Poem: Pletho on Prayer

I learned to pray to the seablue sky
when all the voices of heaven were mute
The angels—birds--were my company,
and darkness the only absolute;
souls rustled light in the leaves of trees
and blood pulsed rising up in their trunk;
Dull sparrows tittered out memories—
a thousand lives and their passions shrunk
down to the bones of Aeolian lust.
Gone are those kingdoms amid the clouds,
the sermons spelled out in blowing dust;
the leaves have withered into a shroud,
but sometimes the arms of Zeus at night
still glisten lightning in the cold rain,
and in the southing of geese in flight
the pagan heart will beat Greek again.

George Gemistus "Pletho[n]" was an influential Byzantine Platonist of the 15th century. He taught members of the imperial family and, in his capacity as philosopher, joined the Greek delegation to the Council of Ferrara/Florence, which had been called as a last ditch effort to heal the schism. His lectures on Plato and the Neoplatonists so impressed Cosino de Medici that he devoted his ward, Marsilio Ficino, to the study of Greek and founded the Platonic Academy, an event of fundamental--and sinister--importance in European history. Pletho had concealed his growing attachment to what he thought was the old religion of the Greeks, though it was in fact NeoPlatonic Neopaganism, but some part of his explicitly pagan work The Laws came to the attention of his more Orthodox friends. However the last fragment of the Roman Empire had more on its hands in the 1450's than a brilliant pagan

I make no claims for the merit of this poem, except as it tends to illustrate the point I made about Tennyson, that imaginations frequently stray "off the reservation." I don't recall exactly, but I believe it was written in McClellanville, SC about 1975, after an impressive thunder storm.

The form is rhyming quatrains--though the rhymes are deliberately not entirely strict--of 9 syllable lines. The pattern is most clear in the first line. Instead of the usual 8 syllable line, alternating unaccented with accented syllables, there is an additional unaccented syllable after the fifth syllable--in this case "the". It is a faint echo of a series of attempts to capture some of the flavor of classical meters. This line does not correspond to any well-known Greek pattern, but it is reminiscent of the longer Alcaic line: x-u-x -uu-u-. Obviously, any bonehead English major would spot the motive.

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

8 Responses

  1. Allen Wilson says:

    That poem is quite good, and it has an effect. It captures the imagination and it seems to build somehow as it goes toward the end. It’s almost as if Pletho himself is actually speaking.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Well I like the poem regardless of any pantheistic or pagan qualities as it at least recognizes the obvious spirits in things and is therefore infinitely more informative than the positivist prose posing as poetry my poor chidden have had to read and pretend to study.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Robert, it may amuse you to know that the title was an afterthought. Will I see you, dei violent, in Charleston? I am still planning on making it.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    Yes, that’s the plan. And looking forward to it.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Sorry for the dei violent, which came by way of the spellcheck

  6. Robert Reavis says:

    I am chuckling and have paid my registration looking forward to seeing you very much and most grateful your mild but surprised fall has only slowed your pace but not your destination..

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The body is operating mostly on reserve power, but from the chin up, I feel if anything more vital

  8. Jacob Johnson says:

    It is good to see the technical explanation of the poem here as it is a trustworthy source for this type of thing in a world of increasingly unreliable sources.