‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Wodwo Vergil: Eclogue 10

Skipping straight to the last of Vergil's ten Eclogues, partly from a desire not to outstay my welcome here (absurd! on my own blog, too!), and partly because I've always loved this one. It concerns Vergil's friend and old schoolfellow Cornelius Gallus (c. 70 – 26 BC), himself also a poet, but more importantly for Vergil's connectivity to the corridors of power, important politician. The conceit of the poem is that Gallus has been deserted by his lover Lycoris and is dying, to the great sorrow of the natural world. Three gods come along to try to talk him out of his death, but to no avail. It's based, as several Vergilian Eclogues are, on Theocritus (in this case his first Idyll); but more to the point it paid itself forward, influence-wise, into many great poems, not least Shelley's mighty elegy 'Adonais'. That latter poem seems to me the most impressive validation of Vergil's original that English poetry has produced. Which is more than we can say about the text below. Ah well: what you gonna do?

The image at the top of the post is from a still life by Jean Spitzer, and is reproduced by kind permission.

Eclogue 10

This is the end.
Last task: frost dry as sandpaper
covering all external surfaces.
The wind biting at itself
Muse Arethusa's breath, passing into my lungs
fizzling out again over my tongue.

A shrunken poem.

Ghost grows solid for Gallus, humming its voltage
for Gallus:
impossible to refuse.

The river oms its trance
flows smokily down the trench of the world
to lose itself in the salt sea
           where Arethusa and Doris languidly copulate
in the drowned medium.

Gallus, the anxious lover.

Goats, snub-nosed, pistol-headed,
bury their faces in the hay
blow luminous tatters aside, chewing,
and all I do is sing
at the woodland's receptive curve,
one Jodrell Bank ear of green.

Where were you, all you single ladies
all you single ladies
when Gallus was was was hysteric with his unrequited love?
Put up your hands.
The scree-slopes of Parnassus;
Mount Pindus;
The waiting rooms of Aeonian Aganippe;
no excuses.

Laurel leaves squeezed teardrops
from their stomata,
tight as drumskin.

Bruise-coloured tamarisk.

That huge hill called Maenalus with its
pelt of pines
became fragile as an eggshell with grief
for Gallus.
The sheep were shameless in sorrow,
their narrow skulls full of sap
curdcoloured fleeces gravid with rain
an ice-age.
Handsome as Adonis was
he still fed his sheep beside the streams.

The shepherd came.
The swineherd came.
Menalcas came, sopping wet
           carrying cattle feed, a bucket of doused acorns.

Apollo came
dressed as a jazz trumpeter.
"Gallus," he wheezed, "you lost your fucking mind?
Your girl Lycoris, she gone, solid gone.
She gone over the range, man,
where the snow never melts, and the winds
are a vise crushing your head,
where your hands and feet get so cold
feel like Gestapo ripped out your fingernails and your toenails
forced you to wade boiling water.
She's a rather be there than here lady, my friend."

Silvanus came, leaves caught in his hair,
red and marmite-colour and whisky-yellow.

Pan came, Arcady's local god
his skin smeared with vermillion juice
crimson with squeezed elderberries
coloured like the devil from a mystery play,
and he said: "get over yourself, man.
Get the fuck over it."

Gallus sideeyed them all. "The fuck.
Tell it to the mountains.
Boo, and may I take this opportunity to add, hoo.
My bones would soften
           picked clean of flesh and soaked in vinegar nine weeks.
I could have shepherded your flocks,
I could have crushed the purple from the
           soggy baubles of your grapes
Phyllis; or Amyntas, with her skin
the colour of violets, cyan-black,
my darling would be stretched alongside me;
vines would festoon our bedroom ceiling,
Phyllis yanking garlands from the tangle;
Amyntas singing.
But that wasn't to be.
You fall in love with who you fall in love with.

The trickling spring is cold
like void.
The meadows are soft as decay.
I would lie there with my lover until time
blissed me to dust.

