O my daughter
A personal note: on April 5, Easter Sunday, at 4:21 a.m., my wife gave birth to our first child, named Sibyl Marie*.
There seem to me to be, speaking broadly, fewer works of literature about the love found in parenthood than about that found in marriage. This applies to Shakespeare’s plays as well, but the Bard still does a better job with it than most writers. My wife and I have spent this year reading through various Shakespeare plays, and a few weeks ago finished Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Do I have a better understanding of that play’s final recognition scene, now that I have a daughter? I don’t know that I do. As T.S. Eliot wrote, there is “At best, only a limited value / In the knowledge derived from experience.” Still, the scene does seem now like a bigger draw on my attention, as does one of Eliot’s minor poems, a retelling of that scene, which I present here without comment:
T.S. Eliot — Marina
What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.
Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning
Are become insubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place
What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye
Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.
Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.
What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
*: A brief comment on the name. First, we spelled it Sibyl, not Sybil. This is the less common spelling, but it makes more etymological sense; the Greek word is σίβυλλαι, the Latin Sibylla. Sybil came about, I suspect, via analogy with other classical-sounding names like Cynthia, Lydia, Sylvia. Second, though it comes from pagan Greece, the name has picked up myriad Christian resonances. The sibyls, though pagans, were thought to have predicted the coming of Christ–hence the line in the Dies Irae, “Teste David cum Sibylla,” and the Sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel–and it became a common name for women in the Middle Ages, e.g. Blessed Sibyllina Biscossi, 1287-1367. It went out of fashion with the Reformation, then came back in the 19th and early 20th century. Finally, though I did not learn this until after selecting the name, St. Jerome (fallaciously) derives the word sibyl from “counsel of God,” and the Sibyls are associated iconographically with the “Seat of Wisdom.”