Friday, December 10, 2010

Lycidas: Drowning Allusiveness

“Lycidas” is a poem I’ve been anticipating on my journey through Milton’s poems on the way to my real destination, Paradise Lost. It’s included in Bloom’s anthology of English poetry and he speaks very highly of it, calling it “the best poem of moderate length in English.” “Comus” was the first poem to really draw my attention, despite the reputation of “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” “Lycidas” is generating a progressively intensifying awe.

As it is a deeply allusive poem, I spent some time reading the sources—I’ve spent about two days reading sections of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, particularly the Orpheus sections of Books X,XI. (Actually, I’ve spent most of a day and a half going back and forth between different translations, trying to figure out what to stick with, and the balance on actually reading. Blech.) Here’s the thing about allusion in literature—knowing what is being alluded to is really of nominal value. Let me demonstrate.

Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,

His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,

Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge

Like to that sanguine flower> inscribed with woe.The Hyacinth

“Ah, who hath reft,” quoth he, “my dearest pledge?”

Apollo made this flower from the blood of his beloved Hyacinthus, whom he accidentally killed. The story is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 10.214–16. [Note borrowed from the Milton Reading Room]

Here we have two of the primary tools at the annotator’s disposal, the gloss, and the footnote. The gloss, “The Hyacinth,” identifies “that sanguine flower,” and so we think, “Great! It’s a hyacinth… So what?” But then we notice the footnote which gives us some context—just enough backstory to leave the reader feeling comfortable that he’s not totally lost. Reader comfort… that’s about it. It doesn’t bring the line to life, it merely demystifies it for us.

Now, read this:


“Phoebus himself was charmed by Hyacinthus,

And if the Fates had given him more time,

And space as well, Apollo would have placed him

Where stars break out in heaven. Anyhow,

The boy became immortal. Now as often

As spring rides down the frosted reign of winter,

And leaping Ram runs after diving Pisces,

Frail Hyacinthus rises from green earth.

My father loved the boy; he thought him sweeter

Than any living creature of his kind—

And Delphi, capital of sacred glory,

Was like a tomb, deserted by Apollo.

The god went ranging after boyish pleasures

And strolled suburban Sparta, field and river.

Bored with the arts of music and long bow,

He found distraction near his lover’s home.

Humble as any mountain guide or shepherd,

He carried bird nets, tended dogs and leashed them,

And joined the boy in day-long mountain climbing.

This native life stirred Phoebus’ appetite

And made the boy more charming now than ever.

When Phoebus-Titan came at noon, half way

Between grey morning and the evening’s pallor,

The lovers, naked, sleeked themselves with oil,

And stood at discus-throw. Phoebus came first,

And like a shot he whirled the disk midair

To cut a cloud in two. It disappeared;

It looked as if the thing had gone forever—

And eager to retrieve it, Hyacinthus

Ran out to meet it where it seemed to fall.

Then like a ricochetting wheel of fire,

It glanced a rock and struck the boy full face.

As pale as Death itself, the god rushed toward him,

To fold the shrinking creature in his arms,

To bind his broken features with sweet grasses,

To cure his ragged lips and sightless eyes.

But all of Phoebus’ healing arts were useless:

As in a garden, if one breaks a flower,

Crisp violet or poppy or straight lily

Erect with yellow stamens pointed high,

The flower wilts, head toppled into earth,

So bent the dying face of Hyacinthus,

Staring at nothingness toward breast and shoulder.

‘Even now, my child, your hour is passed, is run,’

Cried Phoebus, ‘and my hand your murderer,

And yet its crime was meeting yours at play.

Was that a crime? Or was my love to blame—

The guilt that follows love that loves too much?

You should have lived forever in my sight,

Your life well-earned, and my life given for it—

But this runs far beyond the laws of Fate,

Yet certain accents of your name shall echo

“Ai, Ai,” within the music of my lyre

And shall be printed letters on frail flowers.

And Ajax, hero of a time to come

Will wear a name that calls your name to mind.’

As God Apollo spoke his prophecies,

The blood that filled the grasses at his feet

Turned to a brighter dye than Tyrian purple,

And from its lips there came a lily flower,

And yet, unlike the silver-white of lilies,

Its colour was a tinted, pinkish blue.

Nor was this miracle enough for Phoebus;

He wrote the words ‘Ai, Ai’ across its petals,

The sign of his own grief, his signature.

And now, the very gentlemen of Sparta

Give honours to the memory of their son,

And like their ancestors, each year they gather

To make a feast on Hyacinthus day.”

The Metamorphoses, X.162–219.1

Of course you’re still missing pieces to really make sense of the line in context. Camus is a personification of the river running through Cambridge. The poem is an elegy which draws immediately from Virgil’s 10th Eclogue. The nominal subject of the poem is the mourning of a school mate turned priest who drowned in passage to Ireland en route to his first parish assignment—the real subject of the poem has to do with Milton, himself. But go ahead and re-read the lines I quoted above.

Next Camus, reverend sire, went footing slow,

His mantle hairy, and his bonnet sedge,

Inwrought with figures dim, and on the edge

Like to that sanguine flower inscribed with woe.

“Ah, who hath reft,” quoth he, “my dearest pledge?”

When I read “Like to that sanguine flower inscribed with woe,” I keenly remembered the ‘Ai, Ai,’ written in the petals—not only did I think of the story from the Metamorphoses, but I found myself re-experiencing the emotion of the passage on Hyacinth, as well. The best poetry is often difficult because highly allusive, but the allusiveness of the poem has the potential to overload the reader’s experience with many different remembered feelings and associations. Allusions are like playing on scent-memory. The student and the casual reader experience frustration and difficulty largely because they lack the poetic experience which the poem depends on to achieve its effect. Becoming an effective reader of poetry starts with building a broad familiarity with what’s already been written—the pleasure of poetry increases with maturity and experience. Which isn’t to say that it’s necessarily grueling and unenjoyable at the outset, but you must expect and accept the fact that as with all the best things in life, to get much out of it, you have to be willing to do the work and have patience.

  • Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Trans. Horace Gregory. New York: Signet Classic, 2009. Ebook.

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