Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Statius: Thebaid

August 22, 2021

Thebaid
Statius
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1992) [c.90 AD]
lv + 371 p.

You will recall that in the later stages of the ascent of Mount Purgatory, Dante and Virgil are joined by a third traveller, the poet Statius, who accompanies Dante as far as the terrestrial paradise, remaining even after Virgil has made his farewell. “Who is this Statius?” you might well ask. And I can answer: He was the screenwriter of Seven Samurai. Or rather — pardon me — he was the author of the Thebaid, an epic poem completed in Rome toward the end of the first century AD.

***

The strife of brothers and alternate reigns
Fought for in impious hatred and the guilt
Of tragic Thebes, these themes the Muses’ fire
Has kindled in my heart.
(I, l.1-4)

His poem takes us back to the early days of Greece, before the Trojan War, to a conflict between two brothers that arose in the city of Thebes. When their father, Oedipus, stepped down from the throne, Polynices and Eteocles were to share governance of the city, and they, under guidance of the gods, settled on a scheme of alternating years in power, a scheme that immediately led to strife, for Eteocles, enjoying his first year in power, refused to relinquish the throne to his brother at the appointed time.

Polynices, therefore, sent into exile, travelled around cultivating allies and building an army to help recover the throne of Thebes. He found assistance especially in the city of Argos, where he pieced together a force led by — you guessed it — seven able commanders, each with his own distinctive character: there was Tydeus, a small but immensely strong warrior prince prone to outbursts of uncontrolled wrath and capable of slaying dozens of enemy soldiers; there was Hippomedon, a valiant horseman; and Parthenopaeus, a talented but young and inexperienced archer; he recruited also Amphiaraus, a seer who provided both divine counsel and military prowess on the battlefield; there was Capanaeus, a boisterous atheist who shouted insults at the gods and killed Thebans with joyous abandon; in the background there was Adrastus, the king of Argos, who provided leadership; and, finally, of course, there was Polynices himself, the man for whom the whole pot was boiling.

**

And so, as I said, Statius really did write the screenplay for Seven Samurai — and, by extension, for Ocean’s 11, and The Avengers, and all those movies in which a cast of characters is assembled to accomplish a great feat together. Although I suppose that he himself might well have been looking backward, to Jason and the Argonauts perhaps.

Except that Statius’ vision is bleaker than just about any of his imitators, for when, in the second half of his poem, his seven great men begin their great work, they meet with defeat on defeat. A seer, foretelling the disaster to come, puts it in avian terms:

One, soaring high,
The sun’s quick blaze ignites and his high heart
Is humbled; one, attempting to keep pace
With stronger birds, his frail young wings let sink;
One falls locked in his foe’s embrace; one flees
In whirling flight and leaves his friends to fate;
One dies swathed in a rain-storm; one in death
Devours his living foe. A spray of blood
Spatters the hollow clouds. Why hide your tears?
(Book III)

One by one they fall, bloodied and beaten, until none but Polynices remains, all his efforts turned to ash. And then, in the poem’s climax, the two brothers meet on the field of battle, with predictably tragic consequences for both.

*

An interesting aspect of the poem is its attitude to the gods. As I’ve already mentioned, one of the central characters, and one of the most colourful and likeable, is a militant atheist, brash and belligerent. The poem seems to be very much on his side, treating his atheism with bemused toleration — until his death scene, which is marvellous. As Capaneus scales the walls of Thebes he is struck down — literally struck down — by a bolt of lightning hurled by Jupiter. Take that. It’s a wonderfully wry, bleakly comic moment.

Statius granted the gods a victory in that case, albeit a somewhat cheap one, but the poem as a whole seems to adopt a sceptical, and even critical, stance toward divine powers. The gods intervene in the action throughout the poem — this is normal for epic poetry — but more often than not their actions lead to disaster, either by malice or incompetence or insensibility to the sufferings of humanity. The two brothers, for instance, are ready in the beginning to share the throne of Thebes peaceably; it is Jupiter who incites jealousy between them, spurred by a grudge he nurses against their father Oedipus. Later, after Polynices sends a peace embassy to his brother, which is rebuffed (and then some), it is again Jupiter who commissions Mars to incite a lust for war in the people, so that the conflict between the two brothers will catch fire and grow into a conflagration. There is a dark vision being drawn for us, in which the troubled affairs of men are stoked by the will of the gods. It is a kind of reverse Providence.

