A view (1)
At the top of the theater, the benches are steep, unpadded, unbacked. The voice of the Vice-Chancellor rises dimly droning, and the broken light from the windows moves across the faces of the students on the (padded) seats below.
The child was small, with glasses, and carried a bright bouquet of Gerbera daisies wrapped in cellophane. He offered a pint of ice cream to his mother.
Mother: No, dear, put it back; we don’t need ice cream today.
Child: Why not?
A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, upon the hem of the robe roundabout.
And if, dear my reader, you can tell me where that’s from, can pick and pin it to its origins… well, I shall be very much impressed.1
- The passage is from the King James version of Exodus 28:34. The Vulgate version is interesting, too, with its Punic (or purple) apples (or quinces, lemons, or … pomegranates?):
ita ut tintinabulum sit aureum et malum rursumque tintinabulum aliud aureum et malum punicum[↩]
The relevant point
How Rome came to acquire a monopoly of Aeneas, how his mythical connection with neighbouring Latin cities, especially Lavinium and Alba, grew up over the succeeding centuries, and how the chronological complication resulting from an attempt to harmonize the rival legends of Aeneas (traditionally c. 1175 BC) and Romulus (traditionally c. 750 BC) were resolved are intriguing questions but lie outside the period of this study. The relevant point is that as Rome evolved into a city, so she acquired a pedigree of the noblest descent.
—R. M. Ogilvie (Early Rome and the Etruscans (1976), p. 35)
This pessimism pervaded the political atmosphere, and contributed in varying degrees to the new religions in which so many of the best, as well as the most wretched, took refuge, and which in the end burst the old forms and created a new civilization. But to return to Cicero… .
—Elizabeth Rawson (Cicero: a Portrait (1975), p. 159)
Walking through the rain, avoiding umbrellas – nodding, sleepy, thwack, thwack, thwack of damp shoes on pavement yet damper.
Publius Clodius Pulcher, like the emperor Gaius, is alleged to have been quite close to his sisters. Cicero did not like him – Clodius, that is; he never met Gaius.
How to explain it. The impermeable, invisible barrier which seeps between people, flowing between them so gradually that they do not notice until its inspissation is undeniable and no community is possible between them.
Smoke and steam rolling off the slanting roofs atop the restaurants of Cowley, rolling down into the lamplight.
The Topless Towers of Ilium
Archaeologists are a fiesty bunch. Take, for instance, this argument about Troy. How many people, really, would exchange insults about the size of ancient Troy? How big was Troy, really? Huge? Perhaps. Just the citadel? Maybe. Can we say? Depends about what era you’re talking about, I suppose. Like most cities, what once was Troy waxed and waned, expansion following on destruction, following on expansion, and so on. But Homer’s Troy? What about that? To which one poses the questions: who was Homer? When did he write (or sing)? Why? For whom? These fellows haven’t established the historicity of Homer and yet they, like Schliemann, implicitly pin their hopes on the validity of that entity we call Homer.1 Looking for ‘Priam’s Troy’… of all the nerve. One might as well pin that phrase ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’ on Homer, too, while one is at it.2
My favorite comment comes, however, from Dr. Rose, of the University of Cincinnati: ‘We all got along beautifully until a few years ago.’
And there, my friends, you have the history of the world – always getting along just beautifully until a few (thousand) years ago.
- The “Homer question” was raised by German scholars at the end of the nineteenth century who, being unable to pin him with a biography, wondered who or what this Homer was. These queries were tied to the validity of historical and linguistic hypotheses based on the existence, within a certain period, of a historical figure known as Homer. [↩]
- Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 5.1.109. [↩]
[Bloom] claims to be of the school of aesthetic critics, remarking that, in an ideological age, ‘I feel quite alone these days in defending the autonomy of the aesthetic.’ Yet he himself doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to produce anything approaching the aesthetically pleasing in his own writing. In an interview in the Paris Review, he declared that he never revises his prose, and nothing in his work refutes this impressive claim. Any critic ready to avail himself of such gargoylesque words as ‘psychokabbalistic’ and ‘pneumognostic,’ who can refer to a passage in Montaigne as an ‘apotropaic talisman,’ and can write about the cosmos having been ‘reperspectivized by Tolstoy,’ may be many things, but he ain’t no aesthete.
