Friday, December 18, 2009

`Old Masters'

My 9-year-old has been collecting the allusions to La Divina Commedia he gleans from popular culture, mostly movies and comic books, and reading a series of kids’ books by Dale E. Bayse known collectively as Heck. Titles include Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go and Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck, The protagonist is Milton Fauster, his sister is Marlo and the school principal is Bea “Elsa” Bubb. On Wednesday at the library Michael asked me to recommend an edition of the Inferno. I was dubious but I’ve never denied my kids a book, even when I thought it might defeat them. I read Ulysses in junior high school, more out of cussedness and hoped-for titillation than for its snob appeal. I missed plenty and was lost for pages at a stretch but I loved the novel, and I still read it again every few years, as I assume dedicated readers do.

I looked for the John Ciardi translation of Dante, the first version I read in junior high, but our library doesn’t have a copy. Instead, I checked out the most recent version I’ve read, Robert and Jean Hollander’s (2000). I handed it to Michael without comment, no mention of Guelphs or Ghibellines. He started reading it in the back seat and stuck to it at home. By evening he had reached Canto XI. He asked a few question – “Who’s Virgil?” – and I asked if he could figure out the rhyme scheme in the Italian on the facing pages and told him about terza rima. Michael seems to have concluded that Dante wrote a hybrid of science fiction and adventure saga, a sort of subterranean Star Wars with more blood.

Later on Wednesday, David Myers wrote to me: “At all events, I stumbled upon something you'd like. In an interview, asked about her favorite writers, Prose replied, "[T]here's a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, 'The Old Masters,' that always cheers me up when I'm down.”

“The Old Masters” dates from the early nineteen-eighties, the heroic days of Solidarity, and was collected in Report from the Besieged City (1985, translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter). The poem expresses his solidarity with the great artists of the past:

“The Old Masters
went without names

“their signature
was the white fingers of the Madonna

“or pink towers
di città sul mare

“also scenes from the life
della Beata Umiltà

“they dissolved
in sogno

“they found shelter
under the eyelids of angels
behind hills of clouds
in the thick grass of paradise

“they drowned without a trace
in golden firmaments
with no cry of fright
or call to be remembered

“the surfaces of their paintings
are smooth as a mirror
they aren’t mirrors for us
they are mirrors for the chosen

“I call on you Old Masters
in hard moments of doubt

“make the serpent’s scales of pride
fall from me

“let me be deaf
to the temptation of fame

“I call upon you Old Masters

“the Painter of the Rain of Manna
the Painter of Embroidered Trees
the Painter of the Visitation
the Painter of the Sacred Blood”

The finals stanzas read like a prayer to the saints of art, anonymous in the beauty and grace of their work. Go here for more about “scenes from the life / della Beata Umiltà.” We learn, for instance, that she visited Florence the year “Dante Alighieri was seventeen and writing his early sonnets.”


Ray Girvan said...

a hybrid of science fiction and adventure saga, a sort of subterranean Star Wars with more blood.

Related data point: Niven and Pournelle's SF adaptation Inferno is rather good - see Building a Modern Hell.

D. G. Myers said...

That’s Francine Prose, by the way—best American novelist of her generation.