Category: poetry

The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Philip H. Young’s The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey is an odd book to recommend to laymen because about half of it will be useful only to a very focused class of specialists. The other half, though, is of interest to any Classicist, professional or amateur, and is enough to justify buying the whole package.

The specialist half can be dealt with very briefly. Young has compiled a comprehensive list of every known printing of Homer’s works (including those spuriously attributed to him, such as the Hymns) from the first example in 1470 to 2000. It’s an impressive undertaking and I’m sure it’s very helpful for historians who specifically study historical interest in and treatment of the Homeric texts. For laymen such as myself, though, I find it hard to imagine a plausible scenario where this part of the book might be useful.

The rest of the book, though, discusses a range of material that I found fascinating and enlightening as an introduction to the Homeric Question, how the texts were created and transmitted, and how Homer was received, interpreted, and admired from ancient Greece to modernity, as well as Young’s own defense of why Homer is worth studying. I’ll just give a sample of each chapter.…

Read More The Printed Homer: A 3000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Twenty-Second Friend: François Villon, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”

In ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound wrote that a man can’t fully understand poetry if he reads only one language. Later on, when listing authors important to the development of English poetry he also included a few Frenchman. With both those points in mind, I thought it would be appropriate to include a few French poets even though the focus of this list is on English authors. So, today we’ll meet M. François Villon.

M. Villon is a pseudonym for François de Montcorbier or François des Loges, who was born in Paris in 1431. He led such an eventful life that it’s worth reading at least an article about him, but in short he spent much of his life in prison and banishment, for such crimes as robbery and killing a priest during a fight between them and some drinking friends, and traveling around France. The last we hear of him, he was on death row for his part in a brawl, but that sentence was commuted to ten years banishment from Paris by the Parlement in January 1563. What happened to him next is unkown.

As for his poetry, I’m not familiar enough with French verse to offer HSOs of my own so I’ll have to lean on others’ accounts. His poetry is technically impressive with difficult metres and rhyme schemes, and he was quite knowledgeable of the world of poetry past and present. It seems that his medieval university education did indeed take hold, despite his raucous lifestyle. His best-known work is the long poem Le Testament, which expresses his fears and laments his wasted youth. Let’s take a look at a selection from Le Testament, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (“Ballade of Ladies of Time Gone By”).

Dictes moy où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine ;
Archipiada, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus rivière ou sus estan,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu’humaine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,
Qui chantoit à voix de sereine;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys;
Harembourges qui tint le Mayne,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslerent à Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu’à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!…

Read More Twenty-Second Friend: François Villon, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”

Vingt-et-deuxième Ami: François Villon, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”

Dans ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound a écrit qu’un homme ne peut pas comprendre la poésie s’il ne lit qu’une seule langue. Il a énuméré des auteurs importants pour le développement de la poésie anglaise et il a inclus quelques Français. En gardant ce point à l’esprit, j’ai pensé qu’il serait approprié de discuter d’un des poètes mentionnés par Pound comme étant importants pour la poésie anglaise. Nous allons donc rencontrer aujourd’hui François Villon.

François Villon c’est un pseudonyme de François de Montcorbier ou François des Loges, qui est né à Paris en 1431. Sa vie était très intéressante, alors il vaut la peine de lire au moins un article à son sujet, mais, brièvement, il passa une grande partie de sa vie en prison et au bannissement pour des crimes comme le brigandage et l’assassinat d’un prêtre lors d’une bagarre.  La dernière chose que nous savons de lui, en janvier 1463, il a était condamnés à mort pour sa part dans une bagarre, mais cette peine a été commuée en bannissement à Paris par le Parlement. Le reste de sa vie est inconnu.

