Category Archives: nonfiction

Homosexuality in the “Divine Comedy”

One of the Divine Comedy‘s most shocking moments, as Anthony Esolen points out in his introduction to Inferno, is when Dante meets his mentor, Brunetto Latini, in the seventh circle of Hell, with those who are sexually violent against God — traditionally given as the Sodomites.

To understand the context of this scene, Brunetto Latini was Dante’s mentor in his youth and adolescence, and at the time, his — Latini’s, that is — Books of the Treasury and its digest, the Tesoretto or “Little Treasury” were both one of Dante’s major sources and, in the mold of Saint Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiaesomething of an encyclopedia of the era. Yet, despite the affection Dante regularly shows Brunetto, he places him in Hell. Why?

The argument has long gone that Brunetto’s place on the Seventh Circle shows him an unrepentant sodomite, and in Dante’s encounter with him, Brunetto points out others like him: “[Pedagogue] Priscian”, “Francis d’Accorso”, and, elliptically, the bishop Andrea da Mozzi, transferred from Florence to Vicenza due to a sodomy scandal. In his notes, Esolen notes that a medieval pedagogue was a teacher of schoolboys — and the third character Brunetto names is a cleric mired in scandal and moved to a new city. (Sound familiar?) The middle doesn’t quite fit as much: d’Accorso was apparently a professor of law during the period — perhaps Dante was aware of certain infidelities?

A reading of just the Inferno raises no questions. But when we read the Purgatorio, we find that, on the seventh circle of the Mount of Purgatory, where sins of lust are cleansed, half of the souls move about the circle clockwise and the other half counterclockwise, depending on, well, whose team one’s lust batted for. In other words, the Purgatorio presents homosexuality as a common affliction of mankind, with perhaps as many as half of all people affected by it.

It goes further, though: high on the Mount of Purgatory, on the terrace of gluttony, Dante meets his old blackguard, close friend, and brother-in-law Forese Donati. A sonnet cycle between Dante and Forese Donati, the Tenzoneexists, one which, if taken as authentic (naturally there’s debate on the topic, but I see no reason why not), greatly informs the interaction between the two in Purgatorio.

Dante and Forese were close, to put it mildly. Very, very close. In Purgatorio, Forese Donati says he owes his position on the terrace of gluttony — far, far higher than, for example, Dante’s slothful friend Farinata (who has yet to make it past so-called “Ante-Purgatory) — to the fervid prayers of his wife, a wife he neglected in life in favor of, ahem, antics with Dante. Why would the closeness between Forese and Dante be contrasted to the chilliness between him and his wife? The contrast seems more than just amicable.

The exchange is further a parallel of the one between Dante and Brunetto back on the Seventh Circle of Hell (as Durling and Martinez point out in their translation). It’s not spelled out, precisely, but the implication is clear: the antics Dante got up to with Forese were of a kind of the antics Brunetto got up to that landed him down on the Seventh Circle. Despite damning Brunetto, thus, Dante needs to believe that homosexuality in itself is a redeemable sin.

Herein lies the problem: the Seventh Circle is beyond the gates of Dis, and in the geography of Inferno, the gates of Dis represent the boundary between venal and mortal sin, where venial sin is redeemable — each terrace of the Mountain of Purgatory is dedicated to the purgation, or cleansing, of a venial sin — while mortal sin is not. Hence Dante is telling us, in Inferno, that sodomy is a mortal sin while at the same time telling us in Purgatorio that homosexuality is a venial sin (and, as a sin of lust, the least “sinful” of sins, so to speak, on top of that).

Dante is forcing us to draw a contrast between sodomy and homosexuality — one most commentators ignore. If homosexuality is a sin of lust, then most of the homosexuals in Hell should be found in the first circle, just as there are two groups on the seventh terrace of Purgatory, homosexual and heterosexual. By contrast, Dante is accusing Brunetto Latini not of a sin of lust but rather of violence against God. This, Purgatorio tells us, cannot be mere homosexuality. Sodomy is something far worse.

Recalling here who Brunetto was found with — the “pedagogue” Priscian, as Esolen identifies him in his translation, and the disgraced bishop Andrea da Mozzi — and Brunetto’s history with Dante, we can start to divine what it is, exactly, sodomy is. The lustfulness of sodomy is not what makes it mortal and therefore unredeemable; the violence is. The sin being punished on the Seventh Circle is not homosexuality, I would argue, but rape (in particular, pederastic rape).