— Joseph Epstein in the Hudson Review1
- Paywalled – link previously given has since rotted. At the New York Times they agree that Harold Bloom is a noodle; they hint, though, that despite his failings, he is very clever. [↩]
In the Garden
Books take up space, and libraries, being confined by walls, must occasionally weed the shelves of injudicious pamphlets and books unborrowed through the centuries. That this should astonish or dismay comes as something of a surprise. That, however, is not my theme.
I would like to return to the metaphor of libraries as gardens. It is apt, for they are confined spaces and can be crowded with tangled growth or marked by unnatural bareness. A library can provide the mind with nourishment, pleasure, yet prove a source of tedium and dismay. The scarcely confined leaves must be cared for and tended, kept free of mold and pests, all to achieve their purpose: to be perused, consumed, devoured, enjoyed.1
If it were not for books, I would not know what ‘paradise’ meant. An odd word, perhaps, with which to be unfamiliar. I had thought paradise meant some vale of pleasure, a painless respite, an ideal spot, peopled with diverse colors, soothing sounds, and beauties beyond compare. The word ‘paradise’ however, entered the western world through Xenophon, a writer best known for his simplicity, which was not always admirable. He had the misfortune to be writing at the same time as Thucydides, whose density and critical acumen he was unable to equal, and Plato, whose wit and dash and fervor were something altogether foreign to the somewhat earnest Xenophon. Yet such comparisons are not the point.
For I meant to write of paradise. As cleverer people than I doubtless knew, the word paradise comes from the Avestan word pairidaêza, ‘a walled garden,’ which Xenophon transliterated into Greek as paradeisos.2 He was referring, of course, to the famed gardens of Cyrus the Great, which were orderly, carefully tended (apparently by the Great King himself), and utterly delightful (or so the notion seemed to Xenophon, who, one should observe, was not alive at the time). So one must tend to one’s gardens, where ever and whatever they may be.3
- And/or swallowed, chewed, and digested, if one cares to follow Sir Francis Bacon. [↩]
- Xen.Oec.iv.13. Curious readers are referred S. B. Pomeroy’s edition (with commentary) of Xenophon’s Oeconomicus (Oxford: 1994): p. 247, which cites R. G. Kent, Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon, 2nd ed. (New Haven: 1950): p. 195 (which last I have not read). [↩]
- I have no willpower—mention gardens and I tend to think of Voltaire’s Candide, which that final sentence rather blatantly (and unsatisfyingly) echoes. [↩]
A view (2)
It was the Distance
For no good reason1 I’ve been reading The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson (ed. W. Martin, CUP: 2002). It is somewhat refreshing to find books which do not concern Cicero. And it is interesting to step outside the charmed circle of academics and then to peer back in, as though through windows. For one can see then, very clearly, the absurd. As, for instance, a professor of 19th C. American literature vexed that Miss Dickinson ‘completely ignored the largest mass execution in the legal history of the United States, in 1863, when thirty-eight Santee Sioux Indians were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, for their roles in an uprising sparked by chronic shortages in food, clothing, and fuel’ (194).
Two facts leap from that sentence: 1863 and Mankato, Minnesota. Students of American history will doubtless be familiar with the Civil War (1861-1865) which lamentably preoccupied much of the eastern seaboard. Lamentably, of course, because they should have been outraged by massacres of Native Americans. One should note that, at the time, Miss Dickinson was probably in a little town in Massachusetts, a town whose only claim to fame, then as now, was the college. Not to argue on the laws of geographical improbability, but it seems rather unlikely, given the state of the media in that day (which delighted in the lurid rather than the likely) and age, that the news would have reached across those thirteen hundred miles in any form other than: ‘Uprising supressed! Law strikes against Terror! The savage and violent…’ I do not think it laudable, I merely suggest it as a possibility.
But I lose my way. I would like to address the issue raised by P. B. Bennett’s chapter entitled ‘Emily Dickinson and her American women poet peers’ (pp.215-35). Bennett laments the lack of interest displayed by ‘Dickinson scholars’ for the poetry of Dickinson’s contemporaries (which is, apparently, only now ‘beginning to attract the serious attention it deserves’ [215f.]). These contemporaries were the ‘daughters of the first sizable generation of feminist activists’ and ‘were all consummate professionals’ such as: Frances Butler Kemble, Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Larcom, the Cary sisters, Rose Terry Cooke, Helen Hunt Jackson (nota bene), Harriet Prescott Spofford, Celia Thaxter, Louise Chandler Moulton, Sarah Piatt, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Edith M. Thomas, Lizette Woodworth Reese (216), to say nothing of the Grimkés.
