Thursday, 22 January 2009

Aetates Mundi

I'm teaching Ovid this week. I sent my students off with the start of the Metamorphoses in Latin, in Golding's 1567 translation ('The xv. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis, translated oute of Latin into English meeter ') and in the version from Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid. 'What' (I intoned) 'kind of beginnings do these make?' We shall see what they come up with.

It occurred to me in passing that there is no 'canonical' translation of the Metamorphoses in the same way that Dryden's Aeneid and Pope and Chapman's respective Homers are masterpieces of English literature in their own right. I suppose Golding's translation is the nearest we have: it was the English Ovid known by Spenser and Shakespeare, and its jolly, ballad-like fourteeners give it a certain propulsive, ironic energy which fits Ovid fairly well:

Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate,
Ye gods vouchsafe (for you are they ywrought this wondrous feate)
To further this mine enterprise. And from the world begunne,
Graunt that my verse may to my time, his course directly runne
Before the Sea and Lande were made, and Heaven that all doth hide,
In all the worlde one onely face of nature did abide,
Which Chaos hight, a huge rude heape, and nothing else but even
A heavie lump and clottred clod of seedes togither driven,
Of things at strife among themselves, for want of order due.
No sunne as yet with lightsome beames the shapelesse world did vew,
No Moone in growing did repayre hir hornes with borowed light.
Nor yet the earth amiddes the ayre did hang by wondrous slight
Just peysed by hir proper weight. Nor winding in and out
Did Amphitrytee with hir armes embrace the earth about.
For where was earth, was sea and ayre, so was the earth unstable,
The ayre all darke, the sea likewise to beare a ship unable.

The 'rattling fourteener' is of course a meter with a notoriously unstable relationship with poetic seriousness, as Shakespeare knew well when he cast the rude mechanicals' play in A Midsummer Night's Dream - a story out of Ovid in one of Shakespeare's most Ovid-suffused plays - in them.

I wondered also whether we might be able to classify cultural periods by dominant epics: The English 1590s strike me as a very distinctly Ovidian time, as does the present. Virgil came much more strongly into focus in the second half of the 1600s, as he did in the first half of the last century also (Eliot's championing of the Aeneid in 'Virgil and the Christian World' (1951), Hermann Broch's Der Tod des Vergils), whereas Romanticism was yoked to Homer's star. One of the prime characteristics of the epic genre is the idea that the heroic poem sums up and enfolds an entire national culture: Mycenaean Greece (Homer), Augustan Rome (Virgil), the Iberian voyages of discovery (Camões), and - outside the main tradition - Iron Age heroic culture in Ireland (the Táin Bó Cúailnge), the mythic world of the Finns (the Kalevala), and so on.

This is easy enough to maintain when one focuses only on the mainsprings of the genre, but it ignores the sheer quantity of epic poetry that was churned out in antiquity. From the 5th century BC there were epics praising living individuals, epics of recent history, and didactic epics on philosophical or scientific subjects; the Middle Ages and Renaissance also produced a vast number of works that could lay claim to the title (Prudentius' Psychomachia, Petrarch's Africa, Walter of Chatillon's Alexandreis.)

If there's any key to the epic genre, it has to be Virgil: for the simple reason that in the Aeneid Virgil drew in some wise upon almost everything that had gone before him since Homer, and no one after Virgil could ignore the Aeneid. The poem is a kind of pinch in the generic hourglass, into which everything which went before poured, and from which everything which came after flowed. I proffer Virgil as the key figure here rather than Homer, because 'Homer' (whoever he, she or they were) was shadowed by his contemporary Hesiod, whose Theogony, Works and Days, and the misattributed Eoiae or 'Catalogue of Women', acted as a kind of alternative source of tradition to later epic poets. (Hesiod was taken as something of a poetic father by the poets of the Alexandrian school, especially Callimachus, who were attracted to the example he provided of shorter, discontinuous and didactic hexameter poems.) So the epic tradition was from the beginning bifurcated.

By suggesting the idea of ages named after the dominant epics, I don't necessarily mean that each period should feature a literal revival of interest in a particular poet (though, as I see it, this often occurs), but that the character of each age might be seen to fit with one better than the others.

Ovidian: bewildering multiplicity, variegation, polyphony and interlace, a taste for the play of shifting surfaces, ironic disjunctions, distancing and coolness, self-delighting urbane wit, the erotic, the lurid, the bizarre and grotesque, liquefaction and the dissolution of form, a certain religious scepticism

Virgilian: stately grandeur, unity, a sense of cultural belatedness held in tension with increasing cultural self-confidence, a certain melancholy, a consciousness of the oppressive weights of past and future, a growing centralised imperial power, the megalopolis, a sense of higher destiny operative behind politics, 'the West' as a given good, vast shapes glimpsed obscurely through shadows and twilight, Christianity, Rome rather than Greece

: a return to the beginning, periods of cultural self-refreshment and the exploration of archaic origins, periods of dissatisfaction with modernity and 'the City', the individual, bright light and clear sightlines, 'the shining now', dubiousness about excessive cultural polish, a taste for primitivism and an idealised paganism, Greece rather than Rome

It's quite fun turning historical periods over in one's mind and trying to decide which category they fall under: perhaps the truth is that all three modes are always operative at once, and that the dominance of one necessarily constellates the others to challenge and balanced it. It might also be worth asking whether the 'Homeric' needs to be split into Iliadic and Odyssean modes (after all, the Greeks saw the two poems are the ultimate templates and origins of tragedy and comedy, respectively), and whether Lucan's silver Latin counter-epic the Pharsalia is important enough to warrant a separate 'Lucanian' (but not, heavens help us, 'Lacanian') category.

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