When the Arts Speak in Harmony
GREECE IN POETRY. Edited by Simoni Zafiropoulos, Abrams, 176 pp., $39.95.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude!
Of marble men and maidens
With forest branches and
the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost
tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold
When old age shall this
Thou shalt remain, in
midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man,
to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth,
truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all
ye need to know....
- From "Ode on a Grecian Urn," by John Keats
OUT of the distant past survived a work of such surpassing beauty that the English poet John Keats read in its pleasant form a whisper of the eternal. The Grecian urn represented something more than a merely decorative vessel. Its beauty had not faded with age. Its essential form and the painted scene it held captured more than the stylized details of Greek belief and culture.
A lesser work might have remained an interesting artifact of a departed people, but a great work of art showed Yeats something forever authentic about the very nature of life on earth. However transient and shadowy human understanding might be, an inkling of truth was still within reach. Keats realized, as he beheld the enduring grace of the urn, truth as beauty - the eternal captured as eternally beautiful, a voice speaking to us through the ages.
More than 150 years have passed since Keats wrote "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and his poem still moves us, his insight is still sound. The poem, like the urn it venerates, remains both beautiful and true. It will last because it speaks to issues of lasting significance.
Keats seized the meaning of a work of art, a voiceless visual prize, and put it down in poetry - the music of language. One work of art often inspires feeling so great it can be expressed only in another work of art.
Many painters listen to music when they paint, for example. The theater brings many arts together, as does opera. And works of art can "hold a dialogue," as it were, when they are intelligently juxtaposed. Poetry and painting or sculpture wisely placed side-by-side in a book can produce something altogether new - a different grasp of "beauty and truth" than either the poem or the visual art evokes alone.
"Greece in Poetry," edited by Simoni Zafiropoulos, gathers great verse from ancient and modern Greek sources and lays them out beside ancient and modern works of visual art. The poetry selections are diverse enough to give the viewer a feeling for the culture's complexity. And still, there is a kind of persistence of vision from the ancient to the modern that unifies the book and confers a sense of cultural continuity.
Sometimes contemporary art is used to "illustrate" an ancient poem. "Alkinoos' Garden" from Homer's "The Odyssey," Book VII (circa 9th century BC), sits next to a marvelous reproduction of a 1959 oil painting by Nikos Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas called "Wild Garden."
The poem describes an orchard where apples, figs, and pears grow side by side. All year long the fruit ripens, one kind after another, so that Alkinoos is always provided with fresh fruit. The fountains of his garden bring fresh, clear water into his house through a system of channels. Rows of vegetables that flourish in every season lie next to the vineyards. Currants dry in the sun. Homer's paradisiacal description of the garden evokes a vision of plenty, purpose, beauty, and benevolence. "These were t he gifts of heaven to Alkinoos."
In Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas's painting, the garden is a riot of plant life abstractly arranged in tense geometrical shapes, implicating the human planning of a garden. But the vibrant growth also implicates the power and strength of nature. It is a beautiful piece, but it does not suggest the earthly paradise Homer envisioned. From the ancient to the modern, painting and poem together create a vision of nature that is paradoxical, yet truer to nature's own complexities than either poem or painting alone.
Interesting juxtapositions - for example, an excerpt from "The Bacchae" by Euripides (circa 480-406 BC) with "The Miraculous Finding of the Servant," a 17th-century miniature from the border of an icon - suggests the vast difference between ancient Greek values and later Christian ones.
What is wisdom: What
gift of the gods
is held in honor like
to hold your hand
over the heads of those
A photograph of the stage set for Aeschylus's "The Suppliant Women" in the ancient theater of Epidaurus lies beside a marvelous excerpt from Euripides' play of the same title. The stage set includes crude sculptures suggestive of the ancient warriors and women.
But the excerpt is all about the origins of justice in written law. The sun-washed stage set for one play illuminates the powerful words of the other.
In earliest days, before
the laws are common,
One man has power and
makes the law his own:
Equality is not yet. With
People of small resources
and the rich
Both have the same
recourse to justice. Now
A man of means, if badly
Will have no better
standing than the weak;
And if the little man is right,
Against the great. This is
the call of freedom:
The history of Greek art and thought is the history of Western art and thought; it belongs to us in every ultimate sense. One important source of our contemporary American view of justice and democracy comes from the ancient Greek vision as Euripedes described it here.
That's why Keats's ode speaks so dynamically to us. That's why American poet James Merrill could so vividly articulate a contemporary relationship to an ancient sculpture in "The Charioteer of Delphi."
For watch, his eyes in
the still air alone
Look shining and
Unless indeed into our
Who are reflected
The glass eyes of the sculpture reflect the viewer like mirrors - we behold ourselves in this great and aged work. The humanity of the sculptor and his subject reflect our own back at us. In some real way, the ancient artist is still with us.
The poem stands by itself - we need not see the sculpture to understand the poem or to experience its depth and power.
Likewise the sculpture retains its authentic integrity and is in fact the occasion for the poem. But side by side, they reveal another layer of experience for us. The gorgeous humanity of the sculpture and of the poem, the truth of each, is certainly beautiful.
Here is one artist rejoicing in the perception and expression of another - one who is so far removed from our time and present condition that some might think him irrelevant. But he is emphatically relevant.
Out of this hard bronze made 25 centuries ago has arisen the soft grace of a poem. Out of this bronze and this poem may arise an occasion to think about the great questions once more.
The arts feed each other. A book like "Greece in Poetry" demonstrates that - as a poet was directly inspired by the sculpture of a gentle-eyed bronze gentleman holding the fragment of reins.
But there is more to the nurturing effects of one art form on another. Genuine beauty and actual truth always inspire - even when they rattle the cages of our complacencies.
* The photographs on this page are from `Greece in `Poetry,' used with the permission of the publisher.