April 26, 2010

Homeric Hymns

For my lit project, I read the Homeric Hymns.

The Hymns are a collection of 34 poems, each in praise of a particular god. These Hymns are a mysterious bunch. They vary in length, the shortest being only several lines long, the longest almost 600. Nobody really knows who wrote them or when. Some date back to Homer's time (thus their name), others seem to have been written in later antiquity. One Hymn poet identifies himself as a blind singer from Chios; this little detail sparked what may be the biggest rumor about Homer's biography.

All the Hymns follow a similar formula. First they announce which god they are singing about (and include a number of epithets, as all Greeks do in naming their gods). Then they move on to some biographical myth about the god. Then they close, usually as a final entreaty, often as a transition into another song. These endings indicate that the singer of these Hymns used them as a preface for something else. What that ensuing song might have been is, like the Hymns, a mystery.

Without any details about what these Hymns were or who wrote them, all a modern reader can do is enjoy them for what they are. The longer Hymns are moderately entertaining. I rather enjoyed the Hymn to Demeter (2) and the Hymn to Hermes (4). Aside from Classical scholars, the Hymns are largely unread. I do not expect I will convince anybody to read them, but for the sake of your general knowledge I will provide a very standard Hymn which should tell you what every other Hymn is like. Hymn to Artemis (27):
Artemis I sing, of the arrow of gold and the hunting cry,
Chaste virgin pursuing the deer, showering arrows,
Own sister of gold-bladed Apollo, who courses
Over the shadowy hills and wind-swept peaks
Taking delight in the chase, and, bending her golden bow,
Sends forth her arrows of anguish. The peaks of the high mountain tremble,
And the shady woodland screams with the cries of wild creatures;
Earth itself shudders, and the deep sea teeming with fish,
As the brave goddess turns this way and that, slaying the race of wild beasts.
But when the showerer of arrows is sated with searching for game
And her heart is content, she slackens the well-bent bow
And goes to the great house of her dear brother, Phoebus Apollo,
In the rich land of Delphi, and orders the beautiful dance of the Muses and Graces.
There, hanging up her curve-backed bow and her quiver of arrows,
Her figure adorned with elegant raiment, she takes command
And leads in the dances. They all raise their heavenly voices
In hymns of praise to Leto, delicate-ankled,
Telling in song of how she gave birth to children
Foremost in counsel and deeds among the immortals.

Farewell, children of Zeus and of lovely-haired Leto;
I will remember you both and another song too.
[I really must blog about film again. Writing about Ancient lit has to be the most boring thing I could be doing with this blog.]

April 23, 2010

Ovid's Fasti

For my lit project, I read Ovid's Fasti.

"Fasti" is Latin for (something like) "chronicle," a marking of time. A fasti is frequently a (Roman) calendar. Ovid's Fasti is an elegiac poem describing various important dates, mostly Roman religious holidays/festivals. Ovid provides mythological explanations for these festivals.

If that sounds boring, it is not. This is Ovid.

It is, however, difficult. In these first few months of my lit project, I have become comfortable with Classical myth; the numerous religious references in these Ancient works pause me no more. But Fasti is an exception. Much of the myth it covers is peculiarly Roman and terribly obscure. And Fasti is written with the assumption that the reader knows the importance of the days it mentions and what the festivals are. I am not an Ancient Roman citizen and do not know anything about these traditions. All to my dismay.

But the obscurity of the myths and festivals did set me thinking. It is too easy to look at Roman culture as a borrowed culture. What would they be without the Greeks? But no, they seem to have had a well established set of myths beyond the Greeks. How far back does this culture date? How independent are these Roman myths? How did they survive? How did Greek and Roman myth so successfully mix? Such questions are impossible to answer this far removed from the Romans.

Another question which fascinates me: how did all these poets know all these stories? I have always wondered this, especially with Ovid (a fountain of references). In most cases, it is easy to imagine the very basic oral tradition that the poets are filling in when they are writing their myths, but this is more difficult with the Romans who borrowed Greek myth and could not have had the same oral tradition. Did Ovid find all his myths in Greek books? How much myth was recorded by Ovid's age? (Too few Ancient texts survive to say.)