But now to be a solider
comes on me like a persistent delusional psychosis:
in my body-armour
rifle lengthy as a spear
The god of war himself my recruiting sergeant:
flown overseas,
this shithole or that one, in the Middle-to-Far East,
where some bastard had left the furnace door open
and the furnace was the entire sky
and the least virile of breezes
stroked webs rolling down-dune
along the very toppermost surface of the sand.
And all this time she was in Germany,
fucking Germany,
Austria maybe,
Rhine water cold as the moon.
All that ice white ice-cream applied with a palette-knife
           to the tops of those Alps.
I could not fucking believe this.
Could not fucking even believe it.
I could have said, darling don't let
the frost nip your toes,
and I would almost not be being sarcastic.


Go on. Let me have a tootle on that Sicilian flute
it's not as if I've never seen fucking woodland before
is it.
I've grafittized my name, tree-trunks for concrete walls;
           growing, growing, gone.
I'll link arm in arm with the nymphs and
goat-trip down that yellow brick road together
to emerald Maenalus,
or I'll hunt wild pigs in the wilderness.
No amount of icecrust on the soil will stop me.
I'm there already.
In my imagination, I mean.
I'm there.

Like that could solve my mental health issues.
Like the gods give a flying fuck for humanity.
Hamadryads don't put lead in my pencil.
Goodbye; its goodbye from me, it's a long goodbye from him.

Drink as much Hebrus as you like. Stand there
in the drizzle
watch the dishclout-coloured snow
get progressively acned by the winter rain. Then
say yah, yah to your sheep, and thwack
           their woolly withers with a switch

under the stars
as the constellation of the Crab looks away
to a more interesting portion of the sky.

Dying bark shrinks, cracks
on elms as tall as a window-cleaner's ladder;
and we cede the whole of the territory
that comprises us and is us
to Love
the Conqueror."

That's what the poet said.
He sat there, right where you're standing now,
and all the time
he braided flexible stems of hibiscus into
baskets. He was poeticizing about Gallus,
the much-loved


alder shoots in the sharpness of spring.
Time to go. The shade is poisonous to poets,
allergic to shadow.
Dusk falls through itself,
and the goats
jiggle and scramble and bleat their kazoo bleats
going home.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Wodwo Vergil: Eclogue 4

This follows on from Eclogue 1 (in which post I explain the larger project) and Eclogue 2. I'm skipping Eclogue 3 because it's quite long and fairly dull, which is philistinical of me, I know. I know! At any rate, the fourth eclogue has a good claim to being the single most famous short poem ever written, certainly the most famous artifact of non-epic Classical Latin literature. That's because its hazily-framed promise that a saviour baby was about to be born (almost certainly designed to be non-specific enough that various political big beasts of the day, maybe Pollio, maybe Octavian, might read and be flattered into thinking their sprog was the foretold saviour) connected powerfully with later medieval and Renaissance Christian readers. They decided that this poem—despite having been written four decades before the birth of Christ—was nonetheless magically about the birth of Christ. This sense of Vergil as a virtuous pagan who somehow poetically intuited Christ's salvation has had an incalculable impact upon the way his verse has been read and understood. For a long time he was seen as white wizard and prophet as much as a poet; the Sortes Vergilanae are only one manifestation of this mode of popularity. The original Latin for this famous text, beginning
Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus!
Non omnis arbusta iuvant humilesque myricae;
si canimus silvas, silvae sint consule dignae.
Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo:
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto. [1-7]
... can be found here, alongside Greenough's rather stiff 1890 English translation. And here's a link to A S Kline's much more fluent version from 2001. Indeed, there's no shortage of versions of this desperately celebrated poem. I feel a bit sheepish, actually, about adding to them. Ah well. You'll get the gist quick enough. The real question is whether you think it works, or not.

Eclogue 4

Mafia Muses of Sicily, time to raise the tone.
We don't all cream our pants
at orchards or stunted salt cedar bushes. Capisce?
If we got to talk about woods,
let em be woods worthy of a capo di tutti capi.

It's the last gasp of that witch from Cumae
round it comes again, as
everything always swings round again:
ten decades per century, stacked like crates
piled up to millennia, over, again.
Some sweet teenage girl, never been kissed, steps in
and she's equal measure scared and proud.
And here's the old guy, Saturn Barbabianca: he's in charge now.
He's back, yeah. You'd better fucken believe it.
Whole new crew, youngbloods, straight off the boat
the ferry down from high heaven
All for this newborn bambino, this kid, come
to break through the iron logic of the world
remake it, through the eye, through the mouth.
Golden, he is: golden; and all his crew are
dorato too. Lucina does the honors.
Apollo is now Boss.
You'd better do what he says.

