Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Or Old

I was thinking I might write an essay discussing who was right: Emily Dickinson or Homer. Emily Dickinson writes:

The Robin's my Criterion for Tune--
Because I grow--where Robins do--
But were I Cuckoo born--
I'd swear by him--
The ode familiar rules the Noon--

[from #285]

But Telemachos in Homer (Lattimore's translation) says:

"There is nothing wrong in his singing the sad return of the Danaans.
People, surely, always give more applause to that song
which is the latest to circulate among the listeners."

(Odyssey, Bk. 1, ll. 350-352)

So which is it? New or old? Familiar or strange?

My first thought was I could reconcile them in some way. (That's my temperament in any case.) Maybe with nature we prefer the familiar, but with human constructs we seek variety? That nature is continuously fulfilling, but man's constructions are inherently thin, so we need to see something new. That's a little hard on Tolstoy or on Homer, but it could be true. But men go seek novelty in nature, too, climb to the top of Mount Everest or penetrate to the heart of the Amazon, and it's mostly to see new things. So maybe not.

Then it occurred to me, it's mostly men in jungles or on snowy peaks. Could this be a difference between Emily and (Mr.) Homer. (For I'm assuming it is Mr. Homer, pace Samuel Butler.) But Thoreau contemplated Walden Pond and women climb Everest these days. It's likely an accident of history that most explorers were men.

That was the essay I was going to write. Because of course there must be a truth. But I couldn't figure it out. Maybe they're just both right? Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.