One cannot help but compare Paradise Regained to Paradise Lost. Where one is long — a fully-developed epic in the classical mold — the other is short, its four books altogether comprising some 2000 lines. Where one uses its core narrative to sprawl across broader Christian mythology and theological themes — one asks of Paradise Lost, which is the first sin? Eve’s eating of the fruit? or Satan’s pride causing his Fall? — the other is taut and focused.
Paradise Regained comes from a brief narrative early in Luke mentioning that Jesus sojourned awhile in the wilderness and there was tempted by Satan. It develops less as an epic, then, and more as a dialogue in verse between the two, with Satan offering Jesus various temptations: first to get him to show his power by willing food into existence, and then a board wholesale, challenging Jesus’ fast; these transition into temptations of power, Satan offering Jesus first Parthia’s alliance, then Rome’s (whither Han China? one wonders); and lastly temptation of knowledge, with Satan offering Jesus the fruits of Hellenic philosophy. Jesus steadfastly refuses all.
Ultimately, as Satan gets increasingly desperate, he evinces his full power and attempts to gain by curse what he could not by subtle manipulation. Jesus rebuffs him, and Satan ultimately falls once again, thereby “regaining” Paradise.
Paradise Regained is frankly a stranger work than Paradise Lost. It depends entirely on the strength of Jesus’ and Satan’s characters: Satan is the same lovable antihero from Paradise Lost, while Jesus hardly resembles its Son (recall that Trinitarian belief equates Jesus with the Son of God). Jesus is portrayed as having been a bit of a shut-in throughout his childhood, and, though intelligent — Milton deploys the infantile narrative anecdote about child Jesus debating theology with Temple rabbis — prefers plainness.
Over and again in Paradise Regained, though, we see Satan missing the point. Jesus wanders in the wilderness and fasts because he hungers, but it’s not food he’s hungering for. Thus spreads hold no temptation for Jesus. He is promised David’s throne, but this throne is not merely a physical one; it is spiritual as well. Satan does not see this second dimension, and hence his temptation again falls flat. And at last, he tempts against surety with eternal argument.
At a certain level, Paradise Regained’s Satan shows — far better than Paradise Lost ever did — his weaknesses as a character. Pride may have caused his Fall there, but here, pride flat-out blinds him. He does not see; indeed, he cannot see, because he refuses to see.
But in the end, it begs the question. The world is not tangibly better than it was in 30 CE. Technological and societal advancement has balanced goods and ills. Sure, Romans practiced mass slavery and were a highly military society, and sure, we pay lip service today to liberty, but it’s hard to argue that things like climate change and WMDs are far worse swords of Damocles hanging over our heads than anything the Romans (or Milton) ever had to deal with.
But then, doesn’t that say I too miss the point? Paradise, for Milton, seems to be a state of mind. The Paradise lost was a literal paradise; the one regained, a metaphorical one, one of mind and spirit rather than body. One suspects Milton would have fit in swimmingly with the Gnostics or Cathars, had any been around in his day.
Much ink has been spilled over the years on John Milton’s grand twelve-book project, an epic retelling of the Christian Creation story. Paradise Lost’s source material is, of course, Genesis 1-3: the creation of Earth, the Garden of Eden, and the Fall of Man; in expanding three paltry Biblical chapters into a grand 10,000-line epic, Milton also included the myth of Satan’s Fall — his rebellion against God, his war in Heaven, and eventual defeat.
Pretty much every commentator on Paradise Lost has pointed out that Milton’s Satan is a far better, and more sympathetic, character than his God. (Indeed, stricto sensu, Satan is the protagonist — the change agent — and God the antagonist.)
Far be it from me to argue otherwise — he is — but I would also like to suggest a planning defect on Milton’s part perhaps makes his Satan more sympathetic than he should otherwise be. The first major character we meet in a story tends to be — short of being made Obviously Evil (TM) — the one us readers tend to find most sympathetic, while their opposition (usually the second major character introduced) is the least sympathetic.
Naturally, Milton’s God gets introduced when it comes time for the dragon’s dénouement, not so much the hero’s. Milton thus starts off handicapping himself.
Paradise Lost is more than just a poem; it’s a piece of theology. In seeking to “justify the ways of God to Man,” Milton is advancing an argument that tries to reconcile God an free will (note here free will is better reconciled in polytheistic conceptions of the cosmos). The problem is that in doing so, Milton creates a God who, in fact, willingly let evil into this world when He created it.
Such is characteristic of the Gnostic Demiurge, and of course in Demiurgic theology, the Creator of this world is quite evil, and it a prison. Christ was sent to free mankind from — an observation which both validates William Empson’s critique of the poem and sets up an interesting tension within the text itself, where the Son is seated at God’s right hand.