Brunetto Latini was Dante’s mentor at a very impressionable age, and Latini was among the most well-read men in Florence at the time. He was almost certainly aware of Plato’s dialogues (in translation), and in at least two of these dialogues — the Charmides and Symposium — Plato, through Socrates, defends the Ancient Greek practice of pedagogic pederasty. So why do we find Brunetto in the same circle of Hell with a bishop whose scandal seems all-too-typical in our day and age, and a grammarian obliquely accused of being lustful towards schoolboys? Because Brunetto’s sin — a sin Dante must have been intimately aware of — wasn’t just homosexuality: it was forcing himself upon a minor in his charge.

Dante goes out of his way in Purgatorio to establish that homosexuality is not unnatural, that homosexuality in and of itself is not the same as sodomy, and because of this he is, obliquely, telling us what Brunetto Latini’s real sin is, the sin that damned him to the Seventh Circle of Hell: Brunetto Latini raped boys. Specifically, Dante.

Dante’s “Inferno”

bertram-de-born.jpglargeDante’s Divine Comedy was the first great trilogy in all of literature. In this trilogy, Dante, accompanied by Virgil, Statius, and eventually his beloved Beatrice, descend into the very pit of Hell, ascend the mountain of Purgatory, and finally reach the heavens. At exactly 100 cantos long and as densely packed with allusions as anything by John Milton, including to itself, the Comedy as a whole is one of the fattest, richest, and most impenetrable major works a reader can breach.

Fortunately, it’s divided into three major parts, or “canticles”, of which the Inferno is the first.

We first meet Dante, a despairing poet very near death, in a harsh dark wood below a mountain, confronted by three beasts (representing his principal vices), where none other than the great Virgil, his own Muse of craft, hails him, shoos the beasts away, and tells him his beloved Beatrice has ordained a pilgrimage of the afterlife for him. Just her name exerts a mesmerizing hold on Dante, and he gladly follows his long-gone mentor … straight into the great yawning pit of Hell.

Here the Comedy begins in force. Once we’ve passed the gates of Hell, with their famous inscription ending Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here, and cross the Acheron, Dante finds himself in Limbo, the pleasantest region of all Hell, what Virgil understood as the Elysian Fields in life, and home to unbaptized babies and virtuous pagans, gentiles, Muslims, and such (Averroes and Saladin, for example, both show up here).

Once we leave Limbo’s Rivendell, we begin to witness the punishments not just of souls who were never blessed to begin with (on account of not being Christian) but were, in fact, damned, damned for living in sin and never repenting. And the deeper into Hell we go, the worse the punishments become.

We begin by witnessing the punishment of those given over to lust, those conquered by the thralldom of erotic love, implying this is the least despicable and hence least severe of the punishments we will witness. From there, we quickly drop through the other fairly common vices (avarice, wrath, and such), until we reach the gates of Dis, the great City of Hell (which prefigured Milton’s Pandemonium).

There, Virgil is stopped by demons who refuse to open the gate — until, that is, an angel descends and forcibly opens the gate for our pilgrims, reminding us that the pilgrims are blessed from on high, and no matter where in the Universe they make their stronghold (though, of course, Milton’s prideful Lucifer would have us believe otherwise), demons are powerless against the will and grace of God. It is then that we pass from the sins of body to those of the heart, the more severe and severely-punished transgressions.

As we descend deeper and deeper into Hell, we find the boneyard wood of the suicides, one of the creepiest settings ever imagined, and then Dante’s own mentor being punished for unnatural sexual transgression (very definitely homosexuality, and one wonders perhaps pederasty even more so). And eventually we find the comical realm of Malebolge (“evil bags”), home of the fraudulent, of those who give false counsel, and so on.

Dante’s passage through Malebolge is the funniest and most entertaining part of the Inferno, where the demons charged with enforcing the sinners’ punishment so often end up just punishing themselves instead, but all good things must come to an end, and as we go deeper into the blank pit of Tartarus we find the chained giants and eventually, at the very center of things, the frozen wasteland of Cocytus, where those guilty of betrayal — first against kin, then nation — are punished.

