Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Index

The index now features hypertext connections. Simply click on any title below to read it.

Though this listing serves, I think, a clear purpose, not every posting falls easily into the categories. One essay might equally be placed under literary theory or medieval texts while another might fit under memoir, politics, or travel. Translations with comment might be either criticism or translation. Poke around a bit.

The categories are:

1. speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays

2. literary theory

3. Greek texts (and a couple of Latin)

4. medieval texts

5. other criticism
A. 16th-19th century
B. 20th century to the present
C. Asian texts
D. songs
E. Notes on Recent Reading
F. Rereading the Classics
G. Every Reader's Poets

6. translation

7. poetry

8. politics

9. memoirs

10. travel


1. Speculative, familiar, performance pieces, and other essays
Agnostic Credo and Vita (October 2015)
Axiology and Subjectivity (October 2014)
Annual Report (August 2014)
Beards (December 2013)
Biking (November 2009)
Biking as a Spiritual Discipline (April 2017)
Cell Phones (June 2017)
Cookbooks (April 2014)
Dead Reckoning (February 2011)
Deer (December 2012)
Documents of the first Surreal Cabaret (March 2012)
Documents of the second Surreal Cabaret (June 2012)
Documents of the third Surreal Cabaret (October 2013)
Documents of the fourth Surreal Cabaret (July 2014)
Documents of the fifth Surreal Cabaret (February 2015)
Drugs and Religion (June 2016)
Dust: a meditative riff (November 2009)
Food for the Gods (December 2011)
Hippie (April 2011)
Immortality (July 2012)
Iowa Communards (December 2011)
A Library’s Commonplaces and Curiosities (May 2011)
The Mannerly Hedonist (February 2013)
Notes and Inserts (June 2016)
Polka (November 2012)
On Pronunciation and Pedantry (September 2015)
In Praise of Bias (November 2014)
Still Biking (November 2012)
A Structural View of Certain Oracles (August 2015)
Supermarkets (October 2010)
Taking Off (November 2009)
This and That (September 2017)
Walking the Via Negativa (February 2018)
Worn Tools (June 2013)


2. Literary theory
Afloat on the Ocean of Words (April 2016)
Allusion (March 2015)
Art and the Marketplace (April 2010)
False and Homophonic Translation (March 2018)
The Familiar Note in Poetry (January 2017)
The Formation of a Christian Rhetoric (April 2011)
How and Why to Signify (July 2011)
Idea of Comedy (January 2012)
The Inconsequential Bayonets of Art: Militant Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (May 2010)
Lament for the Loss of the Avant-Garde (March 2010)
Millenarian Rhetoric and the Avant-Garde (August 2010)
On the Proper Ends of Literary Study [James Seaton] (July 2014)
Placing the Popular in the Structure of Literature (October 2010)
The Pleasures of the Familiar in Literature (June 2016)
Poetry Amid the Fierce Chaos of the World (December 2009)
Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man (December 2015)
The Question of Literary Value (August 2014)
A Range of Visual Poetry (December 2017)
Riddles and Poetry (March 2015)
The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature (April 2010)
Some Notes Toward a Theory of the Avant-Garde (October 2013)
Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (September 2016)
Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry (November 2009)
Thoughts on Mythology (March 2013)
Transformation of Convention (August 2013)
What is Poetry? (February 2012)
Winged Words: Notes on the Oral Performance of Poetry (May 2010)


3. Greek texts (and two Latin)
Aphrodite’s Bed: Love in the Homeric Hymn (August 2010)
The Birth of Erato: Lyric, Vision, and the Spread of Writing (January 2010)
Dionysos and the Pirates (February 2012)
Ekphrasis in Apollonius: Jason's Cloak (May 2017)
Gorgias (February 2010)
Hermes and the Art of Poetry (March 2013)
Longinus' Sublime (May 2012)
Notes on Pan (June 2014)
Oedipus and the Meaning of Polysemy (July 2011)
Pindar's Athlete in Pythian 8 (January 2018)
Poetry's Long Memory [Horace] (July 2016)
Professors Kick the Willy Bobo [on Athenaeus] (December 2009)
The Role of Rhetoric in Theocritus (February 2011)
The Role of Wine in Nonnus' Dionysiaca (February 2016)
Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece (December 2009)
Seneca the Elder (March 2010)
A Skeptic's Faith [Sextus Empiricus] (January 2015)
A Structural View of the Ephesiaca (April 2018)
Two Brief Notes on Daphnis and Chloe (May 2018)
Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius (June 2011)
The Web of Myth in the Hymn to Heracles (June 2012)


4. Medieval texts
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love (July 2012)
The Aesthetics of Ambiguity in a Medieval Lyric (December 2012)
Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
Appropriation of Biblical Narrative in Patience (February 2013)
Bernart and the Music of Ideas (September 2016)
The Buddha in Europe: the Apologue of the Man and the Unicorn in Barlaam and Ioasaph (January 2011)
Chaucer’s Version of the Golden Age (June 2011)
A Conventional Ending in a Middle English Romance (September 2011)
Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose (August 2012)
Distant Rhyme in Two Medieval English Lyrics (August 2011)
The Early English Carol (June 2010)
Geoffrey of Vinsauf (April 2010)
Figures of Love in Lydgate's Temple of Glas (January 2014)
Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century Lyrics (February 2011)
Hypermetric Lines in Beowulf (January 2011)
An Introduction to the Troubadours (January 2010)
Mechthild von Magdeburg (July 2010)
A New Look at Jaufré: Amor de Lonh as Criticism (December 2010)
Odin and Poetry (December 2015)
Openings in the Middle English Romance (July 2010)
The Pearl-Poet’s Use of Link-Rhymes (November 2011)
Phonetics and Semantics in the Last Line of Beowulf (March 2011)
Piers Plowman and the Man in the Moon (October 2011)
The Prima Etade of Literary Ambition [Petrarch] (March 2011
Transformation of Convention in Early Minnesang (April 2011)
Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood (October 2014)
William IX (September 2010)
Who is Piers Ploughman? (June 2013)


5. Other criticism

A. 16th-19th century
Ambivalence in Thomson's The Castle of Indolence (March 2012)
The Archaeology of Gray's "The Progress of Poetry" (November 2017)
Baudelaire's "Painter of Modern Life" (July 2017)
Big Bill Otter's Sprees and Frolics (November 2013)
A Decadent's Dilemmas [Dowson] (March 2015)
Does Crabbe Look Forward or Back? (February 2016)
Dolce's Aretino (September 2015)
The Double Plot of Salem Chapel (December 2016)
Gascoigne's "Notes of Instruction" (September 2013)
Godwin's Theatre of Calamity (September 2015)
Herrick the Divine (August 2014)
Irving's Soft Romanticism (September 2017)

Keats' "Thing of Beauty" (November 2016)
A Lost World of Allusion [Nicholas Breton] (May 2018)
Marius the Epicurean as a Modern (April 2015)
Moby Dick and the Density of the Aesthetic Text (January 2016)
"Monk" Lewis, Mr. Coleridge, and Popular Taste (July 2015)
A Note on Dryden and "Dramatick Poesy" (September 2012)
A Note on Radcliffe's The Italian (October 2012)
Pierce Penniless (May 2013)
The Play of Convention in Shakespeare's Sonnet 153 (April 2017)
The Problem with Swinburne (June 2015)
Rimbaud's Use of Montage (October 2016)
Shelley”s “Ode to the West Wind” as Structuralist Charm (May 2011)
Sir Thomas North's The Moral Philosophy of Doni (September 2013)
The Skeptico-Semiotico-Mystic: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (June 2015)