(These difficulties resolve with pantheistic or panentheistic conceptions of the cosmos, but these are at odds with Milton’s God.)
Pointing out Satan’s strength as a character, however, and God’s weakness, is fairly boilerplate in readings and reviews of Paradise Lost. Much more interesting is the way Milton develops the text itself.
John Milton was the best-read man of his time, his generation’s Jorge Luis Borges, fluent in Greek and Latin, and a pan-continental traveler, both in his youth and as part of England’s civil service; he certainly had read his epics, not just the Greek and Latin ones but Spenser’s Elizabethan efforts and probably the Italian ones too. So it is strange to note that Paradise Lost develops almost exclusively in terms of long monologues — a format that, while it occurs in classical epic, is not fundamental to it the way it is to Milton’s epic.
Book I is nearly entirely a long exhortation by Satan; more than half of Book II by demonic council; Book III sees God speak with his Son, observing Satan’s movements; Book IV sees yet another Satanic monologue, by which he reveals himself to Uriel; Books V and VI are nearly all Raphael’s retelling of the war in Heaven; VII, Creation; and VIII, his discourse on the cosmos; XI and XII have Michael providing Adam a vision of the future. The poem’s action — such as it is — is compressed almost entirely into Books IX and X.
This list concords well with Camões’ Lusiads, yet the sense of monologue is much subdued in his effort — perhaps because da Gama’s narrative, which forms the core of it, comes off more like Odysseus’ tale to Alcinous, whereas Raphael’s discourse to Adam feels more episodic and fragmented (especially the superfluous-feeling eighth book).
It is also worth noting that Milton seems to struggle somewhat at depicting war; graphic depictions of warfare are a staple of classical epic, yet Milton’s account of Satan’s rebellion seems to be lacking a certain … je ne sais quois.
In fact, in its dependence on long monologue and preoccupation with philosophy, Paradise Lost reminds me of nothing so much as Jean de Meun’s continuation of The Romance of the Rose. And — despite their volubility — unlike de Meun’s, apart from Satan, Milton’s characters come off quite flat.
Like several other names in Tolkien’s The Hobbit,Mirkwood comes from Old Norse sources, specifically those of the Elder Edda. In truth, The Hobbit, with its Eddaic allusions, is unusual in Tolkien, who preferred to allude to features found elsewhere in his legendarium.
As a consequence, the Lord of the Rings’ writing was in part an arc welding linking the original standalone tale of Bilbo Baggins with the vast Silmarillion arc, and in this way, a fairly boilerplate conception of Dwarves passed into Tolkien’s legendarium (e.g. the Durin’s Folk epithet for Dwarves is derived from the Völuspá specifically, and the whole of Tolkienesque ringlore parallels Germanic sources).*
Like Neil Gaiman, Tolkien’s skill at integrating Old Norse materials into his own literature was unparalleled (see e.g. Mr. Wednesday and Low-Key Lyesmith in American Gods), and The Hobbit’s Mirkwood is an extension thereof. In that book it presents a boundary, one of two Bilbo must pass on his route from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain (the other being the Misty Mountains). In a sense, much more so than the Misty Mountains episode, Mirkwood represents passing to the ends of the earth. This — as Tolkien was well aware — is well founded in Germanic mythology, which implies Mirkwood is at or close to the edge of Midgard:
Mirkwood is not an invention of mine, but a very ancient name, weighted with legendary associations. It was probably the Primitive Germanic name for the great mountainous forest regions that anciently formed a barrier to the south of the lands of Germanic expansion. (source)
As time passed on, the term Mirkwood became used more generally, almost always** in the context of boundary forests — for example, between Burgundians and Huns, and later even the Sea of Azov, where it’s implied to be the boundary between Goths and Huns. Other uses of “Mirkwood” include the Ore Mountains — which remain the boundary between Germany and the Czech Republic — and Kolmården — the historical boundary between early Sweden and Geatland prior to the formation of united Sweden.
However, what is of note here is that the term Mirkwood seems to have originated as a term that described the forests forming the southern boundary of Germanic lands. Murky (a modern reflex of mirk) “was never, I think, a mere ‘color’ word … and was from the beginning weighted with the sense of ‘gloom’,” according to Tolkien (ibid.), and yet these connotations of gloominess and darkness, of impenetrability and impassibility, all seem to have derive from Mirkwood’s original and strongest use as a boundary forest.