Credit where it's due:
you deserve this praise, Pollio.
You're the Don, you oversaw this regime change
shining months driving fast on.
You bring not-guilty and no-charge-to-answer
to all of us, every one:
thanks to you mio amico it's no more looking over our shoulders,
nothing more to fear from the wide world.
You're capo when this kid comes in,
and that means none of us get whacked
none of us ever again.
We're all made, and for ever.

Every day now pay-day. All doors and windows
open. Safes cracked wide like
church doors at a wedding.
Gardens, sure: cute, if you like that kind of thing.
Ivy in green ribbons draped all over
foxgloves and acanthus
and that plant they call elephant ears.
Thirsty? Hey: all you can drink!
on the house buddy!
Hungry? Fill your boots!
And as for our rivals, the Leones?
We don't got to worry about them no more.
And that just leaves the rat, that fucker,
that serpente
oh, we'll spring clean that snake,
you can forget about him;
place of his poisonous reek
we'll have all the perfumes of fucken Araby, trust me,
trust me.

We gotta respect who came before, fathers
and their fathers,
and theirs, sure:
they had balls. No question.
Walked the fields, drank good vino,
made good trades. No question.
Shipped stuff in, sold it at good profit,
paid their tributes.
I'm not saying all that has been flushed away, all gone;
some assholes will remain to remind us
of how our fathers went to war, or moved
containers over the gray shapes of the sea.
It all comes round again,
Achilles gotta go to war with Troy again,
over and over.

Until, that is—until our kid exits puberty,
and becomes uomo,
and he'll have balls of steel.
Then all our hard work will be over
fucken over.
Easy times ahead, then:
think of it like Dorothy, when everything blooms
from black-and-white into arcobaleno technicolour;
sheep in the fields no longer fucken white
but rainbow psychedelic coloured wool,
shifting from purple to yellow like rosso d'uovo
to blood-red.
Madre di Dio this is some strong shit.
Deep breath out.

Destiny don't back down, no matter how
you square up to her. It's happening, she says:
it slides on like something
really smoothly lubricated.
And all her crew call out in one voice
Fucken A, they sing.
Fucken A.

Time to get what's coming. The deadline is almost here.
This thing of ours.
You ever look at the world, like,
really look at it?
It's a great dome, some real
supernatural architecture, roof so smooth
and high
you can't even touch it in a jet, not even
those invisible ones the Air Force fly
made of black ceramic
or some shit like that, going faster than music
faster than light can catch up with
not even then. And the air is thin up there,
so, and, that's why I keep coughing, capisce?
Cold like frost lining the inside of the lungs.
And from so high, looking down
the sea is texture like an untuned TV channel
bright and gray and white and impossibly far deep.
This bambino, though:
he'll step over this whole vault, like
stepping over the corpse of a rival,
bleeding on the sidewalk, and you got somewhere you need to be.
This whole dome and everything inside it
will kiss his ass
and sing his fucken praises. Believe me.

We gotta go, pay our respects to his mother.
Birthing a baby, that's hard work: shitting
a bowling ball, they say.
You gotta get me some more of this shit.
This shit is the proper shit, no question,
forget about it. Little bambino
smiles around him. Think of the deals he'll do
the girls he'll bang. Let's go.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Wodwo Vergil: Eclogue 2

Here's a link to the first of these. Vergil's second eclogue, though numbered '2', may well have been the first written. It is pretty closely based on two of the Idylls of Theocritus: his third, in which a neglected lover bemoans his condition, and his eleventh, in which the Cyclops Polyphemus is hopelessly in love with the sea-nymph Galatea, and finds solace for his pain in singing. Vergil's shepherd's name, 'Corydon', means songbird: (from the Greek κόρυδος korudos "lark"). It's a name first used in Theocritus's fourth Idyll, and was used again by Siculus as the name for his pastoral shepherd, as well as (obviously) by Vergil, such that pretty soon it became the stock name for a shepherd, and later Classical and English Renaissance pastoral is crowded with Corydons. The name Alexis is from Ἄλεξις ‎(which means 'helper, defender') and is related to the heroic warrior name Alexander; so I like to think that the Alexis of this poem is pretty beefy. Hard to be sure, of course. The original Latin can be found here, along with an English translation.

