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“No light, but rather darkness visible”*…

 

Satan John-Martins-illustrations-for-643_m_18_facing_p37-edit

Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council (Book II, line 1), from John Martin’s epic set of illustrations for Paradise Lost, 1827

 

I begin with sound. I read Paradise Lost not only with my eyes, but also with my mouth. I was lucky enough to study Books I and II for A level many years ago, and to do so in a small class whose teacher, Miss Enid Jones, had the clear-eyed and old-fashioned idea that we would get a good sense of the poem if, before we did anything else to it, we read it aloud. So we took it in turns, in that sixth-form classroom in Ysgol Ardudwy, on the flat land below the Harlech Castle, to stumble and mutter and gabble our way through it all, while Miss Jones sat with arms comfortably folded on her desk, patiently helping us with pronunciation, but not encumbering us with meaning…

The experience of reading poetry aloud when you don’t fully understand it is a curious and complicated one. It’s like suddenly discovering that you can play the organ. Rolling swells and peals of sound, powerful rhythms and rich harmonies are at your command; and as you utter them you begin to realise that the sound you’re releasing from the words as you speak is part of the reason they’re there. The sound is part of the meaning and that part only comes alive when you speak it. So at this stage it doesn’t matter that you don’t fully understand everything: you’re already far closer to the poem than someone who sits there in silence looking up meanings and references and making assiduous notes…

John Milton’s Paradise Lost has been many things to many people — a Christian epic, a comment on the English Civil War, the epitome of poetic ambiguity — but it is first of all a pleasure to read.  Drawing on sources as varied as Wordsworth, Hitchcock, and Conan Doyle, author Philip Pullman (the author of many wonderful volumes, but most relevantly here, the His Dark Materials [Golden Compass] trilogy and the Book of Dust novels currently underway) considers the sonic beauty and expert storytelling of Milton’s masterpiece, and the shaping influence it has had on his own work: “The Sound and the Story: Exploring the World of Paradise Lost.

* Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1

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As we contemplate the celestial, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol— a novella he’d written over the prior six weeks– was formally published; it had been released to book stores and the public two days later.  The first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve, and the book continued to sell well through twenty-four editions in its original form.

Cover of the first edition

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Written by LW

December 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Wear these bright jewels, belovèd Beowulf; Enjoy them”*…

 

The first page of the Beowulf manuscript

Beowulf, the oldest surviving epic in British literature, exists in only one manuscript– a copy that survived both the wholesale destruction of religious artifacts during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and a disastrous fire which destroyed the library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631). The 3182-line poem, now housed in the British Library, still bears the scars of the fire, visible at the upper left corner of the photograph above. 

Beowulf was written in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) between 650 and 1000 in what we now know as England.  It recalls a golden age of valor and martial prowess via the adventures of a great Swedish warrior of the sixth century- Beowulf– who comes to the aid of the beleaguered Danes, saving them from the ravages of the monster Grendel and his mother.  In old age, and after many years of rule in his own country, Beowulf dies in the processof heroically slaying a dragon.

A great many translations are available, in both poetry and prose.  In his A Critical Companion to Beowulf, Andy Orchard lists 33 “representative” translations in his bibliography; it has been translated into at least 23 other languages.  Probably the best-known (and best-loved) current version is Seamus Heaney’s verse translation.  But surely the most-anticipated version is the translation completed in 1926– but never published– by J.R.R. Tolkein.

Tolkien’s academic work on the epic was second to none in its day; his 1936 paper “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” is still well worth reading, not only as an introduction to the poem, but also because it decisively changed the direction and emphasis of Beowulf scholarship.

Up to that point it had been used as a quarry of linguistic, historical and archaeological detail, as it is thought to preserve the oral traditions passed down through generations by the Anglo-Saxon bards who sang in halls such as the one at Rendlesham in Suffolk, now argued to be the home of the king buried at Sutton Hoo.Beowulf gives a rich picture of life as lived by the warrior and royal classes in the Anglo-Saxon era in England and, because it is set in Sweden and Denmark, also in the period before the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived on these shores. And, on top of the story of Beowulf and his battles, it carries fragments of even older stories, now lost. But in order to study all these details, academics dismissed as childish nonsense the fantastical elements such as Grendel the monster of the fens, his even more monstrous mother and the dragon that fatally wounds him at the end.

Likening the poem to a tower that watched the sea, and comparing its previous critics to demolition workers interested only in the raw stone, Tolkien pushed the monsters to the forefront. He argued that they represent the impermanence of human life, the mortal enemy that can strike at the heart of everything we hold dear, the force against which we need to muster all our strength – even if ultimately we may lose the fight. Without the monsters, the peculiarly northern courage of Beowulf and his men is meaningless. Tolkien, veteran of the Somme, knew that it was not. “Even today (despite the critics) you may find men not ignorant of tragic legend and history, who have heard of heroes and indeed seen them,” he wrote in his lecture in the middle of the disenchanted 1930s…

Read more of John Garth’s appreciation– and explore the influence of Beowulf on Middle Earth– in “JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf: bring on the monsters.”

And pre-order the translation (with a bonus story by Tolkein), available late next month, here.

* Beowulf

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As we grapple with our Grendels, we might recall that it was on this date in 1958 that Ezra Pound should no longer be held at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the criminally insane in Washington, D.C.  Pound has been imprisoned for 13 years, following his arrest in Italy during World War II on charges of treason.

Pound, a poet who was a major figure of the early modernist movement, was the developer of the “Imagist” school, and the “godfather” of a number of now-well-known contemporaries– among them,  T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway.  He was responsible for the 1915 publication of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the serialization from 1918 of Joyce’s Ulysses.

Deeply troubled by the carnage of World War I, Pound moved to Paris, then to Italy, and embraced the fascism of Benito Mussolini, whose policies he vocally supported; he was arrested by American forces in Italy in 1945.  While in custody in Italy, he had begun work on sections of The Cantos that became known as The Pisan Cantos (1948), for which he was awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1949 by the Library of Congress… setting off an enormous controversy.

His release in 1958 was the result of a campaign by writers including Archibald MacLeish, William Carlos Williams, and Hemingway.  Pound, who was believed to be suffering dementia, returned to Italy.

The best of Pound’s writing – and it is in the Cantos – will last as long as there is any literature.

-Ernest Hemingway

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Written by LW

April 18, 2014 at 1:01 am

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