Friday, October 29, 2010

`It Is the Spring or Well, Not Its Water'

The most engaging book I've read in some time is Spartacus Road: A Journey Through Ancient Italy (The Overlook Press, 2010), Peter Stothard’s tracing of the 2,000-mile route followed by the slave army in 73-71 B.C. while they challenged the mightiest military of the day. The narrative mingles history and travel, meditation and deep classical learning. Stothard devotes much of Chapter VIII, “Torno to Picentino,” to Gaius Plinius Secundus, known to us a Pliny the Younger – letter writer, lawyer and magistrate, friend to Tacitus. Stothard writes:

“It is possible to recreate parts of the ancient world, and not only with Hollywood togas. We can know and imagine. We can build upon others’ knowledge and imaginations. We can select from our sources as from a guidebook or anthology. We do not need them all. An ancient source – a text of Pliny or Statius or Horace – is just what it says it is, no more so, no less. It is the spring or well, not its water. The source has always been there, sometimes hidden but unchanged in itself. The source is the same in every age. The water is not the same. We find the source. We drink the water. The water is different every day.”

The passage is stirring. The final five sentences, none longer than eight words, are an oath of allegiance to the past, a chant-like affirmation of tradition. They stir a feeling I get when reading the poems and prose of Zbigniew Herbert. I know I’m in the company of a civilized man, as I do when reading Montaigne, Montale or Guy Davenport (or Stothard). We share values – bookishness, respect for learning and an understanding of its limits, a sense of kinship with other civilized men and women, love and wariness of language, stoic acceptance of human transitoriness, a refusal to endorse the shoddy, dishonest or cruel.

In “Monsieur Montaigne’s Voyage to Italy” (The Collected Prose 1948-1998) Herbert writes:

“…it is the antiquities of Rome that made the greatest impression on Montaigne. The author of the Essays, who spends so much attention during his journey on meals and the cleanliness of bedclothes, falls into a truly poetic and exalted mood at the sight of the Forum. His sobriety, formed by ancient authors (Montaigne himself resembles a Renaissance Pliny), does not allow him to fall into sentimental raptures.”

Today we observe Herbert’s eighty-sixth birthday. He died July 28, 1998.

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