24 September, 2009

Some views of Venice

In front of San Marco


Gondolas: available for rent at the low, low rate of 60 euro a half hour!

One of innumerable bridges over canals


Marino, the glass-blowers' island

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19 September, 2009

Picasa 3

I've just downloaded Picasa 3 from google, and I'm quite fond of it. It enables all the editorial functions of Photoshop that I actually used, and allows me to upload pictures to this blog very easily. So there'll probably be occasional posts of Rome pictures whenever I begin to feel particularly nostalgic or have nothing better to say. Because now (unlike when I was actually in Rome, and my family couldn't see my pictures) there's no inconvenience to uploading them at all.

The Eternal City




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Rome campus



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18 September, 2009

Henry V, Act III

Two words: Am Civ. A good UDer will catch my reference. This speech fairly well captures my outlook just now... and this is a crucial part of any English-speaker's education.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

Just a thought...

I've noticed: it's not unusual for people to become offended and to rapidly lose all respect for a critic if this critic dares to cross the fence that's been raised between religion and academics in almost every sphere outside UD (and why should a fence be there at all when both have the aim of pursuing truth?). A reading of a poem or novel that finds a significance that resonates to any degree with Christianity is automatically assumed (not even so much by academia as by amateurs who have a blatantly liberal education and an unfortunately close-minded reaction when exposed to anything smacking of tradition) to be that of an ignorant pietist, determined to find validation for his or her faith in the works of every writer of note.

So avoid speaking of imagery of redemption, redemptive suffering, fulfillment in the transcendental. Such subjects are too close to the danger zone. Anthropologists and scholars of religious phenomena would likely have no objection to a person finding such references in the smallest minutiae of cultural production (though these scholars tend to have a rather different explanation for the existence of such ideas than I might, tending in the tradition of their discipline to put the cart before the horse and assuming that the ideas exist because of the ritual, not the rituals because the ideas are true). But to the reactionary, the findings are offensive and untrue because all-too familiar.

Why indeed should we "make everything Christian"? Why be so close-minded as to claim all good art as progeny of our own religion? I answer: we don't have to contort every text to fit within the narrow lens of an archaic and domineering religion. The lens isn't at all narrow! A true work of art, I think everyone will admit without too many qualifications will address some aspect of truth. And certainly it is qualified to address and wrestle with the most fundamental desires of man. However original one may wish to be in defining these fundamental desires, the fact remains that many artists see among them the desires to be forgiven, absolved of guilt, and to find meaning in something outside oneself. Yet when one finds these in art, many are offended because recognizing this desire recognizes an implicit desire for Christianity. For the fulfillment of these desires - in a totally unexpected way - is precisely what Christianity offers.

14 September, 2009

El Desdichado translation

Here's the promised translation of El Desdichado, done verse by verse. I'm only giving it a literal translation for the purposes of analysis; I have neither the time nor the skill to translate it poetically.

Note that this poem is in the classic form of the French sonnet, which differs slightly in arrangement from both the Petrarchan and the English sonnets. Ideally, there are two initial verses of four lines each (octet) and then two verses of three lines each (sestet). And of course, there's a fairly regular rhyme scheme, just as in the classical English sonnet. Alternate ABAB rhymes in the two parts of the octet, and the sestet's pattern is: CDD CEE.

Je suis le Ténébreux, – le Veuf, – l’Inconsolé,
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie :
Ma seule Étoile est morte, – et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

"I am the man of shadows, - the widower, - the unconsoled,
The Prince of Aquitaine of the ruined Tower:
My only Star is dead, - and my starry lute
Carries the black Sun of Melancholy."

The "Prince of Aquitaine" is not a random image (no image is in this poem); it refers to Godfried d'Aquitaine, a medieval lord famous for his misfortunes, who came from the same provence Nerval came from. The connection is not crucial to understanding the poem, but it does at least give you an idea of why he uses that image in particular to emphasize his desolation. And why is he desolate, why a widower and unconsoled? His "only star is dead" - so there's been a death of some sort, figurative or literal, a loss of someone who would, perhaps, have consoled him. Now his "starry lute" - a musical instrument equipped to bring light to the darkness (and, as Nerval makes explicit by the end of the poem, a reference to Orpheus) brings only the "black sun of melancholy", "black sun" being a technical term from alchemy to describe a powerful "negative light" (though the idea is quite absurd) that is not merely the absence of light, but its inverse. The imagery as a whole in this stanza is quite easy to follow all in all, giving us a picture of a sort of "dark night of the soul" or of a descent into a realm of overwhelming darkness.

Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon cœur désolé,
Et la treille où le Pampre à la Rose s’allie.

"In the night of the Tomb, You who consoled me,
Give me back Posilipo and the Italian sea,
The flower which pleased my desolate heart,
And the trellis where the Vine and the Rome are united."

Posilipo and the Italian sea are partly autobiographical references to a summer he spent with an Englishwoman in a town near Naples. Yet like the Prince of Aquitaine imagery, the self-referential aspect of this line is really not the main point. There is, of course, the larger image (almost cliched in Nerval's time as well as ours) of the warm, brilliant south as another world in which consolation was possible. The syntactical confusion in the first line of this stanza - "Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé" - forces us to wonder whether the speaker is referring to himself as metaphorically dead, or to the one who consoled him as literally dead. Or perhaps both, the former as a result of the latter? And we also get a confirmation here of what the phrase "the unconsoled" (as opposed to "the unconsolable" or something tantamount) made us suspect in the first stanza: there was once someone who had consoled him, and she is now gone, just as the comfort of the time in Italy, of the lost flower are gone. He longs for a return of the trellis which made possible the union of two different yet complementary beings - the vine and the rose.

Suis-je Amour ou Phébus ?... Lusignan ou Biron ?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ;
J’ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène...

"Am I Cupid or Phebus? ...Lusignan or Biron?
My forehead is still red from the kiss of the Queen;
I have dreamed in the Grotto where the mermaids sing..."

Now comes the turn in the poem from the speaker's lamentation of his loss to his meditation on how to respond to it and on his role as a poet. Not how the opening of the sestet reverses the declarative "je suis" at the beginning of the octet to the questioning "suis-je?". The references to mythology and folktale only hinted at in the previous eight lines now become explicit, as he explores characters from both Greek mythology and French legend as possible analogues to himself. Is he Cupid, the god of passion and eros or Phoebus, god of the sun, of rationality, of light? Is he Lusignan, husband of the fairy Melusine, or Biron, a French hero whose name also recalls the English poet? The tension between the enchantment of eros and the appeal of rationality and love of higher order is reemphazied in the two following lines, where the "kiss of the queen" merges with his dream of a mysterious grotto filled with mermaids. It's also important to remember that both Cupid and Lusignan lost their loves because of a transgression - Cupid because his wife, Psyche, looked at his face against his command, and Lusignan because he saw his wife bathing and thus discovered that she was really a mermaid. Apollo and Biron, on the other hand, are the pursuers of light, yet have no record of seeing what must not be seen; and as poets, they have the ability to do exactly what Nerval is trying to do in this verse: recall a joyful time that has now disappeared from physical sight.

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron :
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

"I have twice crossed the Acheron, victorious:
Modulating by turns on Orpheus' lyre
The sighs of the Saint and the calls of the Fairy."

Now we get the explicit connection to Orpheus, the lute/lyre player, who crossed the Acheron in an attempt to retrieve his wife from Hades but who on the victorious return lost her once more, and decisively this time. As he goes, the melody of the lyre, mirroring the flow of the poem, "modulates" between the "sighs of the Saint" and the "cries of the Fairy": contrasting the dark night of the soul described in the octet with the alluring calls of myth (sestet) which may or may not turn out to be consoling.

It's easy to see what aspects of the Orpheus story Nerval wants to emphasize after having seen the contrast between the mythological figures of the previous tercet. He's fascinated by the way the poet seemingly has the ability to evoke his lost love (or whatever he's describing) in a manner so real as to make it almost present once more. Yet there's always the danger that as a human, under the influence of eros and other no less strong desires (curiosity and lack of trust in particular), he will "look back" against the command of the form, and realize that in seeking to ensure the presence of his loved one, he will seal his loss. You cannot be conscious of the fiction of the poem if it is to really make present what you are hoping to regain.

