Saturday, July 22, 2006

BOOK: Angelo Poliziano, "Silvae"

Angelo Poliziano: Silvae. Edited and translated by Charles Fantazzi. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 14. Harvard University Press, 2004. 0674014804. xx + 215 pp.

The dustjacket of this book says quite accurately: these poems are introductions to the courses on literature that Poliziano gave while lecturing in Florence. It's an interesting and curious idea — to get the students interested in studying a poet's work, you write a poem that praises the poet and alludes to his various compositions. I wonder if this approach really had any effect on Poliziano's students. Would it have any effect on me? Would I become more curious about an author's work if I first read a longish narrative poem about him and his works?

Frankly, I doubt. My main complaint about these poems of Poliziano's is that they are very learned; they are truly chock-full of classical allusions and the like, no deity is ever named by its standard name as long as any obscure nickname is available that hasn't been used yet, etc. Sometimes I felt that Poliziano was trying to show off his learning, to show that he could match the classical authors themselves in this area. The editor's introduction rightly observes that ‘he is the quintessential scholar-poet’ (p. x). Fortunately the editor provided endnotes whenever Poliziano mentions something from classical mythology or alludes to some particular work by the poet that is currently being discussed; but surely nobody really enjoys reading literature where such explanatory notes are necessary for every second or third line. (Footnotes with actual interesting content are different, of course — e.g. Gibbon's footnotes are justly famous and often great fun to read.)

Just like all the other volumes in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, this one is bilingual, with Latin originals on the even pages and English translations on the odd ones. Perhaps if I understood any Latin I would have enjoyed this book more; but as it is, I can't understand any Latin whatsoever and was thus limited to the English translations. Thus I can't comment as to how good or accurate the translations are (though I see no reason to doubt that the translator did a good job), but I certainly felt that they aren't very poetic. If little else, they are plain and simple prose — the original, of course, is in verse, with metre and so forth, but none of that has been left in the translation. I don't see any obvious reasons why anybody would want to read these poems nowadays, except those with a knowledge of Latin who would be able to appreciate the technicalities of the originals.

As for me, mere praise of a poet, e.g. of Virgil (to whom the first poem in this book, Manto, is dedicated), doesn't really mean much to me. Poliziano briefly mentions all of Virgil's poems, including those that were believed to be his during the Renaissance but are now considered the work of other (unknown) poets. He rarely or never alludes to a poem by title, but instead gives a brief description of the subject of the poem (e.g. pastoral and rural life in the case of the Eclogues and Georgics), or a brief synopsis (in the case of the Aeneid). Poliziano praises Virgil a lot, but doesn't make any efforts to explain or demonstrate what is it that makes Virgil such a great and important poet; most of the praise is little above the level of ‘Virgil has a bigger prick than Homer, Rome has bigger balls than Greece, nyah nyah nyah’ (ll. 14, 23, 79–80).

Maybe my problem with this poem is that I'm not terribly fond of Virgil in the first place. In fact I've only read his Aeneid, which I found quite boring, much more so than Homer's epics. I couldn't help feeling it was all just a rip-off of Homer anyway; besides, I was intensely disgusted by Virgil's shameless efforts to suck up to the emperor Augustus and his ancestors. Underneath it all, the Aeneid seemed full of just the sort of ugly, boisterous, rowdy patriotism that the world needs so much less of; the sort that might appeal to some rabid neocon/PNAC devotee nowadays, but not to any decent person.

I really should try reading Virgil's other works some time. If they are about bucolic subjects, they might be much more to my liking than the Aeneid was; I like pastoral poetry quite a bit. I enjoyed Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar, and I absolutely loved Daphnis and Chloe. I think I also read a few Theocritus' idylls at some point, but I don't really remember much about them. Anyway, I hope I'll get around to reading Virgil's shorter poems eventually.

To return to the Manto; another thing I somewhat disliked about it is the fact that somebody who isn't yet familiar with Virgil's work wouldn't be able to make sense out of half of the allusions in Poliziano's poem anyway. I suspect that, as an encouragement to the study of Virgil, this has to be said to be a failure. If I wanted an introduction to Virgil, what I'd want to see is a nice and clear bit of prose, with a short biography, a description of the context in which he wrote, and a list of his works with a short description of each. Then would be a good time to start reading some of the extracts from Virgil's actual work. Instead of anything of that sort, Poliziano gives us his own pedantic verse, praising the poet to high heaven but giving precious little clear and explicit information about him in the process. I couldn't help feeling that these poems are somewhat of a circlejerk; that Poliziano cared more about showing off his own skills rather than giving an introduction to Virgil or indeed than writing something actually pleasant and poetic.