*

Another very striking feature of the poem is its wary stance toward warfare itself. Epic poetry, in the tradition, is war poetry: the Trojan War, Odysseus’ bloody triumph, Aeneas sinking his sword hilt-deep in the chest of Turnus — and the high points of the poems of Statius’ forebears are the victories of the heroes over their adversaries. I think that’s a fair reading of the tradition, although I would not go so far as to say that there is no nuance in the attitudes of Homer and Virgil to war.

I’ve already said that in Statius’ poem there is no final military triumph. There are partial victories here and there, yes. In one of the early books Tydeus is ambushed by a group of 50 Theban assassins, and he kills them all. This is Marvel movie material, and Tydeus himself, certainly, conveys no nuances about the tragedy of violence in his angry tirade over the bodies of his adversaries. In the same vein, each of the seven united against Thebes sports some kind of military prowess, and there are plenty of passages in which spears are thrown, bodies are pierced, horses fall, arrows fly, and bodies are mutilated.

Far spread the field, a hideous expanse
Of boundless blood; abandoned there lay arms
And steeds, once proudly mounted, mangled limbs
And corpses unregarded and unpyred.
(Book X)

But, even so, Statius strikes a markedly different note from the tradition in which he is working. I was surprised at the way in which he includes in his account of the battles their effects on non-combatants. In the early going, for instance, in the aftermath of Tydeus’ heroics against the massed assassins, we are given a remarkably moving passage in which the women and elderly citizens of Thebes come to the battlefield to recover the bodies of the fallen. It goes, in part, like this:

Now from the city wives death-pale and children
And ailing parents poured by broad highways
Or pathless wastes in piteous rivalry,
All rushing to their tears, and thousands more
For solace’ sake throng too, and some were hot
To see that one man’s deeds, that night’s travails.
The road was loud with wailing and the fields
Re-echoed cries of grief. Yet when they reached
Those infamous rocks, that ghastly wood, as though
None had bewailed before, no storm of tears
Had streamed, as from a single throat there rose
A cry of utter anguish. When they saw
The bloody carnage, frenzy fired them all.
Grief, flaming fierce, with bloody raiment rent,
Stands there and beats his breast and leads along
The wives and mothers. Helmets on cold heads
They scrutinize and point to bodies found,
And over friends and strangers lean alike.
Some steep their hair in blood and some seal eyes;
Deep wounds are washed in tears, a hand withdraws
A spear, vain mercy; gently, severed arms
Are set in place and heads rejoined to necks.
(Book III)

This is both tragic and humane. “Helmets on cold heads.” And there is, later in the poem, a stirring section in which the poet describes the panic that grips the civilians of Thebes as the armies of Polynices approach the city:

The scene within was ghastly. Mars himself
Would scarce enjoy the sight. Fury and Grief
And Dread and Flight, swathed in blind darkness, rent,
With discord many-voiced, the maddened city,
Reeling in frantic horror. War, it seemed,
Had entered. Back and forth they seethed around
The citadel and clamour blocked the streets,
As everywhere they imagined fire and sword,
Imagined themselves clamped in cruel chains.
Fear feels the future now: temples and homes
Are thronged and their ungrateful altars ringed
With lamentation. Young and old alike
Were seized by the same terror. Age cried out
For death; youth burned and blanched by turns; the shrieks
Of wailing women shook the echoing halls,
And children sobbed and knew not why they sobbed,
Only afraid because their mothers wept.
(Book X)

It is a scene that must have been repeated many thousands of times in history, and he evokes the sense of panic and futility powerfully. Statius, it seems to me, is a poet who sees the human cost of war, and even though he is working with mythological material and within a tradition that celebrates, at some level, violence and victory, he finds a way to show us suffering human hearts, and in such a way that, for me at least, it was those hearts that remained in my mind when the dust settled.

*

And so, sitting here, in the settled dust, I circle around once again to the question that partly motivated my picking up the Thebaid in the first place: why did Dante give Statius such an honoured place in his poem? Unlike the case of Virgil, whose sixth book was an obvious influence on the Inferno, I can see no particular thematic or dramatic connection between the Thebaid and The Divine Comedy. Dante idolized Rome, and Virgil, as the great poet of Rome and her history, was naturally precious to him, but he had no, so far as I know, comparable attachment to Thebes.

