Thursday, November 26, 2015

Jorge Luis Borges: "Ars Poetica"

Ars Poetica: Jorge Luis Borges 

To gaze at the river made of time and water
And recall that time itself is another river,
To know we cease to be, just like the river,
And that our faces pass away, just like the water.

To feel that waking is another sleep
That dreams it does not sleep and that death,
Which our flesh dreads, is that very death
Of every night, which we call sleep.

To see in the day or in the year a symbol
Of mankind’s days and of his years,
To transform the outrage of the years
Into a music, a rumor and a symbol,

To see in death a sleep, and in the sunset
A sad gold, of such is Poetry
Immortal and a pauper. For Poetry
Returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the afternoons a face
Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.

They tell how Ulysses, glutted with wonders,
Wept with love to descry his Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not of wonders.

It is also like an endless river
That passes and remains, a mirror for one same
Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
And another, like an endless river.
-- Jorge Luis Borges --
From Dreamtigers,  translated by Harold Morland

What does art do?  Is it just a way of dealing with death or is there more to it than that?  If we were immortal, would there be art?


  1. Art in all its forms (visual, aural, literary, and more) is created by people who yearn for immortality through creating something durable beyond themselves; some are successful, but most are not. Some people believe they are immortal (well, sort of, when they consider forms of the afterlife or reincarnation) but creative arts continue, and suspect creating art is an insurance policy against the possibilities that belief in the afterlife or reincarnation is going to be unfulfilled. Does any of that babbling make any sense at all?

  2. R.T.,

    Yes, especially if you look at stanzas 3 and 4, that seems to be what Borges is suggesting. I think Borges adds something more, that art is a reflection of ourselves and that we can see ourselves in art--true for the artist, but I wonder if it's true for those like me who are not artists (see stanza 5).

    Do you think art would exist if we were immortal? (One of those impossible to answer questions)


  3. Death is certainly a strong presence in our lives, but I don't think the inevitable dark horizon is the principal motivator in art. As many of your posts point out, art in its various forms is more an expression or response to the moment, the feeling (or lack of feeling, which I suppose is also a feeling), the relationship, the sensory impression. I think the better expression of what art is about (or at least I like it better) is the Macleish Ars Poetica:

    Ars Poetica
    By Archibald MacLeish
    A poem should be palpable and mute
    As a globed fruit,

    As old medallions to the thumb,

    Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
    Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

    A poem should be wordless
    As the flight of birds.

    A poem should be motionless in time
    As the moon climbs,

    Leaving, as the moon releases
    Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

    Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
    Memory by memory the mind—

    A poem should be motionless in time
    As the moon climbs.


    A poem should be equal to:
    Not true.

    For all the history of grief
    An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

    For love
    The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

    A poem should not mean
    But be.

    1. Pops,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. MacLeish's version is one of my favorites. I just discovered Borges,so I thought I would post it.

      I posted a brief, earlier entry on the topic, back in October.