Category Archives: literature

Hemingway

 

 

I dutifully watched the three-part Ken Burns documentary “Hemingway” on PBS this week.

At times, I felt restless and wished the segments would end. But I learned a lot from the series, and the comments of critics and Hemingway biographers were illuminating.

Learning more about Hemingway’s life, his struggles as a writer, his failings as a person and husband, his devotion to this craft, his times was not a waste.

That said, something came to me at the end of the series tonight.

Why have I never particularly cared for — perhaps never cared, really — for Hemingway? Because, it struck me, his writing is monotonous and “anti-intellectual.” It does not engage the mind.

I read primarily for intellectual stimulation and enrichment. Words do have a powerful emotive aspect. I take delight in them. Embedded in passages of narration or description. And, yes, there is a rhythm to good prose, an authorial voice, the effect that good music also has, a cadence. But in the case of Hemingway, that cadence, that rhythm — unvarying, continual — becomes for me monotonous and unfulfilling. At times, if not often, it seems to be an affectation.

Compare the following “specimens” from Hemingway and two great writers — one American and the other English: Herman Melville and Daniel Defoe.

 

*****************************************************

 

When I came back to the front we still lived in that town. There were many more guns in the country around and the spring had come. The fields were green and there were small green shoots on the vines, the trees along the road had small leaves and a breeze came from the sea. I saw the town with the hill and the old castle above it in a cup in the hills with the mountains beyond, brown mountains with a little green on their slopes. In the town there were more guns, there were some new hospitals, you met British men and sometimes women, on the street, and a few more houses had been hit by shell-fire. It was warm and like the spring and I walked down the alleyway of trees, warmed from the sun on the wall, and found we still lived in the same house and that it all looked the same as when I had left it. The door was open, there was a soldier sitting on a bench outside in the sun, an ambulance was waiting by the side door and inside the door, as I went in, there was the smell of marble floors and hospital. It was all as I had left it except that now it was spring. I looked in the door of the big room and saw the major sitting at his desk, the window open and the sunlight coming into the room. He did not see me and I did not know whether to go in and report or go upstairs first and clean up. I decided to go on upstairs.

I was alone in the room. It was cool and did not smell like a hospital. The mattress was firm and comfortable, and I lay without moving, hardly breathing, happy in feeling the pain lessen. After a while I wanted a drink of water and found the bell on a cord by the bed and rang it, but nobody came. I went to sleep.

When I woke I looked around. There was sunlight coming in through the shutters. I saw the big armoire, the bare walls, and two chairs. My legs in the dirty bandages stuck straight out in the bed. I was careful not to move them. I was thirsty and I reached for the bell and pushed the button. I heard the door open and looked and it was a nurse. She looked young and pretty.

‘Good morning,’ I said.

‘Good morning,’ she said and came over to the bed. …

 

— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms

 

*****************************************************

 

By this time it blew a terrible storm indeed; and now I began to see terror and amazement in the faces even of the seamen themselves. The master, though vigilant in the business of preserving the ship, yet as he went in and out of his cabin by me, I could hear him softly to himself say, several times, “Lord be merciful to us! we shall be all lost! we shall be all undone!” and the like. During these first hurries I was stupid, lying still in my cabin, which was in the steerage, and cannot describe my temper: I could ill resume the first penitence which I had so apparently trampled upon and hardened myself against: I thought the bitterness of death had been past, and that this would be nothing like the first; but when the master himself came by me, as I said just now, and said we should be all lost, I was dreadfully frighted. I got up out of my cabin and looked out; but such a dismal sight I never saw: the sea ran mountains high, and broke upon us every three or four minutes; when I could look about, I could see nothing but distress round us; two ships that rode near us, we found, had cut their masts by the board, being deep laden; and our men cried out that a ship which rode about a mile ahead of us was foundered. Two more ships, being driven from their anchors, were run out of the Roads to sea, at all adventures, and that with not a mast standing. The light ships fared the best, as not so much labouring in the sea; but two or three of them drove, and came close by us, running away with only their spritsail out before the wind. …

Any one may judge what a condition I must be in at all this, who was but a young sailor, and who had been in such a fright before at but a little. But if I can express at this distance the thoughts I had about me at that time, I was in tenfold more horror of mind upon account of my former convictions, and the having returned from them to the resolutions I had wickedly taken at first, than I was at death itself; and these, added to the terror of the storm, put me into such a condition that I can by no words describe it.

