He goes down to the sea each day and walks the shore.
Each day the gray sea ice is closer, and fewer gulls come.
He wanders up toward the village, past the empty and ruined rectory.
The churchyard behind it has stone cairns. His wife lies beneath one,
And there is one for Thórvald, his son,
Though Thórvald's bones do not rest there; he and three others
Were gathered ten years ago in the sea's net
And came not home.
Since building his son's cairn,
He had buried one by one the last four villagers.
Each time he prayed in the in the stone church on Sunday
That he would be next,
And not left alone to watch the ice closing in.
In his father's time ships had come. The last one came
Fifty years ago.
Storms and ice made it easy for captains to forget
The village existed. For a time he prayed each Sunday
For a ship to come and take him to Iceland or Norway or anywhere.
None came. Ship-prayers died with the last villager,
Three years ago. He still prayed in the stone church on Sunday,
For other things; until last winter,
When the church roof collapsed in a storm.
The next Sunday he stayed home and prayed for other things there.
Now even the gulls are going,
Riding the thin winds to other shores. Soon they will all be gone.
He will walk the shore, looking out to sea for ships that will never come,
And see only the gray sea ice, closer each day.
I remember when I first learned about the tragedy of how much classical literature has been lost. Take, for example, Sophocles, which anyone who's taken a college lit class probably knows because of his plays Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Oedipus at Colonus. He was the author of at least 120 plays, of which only seven have survived. While we consider him to be one of the most brilliant ancient Greek playwrights, we don't even have ten percent of the literature he wrote. As Carl Sagan put it, it's as if all we had of Shakespeare was Timon of Athens, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Cymbeline, and were judging his talent based upon that.
The same is true of just about every classical Greek and Roman writer. Little to nothing of their work survives; some are only known because of references to their writing in other authors. Some of what we do have was saved by fortunate chance; this is the subject of Stephen Greenblatt's wonderful book The Swerve, which is about how a fifteenth-century book collector, Poggio Bracciolini, discovered in a monastic library what might well have been the sole remaining copy of Lucretius's masterwork De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which was one of the first pieces of writing to take seriously Democritus's idea that all matter is made of atoms.
The Swerve looks at the history of Lucretius's work (and its origin in the philosophy of Epicurus) and the monastic tradition that allowed it to survive, as well as Poggio's own life and times and how his discovery altered the course of our pursuit of natural history. (This is the "swerve" referenced in the title.) It's a fascinating read for anyone who enjoys history or science (or the history of science). His writing is clear, lucid, and quick-paced, about as far from the stereotype of historical writing being dry and boring as you could get. You definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.
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