Friday, April 10, 2015
revisiting old friends
I remember back in the 1990s when I tumbled into love, doubly, with Ryan and with antiquarian books. We started hunting for old books together, when we weren't working at our regular jobs. I had the author-knowledge, from obsessive reading and from working in a library and then a bookstore, and he had the spooky sixth sense, so we were (and remain) a good team. I would take my time going through every book on a table at a booksale, or along every shelf in a thrift shop, and he would case the whole place quickly and walk up to me with the one truly great book in the room. This happened again and again, for years. Not that I didn't find great things too, but I was the thorough plodding one while he had the quicksilver flashes of genius. This still happens from time to time today, but without the frequency it once did, since we no longer ransack the state for books the way we needed to when I had my shop, and (I have to say it) before the internet wrecking ball swooped in and changed the book business in so many essential ways.
All that is on my mind simply because it's a rainy spring day and I am thinking fondly back to the book sales of the past, the ones where, at this time of year, we would be in line early on Saturday mornings in the chill and drizzle of April, standing and shivering and chatting with the other local booksellers, waiting for the privilege of paying a fee to be allowed into the book sale early, so we could put our picking skills to work. A dollar a book, most often, and at a good sale I'd buy five or ten cartons. Ryan and I were double trouble. It was a great time in our lives and I'll never forget it.
Book sales and finds of the past are also on my mind because I've been revisiting some old bookish friends. In the meandering way of my reading, one book leads to another and then to another, ad infinitum. After putting away all my classics until next winter, when I might return to them, I wanted to continue reading in a post-Rose Macaulay kind of way (instead of reading the classics, reading about people who read the classics). I scanned my shelves of British memoirs and stopped when I came to David Cecil. I had several books by him and one about him, and read three in a row. First, an anthology: David Cecil: A Portrait by His Friends (Dovecote Press 1990), then Some Dorset Country Houses: A Personal Selection by David Cecil (his last book, Dovecote Press 1985), with photographs by David Burnett, and finally Two Quiet Lives by David Cecil (Bobbs-Merrill 1948), which contains two biographies, the first of seventeenth-century letter-writer Dorothy Osborne and the second of eighteenth-century poet Thomas Gray. I could write much about these delightful books, but I really only bring them up to reiterate how, for me, one book leads to the next. Because Cecil's highly sympathetic portrait of Thomas Gray led me back to some old friends, those authors I first came to love when I began to hunt for and buy secondhand books in the 1990s. To start with, Gray is famous for his poetry and also for being the particular friend of Horace Walpole, the eighteenth-century dilettante, author, publisher, collector, architect, busybody, socialite. And last but not least, letter-writer.
O the letters of Horace Walpole. My holy grail of books used to be - I no longer yearn for it but I wouldn't pass up an inexpensive set if I ever came across such a thing - The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence. Published by Yale University Press from 1937 through 1983, in massive lovely volumes, 48 of them all told, the last five being the index. The research library at the University of Maine has the set, and in the 1990s when I worked nearby I would go to the stacks and visit it from time to time, and take individual volumes out just to have them in hand, although I don't remember if I ever actually read them. The man behind the making of this giant set was the bibliophile Wilmarth "Lefty" Lewis, and after reading about Gray I revisited my stash of Lefty books. His memoir Collector's Progress (Knopf 1951) is one of the best books-about-books ever written. I thought so when I first read it in the 1990s, and I read it again last weekend and still think so. Lefty was an obsessed collector with the means to form a world-class collection, and so he did. Of all things Horace Walpole. Thousands of original letters to and from Walpole, books by Walpole, books from Walpole's well-catalogued library, books from his private press at Strawberry Hill, manuscripts, and artefacts. He spent his life in pursuit of Walpoliana, hand in hand with some of the greatest bookmen of the time, and while collecting it also wrote about it and funded publication about it. He and his wife Annie Burr Lewis left the collection to Yale when they died, and it remains where they housed it, in Farmington, Connecticut, at what is now the Lewis Walpole Library. It is on my bucket list to visit someday, but for now, in the modern way of things, I can peek at their doings on facebook instead.
