Category Archives: Other Poetry

Review: ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’, a small anthology of Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire (Penguin Little Black Classics #2)As kingfishers catch fire by Gerard Manley Hopkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to confess that I find a certain amount of Hopkins’ poetry incomprehensible. Nonetheless, there is a certain beauty to it, even though it is not my cup of tea. This is why I give the book only 3 stars: I acknowledge its artistic merit, simultaneously admitting my own lack of deep appreciation for Hopkins’ work.

That said, some of the imagery is lovely and striking. And his use of language for oral effects — that is, assonance and alliteration — works well. Some of his techniques are things I toy with in my secret pastime writing poetry — disjunction, piling up of adjectives, what-have-you. These sentence fragments. He also has a tendency to write run-on sentences and he makes liberal use of
enjambment.

I am especially fond of ‘Spring’. The descriptions of the created order from his journals were also pleasant and striking. My wife likes to say that creation is God’s first temple, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., has captured the essence of that statement.

What resounded in me here was the poetry of despair. Not that I am, myself, a person in much despair or who has plumbed the depths of human misery. But consider the life of a Jesuit who felt such darkness yet remained faithful to the end.

This brings me to the fact that some of the 1-star reviews cite how ‘religious’ the poetry is as a reason they didn’t like it. All I have to say is if you find this particular selection of Gerard Manley Hopkins too religious, you have had little contact with religious poetry, and will probably shrink in revulsion from Donne, Herbert, Milton, and even a certain amount of Blake and Christina Rossetti, not to mention a huge quantity of medieval English verse (setting aside continental vernaculars, Latin, and Greek). There is, perhaps, a spiritual/religious sense or feeling to the poetry of Hopkins, but beyond references to Christ, Saviour, God, the Virgin, nothing of dogma or doctrine.

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Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

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The Ages of Men (and Elves)

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

One element I wanted to highlight in my last post, but couldn’t find a good place to do it, is Tolkien’s use of the term ‘Age’ to refer to the great epochs or periods of the mythology outlined in Letter 131 and given in full in The Silmarillion. When I think of ‘ages’ in mythology, I cannot but help of Hesiod. First, Tolkien’s ages:

  1. The First Age is the Age of creation and of the Silmarils, of the Valar and the creation of Elves and Men, of war against Morgoth. It ends in cataclysm and destruction.
  2. The next, the Second Age, is ‘on Earth a dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told.’ (The Letters of J R R Tolkien, p. 150) The land is still ravaged by the enemy and war against him; this is the Age when the Rings of Power are forged and when Men are still living great and mighty, close to the Elves and the Valar in Númenor. It, too, ends in cataclysm, and the destruction of Númenor and the sealing off of Valinor from Men — the movement of all Men to Middle Earth.
  3. The Third Age is the Age of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when Sauron’s power grows again and the War of the Ring is waged, the Ring finally being destroyed.

The Fourth Age is whatever comes next, I guess? Does it commence with the reign of Aragorn? There are no more Elves, the last having sailed West to Paradise. I believe the Fourth Age is our own.

In one of the earliest poems of the great western tradition, Works and Days, by Hesiod (a near contemporary of Homer), we read of the ages of man, lines 106-201. The five ages in Hesiod are:

  1. Gold — the age of Kronos/Saturn.
  2. Silver ‘less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit.’ (Hesiod, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White)
  3. Bronze, ‘sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence’ (Hesiod)
  4. The Heroes of mythology, ‘the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.’ (Hesiod)
  5. Iron. Us. ‘Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.’ (Hesiod)

Plato also discusses the Ages of Man in Cratylus, with explicit reference to Hesiod. When Ovid went through the Ages of Man in Metamorphoses 1, he took out the age of the heroes (logically enough), reducing them to four. Tolkien’s mythology is not, of course, primarily interested with Men but with Elves. Most natural-born mythology, on the other hand, has a primary concern with human beings as well as with gods (Elves are not gods; the Valar are).

