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.








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