Posts Tagged ‘Ovid’

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.

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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 complimentary 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.

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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.

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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.

Ovid: Poems of Exile

April 3, 2020

The Poems of Exile
Tristia; Black Sea Letters
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by Peter Green
(University of California, 2005) [8-14 AD]
lxxxiv + 451 p.

Ovid had for years been at the heart of Rome’s literary culture when, in 8 AD, he was exiled by Augustus, sent to the city of Tomis, on the edge of the Black Sea, on the far fringe of the Empire. It was for him a death in life, and from the depths of his misfortune he wrote these poems, first the Tristia (in 5 books, composed roughly 8-11 AD) and then the Epistulae ex Ponto (in 4 books, written roughly 11-14 AD).

The reason for Ovid’s exile is not entirely understood. He says in the Tristia that “It was two offences undid me, a poem and an error”. About the “poem”, at least, there is no doubt, for he dwells on it constantly throughout these poems:

“Poetry made Caesar condemn me and my life-style
because of my Art, put out
years before: take away my pursuit, you remove my offences —
I credit my guilt to my verses. Here’s the reward
I’ve had for my care and all my sleepless labour:
a penalty set on talent. If I’d had sense
I’d have hated the Learned Sisters, and with good reason,
divinities fatal to their own
adherents.” (II, 1)

His “Art” is the Ars Amatoria, his poetic guidebook for the aspiring seducer. An important raft in Augustus’ political program was reform of marriage and family life in Rome; he passed laws requiring marriage of all Roman citizens of child-bearing years, and imposed severe penalties for adultery. Evidently Ovid’s casual indifference to this program and the moral ideals underlying it earned him Augustus’ anger, and this despite the fact that the love poetry had been written decades earlier.

As for the “error” to which Ovid alludes, we don’t know what it was. A personal affront to Augustus? Perhaps he just brought his old poems to his patron’s attention at an inopportune time? We will probably never know. It may have been something personally embarrassing to Ovid, for, unless I am mistaken, he mentions this “error” only once, a rarity made the more remarkable because of the obsessiveness with which the poems dwell on his fate.

And they are obsessive, exhaustingly so. In his notes to his translation, Peter Green sums up these poems: “Ovid is chronicling his own slow inner destruction”. The ambit of his themes is disconcertingly narrow: his misfortune, the fickleness of his friends who will not lobby on his behalf to the Imperial ear, the barbarity of his surroundings, the inadvertence of his offence, the faithfulness of his wife, praise of Augustus’ godlike power, and that’s about it. We read of how an exile’s condition is like that of a storm-tossed ship, of how his journey to exile was worse than Ulysses’ voyage from Troy, of his fair-weather friends, of his loneliness and isolation, of the rigours of life in Tormis, a “land seared by crimping frost”. As one reads through these poems, the monotony of his complaints, almost always in combination with self-justifying excuses, is wearying, and he knows it:

“Now I am out of words, I’ve asked the same thing so often;
now I feel shame for my endless, hopeless prayers.
You must all by now be bored stiff by these monotonous poems —
certainly you’ve learned by heart what I want,
and know the contents of each fresh letter already
before you break its seal.”
(BSL 3.7)

It would be reasonable to become exasperated with Ovid, but I found myself inclining more to pity. He was obviously at his wit’s end, overwhelmed by the punishment inflicted on him, and I felt that in these poems I heard the voice of Ovid the man, rather than Ovid the dazzling conjurer of tales or Ovid the irreverent huckster. Though the range of his mind in these poems is almost immeasurably narrower than in the Metamorphoses, the field of view is in clear focus: we see a tortured heart. “Who can see another’s woe, and not feel in sorrow too?”

Despite the monomaniacal intensity of these poems, there are some interesting variations here and there in which Ovid finds a new angle on his sorrow. He imagines his book of poems travelling to Rome and touring the city from which he is barred (Tr 3.1); he writes movingly of his memories of spring in Rome (Tr 3.12); he celebrates his birthday with a lament on his being separated from everyone he loves (Tr 3.13); he imagines himself and his wife aging apart (for she had stayed in Rome to argue his case before the Emperor) (BSL 1.4); he relates a vision of the god of Love, the deity who caused his exile (BSL 3.3).