The truth is that I don’t know the answer to my question. It may have been simply that Dante greatly admired Statius’ poetry, and why not? True, I found the poem sagged at points — there are fully two books given over to a subplot that appears to go nowhere in particular, and numerous briefer passages, particularly those reporting the minutiae of battlefield encounters, in which my attention nodded — but, then again, I do not read Latin with anywhere near sufficient competence to appreciate its literary merits, and so whatever such merits Statius possesses are lost on me, as they were not lost on Dante. So maybe that’s it, or maybe not, but I am happy to have read the Thebaid in any case: a little-known bridge between Virgil and his medieval admirers, a fascinating and instructive window into Roman attitudes to warfare in the first century, and a cracking good tale too. Somebody should make a movie.

[Night]
Now in the vault of heaven, when the sun
Had given his service, rose the queenly moon,
Borne through a silent world on dewy wheels,
The soft air limpid in her cooling balm.
Now beasts and birds are silent, slumber steals
O’er greed and grief and, nodding from the day,
Brings sweet oblivion to lives of toil.
(Book I)

[Aphorism]
To faint hearts nothing’s false.
(Book VII)

Esolen: The Hundredfold

January 25, 2021

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

“It is manna”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me that doesn’t stir the heart!

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

Christ is the image of the invisible God.

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

Ovid: Love Poems

May 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

Ovid: Poems of Exile

April 3, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ovid: Metamorphoses

March 17, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Propertius: Poems

December 7, 2019

Poems
Sextus Propertius
Translated from the Latin by Guy Lee
(Oxford World’s Classics, 1994) [c.30-15 BC]
xxv + 205 p.

Propertius is one of the lesser-known poets of the Latin Golden Age. Born in about 50 BC, he was just a young lad when Caesar was assassinated, and was about 20 years old when Octavian finally defeated Marc Antony to bring the civil war to a conclusion. He was brought under the patronage of Maecenas, and so moved in the same circles as Virgil and Horace. While in his 20s he published three books of poetry that, as we’ll see, constitute something like a single artistic project, and then, in about 15 BC, he completed a fourth book of poems. We know little about his later life; a reference to him in a poem of Ovid, dated around 1 BC, implies that he had by then died.

Propertius was primarily a love poet, and his first three books all focus on his love for a particular woman, Cynthia. Who she was, or even whether she was a real person, we do not really know, but Propertius’ obsession with her gives his poems an intensity and a unity that make them very accessible and engaging. It is passionate poetry, much after the manner of Catullus’ great Lesbia poems.

Just as the course of true love never does run smooth, so also the course of ill-fated, inconstant, unhealthy, and uncertain love can be a rough ride. Propertius’ experience with Cynthia has convinced him that love is mad and painful, a “wound”:

Whoever he was who painted Love a child
Don’t you think he had marvellous hands?
First he saw that lovers live senselessly
And that light passions lose great goods.

Nor was he mistaken in adding flighty wings
And making him a god who flies from human hearts;
For we are tossed about on alternating waves
And the breeze, for us, keeps changing direction.

Rightly too is Love’s hand armed with barbed arrows
And a Cretan quiver hangs down from each shoulder:
For he strikes while we’re off guard, before we see the foe,
And after that wound no one is well. (II, 11)

He has moments when he is inspired by the glory of love, when he professes his unfailing faithfulness to Cynthia, and imagines her echoing the same to him:

There let them come in troops, the beautiful heroines
Picked by Argives from the spoils of Troy,
No beauty of theirs for me could match yours, Cynthia —
Indeed (may Mother Earth in justice grant it)
Though fate remand you to a long old age,
Yet to my tears will your bones be dear.

If only the living you could feel this for my ashes,
Then death, wherever, for me would have no sting.
Ah Cynthia, how I fear that love’s iniquity
Scorning the tomb may drag you from my dust
And force you, though loth, to dry the falling tears;
A faithful girl can be bent by constant threats.
So while we may let us delight in loving;
No love is ever long enough. (I, 19)

But it is telling that he can imagine Cynthia faithful only to his bones and ashes, for in life she gave him little enough satisfaction. The poems relate how she absconded with a rich rival suitor, went away on holiday without him, failed to visit when he was ill, tormented him with false promises, locked the door against him, and generally treated him like rubbish. His hapless love for her remains, however:

Happy the man who could weep in his girl’s presence
(Love can enjoy the sprinkling of tears)
Or who, when scorned, could redirect his ardour
(There is also joy in bondage transferred).
My fate is neither to love another nor break with her:
Cynthia was first and Cynthia shall be last. (I, 12)

He suffers fierce bouts of jealousy, issuing warnings to other men who come within her orbit:

She’ll prove no flighty girl in the encounter;
You’ll find her anger is no joke.
Even if she’s not resistant to your prayers,
She’ll still bring you troubles — by the thousand.
You’ll sleep no more. Her image will not leave you.
Her moods make proud men puppets. (I, 5)

Bereft of her affections, he comes to cherish her abuse and anger as a sign, he hopes, of concealed love:

Sweet for me was the fight by yesterday’s lamplight
And all the manic abuse you voiced
When, mad with wine, you overturned the table and flung
Full wine-cups at me in your fury.
Come on then, don’t be afraid, attack my hair
And scratch my face with those beautiful nails.
Bring fire and threaten to burn my eyes out.
Rip my tunic, strip my chest bare.
Naturally I diagnose true passion; no girl
Not deeply in love is so upset. (III, 8)

But at times when even these slender hopes desert him, his thoughts turn startlingly dark and violent:

But you shall not escape; you have to die with me.
The blood of both shall drip from this same blade.
Though such a death for me will be dishonourable,
I’ll die dishonoured to make sure you die. (II, 8)

Mercifully this dark fantasy remains only a fantasy, but the third book concludes the cycle of Cynthia poems with a vicious farewell curse:

Farewell now to the doorstep that sheds tears at my words
And the door I never smashed despite my anger.
But you — may age and the years you’ve hidden weigh you down
And wrinkles come to spoil your beauty!
May your desire then be to root out the white hairs,
While the mirror, alas, accuses you of wrinkles.
Excluded in your turn may you suffer pride’s disdain,
A crone complaining you’re done by as you did!
These curses my prophetic page has sung for you;
So learn to dread your beauty’s aftermath! (III, 25)

*

This is good stuff: high drama, wrenching passion, flights of fancy, bitter disappointment! His preoccupation with Cynthia, examining their affair from this angle and then from that, gives the whole collection a cohesiveness that makes the poems read something like a diary. I really enjoyed them.

The fourth book, in which he moves on to other subjects (although Cynthia does show up a few times, a memory and ghostly presence), was less attractive to me. The poems are on mythological or historical subjects (including one about Octavian’s victory over Marc Antony at Actium), or spoken in the voice of imagined characters rather than his own, and I found them markedly less interesting.

*

Like Horace, Propertius has a talent for personal, small scale poetry. In one amusing poem he imagines himself setting out to write an epic poem on an important subject, but just as he stoops to drink from that noble stream of inspiration he is interrupted by Apollo:

‘Idiot, what right have you to such a stream? And who
Told you to turn your hand to epic?
There’s not a hope of fame, Propertius, for you here;
Your little wheels must groove soft meadows.
Let your slim volume be displayed on bedside tables
And ready by lonely girls waiting for their lovers.
Why has your page diverged from its appointed round?
You must not overload the rowboat of your wit.
With one oar feather water, with the other sand,
And you’ll be safe. Most flounder in mid-ocean.’ (III, 3)

In other words, he knew his own limits. The introductory essay to this volume discusses the political side of his poetry, which is not entirely absent. (Anyone moving in Augustus’ circle was writing politically charged poetry whether they wanted to or not. Propertius seems to have navigated those treacherous waters adeptly.) His ambitions were not to be great, as some measure greatness, but to be a great poet who would be remembered:

Yet what the envious crowd withholds from me in life
Honour will pay me after death at double interest.
Everything after death is magnified by age:
A name beyond the grave sounds better in the mouth. (III, 1)

Poignant words, considering that he was largely forgotten for a long time, cast into the shadow of his great contemporaries. Renaissance scholars took some interest in his work after long neglect, and the poetry of Petrarch and Goethe was influenced to some modest extent by him. Ezra Pound wrote a cycle of poems in “homage” to him, and he has received a number of English translations in recent decades. Still, it is hard to think that this flagging and marginal fame was what he hoped for.

Let’s do our small part to remember him by reading one poem in its entirety, a poem in which he celebrates the immortality to be hoped for in poetry:

Let us return meanwhile to our song’s familiar round —
To touch and delight a girl with its music.

Orpheus, they say, bewitched wild animals and held
Back rushing rivers with his Thracian lyre.
Cithaeron’s rocks, hustled to Thebes by music’s art,
Of their own accord combined to bond a wall.
Yes, and below wild Etna Galatea turned
Her spray-drenched steeds toward Polyphemus’ songs.
What wonder, by the grace of Bacchus and Apollo,
If girls in plenty worship my words?