[The art at the top of this post is a woodcut print by Maria Arango]

Eclogue 2

Beauty slammed the shepherd Corydon hard
the beauty of Alexis
his master's pet
         love burning in the air of Cory's soul.
To numb his pain
here he comes, moping through the tree-maze
threading the entrails of woodland
beeches hoarding shade in their summits

and he sings his inanity to the hills:

"You, virulent Alexis,
my birdsong songs mean nothing to you.
Your lack of pity is an incomprehensible
you will inevitably laboriously
                  eventually kill me.
Even the hot cows, fierce with
joyful breath, even they
suck relief from the webs of shade;
even the verdigris lizards
vanish down the plughole of a
thistle-textured thornhedge. Thestylis
grinds a sludge from savoury herbs
          oily garlic, thyme,
stiff pestle driving into the yearning mortar
over and over, reapers sweating, scorched,
standing erect against the blindness of sunlight.
Not me. I bloodhound your traces
through wildernesses of vegetation
copses huddled against the sun's
silent first-day-of-the-Somme
bombardment of heat
and only the cicadas are singing
their withered song
only the cicadas,
and me.

I should have swallowed
the petulant sourness of that girl Amaryllis,
or maybe gone after Menalcas
though his skin is dark as soil
and yours is white like
purity itself
ice-cumbered, cloudlessly
But boy, you can't rely forever on the
come-fuck-me bloom of your skin.
It will happen to you, the same thing that
happens to the pale privet and its
grape-clusters of white flowers:
slashed, bladed and rooted out.
The mauve hyacinths too:
wrecked, and left to rot.

You disrespect me, Alexis. You don't know me at all.
You don't know how rich in cows,
how much the tycoon I am
where snow-coloured milk is concerned.
I own no fewer than one thousand lambs
meandering over Sicilian hills.
Abundance of milk, it gushes for me
summer and winter, sweet white fluid
in my mouth and spilling over my mouth.
          I model my singing on Amphion, from Dirce,
         and how he would croon the herds home
         over fields in Aracynthus, in Greece.

Handsome too,
                        though I say so myself,
I mirror admire myself,
why not?
when the winds go limp, and the waters
settle in lithe stillness, perfectly flat
the curve of shore my boudoir
the sea itself my who-is-the-fairest-of-them-all
hushing, it's me, it's me.
Daphnis thinks so too:
reflected beauty is truth. Image makes magic.

Oh! imagine if you consented to dwell where I dwell
a small cottage in the open fields,
toad-shaped under thatch,
squatting under the hill
home, and we would hunt together
shoot arrows to prick down deer,
grasp the green osier-wand to whip
the rocking rumps of our straggling flock!
You and me, babe, you and me,
          singing together
songs from the forestlands
better singing than Pan himself,
prime Pan, godfather of music
maker of musical instruments, a god and
a lover of sheep, and shepherds of sheep.

You would not regret
fitting the stalk of the flute's
erect length into your mouth,
          to chafe your lip.
Do it like Amyntas used to.
Seven tubes unequally long
wax-stuck together make up my pipe.
Damoetas gave it to me, and that made
Amyntas jealous, the idiot.
It's yours.
And more than that: a duo of roes
jetsam of a dangerous valley
hides leoparded with white spots
so young they syphon
a whole udderful of ewe milk every day
into their own bellies,
I'm keeping them for you.
Thestylis begs me for them, on her knees,
head at crotch-height
kneel all she likes, they're yours,
they're my gift to the gem light in your eyes.

Come over here, oh you beauty: you get
gifts of heaped nymph lilies
Naiad, so in love, in love with you,
gashes violet petals from their stems, shreds
poppy heads, rust-red, unseams
narcissus and sugar-smelling fennel flower;
winds them into a rope
with sepia cassia and other sweet herbs,
tangles in fragile hyacinth
and citrine marigolds.
My own fingers will fumble at
quinces, skin fuzzed with the cilia of pale down,
            and chestnuts.
Amaryllis always loved those.
Plums, waxen globules, maroon
as a glans, I gather that fruit too.
Some laurels—yes, you, laurels
I'm taking you down from your branch
and your friend, myrtle,
both sweet savourable odours.

