Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Riddles and Poetry

When the Hatter poses a riddle, asking Alice, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?” she is pleased and thinks “Come, we shall have some fun now! I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles,” but, when she gives up and asks for the answer, the Hatter replies, “I haven’t the slightest idea.” This annoys Alice. “I think you might do something better with the time,” she said, “than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.” The fact is that Carroll, for all his fondness for puzzles, had no particular solution in mind, and, indeed, people have found powerful reasons for posing answerless riddles, but he was asked to provide one often enough that he devised an elaborately clever possibility: "Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is nevar [sic] put with the wrong end in front!" [1]

Alice’s eager initial response indicates that riddling was a familiar party pastime in the Victorian Age; today it is surely more informal and likely to be restricted to child’s play, but riddles play a fundamental role in the structure of sophisticated cognition. In many cultures they have been a repository for religious mystery and a mother of poetry, a focus for displays of verbal elegance and wit.

Riddles have this central historic role for good reason. The word itself, as Northrup Frye notes “was originally the cognate object of read.” [2] Though this is misleading in the sense that riddles can be purely oral, it does point to the form’s dependence on a material verbal formula, a text whether spoken or read. The earliest written characters are all pictographic, of course, and before writing developed, all language had been elaborated with metaphors, beginning with the entirely unmotivated correspondence between a sound and a meaning. A great many words, including all abstractions, lack visual representation altogether and can be built only upon direct signifiers of visible objects. One may imagine language developing through a very prolonged process of riddle-posing and solving. Even in oral cultures, verbal facility came to be associated with intelligence, leadership, and access to the divine, and riddles provided a framework for displaying advanced skills in both imagination and interpretation. To cite Frye once more, riddles require “a fusion of sensation and reflection, the use of an object of sense experience to stimulate a mental activity in connection with it.” In this way they build upon the ability of language to evoke absent or nonexistent objects by adding openings that encourage the generation of new connections, different associations, and the ability to think things never before thought.

In much of this riddles resemble poetry. One distinguishing mark of the aesthetic text is its use of rhetorical figures or sound, speech, and thought, the common property of which is the signification of something other or something more than the words might bear in a different context, allegory in the broadest sense. Metaphor is the most important figure, and every metaphor is a riddle. The reader of poetry, language’s most densely information-bearing code, must figure out how it is that a lover is like “a red, red rose.” Quite clearly, Old English and Old Norse kennings are riddles: whale road for sea, raven feeder for warrior. Expertise in riddles was considered a sign of ability in symbolic manipulation generally, that is to say, in thinking and was used by the intelligentsia both in training and in display. The Exeter Book contains nearly a hundred riddles as well as much traditional wisdom, noting that “Wise men should exchange wise words.” [4] The final term of this sententia is giedd which Sweet defines as “song, poem, speech, narrative, tale, proverb, riddle,” in other words, any literary or rhetorical use of language.

The Rig Veda contains many riddles the solving of which “became a formalized demonstration of the knowledge of the priests taking part in the sacrifice.” [5] A brahmodya was a riddling contest between learned pandits or between a Brahmin priest and a lay sacrificer. [6] Mythic models for such verbal contention exist in the Mahabharata’s account of Aṣṭāvakra’s defeat of Bandī in disputation and Yudhiṣṭhira’s successful answers to a Yakṣa’s questions. [7]

The same skills were prized in ancient Greece. One thinks of the riddle of the Sphinx (which, in fact, has been also reported in Bihar) [8] and the many enigmatic and ambiguous pronouncements of the oracles. The riddler Cleobulus was celebrated as one of the Seven Sages, and he has a reputed female counterpart in Cleobulina . [9] To Aristotle, riddles are at the root of poetry and thus of wisdom: “clever enigmas furnish good metaphors; for metaphor is a kind of enigma, so that it is clear that the transference is clever.” [10] In his discussions with the Indian sages the Greeks called gymnosophists Alexander is reported to have posed puzzled problems to rebellious wise men with the intention of executing those who could not answer. [11]

By the time of Athenaeus [12] riddles retained some of their association with wisdom, but this use already seemed to some old-fashioned. Clearchus is quoted as saying “the solution of riddles is not alien to philosophy, and the ancients used to make a display of their knowledge by means of them.” (575) Yet they were an expected part of social gathering in late antiquity and not only among the literati. The same Clearchus defines a riddle in a way that clearly implies a party game. “A riddle is a problem put in jest, requiring, by searching the mind, the answer to the problem to be given for a prize or forfeit.” (531) People were required to offer riddles during drinking bouts (534) and then, if they failed to solve them, were obliged to drink wine mixed with brine. (575) The largest collection of ancient Greek riddles is that of Symphosius whose preface declares that they are to be used in gay festival celebrations during the Saturnalia.