12 September, 2009

Frost's "After Apple-Picking"

I really liked Robert Frost's poem "After Apple-Picking" when I first read it this morning; I usually like Frost, just because the tone of his poems resonate so strongly with me. But I wasn't quite sure how to understand it, and when you really like a poem, you generally want to know why. So just as an experiment, I adopted Helen Vendler's tactic from her chapter on "Exploring a Poem" and started following through the poem bit by bit to get a real sense of what's going on. It's quite an exhaustive process that she sets up. I only actually went through seven of the thirteen steps she outlines, partly because I address aspects of the later categories (language, tone, etc) in these paragraphs, and also partly because I think that by the time I got to seven I had come out with a really satisfactory reading, and the rest of the steps were easier, mechanical ones anyway. Plus, it took a lot of work even to get this far! (And I do have real work to do.) I definitely recommend the method. I was quite skeptical of how well it would work on my first reading of Vendler, thinking I would need to be much more well-versed in poetics than I am to make use of her directives, but it didn't turn out so badly. It's not a perfectly polished reading, but it's nice to have a general directionality in a reading nonetheless.

The Poem:

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

1. Meaning:

The speaker is just finishing up picking apples. He perhaps hasn’t gotten every one of them, but he is tired and ready to finish by now. His vision has been rather strange ever since he looked through a pane of ice from the water trough (presumably in the morning, and he says that at that point his sleep was already coming on. He knows what his dreams will be like. He can still feel the pressure of the ladder on the soles of his feet. Now he hears still the apples tumbling into storage bins and announces that he’s already tired of the harvest he had so earnestly desired. It’s been too painstaking to carefully pick each apple, and each one that fell had to go to the cider pile, as though it were worthless. He says he knows what will “trouble” his sleep and wonders whether he will sleep like the woodchuck, waking in the spring, or whether he’ll just sleep an ordinary human sleep.

2. Antecedent Scenario:

The speaker has been apple picking, and has been at it for a long time, hoping for a huge harvest.

3. Division into Structural Parts:

There are two halves of the poem, and each opens with a description of some aspect of the experience of apple-picking and ends with a speculation about what his sleep will be like. There are rhymes, but these don’t seem to form a definite pattern, so I can’t see a way to break it up based on those. There also is the structural division of the sentences: 9 in the first half and 7 in the second.

4. The Climax:

I’m not sure, but there seems to be a climax in each of the two parts. In the first there’s the moment where he lets the ice fall and break, and unexpectedly abrupt, one might almost say violent, act in the midst of what had seemed a reflective and calm poem. Moreover you here get the very strange information that he was already dozing off to sleep before it fell – there is a temporal uncertainty introduced into the poem here that was not evident before. How could he be “well /upon my way to sleep before it fell” – a disjoint between the act of letting it fall and the (usually slow) process of falling asleep? And why would he be falling asleep in the morning? Also the glass is the very thing that has made strange his sight; his breaking it almost seems an attempt to break the spell that has been cast on him, yet an unsuccessful one as he “cannot rub the strangeness from [his] sight” and the vision gives him an impression of what his dreams will be like.
The second climax comes, I think, at the point when he announces that he is “overtired/of the great harvest I myself desired” . This also is a piece of information that we had not necessarily expected. True, he had already announced that he is “done with apple-picking now”, but the realization that he has been driven not so much by necessity, as we might expect for a New England farmer harvesting his crops, as by his own desire. Or perhaps we can conflate the need and the desire, yet the latter aspect is the one he chooses here to emphasize. This gives a new tone to the succeeding lines, and greatly influences subsequent readings of the whole. Why did he desire such a great harvest of “load on load of apples”? The following lines take this revelation and explain it: he had to handle “ten thousand thousand fruit” and this is the reason for his exhaustion; he returns to the theme of sleep and dreams, and we realize in context of the climax, that there is another sort of dream at play in the poem than just the dreams of sleep: also present is the unexplained and mysteriously wearying dream of attaining a superabundant harvest.