The most famous of these exile poems is the tenth in Book IV of the Tristia, a long autobiographical poem in which Ovid tells us about his childhood, his family, his first efforts at poetry, the people in his poetic circle in Rome (Propertius, Horace, and, at a distance, Virgil), his fame, and finally his exile. It is a long, consistently interesting, and touching performance.

And “performance” might be the right word for many of these poems. Despite the directness with which they speak, there is reason to think that a certain amount of artifice is at work. He writes, after all, with a purpose which Peter Green says can be summed up in just five words: “Get Me Out Of Here”. He begs his friends to speak on his behalf to Augustus, and he begs Augustus to relent, to rescind his exile, or at least to allow him exile in a more hospitable place. To this end, we are subjected to a good deal of self-abasing praise of the munificence and wisdom of Augustus:

Spare me, my hero, whose virtues eclipse the boundless
cosmos, rein in your vengeance, just though it be!
Spare me, imperishable glory of our era, through your
own devoted care, lord of the world!
(BSL 2.8)

Such cringing gives no pleasure to the reader, and if it brought any pleasure to Augustus it was nonetheless not enough. When Augustus died in 14, Ovid was still in exile, and he died there a few years later, a great talent brought to a sad end.

It doesn’t seem quite apt to describe a collection of poems of this heft as a “pendant”, but that does roughly describe the place of these poems in Ovid’s oeuvre. If his whole body of work is like a symphony, with the love poetry being a scherzo and the Metamorphoses a long and elaborate fantasia, then these exile poems are a stately andante in a minor key, gradually winding down and fading away into silence. They are not going to bring anyone joy, but, for their disarming portrait of a man sundered from home and all he loved best, I am grateful to have read them.

Ovid: Metamorphoses

March 17, 2020

Metamorphoses
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1987) [8 AD]
xxxvii + 480 p. Second reading.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the literary marvels of the ancient world: a roiling riot of tales clipped from the ripened Greco-Roman crop. It is a virtuosic performance in which Ovid revisits the ground previously plowed by Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil, adding his own distinctive touches, not excepting the extra energy of wit.

The poem is about 12000 lines long, and includes a staggering 250 different tales, and hundreds of characters, woven together into one long narrative tapestry. Sometimes the thread is strained almost to the point of breaking, and sometimes he lingers to delve his narration several layers deep — tales within tales within tales — but always emerging again, winking, sure of his direction, even if the reader is somewhat dazed.

The principal organizing feature of this melange is right there in the title: transformations. In each of the tales, a character undergoes some sort of change, usually a miraculous change of shape: into a bird, into a fountain, into a monster, into a tree, into a bird (again), into a bear, into stone, or into a bird (for good measure). This is the golden thread that runs from start to finish. Often this gives Ovid’s tales a folky flavour inasmuch as the transformation serves also as an origin story: this is how a certain flower came to be, or how a certain river was first made, or how (surprise!) a certain bird was created.

His commitment to this idea sometimes leads to idiosyncratic treatment of stories, as when he glosses over the Fall of Troy in a few lines in order to focus on the tragic tale of Hecuba, the Trojan queen, but more often it delights. We begin each tale in a state of expectation, knowing that something, anything, might happen, and this helps to sustain the reader through what might otherwise seem merely an interminable series of short tales. To a reader encountering Ovid for the first time, there can indeed seem to be little reason to his rhyme, even granting the main recurring feature of metamorphoses, but a larger scale structure becomes apparent if we step back. The Metamorphoses begins with the creation of the world and tales of gods (roughly Books I-VI), transitions to tales involving gods and men (roughly Books VI-XI), and concludes with historical, or quasi-historical, tales of Greeks and Romans, culminating in treatments of Julius Caesar and, Ovid’s own patron, Caesar Augustus, here made to appear — and appear might be just the right word, given Ovid’s impish playfulness — to be the man at whom all of history had been pointing.

