Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

September 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

Pearl

August 11, 2018

Pearl
Anonymous
Translated from Middle English by Simon Armitage
(Faber and Faber, 2016) [c.1350]
xviii + 103 p.

It is a wonderful poem: intimate and affecting, and, at the same time, showcasing the most dazzling virtuosity.

It tells the story of a man who has lost his spotless pearl — whom, we soon learn, was his daughter, who died when just two years old. He, in sorrow, falls asleep and, in that sleep, dreams that he sees her, now grown, from across an impassable river. They talk; she comforts and corrects him, teaching him about the soul’s journey beyond this life, and about the heavenly kingdom in which she now dwells. He, eventually overcome at his longing to be with her again, dashes into the river, whereupon he awakens.

It is a heart-breaking poem. His sorrow and his longing are so vividly conveyed. I felt it before I was a father myself; I feel it more now. It is a consoling poem too. The counsel his dream-daughter offers him is not sentimental; it is, as it were, doctrine clear and solid as a pearl. It is an encouraging poem, building to a glorious vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, the abode of the blessed, with twelve gates of pearl. And then that vision, in an instant, dissipates, taken from him by his own wilfulness.

The poem has the elegant and intricate structure of a Bach fugue. Let me try to describe it.

There are 101 stanzas, each of 12 lines, for a total length of 1212 lines — a thematically important number, for the heavenly Jerusalem to which the poem aspires is itself suffused with the number 12. Each stanza follows a strict rhyme scheme.

In addition to the rhymes, each line also follows the alliterative stress patterns of Old English poetry, with three or four stressed, alliterative syllables. Thus we have poetry at the level of each line, with lines linked together by rhyme into stanzas.

But the stanzas too are linked, grouped into sets of 5, with each group having a keyword which appears in the first and last lines of each stanza. And the groups of stanzas are also linked, for the first line of the first stanza in each group links to the keyword of the previous set of stanzas. In this way the groups of stanzas are threaded together to create a kind of poetic daisy chain.

Let me illustrate this daisy chaining with an example from Simon Armitage’s translation. The first set of 5 stanzas uses the keyword “spot”. Thus the first and last lines of the first few stanzas are:

[1] Beautiful pearl that would please a prince
[…]
for that priceless pearl without a spot.

[2] And in that spot where it sprang from me
[…]
my precious pearl without a spot.

[3] Spices must thrive and spread in that spot
[…]
from that precious pearl without a spot.

This continues until stanza 6, which introduces the second group. The first line continues with the keyword of the first group, but the last line gives us the new keyword: “ornament”.

[6] Suddenly my spirit rose from that spot
[…]
weave cloth so exquisite in ornament.

[7] Ornamenting the hills to every side
[…]
outshone by opulent ornament.

And so on. When we reach the last group of stanzas in the poem, we discover that their keyword is “pleasing/pleasure”:

[100] Had I put His pleasure before my own
[…]
or propose to spoil a Prince’s pleasure.

[101] To please the Prince and join Him in peace
[…]
and beautiful pearls, pleasing to him. Amen. Amen.

Casting an eye back up at stanza 1, we see that the first line echoes this same keyword, thereby giving the poem as a whole a circular shape, like a pearl. It is, truly, a most beautifully crafted poem.

I have read other translations, and I have also struggled myself through the Middle English original — which, being written in a dialect spoken outside London, is considerably more challenging for modern readers than, say, Chaucer’s poetry. To my knowledge no translator has been able to retain all of the poetic structure of the original, and Armitage is no exception. He chooses to retain the alliterative stresses and the stanzaic patterns, but to forego the rhyme scheme. He gets the small scale structure and the large, but misses the middle. Thus an example stanza reads as follows:

‘Courteous Queen,’ said that lovely creature,
kneeling on the floor, raising her face,
‘Matchless mother and fairest maiden,
fount from which grace and goodness flows.’
Then from her prayers she stood and paused
and in that place she spoke these words:
‘Sir, many seek grace and are granted it here,
but in this domain there are no usurpers.
All heaven belongs to that holy empress,
and earth and hell are within her dominion.
No one will oust her from her high office
for she is the queen of courtesy.

