‘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.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

"Orlando Fvrioso in English Heroical Verse" by John Harringto[n] (1591)

This first edition of Harrington's translation of Ariosto is for sale at Bonham's (guide price £4,000-6,000. Were I rich, I'd be properly tempted). As you can see, this edition has had its illustrations hand-coloured. I don't know how common this practice was, but presumably it was a way of adding value to, and therefore charging more for, your book. Very pretty, at any rate, in a psychedelic sort of way.

 If you click on the Bonham's link, there, you can zoom in on the coloured plates to your heart's content. And if you choose to buy the book, can I come round to yours and have a look at it?

Ronald Searle "Punch's Map of Mars" (1956)

This is by the mighty Ronald Searle (he of the Molesworth and St Trinian's book illustrations). Click to Embiggen.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

"As You Like It" as Spensarium


What's up with the naming in Shakespeare's As You Like It (1599)? In his other plays WS has no problem coming up with different names for his various different characters. It is, after all, not hard to do. But in this play various pairs of characters have to share the same name. There are two Olivers (the older son of Rowland de Boys and the vicar of the Arden country parish); two Jaqueses (the famous sardonic commentator attending the banished Duke and the younger son of Rowland de Boys). It's confusing for audiences: when the second Jaques enters he has to spell out that he's not the first Jaques: 'I am,' he explains, 'the second sonne of old Sir Rowland' [5.4.150]. There are two Dukes, the wicked one called Frederick and the older, virtuous one not given a name, and generally referred to by editors as 'Duke Senior'. I like to think he's also called Frederick (hey: he could be! You don't know!) The Duke's wrestler is called Charles; the starveling shepherd Corin's master is called 'Old Carlot' [4.5.108], that is, 'Charles'. Nor does it end there: the hero of the play is Orlando, whose name is a simple variant of, which is to say basically the same name as, his father, Roland. And the heroine, Rosalind, has a name that is almost an anagram of the name of the man with whom she falls in love. We might say that Rosalind is the active and present 'Orland(is)' to his passive 'Orland(o)', since she so dominates the play in which she appears.

In a broader sense the play is built around pairs of characters: two Dukes; two daughters, Rosalind and Celia; two fools (Jaques is not a conventional fool after the officially licensed manner of Touchstone, of course; but he occupies a similar place, commenting wittily and sardonically upon the world for his master), two shepherds, Corin and Silvius; two shepherdesses, Phebe and Audrey, and so on.

It's more than just a mania for pairing things off. This is a play that keeps playing with words and puns, with homophones and near homophones. 'Come sweete Audrey,' Touchstone says to his girlfriend: 'we must be married, or we must live in baudrey' [3.3.88] (the Audrey/bawdry gag might be funnier if one didn't suspect Shakespeare had chosen the name precisely in order to facilitate the joke. Ah well). There's a ruder gag in the name Rosalind adopts when she dresses as a boy: Ganymede, taken from classical mythology (it's the name of Jupiter's young male lover). There's an obvious applicability in the name, given the gender-bending Elizabethan stagecraft practice of getting boys to dress as girls to disguise themselves as boys and so on. But there's a cruder, comic double-meaning in the name too, since ganny was a variant of cunny or cunt and mede, as pronounced after the Elizabethan fashion, is a homophone for 'maid'. So the girl, dressed as a boy but still very obviously a girl in men's clothes (and indeed praised by other characters for the femininity of his/her beauty) adopts as a male name the transparently female 'Cunny-maid'. Ho ho. Not that all the wordplay and naming larks are rude. Jaques reports meeting Touchstone for the first time, with: 'as I do live by foode, I met a foole' [2.7.14], which almost looks like one of those word-chain games where you one letter at a time. Or consider the multiple wordplay games in Duke Senior's first speech, from the beginning of Act 2:
Now my Coe-mates, and brothers in exile:
Hath not old custome made this life more sweete
Than that of painted pompe? Are not these woods
More free from perill then the envious Court?
Heere feele we not the penaltie of Adam,
The seasons difference, as the Icie phange
And churlish chiding of the winters winde,
Which when it bites and blowes upon my body
Euen till I shrinke with cold, I smile, and say
This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly perswade me what I am:
Sweet are the uses of adversitie
Which like the toad, ougly and venemous,
Weares yet a precious Jewell in his head:
And this our life exempt from publike haunt,
Findes tongues in trees, bookes in the running brookes,
Sermons in stones, and good in euery thing. [2.1.1-17]
This, famously, is the Duke saying that though life in the country is sometimes hard, it is at least honest: no flatterers or court politics, truth and therefore good everywhere. It is, in point of fact, one of the key statements of a fundamental belief about the worth of pastoral as a mode: city life, or courtly existence, may be civilised and pretty, but is fundamentally inauthentic; whereas country life, though rude, is fundamentally authentic. But look how he has said it! Wordplay and puns. It's not just at the end, the alliteration of tongues/trees, the one-letter-away wordplay of books/brooks, or the more complex game played by equating the religious discourse of 'sermons' in the stonily petrifying 'Peter' on which Christ, of course, built his church. It's there at the beginning too. The Duke addresses his exiled nobles as 'co-mates', which is both a perfectly functional English phrase and also a pun on the Latin comites, 'companions, comrades, friends'. And so all the way through: so the chill winds 'persuade' the Duke 'he is what he is', which persuasion he pronounces 'sweet'; fittingly, since the Latin for both words derives from the same source, the word suavis, sweet. And so on.

