Sunday, April 1, 2012

Medieval French Verse: Now this is classic...

Mots d'Heures: Gousses, RamesWhen I was in second-year French in high school, my teacher brought in a lovely little hardback of Luis d'Antin van Rooten's brilliant Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames.  The "Words of Hours" were aptly named: the book kept my class enthralled for quite a long time.  Publishing these poems in 1967, Luis d'Antin van Rooten claimed that he was presenting recently-discovered medieval French verse.  (There is some internal evidence that this may not in fact be true.)


Despite the very elementary level of my French at that point, I was utterly charmed by these poems.  And for years I have been trying to remember the name of the slim volume, or find someone else lucky enough to have been exposed to these poems.  Only very recently did I manage to run across the book--and find that it is in fact still in print!


These poems, as puzzling as they may at first seem, offer up a very rich reward for all who read patiently.  Recite them aloud a few times, especially savoring the rhythmic sounds of the verses, to hear these strangely familiar sounds.  (If you can't speak a word of French, or don't think your reading conveys their incredible sound, try listening to the poem on the Guardian site.)  Here is one example:

Un petit d'un petit
S'étonne aux Halles.
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent.


Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu'importe un petit d'un petit
Tout Gai de Reguennes.

* * *

 So--what do you think?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Virgil's Aeneid: Last Thoughts

I'm still thinking about the Aeneid.

The ending of the book has left my mind reeling.  As I looked into interpretations of the final scene, I found that almost all traditional literary critics seem to emphasize the piety of Aeneas (meaning his sense of responsibility to fate and his homeland, rather than religious piety) rather than his passion, even at the end of the book.  It is Turnus that is portrayed as the out-of-control person.

I was not completely convinced.

1. Perhaps the killing of Turnus is Virgil's articulation that responsibility, not emotional self-control, is more important.  When one's duty conflicts with passion (as in the case with Dido), passion is wrong.  When duty dovetails with one's passions, there is nothing wrong with it.  That is, is this really a story about passion versus stoicism--or just a story about living up to your fated role, no matter what (in this case, of founding the Roman Empire)?

2. What does Aeneas do next?  Does he regret killing Turnus in anger?  And does he return the body to Turnus's family as the young man requests, allowing him to have an honorable death?  If Virgil is assuming that Aeneas thought what he did was both "pious" (killing Turnus) and compassionate (sending the body back), does that change how we feel?

3. Perhaps the reason this book has remained so relevant is because there is room for the reader to interpret in a variety of ways.  The text makes room for interpretations which Virgil might never have considered.

4. Or perhaps Virgil intended to teach us that people are complex and that what is "right" (or even what is desired) is not always easy to ascertain.

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winter Solstice

Rage, Rage, against the dying of the light.
--Dylan Thomas

solstice bread
Solstice Bread, made by my partner David and our son

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Virgil's Aeneid's Road of Hatred

In the final chapter of Virgil's Aeneid, our hero faces a conflict between passion and duty that is quite different from the one in faced in chapter 4.   As the battle rages on between the Romans and the native peoples of Italy, Aeneas, "ferocious in armor," confronts Turnus, who has killed Aeneas's best friend on the battlefield.

After long battle, Turnus realizes that he has been vanquished by the more-powerful Aeneas.  He lowers his eyes in defeat and begs Aeneas to save his life, or at least send his dead body to his family.  Says Turnus, "I stretch my hands to you, so the men of Latium have seen me in defeat.  Lavinia is your bride."  That is, the land of Italy is now Rome.  And then he continues: "Go no further down the road of hatred."

Luca Giordano, Enea vince Turno

Aeneas pauses for a moment, swayed by his natural desire to be compassionate.  But at that moment, he looks down at Turnus's body and sees his dead friend's sword-belt.  He calls it a "keepsake of his own savage grief."  All of Aeneas's sense of reason and duty fly out of him as passionate anger takes over.  Aeneas, "flaring up in fury, terrible in his rage," plunges his sword into the body of Turnis below him.  "Turnus' limbs went limp in the chill of death.  His life breath fled with a groan of outrage down to the shades below."

