How a student in search of the Beautiful fell asleep in Dresden
over Herr Professor Doctor Vischer's Wissenschaft des Schönen
[The Science of Beauty] and what came thereof
dreamed 1850s? by James Russell Lowell
This peculiar poem comes from Lowell's collection Under the Willows, ca. 1867. It plays off a myth in which Zeus (in disguise) begs hospitality from a poor couple, Baucis and Philemon, rewarding them with a hen who lays golden eggs. Did Lowell really fall asleep and dream this, or just make it all up? It's not safe to question a poet who'll rhyme you sent with translucent. Such a man is capable of anything.
I SWAM with undulation soft, |
Adrift on Vischer's ocean,
And, from my cockboat up aloft, [crow's nest]
Sent down my mental plummet oft
In hope to reach a notion.
But from the metaphysic sea
"What's Beauty?" mused I; "is it told
Then o'er my senses came a change;
Old gods in modern saints I found,
Truth was, my outward eyes were closed, |
Although I did not know it;
Deep into dream-land I had dozed,
And thus was happily transposed
From proser into poet.
So what I read took flesh and blood,
I saw how Zeus was lodged once more
DAIMON 'twas printed in the book [Greek: SOUL]
He paused upon the threshold worn;
Plain feathers wears my Hemera, |
And has from ages olden;
She makes her nest in common hay,
And yet, of all the birds that lay,
Her eggs alone are golden."
He turned, and could no more be seen;
"The stranger had a queerish face,
She's quite too old for laying eggs,
Some eighteen score of such do I
Philemon found the rede was good, [rede: advice] |
And, turning on the poor hen,
He clapt his hands, and stamped, and shooed,
Hunting the exile toward the wood,
To house with snipe and moor-hen.
A Poet saw and cried: "Hold! bold!
To him Philemon: "I'll not balk
But scarce the poet touched the bird,
As when from far-off cloud-bergs springs
She gripped the poet to her breast, |
And ever, upward soaring,
Earth seemed a new moon in the west,
And then one light among the rest
Where squadrons lie at mooring.
How tell to what heaven-hallowed seat
Here was the bird's primeval nest,
I know not how, but I was there
And in the nest an EGG, of gold
Daily such splendors to confront |
Is still to me and you sent?
It glowed as when Saint Peter's front,
illumed, forgets its stony wont,
And seems to throb translucent.
One saw therein the life of man,
I knew this as one knows in dream,
"Bless Zeus!" she cried, "I'm safe below!"
Each day the world is born anew
Rightly? That's simply: 'tis to see |
Some substance casts these shadows
Which we call Life and History,
That aimless seem to chase and flee
Like wind-gleams over meadows.
Simply? That's nobly: 'tis to know
Beauty, Herr Doctor, trust in me, |
No chemistry will win you;
Charis still rises from the sea: [Charis: Grace]
If you can't find her, might it be
Because you seek within you?
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