Art Beck: This Powerful Rhyme

  Art Beck

  This Powerful Rhyme:
  A Helplessly Wandering Essay

  on a Wilfully Meandering Poem
  JPR 07

The Pen and the Sword
The Pen or the Sword? Poet John Forbes, with toy howitzer and newspaper, Annandale, Sydney, 1984, photo John Tranter

Paragraph One Follows — 1:

In our neo-Orwellian world, is it adage, cliché, or just hypothesis to say ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. Does propaganda qualify as ‘the pen’? Does ‘the pen’ include all media, not just print? Does ‘the pen’ equate with ‘the truth’? Or, since we’re talking about sword fights, aren’t the feints and parries of alternative facts every bit as much a weaponized pen as the sincerity of a straightforward lunge?


Yes, ‘the truth shall make you free’, but that’s a different proverb. The pen / sword saying is about prevailing, not escaping. The two maxims often cross paths, but don’t they, just as often diverge? And isn’t ‘neo’ just another kind of ‘retro’? A recurring theme in our current political dystopia is ‘Are we Rome yet?’. If this rambling article has any thesis, it’s that these questions  — including the Roman one — are territory worth exploring.


Poetry and literature have been used to skewer, attack and advocate in every historical era. Even so, I think only those performances endure that rise past agit-prop to some level of vulnerable self-revelation. Juvenal, Petronius, Martial, Jonathan Swift, Pope, and Tom Wolfe all exaggerate in their different ways, but their distortions simultaneously unmask a deeper face. Catullus’ ebullient cartoonish rants against Julius Caesar and his entourage have nothing humanly in common with Julius Streicher’s dark racial caricatures.


That said, isn’t the idea of language as weapon the very thing the greatest poets seem to want to escape? Consider these lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65:


…How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?


O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days…
Beauty’s Plea


The pen / sword analogy is ancient. The exact English saying dates only from an 1839 Bulwer-Lytton play about Cardinal Richelieu. But Wikipedia (that quickest, most suspect source) cites a 7th century B. C. Assyrian teaching: ‘The word is mightier than the sword.’ And Euripides’, ‘the tongue is mightier than the blade.’ Among other iterations, Napoleon Bonaparte’s observation that ‘four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets’ puts a near contemporary turn on the phrase.


But there’s another old tradition of ‘the mighty word’ that has nothing to do with weaponry and resists encapsulation in an adage. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 ends:


…O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O! none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.


Sonnet 65 climaxes a meandering sequence that begins with Sonnet 55’s opening statement:


Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme…


I’ll expand on Shakespeare later, but for now just want to make the observation that the power of his black-inked rhyme isn’t set against adversarial bayonets but against an almost primordial human observation. One perhaps most concisely expressed in Camus’ ‘men die and they are not happy.’And it seems serendipitous that Camus voiced that sentiment in a play about Caligula, because the often cited sources for Shakespeare’s poetic chutzpah date from Imperial Rome.

An ode to oneself, or an ode to odes?


But I’m running ahead of myself with Camus when I’m not even sure where I’m going. Humans die so they procreate, poets die so they write? Even if that’s the direction I want to take, I’d better get back to the beginning. And that beginning is in two Latin poems generally cited as conscious models for Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55.


The first is Horace’s Ode III, 30, the sign off poem in his third book of Odes.


Exegi monumentum aere perennius
regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.
Non omnis moriar multaque pars mei
vitabit Libitinam; usque ego postera
crescam laude recens, dum Capitolium
scandet cum tacita virgine pontifex.
Dicar, qua violens obstrepit Aufidus
et qua pauper aquae Daunus agrestium
regnavit populorum, ex humili potens
princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos
deduxisse modos. Sume superbiam
quaesitam meritis et mihi Delphica
lauro cinge volens, Melpomene, comam.


I’ve erected a monument to outlast bronze,
taller than the royal pyramids. Not raging
winds nor voracious rain or the incalculable years
racing in their flight, have the power to destroy it.
Because not all of me will die, a big piece will elude
my funeral. I’ll continue to thrive and be praised for
as long as the High Priest and Vestal silently mount
the Capitoline steps. I’ll be recited on the banks
of the torrential Aufius which roars through the once
arid, rustic fields old Daunus ruled. Because I rose
from nothing much to be the first to master
Aeolian song in Italian breaths. Take pride my
muse Melpomene, you deserve the credit even as
you graciously wreathe my hair with Delphic laurel.


