Tag Archives: poetry

Seamus Heaney and the Classics

I am reading Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things (1991), right now. I am not generally enamoured of 20th-century poetry, but Heaney I like. His use of language is rich in its apparent simplicity, and somehow ordinary life becomes beautiful in his poetic mode.

While reading this book, I cannot but think of T. S. Eliot’s little booklet, The Classics and the Man of Letters, itself originally an address. The main thrust of Eliot’s booklet is that someone involved in writing English literature should be invested in the predecessors of English literature, being part of the ongoing tradition of literature — and this includes the Classics, Latin literature in particular. A good point, if we consider the educational background of most English poets before the 20th century — for even Chesterton studied Latin in school.

Reading Heaney makes one appreciate this idea of Eliot’s, given his allusions. Indeed, the volume begins with a translation of the golden bough passage from Aeneid VI (all of which he would later translate; I recommend his translation). The book also has its references to Homer (I love the phrase, ‘I swim in Homer’; I’ve swum in Homer, myself).

Heaney’s intertextual world, though, is not only Classical, not only those things he would have been taught at school. He also has various biblical allusions, allusions to Norse myth, and references to Irish history, culture, literature, besides one poem where he encounters Larkin’s ghost (called his ‘shade’ — an allusion to Virgil) which quotes Dante to him. And the volume closes with a translation of Dante, in fact.

There is undoubtedly much on the Irish and modern English verse side of this book that I miss. But there is much I grasp, regardless. And here is the interesting thing about a poet like Heaney. I appreciate the classical, biblical, Norse allusions. But I can appreciate his manipulation of the English language and his skill as a versifier without them.

That’s what makes a good poet. You can have all the allusions and intertexts you want, but if the reader who doesn’t grasp them does not appreciate your verse, there is a good chance you have not necessarily produced something of quality.

Poetry

The death of Pentheus on an Attic red figure kylix, c. 480 BC

This year, I taught pretty much nothing but poetry. In first semester, Latin class was the Latin verse epistle — Horace, Ovid, Ausonius, Sidonius. In English translation was Latin epic — Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Claudian. In second semester, Greek class was Theocritus’ Idylls. In English translation was classical mythology — Hesiod’s Theogony and selections from his Works and Days; Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and Agamemnon; Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Antigone; Euripides’ Hippolytus; some Pindar; selections from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; some of Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid; some of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides; several Homeric Hymns; a bit of Prudentius and Nonnus — the prose was largely from Apollodorus and Livy.

This is a lot of poetry. And teaching ancient poetry draws you not only to a given poet’s wider corpus (that is, those poems of Horace, Theocritus, Ovid, et al. not covered in class) but to the intertexts, one way and the other. Theocritus makes you cast you eye back to Homer but also forward to Moschus, Bion, and especially Virgil’s Eclogues. Teaching the story of Pentheus, whether from Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Apollodorus’ Library, brings the mind circling back to Euripides’ Bacchae. Reading about Polyphemus in Theocritus, Idylls 6 and 11, brings you not only to Homer but to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Euripides’ Cyclops. Herakles and Hylas in Idyll 13 drives you inevitably to Apollonius’ Argonautica. Any reference to Peleus or Thetis makes me think of Catullus 64.

And on it goes.

Teaching epic makes me want to read more epic — not just, say, Statius’ Thebaid but the Mahabharata or Ramayana as well, besides rereading all of Homer.

So on it will continue to go.

Teaching poetry and reading poetry — there is no end.

And my mind now moves to research. I am currently examining two of Leo’s letters as sources for post-Roman social history. It is an interesting topic and has its own appeal. But all this poetry filling up my mind and heart — it makes me want to write about poetry! Maybe a study of Statius? Or perhaps start somewhere smaller — Ambrosian hymns? Rutilius?

Whatever the poetry is, it will have to be late antique. And, although Rutilius is great, probably Christian, since the intersection of later Latin literature and ancient Christianity is where my research strengths currently lie. Venantius Fortunatus, maybe? Arator? I could bring both philology and theology to bear on these texts, hopefully in a fruitful way.

But for now — Vandals in Africa.

Re-readings

I recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Virgil, Aeneid Book VI. This is the book of the Aeneid where Aeneas descends to the underworld in the company of the Sibyl of Cumae. It is probably the most famous book of the whole poem. I have read it before — four times in Latin, as well as three complete readings of the poem in English (once Jackson Knight, twice Fagles) plus C. S. Lewis’ Lost Aeneid. I have also read most of the Aeneid in Latin.

There is a special pleasure that comes of re-reading the Aeneid, whether in the translation of a masterful poet such as Heaney, or in the original masterful poet’s very own words. The discovery of something new, perhaps. Or surprising yourself by being immersed in Virgil’s verse yet again. Like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, you can taste Virgil again for the very first time. The beauty of the poetry will always entrance me. The pathos of Dido. The citadel of dread Proserpina. The catalogue of Romans.

Worth reading. Every time.

I re-read some things for work. I do not know how many times I have read certain of Leo’s letters. I may have surveyed over 240 manuscripts, but that does not mean I have actually read the entirety of them all! I would never have finished my Ph.D. Many things I re-read for work are also pleasure, of course. Academics do not choose disciplines we hate. So I’ve read Augustine’s Confessions three times (Pine Coffin once, Chadwick twice), likewise Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. I’ve read Homer’s Odyssey in its entirety three times (Fagles, Rieu, Shewring) although I have made some good headway in the original Greek. The Iliad I have read three times as well (Verity, Rieu, Lattimore), besides a teenage start on Fagles and a good chunk in Greek. Ovid’s Metamorphoses I’ve read in English twice (Melville both times) and various portions in Latin.

Circling back to Virgil, I have read all the Eclogues twice in Latin, once in English (whoever did the Loeb), and various of them multiple times in Latin.

I continue to re-read beyond work, for the pleasures are similar, even if the goals of reading differ. Right now, I am between The Two Towers and The Return of the King in my fourth reading of The Lord of the Rings; I have read The Hobbit five times. Narnia — who knows? All of them at least twice! I have read Beowulf three times. Many others I think have read only twice, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated ManThe Nibelungenlied, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.

Then there are short works that resonate. I have inscribed John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God’ in the back of a notebook. Who knows how many re-reads that has had?

And, of course, those I want to re-read. Asimov’s Foundation novels, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451The Way of a Pilgrim.

Re-readings make reading a richer experience, catching what you missed, remembering what you’d forgotten, remembering what you loved, being drawn back into something again. And again.

I know someone who reads books three times. Once to see if they are worth reading. If they are, he reads them again to enjoy them more. And a third time to see what he missed the other times. He has read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov nine times. Well, that was in 2004 or 2005 — so maybe he’s surpassed that by now!

It’s a worthy approach to literature.

Excuse me, I have some Virgil to read.

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.