Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Daphne, inspiration, and the laurel in Paul Celan's "Encounter"

I sat down this morning to continue with the explication of Paul Celan’s “Encounter,” intending to write about Celan and Shakespeare; however, two images-“the leaf that speaks” and “my short laurel”-stymied me.

Before I proceed, I present the third stanza translated by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi.

Your hair dripping out of the mirrors will blanket the regions of air,
Where, with a hand of frost, I’ll set an autumn on fire.
From the waters imbibed by the blind my short laurel will scurry
Up on a belated ladder, to take a bite from your forehead.

Yesterday, I thought I controlled and understood the image of the “leaf that speaks,” but today I am not so sure. I am compelled to look back at the first stanza, where the poet writes, “a human tongue will trumpet audacity in a helmet,” and associate that image with the “leaf that speaks.”

My first impressions are of the funeral urn, filled with ashes. Leaves in the fall are burned and people in camps are ultimately burned or their remains are covered with quicklime. People standing on ladders harvest fruit in the fall. Autumn, a time of harvest, filled with colors, will progress into winter, a time of frost, to death.

Then, I ask, who will set the autumn on fire?

Perhaps, it is the poet and he will “scurry” “set fire” and “bite” through the use of his “laurel,” his poem, his poetry.

For an explanation, I turn to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1999, where he discusses the laurel: “Apollo, though the God of Poetry and the leader of the muses, did not, yet, however, claim to inspire poems: the inspiration was still held to come to the poet from the Muse or Muses. He had originally been a mere Demon whom his Muse mother had inspired with poetic frenzy; now he required that, as the Nine fold Muse, she should inspire individual poets in his honour-though not to the point of ecstasy. These poets, if they proved to be his faithful and industrious servants, he rewarded with a garland of laurel-in Greek, daphne.”

Following Graves’ lead, the poet chews the laurel leaf and becomes inspired and immortalizes his subject, his mother, who is dead.

The source of the laurel or the poem is from a drink from the waters imbibed by the blind, which I believe is an allusion to the land of the dead and the scene from the Odyssey, where Odysseus draws the dead to him by offering them blood. He speaks with Teiresias, the blind seer.

The “you” of the poem is female because of the reference to the hair, and is the "I's" muse and his Daphne.

Daphne, a wild virgin huntress, in an attempt to avoid rape by Apollo prayed for help from her father and was metamorphosed into a bay-tree.

Has the poet in a belated attempt to save his mother from ravishment and death metamorphosed her memory into a poem? Is the mother both muse and subject?

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