I’m sure Horace wasn’t the first poet to harbor a similar hope. But I’m starting with Horace because there’s almost a sense of re-reading Horace in Shakespeare’s first seven words: ‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / of Princes…’
But then he suddenly shifts to ‘…shall outlive this powerful rhyme…’. And regally sweeps Horace’s carefully arrayed images aside with a declaration as simple (and cryptic) as the logos of the John Gospel.


Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear’d with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.


Horace is quite precise about why his work deserves to live on, but  — at least the way I read him  — still takes his glory tongue in cheek. And he’s careful to hedge his claim to personal mastery by acknowledging the muse’s power. But like a winning runner crossing the finish line, he still can’t hide his delight. Shakespeare’s version, on the other hand, remains somber throughout its fourteen lines. His emphasis is wholly on the living rhyme, not the skill of the rhymer.


Where the two poems converge is in their imagery of temporal destruction. Horace is more compact. But what more do we need beyond raging winds, all devouring rain and the accelerating fury of year upon countless year? Shakespeare mutes that to ‘sluttish time’ but tosses in ‘wasteful war’ and ‘war’s quick fire’ and ‘death and all-oblivious enmity’ and the ‘ending doom’ of an exhausted world. Sentiments no less apt today than in his 16th century. Between the two, one wonders how any rhyme could overpower — or any laurels survive — this inexorable ruin.


But of course, that’s one beauty of these poems. Horace, if anything, was too modest. He’s survived not only his own pyre, but his own civilization and language. The Pontiff and Vestalis are long gone. Even the Latin Mass is a relic. But Horace is still translated and read in virtually every living language. And despite the current-trend dismissal of dead white males, who doubts Shakespeare will survive current-trend culture just as he’s survived its multiple predecessors? I would, though, offer the qualification that neither Ode III, 30 nor Sonnet 55 proffers a self-contained, a priori argument. If these were the only works we had of the two poets, they’d be little more than quaint oddities. Horace is directing the reader to the whole body of his work. And the magnificence of the entire Shakespeare canon is — for us — what the Sonnet’s ‘powerful rhyme’ evokes.


Even so, these aren’t narcissistic ‘I’ poems. Their claim to life rests, not in the poet, but in the breathing, seemingly self creating lines the poet somehow conjures. Isn’t Horace’s explicit ‘muse’ implicit in Sonnet 65’s ‘black ink’? Doesn’t Horace’s image of the silently ascending high priest and vestal intentionally infer a parallel numinosity of art? A Shakespearean model is, of course, Prospero in The Tempest. Magicians and priests may be privy to spells and incantations,but those rituals exist only to invoke powers with a life of their own.

Another Model


As a parallel Latin source for Sonnet 55, commenters also like to cite what’s known as Ovid’s ‘Envoi’ to the Metamorphoses.


Iamque opus exegi, quod nec Iovis ira nec ignis
nec poterit ferrum nec edax abolere vetustas.
cum volet, illa dies, quae nil nisi corporis huius
ius habet, incerti spatium mihi finiat aevi:
parte tamen meliore mei super alta perennis

astra ferar, nomenque erit indelebile nostrum,
quaque patet domitis Romana potentia terris
ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama,
siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.

It begins:


Now my work is done, which neither the wrath
of Jove, nor fire, nor sword or the corrosive teeth
of old age have any power to destroy….


This is the short poem that ends the 15-volume magnum opus one recent edition styles as ‘the history of everything’. A compendium of ancient divinity myths, philosophy and legend, sardonically retold by an urbane sophisticate whose years straddle the BCE / CE , republican / imperial divide. A sort of profane Summa Theologica that remains our most fertile aesthetic entree to the polytheist Classical world.


In Metamorphoses, Ovid seems to create the future by redefining the past. The Evangelists transformed tribal Hebrew monotheism into an incarnation dynamic that could take root in an anthropomorphic Graeco-Roman world. I think Ovid, similarly, transforms polytheist myth in Metamorphoses to the point, where, after a relative handful of generations, a newly monotheist Roman culture would access that myth primarily through Ovid rather than his myriad sources.


In that sense, Metamorphoses allows the old gods to continue precisely because Ovid’s irreverence appropriates their divinity to secular human use. Without Ovid’s atheism to insulate them, one wonders whether the old myths could have survived the partisan religiosity of the medieval world. The Metamorphoses are by no means Christian, but they do tap a brash energy inherent in the exhaustion of the ancient Pantheon.


