Thursday, December 6, 2012

What slender youth bedew'd with liquid odours

The literary relationship's resemblance
to a courtship seems to be less consid-
ered between challenges, to cite a fair-
er book than others; plain as it is, the
selection of a preference is a remark on
how the rapport has gone, from only one
of two participants. I do not value the
prizes or 10-Best lists of various com-
missions or committees, for this reason.

At the same time my obligation to myself
in these relationships is to be permeab-
le, which is the lesson of schooling, or
ought to be. I do not see it celebrated,
very much. I do not meet it very often,
even in addressing what I've selected in
expectation. This takes work. It is very
same time, is not amenable to discussion.

In a Book of the Year, this frame of ref-
erence induces me to cite a demonstration
by someone else, of receptivity: how its
work is conducted and to what open-ended
ends. I acknowledge that the designating
gesture is freighted with an inclination
to persuade, but fall back upon incompet-
ence as sound encouragement. I'll simply
cite an experience denied to no one, I'd
suppose, who comes upon this page -- of
attraction, seduction, consummation, sus-
picion, reconsideration, and acceptance.
It's based on poetry which poses an en-
igmatic but at the same time, an adamant
demand for interpretation, first met in
schools, where the illusion of accuracy 
is an almost harrowing bar to pleasure, 
and compulsion strips all wooing of the
budding sense of self, reputedly for --

                             jewels five-words-long
                 That on the stretched forefinger of all
                 Sparkle for ever.

Is there a schoolboy yet unrapped at
his knuckles, even today, in feckless
searches of that starry finger, scan-
sion's baubles scattered in concealed
radiance of inflection right in front
of him? Gawd, I hope not. Brilliants
in Tennyson's famous phrase on Horace
make (I don't deny) such a prism of a
reader's poetic taste that I'd hate to
run into a man unevolved by that gaunt-
let. Fair is fair. 

Better things about the mind unfold in Horace, though, than in any famil-iar blizzard of sequences, ostensibly sustaining us from pillar to post. The discovery of Horace is private, even out in front of god and everybody, as none other than our Lord's own secretary, John Milton, advertised in his translation of one of the most hotly contested (as these things go) Odes in the entire canon. Horace is the poet who makes presentable - not to say, for many, possible - that scourge of peers of infamous pressure, the personal perspective. Everyone reads Horace in the same way, yet with the most audible subversion of inflection; and sparkles in surprise.

                 Quis multa gracilis te puer in rosa
                 perfusus liquidis urget odoribus
                   grato, Pyrrha, sub antro?

                 What many slender you boy among a rose
                 drenched with flowing urges perfumes
                    pleasant, Pyrrha, within a grotto?

The rocks come pouring out like this,
arrayed in a lucidity whose lapidary
element is not apparent until the
reader participates in absorption, 
not as a priest of the occult or as
a codebreaker, but as a gemsmith -
and so recites an untentative Milton,
feeling every sense in his final year
of life:

         What slender youth, bedew'd with liquid odours,
         Courts thee on roses in some pleasant cave,
            Pyrrha? For whom bind'st thou
            In wreaths thy golden hair,
         Plain in thy neatness? Oh, how oft shall he
         On faith and changèd gods complain, and seas
            Rough with black winds and storms
            Unwonted shall admire,
         Who now enjoys thee credulous, all gold;
         Who always vacant, always amiable,
            Hopes thee, of flattering gales
            Unmindful. Hapless they
         To whom, thou untried seem'st fair. Me in my vow'd
         Picture the sacred wall declares t'have hung
            My dank and dropping weeds
            To the stern god of sea.

Milton came up with this one-off translation of Horace, the 5th Ode of Book I, in 1673; and I owe my first discovery of it to the website of Dartmouth College. This pleases me, because I owe my acquaintance with Latin to eavesdropping upon an alumnus in his childhood, my brother. I find the poet laureate, so often, of those years is still their rueful confidant, amused and not apologising now. Modern translations of the 5th Ode become embroiled in one degree or another, of unease with the youthful lover. Mr Ferry, from whom I revoke no admiration, imputes an alien urbanity:

What perfumed debonair youth is it, among
The blossoming roses, urging himself upon you
In the summer grotto?

Heather McHugh, in the edition compiled by J.D. McClatchy and cited previously here, pursues this 'logic' further, instant catastrophe of construction, snowballing down the page:

What slip of a boy, all slick with what perfumes,
is pressing on you now, o Pyrrha, in
your lapping crannies, in your rosy rooms?

And how, as a poet or a reader, could one better hope to see his literary relationship defamed? I attribute the mischief in this misdirection to the utterly irrelevant disrepute, today, of the two-syllable Latin noun for boy, and the mocking sense in which we embrace the epithet, puerile. But whatever the cause may be, the consequence is greatly, and one might say brutally, to misread Horace's indulgent bemusement in the present, to deprive him of his ardour in the past and his genius for society. As persons, we know this mishandling, first-hand; and it is not only this poet of uncondescending scale, who is lost in these shows of revival. It is our poem.

Not here writing of any poet by limitation, much less himself, John Ashbery seems to me very much to be addressing the bilateral literary relationship in A Litmus Tale, such as our discovery of Horace is, whenever we encounter or revisit him:

   The scribes sank in wonderment.
   This was not the hierarchical file to which
   access had been deeded. It was something
   far more wonderful: an opaque pebble in the grass.

   I am always looking
   for themes to break down to further my research
   into backward climes of noon alienation and majesty.
   One, a little farther than here,
   resonates today with unusual candor:
   my own take on the disheveled
   frankness we all inhabit
   at one time or another. Backing away from tribal sunshine
   so as to inhabit a no doubt intact compunction of one's own.

From Lord Tennyson's treasuring of radiance to Ashbery's of opacity is not, our schoolboy knows, a mixture of metaphor in addressing Horace. We have seen how delicately his opacity yields to penetration, and how he defies the tribal sunshine. Every time, his disheveled frankness secures the intact compunction of his line, and of our ardour. 

Horace is not strange, he is only ahead. What better book of 2012 is on offer than one that makes sense only by reading fair, but yielding the longest wear? It's there, between editions; we put it together, one reader at a time.

David Ferry
The Odes of Horace
  A Translation by David Ferry
op. cit.

Gilbert Highet
Poets in a Landscape
op. cit.

Peter Levi
Horace: A Life
op. cit.

J.D. McClatchy, editor
Horace: The Odes
  New Translations by
  Contemporary Poets
op. cit.

John Davie
Horace: Satires and Epistles
  A New Translation
op. cit.

John Ashbery
A Worldly Country
  New Poems
Harper Collins, 2007©


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