This late Latin text fascinated the early Christians and collections were made by a number of authors, including Englishmen whose own literary tradition independently prized the riddle such as Aldhelm, Tatwine, and Eusebius (the 8th c. Northumbrian bishop) as well as elsewhere in Europe. [12] Aldhelm based many of his riddles on Symphosius, but not his final, culminating poem "Creatura" which adapts a passage of the Corpus Hermeticum. [14] With its answer “creation” this final poem was clearly meant as a “master-riddle” the study of which would parallel one’s contemplation of the world itself as a meditative technique to further spiritual growth.

Though a portion of “Creatura” is missing, its method is clear and systematic. Just as the typical strategy of common riddles is to describe something and then add a term that makes the apparent interpretation impossible, here Aldhelm weaves a rich texture of paradox and contradiction while bathing the whole in an exhilarated jouissance in both the older and the post-structuralist senses. The author seeks to enwrap everything in his words, the entire cosmos before which he can only wonder. [15] He uses terms like wrætlice (l. 6) to emphasize the artful beauty of existence and wynlic (l. 26) to signify the joy that comes from apprehending the creation’s “secrets.” (l. 39 deagol þing) The poem bristles with paradox in its ambition to include everything. The answer to the riddle embodies and surpasses all dualities: it is asleep and awake, timid and bold, hot and cold, large and small, stinking and sweet. This riddle is one of the purest manifestations of literature’s ability to express ambivalences, self-contradictions, the irrational, and the mysterious. It is a verbal enactment of Tertullian’s famous formula “it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd” or the contention of the pseudo- Dionysius that "Duality is never a principle (arche). A unity (monas) is always the principle of every duality." [16]

Aldhelm’s last riddle is poetic not only in its exploitation of contradictions and its exposition of mystery, but also in its rich texture of specific images: a black and reeking fen, the boar rooting about in the forest, cast-up seaweed, comb dripping with honey. There can never be quite enough because they are meant to signify everything. According to a recent translator the riddles of the Rig Veda are meant, to be unanswerable and in that way to dramatically indicate not a revealed truth, but an area of unknowing. [17] There is no space here even to initiate a treatment of the riddles of all riddles, Zen koans. [18] In the thousand years since since Dahui Zonggao’s time and doubtless since the dawn of language, people have used riddles and other poetic devices to plumb the very deepest reaches if existence in a way that other forms of discourse cannot reach.

I have focused on the kinship of riddles to poetry and philosophy, and, if my path has seemed leisurely, I have at least avoided such divagations as the Quechua-speaking peoples whose teen-agers hold riddle parties to flirt and meet the opposite sex away from adult eyes, the Indonesian and Filipino riddling at funerals, the vast field of Mongolian riddles, and the sizable body of Arabic work (such as al-Hariri’s Maqāma). A monograph could be written on obscene riddling, on riddling as political propaganda, not to mention the largest body of modern examples: children’s riddles.

Figures of speech destabilize meaning only in order to render it more precise. The can be no end to metaphor because each individual thing has some things in common and some differences with every other individual thing. Riddling exposes the limitations of habit-bound thought, encourages new, leaping insight, and yet implies a skepticism about any firm ground for reality. Riddles are deeply implicated in language itself with its ability to represent lies, things not present, and things never before thought as well as in its secondary elaboration of poetry, the verbal technology by which people entertain themselves and seek insight and rejuvenated vision. Riddling, like poetry, both teaches and delights , wrenching language until a laugh breaks out, a preconception gives way, or, it may be, the soul feels, for a moment or two, buoyant.

1. Before and after Carroll’s preface to the second edition in which he proposed this answer, others have devised alternatives which range from the ingenious to the clumsy. Among them perhaps the most elegant is that of the great puzzler Sam Loyd: "Poe wrote on both." Though many had suggested “They both contain the letter ‘R’, it was Aldous Huxley who proposed "Because there is a 'b' in both and an 'n' in neither" which is to some fittingly absurd. In The Shining Stephen King provides, “The higher you go, the less of them there are” which seems disappointing. Many other ideas may be located with a few minutes searching, among them “because they both have inky quills,” “a writing desk is a rest for pens and a raven is a pest for wrens,” “they both stand on sticks,” “because the notes for which they are noted are not noted for being musical notes,” and “because that which is never backward is always forwards, and a raven is nevar backward, and a writing desk is always for words.” The phenomenon illustrates the human propensity to find meaning and pattern in anything.