The gods, of course, have their generations as well. Hesiod tells us of them in his Theogony. Ouranos begets the Titans who overthrow him. Kronos, a Titan, begets the Olympians who overthrow him.

We are all seeking the Golden Age, though, aren’t we? Here is the Garth and Dryden translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, on the subject:

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast:
No suppliant crowds before the judge appear’d,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
The mountain-trees in distant prospect please,
E’re yet the pine descended to the seas:
E’re sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
And happy mortals, unconcern’d for more,
Confin’d their wishes to their native shore.
No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet’s angry sound:
Nor swords were forg’d; but void of care and crime,
The soft creation slept away their time.
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
The flow’rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign’d:
And Western winds immortal spring maintain’d.
In following years, the bearded corn ensu’d
From Earth unask’d, nor was that Earth renew’d.
From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;
And honey sweating through the pores of oak.

I cannot leave unmentioned Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, where the poet imagines a world where a recently-born child will usher in a new Golden Age for the world. It is not, of course, a longing deep in the heart of the Greco-Roman soul, as Isaiah 11:1-9 remind us:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Throughout the New Testament as well, there is a hope of undoing the curse from Genesis 3 and returning to the state of Paradise, the Golden Age of Adam and Eve.

This rests in all our hearts, and it is a driving force for us to see it realised to some small degree here, now, in this world. We all want Eden, the Saturnian lands — we all want Valinor in the West, where we can sail with the Elves and walk with the servants of Ilúvatar (God).

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
-William Blake

Saturn in Keats’ ‘Hyperion’

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

Having read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, I was inspired to read Keats’ Hyperion. Keats’ Hyperion is a fragmentary narrative poem about the Titans after their defeat by the gods of Olympus. I didn’t quite absorb it all. It washed over me in a wave of words and rhythm, entrancing me and tugging me, but I was lulled by it in the wrong way.

So I’ll have to reread it.

Anyway, the thing that struck me at the very beginning is that Keats’ vision of Saturn takes into account one striking fact that careful readers of Latin verse observe — Saturn is not Kronos.

We all know the old story of Roman adaptatio of Greek deities with their own, something that had such a powerful impact upon them (and, it seems, their Etruscan neighbours) that little of pre-Greek Italic myth has any existence. And so, it is very frequently (but not always!) possible to say, ‘Jupiter/Jove is Zeus. Juno is Hera. Minerva is Athena. Mars is Ares.’

Saturn is Kronos.

Right?

I mean, he is the leading ‘Titan’ and father of the Olympians, such as Jupiter.

However, when we read Vergil, it is evident that Saturn is not a mean, nasty jerk-face who enjoys gobbling up his children the moment they’re born (this is about all most of us are aware of re Kronos via Hesiod). He is, rather, the king of the Golden Age. He creates the first and greatest race of human beings. For Latins, the return of the Age of Saturn is a good thing.

Keats’ Hyperion begins with Thea approaching the supine form of defeated Saturn. And the Saturn she approaches is not the Titanic villain Kronos. He is clearly the golden god of good things, the god of plenty, the king of a golden age.

Of course, Keats knows his Greek myths as well.  The creation of all things from Chaos, for example, is part of the poem. But he has made for us a sympathetic Saturn, rather than the rather the unsympathetic Kronos of Hesiod (and Goya).

This is a wee reminder that when Romantics name ‘Greek’ gods by their Roman names, they are not (merely?) being patronising. There may in fact be a point to so doing. And I would further argue that for someone like Keats, naming the gods by their Roman names makes the most sense, given that he spent his final years in Rome, leaving Hyperion unfinished at the time of his death in 1820.

Just a quick thought, but I felt like articulating it.

Epic review of Paradise Lost (also: Is there ring composition? Discuss)

Paradise LostParadise Lost by John Milton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It seems silly to write a review of Paradise Lost. ‘You mean Matthew, of all people, liked this book? What a shock!’ And, really, how can one give a star rating to one of the pinnacles of English literature? Obviously my five stars for something like Milton is far more subjective than rating of, say, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language or Discourse Particles in Latin. Nonetheless, to get to the matter at issue:

Read this book.