5. The Other Parts:

Each half of the poem begins in the present tense, switches to the past tense in the middle to describe an actual experience, and then returns to present tense. In each case, the first present tense part describes a current situation: the apple-orchard after he has left it, plus his readiness to be finished, and his continued sensory impression from the hours of apple-picking plus his sense of having had too much of it. The first past tense segment is introduced by a present tense sentence explaining that there’s something else strange going on here and attributes it to an action performed in the morning – the looking “through the looking glass” which commenced the confusion of temporal linearity which will proceed throughout the poem. The past tense segment of the second half recounts the exhausting experience of handling tens of thousands of apples and the concurrent disappointment that would be felt whenever his painstaking care would fail, and one would drop to the ground, fit now only for cider (that’s a bad thing?). And in each return to the present tense for each ending of a half, the speaker has moved to speculation about the quality and content of his dreams (and we see also, then, that though these two parts remain in the present tense literally, there is a sense in which they point to the future, raising the question of whether (first half) the sensory impressions of the experience will persist in his dreams, and whether (second half) the his sleep might not be the unconscious sleep of the woodchuck or “just some human sleep”.

6. Find the Skeleton:

The emotional curve of the poem progresses from a calm almost lullaby-like opening –he is ready to be finished with what he has finished well—to a realization of the strangeness of his morning vision, to a sense of less-than peaceful exhaustion, to a perturbed pondering of just what the quality of his sleep will be. One realizes in retrospect that perhaps he does have something to worry about: yes, he seemed satisfied at the opening of the poem with a job well done…but was it quite well-done? He mentions the “Apples I didn't pick upon some bough”, and the memory of the abandoned ladder still pointing heavenwards seems more discomfiting in the context of his later dissatisfaction with the product of his work. The spell cast upon him by the ice-plate’s vision, a spell which sends him into a dream-like reverie about the content of his dreams to come, seems as though it could have been informing him of something that was not quite right in his work, revealing what had been left unfinished yet possibly should have been completed. The trance-like state he enters causes him to see once more the apples still ripe upon the branches, waiting to be picked, and yet to re-experience the ache of the work and the monotony of barrel after barrel being stored in the cellar. There were “ten thousand thousand” fruit to not just pick but to “cherish”. Yet he has not picked and cherished all of these: some he picked and dropped (yet at least something can still be made of these), and some he simply left. The constant demand for attention that such a project made exhausted him, but despite this excuse he is left worrying that perhaps his dreams in sleep will be not quite what he might otherwise have expected. I can’t help recalling Hamlet here:
“To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.”

7. Games the Poet Plays with the Skeleton:

So up to now I’ve been developing this picture of the poem being an arc of realization on the speaker’s part that what he had thought he had done well was perhaps not so conscientiously performed and that he may not be able to rest in peace. But there are some small points here which leave us a lot of room to sophisticate the thesis, so to speak. For one thing, what’s going on with the woodchuck imagery at the end? There are (no surprise) multiple ways of interpreting that juxtaposition of the woodchuck’s sleep and human sleep. My default at the end of step 5 was to gloss it as a contrast between the unconscious slumber of an animal and the dream-filled sleep of humans (not that animals don’t dream; they just don’t experience them in the way we do) which can preserve the sensory impressions of the waking hours beyond the moment of falling asleep. But the dismissive tone of “just some human sleep” demands an explanation. I suspect that “just” is there to do a little more than to simply express the poet’s familiarity with human sleep as compared to that of an animal, although I’m sure that’s some minor part of it (or at least it works as a minor part of it). If we recall that the woodchuck is not just any old animal but specifically one which hibernates throughout the winter and is “resurrected” in the spring, a whole new dimension is added to this imagery. The poet is placing before him, perhaps, the alternative of dream-filled sleep in which:
“Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.”--
not the most pleasant of dreams, but rather a repetition of all the exhausting sensory experience that the speaker’s ambition for a great harvest caused him to subject himself to, but that he failed to resolve by truly finishing his grand project. Or there is the sleep of the woodchuck which promises a return to life at a time of new spring; reinvigoration and renewal.

