Category Archives: British Literature

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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Go, litel bok: Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt

With Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt takes up the daunting task of tracing the history of English poetry from the Middle Ages to the present. His engaging style of writing has immediately drawn me into this wonderful book. He writes:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully.

Schmidt’s point about pedigree and influence was proven for me almost immediately in his book with the chapter on Chaucer. The early English poets of the fourteenth century were struggling to break free from the literary supremacy of both Latin and French but, by including the introduction to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Schmidt shows that although he chooses to write in English, Chaucer’s Latin ancestors are never far from his mind:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, or that he dye,
So sende might to make it som comedye!
But litel book, so making thow n’envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

The references to Ancient Epic authors is quite obvious, but there is also a hidden allusion in these lines to Catullus that Schmidt doesn’t mention. Catullus was not widely read in this period, but the discovery of his manuscript in 1300 does make it slightly possible that Chaucer know about Catullus’s own libellum (little book) and his introductory poem which is also self-deprecating. In Carmen 1, Catullus begins his collection of poetry(translation is my own):

To whom should I dedicate my new, charming, little book
that I just polished with my dry pumice stone? To you,
Cornelius, you who used to think that my petty scribblings
were actually worth something.

I’ve always suspected that Catullus knows the worth of his talent and that this modesty in the dedication is feigned. Schmidt’s discussion of Chaucer has me wondering the same thing about the English author and his “litel bok.”

I took a British Literature course which was required when I was in high school and I credit this course with making me the reader I have become as far as classic literature is concerned. The first work we read in the class was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which captivated my 16-year-old attention. I haven’t read Chaucer, unfortunately, since I was a teenager, and a pleasant side effect of Schmidt’s book is the rediscovery of old favorites. My plan is to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as well as Gower’s Confessio Amantis from the same time period.

Last week when I translated Catullus Carmen 1 with my Latin students, I also read to them Chaucer’s lines from Troilus and Criseyde. Not a single student knew who Chaucer was; British Literature is not a required course. So sad…

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Living Poetic Matter: Catullus Carmen 51

Catullus at Lesbia’s. by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema. 1865

It has been argued that Catullus translates and borrows Sappho Poem 31 to describe the first time he sees his lover Clodia (pseudonym Lesbia) at a party.  In Carmen 51, the Roman poet describes Clodia sitting by an unidentified man (perhaps her husband?) talking and laughing and Catullus is captivated by her presence and experiences what many might call love at first sight (translation is my own):

That man seems to me to be just like a god,
or, if I can get away with saying it,  he is even
better than a god, because of the fact that he
gets to sit near you, and watch you, and continually
listen to your sweet laughter.  But the sight of you and
the sound of your voice destroys all of my miserable
senses; for whenever I lay eyes upon you, Lesbia,
everything else in the world ceases to exist—my
tongue is tied, a delicate flame burns beneath my
limbs, my ears start ringing with a strange sound,
and both of my eyes are covered in complete
darkness.

Louis Zukofsky, in A Test of Poetry, dedicates a chapter of his fascinating little book to presenting different translations of the same passage of an ancient author—Homer, Ovid, Catullus—and provides a brief analysis and commentary on these translations.  For a comparison of different translations of Catullus 51 he presents first Lord Byron’s rendition (1807):

Ah! Lesbia! Though tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee;
But, at the sight, my senses fly,
I needs must gaze, but, gazing, die;
Whilst trembling with a thousand fears,
Parch’d to the throat my tongue adheres,
My pulse beats quick, my breath heaves short,
My limbs deny their slight support;
Cold dews my pallid face o’erspread,
With deadly languor droops my head,
My ears with tingling echoes ring,
And life itself is on the wing,
My eyes refuse the cheering light,
Their orbs are veil’d in starless night:
Such pangs my nature sinks beneath,
And feels a temporary death.

And then Sir Philip Sidney’s translation (1579):

My muse, what ails this ardour?
Mine eyes be dim, my limbs shake,
My voice is hoarse, my throat scorched
My tongue to this my roof cleaves
My fancy amazed, my thoughts dulled
My hearth doth ache, my life faints
My soul begins to take leave.

Zukofsky comments, “Evidently there must be some living poetic matter in the poem of Sappho which has attracted the attention of other poets.” It’s interesting to me that both Byron and Sidney’s poems veer into hyperbole by equating love with death. I don’t think that Catullus meant to push the limits of his metaphor quite that far. His focus on the loss of his senses suggest that love, for him, is a disease, and he is fainting from his symptoms. He’s not dead yet, he’s just “sick!” I also prefer the brevity and repetition of Sidney’s version over Byron’s expanded, rhyming verses.