Though my house is not supported on Taenarian columns
And has no ivory room with gilded beams,
Nor do my fruit-trees match the orchards of Phaeacia
Nor artificial grot drip Marcian waters,
Still the Muses befriend me, my songs are dear to readers
And Calliope unwearied by my dances.
Lucky the girl who is celebrated in my book;
Each song will be a reminder of her beauty.

Neither the expense of Pyramids reared to the stars
Nor Jove’s Elean home copying heaven
Nor rich gold fortune of the Mausoleum
Escape the extreme necessity of death.
Or flame or rain will dispossess their honour, or
They’ll fall by thrust of years and their own weight.
But age will not destroy the name achieved by talent;
Talent’s glory stands — immortal. (III, 2)

Tibullus: Elegies

October 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Virgil: Aeneid

September 4, 2019


Aeneid

Virgil
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
(Penguin Classics, 1997) [19 BC]
480 p.

Aeneid, Book VI
Virgil
Translated from the Latin by Seamus Heaney
(Faber & Faber, 2016)
xiii + 53 p.

What Diomede, nor Thetis’ greater son,
A thousand ships, nor ten years’ siege, had done:
False tears and fawning words the city won.

Kierkegaard wrote The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates; Virgil might well have titled his poem Aeneid, with Constant Reference to Homer. Not only do many episodes in Homer find echoes and analogues in this poem, but the story itself is the mirror image, as it were, of the Odyssey: both launch from the sack of Troy, but whereas Homer follows the victorious Greeks as they return home, Virgil follows the defeated Trojans as they seek a new homeland in which to found a new city, great Rome itself.

We join the story in medias res, Aeneas and his men having been blown off course on their journey and landed at Carthage in North Africa. There they are feasted at the court of Dido, and the Aeneid relates, in verse that is grippingly dramatic, the backstory of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy. Sent into exile, they endure various hardships and adventures before washing up at Carthage. (One amusing episode has them land on the island of the Cyclops. A Greek comes rushing unexpectedly out to meet them, begging them to take him on board. This, it turns out, is a sailor left behind by Odysseus when he visited the island a few weeks before! (Odyssey, IX)) During the telling of this tale Dido falls in love with Aeneas, but when he insists that the gods have destined him for other things, she commits suicide. This tragic love story forms one of the more satisfying sub-plots in the poem.

Pressing on toward Italy, they eventually make landfall, but despite their intentions to build a new city and live in peace, their neighbours, inflamed by the ill will of Juno, march to war against them. The entire second half of the poem is devoted to this war, and the poem ends abruptly when Aeneas at last kills his rival, Turnus:

He rais’d his arm aloft, and, at the word,
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword.
The streaming blood distain’d his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing thro’ the wound.

*

If you have ever wondered why Dante chose Virgil as his guide through Hell and Purgatory, you need only turn to Book VI, which relates the journey of Aeneas to the underworld in search of his father. Each time I read it, my hair stands on end, and I can feel the atmosphere again of Dante’s epic, through a glass darkly. It is among my favourite parts of the poem, so I was pleased to supplement my reading of Dryden’s translation with the recent translation of Book VI which Seamus Heaney made shortly before his death. He says he undertook it partly as a way of reflecting on his own father’s death, and on the birth of his granddaughter, but also as a way of honouring his childhood Latin teacher.

Heaney’s version has not the incantatory power of Dryden’s, but I nonetheless found it very good on its own terms. He writes in blank iambic pentameter. Let’s compare a few passages.

When Aeneas makes his first entry to the underworld, Dryden writes

Obscure they went thro’ dreary shades, that led
Along the waste dominions of the dead.
Thus wander travelers in woods by night,
By the moon’s doubtful and malignant light,
When Jove in dusky clouds involves the skies,
And the faint crescent shoots by fits before their eyes.

while Heaney gives us

On they went then in darkness, through the lonely
Shadowing night, a nowhere of deserted dwellings,
Dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king —
Like following a forest path by the hovering light
Of a moon that clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim,
While the colours of the world pall in the gloom.

In this case I think I prefer Heaney; the ‘shoots by fits’ in Dryden sounds awkward, but ‘clouds and unclouds’ is a nice phrase, and I think Heaney, with his ‘darkness’, ‘shadowing’, ‘nowhere’, ‘deserted’, ‘pall’ and ‘gloom’ captures better the desolation of the place.