Skepticism and Poetry in Keats' "The Eve of St. Agnes" (February 2015)
A Structural View of Meredith's The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (June 2017)
The Texture of Traherne’s Religious Thought (October 2010)
Thematic Continuity and Development in the Poetry of Christopher Smart: the Jubilate Agno and the Minor Poems (November 2010)
Thomas Love Peacock and the End of Poetry (August 2017)
Travelers [Marco Polo, Twain, Robert Byron](April 2012)
Trollope's Appeal (December 2012)
Two Notes on Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (July 2014)
The Use of Nostalgia in Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life (August 2015)

B. 20th century to the present
Another Look at The Seven Lively Arts (June 2013)
Apologia for a Fondness for Pound (November 2012)
Are Uncle Tom's Children Bound by History? (April 2014)
The Artist as Demiurge: Seligmann on Space (December 2017)
Banjo (March 2017)
A Brief History of Negritude (February 2017)
Burns' and Lovick's Vietnam (November 2017)
Comics (February 2010)
Conrad's Shadow-Line (June 2014)
The Critical Palimpsest: Black African Literature through White American Eyes (January 2010)
Dada in America (April 2012)
Eisenstein's Strike and the Problem of Realism (April 2013)
Epiphanies in Dubliners (May 2016)
An Explication of Stevens' "A Primitive like an Orb" (October 2017)
False Translations (August 2016)
The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art (April 2015)
A Few Films (November 2016)
A Few Proletarian Writers (March 2012)
Flash Reviews of Thirty African Novels (November 2011)
Flyin’ with the Muses: Kirpal Gordon’s Eros in Sanskrit (May 2011)
Hell's House (November 2013)
Kerouac’s Weakness and Strength (January 2011)
Kurt Seligmann's Moderate Surrealism (November 2016)
Kurt Seligmann and the Poets (October 2017)
Kurt Seligmann's Riddlesome Symbols (March 2017)
The Last Poets (March 2016)
The Legacy of the Beats (March 2014)
The Lyricism of the Ugly: Celine's Mort à Crédit (December 2014)
The Man with the Golden Arm and a Friend with Six Seeds (January 2014)
On Marinetti's Avant-Garde Fascism (September 2017)
Norris's Visionary (March 2018)
Onitsha Market Literature (February 2015)
Pig and Possum Teach Poetry (May 2014)
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (September 2011)
The Power of Picasso's Sculpture (November 2015)
Remarks on the Grassroots Poetry Scene (July 2017)
Saki's Novels (April 2015)
Sartre's "Black Orpheus (February 2017)
Some Poetry Reviews (December 2012)
Sound Poetry and Edith Sitwell's Facade (July 2013)
Tristan Tzara, Poet of Manifestos (February 2018)
Two Graffiti (May 2011)
A Very Funny Fellow [Lev] (May 2012)

C. Asian texts
Friendship and Romance in Ming Stories (February 2014)
Han Shan (December 2010)
Journey to the North (December 2013)
Liezi (October 2012)
Lu Xun (October 2010)
Monkey Rides Again (January 2013)
Notes on Liu Xie (August 2011)
Tang Stories (April 2016)
Theme and Tone In Kokoro (September 2016)
A Tibetan Novel (March 2017)
The Trials of Lady Ochikubo (April 2014)
The View from a Ten-Foot-Square Hut [Chomei] (February 2018)

D. songs
Blind Willie Johnson Preaches (May 2017)
Bukka White's Limpid Lyric Clarity (November 2017)
"Down the Dirt Road Blues" [Charley Patton] (October 2011)
Fishing Blues [Henry Thomas] (October 2015)
Foggy Dew as Symbol (July 2012)
The Heart of the Blues [Robert Johnson] (January 2018)
The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs (July 2015)
"Lady Maisry" (November 2013)
"Moon Goin' Down" [Charley Patton] (May 2013)
The Mule in Blues Imagery (August 2017)
"Nottamun Town" (April 2018)
The Paraklausithyron Blues (May 2016)
"The Red Rooster" [Willie Dixon] (March 2014)
Robert Johnson and the Devil (September 2012)
Skip James' Blues Imagery (May 2015)
“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning (December 2012)
"The Three Ravens" (August 2013)
Trinidadian Smut (April 2016)
Truckin' (November 2014)
“Walkin’ Blues” [Son House] (December 2011)

E. Notes on Recent Reading
Notes on Recent Reading [Melville, Greene, and Whalen] (September 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 2 [Crane, The Crowning of Louis, Thornlyre] (October 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 3 [Kipling, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Lynn’s Tao-te-ching] (November 2011)
Notes on Recent Reading 4 [Sarah Scott, de La Fayette, Wharton] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 5 [The Deeds of God in Rddhipur, Burney, Cooper] (January 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 6 [Jewett, Addison, Crabbe] (February 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 7 [Nabokov, Austen, Grettis Saga] (April 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 8 [Bakhtin, Lewis, Brown] (May 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 9 [Plutarch, Tacitus, Williams](June 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden](July 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert] (August 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 12 [Huxley, Norris, Dōgen](September 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 13 [Mirabai, Wood, Trocchi] (November 2012)
Notes on Recent Reading 14 [Algren, Hauptmann, Rolle] (January 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 15 [Hemingway, Orwell, Gaskell]{February 2013}
Notes on Recent Reading 16 [Howells, Ford, Mann] (April 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 17 [McCarthy, Chang, Snorri](July 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 18 [Radcliffe, Stendhal, Erasmus](October 2013)
Notes on Recent Reading 19 [Powers, Zhang Ji, Vietnamese folk song] (February 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 20 [Rowe, Stevenson, Issa] (May 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 21 [Fussell, Mahfouz, Watts] (August 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura] (October 2014)
Notes on Recent Reading 23 [Naipaul, Dinesen, Spillane] (January 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 24 [Fielding; Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū; Plath] (June 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 25 [Baskervill, Gissing, Capote] (July 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 26 [Tuchman, Premchand, Cocteau] (November 2015)
Notes on Recent Reading 27 [Forster, Sackville-West, Capote] (January 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 28 [Verne, Waley, Hurston] (March 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 29 [Achebe, Jewett, Villiers de l'Isle-Adam] (October 2016)
Notes on Recent Reading 30 [Bradford, Scott, Marquand] (April 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 31 [Marlowe, Trollope, p'Bitek] (August 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 32 [Morrison, Cary, Kawabata] (October 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 33 [Tourneur, Peacock, Greene] (December 2017)
Notes on Recent Reading 34 [Hawthorne, Huncke, Bentley] (January 2018)

F. Rereading the Classics
Rereading the Classics [Burton] (November 2011)
Rereading the Classics [Gogol] (August 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Goldsmith] (December 2016)
Rereading the Classics [Kleist] (February 2012)
Rereading the Classics [Montaigne] (December 2013)
Rereading the Classics [Rabelais] (December 2011)

