288. “Heraclitus” by William (Johnson) Cory (1823-1892)

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

I wept as I remember’d how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest

Still thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

(written 1850?ish, published 1891)

There’s a moment in the “Fair Ship” sequence of In Memoriam where the poet imagines himself meeting the ship that bears the corpse of Arthur Hallam and for just one moment finds that he expects his friend to simply walk off the ship instead. Absence is a funny thing, something we can get used to as long as it meets our expectations and conforms to our timetables. Temporary if somewhat open-ended absences are bittersweet, though they often don’t change our routines so much; when more definitive, traumatic partings take place…well, it’s also sometimes striking how quickly their effects fade. This is all, to some extent, par for the course in a world of constant flux–a world, perhaps, as understood by Heraclitus–though that very sense of flux, perhaps akin to a kind perpetual Paterian weaving and unweaving of ourselves. How can you register absence when the river you step into isn’t even really the same river, or when you can still hear the nightingales?

There is, of course, a fairly obvious “trick” going on in the first line of this poem (which, according to its Representative Poetry Online page, is a translation of “an epigram of Callimachus”–though if you read that epigram, you’ll see that the repetitions and the tricks, as it were, belong to Cory). “They told me you were dead” suggests the kind of misinformation that one recalls years later while having a good laugh with Heraclitus himself–who may, if we read line 5 too quickly (the one about “thou art lying”), have faked his own death. But Heraclitus is dead–so far as we know, for the poem’s speaker still seems somewhat divided on this point. Sure, his friend’s ashes are not just at rest but “long, long ago at rest” (“Cinders there are”? Anyone?), but so much of the rest of this short poem seems to be conspiring to make the speaker’s hold on this bit of knowledge somewhat tenuous. He knows it in his head but not, perhaps, in his senses, in his body.

Aside from all their overdeterminedness as poetic symbol* the nightingale voices strike me as interesting here because they’re used to invoke a kind of permanence that is actually produced through a kind of endless replaceability. Death “cannot take” the nightingales away because there is nothing to take–unlike Heraclitus himself, they are not individuated (since this isn’t an Oscar Wilde fairytale–see “The Nightingale and the Rose”) and in fact are kind of expendable–it’s not death, exactly, but a kind of mindlessness in advance thereof.

The other thing I just want to observe about this poem is the overall difficulty of talking about the issues of death–and survival. I’ve been beginning to think about this as an angle on Browning’s “Epistle,” since one usually doesn’t get the chance to be both the dead guy and the dead guy’s survivor at the same time. But even when they are (as per usual) different people, the lines get blurred a bit.

William (Johnson) Cory, in case you were wondering, was a famed tutor at Eton and, as Wikipedia puts it, “the ‘coach’ of the cult of Victorian pederasty,” in actions as well as in literature, which seems to be related to his eventual resignation from his post. He was also an influence on Pater, Symonds, and perhaps Wilde. You can see the 1891 edition of his Ionica (from which “Heraclitus” was taken) here. He also said, according to an unsourced quote on the Wiki page, that “Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge,” which seems quite lovely and true indeed.

*Really, can you think of a bird more overdetermined in Western poetry/literature than the nightingale? I’m not sure even the albatross holds a candle to this. (I think Google’s going to back me up. 4.2 million hits for albatross, 7.9 million for nightingale.)

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A brief programming note. By this time next week I will have winged my way to the woods of Northern Wisconsin and a cabin remote enough from the rest of the world to be served only by a dial-up connection that runs somewhat slower than a Victorian-era telegraph. So there will be no new Poem of the Week until June 22 or thereabouts. Try not to miss me too much while I’m gone.

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