 

— Daniel Defoe, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

 

*****************************************************

 

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand—miles of them—leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues—north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither? …

Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick—grow quarrelsome—don’t sleep of nights—do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;—no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not. …

No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one’s sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time. What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about—however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way—either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.

Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid,—what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the fore-castle deck. …

 

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  April 7, 2021

Charles Pierre, “Urban Nomad “

 

 

Charles Pierre, ‘Urban Nomad’

 

I walk a random path through this desert
of concrete and asphalt, an urban nomad,
a caravan of one, with thick-soled shoes
and shoulder bag, who treks arid miles
where myriad people and vehicles
swirl around me like sand, in all seasons,
by day or night, while I pass unnoticed,
listening to jazz from clubs and hymns
from churches, the chatter in schoolyards
and parks, the haggle of markets
and gossip on corners, the stadium cheers
and barroom talk: each oasis of sound
refreshing my spirit as I walk by
on a lone route through trackless terrain.

 

— Charles Pierre, “Urban Nomad”

from Circle of Time: Poems (New York, Halyard Press, 2020)

posted with permission of Charles Pierre

 

*****************************************************

 

Yes, refreshes the spirit. I can relate from my own experience to what this poem describes and says so well.

Charles Pierre’s Circle of Time is “filled with poems of quiet lyricism and great economy” [back cover copy, Circle of Time].

Pierre is the author of five poetry collections. He lives in Manhattan.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

an exchange about (Russian, American literature) – UPDATED

 

 

 

Between me and my Russian collaborator Nataliya this morning. We are working together on translations of Pitirim Sorokin’s early works from Russian into English.

 

*****************************************************

 

NATALIYA

 

I don’t see a problem with the translation of the poem.* I know that there are many good translations of nineteenth-century Russian poetry into English. I myself saw such publications in the Library of Valdosta State University.

Lermontov is a great Russian poet of the nineteenth century, the second after Alexander Pushkin. Unfortunately, he did not live long. He was killed in a duel when he was only twenty-seven years old. Of course, his poems were translated into English.

We just need to find these translations. If I could go to Moscow or St. Petersburg, I would find them in the library, but this is not possible yet. Let’s not rush it. This is not the only poetic quote in Sorokin’s book. While we can find translations on the internet, then we will check and search in high-quality and reliable publications. We don’t need professors for that.

 

*Дума (Mediation), a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, from which Sorokin quotes several lines

 

 

*****************************************************

 

ROGER

 

Thanks for the message and wishes, Natalia.

An internet friend of mine, Elisabeth van der Meer, has a site in English devoted to Russian literature. I like her site. She always reads my stuff. She had a recent post about Lermontov:

 

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/10/15/the-most-scottish-of-the-russian-writers-mikhail-lermontov/

 

Of course, I had heard of Lermontov but knew very little about him, and still do (know little).

I will get back to Sorokin soon.

You might like this post of mine:

 

https://rogersgleanings.com/2016/04/01/spring/

 

I became engrossed in Tolstoy in my mid-twenties. I read his major novels pretty much in a row. When I read the passage about spring at the opening of Воскресение [Resurrection], it made a powerful impression on me. Around that time, I also got into Chekhov, briefly — but, again, I found his works unforgettable.**

All of this was in English translation.

The thing about the passage about spring (Tolstoy’s) that impresses me greatly is how Tolstoy is the great realist, descriptive novelist — nothing is fanciful — “All is true,” as Balzac said at the beginning of one of his most famous novels novels, Père Goriot — yet there is always a weighty level of deep philosophical meaning.

