Monthly Archives: April 2018

May you Strain your Wine: Horace Ode 1.11

Nicolo dell’Abate. The Death of Eurydice. about 1552-71. Oil on Canvas.

I haven’t translated or given Horace’s Odes very much attention since I was an undergrad.  But this week I’ve been drawn back to his poetry.  I offer my translation of Ode 1.11, one of his famous Carpe Diem poems which embrace Epicurean philosophy.

May you not seek to know, for to know is not right,
what end the gods might give to you or to me,
Leuconoe*, and may you not probe the Babylonian
astrologers either. How much better to endure
whatever will be, regardless of whether or not Jupiter
has alloted for us many winters or one last winter, a season
which weakens the Tyrrhenian sea with its opposing rocks:
May you be wise, may you strain your wine*, and because
of a brief life, may you cut back a long hope. While
we speak, envious time flees: embrace the day,
believing in the future as little as possible.

*Leucone is from the Ancient Greek adjective λευκός (leukos) meaning light, bright, clear. In relation to days it means bright, special, happy.

*vina liques, “May you strain your wine.” Before drinking it, wine was strained through a cloth or strainer to remove the sediment.

For the extra curious, here is Horace’s Latin text:

Tu ne quesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius, quidquid erit, pati,
seu pluris hiems eu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitate pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum: spias, vina liques, et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

 

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τι μέγεθος: Some Kind of Magnitude in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss

In the early chapters of The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot describes Maggie, her young, feisty and vivacious heroine: “There were passions at war in Maggie at that moment to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passions only; but the essential τι μέγεθος (some kind of magnitude) which was present in the passion was wanted to the action.”

τι μέγεθος is a phrase from Aristotle’s Poetics* which he uses to describe an action of “some kind of magnitude” that is an essential part of any tragedy.  Maggie has a passion for life that makes her charge forward into deeds and actions that other “nice” little girls would never dare.  The descriptions of her mop of wild, thick hair and her darker skin also make her stand out amongst other girls her age.  One of my favorite scenes that demonstrates Maggie’s unbridled spirit and her refusal to conform to expectations is when she listens to the music from her Uncle Pullet’s snuff-box.  She can’t sit quietly and listen like the other children, but immediately jumps up and expresses the emotions stirred up through the music by grasping her older brother, Tom: “But when the magic music ceased, she jumped up, and, running towards Tom, put her arm around his neck and said,  ‘O, Tom, isn’t it pretty.'”  Unfortunately for Maggie, Tom had a glass of cowslip wine in his hand which was spilled during Maggie’s enthusiastic embrace.  As a result, Maggie is, once again, subject to a litany of scolding from the adults:

‘Why don’t you sit still, Maggie?’ her mother said, peevishly.

‘Little gells mustn’t come to see me if they behave in that way,’ said aunt Pullet.

‘Why, you’re too rough, little miss,’ said uncle Pullet.

But these numerous reprimands never deter Maggie or dampen her spirit and I find myself admiring the girl because of her bravery.  Eliot is obviously foreshadowing an event that will be much more tragic, of some kind of greater magnitude for her heroine.  I am glad to have this book to keep me company on what is supposed to be a lovely spring weekend here in New England.  I would enjoy hearing about what others are reading this weekend.  Let me know in the comments.

 

*Aristotle Poetics 1450b: κεῖται δὴ ἡμῖν τὴν τραγῳδίαν τελείας καὶ ὅλης πράξεως εἶναι μίμησιν ἐχούσης τι μέγεθος. (It occurs to us that tragedy is the mimesis (imitation) of a complete and whole action and some kind of magnitude.)

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in the kitchen it is cold: Requiem for Ernst Jandl by Friederike Mayröcker

Friederike Mayröcker and Ernst Jandl lived together from 1954 until Jandl’s death in 2000. They were lovers, companions, friends and creative partners; as we read Mayröcker’s elegy to Jundl the feeling of being lost and bewildered without him pervades her text. In a partnership that spans more than forty years, it’s fascinating to see what images and thoughts she brings to her poetic reflection on their time together. After spending so much of her life and her passions with him, how could she possibly choose what to write about in order to honor properly their memories?