So ends the Aeneid.

(All quotes in today's post are from the the Fagles translation.)

In my last post, Aeneas leaves Dido in Carthage, despite his love for her and her pleas for him to stay with her.  It is only by abandoning his passions in the name of duty and self-control.  But here at the end of the epic, in its very final sentences, Aeneas gives in to his passionate rage and kills Turnus.

Instead of some wrapped-up Disney movie ending, we get the kind that sends us to the cafe for long conversations about what it all means.

In general, Virgil's epic glorifies the war, despite his acknowledgment that war always requires sacrifice.  Although it is possible that a cool-headed Aeneas might have decided that the risk of letting Turnus remain alive might have been too great a threat to Rome.  But Aeneas is not at all cool headed in this moment of slaughter.  And at least if we are to believe him, Turnus accepts that he has lost and is ready to accept his defeat completely in his desire to create peace.  Aeneas cannot accept this move.  Losing the people he loves--certainly Turnus and perhaps Dido as well--causes such deep sorrow for Aeneas that he can no longer respond with compassion and humanity.

When he rejects the voice of passionate love, Aeneas causes the death of his beloved Dido.

When he listens to the voice of passionate anger, Aeneas causes the death of not only Turnus but he cuts off all chance of true peace.

Out of Aeneas's uncontrolled rage comes Empire.  Is Empire ever created in any other way?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Virgil's Aeneid: Passion versus Responsibility

Peter Paul Rubens,  Dido and Aeneas
My favorite chapter in Virgil's Aeneid is Book 4. Here is the great love affair between Aeneas and Queen Dido of Carthage, with whom he found refuge from the storms at sea after he left Troy. Like Aeneas, it has been Dido's fate to leave her original home in order to found a new homeland for herself and her people. While hearing Aeneas tell the story of the end of the Trojan war and his subsequent journeyings, Dido falls in love with him.

In some ways, Dido echos characters like Calypso and Circe in Homer's Odyssey. Just as they did, Dido serves as a love interest who delays the hero's fated journey towards home. But Virgil gives Dido a kind of emotional depth which is totally lacking in Homer's women. Her love for Aeneas becomes a desperate passion, and we are meant as readers to see her great pain and identify with it. Of course, the depth of her feelings are not quite "real": the goddesses Venus and Juno have collaborated to curse her so.

And Aeneas certainly loves Dido back, although perhaps without quite as much of the goddess-inspired self-destructive passion that burns in Dido.

One of the most beautiful scenes in book four is when Dido and Aeneas, along with the other Tryians and Trojans, are out riding horses.  An enormous rainstorm blows in, then turns to hail.  All scatter and seek shelter.

And Dido and the Trojan leader make their way
To the same cave.  Earth herself and bridal Juno
Give the signal.  Fires flash in the Sky,
Witness to their nuptials...
...No longer is Dido swayed
By appearances or her good name.  No more
Does she contemplate a secret love.  She calls it
Marriage, and with that word she cloaks her sin.

When the gods hear of Aeneas's love affair with Dido, they immediately reprimand him.  Jupiter, pointing out that "he seems to have quite forgotten, in his infatuation, the cities given him by Fate," sends Mercury to tell Aeneas that "in sum, he must sail."  If he would not fulfill his responsibility for his own glory, he must do it he must for his son and for the future of Rome.

When Aeneas heard Jupiter's command, he realized that despite his love for Dido, his greater responsibility was to found Rome.  "He bristled all over, speechless, astounded,/ And he burned with desire to leave that sweet land,/ in awe of the commandment from the gods above."  More than any personal passion was Aeneas's responsibility to live obedient to the laws of Fate.  He begins to prepare his fleet to set sail.

Dido is furious.  As this Moreau pen-and-ink illustrates, she confronts Aeneas:

Traitor!  Did you actually hope to conceal
This crime and sneak away without telling me?
Does our love mean nothing to you? Does it matter
That we pledged ourselves to each other?
Do you care that Dido will die a cruel death?
...