Herman Melville comes closest to achieving this among the great American writers.

 

** Especially, in my case, a lesser known Chekhov work:  Остров Сахалин (translated as The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin); not the most artistic of Chekhov’s works, but I found it very powerful.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

NATALIYA

 

Dear Roger,

 

Elisabeth has a wonderful website. Her post about Lermontov is great. I knew about Lermontov’s Scottish roots, but she told about it so interestingly and beautifully. I’m going to the North Caucasus in the summer, just in those places that are associated with the biography of Lermontov and his death. There are very beautiful museums and monuments there. I’ll send you photos.

I also love Leo Tolstoy and believe that at every age, at different stages of life, people discover new content in his works. He is a child of his own time and at the same time timeless. That makes him great.

 

 

*****************************************************

 

ROGER

 

Tolstoy is the best novelist ever! Competitors? I would say Herman Melville (one great book), Victor Hugo (same), Charles Dickens. And, yes, Tolstoy is timeless.

P.S. The House by the Dvina by Eugenie Fraser is an interesting book. I bought it in London during a trip overseas.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 7, 2021; updated March 10

 

Robert G. Ingersoll, “Address at the Funeral of Walt Whitman”

 

 

Robert G. Ingersoll, ‘Address at the Funeral of Walt Whitman’

 

Posted here (downloadable PDF document above) is Robert G. Ingersoll’s eulogy for Walt Whitman, which was delivered on March 30, 1892 at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey.

 

*****************************************************

 

Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) was an American lawyer, writer, and orator. Known as “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was a staunch advocate of free thought.

Ingersoll was a close friend of Walt Whitman. They had profound admiration for one another, as can be seen by anyone who reads Horace Traubel’s multivolume work With Walt Whitman in Camden. “It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is ‘Leaves of Grass’ … He lives, embodies, the individuality, I preach. I see in Bob [Ingersoll] the noblest specimen–American-flavored–pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light,” Whitman told Traubel.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

a storm at sea (Milton)

 

 

Meanwhile the Southwind rose, and, with black wings
Wide hovering, all the Clouds together drove
From under Heav’n; the Hills to their supple
Vapour, and Exhalation dusk and moist,
Sent up amain; and now the thicken’d Sky
Like a dark Ceiling stood; down rush’d the Rain
Impetuous; and continu’d, till the Earth
No more was seen: the floating Vessel swum
Uplifted, and secure with beaked prow
Rode tilting o’er the Waves; all dwellings else
Flood overwhelmed, and them with all their pomp
Deep under water rolled; Sea cover’d Sea,
Sea without shore;

— John Milton, Paradise Lost (Book XI)

 

(I have slightly modified the original spelling.)

 

*****************************************************

 

Has anyone ever written (painted in words) a more accurate, telling description of a rainstorm: in this case, a storm at sea (Milton is referring to The Flood)?

And to think that in college (in an English course I took) I couldn’t get into Milton, could not manage to read Paradise Lost.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

 

   February 2021

Eugenio Florit, preface to “Selected Writings of Juan Ramón Jiménez”

 

 

PREFACE

 

Posted here (downloadable Word document above) is the preface, by Eugenio Florit, to Selected Writings of Juan Ramón Jiménez, translated by H. R. Hays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1957). It is a very well written essay, and Florit provides a comprehensive, brilliant overview of Jiménez’s oeuvre.

I believe this book — and presumably Florit’s preface — are not readily available.

Eugenio Florit (1903-1999) was a Cuban-American poet, critic and essayist and a Professor of Spanish at Columbia University.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2020

 

 

 

 

Thomson and Milton

 

 

‘Thomson and Milton’

 

Note the similarities.