As with Horace and Shakespeare it’s almost impossible to overstate the enduring vitality of Ovid’s work. Or to doubt Shakespeare wasn’t familiar with the above ‘Envoi’ rendered in his contemporary, William Golding’s, translation:


Now have I brought a work to end which neither Jove’s fierce wrath,
Nor sword, nor fire, or freating age with all the force it hath
Are able to abolish quite. Let come that fatal hour
Which (saving of this brittle flesh) hath over me no power,
And at his pleasure make an end of my uncertain time.
Yet shall the better part of me assured be to climb
Aloft above the starry sky. And all the world shall never
Be able for to quench my name. For look how far so ever
The Roman Empire by the right of conquest shall extend,
So far shall all folk read this work. And time without all end
(If Poets as by prophesy about the truth may aim)
My life shall everlastingly be lengthened still by fame.


It’s easy to catch echoes of Horace’s III, 30 in Ovid, writing a generation later. And interesting that neither poet expected(or seemed to want) to outlive the Roman Empire. Perhaps the other side of that equation is that as long as Horace and Ovid have readers, ancient Rome endures?


Looking forward to Sonnet 55,one might also pick up the resonance of abolere vetustas, Golding’s ‘freating (decaying) age’ in Shakespeare’s ‘sluttish time’. And the Prospero motif of poet as magician / priest is also there in Ovid’s siquid habent veri vatum praesagia (…if mantic poets can indeed prophesy).


Ovid interjects another pernicious force: Iovis ira …the wrath of god. Given the array of whimsical divine cruelties the Metamorphoses portray, this may be no surprise. When a human happens upon a god in Ovid’s forests, it’s usually that human’s unluckiest day.


Even so, Ovid hopes to be taken into the heavens above the stars, where he earlier tells us the gods have their ‘ villas along the milky way’. An image reminiscent of the apotheosis of Julius Caesar which Ovid effusively describes a few stanzas earlier, just before wrapping up his masterwork.


Of course, things shortly and famously turned to crap for him. Augustus (whose own anticipated apotheosis Ovid also dutifully incorporated) banished him to a village of illiterates to endure the rest of his miserable days at the frozen ends of the known earth. Everyone speculates. No one really knows why. Ovid, himself, blamed it on ‘a poem and a mistake’.


One (albeit rarely offered, minority) opinion is that his inserting the story of, the mythical republican era praetor, Cipus, just before segueing to his cloying deification of the two Julian dynasts may have incurred the emperor’s ire.


As Ovid relates it, Cipus, returning from a journey, is magically confronted with an irrefutable prophecy: Upon entering the City the people would crown him King of Rome to rule peacefully and well to the end of his days.


Cipus’ response was to assemble the populace and Senate outside the City and have himself formally banished, lest the Republic be lost. ‘May the gods keep such a fate from me. Better to live in exile, than have the Capitol see me crowned.’


Augustus never tolerated a hint of recognition that Rome was now a republic in name only, while he quietly amassed all meaningful power over some forty years. Doesn’t this just point up the sensitivity of the officially unspoken question of just what that first century neologism, princeps, implied? Admittedly, we read all this through the filters of our own (some say proto-Roman) politics and 2000 intervening years. All citizens were equal, but it was Augustus, princeps (that most equal of equals) who packed Ovid off to bitter exile. Napoleon’s metaphor notwithstanding, the affair is certainly no example of a poet’s pen being mightier than the cold steel that enforces a First Citizen’s whim.

A Slight Detour to the Opposite Side of the Road


I’d planned to return to Shakespeare at this point, with another nuance between Shakespeare’s ‘immortal word’ poems and those of his Latin forebears. But Ovid’s sad, last, mortal years seem to have diverted me into one of those dreamlike Ovidian woods where all plans keep changing. What about those other ‘suicidal immortals’, I wonder: The undeniably greats who wanted their life’s words expunged? In Horace and Ovid’s day, most famously Vergil who left death bed instructions his not quite finished Aeneid be burnt. Augustus, who’d commissioned the work as a national epic in the Homeric model, negated that will.


Why Vergil wanted his masterpiece destroyed, no one but Vergil really knows. Some speculated he perceived metrical imperfections. But it served as a handbook of elegance for still-living Latin for a thousand years after his death. It also became a defining text of Rome’s emerging Imperial culture that didn’t need to ask Vergil’s permission to survive. Perhaps that un-Homeric jingoism had something to do with Vergil’s futile deathbed contrition?


