His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the month “June, 2012”

Prometheus and Aeneas on relating pain

Pretty early in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (lines 197-198), the titular character, having been asked by the Chorus to give the reasons for his tight incarceration in adamantine chains on a crag at the edge of the world —

Χθονὸς μὲν εἰς τηλουρὸν ἥκομεν πέδον,
Σκύθην ἐς οἶμον, ἄβροτον εἰς ἐρημίαν.

as Might (Κράτος), Zeus’ yes-man and messenger, puts it in the play’s first two lines— responds

ἀλγεινὰ μέν μοι καὶ λέγειν ἐστὶν τάδε,
ἄλγος δὲ σιγᾶν, πανταχῆι δὲ δύσποτμα.

Here’s my English version of the lines. (I cheated a little by stretching the two Greek lines into three in English.)

It’s painful to me these things to tell,
Yet a pain, too, in silence to dwell:
All around are things ill-starred!

These lines require almost no commentary, thanks to their reality known by everyone at some time or other. We might, though, compare Aeneas’ seemingly different remarks before he gets on with the tale of Troy and the Greeks in response to Dido’s request for it (Aeneid II.3-12); for him, bitterness is only explicit, at least, in the telling, not in keeping silent about it.

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui. quis talia fando
Myrmidonum Dolopumve aut duri miles Ulixi
temperet a lacrimis? et iam nux umida caelo
praecipitat suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.
sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,
quamquam animus meminisse horret luctuque refugit, incipiam.

A fresh rendering:

Unspeakable, O queen, is the sorrow you bid me renew,
How the Danaeans overthrew the Trojans, their wealth
And wept-for kingdom: things most unhappy that I myself saw
And was a great part of. In telling them, which even of the Myrmidons
Or Dolopians, or Ulysses’ hard soldiers,
Might hold back from tears? Now, too, the moist night from heaven
Goes forth and the falling stars urge sleep,
Yet if there’s such a desire to know our calamities
And briefly to hear the final throes of Troy,
Although my mind shutters to relate them and runs back in grief, I shall begin.

Aeneas, too, was most probably burdened in the silence of his memories, even though he doesn’t say so, but in any case, for Vergil the thrust of Aeneas’ pain is in telling his doleful memories, not merely in having them in his head. More realistically, I think, not to say more concisely, Aeschylus shows that pain is present in silence and in speech, in memory and in making known. Good literature, not least poetry, reminds us of those experiences and emotions common to humanity, including the nasty ones, though the circumstances be as multifarious as you can imagine. Any dourness we know, we know well whether we say it or hold it, but it’s surely worth highlighting that the two Greek lines quoted above from Prometheus are not the end of his part there: he goes on to tell the story, opting for the pain of telling over the pain of tacitness. But whether we speak our pain or stay mute, we can take some small solace in the expressed trials of others, even the trials of a god.

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On epigrams

I love gargantuan books, especially after I’ve finished reading them. It’s a unique feeling to look up on the bookshelf and see several inches of the wood occupied by a single title, whether in one or more volumes, and to remember from that sight, taking up so much of one’s vision with its many-paged mass, the myriad characters, spans of years involved, lands visited and perhaps fled, verbose and colorful description of at first seemingly irrelevant matter, &c. But there’s also a pleasure in reading-material that doesn’t take so many months (or years) to first taste — although it may take that long to really digest. I mean here short stories, plays, shorter novels, and poetry, of course, but more specifically I have in mind here the literary form of the epigram.

Epigrams take various forms in various languages, and are sometimes poetic (for example, in Greek and Latin), sometimes not. They are a convenient way for authors to give meaningful statements without full essays or treatises, although, of course, subsequent readers may be thereby inspired (or irritated!) to pen their own interpretation of the theme, in which case the little epigram will have engendered a larger progeny. While they are not the exclusive members of the club, epigrams are the quintessentially quotable bits of an author, being ready-made for such separate employment divorced from their original context (which may be more or less disjointed to begin with).

The word epigram itself is Greek — the word first meant “inscription” — and we have a huge collection of epigrams in that language in the later collection known as the Greek Anthology. (That is not to say that Greek is the earliest language in which epigrams were uttered.) These are in meter and are often somewhat longer than that which we we typically consider to be epigrams nowadays. Latin, too, has verse epigrams, notably those of Catullus and Martial, both of whom are as much a delight to read today as they always have been and always will be by appreciators of language and observers of society.

The epigram in later European literary history is not without some shining examples. I have lately been especially enjoying Nietzsche’s in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (“Sprüche und Zwischenspiele,” the fourth part = §§63-185), Wilde’s (see here for the privately printed Oscariana), and Ambrose Bierce’s printed at the end of the eighth volume of his Collected Works.

It’s worth noting, too, that the lyrics of some modern music — say, from the mid-1960s — might well be classified as at least partly epigrammatic. Examples that leap to the forefront of my mind now are “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (if you’ve not yet heard the forceful and charging version from Before the Flood, do yourself a favor and get it in addition to the one on Bringing It All Back Home) and (maybe?) “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Epigrams can sound very ex cathedra, and I suppose they are; not really more so than any opinionated piece of writing, that is writing that expresses some view on a subject, but epigrams are more poignantly punchy in that they’re so brief compared to a twenty- or thirty-page treatise and generally very clear in meaning (but Nietzsche’s not always so). Anybody who has a problem with the assumed authority of this or that epigrammarian is free, of course, to write his or her own epigrams in response!

Finally, epigrams composed in languages other than one’s own are veritably useful when learning the language(s) in question: they’re fodder for both cultural and linguistic enquiry, and a good exercise for the memory, not to mention suitable for addition to one’s arsenal of conversation for cocktail parties and other settings.

Any favorite epigrams or collections thereof? Please say so in the comments!

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