And in the center, in Judecca, the land of realm of Judas, we find Satan himself, a perverse anti-Trinity constantly chewing on (in Dante’s view) the three greatest betrayers in human history: Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar, and Judas, who betrayed Christ (one is reminded of the professor who went stark raving mad, announcing he would serve his master Judas in Hell, from Borges’ “Three Visions of Judas”).

This Hell is hardly the fiery furnace featured in most popular depictions of the place. Cocytus is, instead, literally ice-cold, bleakly icy because, at the center of the Earth, it is quite literally the furthest from God one can exist in the cosmos. In fact, shockingly little of Hell features that characteristic fire — Dante excels at imagery and at fitting punishment to the crime, making the punishment a grotesque parody of the crime, and so, for example, the suicide who would wish to efface themself from this Earth finds themself effaced as a tree just beyond the fiery Phlogiston in Hell, or those who sought to deceive with flowery words find themselves stuck, for all eternity, in a pit filled with shit.

Perhaps the biggest reason Inferno has the most staying power of all the Comedy is because of its schadenfreude. The Divine Comedy is an immensely complex work — more than just a tour of the afterlife, a commentary on Dante’s politics and philosophy, and in the Inferno we see deliciously apt punishments dished out to those the great poet thought were destroying Italy. We have Farinata, who disbelieved the soul lived after death, cursed with the weight of his own existence; and just as picturesquely, we have Ruggieri and Ugolino deep in Cocytus’ Antenora region, both betraying the other, both betraying Pisa, both betraying Italy. We have this wealth of stories offered by the damned, almost always stories justifying their actions in life (for, remember, damnation is reserved for the unrepentant) and we have the sheer naked glee Dante takes in their fates, a glee that keeps growing until, late in their pilgrimage through Hell, Virgil checks him, pointing out that taking pleasure from watching a brawl is itself a sin.

Where the Comedy’s later parts become more coolly philosophical, the Inferno revels in the naked reality of humanity, and this revelation forms the thematic core of the work. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the Inferno’s the part of the Comedy most have read.

If you read: It’s hard to find a bad Dante translation. Robert Pinsky’s is obviously the best poetic translation, maintaining the terza rima Dante uses, while Anthony Esolen (with commentary from a Christian perspective) and Allen Mandelbaum both proffer competent blank verse (though I object to Esolen’s bad habit of enjambing in prepositional phrases).

The Durling/Martinez and Hollander versions are much more scholarly, revealing the sheer scale of Dante’s system of references and allusions, but Hollander uses free verse, which utterly destroys Dante’s Italian’s taut rhythm, and Durling/Martinez’s translation’s just straight prose (though each tercet is treated as a single paragraph or perhaps line; there are worse prose translations available).

Personally, I would say that Pinsky’s poetics and Durling/Martinez’s commentary apparatus would give you the best possible Divine Comedy reading experience available in English, almost of a piece with a scholarly Italian edition of the epic.

Dante’s “Vita Nuova”

556331In popular culture, Dante is best known for two things: his Divine Comedy, that great geography of the afterlife, and his love for Beatrice, a love that has been taken as a model for true love ever since.

It is this latter theme that he takes up in his Vita Nuova, his account — written near the end of his 20s — of his love of Beatrice. He does so in a manner that is extremely unorthodox, even to this day: by curating a selection of his own poems — mostly sonnets; the format was still quite young at the time — and analyzing his emotional state at the time, how he came to be in such a state, and how he translated his emotions into a theme that could sustain a poem. In this manner, he elucidates an autobiography of his youth — his “vita nuova” — in a stylistic mode achieved by few other writers (most notably Borges), that of cool academic distance.

For as revered as Dante’s love of Beatrice is in the West, his Vita Nuova makes it quite clear that it was, by our standards, less “true love” and more an adolescent crush taken too far. (Lest we forget, both he and she really were teens and twentysomethings when this-all was happening.) It was thus a form of “love” more of a piece with high school and college than anywhere else — one marked both by obsession and fear of the obsession — an infatuation run amok.

This is, of course, no accident. Over the course of some 800 years, medieval notions of courtly love — of which Dante’s of Beatrice was (and still is) held up as an example — have metastasized into modern notions of adolescent infatuation. The outward manifestations may have changed somewhat, but the core imprimatur remains the same: the tension between desire to show affection, on one hand, and the fear of the consequences of doing so (e.g. rejection, mockery, etc.) on the other. Thus one is required to delineate between an in-group (in Dante’s case, fellow-poets; for an adolescent, confidantes) which may or may not even include the so-called “belovèd” — and everyone else.

