Saturday, October 28, 2017

BOOK: Michael Marullus, "Poems"

Michael Marullus: Poems. Translated by Charles Fantazzi. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 54. Harvard University Press, 2012. 9780674055063. xx + 476 pp.

Marullus was a 15th-century author with an interesting life story. His parents were Greeks from Constantinople and he was born very shortly after that city was taken by the Turks. He spent most of his life in Italy, much of it working as a mercenary soldier, and wrote his poetry in Latin; but he seems to have never stopped feeling as somewhat of an exile, and the sad fate of Greece is a frequent topic of his poems. I found it easy to sympathize with him about that, as I always thought that the fall of Constantinople was one of the greatest tragedies in history.


Most of his poems, however, struck me as pleasant enough in themselves but not terribly memorable. There are four books of epigrams — lots and lots of short poems varying in length and on a variety of topics. He has many poems about a woman named Neaera, which I initially found a bit annoying as it seemed to be yet another of those typical situations where a poet sighs about a woman from a distance without anything much ever actually happening; but admittedly, he does go so far as to propose marriage to her at one point (p. 77), and he briefly mentions her funeral near the end of his collection of epigrams (p. 187), a touching reminder that this collection of poems must have been written over a long period of many years. There are also several poems in praise of Alessandra Scala, daughter of the noted humanist Bartolomeo Scala, one of whose books I read some time ago (see my post from back then). Alessandra seems to have been not only beautiful but also a talented author in her own right; Marullus praises her as a tenth Muse (p. 115) and he eventually married her.

There are several epitaphs, many of them to his various uncles, grandfathers, etc., all of whom invariably died fighting the Turks. Although perhaps these epitaphs individually are nothing special, I couldn't help feeling impressed by their cumulative effect; you can really get a sense of how this whole business of losing Greece to the Turks must have been hanging over his life like some sort of grim, dark cloud.

Some of his poems are about “philological” subjects, mostly criticizing a contemporary of his, Poliziano, for getting some word or another wrong in his edition of some classical text. But judging by the translators' notes at the end of the book, Marullus's complaints are invariably wrong (“Another philological squabble between Poliziano and Marullus, with Poliziano the victor, as always”, p. 417; “Wrong again!”, p. 418).

A nice case of poetic self-confidence: “You give me jewels and gold, I give you only poems: but if they are good poems, mine is the greater gift.” (To Antonio, Prince of Salerno, p. 11.) He later has another poem praising the same prince (p. 30): “Asked once what he would leave to himself after giving so much to anyone at all, Antonio replied, ‘Whatever I gave to others: for all else I do not consider to be mine.’ ”

A fine epitaph: “If you learn about his ancestry, you will despise him, but you will marvel at his deeds: the first is the result of chance, the other of native ability.” (Epitaph of Francesco Sforza, p. 15.)

A nice bit of sycophancy: “Good Lorenzo, that you alone love and reward poets is no surprise: you alone do things worthy of poetry.” (To Lorenzo de' Medici, p. 17.) Still, I can't help feeling somehow nostalgic for the days when rich and powerful people would spend their money on supporting poets, which doesn't strike me as a very widespread custom today.

Renaissance popes never disappoint: “He had scarcely heard that Italy was united by a good treaty when Sixtus exclaimed, ‘That's the end of me,’ and died.” (On Sixtus IV, p. 21.) “Filth, gluttony, avarice and sluggish sloth lie in this tomb, Innocent VIII, where you are buried.” (Epitaph of Innocent VIII, p. 177.)

Here and there his epitaphs manage to be really touching. Here's from one for a girl named Albina: “Spread leaves upon the earth, do not spare the spring flowers: she too, who is ash, was once a flower of spring.” (P. 25.)

He has a few mentions of the ancient Spartans, whose example I guess he found inspiring both as a soldier and as someone who perhaps still hoped that Turks could somehow be kicked out of Greece again. Of course, from a modern-day point of view, Spartans and their grim commitment to warfare are nothing short of hilarious. Marullus's poem “On the fortitude of a Spartan woman” (p. 57) is a fine example: “A Spartan mother, seeing her son return unharmed, after having abandoned his shield on the battlefield, advancing toward him thrust a sword into his side, uttering these reproaches over his dead body: ‘Away from here, die, offspring unworthy of me; away, you have betrayed your country and your race!” ” With family like this, who needs enemies :)))

Hymns to Nature

These hymns are somewhat longer poems dedicated to various (natural phenomena disguised as) deities from classical mythology. One thing I found interesting about them is how completely pagan they seem; they really struck me as something that could have been written by some ancient poet who has never even heard of christianity, as there aren't any traces of it in these hymns.

Apart from that, I can't say that I had any clear idea of what to do with these hymns. Were they supposed to evoke feelings of awe, sublimity, perhaps piety (or whatever the ancient pagan equivalent of that was)? I was mostly just bored. Marullus seems to have a great interest in certain ancient philosophers (especially Lucretius) about which I know next to nothing, and occasionally it was clear that he's using technical terminology (“world machine”, p. 283; see also p. xii) that went completely over my head.

The one hymn I really liked was a hymn to Bacchus (p. 213); the translator's introduction describes it as being “written in rushing galliambics” (p. xiii) and I couldn't help feeling that some of this rush, this bacchantic excess, is even present in the prose translation (which is all I can read, unfortunately, as I don't understand any Latin).

The Education of a Prince

This is probably the longest poem in the book, almost 700 lines long, but unfinished, perhaps because the prince for whom it was intended ended up dying very young (p. x). I was mostly amused by Marullus's peculiar obsession with breastfeeding, to which he dedicates nearly a hundred lines of the poem :)) And he's fairly hardcore about weaning the child: “And you will offer them breasts that are smeared with mud or black pitch or impregnated secretly with the taste of aloes so that the child will become disaccustomed of its own accord to the desire for the sweet nectar, disgusted by the repeated deceitful stratagem of the substituted bitter drink.” (ll. 87–90).

The book ends with two letters from Marullus, one of which contains a fine example of Stoic advice to a recipient who has recently lost his brother: “what greater and more manifest madness is there than when you weep so unremittingly over the death of one who you know was destined to die” etc. etc. (p. 399). I'm always baffled by the Stoics. Did they, like, know any human beings at all? I mean, their advice is so obviously true and so completely useless that I can't imagine how they thought it would accomplish anything. What he is saying is true, but to imagine that someone will be consoled by it is just incomprehensible.

What to say at the end? There were a few interesting things in this book, but nothing to write home about, and overall it's not exactly one of my favourite ITRL volumes so far.

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