Perhaps Ovid made all of his myth up. He frequently offers several explanations and leaves it to the reader to decide which explanation is correct. Ovid does not actually know the reasons for the many traditions he is explaining -- even when he appeals to a god or goddess who answers his questions for him (he uses this amusing device in (almost) every book of the Fasti). But it is hard to doubt Ovid's authority on mythology. He is our standard for Ancient mythology, two thousand years on.

Scholars like to point out that Ovid's Fasti does not fit neatly into any "genre." There is no precedence for this work. No generic tradition. By choosing elegiac meter, Ovid defies the Ancient obsession with the relationship between meter and content; the elegy is usually reserved for small and unambitious subjects (a prayer, or the erotic), but the Fasti is an incredibly ambitious work, as Ovid likes to note (comparing his work to an epic voyage). Other poets would have composed the Fasti in dactylic hexameter (favored meter of the epic). Ovid, choosing the elegy, is self-consciously provocative.

Ovid's ambitious scope allows him to cover many different aspects of mythology and Roman society, further confounding any attempt to categorize his Fasti. But he does have two important influences I am proud to have recognized. The first is Propertius, who wrote etiological poems in Book 4 of his Elegies. Ovid seems to have picked up on this new possibility and turned it into the Fasti (this also explains his choice of elegiac meter). Ovid's second important influence is Aratus, who wrote a poem on the constellations and weather and who I discovered through Ovid's praise (in Amores). Indeed, Ovid makes a special point of the stars and writes about them, their rising and their setting, as often as he can. Some of my favorite sections of the Fasti are mythological explanations of the constellations. I did not expect Aratus to reappear in any form in my reading. I am glad he did.

Scholars also like to point out the political implications of Ovid's work. This is undoubtedly because of Ovid's exile, which must have some political reason. But I do not think that subtle political implications are important to Ovid's work. I wish more scholars would skip this tedious political interpretation.

Only six books of the Fasti survive, corresponding to the months January through June. There is a fierce debate about whether the other six books were written and lost or never written (and so never lost). I shall not throw my divine opinion into this fray. I do wish we did have those six books. It would be a nice feather in my lit project's cap.

April 18, 2010


For my lit project, I read the poetry of Tibullus.

After finishing Propertius, I thought it would be a good time to finish up the Roman love Elegy, Tibullus being the only major poet I had not yet read. Two books of his love poems survive, as well as two more books (with no clear demarcation) which are attributed to Tibullus but most likely not his (spurious). Tibullus died young, so little remains.

Tibullus is often described as the simplest of the love poets. He is certainly the most gentle and most sincere. He dreams of an easy country life with his love, as wife, the heart of his humble home. He chooses love over riches, love over war. He is direct about his emotions, and genuinely so. He is quiet. Needy. Tibullus is not coarse or blunt like Catullus; he has none of the flamboyant learning of Ovid; he knows not the style or charm of Propertius--

Tibullus (alas!) is dull.

What a disappointment.

April 09, 2010


For my lit project, I read the poems of Propertius.

Ovid is my point of entrance; Ovid's Amores consists of three books of love poems written in elegiac meter (couplets alternating hexameter and pentameter). The poems, like and unlike love, are brisk and frivolous and bold and capricious and honest and desperate and sensual and charming and oh! ever so charming. Ovid is blunt yet delicate, mischievous yet discreet, shrewd yet earnest. Every line is smart, every sentiment wicked. Ovid, crafty Ovid, exhausts Lust's emotions, bounds from the thrill of a night's passion to the despair of passion rejected. The Amores introduced me to Ovid and Roman poetry. Hardly a line of it did I not take to heart.

And there is hardly a line which does not owe a great deal to Propertius.

Propertius (Ovid's elder by a few years) wrote four books of elegies. The first three are love poems dedicated (mostly) to his Cynthia. Everything to love in Ovid is here -- the energy, the honesty, the charm. The poetry is as capricious as love can be, as irrepressible. The fourth book turns from love poetry and takes the elegy in other directions, from epistles from wife to soldier-husband (perhaps inspiring Ovid's Heroides) to etiological descriptions of Rome (perhaps inspiring Ovid's Fasti (which I've just begun to read)).