We see this at work in Dante’s affair with Beatrice. In his earliest phase, he creates double-meaning’d sonnets, sonnets whose inner theme would only unlock for those who knew their key. In pursuit of this, he adopts the (frankly insane) device of a “screen-love” current in the courtly love lifestyle at the time: a lady a lover is seen to woo, to keep his real affections private; it is — whodathunk — perhaps inevitable that, in excessively pursuing a “screen-love”, Dante loses Beatrice’s affection — and his getting spurned by her sends him careening into a bottomless pit of grief and despair, one where he writes the collection’s most moving poems: a heartbroken man’s howls of inexpressible pain.

It is after a group of women call him out — point out that his poems have become wretched paeans to self-pity — however, that Dante reaches his poetic turning point. Having ridden the screen-love horse right off the cliff we all saw coming, he takes up instead a theme of praise. These are, frankly, some of the collection’s weakest poems, by today’s standards, and it is at this point that we realize that, despite his decade-long obsession with her, Dante doesn’t actually know Beatrice all that well. His praises of her ring generic, even by the standards of the time period, and in their generic-ness, hollow.

Dante is not in love with Beatrice the woman, but rather his own idealization of Beatrice.

Then she dies.

It would be fair to say that Beatrice’s presence was the only thing keeping Dante’s idealization of her tethered; thus it is with her death, and a vision of her in Heaven that he subsequently saw — a year later — that Dante achieves his greatest artistic breakthrough, the marriage of personages and idealizations and hence the Divine Comedy’s unification of narrative (à la Beowulf, Roland, El Cidetc.) and allegory (à la The Romance of the Rose) —

But it is in the Vita Nuova that we see that this revelation was, in and of itself, a result of the wildly unhealthy emotional attachment Dante had for Beatrice — an attachment that, as we shall see in his Paradiso, would continue for the rest of his life.

Learning Verse with Borges: III. The Alexandrine

As those of you who have read my Art of Scansion series are no doubt aware, one of my obsessions of late has been the foundations underpinning formal verse. English verse is structured on prosodic beat, but this sort of mechanism is available to it principally because English is a stress-timed language — poetry occurs as a sequence of beats.

By contrast, Spanish is a syllable-timed language. There is no two-tier system between stressed and unstressed syllables as occurs in English, and with only five vowels — /a e i o u/ — no long/short distinctions of the sort that characterized classical verse, either. Spanish, in other words, perhaps more than any other European language, finds itself reliant on the timing inherent within the syllabification itself to develop its poetry. Let us therefore use examples from Jorge Luis Borges’ corpus to examine the three major types of formal Spanish poetry.

In the first part of this series, we examined the default mode of Spanish versification — its analogue to our iambic pentameter — the hendecasyllable. In the second, we examined its more musical meter and ballad analogue, the octasyllable. Now, we will take a look at the longest major Spanish verse form, its alexandrine.

When we took a look at the hendecasyllable, we noted that it has two breathings, marked by a caesura, like so:

Las trans-lú-ci-das ma-nos / del ju-dí-o

Li-bre de la me-tá-fo-ra’y / del mi-to

Ma-pa d’A-quél / qu’es to-das Sus es-tre-llas

(all examples from “Spinoza”, The Self and the Other)

While the hendecasyllable has two breathings, the caesura does not occur regularly within the line, with the line dividing into 4+7, 5+6, 6+5, and 7+4 (and rarely 3+8 or 8+3) hemistichs. While this structural irregularity allows for significant creative freedom in picking the cadences that create the line — as long as they resolve such that the primary stress falls on the 10th syllable — it is a structural irregularity and was understood as such even in the Middle Ages.

Recall that the hendecasyllable is ultimately the Spanish (and Portuguese and Italian) reflex of the French decasyllable, as exemplified in the Song of RolandBy the High Middle Ages, troubadours and other vernacular poets had begun to experiment with other forms of versification — in particular, poets working in the new romance genre, e.g. works like the Romance of the Rose or that of Chrétien de Troyes — had begun to use French octasyllables, but other examples, such as parts of the Romance of Alexander, developed a new verse format that regularized the line’s two breathings. Thus was the alexandrine born.