Anyone who claimed to know all of the stories in the Metamorphoses should be viewed with suspicion, for it is a buzzing, swirling conglobulation seemingly calculated to confound even the most diligent student, and Ovid seems to delight to show off his learning. In this he was joined by other Roman poets, like Virgil and Propertius, though with Ovid the learning is worn lightly. But the point to stress is that so many of the stories are wonderful! Ovid gives us memorable versions of the stories of Apollo and Daphne, of Echo and Narcissus, of Pyramus and Thisbe, of Phaethon, of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Midas. Some of the tales are sweet, as in the hilarious story of how the cyclops Polyphemus fell in love with the girl Galatea, and some are gruesome, as in the horrific story of Procne and Philomela, which features [redacted]. Ovid’s virtuosity is flexible: grave or facetious or winsome, he can apparently do anything, and he doesn’t mind if we know it.

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So the Metamorphoses is a brawl, a kind of circus, an anthology, a clamour. Does it have depth? Critical opinion has been divided on this question over the centuries.

Ovid’s talent was recognized by his contemporaries, and he was among the choice circle commissioned by Augustus to write an epic (ie. the Metamorphoses), but his reputation suffered as the Augustan age passed away. A century later Quintillian thought him lively but shallow; Seneca (the Elder) considered he had wasted his rhetorical talents in poetry. The early Christians generally viewed him warily, as being flashy and seductive but immoral and trivial, and this has been, if you want, one of the enduring poles of Ovidian reception: he was a trickster, a showman, an endlessly inventive and rhetorically gifted storyteller who nonetheless lacked profundity, a man without a chest, whose poems were mere clouds which a gust of strong Virgilian wind would disperse.  It was, as I’ve said, a common enough view in the ancient world, and it was the dominant view of Ovid from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century.

This judgment is not easily dismissed; there is something to it. If we stop to ask ourselves, “What did Ovid believe?”, or “What did Ovid love?”, we find answers hard to come by. For instance, in the early Books of the Metamorphoses Ovid tells us about the creation of the world: how there was a primordial chaos, and how divine powers shaped the world and then created man as the pinnacle. If there were ever a theme for sobriety and grandeur and confidence, this was it. But Ovid treats the whole affair quite casually, giving several different, contradictory versions of what might have happened, being quite nonspecific about exactly which god it was who did this great work, and then shrugging it off. And this basic orientation to his subject matter persists: Ovid may seem to be, here and there, in earnest, but then he pivots on a denarius and the mood is gone. He is like a curator of a museum who sets his artifacts in place, but then disappears, scrupulously avoiding any effort to tell us how to interpret what we see. For many readers down the ages this diffidence on Ovid’s part has been taken as evidence of superficiality.

Yet there is another school too. Ovid’s time bore certain resemblances to our modern world: as the Roman republic crumbled and then collapsed Roman culture experienced a loss of faith in traditions and its institutions became unstable; at the same time it underwent a major economic expansion and enjoyed new prosperity; and of course the Roman Empire was a vast geographical space in which cultures began to mix, with a corresponding loss of confidence in local cults and customs. All of these factors influenced Ovid, and have led some readers to see him as a particularly modern, or even post-modern, figure. To this way of thinking, Ovid is an antifoundational, non-dogmatic empty shirt who relativizes hierarchies of value and undermines meta-narratives.  This school of thought agrees with the previous one insofar as it sees Ovid as having no fixed positions, no doctrine, and no point-of-view, but it differs by thinking this good rather than bad.

The third major branch of Ovidian readers were those who dominated the high medieval and early modern periods. To them, Ovid was again not exactly a personality, but rather a portal. He was the great story-teller, the captivating conjurer through whom the whole tumult of ancient myth came tumbling into our world. From the multifariousness of his tales they concluded not that everything was relative or that nothing mattered — the pessimistic conclusions that have tempted modern lost souls — but that stories could be their own worlds, and that life was rich with possibility, and that a story could be enjoyed for its own sake. Ovid dazzled them with an excess of truth, rather than draining it away. And but for this strand of Ovid’s readers, our literature would have been immeasureably impoverished, for it would be that much harder to imagine Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Rabelais, to name only those who come first to mind.

