Art may spill over from creating a world of language into the dangerous and forbidden task of trying to create a human being.
—W. H. Auden (qtd. in Edward Mendelson, "The Secret Auden")
author of The Ecstasy of Michaela and assorted stories and essays
Epigraph/epitaph: "He has been a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all."
For pride like that we here must pay the fine;
Nor yet should I be here, but that contrition
Turned me to God while the power to sin was mine.
O empty glory of man’s frail ambition,
How soon its topmost boughs their green must yield;
If no Dark Age succeed, what short fruition!
Once Cimabue thought to hold the field
In painting; Giotto’s all the rage to-day;
The other’s fame lies in the dust concealed.
Guido from Guido wrests our native bay,
And born, belike, already is the same
Shall chase both songsters from the nest away.
A breath of wind—no more—is earthly fame,
And now this way it blows and that way now,
And as it changes quarter, changes name.
Ten centuries hence, what greater fame hast thou,
Stripping the flesh off late, than if thou’dst died
Ere thou wast done with gee-gee and bow-wow?
Ten centuries hence—and that’s a briefer tide,
Matched with eternity, than one eye-wink
To that wheeled course Heaven’s tardiest sphere must ride.
So when the stair had dropped, long flight on flight,
Away beneath us, then did Virgil turn
On the top step and fix me with his eyes,
Saying, “The temporal fire and the eterne
Thou hast beheld, my son, and reached a place
Where, of myself, no further I discern.
I’ve brought thee here by wit and by address;
Make pleasure now thy guide—thou art well sped
Forth of the steep, forth of the narrow ways.
See how the sun shines here upon thy head;
See the green sward, the flowers, the boskages
That from the soil’s own virtue here are bred.
While those fair eyes are coming, bright with bliss,
Whose tears sent me to thee, thou may’st prospect
At large, or sit with ease to view all this.
No word from me, no further sign expect;
Free, upright, whole, thy will henceforth lays down
Guidance that it were error to neglect,
Whence o’er thyself I mitre thee and crown.”
Guido Guinizzelli, purifying myself
already because I repented before the end.”
As the two sons became during the sorrow
of Lycurgus, when they saw their mother again,
I became, without rising to their expression,
hearing my father and the father of others
my betters and whoever has come to use
sweet graceful rhymes of love say his own name,
and without hearing or speaking I walked on
a long way, thoughtful, gazing at him,
but because of the fire went no closer.
When my sight had feasted enough upon him
I offered my self at once to his service
with that earnestness that makes others believe.
And he to me: “You leave a mark so deep,
through what I hear, and see clearly, in me
that Lethe cannot wash it out nor fade it.
But if it is the truth which you have promised,
tell why it is that your face and speech
make it apparent that you hold me so dear.”
And I to him, “The sweet song of yours
that so long as our present words endure
will make precious the ink in which they were written.”
"Oh brother," he said, "the one at whom I am pointing
with my finger,” indicating a spirit before him,
“was a better workman in the mother tongue:
verses of love and stories of romance,
he was peerless in all of them, and let the fools babble
who believe that the Limousin writes better.
They attend fashion rather than the truth.
and in that way they make up their opinion
before they give heed to art or reason.
That was the way many did with Guittone,
shout after shout all giving the prize to him
until the truth overcame most of them.
Now if so vast a privilege is yours
that you are free to walk on to the cloister
in which Christ is the abbot of the college,
recite to Him there a Paternoster for me,
insofar as we need one in this world
where the power to sin is ours no longer.”
Then, it may be to make room for another
who was close to him, he vanished through the fire
like a fish going into the deepest water.
I moved forward a little toward the one
who had been pointed out and said to him
that my wish had made a welcome for his name.
Freely he began to speak to me:
“Your courteous question gives such pleasure to me
that I will not and cannot conceal myself from you.
I am Arnaut who weep and go singing.
With anguish of mind I see my old folly
and with joy see before me the hoped-for day.
Now I beg of you by that power
that is leading you to the top of the stair,
while there is time remember how I suffer!”
Then hid himself in the fire that refines them.
Most poets have given up on epic as a grand narrative… but to me the lyric has two options left, personal or impersonal truth of our emotional lives… but most of it has been done. What I seek is something more expansive, the epic frame of comic intelligence, an Aristophanean galaxy of comic parody and critique bounded and framed by the contours of ancient Epic battles of tragic heroism and the ethical judgments of the Biblical prophets… yet, within a more equitable and ironic universe of posthuman / transhuman comedy of Shakespearean plenitude…
To read ‘Paradise Lost’ through Keats’s eyes is to see it in part as a poem of Shakespearean characterization, but chiefly as a poem of luxuriant and opulent description, full of growth, change, ripening, delectable sweets, and golden profusion.
