Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Greek lyric poetry

December 5, 2022

Greek Lyrics
Translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore
(Univ. Chicago, 1960) [c.650-450 BC]
xiii + 82 p.

If ever you are happy, one way to bring yourself down is to think about the literature that has been lost to the vicissitudes of history. There are particularly agonizing cases: Aristotle’s dialogues, most of the Greek tragedies, swaths of Livy and Tacitus. But spare a tear as well for early Greek poetry, much of which has come down to us in shreds.

In this little volume, Richmond Lattimore gathers together an assortment of surviving verses from several dozen Greek poets who were writing between the seventh and fifth centuries BC. I believe we don’t have much lyric poetry from earlier times, but I don’t know why he drew the later chronological boundary where he did. He has called these poems “lyrics,” perhaps simply to distinguish them from epic. In any case, the designation does not seem a strict one; there is a huge variety here: invective, epitaph, epigram, love poem, political poem, historical poem, inscription, song, myth, and more. It’s a very difficult sort of book to size up.

We’ll look at a few examples.

Maybe the earliest of the poets represented here is Archilochus of Paros (c.680-640). He was apparently a soldier with an avocation as a poet. Based on his showing here, his poetry is among the better preserved, and we may even have some complete poems, such as this one offering counsel to a soldier:

Heart, my heart, so battered with misfortune far beyond your strength,
up, and face the men who hate us. Bare your chest to the assault
of the enemy, and fight them off. Stand fast among the beamlike spears.
Give no ground; and if you beat them, do not brag in open show,
nor, if they beat you, run home and lie down on your bed and cry.
Keep some measure in the joy you take in luck, and the degree
you give way in sorrow. All our life is up-and-down like this.

At the other chronological end is Praxilla of Sicyon (mid 5th c.), for whom Lattimore gives us a fragment from a poem about the death of Adonis, who, in his last throes, uttered these lines:

“Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon’s face,
but also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.”

It’s rather beautiful, but Lattimore remarks that this mention of cucumbers, in this context, gave rise to a Greek saying whereby one who says the wrong thing at the wrong time might be judged “sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.”

We have a number of anonymous poems, as you would expect. Most of the inscriptions are so, though the famous epitaph for the Spartans fallen at Thermopylae —

Traveler, take this word to the men of Lakedaimon :
We who lie buried here did what they told us to do.

— is a notable exception, being attributed to Simonides of Ceon. An especially intriguing sub-genre is the anonymous drinking song, like this one:

Underneath every stone there lies hidden a scorpion, dear friend.
Take care, or he will sting you. All concealment is treachery.

It probably sounds better with music.

The most famous of the poets represented here are Solon, the great Athenian reformer and lawgiver, from whom a number of poems survive, including argumentative verse in which he defends his policies; Sappho, about whom we’ll have more to say on a later occasion; and Pindar, whom we’ll also spend more time with later. To my considerable surprise, a full quarter of the book is devoted to a single poet, Bacchylides of Ceos, a contemporary of Pindar for whom a number of relatively long poems have survived. I confess these were among my least favourite of the batch, so I’ll say no more about them.

Lattimore is a renowned translator of the Greeks, prized for his dedication to retaining as much as possible the shape of the Greek verse in his English renderings. Personally, though, in my previous experience with him, I have found that I don’t especially like the result much of the time. It often feels awkward to me, and too much like prose. These poems didn’t change my mind, but they were serviceable and good enough to get the point across.

And what is the point? Why sit down with a mess of tattered pages like this? The question presses more firmly in an anthology, when we get, in most cases, barely more than a taste of individual poets, not really enough for their personalities to come through.

Often a motive for reading old books is to penetrate a way of thinking and seeing the world that differs from our own customary habits. Maybe in so doing we can see ourselves more clearly, and perhaps be startled at what we see. There’s a bit of that here, but it’s not ideal because the points of view are too numerous. Maybe the motive is the opposite: not to see our differences, but to see what we share. If we have something in common with these men and women, given all that separates us, perhaps there we are getting close to what is fundamental to human life. It is a good experiment to take one of these poems, even a couple of lines, and ask ourselves what  we recognize in them. And it is not surprising, I expect, that we find love, and hatred, and admiration of the beautiful, and fear of death, and sadness, and curiosity, and many, many more things that constitute the texture of our lives, then as now. Welcome home!

***

Pindar: “War is sweet to those who have not tried it.”

*

Homer: Odyssey

November 21, 2022

Odyssey
Homer
Translated from the Greek by Robert Fitzgerald
(FS&G, 1998) [c.800 BC]
515 p.

…godlike in counsel,
he that in twenty years had borne such blows
in his deep heart, breaking through ranks in war
and waves on the bitter sea.
(Bk 13)

***

Theories about the authorship of the Homeric poems abound: they were the work of a solitary genius, or they were created by countless bards in a generation-spanning oral tradition, or they were adapted from an oral tradition by a solitary genius, and so on. But if you were to tell me that the (however construed) author of the Odyssey had nothing whatever to do with the author of the Iliad, I would believe you. From the first page of this poem, the world of the Iliad — the world of hard war, of bruised honour, of brandished spears and bristling helmets, of bellicosity and belligerence — all of that is gone, vanished like a dream, and we find ourselves in a domestic sphere, where slaves are wiping down tables, a fire crackles in the hearth, and a boy sits, daydreaming, when a mysterious stranger arrives at the door. The scale is intimate, and good manners are paramount. We are breathing new air.

