Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

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)

Old English miscellanea

June 7, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

**

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

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

Horace: Odes

May 27, 2019

Odes
Quintus Horatius Flaccus
(Wordsworth Classics, 1997) [23-13 BC]
lvii + 282 p.

Horace is one of the authors whom I’ve most looked forward to reading during the Roman reading project in which I’m engaged. I have known him only by reputation; to my knowledge, before taking up this volume I’d never read a line of his poetry.

The Odes are his most famous poems, admired for their graceful artistry. Horace was the master of the polished miniature; the elegant turn of phrase; the marriage of form and content; the personal touch. There are four books, published between 23 and 13 BC, comprising about 100 poems altogether.

Each ode is, as a rule (occasionally broken), addressed to a particular individual: to a friend returned from war, or to a friend who has fallen in love with his servant-girl, or to someone writing a book, or mourning a death, or to an unfaithful beauty. One is addressed to a lute. The subject matter is as wide as the heavens: love, friendship, the vanity of riches and power, the fleetingness of life, the virtues of wine. The tone is largely whimsical and tender, poetry on a small, domestic scale, but not a hint of rusticity. Horace professes a love for the countryside, but his own personality, it seems, was gently urbane.

This is personal poetry, then, far from the high style of epic, akin in some ways to Catullus, but more guarded, using meticulous poetic construction to put a little distance between the finished poem and the poet.

*

Let’s look at a few examples. This volume of Horace that I have been reading is an anthology in which the work of many different translators are combined. Therefore where I quote lines I shall indicate in brackets the name and date of the translator.

A recurring theme is the small ambition of Horace the poet, who is content with a simple, domestic sphere, and whose style is not fit for great matters like war and affairs of state:

Small wits, small themes! I know my humble place,
Nor would the Muse of my unwarlike lyre
Suffer my verse with ineffectual fire
Your fame or Caesar’s to disgrace.
(I, 6) [Edward Marsh; 1941]

*

And as for Caesar — you in your great prose
Will tell his battles better, and display
Proud kings with necks enchained, his vanquished foes,
Led captive down the Sacred Way.

Me the sage Muse assigns an apter part,
To praise your fair Licymnia’s radiant eyes,
Her thrilling voice that lifts you to the skies,
The treasure of her faithful heart;

How all she does becomes her, the swift play
Of parrying wit, the dance of frolic grace
When with the bright-robed girls she takes her place
To hymn Diana’s festal day.
(II, 12) [Edward Marsh; 1941]

Yet this modesty is a subterfuge of sorts, for he does occasionally turn his pen to Caesar’s advantage:

Come then, auspicious prince, and bring
To thy long gloomy country light,
For in thy countenance the spring
Shines forth to cheer thy people’s sight;
Then hasten thy return for, thou away,
Nor lustre has the sun, nor joy the day.
(IV, 5) [Philip Francis; 1746]

This was consistent with his social position; though the son of a freedman, and so not part of the Roman aristocratic circles, his talent earned him a place among the powerful in Roman society. His special artistic patron was Maecenas, Augustus’ adviser and confidant.

In any case, it is equally clear that his quaint subject matter is but a vehicle to greatness of another sort:

Restrain your tears and cease your cries,
Nor grace with fading flowers my hearse;
I without funeral elegies
Shall live forever in my verse.
(II, 20) [Dr Johnson; 1726]

This poetic conceit — that the poet’s immortality, or that of his subject, is assured because of the poetry itself — is familiar from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I wonder (but do not know) if Shakespeare inherited it from Horace.

