For Borges light dies down into pale, uncertain ash

Extracts from” the poem about Gifts” (Dreamtigers) by J.L.Borges


As I walk through the slow galleries
I grow to feel with a kind of holy dread
That I am that other, I am the dead,
And the steps I make are also his.

Which of us two is writing now these lines
About a plural I and a single gloom?
What does it matter what word is my name
If the curse is indivisibly the same?

[From Dreamtigers, by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Harold Morland]

I love these lines of Borges written by a poet growing blind, facing the towering walls of a library. The visual handicap has been described in the earlier lines with a sharp irony of “books and night” ,God had given him, making his eyes the sightless rulers of endless walls of books:

Slow in my darkness, I explore
The hollow gloom with my hesitant stick,
I, that used to figure Paradise
In such a library’s guise

The excruciating irony is experienced not by the poet Borges alone but by another too who had gone through the same irony of books and night “on other days of many books and the dark”. What difference would it make if it is Borges or Groussac who is facing the irony now because Borges is none other than Groussac, he is the other , the dead one walking the same steps.

As I walk through the slow galleries

Walking through slow galleries conveys a slow movement on account of the visual handicap, the need to tap floor or wall with a walking stick.It is not the galleries that are slow but the walker as he moves through them. He grows to feel with a kind of holy dread that he is the other. Growing to feel is a kind of organic growth of the body towards loss of visual function. Growing is a positive term here used for going sightless , an extension of the irony that began in the first and second stanzas.


Let none think that I by tear or reproach make light
Of this manifesting the mastery
Of God, who with excelling irony
Gives me at once both books and night.

In this city of books he made these eyes
The sightless rulers who can only read,
In libraries of dreams, the pointless
Paragraphs each new dawn offers

But the growth is towards a feeling of the obliteration of the individual Borges towards a plurality of anyone ,whether Borges or Groussac or anyone sightless faced with a wall of books.

But the best lines are the last four in which Borges goes on to describe the human situation:


Groussac or Borges, I gaze at this beloved
World that grows more shapeless, and its light
Dies down into a pale, uncertain ash
Resembling sleep and the oblivion of night.


The visual terms used are as though the poet is using up the last of his visual experience to describe a world that is slowly disappearing for him;

He gazes at the beloved world. The world is growing shapeless.Imagine the gradual loss of memory in a man growing blind as he loses the outlines of objects and they become progressively blurred. As the light that falls on objects disappears, the world remains a mere memory , a pale uncertain ash resembling sleep and the oblivion of night. The night gradually makes objects shapeless, their contours lost in darkness. The blind man will only have vague memories of what they were before darkness had set in.

“light dies down into pale,uncertain ash” is a delicious visual image.

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Poetry in drama : “it” ghosts, yond stars,minutes of the night, buried Denmark,eyes approved

Scene 1, Act 1 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet prepares us so well for the tragedy that will unfold in the coming scenes.The entire imagery in the scene builds up an atmosphere of dark tragedy brewing in the Elsinore castle, beginning with the appearance of Hamlet’s ghost father. The imagery is worth looking at.

When Bernardo asks who is there? Fransisco replies and says “Nay, answer me:stand and unfold yourself”. Unfold here is reveal oneself in the dark night, may be removing a head scarf or a face hiding cloth. Saying long live the king! Bernardo declares himself a royal servant,a kin.

Fransisco :”it is bitter cold and I am sick at heart” : mark “sick at heart” : a premonition?

A silence most uneasy :”Not a mouse stirring”

“Has this thing appeared again tonight?’ The ghost is first introduced here in the play. The ghost is “it”, this thing ,not knowing if it is a real thing ,not knowing if it is man or woman,not knowing if it is a thing or an idea.

At this point in the play it could be a mere idea , a fear in a fevered mind.

They have seen this dreaded scene twice but Horatio ,being a scholar, is skeptical.

Marcellus has entreated him along with them to watch the minutes of this night

I love the image of the minutes of the night.They will watch the minutes of the night for the apparition to make its appearance again.Horatio will watch the apparition if it comes again and approve our eyes. Apparition appearing again, a delicious combination!

Beautiful. Love the use of the tool to describe a function.Their eyes may be wrong in their performing the function expected of them but let Horatio watch it with his eyes and put a stamp of approval on their eyes.

Sit we down
and let us hear Bernardo speak of this

And then Bernardo begins his yarn with “last night,when yond star that is westward from the pole had made his course to illume that part of heaven,where it now burns, Marcellus and myself, the bell then beating one….

Bernardo does not let go his chance to tell a story. He is building up suspense for the coming of the ghost. He is a poet who does not just say “at around 1’o clock, this thing came….

Bernardo tells him to shut up as he sees it coming.

Horatio, the scholar is the only one competent to speak to a ghost. But he is frightened.

He speaks nevertheless. Some beautiful words .

What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak.

The ghost is walking in that” fair and warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did some times march”

“The majesty of buried Denmark” suggests Horatio is a poet who deftly transposes “buried” from “majesty” to “Denmark”

We now know things are not all that above suspicion.Some foul play must have taken place.It is not the king who is buried but the whole of Denmark whose future now lies uncertain in the hands of new rulers who had plotted his death.

Coming back to eyes, Horatio now approves the eyes of Bernardo and Marcellus. Horatio the scholar cannot but believe the apparition with the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes. A subjective experience becomes objective if more subjects experience it, especially a subject as well trained in seeing as Horatio.

But we have to anticipate what Hamlet would later tell Horatio :There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt in your philosophy. Even a subjective truth verified by the senses of other people can be misleading. A philosophy does not equip us with an understanding of the world beyond.Philosophy is concerned with seeing the reality but also with dreams of reality but there are far more things in heaven and earth than what a philosopher can hypothesize.

The best of all, here is some of the best “cock” poetry ever found in literature

HORATIO
And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons. I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day; and, at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine: and of the truth herein
This present object made probation.

MARCELLUS
It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

The sheer music of the lines strikes you as they are spoken by relatively insignificant characters like Marcellus and Horatio in the play’s scheme of things.