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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Songs and Sonets

John Donne

d. 1631

(An earthy, imaginative, thoughtful soul reveals his view of love, steeped in metaphor and emotion.)

WilliamDyce_FrancescaDaRimini_1845Crop of Francesca da Rimini with her lover Paoloby the Scottish painter William Dyce (1837).  This painting can be seen in the National Galleries of Scotland. Though not quite as scandalous as Paolo, who is here courting his brother’s wife, John Donne snuck around with his master’s daughter against his will, eventually marrying her.

 

Donne is a master of love poetry– some say the best of them all– because he combines rich experience with deep and varied thought.  The whole person is writing here, his intellect and his heart in a powerfully effective, if strained, cooperation.  He is at once philosophical and romantic, a learned dreamer, an impassioned thinker.  On one hand these poems are often acutely emotional and physical, full of sweat and tears. Love and death are often intimately associated, by virtue of heartbreak as well as the sheer weight of true love itself. But at the same time the poems are bursting with erudite imagination, especially loose analogy and illustration (“conceits”) from physical science, alchemy, astronomy, and ancient and medieval philosophical and theological ideas. Donne sees no problem in linking his love to events and bodies of astronomic or even divine proportions. He employs so many characteristic devices, has so many surprising and intriguing perspectives, that his poems can be enjoyed just for these, even if we knew nothing of love.  But of course, love is the main thing on his mind… really the only thing on his mind.  Everything else is playing a supporting role. For those who think of Donne as the Reverend Doctor, the dean, the spiritual teacher… you will see that person here mainly in his cleverness, his breadth of education, a few metaphors, and of course his deep affinity for things spiritual.  Otherwise, here our Donne is a much more earthy bloke– here he is Jack Donne, the lover.  Then again, perhaps there is more to the continuity. The man who is first fascinated by women and drama and then later by God and church, is a man of fierce and fervent heart, seeking a worthy object of devotion.

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Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

1973

(Little do a frustrated writer and a troubled car dealer realize, that their impolite author is using their journey to meet each other as an excuse to mastermind a deconstruction of modern values!)

RaboKarabekianTheTemptationOfSaintAnthonySort of The Temptation of St. Anthony, sort of by Rabo Karabekian, 1950. Sort of Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall paint and day-glo tape. 20 x 16 feet. This can sort of be seen in the Midland City Art Gallery, to which it was sort of sold by the artist for $50,000.

 

A Vonnegut novel grows on you… like an exquisite acquired taste… or else a nagging corn on the foot. All three experiences are underestimated at first, and with time a realization dawns that there is something here that cannot be ignored. Some deride Breakfast of Champions as one of his “lesser”, although more popular, novels. For my part, I think that here we have a wine that is initially very peculiar on the palate, and its apparent confusion will conceal the vibrant undertones if one is not careful to taste it slowly and carefully. Or else, here we have a blasted gadfly of a corn that starts insidiously in a part of the foot’s ball that is unlikely to feel it until the thing has incubated for a mighty long time, insinuating deeply into one’s tissues. And when finally noticed, ouch does that root go deep!

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One of Cleopatra’s Nights

(Une nuit de Cléopâtre)

Théophile Gautier

1838

(A young hunter is willing to die to be with queen Cleopatra for just one evening.)

AlexandreCabanel_CleopatraPoisonsSlavesAlexandre Cabanel’s 1887 painting, Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Those Condemned To Death (Cléopâtre essayant des poisons sur des condamnés à mort).  It can be seen at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), Antwerp.

 

Word for word, this little novella (three times the length of a typical short story at about 12,700 words) probably paints the most vibrant description of ancient Egypt in all of literature.  This is my favorite aspect of the work, though for others it might be the engaging romantic plot, or the typical though attractive take on the queen’s psychology.  It is a simple tale, but richly set and beautifully told.

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Apology of Socrates

(Απολογια  Σωκρατους)

Plato

4th century BC

(An innocent man delivers an inspiring speech to the court before he is executed.)