The keyword here is “courtesy”. You can hear the alliteration. The alliterated sound is usually on stressed syllables, which teaches us to how to read the lines. For example, in the penultimate line we alliterate on ‘h’, stressing ‘her’, ‘her’, and ‘high’, which underlines, I think, the dignity and majesty of Our Lady.

This poem is preserved for us in a single manuscript — Cotton Nero A.x. Incredibly, these original pages, complete with illustrations, can be viewed online.

In the end I enjoyed this rendering of the poem, as I enjoyed also Armitage’s version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is handsomely presented by Faber and Faber, with a single stanza on each page, in a sturdy hardback. Recommended.

Catullus: Poems

April 13, 2018

Poems
Gaius Valerius Catullus
(Modern Library, 1949) [c.60 BC]

Catullus, although he lived in the first century BC, when the Roman Republic was already convulsing in its death throes, is nonetheless considered one of the early Roman poets. At least, in my chronologically-arranged edition of The Latin Poets he comes first, so there can’t have been many distinguished poets before him. His poems are apparently influenced by Greek models; things Greek had been considered exemplary by Romans for several centuries already.

Startling to me is the discovery that Catullus’ poetry survived into the present — what part did survive, at least — in a single manuscript. We have a bit more than 100 poems; my edition includes roughly 50 of them, and these 50 exhaust my familiarity with his work.

Based on this evidence, Catullus was a pleasingly personal poet. He did not write epic after a Homeric model (though he did, at least sometimes, use Homeric metre). My favourite of his poems are about his mistress. It seems he and Lesbia had a rocky relationship, for although there are poems expressing love and devotion, there are also ones like this:

My mistress says, there’s not a man
Of all the many that she knows,
She’d rather wed than me, not one,
Though Jove himself were to propose.

She says so; — but what woman says
To him who fancies he has caught her,
‘Tis only fit it should be writ
In air or in the running water.
(trans: Theodore Martin)

Or this one, translated by our very own Jonathan Swift:

Lesbia for ever on me rails;
To talk on me she never fails:
Yet, hang me, but for all her Art;
I find that I have gain’d her Heart:
My proof is thus: I plainly see
The Case is just the same with me:
I curse her ev’ry hour sincerely;
Yet, hang me, but I love her dearly.

I have no idea how closely this verse adheres to the original or form or metre, or even tone, but I like the bleak humour of it.

Alas, the affair with Lesbia did not turn out well. Note how the conventional poetic flourishes of the first few stanzas are transmuted in the fourth to a cold, hard stare:

Dear comrades who with me would go
Should I to distant India roam,
Where Eastern shores are buffeted
By ocean’s foam.

Parthians, Hyrcani, Arabs mild,
And Sacae you would face with me
And that swart race whose sevenfold Nile
Colours the sea.

Or cross the towering Alps to find
The Britons whom no man could tame,
And Gallic Rhine, memorials now
Of Caesar’s fame.

Prepared are you alike to share
In all that shall be sent by Fate;
So bear a message to my girl,
These words of hate.

Bid her farewell and let her keep
The legion of her paramours
And careless break their strength, to fill
Her idle hours.

Nor think at all of my poor love
Which by her sin lies all forlorn
Like the field blossoms that a plough
Has passed and torn.
(trans: F.A. Wright)

There are also a number of poems about his brother, but they are sad poems, for his brother died. Here is a good example:

By ways remote and distant waters sped,
Brother, to thy sad grave-side am I come,
And vainly parley with thine ashes dumb:
Since she who now bestows and now denies
Hath ta’en thee, hapless brother, from mine eyes.
But lo! these gifts, the heirlooms of past years,
Take them, all drenched with a brother’s tears,
And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell!

I wonder who it is that “now bestows and now denies”; it seems a reference to death itself, but was it common for Romans to give death a feminine character? Perhaps it is a reference to one of the goddesses, and I am simply not catching it. Notice that paradoxical “hail and farewell” in the final line; this is the phrase ave atque vale, which this poem has bequeathed us.

