Monday, December 03, 2012

`Creatures of Language and the Past'

“All writers being creatures of language and the past, I look back (however inaccurately) to Lucian reading his dialogues in Greek to Roman consular families in Gaul, to Ausonius trying to see the Garonne in the Moselle, to Walter Savage Landor writing his imaginary conversations in Fiesole.” 

Who can write without looking back, remembering teachers and honoring them with every choice of word? Without their lessons, some of us would remain mute, and the world might be a happier place. The passage above is the final sentence in the postscript Guy Davenport appended to Twelve Stories (1997). Let’s follow his example. In his dialogue “The Parasite, a Demonstration that Sponging is a Profession,” Lucian of Samosata has Simon say: 

“An art, as I once heard a wise man say, is a body of perceptions regularly employed for some useful purpose in human life.” 

Ausonius (ca. 310-ca. 394) made his home in Bordeaux, as did Montaigne 1,200 years later. In “Mosella(“Moselle,” translated by David Parsons) he writes: 

“Then my poem will commend you
To the pools that echo heaven,
That reflect the blue of heaven,
To the great loud-sounding rivers,
To my own Garonne in Bordeaux
Spreading grandly like the ocean.” 

And Landor’s “To Robert Browning”: 

“There is delight in singing, tho' none hear
Beside the singer; and there is delight
In praising, tho' the praiser sit alone
And see the prais'd far off him, far above.
Shakspeare is not our poet, but the world's,
Therefore on him no speech! and brief for thee,
Browning! Since Chaucer was alive and hale,
No man hath walkt along our roads with step
So active, so inquiring eye, or tongue
So varied in discourse. But warmer climes
Give brighter plumage, stronger wing: the breeze
Of Alpine highths thou playest with, borne on
Beyond Sorrento and Amalfi, where
The Siren waits thee, singing song for song.”
Originality in literature is self-deluding myth.

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