Of course, all is not well. The home is troubled by ruffians who circle the lady of the house like wolves, and a great sorrow, a quiet, aching pain, sits stubbornly in the hearts of Penelope and her son, Telemachos, for Odysseus, the lord of the house, is absent, and may be dead. Nobody knows.

In my imagination the Odyssey survived, since I first read it many years ago, as the tale of one man, a sleek, stripped down story (especially compared to the enormous ensemble cast of the Iliad) that flew like an arrow from Troy to Ithaca, with the lion’s share of the story devoted to accounts of the numerous hardships he endured along the way. This, I am surprised to find, was actually quite wrong. The tale, as told, isn’t like a flying arrow at all, but instead like a tangled web of yarn, told us in a non-linear fashion that starts in the middle, and folds back on itself through flashbacks. Even the famous adventures of Odysseus — the cyclopes, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the bag of wind, the sacred cows, the cannibals, and so on — are confined to just four (of 24) books.

The poem is really a family drama, with Penelope and Telemachos getting a significant share of the page-time. Indeed, although we hear briefly about Odysseus at the poem’s opening, and in particular about his longing to return home —

But such desire is in him
merely to see the hearthsmoke leading upward
from his own island, that he longs to die.

— we do not actually see him until Book 5, at which time the poet strikes the same note, stressing for us his desperate desire to return to Ithaca. He has been seven years on Calypso’s island, having no means of escape, and he sits on the shore, looking out:

in his stone seat to seaward — tear on tear
brimming his eyes.

This, then, is one of the leading emotional elements of the poem: homesickness. When a man is unable to go home, his heart is out of joint, and so too his family suffers, and his whole household. And what prevents him going home is not just outlandish danger, not just the wine-dark sea, not just the wrath of Poseidon, but also Odysseus’ own heart, frail against temptation. Again and again we see him beset by seductresses: the Sirens, Circe, Calypso, even, maybe, the youthful Nausikaa. Sometimes he resists successfully, sometimes he is overcome. But, always, too, his fundamental desire to see again his wife and child reasserts itself.

We know that he does eventually get home, with the help of Athena. (And I will note in passing that here, too, in the realm of the gods, the Odyssey is a much more intimate affair than was the Iliad. Athena is Odysseus’ special patroness, and Poseidon is, or becomes, his nemesis, but beyond that the gods play a limited role in the poem. The clamouring crowd of gods that so befuddled me before is silent now, and so much the better.) In the poem’s second half we see how Odysseus conducts himself upon returning home, adopting a disguise and plotting against the confounded suitors who befoul his house with their antics and their vices. And, of course, the plotting finally leads to a bloodbath in which Odysseus and Telemachos together avenge these wrongs. It is all superbly carried off. Homer winks our way when he has the suitors struggle to prepare the bow that will, we know, soon kill them. And when Odysseus, still in disguise, provokes general astonishment by stringing the bow himself, Homer gives us one of his most striking similies, comparing the bow to a lyre and Odysseus to the musician:

like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
(Bk 21)

He begins to play upon it immediately, as the poem erupts in violence and cleansing wrath. Homer again uses a memorable image to convey the aftermath:

In blood and dust
he saw that crowd all fallen, many and many slain.
Think of a catch that fishermen haul in to a halfmoon bay
in a fine-meshed net from the white-caps of the sea:
how all are poured out on the sand, in throes for the salt sea,
twitching their cold lives away in Helios’ fiery air:
so lay the suitors heaped on one another.
(Bk 22)

Let me not be one to take joy in such carnage — and the poet, too, counsels us that “To glory over slain men is no piety.” (Bk 22) — but it would be fruitless to deny that I derived a certain satisfaction from this rough justice.

And justice it is. A central preoccupation of the poem is that there is a set of virtues proper to hosts and guests, and in such virtues the suitors are shamelessly derelict. Over and over the poem shows us contrasting examples of good hosts and bad, of good guests and bad.

Telemachos, in search of news about his father, comes to the houses of Menelaus and Nestor, and, before they know his identity, he is treated with all the honour and deference rightly due a guest. Calypso seems to be a good host, but then keeps Odysseus hostage for years. Circe seems to be a bad host, but then offers him essential aid. Odysseus finds a bad host in Polyphemus (who wants to eat him), and then himself becomes a bad guest (by injuring his host). Odysseus even protests against the cyclops’ incivility, linking it to a lack of respect for the gods:

‘We would entreat you, great Sir, have a care
for the gods’ courtesy; Zeus will avenge
the unoffending guest.’

But Polyphemus gives a belligerent reply:

‘You are a ninny,
or else you come from the other end of nowhere,
telling me, mind the gods! We Kyklopes
care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far.’

It is a matter of more than just manners, therefore. And when Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he finds a gentle and generous host in the wonderful swineherd Eumaios, who, again, not knowing his identity, treats him right. When Odysseus, in disguise, encounters first Telemachos, and then Penelope, they are distinguished by their kindness to him, in sharpest contrast to the taunts and insults hurled by the doomed suitors. The treatment of strangers reveals character.

