Monthly Archives: September 2010

In those days …

This year, in our home, July and August and now September have been difficult months; no one died.

What does one write? Hollowed out, all confidence gone, wept dry–what does one write?

At the whiff of madness and grief, I am often tempted to flee into the visual and tactile arts. Abandon writing for a sojourn in process-based and non-communicative territories. Making. Solitary Homo faber.

What does one write? Picked the lock on my daughter’s room; this time, nothing found.

David Jones made “Exiit Edictum”; he did not write it. In contrast, William Blake wrote much of: “Satan watching the endearments of Adam and Eve“.

Silence after sense. Meaning outside of narrative. Narratives! I can’t afford them; I don’t have the foundation. Give me something material: leaf tannins staining the sidewalks, moldy melon rinds, the unread sediment of now. A narrative would be a corpse.

Meaning unmade; unmade meaning. Found.

Exiit edictum

Exiit edictum. David Jones, 1949.

Noting the Delirious Footnote

Having a job (for now) and a family means reading much less than one might. My current re-reading of Paradise Lost began in March; I’m in Book X now. Given such a pitiful pace, I have mostly ignored the notes in Gordon Teskey’s Norton Critical Edition, 2005. (Teskey, the author of Delirious Milton, is a well-loved teacher at Harvard; I’ve never met him.) Fortunately, given that I need them from time-to-time, the notes are footnotes (at the bottom of the page) and not endnotes. If they were endnotes, I’d probably ignore them altogether. Anyway, Saturday, pretty much the only day that I can read, I was surprised to find the following note:

498-99: surging maze: This picture of the rising, moving complicatedly twisted loops of the serpent’s body is amoung the finest poetic images in the poem. (pg. 210)

Really?! I simply cannot imagine the “surging maze” in any memorable way. Here’s the passage (from The John Milton Reading Room) for your own assessment:

So spake the Enemie of Mankind, enclos’d
In Serpent, Inmate bad, and toward Eve
Address’d his way, not with indented wave,
Prone on the ground, as since, but on his reare,
Circular base of rising foulds, that tour’d
Fould above fould a surging Maze, his Head
Crested aloft, and Carbuncle his Eyes;
With burnisht Neck of verdant Gold, erect
Amidst his circling Spires, that on the grass
Floted redundant: pleasing was his shape,
And lovely, never since of Serpent kind
Lovelier, not those that in Illyria chang’d
Hermione and Cadmus, or the God
In Epidaurus; nor to which transformd
Ammonian Jove, or Capitoline was seen,
Hee with Olympias, this with her who bore
Scipio the highth of Rome. (9.494-510)

It’s just too complex for me–Milton made the possessed serpent partly a massive snake with burning red eyes and partly a Disney castle floating across the lawn of paradise. This, however (and apart from the fact that I disagree), is all beside the point … or is it the point? I might think Milton’s serpent moves with unimaginable complexity, but would I say so in the footnotes of “a critical edition”?

In other words, Teskey let a bit of marginalia slip into his textual annotations. This discovery has slowed my progress; I have pulled every edition from my shelves to compare notes and I have searched for others online. Most editors note that “spires” refers to the serpent’s coils; only Thomas Newton allowed himself a bit of emotion.

But our author has not only imitated Ovid, but has ransack’d all the good poets, who have ever made a remarkable description of a serpent …. (Milton, John. 1758. Paradise lost A poem, in twelve books. The author John Milton. From the text of Thomas Newton D.D. Birmingham: printed by John Baskerville for J. and R. Tonson in London. p. 168)

Although I am a bit surprised at Teskey’s subjective effusion, should we object? Should the editor step aside and let the readers find their own “finest poetic images”? Or, does such an admission from the editor win the poem a more engaged reading? I favor the first, but must confess that I am now pausing to skim backwards through the previous eight books of footnotes. (Also see, 9.372n: “they stay … more. The truest thing said in this poem.”) Add a few more weeks to my re-reading. After all, a man with two maternal grandmothers cannot be ignored.

The Glowing Violet: Lycidas

Playing semi-free association with the words of the 17th century poem, “Lycidas” is an inaccurate (at worst) and fanciful (at best) preoccupation. Some readers (I am one) may find rich allusions in the name of a single flower and seek to re-read the poem with added appreciation. Others, assuming Milton’s genius permeates every detail of every line of every poem, work to construct an airtight artistic unity. McHenry, in his “A Milton Herbal”, for example, points to the appropriate place of the violet at the imagined Christian funeral of Milton’s classmate, Edward King. The violet was thought (according to Leach) to have been present at the crucifixion and having been touched by the shadow of the cross, now hangs its sweet head in mourning. The story, though I doubt Viola odorata grew on Golgotha, may be an old one, and although (perhaps, just perhaps) Milton had heard of it, this is not the source of “violet” in line 145 of “Lycidas”.