Oh what a fucking peasant you are, Corydon.
Like Alexis cares for gifts.
Like that would even seduce, I don't know,
Iollas, even.
Fuck my life.
What was I thinking? The south wind
has snuck past me and mugged my flowers,
and while I was moping after that boy, wild boar
have pigged their way into my clear wells of water.
You're demented. Who are you even running from?
Gods have taken trees as walls and roof
Dardan Paris too.
Pallas fitted together the jigsaw pieces
into full-sized cities
tiled and tessellated and undulating with bright roofs
the way only a goddess can
so she can live there.
Forest is my passion.
The lioness with the psycho-eyes pursues the wolf,
a thousand yard stare
distance she covers in seconds;
the wolf runs down she-goat, even the she-goat
gets to tear the innards from
the flowering broom bushes,
and Corydon
and Alexis,
each keelhauled by their own longing.
Here comes the ox, home
with plough up-tilted like a heiling arm.
Tumescent shadows grow and harden
to twice their length
as the sun ducks and covers, arms over its head,
chin on its knees, a bundle of
night terrors.
This love has simmered and scorched my heart
blackened it, blistered me,
done everything but numb me.
You can't stop feeling it
Ah! Corydon, Corydon, searing.
You haven't pruned your dangling vine
slopping its dreadlock off the leaf-swarming elm;
weave pliant wicker together? Scorned
Go looking for a new Alexis."

Friday, 23 September 2016


I'm afraid this isn't very carefully thought-through. At any rate, these jumbled thoughts are intended in a purely descriptive, and not in a prescriptive, sense.

I wonder if polytheistic societies are less likely to get into wars that are premised on conceptions of heresy or blasphemy. After all presumably polytheists are as it were primed to accept that there are many gods; so encountering a society who worships a different god can be integrated into their worldview without much difficulty. Is that right, though? Of course, the ostensible reasons humans give for going to war are often not the actual reasons; and of course polytheists tend to believe that some gods are more powerful and important than other ones, so it's not hard to find examples of such societies going to war to show that their god is stronger. That's more or less what Moses does in Egypt, after all. Still, there's something here I think: I'm thinking of the religious praxis in Ancient Greece and Classical Rome. The urbs separated out political religion from individual religion, such that, provided you were willing to accept (for instance) the divinity of Augustus, you were left alone to worship as a Jew or a Phoenician or whatever.

Part of this was the notion widely accepted in the Classical world that different gods from different cultures were basically versions of the same divinities. This is commented on in a more or less neutral way by writers from the period: it's simply accepted that the Roman Jove is effectively the same god as the Greek Zeus and the German Tius and so on. What I mean is: there aren't any Classical texts where a Roman says, as it might be, 'of course we worship the true divine father under his true name, Jove; not like those heretical Greeks with their blasphemous perversion of religion of so-called Zeus'. But precisely that attitude, or something like it, seems to me to have become part of the way different later, monotheistic societies and cultures have interacted. But I wonder. Do Sunni Muslims, say, think of Shia Muslims in terms of "well they basically worship the same God and revere the same prophet as we do, though under slightly different rubrics'? Or do they think: "their worship is such a profound misprison of the true nature of God and the Prophet they can't even truly be called Muslims at all"? Do Evangelical Protestants consider Catholics, Jews and Muslims to be worshippers of the same, one true God? Clearly some do; but others clearly don't. Is the second group larger than the first? Are monotheists liable to get angrier with other monotheists who don't worship the mono-theos in what the former believe to be the right way, than polytheists are liable to get angry with other polytheists whose pantheon is different? I wonder how we might check that.