*

For all that the story is arranged like a puzzle, it is nonetheless, when we straighten it out, the story of a homecoming. This, I think, is part of what endears it to me so strongly, for I am inordinately fond of stories in which someone returns home, or is reunited with family after an absence. It is this quality that makes the Biblical story of Joseph so affecting for me, and it is this that brings a tear to my eye in the story of the Prodigal Son. So, too, here.

As in the story of Joseph, the reunion in the Odyssey happens in an asymmetric way: one party knows it is happening, and the other does not. Odysseus adopts, at Athena’s behest, the guise of an old, itinerant codger, and he encounters both Telemachos and Penelope without their being aware of his identity. This part of the tale calls for virtues of patience and self-control that are quite unlike those Odysseus needed during his tumultuous journey home. Upon arrival, Athena counsels him:

Patience, iron patience, you must show;
so give it out to neither man nor woman
that you are back from wandering. Be silent
under all injuries, even blows from men.
(Bk 13)

I was moved most, however, by the three occasions on which his self-control fails him. Unless I am mistaken, he weeps three times: on first revealing his true identity to his son, to his wife, and to his father. These last two occur in the poem’s denouement following the slaughter of the suitors.

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms, longed for
as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
(Bk 23)

Pass the handkerchief.

I learned through background reading that the Greeks had a whole set of homecoming epics about the aftermath of the Trojan War, of which the Odyssey was just one. There was a poem about Agememnon’s return home and his murder by Clytemnestra (which would have made a great contrasting double-bill with this poem), another about Ajax’s drowning on his return journey, and yet another about the sojourn of Menealus and Helen in Egypt on their return home. All lost. Don’t put that handkerchief away just yet.

*

The bloody house cleaning finishes up in Book 22, and I’d like to reflect a moment on the two books which follow. The triumph of Odysseus over his challengers feels like the climax of the story in many ways, so what are the final two books doing?

I should first note that there is, I am told, a scholarly dispute about whether these last two books were part of the poem originally (whatever “originally” may mean in the context of an oral tradition). We need not let this detain us long, since these two books are part of the poem as we have received it, and we’re simply asking what purpose they serve, but I wanted to acknowledge the point.

These two books contain three main things: first, are the reunion scenes, or, maybe better, the revelation scenes, between Odysseus and Penelope, and then between Odysseus and his father, Laertes. I’ve already remarked on how moving I found these scenes, and they are, it seems to me, essential to the emotional arc of the poem. Without them, the homecoming would feel incomplete.

A second element, in Book 24, takes place in Hades. We see the shades of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ajax, heroes of the Trojan War, conversing as they witness the souls of the slain suitors arriving in the underworld. At first I thought this a very odd addendum, but it does provide Homer an opportunity to sing in fulsome turn the praise of Penelope, the faithful wife. What better way than amid a parade of those unworthy suitors whom she rejected? And the praise comes from the mouth of Agamemnon, who, because of his own (let us say) marital woes has the best cause to admire a good wife:

‘O fortunate Odysseus, master mariner
and soldier, blessed son of old Laertes!
The girl you brought home made a valiant wife!
True to her husband’s honor and her own,
Penelope, Ikarios’ faithful daughter!
The very gods themselves will sing her story
for men on earth — mistress of her own heart, Penelope!’
(Bk 24)

So this, too, though it feels less essential, still fits, and puts an exclamation mark on one of the poem’s central themes.
The third and final piece feints at a return to the violence of the earlier books. The families of the slain suitors descend on Odysseus, Telemachos, and Laertes looking for revenge. But things don’t progress far before Athena interrupts, and, by her godlike power, declares peace. Though it highlights the importance of Athena to Odysseus’ affairs, a constant theme throughout, this nonetheless is, for me, the least satisfying thing about the final book. A dea ex machina is, almost by definition, artistically unsatisfying. That is how my expectations have been trained. It would be very interesting to understand whether and why it was more satisfying to an audience in ancient Greece.

***

When I read the Iliad, I kept myself alive in part by entertaining a rotating door of translators. No such problem here, so I stuck throughout with Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation. It was a happy choice. I have previously read Fagles’ somewhat later version, but I didn’t bother to make side-by-side comparisons.

***

What an encouraging experience this has been! I was so dispirited after reading the Iliad. I was tormented at night by hard questions. Am I a person who hasn’t the wherewithal to appreciate Homer? What does that say about me? Should I abandon this Greek reading project in its infancy? Should I give up reading books altogether? Maybe watch television instead? Maybe lie down on the train tracks at night? Well! The Odyssey turned all that around. I loved it. I’m a Homer man after all.

****

And now the big question arises: basking in the Odyssey‘s afterglow, is it time to pick up that long-languishing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses and read it? Has the time finally come?

Nah.

Homer: The Iliad

October 18, 2022

The Iliad
Homer
Translated from the Greek by Four Illustrious Translators
[c.800 BC]
c.500 pages. Second reading.

When first I attempted The Iliad, many years ago, it was a sad and dispiriting affair, and I struggled through it without any enjoyment. Now, with quite a few other, if lesser, ancient epics under my belt, I felt sufficiently buoyed up with hope and girt about the loins to try again. Alas! Let me not say that I fared no better, but let me also be honest: it was a sad and dispiriting affair.