G. Every Reader's Poets
Every Reader's Blake (May 2017)
Every Reader's Donne (April 2018)
Every Reader's Herrick (December 2015)
Every Reader's Hopkins (May 2016)
Every Reader's Milton (January 2017)
Every Reader's Pope (May 2015)
Every Reader's Shelley (November 2014)
Every Reader's Skelton (March 2016)
Every Reader's Wyatt (December 2014)
Every Reader's Yeats (January 2015)
Why Read Poetry? (May 2018)


6. Translation
Alkaios' Happy Hour (January 2017)
Becher's "Someone Stands Up" (October 2012)
Christian and Dedicatory Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (March 2010)
Emmy Hennings (February 2010)
Emmy Hennings Poems (More from Die Letzte Freude) (November 2010)
Erotic Old English Riddles (March 2018)
Four Poems from the German of Richard Huelsenbeck (January 2010)
Four Quatrains by Wang Wei (January 2013)
Hans Arp (April 2010)
The Homeric Hymn to Dionysos (February 2012)
Horace I.21 (July 2016)
Hugo Ball (July 2010)
Hymn to Aphrodite (August 2010)
Hymn to Heracles the Lion-Hearted (June 2012)
Hymn to the Night [Novalis](March 2012)
Hymn to the Night II [Novalis] (July 2012)
Hymn to Pan (May 2014)
Leonidas of Tarentum (May 2010)
A Mixed Bag of German Translations (August 2014)
Rimbaud's "The Lice-Pickers" (March 2014)
Seven Poems from Léon-Gontran Damas (February 2017)
Some Anonymous Middle High German Lyrics (August 2011)
Three Horatian Odes (November 2012)
Translations of William IX (September 2010)
Wordsworth Speaks German (July 2011)
Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei (June 2011)


7. Poetry
African poems (August 2010)
Domestic Incidents from the Life of the Lama Swine Toil (June 2017)
How to Be a Poet (June 2010)
The Liturgies of the Lama Swine Toil (September 2012)
Mexican poems (September 2010)
Poems from New Mexico (July 2010)
Poems from Turkey (June 2010)
Produce poems (May 2010)
The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily (August 2012)
Some Sonnets (April 2010)
Three Poems from Peru (August 2011)
Two Lyrics on Death from Central America (January 2012)


8. Politics
Black Lives Matter (August 2016)
Economic Democracy (July 2013)
The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Port Huron Statement (June 2012)
Hard Rain Still Fallin’ (September 2010)
How to Get Serious about Fighting Crime (January 2010)
Local Politics (May 2015)
In Memory of a Generation's People's Heroes (October 2015)
Occupy Wall Street (November 2011)
The Role of Higher Education (November 2010)
The Socialist Martin Luther King (February 2016)
The Triumph and Tragedy of Revolution (December 2016)
Two Exemplary Anecdotes from the Sixties Student Movement (September 2013)
Utopia (November 2015)
Voluntary Poverty (October 2011)
Why I am a Socialist (March 2010)


9. Memoirs
Baby Boomer Reads the Beats (April 2012)
A Brief Literary Life (September 2012)
A Garland of Greek Professors (December 2010)
A Glimpse of Robert Bly (August 2012)
Grandparents (December 2009)
High School (August 2014)
Hip Poets of Seventies San Francisco (January 2011)
How I Came to Work at Scott Foresman (July 2017)
How I Was Hired to Teach in Nigeria (May 2011)
IWW (April 2011)
March in Cicero (December 2009)
A Memorable Roomer (June 2014)
My Most Politically Active Year (February 2011)
Nova Academy (March 2011)
Pestering Allen [Ginsberg] (March 2012)
Poetry on the Loose (September 2011)
A Scholar's Debut (October 2012)
Sherman Paul (August 2016)
Suburbanite in the City (November 2010)
Tim West (March 2013)
VISTA Trains Me (June 2011)


10. Travel
Arrival in Nigeria (August 2015)
Acadiana [Lafayette, Louisiana] (May 2010)
An Armenian Family in Bordeaux (December 2014)
Carnival [Portugal] (May 2012)
Cookie Man [Morocco] (October 2011)
Creel (October 2010)
Dame Fortuna in Portugal (May 2012)
Dinner with Mrs. Pea [Thailand] (April 2013)
Election Day in Chichicastenango (January 2012)
An Evening in Urubamba (July 2011)
Festival in Ogwa [Nigeria](January 2011)
On the Ganges' Shore (August 2013)
The Guru of Guinness (July 2016)
Haarlem (July 2010)
Hitchhiking in Algeria (September 2010)
Hitchhiking in France (January 2014)
Hungarian Food (December 2010)
Introduction to Tourist Snapshots (June 2010)
Jemaa el Fna (December 2010)
Knee-deep in History [Vietnam, Cambodia] (February 2014)
Najibe’s Stories (September 2011)
Nigerian Names and Vehicle Slogans (March 2011)
A Palm Wine Shack [Nigeria] (December 2011)
Portraits from a Floating World: Anonymous (October 2016)
Portraits from a Floating World: Najibe and Sandro (February 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Gahlia and Jack (June 2010)
Portraits from a Floating World: Leslie Spector and Pa’ahssyzy (August 2010)
A Problem on the Border [Algeria] (June 2011)
A Reading in Kathmandu (November 2009)
Sacred Space as Sideshow [Prague] (February 2010)
St. Joseph’s Day at the Laguna Pueblo (April 2011)
A Stroll around Lake Bled (May 2013)
Strong Stuff [Marrakech] (October 2012)
Tetouan (November 2010)
The Theory of Souvenirs (April 2012)
A Trip to India (January 2016)
Two Parades [India and Peru] (August 2011)
The Valley of Beautiful Women [Eger, Hungary] (March 2010)
Vignettes of Sunny Nigeria (March 2011)
A Waterfall near Marrakech (February 2011)

A Lost World of Allusion


The poem “Phyllida and Corydon” is appended to this essay.

Just as our every utterance Is a recombination based on an inventory of possibilities formed of all the speech we have heard, every literary text arises from the vast database of all preceding texts. Unlike the largely self-contained messages of non-aesthetic discourse, the interconnections in poetry, fiction, and drama – allusions, sources, and influences – enrich meaning, creating outgoing waves of significance the critic may pursue very nearly without limit. Though sometimes such intertextuality functions as display or ornament, it also allows for the expression of subtle and complex thought, including that which seems paradoxical, ambivalent, or mysterious, the very sort of material which aesthetic texts can uniquely well express. In the current era, unlike previous periods, even educated people are often incompetent at decoding relevant sources and influences and understanding the implications of devices such as quotation, allusion, homage, and parody. The loss of this secondary elaboration of meaning has impoverished the semantic field of virtually all poetry, but the principle applies in particular to poetry of the past, and most of all to highly conventional works.

Nicholas Breton’s poem “Phyllida and Corydon” is an example of a work that would mean far less to the average reader today than when it was composed due to the loss of the ability to perceive its intertextual relations. Breton was a popular poet and fiction writer in the Elizabethan Age, but his works were rapidly forgotten thereafter. (Often authors of what might be generally if informally regarded as the second rank -- such ratings are never demonstrable -- demonstrate more clearly than the geniuses of an age the taste of the time.) The poet’s practice reflects the norms of his period. Socially positioned in the haute bourgeoisie with a family that was affluent, though not aristocratic, he had an eye toward pleasing the taste of the nobility. [1] He strove to suit, however, not only courtiers but the general reader of the day for whom he wrote numerous religious works, a substantial body of poetry, and twenty-two prose publications.

