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For National Poetry Day: Eavan Boland’s Eurydice Speaks

Niccolo dell’Abate. The Death of Eurydice. c.1552-71. Oil on canvas.

One of my favorite passages of poetry in all of Latin Literature is the Orpheus and Eurydice story in Vergil’s fourth Georgic. After his wife’s tragic death, Orpheus’s love for Eurydice sends him to the depths of the underworld to retrieve her. But when he breaks Hades’s one stipulation, that he cannot look back at her on their journey out, she is lost to him once again. Ovid also includes his own version of the myth in the Metamorphoses. I have been dipping in and out of Eavan Boland’s poetry for the past week and her use of myth as inspiration for her poems has resonated with me. This piece, inspired by the Eurydice myth, gives her a voice (the focus of the myth is usually on Orpheus) and is a particularly striking reflection on loss, recognition, memory and reunion.

How will I know you in the underworld?
How will we find each other?

We lived for so long on the physical earth—
Our skies littered with actual stars
Practical tides in our bay—
What will we do with the loneliness of the mythical?

Walking beside ditches brimming with dactyls,
By a ferryman whose feet are scanned for him
On the shore of a river written and rewritten
As elegy, epic, epode.

Remember the thin air of our earthly winters?
Frost was an iron, underhand descent.
Dusk was always in session

And no one needed to write down
Or restate, or make record of, or ever would,
And never will,
The plainspoken music of recognition,

Nor the way I often stood at the window—
The hills growing dark, saying,

As a shadow became a stride
And a raincoat was woven out of streetlight

I would know you anywhere.


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You Were Not Made to Live Like Brute Beasts

I’m sharing two excellent introductory descriptions about Dante that really stayed me as I was reading last night.  Each quote demonstrates, in very different ways, why Dante is timeless and why we still read him, hundreds of years later, with enthusiasm and awe. The first is from Dante: A Very Short Introduction written by Peter Hainsworth and David Robey and published by Oxford University Press:

Fatti non foste a viver come bruti
ma per sequir virtute e canoscenza
[You were not made to live like brute beasts,
but to pursure virtue and knowledge.]
(Inf. 26.119-20)

The lines are some of the most famous in the Divine Comedy.  Energetic, compressed, assured, and, in the original, immediately memorable, they urge us to embrace the capacities that our human nature offers and live them to the full, not just for private satisfaction, but to acquire both moral virtue and knowledge of the world.  It is a vision of what human life should be, which Dante took from classical philosophy and which he repeatedly affirms.  It will be at the heart of the Italian Renaissance and is still a vital element of Western culture today.  In If this be a man Primo Levi recounts that it was these lines that he recalled at one of his worst  moments in Auschwitz, and no wonder, for it was precisely what these lines are saying that Nazism was set on destroying.

The second quote comes from Reading Dante by Guiseppe Mazzotta and is published by Yale Press:

So, what kind of poem is this?  What is its genre? Is it an epic? Is it an autobiography?  Is it a romance? I think it’s all of the above.  Perhaps the best term for it is encyclopedia, a word that means a “circle of knowledge,” representing a classical idea that derives from Vitruvius, who wrote of the genre.  This idea of circularity is crucial, in a sense that to know something you have to have a point of departure, from which you will pass through all the various disciplines of the liberal arts, only to arrive right back where you started.  The beginning and the ending in a liberal education must coincide, but you will find out things along the way that allow you to see with a different viewpoint or perspective.


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A Plea for some Sleep: Somnus by the Roman Poet Statius

Rereading Dante has sent me down many an interesting rabbit hole, one of which includes reexamining the works of the Silver Age Roman poet Statius.  I have not translated Statius for many years because my first encounters with his epics, in particular, were not pleasant ones.  But Purgatory has inspired me to pick up Statius once again—I will read and translate sections of his epics the Thebaid and the Achilleid.  More on those two pieces of literature in a later post, but as a preview I offer here a translation of one of Statius’s poems from his collection entitled Silvae.

Silvae in Latin means either “forests” or “materials”, a fitting name for what Statius meant to be occasional poems that are written hastily or on the spur of the moment.  Divided into four books, the Silvae include poems in praise of the Emperor Domitian, consolation poems, and commentary about ordinary things like a tree or sleep.  In the preface to Book I Statius writes about his compositions (all translations of Latin are my own): mihi subito calore et quadam festinandi voluptate fluxerant cum singuli de sino meo prodiderint—“with a passion and a certain desire for haste they suddenly flowed from me and each individual one was produced from my heart.”

I offer here my translation of Silvae IV entitled “Somnus” (Sleep) which is a plea to this fickle god to cure the poet’s insomnia. I especially identified with these verses because the beginning of a new semester, the unusual heatwave and a variety of other factors have also brought me a long bout of insomnia:

Oh most peaceful of gods, youthful Sleep, what crime have I committed, what mistake have I made, to cause me to be so wretched and to lack your gifts? The entire herd is silent, the birds, the wild animals and the curved tree tops all have the appearance of weary sleep. Even the fierce rivers do not have their usual sound; the shuddering of the waves has died out and the oceans, leaning on the earth, grow quiet. The moon, returning seven times now, has looked down on my sullen face. So often have the lights of Oeta and Venus revisited me and so often has Aurora walked past my groans, sprinkling me, in pity, with her cold whip. How will I get through this? I couldn’t bear this even if, like sacred Argus, I possessed the thousand eyes which he was used for an alternating vigil and which were never awake all at once. But, ah now, alas! If any lover, during the long nighttime hours, holding his arms entwined around a girl, drives you away from him on purpose, then please come to me instead; I do not ask that you pour all the power of your wings over my eyes—only a man who is much happier would pray for this;  but touch me with the very tip of your wand—for that is enough—or tread over me lightly with your raised foot.

