Sunday, 1 January 2017

Jaroslav Seifert ‘Prague’ (1929)


The presence of castle and cathedral on the hill above the Vltava in Prague is a constant imaginative prompt. Franz Kafka understood instinctively how the castle, despite its magnificent outward appearance, was the unanswerable site and source of control over human life. The castle in ‘The Castle’ is that which manages people’s business and permanently tracks, like today’s online agencies, their individual thoughts and actions. There is no escape, there are only ways of living with its imposing reality. Jaroslav Seifert writes a poem, in the same decade as the publication of Kafka’s novel, with a very different take on Hradcany.

Above the elephantine blankets of flower-beds
a Gothic cactus blooms with royal skulls
and in the cavities of melancholy organs
            in the clusters of tin pipes,
old melodies are rotting.

Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world. Elephantine is apt in the context, whether describing the renowned decorative flowerbeds of the city, or Prague itself, arranged and spread out in all its ornate beauty, its roofs and golden towers. Yet awareness of a lost past is quickly asserted. The kings of Bohemia no longer reside in their palace and in 1929 the Habsburg Empire has just recently collapsed, indefinitely. The Czechs, strong in their nationalist inclinations, knew now that royalty had had its day. Even the music of the cathedral is part of a disintegrating past. Then Seifert shifts the tense.    

Cannonballs like seeds of wars
were scattered by the wind.

Is he talking about the war to end wars, just ended? Or, about other wars in Bohemian history? When Seifert returns to the present tense in the next verse we find ourselves not in the 20th but the early 17th century, as though they are interchangeable. We find that even higher and greater than the castle, towering over all, is the night.

Night towers over all
and through the box-trees of evergreen cupolas
the foolish emperor tiptoes away
into the magic gardens of his alembics
and through the halcyon air of rose-red evenings
rings out the tinkle of the glass foliage
as it is touched by the alchemists’ fingers
as if by wind.

King James VI and I was once described by an opponent as “the wisest fool in Christendom”, something one could say of other Renaissance princes who placed the advancement of learning, every kind of learning, on a par or even above statecraft. The foolish emperor in the poem is James’s contemporary Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, amongst other titles, a figure who haunts and hallows the history of Prague. Like James, Rudolf’s administration of his kingdom has been judged as setting the scene for conflict, in Rudolf’s case the Thirty Years’ War, hence cannonballs like seeds of wars. Like James, Rudolf was a keen promoter of the arts, though while Rudolf collected some of the great Mannerist art of the period, James had to live in Shakespearean London. Like James, Rudolf had an interest in the occult, as well as with astrology, alchemy and other signs of nascent science. Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno and John Dee flourished in Prague. It is Rudolf’s encouragement of alchemy, the progenitor of chemistry and other science, that becomes the second subject of Seifert’s poem. Floral analogy extends beyond the natural world outside the walls of Rudolf’s castle into his magic gardens of artificial invention, the same kinds of inventions that now govern our world and even, robotically, threaten to destroy it.

The telescopes have gone blind from the horror of the universe
and the fantastic eyes of spacemen
have been sucked out by death.

Who or what are these spacemen? The translator Ewald Osers has turned the Czech noun into the anachronism ‘spaceman’, a word that only came into English about ten years after Seifert’s poem was composed. This instrumental verse, the signal for mortality, clearly has more multiple meanings in the original than English can deliver. Osers has stretched the word ‘spacemen’ to include those living in any era, not least our own. Even spacemen will die. And while our gaze turns from the 17th century habitation and play of Rudolf and his court to the 20th century condition of rockets and black holes, so it turns from the safe haven of the garden to the alien places beyond our own planet. Typically for Czech poetry of this period, he stacks up an impressive set of original images.

And while the moon was laying eggs in clouds,
new stars were hatching feverishly like birds
migrating from blacker regions,
singing the songs of human fate –
but there is no one
who can understand them.

Seifert, at times a peculiarly sentimental poet of romantic commonplaces, produces also poems like these that utilize romantic imagery in ways that overturn their apparent first intentions. While the universe may sing songs of human fate that we can hear, no one can really understand the songs themselves. The science initiated at the emperor’s court has given later generations an ambiguous and disturbing present. The poem is not anti-science, but neither does it offer undiminished praise of its achievements. This careful interlock of verses, linking the past and the present in one pattern of human desire, such that past and present are inseparably the same, turns formally to its conclusion, like the ending of a Renaissance artwork.

Listen to the fanfares of silence,
on carpets threadbare like ancient shrouds
we are moving towards an invisible future

Seifert writes, where the fanfares of silence may refer equally to the lost music of the royal court and the silence we ourselves hear gazing at the night above us. Then fuses the lost titles of the emperor with all that seemingly remains of him and his world:

and His Majesty dust
settles lightly on the abandoned throne.

Sources
Peter Demetz. Prague in black and gold: the history of a city. (Penguin Books, 1998)
Peter Marshall. The mercurial emperor: the magic circle of Rudolf II in Renaissance Prague. (Pimlico, 2007)
Jaroslav Seifert. The poetry of Jaroslav Seifert, translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers. Edited by George Gibian. (Catbird Press, 1998)

Prague

Jaroslav Seifert
Translated into English by Ewald Osers

Above the elephantine blankets of flower-beds
a Gothic cactus blooms with royal skulls
and in the cavities of melancholy organs
            in the clusters of tin pipes,
old melodies are rotting.

