A Book of Answers XXV: Rosemary Dobson


Since it first appeared, I have admired and loved the poetry of Rosemary Dobson, but I only came to know her when she came to live in Canberra in 1972. When she did we discovered a common passion for Pausanias, whose Description of Greece was written in the second century A.D. Mine was a passion that led me to sit up late at night in bed reading chance-found passages that fired me to poems on other themes; hers was a passion that led her to resurrect passages (and often footnotes) from the text and write, as it were, on “themes from Pausanias”.

On one such occasion she sent me a poem on a passage from Pausanias, Description of Greece, vol. II, p. 247, and the accompanying footnote, from Peter Levi’s translation:

The women from these cities reconciled the Pisains and the Eleans, and afterwards they were put in charge of holding Hera’s robes. The sixteen women also arrange two dances. … No ceremony that tradition dictates that the sixteen women … are to perform, is ever carried out until they have purified themselves with a pig which is right for purification, and with water. They purify at the fountain of Piera, which is a water-spring on the road from Olympia to Elis.

Lost Water-Spring

‘The road has not been traced.
The spring has not been found.”
I name the Water-spring
Of Piera, gone to ground,
Contained in a footnote.

Women, Pausanias said,
From Elis purified
Before their ceremonies
At Piera, on the road
Towards Olympia.

In the white dust the cool
Cupping of water shone
Like love, like poetry,
Three things that draw me on.

I take that spring for mine.

To this I replied on the following day:

Nec Tamen Consumebatur

Yes, road and spring are lost;
Those women too are gone;
And love and poetry
Pass to oblivion.

Yet what I think of most
Is that they should survive
Down to our century
And come once more alive;

For what Pausanias heard
By chance along the way,
Flowers in a poem today.

The ghostly pool has stirred;
The word begets the word.

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