 

*****************************************************

 

THE ARGUMENT

 

This first Book proposes, first in brief, the whole Subject, Mans disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise wherein he was plac’t: Then touches the prime cause of his fall, the Serpent, or rather Satan in the Serpent; who revolting from God, and drawing to his side many Legions of Angels, was by the command of God driven out of Heaven with all his Crew into the great Deep. Which action past over, the Poem hastes into the midst of things, presenting Satan with his Angels now fallen into Hell, describ’d here, not in the Center (for Heaven and Earth may be suppos’d as yet not made, certainly not yet accurst) but in a place of utter darkness, filthiest call’d Chaos: Here Satan with his Angels lying on the burning Lake, thunder-struck and astonisht, after a certain space recovers, as from confusion, calls up him who next in Order and Dignity lay by him; they confer of their miserable fall. Satan awakens all his Legions, who lay till then in the same manner confounded; They rise, their Numbers, array of Battel, their chief Leaders nam’d, according to the Idols known afterwards in Canaan and the Countries adjoyning. To these Satan directs his Speech, comforts them with hope yet of regaining Heaven, but tells them lastly of a new World and new kind of Creature to be created, according to an ancient Prophesie or report in Heaven; for that Angels were long before this visible Creation, was the opinion of many ancient Fathers. To find out the truth of this Prophesie, and what to determine thereon he refers to a full Councel. What his Associates thence attempt. Pandemonium the Palace of Satan rises, suddenly built out of the Deep: The infernal Peers there sit in Councel.

 

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,

In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: Or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ Aonian Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,

Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the height of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

Say first, for Heav’n hides nothing from thy view
Nor the deep Tract of Hell, say first what cause
Mov’d our Grand Parents in that happy State,
Favour’d of Heav’n so highly, to fall off
From their Creator, and transgress his Will
For one restraint, Lords of the World besides?
Who first seduc’d them to that foul revolt?
Th’ infernal Serpent; he it was, whose guile
Stird up with Envy and Revenge, deceiv’d
The Mother of Mankind, what time his Pride
Had cast him out from Heav’n, with all his Host
Of Rebel Angels, by whose aid aspiring
To set himself in Glory above his Peers,

He trusted to have equal’d the most High,
If he oppos’d; and with ambitious aim
Against the Throne and Monarchy of God
Rais’d impious War in Heav’n and Battel proud
With vain attempt. Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th’ Ethereal Skie
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th’ Omnipotent to Arms.
Nine times the Space that measures Day and Night

To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv’d him to more wrath; for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde,
A Dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great Furnace flam’d, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Serv’d onely to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d:
Such place Eternal Justice had prepar’d
For those rebellious, here their Prison ordain’d
In utter darkness, and their portion set
As far remov’d from God and light of Heav’n
As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole.

— John Milton, Paradise Lost

 

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

THE ARGUMENT

The subject proposed. Inscribed to the Countess of Hartford. The Season is described as it affects the various parts of nature, ascending from the lower to the higher; and mixed with digressions arising from the subject. Its influence on inanimate matter, on vegetables, on brute animals, and last on Man; concluding with a dissuasive from the wild and irregular passion of Love, opposed to that of a pure and happy kind.

 

 

Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness, come;

And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,

While music wakes around, veiled in a shower

Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend.

O Hartford, fitted or to shine in courts

With unaffected grace, or walk the plain

With innocence and meditation joined

In soft assemblage, listen to my song,

Which thy own season paints-when Nature all

Is blooming and benevolent, like thee.

And see where surly Winter passes off

Far to the north, and calls his ruffian blasts:

His blasts obey, and quit the howling hill,

The shattered forest, and the ravaged vale;

While softer gales succeed, at whose kind touch,

Dissolving snows in livid torrents lost,

The mountains lift their green heads to the sky.

As yet the trembling year is unconfirmed,
And Winter oft at eve resumes the breeze,
Chills the pale morn, and bids his driving sleets
Deform the day delightless; so that scarce
The bittern knows his time with bill engulfed
To shake the sounding marsh; or from the shore
The plovers when to scatter o’er the heath,
And sing their wild notes to the listening waste.