I suppose it is obvious that my sympathies are with the latter group — Ovid is a great storyteller, and I am inclined to appreciate him simply on those grounds — although I feel a temptation from the first school as well, for the Metamorphoses does linger in the mind as a work whose parts are greater than the whole. All the same, it has been great to again grapple with it after an absence of some years. It makes a good wrestling partner.

Favourites of 2019: Books

December 28, 2019

It is gratifying to arrive at year-end and discover that, against the odds, I have somehow managed to read quite a nice selection of books over the course of the past twelve months. Today I’d like to comment briefly on those I most appreciated.

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I have had three reading projects on the go this year: the first, a multi-year effort to read the complete surviving body of Old English poetry (in translation) I finished up in February. This was a very rewarding project that brought many delights and surprises with it, and I have written about it at some length in this space.

This was Year 3 in my on-going reading project in Roman history and literature. The entire year I passed in the company of the Augustan poets of the first century before Christ, reading the entire surviving poetic corpi of Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Propertius, and Tibullus. Of these, the work I enjoyed the most was probably Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but what most surprised me was the poetry of Propertius, a poet whom I’d heard little enough about but whose delightful, passionate, dramatic poetry strongly appealed to me. I am looking forward to continuing this project in 2020, when I plan to sojourn first with Seneca’s plays and letters before taking up the historical works of Tacitus.

A third reading project, launched in the latter part of the year, is focused on plays from the early modern period (roughly 1550-1800). I’ve started on the stage in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, and, of the half-dozen or so plays I’ve got under my belt so far, the most impressive has been John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a masterful tragedy that I found totally convincing.

I suppose a fourth, less formal, reading project has been my tour through the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I began the year reading the annals of Psmith and close out the year mid-stream in the chronicles of Blandings Castle. But it seems churlish to deliberate about which of these choice morsels is most deserving of praise, so I’ll not try.

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I tackled two long novels this year, and mercifully they were both worth the effort. The Tale of Genji is an 11th century Japanese classic that inducts the reader into the hyper-refined world of the Heian court, where elaborate manners and self-control are the order of the day but, in subdued tones, all the passions and interests of human life are present under the surface. It’s a beautifully written (or beautifully translated) masterpiece that I found challenging but worthwhile.

The second was quite different: in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo I found a gripping tale of injustice provoking a long and patient revenge, and I relished every page. It’s a story that seems tailor-made for the big screen, and somebody should really make a film about it. Hey!

I also read — well, finished — for the first time this year C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, and, despite my mild allergy to science fiction, I found much to admire in it. Like the medieval authors whom Lewis so admired, he found a way to pack a good deal of “sound instruction” into his fiction, and I liked that these books grappled with weighty philosophical and theological themes.

The last fiction book I’ll highlight is Richard Adams’ Watership Down. This was a great favourite of my sister’s when I was growing up, but I, for whatever reason, never read it. I ought to have done so. The story is exciting, but Adams takes the time to develop his characters in rich detail, and I loved how he created for his rabbits an elaborate social and religous culture. The book is also a pretty thoughtful meditation on politics and the common good, for those — not me — with a talent for thinking about such things.

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I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to find the time and mental energy to engage with substantial non-fiction, but I did finish a few good books. Two were re-reads: Lewis’ The Abolition of Man is an evergreen meditation on the foundations of moral judgment and on the probable consequences of the modern habit of pouring acid on those foundations; Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture is an essential book that excavates an ancient account of what a well-lived human life looks like, and what practices sustain it. These are two books to read again and again.

I spent a lot of time this year on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility, a learned meditation on the nature and goals of education, especially as conceived prior to John Dewey; that was another country, and Hicks is an excellent guide. I also spent many a happy hour paging back and forth through Edward Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God, a volume that I can confidently recommend to readers in search of an accessible and concise treatment of the basics of philosophical theology. Finally, I enjoyed reading Jacques Barzun’s analysis of Romanticism as a cultural and intellectual movement in European history, and in human society more generally, in his Classic, Romantic, and Modern.

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That’s the kind of year it’s been for me. As usual, I’ve made a histogram of the original years of publication of the books I read this year, and it looks like this:

Not a bad spread this year, helped, of course, by the Roman, medieval, and early modern reading projects. Interesting that the 18th century almost got missed entirely.

