Archive for the 'Poetry' Category

Our Singing Strength

April 19, 2022

Yesterday we had a spring snowstorm where I live, and I was reminded of this poem by Robert Frost, which I like quite a bit. I group it with Frost’s “snow poems”; “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is the most famous, but actually there are quite a number that I, a snow-burdened Canadian, appreciate. In this poem, I admire the construction from rhyming couplets, but enjambed in such a way that it doesn’t break neatly into two-line groups.

It is the first stanza that I mostly thought of yesterday. I did not see any birds.

Our Singing Strength

It snowed in spring on earth so dry and warm
The flakes could find no landing place to form.
Hordes spent themselves to make it wet and cold,
And still they failed of any lasting hold.
They made no white impression on the black.
They disappeared as if earth sent them back.
Not till from separate flakes they changed at night
To almost strips and tapes of ragged white
Did grass and garden ground confess it snowed,
And all go back to winter but the road.
Next day the scene was piled and puffed and dead.
The grass lay flattened under one great tread.
Borne down until the end almost took root,
The rangey bough anticipated fruit
With snowball cupped in every opening bud.
The road alone maintained itself in mud,
Whatever its secret was of greater heat
From inward fires or brush of passing feet.

In spring more mortal singers than belong
To any one place cover us with song.
Thrush, bluebird, blackbird, sparrow, and robin throng;
Some to go further north to Hudson’s Bay,
Some that have come too far north back away,
Really a very few to build and stay.
Now was seen how these liked belated snow.
the field had nowhere left for them to go;
They’d soon exhausted all there was in flying;
The trees they’d had enough of with once trying
And setting off their heavy powder load.
They could find nothing open but the road.
So there they let their lives be narrowed in
By thousands the bad weather made akin.
The road became a channel running flocks
Of glossy birds like ripples over rocks.
I drove them under foot in bits of flight
That kept the ground, almost disputing right
Of way with me from apathy of wing,
A talking twitter all they had to sing.
A few I must have driven to despair
Made quick asides, but having done in air
A whir among white branches great and small
As in some too much carven marble hall
Where one false wing beat would have brought down all,
Came tamely back in front of me, the Drover,
To suffer the same driven nightmare over.
One such storm in a lifetime couldn’t teach them
That back behind pursuit it couldn’t reach them;
None flew behind me to be left alone.

Well, something for a snowstorm to have shown
The country’s singing strength thus brought together,
That though repressed and moody with the weather
Was none the less there ready to be freed
And sing the wildflowers up from root and seed.

Milton: Paradise Lost

March 31, 2022

Paradise Lost
John Milton
[1674]
Third reading.

I’ve little leisure at present to write about this great poem. Instead, this is just a brief scrapbook of lines and thoughts that I compiled as I was reading.

***

The opening gesture:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know’st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat’st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad’st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men.

The fall of Satan:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.

Satan claims for himself a “fixed mind”, unwilling or unable to repent.

Satan’s non serviam:

Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

(Those first lines were memorably set to music by Nick Cave.)

And Satan’s despairing inversion of the moral order:

So farewell, hope; and with hope farewell, fear;
Farewell, remorse! all good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good.

***

Does the history of modernity recapitulate the infernal debate of the rebel angels?

First, Mammon counsels that true liberty involves self-invention and freedom from the designs of a Creator:

But rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp.

And he observes that in course of time the contrast between Divine friendship and their current state will be forgotten:

Nor want we skill or art from whence to raise
Magnificence; and what can Heaven show more?
Our torments also may, in length of time,
Become our elements, these piercing fires
As soft as now severe, our temper changed
Into their temper; which must needs remove
The sensible of pain.

But Beelzebub counters that this talk of building an empire outside God’s providence is foolishness:

The King of Heaven hath doomed
This place our dungeon, not our safe retreat
Beyond his potent arm, to live exempt
From Heaven’s high jurisdiction, in new league
Banded against his throne, but to remain
In strictest bondage, though thus far removed,
Under th’ inevitable curb, reserved
His captive multitude. For he, to be sure,
In height or depth, still first and last will reign
Sole king, and of his kingdom lose no part
By our revolt, but over Hell extend
His empire, and with iron sceptre rule
Us here, as with his golden those in Heaven.

If modernity is retracing these steps, we’re still on Mammon’s course, waiting for Beelzebub.

***

An aphorism:

“Goodness thinks no ill where no ill seems”

***

Satan’s rebellion consisted of envy and pride:

He of the first,
If not the first Arch-Angel, great in power,
In favour and pre-eminence, yet fraught
With envy against the Son of God, that day
Honoured by his great Father, and proclaimed
Messiah King anointed, could not bear
Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired.

In Eden, Satan’s agonized incapacity for repentance and lust to destroy:

“The more I see
Pleasures about me, so much more I feel
Torment within me, as from the hateful siege
Of contraries: all good to me becomes
Bane, and in Heaven much worse would be my state.
But neither here seek I, no nor in Heaven
To dwell, unless by mastering Heaven’s Supreme;
Nor hope to be myself less miserable
By what I seek, but others to make such
As I, though thereby worse to me redound:
For only in destroying I find ease
To my relentless thoughts”

***

The fall of Eve:

“Here grows the cure of all, this fruit divine,
Fair to the eye, inviting to the taste,
Of virtue to make wise: What hinders then
To reach, and feed at once both body and mind?”
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat!

The fall of Adam:

She gave him of that fair enticing fruit
With liberal hand: he scrupled not to eat,
Against his better knowledge; not deceived,
But fondly overcome with female charm.

***

Adam’s wish for death:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man? did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious garden? As my will
Concurred not to my being, it were but right
And equal to reduce me to my dust;
Desirous to resign and render back
All I received”

Death as a gift in the wake of sin:

“I, at first, with two fair gifts
Created him endowed; with happiness,
And immortality: that fondly lost,
This other served but to eternize woe;
Till I provided death: so death becomes
His final remedy”

***

The poem’s concluding lines:

“They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”

Rilke: Poems

February 22, 2022

Ahead of All Parting
Selected Poems and Prose
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell
(Modern Library, 1995) [c.1905-1923]
615 p.

Reading poetry in translation is possibly one of the least rewarding activities that a man can indulge in. It’s not so bad with epic poetry, or narrative poetry more generally, because at least there’s a story to tell, and the story can come through decently well in another language. But with more personal, more inwardly-focused poetry, the challenges for the translator become formidable, and I expect that really successful examples are rare.

For instance, I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to read T.S. Eliot in translation. I imagine that the subtle internal rhymes and irregular but still perceptible meter are very difficult to reproduce in another tongue, and I expect it would be hard to appreciate the merits of T.S. Eliot under those conditions.

Then let us both go
While the spreading sky is
Like a patient unconscious on an operating table;
Let’s walk through half-full streets,
Departing quietly
From fitful nights in cheap hotels,
And mediocre restaurants with oysters on the shell:
Streets that are like a long argument
Of malintent
That lead you to an important question …
Don’t ask, “What is it?”
Let’s go and see for ourselves.

Women go in and out of the room
Speaking about Michelangelo.

