on music and beauty

Tag: Zbigniew Herbert

The Divine Claudius poem

It was said
I was begotten by Nature
but unfinished
like an abandoned sculpture
a sketch
the damaged fragment of a poem

for years I played the half-wit
idiots live more safely
I calmly put up with insults
if I planted all the stones
thrown into my face
an olive ground would spring up
a vast oasis of palms

I received a many-sided education
Livy the rhetoricians philosophers
I spoke Greek like an Athenian
although Plato I could recall
only in the lying position

I completed my studies
in dock-side taverns and brothels
those unwritten dictionaries of vulgar Latin
bottomless treasuries of crime and lust

after the murder of Caligula
I hid behind a curtain
they dragged me out by force
I didn’t manage to adopt an intelligent expression
when they threw at my feet the world
ridiculous and flat

from then on I became the most diligent
emperor in universal history
a Hercules of bureaucracy
I recall with pride
my liberal law
giving permission to let out
sounds of the belly during feasts

I deny the charge of cruelty often made against me
in reality I was only absent-minded

on the day of Messalina’s violent murder-
the poor thing was killed I admit on my orders-
I asked during the banquet – Why hasn’t Madame come
a deathly silence answered me
really I forgot

sometimes it would happen I invited
the dead to a game of dice
I punished failure to attend with a fine
overburdened with so many labours
I might have made mistakes in details

it seems
I ordered thirty-five senators
and the cavalrymen of some three centurions
to be executed
well what of it
a bit less purple
fewer gold rings
on the other hand – and this isn’t a trifle –
more room in the theatre

no one wanted to understand
that the goal of these operations was sublime
I longed to make death familiar to people
to dull its edge
bring it down to the banal everyday dimension
of a slight depression or runny nose

and here is the proof
of my delicacy of feeling
I removed the statue of gentle Augustus
from the square of executions
so the sensitive marble
wouldn’t hear the roars of the condemned

my nights were devoted to study
I wrote the history of the Etruscans
a history of Carthage
a bagatelle about Saturn
a contribution to the theory of games
and a treatise on the venom of serpents

it was I who saved Ostia
from the invasion of sand
I drained swamps
built aqueducts
since then it has become easier
in Rome to wash away blood

I expanded the frontiers of the empire
by Brittany Mauretania
and if I recall correctly Thrace

my death was caused by my wife Agrippina
and an uncontrollable passion for boletus
mushrooms – the essence of the forest – became the essence of death

descendants – remember with proper respect and honour
at least one merit of the divine Claudius
I added new signs and sounds to our alphabet
expanded the limits of speech that is the limits of freedom

the letters I discovered – beloved daughters – Digamma and Antisigma
led my shadow
as I pursued the path with tottering steps to the dark land of Orkus

© Zbigniew Herbert
translated from Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter

The Divine Claudius

Scored for narrator and an ensemble of four instruments (flute, clarinet, guitar, cello), The Divine Claudius employs the beautiful, powerful English translation by John and Bogdana Carpenter of the homonymous poem by Zbigniew Herbert, one of the greatest Polish poets of the last century. As it is the case with other ‘melologues’, this work has been written for Paola Roman and the Toujours Ensemble at the request of Nicola Campogrande.

First performed by the Toujours Ensemble in Turin in 1994.

river teach me


river teach me sets to music the English version of ‘To the river’, a poem by Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), from the collection Report from the Besieged City, first published in Warsaw in 1983, and translated into English by John and Bogdana Carpenter in 1985. I’ve always been fascinated by the particular way in which Herbert pitches his voice, pursuing the truth with a language both simple and profound. Before writing river teach me I set to music another poem from the same collection, ‘The Divine Claudius‘, for narrator and small ensemble. river teach me was selected for the SPNM [Society for the Promotion of New Music] shortlist in 2003.

Herbert concluded one of his sketches with these words: We are the ones who are poor, very poor. The great majority of contemporary art comes out in favour of chaos, gesticulating in vacuity or recounting the history of its own sterile spirit. All the Old Masters, without exception, could say with Racine: ‘We work in order to please the public’, which means that they believed in the sense of their work, and in the possibility of inter-human understanding… Praise be to such naiveté.

Live recording of the first performance by Christine Sjölander, mezzo-soprano, and the Thallein Ensemble conducted by Daniele Rosina. 11 December 2002, Birmingham Conservatoire, Recital Hall.

* * *

River__hourglass of water metaphor of eternity
I enter you more and more changed
so I could be a cloud a fish a rock
while you are the same like a clock that measures
the metamorphoses of the body and descents of the spirit
slow disintegration of tissues and love

I who am born of clay
want to be your pupil
and learn the spring the Olympian heart
o cool torch rustling column
bedrock of my faith and my despair

river teach me stubbornness and endurance
so in the last hour I become worthy
of rest in the shade of the great delta
in the holy triangle of the beginning and of the end

* * *

© Zbigniew Herbert
[English translation © John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter]

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