There are lots and lots of other examples of this sort of thing in the play, but I don't want to labour the point. 'Shakespeare liked wordplay and puns' is hardly news. It's just that, in this play specifically, I think there's something else going on. Puns and wordplay depend upon the same word, or two nearly-the-same words, having different meanings, which is actualised in the dramatis personae of As You Like It by having so many pairs of characters with the same, or nearly the same, names. What's happening?


Instead of trying to answer that question I'm going to take this blog-post in a knight's-move away from it, and in the direction of: Edmund Spenser. There he is, at the top, wearing one of those ruffs that makes it look as though he has been decapitated, his head put on a doily-topped-plate and then balanced back on his shoulders. It's a good look.

Why Spenser? Well, I've long entertained the notion, more or less idly, that As You Like It was a play Shakespeare wrote with Spenser in mind; and more specifically, that he was prompted to write it by the poet's death. Spenser was only 46 when he died, on the 13th January 1599, having lost his large estates in Ireland—that is, his draconic gubernatorial policies having provoked an armed uprising of put-upon Irishmen, and his mansion burned down. He died, according to Ben Jonson, in penury.
Spencer's Goods were robbed by the Irish, and his House and a little Child burnt, he and his Wife escaped, and after died for want of Bread in Kingstreet; he refused 20 Pieces sent him by my Lord Essex, and said he was sure he had no Time to spend them.
Once one of the Queen's favourites, Spenser appears to have fallen from favour, and to have alienated the Queen's principal secretary, Lord Burghley (William Cecil). He got a grand funeral, though, paid for by the Earl of Essex, whom Spenser had praised in poetry, and whose star with the Queen seemed, at that precise moment in time, to be in the ascendant. Here's James Shapiro's account of the procession, from his rather good 1599: a Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (Faber 2005):
William Camden, who eulogized Spenser as one who "surpassed all the English poets of former times, not excepting even Chaucer himself" recorded the unusual funeral arrangements. Spenser's hearse was "attended by poets, and mournful elegies and poems, with the pens that wrote them, thrown into the tomb." Cambden later added that poets even carried Spenser's hearse ... The verses, which the poets had but three days to compose, would have first been read aloud before being ceremoniously tossed into the grave. Not just a great poet was celebrated this day, but English poetry itself. It's unlikely that many of London's writers would have missed the occasion. [79-80]
Was Shakespeare there? There's a tradition, but no hard evidence, that he was one of the pallbearers; and it's possible the two men knew one another. They certainly would have been aware of one another, and presumably admired one another's verse, and both were at Whitehall in the winter of 1598-99, and so could easily have exchanged words then, if they hadn't before. Spenser wrote nine plays, although these were not for the popular stage, and none of them have survived; but one not-noble-born dramatist and poet might very plausibly have sought out another not-noble-born dramatist and poet, at least on those occasions when both of them were in the same town. Perhaps Shakespeare was one of those who read aloud a Spenser elegy and then threw it, and the pen that had written it, into the grave. Shapiro notes that 'three centuries later' eager scholars opened Spenser's tomb, 'hoping to unearth the long buried tributes, especially one by Shakespeare'; but that they 'failed to find what they were looking for', for the very good reason that they exhumed the wrong grave, and were in fact rummaging around in the mortal remains of Matthew Prior.