At last from Aries rolls the bounteous sun,
And the bright Bull receives him. Then no more
The expansive atmosphere is cramped with cold;
But, full of life and vivifying soul,
Lifts the light clouds sublime, and spreads them thin,
Fleecy, and white o’er all-surrounding heaven.

Forth fly the tepid airs; and unconfined,
Unbinding earth, the moving softness strays.
Joyous the impatient husbandman perceives
Relenting Nature, and his lusty steers
Drives from their stalls to where the well-used plough
Lies in the furrow loosened from the frost.
There, unrefusing, to the harnessed yoke
They lend their shoulder, and begin their toil,
Cheered by the simple song and soaring lark.
Meanwhile incumbent o’er the shining share
The master leans, removes the obstructing clay,
Winds the whole work, and sidelong lays the glebe.

White through the neighbouring fields the sower stalks
With measured step, and liberal throws the grain
Into the faithful bosom of the ground:
The harrow follows harsh, and shuts the scene.

Be gracious, Heaven, for now laborious man
Has done his part. Ye fostering breezes, blow;
Ye softening dews, ye tender showers, descend;
And temper all, thou world-reviving sun,
Into the perfect year. Nor, ye who live
In luxury and ease, in pomp and pride,
Think these lost themes unworthy of your ear:
Such themes as these the rural Maro sung
To wide-imperial Rome, in the full height
Of elegance and taste, by Greece refined.
In ancient times the sacred plough employed
The kings and awful fathers of mankind;

 

— James Thomson, The Seasons

 

 

*****************************************************

 

“He has joined with great art the most beautiful imagination and the finest reflection together, adorned with a masterly diction and versification, suitable to its other excellencies. And thus he has happily attained the two great ends of poetry, of instructing and delighting the reader …. He must be allowed to have the genuine spirit of sublime poetry in him, and bids fair to reach at length the heighth of Milton’s character.” — review of James Thomson, The Seasons, London Journal,  June 4, 1726

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2020

 

 

 

 

Ruth Harwood Cline — Chrétien de Troyes

 

 

‘Ruth Harwood Cline – Chretien de Troyes’

 

 

Au jor de Pasque, au tans novel,
a Quaradigan, son chastel,
ot li rois Artus cort tenue.
Einz si riche ne fu veüe,
que mout i ot boens chevaliers,
hardiz et conbatanz et fiers,
et riches dames et puceles,
filles de rois, gentes et beles.
Mes einçois que la corz fausist,
li rois a ses chevaliers dist
qu’il voloit le blanc cerf chacier
por la costume ressaucier.
Monseignor Gauvain ne plot mie,
quant il ot la parole oïe.
« Sire, fet il, de ceste chace
n’avroiz vos ja ne gré ne grace.
Nos savomes bien tuit piece a
quel costume li blans cers a :
qui le blanc cerf ocirre puet
par reison beisier li estuet
des puceles de vostre cort
la plus bele, a que que il tort.
Maus an puet avenir mout granz,
qu’ancor a il ceanz .v.c.
dameiseles de hauz paraiges,
filles de rois, gentes et sages ;
n’i a nule qui n’ait ami
chevalier vaillant et hardi,
don chascuns desresnier voldroit,
ou fust a tort ou fust a droit,
que cele qui li atalante
est la plus bele et la plus gente. »
Li rois respont : « Ce sai ge bien ,
mes por ce n’an lerai ge rien,
car parole que rois a dite
ne doit puis estre contredite.
Demain matin a grant deduit
irons chacier le blanc cerf tuit
an la forest avantureuse ;
ceste chace iert mout mervelleuse. »

— Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide (c. 1170)

 

 