The second poem in this book, The Countryman, looks like a fairly typical example of bucolic poetry. It's full of romantic idealization of the rural life, simple, modest, contented, free of stress and worries, calm and serene, surrounded by the beauties of nature, etc., etc. Most of which, of course, is undoubtedly complete bullshit. Surely it must be obvious to anyone that farmers did a huge amount of hard and messy work, that they were often poor, cold, underfed, oppressed by various rulers and landowners, etc., etc. Perhaps it makes some amount of sense if a poor city-dweller looks somewhat enviously at the farmer's life — the farmer may also be poor but is at least surrounded by vegetation, not by the paved ugliness that is a city. But it's sheer hypocrisy when rustic life is idealized by an intellectual such as Poliziano, who surely didn't need to do a day's worth of backbreaking work in his whole life. If he really felt that peasants have it so good, what was stopping him from buying a farm, picking up a mattock and starting to work the soil? Still, if we manage to ignore this annoying aspect, the poem as such is quite nice; I only wish it were translated into verse rather than prose — this would befit such a bucolic subject much better.

The third poem, Ambra, is about Homer. Actually the poem starts by mentioning that it will be about Homer, but then immediately enters upon a long description of a gathering of the pagan gods, with a lengthy lamentation by the goddess Thetis about the loss of her mortal son Achilles (ll. 83–112). I started to wonder what all of this has to do with Homer, but then finally reached the point where Zeus promises Thetis to make it up for Achilles's death by ensuring that a really great poet will make Achilles famous through his poem (ll. 162–71). Poliziano also mentions a few legends of Homer's early life; his mother was “[a] maiden from the nearby island of Chios who in her union with a daimon from the chorus of the Muses brought forth Homer. Poliziano credits this rather esoteric information to Aristotle in his Oratio in expositione Homeri.” (Translator's note 56 on p. 177.) After an overview of the contents of the Illiad, the poem continues with an interesting scene where the ghost of Ulysses appears to Homer and urges him to write another poem about him just as he had written one about Achilles (ll. 411–31). A synopsis of the Odyssey then follows, and finally a few more lines in overall praise of Homer, his influence on all later poets (ll. 515–89).

Interestingly, Poliziano mentions that “the land of the Ganges long ago translated him [i.e. Homer] into their language” (ll. 581–2) — too bad the translator doesn't provide any comment on this. It would be interesting to know more about this supposed ancient Indian translation of Homer's poems. It isn't impossible, I guess, for the Greek and the Indian cultures did come into contact for a while during the period of hellenism; after all, Alexander's armies did get all the way to the Indus. But Poliziano refers to the Ganges, which is much farther east.

The fourth and last poem in this book, Nutricia, is about poetry in general, and particularly about famous ancient poets. The poem begins with some rather weird ideas on the origins and early history of poetry; people originally lived in a brutish and uncivilized state of nature (ll. 34–74) until finally the gods, “weary of the stupidity of those obtuse minds and of those hearts benumbed by a long sleep” (ll. 66–7) sent them poetry and song, whereat the “savage crowd rushed together; and marveling atthe rhythms and measures of the voice and the mysterious laws of poetry, crowding together in bands, their minds alert, they stood in silence until they learned how custom differs from what is morally right; what is the origin and limit of the honorable;”, etc., etc., in short all the basics of decency and civilization (ll. 75–82). It was “Eloquence” (l. 120) and her “sweet song” (l. 122) that led the previously savage human “to the beauty of the good” (l. 124). The first poetry consisted mostly of oracles and other such things and was inspired by the gods (ll. 146–245); “the first poetry spread obscure oracles abroad” (l. 199; but the same could be sad of quite a few later poets too :-)). He also briefly mentions that there are some poems in the bible (ll. 246–60).

I suppose these curious ideas of his on the origins of poetry are hardly worth discussing. Surely nowadays nobody doubts that every human culture, no matter how ‘primitive’ it may be, has some sort of poetry. Eloquence — being able to make a point effectively at a deliberative gathering or during an embassy to the neighbouring tribe — is also often highly prized in such societies. The truth is that progress in poetry went hand in hand with progress in other spheres of life; when the way of life of some group changed, its poetry responded to the new circumstances; but to say that it ever went the other way around, that poetry led the people towards progress, is surely ridiculous. Or does this merely mean that I have been indoctrinated, without being aware of it, by some kind of Marxist ideas that it's material culture, with such things as economy and technology, that influencs the non-material culture (including arts such as poetry), and not the other way around?