Paradise Lost is epic.

As you undoubtedly know, it is the tale of man’s first disobedience, and the most interesting character seems mostly to be Satan. In his programmatic statements about the poem, Milton may claim to justify the ways of God to men, but that doesn’t really happen. Mostly, an epic tale of G vs E goes down, crafted out of exquisite, beautiful, finely-crafted English blank verse (no rhymes here, friends!).

It begins, as Homer and as Vergil, with the theme presented in the first line — Of man’s first disobedience — and in medias res. We find Satan and the angels who joined him in rebellion lying on the Lake of Fire in Hell. From Hell, we watch Satan travel to Earth in order to corrupt the Almighty’s new creation — man. And there, we meet Adam and Eve and Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel.

In wondrously beautiful verse, beating in its iambic rhythm like the human heart, the tales of the War in Heaven and of creation are poured out before us by Raphael, with Adam filling in what happened after the birth of man. So here, as in the Odyssey or Aeneid, the necessary background for the early books is told by the characters themselves in a nice touch of narratology at the centre of the poem. These central books are my favourite part of Paradise Lost.

The inevitable Fall, followed by an encounter with the Son of God, and then the Archangel Michael giving a somewhat over-detailed account of the Old Testament. And it ends, as it began, with exile. I’ve not looked at it, but I wonder if there isn’t a bit of ring composition here? We begin with Satan and his angels exiled in Hell and end with Adam and Eve walking out of Eden. The second major episode of the book is Satan crossing to Earth, as later he crosses back. The centre is telling the past, while later Michael tells the future. I’m not sure; it’s not perfect, but it’s not lacking.

That is how fantastic a piece of literature this is. I don’t care if your religious or not. I don’t care if you’ve not read as much epic as I have. Read this book.

It is beautiful and powerful and will overcome you.

Be forewarned that it is not easy going until Milton’s poetry captures your mind and colonises your brain. This was my third or fourth attempt to read this book. It really helped to have read C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost first. I’m sure some other similar introductory volume would be worth the time, because it would be a shame to go through life without having read Paradise Lost.

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Ozymandias, Charlemagne, and the sands of time

On Sunday, I reread this classic poem of 1818 by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

The theme of this poem — or, at least, its general sentiment — is the transitory nature of most human endeavour. You may think yourself a big man or woman in your time, but what are the chances that your memory will live on beyond the next generation?

Rameses II

Initially, I wanted to contest this poem. Ozymandias is no longer a nobody, no longer a cypher in the sand. He is Rameses II, one of the most powerful New Kingdom Pharaohs. His temples and his tomb are known. We know the stories of his reign. He is likely the Pharaoh of the biblical Exodus. Thanks to archaeology and historical linguistics, we can read the stories of Rameses and other powerful men lost in antiquity, whether through text or artefact.

Ozymandias has been rediscovered! Rameses shall live eternal in the memory of humanity!

As I was plotting out this post, however, another memory from Sunday came flooding in. On Sunday morning at church, a friend asked how my week had been. I mentioned the Charlemagne commemorative lecture. He said he did not know who Charlemagne was.

Charlie Who?

Charlemagne is a much bigger figure in the cultural memory of Europe than Ozymandias/Rameses II. He is much more recent. He is European. He did all sorts of stuff. Some European schoolchildren learn about him in their history classes. I have no doubt that he is an important part of First Millennium Studies.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Edinburgh accountants know who the man is.

And so we come full circle back to Shelley’s poem — the memories of the great are feeble and weak things, even when they have the infrastructure of Europe to help keep them alive.

Ovid’s Amores: Wit, desire, artifice

I just finished A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Amores in his Oxford World’s Classics volume of Ovid, The Love Poems. I had previously read his translation of the Metamorphoses and fell in love with the liveliness of Melville’s verse, as quick to turn a phrase as Ovid himself, so when I took advantage of Blackwell’s 2 for 1 sale of Oxford World’s Classics early this week, I paired this volume with Selected Philosophical Writings of St Thomas Aquinas.

