03 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 3

It seems only suitable to follow a Bishop with a Pope. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), generally acknowledged as the greatest English poet of his time, was unable to attend University or hold the official title of Poet Laureate, due to his Roman Catholic religion. (I suspect he was not a particularly pious man, but one who would not change himself to accommodate power.) He also struggled with debilitating health problems his whole life. His work is brilliant: diamond-bright, elegant, and searching. Sometimes I think he is undervalued these days because his clarity, balance, and intelligence put off people who think poets by their nature must be disheveled and naughty, or because the regular, rhymed nature of eighteenth-century poetry is foreign to our current tastes. Their loss, I guess.

First is an excerpt from his brilliant translation of the Iliad, which established his financial independence and allowed him to buy a house and construct his fanciful and celebrated grotto. This passage is from Book 20, when the enraged Achilles has rejoined the war after the death in battle of his beloved Patroclus:

Then fierce Achilles, shouting to the skies,
On Troy's whole force with boundless fury flies.
First falls Iphytion, at his army's head;
Brave was the chief, and brave the host he led;
From great Otrynteus he deriv'd his blood,
His mother was a Nais of the flood;
Beneath the shades of Tmolus, crown'd with snow,
From Hyde's walls, he rul'd the lands below.
Fierce as he springs, the sword his head divides,
The parted visage falls on equal sides.
With loud-resounding arms he strikes the plain;
While thus Achilles glories o'er the slain.
"Lye there Otryntides! the Trojan earth
Receives thee dead, tho' Gygae boast thy birth;
Those beauteous fields where Hyllus' waves are roll'd,
And plenteous Hermus swells with tides of gold,
Are thine no more" – Th'insulting hero said,
And left him sleeping in eternal shade.
The rolling wheels of Greece the body tore,
And dash'd their axles with no vulgar gore.

Translators no longer use heroic couplets for the classical authors, and for contemporary readers, the steady iambic pentameter and neatly matched end-rhymes can be off-putting. Partly because of Pope's other works, we tend to hear rhyme as comic or satirical, while Shakespeare's tragedies and Milton's epic have made blank verse the English-speaking standard for serious subjects. But when you read the entire epic in Pope's translation, you realize why these are called heroic couplets: the rhythm and rhyme, which sound so odd to modern ears out of context, develop a driving, inevitable force that sounds grand and elevated enough to do justice to Homer's gods and warriors.

Pope later was asked by mutual friends to help smooth over a petty disturbance at court, when without permission a flirtatious nobleman snipped off a lock of a young lady's hair. The poet had the sublime idea of describing the situation in language suitable for an epic. The Rape of the Lock is one of the most brilliant (I know, I keep using that word, but it's the right word) poems in English. The grandiose language both satirizes the frivolous young people of the court and provides genuine emotional magnificence to them; their lives are as significant to themselves (even if no one else) as those of Hector and Achilles. The Rape of the Lock is one of the two poems I most often pick up and read randomly for the sheer pleasure of their existence (the Wasteland is the other). Any passage at random would be wonderful (at least I hope so; I went back and forth on which passages to use from each of these works, and I'm not sure excerpts do them justice). This is the passage when the Baron and Belinda, future antagonists, play a game of cards, expressed as an epic battle. The game is called Ombra, and I have read that the description of the game follows all the rules, which is nice to hear because it's the kind of thing I'm not going to figure out. The term "codille" in the last line means your opponent has won:

Thus far both armies to Belinda yield;
Now to the Baron Fate inclines the Field.
His warlike Amazon her Host invades,
Th'imperial Consort of the Crown of Spades.
The Club's black Tyrant first her Victim dy'd,
Spite of his haughty mien, and bar'brous Pride;
What boots the Regal Circle on his Head,
His Giant Limbs in State unwieldy spread?
That long behind he trails his pompous Robe,
And of all Monarchs only grasps the Globe?
The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace;
Th'embroider'd King who shows but half his Face;
And his refulgent Queen, with Pow'rs combin'd,
Of broken Troops an easie conquest find.
Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wild disorder seen,
With Throngs promiscuous strow the level Green.
. . . . .
The Knave of Diamonds tries his wily Arts,
And wins (oh shameful Chance!) the Queen of Hearts.
At this, the Blood the Virgin's Cheek forsook,
A livid Paleness spreads o'er all her Look;
She sees, and trembles at th'approaching Ill,
Just in the Jaws of Ruin, and Codille.

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