Quant à sa poésie, je ne connais pas très bien le vers français, je devrai donc me fier aux descriptions des autres. Sa poésie est techniquement impressionnante, avec des compteurs et des schémas de rimes difficiles. Il semble que ses études universitaires médiévales se soient effectivement établies malgré sa vie de bohème. Son œuvre la plus connue est le long poème Le Testament, qui exprime ses peurs et déplore sa jeunesse perdue. Jetons un coup d’oeil à une sélection du Testament, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”.

Dictes moy où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Romaine ;
Archipiada, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus rivière ou sus estan,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu’humaine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

La royne Blanche comme ung lys,
Qui chantoit à voix de sereine;
Berthe au grand pied, Bietris, Allys;
Harembourges qui tint le Mayne,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslerent à Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu’à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

C’est excellent et j’aime beaucoup la ligne “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!” L’image de la neige fonctionne bien car elle est belle tant qu’elle dure, mais bien sûr, elle ne dure pas très longtemps. La ligne “La royne blanche comme un lys” est astucieux. Ce poème est aussi une longueur parfaite, assez long pour qu’il cite plusieurs exemples de femmes célèbres du passé (et gardez à l’esprit, un thème du Le Testament est la mort et la vieillesse) et donne son point être ennuyeux.…

Read More Vingt-et-deuxième Ami: François Villon, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”

Twenty-First Friend: Sir John Denham, “A Song”

Our next friend is another one of our good ol’ Cavalier buddies. Sir John Denham was born in Dublin in 1615 and lived to 1669, a lawyer and the son of the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in Ireland. That sounds like an impressive title, and when his father died Sir John did inherit a great deal of property. During the English Civil War he was sheriff of Surrey and made a brief attempt to defend Farnham Castle against Parliamentary forces; after the war his estates were confiscated and he lived abroad with Charles II, though Cromwell did give him permission to live in Suffolk in 1658.

In literature, he’s best-known for two works, a blank verse tragedy called The Sophy, and a pastoral poem called “Cooper’s Hill.” Fans of the latter include no lesser figure than Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, despite a few criticisms, said that it “is the work that confers upon him the rank and dignity of an original author.” He adds:

To trace a new scheme of poetry has in itself a very high claim to praise, and its praise is yet more when it is apparently copied by [Samuel] Garth and [Alexander] Pope; after whose names little will be gained by an enumeration of smaller poets, that have left scarce a corner of the island not dignified either by rhyme or blank verse.

He also has good things to say about Sir John’s poem written on the death of Abraham Cowley, whom we’ve met previously.

Today I’ll share a shorter poem, simply titled “A Song” and which is taken from The Sophy.

Somnus, the humble god, that dwells
In cottages and smoky cells,
Hates gilded roofs and beds of down,
And, though he fears no prince’s frown,
Flies from the circle of a crown.

Come, I say, thou powerful god,
And thy leaden charming rod
Dipped in the Lethean lake,
O’er his wakeful temples shake,
Lest he should sleep and never wake.

Nature, alas, why art thou so
Obligéd to thy greatest foe?
Sleep, that is thy best repast,
Yet of death it bears a taste,
And both are the same thing at last.

“Somnus,” as you may guess, is the god of sleep. “Charming” is meant in the sense of spellbinding.

Though overall a solid poem, I’m not a big fan of the conclusion since the comparison of sleep to death has been done multiple times elsewhere, and done better. I also prefer John Donne’s more take optimistic take on the subject with this same analogy. That said, this is taken from a play so I’m obviously missing some context here, so I won’t judge it too harshly.…

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The Poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, That Other Great Florentine Poet

My primary reading goal for 2019, if I can find time to read at all, is to greatly deepen my knowledge of Dante Alighieri. I’ve written briefly of La Vita Nuova and extensively of Monarchia, and have previously read the Divine Comedy, but this constitutes the mere highlight reel of his career. Though not terribly prolific, Dante did write more than many people realise and besides, the Comedy itself has such depths that it deserves careful study even on its own. That said, I’d like to begin with by setting the stage with a friend of Dante’s, fellow Florentine and poet Guido Cavalcanti.