2. Northrup Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, (Atheneum: New York, 1967), p. 280.

3. Ibid.

4. Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan. Maxims I (A). For a treatment of the place of riddles in Old English see Rafal Boryslawski, “The Elements of Anglo-Saxon Wisdom Poetry in the Exeter Book Riddles,” Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, Vol. 38, Summer 2002. W. P. Ker says “It is the proper business, one might say, of Old English poetry to call things out of their proper name.” (The Dark Ages, New York: Scribner’s, 1904 p. 92)

5. Rig Veda, Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, OUP, 2014, p. 70

6. See George Thompson, “The Brahmodya and Vedic Discourse,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 117, No. 1, Jan. - Mar. 1977 and Louis Renou’s Hymnes et Prières du Veda.

7. For discussion of whether the questions and solutions are of Greek (Cynical) origin or indigenous to India see Aleksandra Szal, “Alexander’s Dialogue with Indian Philosophers: Riddle in Greek and Indian Tradition,” Commentationes, Eos XCVIII 2011.

8. Ibid.

9. Cleobulus was the author of riddles in poetry as well as of such simple maxims as “seek virtue and eschew vice," "instruct your children," and “avoid injustice.” Cleobulina’s work is described by Diotimus of Olympene according to Athenaeus. She is attested by many ancient references, cited by Aristotle in both the Poetics and the Rhetoric. At least two lost plays (by Alexis and by Cratinus) with her name in the title are known, and three extant poems are attributed to her. See Ian Michael Plant, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology, University of Oklahoma, p. 29 ff.

10. Rhetoric 3.2.12. Aristotle uses the word αἴνιγμα.

11. See also the Ashtavakra.

12. See Charles Burton Gulick, editor and translator, Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, Loeb Library, 1930, vol. 4, Bk. X, ch. 5. Page numbers in parentheses refer this edition.

13. Collections were made elsewhere in Europe as well and the scholarly Latin culture was to a certain extent cosmopolitan. Tullius, for example, the author of a book of aenigmata is thought to have been in Italy like his namesake Cicero, though he had perhaps come originally from Ireland. Aldhelm’s is contained within his Epistola ad Acircium as part of the treatise on meter, indicating the close affinity of riddles and poetry.

14. Its source is the Corpus Hermeticum, Treatise XI, 20, where the Divine Intellect, the Mind of God is addressing Hermes Trismegistus. According to Michael Lapidge Aldhelm’s poems should be called mysteries rather than riddles because of their religious content. See his Anglo-Latin Literature, vol. 1 600-899, A&C Black, 1996, p. 9.

15. The Greek word kosmos itself means well-arranged, orderly, beautiful, artful.

16. Tertullian, De Carne Christi, V, 4: "prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est." pseudo-Dionysius, On the Divine Names, 4,21. Compare the Buddha’s words in the Lankavatara Sutra “all that is of duality has its rise from the Mind.”.

17. See Wendy Doniger, The Rig Veda, Penguin, 1981. In my use of the term I am thinking of the English The Cloud of Unknowing.

18. I use the Japanese term in conformity with common American usage, though the three principal collections are Chinese: The Blue Cliff Record, The Book of Equanimity (or Serenity), and The Gateless Gate.

A Decadent's Dilemmas

Numbers in brackets are, as usual, footnotes; numbers in parentheses are page references to The Poems and Prose of Ernest Dowson. A single page citation may serve for several quotations and appears only after the last.

