Marx and Heine and Dowlais by Idris Davies

I used to go to St John’s Wood

On Saturday evenings in summer

To look on London behind the dusty garden trees,

And argue pleasantly and bitterly

About Marx and Heine, the iron brain and the laughing sword;

And the ghost of Keats would sit in a corner,

Smiling slowly behind a summer of wine,

Sadly smiling at the fires of the future.

And late in the summer night

I heard the tall Victorian critics snapping

Grim grey fingers at London Transport,

And sober, solemn students of James Joyce,

Dawdling and hissing into Camden Town.

 

But now in the winter dusk

I go to Dowlais Top

and stand by the railway bridge

Which joins the bleak brown hills,

And gaze at the streets of Dowlais

Lop-sided on the steep dark slope,

A bettered bucket on a broken hill,

And see the rigid phrases of Marx

Bold and black against the steel-grey west,

Riveted along the sullen skies.

And as for Heine, I look on the rough

Bleak, colourless hills around,

Naked and hard as flint,

Romance in a rough chemise.

 

by Idris Davies


Fun facts:

Dowlais is a village and community of the county borough of Merthyr Tydfil, in Wales. Dowlais is notable within Wales and Britain for its historic association with ironworking; once employing, through the Dowlais Iron Company, roughly 5,000 people, the works being the largest in the world at one stage.

Marx, I assume, refers to Karl Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) the German philosopher, economist, historian, political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist.

Heine, refers to Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (13 December 1797 – 17 February 1856) was a German poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is best known outside of Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder (art songs) by composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Heine’s later verse and prose are distinguished by their satirical wit and irony. He is considered part of the Young Germany movement. His radical political views led to many of his works being banned by German authorities, which however only added to his fame. Heine spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist, short story writer, and poet. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century. Joyce is best known for Ulysses (1922), a landmark work in which the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles, most famously stream of consciousness. Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). His other writings include three books of poetry, a play, his published letters and occasional journalism.

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Летний сад (Summer Garden) by Anna Akhmatova

I want to visit the roses

In that lonely

Park where the statues remember me young

And I remember them under the water

Of the Neva. In the fragrant quiet

Between the limes of Tsarskoye I hear

A creak of masts. And the swan swims

Still, admiring its lovely

Double. And a hundred thousand steps,

Friend and enemy, enemy and friend,

Sleep. Endless is the procession of shades

Between granite vase and palace door.

There my white nights

Whisper of someone’s discreet exalted

Love. And everything is mother-

Of-pearl and jasper,

But the light’s source is a secret.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(July, 1959, Leningrad)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas


Fun facts: The Summer Garden (Летний сад) occupies an island between the Fontanka, Moika, and the Swan Canal in Saint Petersburg (a.k.a. Leningrad), Russia and shares its name with the adjacent Summer Palace of Peter the Great.

Akhmatova recites her poem:

The text in the original Russian Cyrillic:

Летний сад

Я к розам хочу, в тот единственный сад,
Где лучшая в мире стоит из оград,

Где статуи помнят меня молодой,
А я их под невскою помню водой.

В душистой тиши между царственных лип
Мне мачт корабельных мерещится скрип.

И лебедь, как прежде, плывет сквозь века,
Любуясь красой своего двойника.

И замертво спят сотни тысяч шагов
Врагов и друзей, друзей и врагов.

А шествию теней не видно конца
От вазы гранитной до двери дворца.

Там шепчутся белые ночи мои
О чьей-то высокой и тайной любви.

И все перламутром и яшмой горит,
Но света источник таинственно скрыт.

‘To read only children’s tales…’ by Osip Mandelstam

To read only children’s tales

and look through a child’s eye;

to rise from grief and wave

big things goodbye.

 

Life has tired me to death;

life has no more to offer.

But I love my poor earth

since I know no other.

 

I swung in a faraway garden

on a plain plank swing;

I remember tall dark firs

in a feverish blur.

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(1908)

translated by Robert Chandler

The Garden by R. S. Thomas

It is a gesture against the wild,

The ungovernable sea of grass;

A place to remember love in,

To be lonely for a while;

To forget the voices of children

Calling from a locked room;

To substitute for the care

Of one querulous human

Hundreds of dumb needs.

 

It is the old kingdom of man.

