The lords of these domains were called giants, a Greek word which means ‘sons of earth,’ or descendants of the buried dead.
Vico, New Science, 1744
We were born from the earth
Like the Giants of old,
Those rude sons and daughters
Of great-wombed Gaia.
We unfolded nature’s fort and flesh
On borrowed limbs and bones;
Unbending stones,— and yet we broke
Against Ouranos mighty breath.
We slept and ate in mud and filth,
But took it as providence
That the earth that nurtured us
Would nourish us in kind and kine.
I have become such an impious beast
That I cannot believe Jovian justice
Yet breathes in me as thunder exhaled from
Clouds of a divine providence betrayed.
The plow that digs into earth’s deep furrows,
The seed that is planted in wormy womb,
The language of the hidden things,—
These are the words I can no longer read.
We may divine from thunder clash
In lightning’s twisted alphabet,
That giants battled with the gods,
Until men seized the hero haunted land.
Through the urbs of their plows, turning,
Folding, opening the freshly moistened soil,
In great agrarian revolutions,
They overwhelmed the giant heroes.
And they were thus the urbans
Of property in their own oppression.
But could men with no divinity,
Divine the breeding powers of the earth?
If we can no longer bless, the cold, dead seed
That bursts from the rotted earthy flesh
In great anguish of sun and wind and water,
What grants us this noble life in death?
What divines our return,
To be born and born again –
in the rich, black, wormy soil
of this, our earth?
This poem is based on Giambattista Vico’s New Science. I have used an electronic text available through Internet Archive to provide the following notes. Including notes like these must seem rather pretentious, but I fear that, because this is a poem, some readers may think it is a matter solely of personal expression. While it has a personal element to it, I rather hope the reader might find a more moderate response to the poem in the difficult, but older, conception of poetry as a meeting place between the self and the larger world. I rather hope the reader might see this as something of a dialog between myself and Vico. The notes below contain rather long excerpts from Vico, which could have been longer still had they been augmented by his thoughts on property, oppression (not quite that concept of oppression which we inherit from Karl Marx and the Frankfurt school, but a sense of the term that moves more towards Nietzsche), divinity and the art of divination, the language of thunder, lightning and hieroglyphics, and the ideal sequence of history: god to hero to man. I hope that the length of the three notes I have included (four if we include the epigram) will, at least, suggest the dialog that readers of Vico may, perhaps, better appreciate. In this way I wish not as such to make more of my poem, but to enlarge its natural sense of dialog and, rather idealistically, to pull something of poetry out of that hopeless servitude to the diminshed self into which it has so much fallen of late. But that last, I am sure, is too much to hope.
Line 9: mud – “And these children, who had to wallow in their own filth, whose nitrous salts richly fertilized the fields, and who had to exert themselves to penetrate the great forest, grown extremely dense from the flood, would flex and contract their muscles in these exertions, and thus absorb nitrous salts into their bodies in greater abundance. They would be quite without that fear of gods, fathers and teachers which chills and benumbs even the most exuberant in childhood. They must therefore have grown robust, vigorous, excessively big in brawn and bone, to the point of becoming giants.”
Line 10: providence – [Vico is explaining the allegorical etching appended to the beginning of the work]. “The globe, or the physical, natural world, is supported by the altar in one part only, for, until now, the philosophers, contemplating divine providence only through the natural order, have shown only a part of it. Accordingly men offer worship, sacrifices and other divine honors to God as to the Mind which is the free and absolute sovereign of nature, because by His eternal counsel He has given us existence through nature, and through nature preserves it to us. But the philosophers have not yet contemplated His providence in respect of that part of it which is most proper to men, whose nature has this principal property: that of being social.”
Line 25: urbs – “Before the use of iron was known, the plow had to be made of a curved piece of very hard wood, capable of breaking and turning the earth. The Latins called the moldboard urbs, whence the ancient urbum, ‘curved’.”