You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Poetry’ category.

μὴ μὰν ἀσπουδί γε καὶ ἀκλειῶς ἀπολοίμην,
ἀλλὰ μέγα ῥέξας τι καὶ ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι.

Iliad 22.304–305

Advertisements

In the title Ode on a Grecian Urn the word on may indicate location as well as subject. Depicted on the artifact that this song seems to be about is the performance of a song, which is sounded to the spirit by unheard pipes that are directed to “play on.” Are the two songs distinguishable? For that matter, a pipe is also a wine-cask, thus urn-like; vessel and instrument were brought together by Master Ford: “I think I shall drink in pipe-wine first with him [viz. Falstaff]: I’ll make him dance.” Compare the ambiguity in a title like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The White Knight alone could disentangle such threads.

Read the rest of this entry »

He’ll hear no tone
      Of the maiden he loves so well!
No telephone
      Communicates with his cell!

Chapter 6

The Artist as Sophist

There is another side to Odysseus, that of the wandering sophist. Beginning from this aspect of the hero, we can identify the characteristic by which Baudelaire is corrupted and undone, as once his ancestor Euripides too suffered condemnation at the hands of a judging god.

Read the rest of this entry »

Chapter 5

Comic Recovery of the Hero-Artist

In contrast to the tragic heroes of the last chapter, Homer’s Odysseus has the power to counter death-in-life, to recover from the compulsion of events and win through to life, thus surpassing even the deeds of Heracles.

Read the rest of this entry »

Part II

Fate of the Artist

 Chapter 4

Tragic Descent of Artist and Hero

The death-in-life imposed by necessity is contamination: of soul by body across the boundary marked by the neck; by prostitution in the wide sense, specifically that of the artist pandering to an audience. Pentheus and Achilles are performers destroyed by this.

Read the rest of this entry »

Chapter 3

Necessity Suffered and Overcome

As bondage to fate, necessity represents the intrusion of death into life, as in a procession of slaves or a Baudelairean cortège; this is the transgression at work in hysteria. Suffering the bondage and overcoming it, Heracles stands for virtue now gone.

Read the rest of this entry »

Chapter 2

The Dual Grip of Necessity

Baudelaire’s “terrible hand of hysteria” indicates that hysteria is driven by necessity. This is fitting, since the former is rooted in conflict, while the latter is dual, indeed in conflict with itself, inasmuch as it promotes life and death at once.

Read the rest of this entry »

This is the first of six posts constituting a single essay in six chapters, one per post. References are written according to the following scheme: §2.4 is the fourth section of chapter 2; footnotes are numbered afresh with each chapter, so within chapter 2, n. 5 refers to the fifth footnote of that chapter, while n. 3.5 refers to the fifth footnote of chapter 3.

 

Necessity and Hysteria: Ancient Light on Baudelaire

 τέχνη δ’ ἀνάγκης ἀσθενεστέρα μακρῶι.
Art is far weaker than necessity.
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound

Beholding a poor old saltimbanque at a street fair, the narrator of Baudelaire’s prose poem “Le Vieux Saltimbanque” perceives contrast and is moved to hysteria:[1]

     Partout la joie, le gain, la débauche; partout la certitude du pain pour les lendemains; partout l’explosion frénétique de la vitalité. Ici la misère absolue, la misère affublée, pour comble d’horreur, de haillons comiques, où la nécessité, bien plus que l’art, avait introduit le contraste. Il ne riait pas, le misérable! Il ne pleurait pas, il ne dansait pas, il ne gesticulait pas, il ne criait pas; il ne chantait aucune chanson, ni gaie ni lamentable, il n’implorait pas. Il était muet et immobile. Il avait renoncé, il avait abdiqué. Sa destinée était faite.
     Mais quel regard profond, inoubliable, il promenait sur la foule et les lumières, dont le flot mouvant s’arrêtait à quelques pas de sa répulsive misère! Je sentis ma gorge serrée par la main terrible de l’hystérie, et il me sembla que mes regards étaient offusqués par ces larmes rebelles qui ne veulent pas tomber.

