In certain respects, Richard Henry Dana’s “The Dying Raven” is the most interesting poem I’ve so far encountered in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry. It’s the first unrhymed poem in the volume, a longish blank verse piece, and while most lines end with some form of punctuation, it does have some noticeable enjambments. As a result, it doesn’t feel quite as trapped in the past as the poems that precede it, at least at first.

Unfortunately, as a poem, it’s a dull piece. It begins well enough, with a description of the raven’s call as a promise of spring to come—a spring that has come, and is lovingly described. If not especially remarkable, it’s at least a refreshing change of pace. But it doesn’t sustain itself. There are any number of flaws—breathlessness (“Preacher to man’s spirit! / Emblem of Hope! Companion! Comforter!”) and redundancy (especially in the passage alerting us that the raven is now dead)—but the one that really undoes the poem is that it’s emotionally flat. Nowhere is this more apparent than this passage, which follows some musing on the cause of the bird’s death:

I needs must mourn for thee. For I, who have
No fields, nor gather into garners—I
Bear thee both thanks and love, not fear nor hate.

It’s completely bloodless, and it comes right where the poem ought to be reaching its zenith. After this, the poem descends into moralizing, and then it ends. There’s the material here for a good poem, but it’s weighed down by the dross, and the poem as a whole is a failure.

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In Book VII of the Aeneid, Aeneas sends a few of his men on a diplomatic mission to speak with King Latinus, with the aim of convincing him to allow them to settle there peacefully. Latinus asks them,

“What are you seeking? What is it that has brought you
Across the cerulean waters to our shore?
Is it that you have lost your way, or was it
Tempests acting upon you (for we are told
That this has happened to many upon the deep),
That you have entered in, between our river’s
Banks, and harbored your fleet within our port?
Do not refuse our welcome. Remember that we
Latins are of the race of Saturn, who
Following in the ways of our ancient father,
Need no external laws to obey or be
Forbidden by; we act of our own free wills.” (7.265-76; tr. Ferry)

Perhaps picking up on this reference to the unfettered will, the emissaries stress that no error has brought them to Italian shores: they have chosen to go there:

When the old king had finished speaking, then
Ilioneus said these words: “O king, illustrious
Descendant of the line of Faunus, it wasn’t
A black storm of winter nor was it surging seas
That drove us this way, nor was it that we mistook
A reading of the stars or of a coastline.
We came of our own free will… (7.286-92)

This insistence is interesting, because it stands in direct contradiction to something Aeneas himself said earlier in the book, on not just one but two occasions. The first comes in book four, when he attempts to placate Dido after telling her he must abandon her. (I’ve previous written about this scene here.) There, he says:

“And now the messenger of the gods, whom Jove
Himself has sent to me, has come down here
Upon the blowing winds—I swear, it happened—
It was full daylight when I saw him coming
Toward me, coming through the walls, and with
My very own ears I drank in what it was
That the messenger of Jove was sent to tell me.
So you must cease your protestations now.
I go not to Italy of my own free will.” (4.499-507)

And, in book six, he again tells Dido (her shade, this time) that his leaving her was not a free action:

Tears fell from his eyes and he spoke tenderly,
And lovingly to her: “Unhappy Dido,
Is it true, what I was told, that you were dead,
And with a sword had brought about your death?
And was it I, alas, who caused it? I
Swear by the stars, and by the upper world,
And by whatever here below is holy,
I left your shores unwillingly. (6.625-32)

We have, then, an interesting discrepancy. Aeneas’ men appear to view the journey to Italy as a chosen destiny, while Aeneas himself more than once insists that it is forced upon him against his will. What explains this?

One might offer a deflationary explanation of the difference, on two fronts. First, in discussing free will, Ilioneus and Aeneas are actually drawing subtly different contrasts. For Ilioneus, the Trojans have come to Latium out of free will as opposed to out of miscalculation or the overwhelming power of, say, a storm. Here it is noteworthy that it is precisely a storm that drove the Trojans to Carthage. His point is that they aimed deliberately at that destination, and intend to stay there. In that respect, he is perfectly correct.

Aeneas, meanwhile, denies that he goes to Italy of his own free will because he draws a contrast between his desire (to stay with Dido in Carthage) and his destiny (to found a new settlement in Latium). In this case, too, what he says is true—though in this case it’s complicated, since he does also desire the destiny that has been promised to him (I discuss this further in the earlier post linked above). There is, nonetheless, a substantial part of his will that would, if given the chance, stay in Carthage, and he goes to Italy only because this part of his will is fettered by destiny.

A second way of deflating the difference is to recognize the pragmatics of these utterances. None is a bare statement of fact: each has a definite social purpose. Ilioneus seeks Latinus’ favor, and therefore has an interest in presenting the Trojans as self-possessed. Aeneas, by contrast, is attempting both to placate Dido and to escape judgment—both hers and his own—for abandoning her. Thus he seeks to distance himself, as much as possible, from his evil act.

Both of these deflationary readings—which are compatible and indeed reinforce one another—are undoubtedly true. They do not, however, give the complete story, and we miss out on a major aspect of the Aeneid if we rest content with them alone. What we miss is this: even though Ilioneus’ and Aeneas’ claims are, strictly speaking, compatible, since they rest on different notions of free will, they nonetheless do capture a real difference in perspective. Ilioneus identifies wholeheartedly with the decision to settle in Latium. Aeneas does not.

