Monday, November 09, 2009

I'll Leave Elysium to Converse with You

Damon and Pythias
or, Friendship in Perfection
by John Norris

Pyth. 'Tis true (my Damon) we as yet have been
Patterns of constant love, I know;
We've stuck so close no third could come between
But will it (Damon) will it still be so?

Da. Keep your love true, I dare engage that mine
Shall like my soul immortal prove.
In friendship's orb how brightly shall we shine
Where all shall envy, none divide our love!

Pyth. Death will; when once (as 'tis by fate design'd)
T'Elysium you shall be remov'd,
Such sweet companions there no doubt you'll find,
That you'll forget that Pythias e'er you lov'd.

Da. No, banish all such fears; I then will be
Your friend and guardian Angel too.
And tho with more refin'd society
I'll leave Elysium to converse with you.

Pyth. But grant that after fate you still are kind,
You cannot long continue so;
When I, like you, become all thought and mind,
By what mark shall we each other know?

Da. With care on your last hour I will attend,
And lest like souls should me deceive,
I closely will embrace my new-born friend,
And never after my dear Pythias leave.

That line, "I'll leave Elysium to converse with you," is just flawlessly right in so many ways; I wish there were a stronger lead up into it. But the admirable thing about the poem, as about many of Norris's poems, is the poetic diction -- simple and straightforward, bordering on colloquial, yet often quite striking. It is very easy to read Norris aloud, despite the fact that he wrote in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century -- this conversation between Damon and Pythias sounds very natural to the ear even after all this time. And that fits the poem well, I think: no stilted formalities for the paragons of friendship.

There is a philosophical connection, incidentally. Damon and Pythias (sometimes also called Phintias) were followers of Pythagoras, and their friendship is regularly held up as an example of true friendship among philosophers. So Cicero, De Officiis Book III:

But I am speaking here of ordinary friendships; for among men who are ideally wise and perfect such situations cannot arise. They say that Damon and Phintias, of the Pythagorean school, enjoyed such ideally perfect friendship, that when the tyrant Dionysius had appointed a day for the executing of one of them, and the one who had been condemned to death requested a few days' respite for the purpose of putting his loved ones in the care of friends, the other became surety for his appearance, with the understanding that his friend did not return, he himself should be put to death. And when the friend returned on the day appointed, the tyrant in admiration for their faithfulness begged that they would enrol him as a third partner in their friendship.

The notion of friendship, in its purest form, as an expression of a genuinely philosophical life is not one that one finds much anymore; it requires the notion of a friendship of excellence or virtue, and we in general tend to think of friends as friends of pleasure alone. Indeed, it requires a notion of the philosophical life as a life so lived that it is devoted to virtue; and we tend not to think in terms of philosophical lives at all. Quite sad, really: we nourish our minds and characters on such thin gruel that we are bound to become intellectually and morally anemic.

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