     Everywhere joy, winning, debauchery; everywhere the certainty of bread for the days to come; every­where the frenzied explosion of vitality. Here absolute misery, misery rigged out, to top off the horror, with comical rags, in which necessity, much more than art, had introduced the contrast. He wasn’t laughing, the miserable creature! He wasn’t weeping, he wasn’t dancing, he wasn’t gesticulating, he wasn’t shouting; he sang no song, neither gay nor woeful, he did not implore. He was mute and motionless. He had renounced, he had abdicated. His fate was settled.
     But what a gaze, deep, unforgettable, he was passing over the crowd and the lights, whose moving flood stopped a few steps from his repulsive misery! I felt my throat gripped by the terrible hand of hysteria, and my gaze seemed obscured by those rebellious tears that do not want to fall. [2]

The present essay considers the connection between necessity, which crowns the height of horror in the figure of the saltimbanque, and hysteria, which the sight of him brings about. The first three chapters offer evidence to support a certain view of that connection, the fourth relates it to a modern theory of the poet as actor, the fifth examines a Homeric analogue, and the last finds in sophistry the poet’s downfall. The argument is laid out in the introductions to the several chapters. My chief aim is to bring some classical (Greek and Roman) writings to bear on this subject; there is no attempt to trace Baudelaire’s sources. For readers of Baudelaire who may be unfamiliar with the ancients, I have provided full citations to classical works.[3]

Part I

Hysteria and Necessity

Chapter 1

Hysteria as a Product of Conflict and Transgression

After a brief description of hysteria, it is explained in this chapter that the disorder can be characterized as the product of conflict resulting from the actual or potential transgression of a boundary—between life and death, speaking most generally.

Read the rest of this entry »

This post rests nowhere. Its only excuse is its theme.

The first extended simile in Paradise Lost compares Satan to

                                          that Sea-beast
Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim th’ Ocean stream:
Him haply slumb’ring on the Norway foam
The Pilot of some small night-founder’d Skiff,
Deeming some Island, oft, as Seamen tell,
With fixed Anchor in his scaly rind
Moors by his side under the Lee, while Night
Invests the Sea, and wished Morn delays:
So stretcht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay
Chain’d on the burning Lake….

As first the passage deserves special attention. “Of Man’s First Disobedience,” the poem begins, and it aims to establish itself as first—before what Homer tells, before every classical myth. When we reach Leviathan there has already been speech (In the beginning was the Word), but action is now heralded by the incidental tale of the Pilot’s error; the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor commence with a like story. What does it signify here? It is obliquely cautionary: a reader seduced by the fallen angel will but repeat the experience of Eve; no stability is in Satan, the leviathan that the Lord will punish.[1]

Read the rest of this entry »

The most frivolous compositions may have deep roots. In a letter (circa 1897) to his stepmother Lucy Housman, A. E. Housman muses,

Perhaps I myself may write a Hymn-book for use in the Salvation Army:

There is Hallelujah Hannah
    Walking backwards down the lane,
And I hear the loud Hosanna
    Of regenerated Jane;
And Lieutenant Isabella
    In the centre of them comes,
Dealing blows with her umbrella
    On the trumpets and the drums.

Or again:

“Hallelujah!” was the only observation
That escaped Lieutenant-Colonel Mary Jane,
When she tumbled off the platform in the station,
And was cut in little pieces by the train.
    Mary Jane, the train is through yer:
    Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
We will gather up the fragments that remain.

It seems to come quite easy.

The last line of the second hymn will be recognized as quoting John 6.12, where the (first) miracle of the loaves and fishes is treated. After the feast, Jesus “said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” Similar language is found in the other gospels. But there is a far more ancient source for the two hymns together, namely the Bacchae of Euripides. In what follows I will give references (not exhaustive) by line numbers of that play.

Read the rest of this entry »

This is poem no. XXXII of A Shropshire Lad.

     From far, from eve and morning
        And yon twelve-winded sky,
     The stuff of life to knit me
        Blew hither: here am I.

     Now—for a breath I tarry
        Nor yet disperse apart—
     Take my hand quick and tell me,
        What have you in your heart.

     Speak now, and I will answer;
        How shall I help you, say;
     Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
        I take my endless way.

Read the rest of this entry »

Note. Considerable Greek is quoted here, but all of it is translated.

No sooner is Medea assured of sanctuary in Athens than she exclaims to the women of the chorus,

      νῦν καλλίνικοι τῶν ἐμῶν ἐχθρῶν, φίλαι,
      γενησόμεσθα… (764)[1]

      now victorious over my enemies, friends,
      will I be….

