Category Archives: Classics

Full of Delights, of Pleasure, Of Tenderness: The Poets’ Dante

I have been reading some of the essays from The Poets’ Dante which arrived in the mail yesterday. It is a collection of writing from some of the most prominent 20th century poets who reflect on how Dante has shaped their own verses. I offer here a few passages from some of my favorite essays so far:

Ezra Pound comments on the genre and classification of the Divine Comedy:

The Divine Comedy must not be considered as an epic; to compare it with epic poems is usually unprofitable. It is in a sense lyric, the tremendous lyric of the subjective Dante; but the soundest classification of the poem is Dante’s own, ‘as a comedy which differs from tragedy in its content,’ for ‘tragedy begins admirably and tranquilly,’ and the end is terrible, ‘whereas comedy introduces some harsh complication, but brings the matter to a prosperous end.’ The is, in fact, a great mystery play, or better, a cycle of mystery plays.

Jorge Luis Borges on the intensity and gentleness of Dante:

Carlyle and other critics have observed that the most notable characteristic of Dante is intensity. If we think of the hundred cantos of the poem, it seems a miracle that that intensity never lets up, except in a few places in the Paradiso which for the poet were light and for us are shadow. I can’t think of another example, except perhaps Macbeth, which begins with the three witches and continues to the death of the hero without a weak moment.

I would like to mention another aspect: the gentleness of Dante. We always think of the somber and sententious Florentine poem, and we forget that the work is full of delights, of pleasure, of tenderness. That tenderness is part of the structure of the work. For example, Dante must have read somewhere that the cube is the most solid of volumes. It was a current, unpoetical observation, and yet Dante used it as a metaphor for man, who must support misfortune: ‘ben tetragono ai colpi di fortuna,’ man is a good tetragon, a cube. That is truly rare.

And Seamus Heaney’s personal reflection on his experiences with the Divine Comedy:

What I first loved in the Commedia was the local intensity, the vehemence and fondness attaching to individual shades, the way personalities and values were emotionally soldered together, the strong strain of what has been called personal realism in the celebration of bonds of friendship and bonds of enmity. The way in which Dante could place himself in an historical world yet submit that world to a scrutiny from a perspective beyond history, the way he could accommodate the political and the transcendent, this too encouraged my attempt at a sequence of poems which would explore the typical strains which the consciousness labours under in this country. The main tension is between two often contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective historical experience and to be true to the recognitions of the emerging self.

This is only a very small sampling of the book and I will, no doubt, spend some time with this volume as I pick my way through the variety of essays it contains.

Earlier today my husband noticed, with a wry comment and smirk, that I had acquired yet two more books on Dante. The intensity with which I throw myself into things has become a bit of a family joke—books, blogging, gift wrapping, acquiring the best coffee/teas, fashion/shoes, etc. (a small selection of my “obsessions” that my husband has pointed out, for which he claims he loves me dearly). And, yes, I have applied the same intensity to reading Dante and everything I can get my hands on about Dante. I have, I think, one final post left in me—a wrap up of sorts with a list of various books, essays, and translations I have acquired along the way. The journey from Hell, to Purgatory to Heaven has been a truly rich, rewarding and intense reading experience for me—an intense book, indeed, to match the intense person I can be. If you’ve enjoyed my posts then thanks for paying attention; if you are sick of me going on about the Divine Comedy then I promise the end is nigh and I will be reading different authors this week!

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Open Your Eyes and See What I am Now: Beatrice and Dante in Paradise

Beata Beatrix. Dante Gabriel Rossetti Oil on Canvas. 1864-1870.

This has already proven to be a long, tough week but I have been elevated by reading Dante’s Paradise. My favorite experience in reading this final book in the Divine Comedy has been the interaction between Dante and Beatrice as they journey through heaven.  The respect and awe the poet has for Beatrice, his muse and inspiration, even when she is scolding him, is moving. One of my favorite passages of Paradise is Canto XXI where Beatrice explains to him that she can’t smile at Dante because he would burst into flames, like Semele did when she looks at the god Jupiter in all of his celestial splendor (trans. Mandelbaum):

By now my eyes were set again upon
my lady’s face, and with my eyes, my mind:
from every other thought, it was withdrawn.
She did not smile. Instead her speech to me
began: “Were I to smile, then you would be
like Semele when she was turned to ashes,
because, as you have seen, my loveliness—
which, even as we climb the steps of this
eternal palace, blazes with more brightness—
were it not tempered here, would be so brilliant
that, as it flashed, your mortal faculty
would see a branch a lightning bolt has cracked.

