Category Archives: Classics

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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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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Sappho Fragment 16

Sappho Fragment 16 (translation is my own):

Some men say that the best thing on this black earth is
a column of horses, others say it is an army of foot
soldiers, and still others say it is a fleet of ships.
But I say that the Best thing on this black
earth is to love someone. It is wholly easy to make this
idea understandable to everyone. For Helen, surpassing
all others in beauty, chose for herself the best man—
he who destroyed all the Majesty of Troy—and she made that
choice without consideration of her child or her beloved parents,
but she was swayed by Love and carried this love far away.
It always seems like a female trait to turn away or to
be light in one’s thoughts. And so now you do not
remember Anaktoria, or so it seems; she whose lovely steps and
whose bright radiance in her face you would like to behold
more than the armies or the hoplites of Lydia. We know that it
is not possible for men on this earth to be completely happy;
We must, however, pray to hold onto our shared memories rather
than to completely forget those experiences.

I have immersed myself in this beautiful and, at times, maddening Ancient Greek fragment for the last two days. I used the longer version of the Ancient Greek text with the last few lines, in particular, reconstructed. I realize this isn’t the standard version with which most are familiar. I see in this poem a stark contrast between male and female, which begins in the first three lines with a primael. Men choose war—cavalries, armies and ships, but women choose love. The best example of this is Helen—she chooses Love in the form of Paris, because, to her,  he is the best (aristov).

As the poem concludes, Sappho turns to Anaktoria who left her (some speculate to marry). Sappho, unlike Helen, doesn’t have a choice. But as memory fades the one option for her is to remember their shared experiences. Her beloved, no longer present, can quickly become a case of “out of sight, out of mind”; the poet must make a conscience choice to remember their time together. But as her memories fade and her lover is no longer present, she can just as easily choose to let her go.

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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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