After finishing Collector's Progress I started right in on one of Lefty's earliest forays into print, A Selection of the Letters of Horace Walpole, edited by him, in two volumes (Harper 1926). More delightful reading. About which I will return to David Cecil for a moment to mention what he says, regarding the reading of eighteenth-century literature and why we do it (from Two Quiet Lives pp. 108-109):
"...England had settled down to an epoch of prosperous stability in which, undisturbed alike by bloodshed or by spiritual yearnings, those, who liked, had been able to concentrate on the development of the private life and the cultivation of its modes of expression. Through the course of their long leisurely lifetimes, some people did little else but talk, write letters, pay visits, and keep journals. They learnt to do it with a fullness and elaborate perfection unsurpassed in history. The private papers of Gray and his friends compose a small library in themselves. All are accomplished, and some - Gray's own letters and those written to him by Horace Walpole - are glittering masterpieces.... We listen, charmed, to the well-bred voices flowing on in never-ending delightful discourse, now serious, now sparkling, glancing from gossip to antiquities, from literature to the political news; but never stiff, never at a loss, never boring. And then, when we shut the book, it strikes us that there is a great deal about these people we have not been allowed to know."
We do get tantalizing glimpses, though, and these keep us reading into the night. At least around here. Is anyone else reading Horace Walpole...? I wonder. Again from David Cecil (ibid p.123):
"Horace Walpole is not exactly lovable. But he is wonderful."
Book collecting for me in the 1990s was all about the eighteenth century, for the very reasons Cecil states, alongside my personal and intuitive inclinations as well, and I still have many of the books we found and bought back then. I'm glad to know that they still entice me. This bodes well for the future, and, god willing, old age. I will close for now with an apologia, since my blog posts seem to be much fewer and much longer, of late. I just can't seem to write more frequently (painting! life! everything!), and by the time I do the books have piled up mightily. So, I'm sorry for all this text, with no pictures even, to break it up a bit! Well, I hope we still love lots of text. I know I do. My old friends, in books, are nothing but. And yet, they still talk, and live, and so I hope we'll continue our visits together for years to come, both on the page and here. Thanks for reading, friends.
Monday, March 30, 2015
literary jumble sale
A brief section of James Schuyler's long poem The Crystal Lithium surfaces in my mind this time of year (from his Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus, Giroux 1993, p.117):
"...January, laid out on a bed of ice, disgorging
February, shaped like a flounder, and March with her steel bead pocketbook,
And April, goofy and under-dressed and with a loud laugh, and May
Who will of course be voted Miss Best Liked (she expects it)..."
The whole poem is here if anyone wishes to wade through its often beautiful and usually opaque imagery. Poetry. I return to it again and again, both the reading of it and the writing of it. Like all art forms it communicates directly and obliquely at the same time, and echoes around the room and inside the heart long after it is read or written. Some of the scraps of ancient poetry I read over the winter continue to haunt me, but as the snow slowly melts I find myself turning away from the classical, away from this winter's reading project, leaving a collection of Pindar unread, and most of Petrarch. And all of Herodotus. In the past few weeks I've spent less time with classical authors and more time with Rose Macaulay, in her odd book of essays Personal Pleasures (softcover reprint from The Akadine Press), Peter Quennell, in his memoir The Marble Foot (Viking 1976), Michael Palin, in the third volume of his diaries, Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-98 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2014), and, to bring us back to poetry, a re-read of most of Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler 1951-1991 (Turtle Point Press 2004). I could write separate blog posts about each of these books, and even intended to, but all month the painting studio called, and my handwritten diaries asked for attention, and the rawness of this changeover season found me even more inward-looking than usual. There are only so many hours in the day, as the saying goes, and it held true in March, here in Maine. So I did only what I had the energy to do, after this long wild winter.