The problems for me were principally two, I think. One was the diffuse structure of the poem. I understand the basic shape: the Trojans prevail in battle so long as Achilles sits in his tent, but, stirred to action, he turns the tide and triumphs in the epic confrontation with Hector. But within that basic framework the poem felt aimless to me: there were so many characters, gods and men, churning back and forth in endless succession, speechifying, throwing spears, world without end. Like a great Trojan warrior dragging the body of his foe through the dust, I was dragging my own battered self from one episode to the next, bereft of hope.

The second problem for me was all the fighting. Maybe it’s churlish to complain of fighting in a poem about war; the criticism is just. But, just as I tend to yawn and drift away in films when giant action scenes play out, so here I struggled to maintain attention through all the rock throwing and spear hurling and sword swinging. True, the gruesome deaths Homer grants certain characters reward a certain morbid fascination, but for the most part I found the sword-play immoderately tedious. This bothers me some, because I believe the poet intended those bits to be exciting, and maybe in performance they would have been, but I couldn’t maintain enthusiasm for them.

It was not that I found nothing to like. The siege of Troy, for instance, was motivated by the Greeks’ desire to recover Helen, absconded with Paris and now held securely within the city’s walls. But the poet tells us, early on, that she and Paris have grown cool to one another as the war has played out on the plain before the city, a revelation that casts a pall of pointlessness over the whole affair. This is dramatically effective. I also appreciated the evenhandedness of Homer, who is a Greek writing about a Greek triumph, but who generously grants the Trojans the same heroism and dignity that he lavishes on the Greek warriors.

As the battles raged, I was sometimes tempted to abandon the poem, but I held on in anticipation of the tale of the Trojan horse, which I expected would provide a change of pace and a straightforward storyline. Imagine my chagrin when, inching closer and closer to the end, it gradually dawned on me that the episode of the Trojan horse is not part of the Iliad after all. Ah well.

***

My first acquaintance with the Iliad, years ago, was through the translation of Richmond Lattimore, made in the early 1950s. This is still a well-regarded translation, often chosen for courses on Homer because it attempts to follow the Greek line as closely as possible: the metre is Homer’s own dactylic hexameter, and Lattimore tried to keep each line of English more or less aligned with the corresponding line of Greek. But personally I found, and find, that the hexameter line is awkwardly long for English verse, giving the poem a baggy, sprawling feel.

This time out I wanted to explore another approach. There are literally dozens of translations available, so I had to choose.

In the 1970s Robert Fitzgerald made a translation in blank iambic pentameter, and this, too, has maintained a good reputation; I was curious to peer into it. A popular version in the past few decades has been Robert Fagles’ translation, written in an irregular metre of five or six beats and said to be vivid and exciting. I was also curious about the 18th century translation, in rhyming couplets, by Alexander Pope; it might be rude to force Homer into a mold so foreign to him, but perhaps a genius could manage it?

In the end, I decided not to decide: I read all four — Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Pope — in rotation, Book by Book. I lost the continuity of a single poetic voice, but I gained a diverting variety, and diverting variety was what I needed.

**

In fact, I found it a cheering exercise to pause occasionally to compare translations of specific passages, and I’ve chosen a few to present here. Homer is famous for his heroic similes, so I’ve picked one of those; the Iliad is famous, as I’ve already said, for its gory death scenes, so I’ve chosen one of those; and, finally, I selected a charming domestic scene involving Hector and his family, which was a personal favourite.

Let’s begin with the simile. In this one, taken from Book 13, the charging Trojan army is compared to a boulder propelled by a raging torrent. Here is how Lattimore renders it:

The Trojans came down on them in a pack, and Hektor led them
raging straight forward, like a great rolling stone from a rock face
that a river swollen with winter rain has wrenched from its socket
and with immense washing broken the hold of the unwilling rock face;
the springing boulder flies on, and the forest thunders beneath it…

I’m not sure about the “immense washing”, but I like the image of the “springing boulder” and of the forest “thundering” as the boulder crashes through.

Here is Fitzgerald:

Trojans massed and running
charged them now, with Hektor in the lead
in furious impetus, like a rolling boulder
a river high with storm has torn away
from a jutting bank by washing out what held it;
then the brute stone upon the flood
goes tossed and tumbling, and the brush gives way,
crashing before it.

I much prefer this shorter line, and I like also the alliteration of “tossed and tumbling” and the slightly oblique description of the river as “high with storm”.

Now Fagles:

Trojans pounded down on them!
Tight formations led by Hektor careening breakneck on
like a deadly rolling boulder torn from a rock face —
a river swollen with snow has wrenched it from its socket,
immense floods breaking the bank’s grip, and the reckless boulder
bounding high, flying with timber rumbling under it…

Exclamation mark! I think we get a strong sense of motion and drama in this version: “pounded down”, “breakneck”, “reckless”, “bounding”, “flying”. Too much of this could get exhausting, but it serves this particular simile quite well.

Lastly, Pope:

Thus breathing death, in terrible array,
The close compacted legions urged their way:
Fierce they drove on, impatient to destroy;
Troy charged the first, and Hector first of Troy.
As from some mountain’s craggy forehead torn,
A rock’s round fragment flies, with fury borne,
(Which from the stubborn stone a torrent rends,)
Precipitate the ponderous mass descends:
From steep to steep the rolling ruin bounds;
At every shock the crackling wood resounds.