To see why this is, consider Aeneas’ first speech to his men—not the first in time, but the first we encounter in the poem. Aeolus has, at Juno’s behest, unleashed a storm on the Trojans, and this has driven them to Carthage. Several ships appear to be lost, and it falls on Aeneas, as leader to the Trojans, “to ease their sorrow” (1.263):

“O my companions, O you who have undergone
Together with me, worse things than thise before,
The gods will bring this also to an end.
You who were there so close to Scylla’s frenzy,
Right in under her howling wailing cliffs,
And experienced the Cyclops throwing rocks,
Remember how brave you were. Be of good cheer,
Send fear away. Perhaps there will come a time
When you will remember these troubles with a smile.
Through many perils, through whatever mischance
We may encounter, our journey is toward Latium,
Where Fortune offers us a peaceful home.
There Troy will rise again. It is ordained.
Therefore endure, and expect a happier time.”
These were the words he used, though sick at heart;
His face simulates hopefulness and he
Endeavors to suppress his deep distress. (1. 264-80)

Here we see Aeneas attempting to cheer his followers, promising to them what the gods have promised to him. But it is a simulation, and to give this speech he must “suppress his deep distress.”

This shows Aeneas serving in one of his crucial roles in the Aeneid: he is a buffer. It is his job, as leader of the Trojans, to absorb all the doubts and uncertainties of the journey to found a new home, and in doing so to shield his followers from those doubts. Only in being forced to serve as such a buffer does Aeneas become the complicated man I love, the man both severed and inseparable from his fateful decisions.

Tonight, I finally got a chance to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in a theater, rather than merely on my computer. I first watched the film back in college—it was, I think, the film that sparked my serious interest in film as an artistic medium—and find that now, seven or eight years later, my perspective on it has substantially changed, though my love for it hasn’t.

On previous viewings, I identified most with the Stalker, even though, as an atheist, my beliefs aligned most with the Writer (at least, the beliefs he expressed in his early laments about the boringness of natural law and of triangles). And I took this to be the attitude of the film: its commentary on society is expressed fairly directly through the Stalker. Even now, I think it is probably true that Tarkovsky himself finds his views most reflected in those of the Stalker. On this viewing, however, I came to see more critique of the Stalker within the film.

The first indication that the Stalker is not above reproach is the film’s opening scene, in which he is shown reducing his wife to tears, to the point where she ends up writhing on the floor. There is a basic disconnect, a basic selfishness that is revealed here. My younger self was inclined to forgive it because I saw the private importance, to the Stalker, of his trips to the Zone (the source of his wife’s grief). Today, while I may still forgive it, though less thoroughly than before, I am more struck by the Stalker’s inability to connect with another human being, an inability that carries throughout the film.

In the Zone, the Stalker tells the Writer and the Scientist about his mentor, Porcupine. Porcupine’s brother died in the Zone, and shortly thereafter, Porcupine hanged himself. Before doing that, however, he entered the room in the Zone that satisfies one’s inmost desires, and was rewarded with a large sum of money. While the Writer’s musings throughout the film are largely comical and spiritually empty, his take on Porcupine is, I think, entirely accurate. Porcupine entered the room hoping to help his brother, but this was a superficial desire: ultimately, he wanted money more, and the room gave him what he truly desired. It was his inability to live with that piece of self-knowledge that drove him to suicide.

The Writer makes this point in response to the Stalker’s claim that his motivation in taking people to the Zone is to bring them happiness: that the meaning in his life comes from aiding others in this way. But this rings hollow: he goes to the Zone for himself. Bringing others is only an excuse. This is not to say that he does not want to desire to help others, but the overwhelming sense I get from the film is that this is an abstract desire, and not what really drives him. And so, while he says he cannot enter the room himself because it is not the proper role for a stalker, I am inclined to agree with the Writer that it is actually fear that keeps him from entering: fear of what he will discover about himself.

In stark contrast to this stands the wife. At the end of the film, we see her having overcome her distress, taking on a very nurturing role toward the Stalker. As he wonders who he can take to the Zone in a world where all have lost the ability to believe, she offers to go with him, and the viewer can feel the genuineness behind her offer. The empathy she displays is not a trickle-down effect of an abstractly believed ideology, but a spontaneous result of her love, despite everything, for her husband. I come away from this thinking that, while it may be true that the Stalker is one of God’s fools, it is the wife who seems the model of humanly attainable happiness—happiness, as she well knows, intermixed with a good helping of sorrow, but happiness nonetheless. In a film where every other adult character is, in his own way, overcome with despair, in her the vigor of life has not yet been snuffed out.

In the introduction to My Ántonia, we are told the (fictive) genesis of the book to follow: Jim Burden and an unnamed female acquaintance (a childhood friend) discuss a shared figure from their past: Ántonia Shimerda, and make plans to write about her. The woman never does, but Jim writes rather a lot, and it is this that constitutes the novel. The name is the name Jim gives it. Jim says:

“Of course, […] I should have to do it in a direct way, and say a great deal about myself. It’s through myself that I knew and felt her, and I’ve had no practice in any other form of presentation.” (p. 713; W. Cather, Early Novels and Stories, Library of America)

He is, as he self-consciously notes, giving only his version of Ántonia, and is a bit sheepish about it: he knows that his recollections cannot capture the whole of such an independent personality, but at best only a part. And this is reflected in the title he gives his notes:

He went into the next room, sat down at my desk and wrote on the pinkish face of the portfolio the word, “Ántonia.” He frowned at this a moment, then prefixed another word, making it “My Ántonia.” That seemed to satisfy him. (p. 714)

At first glance, this title seems to call for a stress on “my,” emphasizing the perspectival nature of the account to follow. But the title can’t be pronounced that way, because—as is stressed several times early on, ‘Ántonia’ takes a strong stress on its first syllable, next to which ‘my’ fades into insignificance. Even here, the force of Ántonia’s individuality shines through. And while I have not finished the novel, this has been true so far: Ántonia has not been contained by the limits of Jim’s memory. The meter of the title nicely foreshadows this.