All this by way of prelude: I surmise that my experience reading Rilke in translation from German might be something like a German’s experience reading Eliot in translation from English. It’s opaque, and there’s no music in it. Here’s an example, plucked more or less at random, taken from the fifth of his ten Duino Elegies:

But tell me, who are they, these wanderers, even more
transient than we ourselves, who from their earliest days
are savagely wrung out
by a never-satisfied will (for whose sake)? Yet it wrings them,
bends them, twists them, swings them and flings them
and catches them again; and falling as if through oiled
slippery air, they land
on the threadbare carpet, worn constantly thinner
by their perpetual leaping, this carpet that is lost
in infinite space.
Stuck on like a bandage, as if the suburban sky
had wounded the earth.

I have no idea what is going on here. Try another case, randomly plucked from his late Sonnets for Orpheus:

Breathing: you invisible poem! Complete
interchange of our own
essence with world-space. You counterweight
in which I rhythmically happen.

Single wave-motion whose
gradual sea I am;
you, most inclusive of all our possible seas —
space grown warm.

How many regions in space have already been
inside me. There are winds that seem like
my wandering son.

Do you recognize me, air, full of places I once absorbed?
You who were the smooth bark,
roundness, and leaf of my words.

I can see from the German on the facing page — and this volume is, mercifully, a dual-language edition, and so only half as long as it seems — that this is a bona fide sonnet, with rhymes and everything. But the English is dismal.

I’m blaming the translator, I suppose, because it seems that Rilke’s reputation ought to be founded on something better than what I found in these pages, and I hope that’s true. On the other hand, the dust jacket contains blurbs praising the translation from the likes of Erich Heller (“the best English rendering of Rilke”) and William Arrowsmith (“instantly makes every other rendering obsolete”), so what do I know?

For years I’ve admired his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, which has been translated many times. For instance (and to take leave of this volume for a moment), by Carl Skoggard:

We never knew his unexampled head
in which the eyes ripened like apples. But
his torso goes on glowing, like a candelabrum,
in which his gaze, merely dialed back, holds

steady and shines. Otherwise, the curve
of the chest could not blind you and in the
slight swerve of the loins no smile could go to
that center which bore the begetting.

Otherwise, this stone would stand here broken
beneath the limpid fall of the shoulders
and would not glisten like the pelt of a tiger;

and would not erupt from all its edges
like a star: For there is no place here that
does not see you. You must change your life.

True, it doesn’t rhyme the way the original does, but the pacing is captured, and it’s a poem with a clear thought that captures an experience that I recognize. Other poems like it, perhaps because of my own defects of character or attention, were all too rare in these pages.

I confess I didn’t read the prose selections.

So I did not have much success with Rilke.

The falling dove lights up the air
With a terrifying flame
Announcing
An end to sin.
The only hope, or not,
Is between one fire and another —
To be rescued from fire by fire.

Who brought the pain? Love.
Love is the hidden weaver
Of the painful, fiery shirt
That we cannot bear to wear.
We only live, and sigh,
Burned by one fire or another.

Wordsworth: The Prelude

February 1, 2022

The Prelude
William Wordsworth
(Modern Library, 1950) [c.1805]
225 p. Second reading.

Far better never to have heard the name
Of zeal and just ambition, than to live
Baffled and plagued by a mind that every hour
Turns recreant to her task; takes heart again,
Then feels immediately some hollow thought
Hang like an interdict upon her hopes.
This is my lot; for either still I find
Some imperfection in the chosen theme,
Or see of absolute accomplishment
Much wanting, so much wanting, in myself,
That I recoil and droop, and seek repose
In listlessness from vain perplexity,
Unprofitably travelling toward the grave,
Like a false steward who hath much received
And renders nothing back.
(I)

But he was, finally, a good steward and not a bad, not, at least, in this. It is such a beautiful poem: thoughtful in its matter, tender and honest in its expression, subtle in its argument, and written with such grace and eloquence that it rings in the ear like song. It is, I cannot help concluding, one of the greatest long-form poems in English. It is a joy to read.

I would very much like to write about the poem at length, but circumstances are such that, after some months of waiting for an opportunity, I am forced to concede that there is “much wanting, so much wanting, in myself”. At least I was able to read it. I must content myself with a few brief observations and a few quotations of favourite passages.

It is an autobiographical poem, written to his friend Samuel Taylor Coledridge, recounting the story of his childhood and early manhood. Originally intended as the introductory section — hence the title — to a much longer poem that was never completed, it was begun when he was in his late 20s, and remained unpublished until after his death. Its theme is “the growth of a poet’s mind”, and in it Wordsworth tries to discover the roots of his poetic sensibility, tracing back through time the primary influences on his way of seeing and experiencing the world. It is a poem deeply interested in psychology and emotion, of course, but also in politics and religion and, maybe most of all, in all those aspects of the world that stand opposite the human world, confronting us, the world of inarticulate nature — or, as Wordsworth will always have it, Nature.

Though he lived for some years in the great cities of England and France, he was always a country-dweller at heart, always deeply impressed and enchanted by the world of trees and lakes and mountains:

Four years and thirty, told this very week,
Have I been now a sojourner on earth,
By sorrow not unsmitten; yet for me
Life’s morning radiance hath not left the hills,
Her dew is on the flowers.
(VI)

Perhaps we are tempted to see in this a species of the sentimental love of nature that we sometimes see in the Romantics. I don’t think we can entirely rule out such a connection, for the time and place of Wordsworth life gives such a temptation a certain plausibility, but if it is sentimental, it is not cloying or saccharine. He considers his spiritual task to be

To look with feelings of fraternal love
Upon the unassuming things that hold
A silent station in this beauteous world
(XIII)

and that is an honourable calling. And he does not just stand sentinel, but walks as a pilgrim in the world as well. In his great study of Dante, Charles Williams makes frequent reference to The Prelude, which he considers to be the great English-language attempt to do what (in at least one respect) Dante was doing: exploring how encounters with created things can lead us to God, and the poem is, at times, remarkably theological:

More frequently from the same source I drew
A pleasure quiet and profound, a sense
Of permanent and universal sway,
And paramount belief; there, recognised
A type, for finite natures, of the one
Supreme Existence, the surpassing life
Which—to the boundaries of space and time,
Of melancholy space and doleful time,
Superior, and incapable of change,
Nor touched by welterings of passion—is,
And hath the name of, God. Transcendent peace
And silence did await upon these thoughts
That were a frequent comfort to my youth.
(VI)

*

There was one narrative thread that particularly interested me, and I’d like to dwell on it for a few moments, not least because it gives an opportunity to quote at some length from the poem. Wordsworth’s young manhood coincided with the French Revolution — he was 19 years old when the Revolution began in 1789 — and, as with many of his age throughout Europe, the events in France excited his interest and, to some extent, sympathy. The poem devotes quite a lot of attention to his evolving relationship to this political revolution.