My copy of The Poems and Prose of Ernest Dowson is a Salvation Army purchase, a shabby first edition, an early Modern Library volume with an introduction by Arthur Symons from 1919 during the Boni and Liveright days before Bennett Cerf took the series over and founded Random House. It is a paperback not quite emerged from the cocoon, almost pocket-sized with soft but cloth-covered boards. With the later turn toward the canon of classics, few remember that the series’ original emphasis was modernist literature. Surely Dowson was one of the early authors dropped from the list; time has not been kind to his reputation. He survives in Pound’s Mauberley and in a few phrases: “ days of wine and roses,” “gone with the wind,” not to mention Cole Porter’s witty free-spirited turn “Always True to You” on Dowson’s lament with the title from Horace. [1] My volume has become itself a “yellow book,” and its tired exterior and foxing pages have a certain charm; they seem appropriate in particular to this author, “the most characteristic figure of the Decadence,” according to a recent critic. [2]

Dowson is remembered as much for his life as for his writing. A reproduction of William Rothenstein’s pencil drawing which serves as frontispiece shows a young man ill-at-ease, but with a certain elegance. He is, at least, dressed in better taste than in the anonymous photograph that appeared in the 1905 edition of this book in which he wears t a stricken expression, striped pants and a jacket that looks as though it had been borrowed from a carnival barker. Afflicted by alcoholism, obsessive sexuality, poverty, and tuberculosis as well as by world-weariness, he was a member with Yeats, Symons, and La Gallienne of the Rhymers’ Club and co-author of two novels, a “dramatic phantasy,” significant translations from the French and reviews as well as the poetry for which is best known.

The title of his book of short stories Dilemmas was chosen perhaps for its indeterminacy; in fact it does little to suggest the stories’ content. The subtitle is more descriptive: Stories and Studies in Sentiment, though Dowson may have liked the alliteration of this phrase as much as the meaning. (Symons says that he thought “the viol, the violet and the vine” to be Poe’s best line.) (14) In fact Dowson’s themes might better be termed tortured sentiment or anti-sentiment. Every one of his stories describes a frustrated relationship, romantic in four of the stories and semi-paternal in the other, though for Dowson there may have been little difference in these categories. [3] The distinctive element in Dowson’s romantic problems is that the very “sentiment” that makes his love so urgent and potent also generates his absolute aestheticism . In the end, art is hardly compatible with a mutual relationship, and, in Dowson’s stories, art is regularly privileged. The reader has the story on the page to verify that. Yet the loss of human love is represented as tragic, filling the characters’ lives with suffering rather than joy.

“Diary of a Successful Man” opens with Dowson’s characteristic note, describing Bruges as “autumnal” and “melancholy” and thus in keeping with his own mood. (133) Having returned after a long absence, he finds the unchanged city a disturbing contrast his own alteration. [4] Though “successful,” in the title’s ironic adjective, in terms of money and comfort, he feels only regret after having lost the lady of his youth who, he believes, many years before, preferred his friend. As it turns out, she had meant to marry him, but, due to a chance misunderstanding, his life (whiled away in penitential service in India), his friend Lorimer’s, and that of their beloved Mme. De Savaresse were all ruined. The narrator has suffered the loss of the love of his life – the wife whom he married in India is inconsequential enough to be dismissed in a word. (134) Meanwhile his friend Lorimer has experienced constant love-longing while at the same time accusing himself justly of having wronged his rival. And their beloved Delphine has taken refuge among the Dames Rouge with whom she is heard singing in the final scene. In a scene of rich Roman Catholic aestheticism complete with incense and Latin, the Virgin Mary is conflated with the dear Countess (the woman’s name is hardly used here as though it were a matter of sacred taboo), as she and her fellow choristers sing the epithets of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin. [5] Like her divine counterpart she is, in Lorimer’s words, “so near, and yet so far away – so near and yet never quite close.” (147)

This plot rests on coincidence fully as impossible as those in any romance, but the conclusion defies Frye’s description of romances as “wish-fulfillment.” [6] In fact, like all conventions, those of romance are may be inverted. Just as a usual romance quest ends in victory, here the protagonist is doomed from the start, and the unlikeliness of the misdelivered notes and the chance encounter with Lorimer only emphasize the inexorable intertangled working of their nemesis.