David_DeathOfSocratesJacques Louis David’s neoclassical masterpiece The Death of Socrates (1787), which can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

Socrates is a bit of a mystery, if you insist on being a real evidentiary hardliner.  He wrote nothing himself, so we have to rely on others’ characterizations of him.  Xenophon paints him as the conventional wise man of the day.  Aristophanes deems his philosophizing empty and ridiculous.  Plato’s conception, the fullest and most detailed, is of a man worthy of admiration, even awe, both for his intellect and his noble spirit.  Plato’s Socrates seeks truth despite fashion or convention; he is imaginative, reverent, humble, perceptive, eloquent, and sharp as a razor.  I’ll go with Plato, not just because his picture is most complimentary, but because Xenophon’s is simplistic (in fact it suggests that Xenophon—with all due respect—knew Socrates only casually, but wished to write as though he knew him well); and Aristophanes did nothing more than exploit a famous name, attaching it to a caricature for effect.  In fact there were many philosophers in Athens who were very much like those “Sophists” Aristophanes pillories in his play The Clouds.  Socrates was the most famous philosopher around at the time, and he certainly would have associated and debated with the general run of them.  His was probably a household name, to be thrown about as representative of the lot of lounging jabberers even though– to one who actually listened to him– he towered above the rest.

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“The Judgment”

(“Das Urteil”)

Franz Kafka

1912

(After treating a needy friend superficially for years, Georg finally pays the price.)

CharlesBridge_PaulCookCrop of Charles Bridge (2009), by Paul Cook.  Charles Bridge (Karlův most) lies over the Vitava River in Kafka’s hometown of Prague.

 

This is an existentialist horror tale about a man Georg who treats a distant friend superficially, then pays for this crime with his life.  The distant friend is sick, poor and unmarried.  Georg cannot think of what to say to him, so he writes only trivial things.  He offers no advice or heartfelt consolation.  He conceals his own prosperity and even (for a while) his own engagement.  His father, meanwhile, behind his back, has been revealing the truth about Georg to the friend, and has been lying in wait for Georg to raise the situation in conversation.  When Georg finally does broach the subject, his father condemns him as a betrayer of his friend and a selfish cold-hearted bum, and orders him to drown himself.  As elderly as the father is, he is stronger of will than his son, who feels himself urged out of the room and to a nearby bridge.  Georg flings himself to his death.

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Lyrical Ballads, and other early poems

William Wordsworth

1785-1799

(A poetic sage takes lessons on goodness and beauty from nature.)

WilliamHavellTinternAbbeyCrop of Tintern Abbey (1804), by William Havell.  Hikers laze above the abbey in the Wye Valley, just as Wordsworth did with his sister before composing his most famous poem.  This painting is at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.

 

A man of wisdom, a poet of nature, is Wordsworth.  These are the goals to which he aspires, goals that are discernable in his work from a very early age.  He wrote many of his greatest poems in the years covered here, before he reached 30.  Wisdom, or more specifically a yearning for and contemplation of goodness and beauty, suffuses his poetry.  Thus he is keen to deliver moral advice, and almost seems to teach or prophesy rather than reflect.  But it is the deepest and most profitable kind of reflection, I can almost hear him replying, whose results teach the reflector something.  And since he insists in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads that he writes each poem with a purpose, and with the intent of delivering objective truths rather than ideas that one may take or leave as a matter of preference, we must prepare for a slight didactic or pedagogical flavor now and then.  For Wordsworth, though firmly against elitism in poetry, is aware of his own wisdom, and is driven to share it with others.  The topics range from attitudes towards people (as in “Matthew”), to attitudes towards nature (as in “Lines Written in Early Spring”), to a straightforward exhortation to be good (as in “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”).  He imparts his values on social matters as well, regarding for instance the evil of slavery (at the end of “Descriptive Sketches”), the necessity of legislated charity (at the beginning of “The Old Cumberland Beggar”), and thoughts on education (e.g. “Expostulation and Reply”).

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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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