The rationale, I suppose, would be something like: being a polytheist requires a more flexible attitude to the divine, since you already believe that the divine comes in all sorts of different shapes and flavours, where being a monotheist requires you to be less flexible, or if you prefer more rigorous and exacting, about what you believe. It does seem to me that polytheism suits most humans better than a strict monotheism, since a polytheistic pantheon can accommodate a wide range of different sorts of people, or even different moods and needs of individual people. Under the logic of monotheism the different sorts of people must fit themselves to the divine, where under the logic of polytheism the divine fits itself to the human. And, of course, a monotheistic system like 'Christianity' is, in many actual cases, functionally a polytheism: so there are three gods in the central godhead, as well as goddesses (the Virgin Mary, for instance: functionally if not theologically a goddess), saints and so on. But presumably the oneness of God matters to a monotheist, and I wonder if that results in a lack of hospitality to other versions of that oneness?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

'To Marguerite, From Vergil...'

Arnold's 'To Marguerite: Continued' (1852) is more than one of my favourite Victorian poems; it is one of my favourite poems, period:
Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know.

But when the moon their hollows lights,
And they are swept by balms of spring,
And in their glens, on starry nights,
The nightingales divinely sing;
And lovely notes, from shore to shore,
Across the sounds and channels pour—

Oh! then a longing like despair
Is to their farthest caverns sent;
For surely once, they feel, we were
Parts of a single continent!
Now round us spreads the watery plain—
Oh might our marges meet again!

Who order'd, that their longing's fire
Should be, as soon as kindled, cool'd?
Who renders vain their deep desire?—
A God, a God their severance ruled!
And bade betwixt their shores to be
The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea.
Now, the most obvious intertext (horrid word, but there you go) here is Keats, and in particular the 'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819). I'm not saying anything original when I note that. Critics have explored at length the Keatsian anxiety of influence not just in this poem, but throughout Arnold's verse. 'But when the moon their hollows lights,/And they are swept by balms of spring' says Arnold, full of yearning: 'and in their glens, on starry nights,/The nightingales divinely sing ...' Not only the specifics but the mood of the whole clearly owes much to Keats's masterpoem:
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
         But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
         Through verdurous glooms.
Tender is that night. We could say that the whole of Arnold's poem elaborates one of Keats's most famous, most-discussed phrases, when he describes himself attending to the song of the nightingale under the stars: 'Darkling I listen'.  Darkling. It's beautiful of course. But what does it mean?

I'm going to suggest putting these two poems alongside the opening of Aeneid 7. Aeneas has just returned from the underworld, having seen both the punished distorted into tortuous shapes by the consequences of their sinfulness, and the blissful existence of the blessed. Book Seven starts by addressing one more dead person: Aeneas's old nurse Caieta. He buries her on a piece of coastline that subsequently becomes the promontory and town of Caieta. Then he sails off:
At pius exsequiis Aeneas rite solutis,
aggere composito tumuli, postquam alta quierunt
aequora, tendit iter velis portumque relinquit.
Adspirant aurae in noctem nec candida cursus
Luna negat, splendet tremulo sub lumine pontus.
Proxima Circaeae raduntur litora terrae,
dives inaccessos ubi Solis filia lucos
adsiduo resonat cantu tectisque superbis
urit odoratam nocturna in lumina cedrum,
arguto tenuis percurrens pectine telas.
Hinc exaudiri gemitus iraeque leonum
vincla recusantum et sera sub nocte rudentum,
saetigerique sues atque in praesaepibus ursi
saevire ac formae magnorum ululare luporum,
quos hominum ex facie dea saeva potentibus herbis
induerat Circe in voltus ac terga ferarum.
Quae ne monstra pii paterentur talia Troes
delati in portus neu litora dira subirent,
Neptunus ventis implevit vela secundis
atque fugam dedit et praeter vada fervida vexit. [Aeneid, 7:5-24]