“A Case of Conscience” concerns another impossible love, this time between the middle-aged protagonist and the Breton maiden with whom he is taken. His friend Tregellan asserts the moral and social imperatives that condemn this love, yet he is implicated like Lorimer, traduced by his own desire. Murch’s previous marriage is the element that settles the issue formally, but the couple’s incompatibility is far more fundamental and significant than that legalism. Tregellan downplays the difference of class and age , warning instead that when the country girl is exposed to the sophisticated urban crowd, “all the clever bores,” (157) “everybody who is emancipated will know her, and everybody who has a ‘fad,’ and they will come in a body and emancipate her, and teach her their ‘fads.’” (158)

Murch is surely justified in objecting “That is a caricature of my circle,” a devastating caricature that reduces artistic and intellectual life to an ego-centered procession of meaningless vogues, one endlessly succeeding another. Because they are free-thinkers, they are shallow and corrupt. She, on the other hand, need never think since “everything is fixed for her by that venerable old Curé.” Whereas this traditional unquestioning conservatism offers a life “so easy, so ordered,” the city intelligentsia have only “a world without definitions, where everything is an open question.” (158) To Murch, Tregellan, and other cosmopolitans, Ploumariel may possess picturesque charm, but its most prominent feature is “that little church with its worm-eaten benches, and its mildewed odour of dead people, and dead ideas.” (152)

Tregellan is convinced that she not only could not accept the world-view of the artists and writers, she would react to it with terror. His fears seem justified by her own earlier statement , “”You make me afraid . . . .You suggest so much to me that is new, strange, terrible.” “When you speak, I am troubled . . .all my old landmarks appear to vanish. “ (150-1) She, on the other hand is “a perfect thing,” (158) one of a series extending toward Dowson from Rousseau and Wordsworth and after through D. H. Lawrence and a host of modern celebrators of the simple. She cannot be improved but only spoiled by contact with advanced views. Murch cannot relocate to her village -- he notes “with a suggestion of irony,” that “it would interfere a little with my career,” and he realizes that she, too, cannot be successfully transplanted. (157)

The opposition between art and honest emotion is also central in “An Orchestral Violin.” Here both the seemingly paternal love of Cristich and the romantic interest of the narrator in the celebrated singer Romanoff are frustrated by her single-minded devotion to her art. Her heartlessness causes Mrs. Destrier to warn the narrator against meeting her, and when he does the lady comments only on his art and attempts to justify her own neglect of the former. The antepenultimate paragraph is full of his continuing doubts about her and the story ends with equal doubts about himself: “Have I been pusillanimous, prudent, or merely cruel? For the life of me I cannot say!” (186) Even as a child she had declared her passion for Cristich’s music alone was what governed their relationship. Bon-bons and tender feelings could not compete in her affections with art. (174) An artist manqué himself, unable to really excel or even to make a living playing the music he loves, he understands and would have it no other way, in spite of his loss of any more emotional form of her love. The narrator’s enthusiastic appreciation of a performance of Fidelio (169) provides the model – only art can satisfy the genuine artistic sensibility.

“Souvenirs of An Egoist” opens with a signature sigh from Horace, “Eheu fugaces!” [6] Here the situation of the previous story is reversed and the narrator feels he must abandon his street gamine to tend properly to his art. Ego and artistic achievement are identified as Anton the narrator rises from orphanhood and penury to wealth and aristocratic status through his skills as a violinist. Ninette, since she is a mere organ-grinder and not a genuine artist, is able to experience true love, love so perfect that she accepts his departure. He had been perfectly clear for his preference for his instrument over his beloved. “As much as I ever cared for anything except my art, I cared for Ninette. But still she was never the first with me, as I must have been with her.” (194) Though jealous, her own love is undiminished. (199) Anton’s patron, Lady Greville, another aesthete, is fond of his art while feeling more “repugnance” than fondness for him. (205) He can well understand, though, for in his own case, “since I was a boy, nothing has troubled the serene repose of my egoism.” (206) Though she sponsors his artistic career, “We parted as we had lived together, without affection.” (205)

He calls himself, his patron, and her nephew Felix “who believes in nothing and cares for nothing except himself” (198) the “three most cynical persons in the universe.” (197) Yet art’s triumph is always a strain. Anton knows “I cannot forget Ninette” and even the formidable Mrs. Destrier keeps a file of old letters from her husband in India. (198) All the same, the story concludes with the narrator utterly satisfied with the pleasures of the narrative and with his own indulgence in nostalgic sentiment. “I owe that unmusical old organ a charming evening, tinged with the faint soupçon of melancholy which is necessary to and enhances the highest pleasure. Over the memories it has excited I have smoked a pleasant cigar – peace to its ashes!” (209)

