Friday, February 03, 2012

Alps on Alps arise!

Ferdinand Hodler, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau above a sea of fog, 1908
A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th' Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen'd Way,
Th' increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
Hills peep o'er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
These days I find it easy to appreciate the sentiments in this extended landscape metaphor from Pope's 'An Essay on Criticism' (1709).  Among those Heights of Arts that I tackled in fearless Youth, one of the most daunting was Ezra Pound's Cantos. Basil Bunting once compared them to the Alps in a memorable short poem, which you can hear Bunting reading at the Poetry Archive.  Trying to penetrate the Cantos, Bunting says, is like trying to make sense of the mountains: 'who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?'  Pound himself, in a section of the ABC of Reading entitled 'COMPASS, SEXTANT, OR LAND MARKS', advises the reader to 'brace himself' for a list of the great writers - 'the minimum that a man would have to read if he hoped to know what a given new book was worth' - and uses another Alpine metaphor to describe a knowledge of the classics of literature: 'a man who has climbed the Matterhorn may prefer Derbyshire to Switzerland but he won't think the Peak is the highest mountain in Europe.'

John Ruskin, The Matterhorn, 1849

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