Catullus also worked on a larger scale. “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis” is a kind of mini-epic, obviously on a mythological theme and carrying a suitable grand style. Some consider it his masterpiece, though personally I cannot claim to have cared much for it. Another long poem, “The Lock of Berenice”, seems to be treating its subject in a mock heroic style, rather like Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, but it could be that I’m misinterpreting the translated tone.

My own favourite of the longer poems in this volume is “Epithalamium”, a poem celebrating a marriage. It has sometimes been said that in the wake of the sexual revolution our culture has become more “pagan” in sexual matters, but this is a slander on the pagans. No devotee of our reigning sexual orthodoxies could write a poem like this:

And now, ye gates, your wings unfold!
The virgin draweth nigh. Behold
The torches, how upon the air
They shake abroad their gleaming hair!
Come, bride, come forth! no more delay!
The day is hurrying fast away!

Let him first compute the grains
Of the sand on Egypt’s plains,
Or the stars that gem the nights,
Who would count the rare delights,
Which thy spousals yet shall bless,
Joys in number numberless!

Now disport, and stint ye not!
Children be anon begot.
‘Tis not meet so old a stem
Should be left ungraced by them,
To transmit its fame unshorn
Down through ages yet unborn.
(trans: Theodore Martin)

Add another 30 or 40 stanzas in the same spirit and you have a truly splendid celebration of marriage and marital love.

Having come to the end of the poems in this anthology, I’m rather keen to read more of Catullus, and am debating whether I should buy a volume devoted entirely to him. But on the other hand, the next poet in the anthology is Lucretius, whom I’m also keen to read. Decisions, decisions…

Serraillier: Robin and his Merry Men

July 24, 2017

Robin and his Merry Men
Ian Serraillier
(Oxford, 1969)
60 p.

I came to this book almost wholly ignorant of the Robin Hood stories, my main exposure until now having been pretty much limited to that old animated film. I usually have thought of these stories as the poor English cousins to the (originally French) tales about Arthur and the Round Table. Even if true — and I don’t know if it is true — it can, naturally, still be enjoyable to spend time with one’s poor cousins from time to time.

This book relates a set of stories, tied together by an overall arc, about Robin Hood’s dealings with Sir Richard of Lee, a woebegone knight whom Robin helps at a crucial juncture, an act of generosity which Sir Richard is, eventually, able to reciprocate.

Serraillier, to his credit and my delight, tells the story in verse. If you believe (as I fondly do) that tales of Robin Hood ought rightly to be told in song, around a fire, and under a greenwood, then this will satisfy, for it is admirably suited to the purpose. In a series of abcb quatrains (with occasional sallies at sestets), beginning with

Come, gather round and listen awhile
To a tale of the good greenwood
And a courteous yeoman, a brave outlaw
Whose name was Robin Hood.

and bounding, through field and forest, to the concluding

Meanwhile in the musty cheerless court
King Edward’s hopes grew chill.
He waited, waited … And for all I know,
He may be waiting still.

it works splendidly. The poetry is simpler than other examples of Serraillier’s verse that I’ve enjoyed, and I read sections of it, with only occasional difficulties, to my older kids (5yo and 7yo, at the time). The words are complemented by a set of illustrations; while fine, they did not particularly appeal to me.

The bad guys in the poem are the Sheriff of Nottingham (naturally) and the rich, including the bishops, archbishops, and abbots. This aspect took some explaining to the kids, who didn’t understand why a bishop should be behaving so badly, and why Robin Hood, with all the courtesy in the world, should be trying to take his money. This, combined with the forthright piety of the poem — for Robin is devoted to Our Lady, and his men express a sturdy reverence for Our Lord — took some time to untangle. But if those complications can be overcome this is a book easy to recommend. I believe it is presently out of print, but it was not too difficult to track down a reasonably priced second-hand copy.

If anyone knows of a particularly good source for further tales of Robin Hood and would like to recommend it, please do so!