In “The Statute of Limitations” love is ruined neither by art (as it is in “Souvenirs of An Egoist” and “An Orchestral Violin”) nor by a scrupulous acceptance of defeat (as in “Diary of a Successful Man” and “A Case of Conscience”) but by the protagonist’s own self-discipline which becomes compulsive and in the end destroys the original love motive. This melodramatic and monstrous irony (reminiscent of those in Kleist) leads the one-time lover to spend his life toiling in Chile (called here Chili), perversely dedicating himself to the addictive accumulation of wealth, his original motive so far lost he feels his most graceful option in the end is suicide. The narrator reflects that, by this desperate gambit, he has borne with him into death “an unspoilt ideal” as well as leaving his fiancée with “a memory that experience could never tarnish, nor custom stale.” (219)

Dowson’s aestheticism, in contrast to Pater’s, for example, entails romantic tragedy. Whereas Gilbert’s Bunthorne in Patience merely pretends to aestheticism in order to pursue women, for Dowson a love of art precludes a satisfying relationship with a woman. For Dowson the artist’s need for love is in no way lessened by his incapacity. If anything, the feelings of those of tender sensibilities are represented as more powerful than most. Dowson’s heroes are crushed by their frustrated desire for love, but their defeat is a noble one, indicating their lofty standards. The many commentators on the author’s own obsession with the juvenile Adelaide "Missie" Foltinowicz might consider the possibility that, under the conviction that he could not really take a lover, he chose with open eyes an impossible object for his affections. The “dilemmas” of the title are insoluble, since the protagonists are constitutionally unable either to accept or reject love. Ernest Dowson, the supposed exemplary aesthete, has documented in his stories the insufficiency of the purely aesthetic for his heroes who can find fulfilment and satisfaction neither with the Muses nor with Aphrodite.

1. I discuss the borrowing in my essay this month on “Allusion.”

2. Houston Baker, “A Decadent’s Nature: the Poetry of Ernest Dowson,” Victorian Poetry, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1968.

3. In a “Missing Persons” entry of the Dictionary of National Biography (1993) Bertrand Richards notes of Dowson, “In the letters and poetry there runs a strong current of paedophilia “ which is to Richards “tempered by a humane appreciation of the freshness and generosity of children.”

4. A variant of the theme in Dorian Gray which had been published two years earlier. Compare also to the decaying quarters of Mme. De Savaresse.

5. Dowson was himself a convert like Lionel Johnson and John Gray. Catholics claim with some evidence that Oscar Wilde converted on his deathbed.

6. See Northrup Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, The Mythos of Summer: Romance Third Essay: Archetypal Criticism: The Theory of Myths.

7. Odes 2.14. Some might consider the entire elevation of art to be a poignant struggle to overcome time symbolically. One thinks of Horace’s solace in his conviction of his artistic immortality (Odes 3.30), Shakespeare’s promising immortality in his sonnets, or Yeats’ “more miracle than bird” or handiwork” “in glory of changeless metal.” (“Byzantium”).


I have placed this in the theory category because it concerns the use of allusion in all literature and uses as evidence examples from an ancient text from Rome and modern ones from England and the USA. I realize I have constructed a somewhat discursive argument. Perhaps some readers will find relish the casual rolling motion with which I turn from one topic to another. I have long felt that literary scholars, who of all people are aware that form is indeed content, are far too slavish followers of a single highly standardized pattern in their own essays.
Though many before me have noted the links from Horace to Dowson to Porter, I believe my use of them to make a point about allusion is original.

Horace is a great poet of self-contradiction. He can write convincingly on behalf of voluptuary pastimes as well as of frugal sobriety; he is at once a man of patriotic idealism and a slavish sycophant; a common-sense Everyman of conventional opinions one moment, he is a decadent aesthete the next. The opening ode in his fourth book which begins “Intermissa, Venus” seems a sincere and moving statement of middle-aged erotic ambivalence until one notes Suetonius’ comment that he returned to the form after having taken leave of it only at the command of Augustus. (Indeed, some critics view the entire fourth book as an artifice to contain the poems praising the reign of the emperor whom the poet once opposed on the battlefield.)

The persona begs Venus for relief, pleading age (he is fifty) and suggests she settle on a younger, more appropriate man to afflict with love, perhaps a certain Paulus Maximus. Should he find erotic success, this man will surely make her a worthy sacrifice – which the poet then describes in such extraordinary sensual terms – evoking visions of flutes, lyre, and pan-pipes and a chorus of dancing boys and girls -- that the poet finds himself aroused in spite of his intentions. As if to convince himself he declares he no longer takes pleasure in amours, “nec femina nec puer,” not even in drinking. Yet this very claim leads instantly to a tear at the thought of his frustrated love for Ligurinus which so affects him that he claims to be stricken silent, though the poem works its way without pause. The piece ends with a poignant image of the poet’s one-time lover receding in a dream, pursued across the Campus Martius, over streams, always just beyond reach, an eloquent image for desire.