So is such a forest unique to Germanic mythology? Conveniently enough, we know from the classical tradition of another major forest that formed the Mediterranean world’s northern boundary: the Hercynian Forest. While the geography of this forest was somewhat variable — occasionally but not always claimed to stretch to the Carpathians — Germany’s Black Forest, the largest remaining old-growth forest outside the taiga belt, formed the Hercynian’s southwesternmost extension.
While the Hercynian’s exact boundaries were never fixed — unsurprising since, as with Mirkwood, it seems to represent the edge of the known world — one thing all sources seem to agree on is that it formed the boundary between the Danube basin and basins further to the north (e.g. the northward-flowing river reference in Aristotle’s Meteorologica), pointing to it sprawling across Mittelgeburge’s broken terrain: indeed, the Thuringian, Bohemian, and (former) Bavarian forests were or are all reckoned to be Hercynian relicts.
Celts and the Boundary Forest
The argument I am making should now be becoming clear: the original Mirkwood and the Hercynian Forest refer to one and the same vast old-growth forest that stretched across Mitteleuropa through the classical period, one which sprawled across hills and low mountains and separated the Danube drainage from the rivers flowing into the North and Baltic seas. The role of the Hercynian as boundary becomes clearer still when we consider the upper Danube basin’s primary culture prior to the Roman period: the Celts, represented in the archaeological record as the La Tène complex.
Celtic migration into Europe almost certainly went primarily up the Danube. The Thracians, thought to be a Celtic people, are therefore a relict people who stayed around the lower Danube’s mouth. Bronze Age Celtic culture is represented by the Hallstatt complex, and Iron Age Celtic culture by La Tène.
La Tène itself was centered in modern Switzerland, a region that has always been a crossroads of Europe — even in a time before the Gotthard and Lötschberg base tunnels, Switzerland offered easy passage between the uppermost courses of the Danube, Rhine, and Rhône rivers and therefore control over these trade routes. The La Tène peoples, in particular, spread up and down the Rhine and Rhône and into Gaul, where they were known as such by the Romans.
However, though they exploited the Ore Mountains (hence their name) they did not extend much past the Mittelgeburge as a whole; indeed, the very name Hercynian derives from a Hellenization of the forest’s Celtic name. It is thus a toponym of indisputably La Tène origins, and from a Celtic perspective the Hercynian provided a valuable natural boundary between them and the warlike Germanic peoples further to the north.
(Which, incidentally, suggests that the term Muspelheim — land of the fire giants — almost certainly referred to a Germanic conception of someplace in Mediterranean antiquity. It may reflect a vague knowledge of the Sahara, or perhaps allude to the Roman Empire’s proto-industrial might.)
One also begins to suspect now that the allusions to magic associated with Mirkwood are Germanic reflections of druidic practice, as the Hercynian Forest was more than just the Celtic world’s northern edge: it was heavily inhabited by the Celts themselves, and the La Tène culture represents the first concerted effort to colonize the forest, a thinning which may well have inspired Germanic tribes to push through Mirkwood into the Mediterranean world beyond.
Slavs and the Boundary Forest
Celts were not the only people in contact with Germanic peoples in the region. The Slavs did not start developing into a major European people until quite late — a fact preserved in Slavic languages’ lack of significant divergence. In fact, the early Slavic people seem to have occupied a region spreading between the Carpathian Mountains and Pripyat Marshes,*** a sort of natural cul-de-sac between the route into the North European Plain across the Muscovite steppe and the one into the Wallachian Plain from the Ukrainian steppe and the routes into Greece and Illyria and up the Danube from there. Much like the kindred Baltic peoples further to the north, the proto-Slavs appeared to have plopped down and stayed in one place — for some four thousand years.
That all changed when the Fire Nation attacked with Gothic expansion. The early Goths may have come from Götaland, an island just off eastern Sweden (although it seems to me more likely that Goth and Geat are parallel reflexes of the same root), but by late antiquity, they formed the southernmost Germanic tribes. Several of their members — the Visigoths, Lombards, Burgundians, and Vandals — were instrumental in the decline and fall of Rome, while a separate group migrated along the base of the Carpathians all the way to the Crimean Peninsula. It is this latter group that most of our knowledge of Gothic (from a Bible translation, of course) comes from.
(It is worth pointing out here that Old Norse traditions about Mirkwood, if they do indeed derive from the Hercynian Forest, would necessarily have to have been of Gothic origin.)
