Love is Finite, We Grow Old


Pierre Bonnard. A Man and a Woman. 1900.

I put my reading of Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets on hold while on a delightful trip to London this past week. I’ve picked up Schmidt’s narrative again with his insightful description of Andrew Marvell’s poetry:

“Marvell’s verse delivers sharp surprises in part because of its quietness. Surprises emerge, they are insisted on. He seems always to be recognizing significance in what he sees. His whole mind is engaged along with his senses. His intensity is awareness; even as he speaks he is aware of things he might have said. The classics shaped his poems, but scripture is never far away. He doesn’t discharge his poems but launches them quietly.”

“His verse is urbane, detached, with recurrent motifs and words and a recognizable tone that distinguishes it from the work of other Metaphysicals. He has his own themes, too. Wise passivity marks some poems, which leads to closeness with the natural world as his imagination relaxes and receives. Other poems strive for contact through passion or activity, a kind of contact in which individuality is lost in the teeming variety of the world. Underlying these themes is the knowledge that in love or action time can’t be arrested or permanence achieved. A sanctioned social order can be ended with an axe, love is finite, we grow old.”

One of my favorite Marvell poems that came to mind and that I keep rereading because of Schmidt’s writing is “The Definition of Love”

My love is of a birth as rare
As ‘tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d It’s tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannical pow’r depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramped into a planisphere.

As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously Debra’s,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

 

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The Hippocratic Corpus: A Wandering Uterus and Fox Possession

The Hippocratic Corpus is a collection of dozens of Ancient Greek texts which were originally attributed to Hippocrates but were actually written by several unknown authors from the sixth through the fourth centuries B.C.E.  The writings contain an astonishingly wide range of descriptions of bodily functions, ailments of different body parts, and cures for diseases.  The section entitled “Diseases of Women,” for instance, describes the uterus which the physicians believed did not stay in one part of a woman’s body but instead wandered around causing great pain and discomfort.  Movements of the uterus within the body can include towards the head, the heart, the liver, the hips, or the bladder (137 L—translation of the Ancient Greek is my own):

Of all the diseases pertaining to the uterus that come about for a woman, I say this: whenever the uterus is set in motion away from its space, sometimes falling in one direction and sometimes in another direction, and where it comes to fall, causes this spot severe bodily pain.  And if it comes to fasten itself to the bladder, it causes bodily pain and does not accept urine, and it does not draw in any seed to itself.  And if both uterus and bladder suffer, and if a swift release does not come about, then in time the uterus will rot in that same spot and it will wither away.

As I was reading Christine Wunnicke’s latest book, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, the author’s descriptions of women who were said to be possessed by a fox seemed eerily similar to the wandering womb described by the Hippocratic physicians.   In Wunnicke’s mythical, mystical, and at times bizarre tale, a late nineteenth-century Japanese doctor is sent to remote areas of the Shimane prefecture to cure women of fox possession. The book begins at the end, as Dr. Shimamura’s career as a renowned neurologist has passed, and his memories of curing fox possession and other forms of female hysteria are told in a feverish state from his sick bed. His hazy memories also bring us through his time in Europe, where he meets and studies with other famous doctors, Charcot and Breuer, who have an interest in ailments that particularly affect females.

For my complete review of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura and the connections between fox possession and Ancient Greek medicine, please follow this link to the Music & Literature website:   http://www.musicandliterature.org/reviews/2019/3/27/christine-wunnickes-the-fox-and-dr-shimamura

Thanks to Taylor and David, who were a true pleasure to work with, for publishing my piece.

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Lives of the Poets: Donne and Milton

I still making my way through Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets.  I can only read about 20 or 30 pages a week because I keep stopping to read the poems he discusses in his text.  What is equally fascinating are the details he chooses to include in his brief biological sketches of each poet.  The poets from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries have some common threads: poverty, affairs, political intrigue and imprisonment in The Tower.  But he also works in stories and anecdotes that I have not typically encountered when reading about these poets.  My two favorite chapters, so far, are those describing the lives of Donne and Milton.

John Donne, like many of the poets from the 17th century including Herbert, Marvell and Vaughan, did not consider themselves professional writers.  His manuscripts were circulated among a small group of friends but most knew him as a political and religious orator and not as a poet.  One of Donne’s preoccupations was with death and how his demise would be handled by his relatives when he passed from this earth.  Schmidt writes, “Most men allowed their survivors to bury the as they thought appropriate.  Donne took his death into his own hands.  The rehearsals as much as the memorial tell us more about him than we could learn from the rooms he lived in.”  Schmidt goes on to quote from Izaac Walton’s “Life of Donne”:

Dr. Donne sent for a carver to make for him in wood the figure of an urn, giving him directions for the compass and height of it; and to bring with it a board of the just height of his body.  These being got, then without delay a choice painter was got to be in readiness to draw his picture, which was taken as followeth.—Several charcoal fires being first maed in his large study, he brought with him into that place his winding-sheet in his hand, and, having put off all his clothes, had this sheet put on him, and so tied with knots at his head and feet, and his hands so placed, as dead bodies are usually fitted to be shrouded and put into their coffin, or grave.  Upon this urn he thus stood with his eyes shut, and with so much of the sheet turned aside as might show his lean, pale and deathlike face.”

I will never look at Donne poem the same again after reading these morbid, and somewhat creepy, details.

