Thursday, January 08, 2015

2015-01-05 A Year With The Harvard Classics - The Soaring Eagle and Contented Stork

January 5 - The Soaring Eagle and contented Stork - [Giuseppe] Mazzini labored for the freedom of Italy, but was exiled.  Byron and Goethe also battled for liberty.  Mazzini wrote an essay in which he compared Byron to a soaring eagle and Goethe to a contend stork. (Byron arrived in Greece to fight for Greek freedom, Jan. 5, 1824) Read: Mazzini's Byron and Goethe, vol. 23, pp. 377-396.

"I STOOD one day in a Swiss village at the foot of the Jura, and watched the coming of the storm. Heavy black clouds, their edges purpled by the setting sun, were rapidly covering the loveliest sky in Europe, save that of Italy. Thunder growled in the distance, and gusts of biting wind were driving huge drops of rain over the thirsty plain. Looking upwards, I beheld a large Alpine falcon, now rising, now sinking, as he floated bravely in the very midst of the storm and I could almost fancy that he strove to battle with it. At every fresh peal of thunder, the noble bird bounded higher aloft, as if in answering defiance. I followed him with my eyes for a long time, until he disappeared in the east. On the ground, about fifty paces beneath me, stood a stork; perfectly tranquil and impassive in the midst of the warring elements. Twice or thrice she turned her head towards the quarter from whence the wind came, with an indescribable air of half indifferent curiosity; but at length she drew up one of her long sinewy legs, hid her head beneath her wing, and calmly composed herself to sleep.   1

I thought of Byron and Goethe; of the stormy sky that overhung both; of the tempest-tossed existence, the life-long struggle, of the one, and the calm of the other; and of the two mighty sources of poetry exhausted and closed by them."

Read an online version of the essay by Mazzini HERE

Giuseppe Mazzini, (1805-1872) was one of the great political idealists in the struggle for Italian independence in the mid 19th century.  His work here is a masterpiece of literary criticism that compares and contrasts two of the grand poets of his century.  Through this crisp prose we find a description of two ways to engage the world--either for the world to become a reflection of one's self, OR for one's self to become a reflection of the world. In Byron we find an example of the first.

"There are two forms of individuality; the expressions of its internal and external, or—as the Germans would say—of its subjective and objective life. Byron was the poet of the first, Goethe of the last. In Byron the Ego is revealed in all its pride of power, freedom, and desire, in the uncontrolled plenitude of all its faculties; inhaling existence at every pore, eager to seize “the life of life.” The world around him neither rules nor tempers him. The Byronian Ego aspires to rule it; but solely for dominion’s sake, to exercise upon it the Titanic force of his will."

In Goethe, we find the latter--whose genius was to be a vessel for reflection of the world.

"Goethe—individuality in its objective life—having, like Byron, a sense of the falsehood and evil of the world round him—followed exactly the opposite path. After having—he, too, in his youth—uttered a cry of anguish in his Werther; after having laid bare the problem of the epoch in all its terrific nudity, in Faust, he thought he had done enough, and refused to occupy himself with its solution. It is possible that the impulse of rebellion against social wrong and evil which burst forth for an instant in Werther may long have held his soul in secret travail; but that he despaired of the task of reforming it as beyond his powers. He himself remarked in his later years, when commenting on the exclamation made by a Frenchman on first seeing him: “That is the face of a man who has suffered much”; that he should rather have said: That is the face of a man who has struggled energetically;” but of this there remains no trace in his works."

The reader here is left to ponder not just what kind of person each poet was, but also to ponder which orientation toward the world is most fulfilling.  To tussle with reality or mirror it, and thus cause the tussel in others.  To demonstrate the heroic or by virtue of one's calm assessment call forth the heroic in others.

It is a question worth continuing to ponder.

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