Needless to say, a southeastern Gothic migration through the region between the Carpathians and the Pripyat Marshes would have dislodged our Proto-Slavic speakers. Slav in many modern European languages is related to slave, and before even the Muslim sultans’ habit of building (mostly Slavic, naturally) slave armies, Slavs were routinely captured and made slave labor by early Germanic groups. With a bunch of warlike Gothic savages overwhelming the old Slavic heartland, then, the Slavs would likely have dispersed into three groups — one disappearing into the Carpathian forests that formed their homeland’s western boundary, one into the Pripyat marshes to the north, and one racing down the Thracian littoral ahead of the Goths.
Indeed, when one looks at southern Slavic language distribution, one gets a sense of defensiveness — southern Slavs avoided the Wallachian and Pannonian plains (occupied by Dacians? Huns?) entirely and spread into the Thracian (Bulgaria), Macedonian, and Illyrian (Serbian, Bosniak) mountains and even the Alps (Croats, Slovenes). A need for fortification and refuge in mountains as natural fortification would be concomitant with a sense of shattered homeland. Similarly, one gets a sense the earliest West Slavic distribution occurred in the Carpathians and westward extensions first and foremost — the Slovaks, for example, still inhabit rugged land south of the Tatras’ crest.
So is there the same sense of a “boundary forest” in Slavic languages? I have no idea; I know very little of the Slavic mythic tradition. But the West Slavs descending from forest peoples associated with the Carpathians seems a fairly natural consequence of a Gothic migration that would have inevitably run straight through the original Slavic homeland.
Goths and Mirkwood
It is from the Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks that we get the clearest idea of where the Goths were during that time: here we see references to the “Hervaðafjöll” — suggested by Tolkien and Jackson Crawford, for example, to be the Carpathians — to a river “Danpar” (usually believed to be the Dniepr), and to a “Mirkwood” thought to form the boundary between Gothic and Hunnic territories — a usage exactly cognate with nearly every other reference to “Mirkwood” in the Old Norse literature,** as well as the Celtic Hercynian Forest.
This Mirkwood is often thought to be in the region of the Maeotian Marshes — a vast stretch of tidal wetland along the Sea of Azov, which was itself called the “Maeotian Lake” or “Sea” in antiquity, which, strangely enough, puts it on the opposite side of the Ostrogothic kingdom as the Carpathians, which, if we recall Hercynian lore, that forest may or may not have extended into. (Pliny, for example, thinks it did.)
Also of interest is the site of Heidrek’s death: Harvaða, or Horvatya — a “White Croatia”, an indisputably Slavic name, and one riven with implications, including, perhaps, that this “White Croatia” may well have referred to the original Slavic homeland.
This Mirkwood is perhaps the best-developed of all the Old Norse references to that name, as in the exchange between Hlöd and Angantyr, Hlöd, Angantyr’s half brother by a Hunnic slave, demands half the kingdom (including half the Carpathians and half of Mirkwood); Angantyr declines, offering a much smaller portion, which Hlöd finds unacceptable, and this precipitates war between the Goths and the Huns. Several known historical battles have been proposed to be the basis of this war, none particularly convincingly.
In the end, though, if the Huns, during the saga’s timeframe, were located east of the Sea of Azov, then they must have, under Attila,**** migrated through the Ostrogothic kingdom on their way into the Danube Valley, where they began harrying Rome.
* One greatly helped by the fact that parts of the Silmarillion were already retellings of Germanic myths. The whole saga of Túrin Turambar, for example, is derived from the Saga of the Volsungs.
** The lone exception I can think of is from the Völundarkviða (“Lay of Völund”) whose Mirkwood is strongly implied to be Finland.
*** If “Pripyat” seems familiar to you, it’s where Chernobyl’s located.
**** Attila was active against the Sassanid Empire, for example, well before his famous campaigns against the Romans. It seems unlikely, therefore, that he was a product of the Pannonian Basin. His people, however, seem to have settled there until they were displaced or incorporated into the Avars and later Magyars (that is, modern Hungarians).
A little while ago, I read Auden’s The Poetic Edda, a fascinating but slim volume that piqued my interest in the broader Elder Edda. It did not disappoint.
There are two parts to the Codex Regius, the manuscript that underlies the “Elder Edda”: a mythological section and a heroic one. A great deal of our knowledge of Norse paganism comes from the Codex’s mythological section, which is what Auden’s partial translation mostly drew from — poems like the Völuspá and Hávamál tell much of Odin’s exploits, several quite shady, and other works like För Skírnis, Lokasenna, and the Hymiskvida focus on the deeds of other gods; much of our knowledge of Old Norse mythology’s stronger characters, like Odin, Thor, and Loki can be drawn from these hundred or so pages.
