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Old poems

If I obeyed reason

Sara Carvalho

This poem should not have been forgotten because it is a brief, melodic ascertainment of the kind of truth which everyone has already experienced and probably experiences every day – the mind does not live without a body and the latter lays down its will often. Camões would honestly and openly sing about “expecting a body from the one whose soul you take”, and this poem seems to endorse such statement. Reason is not denied, neither is the soul, but it is also true that one cannot perpetually obey reason as that is against nature itself (“…is to deny the sensuality,/in which the heart lives entire.”).

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Infant Innocence

Maria S. Mendes

 

Infant Innocence

 

The Grizzly Bear is huge and wild;

He has devoured the infant child.

The infant child is not aware

He has been eaten by the bear.

 

A.E. Housman, “Infant Innocence”, The Penguin Book of Light Verse, ed. Gavin Ewart. London: Penguin Books, 1980. 

 

 

I think this poem should not have been forgotten as it is a good pocket poem, only apparently silly, and perfect to be used in a variety of circumstances. In the poem, the image of the huge bear is opposed to that of the smallness of the child, while the wildness of the animal contrasts with the child’s innocence. If a feature of wild animals is that they tend to eat whatever is available, with certain lack of concern for whether or not is it ethical to consume small babies, a characteristic of babies seems to be the fact that they understand very little, which is why they seem to be unable to realize that they are about to be or have been eaten by a bear. This means that both bears and babies seem to be alike in their lack of awareness of what is happening to them and that eating and being eaten are similar forms of innocence.

The bear ignores the fact that it is committing murder; whereas the child is unaware that being eaten usually implies dying, as that would involve understanding death as concept, something a small baby would be unable to do. Despite the parallelism between lines, the title could point to the fact that only infant children are innocent, but, in fact, the term infant innocence could represent the bear’s behavior, which devours others without knowing why.

The silliness of the form, and its simplicity, could thus cover two seemingly incompatible moral standings. On the one hand, it refers to how those who are wild and huge tend to eat those who are small (and they really shouldn’t), and to those who are too powerless to avoid being eaten. So a good occasion to make use of the poem and to quote it appropriately would be in those occasions of life in which we see powerful people manoeuvring those who are not. On the other, “grizzly” names a large race of brown bears native to North America, but also a child who cries fretfully, which is a very annoying thing for a child to do, as we all know. In this sense, there is some justice in the ghoulish action of the bear, which means that the poem could be read to those who complain noisily about something, but also as a warning to a misbehaved child. 

Maria Sequeira Mendes


Maria Sequeira Mendes is a professor at the Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon, and collaborates with Teatro Cão Solteiro. She wrote for the first time about poetry at primary school, but the composition had spelling mistakes. She then promised she would never write about poets who used difficult words to copy. This has proved to be a difficult oath to live by.

 

Written on the Sea Shore

Maria S. Mendes

 

Sonnet XII.

Written on the Sea Shore. - October, 1784.

 

 

ON some rude fragment of the rocky shore,

Where on the fractured cliff the billows break,

Musing, my solitary seat I take,

And listen to the deep and solemn roar.

 

O'er the dark waves the winds tempestuous howl;

The screaming sea-bird quits the troubled sea:

But the wild gloomy scene has charms for me,

And suits the mournful temper of my soul.

 

Already shipwreck'd by the storms of Fate,

Like the poor mariner methinks I stand,

Cast on a rock; who sees the distant land

From whence no succour comes--or comes too late.

Faint and more faint are heard his feeble cries,

’Till in the rising tide, the exhausted sufferer dies.

 

Charlotte Smith, ‘XII. Written on the Sea Shore’, Elegiac Sonnets. London: T. Cadell, 1789.

