baudelaire. Sometime around the third century before the Christian era an unknown author inserted into the epic story of The Mahabharata a comparatively short religious document, not only small in comparison to the immense size of the epic itself — which was already becoming the gather-all for Hinduism — but shorter by far than any of the scriptures of the other world religions. This is The Bhagavad-Gita, “The Lord’s Song,” one of the three or four most influential writings in the history of man. It is not only influential, it is more profound and more systematic than most religious texts. This statement may sound strange to those who are familiar with nineteenth-century rationalist Western European critics who attempted to abstract a logically consistent philosophy from The Bhagavad-Gita, and who ended up emphasizing its contradictions and ambiguities.

The Bhagavad-Gita is not a philosophical work, but a religious one, and besides that, a song, a poem. It is not to be compared with Aristotle’s Metaphysics, or the creed or catechism of the Council of Trent, but with the opening of the Gospel According to St. John or to the Magnificat in St. Luke. Its seeming contradictions are resolved in worship. In the words of the great Catholic modernist Father George Tyrrell, Lex credendi, lex orandi, “the law of faith is the law of prayer.” What the unknown author of The Bhagavad-Gita intended was precisely the resolution and sublimation of the contradictions of the religious life in the great unity of prayer.

The Bhagavad-Gita is above all else a manual of personal devotion to a personal deity. But to establish this devotion and to give it the widest possible meaning the author subsumes all the major theological and philosophical tendencies of the Hinduism of his time. It is as though the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas had been dissolved in his prayers and hymns for the feast of Corpus Christi. It so happens that as he lay dying St. Thomas said that that was what he had done. Unless the reader begins by understanding the devotional nature of the Gita, its many meanings will always elude him and its overall meaning will be totally unapproachable.

There are two main strands of thought in the Gita which divide and sometimes interweave but which are nonetheless easy to distinguish and follow. First is an exposition of the nature of reality and of the Godhead and its self-unfolding, and second is a description, practically a manual, of the means of communion with the deity.

The poem starts out simply enough and scarcely seems to violate the context of the epic; in fact the first two chapters may largely be part of the original tale. At the major crisis of The Mahabharata the warring clans, and their allies numbering uncountable thousands, are marshaled for the crucial battle that will exterminate almost all of them. The Prince Arjuna is sickened by the vision of the coming slaughter and is about to turn away in disgust and give up the battle. His charioteer, Krishna, advises him to fight. He tells him that no one really dies, that the myriad dead of the day on the morrow will move on in the wheel of life, and that anyway, killer and killed are illusory, and that the warrior’s duty is to fight without questioning, but with indifference to gain or glory, dedicating his military virtues to God as a work of prayer.

This advice horrifies modern commentators with their sophisticated ethical sensibility, although it is certainly common enough advice of army chaplains. We forget that The Bhagavad-Gita begins in the epic context, as though the Sermon on the Mount were to appear in The Iliad evolving out of the last fatal conversation between Hector and Andromache. Even Radhakrishnan, India’s leading philosopher of the last generation and spokesman on the highest level for Gandhi’s satyagraha, spiritual nonviolence, speaks of Arjuna’s doubts before the battle as pusillanimous.

Krishna describes briefly the roads to salvation — work, ritual, learning, or rather, wisdom by learning, contemplation, and devotion. He then describes the metaphysical structure of being which culminates in what nowadays we would call the inscrutable ground of being, Brahman, the source of the creative principle of reality. He then goes on to a most extraordinary concept. Behind Brahman, the ultimate reality in all Western theories of emanationist monism, lies Ishvara, the ultimate god behind all ultimates, who is a person. In answer to Arjuna’s plea, Krishna reveals himself as the incarnation of the universal form, the embodiment of all the creative activity of all the universes. That itself is only a kind of mask, an incarnation, for he, Krishna, is the actual, direct embodiment of Ishvara, the Person who transcends the unknowable and who can be approached directly by the person Arjuna, as friend to Friend. The central meaning of “The Lord’s Song” is that being is a conversation of lovers.

Nirvana, as Krishna defines it in the Gita, is the joy in the habitude of illumination, after the dying out of appetite. It is the medium in which the enlightened live, as in air. As we of air, they are conscious of it only by an effort of attention. Faith is shraddha — bliss, the disposition to orient one’s life around the abiding consciousness of spiritual reality. Bad karma, consequence, drains away in successive lives but good karma is saved up always, throughout all the thousands of necessary incarnations, to reach enlightenment. All men travel toward the eternal Brahman. When we reach the end of the road no space will have been traveled and no time spent. You are sat, cit, ananda — reality, truth, and bliss — and always have been. Always becomes a meaningless word when becomes is transformed to be. The direct experience of God is not an act of service or devotion or even of cognition. It is an unqualifiable and unconditioned experience. Who illusions? You are the ultimate Self, but you dream. Work is contemplation. Rite is contemplation. Yoga is contemplation. Learning is contemplation. All are prayer. They are forms of dialogue between two subjects that can never be objects. Insofar as the noblest deed or the most glorified trance is not devotion, it is unreal.

The poem culminates in a hymn of praise to devotion itself — Krishna, speaking for his worshipers, himself to himself. The later sections are a long drawn-out cadence and diminuendo, of recapitulation, instruction, and ethical advice. Then we are back, “marshaled for battle on the Field of Law,” and Arjuna says, “My delusion is destroyed. Recognition has been obtained by me through Thy grace! I stand firm with my doubts dispelled. I shall act by Thy word.”

Reading the Gita in a decent translation for the first time is a tremendously thrilling experience. No one who has ever heard it chanted, hour after hour in an Indian temple, before a statue of dark-skinned Krishna, dancing his strange shuffling dance, and playing on his flute, while a cluster of worshipers sat on the floor, silent and entranced, in their white robes, once in a great while someone uttering a short cry, like a Christian amen, is ever likely, no matter how long he lives, to forget it. More commonly of course one hears the chanting of the Gita Govinda, the song of Krishna’s love adventures with Radha and the milkmaids — but, as any devout Hindu will tell you, the two songs are the same song.

The literature of the Gita is enormous. Incomparably the best translation is the one by Ann Stanford. Two very free translations are The Lord’s Song by Sir Edwin Arnold in Victorian verse, and The Bhagavad Gita by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood. There are good versions in Penguin, Mentor, and the Modern Library, and modern scholarly editions by Franklin Edgerton, and S. Radhakrishnan. For readers unfamiliar with Hindu thought there are books by Eliot Deutsch, Sri Aurobindo, Radhakrishnan, B.G. Tilak, and S.N. Dasgupta. Good introductions to Hindu thought generally are the histories of Indian philosophy by Dasgupta and Radhakrishnan and Sources of the Indian Tradition, an omnibus volume edited by William Theodore de Bary for Columbia University Press. In a field so beset with unreliable guides it is essential that the novice get started off with the best authorities. Even so, the most reliable people, for instance, Dasgupta, Radhakrishnan, Aurobindo, and Tilak, often contradict one another and are best read together.

Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

[Other “Classics Revisited” essays]





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