In spring, when Easter Day began,
in his walled town of Cardigan,
King Arthur held a lavish court,
with none more splendid to report.
He gathered many valiant knights,
tough, stalwart, feisty men in fights,
and maids and ladies, rich and fair,
kings’ daughters, nobly born, were there.
The king, before the courtiers went,
informed his knights of his intent
to hunt the white stag, to restore
the custom of the days of yore.
To hear this royal proclamation
filled Sir Gawain with consternation.
He said: “Sire, this hunt would preclude
your ever winning gratitude.
The custom of the white male deer
To all of us has long been dear.
The custom of the hunt is this:
the slayer of the stag must kiss
the maid at court whom he selects
as fairest, come what may come next.
Great harm may come of it, I fear,
with some five hundred maidens here.
These maidens are of noble birth,
kings’ daughters, wise and great in worth,
and not a one without a friend,
a bold brave knight, who will contend,
each speaking for himself headstrong,
and whether he is right or wrong,
the maiden he has most desired
is loveliest and most admired.”
“I know it well,” the king replied,
“but will not put my plan aside,
for words a king has said aloud
ought never to be disavowed.
Tomorrow morning, with delight,
we all will hunt the stag that’s white
within the forest of adventure;
this hunt will be a wondrous venture.”

— Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

Eric and Enide is the earliest of Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances.

“Chrétien de Troyes was the creator of the Arthurian romance as a literary genre: he was the first known writer in Western Europe to put the Celtic legends of King Arthur and his knights into the long romance form in order to illustrate themes from the twelfth-century codes of love and chivalry. His five romances, Erec and Enide, Cligès, Lancelot, Yvain, and Perceval, were written between 1160 and 1190. … he wrote Erec and Enide, the oldest Arthurian romance, around 1160. … Probably he returned to Troyes soon afterward, where he entered the service of Countess Marie of Champagne (daughter of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine). There he composed Cligès, a romance with Byzantine overtones which reflects the Tristan legend, and, around 1172, Lancelot, with its theme of the adulterous love between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere which was suggested by Countess Marie herself. Between 1173 and 1176 he completed Yvain and possibly Guillaume d’Angleterre; his authorship of the latter work is heavily disputed. In 1181 Chrétien left the service of the widowed Countess Marie and entered the service of Count Philippe of Flanders, at whose bidding in 1182 he began his last and longest romance, Perceval or The Story of the Grail. He died before Perceval was completed.” — Ruth Harwood Cline, Introduction,  Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (The University of Georgia Press, 1975), pp. xi-xii

 

“The original works of Chretien de Troyes were written in Old French octosyllabic verse. Old French is a language that encompasses several dialects used between the ninth and late fifteenth centuries. It retained from Latin a two-case declension system (subject/object) and flexible word order. It had not undergone the enrichment in vocabulary that occurred in the sixteenth century. Thus Chretien expresses sophisticated ideas with a relatively limited choice of words. The verse form he chose, octosyllabic rhymed couplets, was an intrinsic part of his creative process. Verse shaped the expression of his thoughts, encouraged his word­play, and established the forward movement of his poem. Verse allowed him to halt that movement for emphasis by repeating a key phrase without wearying his listeners by redundancy.” — Ruth Harwood Cline, Introduction, Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (The University of Georgia Press, 2000), pg. xxiv

 

*****************************************************

 

“Ruth Harwood Cline’s translation is a remarkable literary achievement. She has not only understood Chretien’s difficult and subtle text-­which is no small matter, but she frequently succeeds in re-creating his witty style, his irony, his playfulness, his masterful use of octosyllabic couplets which, in his hands, can gallop or meander or creep, depending upon the matter being treated. Sometimes her version even suggests his varied and effortless use of rhymes–now rich, now mere vowel rhyme, now an arresting use of homonyms, now a play on words. And she has studiously avoided archaisms, which are the bane of so many translators. In a word she has made much of the quality of Chretien’s masterpiece available in present-day English.” — Julian Harris, Forewrod, Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (The University of Georgia Press, 1975), pg. viii

 

