Friday, November 14, 2014

Commonplace book: Mermaids singing

William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Nymphs Bathing. Oil on canvas.
57 x 82 ½ in. c. 1878. Haggin Museum, Stockton, CA
The trope of mermaids—well, something like mermaids—is an old one, going back in some form all the way to Homer. But it's hard to judge what is and isn't a mermaid. Are the Sirens mermaids? Certainly they have some kind of relationship with mermaids. Are the friendly Nereids mermaids? Are Sirens like Nereids? It's a confusing issue. What does seem clear is that, by the 20th century, to invoke mermaids seems to draw on a wide range of myths and legends, so that when Eliot invokes the "mermaids singing," it calls to mind a range of topoi far beyond the Donne poem that Wimsatt and Beardsley cite in their famous essay. Indeed, given what they're trying to argue, picking on the mermaid line in "Prufrock" may have been the worst possible evidence.

Whoever clueless draws near and hears the wail
of the Sirens, no longer thinks of going home;
his wife and little children cease to please.
Instead the Sirens enchant him with piercing song,
sitting on rocks: and around them lies a great heap
of the bones of rotting men, and their skins shrivel up.
—Circe to Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey 12.41-46 (^1)

There other Nereid girls on each side met them
and shining Thetis touched the rudder's wing behind
to draw them through the Wandering Rocks.
As when dolphins revelling in the sea
roll around a speeding boat in pods,
looking now from ahead, now from behind,
sometimes close by, and give joy to the seamen—
so the closeknit nymphs spun as they raced ahead
about the Argive ship, and Thetis straightened the way. 
—Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4.930-38 (3rd century BC) (^2)

By that day's light, and never another's, the mortals saw
the sea nymphs with their own eyes, nude in body down to
their breasts, treading water away from the white-gray whirlpool.
—Catullus 64.16-18 (mid-1st century BC) (^3)

My gentle Puck, come hither. Thou rememb'rest
Since once I sat upon a promontory, 
And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back
Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath
That the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres 
To hear the sea-maid's music.
—Oberon in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream 2.1.148-154 (early 1590s)

Go and catch a falling star,
    Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
    Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
            And find
            What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.
—John Donne, "Song" (from the 1633 Poems)

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

—T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 124-31 (1916)

In Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” towards the end, occurs the line: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each,” and this bears a certain resemblance to a line in a Song by John Donne, “Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,” so that for the reader acquainted to a certain degree with Donne’s poetry, the critical question arises: Is Eliot’s line an allusion to Donne’s? Is Prufrock thinking about Donne? Is Eliot thinking about Donne?
—W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946)

ὅς τις ἀϊδρείῃ πελάσῃ καὶ φθόγγον ἀκούσῃ 
Σειρήνων, τῷ δ' οὔ τι γυνὴ καὶ νήπια τέκνα 
οἴκαδε νοστήσαντι παρίσταται οὐδὲ γάνυνται, 
ἀλλά τε Σειρῆνες λιγυρῇ θέλγουσιν ἀοιδῇ, 
ἥμεναι ἐν λειμῶνι· πολὺς δ' ἀμφ' ὀστεόφιν θὶς 
ἀνδρῶν πυθομένων, περὶ δὲ ῥινοὶ μινύθουσι. 

ἔνθα σφιν κοῦραι Νηρηίδες ἄλλοθεν ἄλλαι 
ἤντεον: ἡ δ᾽ ὄπιθεν πτέρυγος θίγε πηδαλίοιο 
δῖα Θέτις, Πλαγκτῇσιν ἐνὶ σπιλάδεσσιν ἐρύσσαι. 
ὡς δ᾽ ὁπόταν δελφῖνες ὑπὲξ ἁλὸς εὐδιόωντες 
σπερχομένην ἀγεληδὸν ἑλίσσωνται περὶ νῆα, 
ἄλλοτε μἑν προπάροιθεν ὁρώμενοι, ἄλλοτ᾽ὄπισθεν, 
ἄλλοτε παρβολάδην, ναύτῃσι δὲ χάρμα τέτυκται: 
ὧς αἱ ὑπεκπροθέουσαι ἐπήτριμοι εἱλίσσοντο 
Ἀργῴῃ περὶ νηί, Θέτις δ᾽ ἴθυνε κέλευθον. 

illa, atque haud alia, viderunt luce marinas
mortales oculis nudato corpore Nymphas
nutricum tenus exstantes e gurgite cano. 

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