Whether Spenser and Shakespeare actually knew one another is speculation, though; and scholarship is quite properly allergic to unsubstantiated speculation. Which leaves my specific As You Like It theory high and dry.

What theory is that, you ask? Let me tell you. It is an extrapolation from a few things that are not in doubt. So, As You Like It is Shakespeare's great pastoral play. Spenser's first masterpiece was The Shepheardes Calendar (1579), the book that made his reputation and ushered in an energetic vogue for Elizabethan pastoral writing. Much bucolic poetry and prose followed hard on the heels of this collection, some of it frankly imitative of Spenser; and The Shepheardes Calendar was still selling well and being reprinted in the 1590s (there was a fifth edition in 1597). Nowadays Spenser's reputation is more intimately tied-up with The Faerie Queene (the first six cantos—of a prospected twelve—were published in 1596). But although The Faerie Queene was admired, it didn't catch-on with contemporary readers the way The Shepheardes Calendar had done. We have to wait until 1609 for a second edition, for instance. So let's say that at his death in January 1599 The Shepheardes Calendar was Spenser's most popular, if not quite his most admired, work.

Two other things to note that are fact rather than speculation. One is that the name of Shakespeare' heroine, Rosalind, is taken from Spenser's pastoral poem. And two is that As You Like It was almost certainly written in 1599, the year Spenser died. Its title was entered in the Stationer's Register in 1600, and so must have been written before then; and there are several reasons (listed in the Arden edition intro, xxvi-xxvii) for placing it after 1598. One oddity though: although the play was entered in the Stationer's Register, there are no contemporary records of any performances, nor were any quarto edition of the play (licensed or unlicensed) published. The earliest published edition of the play is the Folio of 1623. Since it has subsequently become one of Shakespeare's most often performed and most popular plays, this lack of any kind of theatrical record of it 1599-1623 is a little strange. Either it was publicly performed and wasn't a hit (possible, but surely unlikely) or else it just wasn't performed. If this latter circumstance is the case, then why not? Did Shakespeare's company not think it good enough? Might there be other reasons?

But that's not much to go on. If we're looking for actual evidence of a connection between the two men, or support for the thesis that Shakespeare was prompted to write his pastoral play by the death of this master of pastoral verse, then there isn't anything. That's largely because these two figures, Shakespeare and Spenser, giants of their literary era though they were, are more poorly served by biographical data than almost anybody else of comparable stature in literary history. The thinness of Shakespeare's biography is well known, of course, but if anything even less is known of Spenser. A C Hamilton’s 'Longman’s Annotated Poets' edition of The Faerie Queene (2001, rev ed 2007) concludes its scanty biographical essay with this:
In a review of Judson’s Life, Conyers Read noted the paucity of our knowledge: ‘outside what Edmund Spenser himself wrote all that is positively known about his life could probably be written in a few short paragraphs. The rest is inference, surmise and conjecture’ [AHR 51:539]. D Cheney [1996:172] concludes that evidence for S.’s life is questionable ‘not merely doubtful but calling its own authority into question and demanding that we question it.’ [xix]
Wait: 'D Cheney' ... that's not Dick Cheney, is it? Presumably not.