On the rare occasions when Breton is remembered today, it is usually because of his love lyrics, especially those in the pastoral style, several of which have been set to music. Breton’s pastoral lyric “Phyllida and Corydon” has impeccable courtly credentials, having been originally presented as part of an “Honourable Entertainment Given to the Queen’s Majesty in Progress at Elvetham in Hampshire, by the Right Honourable the Earl of Hertford in 1591.” [2] Thus the reader may expect courtly and learned associations as well as popular ones.

With three explicit mentions of the month of May in the opening stanza, Breton invokes some of the oldest memories of humankind. Surely festivals celebrating the return of warm weather have been celebrated in the northern hemisphere since palaeolithic times. Breton was certainly aware of the rural maypoles in his own day as well as the medieval reverdie tradition. This sophisticated lyric thus has exceedingly deep archaic roots expressing delight at the marvelous fruitfulness of the earth and associating it with romance between a man and a woman.

Literary allusions in the poem are broad and deep. Corydon’s name is derived from the Greek for lark, a bird with significant associations in poetry. The lark is often praised in poetry for the beauty of its soaring flight and complex song, [3] which during the Middle Ages had appeared in both devotional religious poetry and secular love lyrics. Though Breton is unlikely to have been familiar with this specific poem, Bernart de Ventadorn’s “Can vei la lauzeta mover” (“When I see the lark beat his wings”) can represent the bird’s medieval connotations. In Bernart the persona’s lovelorn depression is contrasted with the high-flying bird, rising and falling “per la doussor c’al cor li val” (“for the sweetness that comes to its heart”).

The primary role of Corydon’s name, however is simply to establish a link to the pastoral tradition. As a pastoral name, Corydon has a most distinguished pedigree, appearing in Theocritus and Vergil as well as in Spenser. [4] Pastoralism, since Theocritus wrote in Alexandria, has been an urban, one might say artificial and “romantic,” view of rural characters. Identifying lovers with shepherds and other country folk and conflating their passion with the general regeneration of life to which people have paid homage throughout history. In the Middle Ages the Classical pastoral tradition survived and developed into the pastourelle. [5] While the peasants danced around country maypoles, their social betters amused themselves by imitation in a quaintly cute and modish manner typified by Marie Antoinette going about her Hameau in an elegantly contrived shepherdess costume.

Phyllida is no less burdened with association. The name, a variation of Phyllis, meaning “greenery” or “covered with leaves” is like Corydon a conventional pastoral name, appearing in Vergil, Horace, Propertius, and Ovid, as well as in the medieval Carmina Burana, . [6] The story in Ovid of her betrayal by Demophon pointedly reinforces the reservations of the woman in Breton.

There is no end to tracing the expanding circles of meaning, but I will conclude here with one comment on what seems a meaningful lexical choice. The second stanza opens with a vague declaration: “Much ado there was.” Modern readers will associate the word with Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in which the primary association of the word is all the fuss that arises about love-making. Here “ado” is euphemistic, similar perhaps to the modern expression “a little something something,” with a similarly jocular tone.

Among the semantic elements introduced by intertextual processes is the fundamental assent to life that marks the welcoming of spring and the delights of love in a cyclically renewed world in the references to May Day, reinforced by both names (birds and plants being part of nature) which also link this poem to the pastoral tradition, thereby suggesting its sophisticated literariness. Further Corydon is associated with earlier examples of love longing and Phyllida with betrayal, while I read “ado” as contributing to a sly high-spirited sexuality. The smooth meters and melodious rhymes reinforce the playful, joyful aspect of love.

Even a college textbook would probably provide notes on very few of these associations, yet the original audience might reasonably be expected to appreciate them to one degree or another. Furthermore, the very literary conventions that might irritate a twenty-first century reader delighted the listener in 1591. In addition to their semantic contribution, the intertextuality is decorative, providing a polished surface that invokes the authority of the Greek and Latin classics as well as secular popular custom and prior uses of the language. Readers enjoy their own competence in a relish of the familiar while the allusions render the themes more precisely, expressing at once the urgency of desire and the prudential reservations about risking oneself in love, the push and pull of ego out of which human relations are woven.

The ability of an audience to respond to such clues, to understand, though perhaps unconsciously, the connotations of every part of the poem is here a major portion of it signification. A reader, having recovered at least a part of this largely lost world of allusion, may return to the poem with greater appreciation of the joys and dangers of love and of the unique ability of the literary text to embody the contradictions of the most deeply human of experiences.


1. His stepfather was the poet and critic George Gascoigne who composed a great body of work, including extravagant rhetorical paeans to Queen Elizabeth.

2. It was then entitled “The Ploughman’s Song,” but when published in England’s Helicon, 1600, it was called “Phillida and Corydon.”

3. As Eliot correctly maintained in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” each new contribution to the ocean of words affects all earlier works. A brief mention of a few poems employing lark imagery that follow Breton’s may be suggestive. The name appears also in the popular collection The Passionate Pilgrim published shortly after “Phyllida and Corydon.” In Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, published almost ten years after Breton’s poem, the lark is a figure of joyous flight to heights of sublimity, and in Milton’s “L’Allegro” the lark’s role is similar. For Milton the bird is the first of a catalogue of “unreprovéd pleasures free.” In Shelley’s “To a Skylark” the bird is the image of the poet. For Hopkins in “The Sea and the Skylark” the sense of jouissance associated with the lark is spiritual. In “the Caged Skylark” the bird represents the human soul.

4. Theocritus Idyll IV, Vergil Eclogues II, Spenser The Fairie Queen Bk. VI, Canto X.

5. Though early pastourelles typically concern the encounter of a country woman with a knight, the genre came to include many narratives in which both man and woman were rural folk. In Occitan the parallel convention is called pastorelas. In another development of medieval pastoralism Neidhart von Reuental wrote what critics call höfische Dorfpoesie (“courtly village poetry”).

6. Vergil in Eclogues 3, 5, 7, and 10; Horace Odes 2.4 and 4.11; Propertius IV.8; Ovid Heroides II; in the Carmina Burana “Phyllis and Flora.”



Phyllida and Corydon

In the merry month of May,
In a morn by break of day,
With a troop of damsels playing
Forth I rode, forsooth, a-maying,
When anon by a woodside,
Where as May was in his pride,
I espied, all alone,
Phyllida and Corydon.

Much ado there was, God wot!
He would love, and she would not:
She said, never man was true;
He says, none was false to you.
He said, he had loved her long:
She says, Love should have no wrong.

Corydon would kiss her then,
She says, maids must kiss no men,
Till they do for good and all.
Then she made the shepherd call
All the heavens to witness, truth
Never loved a truer youth.
Thus with many a pretty oath,
Yea, and nay, and faith and troth!--
Such as silly shepherds use
When they will not love abuse;
Love, which had been long deluded,
Was with kisses sweet concluded:
And Phyllida, with garlands gay,
Was made the lady of the May.

Why Read Poetry?


This essay is a draft of an introduction to Every Reader’s Poets, a book of criticism for the common reader, nine chapters for which have been posted at this site.