The shortness of life is another theme that comes up again and again. It ought to spur us, says Horace, to live each day with determination to wring from it all that it can yield:

Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.
(I, 9) [Dryden; 1685]

Or, again, in an ode addressed to Virgil, he argues that the brevity of life should encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously, but to enjoy levity and folly:

Then leave delays, and gain’s desire,
And mindful of black funeral fire,
Short folly mix with counsels best:
‘Tis sweet sometimes to be in jest.
(IV, 12) [Sir Thomas Hawkins; 1625)

All of this, of course, under the shadow of death, which loomed over all:

One end awaits us all. Our fate
Is fixed. The ferry-boat is sent
To carry all men, soon or late,
To their perpetual banishment.
(II, 3) [John Gielgud; 1951]

*

The indifferent earth, an equal friend,
As willingly opens her wide womb
For beggar’s grave as prince’s tomb.
(II, 18) [Thomas Hawkins; 1625]

**

I enjoyed these poems a good deal. Reading poetry in translation — especially non-narrative poetry — is something of a fool’s game. I cannot name a single poem which has achieved eminence or widespread admiration in the English speaking world that was not originally written in English. Translations, however talented the translator, somehow fail to really take wing. Yet there are wonderfully talented poets in this volume, Dryden and Milton being the most eminent. The reader, if innocent of the original tongue, is unsure whether whatever elegance or artistry they perceive in the translation is a reflection of something present in the original, or not. As such, it is difficult to form any precise view of, in this case, Horace the poet from reading the poems.

Why bother then? In part, I think, because of the personal tone of the poetry, which comes through quite clearly despite the mediating voices. There is a man behind the lines whom we can, in some measure, get to know, whether that man is Horace himself or his artful public persona. The point is that there is a “character” there, who speaks to us across the centuries with a startlingly immediate voice.

Another reason would be simply to appreciate, in some measure, a poet whose influence over subsequent European poetry, and English poetry specifically, has been great. If the translations in this volume are representative (and they are consistent with what I found in the even more extensive collection Horace in English), an interest in re-expressing Horace’s poetry in English forms began in roughly the sixteenth century and has extended up to the present. This is not the same thing, of course, as saying that an interest in Horace began then; educated readers before the twentieth century could, and did, read him in the original, and he has been considered one of the great poets of our tradition since antiquity. Wikipedia has a nice potted history of his reception in European cultures.

*

[Complicated love]
No sooner hast thou, with false vows,
Provoked the powers above;
But thou art fairer than before
And we are more in love.
Thus Heaven and Earth seem to declare
They pardon falsehood in the fair.
(II, 8) [Sir Charles Sedley; 1701]

[The glory of the past]
Time sensibly all things impairs;
Our fathers have been worse than theirs;
And we than ours; next age will see
A race more profligate than we,
With all the pains we take, have skill enough to be.
(III, 6) [Wentworth Dillon; 1684]

[Against riches]
We barbarously call those bless’d
Who are of largest tenements possess’d,
Whilst swelling coffers break their owner’s rest.
More truly happy those, who can
Govern the little empire, man.
(IV, 9) [George Stepney; 1689]

Virgil: Georgics

April 25, 2019

Georgics
Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(FSG, 2005) [c.29 BC]
xx + 202 p.

Virgil wrote the Georgics a few years after his Eclogues and the two sets of poems share common ground, especially an admiration for rural life. Whereas the Eclogues were structured around rustic characters, the Georgics are much more interested in the nuts and bolts — or, I suppose it would be better to say, the grapes and olives — of farm life, and could be fairly described as outright didactic poems. I was reminded, more than once, of Cato the Elder’s “De agricultura”, not on account of the form, of course, for Virgil is infinitely more elegant, but of the subject matter.

There are four poems, or, it may be better to say, four divisions of one poem. The first is about agriculture: the sowing of crops, anticipation of storms, harvesting. The second is concerned with tree husbandry: types of trees, planting of trees, types of soil, grafting, and harvesting of fruit. The third transitions to the care and breeding of farm animals, both the nobler kind (horses and cows) and the more ignoble (goats, sheep), with an extended section on plague and diseases that can beset herds and flocks. The fourth, and for me the most enjoyable, is about bee-keeping.

We all know Virgil as the author of Aeneid. I must say that few things seem more unlikely than that he, our great epic poet, should, apart from that monumental achievement, be known for writing humble farm poems. It is as though a scriptwriter for a television nature program should then write “Hamlet”. Yet it is apparently so. Probably I am underselling Virgil’s accomplishments in these earlier poems, which I expect are exquisite in the Latin, and in which there is more going on than mere exposition, but, nonetheless, the contrast between this and that is striking.