So pious Aeneas, having performed those last rites,
and smoothed the mound over the grave, as a hush
lies over the high seas, unfurls his sails and leaves the harbour.
Breezes blow through the night, white light speeds them on
a gift of the Moon, the sea glitters with a tremulous radiance.
Soon they are skirting the shoreline of Circe's land,
where the rich daughter of the Sun makes
her untrodden groves echo with ceaseless song;
nightlong her shining palace is sweet with burning cedarwood,
as she drives her shuttle, weaving delicate textiles.
And from far away you can hear angry lions
chafing at their fetters and roaring in the deep night,
and bears and bristle-backed hogs in their pens,
raging, and huge-bodied wolves howling aloud;
these are men who, eating her magical herbs,
the deadly divine Circe had disfashioned into beasts.
To save the good Trojans from so hideous a change,
prevent them from stopping on those ominous shores,
Neptune fills their sails with favourable winds,
and hurries them, sweeping them past the seething shallows.
That's my line-by-line translation. Anyway: Arnold will certainly have known this passage (Aeneid 7 was often taught at school level). It's not likely, of course, that Keats read this Latin; but that doesn't mean he was unaware of the passage. These elements: the starry, white-moonlit night, the soft breeze, the islands in the flow, the sound of a beautiful song echoing across the straits, the animal life—these two latter becoming fused into one image that replaces the anger and frustration of the beast-people with a kind of yearning melancholy. It's all here. And if Keats wasn't reading Vergil in the original, he was surely aware of John Dryden's famous translation. Here's Dryden's version of this passage:
Now, when the prince her fun'ral rites had paid,
He plow'd the Tyrrhene seas with sails display'd.
From land a gentle breeze arose by night,
Serenely shone the stars, the moon was bright,
And the sea trembled with her silver light.
Now near the shelves of Circe's shores they run,
(Circe the rich, the daughter of the Sun,)
A dang'rous coast: the goddess wastes her days
In joyous songs; the rocks resound her lays:
In spinning, or the loom, she spends the night,
And cedar brands supply her father's light.
From hence were heard, rebellowing to the main,
The roars of lions that refuse the chain,
The grunts of bristled boars, and groans of bears,
And herds of howling wolves that stun the sailors' ears.
These from their caverns, at the close of night,
Fill the sad isle with horror and affright.
Darkling they mourn their fate, whom Circe's pow'r,
(That watch'd the moon and planetary hour,)
With words and wicked herbs from humankind
Had alter'd, and in brutal shapes confin'd.
Which monsters lest the Trojans' pious host
Should bear, or touch upon th' inchanted coast,
Propitious Neptune steer'd their course by night
With rising gales that sped their happy flight.
Supplied with these, they skim the sounding shore,
And hear the swelling surges vainly roar.
'Darkling they mourn'. Who are they? The animals whose voice so powerfully effects the human listener. Was this passage one of the things in Keats's mind when he wrote his own Ode? And is there at least a hint of Aeneas standing by 'the sounding shore,/Hear[ing] the swelling surges vainly roar' in Arnold's anguished question 'who bade betwixt their shores to be/The unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea'? If so, then we might start to think that the god whose bidding Arnold questions is Vergil's very own Neptune, the deity who has decided Arnoldian men ought not to tarry with sexually alluring women in foreign lands and so turn bestial in their lust.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Leopardi's 'L'infinito' (1819)

Autumn 1819, a young Giacomo Leopardi was sitting on the hill near his small home town of Recanati, yearning to see more of the world. He wrote a poem about it, which he called 'L'infinito'. It is, by all accounts, very widely known in Italy. Indeed the actual hill in actual Recanati even has the above monument to it. Here's the poem:

Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
e questa siepe, che da tanta parte
dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
Ma sedendo e mirando, interminati
spazi di là da quella, e sovrumani
silenzi, e profondissima quiete
io nel pensier mi fingo; ove per poco
il cor non si spaura. E come il vento
odo stormir tra queste piante, io quello
infinito silenzio a questa voce
vo comparando: e mi sovvien l’eterno,
e le morte stagioni, e la presente
e viva, e il suon di lei. Così tra questa
immensità s’annega il pensier mio:
e il naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.
Here's my go at an English version:

was always in my heart, this lonely hill,
and this hedgerow, and the larger part
of the far horizon it blocks from view;
my sedentary amazement at endless
spaces opening beyond, the superhuman
silences, this most profound quiet,
I fix it all up with my thoughts. It
almost scares my soul. As the wind
hisses through the leaves I set that
infinite silence against this voice,
for comparison: and remember eternity,
and the dead seasons, and the present
live one, and the sound it makes. Into this
immensity go my thoughts to drown:
and shipwreck is sweet in such an ocean.
I'm not sure any poet ever had a cooler name than 'Jack Leopard'. I may be wrong about this.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Protocols of the Elders of Simov

Did Ace really reissue Asimov's Foundation in the 50s under a title phrased after the logic of, I don't know, let's say, Tausendjähriges Plannen und Reich? And did they really bung a sinister stern-faced bald fellow on the cover, sporting a logo somewhat resembling a crooked black cross in a white circle against a red background?

