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.