Category Archives: Classics

La Jeune Parque by Paul Valéry

In Roman myth the three Fates— Parcae in Latin Moirai in Ancient Greek are referred to as sisters: Clotho, the youngest, is the spinner of a person’s life thread, Lachesis measures the final thread of life, and the dreaded Atropos cuts the thread of life.  Because of their absolute and unpredictable authority over all life—even Jupiter is subjected to their decisions—they are feared and rarely spoken about except in passing references.

In Petronius Satyricon, the three anti-heroes of this Ancient Roman novel visit a freedman named Trimalchio who has become filthy rich through his investments in shipping.  Trimalchio himself, as well as his sprawling house, is opulent and tacky.  His villa would be the perfect feature for the Roman version of MTV Cribs. The visitors to his home view a large mosaic installed in his dining room that features  the three fates spinning and measuring out the thread of Trimalchio’s life: praesto erat Fortuna cum cornu abundanti copiosa et tres Parcae aurea pensa torquentes.  “And right there in front of us Fortune was depicted with her horn of plenty and the three Fates spinning their golden threads.”  This is by no means a usual piece of artwork that would appear in any Roman’s home, but Trimalchio is a man obsessed with death and his own mortality.

And Vergil, when describing the hardships that his epic hero Aeneas will suffer, concludes (with the cleverly syncopated verb volverunt) : Sic Parcae volvere  (And that’s how the Fates roll.)

So why does the Paul Valéry write an entire poem about Clotho, the youngest of these fates? After a successful career as a poet he suddenly takes a break from publishing his works for more than 20 years.   La Jeune Parque, a poem as perplexing and enigmatic as the Fates themselves,  is the first piece of writing that he publishes after this extended period of silence.  The 512 line poem, written in Alexandrine rhyming couplets,  is dedicated to his friend Andre Gide, who comes up several times in Valéry”s first part of his first Cahiers/Notebooks.   He oftentimes remarks about his fondness for Gide, but he also likes to complain that in his own Diaries Gide writes incorrect things about him and misunderstands him.  Valéry also doesn’t like the sentimental and moral nature of Gide’s Diaries which are very different from Valery’s own Notebooks.  In Cahiers 1 “Ego,” p. 236 he writes: “Gide is an old tart. His Diary seeks to give value to his slightest moment. What an Anti for me!  Just as I’ve got an obsession for exhausting, for not-repeating, for having done with what seems to cost nothing—as with what is purely and simply exceptional—so he does the opposite—and so on.”

The best way, I think, and really the only way, to make any sense of La Jeune Parque is to read it alongside the poet’s Notebooks.  Valéry, who woke up at 5 a.m. every day for most of his adult life to think and write in his Notebooks,  is very much obsessed in the first part of them with intellect and what he can contribute to society with his thoughts and his intellect.  His writings and his observations were, he felt, his real life’s work and his job as a civil servant, which he needed to support himself and his family, was just a way of making money.  A lot of his time is spent in solitude contemplating his intellectual pursuits and figuring out who he is: “In a positive manner, intelligence is something like hunger, thirst, need—something seeking, demanding to work—to function , and it ruptures my sleep, worries my being and wakes me up too early every morning, whether or not I’m tired (Cahiers 1, p. 187).

When La Jeune Parque begins, the youngest Fate (her never names her directly)  is depicted as a beautiful, and lonely, young woman waking up in the dark after a dream on a shoreline and torn by between passion and duty.  Her silence is punctuated by the fact that she not only addresses but personifies the stars:

Almighty aliens, unavoidable stars!—
Who willingly across the miles of time
Make something pure, higher than nature, shine;
Who into mortals plunge to the source of tears
These lofty glimmerings, these invincible weapons
And shooting pains from your eternal life,
I am alone with you, here on the point
Gnawed by the marvellous ocean, shivering, fresh
From bed; asking my heart what pain has woken it,
What crime committed by me or upon me?

The last line calls to mind Ovid’s Daphne who is trying to fend off Apollo’s unwanted love and who considers any form of romantic love or marriage a “crimen” (crime). An image of a snake is used to signify desire and passion that has bitten her and whose poison now torments her:

Coils of desires, towed by this snake! What a jumble
Of treasures that evade my greedy reach—
And what a dark thirst for limpidity!

So often in myth we encounter immortal forces like the Fates, the Hours, the Seasons, and women like Daphne, Semele and Dido and men like Aeneas who are given a job or a role they must fulfill.  They have duties and obligations assigned to them that they didn’t choose and things like desire, passion and love are inaccessible to them.  It’s a stroke of brilliance that Valery chooses a Fate, who didn’t choose her own Fate, to contemplate choices or lack of choices.  Valéry’s young woman herself cites as an example the oracle at Delphi who also had no choice but to carry out her assigned task:

I think, as he world’s rime turns gold, I weigh
The taste for death of the priestess at Delphi
Inside whom moaned a hope the world would end.