What to say of Propertius? I am too sick at the moment to think clearly and give him a proper assessment. Here are some poems and passages to give you an idea of his work (though the translation I read/am quoting seems to place an emphasis on fitting Propertius' lines into properly metrical English lines, making me worry the translation is in many ways inaccurate). Enjoy.

From I.vii:
Though sometimes she may criticize me, lovers
can profit from my words if they'll but read.
The sad heart lifts a bit when it discovers
others have suffered and survived indeed.
My friend, if Cupid's arrow ever finds you--
I pray the gods may spare you such a fate--
you'll try to praise the silken net that binds you,
but these will be new skills, and learned too late.
Then you may seek my songs, and even learn them,
and sigh with lovesick youths above my dust,
His words were truth.
The following two poems illustrate how quickly Propertius can change tones. From II.xv:
No man more blest! O night, not dark for me,
beloved bed, scene of such dear delight!
To lie and talk there in the lamp's soft flickering,
and then to learn ourselves by touch, not sight--
to have her hold me with her breasts uncovered,
or, slipping on her tunic, balk my hand;
to have her kiss my eyes awake and murmur,
Why must you sleep? and make her sweet demand.
Shifting our arms, moving to new embraces,
we kissed a thousand kisses multiplied;
then, with lamp rekindled, fed our senses
on new delights -- the eye is love's best guide.
&c. II.xvii:
If you must lie about your lovers,
beguiling me, my blood is on your head.
Each night of solitude I sing my sorrows,
lying alone -- and you in what man's bed?
Pity poor Tantalus, waist-deep in water
that shrinks whenever he would quench his thirst;
or Sisyphus who strains to push the boulder
up the long slope, and fails. Pity these cursed,
but pity even more the piteous lover--
lover with whom no wise man would change place.
I, once the king admitted and admired,
for ten days now I have not seen your face.
Bitch! I should find a rock, a cliff, to leap from,
or mix a poisonous drug and drink it down.
I cannot hurl my works at that closed doorway,
nor wander weeping through the moonlit town.

Yet I can't leave her, though I try it often.
Seeing how true I am, may she not soften?
Propertius is more melancholy than Ovid, and genuinely so. II.xxvii:
Men, alive for an hour, would know that hour's ending,
would learn the path by which their doom draws near;
on the unclouded sky they search, like the Phoenicians,
what star to trust in and what star to fear.

Whether we fight the Parthians on foot, or sail to Britain,
death may be waiting us on sea or land.
A man in civil war, caught by opposing armies,
can feel the rock he stood on turn to sand.

Fire comes in the night, swallowing and engulfing;
into the cup what poisons find their way!
Only the man in love is proof against such terrors:
he knows his doom, its source, its kind, its day.

Though he has taken his place at the oar on death's black river,
though he looks at those sails of which no man can tell,
if he hears the voice of his mistress, calling him back from that kingdom--
let heaven thunder, he'll fight his way from hell.
[Not satisfied with this translation, I sought another and found this. I do not like this one much either:
Do you mortals seek to know death’s unfixed
hour and by what path the end may arrive?
On a clear night, do you study Phoenician science, as to
which star may be favorable and which destructive?
Whether we pursue Parthians on foot or Britons by boat,
on sea and on land, the way holds hidden perils.
Our head again tossed into the tumult, we moan,
when Mavors jumbles both camps’ uncertain hands,
and what’s more, the flame and ruin to our homes,
we moan, lest the black cups approach our lips.

Only the lover knows when he will die and from what
cause, and he fears neither Boreas’ blasts nor war.
Though the oarsman already sits in the stygian reeds,
and he sees the gloomy sails of the infernal bark:
if only the whisper of his girlfriend calling would summon him,
he would make the journey back, obedient to no law.
Maybe I should learn Latin.]

Like Ovid, Propertius is sexually blunt, which is often surprising. From III.xv:
No storms henceforth, I beg you, in our loving,
nor any endless wakeful empty nights!
When I had passed beyond my boyhood shyness
and was permitted love and all its rights,
it was Lycinna brought me that first knowledge,
giving a heart that I could not repay.
Now, almost three years since then, I remember
scarcely ten words of all we had to say.
Your love has buried all; no other woman
has made me her captive, to this day.
And yet he still manages to be utterly charming.