Less well known, though, but no less impressive, is the Elder Edda’s second half — an extended retelling of the Sigurd cycle. The Codex Regius’ treatment of this cycle almost certainly represents an attempt at taking an oral tradition — songs associated with Sigurd — and putting it down in writing, just as Elias Lönnrot would do several centuries later with the Kalevala. As with the Finnish songs Lönnrot was working from, songs linked by prose redactions, the Elder Edda’s heroic half links its Sigurd cycle’s songs with prose redactions, whose brevity creates a poetic beauty in their own right.
Here we can find the major Norse Sigurd stories: his association with the dwarf Regin, his slaying of Fafnir, his encounter with the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa, his bizarre love triangle with Brynhild and Gudrún, and finally his death at Gudrún’s brothers’ hands. The saga then follows Gudrún and her dealings with her second husband, Attila the Hun, who she ultimately kills in their bed, and finally Jörmunrekk, who kills her daughter Svanhild and who she has her sons kill for the insult. We also have songs that tell us about the exploits of Sigmund’s other two sons, Sinfjötli and Helgi, though much of the Sigmund cycle that we find in the Völsunga saga is not attested here.
It’s beautiful, in that sparely beautiful way Nordic poetry is, with the constant transition between verse and prose setting up a hook pulling you through the story. High points, such as Helreid Brynhildar (“Brynhild’s Hel-Ride”), emphasize the characters’ pride and how actions dictated by their own pridefulness lead to their undoing; in another, the Grípisspá, we have Sigurd confronted by the workings of his own fate, and in this we see one of the great overarching Germanic themes, one that soaks Odin’s character through as well — a resoluteness, a grim determination in the face of one’s fate. Rarely do Germanic gods or heroes get happy endings.
For as strange and sometimes silly as the Sigurd cycle is — Fafnir’s blood, for example, gives Sigurd the ability to understand birds, well removed from its effects on Siegfried in the continental Nibelung saga — it continues to pique my interest. There’s something there, something rich coiled just below the surface, something utterly irresistible.
If you read: Andy Orchard’s translation is good and widely available. Dr. Jackson Crawford, who has a whole YouTube channel dedicated to Old Norse topics, also has a translation available (gift idea!), and beyond that, the old reliable standby Oxford World’s Classics has a translation courtesy Carolyne Larrington. Another translation that caught my eye comes courtesy Lee M. Hollander. Auden, of course, offers excellent (if slightly dated) translations of the Edda’s mythological part, but I’d rather read the thing and the whole of the thing.
In my “Art of Scansion” posts (here, here, here, and here), I mentioned Milton’s impact on English versification. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, respectively, are in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter that had theretofore been used mainly in drama (cf. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Lyly, Ben Jonson, Dekker, Kyd, et al.). So, naturally, when it came time for Milton to write a drama, he continued to experiment both in structure and format.
Samson Agonistes is the last of Milton’s three late masterpieces. Like the other two, he takes Biblical themes as his subject; like Paradise Lost, he applies a classical form to his Biblical theme. Here the form is of Greek drama, that of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, which would later be used by playwrights like Rome’s Seneca or France’s Corneille and Racine. Applying Aristotle’s poetic theory, Samson Agonistes is built around Judges 13-16 in general, and 16:23-30 in particular.
In doing so, Milton has to radically reanalyze Samson’s character, rewriting him from Judges’ rather daft musclehead with a serious Philistine-lady fetish to someone willing to do decidedly unheroic things like contemplate. His father Manoah has come to Gaza to ransom his release, and the play unfolds with a tension between the Israelites (Samson, Manoah, the Danite chorus) and the Philistines (Delilah and Harapha, identified as Goliath’s father).
First the Chorus, then Manoah, try to comfort Samson; after Manoah leaves in an attempt to beg Samson’s release, Delilah and Harapha come to heap invective on him, which Samson rebuffs, usually with threats of violence. Finally, Samson is summoned to appear before Gaza’s elders, after which Manoah reappears, bearing news of his mission’s fruitlessness.
As the Chorus tries to console him, we hear a commotion in the background; twice Manoah pauses and remarks on it. The first time —
What noise or shout was that? It tore the sky.
— is, in my opinion, Milton’s best individual line … There is a sense here that important events are happening just offstage.
Finally, at length, a messenger comes bearing news of the dénouement: Samson is dead, having brought down the temple of Dagon on himself and all of Gaza’s elders. So we have here — in a certain sense, a question that catches even the Chorus unawares — how Samson’s heroic death — in fact, a redemption from servitude by death — is tragic at all, much less tragic in the classical mold.
This is made more difficult when we realize Samson is not Judges 16’s most tragic character; Delilah — who Milton has had to make antagonist — is. The choice of love or money is a fundamentally tragic decision, and the choice of money over love an excellent example of hamartia, Aristotle’s much-vaunted “heroic flaw”.