Of course I can't let those books I just mentioned slip away without some kind of commemoration. Personal Pleasures, for instance, which I read immediately after finishing her aforementioned Pleasure of Ruins. An alphabetical collection of very short essays on what brings her pleasure, each seasoned with the dash of bitterness that is every pleasure's inevitable flip side. The titles of the essays alone must be enough to make any reader and booklover really want to READ. My selection:
Bakery in the Night
Departure of Visitors
Doves in the Chimney
Finishing a Book
Flower Shop in the Night
1. Of one's neighbors
2. Of current literature
3. Of gossip
4. Of wickedness
Improving the Dictionary
1. On the roof
2. On the pavement
Not Going to Parties
Telling Travellers' Tales
Just casting eyes on that list makes me want to read them all over again! Each essay is two or three pages, some a bit longer. Each ends with that note of wry bitterness, which, if you have read anything about Macaulay's personal life, is completely understandable. A bit from the essay Reading, since I can't resist noting her ebullience on this fine topic (p.337):
"What is the extraordinary pleasure that we derive from this pastime? Why do we forget everything for it, feel by it transported, enlarged, enslaved, freed, impassioned, enlivened, soothed, drugged, delighted, distressed, entertained, sharpened in wits, ennobled in soul, winged in imagination, gratified in humour, stirred to pity, rage, love, rapture, enthusiasm, creation, zeal for learning, infinite zest and curiosity for life? I do not know, nor anyone."
In this book she mentions Herodotus three times. (Who does that?) Next winter, I swear, Herodotus it is. My lovely hardcover copy of the History will wait patiently for me, I hope.
The other books will go unmentioned for now, other than to say I hope Michael Palin's publisher continues to release his diaries indefinitely. I could read on and on, forever, they suit me so well. They go forward just as the days themselves do. Something happens, write it down. Repeat. I do the same in my own diaries. His entries are much more interesting, as is the scope of his worldly life. His sense of humor, of course, is front and center. But his self-doubt often appears, which is endearing and I can surely relate to it. From a day in 1994, while working on a novel he subsequently abandoned (p.326):
"I feel worn out with the effort of not achieving a lot."
One final note, about the things one notices when reading several books back to back - seemingly unrelated, and yet... Rose Macaulay, Peter Quennell, and Michael Palin all mention eating at the Café Royal. Such a little thing to mention but it seems to help tie my disparate reading threads together in an orderly way. Disparate, though? Now that I really think about it, I wonder. All are British, all travel, all are passionate readers and busy writers of books, those wonderful things that offer us both solitude and connection, change and continuity.
Well, after that literary jumble sale of topics I seem to have gotten awfully far away from the poem I began with, but the steel bead pocketbook month is on its way out, April will be National Poetry Month, and we are finally seeing the earliest signs of spring here. No robins yet, but one wavery skein of migrating wild geese at dusk last night, far overhead, and one inch's worth of crocus and daffodil stalks emerging from the snowbank that is their garden bed, by the low stone wall on the south side of our house. The neighbors are tapping their maple trees. I bought a lovely pile of secondhand books at a local thrift shop over the weekend. Sweetness is on approach.
Monday, March 16, 2015
The impulse is never far from the surface with me, no matter what the season. I recognize that I have a generally tidy disposition. To wit, this month I've been cleaning out my painting studio, airing everything out, looking at old work, and preparing for new work. What a lot of stuff I seem to have made in the past 25 years, and beyond (I even have a portfolio full of childhood drawings and books I made, which my mother gave to me some years back when she was cleaning out). Stuff. Made by me. Drawings, paintings, collages, handmade books, diaries. Blog entries. What's it all for? All this making? Best not to examine that question too closely, and simply forge ahead. (Although: Because I love it, might be a fine answer, for now.) The same goes for reading. I enjoy it; I would rather read than watch tv or noodle around on the internet or go out. At about seven p.m. every evening I stop whatever it is I'm doing because I realize I could be reading a book instead. And then I do just that. Books, books! Shall we have a long book chat, since it's quite been some time since my last writing? Okay, then. My winter reading project is winding down, and I still haven't made it through the introduction of the History of Herodotus. Other ancient authors wait too, but a few weeks ago I veered off on a tangent and have yet to return from it. I read The Hill of Kronos (Dutton 1980) by Peter Levi. Synopsis: young Jesuit-in-training goes abroad in search of ancient Greece. Fascinating book and gosh does it contain some beautiful sentences. Here are two (p.19):
"We passed Calabria, painted green and hung out to dry for a thousand years. The sun sank exactly behind us, and the ship sailed under stars that sparkled like sea-salt in the dark."
After a too-brief first sojourn in Greece, he returns to England, where, unsurprisingly (p.114):
"It was a difficult winter. The snow fell as it always does."