Serraillier: The Ballad of St Simeon

February 23, 2017

Ian Serraillier
Illustrated by Simon Stern
(F. Watts, 1970)
28 p.

The subject of this poem is St Simeon Stylites, who, because “his ways were lonely and he loved God”, leaves ordinary life behind and, of all things, lives atop a pole for most of his life. He suffers exposure to the elements, and the jeers of those below, but he offers counsel to humble souls as well, and when a fearsome dragon threatens the city it is St Simeon whose prayers save the day.

In this large-format edition the poem is illustrated by Simon Stern. The drawings are charming and a bit amateurish, and clearly pitched at young children. Not so the poem itself, I dare say, which seems to me addressed to fairly accomplished readers:

Years Simeon stood, sat, slept
on his pole, communed with God and wept
for the sin-smudged city. Some, not many,
brought him their troubles and he offered
prayers for them but could do no miracle.
How he suffered!
The seasons steam-rollered him. In summer
the flaming sun made him boil
and the pole pain bubble and pop, and
when winter was a turmoil
of flying icicles, in spite of his mother-knitted clothes,
his goose skin hugged his skeleton. So cold was it
that chilblains marbled and the people’s oaths
froze on the air (thawing out in Spring
with a bang).

There are rhymes here, both at line ends and internally, but the rhythm is irregular and a bit tricky, and the poem doesn’t condescend. Somewhat to my surprise, therefore, my 5 year-old son loves it, and has had me read it to him numerous times over the past few weeks. Does that mean I’ve succeeded in finding its music?

As far as the subject matter goes, it’s a good story, and it is well told. Sometimes modern authors treating saints’ lives are tempted to skirt the religious elements, especially when there’s something as distracting as a dragon in the tale, but Serraillier doesn’t do this, and in fact the poem contains Biblical allusions that will render it partly unintelligible to readers without a decent religious formation. A similarly demanding poem, and a poem demanding in a similar way, would probably not be published today in this format. Let us raise a glass, once again, to oldish books.

Scorn not the least

February 21, 2017

Today is the anniversary of the death of St Robert Southwell, poet, priest, and martyr.

SCORN NOT THE LEAST.

WHERE wards are weak and foes encount’ring strong,
Where mightier do assault than do defend,
The feebler part puts up enforcèd wrong,
And silent sees that speech could not amend.
Yet higher powers must think, though they repine,
When sun is set, the little stars will shine.

While pike doth range the seely tench doth fly,
And crouch in privy creeks with smaller fish ;
Yet pikes are caught when little fish go by,
These fleet afloat while those do fill the dish.
There is a time even for the worm to creep,
And suck the dew while all her foes do sleep.

The merlin cannot ever soar on high,
Nor greedy greyhound still pursue the chase ;
The tender lark will find a time to fly,
And fearful hare to run a quiet race :
He that high growth on cedars did bestow,
Gave also lowly mushrumps leave to grow.

In Aman’s pomp poor Mardocheus wept,
Yet God did turn his fate upon his foe ;
The lazar pined while Dives’ feast was kept,
Yet he to heaven, to Hell did Dives go.
We trample grass, and prize the flowers of May,
Yet grass is green when flowers do fade away.

This poem introduced me to the word “mushrump”, for which I am grateful. Southwell was a contemporary of Shakespeare and Donne, and, by my reckoning, is the second greatest Jesuit poet. He was executed under Elizabeth I on 21 February 1595, for the crime of treason (viz. for being a priest on English soil). Read more about him here.

St Robert Southwell, pray for us.

Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

January 26, 2017

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
George Gordon Lord Byron
(Oxford, 2008) [1812-18]
188 p.

She walks in beauty, like the night, and my ignorance of the life and poetry of Lord Byron is rather like the night too: dark and comprehensive. Nonetheless I took up this long poem with considerable interest. I’d come across excerpts from it here and there in my readings about Rome, and I thought I’d take a closer look to see what else, if anything, the poem has to say about the Eternal City.