Kafka’s still unpublished manuscripts of The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, also had no respect for his:‘… last request: Everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters … to be burned unread.’ Was it something in the still barely emergent twentieth century refusing not to be born that stayed Max Brod’s hand?


Are these contrarians just the exceptions that seem to confirm Horace, Ovid and Shakespeare’s assertion of the indestructible word? Their names also refuse to die; their works won’t allow it.


And what about all those other Latin poets, abandoned and unread for centuries  — Catullus, Martial, Lucretius, and on and on. Until like flowers stirring from dried desert seeds after a millennium of drought, they blossomed in the suddenly rediscovered manuscripts of the Renaissance. Did those ancient ghosts sense and impregnate a new culture just when that culture sensed it needed them? Because isn’t procreation an impulse of mutual need?


If technology finds a way to unfold and read the charred scrolls of Pompeii and Herculaneum, will it be because something’s shifted in our culture that finally needs to gently caress the lost plays of Aeschylus, Sappho’s vanished ephemeral lyrics, and the ashes of the Satyricon’s missing chapters in order to take our own next step?


I’m reminding myself not to get too esoteric, but I’m also reminded of that other life’s words renouncer, Thomas Aquinas who, about to turn fifty, suddenly stopped writing, with the declaration that ‘everything I’ve written is like straw’. This was the master whose Summa Theologica soared like a cathedral of logic over the medieval world. Was it the satori of the Beatific Vision, as the Dominicans claim, or maybe just Alzheimer’s that turned it all to babel? How did Shakespeare put it: ‘there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy’?

This thought is as a death, which cannot choose but weep


We live in an age of minimal poetry, of poetry as a devalued art. Maybe that’s a corollary of our inability to resist Orwellian language. But our music gets more and more minimal as well, and the art of composed serious music seems to have seriously stumbled somewhere around the 1950s. It’s not whether Bach and Shakespeare, or, say, Auden and Mahler are still relevant — they obviously are — but whether the ambition to be relevant exists or is even respectable in contemporary poetics and music.


These are, of course, arbitrary, probably even ignorant pronouncements. But, When was the last time a poet evoked something like Shakespeare’s ‘powerful rhyme’ image without embarrassment? I guess, for me, it’s implicit in Auden’s elegy for Yeats, for one. And explicit in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus I, 5. A poem in direct lineage with Horace III, 30 and Ovid’s Envoi. Whether any of these poems formed a conscious model for Rilke isn’t really important. What’s worth looking at is how he handles the thema of mantic poetry in a 1922 world that was already Kafkaesque.

Rilke, circa 1900. From the internet.


But to put that in context, this seems a good time to take a short detour and first revisit Shakespeare. Sonnet 55 goes somewhere its Latin models don’t:


Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents …
…Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity…
So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.


There’s a subtle but significant shift in Shakespeare’s treatment of the Horace III, 30 and Ovid Envoi theme. Shakespeare, as befitting a consummate dramatist, has an addressee. And because of that, the theme takes on even deeper resonance. That, let’s call it ‘relationship’, aspect remains when he returns to the theme in 64:


When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d
The rich-proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal, slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate —
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.


And allows 65 to soar:


Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.


For me, the whispered fear ‘that time will come and take my love away’ is more devastating than all the other images of ruin in these common-theme Sonnets. Maybe Auden had something like this in mind when he, vainly, tried to quash his already famous poem, ‘September 1, 1939’. Of its iconic last line, ‘…we must love one another, or die’, he mordantly observed (as Shakespeare also implies) that there is no ‘or’. We still have to die. Or, to paraphrase Camus’ Caligula: Humans die and they aren’t happy.


The identity of Shakespeare’s ‘love’, and the nature of that love, continue to fuel endless speculation. 55, 64 and 65 are generally considered to be among the ‘fair youth’ Sonnets. But is the love that weaves through the sequence homo-erotic, platonic, poet-to-patron, avuncular, or in turn all of the above? Is the fair youth an aristocratic patron or a protege, or both? And is the addressee in 55, 64 and 65 even necessarily the ‘fair youth’ or male?


Does it matter? Because these emblematic love poems arguably derive their power from even more powerful statements about art and the miracle of the living word. Their addressee is amorphous enough to allow an array of readers to read their myriad selves and loves into them. But the master poet who conjures the alchemy of their powerful rhymes stands apart and sui generis.