Of course, we also have the whole Eden imagery running through the poem. I know very little about Frost or his poetry as a whole, but one thing I am familiar with is his constant recurrence to the theme of Eden (“Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a prime example of this). And what else can anyone who has even the barest minimum of a foundation in Western thought call to mind when we get a juxtaposition of images of apple-picking, transgression, doubt, and possible death? It’s slightly more confusing imagery than one might imagine at first. Why is his transgression apparently failing to pick the apples? Isn’t that a bit backwards? I’m not sure how much of a theologian Frost was, but coming at the poem from an orthodox Catholic perspective (I’m not claiming he was that—I have no idea) I would see his need to pick the apples as a sort of duty to work in a fallen world. If it weren’t for that original apple (or fruit, actually, because we all know Genesis never calls it an apple), the aches and pains of his work would not be there. In an Edenic state, his work would be easily completed with all the necessary care, and no fruit of his labor would be lost: he could easily achieve the “great harvest I myself desired”. But as things stand, it’s all too easy to drop the fruit, to not “cherish” it carefully enough. Now something good (cider) can come even from those failures, though it’s going to require even more work. The only apples that are irretrievably lost are those never retrieved. It is better to work and fail (because isn’t that inevitable, given the frailty of the picker and how quickly he tires? At least something can be salvaged from this) than to fail to work.

Of course, there’s not only religious (or perhaps not so much explicitly religious as Christian metaphysical) imagery entering into this poem. The pane of ice through which the speaker perceives his failure brings to mind another interpretation of the poem—not a contradictory one, but a complementary one. For what is an artist doing but looking “through a glass darkly” and using his imperfect powers of perception to bring about a clearer perception of reality? Though his sight may be obscured by the strangeness of the vision and by its imperfection, there is a reality beyond it that his vision enables him to strive towards an ever-clearer view of. The speaker lets the glass soon fall to the ground and break, but whether he was hoping to avoid this task as well (or perhaps the unpicked apples have been all along a metaphor for a lack of attention to such things) and to slip back into the rest he longs for, the moment of sight has struck his consciousness so that he can no longer see things the same way, but must from this point onwards be acutely conscious of the nature of his failure and teleologically oriented to ponder the nature of the broader truth behind and awaiting all that has happened.

11 September, 2009

El Desdichado - Gerard de Nerval

Je suis le Ténébreux, – le Veuf, – l’Inconsolé,
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie :
Ma seule Étoile est morte, – et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon cœur désolé,
Et la treille où le Pampre à la Rose s’allie.

Suis-je Amour ou Phébus ?... Lusignan ou Biron ?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ;
J’ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène...

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron :
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

This poem is jolly awesome. I had a two hour conversation with Dr. Dupree just about this this afternoon. It's very hard to understand at first, but that's because it's almost Symbolist in its use of imagery that stands as its own explanation rather than being explained directly (as the lesser Romantics were wont to explain their imagery, or I suppose as the much more admirable Metaphysicals would use an extended simile that had nonetheless a clear object). And if you don't speak French as a native in the first place, and are thus relatively unfamiliar with French folklore or the nuances/connotations of words, it's particularly hard, because missing the full meaning of a single image causes your interpretation of the rest of the images to be very unsatisfactory and incomplete, so inter-dependent are they all.

It's quite late right now, and I have Junior poet stuff to think about as well as French symbolists, so I'll provide a translation and explication tomorrow. I'm quite bursting with excitement to do this, actually, because this poem is so marvelous, and practically no English speakers know about it.

L'Art - Gautier

A very good example of how Gautier wrote, and a nice expression of his philosophy about writing. Note the syllabic evenness of his lines, the regularity of rhyme, and the careful word choice:

Oui, l'oeuvre sort plus belle
D'une forme au travail
Vers, marbre, onyx, émail.

Point de contraintes fausses!
Mais que pour marcher droit
Tu chausses,
Muse, un cothurne étroit.

Fi du rhythme commode,
Comme un soulier trop grand,
Du mode
Que tout pied quitte et prend!

Statuaire, repousse
L'argile que pétrit
Le pouce
Quand flotte ailleurs l'esprit.

Lutte avec le carrare,
Avec le paros dur
Et rare,
Gardiens du contour pur,

Emprunte à Syracuse
Son bronze où fermement
Le trait fier et charmant;

D'une main délicate
Poursuis dans un filon
Le profil d'Apollon.

Peintre, fuis l'aquarelle,
Et fixe la couleur
Trop frêle
Au four de l'émailleur.