Dante follows Beatrice’s guidance through one stage after the next of heaven and takes her chiding seriously because he knows it is for his benefit. His reward is that, in a few spheres later, he is able, through his ordeal and his learning, to bear her smile:

Open your eyes and see what I now am;
the things you witnessed will have made you strong
enough to bear the power of my smile.

That spine tingling, lover’s gaze which occurs over and over; a lover who not only teaches, but challenges you to become a better person. How could this not be a love story?  It is, I think, an ideal love towards which it is nice to aspire.

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The Achilleid: An Epic about Homer’s Most Famous Hero

Odysseus discovers Achilles in Scyros with Deidamia.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dante has caused me to reevaluate my rather negative review of the Roman poet Statius which opinion I have held since my early twenties.  Writing during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, Statius composed two epics on lofty, ambitious topics: the Thebaid, which describes the violent war between Oedipus’s sons (or brothers) and the Achilleid, which fills in the early years of the Homeric hero Achilles.  The Thebaid, lugubrious, weighty, and wordy is still, for me, a bit of a tough read and translation.  More on that in a later post.  The Achilleid, however, is tragic without being overwrought, balanced and even playful at times.    Unfortunately the epic is unfinished and contains only two of the four books that Statius had intended to write but what we do have is a very important part of the tradition of the Trojan cycle.  For instance, the story of Achilles being anointed in the river Styx by his mother who holds him by the heel which is the only vulnerable part of his body,  is first mentioned by Statius.

When the epic begins Thetis, Achilles’s mother, knows that war is eminent  between Troy and Greece and she also knows that the Greek kings will soon be coming for her young son to fight in the war.  Statius also rounds out the character of Thetis as presented in the Iliad by portraying her as a mother who desperately wanted a different father for her son.  She laments time and again in this epic that Jupiter should have been Achilles’s father and not Peleus.  As a result he is mortal and she must do whatever she can to protect his life.  Even though she dips his infant body into the Styx, she knows this is not enough to protect when he will be recruited for war .  She becomes desperate to hide him and so hatches another plan.

The Achilles whom Statius presents us with is a fearless young man—probably in his mid-teen years—who is learning to hunt, be a soldier and to be a good man from the Centaur, Chiron.  When Thetis goes to retrieve her son in the Centaur’s mountainside cave, Achilles has just come back from killing a lioness with his father and is playing with its cubs.  He is happy to see his mother and gives her a tender embrace—a heartwarming example of the more playful, younger and happier Achilles in this epic.

Achilles is hidden by his mother on the island of Scyros among the king’s daughters.  But one detail about Achilles story that is missing in the epic tradition before Statius, is how  Thetis get her warrior son to agree to put on ladies clothes and put aside his manhood.  Statius describes Achilles as a boy who is ashamed to put on women’s garb for fear of what Chiron and his father, Peleus, might say about him.  The Achilles who displays the Greek ideal of shame (aidos) has to be reconciled with the person who would agree to such a scheme.  Statius has a simple yet touching solution for Achilles decision: this fierce warrior pretends to be a woman because of love.  When the king’s daughters are presented to him and his mother, he instantly falls in love with the most beautiful of them, Deidamia.

Some of the most touching scenes in the epic are those between the young lovers;  at first Deidamia suspects that Achilles is a man and she tenderly teaches him spinning, other women’s work and dancing.  This tender, love story and its tragic end is reminiscent of Ovid, I think,  more than any other epic poet because of its playful tone (all Latin translations are my own):

When vigorous Achilles was living among this young, virginal group of girls and his mother’s departure had caused him to relax his coarse modesty, he immediately chose his companion, Deidamaia;  even though all the girls vied for his attention, he seductively applied new traps for the timid girl who didn’t suspect a thing.  He followed her around, he shamelessly pursued her, and he looked straight into her eyes again and again.   He remained close to her unflinching side, he threw flowers and baskets, deliberately tipped over,  at her and tapped her with the thyrsus.