It’s a testament to Dante’s excellence that a poet of Cavalcanti’s calibre is only the second-greatest poet of his era. Though obscure to Americans, he is an important figure in Italian poetry and well-respected among those who study Italian and Medieval literature. Some readers may be aware that among his admirers were Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ezra Pound, who each translated a volume of Cavalcanti’s poems. Let’s take a look at one of them, numbered 45 in Marc Cirigliano’s edition, “Se non ti caggia la tua santalena.”

may you not drop your little jewel
between the plowed clumps
so it is picked up by a farmer
who fondles and keeps it

tell me if the earth’s fruit
is born from dryness, heat, or moisture
and which wind blows it
and what fog fills the storm

and if you like the morning
that hears the workman’s voice
and family cacophany

i certainly know that if Bettina’s
heart has a sweet spirit
you’ll get rid of your young acquisition…

Read More The Poetry of Guido Cavalcanti, That Other Great Florentine Poet

Twentieth Friend, William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley “To his Daughter Ann, New Year’s Day, 1567”

Today we’ll meet William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley. He’s another Elizabethan, living 1520-98, but he’s not well-known as a poet. Rather, his legacy lies in the world of political history, especially as Queen Elizabeth I’s principal adviser. An outline of his political career would be well beyond the scope of this series, but in short he seems to have been quite competent, though as one would expect of an adviser to Elizabeth, one’s ultimate judgement of him comes down to what one thinks of Elizabeth, which often depends on whether one is Catholic or Protestant.

So, let’s set Lord Burghley’s career aside and instead join him and his family with this poem addressed to his then eleven year old daughter Ann, “New Year’s Day, 1567.”

As years do grow, so cares increase,
And time will move to look to thrift.
These years in me work nothing less,
Yet for your years and New Year’s gift
To set you on work, some thrift to feel,
I send you now a spinning wheel.

But one thing first I wish and pray,
Lest thirst of thrift might soon you tire,
Only to spin one pound a day
And play the rest, as time require,
Sweat not (O fie!), fling work in fire!
God send, who sendeth all thrift and wealth,
You long years and your father health.

“Thrift” here means “home economy.”

This is likely technically the least exciting poem so far, but I enjoy it nonetheless. Children often look forward to and try to imitate adult duties, and so Lord Burghley sends Ann a spinning wheel. However, she is still a child and so he urges her to spend more time in play (“fling work in fire” is rather strong, but hey, it gets the point across). There is some irony here in that Lord Burghley himself was a tireless worker, and continued serving the Queen even as his health declined to the day he died.

I’ll finish up this post by wishing all of you a happy New Year, and remember to work hard – but be sure to spend at least some time in play as you can.…

Read More Twentieth Friend, William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley “To his Daughter Ann, New Year’s Day, 1567”

The Lively (and Nauseous) Genius of Martial’s Epigrams

Note: This is the final repost from Thermidor, originally published June 5, 2018. As with all of these, this is presented with only minimal editing.


Last time we talked about Roman poetry, it was on Catullus’ “stately bawdiness.” Today, we’ll move forward roughly a century to Martial, who was born in what’s now Spain in A.D. 40. He moved to Rome at twenty-four years old to pursue a literary career, with some success, but eventually grew tired of life in the capital and so moved back to Spain in 100. We don’t know the exact date of his death, but it was no later than 104.

As for his work, well, it can be rather divisive. On the one hand, Pliny the Younger called him “a man of an acute and lively genius, and his writings abound in both wit and satire, combined with equal candour,” though he added that he did not expect his poetry to be “immortal.” On the other hand, Lord Macauley wrote in a letter that “I wish he were less nauseous. […] Besides his indecency, his servility and his mendicancy disgust me.”