That’s a narrow keyhole through which to approach a fairly wide-ranging poem, which recounts the travels of one Harold, a young and dissolute Englishman, as he rambles across the European continent. He lands first in Spain, makes his way east, stopping in Albania, and Greece, and eventually comes to Italy, where he visits, among other cities, Venice, Florence, and, yes, Rome.

The poem is allegedly based on Byron’s own European travels, which he undertook in the years 1809-11.

Harold is melancholy, undisciplined, and a rake:

Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
(1, II)

In other words, we have here a Byronic hero, such as he is, and the poem, which was the first to bring Byron wide fame, is a notable example of English Romanticism in full flower. (Note that it was published just a few decades after the famous volume by which Wordsworth and Coleridge are said to have inaugurated Romanticism in England.) We find, for instance, the characteristic Romantic sense of the sublimity of Nature:

All heaven and earth are still—though not in sleep,
But breathless, as we grow when feeling most;
And silent, as we stand in thoughts too deep: —
All heaven and earth are still: from the high host
Of stars, to the lulled lake and mountain-coast,
All is concentered in a life intense,
Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost,
But hath a part of being, and a sense
Of that which is of all Creator and defence.
(3, LXXXIX)

I was surprised to find that the anti-hero of the poem, whose brooding self-consciousness and jaundiced eye are supposed to seduce and repel us at once, was not so brooding, and especially not so jaundiced, as I had expected. When he comes to Greece, for instance, he is overwhelmed by the solemnity and glory of what once was, and says:

Where’er we tread, ’tis haunted, holy ground;
No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,
But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,
And all the Muse’s tales seem truly told,
Till the sense aches with gazing to behold
The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon:
Each hill and dale, each deepening glen and wold,
Defies the power which crushed thy temples gone:
Age shakes Athena’s tower, but spares gray Marathon.
(2, LXXXVIII)

and then cries out with sincere admiration:

Yet to the remnants of thy splendour past
Shall pilgrims, pensive, but unwearied, throng:
Long shall the voyager, with th’ Ionian blast,
Hail the bright clime of battle and of song;
Long shall thine annals and immortal tongue
Fill with thy fame the youth of many a shore:
Boast of the aged! lesson of the young!
Which sages venerate and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore.
(2, XCI)

One has the distinct impression that Harold counts himself among the youth filled with Greece’s fame, himself a pensive pilgrim honouring the remnants of its splendid past.

In fact throughout the poem Harold shows a real desire to admire the great monuments, and to commune with the great tradition on which he has been nurtured. He is no mere tourist, no cynic in such matters. In comparison to twenty-somethings whom I have known, he comes across as positively effusive in his earnest praise:

Italia! too, Italia! looking on thee
Full flashes on the soul the light of ages,
Since the fierce Carthaginian almost won thee,
To the last halo of the chiefs and sages
Who glorify thy consecrated pages;
Thou wert the throne and grave of empires; still,
The fount at which the panting mind assuages
Her thirst of knowledge, quaffing there her fill,
Flows from the eternal source of Rome’s imperial hill.
(3, CX)

I hear in such verse more humility and sincerity than ironic sophistication. I may even say that I found in Harold, at least at such moments, an echo of my own feelings towards the European past, which is my cultural inheritance, and which I have laboured, here and elsewhere, to appropriate. This has been rather gratifying, not only inasmuch as Harold provides me with an eloquent — an, if anything, too eloquent — expression of my own feelings, but also inasmuch as it allows me to imagine myself a Byronic hero, a wholly unlooked-for denouement!

***

As to Harold’s sojourn in Rome, it was indeed the highlight of the poem for me (“O Rome! my country! city of the soul!”), and I cannot resist quoting some of my favourite stanzas. There may be no better image of the spirit of Romanticism than that of Byron — sorry, I meant Harold — standing in the moonlight gazing at the ruins of the Colosseum:

But when the rising moon begins to climb
Its topmost arch, and gently pauses there;
When the stars twinkle through the loops of time,
And the low night-breeze waves along the air,
The garland-forest, which the grey walls wear,
Like laurels on the bald first Caesar’s head;
When the light shines serene, but doth not glare,
Then in this magic circle raise the dead:
Heroes have trod this spot—’tis on their dust ye tread.
(4, CXLIV)

