Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Radiant Sisters

Clearly, my blog has gone into abeyance while I work on Pleiades, but to tide you over, here's a poem, "On the Beach at Night" by Walt Whitman, that I found while doing research for mentions of the Pleiades in literature.
On the beach at night,
Stands a child with her father,
Watching the east, the autumn sky.

Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

From the beach the child holding the hand of her father,
Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,
Watching, silently weeps.

Weep not, child,
Weep not, my darling,
With these kisses let me remove your tears,
The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,
They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition,
Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades shall emerge,
They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,
The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,
The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.

Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?
Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?

Something there is,
(With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,
I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,)
Something there is more immortal even than the stars,
(Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)
Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter
Longer than sun or any revolving satellite,
Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.
Of note: my play is about Jupiter (Zeus) and the Pleiades, and long before I read this poem, I had planned for my play to take place in a summer house on Walt Whitman's native Long Island, with some key scenes occurring "on the beach at night."

Also of note: I found two different versions of this poem online, the one above, and a version where the Pleiades are referred to as "delicate brothers" and "radiant brothers." I had heard that Whitman compulsively revised his poems, but never seen such a clear-cut example! It seems that when the poem was originally published in Leaves of Grass in 1871, it was "brothers," but twenty years later, it had changed to "sisters." Did he revise it to make it less shocking/controversial? After all, if the Pleiades are always referred to as the Seven Sisters, it's a gender reversal to portray them as brothers, and a phrase like "delicate brothers" would have served as a big sign-post pointing to Whitman's homosexuality.

Then again, according to another website I found, the Pleiades have always had an association with homosexuality -- I suppose because they are seen as such a strong feminine influence that, when they appear in a man's astrological chart, they signify effeminacy or homosexuality? But I enjoyed this astrologer's positive re-interpretation of the Pleiades (seeing them not as victims, but "divine sisters on a voyage to true individuality and rebellion against social expectations... a reminder to those who would follow in their steps of revolution, promising that all burdens endured would lead to a greater brightness that would withstand the darkness of man's own ignorance") and his discovery of an ancient text that assigned a virtue and a color to each of the seven sisters. One of my challenges while writing Pleiades has been to develop each sister as an individual character -- when the myths don't give them much in the way of individual personality. And I get a kick out of this esoteric astrological stuff.


Dr.J said...

Maybe you don´t know the poem that Rubén Darío (Nicaragua 1867-Spain 1916) dedicated to Whitman in the second edition of Azul (Blue) 1890
Walt Whitman
In his iron country the great old man lives/ handsome like a patriarch, saint and serene/ The olympic wrink in his brow commands and wins with noble charm.
His soul mirrors the infinite; his tired shoulders deserve the cloak; and with harp cut from the aged oak,/like a new prophet sings his chant.
Priest that breaths an air divine/a better time, in the future,announce. To the eagle "fly!" to the sailor "row!" and "work!" to the stalwart to the labourer tells/ There goes the poet along his way with his superb emperor face!
Sorry about the translation (mine) the original sonet in spanish is:
En su país de hierro vive el gran viejo/bello como un patriarca, sereno y santo./Tiene en la arruga olímpica de su entrecejo/algo que impera y vence con noble encanto/
Su alma del infinito parece espejo/son sus cansados hombros dignos del manto/y con arpa labrada de un roble añejo/como un profeta nuevo canta su canto.
Sacerdote que alienta soplo divino,
anuncia, en el futuro, tiempo mejor/ Dice al águila ¡vuela!, ¡boga! al marino y "trabaja! al robusto trabajador./!Así va ese poeta por su camino, con su soberbio rostro de emperador.
And some years later (1905) his Ode to Roosevelt (teddy of course) begins:
"It is with Bible voice or Whitman verse/that you should be reached Hunter...
So W.W. has been a recognized (if not influential) poet in spanish verse and prose (Borges)

Marissa said...

Thanks for that. I'd never heard of Ruben Dario. Thanks also for providing the translation as well as the original (I haven't forgotten all of my high-school Spanish!).

In my country we think of Whitman as American in a "United States" sense, but I can see how he was also American in a "New World" sense -- a revolutionary, authentic voice from a young nation. So I can see why Latin American poets like Sr. Dario might have been attracted to Whitman's writing.

Dr.J said...

Well, I think it is very important for any american writer to read Rubén Darío. He is probably the author of the best verses in the turn of the century and paralled only by the likes of Lorca or Neruda from that time on. Prosas profanas and Cantos de vida y esperanza are a must.
Of course his bohemian life (in the sense of misery, alcoholism and the like) make a lot of his production negligible but as the best spanish poet of our time (Pere Gimferrer) says: he is along with Dante and Shakespeare.

Marissa said...

Thanks for the recommendation -- Lorca and Neruda have caught on among U.S. readers, I wonder why Darío hasn't? Especially if he had a tragic bohemian life :-)