[ilds] Tree of Idleness

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Sat Jul 21 14:29:11 PDT 2007

I see two Sapphos in this poem:  Durrell's daughter, Sappho Jane, and Sappho of Lesbos.

I'll accept Michael's suggestion that the "jam-jar a rock-rose" belongs to Sappho Jane.  It fits a child's improvisation on beauty.  Also the "brown fingers" could well belong to a child who plays in the sun.  (Is a good tan a mark of beauty in the Mediterranean?  I don't think so -- not in 1954.  It's certainly not in Asia where women protect the fairness of their skin and do things such as carry around parasols.)

"Tree of Idleness" could work as one of Sappho's poems (minus the "otium" title/theme, which Bill notes -- in fact, I don't like the title).  It has similar lyric themes:  death, love, loss, separation.  The poem also moves towards solitude and loneliness, as many of Sappho's seem to ("alone I lie" [168B]), and begins and ends in futurity (future tense), with poetry or the lyre as the vehicle for immortality ("someone will remember us" [147]).  I see the final setting as a bed, which is also the case with much of Sappho.   Also the same time:  early morning, before dawn, a twilight state of dread and hope.  "Early shepherds" give a pastoral or childlike atmosphere to the room, which joins the two Sapphos.

Sappho's poems exist almost entirely as fragments.  The one whole lyric, the hymn to Aphrodite (1), reads like a poem or prayer.  The fragments, of course, are just that, sherds of thought and imagery, but tantalizing in their suggestiveness.  Obviously, Durrell knew his Sappho, but what seems to appeal to him is their fragmentary nature -- his syntax and imagery have the same disjunctiveness as her fragments, which makes his poetry so difficult to interpret (indeed, I sometimes wonder if decryption is possible).  Another good Romantic trait.  The German Romantics made the fragment a genre unto itself.  See Schlegel and Coleridge ("Kubla Khan").


-----Original Message-----
>From: Michael Haag <michaelhaag at btinternet.com>
>Sent: Jul 20, 2007 9:21 PM
>To: ilds at lists.uvic.ca
>Subject: [ilds] Tree of Idleness
>OK, a series of thoughts, progressing through the poem, trying to pick 
>bits of it apart.
>My impression is that Durrell is writing of a place where he could stay 
>all his life and therefore where he could die.  The rock rose itself 
>can signify death, but also it can heal.
>How will life and death be?
>Will I die in the sense of memory dispersing (though the village 
>Or 'with so great a cloud of witnesses' (Hebrews 12) do I have faith 
>and run the race, expecting life forever after?
>Moist clay of a woman's wanting may refer to conception: so before the 
>heart starts beating and after it stops beating, is there a haunting 
>(spirit   existence)?
>No, none of the above.
>Things will go on as they do now.
>Kisses without signature: anonymous, nameless women?  Women of no 
>account?  Prostitutes?
>The lack of someone (Eve? or any permanent relationship) spreading like 
>a stain.  (See Auden, The Wanderer, where 'spreading like a stain' is 
>the ruin that comes to the house in the absence of the wanderer and is 
>to be preserved against.)
>I also have the feeling that Sappho is in this poem.  That perhaps it 
>is she who put the rock rose in the jam jar.  And perhaps it is her 
>brown fingers tapping out a poem on her father's lips in the dark 
>before the dawn.

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