Man, I hear you. Levi yearns to live among classical ruins, and visits and re-visits Greece over two decades. His book makes me long for sun and dust.
Next I spent two weeks slowly reading Rose Macaulay's odd dense thicket of a book, Pleasure of Ruins (Thames and Hudson reprint of the 1953 first edition). It shouldn't have taken me two weeks, but Ryan and I were simultaneously watching archaeology shows online dealing with many of the sites I was reading about. Despite my bias about tv I must say it was dreamy to see in color some of the ancient landscapes Macaulay spends 450+ pages rhapsodizing about. Rome, Persepolis, Carthage...but I'm getting ahead of myself. Before I started Pleasure of Ruins proper I read another book, entitled Roloff Beny Interprets in Photographs Rose Macaulay's Pleasure of Ruins (Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1977), which I picked up in a local bookshop for four dollars last month, because I wanted to look at more photographs of the sites I'd been reading about in all the classics. Well, in the brief preface by Roloff Beny (and I must say, what a terrific name) he hooked me, line and sinker, by saying (p.25):
"My copy of Pleasure of Ruins, now battered and travel-stained, had been my constant companion for nine years. I had been dedicating a good part of my waking dreams to an almost predestined pursuit of the itineraries explored by Rose Macaulay..."
After investigating his photographs and reading the brief selections excerpted from the original Pleasure of Ruins, and acknowledging their general exellence, I decided I'd better read the whole thing. Luckily I have a copy. One of the great joys of having a home library - you often have on hand exactly what you wish you had on hand. In this case, a softcover unabridged reprint, picked up some years back for four dollars. The only other book I've ever read by Macaulay is her novel The Towers of Trebizond (which I read back in 2008 and wrote about here). Also about travel, archaeology, religion, ancient sites, and melancholy, but in fictional form, versus this difficult-to-describe colossus of a book, which combines all of the above with her overarching theme of Ruin-lust, the feeling of delicious romantic desolation that overcomes one when one contemplates the crumbling remains of civilizations (delectatio morosa, she says, p.249). The book really is an extended meditation on this feeling - gazing at the remains of the past, and the attendant emotions that inevitably must arise in the viewer in response to all that gazing. She spends time contemplating (p.40):
"...Troy...Crete, Mycenae, Tyre, Nineveh, Babylon, Thebes, Rome, Byzantium, Carthage, and every temple, theatre and broken column of classical Greece..."
Fearsomely intelligent and learned, she uses about eight other languages (most untranslated) when quoting, and she quotes at length across many centuries, from authors who loved ruins as much as she, and also travelled to see them. Parts of her book read like a who's who of travel narratives and I found myself taking notes, to see if I could find reprints of some of her sources.
Dreams, waking thoughts and incidents by William Beckford (1785);
Rare Adventures and Painfull Perigrinations by William Lithgow (1632);
the travel guide to ancient Greek sites by Pausanias, which Rose Macaulay and Peter Levi both go on and on about at great length;
Chateaubriand's travel memoirs which sound wonderfully high-flown and romantic;
a hundred other sources, from ancient times up to some familiar names like the beloved Byrons (Lord and Robert) and Henry James, well into the twentieth century.
So much to read next it's an embarrassment of riches! Speaking of which, Pleasure of Ruins is so very quotable I must indulge in a few, before we set aside Macaulay for now. In the unpaginated introduction, she writes:
"... this broken beauty is all we have of that ancient magnificence; we cherish it like the extant fragments of some lost and noble poem."
She continues to revel in (p.9):
"... that blend of pleasure and the romantic gloom which has always been the basic element in ruin-sensibility..."
All this ruin-talk echoes so strongly in me. Have I ever mentioned that my first home was built atop a ruin? Before I was born my parents moved to Maine and built a house on the foundation of an old demolished summer house. The remains were very much like a kind of archaeological site. It was fascinating then, when I was a child, and it remains so today, even though (and especially since) that home is long gone, lost to me in every way except memory. It's on my mind because I've been trying to write about it, rather unsuccessfully. More about that later, perhaps, as well as my ongoing spring cleaning efforts, which also continue to occupy my mind. I mean, I could go on and on right now, but it's well after seven p.m. and, as I mentioned earlier, instead of sitting here at this computer, I could be reading a book.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
(obligatory snow photographs)
Record-breaking snowfall! And I can't even... I'm all out of... I've got no... I don't even know what to...