Moving downward, Aeneas comes upon a mysterious tree which Dryden describes in this way:

Full in the midst of this infernal road,
An elm displays her dusky arms abroad:
The God of Sleep there hides his heavy head,
And empty dreams on ev’ry leaf are spread.

and Heaney:

\; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; Right in the middle
Stands an elm, copious, darkly aflutter, old branches
Spread wide like arms, and here, it is said,
False dreams come to roost, clinger together
On the undersides of the leaves.

That ‘darkly aflutter’ is a nice touch, but I think the rhymes in Dryden add to the solemnity of the moment. Heaney, though, does tell us that the dreams are on the undersides of the leaves; I don’t know what this means, but it does seem an important detail, if indeed it is in Virgil.

For one last comparison, let’s take one of the more gruesome moments. Aeneas sees, Tityos, ‘the foster-son of Earth’, bound to the ground while a vulture of perpetual appetite perpetually consumes his liver. Writes Dryden:

There Tityus was to see, who took his birth
From heav’n, his nursing from the foodful earth.
Here his gigantic limbs, with large embrace,
Infold nine acres of infernal space.
A rav’nous vulture, in his open’d side,
Her crooked beak and cruel talons tried;
Still for the growing liver digg’d his breast;
The growing liver still supplied the feast;
Still are his entrails fruitful to their pains:
Th’ immortal hunger lasts, th’ immortal food remains.

Fantastic! And Heaney:

Tityos, his body stretching out
Over nine whole acres while a huge, horrendous
Vulture puddles forever with hooked beak
In his liver and entrails teeming with raw pain.
It burrows deep below the breastbone, feeding
And foraging without respite, for the gnawed-at
Gut and gutstrings keep renewing.

It’s good, but for me it’s simply not as good.

**

Toward the end of Aeneas’ underworld sojourn, the shade of his father, Anchises, foretells the future history of Rome, from the city’s founding down to the reign of the mighty and stupendous Augustus. When I have read the poem in the past, I have stumbled through this section, needing constantly to refer to the notes. But this time, rafter having spent the better part of two years reading Roman history, I read it with understanding! A nice pay-off.

To my mind the Aeneid is front-loaded with its best material. I love the story of the Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy in Book II, and the fateful romance of Dido and Aeneas in Book IV, and the journey to the underworld in Book VI, but once the Trojans make landfall in Italy and begin the long process of forming alliances and fighting battles with the locals it seems to lose its forward momentum, becoming a blur of minor characters and shifting allegiances. I feel about the first half as I feel about the Odyssey, but about the last half as I do about the Iliad.

This was my first time through the poem with Dryden; in the past I have read the Fitzgerald translation. There is no contest: Dryden prevails. His poem has the high epic tone. He carries the reader aloft. By all means, let there be other translations, but for English-speaking readers I am convinced he is essential. It is one of the few examples of a translation that stands on its own as a poetic masterpiece.

Horace: Satires

July 21, 2019

Satires
Quintus Horatius Flaccus
Translated from the Latin by A.M. Juster
(U Penn, 2008) [c.35-30 BC]
xii + 144 p.

The Satires, in two books, were Horace’s first published poems, having appeared, respectively, in about 35 BC and then 30 BC, he being then in his early 30s. The Civil War between Octavian and Mark Antony still raged, and the fortunes of the Roman Republic were, as yet, in doubt. Horace came, somehow, into the orbit of Virgil, who introduced him to Maecenas, a great artistic patron (and Octavian’s friend who, as it would eventually turn out, would be in a position to make good things happen for his stable of artists). They therefore show us Horace as he takes his first steps into the public eye, at the start of what would turn out to be a brilliant artistic life.

The title under which the poems were published is liable to mislead English readers. For us “satire” means edgy comedy, perhaps with a political or religious edge, intended to puncture and deflate pretensions with wit, or to exaggerate faults in the manner of caricature. But for Horace the word apparently meant something closer to simple gossip. The poems are intentionally informal, loose, and chatty, and though they are frequently comic and have some bite they do not bite very hard.

He wrote in hexameter, a metre most associated with Greek epic; the effect was not so much to make the poems grand in an epic style, but rather grandiose, the high form making a comedic contrast with the quotidian and sometimes vulgar subject matter.

