Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The bitter lemons printed with your teeth - another Chimera


Do you recognize, DAPHNE, the old refrain,
At the sycamore's foot, by the white laurels, below
The olive, myrtle or the trembling willow,
The love-song . . . always starting up again!

Remember the TEMPLE, its endless colonnade,
The bitter lemons printed with your teeth?
And, fatal to rash visitors, the cave
Where sleeps the conquered dragon's ancient seed.

They will come back, those gods you always mourn!
Time will return the order of old days;
The land has shivered with prophetic breath . . .

Meanwhile the Sibyl with the latin face
Still sleeps beneath the arch of Constantine:
- And nothing has disturbed the austere porch.

The Chimeras consists of only twelve poems, all sonnets, just 168 lines. Five are a single sequence, "Christ on the Mount of Olives." Seven are like yesterday's "El Desdichado," or this one. These seven form a sequence, too, although if they tell a story, I missed it. Naples recurs, for example, and Virgil, and Pompeii - "suddenly ash blanketed the sky" ("Myrtho"). "Delphica"'s TEMPLE is apparently a Temple of Isis in Pompeii. That link is made clearer in "Horus," about dying gods, I think, in which Isis is a character. "Put out his squint eye, tie his twisted foot -\ He's king of winters, the volcanoes' god!" she says.

"Anteros" ends "I sow \ Again at her feet the teeth of the old dragon," a reference to the Cadmus myth. The next poem is the one I have here. The teeth and the dragon are separated by a line, but after the previous poem, the association is inescapable, although that would make the lemon-biting woman a dragon as well. The Cadmus myth (the dragon's teeth grow into warriors, who, after a battle with each other, help found a city) fits in with the poem's conception of the return of the old pre-Christian, pre-Constantine gods, the old oracles, "the order of old days."

Richard Holmes devotes an entire essay in the Peter Jay translation to that amazing line, "Et les citrons amers s'imprimaient tes dents?" It reminds me of Goethe's "Mignon" (1795), although I worry that I'm jumping to Goethe too much.

Or maybe not. I just looked up Christopher Middleton's version of "Mignon." It begins "Knowst thou the land of flowering lemon trees," in other words, Italy, as I know from the poem's context in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. That's what I was remembering. But then there's "Calm the myrtle, high the laurel grows \ Knowst thou it still?" and later "a cave, \ And in it dwells the ancient dragon brood." And then Middleton adds "This translation is dedicated to the memory of Gérard de Nerval."

I feel like I should start this post over. Seriously, that lemon line is fantastic. Discuss amongst yourselves.

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