The feeling is entirely different. I’m a sucker for rhyme, and I confess I find this translation congenial, though I can certainly see that it is least faithful from a metrical point of view. Still, it is fascinating to see how Pope is able to fit in all of the essential details, even if taking a few extra lines to do it.

**

Next let’s look at a death scene. In Book 14, the Trojan Ilioneus runs into the Greek Peneleus, and it doesn’t go well for him. Lattimore puts it this way:

This man Peneleos caught underneath the brow, at the bases
of the eye, and pushed the eyeball out, and the spear went clean through
the eye-socket and tendon of the neck, so that he went down
backward, reaching out both hands, but Peneleos drawing
his sharp sword hewed at the neck in the middle, and so dashed downward
the head, with helm upon it, while still on the point of the big spear
the eyeball stuck.

So Ilioneus’ head was first skewered, then severed, but the eyeball remained fixed firmly to the spear’s tip. Fitzgerald gives us a slightly different picture:

Peneleos drove his spearhead
into the eye-socket underneath the brow,
thrusting the eyeball out. The spearhead ran
straight through the socket and the skull behind,
and throwing out both hands he sat down backward.
Peneleos, drawing his long sword, chopped through
the nape and set the severed helmeted head
and trunk apart upon the field. The spear
remained in the eye-socket.

Where Lattimore had the head “dashed downward”, Fitzgerald has it more gently “set apart”. I notice also that for Fitzgerald the spear remains in the eye-socket, rather than directly in the eye-ball, which strikes me as more plausible. In any case, here is Fagles:

… the one Peneleous lanced beneath the brows,
down to the eyes’ roots and scooped an eyeball out —
the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape
and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide
as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword,
hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head
and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all.
But the big spear’s point still stuck in the eye-socket —

I like the “lanced” and “lopped” and “tumbled”, and I note with approval the spear-transfixed eye-socket again. Finally, Pope:

Full in the eye the weapon chanced to fall,
And from the fibres scoop’d the rooted ball,
Drove through the neck, and hurl’d him to the plain;
He lifts his miserable arms in vain!
Swift his broad falchion fierce Peneleus spread,
And from the sprouting shoulders struck his head;
To earth at once the head and helmet fly;
The lance, yet sticking through the bleeding eye,
The victor seized…

It is interesting that Fagles echoed Pope’s “scoop”, which seems an odd verb to describe a spear’s action. Again, I rather like this rendering, though I acknowledge that certain details, like the weapon that merely “chanced” to find its mark, or the “sprouting shoulders”, aren’t quite apt.

**

Lastly, let’s take a peek at Hector at home as he plays with his son, little Hectorides. This is from Book 6, and is one of the few passages in the poem not actively flexing its muscles. We’ll take the translators in the same order, beginning with Lattimore:

So speaking glorious Hektor held out his arms to his baby,
who shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse’s bosom
screaming, and frightened at the aspect of his own father,
terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse-hair,
nodding dreadfully, as he thought, from the peak of the helmet.
Then his beloved father laughed out, and his honored mother,
and at once glorious Hektor lifted from his head the helmet
and laid it in all its shining upon the ground.

The helmet in question, I guess, might have been something like this, and who would blame the child for being a little frightened at it? Next, Fitzgerald:

As he said this, Hektor held out his arms
to take the baby. But the child squirmed round
on the nurse’s bosom and began to wail,
terrified by his father’s great war helm —
the flashing bronze, the crest with horsehair plume
tossed like a living thing at every nod.
His father began laughing, and his mother
laughed as well. Then from his handsome head
Hektor lifted off his helm and bent
to place it, bright with sunlight, on the ground…

I like that “bright with sunlight”, and I find the verse, in this metre, has an appealing poise and stability. Now Fagles:

In the same breath, shining Hektor reached down
for his son — but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror —
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight…

I find this a little too intense: “recoiled”, “cringing”, “screaming”, “terrified”. Poor kid. But “fiery in the sunlight” is good. Finally, Pope:

Thus having spoke, the illustrious chief of Troy
Stretch’d his fond arms to clasp the lovely boy.
The babe clung crying to his nurse’s breast,
Scared at the dazzling helm, and nodding crest.
With secret pleasure each fond parent smiled,
And Hector hasted to relieve his child,
The glittering terrors from his brows unbound,
And placed the beaming helmet on the ground.

This is a model of brevity, while still capturing the details we find in the others. I would hazard a bet, also, that little Hectorides would prefer the rhymes.

*

In the end, my first choice among these translations is Fitzgerald’s. His metre is a good one for an epic in English, giving the verse a noble sense, and his version felt sturdy and steady. Lattimore I thought too spindly and diffuse, and Fagles felt too emotionally volatile after a while. My second favourite was actually Pope, despite the obvious deviations from Homer’s style; the rhymes provided a steady beat that kept me moving forward, and I actually felt that the going was easiest when reading his version.

It’s disappointing, of course, to struggle, again, to appreciate such a great poem. I’d like to have had a more substantial encounter this time out, but it was what it was. I expect to have a better time with the Odyssey, and I’m looking forward to it.

Yeats: Poems

October 11, 2022

Selected Poems and Four Plays
W.B. Yeats
Edited by M.L. Rosenthal (4th Ed.)
(Scribner, 1996)
xliv + 270 p.