If you had at least left me with child
Before deserting me, if only a baby Aeneas
Were playing in my hall to help me remember you,
I wouldn't feel some completely used and abandoned.

Comments Virgil, "Cruel Love, what do you not force human hearts to bear?"

Although Aeneas expected Dido to be upset upon hearing that he planned to leave Carthage, Aeneas seems quite shocked by the depth of her fury.  While he acknowleges that Dido has "earned [his] gratitude," he denies marrying her.  And he feels that rather than giving in to his own passion, his greater duty is to obey the gods, to honor his son's inheritance, and to live up to his destiny to found Rome.  He concludes, "So stop wounding both of us with your pleas.  It is not my own will--this quest for Italy."

Things do not end well for Dido: "Dido, worn down by grief, went mad."  She prepares a funeral pyre to rid Carthage of everything Aeneas had touched.  She throws herself upon it with a sword given to her by Aeneas.  And as she is about to die, she looks upon the clothes he used to wear and upon their "familiar bed."

Aeneas unfurls the sails of his ship and pulls away from shore, watching the flaming pyre from sea.

(all quotes from the Lombardo translation)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Virgil's Aeneid: Finding a Way

AeneidMy current journey into the classics was in many ways sparked by one book. In the course of my education, I had never read the Aeneid, nor did I even know the main plot of Virgil's story.

When my 12yo homeschooled son begin to read the Homeric epics, I felt no compunction to read either of them with him. I more or less knew what he was getting into.  Back when I was eighteen, I read the Odyssey on my own and enjoyed it thoroughly. Although I had chosen to refrain from reading the military adventures of the Iliad, I knew its basic plot.

But when my son picked up the story of Aeneas and his quest to found Rome, I realized I didn't have a clue. I decided I should read the book alongside my son.  And eventually, it inspired me to take my own journey--one through the classics of literature with an emphasis on all those ancient Western texts I never learned.

In Search of a Homeland: The Story of the AeneidI read the Lombardo translation of the Aeneid while my son read the Fagles translation. Both are beautifully done.  Often I compared the two writers' translations of particular passages--and more or less alternated which I thought was most beautiful or most readable.  Either translation would be a fine way for a young person or adult to approach the epic for the first time, although the supporting references seem slightly stronger in the Fagles. And don't miss the fine audio version of the Fagles translation read by Simon Callow.  If you are sharing this story with a young person, try the beautifully illustrated youth version by Penelope Lively.

When I opened the book for the first time, I found myself struggling to follow some of what Virgil was saying.  I generally think of text as a transparent door into another world.  But barriers in the Aeneid keep that door a bit shaded.  References to Roman names kept me turning to the glossary, especially as the book started--and also in book six (the underworld scene).

After just one afternoon of reading, I was stunned to realize how many stories and names and phrases in our culture come from Virgil's Aeneid.  From the Aeneid comes everything from the idea of rumors "flying" to specific phrases like "Greeks bearing gifts."  (The story of the Trojan horse, not mentioned in the Iliad, is told fully here.)

I was also surprised to realize how incredibly poetic the book is.  I did know that Virgil used the Homeric rhythm of dactylic hexameter to write his epic, but the more I thought about the idea of borrowing a meter developed for the Greek language to write a long work in Latin, the more I realized how conscious of the rigors of language Virgil must have been.  What I did not expect was the beauty of similes, the depth of images, and the deep emotions expressed.

What struck me the most was the degree that Virgil's Aeneid seemed so intensely modern at times.  Yes--like Homer, Virgil assumes that the drama acted out by the central human characters is often because the script is constructed by the gods.  But the range of emotions played out by the characters--especially Aeneas and Dido--is stunningly immediate.