Further to that point: my handy little Student’s Guide to Classics argues that the Georgics are actually comparable to the Aeneid in their exploration of “optimism about man’s ability to create order and pessimism about the disorder caused by his passions and appetites”. I would concur, at least, with the judgment that the creation of order is a major preoccupation of the poems. I’m unconvinced that the poems are especially focused on “passions and appetites” as sources of disorder; to my mind, they represent disorder as inherent in the natural world, from which order must be wrested.

A feature of these poems that particularly attracted my attention was the interplay in them of the quotidian and the sacred. Virgil may be describing something quite concrete and ordinary, like pruning a vine, but an attending god is rarely far off. Throughout the poems, tales from Greek and Roman mythology are interwoven with technical descriptions of farm management. The effect of this is, of course, to elevate the dignity of the farmer’s work, presided over so attentively by the gods, and also to convert the poems themselves into a celebration of Roman greatness in and through the primary Roman virtues, which since at least the time of Cincinnatus had been rooted in rural exemplars.

The presence of gods and heroes in these poems is especially striking in the fourth Georgic, which contains a long section relating the tale of Aristaeus (the Roman god of bee-keeping) and Proteus, during the course of which Proteus tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was here, in what is a very beautiful interlude, that I heard for the first time in these Georgics the voice of Virgil the epic poet. For all I know, it may have been on the strength of this very section that Virgil was chosen by Augustus to write the Aeneid.

Speaking of Augustus, he is everywhere in these poems. They open and close with references to him, whom Virgil portrays as the great patron of peace, and numerous deferential and laudatory remarks are made about him throughout. Thus the poems have a political dimension that sometimes feels merely sycophantic — emperors will be praised, after all — but sometimes seems more. The fourth Georgic, again, is interesting from this angle: in it, the bees are governed not by a queen but by a king, which makes me wonder whether we are to read this paean to the virtues of the hive as an allegory of the Roman empire? Or could it simply be that Augustan-age melittology was wayward in certain respects?

*

Virgil’s principal influences in these poems are Hesiod and Lucretius, both admired for their careful descriptions of natural phenomena. The Georgics have been read regularly between Virgil’s time and ours, albeit much less widely than has Aeneid. The first English translation was John Dryden’s, in 1697, and the poems enjoyed a heyday (or maybe a hay-day) of popularity in the eighteenth-century, with over 20 English translations published in that century alone. They inspired a modest echo in an English tradition of agricultural poetry, now dead, and were an influence on agrarian political and social movements at around the time of the American founding. The Wikipedia page is quite good at tracing the influence they have had.

It would have been nice to read Dryden’s translation, but for years I’ve had this David Ferry translation on my shelves and I decided the time was ripe to finally take it down. Ferry has rendered the poems into iambic pentameter, giving them a stately feel, and, like the Latin original, does not bother with rhymes. His English, however, is a good deal more verbose than the Latin (which in this edition is printed on the facing page), often running to at least 50% more lines. But this, I believe, is common in translations from Latin, and not counted a fault. I found Ferry quite good, in general, and excellent in the fourth poem, where his lines took on an aptly honey-golden sheen.

Virgil: Eclogues

March 25, 2019

Eclogues
Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
[c.40 BC] Second reading.

When I first read Virgil’s Eclogues, more than a decade ago, I confess that I was disappointed by them. I had expected more from the great poet of the Latin golden age than these, apparently, slight and inconsequential poems about shepherds and rustics. Now, revisiting them, it would be fair to say that I appreciate them more, but still an exaggeration to say they stir enthusiasm in my breast. It would be fair to say that I am still having trouble hearing the music in this Muse.

*

There are ten Eclogues, none very long, and, as advertised, they are mostly about shepherds and rustics. Half are dialogues (I, III, V, VII, IX); in a few, the characters play games of poetic one-upmanship, composing songs on cue. Others relate the joys or woes, often romantic, of their characters.