At the tender age of twenty-one Valéry has his own battle with the passions when he falls in love with an inaccessible woman.  He reminisces about it briefly in his Notebooks as a negative part of his life that he would rather forgot.  In Cahiers 1, p. 177 he writes, “The past as a chronological and narrative structure has less existence for me than for others. It seems that my being likes to forget what will only be a picture later on—and keep what can be assimilated into itself so completely that it’s no longer a past, but a functional element of virtual acts.” Memory in general is a concept that Valery despises and feels uncomfortable with. The young woman in his poem also expresses anguish over desire and the memories of desire:

The mind is so pure it never kneels
To idols: lonely ardour does flare up
And drive away the walls of its sad tomb.
Anything can appear with infinite waiting.

The Fate also begins to reminisce about a chance passionate encounter in the woods that leaves a deep impression on her. The young woman’s torment over passion, her early awakening, and her inner turmoil wax and wanes as she falls into a peaceful sleep and wakes up again. But like Valery’s experience earlier in his life, this passion is out of reach. And it’s not only desire and love that are out of reach, but, like other immortals, she can’t even choose death. Death, ironically for her, is something she controls and is all around her but it is out of the question as an option for herself:

But if my tender smell goes to your hollow head,
O Death, breathe in at last this regal slave:
Call me, undo these bonds!..And drive off hope
From me, so tired of self, in this doomed shape!

Finally, I have to say a word about the Bloodaxe Books dual language edition that is translated with an introduction and notes by Alistar Elliot. The text is notoriously difficult and Alistar’s notes are a necessity to understanding Valery’s poem and the etymological interpretations of his translation.

 

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Filed under Classics, French Literature, Literature in Translation

Homeo-Pharmacopeia’s Adagia: Geoffrey Hill’s Pindarics

Pindar, an Ancient Greek lyric poet from Thebes, wrote a series of epinikia, odes to commemorate athletic victories in the Olympic, Nemean, Pythian and Isthmian games.  His poems are notoriously difficult to translate and understand because they are highly allusive, switch abruptly between topics, and contain compound adjectives that he makes up.  It is no wonder that Geoffrey Hill, whose poetry is also highly allusive and difficult to read, uses the lyric poet as a model for his series of poems entitled Pindarics.   The traditional Ancient Greek ode has a triadic structure with each triad composed of a strophe, antistrophe and epode.  Hill adopts this triad structure to fit his own purposes by composing a series of 34 poems, each with three stanzas; the first and second stanzas of each poem have nine lines and the final stanzas each have five lines.

Simon Collings, in the PN Review Issue 240 has written a wonderful essay about the themes of love and sex in Hill’s Pindarics.  But even as far as specific allusions to people, personal or otherwise, it is a guessing game when it comes to unpacking and dissecting Hills poetry. In the past two weeks I have especially lingered over Pindarics 7 and 13 in which he discusses one of his favorite topics, poets and poetry.  In Pindaric 7 he begins with:

Rub two distichs together, wise not to
bet against fire. A view to fail,
repump a washed-up beach ball, palp a god,
cross vows with a convenience metaphor.
All is invention; I am spoiled for choice.
Assign me Pindar’s job-lot born to sing
modernities traduced or what you will;
homeo-pharmacopeia’s adagia
spilled upon none that reads. Your votes Ile dig—

“All is invention; I am spoiled for choice” are especially striking here. Hill has centuries of poetic forms from which to borrow, and his use of lyric triads could be his attempt to “repump a washed-up beach ball.”  And the last part of the stanza specifically mentions Hill’s view of himself as a modern Pindar but instead of singing about athletic victories his topics are “modernities traduced or what you will.” The last two lines are also a more subtle nod to Pindar as Hill makes his own compound word: “homeo-pharmacopeia,” a special homeopathic book with remedies that serve as a type of “adagia,” The adagia is a book of proverbs compiled by Erasmus. But Hill’s wisdom via this adagia is,  in typical self-deprecating fashion, “spilled upon none that reads,” ie. only those who read—really read and understand his arcane verses.

Pindaric 13 is also filled with allusions to poets and poetry.  In the first stanza he writes:

How reconciled, then, Ovid, by such time
as in Voronezh he was no man’s fool?

Hill’s specific subject here is the exiled Roman poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea town of Tomis in 8 A.D. . This was done personally by the Emperor Augustus himself.  We are given very few details about what Ovid did and he only tells us it was due to a carmen (a poem) and an error (a mistake). He is absolutely wretched in exile and writes two works about it: Tristia and the Epistulae ex Ponto. He dies in 17 or 18 A.D. while still in exile.