Of course it would be nice if we had other evidence: letters, pamphlets, reports of conversation in which Shakespeare talked of his friendship, something like that. But there's nothing. So, absent 'hard' evidence, what sort of evidence might we admit to the bar in support of a far-out theory? I don't mean a theory of the 'Shakespeare-didn't-write-Shakespeare' kind, which mode of conspiracizing is invariably fruity-loops. (Isn't it interesting that nobody has proposed a Spenser-didn't-write-Spenser, The-Faerie-Queen-was-actually-written-by-the-Earl-of-Oxford style theory? One wonders why not?) I mean something more in line with plausible literary speculation.

Something like this: Shakespeare makes specific praising reference to Essex in Henry V (Jonathan Bate calls this the only verifiable contemporary reference in the whole Shakespearian corpus). And whilst nothing can be proven, Leeds Barroll's 'William Shakespeare's Regnal Connections' [Renaissance Drama 40 (2012), 185-195] makes a persuasive case that if not Essex himself then what Barroll calls 'the Essex group' of wealthy and powerful noblemen attached to the Earl, acted as patrons to various theatrical writers and troupes, Shakespeare's amongst them. There's hard evidence that Richard Burbage was a favourite of the group, and received gifts from them; Ben Jonson was gifted £20 a year for books; and it doesn't strain credulity to think that a little of this patronage might have come Shakespeare's way (Southampton, to whom Shakespeare had dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece a few years earlier, was part of the 'Essex Group').

So imagine this: Essex organises and pays for Spenser's funeral, which is conceived as an extravagantly literary affair. He maybe gets Shakespeare to write a brief elegy, and read it at the service. But perhaps he also commissioned a play, for private performance at Essex House, before a select audience (rather than a public showing at the newly constructed Globe) commemorating his friend; not a biographical piece, but something inspired by, or in some other way connected with, Spenser. Shakespeare decides to take The Shepheardes Calendar as inspiration. He can't dramatise that directly, since it doesn't have a dramatic through-line or narrative; so he lifts a plot from a recently published pastoral novel called Rosalynd by Thomas Lodge, (published 1590 and itself quite heavily indebted to Spenser's pastoral), soaks the story in a metaphorical marinade of Spenser, and writes As You Like It.

Unproven and probably unprovable, I know: but this notion does provide a possible explanation for the strange way the play made no impact at all on London theatrical culture 1599-1623. Let's say Shakespeare accepts the commission and makes a start on the play soon after Spenser's funeral, January 1599. Say the play is finished by the spring. Any performance at Essex House would be postponed by Essex's departure for Ireland at the head of his army in March. His Irish campaign, of course, did not go well; on his return to London in September Essex found himself committed for trial and imprisoned. That trial on 5th June 1600 lead to his conviction and removal from all public office. This in turn lead to Essex's abortive rebellion at the start of 1601, and finally his second trial and decapitation on Feb 25th 1601.

In such a circumstance, Shakespeare might well have been in a tricky position. However close, or otherwise, he had personally been to Essex he would certainly want to distance himself from a decided and executed traitor. If As You Like It had been written for Essex, the events of 1600 would make performance impossible; but Shakespeare, surely conscious that he had written a good play (it is, after all, one of his undisputed masterpieces) would surely not want simply to abandon it. After Essex's conviction in June 1600, he would naturally have given up on the idea of ever seeing it performed at Essex House; but the fact that it was entered into the Stationer's Register on the 4th August 1600 (marked 'to be stayed'; that is, not performed but held back and noted in an attempt to preserve it as company property and prevent piracy) suggests he, or his company, wanted to hold it in reserve. After that speculation gets mistier and mistier. Perhaps Essex's final disgrace meant that Shakespeare, or the company, thought this play too dangerous to stage. Maybe Elizabeth's death in 1603, and the coming of James, pushed it onto the back-burner: too 'Elizabethan' maybe, or too Spenserian. I'm flailing here, you can tell. But the play is a great play, and Heminges and Condell certainly recognised as much when they included it in the First Folio.

