Sirens and syrens


(Herbert James Draper, Ulysses and the Sirens: Ferens Art Gallery)

—I know you think I’m obsessed with sirens.
—Yes.
—But there were three at once just now. And at least a dozen or more, so far today.
—Think of where we are.
—Arterial junction on this side of the city. But still . . .

But still. Sirens. Or Syrens? The meaning of which, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary sternly pronounces, is ‘chiefly British spelling of siren’. Elsewhere, ‘syren’ is simply termed ‘old-fashioned’.

‘What song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond conjecture’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote in chapter 5 of his Urn Burial.[1] His editor points out that those questions had been put by the emperor Tiberius to test the grammarians. Or, according to Suetonius, in his life of that strikingly unpleasant Roman, ‘his greatest passion was for mythology, to the extent that he made himself seem foolish and absurd; for he used to make trial of scholars, a class of men on whom [ . . . ] he was especially keen: “Who was Hecuba’s mother? What was Achilles’ name when he was among the virgins? What songs used the Sirens to sing?”’[2]


Sleight of hand, yes, siren to siren: but both rub shoulders under the one dictionary heading. A beckoning and a warning; a come-on and a note of caution. The mythological nymphs whose singing required Homer’s hero to be bound to his ship’s mast while his crew had their ears stuffed with beeswax; but also a signalling or warning instrument, as well as an American genus of eel-like amphibians (typically living in muddy pools). The proposed derivation is suitably tortuous: Middle English from Old French from Late Latin from Greek (Seirēn).

‘I imagine’, Ford Madox Ford wrote, ‘that I should prefer to be where Christobel low-lieth and to listen to the song the syrens sang. But I am in London of the nineteen tens, and I am content to endure the rattles and the bangs—and I hope to see them rendered.’[3] He had used the phrase—‘what songs the Sirens sang’—a year earlier; and would use it, or a variant of it, on several later occasions.[4]  In 1931, reporting fierce storms in the South of France to the novelist Caroline Gordon, one of which had drowned seventeen men, he added: ‘the Mediterranean being a treacherous syren’.[5]

Ford also recalled, from his days of editing the English Review, a piece by Norman Douglas called Syrens, ‘which was, I think, the most beautiful thing we printed.’ That Douglas essay begins: ‘It was the Emperor Tiberius who startled his grammarians with the question, what songs the Sirens sang.’[6]

Not that Ford and Douglas were the only ones with Sirens on their mind. E. M. Forster was at it too. In his ‘The Story of the Siren’, a Sicilian boatman tells the English narrator the story of his brother’s sighting of the Siren, when he dives for silver coins. Permanently changed, he marries a woman similarly bewitched, who is murdered by a priest while pregnant, religion and popular superstition having conspired to produce the conviction among the villagers that the couple’s child would empower the Siren, that the Pope would then die and the world be turned upside down.[7]


Also in 1920, the writer John Rodker’s recently created Ovid Press issued an edition of 200 copies of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, with initials and colophon by Edward Wadsworth, who had been briefly associated with the Omega Workshops, then with the Vorticists, contributing five illustrations and a review of Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art to the first issue of Blast.

The third stanza of Mauberley:

ἴδμεν γάρ τοι πάνθ᾽ ὅσ᾽ ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
Caught in the unstopped ear;
Giving the rocks small lee-way
The chopped seas held him, therefore, that year.

The first line, from Homer’s Odyssey (Bk.XII, 189), ‘For we know all the toils that are in wide Troy’, is, precisely, from the Sirens’ song, its transmission unimpeded by that ‘unstopped ear’ (while ‘lee-way’ is Pound’s bilingual rhyme with Τροίῃ, and those choppy seas or, rather, that ‘therefore’, suitably disturbs the rhythm of the final line).[8]


Richard Buxton notes that the Sirens are ‘depicted by post-Homeric sources as women above the waist and birds below it’ and prints the image of an Attic vase, which the British Museum dates to c.480-470 BC, one of the Sirens having thrown herself off a cliff onto the ship, ‘perhaps because the safe passage of Odysseus’ vessel marks a defeat for the Sirens’ power’. [9]

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1843-1103-31

In May 1940, after the Nazi invasion of the Lowlands, Mollie Panter-Downes noted that ‘the bus changing gear at the corner sounds ridiculously like a siren for a second, as it used to do in the first edgy days of the war.’[10] But even those of us (now most of us) not old enough to recall the originals have been made familiar with the sound of air raid sirens by film and television dramas.

Things were a little more makeshift in the earlier war. When the Gothas, heavy wide-spanned biplanes, virtually took over from Zeppelins the attacks on London in the summer of 1917, E. S. Turner wrote: ‘Belatedly the Government introduced a proper warning system of maroons [fireworks used as signals or warnings]; one of the earlier methods had been to send out a fast open car with a bugler (sometimes a Boy Scout) standing in the back, or a policeman hard-pedalling a cycle with a ‘Take Cover’ notice. Engine drivers had their own way of sounding “All Clear”; they blew a cock-a-doodle-do on their whistles.’[11] Hard luck if your attention was elsewhere when that policeman cycled by.

Dropping off the car on returning from Somerset, we are almost deafened by a rush and cacophony of wailing vehicles, both ambulance and police. I suspect I know what song those sirens sing.


Notes

[1] Browne, Selected Writings, edited by Claire Preston (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1995), 105. Thetis sent her son Achilles to the court of King Lycomedes on Skyros to avoid his being sent to war with Troy, where he was destined to die. He disguised himself as a girl under the name of Pyrrha but was tracked down by Odysseus.

[2] Suetonius, Live of the Caesars, edited and translated by Catharine Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 132.

[3] Ford, ‘On a Notice of “Blast”’, Outlook, XXXVI (31 July 1915), 144. Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ may have wantonly embraced Tennyson’s 1830 poem ‘Claribel’ (‘Where Claribel low-lieth’) here.

[4] Ford, ‘Literary Portraits XXVIII—Mr Morley Roberts and Time and Thomas Waring’, Outlook, XXXIII (21 March 1914), 390; Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 7; The Marsden Case (London: Duckworth, 1923), 44; and ‘Somewhere the sirens smiled’, in The Rash Act (1933; Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1982), 187.

[5] Brita Lindbergh-Seyersted, A Literary Friendship: Correspondence Between Caroline Gordon & Ford Madox Ford (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 11-12.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday (London: Gollancz, 1931), 408-409; Norman Douglas, ‘Sirens’, English Review, II, ii (May 1909), 202-214.

[7] Forster’s story was ‘hand-printed by the Woolfs’ and published in a limited edition in July 1920: The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 2: 1920-24, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 51-52 and n.; E. M. Forster, Collected Short Stories (London: Penguin Books, 1954), 179-187.

[8] Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations, edited by Richard Sieburth (New York: Library of America, 2003), 549.

[9] Richard Buxton, The Complete World of Greek Mythology (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), 142.

[10] Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (1971; edited by William Shawn, new preface by David Kynaston, London: Persephone Books, 2014), 64.

[11] E. S. Turner, Dear Old Blighty (London: Michael Joseph 1980), 123.

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