This scenario is beautiful and moving in itself, far more of course in Horace’s ever-so-artfully chosen words than in paraphrase, but the modern reader is likely to miss a significant element in the author’s intention. Even many who can read the Latin are unskilled in meter. Classical verse forms are difficult for English speakers to appreciate. The very use of quantitative meters and the rich variety of available patterns, each of them flexible in prescribed ways, produce effects virtually impossible to reproduce in translation. The reading of a really accomplished classicist who can melodiously respect vowel quantity in Greek or Latin lyric poetry while also observing accent and pitch in a fluid and expressive flow of words is very rare and very beautiful, a phenomenon, like a string quartet well-played by a one-man band.

Still, the modern reader can scarcely doubt the importance in Horace’s own judgment of his use of particular meters. To support his claim to lasting fame the sole specific Horace offers (in 3.30) is that he, in the words of Pound’s translation, "first brought Aeolic song to Italian fashion" (“princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos deduxisse modos”), in other words, he imported Greek metrical patterns adapting them for the Latin language.

The place of Greece as a source for Roman science, philosophy, and art was acknowledged, paralleling in some ways the role of China for Japan, though one might also cite the importation of Continental verse forms to England by Chaucer. The neoteroi of Catullus’ generation admired the Alexandrian Greeks, and Horace himself spent time in Athens doing advanced studies. So the initial meaning of a poet’s using Greek meters would be simply to identify himself as a savant. Horace’s use of the term Aeolian points directly to the work of Alkaios and Sappho, and there can be little doubt that the Latin poet intended for associations from the earlier writers to be part of his own effects. His use of Greek prosody constituted an allusion, implying that his own words could be fully understood only in connection with theirs. Commentators have long noted specific parallels with the two Lesbian poets, but in the broadest sense it is surely their passionate expression of love is their primary association.

Just as Doric was associated with choral odes in Greek and the Epic literary dialect with Homeric or mock-Homeric content, the use of Aeolic carried erotic connotations. Horace, writing in Latin, could not use these Greek dialects but he could use the earlier poets’ meters. Many of his odes are in Sapphics and Alkaics, while “Intermissa, Venus” is in Asklepiadics, another pattern rich in choriambs. While most of the poetry of Asklepiades is lost, enough remains to suggest its likely character. Two versions by the Imagist poet Edwin A. Storer will provide a sample of Asklepiades’ tone [1]

The Crown of Spring
Sweet for the thirsty in summer is snow to drink; sweet for sailors after winter’s storms to see the crown of spring, but sweeter still when beneath one cloak two lovers lie, giving their thanks to Kypris.

At the Porch
It is winter and the night is long. The Pleiades have travelled half their span, and I am passing by this door all wet with the rain.
Suffering from her treachery, I long for her.
O Kypris, it is not love you have sent me; it is some cruel shaft tipped with flame.

It is clear that the meter for Horace was a significant allusion, a sign of the sort of verse he meant to compose, a code that has in modern times become obscure except to specialists. This is, of course, unsurprising, considering that Latin has been little spoken for a millennium and a half and that English speakers are not generally conscious of vowel quantity, but the fact is that most modern readers of English poetry are nearly equally deaf to the associations of poetic forms in their own language. People accustomed to the most casual and colloquial free verse have for the most part lost the ability to catch allusions in prosody apart from the very simplest. Tetrameters are likely to be perceived as more natural than pentameters and the sonnet remains recognizable, but the associations of most meters and stanza forms are lost on the general reader, resulting in a significantly impoverished reception of texts both old and new.

The fin de siècle British writer Ernest Dowson uses a line from Horace’s ode as the title of his “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae,” though his meter is not English, Greek, or Latin, but rather French Alexandrines. In Horace the line “I am not as I was under the rule of the good Cynara” is nostalgic, referring to the speaker’s advancing age which, he says, has rendered him a poor candidate for Venus’ attentions. For Dowson on the other hand Cynara is his current courtly beloved, unattainable and perfect, of whom he thinks while having sex with a prostitute. [2] Like most love songs, this is a lack-love song. To be sure, the speaker has the kisses of a “bought red mouth,” but he is “desolate,” “sick,” and haunted by desire even as he calls “for madder music and for stronger wine.”