But, as is typical with Hill, there is another subtle reference to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam who also suffered exile at the hands of the Soviet government and Stalin in particular. Tristia, literally meaning “sad things, sorrows, lamentations” is also the title for Mandelstam’s collection which he wrote in self-imposed exile while in the Crimea in the early 1920’s. The dire and desperate personal consequences of war and revolution drove him to this region of Russia which was more isolated from civil war. His time away from the north inspired him to produce these poems that are filled with images of separation, loss, darkness and exile. It is chilling that the poems also serve as a glimpse into the poet’s future which will include arrest, torture, and forced exiles to the Urals and Voronezh. He must have known, deep down in his soul, that his first, temporary, voluntary exile was a harbinger of tribulations to come in later years.

Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebook, to which Hill specifically refers, is a collection of eighty nine verses that the Russian poet wrote while he was exiled to the city of Voronezh. During the early 1930’s Mandelstam wrote and published poetry that mocked and criticized Stalin and so it is no surprise that he was arrested and sent into exile. During part of his exile he was allowed to live in Voronezh which was a bit more civilized as far as Russian exiles were concerned. He lives is a crowded boarding house that he describes as a “coffin” in the first poem. He and his wife have no privacy and they hear every movement and sound of their neighbors. In the third poem of the first Notebook he begs Voronezh to have mercy on him and “restore” him but throughout these poems we get the sense that he feels hemmed in, claustrophobic and hopeless.

Hill’s second stanza in Pindaric 13 becomes more bleak:

What Ces describes—duration of real pain
spikes with its radicals the roots of thought.
Hebrew mates word and thing, the acting word,
the basic punning language though not all
punsters are poets nor would wish to be.
The absolute’s absolution is itself
Presence of the intrinsic saved for death
politic power was one uncivil term.
How strange you have to be to stay faithful.

The “Ces” in the first line is Cesare Pavese to whom the Pindarics are addressed.  Pavese, an Italian poet who was also subjected to self-imposed exile during the Fascist regime in Italy, committed suicide at the age of 42 after another failed love affair.  Ces is also mentioned in Pindaric 1 and in the same stanza Hill refers to himself as an “exile among books.” Ovid, Pavese and Mandelstam had to all navigate the vicissitudes of tyranny and choose to stay faithful to their poetry and their art or to risk the ire of  “politic power.”

So what does this all mean for Hill himself? He has a self-imposed exile of sorts when, after his first marriage falls apart, he moves to the United States.  But I think this is too literal an interpretation for his poetry.  I suspect that Hill felt himself to be an outsider of sorts, someone who lingered on the fringes of mainstream poetry and he, like his fellow poets, had no intention of changing himself to fit a preconceived idea of what a writer or artist ought to be.  A line from Pindar  Pythian IV.247-8 comes to mind (trans. my own):  “It is too long of a path for me to follow the usual road; I only have a brief amount of time, and I know a shorter path . In poetic technique, I am a guide for many other poets.”

 

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry

Pone Subit Coniunx: Robert Hass and Vergil’s Aeneid

Robert Hass has been another American poet that I’ve discovered from literary Twitter.  My favorite poem in his collection Time and Materials is entitled “The World as Will and Representation.” In this longer poem, which is typical of the longer ones in the book,  Hass tells a very personal story.  He is thinking back to when he was a ten-year-old boy and his family’s morning routine during which time his father would give his mother a drug called antabuse which was supposed to prevent her from drinking.  “It was the late nineteen-forties, a time,/A Social world, in which the men got up/And went to work, leaving the women with the children.”  The boy’s father would ground the medication very fine into a powder and put it in his mother’s glass of water was so that she couldn’t spit the pills out.   The poet lingers on the vivid details of crushing the pills, handing her the glass and watching her drink.

The ending is incredibly powerful. The boy’s father leaves for work and the child is left alone with his mother:

“Keep and eye on Mama, pardner.”
You know the passage in the Aeneid? The man
Who leaves the burning city with his father
On his shoulders, holding his young son’s hand,
Means to do well among the flaming arras
And the falling columns while the blind prophet,
Arms upraised, howls from the inner chamber,
Great Troy is fallen. Great Troy is no more.
Slumped in a bathrobe, penitent and biddable,
My mother at the kitchen table gagged and drank,
Drank and gagged. We get our first moral idea
About the world—about justice and power,
Gender and the order of things—from somewhere.

