Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Horace and Merton

I was up at 4am yesterday, and thus had the insomniac's privilege of watching the black sky flush to deep midnight blue, lapis lazuli, dawn grey, and pink. I read some Horace, relishing in particular the exquisite poignancy of Odes 4.1, in which the middle-aged poet (or his wistful persona) begs Venus to hold off and assuage an agonising crush. The last three stanzas are quite wonderful, and sadly untranslatable, so what follows is only a crude attempt.

me nec femina nec puer
iam nec spes animi credula mutui
nec certare iuvat mero
nec vincire novis tempora floribus.

I've no use for a woman
or a boy; no use for self-deluding hopes
of love returned, for drinking contests,
or for garlanding my brow with spring flowers.

sed cur heu, Ligurine, cur
manat rara meas lacrima per genas?
cur facunda parum decoro
inter verba cadit lingua silentio?

But why, Lingurinus, why then
do tears from time to time linger
on my cheeks? Why does my easy tongue
fall mid-sentence into sheepish silence?

nocturnis ego somniis
iam captum teneo, iam volucrem sequor
te per gramina Martii
campi, te per aquas, dure, volubilis.

In dreams one moment I hold you tight,
then chase you - become a bird - over the grass of the Campus
Martius, pursuing you, who take no pity on me,
through a swirl of rushing waters.

The effect of the last stanza is exquisite: it's genuinely oneiric in its unexplained transitions and irresolvable paradoxes. Ligurinus is held - but then not held; a boy who is also a winged creature, who is pursued on foot through an oddly specific familiar place, which then sudden jumpcuts into a different element entirely, clarity giving way to a bewildering, swirling confusion. I don't know about you, but my dreams often have just these sorts of shifts and fractures: the specificity of the Campus Martius is especially good, because in dreams one often seems to find onself in an eerily vacant but familiar public space.

The last stanza also echoes Aeneid 6.700-3, in which Aeneas in the underworld tries three times to embrace his father's shade:

ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum;
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno.

Three times he tried to put his arms around his father's neck;
three times the ghost eluded his hands' futile clasp,
like a breath of wind, just like fluttering sleep.

The last phrase is normally translated so that volucri is an adjective modifying somno, 'winged sleep' - reminiscent of the bat-like nightmares roosting under the shadowy elm outside the gates of Hades at 6.282ff - but I suspect it could also mean 'a bird in sleep', or even 'a bird in a dream'. (Better judges of latinity than I will have to weigh in, here.) I like construing the line this way because it seems to strike the authentically Vergillian note of gauziness, of elusive, vital things viewed at two removes. Earlier in Book 6 of the poem, Aeneas catches sight of Dido's ghost, wandering through Hades. The way Vergil describes the scene is heart-stopping:

         ...adgnovitque per umbras
obscuram, qualem primo qui surgere mense
aut videt, aut vidisse putat per nubila lunam...

...and Aeneas recognised her through the dim shadows,
the way a man see sees, or thinks he has seen,
the moon rising up through mist at the month's beginning.

Not just the moon, but the thinnest crescent; not clearly sighted, but veiled in cloud; and then Vergil adds a non-physical indeterminacy, that characteristic extra layer of cognitive ambiguity. Homer in contrast likes clear sightlines - darkness in Homer is like the blue tint used in night-scenes in old westerns, filmed in daylight but with a blue filter over the camera so that everything looks unnaturally moonlit. But Vergil likes shadows and mists, ungraspable, poignant opacities. Hence I think the idea of a dream-bird is more Vergillian than 'winged sleep'. And the alliterating pattern of l's, v's, m's and sibilants in the line is so very beautiful. Tennyson could write a line like

The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees

and one can see instantly why he has been called our most 'Vergillian' poet. (Milton for scale and pathos, Tennyson for surface music, I'd say.)

Anyway, going back to Horace, the conjunction of somnium, 'dream' (as opposed to Vergil's somnus, 'sleep') and volucris cannot help but bring this episode of the Aeneid to mind, especially as the context is so reminiscent: in both passages, someone is trying to hold onto the elusive, ungraspable image of someone yearned for. A poet of elusive textures and delicate transitions, Horace could do all this in nineteen words.

* * *

After I'd prepared my 10am supervision (on Horace, as it happens) I made a coffee and sat on my desk looking out over the trees, wrapped in my old grey shawl, dangling my legs out of the window. Dawn was breaking, and the sky in the east was ribbed with slats of yellow light. I had William Harmless' beautiful Mystics with me, and began to read the chapter on Thomas Merton, feeling unusually still and calm. It occured to me that one of the funny things about academia, even in the Humanities - even in English departments - is that actual love of literature is not as universal as you'd think. The stress of publishing and preparing teaching and searching for original, incisive things to say, the strain of judgement - in both senses of the word 'strain' - means that it's easy to lose sight of that inner stillness which it is necessary to bring to a poem. I certainly lose it often: indeed, it's frequently the case that the more moved I am by a poem, the less I want to analyse it out loud to students, to break its precious shell of reverberating silence.