Zukofsky sums up the reasons why we continue to translation and interpret and identify with poems that are more than 2,0000 years old:

A valuable poetic tradition does not gather mold; it has a continuous life based on work of permanent interest (quality). This tradition involves a knowledge of more than English poetry and the English language. Not all the great poems were written in English. There are other languages.

There are all kinds of measure (metre) in verse. No measure can be bad it if is a true accompaniment of the literal and suggestive sense of the words.

 

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Everlasting Mannish Explanations: Deadlock by Dorothy Richardson

It seemed fitting this week that I was reading a book called Deadlock since both the U.S. and the U.K. are involved in awful, political stalemates. The deadlock, however, to which Dorothy Richardson is referring in her sixth chapter of Pilgrimage, is one that involves gender. Miriam is living on her own in a boarding house in London and fully supporting herself. She does not follow any of the expected norms for a female at the beginning of the 20th century—she is not dependent on any man, via marriage or other means, has no children and does not rely on extended family to assist her. Her life is completely her own and, as such, she makes some important observations about men and how they treat her.

Many of Miriam’s conversations in this book take place between her and a young, Russian Jew that is also staying at Mrs. Bailey’s boarding house in London. Mr. Shatov is an intellectual man who is very curious about English culture and their friendship grows through mutual interests in philosophy, language and literature. In a discussion about the different ways that men and women approach debate and arguments Miriam says to him, “That’s why arguments are so maddening; even small discussions; people go rushing on, getting angrier and angrier, talking about quite different things, especially men, because they never want to get at the truth, only to score a point.” In a different discussion with Mr. Shatov she uses Darwin to make her point about how men argue: “Someone will discover some day that Darwin’s conclusions were wrong, that he left out some little near obvious thing with big results, and his theory, which has worried thousands of people nearly to death, will turn out to be one of those everlasting mannish explanations of everything that explain nothing.” I think nowadays we have coined the phrase “mansplaining” for this sort of things. And when Miriam does speak up for herself against men, she runs into quite a bit of trouble so we can hardly blame her for having such opinions.

Another guest at the boarding house, Mr. Lahitte, a French gentlemen who is an expert of Spanish literature, asks Miriam to read his manuscript for a lecture that he would be delivering to an English audience. Mr. Lahitte’s delivery of his argument is bombastic, overwrought and superficial. Miriam gently tries to suggest that he make his speech appear more natural but she runs into his stubborn male ego. He insists that he is “master” of the subject and that “a certain bravura is imperative.” He pays her for her time and her help but it is unclear whether or not he actually takes any of her suggestions. She appears to be at a deadlock with this rather insistent, pompous, academic.

Miriam also dares to take up an argument with her employer, Dr. Hancock, whom she feels treats his female employees unfairly. She does many extra tasks around the office for the doctors, such looking after their library book lists, for which she receives no acknowledgement. When the doctor chides her for not carrying out one of these extra, non-work related tasks Miriam speaks up for herself and is frank with the doctor in a way that he would never expect from a woman:

I told him that in the future I would have nothing to do with his Mudie books. It was outside my sphere. I also said all sorts of things that came into my head in the train, a whole long speech. About unfairness. And to prove my point to him individually, I told him of things that were unfair to me and their other employees in the practice about the awfulness of having to be there first thing in the morning from the country after a weekend-end. They don’t. They sail off to their expensive week-ends without even saying good-bye, and without even thinking whether we can manage to have any sort of recreation at all on our salaries. I said that, and also that I objected to spend a large part of a busy Monday morning arranging the huge bunches of flowers he brought back from the country.

There has been a lot of debate recently about what has been termed “emotional labor”—the idea that women often take on extra, thankless and unnoticed tasks in the workplace and at home. It’s not surprising that Richardson’s observations about the division of tasks along the lines of gender at home and at work are still relevant in the 21st century. Unfortunately for Miriam, the doctors are so shocked by her blunt speech that they decide to sack her. There is an implication in the text, through her conversations with Mr. Shatov, that English men, in particular, do not appreciate a forward or unreserved woman who speaks her mind. Miriam has to apologize to save her job; she ends up in a deadlock with her employers, and no better off than she was before.

Mr. Shatov, however, is a counterexample to these other men; he is eager to debate with her and encourages her to speak her mind. He takes her to lectures and to his favorite German restaurant where he introduces her to beer. He also encourages her to start work as a translator and to sell her work to a publisher. It is not surprising that they fall in love. But their relationship ends up at an impasse not because of their different cultures or religions, but due to a personal revelation that Mr. Shatov makes to Miriam about his past. Whatever this indiscretion was—it is only hinted at in the text—-Miriam cannot get past it. Her final deadlock in the book is the most heartbreaking of all: “If only she could convey to him all that was in her mind, going back again and again endlessly to some central unanswerable assertion, the truth would be out. Stated. At last one man brought to book, arrested and illuminated. But what was it? That men are not worthy of women? He would agree, and remain pleading. That men never have, never can understand the least thing about even the worst woman in the world?” I did feel deeply sorry for Mr. Shatov who was attempting to be genuinely honest with Miriam and felt that he was doing the right thing by telling her about embarrassing details of his past. Her own prejudices and expectations, I think, turn out to be unrealistic and she loses a good man as a result.

