Saturday, July 30, 2016

`That Astonishment That Seizes Each of Us'

The poem starts with a walk without destination, the sort that best stimulates contemplation. (The walkers we see in the park resemble spastic infantry on a forced march.) The place, unstated, is Montreal. It’s twilight in February, still bright. The walker longs for May and observes the mannequins who “smile and wave” in shop windows. His “onerous day at the office” is over. Now, unfettered, what's next? Not Happy Hour but Quintus Horatius Flaccus – Horace. The 2,000th anniversary of the Roman poet’s death (in 2008) approaches, and scholars will hold solemn symposia. The walker has other plans:

“I’ll hail you from the wings, reread your poems
when May returns, in the garden
under the Great Bear you must have so admired
--Stella, quas nostril septum soliti vocari trione
with that astonishment that seizes each of us
beneath the starry sky, familiar and dark.”

Our poet footnotes the Latin: “The stars that generally go by the name of Septentriones, and less frequently, Septemtriones, i.e. the Little Bear [or Big Dipper]; vocitare, a frequentative of vocare, is sometimes used. The sentence is taken from Cicero’s Treatises on the Nature of the Gods.” Stars, distant and cold, glimmering with light emitted two-hundred years ago, join the Roman and Canadian poets. The walker recalls that lilacs bloom in May and he will turn forty-five: “Fugerit, invida, aetas. What have I done / With this time frittered away?” The lament of the middle-aged. The Latin, “jealous time will have (already) fled,” is from Horace’s Ode I.11. “. . . I don’t know who I’ll be / when this better time comes, if it ever does.” Reading Horace for our walker is a comfort and a reproach:

“One carries oneself along like some bag
one drags about, stuffed with god knows what,
a bag one doesn’t dare look inside, but leaves
behind on a subway bench. I paraphrase
in these approximate lines, dazzling sapphics
whose perfection drives me to despair:
Otium diuos rogat . . . I’d never dare
imitate this ode in which each word
fits more firmly than a stone set it
an indestructible monument.
But spoken verse, the low style, the
barely metred conversation of the Epistles—I can dream,
perhaps, of approaching these a little.”

The Latin phrase translates as “he asks the gods for ease, or leisure,” the first words of Ode II.16. The walk is nearly over and the walker has arrived at no grand conclusions. “I don’t know for whom I write, or why.” Who does? Those who claim to write for others, with their interests in mind, are deluded with pride. Those who understand the "why" are lying. The poem’s final words are “Otium diuos rogo.” Rogo means “I ask.” C.H. Sisson freely translated Horace’s Epistle II.3, “Ars Poetica,” in 1974. He writes, in part:

“The man who can actually tell when a verse is lifeless
Will know when it doesn’t sound right; he will point to stragglers,
And equally put his pen through elaboration;
He will even force you to give up your favourite obscurities,
Tell you what isn’t clear and what has got to be changed,
Like Dr. Johnson himself. There will be no nonsense
About it not being worth causing trouble for trifles.
Trifles like that amount in the end to disaster,
Derisory writing and meaning misunderstood.”

[The poem outlined above is “A Winter Stroll Pondering the Poetry of Horace” from Montreal Before Spring (trans. Donald McGrath, Biblioasis, 2015) by Robert Melançon.]

[Mike Gilleland of Laudator Temporis Acti tells me that the line from Cicero as quoted in the book is actually "Stellae, quas nostri septum soliti vocari trione," but more correctly it ought to be "Stellae, quas nostri septem soliti vocitare trione."]

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