Here he wanders a bit north, into the warren of cobble-stoned streets of Old Rome, emerging into the piazza before the Pantheon:

Simple, erect, severe, austere, sublime—
Shrine of all saints and temple of all gods,
From Jove to Jesus—spared and blest by time;
Looking tranquillity, while falls or nods
Arch, empire, each thing round thee, and man plods
His way through thorns to ashes—glorious dome!
Shalt thou not last?—Time’s scythe and tyrants’ rods
Shiver upon thee—sanctuary and home
Of art and piety—Pantheon!—pride of Rome!

Relic of nobler days, and noblest arts!
Despoiled yet perfect, with thy circle spreads
A holiness appealing to all hearts—
To art a model; and to him who treads
Rome for the sake of ages, Glory sheds
Her light through thy sole aperture; to those
Who worship, here are altars for their beads;
And they who feel for genius may repose
Their eyes on honoured forms, whose busts around them close.
(4, CXLVI-CXLVII)

Does your heart beat high? Do you feel nobler, even taller? Later he goes across the Tiber to St. Peter’s. Earlier in the poem he had let drop the casual anti-Catholic sentiments of an ordinary Englishman:

But here the Babylonian whore had built
A dome, where flaunts she in such glorious sheen,
That men forget the blood which she hath spilt,
And bow the knee to Pomp that loves to garnish guilt.
(1, XXIX)

but confronted with the glory of San Pietro he seems to forget himself:

But thou, of temples old, or altars new,
Standest alone—with nothing like to thee—
Worthiest of God, the holy and the true,
Since Zion’s desolation, when that he
Forsook his former city, what could be,
Of earthly structures, in his honour piled,
Of a sublimer aspect? Majesty,
Power, Glory, Strength, and Beauty, all are aisled
In this eternal ark of worship undefiled.
(4, CLIV)

As he ponders it, walking beneath its sublime canopy, he senses the challenge it poses to his own soul, and he struggles to rise to it:

Not by its fault—but thine: Our outward sense
Is but of gradual grasp—and as it is
That what we have of feeling most intense
Outstrips our faint expression; e’en so this
Outshining and o’erwhelming edifice
Fools our fond gaze, and greatest of the great
Defies at first our nature’s littleness,
Till, growing with its growth, we thus dilate
Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.
(4, CLVIII)

Who among us, confronted by a great work of art, has not experienced, or at least wanted to experience, such a thing? Even granting that an aesthetic experience is not the highest experience one might hope to have in a holy site, it’s nothing to sneer at.

I suppose I risk giving a lopsided view of the poem. It’s not all Rome, not all Italy. He doesn’t like Spain so much. And much of the poem is brooding, especially on the personal wreckage he left behind in England. But I came to the poem with something particular in mind, and I departed well-satisfied.

**

A word about the technical aspects of the poem. As is evident from the sections I’ve quoted, it is composed in Spenserian stanzas: ababbcbcc in iambic metre. It is a long poem, with nearly 500 such stanzas, split into four cantos of uneven length, and a few interpolations of verse in other metres and rhyme schemes. The poetry is astoundingly accomplished, technically. I haven’t actually tried it, but I imagine I’d have a horrendous time trying to produce even one such stanza of non-doggeral verse. To have the facility to write stanza after stanza, expressing and developing thought along the way, is a remarkable gift.

