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."

ibid (p.97):

"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.

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