One of the first intimations we get of something brewing occurs in a passage describing a walking tour he made in France in 1790, during which he visited the great abbey of Chartreuse. The contrast between the peace of the cloister and the swirling anti-clerical forces gathering strength in the country gave him an ominous sense of foreboding:

In sympathetic reverence we trod
The floors of those dim cloisters, till that hour,
From their foundation, strangers to the presence
Of unrestricted and unthinking man.
Abroad, how cheeringly the sunshine lay
Upon the open lawns! Vallombre’s groves
Entering, we fed the soul with darkness; thence
Issued, and with uplifted eyes beheld,
In different quarters of the bending sky,
The cross of Jesus stand erect, as if
Hands of angelic powers had fixed it there,
Memorial reverenced by a thousand storms;
Yet then, from the undiscriminating sweep
And rage of one State-whirlwind, insecure.
(VI)

And though he remained in France as the first wave of the Revolution swept through the country, he relates how he, as an outsider, observed it with a certain detachment and incomprehension:

But hence to my more permanent abode
I hasten; there, by novelties in speech,
Domestic manners, customs, gestures, looks,
And all the attire of ordinary life,
Attention was engrossed; and, thus amused,
I stood, ‘mid those concussions, unconcerned,
Tranquil almost, and careless as a flower
Glassed in a green-house, or a parlour shrub
That spreads its leaves in unmolested peace,
While every bush and tree, the country through,
Is shaking to the roots: indifference this
Which may seem strange: but I was unprepared
With needful knowledge, had abruptly passed
Into a theatre, whose stage was filled
And busy with an action far advanced.
(IX)

Despite this diffidence, his sympathies, he tells us, were largely with the revolutionaries. He had no native sympathy for monarchy —

Yet in the regal sceptre, and the pomp
Of orders and degrees, I nothing found
Then, or had ever, even in crudest youth,
That dazzled me, but rather what I mourned
And ill could brook, beholding that the best
Ruled not, and feeling that they ought to rule.
(IX)

and if his enthusiasm for the revolution was rather cool, it was principally because he regarded its aims not as radical or dramatic, but as natural and inevitable:

If at the first great outbreak I rejoiced
Less than might well befit my youth, the cause
In part lay here, that unto me the events
Seemed nothing out of nature’s certain course,
A gift that was come rather late than soon.
(IX)

As events unfolded, however, he found himself more and more rallying to the cause of the revolution, keen to see the end of “exclusion”, “empty pomp”, and “state power”, and caught up in the fervour of the times. This waxing of his sympathies, he tell us, was sparked by an encounter in the French countryside:

And when we chanced
One day to meet a hunger-bitten girl,
Who crept along fitting her languid gait
Unto a heifer’s motion, by a cord
Tied to her arm, and picking thus from the lane
Its sustenance, while the girl with pallid hands
Was busy knitting in a heartless mood
Of solitude, and at the sight my friend
In agitation said, “‘Tis against that
That we are fighting,” I with him believed
That a benignant spirit was abroad
Which might not be withstood, that poverty
Abject as this would in a little time
Be found no more, that we should see the earth
Unthwarted in her wish to recompense
The meek, the lowly, patient child of toil,
All institutes for ever blotted out
That legalised exclusion, empty pomp
Abolished, sensual state and cruel power,
Whether by edict of the one or few;
And finally, as sum and crown of all,
Should see the people having a strong hand
In framing their own laws; whence better days
To all mankind.
(IX)

It’s a common enough story, no doubt; youth is easily ravished by novelty and a dream of starting again, now as then. But before long the Revolution turned violent, and this posed a challenge to the young Wordsworth, a challenge that, to his credit, he did not evade. He writes:

Domestic carnage now filled the whole year
With feast-days; old men from the chimney-nook,
The maiden from the bosom of her love,
The mother from the cradle of her babe,
The warrior from the field—all perished, all—
Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks,
Head after head, and never heads enough
For those that bade them fall. They found their joy,
They made it proudly, eager as a child,
(If like desires of innocent little ones
May with such heinous appetites be compared),
Pleased in some open field to exercise
A toy that mimics with revolving wings
The motion of a wind-mill; though the air
Do of itself blow fresh, and make the vanes
Spin in his eyesight, that contents him not,
But, with the plaything at arm’s length, he sets
His front against the blast, and runs amain,
That it may whirl the faster.
(X)

And he writes with feeling of the horror this spectacle inspired in his own heart:

Most melancholy at that time, O Friend!
Were my day-thoughts,—my nights were miserable;
Through months, through years, long after the last beat
Of those atrocities, the hour of sleep
To me came rarely charged with natural gifts,
Such ghastly visions had I of despair
And tyranny, and implements of death;
And innocent victims sinking under fear,
And momentary hope, and worn-out prayer,
Each in his separate cell, or penned in crowds
For sacrifice, and struggling with fond mirth
And levity in dungeons, where the dust
Was laid with tears.
(X)

The saga went on: his hopes were revived at the death of Robespierre, only to be disappointed again, and then the now-ambivalent dream came to a conflicted end with the ascension of Bonaparte — it’s a complicated story. For myself, the whole sequence stands as an unusually detailed and attractively honest examination of the vulnerability of youth to the glamour of change and revolution, and as a compelling case for the value of that optimism, and, finally, as a warning against its blindspots and intemperance.

*

There are so many wonderful things in the poem; I wish I had world enough and time to dwell on it in detail. As it happens, however, it has taken me months of intermittent labour to do even this much, and I must bow before the force of circumstance. Before appending a few particular passages that appealed to me on this reading, therefore, I will simply reiterate my appreciation for a poem of such great beauty, born out of, and witnessing to, a belief that

By love subsists
All lasting grandeur, by pervading love;
That gone, we are as dust.
(XIV)

***

[Solitude]
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude;
How potent a mere image of her sway;
Most potent when impressed upon the mind
With an appropriate human centre—hermit,
Deep in the bosom of the wilderness;
Votary (in vast cathedral, where no foot
Is treading, where no other face is seen)
Kneeling at prayers; or watchman on the top
Of lighthouse, beaten by Atlantic waves;
Or as the soul of that great Power is met
Sometimes embodied on a public road,
When, for the night deserted, it assumes
A character of quiet more profound
Than pathless wastes.
(IV)

[The inadequacy of books]
—Yes, in those wanderings deeply did I feel
How we mislead each other; above all,
How books mislead us, seeking their reward
From judgments of the wealthy Few, who see
By artificial lights; how they debase
The Many for the pleasure of those Few;
Effeminately level down the truth
To certain general notions, for the sake
Of being understood at once, or else
Through want of better knowledge in the heads
That framed them; flattering self-conceit with words,
That, while they most ambitiously set forth
Extrinsic differences, the outward marks
Whereby society has parted man
From man, neglect the universal heart.
(XIII)

[Daffodils redux]
And, afterwards, the wind and sleety rain,
And all the business of the elements,
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music from that old stone wall,
The noise of wood and water, and the mist
That on the line of each of those two roads
Advanced in such indisputable shapes;
All these were kindred spectacles and sounds
To which I oft repaired, and thence would drink,
As at a fountain; and on winter nights,
Down to this very time, when storm and rain
Beat on my roof, or, haply, at noon-day,
While in a grove I walk, whose lofty trees,
Laden with summer’s thickest foliage, rock
In a strong wind, some working of the spirit,
Some inward agitations thence are brought,
Whate’er their office, whether to beguile
Thoughts over busy in the course they took,
Or animate an hour of vacant ease.
(XII)

[A summary of the poem]
Of our long labour: we have traced the stream
From the blind cavern whence is faintly heard
Its natal murmur; followed it to light
And open day; accompanied its course
Among the ways of Nature, for a time
Lost sight of it bewildered and engulphed:
Then given it greeting as it rose once more
In strength, reflecting from its placid breast
The works of man and face of human life;
And lastly, from its progress have we drawn
Faith in life endless, the sustaining thought
Of human Being, Eternity, and God.
(XIV)

Esolen: The Hundredfold

January 25, 2021

The Hundredfold
Songs for the Lord
Anthony Esolen
(Ignatius, 2019)
224 p.

