Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Yeats, Auden, and Dancing

From Ingmar Bergman's film 'The Seventh Seal'
The image of dance has a remarkable power upon the human psyche. Euripides writes of the mantic dancing of the Bacchae, as they parade the head of Pentheus. Orpheus was destroyed by the dancing Maenads. The 'danse macabre' was a trope of Medieval art, music, and literature. Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' caused rioting in the streets. In his film, 'The Seventh Seal,' Ingmar Bergman interlaces Medieval dance imagery with modern cinematography, ending his cerebral film with a reenactment of the Dance of Death. And, McCarthy's novel, Blood Meridian, ends with a wild dance in which we are invited to partake by an assortment of unsavory and even terrifying characters. 
Perhaps dance is so powerful an image because it contains within it both a beautiful expression of joie-de-vivre and a terrifying nullification of self. It celebrates the triumph of body over mind, encouraging the unconscious self to seek expression in the wild flailing of limbs. Yet, dance is not necessarily the Bacchic backlash against Apollinian order. The child dancing in the wind does not feel the darkness of Dionysian revelry. For her, dance and day are in perfect harmony. So, without further ado, I give you W.B. Yeats' poem:

To a Child dancing in the Wind 


ANCE there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;         
Being young you have not known
The fool’s triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind.
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of wind?

Has no one said those daring
Kind eyes should be more learn’d?
Or warned you how despairing
The moths are when they are burned,
I could have warned you, but you are young,
So we speak a different tongue.
O you will take whatever’s offered
And dream that all the world’s a friend,
Suffer as your mother suffered,
Be as broken in the end.
But I am old and you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue.

I will let Yeats speak for himself. But, I would like to balance Yeats' poem with another approach to the subject. In his poem, 'Death's Echo', also known by its first line, W. H. Auden contrasts, as Yeats does, the impulse to dance and the travails of living.

Death's Echo

"O who can ever gaze his fill,"
Farmer and fisherman say,
     "On native shore and local hill,
     Grudge aching limb or callus on the hand?
     Father, grandfather stood upon this land,
     And here the pilgrims from our loins will stand."
     So farmer and fisherman say
     In their fortunate hey-day:
     But Death's low answer drifts across
     Empty catch or harvest loss
     Or an unlucky May.
     The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,
     Not to be born is the best for man;
     The end of toil is a bailiff's order,
     Throw down the mattock and dance while you can.

     "O life's too short for friends who share,"
     Travellers think in their hearts,
     "The city's common bed, the air,
     The mountain bivouac and the bathing beach,
     Where incidents draw every day from each
     Memorable gesture and witty speech."
     So travellers think in their hearts,
     Till malice or circumstance parts
     Them from their constant humour:
     And slyly Death's coercive rumour
     In that moment starts.
     A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus,
     Not to be born is the best for man;
     An active partner in something disgraceful,
     Change your partner, dance while you can.

     "O stretch your hands across the sea,"
     The impassioned lover cries,
     "Stretch them towards your harm and me.
     Our grass is green, and sensual our brief bed,
     The stream sings at its foot, and at its head
     The mild and vegetarian beasts are fed."
     So the impassioned lover cries
     Till the storm of pleasure dies:
     From the bedpost and the rocks
     Death's enticing echo mocks,
     And his voice replies.
     The greater the love, the more false to its object,
     Not to be born is the best for man;
     After the kiss comes the impulse to throttle,
     Break the embraces, dance while you can.

     "I see the guilty world forgiven,"
     Dreamer and drunkard sing,
     "The ladders let down out of heaven,
     The laurel springing from the martyr's blood,
     The children skipping where the weeper stood,
     The lovers natural and the beasts all good."
     So dreamer and drunkard sing
     Till day their sobriety bring:
     Parrotwise with Death's reply
     From whelping fear and nesting lie,
     Woods and their echoes ring.
     The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
     Not to be born is the best for man;
     The second-best is a formal order,
     The dance's pattern; dance while you can.