Here the form of the word translated “friends” shows them to be female and the persons addressed.[2] I have kept the interesting Greek placement of “enemies” and “friends” at the cost of some awkwardness and unclarity, which may not have been worth paying, because in the Greek the syntactical roles of the adjacent nouns are sharply distinguished by their different cases. Another translation:

      now glorious victory over my enemies, dear ladies,
      will I have…

A little later, having laid out her plans, Medea justifies them in an echoing line (it ends with the same two words):

      οὐ γὰρ γελᾶσθαι τλητὸν ἐξ ἐχθρῶν, φίλαι. (797)

      For it is not endurable to be laughed at by one’s enemies, friends.

Victory for herself will deny laughter to her enemies, and in the Greek the first part of this line (the five syllables before the caesura), meaning literally “for not to be laughed at,” takes the place of the corresponding part of the previous line (the five syllables before the caesura, with the same scansion), meaning “now victorious.”

Read the rest of this entry »

The “1” in the title of this post is to egg me on to follow it with more notes on details and themes in plays of Euripides.[1]

The Nurse opens the play.

Εἴθ’ ὤφελ’ Ἀργοῦς μὴ διαπτάσθαι σκάφος
Κόλχων ἐς αἶαν κυανέας Συμπληγάδας…

Eith’ ōphel’ Argous mē diaptasthai skaphos
Kolkhōn es aian kuaneas Sumplēgadas…

If only the hull of the Argo had not flown through
the dark-blue Clashers to the land of the Colchians…

Alone of the 44 substantially complete plays we have by (or attributed to) Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, this one opens with a wish that its story had never begun. The Nurse looks back to the voyage of the Argo, and even before that to the felling of the pines that yielded the oars for the heroes to ply. She would have them still standing; she would undo the whole epic. The reason is the faithlessness of Jason, and the suffering this is causing her mistress and the whole household. Of course, as to what Medea may do the Nurse has only vague fears.

Read the rest of this entry »

Whoso
Rousseau
Highly rates,

Savage
Cabbage
Freely grates.

In the third book of Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that just as poets ought to present character that is worthy of emulation, so also craftsmen (painters, sculptors, architects) should produce such works that “our young men, dwelling as it were in a salubrious region, may receive benefit from all things about them, whence the influence that emanates from works of beauty may waft itself to eye or ear like a breeze that brings from wholesome places health, and so from earliest childhood insensibly guide them to likeness, to friendship, to harmony with beautiful reason.” (Republic 401c–d, trans. Paul Shorey.) The breeze is aura (αὔρα), a word which elsewhere in Plato occurs in the phrase “the breeze of fortune,” which bloweth where it listeth.

Read the rest of this entry »

Poem or fragment, the following lines of Keats cannot be too much admired.

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d — see here it is
I hold it towards you —

 
Read the rest of this entry »

In Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology is the following one, of Demodocus.

Πάντες μὲν Κίλικες κακοὶ ἀνέρες· ἐν δὲ Κίλιξιν
     εἶς ἀγαθὸς Κίνυρης, καὶ Κινύρης δὲ Κίλιξ.

All the Cilicians are bad men; but among the Cilicians
     there’s one good one, Cinyras; but Cinyras too is a Cilician.

(My translation.) Mackail thinks it is imitated from similar epigrams of Phocylides, among which is this, which begins with attribution to the author.

Read the rest of this entry »

Finally, in this last part, the lame Meter.

It was on the 4th of Messidor in the year VII that the standard meter, and with it the standard kilogram, were presented to the legislature. —What, Messidor? VII? Yes, the Republic had been inaugurated on September 22, 1792, and on that day (it was eventually decided) began Year I. Years of the Republic had twelve months of 30 days each, plus some festival days; and the months, each beginning around the 20th of an English month, were Vendémiaire (Vintage-y), Brumaire (Misty), Frimaire (Frosty), Nivôse (Snowy), Pluviôse (Rainy), Ventôse (Windy), Germinal (Bud-y), Floréal (Flowery), Prairial (Meadowy), Messidor (Harvest-giver), Thermidor (Heat-giver), Fructidor (Fruit-giver). These names, bestowed by Fabre d’Églantine, whose head was cut off for his pains, were probably thought more dignified and poetical than those contrived by Sir Gregory Gander for the English calendar:

Snowy, Flowy, Blowy,
Showery, Flowery, Bowery,
Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy,
Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy.