The thought of what America,
The thought of what America,
The thought of what America would be like
If the Classics had a wide circulation . . .
Oh well!
It troubles my sleep.
“Cantico del Sole” Ezra Pound


Why read poetry? Perhaps this brief introduction may demonstrate in some small way the power of words. Though they are nothing but symbolic patterns on a page, the reader, having scanned those codes in black and white, will likely find that something has changed. Potentially a mind, but also (or instead) it may possibly be the slightest of alterations arising from a passing wind of laughter or of fear, a sniff of the sublime, a spark of enlightenment. We know nothing whatever apart from our perceptions, and art records human states of consciousness more precisely than any other artifact. We are signaling to each other on this journey, and knowing what to make of our fellow travelers is really the only way to know even oneself.

While a good many Americans today write poetry, fewer read it. Though it is the golden age of the open mike and the community poetry reading, with far more venues offering regular poetry events than ever before, I fear that the general familiarity with what were once confidently labeled great writers has declined to the vanishing point. Poetry plays an ever-decreasing role in secondary and higher education. Even English majors who devour high heaps of fiction and criticism manage to remain largely innocent of poetry these days, particularly the poetry of the past. The old area requirements for literary scholars – Old English, Middle English, Elizabethan, Restoration, and the like -- have withered. When J. M. Dent founded the Everyman series over a hundred years ago for people like himself who appreciated literature whether or not they had a university degree or a bank account, there was a market for such an idea. When Virginia Woolf addressed her essays to the “common reader,” such a creature still existed. At about the same time in the United States The Harvard Universal Classics, “Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf,” appeared. Shortly thereafter, literature became available to all with the exceedingly cheap little blue books – many cost a nickel -- from the Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company of Girard, Kansas which included, among many other titles, Plato, Goethe, booklets on philosophy by Will Durant, socialist and atheist tracts, and sex information titles. A few decades later Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler put together a classier package: The Great Books of the Western World and the Encyclopedia Brittanica Company knew it would find plenty of readers in the great breadth of the American middle class. A body of culture, ethnocentric and biased indeed, but rich and rewarding nonetheless, was then shared by most educated people. “High culture” exerted a gravitational pull on even the mass media with the production of original dramas and even opera on television. Even those unexposed to Shakespeare, Verdi, and Rembrandt felt certain that such icons must hold something worthwhile and deserving of respect.

Now, however, the direction of influence has largely reversed as public radio and television strive for more of People magazine’s demographic through covering rock ‘n’ roll and the latest HBO series. Intellectuals feel they must wear baseball caps and sound like the guy next door. The closest approach to a shared culture in America is the utterly commodified television shows, movies, and music made to appeal to hoi polloi but also patronized by people who, in the past, would have, in the past, at least given a nod to “high culture.”

If poetry is worth reading, then, many intelligent readers will benefit from an introduction or a re-introduction to at least a few highlights of the canon. In offering these essays my goal is to supply that need. Criticism can be highly technical with as much jargon and as many subspecialties as physics. Why should the general public take any interest in acquiring such expertise when poets are not expected to master computer programming, entomology, or realms of mathematics beyond what is needed to calculate taxes?

One would, of course, be quite right to emphasize the many practical functional ends for reading. It is true that in the consumption of poetry one practices the general intellectual skills of taking in information, processing it, and generating original ideas in reaction. These abilities are indispensable for any cognitive labor. In the Victorian Age, students were all drilled in very demanding poetry, couched in the complex grammatical systems of ancient Latin and Greek, whatever their vocational goals might be. The future banker, general, businessman, and bureaucrat all translated passages of Shakespeare into Latin and puzzled over the mysteries of the Greek particle while they were yet in secondary school. The theory was, of course, that in doing so they were performing mental calisthenics so demanding that the requirements of any future career would be simple by comparison. This may have been carrying matters a bit too far.

Still, the ability to consume difficult texts rapidly, and even more the ability to speak and write elegantly does provide an advantage for the verbally competent which is so great as to be even unfair. A fluent speaker will be persuasive and a proficient writer will carry the day in virtually any setting. People’s intelligence is judged, often, it may be, unfairly, by their verbal skills just as they may be judged on appearance, so one who wishes to get ahead can do no better than to cultivate superlative ability with language. This is not entirely a matter of the rhetorical surface; the good writer is likely to be the effective reasoner as well. In part because American students never learn logic or philosophy, writing class is by default the sole place where one learns how to make one’s ideas convincing to others.

Magisterially, we ignore all that. There are even more compelling reasons for reading poetry.

One reason, surprisingly, is biological. The owners of even the most domestic of house cats may see their sweet lap-sitter turn to a merciless killer at the first opportunity. Pussy may seem possessed by unaccustomed excitement, she may suddenly appear with a slightly bloody little corpse or leap into the air to seize a bird in mid-flight. When the cat acts like a cat, even a vegan pet owner can hardly resist feeling admiration at the efficiency of the animal’s skills and the grace of its movements. Similarly, the sight of a hummingbird hovering at a flower or the coordinated action of a thousand ants in a colony inspires most viewers with awe and a sense of beauty. Each of these animals is practicing its highest evolutionary skills, the activities that its DNA is programmed to perform with dazzling exhilarating competence.

As human beings our most highly developed evolutionary skill is the manipulation of symbols. Language is only the most sophisticated symbolic system our species employs, and poetry is the most concentrated form of linguistic code. Poetry carries a heavier weight of signification per word or line than any other form of discourse. Thus in reading poetry we are exercising our nature to a paramount degree.

This is the reason we experience pleasure in poetry, and pleasure, though still not quite respectable, has been a chief end of art since prehistoric times. People construct and consume works of art to pass the time in pleasant play. Tribal people tell each other stories to transmit culture, to be sure, but also for the same reason that other people listened to Jack Benny on the radio, for simple amusement. Such pleasure ranges widely, from a laugh at a Louis C. K. punch line or a shiver of anxiety at a paragraph of Stephen King through the sentimental comedy of Trollope and Dickens or a frisson of sympathetic sexual energy upon hearing a blues song, to what we think of as the heights of the sublime in the Oresteia or a late Beethoven quartet.

In perhaps the most hackneyed and misleading formula of all literary criticism, Horace declared that poetry should provide not only pleasure but instruction, which is to say useful knowledge. Just what sort of knowledge can arise from literature is often unclear. On the vulgar level, and sometimes among the sophisticated as well, a notion persists that artists are somehow wiser, more insightful than the general run of humanity and that we readers might benefit from their valuable insights cleverly encoded in their work. A highly humane English professor of my acquaintance never lost the faith that familiarity with poetry would render all the world more humane. To him the widely-read person would inevitably treat lovers and enemies alike in a more enlightened fashion and perhaps even lead society as a whole to a more sensible political regime. Alas, this cannot be, if only because the artist is not privy to any insights unavailable to the rest of us. The poet’s exceptional skill is not in ethics or politics but only in the use of language and the construction of objets d’art made of words.

Yet we do learn a great deal from reading. Some of what we learn has nothing whatever to do with the nature of art whereas other insights might be available from non-aesthetic sources. For instance, the historian might study Beowulf for evidence of Old English legal codes, or a military strategist might analyze battles in the Iliad. Such information has nothing necessarily literary about it. Yet one traditional element of literary texts, indeed it might seem the most significant judging from high school classes (and many in university), is theme, what the text implies about lived experience. We benefit from such thematic exposition not because the author is more perspicacious than ourselves, but because the text provides another viewpoint, another take on reality, another world-view. Simply understanding deeply how a situation can look to others broadens an individual’s vision by a sort of imaginative triangulation.