(That said, Milton, like most Christian writers, denies the tragedy by denying Delilah love.)
Rectifying this issue is Milton’s fundamental problem with Samson’s character. To that end, he calls his Samson “Agonistes” — a rough translation would be Samson “the agonizer,” somebody who’s been brought to contemplation because they’re agonizing within themselves over a choice. Well then, what can that choice be? The dénouement — Samson’s death — informs us: the question, as it is in Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, is one … of suicide.
Oh, the other characters may sugarcoat it, but there is no question that Samson knew, as he marched through that door into Dagon’s temple, that what he was planning on doing would result in his own end as well. This is, without a doubt, the unspoken question Samson is agonizing over for the play’s first half: he wants to live.
He wants to live yet when the officer first tries to summon him to Dagon’s temple for the feast. It is only after the Chorus cajoles him otherwise, and the officer reappears with a more insistent message, that Samson makes up his mind, saying
If there be aught of presage in the mind,
This day will be remarkable in my life
By some great act, or of my days the last.
It is in this moment that Samson confronts his destiny.
But this still begs the question: what is, fundamentally, the tragedy of Samson Agonistes? We need a weakness of character — Delilah’s greed, for example, or Creon’s hubris — or a horrific choice put before a character, as was to Orestes. Samson has shown neither. Agonizing over a deed likely to result in one’s death may have been a failing for Beowulf, say, or Gilgamesh or Roland, but it would have hardly been so for Milton, much less us! And one can well argue that Samson was doomed to be brought before Dagon’s temple this day anyway, which rather renders moot the whole question of why he agonizes so much over it!
The best solution I can come up with is that the hamartia’s the Chorus’s; willingly accepting one’s fate works in a pagan warrior society, but not a Christian one. (Recall here that the drama is draped in Milton’s Christian sensibility.) By convincing Samson to go to his doom willingly, the Danites ensure his death (albeit one with dignity). Or perhaps the point Milton wishes to make is Samson’s tragedy is one of circumstances — that the real tragedy is his love of Philistine women, one which nearly brought him to his doom once and did the second time around.
Samson Agonistes is much freer in versification than any equivalent work of the period. While Milton (mostly) maintains the iambic beat, line lengths vary from two beats to six, with most having four or five beats. He even seems to use metric rigidity as a subtle means of characterization: where undecided Samson and consoling Chorus are more metrically free, Delilah and Harapha, iron-solid in their certitude, are more metrically rigid.
It is not quite free verse the way Eliot’s plays, for example, would be, but it is way ahead of his contemporaries — the Frenchman, Jean Racine, for example, developed his plays with rigid alexandrine couplets.
It is quite possible the worldly and well-read Milton knew of Racine’s work. In his introduction to the Miltonic triumvirate, Richard Eberhart tells of a Dartmouth production of Samson Agonistes whose producer found it closer in form to a Racine — Athalie, say — than e.g. Aeschylus. Despite being a “closet drama”, he closes with — I am paraphrasing here — it is meant to be performed.
Since I rebooted this blog some 2-and-a-half months ago, we’ve gone through a lot of books. Classical epics. Medieval epics. A medieval verse romance. Even a novel or two. We’ve also taken good hard looks at poetry, at “The Idea of Order at Key West” and “Ozymandias”, and at scansion; and finally, we’ve done a deep(er) dive on The Name of the Rose, where we explored some of myriad works Eco alludes to in his masterpiece.
I’d like to do something different. There are several books I want to read that I’m finding hard to acquire — mostly due to the fact that my ability to do so only extends to what Project Gutenberg has a downloadable copy of or my library has available in its stacks. Some of these are books I used to own, but do not anymore. Others are books I’ve only recently come across. But these are books that the library does not have circulation copies of, so I must either ransack the used bookstores and thrift stores looking for copies, or bite the bullet and order from Amazon.
My main project over the last several months has been reading narrative poetry, a form near and dear to my heart. To that end, I’ve read — as of writing this — the Aeneid, Pharsalia, Thebaid, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Song of Roland, Song of my Cid, Lusiads, Romance of the Rose, and Eugene Onegin; however, I’m finding several other texts challenging to acquire — either because I want a specific text, or because the library doesn’t have any available.
Some books I want to read I’m having a hard time yet finding:
The Oxford Kalevala. The library doesn’t have a copy available; I used to own this edition several years ago but never read it. It is the Kalevala I want to read. Badly.
The Nibelungenlied. Not only does the library only have one copy in its stacks — in prose — it’s marked Library Use Only. It’s actually hard to find a verse translation in English, and I have no idea why. Burton Raffel has one — and so does one Frank Ryder.