Some Twentieth-Century Alchemy


Rilke: Sonnet to Orpheus I, V:


Errichtet keinen Denkstein. Laßt die Rose
nur jedes Jahr zu seinen Gunsten blühn.
Denn Orpheus ists. Seine Metamorphose
in dem und dem. Wir sollen uns nicht mühn

um andre Namen. Ein für alle Male
ists Orpheus, wenn es singt. Er kommt und geht.
Ists nicht schon viel, wem, er die Rosenschale
um ein paar Tage manchmal übersteht?

O wie er schwinden muß, daß ihrs begrifft!
Und wenn ihm selbst auch bangte, daß er schwände.
Indem sein Wort das Hiersein übertrifft,

ist er schon dort, wohin ihrs nicht begleitet.
Der Leier Gitter zwängt ihm nicht die Hände.
Und er gehorcht, indem er überschreitet.


Don’t erect his monuments in stone. Just let the rose
bloom every spring as his token. Because this
too is Orpheus — another of his metamorphoses
into one thing or another. Why stress ourselves

deciphering all his names? If there’s singing,
now and forever, it’s Orpheus as he comes and goes.
Isn’t it enough that every so often he lingers
a few days with the rose petals in the bowl?

So much of him has to wither so you can know.
It frightens him too, as he fades. But just as his
word transcends what’s here, what’s now  —

he’s already there, alone where you can’t be.
The bars of the lyre strings don’t cramp his
fingers. Even transgressing, he obeys.


Whatever the intention, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Horace, Ovid and Shakespeare here. And the Ovidian image of the vatic, preternaturally inspired poet is embodied in Rilke’s addressee. Unlike Horace and Ovid, Rilke bypasses personal mastery to focus on the persona of the archetypical, semi-divine poet, Orpheus. And distinct from its Latin predecessors, Rilke’s poem speaks to the vulnerability as well as durability of the poetic word.


The fifty-five Orpheus sonnets also weave a theme of the coexistence of life and death reminiscent of the angels in Rilke’s First Duino Elegy, who ‘… (it’s said) often don’t know whether they’re traveling / among the living or the dead….’ Sonnet I, VI expands on the occult dynamics of Orphic song almost like a Prospero-voiced explication of Shakespeare’s ‘powerful rhyme’:


Ist er ein Hiesiger? Nein, aus beiden
Reichen erwuchs seine weite Natur.
Kundiger böge die Zweige der Weiden,
wer die Wurzeln der Weiden erfuhr.

Geht ihr zu Bette, so laßt auf dem Tische
Brot nicht und Milch nicht; die Toten ziehtes–.
Aber er, der Beschwörende, mische
unter der Milde des Augenlids

ihre Erscheinung in alles Geschaute;
und der Zauber von Erdrauch und Raute
sei ihm so wahr wie der klarste Bezug.

Nichts kann das gültige Bild ihm verschlimmern;
sei es aus Gräbern, sei es aus Zimmern,
rühme er Fingerring, Spange und Krug.


Is he someone from here  — just one of us? No,
both realms nurtured that expansive heart.
He learned how to bend the weeping willow
branch from the willow’s own sad roots.

At night, when you go to bed, never leave bread,
never leave milk on the table. It draws the dead.
But under the caress of sleeping
eyelids, he  — the initiate  — will mingle their

intimate tokens into everything you dream.
To him, the magic summons of burnt earth-smoke
and rue is a transparent logic. Nothing

can decay his images: not the grave, not
the living in their rooms, as he infuses
finger ring, hair clasp and jug with his praise.

That Time Will Come and Take My Love Away


The Sonnets to Orpheus wilfuly wander: From the antique shadows of a Jung-like dreamtime, into the early twentieth century, still emerging from its fractured reptile egg in the Central Europe Rilke and Kafka shared. The sequence struggles with the organized sterility of ‘the machine’. Even a miracle like flight fails to escape Rilke’s Luddite observation that the airplane is, after all, just another tool we can’t allow ourselves to be mastered by. Rilke’s two-volume sequence is imbued with cultural and personal loss. Not just nostalgia, but also a free floating anxiety hinting at losses to come.


The classical Orphic myths are varied and complex, but Rilke seems most emotionally drawn to the heartbroken poet’s descent to the underworld to bring his young wife, Eurydice, back from the dead, and to the ultimate failure of their doomed climb back.