Answering to their names,

Out of the soil the buds come,

The silent detonations

Of power weilded without sin.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from The Bread of Truth (1963)

The Death of Sophocles by Anna Akhmatova

Then the king learnt that Sophocles was dead

(Legend)

To Sophocles’ house that night an eagle flew down from the sky,

And sombrely rang from the garden the cicadas’ choir.

At that hour the genius was passing into immortality,

Skirting, at the walls of his native town, the night-fires

Of the enemy. And this was when the king had a strange dream:

Dionysus himself ordered the raising of the siege,

That no noise disturb the Athenians in burying him

With fitting ceremony and with elergies.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1961)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas


Fun facts: Sophocles (Σοφοκλῆς) c. 497/6 – winter 406/5 BC) is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. His first plays were written later than those of Aeschylus, and earlier than or contemporary with those of Euripides. Sophocles wrote over 120 plays during the course of his life, but only seven have survived in a complete form: Ajax, Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Oedipus Rex, Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus.

The most famous tragedies of Sophocles feature Oedipus and also Antigone: they are generally known as the Theban plays, although each play was actually a part of a different tetralogy, the other members of which are now lost. Sophocles influenced the development of drama, most importantly by adding a third actor, thereby reducing the importance of the chorus in the presentation of the plot. He also developed his characters to a greater extent than earlier playwrights such as Aeschylus.

Sophocles died at the age of ninety or ninety-one in the winter of 406/5 BC, having seen within his lifetime both the Greek triumph in the Persian Wars and the bloodletting of the Peloponnesian War. As with many famous men in classical antiquity, his death inspired a number of apocryphal stories. The most famous is the suggestion that he died from the strain of trying to recite a long sentence from his Antigone without pausing to take a breath. Another account suggests he choked while eating grapes at the Anthesteria festival in Athens. A third holds that he died of happiness after winning his final victory at the City Dionysia. A few months later, a comic poet, in a play titled The Muses, wrote this eulogy: “Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune.” According to some accounts, however, his own sons tried to have him declared incompetent near the end of his life; he is said to have refuted their charge in court by reading from his as yet unproduced Oedipus at Colonus. One of his sons, Iophon, and a grandson, also called Sophocles, also became playwrights.

Several ancient sources mention Sophocles’ homosexuality or bisexuality. Athenaios reported that Sophocles loved boys like Euripides loved women. The poet Ion of Chios relates an anecdote involving Sophocles seducing a serving boy at a symposium, and Athenaios one in which Sophocles is tricked by a hustler.

Regarding LGBT history under Stalin it makes interesting reading regarding the recriminalisation of homosexuality by him, associating it with fascism and accusating men of being pederasts thus conflating homosexuality with pedophilia. Especially as he tolerated the activities of Beria. Long after Stalin’s death in 1953, a 1964 Soviet sex manual instructed citizens that: “With all the tricks at their disposal, homosexuals seek out and win the confidence of youngsters. Then they proceed to act. Do not under any circumstances allow them to touch you. Such people should be immediately reported to the administrative organs so that they can be removed from society” despite liberalisation reforms under Khrushchev.

Маки (Poppies) by Innokenty Annensky

The gay day flames. The grass is still.

Like greedy impotence, poppies rise,

like lips that lust and poison fill,

like wings of scarlet butteflies.

 

The gay day flames… The garden now

is empty. Lust and feast are done.

Like heads of hags, the poppies bow

beneath the bright cup of the sun.

 

by Иннокентий Фёдорович Анненский (Innokenty Fyodorovich Annensky)

(1910)

translated by C. M. Bowra


 

Fun extra: Here is the poem performed in Russian.

The Just by Jorge Luis Borges

A man who cultivates a garden, the way Voltaire wanted.

One who is grateful there is music in the world.

Who delights in knowing where words come from.

Two workmen who, in a cafe in the South, play chess silently.

The potter who deliberates over form and colour.

The typesetter who lays out this page well but still is not pleased

A woman and a man reading the last tercets of a certain canto.

One who strokes a sleeping animal.

Who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done to him.

Who is grateful for Stevenson,

Who prefers others to be right.

These are people who, ignored, are saving the world.

 

by Jorge Luis Borges, 1899-1986, Argentina

translated by Kurt Heinzelman