Hippolytus

(Ἱππολυτος)

Euripides

429 BC

(Disaster follows when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)

Pierre-Narcisse Guerin - Phaedra and Hippolytus 1815Crop of Phaedra and Hippolytus (1802), by the French neoclassical painter Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (Louvre, Paris). The painting manages dramatically to squeeze in several elements of the plot: the youth expresses his resistance to Phaedra, even as the nurse whispers in her ear; meanwhile Theseus clenches his fist in rage.

The gods will have their play, and we piteous humans must suffer in double jeopardy. First, vice will eventually bring destruction, and yet we are by nature weak and prone to vice. Second, everyone is subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than to bad. So we are doomed—we cannot be virtuous as we want to be, and so we are in trouble; and yet even if we could be virtuous we would get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! Hence Euripides’ fist-waving at the gods… yet he manages to preserve some reverence. Artemis tells us that the pious are still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When the impious person suffers, the gods nod “take that!”, whereas the faithful incur their favor, which can bring some benefit. So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that is Euripides’ line anyway. In this play we see how this web of cosmic influences plays out in the life of a chaste and honorable man destined for greatness by rights, when (through no fault of his own) his stepmother takes an improper liking to him.

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early poems

Matthew Arnold

1840-1849

(A man of intellect and of spiritual sensitivity contemplates the purpose of life and its struggles.)

MunchMelancholyCrop of Melancholy (1894), by Edvard Munch.  This painting is in The Rasmus Meyer Collection at The Bergen Art Museum (now part of the KODE museum group in Bergen, Norway).

 

“Unwelcome shroud of the forgotten dead,/ Oblivion’s dreary fountain, where art thou”.  What a dark way to begin one’s poetical efforts, at 18 years of age!  And we need read no further to suspect (correctly) that in Matthew Arnold we are in for something very different from the Romantics, and quite different also from his Victorian contemporaries Browning and Tennyson.  The essence of the distinction is in his preoccupation with the meaning of life, and by extension death and the loss of faith.  This spiritual decline that disturbed him so much, often called the maladie du siècle or the “sickness of the century”, had been treated more seriously on the continent, while in England Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley were grasping at Nature or the humanism of the Greeks for their spiritual anchor.  Arnold was a more melancholic, more skeptical poet, and doubted that the sickness could ever be cured, although he certainly loved the ancients (many of his early poems have classical subjects), and he also did look to nature for inspiration.  Even as a teen he presaged the Existentialists, and indeed much of the spirit of the twentieth century, in trying to devise a way to preserve our spirituality and sense of wonder while being brutally honest about our mortality and the fleeting nature of all human endeavor.  Matthew Arnold was a great poet not mainly because he was imaginative, spiritual, morally sensitive, and wonderstruck, nor on the other hand because he was freethinking, scholarly, and skeptical; he was great because he was somehow both of these sorts of people at once.  If his poetry could be said to have a single goal, it was to merge these two halves of his consciousness, the spiritual and the intellectual.

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The Song of Roland

(La Chanson de Roland)

anonymous (Turold?)

late 11th century

(The mightiest and noblest of Charlemagne’s crusading knights is betrayed, but his companions stand fiercely by him as the Saracens attack.)

BattleOfRoncevaux Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778). Sir Roland’s death. From a fourteenth century illuminated manuscript, that can be found at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (Library of the Arsenal), a department of the National Library of France.

The year is 778.  The brave knight Roland and his army, led by eleven of the noblest warriors in Christendom, watch in horror as an army five times larger than their own approaches through the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. Roland’s friend Oliver urges him to call for Charlemagne’s aid with his famed olifant horn.  Roland will not.  He will trust to God, to France, and to his sword Durendal.  He shouts a rallying speech to his men– this is their day to shine.  They banish fear and meet the Saracens. This is an anthem of a book—a mighty, direct, vibrant punch of a poem. It is simple, stylized, yet well balanced; powerful, but not without subtlety. It is short, as epics go– slim and to the point, forget the historical backgrounds and love stories.  This is the earliest surviving and the best of its genre—the “Songs of Deeds”, or Chansons de geste, of medieval French literature, of which there were hundreds. In style, in its portrayal of the values of chivalry, in its composition, and in its spirit it is the supreme knightly adventure poem.