Nevertheless, there are older stories and an endless list of literary appearances for the violet. A tempting allusion is associated (over-eagerly) with the etymology of “violet”. A fanciful and popular history purports that viola is a Latin derivative of the Greek ione, a word associated with the story of Io. A succinct version of this popular history may be read in Maud Greive’s A Modern Herbal (1931):

There is a legend that when Jupiter changed his beloved Io into a white heifer for fear of Juno’s jealousy, he caused these modest flowers to spring forth from the earth to be fitting food for her, and he gave them her name.

It’s a good story, but (although close, and closer in Shakespeare), I have found no real evidence in Ovid’s Metamorphosis or in etymological dictionaries to confirm it. In fact, in Ovid, Io does not eat the sweet violets, but “was always fed / on leaves from trees and bitter herbs” (Mandelbaum, 1:631-2). One might build a stronger case for Io in the etymology of “violet” in the Latin and Greek roots of “way” or “to go out”. (Think of “via”, often borrowed in English from Latin.) After Argus (sent by jealous Juno to guard the white heifer, Io) was murdered by Jupiter’s hit man, Mercury, Juno was enraged. She pestered Io with flies and afflictions that drove the beast to madness. Io fled and became a wayfarer, or as Mandelbaum writes: “way-worn Io on her endless path” (1:735). Ultimately, Jupiter confessed his infidelity to Juno and Io was released from her afflictions. Here, the association may be that the violet is: 1) frequently growing beside the way–it does appear regularly at foot paths; and 2) the violet is capable of spreading by sending out shoots and runners–in a few years a patch of violets can walk across a lawn. This, however, is (again) only an association for which there is little evidence. What we know of the etymology of “violet” is: the word has a Latin parent, viola—a word best translated as “violet” and used to refer to exactly the same flowers.

However, Milton’s usage of the word in “Lycidas” can be traced to more obvious and (perhaps) less suggestive sources. He found precedence for his flower catalog in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Although Milton’s list of funeral flowers is longer, Shakespeare’s list also includes the violet (Perdita speaking):

O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that frighted thou let’st fall
From Dis’s waggon! daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bight Phoebus in his strength—a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one! O, these I lack,
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er! (Act IV, 4: 1995-2008)

What was the great bard thinking of when he wrote “violets dim”? Io? Maybe. Perdita does refer to Juno … and the dim violet is said to be sweeter than Juno’s eye lids … just as Jupiter must have found Io to be. While these lines suggest that Shakespeare might have toyed with the etymology of “violet”, we do know that the bard also had another source for his lines, Spenser.

Writing before Shakespeare, Spenser used an ever shorter catalog of flowers in his “The Shepheardes Calender: April”, Hobbinoll sings:

See, where she sits upon the grassie greene,
(O seemely sight)
Yclad in Scarlot like a mayden Queene,
And Ermines white.
Upon her head a Cremosin coronet,
With Damaske roses and Daffadillies set:
Bayleaves betweene,
And Primroses greene
Embellish the sweete Violet. (55-63)

(Sims, relying on the work of Alwin Thaler and George Coffin Taylor, builds the case for these sources in his “Perdita’s ‘Flowers O’ Th’ Spring’ and ‘Vernal Flowers’ in Lycidas”.)

But, what (you might ask) was Spenser thinking when he included the violet in his poem? Who knows? Perhaps, simply, that violets are sweetly scented and plentiful in April.

In any case, violets were commonly a part of mourning in England. According to Leach, in Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend, they were carried to guard the superstitious living as they visited cemeteries or attended funerals (1157). Violets are even more fitting for funerals when white or, in Milton’s line, “glowing”. Although most violets are violet, some do bloom white. (They are comparatively rare. I can recall the exact location of Viola striata in the tree-shaded pastures of my youth.) The connection here with Io as a pale virgin and as a white heifer is tempting, but probably only one of coincidence. Ultimately, what more can be said, but that Spenser’s violet was “sweete” and Perdita’s “dim”, but Milton’s was “glowing”.

References

Leach, Maria. 1972. Funk & Wagnall’s standard dictionary of folklore, mythology, and legend. New ed. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
McHenry, James Patrick. 1996. A Milton Herbal. Milton Quarterly 30, no. 2: 45-110.
Ovid, and Allen Mandelbaum. 1993. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Sims, James H. 1971. Perdita’s “Flowers O’ Th’ Spring” and “Vernal Flowers” in Lycidas. Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter): 87-90.

[Note: This is the seventh post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: LycidasWhite Pink: Lycidas and Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas.]