As an aside, Ovid snidely bent the mythos of Orpheus’ mourning to invent his own cynical tale. In the Metamorphoses version, Orpheus, devastated at the loss of his one true love and realizing its universality, swears off women entirely. Then introduces the Greeks to the innovation of screwing pubescent boys, who one need never grow old with.


Despite posthumous Nazi-era denunciations that cast him as a cosmopolitan effeminate, Rilke had no such inclinations. In Die Sonnete an Orpheus book II, XIII, the sequence reaches what Rilke considered its core with a poem that could arguably be Shakespeare 64 / 65 turned inside out in the way it blends the quasi-divinity of Orpheus as loving poet with the inescapable mortality of human love.


Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre er hinter
dir, wie der Winter, der eben geht.
Denn unter Wintern ist einer so endlos Winter,
daß, überwinternd, dein Herz überhaupt übersteht.

Sei immer tot in Eurydike — , singender steige,
preisender steige zurück in den reinen Bezug.
Hier, unter Schwindenden, sei, im Reiche der Neige,
sei ein klingendes Glas, das sich im Klang schon zerschlug.

Sei — und wisse zugleich des Nicht-Seins Bedingung,
den unendlichen Grund deiner innigen Schwingung,
daß du sie völlig vollziehst dieses einzige Mal.

Zudemgebrauchten sowohl, wie zum dumpfen und stummen
Vorrat der vollen Natur, den unsäglichen Summen,
zähle dich jubelnd hinzu und vernichte die Zahl.


Anticipate each goodbye, as if it were
already behind you like a winter that’s passed.
Because underneath these winters is such an interminable
winter, that only by hibernating can your heart survive.

Always be dead in Eurydice — climb out the way a singer climbs,
in a voice rich with loss and celebration of that pure connection.
And here, below with the ghosts, in the empire of bitter endings,
be the clinking glass that, even as it shatters, rings.

Be — and at the same time — realize your inescapable non-existence
is the unquenchable root of your deepest resonance.
And just this once, be all you were meant to become:

To those already used and discarded, and to the numb, mute
stockyard of bloated nature — to that unspeakable sum  —
count yourself gladly in and nullify the count.


All the poems we’ve been looking at are variations on the theme of art and death. But I think all are of a complexity that resists simplification into something as prosaic as ars longa, vita brevis. Rilke’s II, XIII, e. g. can be read in poignant personal terms. The Orpheus Sonnets were dedicated to a friend’s eighteen year old daughter who’d died of leukemia. Rilke was himself to die from as yet undiagnosed leukemia some four years later. So the sequence, which came to him all in a rush, can be read as intuitively predictive of the death already in his blood.


Beyond the personal, the Sonnets to Orpheus were completed in 1922. Rilke’s 1912 First Duino Elegy seems to vatically foreshadow the cultural exhaustion that followed WWI. Similarly, it’s hard to not read in a whiff of the organized bloodlands to come in images of a stupefying, endless winter, the ‘already used and discarded…, the numb, mute stockyard of bloated nature’.


And in that prescience, wonder if the sequence may have been only possible before, not after, the cataclysms. Perhaps one simple reason Auden withdrew his 1939, outbreak of WWII, masterpiece was that after that ‘unspeakable sum’ of human brutality, his facile lyric logic seemed a cathedral of straw. Celan, famously, struggled to sing in his mother’s murderers’ tongue. But in the new nuclear age, was German the only language that melody deserted?

The Via Labicana and ( Finally!) the End of a Long Winding Path

Martial, Epigrams I, 88 (circa 86 c. e. )


Alcime, quem raptum domino crescentibus annis
labicana levi caespite velat humus,
accipe non Pario nutantia pondera saxo,
        quae cineri vanus dat ruitura labor,
sed faciles buxos et opacas palmitis umbras
        quaeque virent lacrimis roscida prata meis
accipe, care puer, nostri monimenta doloris:
        hic tibi perpetuo tempore vivet honor.
Cum mihi supremos Lachesis perneverit annos,
non aliter cineres mando iacere meos


Stolen from your master in the ripeness of youth,
    Alcimus; you lie gently hidden now by grassy earth
beside the Labicana Way. Don’t envy the sinking weight
    of marble gravestones, those labored memorials
to ruin and futility. Take your ease here among vine
    buds shaded by boxwood, in this green little plot
watered by the dew of my tears. Accept, treasured lad,
    these monuments of my sorrow, which honors you
with timeless, perpetual life. When Lachesis spins out my
    own final years, I want no other sleep for my ashes.