Every work implies a set of assumptions about history, psychology, and philosophy. Just as we all live inside of history, every text is also inscribed with the circumstances of its creation. The author’s own political views are in the end irrelevant; what matters is what is implied on the page. A macho writer is likely, in fact, to reveal more about the social role of women than a more progressive one. Furthermore, every text concerns human attitudes or actions and thus must carry information about how the mind operates; in fact, virtually every piece of writing reflects on the writer as well as the personae portrayed. Finally, every work also conveys traces of a philosophic world-view. (Indeed, even the less heavily weighted utterances of everyday life do the same in a more dilute way.)

Yet, whatever value one may place on the insights of littérateurs, we have as well other disciplines for investigating those realms: history, economics, and political science for investigating social structures, psychology and neurology for the mind, and philosophy and theology for the ultimate questions. Art is unique, however, in its capacity, far greater than other forms of discourse, to represent the authentic face of human consciousness. By arising from one subjectivity and appealing to another, poetry, fiction, and drama can fully delineate the affective aspect of mind, which often dominates our own lived experience. The universal pursuit of pleasure and aversion to pain is likewise fully rendered in imaginative literature.

Equally importantly, only the aesthetic text can by design provide insight into the irrational (and far more of our thinking is irrational than we allow ourselves to suppose) bases for thought. Often conflicted, especially when dealing with the most significant issues of human life such as love and aggression, the mind is best represented by fiction and poetry which are uniquely equipped to investigate the ambivalent and the paradoxical. Finally, art has since its appearance forty thousand years ago, been associated with religion, broadly conceived as concern with Ultimate Reality. Though theology may offer some insights about the human perception of the divine, psychology about love, and medicine about death, the most meaningful impressions are those without the pretense of objectivity. Indeed, though art can offer only another subjectivity, the fact is that subjectivity is all we can ever know.

Two Brief Notes on Daphnis and Chloe


I quote from Moses Hadas’ translation in the old Doubleday Anchor paperback Three Greek Romances with its charming cover by Diana Klemin.

Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe is the most popular of the Hellenistic romances and, in the opinion of many, the finest. The story, translated into French by Jacques Amyot in 1559, inititated a revival of the pastoral romance genre, influencing Honoré d'Urfé, Torquato Tasso, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In more recent times the work inspired paintings by Boucher in the 18th century, Gleyre in the 19th century, illustrations by Klimt and lithographs by Chagall in the 20th, as well as an opera by Offenbach and a ballet by Ravel.

This interest and my own is founded on the narrative’s presentation of the powers of love. Under the mythological symbols of Eros, Pan, and the Nymphs, the intensity of human sexuality, what D. H. Lawrence much closer to our own age would have called its divinity, is presented with power and subtlety. Similar to the Pervigilium Veneris in its wonderful belated passion, the story is perhaps primarily a paean to life conceived as the reproductive power of nature. Yet at the same time as he recognizes the glorious but undifferentiated song of the creation’s renewal, the writer never slights the human element, with its burden of free will and an almost modern share of self-consciousness and self-contradiction.

1.
The opening ekphrasis of a work of art supposedly displayed in the Lesbos grove of the Nymphs, a place itself of surpassing beauty, full of tree and flowers and watered by a fructifying stream. There, the author relates, he saw “fairest sight” he had ever seen, not the landscape but rather “the painted picture of a tale of love.” He claims that “an interpreter of the picture” detailed its story to him which he then set down. Thus, in a way, the supposed painting is an illustration of his narration; while in another his story is a partial depiction from a very human perspective, of the élan vital observable throughout the biological world.

For the picture includes much more than a highly distilled version of the courtship of Daphnis and Chloe in its depiction of “young lovers pledging to one another.” The first image is of women in childbed and others tending infants, not ordinarily considered erotic situations, though they are rapidly enfolded in a grander scheme of fertility as sheep and shepherd are introduced until it is not entirely clear who is tending whom. All are united in a coherent mutually invigorating and passionately warm net of relationships.

In front of the backdrop, though, in the human realm, one sees not only the lovers, but also “pirates” and “invaders.” These in fact are mentioned immediately before Longus assures the reader, “all these scenes spoke of love.” Intruders who impede the course of love are comparable to Catullus’ grumbling old men or the lauzengiers and gilos who out of jealousy or malice present obstacles to the troubadour’s affairs. Without conflict there can be no drama and therefore, from Greek New Comedy times through the most recent Hollywood romantic comedy, some force must separate the man and woman. When they overcome and can join together, the happy ending has arrived.

Yet the figure of a pirate has a further significance in Longus. At the close of Book I Daphnis suffers the prolonged frustration of having admired Chloe’s naked body yet still not having sex with her. Far from a generalized Ovidian lovesickness, Daphnis is simply experiencing intrusively urgent sexual desire. He considers this state of suffering to be worse than the ordeal of his capture by pirates. “His soul,” one reads, “was still tarrying with the pirates,” who alarm him less than his beautiful beloved “for he was young, and a rustic, and so far ignorant of the piratical ways of love.”

This final phrase, unique in the book, suggests not that he is dwelling on his adventure among the pirates, but rather that his experience of being on love is similar, that love is necessarily in some way piratical, which is to say selfish and domineering. The idea may seem out of place in a love story in which the leading characters are both impossibly naïve. Both are portrayed as child-like in their innocence and thus “pure” in their love. The primary view of love in Daphnis and Chloe is extravagantly unselfish; Daphnis, after all, recoils from initiating sexual intercourse for fear of hurting Chloe. Nature stands in the background, with its undoubtedly necessary, beautiful, and “right” drive to reproduce. This small dark grace note tempers the celebration of love, reminding readers that passion can make one miserable as well as elated and suggesting the many love relations which are less ideally mutual than Daphnis and Chloe’s in which one partner (or both) actually seeks to govern the other.

The pirates in the story thus represent both the impediments love often encounters as well as the potential within love for a selfish desire to possess.

2.
Only a few pages short of the end of Book I (1.30.6) is a scene in which Daphnis crosses a stream while escaping his pursuers. Not only are the pirates weighed down by their armor; Daphnis hitches a ride as “securely as if he were riding in a wagon” by seizing the horns of two cows heading across. This fanciful image is vivid and memorable in itself, but it also serves to introduce an odd digression.

The author relates by the way as an interesting fact that cattle can swim better than people, but then in place of returning to his story, he continues to elaborate the point, conceding that waterfowl are even more at ease in the water and adding a second exception -- “and, of course, fish” – as though he were being scrupulous about facts in a natural history treatise. Not willing to drop the theme even at that, he notes that “an ox is never in danger of drowning, unless his hoofs become softened in the water and drop off.” This surely sounds as though it has roots in some ancient authority, though I have not traced it. With a flourish Longus then concludes the passage by noting that the animal’s swimming skills are proven by the many locations named Oxford (in Greek boos poroi) in the world.

The passage stands out for its singularity but also because, though it has no relevance to the larger story, the author with a sort of lavish liberality not only raises the topic but then extends it. He possesses a sort of grand vision of the sort that tends to appear toward the end of an age in which every detail is worthy of examination since all are of equal significance. I am reminded of Athenaeus’ diners who never hesitate to spin off into a discussion of anything whatever, or of Robert Burton’s essays, or of the unpredictable, stream-like flow of conversation in a social group or of reminiscence on a page of Proust. Longus here is leisurely and learned and quaint, a collector of curious lore like a provincial Victorian cleric erudite in Greek and Latin but assigned a church among farmers, who keeps his erudition active by expounding as an amateur on local antiquities or butterflies or varieties of moss.

