I Struggle With Milton

Blake's vision of Milton
Confession time: I find a lot of epic or narrative poetry a slog. Milton, Homer, Dante… I have read my way into them all, but unlike my other books, I never get very far in any of them at each reading, although I make the effort and do so often. I don’t even enjoy reading Shakespeare’s two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, and I read everything else by the bard with great relish. 

It’s odd because I love reading Chaucer’s poetry, even his longer pieces. I delight in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have dozens of collections of works by poets like Auden, Yeats, Frost, Pound, Stevens, Lorca, Cummings, Eliot, Cohen, Dickinson, Horace, Rumi, Catullus, Li Po, Williams, Ginsburg, and many, many others. I have read the Gilgamesh and Beowulf epics in poetic form, both several times in different translations and enjoyed them. I have translations of poets from around the world. I have limericks and numerous books filled with Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel poems. I read the poems in the Tanakh and in the 1,001 Arabian Nights. I read the blank verse in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his great soliloquies.

And I enjoy reading them all.

So it’s not the poetic form that stymies me: I like poetry in almost all of its styles and forms. And it’s not the reading: I consume books, reading hundreds of pages a day spread across a half-dozen or more books most days. But when I pick up Milton, as I am doing these days, I find I read like I’m wading through molasses.

Nor is it the author. I find in Milton great lines, masterful language, powerful emotions. I marvel at his skill and his vocabulary. The story he tells is rich and complex, with well-imagined and deep characters. Yet when I pick him up, time moves at a slower speed. Ditto with Homer and Dante.

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Reading Catullus

With the extra time to read on my hands these days, I’ve been dipping again into the poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus, Roman poet around the time of Julius Caesar. I’ve written in the past about reading Horace, a somewhat later Roman poet whom I greatly admire. I like to pick up a translation of Horace’s Odes or Epodes and read a few lines, maybe a whole poem, every now and then. Horace can be quite insightful and inspirational. Not so much Catullus for me. He’s entertaining in so many different ways. If Horace is a letter to the editor or an op-ed opinion, then Catullus is, for the most part, the editorial cartoon.

That may be a trifle unfair. What we have left of Catullus’s work is a collection of a mere 116 poems, although my translations leave out numbers 18, 19, and 20 as falsely attributed (there is some scholarly debate around them, especially 18). Most are short; some are love poems to his anonymous lover Lesbia (identified later as Clodia Metelli, a bit like Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of his sonnets), some are comments about or to other Romans, or on current events, some are scatological, some satirical, others obscene (or obscenely funny depending on your sense of humour). And a few are long, deep, and complex (like the elegaic Poem 64).

Obscene? you ask. Well, yes — by the uptight moral standards of suburban-consumerist-WASPish North American culture and that of the 19th century British school curriculum where he as required reading in Latin classes. Not by Roman standards – they were far more relaxed and open about many aspects of sex and sexuality, including homosexuality, in Catullus’ time. It’s one of the reasons Augustus tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to impose a straight-laced moral code, laws and all, on his own Roman culture. Even his own daughter failed to live up to his ideals and ended up being exiled for her wanton ways. But I digress.

Earlier translators of some of his poems tried to water down, bowdlerize, or even exclude the dirty bits. Others tried to mold his words to more sensual or erotic (and less explicit) forms. Even today some translators struggle with verbs like irrumare and try to soften them.  Me, I suppose I’ve come to the age when little in the classical world shocks me — that effect is reserved for the stupidity, selfishness, and corruption of today’s world (especially in the USA). Catullus’ frankness I find amusing.

Seen in the light of our online, easy-access-pornography culture,  I suspect Catullus’ words have less opportunity (or ability) to shock and titillate today. Many recent translations grapple to find a modern, yet linguistically accurate way to express Catullus’ sexual and scatological imagery, varying between euphemism and metaphor to outright obscenity. But Catallus, too, wrote in metaphors that one needs a critical guide to fully understand (I’m also reading Charles Martin’s Catullus, Hermes Books, Yale University, 1992, which offers an academic analysis of the works).

Perhaps the thing that strikes me most in his work— and in reading any of the classical authors — is that it shows how little human behaviour, reaction, passions, and emotions have changed in the intervening millennia. Catullus is at times horny, lustful, angry, lovesick, sad, blustering, thoughtful, friendly, and snobbish. He’s so very human in his writing, and in that he’s much like Horace.

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The Long Read part 2


In my previous post I wrote about reading during the lockdown, particularly delving into some longer reads like War and Peace. This time gives us ample opportunity to tackle books that may have daunted us before. And, as I previously wrote, some of these are my ‘books-to-read-upon-retirement’ titles.