“First of all, Chrétien de Troyes is a wonderful poet, who practically singlehandedly invented the Arthurian legend. Secondly — but actually, most importantly — Ruth Harwood Cline is a SUPERB translator. She does total justice to the original text, does not mangle it, and manages to translate into rhymed verse (the original French is rhymed) that totally “works” while never sacrificing meaning. To put it simply, there is magic in this translation. It is totally readable, it carries you along, and you don’t want to stop until the end.” — Roger W. Smith, Amazon.com review of Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot Or the Knight of the Cart, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (The University of Georgia Press, 1990)

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

I have read all five of Cline’s Chrétien translations. You won’t find a better translator of medieval literature anywhere — well, practically anywhere. Two other books (translations) that are brilliant:

Poems of the Elder Edda: Revised Edition, translated by Patricia Terry (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990)

 

Lyrics of the French Renaissance: Marot Du Bellay, Ronsard; bilingual edition; English versions by Norman R. Shapiro (Yale University Press, 2002)

 

I have read all of the books the images of which are shown below, except for not having read Lyrics of the French Renaissance from cover to cover.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2020

 

 

*****************************************************

 

 

 

Chrétien de Troyes, Yvain, Or the Knight with the Lion, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (The University of Georgia Press, 1975)

 

 

Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval: Or the Story of the Grail, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (The University of Georgia Press, 1983)

 

 

Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot; Or the Knight of the Cart, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (The University of Georgia Press, 1990)

 

 

Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (The University of Georgia Press, 2000)

 

 

Chrétien de Troyes, Erec and Enide, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline (The University of Georgia Press, 2000)

 

 

Poems of the Elder Edda: Revised Edition, translated by Patricia Terry (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990)

 

 

Lyrics of the French Renaissance: Marot Du Bellay, Ronsard; bilingual edition; English versions by Norman R. Shapiro (Yale University Press, 2002)

“On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet”

 

 

Condemned to Hope’s delusive mine,
As on we toil from day to day,
By sudden blasts, or slow decline,
Our social comforts drop away.

Well tried through many a varying year,
See Levet to the grave descend;
Officious, innocent, sincere,
Of every friendless name the friend.

Yet still he fills Affection’s eye,
Obscurely wise, and coarsely kind;
Nor, lettered Arrogance, deny
Thy praise to merit unrefined.

When fainting Nature called for aid,
And hovering Death prepared the blow,
His vigorous remedy displayed
The power of art without the show.

In Misery’s darkest cavern known,
His useful care was ever nigh,
Where hopeless Anguish poured his groan,
And lonely Want retired to die.

No summons mocked by chill delay,
No petty gain disdained by pride,
The modest wants of every day
The toil of every day supplied.

His virtues walked their narrow round,
Nor made a pause, nor left a void;
And sure the Eternal Master found
The single talent well employed.

The busy day, the peaceful night,
Unfelt, uncounted, glided by;
His frame was firm, his powers were bright,
Though now his eightieth year was nigh.

Then with no throbbing fiery pain,
No cold gradations of decay,
Death broke at once the vital chain,
And freed his soul the nearest way.

 

— Samuel Johnson, “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet”

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Robert Levet (1705–1782), described in an obituary as “a practitioner in physic,” was an unlicensed medical practitioner in London during the eighteenth century. Levet was befriended by Samuel Johnson. He lived in Johnson’s home for many years. He practiced medicine among the poor and destitute of London, for modest fees.

 

*****************************************************

 

 

A few observations on the poem, and a few platitudes of my own. It is good — following the example and preaching of Jesus — to assist, and not to shun, the needy and downtrodden; and it is good — as exemplified not only by Levet, but by Johnson, in befriending Levet (who was regarded by some of Johnson’s friends as being coarse in manner and who was of humble origins himself) — to show kindness and solicitude for those whom one encounters in the byways, so to speak, of daily life, on our journey through it.

This is essentially what the poem says to me. I could relate it to my own experience and, for me, that matters a lot when it comes to reading and literature.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2020