Wendell Clausen, who belonged to the last generation of great Latin philologists, once gave us graduate students an indignant speech about the status of Roman civilization. Yes, it could be harsh, he said, but why did no one ever cite the Athenian atrocities of the Peloponnesian War to claim that they throw a shadow over Classical tragedy, when the same people assert that the Romans’ brutal reduction of Carthage in the mid-second century B.C. throws a shadow over even the greatest Roman literature?
Professor Clausen also could have taken on ably those who scoff at Roman literature as derivative, and painted the Romans as beefy jocks, grunting over the imported glories of Homer and allowing only a jingoistic, contrived imitation of him in Vergil’s Aeneid. One of the outrages of this characterization is the denigration of twentieth-century Modernism it entails. The Romans brilliantly adapted, elaborated, deepened, and individualized—they thought their way through books, in an age less dependent on public performance and alive to the possibilities urged by the Alexandrian Library in Egypt and the scholarly post-Classical Greek literature that had risen around it.
Professor Clausen also might have noted that the much-sneered-at Roman narrow-eyedness and hard-nosedness created for writers a more stable, continuous, and unified culture in which to develop their various arts. We can more confidently speak here of a single literature and trace intricate developments from generation to generation, instead of having to make abrupt jumps between cities, islands, and even continents that had much less in common. Students of Ancient Greek may delight in the variety of dialects and the only jaggedly related genres, but the benefits of rock-solid centralization gleam in—as a particularly precious example—the works of the late-first-century-B.C. Roman poet Horace.
This son of a freedman, working obscurely in the central Roman bureaucracy, came to the attention of the first Emperor Augustus through the latter’s meticulous system of conscription for literary patronage. Horace (after relatively mediocre early efforts) found, through Augustus’s cultural collaborator Maecenas, personal, material, and political support for perhaps the most sublime lyric poetry in history, which drew on Greek lyric traditions that differed greatly in quality as well as in form and subject matter. At the same time, it drew on a previous Roman generation’s sometimes awkward, sometimes touching experiments on the basis of these foreign works. Horace also evolved native Italian satirical and epistolary traditions to almost queasy aesthetic heights. Horace could exist as Horace because of that quintessential Roman skill: management.
Yet Horace, like most other Roman authors, is comparatively seldom read, studied, and taught in English.
(N.B.: I’ve never read Horace.)
I have always wondered about the origin of literal translations. Nowadays we are fond of literal translations; in fact, many of us accept only literal translations because we want to give every man his due. That would have seemed a crime to translators in ages past. They were thinking of something far worthier. They wanted to prove that the vernacular was as capable of a great poem as the original. And I suppose that Don Juan de Jáuregui when he rendered Lucan into Spanish, though of that also. I don’t think any contemporary of Pope thought about Homer and Pope. I suppose the readers, the best readers anyhow, thought of the poem in itself. They were interested in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and they had no care for verbal trifles. All throughout the Middle Ages, people thought of translation not in terms of a literal rendering but in terms of something being re-created. Of a poet’s having read a work and then somehow evolving that work from himself, from his own might, from the possibilities hitherto known of his his language.
How did literal translations begin? I do not think they came out of scholarship; I do not think they came out of scruples. I think they had a theological origin. For although people thought of Homer as the greatest of all poets, still they knew that Homer was human (“quandoque dormitat bonus Homerus,” and so on), and so they could reshape his words. But when it came to translating the Bible, that was something quite different, because the Bible was supposed to have been written by the Holy Ghost. If we think of the Holy Ghost, if we think of the infinite intelligence of God undertaking a literary task, then we are not allowed to think of any chance elements—of any haphazard elements in his work. No—if God writes a book, if God condescends to literature, then every word, every letter, as the Kabbalists said, must have been thought out. And it might be blasphemy to tamper with the text written by an endless, eternal intelligence.
Thus, I think the idea of a literal translation came from translations of the Bible. This is merely my guess (I suppose there are many scholars who can correct me if I make a mistake), but I think it is highly probable. When very fine translations of the Bible were undertaken, men began to discover, began to feel, that there was a beauty in alien ways of expression. Now everybody is fond of literal translation because a literal translation always gives us those small jolts of surprise that we expect. In fact, it might be said that no original is needed. Perhaps a time will come when a translation will be considered as something in itself. We may think of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portugese.
Sometimes I have attempted a rather bold metaphor, but have seen that no one would accept it if it came from me (I am a mere contemporary), and so I have attributed it to some out-of-the-way Persian or Norseman. Then my friends have said that it was quite fine; and of course I have never told them that I invented it, because I was fond of the metaphor. After all, the Persians or Norseman may have invented that metaphor, or far better ones.
