Sunday, August 17, 2008

A garland briefer than a girl's

So, thinking of Michael Phelps this morning, his stunning victory last night, the eighth Olympic gold in one Games. It reminds me oddly of the Gutenberg Bible, a case where advances in technology (movable type) changed the world. Without denying Phelps's talent and discipline, many have commented on the role of advanced technology in breaking swimming records in these games.

But first it reminded me of a poem by A.E. Housman, which I have recalled from school days, most recently when the daughter of a friend died, a beautiful woman, cheerful, capable, taken in her prime. Here are just the first lines, from Bartleby's:

THE time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay . . .

There is a saying attributed to the Buddha about this:

Praise and blame, gain and loss, pleasure and sorrow
come and go like the wind . . .

Last night, Phelps told a reporter that this moment would stay with him the rest of his life. I thought, wouldn't that be nice! It's not that I don't hope it will; but it is already past.

In the original Olympic Games, the laurel leaf was placed on the head of the winning athlete. It is more common in western symbology than I realized; there are zillions of images online. This one is common, taken from the more complex flag of the United Nations. A number of the images available are of young men wearing them as part of a costume and ruining their political future.

I was struck by the fact that the laurel leaf is often depicted like this, as open, just like the Zen enso. The open, or broken circle. That could take me to one of my favorite songs, which is about death, like Housman's poem, "Will the circle be unbroken?" The songs says yes; there's a better land waiting in the sky.

I think it is here.

1 comment:

  1. The full saying is:

    Praise and blame,
    gain and loss,
    pleasure and sorrow,
    come and go like the wind.

    To be happy
    rest like a great tree
    in the midst of them all.

    (Some say 'giant tree' but I prefer 'great')