My point, though, is less about such speculation and more about evidential bases. And, to repeat myself, the theory I'm advancing is about Spenser, not about Essex. There have been theories that As You Like It has something to do with Essex's Irish campaign going back at least the to the 1930s (Sharpe's The Real War of the Theatres [1935] argues that; Chris Butler's ‘”The howling of Irish wolves”: As You Like It and the Celtic Essex Circle’, in Willy Maley and Rory Loughnane's Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers (2013) 89-102 elaborates a similar reading). Since Elizabeth and Essex, and Essex in Ireland, were the 'big' contemporary news of 1599, it's makes historicist sense to try and situate the play in that context. But that's not what my spurious argumentation here is trying to do. I'm not suggesting As You Like It is an allegory of Essex in Ireland, because I don't think it is. What I do think is that it is a play either 'commissioned', in whatever sense of that word would have been meaningful to an Elizabethan, in honour of Spenser, or else simply inspired by the memory of Spenser.

Spenser, author of the age's most famous pastoral poem, is memorialised by Shakespeare writing the age's most famous pastoral play. Said play puts at the heart of the bucolic drama Rosalind, whom Spenser (under the pseudonym 'Colin Clout') loved in his poem. Since Spenser (following Vergil) wrote pastoral narratives of love gained and lost, and interspersed that narrative with country songs, this is also what Shakespeare does.


But, as I finally wind my way back to my point. if I start combing the text itself for evidence of this, I find myself performing some of the fruity-loops hermeneutic maneuvres of, say, the famously loopy Ignatius L. Donnelly's The Great Cryptogram (1888). So my initial question returns after its knight's-move digression. Given that this is a playful play, a play about escaping the constraints of an oppressive court into the Ardenic territory of pastoral holiday, love and fun; and given that the playfulness of this play is apparent in its fondness for wordplay and puns, some bland, some bawdy, all so much a feature of the play's world that even the characters become punning and anagrammatising versions of one another ... given all that, would this sort of thing count as legitimate evidence that this play was written playfully to commemorate the pastoral imagination of Edmund Spenser?
Oliver: And what wilt thou do? beg when that is spent? Sir, get you in. [1.1.75]
Or this?
Rosalind: There were none principal, they were all like one another, as pence are ... [3.2.346]
a 'halfe' having been dropped out? Convinced?

No, I didn't think so. We'd be better off painting with broader strokes. Which is to say: a dramatist, setting out to write a drama that playfully memorialised Edmund Spenser (without narrating his life, or being too literal minded) would surely seek to reproduce the lineaments of his literary achievement. If Shepeardes Calendar remained his most popular work, then let the play be pastoral, interspersed (as Shepeardes Calendar is) with songs. If Spenser's pastoral is divided between some shepherds poor and put-upon, and some experiencing the ups and downs of love, then let us have two such shepherds in our play: Corin and Silvius. If Shepeardes Calendar posits an inhabitant of the forest in love with Rosalind, then let that be the name of our heroine. But as many critics have pointed out, 'Arden' in the play is both a wild wood, haunt of outlaws (Robin Hood is even namechecked) and wild beasts, and a cultivated, enclosed land where hireling herdspeople raise sheep and goats. Let us reserve the latter space for the Shepeardes Calendar portion of the play; and let us render the former a wilderness populated by allegorically significant monsters like sapient lions and snakes, maidens in peril and heroic travellers, in memory of the unfinished Fairie Queene. And in memory of Amoretti, let us have one character literally bedeck the forest trees with 'little love poems', some of which (eg: 'He that brings this love to thee,/Little knowes this Love in me') actually juxtapose 'little' and 'love' after the manner of Spenser's title. Throughout let us work-in key words, such that Shepearde appears 33 times, Faire (if not quite Fairie) 28 times and two lists of seven (after the seven extant cantos of Spenser's unfinished epic: six whole cantos and the Mutability canto) are paired: Jaques on the seven ages of man and Touchstone on the seven degree of the lie. Presto!

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Horses of Westworld

I enjoyed the first episode of HBO's already-acclaimed Westworld series. Even episode one manages to say some deftly clever and unsettling things about entertainment, the abusive objectification of bodies (especially female bodies) and about the intimate relationship between fantasies of the 'true' originary American west and questions of power, violence, myth and horror. Of course one episode in is jumping the gun somewhat; and (of course) given the way the show is patently working on several layers at once, I feel sheepish about devoting this blogpost to one aspect of the in-story logic of the show's worldbuilding. Indeed, I feel doubly sheepish doing so, since it is one of the limitations of weaker SF criticism that it obsesses over in-text elements at the expense of formal, contextual and metatextual readings. Still: the horses.

