Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Language: music and passion

". . . I see my father. I am seeing him at this moment; and I hear his voice saying words that I understood not, but yet I felt . . .

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.
John Keats 1795-1821
I thought I knew all about words, all about language (when one is a child, one feels that one knows many things), but those words came as a revelation to me. Of course, I did not understand them. How could I understand those lines about birds' -- about animals' -- being somehow eternal, timeless, because they live in the present? We are mortal because we live in the past and in the future -- because we remember a time when we did not exist, and foresee a time when we shall be dead. Those verses came to me through their music. I had thought of language as being a way of saying thing, of uttering complaints, of saying that one was glad, or sad, and so on. Yet when I heard those lines (and I have been hearing them, in a sense, ever since), I knew the language could also be a music and a passion. And thus was poetry revealed to me."
from Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), This Craft of Verse

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