British Viola species

British Viola species. John Curtis. 1823. British entomology.

The Narrative of Oppen’s “A Narrative”

Of the many kinds of poetry, there should be a name for those that resist paraphrase, gloss and interpretation. These poems are born of a Modern aesthetic, perhaps … or at least to an anxious aesthetic, one in which the poets or their readers worry about distinctions, about what separates poetry from prose or the poetic from the prosaic. Plenty of poems were written by design to resist; others are just too damn good to be subjected to exposition. Of these, I would include George Oppen’s “A Narrative”. I am tempted to re-type the entire poem here, all eleven sections, and end this note with the poem’s last lines. But that will not work. I write here to remember, not to conquer, the poems I admire … or, in other words, and (conveniently) to quote from the poem: “we / Dwindle, but that I have forgotten / Tortures me.”

Here I will attempt to answer a simple question: What is the narrative of “A Narrative”?

The poem is not, I believe, itself a narrative. Nor is it truly about any particular “narrative”; that is, the poem does not expound on (for example) a creation narrative. Instead, the poem addresses the search for and the makings of narratives. We need them, or we feel that we do, but they are unreliable. At worst, our narratives are lies, at best (and not much better) they are built on “the fallacy / Of words”. A narrative self-told detaches us from the substantial, from a place, and launches the person into a self-referential hell. We may not like our place, our substantial existence, but to reject it (even for something apparently more permanent), is to reject Love and life itself.

What breath there is
In the rib cage we must draw
From the dimensions

Surrounding, whether or not we are lost
And choke on words.

Finding a place or reconciling oneself to a life lived in a river of substance, a river in which we are but as silt “flowing / To no imaginable sea”, allows us to reclaim our language. It gives us a foundation on which to be honest. It is from “the open / Miracle / … / Of place” that we can speak and live with “clarity” and “respect”.

And so, this is the narrative of “A Narrative”: the poet wishes to tell the truth, but while the truth is hard, the telling is harder; where does one begin, if not with this river, this body of dust passing us by?

George Oppen’s “A Narrative” (from his book This in Which) can be found in:

George Oppen. The Collected Poems of George Oppen. New York: New Directions, 1976. 132-140. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/123096380

A recording of Oppen reading “A Narrative” followed by other poems is available from PennSound at:  PennSound: George Oppen | MP3

Feed Me

In the last month, at least one small family of goldfinches has moved into the neighborhood. I hear them more often than I see them, but last week I found them feeding on the neighbor’s parched, but fully-seeded Echinacea plants. Two adults and two, completely fledged, adult-sized “chicks”. The adults were busy prying tiny morsels from the densely packed seed heads, but the minors fluttered on nearby stems, crying to be fed. When the adults saw me and took flight, their young followed, begging, airborne over the rooftops. No doubt, all this begging accounts for the fact that I have heard them more often than I have seen them.

Of all the creatures that rear their young, perhaps the birds are the most insistent at pestering for nourishment. Whining puppies are annoying and I’ve seen a few frustrated, tired, nurse mares, but most mammals satiate and move on. Humans whine for food more (and certainly across a greater number of years) than do most mammals. My nearly adult-sized adolescents are still begging. The “what’s for supper” questions begin as soon as we finish the school and work day. The finches, however, are nagged all day long: chick-wee, chick-wee, chick-wee … is so nearly: feed me, feed me, feed me …. I’ve never heard this ruckus in the winter. Sometime soon they must learn to feed themselves.

The coming winter will be both a burden and a season of rest.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch. Bob Hines, United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 1974.

In the last month, at least one small family of goldfinches has moved into the neighborhood. I hear them more often than I see them, but last week I found them feeding on the neighbor’s parched, but fully-seeded Echinacea plants. Two adults and two, completely fledged, adult-sized “chicks”. The adults were busy prying tiny morsels from the densely packed seed heads, but the minors fluttered on nearby stems, crying to be fed. When the adults saw me and took flight, their young followed, begging, airborne over the rooftops. No doubt, all this begging accounts for the fact that I have heard them more often than I have seen them.

Of all the creatures that “rear” their young, perhaps the birds are the most insistent at pestering for nourishment. Whining puppies are annoying and I’ve seen a few frustrated, tired, nurse mares, but most mammals satiate and move on. Humans whine for food more (and certainly across a greater number of years) than do most mammals. My nearly adult-sized adolescents are still begging. The “what’s for supper” questions begin soon as soon as we finish the school and work day. The finches, however, are nagged all day long: chick-wee, chick-wee, chick-wee … is so nearly: feed me, feed me, feed me …. I’ve never heard this ruckus in the winter. Sometime soon they must learn to feed themselves. The coming winter will be both a burden and a season of rest.