Of course, much the same could be said of Catullus, in whose tradition Martial followed. Like his predecessor, Martial is known for his short, often comical poems skewering fair-weather friends, the shallow rich, and promiscuous men and women, among other (mostly) deserving targets. However, he doesn’t work in obscenity and abuse quite as often as Catullus. Make no mistake, there is plenty of both in Martial’s Epigrams, but he was also more dependent on his patrons that Catullus was, and those patrons included the emperor Domitian. This is the “servility” that Lord Macauley referred to, and between the poems abusing Rome’s narcissists and cheapskates one finds others praising his rich patrons, and given the tone of the rest of the Epigrams one can’t help but question his sincerity in these.

Before going farther let’s take a look at one of his poems about his “friends,” translated by James Michie. This is from Book X, Epigram 15:

Crispus, you’re always saying you’re the friend
Who loves me best. But your behaviour offers
No evidence for it. When I asked, “Please lend
Five thousand,” you refused me though your coffers
Are crammed to bursting. And though fellaheen
Sweat on your profitable Nile estate
Have I had one ear of spelt from you, one bean?
Have you ever given me in the chilly season
A short-cut toga? Or sent silver-plate,
Even half a pound of it? I see no reason
Why I should count you as a friend – apart
From the informality with which you fart.

It makes one feel good about the brotherhood of Man to know that, in all times and all places, we can all agree that fart jokes are universally funny. You won’t find those in Virgil, by the way.…

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A Child’s Garden of Verses

There are two important parts of the Christmas holiday; the first, of course, is the Nativity of Our Lord. Second is a focus on family, and children in particular. Christmas puts me, and many others, into a nostalgic mood, thinking back to Christmas Mass, exchanging gifts on Christmas morning, then going over to my grandparents’ house to have dinner and play with my cousins. God willing, I’ll be able to extend these experiences to a new generation, but with last year’s addition of my nephew to the family children are once again part of the Carroll family’s Christmas.

Today’s book isn’t about Christmas, but it’s relevant at this time of year because it is about childhood, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, first published in 1885 but reprinted many times since. Mine is a reprint of an edition illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith, whose illustrations are what first caught my eye when I spotted the volume in a bookstore. Also of interest is the author; Stevenson is best known as a prose writer, especially for his adventure story Treasure Island and horror classic Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Does his talent in prose carry over to poetry?

Honestly, it’s a little difficult to tell. Because children are the intended audience, his metres and rhyme schemes are kept simple, and his subjects are all things of interest to children. The length of the poems varies considerably, from a single couplet to a few pages, but all fairly short. None of this, though, should be taken as a shortcoming, as Stevenson’s verse is consistently charming and pleasant to read. Consider, for instance, “Bed in Summer.”

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

Poetically, it’s simple as can be. Rhymed couplets of four feet each, except the first line, though its short length and natural language keep it from getting monotonous. Yet, it’s charming because I remember, when I was very young, bed time being a significant concern for me, and in the summer time there was still some light when I had to go to bed – a problem I’m sure was worse for children who lived farther north than me.…

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How to Read the Iliad

Note: This is another republication from Thermidor, where it first appeared on March 20, 2018.


“The classics have more and more become a baton exclusively for the cudgelling of schoolboys, and less and less a diversion for the mature.” Ezra Pound’s observation, from a 1920 essay on translations of Homer, may have been true at the time but has, in the following decades, become somewhat optimistic. Often, schoolboys aren’t really taught the classics at all, but insofar as they are, “cudgelling” is still about right. I can’t completely blame those reluctant to read old books, since the very sight of anything from the Odyssey to The Scarlet Letter is apt to bring back memories of chapter quizzes and book reports due by next Friday.