If I ever get around to recommending more classical epic, a piece on the Metamorphoses would be in order — following, however, The Aeneid of Vergil.

But right now, some thoughts on the Amores as they come.

This selection of poems includes some of Ovid’s earliest publications (Ovid lived 43 BC-AD 17/18), although he re-edited the original five books into three for the final, single-volume edition. The poetry included here is elegiac verse. Elegy is written in couplets; the first line of the couplet is a dactylic hexameter, the same meter as epic verse, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aeneid. The second line of the couplet is a pentameter, comprising two pairs of two and a half dactyls.*

It is a meter as invariable as the Appenines of Ovid’s birthplace (Sulmo), moving ever forward as desire draws a man to his beloved. It can be playful; it can be mournful. Today, we associate elegy with mourning.

In Latin, elegiac verse was written primarily for love poetry. The themes of elegiac verse are, in fact, often associated with mourning or lament. Lamenting the burning of desire caused by love. Lamenting a door keeping the lover out of the beloved’s house. Lamenting the husband at a dinner party. Lamenting the beloved being away for the weekend. Lamenting the beloved coming back to Rome early. Lamenting the beloved’s unfaithfulness.

That’s not all that it’s about, but those are not uncommon themes in Latin love elegy, which I first encountered with J C Yardley at the University of Ottawa where we read his little text and commentary Minor Authors of the Corpus Tibullianum (including such figures as Lygdamus and Sulpicia) as well as a few from Tibullus himself. The other poet famous today for Latin love elegy is Propertius. And all of these men looked back to Gallus, from whom one papyrus fragment was found in the 20th century, much to the disappointment of Latinists everywhere. It wasn’t as good as hoped.

Anyway, Ovid comes after Tibullus and Propertius and basically does everything you can with Latin love elegy. In the introduction to this volume, E J Kenney says that he ‘finished off … Latin love elegy.’ (xix) Whereas for one such as Tibullus and Propertius, the affair is mostly an unhappy business, Ovid’s love affair is, until the later stages of Book 3, not unhappy.

There are laments or complaints, such as to doors and slaves and suchlike. But Ovid’s wit brings us a largely happy love affair from inception to denouement — hence it is not always happy, for the endings of such things tend not to be. In three books of short poems, Ovid takes his reader on a journey through this love affair, his wit creating various conceits and situations along the way: addressing the doorpost, a (written) poem that is ostensibly an oral message to the slave who bears a written message, a poem to the mistress followed by one to the slavegirl about the same event, one early poem about what to do if the husband is at a party, a later one about her doing these things in relation to other men at a party where Ovid is present, and so forth.

Besides the straight-out love poetry, there are pauses and breaks. We have an encounter between Tragedy and Elegy. We have a defence of poetry vs politics and the lawcourt. We have a funerary elegy for Tibullus. And throughout, there is interwoven Ovid’s expected mythological allusions and uncommon, unstandard versions of the tales of literature, as well as allusions to his other work, such as the Heroides which are a series of fictional letters from famous heroines of myth to their lovers.

Throughout, driving Ovid more than anything is desire. The desire for Corinna, who is probably a fiction. The desire for immortality and fame. The desire to twist and turn and make new what has been done before by many another. The desire for his art to be taken seriously. And the glass tesserae that comprise Ovid’s mosaic of poetry are wit and artifice.

Wit and artifice — not necessarily insincere but a caution to take Ovid’s love poetry too seriously — run through all of Ovid’s work, whether the works in elegiac verse such as the Amores and Ars Amatoria or the epic Metamorphoses.

I invite you spend some time today with one of Rome’s wittiest poets, a man who was certainly successor to Virgil as the giant of the Augustan Age. And do so, if you can, in the company of A. D. Melville’s masterful, faithful, fast-paced translation.

PS: If you’re interested in the Metamorphoses, Nemo at ‘Books on Trial’ has two posts of what will be a series up, one on Phaeton and another on Narcissus and Echo.

*A dactyl is: Long, short, short, like the joints of a finger (daktylos is Greek for finger).