 

 

This poem should not have been forgotten as it is a fine example of both confessional poetry and sonnet form done right. The title’s preciseness, set in a specific time and place (‘the’) nonetheless contrasts with its opening verse: ‘On some rude fragment of the rocky shore’ [emphasis mine] - the first clue that place might not be what is most important in the sonnet. The abruptness of the scenery is echoed in the ‘r’ consonance of ‘rude’, ‘fragment’, ‘rocky’, ‘fractur’d’, and ‘break’, as well as in the unruliness of the imperfect rhyme in the first two quatrains (‘shore’/ ‘roar’; ‘howl’/ ‘soul’). The melodiousness of the stanzas, created by an intermingling of consonance and alliteration, make of the ‘deep and solemn roar’ a description ambiguously suitable for scene and sonnet.

The introduction of the verb (‘[m]using’) is deferred to the end of the third verse, as is the subject who, gazing thoughtfully, takes the spectator's ‘solitary seat’. Whereas both the possessive pronoun and ‘take’ imply someone who has a precise, usual place in the scene, - ‘a’, rather than ‘my’, would be used for a seat taken for the first time - the use of the inserted rhyme (i.e., the rhyme scheme is abba) in the four instances where the subject directly refers to itself (‘I take’, ‘charms for me’, ‘temper of my soul’, ‘methinks I stand’) contributes to a sense of encasement of this solitary being in the tempestuous landscape.

The poet defies expectation (‘But’) in the second quatrain by affirming that the ‘wild gloomy scene has charms for me,/ And suits the mournful temper of my soul’. The use of ‘suits’ is curious: most likely meaning ‘to be fitted or adapted to, be suitable for, answer the requirements of’ (OED), it implies an interchangeability between scene and subject that suggests, on the one hand, that the long description of the former is also a description of the latter’s ‘mournful temper’, thus making the first two quatrains masked depictions of the ‘I’ ; on the other hand, it implicates that the sea shore has no effect on the subject, but rather mimics what the subject was already feeling. Although the appearance of the ‘I’ is deferred, and its role is subdued to that of a spectator, the sonnet’s volta nevertheless turns the poem in such a way that it becomes about the ‘I’.

The subject proceeds to embody a sailor in the final quatrain (‘like the mariner’). The use of the past (‘Already shipwreck’d’), along with the use of ‘Fate’ point to the poem’s ominous ending. As the ‘cliff’ marks the point where land and sea meet, so is the poet placed in the limbo between life and death: the two pathways available - marked by a caesuric dash - are lack of ‘succour’, or it coming ‘too late’. The existence of an actual choice is thus as misleading as the role of the ‘I’ in the poem,  as both scenarios inevitably lead ‘the exhausted sufferer’ to the same end: death (‘dies’). 

Inês Rosa


Inês Rosa is a PhD student at the Program in Literary Theory (Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon). Her interest in poetry started with Shakespeare’s sonnets (read by Helen Vendler’s), but it was in Cambridge, while eating cakes and drinking tea, she began to talk and write about poems. Focused mainly on the work by Wordsworth, sonets, Smith and Philip Larkin are also part of her topics of interest in poetry.

Lion of Philosophy

Maria S. Mendes

「てつがくのライオン」

"Lion of Philosophy" (“Tetsugaku no Lion”)

 

ライオンは「てつがく」が気に入っている。

Lion is fond of "Philosophy".

 

かたつむりが、ライオンというのは獣の王で哲学的な様子をしているものだと教えてくれたからだ。

That's because Snail kindly told him that a lion is King of Beasts who should look philosophical.

 

きょうライオンは「てつがくてき」になろうと思った。

Today Lion thought he would be "philosophical".

 

 哲学というのは座り方から工夫した方がよいと思われるので、尾を右にまるめて腹ばいに座り、前肢(まえあし)を重ねてそろえた。

He thought that this philosophy thing would seem better when one contrives a way to sit, so he sat on his belly with his tail curled to the right, and placed his paws on top of each other.

 

 首をのばし、右斜め上をむいた。尾のまるめ具合からして、その方がよい。尾が右で顔が左をむいたら、でれりとしてしまう。

He then stretched his neck, and looked up to the right. This is a better way, judging from the way the tail is curled. If the tail goes right and the face goes left, he would end up looking spoony.

