07 January 2007

Incantation

Incantation

by Czeslaw Milosz
(Translated by the author and Robert Pinsky)

Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
It establishes the universal ideas in language,
And guides our hand so we write Truth and Justice
With capital letters, lie and oppression with small.
It puts what should be above things as they are,
It is an enemy of despair and a friend of hope.
It does not know Jew from Greek or slave from master,
Giving us the estate of the world to manage.
It saves austere and transparent phrases
From the filthy discord of tortured words.
It says that everything is new under the sun,
Opens the congealed fist of the past.
Beautiful and very young are Philo-Sophia
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo,
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit,
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction.

In the O.E.D. you'll find this: "incantation >noun words said as a magic spell or charm. ... ORIGIN Latin, from incantare 'chant, bewitch'." Do we call upon reason as an incantation in the face of duplicity, or obtuseness, or cruelty, whether in public or private life? It seems to me in dark moments to be so. At those times I suspect Milosz (and Pinsky too, since he embraces this poem) of truly hurtful irony that on reflection I know I ascribe unfairly. The incantation, then, is as Milosz claims, a "friend of hope" - supportive and encouraging, even when times are dark and despair inviting.

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