But they were hardly more exact. Besides, Sir Gregory kept his head. —Messidor began on June 20th, so the big day must have been June 23, 1799.

Read the rest of this entry »

There is what there is, and there isn’t what there isn’t—so much for what; as for where, consider the things that are there, but not here. They are behind, or around the corner, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, imperceptible, inaccessible, ideal, suggested. How influential they may be! Democritean atoms (constitutive of the world); Platonic forms (casting a world of shadows); things in themselves (responsible for things natural); empty physical fields (space qualitative and quantitative). The past (gone, inescapable) and the future (not come, inevitable): what presses us behind, where we don’t see, or draws us ahead, where we’re not looking.  Whatever is under the surface, pictures for the mind’s eye, matter for intuition,….  “That which is properly thought, image, sentiment is always, in some way, a production of absent things.”

Read the rest of this entry »

As far as I know, this literary sub-genre, or sub-literary genre, is new.

A thrifty young thinker named Blaise
Took pains to preserve his pensées,
     But ere the fond hoarder
     Could set them in order,
He’d thoughtlessly spent all his days!

Read the rest of this entry »

An untitled poem of 1854 by A. A. Fet, literally translated, goes something like this.

How cool it is here under the thick linden-tree—
the intense heat of midday has not been penetrating hither,
and hanging over me, thousands
of fragrant fans are swinging.

But there, in the distance, the burning air glitters,
wavering, as if drowsing.
So sharp and dry is the soporific and grating
ceaseless ringing of the grasshoppers.

Beyond the shadows of the branches the vault of heaven shows blue,
as if lightly shrouded in haze,
and, like dreams of slumbering nature,
wavy clouds pass by.

Read the rest of this entry »

La Rochefoucauld writes, “Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixément”: “Neither the sun nor death can be stared at (looked at fixedly)” (Maxim 19, edition of 1678.)  In each case seeing would undo sight.  But impossibility is apt to be disregarded.  We may think of the peril of raising one’s eyes to the Sun King; or of a philosopher who, following Socrates, practices dying and being dead (Phaedo 64a), until he becomes unable to see life as others do.

Read the rest of this entry »

A night (νύξ) in Homer is dark, especially in the Iliad, even black, murky, moonless (μέλαινα, ἐρεβεννή, ὀρφναίη, κελαινή, δνοφερή, σκοτομήνιος, ἐρεμνή).  It may be baneful, bad, sleepless, cold, a source of pain, especially in the Odyssey (ὀλοή, κακή, ἄυπνος, πηγυλίς, δυσκηδέα).  Black night will cover the earth, or a battle, perhaps drawn over it by a god; it enfolds the eyes of men slain.  In the night men and gods sleep or wake, dreams come, Zeus rains and blows, or thunders and devises evil; men feast, lie awake pondering, walk about to rouse others, or lament their dead; lions menace flocks, fires burn, ships sail or come to harbor, wanderers are a danger; Odysseus lies with Calypso, Penelope unravels her web.  There is one great nighttime adventure, the daring raid by Odysseus and Diomedes in Iliad 10.

Read the rest of this entry »

Aspect

living’s progressive
of live dying’s progressive
of die they tell me

In “The Two-handed Engine and the Fatal Bellman: ‘Lycidas’ and ‘Macbeth’” (Notes and Queries, April 1979, 126–128), June Winter showed that “Milton in his passage about the corrupt clergy (Lycidas, 108–31) is invoking imagery used by Shakespeare in passages of Act II in Macbeth, a play about corruption in the state of Scotland.”  Before learning of her work, I had collected evidence that the poem was connected to Act III of Macbeth, and in such a way as to suggest the association of Milton, or the singer of Lycidas, with Macbeth, and Edward King, or Lycidas, with legitimate royalty and Banquo in particular.

Read the rest of this entry »

At the end of La Fontaine’s first fable, La Cigale et la fourmi [The Cicada and the Ant], the ant advises the cicada, who has sung all summer, “Eh bien! dansez maintenant.” [“Well! now dance.”].  Why dance?  To keep warm, of course; but (inasmuch as this is a death sentence) there is more: it is time for the cicada to enter the danse macabre, the procession led by Death—to dance her way into the grave.  Indeed, the word for “now” is main-tenant, which is “hand-holding.”