I have read the poems in the translations of A.M. Juster, who chose to render the poems in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. In a sense, this works well, because the metre is for us what hexameter was for Horace: a verse form associated with our high poetry. But I was, at least initially, less convinced by his determination to rhyme. Horace’s poems do not rhyme, and other translators (like David Ferry) have made a pretty convincing case that the poetry in Horace’s poetry, if I can put it that way, is a subtle thing, woven into the rhythms and the diction, art concealed by art. Horace himself makes the argument in these Satires:

Come listen to a bit of my reply:
to start with, I do not identify
myself as a real poet. You’d opine
that it is not enough to write a line
in meter, and a person such as me
who writes a chatty sort of poetry
could never be regarded in your eyes
as a real poet. You would recognize
a person who is brilliant, with a mind
that is far more inspired and the kind
of voice that resonates. Based on that thought,
some doubted whether comic verses ought
to count as verse because they can’t convey
great force and energy in what they say
or how they say it. Though arranged in feet
(unlike prose) that incessantly repeat,
it’s still just prose.
(I, 4; ll.58-73)

He intends, it seems, his poems to read something like musical prose, whereas rhyming couplets are about the most obvious kind of poetry there could be, and tend to divide the verse into regular segments rather than mimicking the supple variations of the original.

However, I discovered that Juster is awfully good, and not a little subtle, at penning rhyming couplets. The passage above is a good example, and here is another, plucked more or less at random. A character is describing the food at a lavish, not to say grossly extravagant, dinner party, and says:

“This was caught while pregnant, since the meat
degrades as soon as spawning is complete.
The sauce’s recipe was: oil (first-pressed)
from the Venafran cellar that’s the best;
fermented Spanish fishgut sauce; a wine
that’s five years old and nurtured on a vine
from native shores — but only with some heat
(when warmed up, Chian wine just can’t be beat!);
white pepper, vinegar that comes from spoiling
of Methymnean grapes. I taught the boiling
of green rocket with sharp elecampane
in sauce before those others. In that vein,
Curtillus used unwashed sea-urchin juice
because brine fails to match what shells produce.”
(II, 8; ll.68-82)

This is quite funny, of course; the vices of the gourmand are ever ancient, ever new. But, as to the metre, I think Juster has succeeded, to a large extent, in downplaying the regular rhymes by frequent use of enjambed lines. He does this quite consistently throughout, and has some other tricks up his sleeve too. Take, for example, this case, in which the narrator quotes a fragment of a song:

Why lose your money and deceive yourself
when merchandise is not yet on the shelf?
The playboy sings,
\; \; \; \; \; \;“The hunter tracks down hares /
through blinding snow, / but he no longer cares /
once they’re brought low,”
\; \; \; \; \; \; and then analogizes:
“My passion is quite similar; it rises
above the easy prey to chase the birds
in flight.”
(I, 2; ll.145-52)

I love this. The song maintains the regularity of the rhyming couplets, but introduces additional rhymes on the half-lines, making for a kind of syncopated beat — quite suitable for a song! Juster’s own rationale for using rhymed couplets is that they serve the humorous tone of the poems, creating in the reader an expectation that amplifies a joke’s punchline. Maybe so, although the number of outright jokes in the poems is rather small. Nonetheless, I found that the rhyme scheme did not at all interfere with my enjoyment — quite the opposite, in fact, as, all other things being equal, I’d much rather read rhyming poetry than not.

And what of the poems themselves? There are 18 in total, between the two Books, and the subject matter is wide: some moralize in a manner familiar to me from his Epistles, against riches and covetousness, or against lust; more than one orbit around dinner parties and other social events; one, the longest (Book II, 3), seems to be a kind of catalogue of forms of madness; one is written from the point of view of a piece of wood taken from a tree and carved into the likeness of a god; one describes a diplomatic mission from Rome to Brundisium; in one Horace is hounded through town by a man who wants something and will not leave him alone; in another his slave criticizes Horace for being himself a slave to passions. The fable of the city mouse and country mouse is told in one (Book II, 6), but perhaps the most entertaining is the dialogue in the underworld (Book II, 5), a witty spoof on Homer in which Teresias advises Ulysses how to make some money and get ahead.

In certain cases it is obvious that Horace is adopting a persona — all of the poems in Book II are explicitly dialogues, some of which have a character called Horace, some not — but here and there one feels that the real Horace is coming quite close to the surface, as, for example, in this autobiographical passage in which he describes his first meeting with Maecenas, who was to become his life-long patron, with winsome modesty:

\; \; \; \; \; \; I cannot say
that I was fortunate that happenstance
made you my friend because it was not chance
that put you in my path. Some time ago,
supremely gifted Virgil let you know
about me; Varius then did the same.
When we met face-to-face, my childish shame
led me to choke on words and lose my train
of thought before I went on to explain
just who I was, that I was not the son
of a distinguished father, and not one
who used his Saturean nag to ride
around his houses in the countryside.
(I, 6; ll.76-88)

The charm of moments like this are what I have most enjoyed about reading Horace. Reading poetry in translation, I have said before, can be quixotic, as one can never be quite sure how much of the translator’s poetry was in the original, nor how much of the original’s poetry is in the translator’s. Here, in these Satires, I am in the same quandary, but I can at least testify that I enjoyed the poems, and the fine translation, on their own terms.

