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I flatter myself that there might be some interest in those books that made an impression on me this past year. I read seventy-four books in total. Recreational reading primarily consisted of poetry and philosophy, while my academic life led me to read a number of books ranging over history of science, philosophy of science, and biology. These latter I do not include here, though many were excellent. I offer below only those about which I have something to say, focusing on books of poetry, though I include some others of interest. Many are left out simply because I had no particular comments to make about them, even though I enjoyed them very much. Within the sub-categories, books are listed in the order read.

Poetry

Omar Khayyam, Ruba’iyat (trans. Avery and Heath-Stubbs) — For a time after reading this, I wrote ruba’iyat of my own, which are published on this blog here (the thirteenth is, in my view, the strongest). That it encouraged me to such activity is the highest recommendation I can give it. The translation is literal, which means that occasionally the poetry is lost, but the irreverent joy of the poems comes through as clearly as one could wish.

Pindar, Odes (trans. Bowra) — This book gave me great pleasure, and I will likely read it again in 2017. Pindar’s victory odes begin with the athletes whose immortality they ensure, but they expand to cover the entirety of that great question of being human. They celebrate human achievements, offer moral caution as to our limits (they are didactic with none of the flaws of didactic poetry), and question our place in the universe. Bowra’s translation offers to the reader such fine English wordcraft that I could read it, not as a degraded copy of an inaccessible original, but as I would any English poem, delighting in vivid descriptions and striking turns of phrase. In my own poetic work, Pindar ranks among my strongest influences.

Virgil, Aeneid (trans. Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald) — I need not say too much about this, as I have already written about it at length on this blog. Here I will only express my approval of both the Mandelbaum and Fitzgerald translations, both of which I prefer to the Fagles (the first translation I read). In reading each, I routinely had the following experience. While reading Mandelbaum, I came across an especially wonderful passage, went to check the corresponding passage in Fitzgerald, and thought, “Mandelbaum is clearly superior.” While reading Fitzgerald, precisely the same happened, only now Fitzgerald seemed the superior. (This may have even happened for the same passages.) Both are full of delights.

Virgil, Georgics (trans. Wilkinson) and Eclogues (trans. Ferry) — While I very much enjoyed both of these works (as evidenced here), I will want to read these works in other translations to get to know them better (I own the Ferry translation of the Georgics). Until then my relationship to them will remain subsidiary to my love for the Aeneid. At the same time, they capture aspects of life that the Aeneid does not, and so round out Virgil’s output nicely.

Geoffrey Hill, Without Title — This was my first exposure to Geoffrey Hill (who died while I was reading it), and thus far still my only serious engagement with his work (though I hope to dig much deeper in 2017). It was an often rewarding, often frustrating experience, but on the whole I felt that his poetry justified the difficulty. Behind the verbal wizardry and knotty syntax is real feeling, worth the effort of excavation. My thoughts on individual poems in the volume can be found here.

Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red — I read this, took a week to recover, and immediately read it again. The only reason I haven’t read it a third time is that my copy is currently on loan to a friend. I had previously read Plainwater and more or less enjoyed it, but largely felt that it escaped me. Autobiography of Red convinces me I will have to revisit it, for this “novel in verse” fairly explodes with descriptions that are both startlingly unexpected and perfectly precise. (No easy feat: much of the early American poetry I have been reading is reasonably precise, but only because tame, while much of the contemporary poetry I read manages to be unexpected—or at least to convince me that it wanted to be unexpected—at the cost of failing to convey much of anything at all.)

Other

Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena — Kafka was a strange, wonderful man, and I delighted in being made privy to the oddball intensity of his relationship with Milena. Reading this book is like watching a Wong Kar-Wai film: Franz and Milena’s relationship is full of the kind of unique rituals and concerns that characterize relationships in Wong’s films (especially Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). For my own part, little gives me more pleasure, makes me feel more deeply that there is life to be found among humans, and that this life is good.

Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn — Literary criticism, in my view, has two aims: to make us better readers, and to make us better writers. This is a book that helped me to become a better reader. Brooks is an admirable close reader of poems, and that is what this book is, first and foremost. It is also, somewhat more incidentally, a polemic in favor of the view that what the poem says cannot be captured without loss in any other form than the poem itself. As a general defense of the “new criticism,” the book is not persuasive: the position it stakes out is obviously correct, but only because it is not very bold, and the position it attacks as its contrast is very nearly a strawman (though perhaps accurate enough at the time). But what does that matter? The criticism in this book is what determines its value, and the criticism is remarkable.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity — I read this with a friend (who for her part read some of Emerson’s essays on my recommendation). Both of us noticed the similarities between Emerson’s and de Beauvoir’s ideas, only where Emerson spoke of self-reliance and conformity, de Beauvoir preferred to use the language of freeing oneself from oppression. Our discussion of this was interesting: I preferred Emerson, her de Beauvoir. She suggested, I think correctly, that this likely stemmed from certain differences in our experiences: my life has been relatively privileged and comfortable, allowing conformity in various forms to stand as one of my greatest obstacles, while she has very recently freed herself from a much more material form of oppression.

Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861 — It is often said that Emerson’s notebooks are his true masterpiece. I do not think this is correct: the composition of his essays brings the scattered moods of his notebook entries into striking juxtapositions that the notebooks alone cannot match. But it might be fairly said of Thoreau, whose deliberately composed works I enjoy only from a distance. The notebooks, by contrast, bring me close to the man and his enviable solitude. With Thoreau (and Emerson), I share a faith that this solitude can be mitigated by friendships that span centuries, between people who have never met. To facilitate such friendship is one of the highest purposes of writing, and Thoreau’s journal (at least, the selection presented here) serves precisely that noble end.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World — My stated purpose, on beginning to read this, was to mine it for poetic material. It has certainly furnished that: I can think of at least three poems I wrote this year that would have been impossible without this book. But leaving such selfish uses aside, the book documents a journey through an environment harsh beyond measure. As a picture of human life in such an environment, it is valuable even to those who do not see it as a quarry to be mined.

Yoshida Kenkō, Essays in Idleness — The opinions of a miscellaneous man who lived half a world away several centuries ago, well expressed. This book is a treasure trove, by turns funny and wise. No more needs to be said.

Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki — Imagine Thoreau’s Walden, only dramatically condensed (my copy is but 18 pages), and, instead of presenting a definite vision of how life ought to be, rather turning inward to frank self-criticism: Chōmei sought to lose his worldly attachments by living a simpler, more isolated life, only to find himself attached to that very simplicity and isolation itself.

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop — My experience of this book, and the high regard in which I hold it, are well expressed in this post I wrote about it. Cather conjures up a world with this book, and that feat, more than any particular story told (though there is a story), lies at its heart.

William Tecumseh Sherman, Memoirs — I know little about the civil war or about the controversies that attached to Sherman’s policies. I do not know if, considering his actions by their consequences, he should be thought a good man or a bad. But, reading his memoirs, I grew greatly attached to him, the way he carried himself. In great events, one must choose, one way or the other—thus he says, and so he does. In one of the passages that most struck me in Thoreau’s journal, Thoreau condemns the one who fails to occupy any ground. Sherman occupied ground in every sense, and was willing to defend it.

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In my previous post, I discussed how, with the loss of his land, Moeris lost as well the possibility of song – that is, of the shepherd’s pleasure. Song, of course, is not unique to shepherds. No doubt it exists in the city, too. But that does not mean it is the same.

What I said there was perfectly true, but it was one-sided. For Moeris did not lose merely the possibility of the shepherd’s pleasure, but also of the shepherd’s pain. Losing one’s land is not a painful event within the shepherd’s life. It is of a higher order: it denies the possibility of the shepherd’s life altogether. All of its pleasures and pains vanished. They may be replaced by others, but they are not the same. Any sophisticated hedonism (and Virgil’s is sophisticated) must recognize this entanglement of pleasure and pain, and that one may lament the loss of one’s pains as much as of one’s pleasures. My previous post was unsophisticated precisely for not sufficiently recognizing this, for presenting only the loss of pleasure.

I recognized my omission on reading the tenth and final Eclogue. There, Virgil sings a song for Gallus, who has been abandoned by his love, Lycoris. Love, which entangles pleasures and pains, is, after song, the central pleasure-pain in the Eclogues. Songs are sung for lovers, or to lament having been spurned by a lover. Happiness is requited love; unhappiness, unrequited.

But can I really speak of love as specifically a pleasure of shepherds? For love, like song, is present even in the city, and even in the city requited love is happiness and spurned love is unhappiness. What is the difference?