I would be hard put to justify this passage in terms of the efficient design of the story’s aesthetic structure, but I, for one, welcome it as a reader. In the end it does contribute toward an understanding of the author’s sensibility, civilized and sophisticated, omnivorously curious, and friendly to all learning. I am reminded of a professor with whom I studied in graduate school who never prepared a lecture, but simply took off from the text under discussion and flew about with the freest of association from Sumer to situation comedies to Milton leaving some students nonplussed. It is because of him that my own advanced study, this note, for example, seemed to me plausible, yet he was not to everyone’s taste.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Structural View of the Ephesiaca


The Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus [1] has been long considered inferior to other Hellenistic novels or romances. In fact, early editors speculated that the extant text is not a finished work but a summary of a superior longer version. One critic arguing that main characters display significant growth and maturation [2] stands apart from the majority who find the chief interest of the work to be its action. Even those who translate Xenophon are tempted to condescension. One characterizes the book as "a specimen of penny dreadful literature” and another calls it the ancient version of a "rip-roaring action film." [3] They at least make it sound entertaining.

The fact is that ancient Greek prose fiction in general tends like folk tales to focus with single-minded concern on a narrative thread, with little description of settings and virtually no analysis or development of character. In the Ephesiaca the incidents are implausible and repetitive, the characters flat and unchanging, and the narration generally spare. The story does include an elaborate rhetorical show-piece: the wonderful ekphrasis on the canopy above the lovers’ marriage bed. The lush and luxurious texture of this passage, lit with an erotic glow, very like the art object it describes, only emphasizes the plainness of much of the story's prose.

For the most part the narration is unadorned and simple, proceeding rapidly from one incident to the next. Like Lazarillo de Tormes or the Chinese Water Margin it is episodic and paratactic in structure. Very little builds on what comes before or prepares for what follows. The story could be lengthened or shortened without damaging its pattern or meaning.

This is far, of course, from the qualities prized in modern novels. Yet these very attributes that underlie the book’s lack of appeal to many moderns may also be the basis for the pleasure its original audience felt when reading it. The primary motive for such a plot is aesthetic, the purely formal appeal of the pattern, similar to the pleasure the listener has in a Bach fugue or in certain works of abstract visual art. Even when viewing natural objects, such as the silhouettes of trees or the colors of a sunset, the human sensibility seeks satisfying unintentional structures. The author has set in motion a number of psychologically potent elements which then mutate and repeat in striking formal patterns. [4]

The entire plot might be schematically represented, but perhaps it will be sufficient to describe the first two books to establish the structure which remains largely fixed throughout. The hero of the Ephesiaca is introduced less as an individual than as a paragon of masculine excellence, extraordinary in beauty and character, justified in his arrogance. He is Man writ large. Almost like Gilgamesh whose powers required the counterbalance of Enkidu, Anthia then appears as his female counterpart, exemplifying the qualities most prized in women. The single cell has divided in two.

The two then lose their peace and happiness and fall into the hands of pirates upon which each receives an unwanted lover, their evil Doppelgängers in a sense, Corymbos for Habrocomes and Euxinos for Anthia. Ease has been replaced by its polar opposite suffering and the two leading protagonists has each attracted an antagonist.

In Book II a secondary doubling occurs on the axis of social class. The hero and heroine each receive a counterpart on a lower social level in Leucon and Rhode whose adventures parallel and support those of the leading players. Apsyrtos, the leader of the pirate gang, then provides a synthesis that envelops the pattern by taking Habrocomes, Anthia, Leucon, and Rhode into his custody. A new threat then appears as Aspyrtos’ iniquitous male authority is matched by his daughter Manto. Infatuated with Habrocomes, she denounces him when he fails to return her affection. Not only is he then tortured; Anthia is given to the same Manto who has her married to a poor goatherd.

Soon both escape their perils, but only temporarily, and so the story goes with further variations, playing with the author’s set of bipolar oppositions – male/female, pleasure/suffering, rich/poor – which proceed in a regular stylized pattern reminiscent of fractals until the happy conclusion. Yet since the incidents of the story do refer to recognizable human experience, they possess thematic resonance as well. In a work of art nothing is unintentional. The novel does present themes: in the most general way the culture’s male and female ideals, the instability of fortune, and the mysterious mixture of aggression and compassion that characterizes sexual relations. In Greek mythological terms, the story relays the chastening of arrogance by Eros, and the celebration of Isis, the embodiment of the Great Goddess.

The play of transformation in the Ephesiaca collects around several foci of the sort that Freud might have called cathexes. The anxiety and desire that enwraps love and death, pleasure and suffering renders these topics endlessly interesting to our species. This narrative allows the reader to contemplate the mutations of fortune in wonder and amazement. Individualized psychological studies or social analyses are not the only functions of fiction, nor are they necessarily the most sublime. Perhaps modern critics no longer share the taste that allowed earlier readers to relish formal play in fiction as they did in poetic meter. It may be that the sense of an orderly world that underlies the pleasure of viewing human experience as a delightfully kaleidoscopic marvel is rare in this belated age.


1. In English sometimes called the An Ephesian Tale. The author is, of course, to be distinguished from Socrates’ student, Xenophon of Athens. The question of the text being an epitome remains controversial today.

2. See Aldo Tagliabue, “The Ephesiaca as a Bildungsroman,” in Ancient Narrative, Vol. 10, 17–462.

3. Graham Anderson and Stephen Trzaskoma.

4. I am not wholly original in this reading. Earlier critics who have made structural analyses of the Ephesiaca include R. W. Garson (“The Faces of Love in Ephesiaca or Anthia and Habrocomes,” Museum Africum, 7, 47-55), David Konstan (Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres, Princeton U.P., Princeton), and J. R. Morgan in several studies, but especially “Travel in the Greek Novel: Function and Interpretation” in C. Adams and J. Roy’s Travel, Geography, and Culture in Ancient Greece, Egypt, and the Near East, Leicester-Nottingham Studies in Ancient Society 10, Oxford, 139-160.

Every Reader's Donne

This is the tenth of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) non-scholarly readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.

Texts of Donne’s poems are appended.




Since Eliot’s essay on “The Metaphysical Poets” almost a hundred years ago Donne’s literary stock has been high indeed. The anonymous 1595 painting of John Donne by shows a stylish young blade, beardless with a thin moustache, an extravagantly lacy shirt with an open collar, and a prodigiously huge hat. Donne, who was to be a grave divine, dean even of St. Paul’s, and a member of Parliament, here looks like nothing so much as a fashionable man-about-town. His contemporary, the writer and translator Richard Baker spoke of him in his youth as “not dissolute, but very neat; a great visitor of Ladies, a great frequenter of Plays, a great writer of conceited Verses.”

His present literary authority may have seemed unlikely in the days of his youth. The son of a London Roman Catholic bourgeois, his background offered little likelihood of favor in high places. Indeed, his brother died while imprisoned for concealing a priest. He bounced around, gaining admittance to Lincoln’s Inn as a lawyer and sailing with Sir Walter Raleigh. Looking for advantage, he served as secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, only to incur his employer’s anger by marrying his niece, whereupon he was fired and initially put in jail. Writing to his wife about his dismissal, he signed “John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.” While he was freed soon after, he was in reduced circumstances for years while his wife bore child after child, twelve in sixteen years.