“It is manna”

I am at peace under the open skies,
Gathering berries into a gallon pail,
As finches twitter, and the small gnats wail,
And if a cloudy empire lives or dies,
No news will reach me when the seagull cries;
More potent is the snuff of last year’s leaf
In the pouch of the earth where worms abound
And black ants carve their boroughs, reef to reef,
Reveling in the joy of being brief
Beneath the eye of heaven, where I have found
Blessings of God like hoarfrost on the ground.

Poetry was once more popular than it is today. We have the modernists to blame, at least in part, for that. Their abandonment of form, disdain of popularity, and retreat into something approaching private language left the reading public cold. But the problem goes deeper than that, for poetry itself — even the older, once popular, poetry of Blake, or Longfellow, or Frost — has been mostly abandoned. Modern life feels out of step with poetry. The nearest we get to it, I suppose, is in pop songs — a beggarly substitute, by and large.

Anthony Esolen has long been an advocate for our great poets, and for the reading of poetry. He sees in the decline of poetry’s fortunes a sign of cultural decay, and, likewise, in a revival of poetry a green shoot. But a revived poetry would be a poetry that once again touched the heart, and took up residence in the memory, of ordinary people.

Hence The Hundredfold, a long poem — a single poem, he is careful to insist — in one hundred parts, intended to be accessible and attractive to as many readers as will deign to pick it up. It is religious poetry, largely, as much of our greatest poetry has been. Like the Scriptures themselves, the poem follows an arc from creation to redemption, pivoting on the life of Christ, and especially on Easter.

The architecture of the poem has been carefully designed. I have said that it consists of 100 segments — which, for convenience, I shall call “poems” in their own right. Two-thirds of these (66) are short lyric poems, like the one above, each prefaced by a phrase from Scripture. Sometimes these poems are absorbed in the Scripture itself, and sometimes the verse of Scripture is the basis for a meditation on modern life:

“Then wrought Bezaleel and Aholiah, and every wise hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom.”

I was a boy, and gazed into the dome
Flocked with the saints and angels of the Lord:
Mysterious clarity, keen as any sword,
Alien shores and faraway, but home;
Holiday language of the loving eye
Summoning worshipers to rise and come
Robed in the heraldry of God on high.
Then came the learned with their sidelong speech,
And sat about the glory like a swarm
Of weevils on the corn in ear, to preach
Only such wonders as their wit could reach,
With the vague softness of the common worm:
Flesh without bone, and structure without form.

With these lyric poems are interwoven 21 hymns, written expressly to be sung to well-known hymn melodies. Taken as a group, these are, perhaps, my favourite parts of The Hundredfold, and I would love to see them incorporated into hymnals. As poems, they are vastly better than most of the recent material that fills modern hymnals. Esolen is a student of hymnody, and understands the appeal of sturdy, poetic song for group singing. He writes in the great tradition that has given us the lion’s share of our finest hymns. As an example, consider this hymn written for the tune CVM RHONDDA:

In this far-off land of famine,
Gentle Shepherd, come to me.
I have wondered from Thy plenty;
Sands and bones are all I see.
Son most faithful, Son most faithful,
Let me ever feast with Thee,
Let me ever feast with Thee.

Leave me not upon the journey,
Halt and lame and like to fall.
Hold my arm when I shall tremble,
When the thieves and death appall.
Stand beside me, stand beside me,
At the final trumpet-call,
At the final trumpet-call.

Break the bonds of flesh and darkness,
Thrust to hell the powers of night!
Shower Thy living grace upon me,
God of God and Light of Light!
Lord and Conqueror, Lord and Conqueror,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight!

Tell me that doesn’t stir the heart!

The third main plank in the architecture consists of a set of 12 dramatic poems — epistles, monologues, and dialogues, in iambic pentameter — expressly after the manner of the master, Robert Browning. These are marvellous, and, if I may, I’ll change my mind and claim these as my favourite parts, albeit for private rather than communal enjoyment. The first eavesdrops on the thoughts of the Blessed Virgin as she silently ponders her sleeping son; another is told, many years after the fact, by the boy who had brought the loaves and fish when he went to hear Jesus preaching; another is spoken by Blind Bartimaeus; and still another relates a conversation between the two men whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus. These verses are wonderfully flexible, the characters vividly portrayed, with their own distinctive voices, and the poems themselves, like Browning’s exemplars, are deeply thoughtful and imaginative creations. By the very nature of their form, they are hard to excerpt, but let me illustrate with this passage which opens an epistolary poem written by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor:

To the Sun-Brilliant Giver of Increase,
The great Bridge-Builder spanning heaven and earth,
Chief of the Julian clan, First Citizen,
Mild Counselor to our gathering of old men,
Commander of armies fortressed from the banks
Of the Euphrates to the chilly Rhine —
Whose barbarous sots once struck from the black woods
And slaughtered a whole legion, while their whores
Poured like a swarm over the corpses, spoiling
The spoilers of their gold, so Parthian rings
Still wedged on dead men’s fingers shed their gleam
On the beer feasts of some grease-eating king
Who has to use two hands to count to ten,
Mocking with all his thanes your southern godhead
As his sheep leave their droppings in his hall —
To thee, O Claudius, from the rocks of Spain
I send obedient salutations: Hail.

The Hundredfold concludes with a tour de force: a 100 line coda written in 33 Dantean tercets. It’s a poetic form that is very difficult in English, but Esolen is equal to the task. (He has done it before, in the concluding canto of his translation of Dante.) The neat numerics of this coda are no accident; the whole of The Hundredfold is built on a strict numerical plan. The dramatic poems and hymns, together, are 33 in number — being the age of Christ at his Passion — and they total 3333 lines. The 66 lyric poems total 100 stanzas and 1000 lines. The coda, as I’ve already said, echoes the 33 and 100. I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing sets my heart racing and my palms to sweat.

It is not for me to say whether Esolen is a great poet, but I am confident in my judgement that he is a good poet. As a contribution to a revival of poetry, and of Christian culture, The Hundredfold is an admirable effort. I can recommend it unreservedly.

***

“You shall not make your children pass through fire.”

They are not half in love with easeful death,
They are not half in love with anything;
No field in summer makes them catch their breath
Where the corn ripens, and the sparrows sing;
The man wishes he had no seed to cast
In the warm spring upon the ready earth;
The woman, that her womb were bolted fast.
Death they may fear, but birth
Is perfect terror, or the sad and slow
Contraction of the little life they play,
Without a germ or root or bloom to show,
Numb to the pulse of both the night and day.
Nor do they haunt where Moloch’s flames appall,
Because they would not bear a child at all.

**

“Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.”

Because I lay under the weight of earth
And the dust was a pillow to my cheek —
The dust and blood that swaddled me at birth,
When I first wailed as if my heart would break —
I could but hear and speak
Faintly, and in confusion of the sound;
And all my fellow men who dwelt in tombs,
Where never a call of clarion trumpet comes,
Spoke and heard as if muffled by the ground
And by the crowds of buried men around.