Achilles’s love for Deidamaia grows and his Homeric sense of shame (aidos) nags him to finally profess his love.  He says to himself, “How long will you suppress these wounds burning in your heart?  Will you not prove that, even in love, you are a man—ah the shame!”  This is also the language that Dido uses to describe her love for Aeneas in Book IV of Vergils’ epic poem—an allusion which hints that this love will be equally as tragic as Aeneas and Dido.  Their love affair produces a son—the famous Neoptolemus (or Pyrhuus) who is a central figure in Vergil’s epic for sacking the palace in Troy and killing King Priam.  The real tragedy of the Achilleid comes when Achilles is found out by Odysseus and his fellow Greeks and he must leave his son and his young wife; for me this replicates the heart wrenching, tragic, Homeric scene with Hector who must also leave his family.  On their last night together Deidamia prophetically says to the hero:  “A single night has both given you to me and taken you away from me, Achilles.  Will this be the only amount of time we have for our marriage?”  And later, “You have left behind for me this one sad solace, a son,  so at least keep the memory of him close to your heart.”

The Achilleid is a must-read for anyone who loves the epics of Homer and/or Vergil.  In only 1100 lines (it can be read in an hour), Statius fills in the gaps of the Achilles story that makes the hero of those other epics seem more human, and more tragic.

 

 

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Let Mortals Never Take a Vow in Jest: Dante Paradise Canto V and Catullus

Illustration of Beatrice explaining divine wisdom to Dante from the Mandelbaum translation.

No, I haven’t lost my mind, you read that title correctly. I wrote a post at this time last year discussing the similarities I noted between Catullus’s love poems and Dante’s Vita Nuova. As I was reading the final book in the Divine Comedy this afternoon, I was surprised to see in Canto V of Paradiso what I believe are some parallels, similarities, perhaps even influence from the Roman poet Catullus. In this Canto, Beatrice is instructing Dante about the seriousness of a vow—at first she is, of course, talking about religious vows and nuns and how they cannot be broken unless one makes a promise of something loftier. But the conversation, I think, moves into more general matters of faithfulness and agreements that anyone is capable of making over the course of his or her life. Beatrice tells Dante (trans. Mandelbaum):

Let mortals never take a vow in jest;
be faithful yet circumspect, not rash
as Jephthah was, in offering his first gift;
he should have said, ‘I did amiss,’ and not
done worse by keeping faith. And you can find
that same stupidity in the Greeks’ chief—
when her fair face made Iphigenia grieve
and made the wise and made the foolish weep
for her when they heard tell of such a rite.
Christians, proceed with greater gravity:
do not be like a feather at each wind,
nor think that all immersions wash you clean.

Even I was surprised when reading this Canto to have thoughts about Catullus flash across my mind. In Carmen 76 and 70 Catullus is admonishing his former lover Clodia (Lesbia) for holding out vows and promises to him which, in the end, she could not keep. Catullus uses the language of vows, pleasure, faith, wind and water to describe his staying faithful to a promise of love and companionship and Clodia’s breaking of those same promises. It is also evident that the words Catullus uses in his poems have religious, spiritual and legal connotations. Poem 76 begins (Latin translations are my own):

If there is any pleasure for a man in remembering previous good deeds, when he knows for a fact that he has been dutiful, and that he has not violated a sacred vow, and that he has never, in any agreement, abused the gods for the purpose of deceiving his fellow man, then many joys remain for you throughout your long life, Catullus, even though these joys have resulted from a thankless love.

And in poem 70 Catullus writes:

My woman says that she prefers to marry no other man over me, not even if Jupiter himself were to ask for her hand in marriage. She says this: but what a woman promises to an eager lover should be written on the winds or the swift flowing rivers.

As I mentioned above, Latin words like pius (dutiful, pius), fides (promise, vow), foedere (agreement, contract) all have religious connotations. Catullus takes the vow he has made to his beloved as seriously as if it were a religious or a legal contract. And we can likewise view the passage from Dante as not only bearing religious meanings, but also romantic ones—especially since the words are spoken between Dante and Beatrice. It also struck me that the example of a broken vow that Dante uses is that of Iphigenia who was promised by her father, Agamemnon, a wedding but instead was sacrificed at the altar of Artemis—a myth with both religious and marital references. I haven’t been able to find a reference or footnote in any of the Dante commentaries about Catullus. But can you see, fellow readers, why Dante reminded of these carefully composed elegiac meters from Catullus?