After his conversion to Anglicanism and his ordination as a priest, he wrote anti-Catholic pamphlets and his fortunes improved. He served as prolocutor to the king, sat in Parliament, and became a prestigious and popular prelate and chaplain to aristocrats. By the time of his death the public’s memory of the witty seduction poems of his youth had been overlaid with a newer celebrity based on energetic but wholly orthodox religious verses and such memorable meditations as that in which he declared “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

“Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going to Bed” features a dazzling display of wit, sufficiently risqué that the poem was denied a license. Excluded from his posthumous collected poems, it was published twenty-one years later. Though the sexes are figured as “foes,” and the lady may display a coquettish stand-offishness (what the troubadours called daunger), they are more profoundly at one in their pursuit of the heights of physical love. Donne sets the tone with the play on “labor” in the second line which leads directly to the erection joke – “tired of standing.” The motif returns in line 11 with his envy of the busk, the rigid center front piece of the corset, and again in line 24 with his saying she can set “flesh upright.” His body is only responding, of course, to the glories of hers which outdoes anything else in the natural world; indeed, it is divine because of her physicality, not in spite of it. The twenty-first century reader may find unpleasant his references to her body as a colony (in the oft-quoted line 27 “O my America, my new found land”) or, even more objectifying, as a mine. (l. 29) Yet he describes himself as in “bonds” (l. 30) though they paradoxically free him.

Though others may find an incompatibility between profane and divine love, between the physical and the spiritual, for Donne they are complementary.


Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys.


He is a marvelously natural lover to whom adornments such as jewelry can only detract from the worshipped body, for him a “mystic book.” (line 41) The concluding lines may be read as reflecting prelapsarian innocence and the wonderful reciprocity of the love he envisions or as the cynical selfish line of a clever and courtly libertine. Very likely they are both.


To teach thee, I am naked first: why then
What need'st thou have more covering than a man.


In “The Sun Rising” Donne works some new variations on the old troubadour topos of the alba, the dawn-song in which the lover complains of daylight bringing to an end the idyll he had been enjoying in bed with his beloved. Donne immediately recharges this old motif by the use of vigorous, unmistakably colloquial language, providing the impression of sincerity arising from lived experience.

Similarly, the form is both old and new, conventional and innovative, with both rhyme and meter following well-defined but unpredictable patterns. Each stanza follows a rhyme scheme one quatrain short of a Shakespearean sonnet: ABBACDCDEE while the meter is iambic pentameter for lines three, four, seven, eight, nine, and ten. Line two is regularly shortened (and, in reading, slowed) to a dimeter, in the first two stanzas suggesting thoughtful inquiry and in the last, quiet wonder.

The poet indicates his values at the outset by treating the sun as a menial, annoyingly interfering with the all-important business of love-making. Yet he is not dismissed only to “chide late schoolboys,” but also to tend the king’s affairs, which in the lover’s view are as trivial as a child’s. Not merely human society from the lowest to the highest seems inconsequential to this lover, but even (one might have assumed as much from his high-handed address to the sun) such operations of nature as the ants prudent preparation for winter. The neo-Platonic justification for this amatory solipsism is provided in the couplet that concludes the first stanza. Love is eternal, outside of time; next to love’s glory, time is a ragged beggar.

The following stanza reinforces the hegemonic subjectivity that, for the lover, makes up his entire world. The sun vanishes when he closes his eyes, yet the entire world, his entire world, is ever–present in his lovers’ bed. Next to the delights of love all worldly honor seems inconsequential. The poet’s more-than- lordly position allows him to be condescending to the sun. The poem closes with a distinctly neo-Platonic geometric formula that considers the sphere to be the shape of perfection.

Even in his pose as a passionate lover, Donne uses philosophic justifications, most often neo-Platonic, to account for the strength of his desire. When he became an Anglican and a priest the center of his attention shifted from human to divine love while never denying the value and power of the former, and he became a celebrated preacher, drawing crowds to St. Paul’s as well as to Paul’s Cross, the al fresco pulpit nearby.

Remarkably, Donne managed to retain a comparable imaginative energy and sensuality in these religious poems. With “batter,” the first word of his Holy Sonnet XIV, he startles the reader with the ferocity of his passion. Once the reader understands the conceit, it grows only more monstrous. The poet imagines himself raped by God in a transport during which he is largely passive. The violence of the imagery is disturbing and unavoidable. The other governing metaphor of the poem is equally willing to flirt with masochism: the self as a city besieged by the divine, hoping to be captured. While these images are novel and likely to be shocking to many, Donne’s language is justified since the analogies of a rape or a city captured in war, while violent, are entirely consistent with the orthodox doctrine of salvation through grace. For Donne, the edgy rhetoric guarantees the reader’s attention and throws a new light on a familiar teaching.

He sounds as anxious for salvation as his younger self had been that the lady should undress. In praise of Donne Eliot had noted that for him the “disassociation of sensibility,” the separation of thought and feeling, did not exist. For Donne an idea was an experience and each emotion stirred ratiocination. While his every verse is grounded in concrete imagery of lived experience, it often uses the abstract concepts of neo-Platonism or Christian apologetics. For Donne the new discoveries of his day, the explorations of previously unknown regions, the latest in physics, alchemy and chemistry, all seemed to him rich with metaphorical possibilities. The fact is that, until the recent era of scientific specialization, men of letters and men of the cloth actually made scientific discoveries, among them Leibniz, Franklin, Goethe and Mendel. Over the centuries, the science may mutate and develop, but the emotional experiences never changes as though in the last analysis it is to those mutable and turbulent areas of consciousness that one must seek the most authentically lasting truths. Every poem of Donne’s is, though the poet’s craftsmanship, charged with the intensity of his intellect and no less of his heart.




"Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going to Bed"
Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times, having the foe in sight,
Is tired with standing, though they never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glistering
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear
That th'eyes of busy fools may be stopped there:
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime
Tells me from you that now 'tis your bed time.
Off with that happy busk, whom I envy
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown's going off such beauteous state reveals
As when from flowery meads th'hills shadow steals.
Off with your wiry coronet and show
The hairy diadem which on you doth grow.
Off with those shoes: and then safely tread
In this love's hallowed temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes heaven's angels used to be
Received by men; thou Angel bring'st with thee
A heaven like Mahomet's Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know
By this these Angels from an evil sprite:
They set out hairs, but these the flesh upright.
License my roving hands, and let them go
Behind before, above, between, below.
Oh my America, my new found land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my Empery,
How blessed am I in this discovering thee.
To enter in these bonds is to be free,
Then where my hand is set my seal shall be.
Full nakedness, all joys are due to thee.
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are as Atlanta's balls, cast in men's views,
That when a fool's eye lighteth on a gem
His earthly soul may covet theirs not them.
Like pictures, or like books' gay coverings made
For laymen, are all women thus arrayed;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
Whom their imputed grace will dignify
Must see revealed. Then since I may know,
As liberally as to a midwife show
Thyself; cast all, yea this white linen hence.
Here is no penance, much less innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first: why then
What need'st thou have more covering than a man.



The Sun Rising

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams so reverend, and strong
Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, "All here in one bed lay."

She's all states, and all princes I ;
Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world's contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.



XIV.

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.