I’ve saved this for last because it embodies so much of all the other logos poems. It’s quieter: In part because it was written by a master of the miniature whose aesthetic abjured false praise, including of oneself. (Except when self preservation mandated effusive flattery of a very difficult emperor. But more on that in a while.)


The poem introduces its claim to eternal life so gently, that you wonder if that’s indeed what Martial is claiming. There’s a subtle polyvalence in the plural monumenta that conflates perennial greenery with living poetic lines. But from its earliest English translations, the latter has always been the interpretation. As in this 17th century version by Henry Killigrew:


Alcime, who didst in Years yet blooming die,
And, by a light Turf cover’d, here dost lie.
I rear no towring Tombs of massie Stone,
A vain Expence, that Fame confers on None:
But plant frail Box and Palms, whose verdant shade.
Drench’d by my Tears, shall be immortal made.
Receive thou then the Monument I give,
A Verse that will unto all Ages live:
And when my Life is spun, and Days expire,
No nobler Monument I my self Desire.


As with Shakespeare, Martial has an addressee. But this addressee has a name and social identity. A young slave, torn from his master by rapacious death. Did Martial have a (not unusual for him) sexual relationship with this fair youth? It doesn’t matter to the poem any more than the question matters to Shakespeare’s logos sonnets. As in the Orpheus sonnet, it’s the loss of love, not the particular love that’s at issue. Or rather, the inseparability of loss from love. And the leap-of-faith assertion of logos as  — not just a salve, but salvation.


The sense of art as sacrament in the Alcimus poem, becomes more resonant for me in Martial’s use of the ‘poetic plural’ in the line accipe, care puer, nostri monimenta doloris. That substitution of noster for meus is a common device in Latin poetry: A, ‘we’ for ‘I’, ‘our’ for ‘my’, blurring that survives in modern English in the royal, editorial, and medical ‘we’. (e.g., ‘how are we feeling today?) Martial’s voice in translation is often harmonically enriched by a literal rendering of the Latin false-plural. In this case: ‘Accept dear lad, these monuments of our grief’.


Care puer implies more than a simple, ‘dear boy’ here. Alcimus was a full grown man, a puer only because a slave was always a ‘boy’. And with the poetic plural, nostri, Martial seems to speak simultaneously as emancipating head of household; as healer-sympathizer. And as an Orphic poet counting himself ‘gladly in’ to ‘nullify the count.’


Did Rilke know this poem? Did Shakespeare? Does it matter? Because all of these  — for want of a better term — logos variations — aspire to escape and converse somewhere outside the cause and effect of time. To thrive in some always place where Martial’s lines can be read, not just as source, but as a responsive meditation on Sonnet 55’s: ‘… O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out against the wreckful siege of battering days… unless this miracle have might, that in black ink my love may still shine bright.’

Coda: Alcimus Memorialized in Marble


After all this, why a coda? Because those who’ve spent any time reading Martial might note a couple of things. One, is that he’s not given to either sentimentality or mysticism. Another is that he often revisits earlier epigrams with second looks that move in opposite emotional directions. In Epigrams Book V, 64, some four years after I, 88, a slave named Alcimus  — a ghost or just a namesake? — reappears in a very different, but common themed poem. This second, Alcimus variation isn’t an ‘eternal word’ poem. But rather, I think, a daggered-stylus, mightier than the sword, temporal cousin to the timeless logos genus. And a poem that may help put a little perspective on that nervous 2017 political question ‘are we Rome yet?’. So before we get to it, let’s briefly revisit Ovid and Cipus and Augustus.


As I mentioned, it’s only a fringe speculation that Ovid’s princeps-deification, on the heels of his preachy-republican Cipus story, might have been taken as sarcasm by Augustus. The reason that, albeit tempting, theory is ‘fringe’ is that the divinity of Roman Caesars was a posthumous honorific, not all that different from the later Christian honor of sainthood.


Julius Caesar was killed by senators on the Senate floor for regally appropriating power. But in life he’d explicitly refused royal honors. Augustus’ Senate posthumously honored him, not as a god on earth, but as a Roman so noble and unique he merited an afterlife among the immortals. As with the later Christians, martyrdom also helped. Ovid was only reporting an already officialy bestowed tribute.