Fais les sirènes bleues,
Tordant de cent façons
Leurs queues,
Les monstres des blasons;

Dans son nimbe trilobe
La Vierge et son Jésus,
Le globe
Avec la croix dessus.

Tout passe. -- L'art robuste
Seul a l'éternité,
Le buste
Survit à la cité,

Et la médaille austère
Que trouve un laboureur
Sous terre
Révèle un empereur.

Les dieux eux-mêmes meurent,
Mais les vers souverains
Plus fort que les airains.

Sculpte, lime, cisèle;
Que ton rêve flottant
Se scelle
Dans le bloc résistant!


So Théophile Gautier. The first poet I'm studying in my French symbolists class. He's definitely not a Symbolist himself, being more of a late Romantic than anything. Yet he rejected the loose, undisciplined verse-style of the Romantics and developed a classical form more rigid than even Classicism had demanded. He had a heavy influence on the Symbolists insofar as he relied heavily upon images to transmit an experience, and cultivated what for many early moderns would become the highest poetic virtues: detachment and clear statement (and of course, in that evaluation we see a decided return to elements of the Classical aesthetic as well).

He's most well-known as a precursor to the Parnassians, whose high opinion of themselves can be seen in their group's appelation, which is obviously meant to remind us poor mortals (at that time so woefully in the clutches of romanticism)that they, the true poets, drink at the fonts of inspiration on Mount Parnassus itself, ethereal home of the Muses and source of many poetic marvels. Anyway, they were quite enamored of his doctrine of "L'Art pour l'art" - Art for Art's Sake, a doctrine whose primary thrust was to reject any sense of purpose - such as social commentary, cultural criticism, portrayal of abstract or transcendent truth - in art, saying that for art to be truly pure it must be free from such "ulterior motives". They also cultivated Gautier's example of exact and faultless workmanship as an answer to the excessive sentimentality of Romanticism.

Now the Symbolists rejected the Parnassians' clarity and objectivity as overly realistic (in the sense of being in the style of Realism or Naturalism); they had the notion, rather akin to Keat's concept of negative capability, that art should strive to portray absolute truths which cannot be accessed directly or exhausted by direct and clear imagery. They did, however, love the musicality of Parnassian verse, a quality which Gautier's example had helped the latter to achieve; and they admired his doctrine of "L'Art pour l'art" and his mood of ironic detachment.

That suffices as a basic description, though I'm going to post a poem, for those who can read it, which is a good example of what I mean, and much more revealing than a prose listing of qualities. Analysis may follow in a later post, though I don't promise it, and if it happens, will most likely happen in French anyway, so it won't be much use.

10 September, 2009

Keats on Negative Capability

“. . . [S]everal things dovetailed in my mind, and at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare posessed [sic] so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium [i.e., the vestibule or in-between space] of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”
(Italics mine)

08 September, 2009

The Fall Semester, Anno Domini 2009

My classes for this semester:

  • The famous Junior Poet, probably the class most defining UD-ness both by its widespread reputation and its consummate awesomeness (and yes, the word choice there is deliberately mixed in tone)
  • Medieval Lit, a requirement for English majors
  • Russian Novel, a very interesting class led by two of the pillars of UD academia, Dr. Dupree and Dr. Cowan, son of Louise Cowan, and heir to some of the founders of the university
  • French Literary Traditions I; this is after taking Lit Trad III last fall semester
  • Elementary Russian I, taught by the Physics professor, who is fluent and makes up for our tragic lack of a Russian department in this Cold War-minded/capable of recognizing what de Tocqueville and similarly perspicacious men have always seen, ie that Russia and America share essential, and almost surreal similarities in a historical sense while differing wildly in culture school. (How's that for a tangled sentence? Basically I mean: UD should have a Russian department.)
  • and finally, a special reading course in French Symbolist poetry