 

ライオンが顔をむけた先に、草原が続き、木が一本はえていた。

Beyond where Lion’s face was pointed to, there were miles of fields, with one lone tree standing.

 

ライオンは、その木の梢を見つめた。梢の葉は風に吹かれてゆれた。ライオンのたてがみも、ときどきゆれた。

Lion stared at the branches of the tree. The leaves on the branches swayed in the wind. Lion's mane also swayed from time to time.

 

 (だれか来てくれるといいな。「なにしてるの?」と聞いたら「てつがくしてるの」って答えるんだ)

(I wish somebody would come. When they ask me "What are you doing?", I will reply, "I'm doing philosophy".)

 

ライオンは、横目で、だれか来るのを見張りながらじっとしていたがだれもこなかった。

Lion stayed still, watching in the corner of his eye if somebody would come, but nobody came.

 

 日が暮れた。ライオンは肩がこってお腹がすいた。

The dusk had fallen. Lion had stiff shoulders and he became hungry.

 

 (てつがくは肩がこるな。お腹がすくと、てつがくはだめだな)

(Philosophy gives me stiff shoulders. When I'm hungry, philosophy is no good.)

 

きょうは「てつがく」はおわりにして、かたつむりのところへ行こうと思った。

He thought he'd finish with "philosophy" for today, and go over to Snail.

 

 「やあ、かたつむり。ぼくはきょう、てつがくだった」

"Hi Snail. I was philosophy today."

 

 「やあ、ライオン。それはよかった。で、どんなだった?」

"Hi Lion. That's great to hear. And how was it?"

 

 「うん、こんなだった」

"Yeah, it was like this."

 

ライオンは、てつがくをやった時の様子をしてみせた。

Lion showed him how he was when he did philosophy.

 

さっきと同じように首をのばして右斜め上を見ると、そこには夕焼けの空があった。

Just like a few moments ago, he stretched his neck and looked up to the right, and then there was the sunset sky.

 

 「ああ、なんていいのだろう。ライオン、あんたの哲学は、とても美しくてとても立派」

"Oh how wonderful it is! Lion, your philosophy is so beautiful and so magnificent!"

 

 「そう?・・・とても・・何だって?もういちど云ってくれない?」

"Really? You said what? Could you tell me that again?"

 

 「うん、とても美しくて、とても立派」

"Sure, so beautiful and so magnificent!"

 

 「そう、ぼくのてつがくは、とても美しくてとても立派なの?ありがとうかたつむり」

"Really? My philosophy is so beautiful and so magnificent? Thank you, Snail."

 

ライオンは肩こりもお腹すきもわすれて、じっとてつがくになっていた。

Lion forgot all about his stiff shoulders and hunger, and in a standstill, he has become philosophy.

 

Kudo Naoko, “Lion of Philosophy (Tetsugaku no Lion),” Tetsugaku no Lion. Tokyo: Risosha, 1982.

工藤直子、「てつがくのライオン」、『てつがくのライオン』

 

I like this anthropomorphic poem because it represents in a very plain language the sensibility of childhood and juvenility as something positive and profound. In contemporary Japanese society, anthropomorphic mascots and characters inundates not only the commercial spheres but also political ones, as local governments, police and even courts create their own characters to promote their administrations. In this sense, the whole Japanese society may seem to be affected by juvenilization. As much as posing criticism on this phenomenon, we could also ask ourselves if juvenilization is simply a sign of detestable immaturity, or something valuable is underlying it. This poem seems to me to offer an excellent path to understanding this issue.