These were women with a message, whose writing was their livelihood, who were (as in the case of Sarah Piatt2 capable of publishing some of ‘the most powerful American political poems the century produced’ (217). That is the crux, then, isn’t it? In an age when art is supposed to have a message, a meaning, a moral (or at the very least, an agenda), it is dastardly, retrograde of a poet not to follow along, it shows that one is, ‘politically speaking […] no progressive’ (218). Dickinson, so Bennett argues, had ‘literary agency’ in spades, though she ‘lacked a sense of social and political agency altogether’ (218). She was a ‘bodiless’ poet, who wrote for God (232), who, then, must be read in the context of these other women’s work if she is to be ‘interesting’ (234).3
I’ve lost my way again. For I merely I wanted to say was simply that Dickinson is a great poet because she is not political, because she explores the personal and the private. And greater still, she combines this exploration with linguistic experimentation and an icy diction, a crispness and clarity of thought and word, which is as refreshing as it is ambiguous. She does not deny meanings; her work is the variaorum. Whereas the other women Bennett discussed seem to have written from desire, Dickinson, at least as I read her, wrote from necessity – a necessity not less powerful for being interior.4
- NB: The title of this post comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson, #626 in the collection by R. W. Franklin. (NB: publication history.) For obvious reasons (namely, copyright issues) I will not include that text here. In other volumes, it is #439, and so I include THAT text:
Undue Significance a starving man attaches[↩]
Far off—He sighs—and therefore—Hopeless—
But proves us
That Spices fly
In the Receipt—It was the Distance—
- Readers should know, though Bennett does not disclose this in her essay, that when she holds the opinion that Piatt is the second best poet of the 19th C. (after Dickinson) she is, in some sense, speaking as Piatt’s literary guardian, having edited the most recent collection of Piatt’s work. Which is not to deny that Piatt is a valuable American (woman’s) voice, but simply to point out that Bennett is perhaps not unbiased. [↩]
- Just as a point of curiousity: why are modern critics so concerned with Dickinson as ‘body’ They seem overly interested in her sexuality, concerning which there seems to be insignificant evidence. Is the ‘virgin’ still such an intimidating figure – must one nullify her dangerous ambiguity with speculation? One should remember: ‘it is the reticence itself that tells us most about Emily Dickinson’ (p. 46, from C. Benfey’s essay ‘Emily Dickinson and the American South,’ pp.30-50, an article which, despite its unpromising title, is actually one of the most interesting in the collection). [↩]
- Here my own thinking gets muddled and precious – and my abysmal ignorance of most of the other writers does not help. I have no feeling of them, for a reading of them (in bits and pieces) does not present me with individual voices. The point is, at any rate, moot: poets go in and out of fashion all the time, and perhaps tomorrow Dickinson will be a frightfully common, pert little poetess, a trifle precious and incapable of proper rhymes and rhythms. [↩]
The Histories of Books
To write the much-lamented Cicero essay, I happened to check two small pamphlets out of the library, both Teubner editions of short works by Sallust (or an anonymous author in the style of Sallust). Both had been edited by A. Kurfess (who also edited the Teubner edition of Sallust’s other works ) and had belonged to the library of the great Latinist R. A. B. Mynors, best known for his edition of Vergil. In design they appeared identical: the smoke-blue paper cover of a Teubner Latin text (sun-stained and pale), same ordered type, same distinctive logo, each containing a single signature of approximately 15 sheets. When opened, though, the two volumes could not be more dissimilar. The paper of the In Ciceronem1 is a creamy off-white, a strong, smooth, with a high cotton rag content; the text is clear, small, and unmuddled, with a generous apparatus criticus and notes at the bottom of each page. The Epistulae ad Caesarem,2 on the other hand, is printed in a flat, unpromising type, with insufficient ink, on rusting pulp; the notes are scanty, as though space were limited and they dared not crowd out the text or pad the volume to greater length.
The publishing house of B. G. Teubner, Leipzig, published Kurfess’ edition of Sallust’s In Ciceronem in 1914; the companion volume, Epistulae ad Caesarem, was not published until 1921.
- Sallustian invective against Cicero, with a reply from [Cicero] (that is, a pseudo-Cicero). [↩]
- An open letter about individual power and republican government. [↩]