Now in the epic—and we might think of the Gospels as a kind of divine epic—all things could be found. But poetry, as I have said, has fallen asunder; or rather, on the other hand we have the lyrical poem and the elegy, and on the other we have the telling of a tale—we have the novel. One is almost tempted to think of the novel as a degeneration of the epic, in spite of such writers as Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville. For the novel goes back to the dignity of the epic.
If we think of the novel and the epic, we are tempted to fall into thinking that the chief difference lies in the difference between verse and prose, in the difference between singing something and stating something. But I think there is a greater difference. The difference lies in the fact that the important thing about the epic is a hero—a man who is a pattern for all men. While, as Mencken pointed out, the essence of most novels lies in the breaking down of a man, in the degeneration of character.
This brings us to another question: What do we think of happiness? What do we think of defeat, and of victory? Nowadays when people talk of a happy ending, they think of it as mere pandering to the public, or they think is a commercial device; they think of it as artificial. Yet for centuries men could very sincerely believe in happiness and in victory, thought they felt the essential dignity of defeat. For example, when people wrote about the Golden Fleece (one of the ancient stories of mankind), readers and hearers were made to feel from the beginning that the treasure would be found at the end.
Well, nowadays if an adventure is attempted, we know that it will end in failure. When we read—I think of an example I admire—The Aspern Papers, we know that the papers will never be found. When we read Franz Kafka’s The Castle, we know that the man will never get to the castle. That is to say, we cannot really believe in happiness and in success. And this may be one of the poverties of our time.
Ember hesitated, then dialled fluently. The line was engaged. That sequence of small bar-shaped hoots was like the long vertical row of superimposed I’s in an index by first lines to a verse anthology. I am a lake. I am a tongue. I am a spirit. I am fevered. I am not covetous. I am the Dark Cavalier. I am the torch. I arise. I ask. I blow. I bring. I cannot change. I cannot look. I climb the hill. I come. I dream. I envy. I found. I heard. I intended an Ode. I know. I love. I must not grieve, my love. I never. I pant. I remember. I saw thee once. I travelled. I wandered. I will. I will. I will. I will.
I still make plans to live forever: there are too many critical questions still to be raised. Most of them can never be settled, which is the best reason for raising them. Who needs a smooth technique after hearing Hopkins’s praise “All things counter, original, spare, strange”? Well, everyone does, because what Hopkins does with the language depends on the mastery of mastery, and first you must have the mastery. And how can we write as innocently now as Shakespeare did when he gave Mercutio the speech about Queen Mab, or as Herrick did when he wrote “Oberon’s Feast”, or even as Pope did, for all his show of craft, when he summoned the denizens of the air to attend Belinda in Canto II of The Rape of the Lock? Well, we certainly can’t do it through ignorance, so there goes the idea of starting from nowhere. Better to think back on all the poems you have ever loved, and to realize what they have in common: the life you soon must lose.
Lear. O, ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light. Yet you see how this world goes.
Gloucester. I see it feelingly.
Lear. What, art mad? A man may see how the world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yond justice rails upon yond
simple thief. Hark in thine ear. Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
Gloucester. Ay, sir.
Lear. And the creature run from the cur? There thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.
Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back.
Thou hotly lusts to use her in that kind
For which thou whip’st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.
Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.
None does offend, none—I say none! I’ll able ‘em.
Take that of me, my friend, who have the power
To seal th’ accuser’s lips. Get thee glass eyes
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not. Now, now, now, now!
Pull off my boots. Harder, harder! So.
Edgar. O, matter and impertinency mix’d!
Reason, in madness!
Lear. If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.
I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester.
Thou must be patient. We came crying hither;
Thou know’st, the first time that we smell the air
We wawl and cry. I will preach to thee. Mark.
Gloucester. Alack, alack the day!
Lear. When we are born, we cry that we are come
To this great stage of fools.
King Lear, 4.6
(Happy bday, Will.)
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Art may spill over from creating a world of language into the dangerous and forbidden task of trying to create a human being.
—W. H. Auden (qtd. in Edward Mendelson, "The Secret Auden")
The way to develop good taste in literature is to read poetry… For, being the supreme form of human locution, poetry is not only the most concise, the most condensed way of conveying the human experience; it also offers the highest possible standards for any linguistic operation — especially one on paper.
The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction. Good style in prose is always hostage to the precision, speed and laconic intensity of poetic diction. A child of epitaph and epigram, conceived indeed as a short cut to any conceivable subject matter, poetry to prose is a great disciplinarian. It teaches the latter not only the value of each word but also the mercurial mental patterns of the species, alternatives to linear composition, the knack of omitting the self-evident, emphasis on detail, the technique of anticlimax. Above all, poetry develops in prose that appetite for metaphysics that distinguishes a work of art from mere belles-lettres. It must be admitted, however, that in this particular regard, prose has proven to be a rather lazy pupil.