Even if we get past the cudgelling, though, Pound’s reference to the classics as a “diversion” may surprise some readers. Aren’t they supposed to improve our moral character, erudition, cultural literacy, and those sorts of high-minded things? Well, sure, they can do that. However, we’re unlikely to get any of those benefits if reading is too much of a chore, and it’s worth remembering that literature is written, first and foremost, to be enjoyed. Shakespeare, it’s often pointed out, wrote for a popular audience. We may also note that in the Poetics, despite the dry literary analysis, Aristotle clearly enjoys the pleasure and spectacle of poetry and drama, and in Timber, or Discoveries, Ben Jonson says that poetry, among other things, “delights our age,” “entertains us at home,” and “shares in our country recesses, and recreations.”

This is why, though literature has always been a primary hobby for me and one that I’m eager to share, I don’t insist on others delving into it as much as I have. One should have an interest in the arts, but if that’s music, painting, or something else, that’s fine. The goal is to have something, almost anything, better than blockbuster movies, top 40 radio, and other components of mass culture to spend one’s time on. Even non-artistic hobbies, like fishing or target shooting, will work for this purpose. Also, if you do choose to pursue literature, I’d encourage you to focus on an area of particular interest to you. Do you remember liking, say, Poe’s short stories in school? Then start by seeking out other Gothic or Nineteenth Century authors. Do you have a fondness for the Middle Ages? Go check out the many Arthurian romances, then, or a volume of Boccaccio.

Now, with all that said, there are a few authors who every educated person should have a basic familiarity with. These writers are also good starting points if you want to take the study of literature seriously, or if you’re just not sure where else to begin. Exactly which authors would go on that list is debatable, but people like Ovid, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare will be near-universal choices. Another would be Homer, and he’s the one I’ll focus on here, and specifically the Iliad.

Read More How to Read the Iliad

Nineteenth Friend: Thomas Randolph, “Upon his Picture”

Thomas Randolph was born in 1605 and was another member of the Tribe of Ben. I normally like to write a little about our friends’ “day jobs,” but unfortunately Randolph died young, at twenty-nine years old in 1635. Fortunately, he did see a good deal of success in his own lifetime primarily as a dramatist but also as a poet, as one would expect of a friend of Ben Jonson and his circle, and many expected him to eventually become poet laureate. His short life had its other excitements, though; my personal favourite poem of his is “Upon the Loss of his Little Finger,” which loss occurred during a fight in a tavern.

Those interested in American history may be interested to know that he also has a tangential connection to our country as the uncle of William Randolph, the influential Virginian colonist.

In any case, like some other poems of this era we’ve covered I don’t think “Upon his Picture” requires a great deal of explanation. It’s just solid, classic English poetry:

When age hath made me what I am not now,
And every wrinkle tells me where the plow
Of time hath furrowed; when an ice shall flow
Through every vein, and all my head wear snow;
When death displays his coldness in my cheek,
And I myself in my own picture seek,
Not finding what I am, but what I was,
In doubt which to believe, this or my glass:
Yet though I alter, this remains the same
As it was drawn, retains the primitive frame
And first complexion; here will still be seen
Blood on the cheek, and down upon the chin;
Here the smooth brow will stay, the lively eye,
The ruddy lip, and hair of youthful dye.
Behold what frailty we in man may see,
Whose shadow is less given to change than he!

The main, ironic thrust of the poem is clear enough.

The first half of the poem feels very cold, with its “snow,” “ice,” “coldness,” and “glass” (specifically meaning a mirror, in this case). I would’ve expected to see more warm imagery in the second half for contrast, but he doesn’t do that. Even the imagery he does use isn’t very vivid; “blood on the cheek,” “smooth brow,” “lively eye,” “ruddy lip,” and “hair of youthful dye.”

Whether this is a weakness per se, I’m not sure. It does make the picture, the imitation of his younger self, less of a focus than the narrator’s older self.

Of course, there’s also the notable irony to this poem aside from the contrast between his mirror and his painting. Randolph here speaks speculatively of “When age hath made me what I am not now,” but unfortunately he did not live to see old age, a great loss to his friends and to the world of English poetry.…

Read More Nineteenth Friend: Thomas Randolph, “Upon his Picture”