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Njáls Saga

(Njála)

anonymous

1270-1290

(A sage in medieval Iceland attempts to restore order in the face of bloody vengeance and warrior’s honor)

GunnarBillDetail from Gunnar at Rangá, an illustration of an event in Njáls Saga by Andreas Bloch (1898).  This drawing originally appeared in Vore fædres liv: karakterer og skildringer fra sagatiden, or Our Fathers’ Life: Characters and Scenes from the Age of Saga, by Nordahl Rolfsen.

The mighty deeds of a free people in struggle are frequently represented in timeless literature—such stories will never go stale.  Whether tossed on the stormy Mediterranean, afoot in the forests and scrublands of India, or galloping through prairie grasses among stalwart buttes in the American West, there is something deeply inspiring about a small people forging a life in the face of privation, violence, and treachery.  We who live in the comfort of civilization can be tempted to think that a reasonably stable government and the rule of law are guaranteed, automatic, assumed.  Or, even if we endure corruption, are wary of the tyranny or selfishness of our leaders, or have suffered at the hands of criminals, we are among millions and are likely to see ourselves as puny actors on an immense stage—what can we possibly do?!  How fascinating, then, are the tales of those who managed to defend some fragile order amidst a storm of chaos—those whose survival was assured not by the actions of others, whether their venerated ancestors or soldiers on distant front lines, but by themselves:  by the wisdom of their own minds, the words that passed through their own lips, and the swords that hung from their own belts.  The Icelandic Sagas—the Íslendingasögur—are epic narratives of this very sort.  A man in the Age of Saga, so we are told, could cut his own destiny, no matter what coarse fabric sought to hem him in.  And a woman could make the best of things by controlling the men.  Anyone who wishes to see how this sort of lifestyle could play out can do no better than to read Njáls Saga (or, in the alternative title that is at once a spoiler, the Saga of Burnt Njál).  The professionals tend to consider this the greatest and most well-developed of the 40 or so Icelandic Sagas that were written in the 13th-14th centuries.  Whatever the critics say, here we certainly find hefty measures of all the most engaging ingredients in that genre: the bloody swinging of swords and thrusting of spears, the uncompromising defense of honor, the defiant challenge of the sea, the tenuous rise of God over the idols and of Law over bloody feuds, the disastrous fruits of pride and envy, the sly instigations of women, the mystic power of prophecy and fate, the iron duty of loyalty, and the deathgrip of revenge!

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The Romance of Tristan and Iseult

(Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut)

Joseph Bédier

1900

(A knight and a lady pursue their magical love through bloodshed and sorrow.)

JohnWilliamWaterhouse_TristanDetail from Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (1916), by John William Waterhouse. The philtre on the high seas cements their love for all time– a draught unto death.  This painting is in the private collection of Fred & Sherry Ross.  Read about this collection at the Art Renewal Center

When tales pass through centuries of retellings, they tend to become what of audio media we would call “overproduced”:  too many interpreters have slanted the story their various ways, too many embellishments and new episodes have been inserted, too many accommodations and updates have aimed at suiting the fancies of each audience.  In the process the story can lose some of its grip on our imagination and our romantic sensibilities.  It can be so cobbled and abused that we are left to distill the heart of it as best we can from a variety of sources.  The only way such a beautiful old tale could ever be told today in anything like its original form and spirit, would be for three literary virtues to unite:  a single author must be simultaneously an expert scholar, a great poet, and above all, modest.  Only a scholar will know the history of the work; will be able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in elements of theme, characterization, and plot; and will sufficiently understand an ancient teller’s perspective so as to effectively reproduce it.  And only a great poet will be able to convey this perspective, and the story itself, with convincing unity and supreme skill—for expectations of quality and beauty are very lofty when we pick up a beloved and popular story.  And finally, many a great poet and scholar will have great pride as well, in which case there will be too much of the writer and not enough of the legend in the text.  Granted, we love our authors’ egos when it is them we want to see; but if the aim is to represent something of the original (or at least old) character of a romance, an author must exercise admirable self-control. We can thank Joseph Bédier for being this author for the legend of Tristan & Iseult.

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