I am told that there are political subtexts to some of the poems; all were written during the reign of Octavian/Augustus, one of whose initiatives was the confiscation of lands in order that he could bestow them on the many soldiers he wished to retire from service. In many of the poems this ill treatment — from the shepherds’ perspective — is discernible in the background. This is the case, for instance, in the first eclogue. However, the overall impression is not a political one, at least if the poems are taken at face value.

Virgil was to become most famous for the Aeneid, and though it would be tendentious to argue without firmer grounds that that great epic was already gestating in his imagination, he does at one point himself suggest that his first instincts as a poet were not for the pastoral:

I first transferred to Rome Sicilian strains;
Nor blushed the Doric Muse to dwell on Mantuan plains.
But when I tried her tender voice, too young,
And fighting kings and bloody battles sung,
Apollo checked my pride, and bade me feed
My fattening flocks, nor dare beyond the reed.
(VI, 1-6)

Whether this, in itself, tells us anything about the quality of this bucolic poetry is doubtful, but I found it interesting.

The most famous of the Eclogues is the fourth, which celebrates the birth of a boy who brings a miraculous peace to a world in conflict:

The jarring nations he in peace shall bind,
And with paternal virtues rule mankind.
Unbidden earth shall wreathing ivy bring,
And fragrant herbs, (the promises of spring,)
As her first offerings to her infant king.

These marvels Virgil partly adapted from a Sibylline prophecy, and they were widely interpreted by Christian readers as making reference to the birth of Christ (though I know of none who thought that Virgil so intended them). The frequently beautiful imagery of this poem reminds a Christian reader of Isaiah’s prophecies:

The goats with strutting dugs shall homeward speed,
And lowing herds secure from lions feed.
His cradle shall with rising flowers be crowned:
The serpent’s brood shall die; the sacred ground
Shall weeds and poisonous plants refuse to bear;
Each common bush shall Syrian roses wear.

*

My better experience on this reading of the Eclogues is at least partly attributable to my choosing the Dryden translation, rather than (as before) the Guy Lee translation (from Penguin Classics). True, Virgil wrote in dactylic hexameter, whereas Dryden wrote in iambic pentameter, but if the goal was to match one high poetic style with another, Dryden succeeded. Lee’s Alexandrine verse (basically iambic hexameter) lacks the punch. Let’s compare a randomly chosen passage in the two translations. Here are the opening lines of the Eclogue VIII as rendered by Dryden:

The mournful muse of two despairing swains,
The love rejected, and the lovers’ pains;
To which the savage lynxes listening stood,
The rivers stood on heaps, and stopped the running flood;
The hungry herd the needful food refuse—
Of two despairing swains, I sing the mournful muse.

And here is Lee:

Muse of the shepherds Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Rivals, at whom the heifer marvelling forgot
Her pasture, by whose singing lynxes were enthralled
And running rivers, altering their courses, stilled,
We’ll tell of Damon’s and Alphesiboeus’ Muse.

To give Lee his due: he is much more careful to follow Virgil’s lead, taking fewer liberties. His five lines match Virgil’s five, whereas Dryden takes six, and still neglects to tell us the names of the two swains. But I still prefer Dryden’s stout eloquence over Lee’s sprawling lines.

*

Virgil inherited the tradition of pastoral poetry principally from the Greek Theocritus, even to the point of basing several of these poems on Theocritic originals. He cannot, therefore, be said, with complete accuracy, to be the “fount” of pastoral poetry in the West, but his reputation in the West so far outstrips that of his predecessor that we may, de facto, take these Eclogues as the spring from which sprang, in time, the Forest of Arden, the passionate Marlovian shepherd, and Beethoven’s sixth symphony. It is a rich heritage indeed, in which

Our woods, with juniper and chestnuts crowned,
With falling fruits and berries paint the ground;
And lavish Nature laughs, and strows her stores around.

The Exeter Book

January 28, 2019

The Exeter Book
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(U Penn, 2017)
300 p.