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I Could Not Keep Your Hands in My Own: Two Poems from Osip Mandelstam’s Tristia

The Building of the Trojan Horse. Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. 1760. National Gallery, London

What do Ovid, Dante and Mandelstam all have in common? All three men were exiled from their homes for political reasons and infuse their poetry with the sadness, pain and loneliness of that separation. I was reading Mandelstam’s essay on Dante in the NYRB edition of his Selected Poems when I decided to linger on his Tristia verses which are included in the collection. Tristia is the name that Ovid gives to his collection of writings that are composed Ex Ponto, in the Black Sea region to which place the Emperor Augustus condemned him to live out his remaining years. I have always found it extremely difficult to translate Ovid’s Tristia; gone is the vigorous, lively poet we know of from the Amores and the Metamorphoses and in his place we encounter a melancholy man desperately longing to see his home, his family and his friends once again.

Tristia, literally meaning “sad things, sorrows, lamentations” is a fitting 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.

The first poem I share is numbered 116, and is filled with images of bees and honey. I see allusions to both Vergil and Tolstoy for whom the workings of a beehive are metaphors for the life and activity of humans working as a group. (I’ve written about this in more detail here.) Aeneas (an exile) encounters Dido (also an exile) and her fellow citizens building Carthage—they are as busy and industrious as an active beehive. Lucretius metaphorically uses honey to sweeten the rim of a cup of medicine from which his readers drink in his didactic poetry. And Tolstoy inverts Vergil’s beehive metaphor to describe the dying and deserted Moscow as Napoleon’s troops are marching on the city and destroying it. Mandelstam’s poem, I think, incorporates aspects of both Vergil, Tolstoy and even Lucretius—he reminds us of the energy of a beehive and the sweetness of its honey, but laments the death of such an active, supportive community:

Take from my palms, to sooth your heart,
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat that was never moored
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.

For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees
that die when they leave the hive.

Deep in the transparent night they’re still humming,
at home in the dark wood on the mountain,
in the mint and lungwort and the past.

But lay to your heart my rough gift,
this lovely dry necklace of dead bees
that once made a sun out of honey.

The line that keeps haunting me is “You can’t untie a boat that was never moored.”

The second poem I wish to share is numbered 119, also from the Tristia selections. I was naturally drawn to it because of the classical references and, in particular, I see allusions to Vergil Aeneid 2 in this poem:

I could not keep your hands in my own,
I failed the salt tender lips
so I must wait now for dawn in the timbered Acropolis.
How I loathe the ageing stockades and their tears.

The Achaeans are constructing the horse in the dark,
hacking out the sides with their dented saws,
Nothing quiets the blood’s dry fever, and for you
there is no designation, no sound , no modelled likeness.

How did I dare to think you might come back?
Why did I tear myself from you before it was time?
The dark has not faded yet, nor the cock crowed,
nor the hot axe bitten wood.

Resin has seeped from the stockade like transparent tears
and the town is conscious of its own wooden ribs,
but blood has rushed to the stairs and started climbing
and in dreams three times men have seen the seductive image.

Where is Troy, the beloved? The royal, the queenly roof.
Priam’s high bird house will be hurled down
while arrows rattle like dry rain
and grow from the ground like shoots of a hazel.

The pin-prick of the last star vanishes without pain,
morning will tap at the shutter, a gray swallow,
and the slow day, like an ox that wakes on straw,
will lumber out from its long sleep to cross the rough haycocks.

The penultimate stanza brings to mind the scenes in Aeneid 2 where Aeneas is making his way through the ruined city of Troy and witnesses the destruction of the palace and the death of King Priam. All this will result in the long exile of Aeneas—dawn and a new day will bring a completely different reality for the hero and his lost city.

This poem is especially reminiscent of Ovid’s first book of his Tristia which touches on his very personal losses suffered because of exile. He grieves over the distances that now separate himself and his friends, family and his wife. In Mandelstam’s poem the personal becomes that hand which he is not able to hold on to, and that haunting question, “How did I dare to think that you might come back?” The poem describes not just exile, but any personal loss—death, separation, estrangement—that results in grief.

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