Lord, let me not be deaf forevermore.
Open my clotted ear, untie my tongue,
Let me break forth in song,
The double prayer that ear and tongue are for.
Lead me to the clear air where I belong,
Where the least whisper is a call to be
One with the listening angels in their throng,
As they await the call of victory.

**

Christ is the image of the invisible God.

At the ninth height of being, eyes are bright
With what is now, what was, what is to be.
Shall we then cup our hands to sip the light?
Nay, in the river frolic and be free,
While the nine choirs like rollers of the sea
Sing of the far-flung spray of flower and star,
I have the abyss of glory here, for He
The Three and One, who thunders from afar,
Is the intimate wellspring where the blessed are.

Ovid: Love Poems

May 25, 2020

ovid-love1Amores
Ars Amatoria
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by Len Krisak
(U Penn Press, 2014) [16 BC, 2 AD]
232 p.

Remedia Amoris
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1990)  [c.5 AD]
25 p.

It was Ovid’s love poetry, especially his metrical seduction manual, the Ars Amatoria, that got him cast into the outer darkness. Facetiousness in matters of love and sex, it seems, would get you nowhere in Augustus’ Rome, at least in the long run.

His love poetry was of three varieties: the Amores, first published in 16 BC, was a collection of short love poems; the infamous Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) was a set of long poems instructing readers in the art and craft of winning a lover; and the Remedia Amoris (The Cures for Love) were the back slap and hot toddy administered to those coping with the aftermath of a failed affair of the heart. Taken together, they form a neat package tied up with a bow. Taken individually, they are rather less winsome. But let’s take a look.

*

Roman-ReadingThe essential political background to understanding Ovid’s love poetry is that he was writing shortly after the promulgation of Augustus’ marriage laws, which were intended to improve the morals and social stability of Rome’s upper classes. Augustus had made adultery a civic offence, and required all eligible persons to be married. This is essential to understanding Ovid because it is conspicuously absent from Ovid’s vision: instead, his poetic world is one animated by adultery, secret meetings, winks, nudges, and a general deceitful disregard of marriage vows.

His Amores touch on a number of traditional subjects: the locked-out lover, laments for departed lovers, comparisons of love and war, and avowels that love can attain immortality through poetry. But there are novel ideas introduced too. One poem denies that the poet was unfaithful with a servant girl; another admits the same. One comforts a girl whose hair has fallen out after using a toxic dye; another — which has been given a superbly bracing translation by Len Krisak in this volume — condemns a girl who procured an abortion. I particularly liked a poem in which the poet enumerates all the many varieties of feminine beauty:

She’s dowdy — I dream what would suit her better.
She’s dressed to kill — her dower’s on display.
I fall for blondes, I fall for girls who’re auburn,
A dusky beauty charms in the same way.
If dark hair dangles down a snowy shoulder,
Her sable locks were Leda’s crowning glory;
Or if they’re gold, Aurora charms with saffron;
My love adapts to every ancient story.
Youth tempts me. So do riper years. Youth’s prettier,
Yet older women’s ways have me in thrall;
Yes, every worthwhile girl in Rome’s great city,
My love’s a candidate to win them all.
(II, 4)

Ovid is writing in elegiac couplets: paired lines in which the first has six beats and the second five. This stutter-step scheme grants the poems a slightly humorous cast, giving the shortened line, when needed, the punch of a natural punch-line. Ovid himself has some fun with this idea in the first lines of the first poem in the Amores, which go like this:

Prepared for war, I set the weapon of my pen
To paper, matching meter, arms, and men
In six feet equal to the task. Then Cupid snatched
A foot away, laughing at lines mismatched.
(I, 1)

There’s a playful allusion here to Virgil’s Aenied (which had been published just three years earlier): Ovid actually begins with the same word as Virgil (“Arma”) before pivoting to highlight the difference between epic poetry and Ovid’s preferred elegy. Len Krisak does a wonderful job, here and throughout, of maintaining this metrical limp in his translation.

Tips for aspiring adulterers can occasionally be gleaned from the Amores, as when he describes how to communicate with the object of his affection without drawing the attention of unwanted (ie. husbandly) eyes:

I’ll send a wordless message with my eyebrows;
You’ll read my fingers’ words, words traced in wine.
When you recall our games of love together,
Your finger on rosy cheeks must trace a line.
If in your silent thoughts you wish to chide me,
Let your hand hold the lobe of your soft ear;
When, darling, what I do or say gives pleasure,
Keep turning to and fro the ring you wear.
(I, 4)

But this didactic element becomes the central theme in the Ars Amatoria, which was published in about 2 AD. Of its three books, the first two instruct men on how best to seduce women, and the third instructs women on the complementary art.

Quite a number of topics are covered: where to find a lover, how to recruit her maid as an ally, and advice on personal grooming:

Plain cleanliness works best, and drill-field tans don’t hurt.
Your well-cut toga should be free of dirt.
Keep shoe straps lose and buckles bright — no rust.
(But don’t forget that good fit’s still a must.)
Be sure a barber, not a butcher, cuts your hair
And trims your beard with care. Please try to wear
Nails short and clean. Be sure no ugly hair growth shows,
Sprouting from the hollows of your nose.
Don’t let your breath go sour, and you should take note:
Armpits must never smell like billy goat.
But any more than that, let wanton girls employ —
Or any man who would prefer a boy.
(I, 513-524)

But the poems don’t show us only the sunny-side of adultery. Ovid also highlights the benefits of targeting a woman “on the rebound” (“So try her when she’s rival-wounded; watch her sob, / Then see she gets revenge. Make it your job.”) and the advantages to be gained from making false promises (“Make promises! They do no harm, so who can chide us? / In promises, each man can be a Midas.”) He holds, in a way that makes him particularly relevant to us after the sexual revolution, that sex is a sport, and as such is best divorced from moral evaluation:

Don’t steal from friends, but keep your word. Show piety,
Avoid all fraud, and keep your hands blood-free.
But if you’re smart, cheat only girls and have your fun.
Allow yourself this fraud, but just this one.
Yes, cheat the cheaters; most of them are far from good.
Catch them in their own traps — it’s right you should!
(I, 641-6)

It is, then, no great surprise to find that, after counselling deception and amoral pursuit of pleasure as proper to a man’s conduct in love, we should find him justifying rape:

Some women take delight in brute assaults; they act
As if it’s quite a coup to be attacked.
And longed-for women who escape and call you cad?
Their faces fake their joy; they’re really sad.
(I, 675-8)

Of course, it is we, the readers, who are really sad here. Maybe, perhaps, there was a time and place when this — not just this apologia for rape, but this whole conception of love and sex as a flamboyant circus, an anything-goes, winner-takes-all demolition derby — was amusing, but living where and when we do, I believe we’ve had quite enough of it. I know I have. Ovid has been accused, over the years, of being superficial and essentially cheap; I resisted that conclusion when I read Metamorphoses, but here it seems perfectly apt.