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Trivia:

Longest book: Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1240 p.)

Oldest book: Horace, Satires (c.30 BC)

Newest book: Harts, The Mystery of Castle MacGorilla (Oct 2019)

Multiple books by same author: Thornton Burgess (11), Shakespeare (10), Wodehouse (6), Ovid (5), Horace (4), C.S. Lewis (4).

 

Thomas: Why Bob Dylan Matters

October 10, 2018

Why Bob Dylan Matters
Richard F. Thomas
(Dey Street, 2017)
368 p.

Book publishers know their business, and no doubt the title of this book will succeed in drawing readers. It worked for me, and it is apropos: certainly the author believes that Bob Dylan does matter. But a more informative title might have been Dylan and Greco-Roman Poetry, or even Intertextuality as a Literary Device in the Works of Bob Dylan. But books bearing such titles might remain on the shelf, unread, and that would be a shame.

The principal argument of the book is that Dylan’s penchant for drawing on traditional songs in his own songs — a practice well established and recognized as part of his art — has expanded, especially in the last two decades, to an engagement with the poets of classical antiquity, and especially with Ovid, Virgil, and Homer. It’s a startling claim on first blush, perhaps, but Thomas makes a convincing case, and he knows whereof he speaks: he is George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard, an accomplished Virgilian, and trustee of the Loeb Classical Library. (In a fit of distraction, I wondered if, given his interest in popular music, he might prefer to be George Martin Penny Lane Professor?)

The evidence comes from the last three collections of original songs: “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012). This in itself makes the book interesting and valuable; it is the only book on Dylan of which I am aware (though, admittedly, there are many that have escaped my notice) that focuses principally on this period.

Thomas first suspected that Dylan might be taking an interest in the classics when he heard “Lonesome Day Blues”, from “Love and Theft”, in which one of the stanzas is:

“I’m gonna spare the defeated
I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud”

which reminded him of a passage from Book VI of the Aeneid, in which Virgil writes:

“Remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
To spare the defeated peoples, tame the proud.”
(Aeneid, Bk VI)

It can’t be a coincidence, and it was intriguing enough that he began listening to the new songs with ears open to further allusions to classical poetry. These efforts were bountifully rewarded with Modern Times. By his estimation, the songs on that record make over 30 references to the exile poems of Ovid. And on the most recent record, Tempest, Thomas finds numerous references to passages in Homer’s Odyssey woven into the fabric of the songs. The same record has a song, “Early Roman Kings”, that leans toward making an interest in antiquity overt.

Given this evidence, a few questions arise. One, perhaps, is a doubt: is it possible that, on the principle that one wielding a hammer sees nails, a classics professor might hear echoes of antique poets that are not really there? If there were but one or two examples, this doubt might be worth entertaining, but having reviewed the evidence Thomas provides, I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that Dylan is actually doing this.

Indeed, among the most interesting aspects of the book is Thomas’ further argument that this interest in antiquity is not new for Dylan. The evidence extends beyond the texts of his songs. For instance, we learn that back in Hibbing, MN, when young Dylan was still Robert Zimmermann, he was a member of his school’s Latin Club, and in 1963, on his first trip to Europe to play for the BBC, he afterwards took a flight to Rome, where he stayed for a few days, plausible evidence that he had a special interest in the city. There is even an early, unofficial song called “Goin’ Back to Rome” (in which, winsomely, Dylan contrives to rhyme “Colosseum” with “always see ’em”).

There is not much evidence from Dylan’s early and middle career that he was thinking of things Greek or Roman. We have “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, which is set in Rome, and Thomas informs us that in draft “Changing of the Guards” has a stanza that seems to have Virgil’s famous fourth Eclogue in mind, but beyond that the pickings are slim.

Yet, consistent with the book’s overall thesis, the evidence picks up since 2000. Dylan has chosen Rome as the site for a number of major press conferences in these years and, even more interesting, the playlists for his concerts in the city have differed radically from those he played in other cities. There does seem to be something special about the place for him. The image on the cover of Tempest is of a statue of Minerva; this same statue is on stage with Dylan on his recent tours. In interviews he has hinted that his most recent work might be rooted further back in history than the folk traditions of American music that everyone associates with him, making references to “the ten hundreds”, or times when “people had only one name”. As always with Dylan, his interviews are elliptical performances, very much part of a cat-and-mouse game with the reporters and fans, and hard to interpret, but it is plausible, at least, that he might be dropping clues for those who have ears to hear.