It seems they did.

Anyway: late in his career, in the 1980s and 1990s, Asimov pulled his whole imagined cosmos together, uniting in one shared universe and one timeline his many individual Foundation stories with his many individual Robot stories. Now, since there were no robots in the original Foundation stories (written between 1942 and the early 1950s); and since the early robot stories (I, Robot (1950), The Caves of Steel (1953) and so on) take place in a cosmos that has neither Galactic Empire nor Foundation, this took some finessing. What Asimov did was to add an extra 'zeroth' law to his three laws of robotics such that, by contorting narrative and worldbuilding plausibility somewhat, all the robots go into hiding and start secretly manipulating the events of human history, during the Galactic Empire and its collapse, in order to bring about far-future utopia.

In the unified Foundation and Robot stories from the 1980s-90s Asimov is adumbrating a specific worldview. It is worldview that says: the world is being controlled by an occult conspiracy. It says: behind the world there is a secret cabal, hidden away, manipulating the human world for its own ends. And furthermore: though the members of this cabal might look human, and might even pass as human, they are fundamentally not human. In point of fact, and despite their cunning and cleverness, they are less than human. Nonetheless, they are influencing everything you do, and all the social and political structures under which you live, with their secret conspiracy. Their leader is known by the Jewish name 'Daniel' (well, almost). Hmm.

In other news: Isaac Asimov was one of the twentieth-century's most successful and influential Jewish writers.

Friday, 2 September 2016

When this cartoon is over, you will have nothing that you want

The beak does not look good on you, it's a duck's bill, and when you come to the microphone you sound like you're speaking through a kazoo. Nobody seems sure, and even you don't know, whether you could even grow a beard under that bill, for all your bushy side-whiskers. It looks cheap, the beak, the kind of cheap no top-hat can compensate for. Your eyes look dead, grey where the whites should be. That you even have whites to your eyes is wrong, if you think about it for two seconds. I guess people don't devote that much time to thinking about it. But then people don't want a president to be that tasty with orange sauce. You know that now. Why doesn't someone in your entourage dare to say these things? So sad. The fans are wild about you, and Donald is as loyal as they come, but Huey, Dewey and Louie are reassuring in that stilted way of hospital visitors. And The Media treat you like the village idiot. This is painful for a wealthy duck from the Bear Mountain Mansion trying to win respect in the big city, in LA and Disneyland, where pathos is for live-action only, and cartoon characters are only there to be mocked and derided. When you came over 40 years ago, you discovered that in entertainment, the press, politics, finance, everywhere you went, you ran into humans, and they are not like you: humans didn't go in for diving into swimming-pools full of gold coins or buying magic hourglasses or travelling back in time to Ancient Egypt to retrieve a pharaoh's papyrus. — they showed off by way of philanthropy or having successful kids. The swimming-pools full of gold coins were totally duck, the bragging, the honking, but you wanted to be liked by Those People. You wanted Pixar to include you in an intensely moving pre-credits sequence tracing how you fell in love as a young duck and married but never had kids and then she got sick and slowly died and everyone in the cinema is weeping, actually weeping heartfelt tears, as you turn into this cantakerous old geezer from the sheer bereaved psychic pain. But Pixar is a separate commercial arm, you're told, and ducks like you don't belong in that stable, its strictly the ludicrous and humiliating for you.

Meanwhile, you keep plugging away. You try to be be serious about this crazy idea; although there's no profit in it. It's the hardest work you've ever done. You walk out and your huge orange bill goes first, everywhere, and you rant and hiss and splutter for an hour about stuff that means nothing and the fans laugh and you wish you could level with them for once and say one true thing: I am literally a two-dimensional character and you're laughing at me to cover your fear that you are too, you all are, all precisely as vacant and depthless and money-addicted as I am and when this cartoon is over you will have nothing that you want.

Thursday, 1 September 2016