*

ovid-love2The third part of his love poetry, the Remedia Amoris, addresses the sobering fallout: what to do when jilted in love, abandoned, or ignored. His advice is mostly what you’d get from a newspaper columnist: go to the country, stay active, go fishing, travel. Don’t read her letters, or visit places you went with her. Avoid alcohol. Don’t bother with witchcraft; it’s probably not going to help. It might help, he says, to think of her as critically as you can:

‘Those legs of hers’, I used to say, ‘how ugly.’
And yet in fact, to tell the truth, they weren’t.
‘Those arms of hers’, I’d say, ‘by no means pretty.’
And yet in fact, to tell the truth, they were.
‘How short she is!’ — she wasn’t. ‘How demanding!’
For those demands I chiefly hated her.

In the end, his best advice might be this Aristotelian counsel: if you need to get over her, do your best to act as if you’re over her:

Love comes by habit, habit too unlearns it;
If one can feign one’s cured, one will be cured.

*

It has been a good experience to revisit these poems, which I first read some years ago, having now a much better appreciation of the poetic tradition within which Ovid was working and a greater familiarity with his own poetry. I cannot say with hand on heart that I particularly liked these poems; they have their droll merits, of course, and love, being part of the human comedy, makes room for capering whimsy, but these poems have a cruel edge that renders them unwelcome to me. If anything I’ve read by Ovid justifies his sometime reputation as a charlatan or mincing devil, these will do. I don’t like to think of Ovid in exile, but I’d have been content to have these poems suffer that fate in his place.

Tibullus: Elegies

October 22, 2019

Elegies
Albius Tibullus
Translated from the Latin by A.M. Juster
(Oxford, 2012) [c.26 BC, 19 BC]
xxxiii + 129 p.

In the ranks of the Augustan poets, Tibullus has a lesser reputation than his contemporaries Virgil and Ovid. In fact, until recently I’d never, to my knowledge, heard of him. Nonetheless, he was an Augustan poet, he did live and write alongside Virgil and Ovid, and he has been published by Oxford World’s Classics. The time being ripe, I took a chance on him.

He left us two books of elegies before his early death, in 18 BC, when he was not yet 40 years old. The elegy was a poetic form with a distinctive metre — lines of hexameter alternating with lines of pentameter — that the Romans had adopted from the Greeks. The greatest Roman elegist before Tibullus’ time had been Catullus, who used it in his famous Lesbia poems, but both Ovid and Propertius, another of Tibullus’ contemporaries, wrote in the form.

His books show signs of careful construction as unified artistic projects. The first book, consisting of ten poems, trace the slow dissolution of his romance with a woman, Delia, and his fruitless attempts to attract a boy, Marathus. The first poems are hopeful and idealistic, describing his affection for country life and a happy family, but things do not go well. A few poems in, we find him camped out before Delia’s door, denied entrance. By the end of the first book, he has given up hope and is being conscripted, kicking and screaming, to march to war.

The second book continues the downward spiral, though this time the object of his romantic attention is Nemesis, a woman with a reputation befitting her name. The poet is still aware of those ideals he expressed before, but now he’s willing to sacrifice them to win Nemesis’ love. But to no avail: he sells his soul and wins nothing. The book of six poems ends with this malediction:

‘Madam, I pray you’re cursed. You’ll live with ample dread
if something in my prayers affects the gods.

**

There are some interesting nooks and crannies in these poems. For instance, in Book II, the fifth elegy, written to commemorate the ordination to the priesthood of his patron’s son — even here, he finds a way to complain about Nemesis! — includes a brief recounting of the history of Rome, a passage that put me in mind of the similar (but much more extensive) passages in Virgil’s Aeneid. The notes of this edition point out that although Tibullus died before the publication of Virgil’s epic, he might well have heard those passages read aloud by Virgil himself during the poem’s composition. Speculative, but intriguing.

Tibullus’ fortunes have occasionally waxed, but mostly waned, over the centuries. He was well enough regarded by his poet-friends that Ovid wrote a poem — Amores 3.9 — in his honour when he died. Quintilian, writing about a century later, thought him the greatest Roman elegist, but references to him gradually declined, and we know of none between the fifth century and the Renaissance, when he enjoyed a revival alongside all things antique. He was known to Herrick, Montaigne, Rabelais, Ariosto, and Tasso. But he has never had a high profile in the English-speaking world — a state of affairs that this Oxford edition is meant to help remedy.

The translator is A.M. Juster, whose work I have appreciated in the past. It is always hard to judge how much of the poetry is the poet and how much the translator, but I can say that, by and large, I enjoyed Tibullus-via-Juster considerably less than I enjoyed Horace-via-Juster. Tibullus just seems flatter, less witty, more prosaic — in both the literal and the figurative senses of that word. His poetic voice never quite captured my imagination, apart from a few striking passages (appended below). I don’t want to blame Juster for this, because I know he’s a wonderfully versatile translator, so I guess I’m stuck blaming Tibullus.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I read the book. Reading a lesser poet helps us better appreciate the greater poets. And the book is not long — fewer than 100 pages if we exclude the notes, and that includes Latin on the facing page!

***

[Farms and civilization]
I praise the farm and gods of farms; with them as guides,
life meant not fending hunger off with acorns.
They first taught men to join the rafters and enclose
a humble dwelling with some leafy boughs.
They say too they first taught that bulls were made for work
and placed a wheel beneath a vehicle,
then savage foods were lost, then seeds for fruit-trees sown,
then fertile gardens drank from channelled streams,
then golden grapes released their juice to stomping feet
and sober water mixed with carefree wine.
The country yields the harvest when the scorching star
of heaven strips the earth of golden tresses.
In spring swift country bees are busy bearing flowers
to the hive to fill combs with sweet honey.
(2.1)

[The coming of night]
Play! Night yokes horses now; a lusty choir of golden
stars pursues its mother’s chariot,
and following in silence, wrapped in gloomy wings,
comes Sleep and murky Dreams on spectral feet.
(2.1)

Here and there

July 11, 2019
  • One doesn’t expect to find sound medieval metaphysics expounded in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, but the world is full of marvels.
  • We use a good deal of chalk at home, but our days of buying it at the Dollar Store are over. Hagoromo or bust!
  • Nearly a sesquicentury into construction, and La Sagrada Familia finally got a building permit.
  • My archbishop, Thomas Cardinal Collins, will be speaking this year at the annual Chesterton Conference in the US. The story of how it came about is quite amusing. As a bonus, Word on Fire has also published a good short interview in which the Cardinal explains just what he likes about GKC. (Incidentally, G.K. Weekly, our modest contribution to Chestertoniana, is running on fumes at present. We are seeking an archivist and typist to help generate a queue of scintillating or provocative excerpts from the great man’s oeuvre. Apply within. No pay or benefits.)
  • If you’ve ever had to cover your eyes to protect your soul from beholding an architectural monstrosity churned up by the modernist schools — and who among us has not? — James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism might be a heartening jeremiad. Theodore Dalrymple reviews.
  • Almost twenty year ago (!) I spent a week on retreat at the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert. It is in New Mexico, a bit north of Sante Fe, at the base of a splendid red-rock cliff, at the end of a long and sometimes-impassable sand road. At that time there were, I would estimate, twenty or thirty monks. I am delighted to learn this week that the community now has 60 monks, with an average age of just 34. A very healthy young monastery! How I would like to go back someday…

For an envoi, let’s watch an ad for Hagoromo chalk:

Old English miscellanea

June 7, 2019

Minor and Miscellaneous Poems
Anonymous
Translated from Old English by Craig Williamson
(U Penn, 2017) [c.600-c.1200]
Roughly 200 p.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon poetry which has survived has done so between the pages of a small number of codices: the Junius Manuscript, Vercelli Book, and Exeter Book, plus the manuscripts which have preserved Beowulf and a few other large-scale works (including a complete psalter in Old English verse). But beyond these major sources there survive a large variety of smaller poems and fragments — even individual lines of verse. The last few hundred pages of this gargantuan gathering of poems are devoted to these survivors. I had thought that I’d glance over them quickly, but in the event I found them fascinating, a kind of curio museum liable to throw up a fresh surprise at every turn, and took the time to read through them all.