So how should we look at the poem which, despite its popularity in Japan, seems to be overlooked outside of the country? One thing we need to remember is that Kudo Naoko has been writing poetry extensively for children. In fact, “Lion of Philosophy” has been adopted many times into the secondary school Japanese textbooks since its publication in 1982. In the face value, the poem depicts bizarre and childish conversations about the “would-be” philosopher Lion and his friend Snail, perhaps in the savanna of Africa which is very much exotic to Japan. Does this mean that her literature should be understood as “juvenile”?  We should not overlook, however, the poet’s careful uses of Japanese language in representing something that could look plain comical and fantastic. In the Japanese original, we notice that the word “philosophy” is carefully differentiated. In Lion’s discourse, philosophy (“tetsugaku”) is written in Hiragana characters (てつがく). To readers with Japanese language skills, this implies a trace of juvenility in Lion, as grown-ups would write philosophy in more complex Kanji characters (哲学). The juvenility of Lion is juxtaposed to the Snail’s lines: Snail always talks about philosophy in Kanji character. The concept of philosophy is alien to Lion, while for Snail, it is an established and lived knowledge. Thus, Kudo represents Lion in his heart-warmingly childish struggle to assimilate himself to the new knowledge he heard from Snail, who is, to him, a wise master whose words revealed himself in the way he could have never seen before. The Lion’s awkwardness for the alien concept of philosophy is reinforced by the uses of quotation marks in lines 1, 3 and 12. Consequently Lion tries to be “philosophy” itself (“tetusgaku” as in noun — which is ungrammatical), rather than becoming “philosophical” (“tetsugakuteki” as in grammatically correct adjective), which is what Snail initially tells him to be in line 2.

At the end of the poem, Lion has indeed “become philosophy.” At a glance, Lion seems to have mastered the way he is supposed to look like. This is not to say, however, that the lion becomes “philosophical” — note that in the poem’s last lines he still uses the word “tetsugaku” in Hiragana character. One could dismiss Lion for being preoccupied with superficial appearance of philosophy/philosophical, and for wishfully thinking that he will be able to show off his new identity through mere affectation and posing. But that is not the point of this poem. On the contrary, the beauty of this poem lies, I think, in the fact that it appreciates Lion who indeed becomes philosophy itself in his unique way. The quaint beauty of the Lion “of philosophy” — who inadvertently became even more “beautiful and magnificent” than the pre-established “philosophical Lion” — makes us think about the potential in an unknowledgeable child who opens themself up to the new world and puts themself there in solitude for the first time in their life. We then realize that, after all, that is what philosophy is about.

Thus, minutely differentiating the writing of the word “philosophy,” Kudo Naoko’s anthropomorphic poem brings charm to Lion’s trial-and-error in self-fashioning himself as unknown other. Finding one’s new self through the voice of another signifies the process of discovering one’s unexpected potential. This is not an easy process for anybody: we need to be prepared to suffer from stiff shoulders, and to feel hungry and lonely. Yet, like Lion, we may be able to find the quaint beauty and magnificence in the end. The poem’s sensibility in representing this sort of potential in a very plain language may suggest that being juvenile is perhaps not always such a bad thing.

Akihiko Shimizu


Akihiko Shimizu teaches Japanese at the University of Edinburgh. He also does research on Ben Jonson and early modern English literature. Years ago when Aki bumped into a three-line epigram by Jonson, he found it so baffling that he decided to find out what on earth the poem is on about. He ended up writing a PhD thesis, Ben Jonson and Character.

Between I, myself and me

Maria S. Mendes

 

Between I, myself and me

 

Between I, myself and me

What has risen I do not know

Which makes me my enemy

 

For a time with much delusion

I myself have lived with me

Now in the greatest misery

I find great harm comes in profusion.

Sorely costly is disillusionment

and yet kill me it did not

but how sorely did I pay the cost.

 

To myself I am made a stranger

Between consideration and concern

Evil lies there, spun

By great evil to which I succumb.

A new fear, a new woe

This is what has had me so,

Thus I am had, thus I am so.

 

Bernardim Ribeiro 

 

This poem should not have been forgotten because it can avoid many appointments with a psychiatrist. It is the perfect example of a certain poetic “breathing” which eases our own breathing, as any asthma patient, myself included, knows perfectly well.