The bigger question is: why is he doing this? The first part of an answer has to be that, in a sense, this is nothing new for him. His songs have always been in conversation with the folk tradition, with the blues, and with the Bible; fragments of old songs have been worked into his own songs from the beginning. This is an act of creative appropriation of the tradition. We don’t think of his songs as pastiches because he has made these sources his own, and his own artistic voice can be heard through them. A good recent example is “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, which, as Thomas makes clear, is a veritable tapestry of references to Woody Guthrie songs and old folk songs collected by Alan Lomax, yet the result is a powerfully unified original song. As T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” In these songs, Dylan steals.

So, granted that he has an established history of creatively stealing from other sources, why has he begun to steal from the Greco-Roman poets? Here, I think, any answer has to be tentative. Perhaps, as Thomas argues, the exile poems of Ovid that pervade the songs on Modern Times appeal to Dylan because he feels himself to be in exile in the world, cut off by his celebrity and his itinerant life from normal relationships and a home. Likewise, perhaps the Odyssey is important to him because he, too, travels the world with nowhere to rest. Perhaps. Or perhaps it is simply that, having spent his life writing verse and song, he has felt an attraction to returning to the original sources of the poetic tradition within which he has worked. In any case, I find it heartening to think that Dylan is grappling with the legacy of these poets, absorbing and transmuting them through his own distinctive artistic pursuits.

I have said that Thomas is a distinguished classicist, and evidently he is also an avid Dylanologist. The great danger to such enthusiasts, that uncritical acclaim I call Dylanitis, is occasionally in evidence, as when he describes Dylan’s widely panned film Masked and Anonymous as “hugely underrated”. But, on the other hand, people who don’t love Dylan don’t write books about him, so we simply keep a few grains of salt on hand, and take one when, for instance, we read that Dylan compares with Eliot in his genius for appropriating the Western tradition.

There is plenty of backward and forward in the book’s argument, which is not presented as neatly as I’ve tried to make it here, and not all of the book’s contents are straightforwardly related to its thesis. At times Thomas pursues a particular line of inquiry at a length beyond what would be perfectly judicious by classical standards. At a few points the book’s argument seems to circle back on itself, with the same evidence coming up again. The result is a book that feels a bit of a jumble, but a jumble of good things. There is a fascinating section, for instance, on the wonderful song “Highlands”, which is obviously in conversation with Robert Burns, but also, Thomas argues, with Dylan’s own “Tangled Up in Blue”. There is an excellent analysis of Dylan’s “autobiography” Chronicles, Vol.1, which, following Clinton Heylin, Thomas considers to be a cunningly constructed blend of truth and fiction, and there is a very good discussion of Dylan’s Nobel speech (which, given the attention it pays to Odysseus, could also be marshalled as evidence of Dylan’s interest in the classics).

When I picked up the book I thought I would simply glance through it, but once I began reading I became interested in the argument, and was happy to read the whole thing. Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it has convinced me to listen again to the most recent albums, which, with the exception of Time Out of Mind, I have not loved. I approach them now with fresh ears.

*

For an envoi, here is the song that sparked this line of thinking: “Lonesome Day Blues”.

Ovid: Metamorphoses

September 30, 2012

Metamorphoses
Publius Ovidius Naso
(Norton, 2004) [8 A.D.]
Translated from the Latin by Charles Martin
623 p.

Of course I have known that Ovid is counted among the most important Latin poets, and I had planned, in a hazy way, to read him someday. Then, when reading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, I was surprised to see Lewis remark that the most important sources for understanding the art and literature of the Middle Ages are the Bible, Virgil, and Ovid. At that, I bumped Metamorphoses forward in my reading queue, and at last I have completed it.