They are “minor” poems in the sense of being short, not — or at least not always — of being uninteresting. They include relatively well-known historical poems like “The Fight at Finnsburg” and “The Battle of Maldon” (both of which, if memory serves, Tolkien wrote on), and “Caedmon’s Hymn”, which might be the earliest Old English verse that we have. There are the two hymns of St Godric (which I knew from the gorgeous musical settings by Anonymous 4), a calendar poem that describes the seasons and the annual cycle of church feasts, a set of metrical charms for use against diseases and cattle thieves, and some pious moral exhortations in “The Rewards of Piety” and “Instructions for Christians”. There is also “The Grave”, a ghastly meditation on death and decay, and a set of versified commentaries on Latin liturgical prayers like the Pater Noster, Gloria, and Credo.

Speaking of the Pater Noster, my favourite of these miscellaneous poems was “Solomon and Saturn”, a dialogue between the two named figures as representatives of the Biblical and pagan worlds, respectively. This is a novel idea for a poem, and it is doubly interesting to find that the pagan is Greco-Roman rather than, as one might expect, Scandinavian or Germanic. But the content of the poem is the main attraction: in one especially delightful section Solomon describes the effects of the Pater Noster on the devil. Each letter of the prayer assaults the powers of evil with righteous violence:

Whoever earnestly chants the word of God,
Sings out the truth of the Savior’s song,
And celebrates its spirit without sin,
Can chase away the fierce foe,
The champion of evil, if you use the power
Of the Pater Noster. P will punish him —
That warrior has a strong staff, a long rod,
A golden goad to strike the grim fiend.
Then A pursues him with mighty power,
Beating him back, and T takes a turn,
Stabbing his tongue, twisting his neck,
Breaking his jaws. E afflicts him,
Always ready to assault the enemy.
R is enraged, the lord of letters,
And grabs the fiend by his unholy hair,
Shakes and shivers him, picks up flint
And shatters his shanks, his spectral shins.
No leech will mend those splintered limbs —
He will never see his knees again.
Then the devil will duck down in the dark,
Cowering under clouds, shivering in shade,
Hatching in his heart some hopeless defense.
He will yearn for his miserable home in hell,
The hardest of prisons, the narrowest of homelands,
When those churchly twins, N and O,
Come sweeping down with sharp whips
To scourge his body, afflict his evil flesh.
Then S will arrive, the prince of angels,
The letter of glory, our Lord and Savior —
It will haul the fiend up by his hostile feet,
Swing him in the air, striking the stone
With his insidious head, cracking his cheeks,
Shattering his mouth, scattering his teeth
Through the throngs of hell. Each fearful fiend
Will curl up tightly, concealed in shadow
As the thane of Satan lies terribly still.
(ll.119-155)

And so on. This, I believe, is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long while.

*

Beyond these complete poems or substantial fragments, we also have a bunch of really short poems. When Williamson claims to have translated the “complete” Old English poems, he is not kidding. An inscription on a ring, a stray riddle, a metrical phrase carved on a stone cross or casket, a poetic line scribbled in the margin of a manuscript — they are gathered up and set down here. These bits have a certain romance about them; they, and only they, have been spared by the gauntlet of time. In some cases it becomes difficult to decide if something qualifies as Old English verse or not, for in later centuries the line between Old and Middle English became blurry, and the distinction between merely rhythmic prose and bona fide metrical verse can be tricky to descry. When in doubt Williamson has chosen to include it, and I’m glad.

**

Sadly, this browse through the Old English Curiosity Shop brings our journey through the whole surviving body of Old English poetry to an end. It has been a strange and rewarding trek for me through what was, mostly, terra incognita (or whatever the Anglo-Saxon phrase would be), and I am reluctant to let it go. Thanks are due to Craig Williamson for undertaking the massive task of single-handedly translating this marvellous, little-known literature.

I am mindful, however, that during the 18 months that I’ve been a hearth-guest of the Anglo-Saxons, a queue of other big, bulky medieval books has formed on my shelf. Unless I am mistaken they seem to hail from Finland, Iceland, Arabia, and Japan. Decisions, decisions…

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

September 21, 2018

On the Nature of Things
T. Lucretius Carus
Translated from the Latin by Ronald Melville
(Oxford, 1997) [c.55 BC]
xxxviii + 275 p. Second reading.

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; My purpose is
With the sweet voice of Pierian song
To expound my doctrine and as it were to touch it
With the delicious honey of the Muses;
So in this way perchance my poetry
Can hold your mind, while you attempt to grasp
The nature of the world, and understand
The great design and pattern of its making.”
(I, 943-50)

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is one of the great epic poems of the ancient world, and, as is claimed in this volume’s introduction, “perhaps the greatest didactic poem ever written in any language”. It is a work plump with fascinating scientific theories, and one with interesting and influential philosophical ideas also; it is, arguably, the latter that account for much of its continuing appeal.

We know little about the author, and the securest dating of the poem derives from a reference to it in a letter of Cicero; it was probably first published in around 55 BC.

The poem consists of about 7400 lines of Latin hexameter, and is divided into six books. The overall argument of the poem is to present and defend the natural philosophy of the Epicurean philosophical school.

Lucretius’ basic metaphysical principles and atomistic physics are described in the first two books; the middle books are devoted to the human person, soul and body; and the final two treat the development of human societies before culminating in an ambitious (if, alas, mostly wrong) naturalistic account of dramatic natural phenomena like lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, and disease.

Lucretius is famous for his spirited and resourceful defence of atomism. The idea is not original with him — that honour is usually bestowed upon the Greek Democritus, of course — but he presents it seasoned “with the delicious honey of the Muses”, a sweetener intended to help the medicine go down. For him, atoms are small, indivisible, infinite in number, eternal, and indestructible. From these characteristics he derives two overarching metaphysical principles which govern all that follows. The first is that atoms do not come into being:

“We start then from her [nature’s] first great principle
That nothing ever by divine power comes from nothing.”
(I, 148-9)

and the second is that they do not pass out of being:

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; nature
Resolves all things back into their elements
And never reduces anything to nothing.”
(I, 215-7)

Thus the picture he presents us with is that of a world composed of an infinite number (though a finite variety) of indestructible material bits in motion. These bits, he argues (against Aristotle), are surrounded by a void. The existence of this void he rather deftly deduces from the fact of translational motion, for if there were no void it would be impossible for atoms to move from one place to another, their being impeded by the presence of other atoms. And these two categories, atoms and the void, exhaust his ontology:

“…apart from void and matter no third substance
Can remain to be numbered in the sum of things,
Neither one that falls within the range of senses
Nor one that mind can grasp by reasoning.”
(I, 445-7)

Thus for Lucretius, as for his intellectual descendants, such things as mathematical objects, moral principles, and immaterial souls have no reality.