Horace: Epistles

June 26, 2019

Epistles
Horace
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(Farrar, Strauss, Giroux; 2001) [20, 10 BC]
xviii + 203 p.

The Epistles of Horace, in two books, are loosely conversational, wide-ranging poems, their artifice subtly submerged beneath a genial surface. Of their epistolary nature there is, however, no subterfuge: each is addressed to a particular recipient, sometimes a friend, sometimes his great patron Maecenas, and sometimes even Augustus himself. The first book, consisting of 20 epistles, was published when Horace was in his mid-40s; the second book, containing just 3 longer epistles, appeared a decade later.

It is difficult to state briefly what sort of thing these poems are. They consist of personal reflections, a good deal of moral counsel, comments on the art of poetry and the life of a poet, short fables, and occasional sallies at mythological subjects, all woven together with an unassuming rhetorical style. We know that there is considerable art here — writing in hexameter, every syllable counts — but the poems feel artless. In the last of these epistles, the most famous one which goes under the title “Ars Poetica”, Horace confirms this impression:

My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if it was easy as could be
For anybody to do it (although he’d sweat
And strain and work his head off, all in vain).
Such is the power of judgment, of knowing what
It means to put the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.

I have been reading the poems in David Ferry’s translation, and although I was initially a little disappointed with his reliance on blank iambic pentameter, which lacks the obvious poetry of, say, heroic couplets, as I continued to read I came to appreciate the suitability of this style for these poems. Horace, too, does not rhyme; instead, his poetry is in the word choices, and the arrangement of subjects, and in the rhythms of the language. Whether Ferry manages to capture adequately those elements of Horace’s art I cannot judge, but the overall impression is, I think, at least leaning in the right direction.

Horace’s persona in these poems is urbane and rational. There are no passionate outbursts, no hearts on sleeves. He muses, offers advice, and renders judgments, literary and otherwise. He often assumes the mantle of sensible moralist:

If the sickness is in your soul, why put it off?
Get yourself going and you’ll be halfway there;
Dare to be wise; get started. The man who puts off
The time to start living right is like the hayseed
Who wants to cross the river and so he sits there
Waiting for the river to run out of water,
And the river flows by, and it flows on by, forever.
(i, 2)

There is a good deal in these poems about poetry. This is especially true, naturally, of “Ars Poetica”, which is by a comfortable margin the longest of the epistles, but remarks on poems and poets turn up regularly: he considers what makes a literary classic, why we admire the ancient poets but sneer at the modern (the phrase “Homer nods” — dormitat Homerus — in reference to lapses in the quality of the ancient poets comes from these epistles), why people want to write poetry, whether a poet should seek the approval of his audience, how to capture the interest of readers (the description of one tactic, to commence in medias res, is another famous coinage from these poems), the value of Greek models, boundaries of good taste, and the purpose of poetry (again, famously, Horace answered: “to delight and instruct”) are all topics that he treats in one way or another.

As to Horace’s appraisal of the value of his own poetry, he is the master of the graceful sidestep. On one hand, he is self-deprecating, averring (as in the Odes) that his style is not suitable for great matters, and even that his poems will, most likely, be used to wrap fish; but, on the other hand, he advises young poets to carefully revise and polish their poems before making them public, and I think we can assume he followed his own advice. The last poem in Book I, addressed “To His Book”, is especially touching in this respect, as the poet lets his poems go with a benediction before offering a delicate self-portrait:

But when the day is nearly done, and people
Are sitting around you, taking the evening air,
Please tell them who I was: son of a freedman,
In humble circumstances, my wings too strong
For the nest I was born in. What your tale subtracts
Because of my birth may it add because of my merit —
The foremost men of Rome, in peace and war,
Were pleased with me and what I was able to do;
A little man, and prematurely gray,
A lover of the sun; easily angered,
But easily pacified. If anyone asks,
I was forty-four years old in that December
When Lollius chose Lepidus as his partner.
(i, 20)