Perhaps my favorite line; from II.xv (again):
O let us love until we are each other--
And a fitting epigram for the man; from I.vi:
Well, men have died for love, they say, and gladly.
I shall be one of that immortal band.
Reading Propertius, I almost long for love and all its agony. May Cupid spare me.

[On the subject of love poems, I also read the surviving fragments of Sappho. I have nothing to say about them so won't write a separate post.]

April 06, 2010

The Trio's Engagements (1937)

From a technical standpoint, this film is far less interesting than the films of the heavy-hitters of Japanese cinema in the 30s — Ozu and Shimizu and Naruse and Mizoguchi. However, this film feels like it is the most “modern.” Three youngish men are hired at a store (which seems to specialize in fake silk) and each falls in lust with the president’s daughter; each also happens to have a previous engagement set with another girl.

The script might as well have been pulled straight from Hollywood (this is what I mean by “modern”). And it is as delightful as old Hollywood comedy can be (very delightful), though it has none of the sparkle. The central points of comic tension (the conflict between the three men for one hand; the conflict between the previous lovers) are not utilized whatsoever (the film spends a lot of time on exposition, then dissolves with a miraculous anti-climax). The conspicuous elements of modern Western society (the lush store, the jazzy soundtrack, the neon signs, the somewhat-independent working woman) tend to clash with conservative Japanese conventions (particularly marriage and the woman’s role in it; re: the ending). The film also lacks the polish of Hollywood (the lighting, the fluid camera, the magnificent costumes and sets), however hard it may try to compensate for that. It almost works, but mostly doesn’t.

And for that, perhaps, it is all the more charming.

This is the first film I have seen by Yasujiro Shimazu. Mostly forgotten now, he seems to have been a defining influence in Japanese films in the 1930s; the internet assures me that he helped cultivate a lot of young talent and that his early 30s realism paved the way for the canon of Japanese filmmakers that IS remembered (see the canon I listed above). I would love to see more of his films. What survives of this film is choppy and, I imagine, does not do the original product justice. I shall keep my eye open for more.

April 05, 2010


For my lit project, I read the Works and Days, Theogony, and The Shield of Heracles by Hesiod.

Like Homer, Hesiod is an early bard continuing what seems to be a much older oral tradition. The Homeric tradition and the Hesiodic tradition are usually considered as separate traditions (perhaps with some intermingling), and so the two together give us two perspectives on Ancient poetry. Homer's epics are narrative poems which take place in the mythological past. The Hesiodic tradition is more varied, and if it is artistically less satisfying, it is historically more fascinating.

The Hesiodic tradition begins with Works and Days which, unlike Homer, is of the present. After a hymn for Zeus (considered spurious by some scholars) and a description of the Five Ages -- which ends in the modern age which, surprise, is the hardest on Man and which requires constant toil (the subject to come in this poem) -- the poem describes various farming techniques (when to sow, when to reap, when to furrow, when to sleep, &c.), stressing the importance of Work, and ends with a description of Days (which days are good for what). There are a few curious myths thrown in between all this stuff about work and days; what caught my eye was the myth of Pandora, which I had not yet stumbled upon in all of my Classical readings (apparently Hesiod is the only Ancient to relate this myth). The Pandora myth itself has been reworked by many modern authors and has been turned into a stunningly poetic allegory; I was shocked to discover how unpoetic the original is. Really, it is just a myth which blames all of the Evils in the world on Woman. It is because of Her that we must toil, because of Her that we must suffer, because of Her that we have no hope. There is not much to the myth, and I am impressed modern interpreters have been able to discover so many nuances.

Theogony is a genealogy of the gods. There are a lot of them. Most of them are personifications (of, say, Hardship, or Zeal, or whatever). Most of them are not mentioned much (at all) outside Theogony. This is my second time through the Theogony, and it is a fascinating, bizarre, and ultimately tiresome read.