One of my favorite pieces in the book is a reflection on a poem fragment that Jandl writes that is stuffed, with many other literary fragments, into his desk. In the winter of ’88 the two are painstakingly excavating the contents of his desk and Mayröcker recollects:

Afternoon after afternoon, actually the entire
winter of ’88, we are absorbed in
viewing, approving, conserving what
has been written down. And then, suddenly,
one day I come across four lines
dashed off in pencil:

in the kitchen it is cold
winter has an awful hold
mother’s left her stove of course
and i shiver like a horse.

She goes on to connect the poem to her current state of grief over Jandl’s passing:

The last line, which informs of the most
profound abandonment, aloneness, exclusion
seeking solace in an attempt
to identify with that mute creature—a carriage
horse in winter’s cold depths, standing
in one place for hours, head hanging, in no
one’s care, waiting for a human to get it
going—is so poignant.

And it is the very last line of the poem that haunts Mayröcker:

This line: mother is not at her stove:
conveys the damnable utterly graceless
transience and finiteness of this life, mother
is not at her stove—where did she go.

I’ve read two other books on grief recently: Will Daddario’s To Grieve and Max Porter’s Grief is a Thing with Feathers. Of all these, Mayrocker’s text elicited the most emotional response from me. Her multifaceted response to grief in all its forms—emotional, philosophical, social—struck a nerve.

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Love’s Obstacles: Subleyras’s Diana and Endymion

Diana and Endymion. by Pierre Subleyras. 1740 Oil on Canvas.

When visiting a large museum like The Met or a gallery as immense as The National Gallery my habit is to wander though the collections and see what catches my eye.  During my recent visit to The National Gallery while I was in London, I kept circling back and spending time with Pierre Subleyras’s painting of Diana and Endymion.  The image reminded me of Ovid and his various descriptions of transformations in the Metamporhoses, especially as they relate to the theme of love.   There are many variations of the myth, but I suspect Subleyras had in mind the version in which Endymion is an Aeolian shephard who captures the attention of the goddess Diana. What makes the story particularly striking is that Diana is a virginal goddess but her attraction to Endymion  overrides her proclivity for solitude.  (It is even said in one myth that the couple bear fifty daughters.) Diana asks Jupiter to give Endymion eternal youth and he is also placed in a cave where Diana can visit him every night and admire him in his sleep which is her favorite way to view him.

I find it fascinating that Ovid doesn’t include this story as part of the Metamorphoses, but instead writes a few poignant and striking lines about Endymion in Heroides XVIII.  Ovid composes a letter from Leander, a young man who sneaks out of the house at night to swim the Hellespont so he can be with and make love to a young woman named Hero.  Hero, a devotee of Venus, lives in a tower and lights a lamp each night for Leander so he can find his way to her.  As Leander is reminiscing about his noctural swims, he invokes the image of Endymion and Diana (translation of Heroides XVIII.57-66 is my own):

No more delay, instead I threw off my clothes

along with my fear and I launch my pliant

arms through the liquid sea.  The moon, like a

dutiful companion along my path, was offering

her trembling light to me as I was gliding along.

And I, looking up at her, said, “May you,

oh shining goddess, support me and may the

rocks of Latmos rise up in your mind.  Endymion

does not allow you to be severe in your heart.  Turn

your face, I pray, to help me in my secret love. You, as

a goddess, glided down from heaven to seek a mortal

love.  May it be permitted for me to speak the truth!—-

The woman whom I pursue is herself a goddess.

As I am drawn back again and again to that peaceful look on Endymion’s face in the Subleyras painting, I can’t help but think that he must have been a soothing presence for Diana.  As I contemplate the painting in relation to both of these myths, their many parallels make themeselves evident; if Diana wouldn’t let a little thing like mortality stand in the way of love, then Leander can’t let geography or  the sea impede his way either.  If only Endymionis somnium dormire (to sleep the sleep of Endymion.)

For the extra curious, here is a link to the Latin text: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.her18.shtml

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