Snap out of it, that's what - this is Maine, in the thick of winter, we know what to do! The backyard isn't quite as deep as the front yard. Ryan dug this path to the shed. Next year's woodpile is curing under the drift to my right. No, I have not gained weight this winter, but thanks so much for asking - I'm wearing a sweater, insulated vest, two jackets, etc. and I'm warm as toast.
Want some snow, wherever you are? We have plenty to spare - here you go!
Weather, it's all anyone can talk about here, if we can find the words! It was twenty below zero last night and another 6-12" of the white stuff is on the way tonight and tomorrow. I wonder if I'll be able to find the mailbox again. It may be lost to us until a thaw comes. (If a thaw comes.) In non-weather news, I have made no headway whatsoever in the History of Herodotus, and am lost in Rose Macaulay's Pleasure of Ruins instead. More on that when basic survival isn't my primary concern.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Books, books, and more books; snow, snow, and more snow. I deal with avalanches of both, this time of year, when I undertake extended reading projects and attempt to keep our driveway passable. For now there is a lull. We are between storms. And I have no new incoming books, so I am working with what I already possess in the way of ancient literature and commentary thereon. Today was quiet, weatherwise, although more significant snow is coming tomorrow and possibly over the weekend. (Trying hard not to fret about that.) After lunch I walked up the hill behind our house and back, and there were chickadees singing in the woods, and bare patches on the road. The sun is noticeably higher in the sky and feels warm on my face, and I drink it in like a tonic, after being housebound for weeks.
Ransacking the book room produced some lovely finds - books I've always meant to read, and now here it is, finally time. I've been carrying around Gilbert Highet's Poets in a Landscape for ten years. Originally published in 1957, it's an appreciative look at his favorite writers from Roman times, seen from the point of view of a traveler in their footsteps, one searching Italy for what remains of their homes, towns, and contexts. Highet was a classicist himself (and led a fascinating life) and provides his own translations throughout, as well as evocative photographs. There are chapters on Catullus, Virgil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal. Spending time with this book is like going on an extended tour with a kindly yet slightly hedonistic professor. I would have happily roamed the Italian countryside, and Rome itself, in his wake, listening.
Since finishing this and the David Ferry translations I mentioned last time, I've left Rome and doubled back to ancient Greece once again. In the book room I found the following coffee table book - The Greek World, with color photographs by Eliot Porter and text by Peter Levi (Arch Cape Press 1980). I've had this for over twenty years, and I'm pretty sure I bought it from the remainder table at the first bookstore that employed me, when I was just out of college. The photographs again help with context and are quiet, monumental, and redolent. And I'd completely forgotten that the wonderful Peter Levi wrote the text. Here is a seasonably appropriate taste (p.137):
"Aristophanes is not only untranslatable but almost indescribable. He is like Homer. He is like a snowstorm. If I had just one day of life in ancient Athens, I would spend it in the theater watching a play by Aristophanes."
Levi goes on, this time about Plato, and that issue of voice, which I mentioned in my last post (p.139):
"...thirty years after I first read The Republic I am still not able to analyze it with any assurance. Maybe I am simply dazed by the charm of a style that sounds so close to a speaking voice."
Levi himself has a wonderful writerly voice, and I'm very excited because at one point Levi quotes himself, from his Greek memoir The Hill of Kronos, and I thought for a minute, Gee, that sounds so familiar... before it dawned on me that I have a copy! Unread, but not for long! His book about Afghanistan, The Light Garden of the Angel King, is one of my all-time favorite travel books, and I don't know why I've never read The Hill of Kronos, but I found a copy some years back, and tucked it aside, where it firmly stayed. But it's finally up next, in the ever-evolving reading queue.
Along with a slightly more daunting prospect. After reading selections from it in The Norton Book of Classical Literature, and deciding I wanted to read more, I brought home the History of Herodotus from my book booth, translated by David Grene (University of Chicago Press 1987). It's a lovely fat hardcover. I'm still just in the introduction and, with nearly 700 pages to go, feel a bit apprehensive, but am buoyed up by Grene's encouragement (p.15):
"Probably no Greek writer makes so strong an impression of talking directly to us as Herodotus."