The Aeneid (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) [DECKLE EDGE]"Wars and a man I sing" begins the Fagles's translation of the Aeneid.  With this phrase, Virgil announces his homage to Homer: the Aeneid is a book that echos the both Homeric epics: the Iliad ("wars") and the Odyssey ("and a man").  In contrast to Homer, however, we here have not the Greek side but the Trojan.

By connecting his nationalistic myth to the Homeric epics, Virgil gives a sense of inevitability to the founding of Rome. He places the Aeneid into the long flow of time--both literally and literarily.  Rome starts feeling like a grand culmination of the great history that came before.

The first six books track the story line of the Odyssey.  Aeneid recounts the story of the end of the Trojan war as well as his travels afterwards. While Odysseus winds his weary way home, Aeneas travels into the unknown, fated to found a new homeland. The last six books in the Aeneid track the Iliad, with Aeneas slaughtering the native people of Italy in order to found the Roman Empire.  (Manifest Destiny, anyone?). 

In my next post, I'll share my thoughts about the first section.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Making a Republic--at St. Johns


Roger Martin's Racing Odysseus: A College President Becomes a Freshman Again is the real-life story that reads like many an adult dream.  At the age of 61, Martin takes a sabbatical from his academic job to enroll as a freshman at St. John's College in Annapolis.  St. John's is sometimes called "the great books college"--where all students read the classics of Western culture from Homer and Plato in the first year to Tolstoy and Hegel the senior year.  Instead of lectures by professors, there are seminars with tutors.  Instead of majors, everyone studies the same basic curriculum.  Instead of competitive grades, there are discussions with advisors.  If you don't know about this school already, just check out their reading list and see if you don't start dreaming about being 18 with a clean slate ahead of you.

Martin's assumptions about the slate ahead of him at 61 are reduced not only by his age but his experience of a very serious illness (metastatic melanoma) a few years before his time at St. Johns.  Even more than most of us, he needs to see his place in life as part of the long flow of time and also one that allows personal growth.  "I needed to prove to myself that I still had a future," writes Martin.  "That even in my sixties I cold grow into a different person" and "learn new things."  Reading timeless books made him timeless in its own way.  "In short, I discovered that my life wasn't winding down," he says, but rather "in many ways it was just beginning, with a refreshed sense of commitment and confidence in what I could be."

Yes--the entire book is about as upbeat as this final realization of his.  And there are times when Martin's incessantly positive style kind of grates on my way-too-serious personality.  There are moments that Martin seems to avoid giving any criticisms at all of the college, perhaps for fear of offending the school or its students.  At the same time, I found Martin's story of his time at St. Johns charming--and the detailed information about the education at the college absolutely fascinating.

Martin's story chronicles how his personal life intertwines with both his academic studies and his extracurricular activities at the school.  Although he shies away from any significant discussion of the literature he is reading and discussing in the college seminars, he does suggest how their main themes connect to the life he builds outside the classroom.

Perhaps the most direct connection is one he makes when reading Plato's Republic.  Martin decides in his first days on campus to fully embrace the freshman experience and go out for crew.  As he explains, the college encourges all students to go out for any sport--ideally one in which they are have no experience but would like to try, even if they were not athletes in high school.  Even though he calls himself the "old fart" in the boat and worries that he might hurt his team, Martin gives his all and finds that the students with whom he studies and plays have truly turned into a community.  Just as they have seen in their reading of Plato around the seminar table, the students have combined scholarship and physicality to create whole beings.  Plato would argue that they will be neither too savage from only physical training nor too "soft" from only receiving education in the arts.  Instead they will be both courageous and "cultivated." (This post is not the place to analyze how Plato's assumptions might be gendered, but I'm not prohibiting you from thinking about that question.)  And according to Martin, the students also learn through their athletic competition that it is through their work together--the work of each one of them, regardless of his or her position--that they build their little Republic.

I very much enjoyed Martin's book.  It is a quick read--and while it is not one that will make you flex your intellectual muscles, it offers both an inspiring story of an individual's reckoning with mortality, an impassioned defense of a true liberal arts education, and a lens into a fascinating world.
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