A heartbreaking dot of staggering genius

I was trying to concentrate on an MA assignment I’ve to write on Greek tragedy and a quatrain started woodpeckering round my brain in that way, procrastination, deadline, or no, you just have to go google it. The lines were:

And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

So far, so straightforward and widely pasted across the internet for extra measure. But. There’s a big but. A ruddy great full-stop of a but, if you put the lines back in the stanza they come from. Read all of it, the effect works better that way:

But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

You almost don’t notice it, there’s such a lead-in as a pageant of images unwinds like history in your mind’s eye, but that full stop after slaves. Even as your mind half-takes it in, it seems almost mistaken, a grit-bump that the force of the line going forwards carries you over so you ‘think of of the slaves and how one can imagine oneself among them’. Then confusion; ‘I do not know,’ a short line slyly tucked almost back from notice but it jolts your secure imaginings and the full stop, contrary to the direction of the line, reins you back. Can you really imagine yourself as a slave in such a different time? Can you really? The question is evenly balanced and can equally be understood either way. In fact, as the poem points out, this whole event is happening in your imagination; you are a slave to your thoughts. And the slaves you are wondering if you can even really imagine are dead, as you were told at the start but had already forgotten, and can you imagine what death is like? All questions which this poem asks before ending on that deliberately too neat and soothing little homily, so often cut and pasted.

The pivot for this sleight of mind is the full stop after slaves. One little dot on the page, mere ‘punctuation’. Sure, the line lengths and repeated ‘and’ at the line-starts; first 5 lines apart, then 3, then 2, these hasten you on in your picturings. And the semi-colon after ‘know’ seems to emphasis the second clause, the ‘unimaginable difference’. But it’s the not-knowing, that full stop that acts as a pivot sending your mind back and forth as you try to work it out, that understated full-stop that is doing so much of the work.

As a non-sequitur, I found out that the poet was Louis MacNeice, and there was a connection to my MA; I happened to be reading his Agamemnon translation when these lines went whirring round my head. Funny old things, human minds.

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