Atoms move about, bumping into one another and combining in new ways to make new things. He uses a nice metaphor to describe this process, one particularly apt for use by a poet writing poetry:

“Moreover in my verse it matters much
How letters are arranged and linked with others.
The same denote sky, sea, land, rivers, sun,
The same denote crops, trees, and animals,
And, if not all, by far the greater part
Are alike; but the position decides the meaning.
So with real things, when the combination of their atoms,
Their motions, order, forms, shapes, and positions
Are changed, the thing itself must change.”
(II, 1013-21)

Because he believes that the number of atoms is infinite, and that this process has been taking place for infinite time, he does not shrink from the conclusion that our world itself came to be out of just such chance encounters:

“The seeds of things
In random and spontaneous collision
In countless ways clashed, heedless, purposeless, in vain
Until at last such particles combined
As suddenly united could become
The origins always of mighty things,
Of earth, sky, sea, and breeds of living creatures.”
(II, 1058-62)

Thus, step by haphazard step, the world around us has taken shape. Perhaps the most famous section of the poem, in Book V, is that in which he traces for us the slow development of the world from its origins to the establishment of early civilizations: the production of animals, the origins of speech, the discovery of fire, the origin of religion (which he, oddly, considering his other principles, attributes to apparently genuine visions of the gods), the beginnings of metallurgy and agriculture, the advent of music, and the building of cities. The atomic theory he puts to use in a variety of creative ways: to explain sense perception, and the laws of optics, for instance. It is interesting that this broadly evolutionary view of history does not include any conception of the evolution of life; for Lucretius, animal species are distinct and unchanging (V, c.920).

By the same reasoning which leads us to view our world in this way, we conclude that other worlds, too, have and will come to be. Moreover, turning the coin over, they will eventually fall apart again, just as our world one day will:

“So death rightly comes, when by constant flow
All things are thinned, and all things, struck from without
By an increasing hail of blows, succumb;
Since at the end great age finds food to fail,
And without ceasing bodies from outside
Beating on things subdue them and destroy them.
So shall the ramparts of the mighty world
Themselves be stormed and into crumbling ruin
Collapse.”
(II, 1139-47)

The naturalness with which his minimalist ontology — atoms and the void alone — leads to this final, whimpering destruction of all that the we know and love accounts for his dousing it with “the delicious honey of the Muses”, even if, perhaps, we doubt that we could be wholly convinced to part with our inheritance even for so sweet-seeming a mess of pottage.

As with many of his modern descendants Lucretius’ forthrightness about the ultimate fate of everything is paired with a strange lacuna. He is quite explicit that his ultimate purpose in writing this poem — his moral purpose — is to provide peace of mind, to teach his reader the art of “being undisturbed”. He aims at this in part by providing naturalistic explanations for unusual and frightening natural phenomena, so as to free the minds of his readers from the anxiety induced when they are experienced as signs of divine displeasure,

“Proceeding to set free the minds of men
Bound by the tight knots of religion.”
(IV, 7-8)

And Lucretius, following “the first who dared / Raise mortal eyes against” religion — namely, Epicurus, the hero of his tale — understands that a central part of achieving this peace of mind must be coming to peace with death. He therefore argues at length, in Book III, that the Epicurean universe in which only atoms and the void exist is necessarily one in which:

“… we may be certain that in death
There is nothing to fear, that he who does not exist
Cannot feel pain”
(III, 866-8)

There is a dignity in this paradoxical conviction that the way to avoid losing all is to definitively lose all, that the creature’s fear can be overcome by its accepting its total self-destruction, fear and all. Perhaps we are impressed by the vision of a philosopher who attends quietly to truth even as the world around him is consumed in a great conflagration. We may feel the persuasive power of Lucretius’ belief that

“True piety is for a man to have the power
To contemplate the world with quiet mind.”
(V, 1199-1200)

If we do feel that persuasive power, we ought to honour it, on the likelihood that there is some good in it. And Lucretius puts our good will to the test when he yields no quarter to those who, though not fearing death, wish nonetheless to extend their lives for as long as possible, for what difference, he argues, could longevity possibly make?

“Live though you may through all ages that you wish,
No less that eternal death will still await,
And no less long a time will be no more
He who today from light his exit made
Than he who perished months and years ago.”
(III, 1090-4)

Perhaps we respond to this detachment by doubling-down on our admiration: here is a man who truly wears his metaphysical hairshirt with Roman fortitude. Or perhaps we doubt that a philosophy that can so readily relativize the value of life is worth our uncritical adherence. The shelter, after all, which the Epicurean seeks from the metaphysical black hole that devours his world is his own interior life: his untroubled mind, his calmness in the face of disorder, his contemplation of truth. Yet do these things survive the destruction that lays all else to waste? Not in the long run — Lucretius tells us that much — but in the short? Now? It is here, I think, that the armour is pierced most effectively. The Epicurean moral universe, like our less systematic but substantially similar reigning view today, is underpinned by the presumed reality of human freedom, which imparts to all the Epicurean virtues a nobility and even a reality they cannot otherwise possess. There is no virtue in patience if one is not free to be impatient — indeed, there is no virtue of patience if there are only atoms and the void. Likewise for courage, and for prudence, and for all the virtues, and for the very notion of virtue as a moral quality, and for moral qualities tout court. Take his mandorla of freedom from him and you take all; yet his own principles do just that.

Famously, Epicurus, and Lucretius after him, tries to save human freedom in his system by introducing “the swerve” — an apparently random motion which atoms make from time to time to prevent the universe’s being deterministic:

“While atoms move by their own weight straight down
Through the empty void, at quite uncertain times
And uncertain places they swerve slightly from their course.”
(II, 217-9)

But this was feeble, being both arbitrary and inadequate to the purpose.

We therefore find, I think, that the Epicurean materialist metaphysics, like the modern one, consumes the metaphysician, leaving no-one to live out his moral ideal. We are left only with random motion and ultimate dissolution. And this, I think, even by Epicurean standards would be a counsel of despair.

**

I enjoyed re-reading this poem, which I first read at least 20 years ago. In the Roman reading project in which I am presently engaged it was my first sustained dose of Roman philosophy — just Greek philosophy at second hand, admittedly, but who among us can do better? — and I found a good deal to engage with. It is true that the very notion of a great poem about natural science seems slightly quixotic, rather like singing a Mass in honour of, say, Charles Darwin. But one soon forgets this genre-busting aspect, and falls into enjoyment of the poem on its own terms.

The translation of Ronald Melville I found good apart from the title (“On the Nature of the Universe”), which might well be a more fitting translation of De Rerum Natura on some grounds, but to which I nonetheless prefer the traditional English title (“On the Nature of Things”). I do harbour a regret that I didn’t splurge for Anthony Esolen’s translation, not least because I expect his commentary would have been superior to that found in this Oxford edition. But this, admittedly, is speculation, and I suppose that, in a Lucretian spirit, I could moderate my regret by meditating on the Epicurean counsel that, whatever translation I chose, “eternal death will still await”.