Cannonballs like seeds of wars
were scattered by the wind.

Night towers over all
and through the box-trees of evergreen cupolas
the foolish emperor tiptoes away
into the magic gardens of this alembics
and through the halcyon air of rose-red evenings
rings out the tinkle of the glass foliage
as it is touched by the alchemists’ fingers
as if by wind.

The telescopes have gone blind from the horror of the universe
and the fantastic eyes of spacemen
have been sucked out by death.

And while the moon was laying eggs in clouds,
new stars were hatching feverishly like birds
migrating from blacker regions,
singing the songs of human fate –
but there is no one
who can understand them.

Listen to the fanfares of silence,
on carpets threadbare like ancient shrouds
we are moving towards an invisible future

and His Majesty dust
settles lightly on the abandoned throne.








Monday, 28 November 2016

HELENA AND ELIZABETH The Diary of "Helena Morley", translated from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Bishop


The Church of the Rosary in Diamantina, Minas Gerais, Brazil
 
Re-reading Helena Morley thirty years later, the stories grow in beauty and truth. The Brazilian mining town of Diamantina, obscure and remote in itself, returns to rich social life, just as Candleford and Lark Rise do in Flora Thompson's books. There is even an element of Daisy Ashford about Helena, though Helena's spelling is better than Daisy's and she has no interest in fictionalising her own people.

Adolescent perception of adults in their adult world is determined by the necessities of dependence and self-learning. The twelve-year-old who opens her Diary for the year 1893 is secure and free, free enough to say almost anything within the limits of her experience, secure enough to speak of her microcosmic world in knowing terms.

Helena was fortunate in her English translator. Elizabeth Bishop, as her poetry shows over again, relishes the colour and detail of the physical world. This is enabled further by reference to the tropical mountain scenery, replete with strange anthills and contiguous waterfalls, steep cobble streets and copious diamond mines that she shares along the way, though Helena’s attention is first and last, people with their hopes, mishaps, and fallibilities. Elizabeth's poetry tends towards conclusions she is tentative to make conclusive. This stands in contrast to Helena's firm opinions and startlingly percipient summaries of situations.

Elizabeth herself was famously shy, her childhood (to believe the poetry) one long process of observation and withdrawal, longing and introspection. I cannot help reading the Diary now as the admiring interpretation of an uninhibited extrovert by a born introvert. Elizabeth once wrote to her friend the poet Robert Lowell that "When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived." Which is scarcely one of the funniest lines in world literature, unlike many of the lines in Helena's Diary. I'm not going to quote any here, because this is an invitation to go meet Helena Morley for yourself.

It has never been explained, that I can see anyway, why the pseudonym Helena Morley stays put on the title page, when we know her real name was Alice Dayrell Caldeira Brant. Elizabeth respectfully calls her Dona Alice in her Introduction to the book and one can only assume that it may have been Dona Alice's wish to keep her pseudonym for posterity. The resulting sense of an author removed both in time and age enhances the Diary's unique provenance.

Her real name epitomises the meeting of English and Portuguese culture in late Victorian Brazil. Someone online has called her the Jane Austen of Brazil, which is fine insofar as Helena in a few words or a quote delivers telling implications about people’s feelings, interests, and status. However, to confer such honour on a twelve-year-old girl is to overlook the sheer thrill of reporting, by candlelight, on the day’s events, with little more purpose than to get the story right. Her neighbours laugh at her just as she laughs at them, and life goes on.

This, in turn, raises the question, who is she writing to? Who is it she wishes to entertain and inform? The most probable inspiration is Helena’s grandmother, Dona Teodora, at whose place we find her more often than even her own home. Or so it seems. The Diary could only have been written in a highly conversational milieu, in which anything is source for a story, and everyone knows everyone else’s business, to the point of a fine art. This mixture of simplicity and sophistication, ordinariness and wit, appears to be a characteristic of Diamantina generally, though having Helena to write it all down is a blessing.

In the recent film ‘Brooklyn’, the housekeeper who cares for the emigrant colleens adds an Eighth Deadly Sin which she defines as “Giggling Girls”, and indubitably fits of uncontrollable laughter are the test for a lot of what is going on here. Helena, her sister and close friends, are prone to find most things irresistibly funny and this inspires her repeatedly when pen goes to paper. 

Helena is encouraged to write every day by those close to her. We know this because she tells us. She is very good at speaking her mind, which gets her into trouble sometimes. At the same time, a more arresting ability I noticed this time around is how Helena can recognise the changes in her own feelings. She is remarkable for her age in knowing her emotions, reading what they mean in the circumstances, and how they are related to one another. As a result, her understanding of what others may be going through grows empathetically, as the Diary proceeds over its three years (1893-1895).

Elizabeth, with her close attention to the subtleties of time and place, teaches us new lessons about her adopted country. She remains on or just below the surface of so much going on here, conscious of how her own adult choice brought her to Brazil, that energetic contrast to the cold northern lands of her childhood. We share her delight in discovering a life so very different from her own upbringing, Helena’s life, bursting with humorous talk, taking pleasure equally in dances and meals, church-going and carnivals. Though, like all girls her age, having to get good marks at school can be a bit of a pain.