There's that voice again. The one speaking across centuries of time, yet sounding so present. It's one of the main reasons I read - to listen, to come to know, and to experience the resulting sense of connection. How wonderful it's been to discover this voice anew, both in ancient writers' works and in the works of those who love them.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant
Almost time for Valentine's Day. Gosh these winter holidays keep right on happening. I find that the annual round provides regular and excellent reminders of what matters most. In this case, what do we love, in this life? Hopefully our spouses and partners, families, homes, animal companions, the work of our lives, the things we've gathered close to make life more beautiful and meaningful as the days pass. Books not least among those things. To wit, my classical reading project continues. In the last week I've finally finished The Norton Book of Classical Literature (all 850+ pages!), and I've also read Poets in a Landscape by Gilbert Highet (Common Reader reprint 1996), and last night I finished Virgil's Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (Random House 1983). So, lots to say about all that.
First, the Norton - editor Bernard Knox provides such a compelling selection and range of authors and translators. In the case of this particular reader, I found certain authors I most definitely wanted more of, and others, well, not so much. It went something like this. From Greek times, a big YES to Herodotus, a big NO to Thucydides. YES to Aristophanes, NO to Sophocles. YES to Plato, to Theophrastus, to Callimachus (my notes about him are comical: "read all of the Aitia? how long? read all available Callimachus? how much?"), YES to Sappho, and to Theocritus. In Roman times, a big YES to Catullus, and especially to Horace. And NO to Virgil and Ovid, sad to say. The fault lies with me, I'm sure, though I will read Virgil's Georgics if I stumble across a copy. It all comes down to voice. I love the contemporary-sounding phrase, the straightforward language and poetry about everyday life. I do not love the epic voice. When reading Horace and Virgil I couldn't help but remember the difference between Byron's Childe Harold and his Don Juan. The overtly arcadian, misty-parnassus world of consciously poetical language versus the conversational, adventuresome yet ordinary narrative. As I encountered different authors in the Norton, I kept thinking Do I love this voice? And sometimes Do I even like it at all?
David Ferry says in his introduction to The Epistles of Horace, this, about voice (pp.x-xi):
"It's the voice that's the life of these poems: so free, so confident, so knowledgeable about himself, and about work, so contemptuous of pretense, so entertaining, so joyful. The voice is an invention, of course, or a playing field of inventions, but it gives the illusion of speaking to us as we hear it with a startlingly familiar immediacy....It is the voice of a free man talking about how to get along in a Roman world full of temptations, opportunities, and contingencies, and how to do so with your integrity intact....It's a voice that's on a civilizing mission, fully aware of all its difficulties, of how the temptations and contingencies are always there, in such a world and in our own natures..."
That's why I love Horace so much. That voice of his, and what he says with it. Virgil... well... some is very beautiful, and some lines I truly love. But. The voice just isn't there for me (again, the fault lies with me, I'm sure). I find myself wondering Who would attempt a sequel to the works of Homer? (His Aeneid revisits and continues the stories of Homer and then some.) And Where is Virgil himself in all of this? It could come down to the difference between writing based on personal experience and writing invented for deliberately epic purposes. The epic is not my favorite form by any means. I really had to grit my teeth to read all of the Aeneid, and I will admit to skimming over some of the extremely gory sections of the last three books. Lots of it was far too heroic - war, war, and more war. I guess even in my ancient literature, I am one of those readers who longs for connection, not instruction. And in speaking of voice, I will also say that in all this ancient reading, Sappho and one or two others aside, I miss the female voice. You know, the other half of the human race? Since it seems that these authors are writing mostly about men, for men. Such a simplification, but so noticeable, when reading through famous works spanning hundreds of years.
I meant to write about ancient love poety today, and just look at me. Everything but. I will say this - that I expected to love Ovid, and his lovely books all about love. But I didn't. Perhaps after reading the Aeneid I'd had enough of war, and so when Ovid said, in his Amores Book I (Norton p.732), "lovers are all soldiers in Cupid's private army" and went on to further equate love and warfare in no uncertain terms, I set it aside. And I don't think I need to talk about Ovid's seduction handbook either, The Art of Love, other than to say it seems awfully coldhearted and artificial for something purporting to be about love. (In fact it reminds me of The Prince by Machiavelli - explicit, diabolical. Unloving.) Well, his books did get Ovid banished, so there is that.
