Wednesday, August 09, 2006

On a "Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf"

About a year ago now, I was introduced to one of Borges' poems, entitled "Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf." I've always loved Jorge Luis Borges, from the first time I read his "Library of Babel." Something in it -- or perhaps it was in Eco's Name of the Rose, now that I think about it -- seemed so possible, without ever quite tipping over into being. What do I mean by that? Good question. I wish I knew how to define it. It's contained, encapsulated (ironically enough) in the final paragraph:

I have just written the word "infinite.'' I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end -- which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

(from this website)

Those who've read my blog before know that one of my favorite modern authors is E.M. Forster. One of the lines that struck me in A Passage to India reads "They had not the apparatus for judging." The ending of "The Library of Babel" -- the impossible, eternal traveler seeing that "the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order)" -- seems another moment of resonating thought across genre, language and time. The ability to look an inability to ever truly know in the eye, so to speak, and call it an "elegant hope," however, is for me what I take from my admittedly small knowledge of Borges.

This poem is no different. The last two lines, lifting beyond the grammar of Old English or of life, looks outward to a vast universe and names it hope. The mind that writes these lines moves beyond the difficulty of mastering a finite field and looks into the infinite, unknowable universe. If the soul has its "way of knowing / that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing circle can take in all, accomplish all," it is a "secret" if "sufficient way of knowing." It doesn't impart that knowledge, that possibility, on the subject who speaks. But still the smaller sphere, the comprehendable if never comprehensive, remains, somehow, not enough. Borges doesn't seem satisfied by what he can know -- only by the knowledge that there is more out there than, perhaps, can be known. His "solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope."

Anyway, this is a lovely poem for graduate students and professors alike, I think -- I know that the last lines have become my mantra in the past year. It's almost like standing in a cathedral, or looking up at the dome of the sky -- a reminder, strangely calming if I let it be, that we are so very, very small. To borrow a phrase from White, "the fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of that sunlit sea." (Yes, it continues -- "The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart. Explicit liber regis quondam regisque futuri. The Beginning." -- I memorized this passage of The Once and Future King long ago. What an ending. Good enough I can't even stop it once I've begun!). But enough of me...the point of this post is Borges. I hope others enjoy this poem as much as I do.

"Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf"
by Borges (trans. by Alastair Reid)

At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.

Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

Edit, mere moments after posting: It occurs to me that this all reminds me of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, and a part of the ending of it -- "Invent, invent the plan Casaubon. That's what everyone has done, to explain the dinosaurs and the peaches." Another way of seeing what we do in the face of what we can never truly know.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Beautiful, haunting post.

JLH said...

Well, it's been a while since you created this lovely post and passed on this wonderful poem. You may never read this note. But thank you.