Consider the following passage:

……………………..even the laurels wept,
Even the tamarisks, for Gallus’s sorrow;
Even the mountains, even the cold cliffs
Of Lycaeus wept for him, and the pines that grow
On Maenalus’ slopses; the flock was standing still
As if transfixed in mute compassion for him.

For the sorrowing shepherd, the entire world joins in his sorrow: the laurels, the tamarisks, even the cold cliffs. All bear the character of his sorrow. In the city, one may certainly sorrow, and the world may even bear one’s sorrow with one, but it is a different world, and it gives the sorrow a different character. That is why they cannot be equated.

It is surely a virtue of Virgil’s hedonism that it recognizes the failure of pleasures and pains to translate across worlds.

Virgil’s Eclogues are hedonistic poems. Let me not be misunderstood. Though Christian moralism sees in all hedonism mere gluttony, Virgil’s poems do not celebrate intemperance. They simply recognize pleasure as the only good, pain as the only bad. They are beautiful for their celebration of the particular pleasures of the shepherd’s life – and for their recognition of the threats to this pleasure.

In the very first Eclogue, we saw Meliboeus dispossessed of his farm, but we did not see his full pain. It was left, to great poetic effect, in the background of the poem. Not so with the ninth Eclogue. The setting here is a meeting of Lycidas and Moeris on the path into town. A stranger, presumably a veteran, has come to Moeris’ farm and told him, “I own this place; you have to leave this place.” The remainder of the poem presents to us Moeris’ unhappiness.

The ninth Eclogue is heavily conditioned by the poems that came before it. In this poems, we have encountered music as the greatest pleasure of the shepherd’s life. Not the only one, to be sure, but the central one. Whatever hard work it may entail, at least it leaves room for song and singing contests. These have the power even to soften its pains, as the first Eclogue shows.

Yet music is precisely what is lost in the ninth Eclogue. The following exchange hints at what’s to come. Lycidas first:

But I was told Menalcas with his songs
Had saved the land, from where those hills arise
To where they slope down gently to the water,
Near those old beech trees, with their broken tops.

To which Moeris replies:

Yes, that was the story; but what can music do
Against the weapons of soldiers? When eagles come,
Tell me what doves can possibly do about it?

Menalcas, so the story goes, had saved the land with song. We might almost think this story a myth, did we not know from earlier Eclogues that Menalcas is a real shepherd. So we are left to wonder at the origin of this story, the actual nature of the even that inspired it. Regardless, here it is introduced only to be shown inapplicable: “what can music do / against the weapons of soldiers?”

What we see in the rest of the poem is the impossibility of music. After lamenting the loss of the solace brought to them by Menalcas’ songs, Lycidas urges Moeris to sing, for “singing makes the journey easier.” Lycidas would sing himself, but “My songs are honking geese among the swans.” But Moeris cannot sing. He “has been saying the words of a song, / over and over, trying to bring them back,” but while he remembers the words, the song itself does not return. Then Lycidas, too, tries to remember a song he had heard Moeris singing, but this still cannot bring Moeris to song.

Why is song impossible? Because it is associated with another life, a life that has been lost. “Time takes all we have away from us,” Moeris laments. The songs remain in memory, but no longer in life. They are present only as the gaunt shadows of nostalgia. They cannot be brought fully to life, and in the end Moeris must say:

No more of that; let’s just go on our way.
The time for singing will be when Menalcas comes.

The ninth Eclogue is, on the whole, terribly sad. In this regard it is important that it comes near the end of the sequence. Virgil exercised great poetic sensibility placing where he did the two Eclogues dealing with being dispossessed where he did. The first Eclogue establishes such dispossession as a threat, but does not allow the dispossessed fully to lament it. Why not? Because there is always something indecent about open suffering, and the poet must render us open to forgiving this indecency before presenting us with it. The first poem, unable to draw upon the rest of the sequence, lacks the resources for this. We know only abstractly what Meliboeus has lost. We are in no position to empathize with him. For that reason, the poem’s presentation of his suffering as real, but inwardly restrained, is appropriate.

By the time we reach the ninth Eclogue, by contrast, we are fully aware of what Moeris has lost. We have seen the pleasures of his life, and thus we can enter fully into his pain. We are especially able to do so because this pain, though mentioned explicitly, is primarily revealed to us by the way the poem shows how song has become impossible. Because song is the shepherd’s primary joy – we know this from the prior Eclogues – the loss of song presents itself as more than the loss of song alone. It is the loss of the very possibility of joy. And, if we have allowed ourselves to enter fully into the hedonism of these poems, nothing could move us more.

