Sunday, April 21, 2024

The Fountain of Arethusa

 There is sweet music in that pine tree's whisper...

- Theocritus, Idyll 1, trans. Anthony Verity

Last week I was in Syracuse, the home of Theocritus and, by extension, pastoral poetry. The first of his Idylls begins with two comparisons of nature and music. The words above are spoken in the poem's opening line by Thyrsis, praising the music of a goatherd's pan pipes. The goatherd replies 'shepherd, your song sounds sweeter than the water tumbling / over there from the high rock.' Thyrsis is persuaded to sing The Sufferings of Daphnis, the lament of a dying Sicilian cowherd (the reasons for his death are left mysterious). I have described here before Virgil's references to Daphnis in his Eclogues, and also the ancient novel Daphnis and Chloe, although in that story Daphnis tends goats on Lesbos. Re-reading Theocritus after visiting Sicily reminded me that many of his poems are set in the wider Greek world, although Idyll 16, is addressed to the tyrant of Syracuse, Hieron II. Both Idyll 16 and Idyll 1 refer to Arethusa, a spring that you can still visit on the island of Ortygia (the old centre of Syracuse). It is just be the sea and walled in to create a pond inhabited by fish and ducks.  


In Greek mythology, Arethusa was a nymph who fled from her home in Arcadia, emerging eventually as a fresh water fountain on Ortygia. The predatory male in this story was Alpheus, a river god, who pursued her until she prayed to be transformed into a cloud. But Alpheus wouldn't let up and, perspiring with fear, she turned into a stream and flowed through the sea until she reached safety in Syracuse. Ovid called her Alpheius - the name of a Greek river (it is said that a wooden cup thrown into the Alfeiós will eventually turn up in the Spring of Arethusa). Virgil alludes to this story when Aeneas reaches Sicily: 'an island lies over against wave-washed Plemyrium, / stretched across a Sicilian bay: named Ortygia by men of old. / The story goes that Alpheus, a river of Elis, forced /a hidden path here under the sea, and merges / with the Sicilian waters of your fountain Arethusa.' Virgil addresses his tenth Eclogue to Arethusa and refers to the story of Daphnis told by Theocritus, relocating the setting from Sicily to (an imaginary) Arcadia.

John Martin, Alpheus and Arethusa, 1832


Unsurprisingly Arethusa gets frequently mentioned in later pastoral poetry, right up to Wordsworth, who wonders in The Prelude whether 'that fountain be in truth no more'. Milton had referred to it in his elegy Lycidas, along with Mincius, a river in Italy that features in Virgil's Eclogue 7. 'O fountain Arethuse, and thou honour'd flood, / Smooth-sliding Mincius, crown'd with vocal reeds, / That strain I heard was of a higher mood.' But Samuel Johnson was not impressed with poetry of this kind. 'It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fauns with cloven heel. Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.'

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

A Tale of the Wind

Mentioning Bert Haanstra, a Dutch documentary maker, in my last post reminded me of the great Joris Ivens. I referred to him back in 2008 when I wrote about the city symphony films being made in the late 1920s. Rain (Regen, 1929) displayed an interest in the elements that persisted all his life. The image above of Ivens on a mountain in China is from A Tale of the Wind, which was released sixty years later, three months before he died. Derek Jarman was an admirer and mentions it three times in Modern Nature:

  • 'Before we turned in: a ravishing film by Joris Ivens, at 90 chasing the elusive wind in China. The most refined work, it made the Hitchcock season look dreadful.'
  • 'So late at night. I weep for the garden so lonely in the shingle desert. Dear Jean [Cocteau], am I the only one who, besides you, has funded a film on his name? Joris Ivens' perfect film of the wind? So few escape to tread this path. Hedges of money, fixed stars.'
  • 'Joris Ivens walking breathless into the desert to find the wind. Asthmatic.'  

Like Jarman and Ivens I have always had asthma and love the idea of the aged director setting off to discover the secret of breathing in the rhythm of the autumn wind. Ivens was born in 1898, so was almost as old as cinema itself and A Tale of the Wind includes a fantasy sequence based on Georges Méliès’A Trip to the Moon (1902), as well as clips from a couple of his own films made in the thirties. When Jarman saw it he was forty-seven, almost half as young as Ivens, HIV positive and starting to suffer from the respiratory illnesses that would restrict his film making. In Modern Nature he describes listening to the wind at Dungeness and storms rattling the old walls of his cottage: 'a wild wind roared through the night, chasing sleep to the edge of dawn.' That morning he woke to 'crystalline sunlight, all the dark humours blown away by the wind. The crocuses open quickly, bright yellow petals spread wide open at noon. The purple and white in the shadows. The snowdrops are out; and before the sun disappears round the house the first daffodil has opened.'

There is an excellent article on A Tale of the Wind by Jonathan Rosenbaum, written in 1992. He concludes by describing its final scene. 

Still later, trekking across mountains and desert with his camera and sound crew in search of the elusive wind, he is told by a Chinese peasant woman, perhaps a witch, that she can draw a magic figure in the sand that will beckon the wind out of hiding. She needs, however, two electric fans, and these are promptly sent for and delivered to the site by a camel, leading to the ecstatic miracle that forms the film’s climax. Like the Mélièsian warrior sequence, it is yet another instance of folklore and technology, archaeology and fantasy being brought into a sublime proximity, even a communication with each another. It is Joris Ivens’s message to — or is it from? — the 21st century, if only we are brave and alert enough to listen.