For some years I’d been hoping to devote some time to the poetry of Yeats. I was familiar with really only a few of his poems: “Sailing to Byzantium”, “The Second Coming”, “Down by the Salley Gardens”, and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” pretty much exhausted my acquaintance, I believe. For some reason which I cannot now specify, but probably gleaned from references to him here and there, I hoped that I was going to discover in him a friend, a kindred spirit.

I regret to say that this has not happened. I’ve had a tough time with Yeats. True, my collection now has 30 or so pages folded down to mark poems that appealed to me — poems like the simple and direct “A Drinking Song”, the folk-like “To an Isle in the Water”, the humorous “Politics”, or the elegiac “The Four Ages of Man” and “To a Friend whose Work has Come to Nothing”, or, with some surprise, the religious lyric “The Mother of God” — but sadly these were the exceptions. I found Yeats thorny and cold-shouldered, by and large. Truth be told, I simply found a great many of these poems hard to understand. I felt I was reading the poems without an entry point, and they remained, very often, merely cryptic and elusive. I don’t know if this is a common experience with this poet, but it was mine.

This volume also includes four of Yeats’ plays, but I was dispirited and didn’t read them.

Hesiod: Theogony

October 3, 2022

Theogony
Works and Days
Hesiod
Translated from the Greek by C.S. Morrissey
(Talon, 2012) [c.700 BC]
xvii + 125 p.

Let us begin,
singing of the Muses of Helicon.
The great sacred mountain, Helicon,
belongs to them.
Around its deep-blue spring,
with gentle feet
they shall dance, worshipping
at the altar of Zeus, the mighty son of Cronus.
First they bathe their soft skin
in the stream Parnassus, or in the Hippocrene
(the Spring of the Horse) sprung by Pegasus’ hoof,
or in the sacred river Olmeius.
Then up on the peak of Helicon,
they put their feet into the dance.
They are beautiful.
With passion and grace, they move nimbly.

So begins Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem that stands close to the fountainhead of the Western literary tradition, serving as a relatively lightweight companion to Homer’s epics. The poem is a genealogy of the gods, setting forth an account of how the Greek pantheon came into being in the form that it did. More specifically, we might be able to argue that the poem’s central story concerns how Zeus came to power, and how he defended that power against challenges from other gods.

Zeus himself doesn’t stand at the fountainhead. He’s a third generation god. One of the intriguing, and perplexing, aspects of the poem is the way in which, from relatively simple beginnings — just earth (Gaia) and sky (Uranus) — the universe is quickly overrun with a bewildering welter of gods and monsters. It is Zeus who, by his cunning and power — and by his thunderbolts — imposes some semblance of order atop Mount Olympus, though of course this order is only relative, for even Zeus is a famous meddler whose actions sow disorder in realms both divine and human.

For me, the poem raised a host of questions to which I don’t have particularly solid answers. What does this story, or series of stories, tell us about Greek religion? Did they believe these stories to be true? In what sense? Was Hesiod creating or only curating these stories? Was this an attempt at abstract philosophical theology, or a quasi-political attempt to unite disparate peoples by weaving together regional religious traditions?

This edition of the poem includes, as afterward, an excerpt from the writings of Eric Voegelin in which he argues that Theogony is an early attempt to inject speculative reason into the realm of mythology, to discern order in the loose tradition of stories about divinity that circulated in Hesiod’s culture. That may be.

Reading these stories as a Christian, certain features stand out. We have our own story of the origin of all things, and it is, in comparison to what we find in Hesiod, breathtakingly simple. Both Jews and Christians have, over the centuries, pored over the text, often finding significance in the details. We might be tempted to draw general conclusions about Greek theology from the fact that, for instance, the gods act unjustly, but it is hard to know what significance could be ascribed to a particular pair of divinities having, say, 6000 children. A poem like Theogony would resist that kind of close attention, it seems to me. And although the Greeks honoured Hesiod and his poem, it never occupied a position in Greek culture analogous to that of the Pentateuch in Judeo-Christian cultures.

In the end, I mostly enjoyed reading Theogony, or at least was able to enjoy the idea of reading it, even if I did not find it particularly engrossing.

***

Works and Days is a less ambitious, more various poem — so various, in fact, that some argue that it ought to be Works and Days, two separate poems, perhaps by two separate poets. However that may be, it does fall into two parts. The first, Works, continues, or reiterates, some of the theological and mythological content of the Theogony, though in a more casual register. The famous story of Pandora appears in a more elaborated form than in the Theogony, being offered as an account of why mankind must live with evils. Hesiod also gives us a brief chronology of the world in Five Ages, beginning with a Golden Age and declining by degrees to his own time. The world was better in the past.

Alongside the mythological material is down-to-earth advice about the importance of hard work and good character to a man’s success in life, and practical guidance about the tasks that need doing on a farm at different times of the year, the hazards of sailing, and how best to honour the gods in one’s everyday life.

This practical streak continues in Days. The poet offers counsel about which days of the week, or the month, or the year, are good for various activities.

Few people know that
the twenty-seventh day of the month is the best
for opening up a wine jar. It’s also the best
for putting the yoke on the necks of
oxen and mules
and swift-footed horses.
It is also the best for launching
a swift and many-oared ship
into the wine-dark sea.
Indeed, few people name things truly.