The Kalevipoeg, which currently has no English translation.
Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, which is not available in the library. After spending a half an hour perusing Amazon, I think Johnston’s translation might be best.
Martín Fierro, referred to both by Borges and Pynchon (in Gravity’s Rainbow).
Torquato Tasso’s Jersulaem Delivered, which strangely fell out of favor during the Romantic period despite being proto-Romantic in emotional strength.
Nikos Kazantzakis’ Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, which may well be the most ambitious heroic poem in any Western language over the last century.
Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which for some strange reason my library doesn’t seem to have a copy of.
Silius Italicus’ Punica, which the Loeb Classical Library offers a two-volumetranslation of. Punica is, like the Thebaid the Aeneid’s, the Pharsalia’s lesser-known cousin — note that if Loeb is the best option that means there are no verse translations whatsoever available.
On that note, Petrarch’s Africa, which, despite being his magnum opus, has long languished in translation. Bergin and Alice’s is, for example, out of print.
Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, another largely-forgotten classical epic. The Loeb Classical Library has a three-volumeprosetranslation (par for their course).
James Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian, the major anthology of his Ossian cycle. Macpherson is a fascinating character, and while his own “translation” work was largely a hoax, it inspired Elias Lönnrot’s authentic efforts to preserve and anthologize Finnish song-cycles in his Kalevala.
The Penguin anthology of Middle English Verse.Frankly I would have favored something akin to Williamson’s complete anthology of Old English verse, but the Middle English corpus is much larger than Old English and (as Lydgate’s Book of Troy above demonstrates) not as well plumbed at all.
Of course, this list is only a start. There’s a whole vast universe of world literature that I haven’t even begun to plumb. Right now my interest lies with the West, but in time I also wish to work my way through Arabic, Persian, Indian and East Asian literature, in particular China’s Four Classic Novels and Japan’s Tale of Genji. If at all possible I would also like to find various pieces of Turkish literature, etc etc ad infinitum.
My library got destroyed a couple of years ago, and my plan, when I stabilize myself again, is to rebuild it. It should not be at all a surprise that classic and ancient literature will be a prominent part of my library, when in the fullness of time it gets fully realized … The works of old have long been one of my great and overriding passions.
Want to know something curious about the Roman epic? The two best-known — Virgil’s Aeneidand Lucan’s Pharsalia(the latter reads more like a historical verse novel if we take Borges’ understanding of the epic) were never finished. Virgil was about three years of polishing away from finishing the Aeneid, by his estimation, when he croaked; Lucan was forced to commit suicide by Nero well before he’d even finished a rough draft of all twelve of Pharsalia’s books.
The Thebaid — Statius’ masterpiece — is perhaps the only complete Virgilian epic we have. It is a retelling of the Seven Against Thebes story, one where he rearranges the whole seven champions-seven gates deelio in order to focus on the Argive heroes one at a time. Here, we have Seven Against Thebes conceived not so much as a singular battle or perhaps a siege but rather a unified campaign, one which starts going south for the Argives from the get-go.
The story starts when Oedipus’ brother-sons, Eteocles and Polynices, agree to share power in Thebes, alternating every other year. Eteocles wins the lottery and so becomes king the first year. But he refuses to give up his seat to his brother and in so doing provokes Polynices to war. Fraternal strife abounds: a hatred between competing brothers, one egged on by a gleeful Tisiphone, invoked by Oedipus when he learnt of Jocasta’s identity and tore out his eyes.
Aided by his father-in-law, Adrastus, king of Argos, Polynices assembles five other champions — Tydeus, whom he met on Adrastus’ doorstep while taking shelter in a storm and proceeded to fight; Amphiaraus (a most difficult name to pronounce — in the end I settled on “am-FIRE-AE-iss”),* Adrastus’ friend and augur; Hippomedon, who related material tells is us related to Adrastus; Capaneus, a brash atheist with a bad case of wrong genre savvy; and Atalanta’s son Parthenopaeus, an adolescent doing adolescent things (only these involve swords and battles).
The resulting war — considered the largest seen in Greece to that time — prefigures the Trojan War’s first half, as all of the Seven Against Thebes, save Adrastus alone, meet their fates in various gruesome ways at the gates of Thebes; in the end, the conflict is decided by single combat between Polynices and Eteocles, a combat which results in each brother killing the other and the Theban throne passing to the flabbergasted and mourning Creon (whose own son had leapt from Thebes’ tallest tower just the other day, convinced he was sacrificing himself to Apollo).
