Friday, December 20, 2013

Where sea-grass tangles with shore-grass

The hard sand breaks,
And the grains of it
Are clear as wine.
Far off over the leagues of it,
The wind,       
Playing on the wide shore,
Piles little ridges,
And the great waves
Break over it.

These are the opening lines of H.D.'s poem 'Hermes of the Ways', which was published in Ezra Pound's anthology Des Imagistes almost a hundred years ago.  It was one of the poems Pound had been shown in 1912 by the 'ardent young Hellenists', H.D. and Richard Aldington and which he sent in to Harriet Monroe's Poetry.  It was, he thought, "objective - no slither - direct - no excess of adjectives. etc.  No metaphors that won't permit examination. - It's straight talk - straight as the Greek!"  In The Pound Era Hugh Kenner describes the first three lines of this poem: 'perception slides over perception, each line the natural unit of the process ... one line of statement, its narrative implication (feet crushing salty dried shore) compressed to the uttermost; one line of microscopic attention, discerning the grains; one line of arresting comparison, casual and evaluative (like wine, this shore is welcome; like sand, the benison is equivocal).'

Hermes, Orator - Roman copy from the late 1st century CE-early 2nd century CE
 after a Greek original of the 5th century BC

In H.D.'s poem a statue of Hermes - the god of travellers, transitions and boundaries - stands 'where sea-grass tangles with / shore-grass.'  Nearby there is an orchard with twisted trees and small hard apples ripened late by 'a desperate sun / that struggles through sea-mist.'  The statue 'fronts the great dunes' where the wind rushes through coarse grass, crusted in salt.  A small white stream flows underground from a poplar-shaded hill and emerges on the sands.  'Hermes of the Ways' (as you can see at the Modernist Journals Project site) was published in the January 1913 edition of Poetry under the title 'Verses, Translations and Reflections from 'The Anthology''.  This is a reference to The Greek Anthology which has a group of epigrams by Anyte, including the one that H.D. adapted and expanded for her poem.  This prose translation of Anyte's poem is by Richard Aldington and was first published in 1915:


I, Hermes, stand here at the cross-roads by the wind-beaten orchard, near the hoary-grey coast;
And I keep a resting-place for weary men. And the cool stainless spring gushes out.

Anyte of Tegea lived in Arcadia in the early third century BCE.  She seems to have been, as it says in my Penguin edition of The Greek Anthology, 'the first poet to write epitaphs on animals, and to introduce bucolic themes into epigram.'  Her epigram 'Hermes of the Ways' interests me both as a condensed landscape poem (orchard, coast and spring) and as the evocation of a landscape sculpture.  Another (given in Aldington's translation below) provides a contrasting image of a statue by the sea. In poems like this, Marylin B. Skinner has suggested that Anyte offers an 'introspective' approach to ekphrasis, in contrast to male poets' detached way of reporting a visual experience (see 'Ladies' Day at the Art Institute: Theocritus, Herodas and the Gendered Gaze'). 'Aphrodite's benevolent mood is mirrored in the translucent expanse of water viewed from her headland and transmuted into concern for the mariners she beholds from afar. In the third line, there is an abrupt switch in perspective to the reverent tremor of the water as it, in turn, observes the goddess' glistening statue.'


This is the land of Kypris, since it pleases her to gaze for ever from land over the glittering sea.
So that she may bear the sailors safe to land; and the sea quivers, looking upon her shining image.

The Cyprus Mail reported earlier this year on plans to build a four-metre tall bronze statue of Aphrodite on a rock in the sea. Ten years ago a more controversial proposal for a hundred-foot statue based on Botticelli's Venus was stopped. 'Artists and environmentalists branded published photographs as ‘ugly’, and reminiscent of Hollywood and Las Vegas kitsch.  One artist said it looked like a cake.  The Chamber of Fine Arts (EKATE) said the idea of a Statue of Liberty sized goddess of love was “base, barbaric, morbid, bizarre, provocative, flashy, grotesque, monstrous, out of proportion, over the top, tacky, cheap, pointless and offensive”'.  Planning for the new project is in its early stages so it is not yet clear whether this bronze Aphrodite will one day be gazing over the glittering sea.  There are no such statues of gods in the other two 'landscape poems' of Anyte that survive in The Greek Anthology: just trees and spring waters and a cool breeze.  I think Ezra Pound's advice to poets in 'A Few Don'ts By an Imagiste', written for the March 1913 edition of Poetry, should be heeded by all those commissioning public artworks: 'Use either no ornament or good ornament'. 


Sit beneath the beautiful leaves of this laurel, and draw the sweet water from the fresh spring:
You are breathless from the heat; rest your dear limbs and let the breath of Zephyros touch them.


O wanderer, rest your tired limbs under this elm; the breeze murmurs in the light-green branches. Drink a cool draught from the spring. This resting place is dear to wayfarers in the hot summer. 

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