Love is a strange power, capable of making one forget oneself, become other than one is. It can make a mother, beside herself with rotted love, kill her children. It can make wolves flee from sheep, and apples grow from oaks. So we learn in Virgil’s eighth Eclogue, which, like the sixth, pictures an unstable nature.

Once again, there is a singing contest between two unhappy lovers – this time, Damon and Alphesiboeus. Damon has been spurned by Nysa – she has chosen Mopsus (of the fifth Eclogue) over Damon and his “shaggy beard and eyebrows.” Damon can understand that she has spurned him, for her nature is that of a spurner. Indeed, this is her divinity, for the gods too have spurned Damon:

Although no help has come for me from them,
I call on the gods to witness as I die.

What Damon cannot understand is that she should forget herself, forget her divine contempt, and choose Mopsus:

That she, who scorned all men, and scorned my goats,
My shepherd’s flute, my shaggy bear and eyebrows,
And though the gods cared nothing for anything human,
That she should be the bride of such as him!

Where Damon is a victim of nature’s capriciousness, Alphesiboeus seeks to harness it with magic. With charms he would recover Daphnis, his love. Bring Daphnis home, bring Daphnis home, my charms, runs the refrain of his song.* “I will with / such magic strive to change my lover’s mind.” The remainder of the song alternates between descriptions of his particular magic and examples of magic’s power: “Charms can entice the moon down out of the sky; / Ulysses’ men were changed by Circe’s charms; / Charms can cause the snake in the field to burst.”

Note. While I cannot stress enough that I do not know Latin, this seems to me to be a very impoverished translation of the line (“ducite ab urbe domum, mea carmina, ducite Daphnin”). It loses the current location of Daphnis, who it seems has gone to the city – a very important detail given that these are shepherd’s songs! – and it translates ‘carmina’ very awkwardly (based on a few online Latin-English dictionaries) as ‘charms’, when its actual meaning is closer to ‘songs’ or ‘poetry’. A more literal translation might look like this: Draw from the city, my songs, draw Daphnis home.

Does Alphesiboeus’ magic succeed? It is hard to say:

O see! before they’re carried out the ashes
Suddenly, of their own accord, burst forth,
And the altar burns once more with quivering flames.
Let this be good. —I think it may be good.
The dog is barking down by the front gate.
Can I believe it, or is it that lovers dream?
Cease now, my charms, my Daphnis has come home!

This magic has wrought changes, but on whom? Daphnis? Or Alphesiboeus? It is left unresolved. In an unstable world, we lose our grip on reality.

Not even the poet can escape this incessant mutability. He, too, forgets his own nature. In the fourth Eclogue, we saw his wish to outmatch even Orpheus in singing. This comes back to haunt him here:

Let wolves run away from sheep, let golden apples
Suddenly be the fruit of mighty oaks,
Narcissus bloom on the boughs of alder trees,
And amber ooze from the bark of tamarisks;
Let owls compete with swans, and Tityrus
Compete with Orpheus—an Orpheus of the woods,
Let Tityrus be Arion among the dolphins.

Lest it seem strange that I identify Tityrus with Virgil himself, consider that a similar identification occurs (implicitly, at least) in the sixth Eclogue. (Recall also that, in that poem, the poet once again forgets himself.) We thus have here a bit of self-deprecation: Virgil knows the thought that he should compete with Orpheus is a laugh. Yet such is the power of love, and of song: each makes us forget who we are.

 

As someone with elitist tendencies (if such a mild word as ‘tendencies’ is not a self-flattering understatement), it is always useful to be reminded of the instability of elitism. Virgil’s Eclogues provide such. For suppose one would praise high art and condemn low art, as I have seen many do and as I sometimes wish to do myself. Virgil, surely, counts as high art. Yet his Eclogues are a celebration of shepherds’ songs, low art, art of the people, beautiful perhaps but not of the aristocratic tenor of high art. With this the elitist is caught, not exactly in, but near a contradiction. Not in a contradiction, for it is possible to believe that all the beauty of the shepherds’ songs lies in their elite context. But near a contradiction, because this sells Virgil short, makes of his poem an elaborate ruse, an inherently dishonest work. High art can never afford the elitism of its defenders.