Thinking along these lines, I read that Merton was often on night-duty in his monastery, wandering the corridors looking for fires, which were a serious hazard in the dry heat of a Kentucky summer. He describes his thoughts on these long nights of utter solitude:

And now my whole being breathes the wind which blows through the belfry and my hand is on the door through which I see the heavens. The door swings out upon a vast sea of darkness and of prayer. Will it come like this, the moment of my death? Will You open a door upon the great forest and set my feet on a ladder underneath the moon, and take me out among the stars?

(The Sign of Jonas, pp. 359-60).

A good way to begin the day.


Ben said...

great post.

if possible, could i be allowed onto the list for your other site? i don't know you but i very much enjoyed reading it, as i share your jones for welsh things and peter greenaway.


Bo said...

Of course - just send me an email to expvlsion AT yahoo DOT co DOT uk and I'll invite you.

Fionnchú said...

Wonderful translation of Horace, however dashed off you dismiss it! You won't believe this, but the magnificent "Fire Watch" passage from Merton was on my mind only yesterday. I haven't any idea why, but I've been suffering from sleeplessness lately too.

A few minutes before logging on this morning, I picked up at random Janet Burton's book on Monastic & Religious Orders, Britain 1000-1300 as on my shelf it had tipped over strangely. I opened it at random to a page on winter and summer horaria for the monks, and marvelled at their rising at 1:30 in summer and 2:30 in winter, not eating until midday. I wonder if they had fire-watchmen back then?

Jane Holland said...

Lovely blog post, Bo. Depressing though for me, as I've just dumped the Latin module I was doing at Warwick.

I have to get - or rather WANT to get - a 2.1 or First overall, and I know perfectly well that I would have struggled to get anywhere near that with the Latin Literary Texts module, and I couldn't risk taking that hit.

So I've dropped out of the Latin module - which I found fiercesomely hard work - but am continuing with the English modules as planned. (You get that option on the part-time degree course without being penalised.)

Luckily I'm still doing my Latin evening classes though, and we're moving onto the Aeneid in September. My grasp of Latin grammar may be too poor for a university-level course, but I am still able to read the literature for pleasure!

Bo said...

A Fhionnchu - that's so weird! They must have been permanently sleep-deprived.

Jane - sorry to hear you've dropped Latin. But I can appreciate how much hard work it is for you. x

Elizabeth said...

I very much enjoyed reading your post. In light of your interest in the Horace-Virgil interplay, I was wondering what you think of the following passage from the end of the Aeneid, and its bearing on Horace's pursuit of Ligurinus.

Aeneid 12.908-912

ac velut in somnis, oculos ubi languida pressit
nocte quies, nequiquam avidos extendere cursus
velle videmur et in mediis conantibus aegri
succidimus; non lingua valet, non corpore notae
sufficiunt vires, nec vox aut verba sequuntur:
sic Turno, quacumque viam virtute petivit,
successum dea dira negat.

'... and as in dreams of night, when languorous sleep has weighed down our eyes, we seem to strive vainly to press on our eager course, and in mid effort sink helpless: our tongue lacks power, our wonted strength fails our limbs, nor voice nor words ensue: so to Turnus, howsoe'er by valour he sought to win his way, the dread goddess denies fulfilment.' (Fairclough's 1934 Loeb translation)

Apologies for the translation. Do you think Horace is reading this when he chases after Ligurinus? For context, I think it's the only place in the Aeneid where Virgil brings 'us' (videmur, succidimus) into a simile - the final moment, where every reader participates in the struggle for fulfilment and the death of Turnus. And so maybe one of the things Horace is doing in the impossible pursuit of Ligurinus (in a book published 6 years after the Aeneid) is to write himself into Virgil's imagery, inserting his own 'we/I' into the Virgilian undertaking... playing Virgil's game, engaging with the Virgilian call for participation, but writing with a 'we/I' which plays itself out in very different ways to that of Virgil, with very different, very Horatian struggles: no obvious heroic deaths here, but the endless lust for (his own?) eternal youth, and simultaneously (and I apologise for the crudeness; this is a 'resisting reader' version, but one COULD quite easily read it this way) the silver-plated wet dream of a sleazy 52-year-old. There's a lot of Aeneid in Odes 4 (and 4.12 is an invitation to the now-dead Virgil to come to a party chez Horace)... is this opening poem the place where Horace says to Virgil, 'Right, here I am, I'm playing, the Aeneid intertext starts here, and this is what I'M doing with it'?

There's a lot more going on in this poem (and the Ligurinus section), and that's a hideously crude reconstruction, but I'd be interested to know what you make of the Virgil passage.

Elizabeth said...

Sorry, I realise now that I am somewhat out of date on this post. Although in the Virgilo-Horatian scheme of things I suppose a few months don't mean much!

Bo said...

yes, that makes perfect sense, Elizabeth!!

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