On a final note, I’ve read this week that the death of the book blog has been announced by the Powers that Be. Once again, it seems fitting that I (who study two dead languages) am writing about a largely neglected, dead author, on what has been declared a dead medium.

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He Kept his Spirits Down on Purpose: Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys

George Steiner has famously compared Powys’s writing to Tolstoy but when reading Wolf Solent I had the feeling I was occupying a world similar to those created by Dorothy Richardson or Virginia Woolf. The eponymous character of the novel, thirty-five year-old Wolf Solent, has been fired from his job as a history teacher at a grammar school in London. He finds new employment in Ramsgard as a literary assistant to a peculiar old squire who is writing a scandalous history of Dorset as well as a part time position in another grammar school. We view the world of Dorset and its quirky residents through Wolf’s private thoughts and meditations. The term “stream-of-consciousness” can be applied to the narrative, a central part of which is concerned with what Wolf calls his personal “mythology.” He enjoys taking long walks, communing with nature, and avoiding the complexities and entanglements of human society:

He asked himself lazily why it was that he found nature, especially this simple pastoral nature that made no attempt to be grandiose or even picturesque, so much more thrilling than any human society he had ever met. He felt as if he enjoyed at that hour some primitive life-feeling that was identical with what those pollard elms felt, against whose ribbed trunks the gust of wind were blowing, or with what these shiny celandine-leaves felt, whose world was limited to tree-roots and fern-fronds and damp, dark mud!

The aspect of Powys’s writing that particularly reminded me of Richardson’s Pilgrimage is the gaps or silences in the text that the reader must fill in. For example, Wolf’s newly discovered half-sister, Mattie, has a crying fit at a dinner just before her wedding. Another guest at the table mentions the wedding preparations and Mattie bursts into tears and calls for her long-dead mother. Wolf doesn’t ask any questions or wonder what is going on with his sister but, instead, he simply gets up and excuses himself from the house. So we are left, on our own, to wonder if Mattie is having a case of prenuptial nerves, is having second thoughts about her fiancé, or is just emotional because of the stress of planning a wedding. There are many such gaps in the text, some of the most interesting of which involve Wolf’s young wife, Gerda.

Wolf’s “mythology” which has kept him sheltered from the harsh realities of human life, is shattered when he settles into a rural, English town in Dorset. Hints of murder, suicide, incest, and love affairs disturb the quiet recesses of his mind into which he likes to withdraw. The various scandals in Dorset read like a Greek tragedy as Powys is fond of dabbling in the same taboo topics with which ancient mythology dealt. And whenever Wolf is upset he utters, “Ailinon!”, the ritual cry used by the distressed chorus in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. But the greatest destruction to Wolf’s peace-of-mind is the result of his own choices: he decides to marry Gerda, the beautiful eighteen-year-old daughter of the local tombstone carver which he very soon regrets: “This killing of his ‘mythology’ how could he survive it? His ‘mythology’ had been his escape from life, his escape into a world where machinery could not reach him, his escape into a deep, green, lovely world where thoughts unfolded themselves like large, beautiful leaves growing out of fathoms of blue-green water.”

It is difficult to sympathize with Wolf, however, because he chooses to let go the one thing that would make his existence happy. Just after he marries Gerda, Wolf realizes that he is deeply in love with Christie the local bookseller’s daughter. Christie offers him all of the things his marriage is lacking—meaningful conversations with an intellectual woman who is also physically more of the type of woman to whom he is attracted. Even though he calls her his “one true love” and has the opportunity to build a life with her, his inertia and inability, and even unwillingness, to upset his carefully constructed, English life holds him back. When Wolf is speaking with a cousin, Lord Carfax who has visited from London, he notes about the man’s appearance: “His compact, sturdy figure, his formidable, level stare, presented themselves to Wolf like the embodiment of every banked-up and buttressed tradition in English social life.” Wolf is bogged down by and unwilling to throw off his own English social life–his wife, his neat cottage in Preston Lane, and his respectable but miserable job as a teacher. He quietly moves along in his wretched days in order to keep up the semblance of his neat, carefully ordered, little life: “He kept his spirits down on purpose, visualizing the innumerable moments of discomfort, of nervous misery, that lay before him. He stretched out his hand to pluck at those wretched future moments, so that he might appropriate them now, grabble with them now.”

My original plan was to read Powys’s Autobiography and his Glastonbury Romance but his writing is so rich that I need to take a bit of a break from it and continue to digest this first novel I’ve read.

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