The Exeter Book is one of four principal surviving sources for Old English poetry, and, of those four, it is the largest. It is a tenth-century codex that has been part of the Exeter Cathedral library since 1072. It is the sole source for almost all of its contents.

The collections of Anglo-Saxon verse I’ve looked at previously — the Junius Manuscript and the Vercelli Book — consisted of, respectively, four and six poems. The Exeter Book, by contrast, contains about three dozen poems, most of them fewer than 150 lines long, and it also contains about 100 verse riddles. This makes it a very interesting and surprising collection, but also makes it rather hard to summarize. Instead, I will write briefly about a few of the poems that particularly attracted my attention.

*

The Book begins with one of the longest poems: a triptych called Christ, the parts of which are a set of meditations on Advent and the Nativity, the Ascension, and the Last Judgment. They are thematically linked, but are not necessarily — and, in fact, probably not — all the work of one poet.

The Advent poems are partly based on the O Antiphons. Here, as an example, is the beginning of the poem based on the antiphon O Oriens:

O Radiance of dawn, brightest of angels,
Messenger of morning, righteous and rising,
Bright light of truth, splendor of sun,
Brilliant beyond stars, imbuing middle-earth
With the grace of growth in all seasons —
You are the illumination and enlightenment
Of all time and the world’s endless turning,
You are the God begotten of God,
Separate and Self, Son of the Father,
Gift and blessing of high heaven,
A child born who has always been
Before beginning, beyond ending…
(V, 1-12)

That, even in translation, is a strong, dense meditation on Christ as the light of the world. (For readers unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon verse, you should be listening in this poetry for patterns of stressed syllables and alliteration in each line.)

Other of the Advent poems are in honour of Our Lady, such as the one which begins in this way:

O glorious maiden of middle-earth,
Purest of women, most precious queen,
How wisely and justly do all speech-bearers
Praise your name and bless your birthing
With joy in their hearts, delighting and saying
That you are the blessed bride of God,
Lord of the sky, Ruler of heaven.
The attendants of Christ, servants of God,
Proclaim and sing that with your virtue,
You are the Lady of the glorious hosts,
Hallowed in heaven by his primacy and power,
And Lady under heaven of all earthly hosts,
Even those dwelling in hell.
(IX, 1-13)

For me, this is fine devotional poetry, and I intend to revisit these Advent poems again during the Advent season.

The middle section of Christ describes the Ascension, but briefly. The bulk of the poem, apart from bridge sections which link it backward to the nativity poem and forward to the last judgement, is devoted to a charming plan I’ve never encountered before: the “seven leaps” of Christ. The “leaps” in question are (1) from heaven to the womb, (2) out of the womb, (3) onto the cross, (4) from the cross to the tomb, (5) the descent into hell, (6) out of the tomb, and (7) the ascent into heaven. It’s a delightful poem.

The final section of Christ is a stirring depiction of the judgment of the damned and the blessed, written with strong imaginative power.

**

Juliana is one of the few saints’ lives in The Exeter Book. St Juliana of Nicomedia was one of the martyrs of the early Church; she suffered under Diocletian. The poem is probably the work of Cynewulf, one of the few Anglo-Saxon poets whose name has come down to us.

The poem relates how St Juliana refused to marry a pagan and was, as a result, abused and imprisoned. She was visited in prison by a demon who, disguised as an angel, tempted her to compromise, and much of the poem is devoted to their dialogue. It is wonderfully done. The demon is marvellously suave and persuasive, which is already excellent, but, better still, Juliana sees through him immediately. Indeed, she is so feisty that her first response is to leap and throttle him! (One imagines, here, and with gratification, a correspondingly vigorous response were she confronted with one of our oily churchmen!) In any case, in what follows “the radiant maiden” forces the “hell-sprite, man’s fierce foe” to reveal himself and confess his evil intentions before she sends him back to hell:

Then the maiden released that soul-slayer
After his time of torment in the dark abyss.
The dread demon was a bearer of bad news,
Bound to tell the revolting truth
To a host of torturers, the tribe of hell.
That was not a good journey for him.
(561-6)

I would rank Juliana with the best of the saints’ lives known to me. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

**

The Exeter Book also contains a number of poems which scholars call “elegies” on account of their generally meditative tone and non-narrative subject matter. Later English poetry would make this type of poem more familiar to us; it is poetry that tries to capture a mood or feeling.

