Poems by Conrad Aiken and Robert Frost

Aurora e Titone, by Francesco de Mura

Aurora e Titone, by Francesco de Mura

 (image)

In Greek myth, Tithonus was a Trojan prince, the brother of King Priam.  According to a poem of the early seventh century BC, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (lines 218-238,) Tithonus’ youthful good looks attracted the attentions of Eos, the goddess of the dawn.  Aphrodite had condemned Eos to lust after mortal men.  Eos abducted Tithonus and kept him in her mysterious land in the east.  She lavished him with gifts.  Eos went so far in her generosity to Tithonus as to ask Zeus to make Tithonus immortal.  That may have been going too far, or not far enough- Eos neglected to ask Zeus to stop Tithonus’ aging.  So he grew old, lost all ability to move his limbs, and took to babbling incessantly.  Eos locked him up in a golden chamber when this happened.  The hymn’s detail about Tithonus’ babbling may be reflected in later traditions that represent him as a great singer.  The fifth-century BC writer Hellanicus of Lesbos says that Eos took pity on him and turned him into a cicada, a creature whom the ancients suspected might be immortal.  In the poem below, Aiken follows the modern tradition of representing Tithonus as a grasshopper rather than a cicada.

Arachne transformed, from a 1703 edition of the Metamorphoses of Ovid illustrated by Johann Wilhelm Bauer

Arachne transformed, from a 1703 edition of the Metamorphoses of Ovid illustrated by Johann Wilhelm Bauer

(image)

According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne was a maiden from Lydia in Asia Minor who challenged the goddess Minerva (the Greeks would have said the goddess was Athena) to a weaving contest.  When Arachne won this contest, the goddess responded with such fury that Arachne hanged herself.  Taking pity on her victim, Minerva revived the girl in the form of a spider.  Ovid represents Arachne as an innocent, though she has been thought of in other ways at other times. The story of Arachne’s encounter with Tithonus appears to be Aiken’s own invention.  Aiken also takes some further liberties with the story, as you will see. 

The Wedding,” by Conrad Aiken

At noon, Tithonus, withered by his singing,

Climbing the oatstalk with his hairy legs,

Met grey Arachne, poisoned and shrunk down

By her own beauty; pride had shrivelled both.

In the white web- where seven flies hung wrapped-

She heard his footstep; hurried to him; bound him;

Enshrouded him in silk; then poisoned him.

Twice shrieked Tithonus, feebly; then was still.

Arachne loved him.  Did he love Arachne?

She watched him with red eyes, venomous sparks,

And the furred claws outspread… “O sweet Tithonus!

Darling!  Be kind, and sing that song again!

Shake the bright web again with that deep fiddling!

Are you much poisoned? sleeping?  do you dream?

Darling Tithonus!”

And Tithonus, weakly

Moving one hairy shin against the other

Within the silken sack, contrived to fiddle

A little tune, half-hearted: “Shrewd Arachne!

Whom pride in beauty withered to this shape

As pride in singing shrivelled me to mine-

Unwrap me, let me go- and let me limp,

With what poor strength your venom leaves me, down

This oatstalk, and away.”

Arachne, angry,

Stung him again, twirling him with rough paws,

The red eyes keen.  “What!  You would dare to leave me?

Unkind Tithonus!  Sooner I’ll kill you and eat you

Than let you go.  But sing that tune again-

So plaintive was it!”

And Tithonus faintly

Moved the poor fiddles, which were growing cold,

And sang: “Arachne, goddess envied of gods,

Beauty’s eclipse eclipsed by angry beauty,

Have pity, do not ask the withered heart

To sing too long for you!  My strength goes out,

Too late we meet for love.  O be content

With friendship, which the noon sun once may kindle

To give one flash of passion, like a dewdrop,

Before it goes!… Be reasonable, — Arachne!”

Arachne heard the song grow weaker, dwindle

To first a rustle, and then half a rustle,

And at last a tick, so small no ear could hear it

Save hers, a spider’s ear.  And her small heart,

(Rusted away, like his, to a pinch of dust,)

Gleamed once, like his, and died.  She clasped him tightly

And sunk her fangs in him.  Tithonus dead,

She slept awhile, her last sensation gone;

Woke from the nap, forgetting him; and ate him.

Spider eats cicada

Spider eats cicada

 (image)

Acceptance,” by Robert Frost

When the spent sun throws up its rays on clouds

And goes down burning into the gulf below,

No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud

At what has happened.  Birds, at least, must know

It is the change to darkness in the sky.

Murmuring something quiet in her breast,

One bird begins to close a faded eye;

Or overtaken too far from his nest,

Hurrying low above the grove, some waif

Swoops in just in time to his remembered tree.

At most he thinks or twitters softly, “Safe!

Now let the night be dark for all of me.

Let the night be too dark for me to see

Into the future.  Let what will be, be.”

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2 Comments

  1. cymast

     /  December 27, 2008

    “The Wedding” would be perfect to read at your upcoming nuptials!

  2. acilius

     /  January 6, 2009

    Hmm…

    Maybe to read quietly to yourself while sitting in the back…

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