It is a very self-contained poem, closed in itself, “solipsist” (inverted commas because this is an ugly word which becomes eloquent with time), and at the same time universal, troubling and illustrative of what Oscar Wilde, to whom flamboyance was no stranger, claimed – the worse crimes of Humanity are committed in the brain.

Bernardim makes us face alienation (“to myself I made a stranger”), which we could perhaps define as the feeling of looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing a complete stranger bearing entirely different values, morals and truth to our own – to the point we could call them lies. This villancico explains all the moments in life in which we struggle against what we should do and not against what we can and want to do.

We usually choose the ease and the cowardice of doing what we can and want to do, instead of what is right – and this “makes us our enemy”. In Linguistics, modality is defined as the speaker’s attitude and his or her engagement towards the utterance; it is conveyed by certain verbs which with some pomposity are called “modal” – “should” and “can” prominently. Bernardim calls it something “that has risen”; “delusion”; “great harm”; and he also describes the moment of cruel lucidity (“Sorely costly is disillusionment”) when we imperatively know that our brain has committed a crime; or the coward moment in which we choose what is easy, not what is right.

The world is full of bad people who think they are good people simply because they have never killed or insulted anyone to their face. We are all like that except for Bernardim (in itself a very musical name). He knows that when the moment of “disillusionment” comes, the kind masks which cover our ugly, not at all ideal self, will fall and uncover a dire portrait of Dorian Grey (who would tell that Oscar Wilde could have so much to do with all this). At least, we have Bernardim to tell us that life is what it is, that the human condition struggles against its own turpitude and, alas, “thus I am had, thus I am so”.

Originally published in Cancioneiro Geral, this villancico follows the “new metrics”, the fashion of the time, and it postulates the equally fashionable theme of the “fragmentation of the self”, which is furthermore reflected in Sá de Miranda’s “troubled” cantiga. The latter complains about not being able to live with himself nor without himself (here, prepositions and pronouns convey to perfection the intricate philosophy exuding from the minds of these poets). However, I would say that the truthful and disarming simplicity of Bernardim’s poem scores many points. “Between I, myself and me/ What has risen I do not know”. “Between consideration and concern”. In his frequent alliterations, the poet says everything he means in a couple of lines. No need for endless verbal drivel. 

 

* Very little is known about Bernardim Ribeiro but at the same time a great deal is known. His poetry was included in Garcia de Resende’s 1516 Cancioneiro Geral and fellow poet and friend Sá de Miranda writes about him (“amigo Ribeiro”) to both praise his literary gifts and lament his mysterious fall from grace. Almeida Garrett attributes the latter to a heartbreaking love story between Bernardim and Beatriz, who happened to be the King’s daughter. Sadly there is no historical evidence for such a cinematic love story. What we do know is that Bernardim, in all likelihood born in the late 1400s and deceased in the mid-1500s, was a poet who enjoyed success and royal favours for a time; left the court for reasons unknown but probably in disgrace; transformed the cadence of music and alliteration into cerebral poetry and wrote the most wonderful beginning to a novel – “Menina e moça me levaram de casa de minha mãe para muito longe. Que causa fosse então daquela minha levada, era ainda pequena, não a soube”. It is also Menina e Moça who provides grounds to believe Bernardim might have been Jewish – converted, reconverted, in exile, we don’t know (as explained by Helder Macedo in his preface to Menina e Moça, D. Quixote, 1999). His mind seems to have been a mind in exile – and there are many forms of exile, with which Bernardim was certainly acquainted. This, we know. 

Translation and reading Rita Faria


Rita Faria is a professor at the Catholic University of Portugal. She doesn’t know how to do anything else apart from reading and writing and wants to do nothing else apart from reading and writing. Besides this, she enjoys horror films, vampires, ghosts and zombies in general and thinks the Portuguese language is the most fun in the whole world.