Well, I recently finished War and Peace and still think it’s worth tackling, although I also believe Tolstoy could have benefitted from a more parsimonious editor (speaking as a former book, magazine, and newspaper editor)

The story is full of drama, passion, war, and romance, but he all-too-often meandered from the plot into commentary about war, Napoleon, Kutuzov, politics, and leadership. These commentaries tend to obfuscate the story and dilute the drama. In fact, ninety percent of the epilogue could be discarded to the benefit of the pacing. But I digress. What I wanted to write about here are some other reading choices for our lockdown, some of which are pictured above.

Arabian NightsFirst, the Arabian Nights, also known as One Thousand and One Nights. Thanks to Disney and Hollywood, many people are aware of some portions of this collection of tales such as the stories about Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin, but there are so many, many more tales in these books. If you even read just one story a night (plus the apocryphal material such as Sinbad), it would take more than three years to finish them all. But most of the stories (nights) are relatively short, so you can read two or three or even more at one sitting.

Since the tales tend to lead from one to another (in the classic cliffhanger tradition, they were spun out to keep the prince occupied so he wouldn’t kill the storyteller, although sometimes the connections are a bit thin), reading more than one at a time helps keep the continuity of the tales.

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Thoreau and Buddhism

Henry David ThoreauIn his introduction to Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings (Bantam Books, 1962-1981), Joseph Wood Krutch described Henry David Thoreau’s writings as having four “distinct subjects”, which I paraphrase somewhat as:

  1. The life of quiet desperation most men live;
  2. The economic fallacy that is responsible for their condition
  3. The delights yielded from a simple life close to Nature, and
  4. The higher laws which people intuitively realize from a gentle life in Nature.

These appear similar in form to the ‘Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhist philosophy:

  1. Life means suffering
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
  4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

The parallels are, to me, striking. Not that Thoreau was a Buddhist, mind you, not as we might consider one today, but he was familiar with many Eastern and Oriental scriptures. As were many of his transcendentalist contemporaries – Ralph Waldo Emerson (his mentor) and Walt Whitman in particular. Thoreau and his friends were actually more familiar with Hindu texts initially and Thoreau wrote enthusiastically about them.

In 1845, he read the Bhagavad Gita, and later wrote, “The reader is nowhere raised into and sustained in a bigger, purer, or rarer region of thought than in the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita’s ‘sanity and sublimity’ have impressed the minds even of soldiers and merchants.” Thoreau had on his bookshelf his copy of the Gita when he stayed at Walden Pond, and he read it during his time there.

He wrote in Walden, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.”

The influence of the Bhagavad Gita on Thoreau’s Walden was even the subject of a course on year at the University of Chicago. In the course description, it said, “Both books begin with despair and defiance and end with coming to some understanding of the ways of action and of knowledge, of devotion and nature, of self and the cosmos.”

Of course, this was during the American intelligensia’s first contact with alternate (and Eastern) philosophies, and it became a sort of intellectual epiphany that awakened a great creative surge barely a century after the nation was formed. Unlike today, many Americans in the 19th century were open to, even eager to learn about other cultures, other faiths, other philosophies. One cannot even imagine the current president and his followers learning, much less learning about an Asian philosophy.

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Don Quixote times three

Don QuixotesAt roughly the same time Shakespeare was writing and performing King Lear, Measure for Measure, Othello and Macbeth (1604-1605), Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was publishing the first part (52 chapters) of his satiric novel, Don Quixote, or more properly titled (in English), The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha. The second part (another 74 chapters) was published in 1615, roughly two years after Shakespeare’s final play, The Two Noble Kinsmen (co-written with John Fletcher).

While it was probably always intended as a single novel, the decade of time between the publication of the two parts has suggested to some scholars it is really two novels (although Part 2 starts only a month after the events that close Part 1). And perhaps it should be marketed as such; the fat combined volume could easily deter readers. I know, I know: there are people who are deterred from reading by any document regardless of its length, and not just local politicians.

Both Cervantes and Shakespeare died in April, 1616, Cervantes a mere day before the Bard, a notable coincidence. Four hundred years later, their contributions to literature and culture still affect us. I heard a local resident comment on “tilting at windmills” only last week. And I still find references to Sancho Panzo in my online reading.

Don Quixote is considered the first “modern” novel. I suppose that means it was not a morality tale, a Christian allegory or written as an ethical training guide to nobility. But also it’s because of the narrative thread and the complexity of the characters.

It achieved international fame almost immediately – the first part was translated into English in 1612 and has been translated many times since. The most recent translation was 2012 (Gerald J Davis). In my own library, I have three translations: John Ormsby (1885, my edition was published 2015), J. M. Cohen (1951, in Penguin books 1985) and Edith Grossman (2003 – which achieved bestseller status that year, remarkable for a book 400 years old). A fourth, translated by Montgomery (2006) is on order.
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