The basis for the allusion, the similarity of the two Cynaras, is simply their unavailability. Whereas Horace had initially complained only of the universal decline that comes with age, Dowson possesses only too much vital energy, finding that no matter how “riotously” he flings roses, he cannot banish the shadow of the one he truly loves. The memory of Horace then simultaneously reinforces the fundamental feeling, the pain of the lover’s absence, and, by the contrast between the ancient and the modern poet, heightens for Dowson’s reader the lurid dramatic situation of Dowson’s persona. To the reader familiar with Horace, the allusion first engages by what is shared by the two unsatisfied lovers, but its effect is then complicated and enriched by their differences. Allusion quite commonly has an ironic intent, and the bathetic fall from ancient ideals to a reduced modernity is familiar from countless twentieth century works of which Joyce’s Ulysses is perhaps the most prominent example. Here, as in a great many instances, the allusive reference suggests an entire complex of relationships, some direct, some inverted, some otherwise skewed.

A far greater gap than that between the lyrics of Horace and Dowson is that between Dowson and Cole Porter who appropriated Dowson’s chorus line that ends each stanza “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion” for his song from Kiss me, Kate “Always True to You in My Fashion.” Here Lois seeks to reassure her lover Bill, uneasy about her liaisons with sugar daddies, a full dozen of whom are detailed. The list retains the listener’s interest as it ranges from the expected (“a big tycoon in steel,” “an oilman known as ‘Tex’”) to the unlikely (“a wealthy Hindu priest”) and the edgy (“a madman known as Mack”), and concluding with a real person, Clark Gable. The tone is entirely flippant, but the singer proclaims her loyalty to her Bill, asking

How in hell can you be jealous
When you know, baby, I'm your slave?
I'm just mad for you
And I'll always be

Porter’s playful amorality has nothing whatever in common with Dowson’s tortured and obsessive love. Indeed, for those familiar with the earlier poem, the allusion only enhances the libertine freedom of Porter’s high-spirited lyric. Further, one may safely assume that most listeners will be innocent of any knowledge of Dowson. In spite of this, his poem has left its traces by providing Porter’s starting point, and it underlies the thematic impulse of the lyrics.

The song’s other allusions, mentions of Schlitz beer, Cadillac cars, and a “vet” (the show was staged in 1948), as well as the reference to Clark Gable, serve to provide a patina of contemporary relevance, a kind of sparkling topicality, that invites the Broadway audience members to believe that the song is about their own lives. This is not so very different from Horace’s references to Venus and Cupid as well as Cynara, Ligurinus, and Paulus Maximus, the last three of whom are thought to be historical figures.

Allusion, like other rhetorical figures, [3] characterizes the aesthetic text. The study of rhetoric in this sense was for centuries the heart of literary theory and the foundation of practical criticism. In general such figures permit the expression of new thought and content that could not be formulated in ordinary transparent prose as well as aspiring to beauty. All literature, of course, must be built from the base of the previous body of writing. Pointed instances of allusion may have a number of functions, among them to vault the new text into the realm of art (in intention at least), to indicate universality, to decorate (either aesthetically or intellectually), to compress information, to thicken the meaning of all poetry, and ironic or other troping on the earlier text. This series from Horace to Dowson to Porter illustrates the importance and yet the subtle complexity and variety of allusive references, a figure of speech that requires the audience’s competent familiarity with the pre-existing tradition.

1. The Windflowers of Asklepiades and The Poems of Poseidippos, translated by Edward Storer; from The Poet’s Translation Series, Second Set, No. 5; London: The Egoist Press, 1920; pp. 3-17. The translations are also viewable on line at http://elfinspell.com/ClassicalTexts/Poetry/Asklepiades-Poseidippos/Storer-Asklepiades.html.

2. Biographical critics will identify her with Adelaide "Missie" Foltinowicz, the restauranteur’s daughter and sometime waitress with whom he had been smitten when she was eleven. When she was fifteen, he proposed to her and was rejected.

3. I will not trouble myself over the terminology of rhetorical figures which have been classified also as tropes and schemata and analyzed into figures of thought, of speech, of sound, and of syntax, For the present purpose a rhetorical figure is any usage by which a written passage conveys meaning beyond the direct literal signification.