The horses puzzle me.

'Westworld' is a park where real human beings come to play at being cowboys and cowgirls, in a sort of live-action RPG with added sex and violence. The characters with whom these holidaymakers interact are replicants, programmed with sophisticated-enough responses that they mimic human variability and liveliness, but memory-wiped (and if necessary repaired and rebooted) at the end of each day. It's already clear that one of the larger through-lines of the series will be the notion that Anthony Hopkins' lizardly-placid Dr. Robert Ford, Park Director and inventor of the androids, has, by adding new subroutines and tweaks to their programming over time, eased them into something like actual sentient consciousness. We'll see about that.

The show divides between portions set in Westworld itself, and other portions set in the behind-the-scenes control spaces and lower levels, where we see the replicants being constructed.

Now, in present day theme parks, Renaissance Fairs and the like, visitors interact with other human beings. But Westworld is a park where such interaction might include shooting, killing, torture and rape. Clearly human beings could not ethically or practically be hired to perform the subaltern roles in such a circumstance. Hence: robots. But the underground workshop scenes of the show make it clear that not only the people, but also the horses, are artificial organisms.

The problem I'm having is imagining any kind of economic context in which it would make financial sense for the Westworld company to manufacture expensive artificial horses—presumably rather more expensive to make than the human characters, since they're bigger—rather than just ... buying real horses. Horses may not be cheap, exactly (even if we rule out pedigree racehorses and the like, it seems we're still talking $500 -$5000), but we have to assume that this option is cheaper than painstakingly manufacturing the entire animal from scratch. If the concern is one of animal welfare, then presumably the same weaponry constraints that prevent the tourist 'newcomers' shooting one another could be applied to prevent people shooting the horses. Or, to come at the question from the other side: if Westworld is making its own horses, are they also making their own cattle? Dogs and cats? Are the fish in the rivers and the birds in the sky and the flies that so ickily crawl over people's faces also fake?

Three ways of addressing this niggle suggest themselves. One would be to say: get over yourself Adam. It's a show; it's not real. Artificial horses feed into the dramatic distinction between the fakeness of the park and the realness of the humans who interact with it, and that's reason enough. Fair dos.

Still. Two: on the offchance that I'm not in the mood to give up my in-text worldbuilding niggle, let's say: maybe the future of the show is one in which this technology is so cheap that it actually is cost-effective to build your horses rather than buying them. That, though, would be a little hard to swallow: if so, why are characters and specific androids being reused and recycled (as, for example, the manikin playing Dolores Abernathy's kindly old Dad used to live in the hills as a cannibal)? Why is the park so expensive to visit (as one of the tourists implies it is)? Why aren't there parks like this everywhere? Quite apart from anything, the swish high-tech manufacturing spaces with their 3D printers and many attendant technicians, don't look like a cheap operation.

Which leads me to three: what if the horses are artificial because everything in the show is artificial? What if the through-line story reveal will be that the distinction is not real-live human 'newcomers' and artificial androids 'hosts', but between different grades or ranks of androids? That everyone, from Hopkins's Dr Ford on down, is an android? What if the horses are 'made' because the future of the show is one in which natural parturition is a thing of the past? Now that would be a reveal.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

'The Keeper's Nightmare' (Punch, 1871)

From Ann C. Colley's Wild Animal Skins in Victorian Britain: Zoos, Collections, Portraits, and Maps (Ashgate/Routledge 2014). Click to embiggen. Caption: 'one of the officials at the Zoological Gardens has a bewildering nightmare. He dreams that all the animals have broken loose and swapped heads, and he doesn't know "what to feed with what".' I particularly like the Znakebra:

But the Boarstrich is also pretty cool:

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 are we 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 as they chew,
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 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! But what can you do? 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, such as Pollio or 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.