I'm most excited about that last one, in some ways, because I wasn't sure that I'd be able to do something like this until the very first day of class. Basically I went to the head of the French department (who is going on sabbatical this semester), told him that there was no way that I'd be able to get a French major with the extraordinarily limited (understandably so, since practically no one here studies what is arguably the foremost literary language besides English in the world as far as English speakers are concerned) number of course offerings in the language each semester. I mentioned the fact that T.S. Eliot is my poet for J-Po, and explained my corresponding interest in the Symbolist movement that so heavily influenced him. Then I stated my proposition for this semester: instead of taking a fascinating yet largely impractical class in Elementary Hebrew, couldn't a study the French symbolists under the guidance of one of the teachers? And surprisingly, the answer was an enthusiastic "yes"! So now I basically have the privilege of being able to spend all the free time which I am not devoting to T.S. Eliot reading about and interpreting the (very arcane) works of poets such as Laforgue, Verlaine, Corbiere, and the not-quite-symbolists-but-connected Gautier and Baudelaire. And to cap it all off, I get to randomly go and have long conversations with the magnificently erudite Dr. Dupree (who does everything from tech trouble shooting in every department, to translating volumes of French poetry, to teaching classes in Old English) about anything he finds remotely pertinent. What could be a better way to get in an eighteenth credit?

04 September, 2009

T.S. Eliot's Dramatic Lyric

The quality of T.S. Eliot’s lyric strikes me as essentially dramatic, which is a rather strange characteristic for lyric poetry, a genre that – according to many literary critics – is notable for its lack of what we think of as drama. (Sharon Cameron: “Unlike the drama, whose province is conflict, and unlike the novel or narrative, which connects isolated moments of time to create a story multiply peopled and framed by a social context, the lyric voice is solitary and generally speaks out of a single moment in time”) You can have conflict in ordinary lyric, certainly, but not necessarily in the sense of a multiplication of persons in mutual conflict; yet this is precisely what you could argue that Eliot is doing in, say La Figlia Che Piange, and certainly in The Waste Land.

There is certainly continual conflict deriving from the uncertainty, ambiguity, and thematic tension of each poem. Furthermore, the strong rhythmic thrust to all his verse (a rhythm that is not regular but rather that follows the natural rhythms of speech, correspondingly changing its force when the emotion of the utterance changes) enhances this dramatic quality, giving it a real-world feel and also increasing the dramatic tension and sense of conflict.

But one of the most striking aspects of this dramatic quality (in the world of lyric poetry at least) is the multiplicity of voices in poems such as The Waste Land. Note in the Wasteland alone the variety of voices which make themselves heard: Tiresias, Mr. Eugenides, the Cockney, Marie, and so on. And as in traditional theater, it's in these conflicting voices that the conflict of the poem is expressed. Are these voices merely diffractions of Eliot's own narrative voice, expressing by their very existence his own internal conflict? Or are they meant to be heard as the voices of conflicting forces in society?

In Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot asserts the poet's need to sacrifice his own personality to the "collective consciousness" of his culture/tradition. Maybe for Eliot his poetic voice and his personal preoccupations can be conflated with the conflicts and contradictions of his own society: in voicing them as a single author, yet with many voices, he is perhaps reemphasizing that any society is essentially unified into one cultural entity. Yet the "collective consciousness" of one as divorced from its roots as he considered his own society is necessarily fragmented. Indeed, for Eliot, modern society is suffering not merely from a fragmentation of its thought, but from a fundamental schizophrenia rooted in the successful deterioration of a unified, objective sense of identity. Modernism's success in stranding modern culture without a tradition in which to find its meaning has created a void in the face of which individuals can either despair or desperately attempt to create their own meaning and identity.

Lack of cultural unity due to abandonment of tradition is precisely what Eliot is reflecting in his "cubist" method (of The Waste Land )of stranding cultural references as individual images that do not so much have a coherent meaning when juxtaposed as they provoke an emotional response of disgust with the emptiness of modern society (one cannot perhaps, even term it modern "culture") and elicit a desire for the type of meaning that a sound tradition (literary, philosophical, and -in Eliot's later poetry especially - religious) could provide. This is at least part of the explanation for the sense of alienation (again, often to the point of schizophrenia) of much of the rest of his poetry, though in most it is not as dramatically and jarringly expressed as in The Waste Land.

This sense persists in his post-conversion poetry, yet one does not get the sense that the alienation is so personal for Eliot any longer. In his adoption of the European and the Catholic traditions, he has a place, an identity, a more or less comprehensible role in time. The lack of cultural unity/identity manifests itself now as a societal malaise which the world around him suffers, but to which he now possesses the answers.