One interesting thing to note is Statius’s heavy use of characters and names from history and mythology.  In order to understand fully this short poem,  one must look up or know something about Oeta, Venus, Aurora, and Argus.  He uses the same heavy-handed technique in the Thebaid.  As promised, more on that later.  But I am glad that Dante has goaded me to take another look at Statius.


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A Lofty, Old Oak Tree: Pompey in Lucan’s Pharsalia

My friend and I were having our daily lunchtime walk when we were discussing the fact that his is my 20th year of teaching secondary school—it hardly seems possible that I have been in my profession for that long! During the same conversation she also reminded me that next month is my birthday and she said out loud the age that I will be turning. I was so shocked to hear the number spoken out loud that I had the urge to slap her on the arm! I know that my birthday is coming up but I didn’t actually think about the age I am going to be. I told her all this, of course, and we had a good laugh about it. And this conversation brought to mind the image of the poet Lucan’s description of the Roman general Pompey who, compared to a younger and more vigorous Julius Caesar, is at a great disadvantage when they are at war with one another. Lucan says about Pompey’s former glory and advancing years (translation is my own):

Thus Pompey now stands as a shadow of his great name; similar to a lofty oak tree standing in a fertile field, bearing the old mementos of its people and the sacred gifts of its leaders, no longer fixed to the earth with strong roots, it remains upright merely because of its own weight; and lifting its naked branches into the air, it casts a shadow not with its leaves but with its trunk. And even though it shakes and threatens to fall with the first strong wind, while other trees with more robust trunks grow around it, this oak tree alone is still revered.

I, of course, exaggerate for humorous effect—I don’t feel quite that old. I also have Lucan on my mind because I am rereading Dante’s Divine Comedy and this underappreciated Roman poet figures prominently in the Inferno. His uncle was the famous stoic philosopher, Seneca, who had a great influence on him while he was growing up. Lucan wrote his most famous work, an epic poem entitled the Pharsalia, during the reign of the Emperor Nero with whom Lucan had a close alliance and friendship. The Pharsalia (in Latin De Bello Civile) tells the story of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar that took place during the waning years of the Roman Republic. Written as a poem in dactylic hexameter, Lucan is indebted to Vergil and Ovid for his literary style. Neither Pompey nor Caesar are portrayed as heroes—each man is greatly flawed—and Lucan does not shy away from describing the horrible consequences of a civil war.

The short section I translated above is from Book 1 and, I think, highlights Lucan’s talent as a poet and an astute critic of his own country’s history. It is a fairly quick read and I highly recommend it for those who want a better understanding of Dante’s poems.


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Fleeing and Trying to find Solace: Lyric Novella by Annmarie Schwarzenbach

I was first inspired to read Schwarzenbach by Mathias Enard’s book Compass which mentions this often neglected and overlooked journalist, novelist and traveler.  Lyric Novella is set in 1930’s Berlin among the unsavory, underground world of theater halls and bars.  The unnamed narrator is a young man who has become obsessed with a stage dancer named Sybille;  each night he watches her perform and then waits to have drinks with her and sometimes he drives her home.  He thinks he is in love with her—he even calls it a love affair–even though they have never had a physical relationship and Sibylle does not return his feelings.  The narrator’s obsession with Sibylle wears him down to the point of exhaustion and illness.  What I found remarkable is that he never articulates his feelings for Sibylle—we have no idea what he sees in her physically or mentally—and yet he can’t break away from her.  He is clearly a lost, lonely, naïve young man who just wants to belong to someone or something.

The narrator eventually escapes from the city to the country where he tries to forget Sibylle and once again to take up writing which he seems to enjoy.  The author spends a great deal of time on contrasting descriptions of city versus country and autumn versus spring.  But a change of season and scenery do not cure him of his malady: he is clearly unhappy with his own life and is feeling lost—fleeing to a another place, no matter how different,  doesn’t fundamentally change what is going on inside him.  In the translator’s preface, Lucy Renner Jones points out that the young narrator’s struggle reflects the author’s own guilt, struggle and repression of her sexuality.  After the book’s publication, Schwarzenbach even admits that she meant her narrator to be a young woman and not a young man.  The translator’s concluding words provide keen insight into the author’s background and mindset and as a result the themes she explores in Lyric Novella become clearer:

Schwarzenbach’s real-life restlessness and constant travelling was undoubtedly a flight forward from her mother’s control.  She too, like the young man in Lyric Novella, spends her life fleeing and trying to find solace, often in foreign places and nature.  Chaste and in solitude, the young man in Lyric Novella writes about the story of his failure dare to love Sibylle openly, however, peace eludes him and he turns to loathing himself ‘because I have no obligations.’  Removing himself from his obsession does not remove the obsession itself but leads to another kind of torment. The paradox of Schwarzenbach’s obsessive travelling throughout her life was that it represented the promise of freedom and being in control, by literally putting herself in the driving seat.  But, much like the narrator in Lyric Novella, she had her emotional turmoil packed in her luggage.

This short book has piqued my interest in Schwarzenbach’s life of wanderlust and solitude.  I also have a copy of her non-fiction book All the Roads are Open which I will try next.



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