Western Elegies V: The Tongues


Suppiluliumas! What a marvellous name for a monarch,
Ruler of royal Hattusas, whom the thousand gods of the Hatti
Granted an enclave of empire, when Troy was a petty city,
That stretched from the Western Sea to the Tigris and the Euphrates.
The ribs of that carcase, dear heart, full of archeological maggots,
Seethe in the Anatolian springtime today at Boghazkoy.

Suppiluliumas the King, may his bones evade their researches;
For his name is a beacon to me of the fabulous babble of Babel,
That fountain of human tongues which I bless and rejoice in forever.
And the one great family of speech I have loved and explored since my boyhood,
That centum branch of the western Indo-European hegirah,
First of them all that survives is the Hittite of Suppiluliumas.

Whence did they come? Through the Balkans or south by Georgia or westward by Persia
To settle perversely in Asia, like the feckless Tocharian Buddhists,
While their brothers, the Celts and the Slavs, the Greeks and conquering Latins
And the vanished Illyrians forced ever west their migrations of language.
And even German, that lingo of slaves from their Aryan masters
Transmitted to us today, is the language of Goethe and Shakespeare.

Suppiluliumas, you spoke the two tongues of the Hittite dominion
And wrote to the rulers of Egypt, Assyria and Mitanni,
To each in his own true speech as a prince in his dealings with princes;
You would not have thought it a curse as the book of the Hebrews reputes it,
That confounding of tongues in the unfinished ziggurat built in Shinar,
Whence the rivers of language first flowed to enrich the glory of nations.

For the man who knows only one speech is an ox in a paradise orchard,
Munching on grass and ignoring the fruits of delectable flavour
That ripen upon its boughs and depend from the vines that adorn it.
The man who has only one tongue lives forever alone on an island
Shut in on himself by conventions he is only dimly aware of,
Like a beast whose mind is fenced by the narrow extent of its instincts.

But the man who thinks in two tongues wins his mind free of a bondage
Which a sole speech imposes on all his thinking and feeling;
Translate as he will, what is said in the one never matches the other
Precisely in ambience and reach, so his soul grows still and attentive,
Aware, beyond any one speech, of a metaphysics of meaning
Which teaches that not mere words but the heart is what must be translated.

For those mighty rivers of language that fashion the landscapes of time
Like the Amazon and the Danube, the Mississippi and Ganges
Though they set frontiers to nations, act as makers and bearers of spirit;
Growing in volume and power, they build the rich soils of tradition
How could such marvellous gifts be cursed as the folly of Babel?

I think now of those I have learned, adapting my soul to their music:
Latin, old father of tongues, whose discipline was the adventure,
First step into unknown space, that tempered and tempted my boyhood
To discover new countries of mind called Ovid, Virgil, Catullus,
And the dense and disciplined march of a prose that thinks in inflections.
Then the daughters of Latin, the tongues of Italy, France and Iberia,
So rich in their colour and chime and each so diverse from the others;
And the tongues of the Goths and the Germans, the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons
Which I chose for my province of study when I thought of myself as a scholar—
They were native and near as I listened and moved from one to another
Getting the feel of their strange, their guttural dissonant music;
Till further afield I found the earthy abundance of Russian
Last of the tongues of men into which my soul found translation.

Suppiluliumas, you were born in bilingual Hattusas;
Which speech did you use for love and in which make war and take counsel?
Which of them would you choose from your heart to the heart of a woman,
Sundered by race and belief, with the width of the world between them,
Yet joined by pride of the mind and the ancient worship of fire?
Surely you would not have sent those words by the usual channels,
Printed on well-baked brick in diplomatic Akkadian.
How shall I tell her, then, the instant thought of the moment,
Thought that can only be told, if at all, in the fire-bird language?
How shall I tell her the world is simpler than men imagine,
For those set apart by God speak a tongue used only by angels;
That the distance from East to West is no more than its word for ‘I love you’?
And perpetual pentecost springs and renews itself in that message,
Which blesses the gift of tongues and crowns, the Venture of Babel,
Tongues that descend as flames and flicker about our temples
As we are caught up by the spirits to behold a new earth and new heaven,
We utter in unknown speech which we neither have learned nor remembered
An unforgettable song which begins: ‘O, Suppiluliumas! …’

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