But let's not end there. Ancient literature abounds with memorable love poetry. Even though the best of it is about difficulties in love - this, from doomed, lovelorn Dido in Book IV of the Aeneid (p.114):
"She prayed then to whatever power may care
In comprehending justice for the grief
Of lovers bound unequally in love."
That's not exactly an upbeat sentiment to end this Valentine's-week reverie with, I know! On a happier note, I'll talk about Gilbert Highet's fine book, Poets in a Landscape, at a later date, when the melancholy brought on by the Aeneid has lifted. Meanwhile, amo, amas, amat...
Sunday, February 08, 2015
the wavering hours
Full-on winter around here, with record-breaking amounts of snow. Every few days, another foot. Tomorrow, more than another foot. It is all I can do to keep up with it, in fact I am no longer even trying. Just letting it happen. As if I had a choice. And I'm not painting much, so am subsequently rather grumpy. In short, I seem to be stuck in my annual slough of despond. Thank you, February. However, books are sunlight, as always, and I am reading. After the aforementioned sojourn with Mark Twain's Notebook and a brief art-book spree I returned to my shelves of ancient literature with renewed determination, and have now finished a trio of wonderful books: The Odes of Horace (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1997), The Epistles of Horace (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2001), and The Eclogues of Virgil (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1999), all translated by the poet David Ferry. I bought all three at a library sale in 2004, for three dollars each, hardcover first editions in jackets, all near fine, one even inscribed and signed by David Ferry to boot. I've browsed in the Virgil before - I mentioned it on this blog once, long ago - but I've never read all three cover to cover until now. They are lovely indeed, in form and in word. With facing-page Latin, wide margins, and creamy substantial paper they are a pleasure to hold and read. Their pastoral nature, full of landscape detail, feeds the longing within me for green things growing. And of course, in the way of famous ancient things, the words feel eerily relevant and are shivery-beautiful throughout.
The Odes of Horace, iii.29 (p.253)
"...There may be storms tomorrow,
Maybe fair weather. Nobody knows for sure.
What I have had in the past cannot be taken
Away from me now. Fortune, who loves to play
Her cruel game and plays it over and over,
Can do what she likes with me or anyone else.
I'll praise her while she favors me, but when,
As she prepares to fly away, I hear
The rustling of her wings, I'll yield my luck
And wrap myself as in a garment in
My knowledge of who I am and what I've been..."
The Epistles of Horace, i.18 (p.95):
"Interrogate the writings of the wise,
Asking them to tell you how you can
Get through your life in a peaceable, tranquil way."
"Where is it virtue comes from, is it from books?
Or is it a gift from Nature that can't be learned?
What is the way to become a friend to yourself?
What brings tranquility? What makes care less?
Honor? Or money? Or living your life unnoticed?
...what do you think I pray for?
'May I continue to have what I have right now,
Or even less, as long as I'm self-sufficient.
If the gods should grant me life, though just for a while,
May I live my life to myself, with books to read,
And food to sustain me through another year,
And not to waver with the wavering hours.'"
I won't quote endlessly from these famous texts - I always feel like everyone must already know their contents by heart except me - but I had to mention those passages. I told my mother I was reading classical authors this winter and she told me about taking years of Latin in school, and how her Latin teacher had the students keep lists culled from their texts of what the teacher termed Utterly Memorable Lines. My mother still has her list, somewhere. I have compiled my own.
So interesting to compare translations, too - David Ferry's with what Bernard Knox chooses in The Norton Book of Classical Literature, which I spent a lot of time with last month. I recognized and wanted to take notes from the same passages in each, even though the word choice and phrasing was often very different. The strong underlying sentiment, the full river of emotion, carried the meaning of both versions comparably well. I can only imagine the nuances I've missed out on by not being able to read Latin. But that thought is not to be dwelled upon, at this dismal time of year or any other. All the things I can't do - ugh - wavering thoughts that tend to float around, rustling, when I spend too much time indoors.