In his introduction, Charles Stanley Ross says the Thebaid’s main theme is one of delay — an implicit theme in Homer (where, in the Iliad, Achilles’ rage delays the Trojan War’s conclusion, and in the Odyssey, Poseidon’s wrath and Circe and Calypso’s affections delay Odysseus’ return home) and Virgil (where Juno’s obsessive hatred of the Trojans delays Aeneas’ founding of a new home at Lavinium). Delay is certainly here — and it is a theme Statius calls our attention to, with the Seven Against Thebes not even being fully arrayed until a good four years after Eteocles’ attempted assassination of Tydeus, and the march from Argos to Thebes delayed by drought, by digression, and eventually by funeral games. But while delay is a transparent theme, Statius also adds others.
Piety, for example. “Piety” in Statius’ time was more than just the sense of faithfulness the modern word entails. One of the reasons Virgil chose to use Aeneas as his hero was because Aeneas was, of all of the Greek and Trojan heroes, the most “pious” — the most dutiful, that is, to his responsibilities; indeed, there’s a fair argument to be had that one of the Aeneid’s main themes is Virgil finding out how far his hero can go before losing that sense of duty; Turnus’ end is hardly “pious” on Aeneas’ part.
In the Thebaid, though, quite literally a civil war of brother against brother, piety’s presence is felt by her wholesale absence, and in its place, reckless hubris. Hubris prompts Eteocles to renege on his oath and not yield his seat to Polynices at the appointed time; hubris prompts Capaneus to — fatally — challenge Jupiter; hubris — insulting Ismenos while standing in his own damn river — yields Hippomedon’s undoing; and ultimately Polynices’ and Eteocles’ mutual hubris results in their deaths before the gates of Thebes. Indeed, virtue and duty — whose personifications pointedly abandon the field in Books 10 and 11, respectively — aren’t restored to Thebes until Theseus intervenes in Book 12.
There’s a third theme underpinning the epic, too — that of our relationship with our dooms. All across the Thebaid we have actions pointedly in spite of a menagerie of evil portents, denial and downplaying of ill omens, and a question raised: Are the Seven Against Thebes going to Thebes because of their own hubris, believing their wills superior to the gods’, or because they must, because, despite their expedition’s heavily-foreshadowed failure, that’s what they must do?
Amphiaraus is the exemplar of the latter option. He is well aware he is fated to die at Thebes — his death is the first and most spectacular of the Seven’s — yet he goes anyway, not out of a sense of contending against the gods’ will (as Capaneus does) but rather out of a sense of duty. Of all of the Thebaid’s major characters, Amphiaraus alone seems to even have a sense of piety — and it is for this reason that Amphiaraus’ death is the most tragic, and why Statius uses his death early in the campaign to accelerate the sense of everything going wahooni-shaped that hovers over the epic’s later books.
What’s particularly interesting here, and also considering Statius’ later project, the Achilleid (which he was only partway into the second book of when he died), is that this sense of conflict between fate and duty is not a particularly Greek theme — the Greeks were more interested in pride, hence hubris — nor particularly Roman — the Romans can seem, at times, almost disinterested in the workings of fate, as Cato is in the Pharsalia, when he refuses to consult the oracle of Jupiter-Ammon in Libya, but rather Germanic. The conflict between doom and duty drives the whole Völsunga saga, for example, especially Sigurd’s character, one caught between the binds of revealed fate (cf. Grípisspá) and his duty to realize that fate. Amphiaraus is an augur favored by Apollo; his fate has been revealed to him. Much as he would like to fight it, his sacred duty is instead to realize it.**
Germanic slaves were in vogue in the Empire. It would not surprise me if Statius was able to procure a skald.
If you read: Jane Wilson Joyce (2008), A.D. Melville (1990), and Charles Stanley Ross (2004) have all offered recent verse translations of the Thebaid. While Ross has his moments — I particularly liked
Night intervened. It stopped their bickering (III.677),
his overall poetry is mediocre. This tercet
His vacant eyes upturned, this wretch displays
his punishment and misery. His blood-
stained hands strike empty depths. Voice hoarse, he prays: (I.53)
is an example of the more problematic elements of Ross’s poesy — in particular, the unnecessary mid-word line break blood- / stained. In general, Ross comes across as aggressively mediocre. When I start assembling my library, I think I’ll get Joyce’s translation instead.
D.R. Shakleton Bailey also offers a prose translation for that old standby, the Loeb Classical Library.
* Note that this name may be either four or five syllables. If five, it can fit in iambic meter; if four, it cannot.
** Cf. also Beowulf’s fate at the end of his eponymous epic, where he fights the dragon despite knowing he is doomed to die to it.