The remainder of the Nutricia is basically a long series of allusions to a large number of ancient Greek and Latin poets. Most of them are not mentioned by name, but by some other bit of information — perhaps for the right sort of reader (maybe for Poliziano's students?) this could be a charming kind of quiz: how many of these poets can you recognize? But not for me, of course; most of them are too obscure for me. Fortunately they are all identified in the translator's notes at the end of the book. Anyhow, this enumeration of the poets and their works is not terribly interesting, and most of them are mentioned very briefly anyway (as is natural, since there are so many of them). The ones that get more attention than anyone else are the two earliest and more or less completely mythical ones: Orpheus (ll. 283–317) and Musaios (ll. 318–39). Near the very end of the poem Poliziano also mentions a few modern poets: Dante, Petrarca, Boccaccio, and Guido Cavalcanti (ll. 720–7).

When you find more interesting passages in the translator's notes than in the actual text of a work, that's a clear sign that something is not quite as it should be :-) Nevertheless, here are a few interesting bits:

“But the work of the poet remains forever and lasts through length of years.” (Manto, ll. 338–9.)

“when the wise mulberry tree begins to put forth its foliage (previously it was wise, now it is ambitious)” (The Countryman, ll. 122–3). Seeing as I despise ambitious people, I very much appreciate his implication that ambition is incompatible with wisdom :-)

Ambra ends with a rather bucolic scene that doesn't really have anything to do with Homer (who is the subject of most of the poem); this includes the following memorable lines (ll. 614–6): “and as the tender sheep pasture, the huge Calabrian pig, with its obese body, stays closed in its fetid sty and with its grunts demands one feeding after another”. This would fit very nicely under some cartoon of a greedy capitalist or politician or some similar person.

“Sappho is credited with the invention of the plectrum in ancient sources.” (Translator's note 167 to Nutricia, p. 167.)

Pratinas of Phlius (a town southwest of Corinth) was the first to introduce wild satyrs on to the stage naked. Cf. Horace, Ars poetica 220.” (Translator's note 229 to Nutricia, p. 201.)

“Aeschylus [. . .] who was struck by a turtle falling from the sky” (Nutricia, l. 667).

Translator's note 217 to Nutricia (p. 200): “Sotadic verse was named after the Cretan Sotades of Maronea (fourth-third century BC), author of licentious and satiric poems.” I first encountered the word ‘sotadic’ in Richard Burton's Terminal Essay, which he published along with his famous translation of the Arabian Nights. It was obvious enough from the context that he uses it to refer to (male) homosexuality, but I couldn't find out then what the origin of the word was. Well, now I notice that it is also explained in the Wikipedia.

What to say at the end? Like many other volumes in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, this one was not so bad once I actually forced myself to read it, but I certainly can't say that I particularly enjoyed it, or that there was much else to keep me reading but my sense of stubborness. Perhaps if you can read Latin, you might be able to enjoy the original texts; but someone like me is limited to the English translations, which didn't feel terribly inspiring. The Countryman is a pleasant enough pastoral poem, if you like things of that sort; the other three poems in this book are largely didactic, and a person with a classical education (again, something I don't have) might enjoy them as a puzzle (how many allusions to poets and their works can you figure out without peeking at the endnotes?), but a casual reader such as me would not lose much by avoiding them altogether.


The translator's notes to Nutricia mention a few curious (and obscure) poets, including:

  • Parthenius of Nicaea: “His Erotika pathemata, a collection of prose summaries of esoteric love stories, survives.” (Note 87, p. 188.)

  • Helvius Cinna, a native of Brescia, friend of Catullus, who gave high praise to his short epic, Smyrna, on the incestuous love of Myrrha for her father, Cinyras.” (Note 224, p. 201.) His Wikipedia article, however, doesn't give me very much hope that this poem is still extant, except perhaps for a few fragments.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this review some kind of a spoof?

Saturday, November 17, 2007 12:42:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

I'm not quite sure what you mean -- I just read the book and then wrote down some of my impressions. It isn't a spoof in the sense that it would contain something else than what I really felt about the subject. I wouldn't think of it as a review, however -- I'm not in any way qualified to review such books. If you want to read a review of this book, I guess you would need to look into some academic journal from this field. For example, according to this page that I found with Google, a review of this book was published in the New England Classical Journal, May 2005.

Saturday, November 17, 2007 12:37:00 PM  

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