The Shield of Heracles is a mini-epic (or else fragment of an epic) of an episode in which Heracles fights Cycnus, the son of Ares. This is the closest the Hesiodic tradition gets to the Homeric tradition. A good deal of this poem is dedicated to describing the bronze shield Hephaestus made for Heracles. It is difficult to imagine any shield could be as elaborate as this description. It is even more difficult to imagine how the Ancients found any pleasure in an elaborate description such as this. (Such a description is not unique in Ancient lit, as anybody who has read Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes can attest.)

Hesiod is usually the loser when he is compared to Homer. (That probably does not need to be said.) Poor Hesiod. His work has survived two-and-a-half thousand years so that I might admire how bizarre it is. He probably deserves better.

April 02, 2010

Pindar's Odes

For my lit project, I read Pindar's Odes.

Pindar's Victory Odes celebrate athletes who have triumphed at the Panhellenic Games (4 places hosted such events: Olympia, Delphi, Corinth, and Nemea -- the 4 books of Pindar's Odes are divided according to these four events). The games include boxing and wrestling and chariot driving and spear throwing and race running (both in armor and the nude) and whatever other physical abilities the Ancients prided themselves in.

Pindar is often considered the "poet's poet." This reputation (I discovered) is granted to Pindar less for his content and more for his form, which is compulsively metrical and rigid (with a concentration on the balance of strophe/antistrophe). Even the Pindaric Odes which have been popular through the ages borrow his form rather than his language (the book I read had an appendix which included some of these Pindaric imitations; Cowley's reinterpretation of Pindar into English was most fascinating). I, however, do not feel qualified to say any more about this form and how it operates. Undoubtedly my lack of education in poetry means there are yet secrets in Pindar for me to unearth.

Pindar's method of praise is similar throughout the Odes: compliment the victor, his family (usually father or son, sometimes uncles and brothers and other MEN of the family), his homeland; relate a myth which in some way compares the victor (or his family or homeland) to gods and heroes; tell the victor that though he may never achieve what the gods have (and he should not be so arrogant to try), he has achieved the highest among mortals. Pindar's sobriety is most effective in making the Odes sincere (rather than simple flattery).

Horace (in his Odes) describes Pindar as a river whose forceful torrents flood its banks. This description has persisted, and it is accurate in its own way. Pindar's metrical diligence is counterpoised by his dense and stately language. He flies to heroic heights but is ever sure to scale back to human dignity (defined by chance and change). Pindar's poetry rolls ferociously, insistently; one steps into this river to be swept away, to be drowned.

Pindar proved difficult for me. The first Odes I read were too heroic, too obscure. As one who admires simplicity and clarity (and humor), I felt there was little in Pindar for me. Only in Book II (Pythian Games) did I begin to feel some of Pindar's power. It took patience. I took time to work through his language; I read up on each myth he cites and tried to figure out why it was relevant and what it accomplished; I reread difficult passages and abrupt transitions. And finally something in Pindar's poetry gleamed. I could finally respect Pindar's style, if I could not yet love it (and I may never love it).

While reading the Odes, I thought often about how poetry developed and evolved. All the Ancient poets I have been reading write in specific styles to accomplish specific things. Pindar praised. He wrote Odes to be sung in honor of those who wanted to be honored by poetry. (<-A fine business, I'm sure, for talent like Pindar's.) Some poets taught. Some poets loved. Some poets mourned. The poets wrote our myths. The poets thought our thoughts...

But poetry is different today. It is abstract. It has lost its forms. What poets write today is abstract and formless. Ah! but so is the way of all arts. If poetry is obscure today, it is because new media have taken its place. Our myths were once written in poetry; we write them now with Images. Film is our new poetry. Griffith is our new Homer, Eisenstein our Pindar... (or not). And yet we still have Pindar.

April 01, 2010

March 10 favorites

I feel my viewing habits becoming more sluggish, though I watched a lot this past month. Film no longer challenges me; my interest in it is waning.

On that note, this is what I liked this past month:

Wife! Be Like a Rose! (1935)

Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005)

I watched two dozen short documentaries this month. I do not know what possessed me. Of them, I liked:

Moment of Joy (1965)

The City (1939)

The Devil's Toy (1966)

A Walk in the Old City of Warsaw (1958)