Years later, Augustus, who ended the generation-long strife and civil wars of the oligarchs and initiated a new era, seemed worthy of no less a heavenly afterlife. Along with  — why not? — his wife and companion, Livia. Then, just as every emperor became a ‘Caesar’, it became routine to confer a heavenly afterlife on every halfway decent Caesar. Obvious monsters like Caligula and Nero were excepted. But even stammering Claudius, widely considered an idiot in his day, merited an apotheosis after being poisoned by his wife to speed her son Nero’s succession. Albeit one satirized by Seneca.


In Martial’s time, Vespasian may have said it best in a famous deathbed observation. His last words were a request that he pulled up out of bed because ‘an emperor ought to die on his feet.’ But a bit earlier, his prognosis obvious, he quipped: Vae! Puto deus fio. A phrase that given his involvement in the sacking and destruction of Jerusalem might be wryly translated as ‘Oy, I think I’m becoming a god.’


Vespasian quelled the brief anarchy that followed Nero’s overthrow and oversaw some ten years of good order. His son, Titus, groomed to succeed him, died after less than two years in office. Then Titus’ inexperienced younger brother, Domitian, came to power by default to reign for fifteen years, a period coinciding with Martial’s most productive years. A few years into that term, Martial penned this couplet in the form of a gift tag to accompany a Saturnalia present of incense.


Serus ut aetheriae Germanicus imperet aulae
        utque diu terris da pia tura Iovi.


So that Germanicus may eventually rule in heavenly halls,
        and on earth for many days, offer holy incense to Jove.


Germanicus in these lines is Domitian, who gave himself the title to commemorate his conquest of a small German tribe in a preemptive war most believed he conducted only to enhance his vanity. His formal Triumph was ridiculed. Undeterred, Domitian renamed the month of September, Germanicus, to showcase his new soubriquet.


One wonders what sort of perverse compulsion led Domitian to anoint himself the calendar equal of Julius Caesar and Augustus, the only two Romans iconic enough to have months named for them. It seems a hubris analogous with, say, an imaginary current day president jealous because Washington was named for his ancestral predecessor, and renaming New York City after himself.


Domitian lacked his father’s earthy irony. He began demanding to be addressed as Dominus et Deus: ‘Lord and god’. Increasingly suspicious and devious, he cultivated a spider web of informants. Senators and prominent citizens were summarily executed for arcane reasons or just out of quixotic cruelty. Civic angst built steadily over a decade or so, until no one who was anyone felt safe. Finally, in an act of self preservation applauded by all, Domitian was bumped off by a cabal of his inner circle and wife. There was no question of apotheosis: the Senate issued the formal dishonor of damnatio memoriae. The heads on his statues were replaced with others’. Even the coins bearing his image were recalled and reminted.


But what does all this have to do with poor Alcimus? In 89 c.e., around two thirds of the way through the reign of Domitian dominus et deus, Martial published epigram V, 64. It and I, 88 are the only Martial poems in which the name Alcimus appears, although this time he figures only in passing. The poems’ main commonality is their funereal subject.


The first Alcimus poem devalues stone monuments in favor of green living earth and honors a humble slave. The second epigram, conversely, is a toast to the Mausoleum of Augustus. A grand complex of tombs and statuary that held the ashes of Augustus, Livia and their extended family, including the emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. There was a lot of divinity at rest among those monuments, although not the sort of perpetual life Martial holds out to Alcimus in I, 88.


Even so, that divinity is worth a toast and, as with so many Martial poems, you wonder just who and what he’s toasting: The gods in their afterlife? Or the afterlife on earth of those hoping to survive the prevailing Dominus et Deus?


Sextantes, Calliste, duos infunde Falerni,
        tu super aestiuas, Alcime, solve nives;
pinguescat nimio madidus mihi crinis amomo
        lassenturque rosis tempora sutilibus.
Tam vicina iubent non vivere Mausolea,
        cum doceant ipsos posse perire deos.


Callistus, pour a quadruple Falernian measure.
        And you, Alcimus, add some summer snowmelt.
Oil my hair with fragrant amber, and wreathe
        roses around my crown. The Imperial Mausolea,
across the way, command us to live, despite it
        all, while teaching us even gods can die.

Except where otherwise noted, translations in this article are mine and, despite my intended accuracy, inescapably reflect a personal reading.

 — A. B.