Naturally, it is hard to remember all of the specifics, but it is a comfort to know that when I should be in need of guidance about when to plant or plow, or deliver a child, or geld a boar, or cut timbers, I will be able to look up the best practices.

***

I have read the poems in a relatively recent translation by C.S. Morrissey. I can’t remember why I chose this edition; perhaps it was because the introduction, all too brief, was written by Roger Scruton. I’m glad I chose a verse translation, though had I thought to shop around beforehand I might have preferred the one by Richmond Lattimore, a renowned translator of the Greek classics whose versions of Homer I will be reading next. In any case, Morrissey’s translation read well, even if I sometimes wished he’d salted it with fewer carriage returns, so as to preserve more clearly the shape of the hexametric line.

Considered simply in themselves, I appreciated these poems, maybe chiefly on account of their antiquity and the influential place they have in our literary tradition. Considered as a launching event in my reading project in Greek history and literature, I might have wished for something more glorious and enthralling. However, they are what they are, and nothing can dissuade us from proceeding to Homer.

On Another’s Sorrow

June 27, 2022

William Blake’s poem “On Another’s Sorrow” is the last in his Songs of Innocence. It’s a long-time favourite of mine, and lately, because when I’ve not been comforting crying youngsters I’ve been nursing a baby bird back to health, it has been coming to mind frequently. I took some time to explore musical settings of the poem, and today I’d like to share a few.

First, let’s look at the poem briefly.

On Another’s Sorrow

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear —

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled an gone
He doth sit by us and moan.

It falls into three sections, each of three stanzas. In the first we have the picture of the parents attending their child; in the second, the scene widens to consider God’s care of the world; and in the third, an affirmation of God’s solicitude toward those who suffer. The poem uses repetition very effectively: the prevalence of “can” questions in the first stanzas, the repetition of “hear” in the second section, and of “He” in the third. There are a variety of parallelisms that make the whole thing hold together really well. I can testify that when once memorized it rolls off the tongue easily.

*

Now let’s turn to some musical settings.

I think I first heard Greg Brown’s setting at least 25 years ago. His 1986 record, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, was the means by which I had my first introduction to Blake’s poetry, and I’m particularly fond of the music for this poem. (I add parenthetically that this record, though little-known, is a treasure, and highly recommended to everyone.) Brown captures the building momentum of the short lines very well. It goes like this:

Isn’t that wonderful?

*

The other folksy setting I found — that I liked — is by a group calling themselves simply Blake. This is the only song I’ve been able to find from them, so how and why this song came about is a bit of a mystery. But it is an effective setting of the poem, capturing the sorrow better than Brown’s setting does, and featuring some lovely harmonizations.

*

There have been quite a number of “high art” settings of the poem too. I think there’s a tension between the home-spun simplicity of the poetry and the trappings of high art, but let’s take a look at some attempts to join the two.

John Sykes was an Englishman (d.1962) who taught music and composed where and when he could; almost all of his music, including a substantial number of William Blake settings, was unpublished at his death and has only slowly found its way onto recordings. This setting of “On Another’s Sorrow”, for soprano and piano, is quite lovely. There’s nothing overly complicated about it — although the pianist cannot be a slouch! — and the musical structure respects the structure of the poem. I like this very much:

*

If that is a fairly minimal arrangement — just voice and piano — then at the opposite end of the spectrum, at the maximalist extreme, we find William Bolcom’s setting. Bolcom is an American composer who has produced a big body of often very interesting music, and his gigantic Songs of Innocence and of Experience is no exception. At about 2-1/12 hours in length, it’s big, bold, and brash, drawing on all manner of music traditions: big band, jazz, classical, even rock, and he gives it to a big orchestra and choir and a horde of soloists.

The setting of “On Another’s Sorrow” is only about 2 minutes long, but it captures the Bolcomian excess well enough. The herky-jerky rhythms are bizarre and the tune is maybe a little hard to remember. I don’t much like it, but it at least has the virtue of having character. Here we go!

*

But the best choral setting I found was by an American composer named Shawn Kirchner.  He captures the rhythms of the poem extremely well, and the choral writing is unfailingly lovely. It is been recently recorded by LA Choral Lab. (I can’t find it on YouTube, but I can embed this link to Spotify. If you have a Spotify account you’ll be able to hear the whole thing; if not, only 30 seconds, which is too bad.)

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)

Martial and Juvenal

January 7, 2022

Epigrams
Martial
Translated from the Latin by James Michie
(Penguin Classics, 1973) [c.70-100]
205 p.

Martial in English
Edited by J.P. Sullivan and A.J. Boyle
(Penguin Classics, 1996)
436 p.

Satires
Juvenal
Translated from the Latin by Niall Rudd
(World’s Classics, 1991) [c.110-150]
xl + 249 p.

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. My track record with Roman poets — Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, Statius, and Lucan — has been pretty good; I’ve enjoyed, and often greatly enjoyed, reading them. But nothing is perfect in this vale of tears, and though I had been looking forward with anticipation to both Martial and Juvenal — both entirely terra incognita for me — my hopes have been dashed. They are not, of course, wholly bad, but my experience has been, on the whole, one to evoke tears from the tenderhearted.