The biographical summary of Milton’s life includes more charming personal stories.  For example,  Milton’s father encouraged his son to read and, “If Milton as a boy of nine of ten wanted to read late, his father made sure that a maid sat up with him until midnight and after.”  The details of his education I found especially interesting:

When he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1625 he found the place disappointing, the curriculum dry and narrow.  He craved a broader, more liberal education than was offered.  He composed Latin poems in the manner of Ovid and Horace, epigrams, a Latin mock-epic on the Gunpowder Plot, Italian sonnets, more English paraphrases of the Psalms, and the eleven stanzas “On the Death of a Fair Infant Dying of a Cough.” His Latin elegies are in some ways his most personal utterances, including details of his life and thought not recorded elsewhere.  He was at the time as much at home in Latin as in English verse.

I’ve tracked down some of his Latin which I will try to translate for myself.  And Schmidt has also inspired me to reread Paradise Lost which I haven’t looked at since I was an undergraduate.  At this rate I will be spending my time with Schmidt’s book for the better part of this year…

 

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This Furious Influence: Ovid’s Banquet of Sense by George Chapman

Even at only a few hundred pages in, I’ve discovered so many literary gems from reading Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets.  One of my favorite discoveries so far has been Chapman’s poem “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense.”  I have long been familiar with Chapman’s translations of Homer, but he is a brilliant poet when he is composing his own verses.

“Ovid’s Banquet of Sense” is a description of the Roman poet’s feast of  senses that is trigged when he see Corinna bathing naked in her garden.  Chapman explains that Corinna is a pseudonym for Julia, the Emperor Augustus’s daughter, who has walked into the courtyard where she proceeds to bath, play the lute and sing, all of which Ovid observes hidden by a arbor. His first sense that is stimulated by her is his sight:

Then cast she off her robe and stood upright,
As lightning breaks out of a labouring cloud;
Or as the morning heaven casts off the night,
Or as that heaven cast off itself, and show’d
Heaven’s upper light, to which the brightest day
Is but a black and melancholy shroud;
Or as when Venus strived for sovereign sway
Of charmful beauty in young Troy’s desire,
So stood Corinna, vanishing her ‘tire.

Then his sense of hearing is delighted as she sings a lovely song and plays the flute, “Never was any sense so set a fire/With an immortal ardour, as mine ears.” But my favorite piece of the poem is the description of Ovid’s sense of smell when it takes in Corinna’s perfumes as she bathes:

Come, sovereign odours, come
Restore my spirits now in love consuming,
Wax hotter, air, make them more favoursome,
My fainting life with fresh-breath soul perfuming.
The flames of my disease are violent,
And many perish on late helps presuming,
With which hard fate must I stand content,
As odours put in fire most richly smell,
So men must burn in love that will excel.

When Corinna is finished with her bath, she looks into a mirror and accidentally sees Ovid in the reflection. When he is caught spying on her he not only asks for forgiveness but convinces her to give him a kiss. All of his senses are so consumed with her by the end of the poem that he vows to write and dedicate his Amores to her.

Her moving towards him made Ovid’s eye
Believe the firmament was coming down
To take him quick to immortality,
And that th’ Ambrosian kiss set on the crown;
She spake in kissing, and her breath infused
Restoring syrup to his taste, in swoon:
And he imagined Hebe’s hands had bruised
A banquet of the gods into his sense,
Which fill’d him with this furious influence.

Although there are multiple allusions to the Metamorphoses, Chapman’s ability to capture the sensuality, atmosphere, and tone of the Amores is what impressed me the most about his poem. I was especially reminded of Amores 1.5 which I have been inspired to translate…

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Why I translate Ancient Languages

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προί̈αψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

Wrath—sing goddess, about the wrath of
Achilles, son of Peleus, a destructive
wrath that brought unbearable grief to
the Achaeans, and which sent many brave
souls of heroes to Hades, and left their
bodies as carrion for dogs and vultures,
the will of Zeus was carried out.

These first five lines of the Iliad are, to me, some of the most profound, beautiful, emotional and simple lines in all of classical literature. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was translating Homer, someone commented, “The field is already populated with several translations. What are they missing and what is new yours is bringing to the table?”

First, “several” translations is an understatement.  Homer has been translated by countless people since Ancient Greek was rediscovered in the Middle Ages!  I have no intention of sharing a full translation of my work because, for me, translation is a very personal matter. I oftentimes print out the text and make notes or jot down bits of translations on a notebook or scraps of paper. Oftentimes I translate silently to myself, or out loud when I ask one of the other two people I know who also know Ancient Greek what they think of a particular translation.  My translations, I guess, are truly ephemeral.

And what I saw in a text like Homer, when I first encountered him at the age of nineteen, is very different from how I experience his works now.  Very different.   But the point of the exercise  for me is to interact with the text. Nothing focuses my attention—especially when I am sad or stressed out, etc.—like an ancient text. The cases, the word order, the verb tenses, the vocabulary—it is an all-consuming experience for me. The few translations I do share on my blog are, once again, very personal renderings of some of my favorite ancient texts, but certainly not read by a wide audience. Every once in a great while I will do a translation on request for someone; and even more rarely I will do a translation for a particular person as a sort of gift. But, once again, these are personal exchanges and experiences, usually only done for an audience of one.

So, what are other translations missing?  Well, not necessarily anything. But they aren’t my own….

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