Monday 30 May 2011

An enigmatic poem by the Dutch poet Ida Gerhardt


When I was doing Phaedo with Class Five
I saw the word ψυχή would soon appear:
so I explained to their still childlike ear
why ψυχή meant both ‘soul’ and ‘butterfly’.

While reading out the passage for the class
there was a flurry, and a sudden trace
of light flashed from the window pane through space.
A large-size butterfly was at the glass.

It was a peacock. Everybody saw
the steady purple glow that both wings bore;
the eyes in which an aether-blue burned calm.

Then finally – now resting in his palm –
a boy took it away. Come to no harm,
he said, it had escaped toward the blue.

I say 'enigmatic' because Gerhardt has chosen an unusual rhyme scheme: ABBA ABBA CCD DDE. I often have to abandon the repetition of ABBA in translating sonnets, and purists will object to 'five' and 'butterfly'. But I cannot recall a sonnet where Gerhardt ends with a line that does not rhyme with anything earlier. The question is - why? In the original Dutch there are two other words that rhyme, but they are in the lines themselves 'aetherblauw' and 'dagpauwoog':


Ik las de Phaedo met mijn vijfde klas
en in de tekst kwam het woord ψυχή voor:
ik legde, aan ’t nog kinderlijk gehoor,
uit waarom ψυχή ‘ziel’ én ‘vlinder’ was.

Terwijl ik nóg eens de passage las
was er ineens een ritseling, en een spoor
van glanzen kwam, van ’t raam, de ruimte door.
Er zat een grote vlinder voor ’t glas.

Het was een dagpauwoog. En ieder zag
de purperen gloed, die op zijn vleugels lag;
de ogen, waar het aetherblauw in brandt.

Ten laatste – hij zat rustig op de hand –
bracht hem een jongen weg. Onaangerand,
zei hij, was hij ontweken naar het blauw.

PS. A dear friend has just pointed out that the enigma is perhaps self-inflicted. I have been referred to the big Van Dale dictionary and the word ongerijmd (lit. unrhymed). This word has a meaning within mathematics and logic that is most applicable here: a reduction to the absurd. The expression bewijs uit het ongerijmde means 'a proof by means of which one demonstrates that the negation of the postulate leads to an absurdity'. In other words, the lack of rhyme reflects the duality of the word 'psyche' itself.

This makes me think of the Ezra Pound double-take reference:

The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly

since in the culture referred to the butterfly was also seen a symbol of the soul.

PPS. feedback from the dear friend. at a more obvious level, what the butterfly is returning to is 'beyond rhyme or reason', i.e. the infinite. 

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