A good example is The Wanderer, written from the point of view of a man exiled from his home. It conveys a powerful sense of sadness and longing for what cannot be had again. The poet, bereft of home, sees that ultimately everyone shares his fate:

The wise warrior knows how ghostly it will be
When all this world’s wealth is a wasteland,
As middle-earth is now in many places —
Wall fragments stand, blasted by winds,
Covered by frost — ruined hallways in snow.
Wine-halls decay, lords lie dead,
Deprived of joys — the proud troop
Has fallen by the wall. War took some
On a long death-road; a bird bore one
Over the deep sea; the gray wolf shared
One with death; a sad-faced earl
Hid one in an earth-hole, a bleak barrow.
So the Maker of men laid waste to the world,
Until the old works of giants stood idle
And empty of the hall-joys of men.
(78-92)

Other poems of this kind in The Exeter Book include “The Seafarer”, “The Wife’s Lament”, and “The Ruin”. This is a side of Old English poetry that I have not encountered before.

**

One of the most unusual and intriguing poems in this collection is “The Rhyming Poem”. It is unusual because — it rhymes! This in addition to maintaining the usual requirements of Anglo-Saxon verse, of course. It is, as one can imagine, one of the most difficult poems to render into modern English, and Craig Williamson, so able and fluent in general, confesses his inability to do the original justice. I reluctantly agree with him. For example:

The will is weak, desire droops and curls,
No-faith follows, the heart heaves
Its last, its least — all harrows, all hallows.
Joy fades, lordships fall. Sin spreads
Its wide net, shame serves, pleasure pains.
Thus the world winds down. Hope drowns.
(55-60)

The original’s rhyming couplets are entirely missing, though he has managed to give us some internal rhymes. The style has become compressed and gnomic, though it is hard to know if this is a feature of the original poem or just an artifact of the effort to cram in all the poetry.

In any case, it is good to know that there is at least one rhyming poem in the Old English corpus.

**

Finally, I will say a few words about the dozens of riddles. Riddling is a poetic pastime that, unfortunately, has not had a distinguished career in subsequent English poetry. Tolkien gave us some rhyming riddles in The Hobbit, and I’ve little doubt he did so inspired by these Anglo-Saxon exemplars.

Here is one example, to give the flavour of the thing:

Head down, nosing — I belly the ground.
Hard snuffle and grub, I bite and furrow —
Drawn by the dark enemy of forests,
Driven by a bent lord who hounds my trail,
Who lifts and lowers me, rams me down,
Pushes on plain, and sows seed.
I am a ground-skulker, born of wood,
Bound by wizards, brought on wheel.
My ways are weird: as I walk, one flank
Of my trail is gathering green; the other
Is bright black. Through my back and belly,
A sharp sword thrusts; through me head,
A dagger is stuck like a tooth: what I slash
Falls in a curve of slaughter to one side
If my driving lord slaves well.
(Riddle 19)

Solutions to the riddles are not given in the Book, though in his notes Williamson solves them, or at least describes the solutions that have been proposed. (Some of the riddles, like the one above, are easy to solve, but some have never been solved conclusively.)

A few of the riddles rely on double-entendres for their misdirection. An example is Riddle 25.

I must say that in general I found the riddles to be great fun, but I was only able to solve a handful of them on my own.

**

As I said at the top, there is far too much in The Exeter Book for a blog post to handle. Reading through all these poems has been rewarding for me. Typically I would close my day by sitting down and reading one or two, more than once wishing that I had a scop to sing them to me! Those interested in learning more could profitably consult the Wikipedia page, which includes links to individual pages for roughly half of the poems.

Next in this collection of Old English poetry is Williamson’s translation of Beowulf. I’m looking forward to it.

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.