     Dance, dance for the figure is easy,
     The tune is catching and will not stop;
     Dance till the stars come down from the rafters;
     Dance, dance, dance till you drop.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Plato and Benardete

Seth Benardete from his Commentary on Plato's Symposium:

"Pride made man scale heaven, shame made him realize his defectiveness. Eros, then, is an ever-to-be-thwarted longing for a second try on heaven. We turn to each other in lieu of our rebellion against the gods." 

And from the Symposium itself: 

"For wisdom is one of the most beautiful things, and Eros is love in regard to the beautiful; and so Eros is--necessarily--a philosopher; and as a philosopher he is between being wise and being without understanding." (from Mr. Benardete's translation, 204b)

Does this mean we turn to philosophy in lieu of rebelling against the gods?

And again from the Symposium:

"And after these pursuits, he must lead [the beloved] on to the sciences, so that he [himself, the lover] may see the beauty of sciences, and in looking at the beautiful, which is now so vast, no longer be content like a lackey with the beauty in one, of a boy, of some human being, or of one practice, nor be a sorry sort of slave and petty calculator; but with a permanent turn to the vast open sea of the beautiful, behold it and give birth--in ungrudging philosophy--to many beautiful and magnificent speeches and thoughts..." (210c-d)

Thus, we must not be content with the beauty of an individual or of an activity/practice. This seems to suggest that philosophic activity is not the aim of eros, rather it is a side-effect of it. And yet, one is to give birth in ungrudging philosophy. And, one is to give birth to speeches and thoughts. Speeches to what purpose? One does not simply speak without purpose. Does this mean there is an implicit aim behind philosophy? Is philosophy different from philosophic activity? Why this emphasis on beauty? Isn't Socrates concerned with the good, not the beautiful? What is the difference?  

Comments would be appreciated. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was born in 1898 and died in 1950. Raised by a strong mother, who divorced her incompetent father, Millay grew up, reading classical literature and scoffing at the demands of authority. Perhaps as a result of her unconventional upbringing, Millay continued to flout the demands society placed on women. She was openly bisexual and turned down Edmund Wilson's (her editor) proposal of marriage because she feared domesticity would inhibit her development as an artist. Millay displayed an immense vivacity and plunged herself into her experiences unreservedly. Perhaps as a result of her uninhibited thirst for life and the longing for fulfillment that such a lifestyle connotes, Millay developed a remarkable ability to capture an immense sense of loss and incompletion. This ability is vividly evident in the poems quoted below. (For a more detailed bio, see:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more. 

[I would call this poem a lament, a lament for the self. What does the poet know? Nothing, except that something lovely and happy has gone out of her. And so, she laments, not for her forgotten lads, but for past selves, forgotten and lost, that tap and sigh upon the glass.]

What Savage Blossom

Do I not know what savage blossom only under the pitting hail
Of your inclement season could have prospered? Here lie
Green leaves to wade in. And of the many roads not one road 
    leading outward from this place
But is blocked by boughs that will hiss and simmer when they 
    burn--green autumn, lady, green autumn on this land!

Do I not know what inward pressure only could inflate its petals 
    to withstand
(No, no, not hate, not hate) the onslaught of a little time with 

(No, no, not love, not love) Call it by name,
Now that it's over, now that it is gone and cannot hear us.

It was an honest thing. Not noble. Yet no shame.

[This poem also connotes a kind of grief. It is a concession to the poet's weakness; she herself is no savage blossom. Which makes us ask, what is she? An ordinary blossom? Lovely and fragile. I've often looked at my rose bushes after the rain and loved how red the ground became from bruised petals. But even in the bringing forth of a new beauty, the old one is destroyed. The blossom is broken by the rain, by the hail. So, we are left with a broken poet, who boldly proclaims that there is no shame. But, why, if there is no shame, we ask, must she so boldly announce it?]