***

For my own benefit, I here append some other of the stanzas I appreciated most:

[Lament over Greece]
When riseth Lacedaemon’s hardihood,
When Thebes Epaminondas rears again,
When Athens’ children are with hearts endued,
When Grecian mothers shall give birth to men,
Then mayst thou be restored; but not till then.
A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shattered splendour renovate,
Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate?
(2, LXXXIV)

[The natural beauty of Greece]
Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild:
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olives ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honeyed wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli’s marbles glare;
Art, Glory, Freedom fail, but Nature still is fair.
(2,LXXXVII)

[Rome and Italy]
The commonwealth of kings, the men of Rome!
And even since, and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.
(4, XXVI)

[Praise of Tasso]
Peace to Torquato’s injured shade! ’twas his
In life and death to be the mark where Wrong
Aimed with their poisoned arrows—but to miss.
Oh, victor unsurpassed in modern song!
Each year brings forth its millions; but how long
The tide of generations shall roll on,
And not the whole combined and countless throng
Compose a mind like thine? Though all in one
Condensed their scattered rays, they would not form a sun.
(4, XXXIX)

[Laocoon]
Or, turning to the Vatican, go see
Laocoon’s torture dignifying pain—
A father’s love and mortal’s agony
With an immortal’s patience blending:—Vain
The struggle; vain, against the coiling strain
And gripe, and deepening of the dragon’s grasp,
The old man’s clench; the long envenomed chain
Rivets the living links,—the enormous asp
Enforces pang on pang, and stifles gasp on gasp.
(4, CLX)

Das Nibelungenlied

September 13, 2016

Das Nibelungenlied
Anonymous
Translated from the Middle High German by Burton Raffel
(Yale, 2006) [c.1200]
375 p.

The Germanic tradition of stories about the Nibelungs was familiar to me only through Wagner, but for some time I had wished to acquaint myself with the medieval roots of the legendarium, and at long last I arrived at this Song of the Nibelungs, which is one of the chief glories of that tradition. It was written by we know not whom, and we know not when (but probably around the year 1200).

I first noticed that although the story shares a number of characters with Wagner’s version — Sifried, Brunhild, Hagen, and Gunter, principally — the story as a whole bears no resemblance to Wagner’s, not even in the sections about those shared characters. But in adapting the story for his own purposes Wagner seems to have been in good company, for there is a rich and complex manuscript tradition testifying to the malleability and creativity with which medieval culture treated these tales. The translator, Burton Raffel, does not explain why it was this version of the story which he chose to translate, and I rather wish he had.

The basic arc of the story concerns two royal marriages which, poisoned by jealous pride and suspicion, erupt into violence that eventually leads to the downfall of all. Surprisingly (for those coming to the story from Wagner) there are no gods in the cast, and, although there are cursory references to Christianity here and there — the characters hear Mass in the morning, for instance — the poem as a whole shows little interest in religion, and is far from pious in spirit. There are a few magical elements around the edges, as when one character hears a prophecy from fountain sprites, but otherwise the tale is grounded in the political and interpersonal world of its characters.

I almost wrote that it is grounded in “realism”, but that would not be quite right. The knights at the center of this story — Sifried, Volker, Gunter, Hagen, Rudigor, and a few others — are heroes of legend, which means they fight with superhuman strength, slaying dozens or hundreds of adversaries with ease. The women are surpassingly beautiful. Everyone is impossibly polite: indeed, a significant part of the poem is devoted to the niceties of courtly etiquette, with page after page devoted to the elaborate ceremonies of court: gift-giving, welcomes, and feasts. The author seems to relish the intricacy and formality of these encounters, and the reader — the happy reader, at any rate — will relish them too.

The poem is not all please and thank-you, however. When things go wrong, they go very wrong, and death stalks through these stanzas. The poet’s dramatic strategy is to tell us in advance that things are going to turn out badly, and this is effective, for we as readers are then alert to missteps in courtly protocols and intimations of interpersonal friction:

The king’s attendants hurried $\,$ about, making the royal /
palace fit for a visit $\,$ from eagerly awaited, /
deeply beloved guests. $\,$ Everyone was joyful, /
ready to welcome those $\,$ their king had invited, who would try to destroy him.
(1505)

(I note with some dismay that when formatted in WordPress the lines are too long for the available space. Slashes inserted to indicate the ends of lines.)

At its most violent, the poem can be quite gruesome. Here the Burgundian prince Giselher speaks following an extended battle against the Huns:

“We can’t afford bodies $\,$ lying under foot. /
Before the Huns can claim $\,$ victory in battle, /
we’ll get to chop them up $\,$ again, which makes me happy. /
And I intend,” said he, $\,$ “to have as good a time as I can.”

