March 30, 2008

Great lines rise as if a single Himalayan peak from a range of low hills

Anonymous said... It may be interesting to read Sri Aurobindo’s remarks:

«If I had to select the line in European poetry which most suggests an almost direct descent from the Overmind consciousness there might come first Virgil’s line about “the touch of tears in mortal things”: Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.»

«The context of Virgil’s line Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt has nothing to do with and cannot detract from its greatness and its overhead character. If we limit its meaning so as to unify it with what goes before, if we want Virgil to say in it only, “Oh yes, even in Carthage, so distant a place, these foreigners too can sympathise and weep over what has happened in Troy and get touched by human nisfortune,” then the line will lose all its value and we would only have to admire the strong turn and recherché suggestiveness of its expression. Virgil certainly did not mean it like that; he starts indeed by stressind the generality of the fame of Troy and the interest taken everywhere in her misfortunes but then he asses from the particularity of this idea and suddenly rises from it to a feeling of the universality of mortal sorroz and suffering and of the chord of human sympathy and participation which responds to it from all who share that mortality. He rises indeed much higher than that and goes much deeper: he has felt a brooding cosmic sense of these things, gone into the depth of the soul which answers to them and drawn from it the inspired and inevitable language and rhythm which came down to it from above to give this pathetic perception an immortla body. Lines like these seldom depend upon their context, they rise from it as if a single Himalayan peak from a range of low hills or even from a flat plain. They have to be looked at by themselves, valued for their own sake, felt in their own independent greatness.» 5/15/2007 6:20 PM

John Cowan said... Quite right, Anonymous. (Why don't you Anonymouses just make up names? On one of my postings -- an atypical one, to be sure -- I have some thirty of you commenting away. Posting under the name of John Jones or Norrin Radd would leave you no more or less anonymous than before.)

In any case, it's quite true that many "great lines" are now best interpreted out of the original context and in the context of repeated quotation. "More honored in the breach than in the observance" originally meant "more often honored" but is now usually employed to mean "more fitly honored"; similarly, the original "still small voice" of conscience merely reassures Elijah that he need not think of himself as a failure, for the Ba'al-worshippers that he has not yet murdered will be taken care of by others! 6/29/2007 6:04 PM

Priyadarshan said... Thank you for the very nice article. My sensitivity likes these lines from Sri Aurobindo's Savitri very much. I find they translate impeccably Virgilio's line: "But joy cannot endure until the end: There is a darkness in terrestrial things That will not suffer long too glad a note."-- Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, pp. 16-17 (That shows also how Latin is able of much more density than English.) 3/12/2008 1:16 PM

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