The passage to which Robert Hass is referring occurs in Vergil’s Aeneid Book II when Aeneas is telling the story of how he escaped Troy with his father and son.  Aeneas’s father, Anchises, is paralyzed so he must carry him on his shoulders and hold his young son, Iulus, by the hand.  But, but, Aeneas also has a wife, Creusa (2.705-710 translation is my own):

I will carry you on my shoulders, your weight will not burden me.
As things happend around us, we will either be in danger together
or we will both reach safety. And let little Iulus walk beside me
and my wife follow behind.

After Aeneas successfully convinces his father to escape Troy, he tells the rest of the family servants to meet him outside the city at a Temple to Ceres. Aeneas also hands his household gods to his father for safekeeping. Aeneas then sums up their escape (II.721-725, translation is my own):

Having spoken these things, I covered my broad shoulders
with the pelt of a golden lion and lowered my neck
for the impending burden. Little Iulus took hold of my
right hand and followed his father by taking large steps;
my wife walks behind.

That last line in the Latin is striking: pone subit coniunx (the wife walks behind). Aeneas, busy with his father and son, loses Creusa as Troy is burning and he never sees her again. She is one of the characters in the Aeneid that is sacrificed because of Aeneas’s future in Italy where he is destined to marry another woman in a political alliance. Creusa, I think, also foreshadows Dido’s tragic fate.

In his poem, Ross describes the details of Aeneas, the Father, taking care of his father and young son, but he doesn’t specifically mention the detail of the hero’s wife. Creusa does linger in the background of Hass’s poem in the figure of the boy’s mother, “penitent and biddable.” Creusa, like the poet’s mother, is also a victim of “justice and power” and “the order of things.” Hass’s poem brings up so many questions: why was the boy’s mother drinking in the first place? What were the other circumstances of the family? And, most importantly, did this woman also, pone subit, walk behind?

 

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Filed under American Literature, Classics, Poetry, Vergil

How to Pick up Women: Advice from Ovid’s Ars Amatoria

Yesterday I shared on Twitter a pick up strategy from Ovid that Pound alludes to in the Cantos.  I’ve had a request to translate a few more.  Here are some of my favorites:

 

From I.139-142.   A great place to pick up a pretty girl is at the Circus:

Sit as close as possible to your lady, nothing is forbidden in the Circus.

Press your leg as close to her leg as possible at all times.

With those close seats there are no boundaries, even if it annoys you,

So you pretty much have to touch your lady when you’re in the Circus.

 

From I.153-156.  And if she has a wardrobe malfunction make sure you help her:

If the hems of her skirt are dragging on the ground,

then gather them up and lift them from the dirt, and immediately,

as a reward for your attentiveness—if she allows it, of course—

your eyes will get a good look at her bare legs.

 

From 1.455-458. A little love note is always a good thing:

Go ahead and send her a letter with flattering sentiments,

and use this to explore her feelings and to test the road first.

 

From 1.505-506 and 509-510. Look presentable but not too metro:

Don’t curl your hair with the curling iron,

and don’t pluck all the hair from your legs.

A man is more handsome when he is not so fussy

about his appearance; Theseus, for example,

carried off Ariadne without spending any time

on his looks.

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Filed under Classics, Poetry, Uncategorized

Body into Body: Lucretius De Rerum Natura 4.1096-1120

Just as when a thirsty man, in his sleep, attempts to take a drink but the moisture needed to extinguish the fire in his limbs is no where to be found; so instead he looks for images of liquids and struggles in vain and drinking in the middle of a roaring river he is still thirsty.   In the same way, Venus, in matters of the heart, teases lovers with images; and these lovers, even when face to face and looking at one another’s actual bodies, can’t satisfy themselves; and even when their hands are wandering  hesitantly over one another’s body they are not able to scrape off anything of  their lover’s tender limbs.  And when, at last, with limbs entwined, they enjoy the fruit of their age, and when their bodies are on the point of ecstasy, and Venus is on the edge of sowing the woman’s field,  they greedily join their bodies and mix together the saliva of their mouths, and breathing into each other they press teeth on mouths. But all this is in vain since they are still not able to scrape off anything from each other, or to penetrate one another or to enter completely into one another—body into body; they often seem to not only want this but they also struggle to do this. And so they longingly cling together in the bonds of Love and, shaken by the force of their pleasure, their limbs melt away.  Finally, when the desire, mounting from their pleasure, bursts forth, there is a brief pause in this violent passion at least for a little.  But once again, this same madness returns and that fury revisits them.  When they are desirous and look to hold onto something—but they aren’t sure what—they are unable to find  a way to conquer the ache.  And so,uncertain, they waste away from this mysterious wound.

 

My reading of Sade and a recent thread from @Noxrpm on Twitter inspired me to spend some time translating this section of De Rerum Natura.

 

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