“Now that’s the kind of ruler $\,$ I like having,” Hagen /
said. “Only a real $\,$ warrior talks that way, /
gives you the kind of advice $\,$ my prince has given today. /
All you Burgundy men $\,$ should rejoice. That’s all I have to say!”

They did as the prince advised, $\,$ and carried seven thousand /
bodies out the door $\,$ of the hall. Then they dropped /
the corpses down the stairs, $\,$ and left them where they stopped /
rolling. The dead men’s families $\,$ wept and cried, and wrung their hands.

Some of the wounded men $\,$ were still alive, at the start, /
and could have been completely $\,$ healed, if cared for. The jarring /
fall had killed them, every $\,$ single one. Their friends /
and families wailed in sorrow $\,$ for such a bitter, painful end.”
(2111-4)

It is worth noting that Giselher and Hagen are not the villains of the piece, but instead something like its heroes. In fact it’s not so easy to say just who the heroes are: everyone has faults, and everyone pays for those faults in the end. To my mind Sifried comes closest to being an unequivocal hero, but (***spoiler alert***) he is killed off in the early going, the victim of jealousy born of misunderstanding. His wife Krimhild is the wronged party who seeks revenge, which might, on a warrior’s code, be the honourable course, but she too is vindictive beyond measure. The poem is morally complex.

**

The original poem is written in quatrains consisting of rhyming couplets: AABB. Each line is divided into two halves, with each half-line having three (or, in the case of the last half-line of each quatrain, three or four) stresses. Raffel has tried to preserve this structure in his translation, but inevitably compromises were necessary. He has strictly preserved the metrical scheme, as is evident from the passages cited above. He claims to have usually preserved rhyme as well, but to my ear the rhymes are often only approximate, and as I read I was almost never aware of them.

Even with those efforts to preserve the poetry of the original, I confess I often found the translation very “prosy”. Here’s a sample stanza, plucked more or less at random:

Whatever other warriors $\,$ did and were able to do, /
Dancwart and Hagen and many $\,$ courageous, accomplished knights, /
however heroic they were, $\,$ princess, it still remains true /
their deeds were nothing at all $\,$ compared to noble Sifried’s might.
(228)

Take out the tabs and carriage returns and — again, judged by my ear — this turns into rather plain prose. It does rhyme, I grant, but it doesn’t sing to me, and I wish it did. Perhaps this can help me explain:

Take out the tabs and carriage $\,$ returns and — again, judged /
by my ear — this $\,$ turns into rather plain /
prose. It does rhyme, $\,$ I grant, but it doesn’t sing /
to me, and I wish it did. $\,$ Perhaps this can help me explain.

That rhymes at least we well as one of Raffel’s typical stanzas, and it has the right stress pattern, but I’d not call it poetry.

Having said that, the stress patterns did sometimes serve as a helpful guide to emphases in the lines. Take this example, for instance:

Then Krimhild’s father-in-law $\,$ approached her, and said to the queen: /
“We ought to be at home. $\,$ Neither of us can feel /
like welcome guests, here $\,$ in Wurms along the Rhine. /
My dear Krimhild, now $\,$ we need to return to my land. It’s time.
(1073)

In the third line “here” gets a stress, emphasizing that where they are is the problem, and in the fourth line “now” gets a stress, emphasizing the need for immediate action. Were that stanza smeared out into prose, I’m not sure I’d read it in quite the same way.

Despite the difficulties I had with the translation, we English speakers do not have many means by which to get to know this poem, and I am grateful for Raffel’s labours.

**

Das Nibelungenlied is a great poem, one especially bracing for readers from our culture, for in it we encounter a world quite other than our own, where honour and strength are the leading virtues, and in which courtesy and violence are engaged in a high-stakes contest of wits. It has a cast of characters that is memorable in action and manageable in size, and strong dramatic instincts. In the sweepstakes of medieval Germanic poetry it doesn’t displace Beowulf in my affections, but I did certainly enjoy reading it.