Martial, the great epigrammatist, the chronicler of the Roman streets, the man in the corner with the choice barb and the pithy appraisal, was, in my untutored imagination, to play a role in the annals of Roman poetry roughly similar, at least in some respects, to the place of the impressionists in the galleries of Western painting: his was a great relaxation from epic themes to simpler and more quotidian pleasures. And, in a certain sense, I was right, for his poems are simpler and more quotidian: portraits of characters, expressions of emotion, witty observations of human folly, and so forth, and few of the poems are longer than twenty lines — some are as brief as two. He is considerably more relaxed than Virgil or Statius, no doubt.

Munera qui tibi dat locupleti, Gaure, senique,
si sapis et sentis, hoc tibi ait ‘Morere’.

If you were wise as well as rich and sickly,
You’d see that every gift means, ‘Please die quickly.’

That’s pretty good, right? Brief but brutal. And there are others like it:

Nubere Paula cupit nobis, ego ducere Paulam
nolo: anus est. Vellem, si magis esset anus.

She longs for me to ‘have and hold’ her
In marriage. I’ve no mind to.
She’s old. If she were even older,
I might be half-inclined to.

That’s Miche’s translation in his volume. The Martial in English volume contains a translation of the same poem, by Peter Whigham, that is even better:

Paula would wed: I pray to be exempted.
She’s old. Were she but older, I’d be tempted.

That beautiful concision comes close, perhaps, to the deftness of the original, and its charms are undeniable.

But often, I confess, I found Martial merely coarse, merely petty, or merely dull. The ‘everydayness’ of the poems, their lack of pretense and ambition, wore on me after a while. I found myself responding to many of these poems with a casual “Meh” before they disappeared without a trace. I began to wonder why I was bothering.

When I turned from Michie’s translations, however, to the larger Penguin volume, I discovered new life. This volume is quite a marvel, actually: it is a collection of Martial’s epigrams done into English by dozens of poets over the past five centuries. Not only is it a superb education in a particular strand of our poetic tradition, but it allowed me to abstract from the substance — or lack of substance — of Martial’s poems themselves in order to indulge in comparisons of translations, which yields a certain pleasure all its own.

For instance, here is an epigram (3.43) that Michie renders as follows:

You’ve dyed your hair to mimic youth,
Laetinus. Not so long ago
You were a swan; now you’re a crow.
You can’t fool everyone. One day
Prosperpina, who knows the truth,
Will rip that actor’s wig away.

This was a “Meh” poem for me. But then look what Joseph Addison did with it:

Why should’st thou try to hide thy self in youth?
Impartial Proserpine beholds the truth,
And laughing at so fond and vain a task,
Will strip thy hoary noddle of its mask.

That bites much more fiercely than Michie’s did — and I confess an incapacity to disdain any poem that says “hoary noddle”. But then I found that a twentieth-century Welsh poet named Olive Pitt-Kethley has also translated this poem, and in this way:

You were a swan, you’re now a crow.
Laetinus, why deceive us so,
With borrowed plumage trying?
The Queen of Shades will surely know
When she strips off your mask below —
In Death there’s no more dyeing.

Yes! We get the contrast of the swan and crow, which Addison missed, and a rhyme that is more complex than Addison’s and more regular than Michie’s, and, to top all, it concludes with a triumphant pun, the highest form of humour. I love it.

There’s a fair bit of that kind of amusement in the Martial in English collection, and I would readily recommend it to anyone with an interest in Martial. Arranged chronologically, it includes poems by Donne, Jonson, Crashaw, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Coleridge, Stevenson, and Pound, along with a great crowd of less well-known names. If there was one poet in the collection who most impressed me, it was Stevenson, whose poetry I am otherwise innocent of. Here is an example: his translation of epigram 5.34, about the death of a young girl named Erotion.

Mother and sire, to you do I commend
Tiny Erotion, who must now descend,
A child, among the shadows, and appear
Before hell’s bandog and hell’s gondolier.
Of six hoar winters she had felt the cold,
But lacked six days of being six years old.
Now she must come, all playful, to that place
Where the great ancients sit with reverend face;
Now lisping, as she used, of whence she came,
Perchance she names and stumbles at my name.
O’er these so fragile bones, let there be laid
A plaything for a turf; and for that maid
That ran so lightly footed in her mirth
Upon thy breast—lie lightly, mother earth!

That, I think, is really touching, and is a good example of what I found most appealing in this sojourn with Martial and his interpreters.

*

Though, as I said, I was generally disappointed with Martial, I did find enough to enjoy to fill out the space above. Alas, I’ve less to say for Juvenal. His sixteen Satires, written in the first half of the second century AD, are, in a sense, kin to Martial’s epigrams. They are witty sallies against the excesses and follies of the Roman people of his day. Unlike Martial, Juvenal is a moralist, and a rather steely one, but the poetry didn’t suffer on that account. I simply found them wordy, over-long, shapeless, and dull. I suppose it is obligatory to mention that the English phrases “a healthy mind in a healthy body” and “bread and circuses” come from these poems, but beyond those canonical examples I found nothing noteworthy to latch onto, and I read through the entire collection without marking a single passage. Sad, but true.

*

Unless there is a surprise lying in wait, I believe this is the last poetry stop on my tour of Roman literature. An anti-climax, then, but it cannot be helped, and the journey has, on the whole, been an excellent one.