The organizing premise of the work is well-known: Ovid recounts stories in which the characters undergo some sort of change — usually, but not always, a literal change of shape. Since such stories were common in the annals of Greek and Latin mythology, the poem serves as an idiosyncratic whirlwind tour of the mythological corpus. Some of these stories were familiar to me — Orpheus and Eurydice, Icarus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Narcissus, Midas — but most were not, and reading them has been a good, if steep, education.

While I wouldn’t describe Ovid as a comic poet, he does have a whimsical, irreverent sense of humour in some of the stories. There are several violent battle scenes reminiscent of Homer, but Ovid’s descriptions of the brutal deaths of the warriors are so extravagantly gory that they become something akin to a spoof. Similarly, there was a well-established technique in the epic tradition, inherited from both Homer and Virgil, of conveying descriptions using elaborate similes. Ovid follows suit, but not infrequently his similes have something peculiar or inappropriate about them. Consider this example, taken from the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Pyramus, thinking that Thisbe has been eaten by a lion, slays himself with his sword. Then:

It was as when a water pipe is ruptured
where the lead has rotted, and it springs a leak:
a column of water goes hissing through the hole
and parts the air with its pulsating thrusts;
splashed with his gore, the tree’s pale fruit grow dark;
blood soaks its roots and surges up to dye
the hanging berries purple with its color.
(IV.172-8)

It’s like a death scene from Monty Python. Similarly, he is sometimes irreverent in his treatment of the gods, as in this passage describing the homely vanity of Mercury:

He left the sky and came down to the earth
without disguise, so great his confidence
in his own beauty, which, though not misplaced,
was aided by the care he took of it,
smoothing his hair, which had been mussed in flight,
arranging his cloak so that it hung just so,
letting its pricey golden border show,
and making sure that the wand in his right hand
(with which he brings sleep on or drives it off)
was freshly shined, and seeing that the wings
were gleaming brightly on his shapely feet.
(II.1008-18)

At other times, however, he is sober in his telling, and he is well able to do justice to a tragic tale. Towards the end of the poem Ovid gives a long speech to Pythagoras in which he discourses on the mutability of all things — the apotheosis of the metamorphosis, so to speak. This, too, is written with dignity and without facetiousness.

Being but a middling Latin scholar, I am ill-equipped to judge the merits of Charles Martin’s translation. I can say that the English reads easily and gracefully, and sometimes rises to the level of eloquence. I have no desire to seek out another version (though I’d be interested to know if I should have such a desire).

[The house of Sleep]
There is a hollow mountain near the land
of the Cimmerians, and deep within
there is a cave where idle Sleep resides,
his special place, forbidden to the Sun
at any hour from the dawn to dusk;
the earth around it breathes out clouds of fog
through dim, crepuscular light.
No wakeful cock
summons Aurora with his crowing song,
no restless watchdog interrupts the stillness,
nor goose, more keenly vigilant than dogs:
no wild and no domesticated beasts,
not even branches, rustling in the wind,
and certainly no agitated clamor
of men in conversation.
Here mute repose
abides, and from the bottom of the cave,
the waters of the sleep-inducing Lethe
flow murmuring across their bed of pebbles.

Outside, in front, the fruitful poppies bloom,
and countless herbs as well, that dewy night
collects and processes, extracting Sleep,
which it distributes to the darkened earth.
Doors are forbidden here, lest hinges creak,
no guardian is found upon the threshold;
but on a dais in the middle of the cave
a downy bed of blackest ebony
is set with a coverlet of muted hue;
upon it lies the god himself, at peace,
his knotted limbs in languorous release;
around him on all sides are empty shapes
of dreams that imitate so many forms,
as many as the fields have ears of wheat,
or trees have leaves, or seashore grains of sand.
(XI.849-80)

[Ovid’s last word]
My work is finished now: no wrath of Jove
nor sword nor fire nor futurity
is capable of laying waste to it.
Let that day come then, when it wishes to,
which only has my body in its power,
and put an end to my uncertain years;
no matter, for in spirit I will be
borne up to soar beyond the distant stars,
immortal in the name I leave behind;
wherever Roman governance extends
over the subject nations of the world,
my words will be upon the people’s lips,
and if there is truth in poets’ prophesies,
then in my fame forever I will live.
(XV.1099-1112)