Because French, unlike other Romance languages, tends to stress on the last syllable (the former penult), this format was realized as two six-syllable hemistichs.

Nous par-tî-mes cinq cents / mais par un prompt ren-fort
Nous nous vî-mes trois mille / et ar-ri-vant au port
(Corneille, Le Cid)

It is because of this that the English “alexandrine”, such as Pope’s famous example

A need-/-less Al-/-ex-an-/-drine ends / the song,
That, like / a woun-/-ded snake, / drags its / slow length / a-long
(An Essay on Criticism)

is in iambic hexameter, realizing a 12-syllable line.

However, if the French alexandrine is built on two breathings, each with its primary stress on the sixth syllable, then it follows that alexandrines in other Romance languages would follow suit. Thus we see in Spanish: the Spanish alexandrine, which Borges suggests is its attempt “to return to the Latin” (The Unending Rose, Prologue) retains the basic structure of the French alexandrine, but modified to accept the final syllables French has generally lost. A Spanish alexandrine is thus characteristically a 7+7 14-syllable line — that is, a pair of conjoined heptasyllables. We can see this in Borges’ “The Iron Coin”:

Aquí está la moneda de hierro. Interroguemos
Las dos contrarias caras que serán la respuesta
De la terca demanda que nadie no se ha hecho:
¿Por qué precisa un hombre que una mujer lo quiera?*

Let us break this quatrain down, prosodically:

A-quí ‘stá la mo-ne-da / d’hie-rro. In-te-rro-gue-mos
Las dos con-tra-rias ca-ras / que se-rán la res-pues-ta
De la ter-ca de-man-da / que na-die no s’ha he-cho:
¿Por qué pre-ci-sa’un hom-bre / qu’u-na mu-jer lo quie-ra?

The net result, as we can see, is prosodically highly regular line, more so than what hendecasyllables alone can provide. Alexandrines, in Spanish, tend to have the same prosodic effect blank verse does in English, a poem propelled principally by its own internal rhythm. That said, the regularity imposed by the conjoined heptasyllables is a major prosodic constraint, one significant enough for it to make sense why Spanish has historically defaulted to the hendecasyllable for the bulk of its poetry.

One final note here: Like hendecasyllables and octasyllables, heptasyllables are subject to Spanish prosody. That is, the heptasyllable’s primary characteristic is that it stresses on the sixth syllable — being called the heptasyllable is just a reminder that the sixth syllable is usually, but not always, the penult. Because of this, Spanish alexandrines default to 14 syllables long, but may vary in length from 12 to 16 syllables, depending on the tail pattern of its underlying heptasyllables. “The Iron Coin”‘s final line (“Within the other’s mirror, our reciprocal mirror”) is a perfect example of this:

En el cris-tal del o-tro, / nues-tro cris-tal re-cí-pro-co.

Here we can see a 7+8 syllable line, for 15 syllables overall. However, we will note that the stresses fall regularly on the sixth syllable of each heptasyllabic hemistich.


* Eric McHenry’s translation:

Before us is the iron coin. Now let us ask
The two opposing daces what the answer will be
To the intractable demand no one has made:
Why does a man require a woman to desire him?

Jorge Luis Borges’ “Selected Poems”

71x2bzhpze6l“Borges,” as this book’s front flap reminds us, “always considered himself first and foremost a poet.” And so, while his most famous work is in the collection called Labyrinths, it is fair to say that the collection of work collated in Selected Poems was always dearer to his heart.

Some of Borges’ first major published works were volumes of poetry: Fervor de Buenos Aires in 1923, Moon across the Way in 1925, and San Martín Copybook in 1929. This early work — Borges turned 30 the year San Martín Copybook came out — was very much in the vogue of its time: free verse, free verse, and some more free verse — and for his subject matter one need look no further than the title of his first collection: Fervor de Buenos Aires.

Borges begins his 1969 introduction to Fervor with “I have not rewritten this book. I have moderated its baroque excesses,” which pretty much tells you all you need to know about his early work. While it has some moments of brilliance (“Truco,” for example, recalls the unmade genre I suggested in my review of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, and “Deathwatch on the Southside” has a very memorable title), it is a collection of poems written by a self that he would characterize in This Craft of Verse as being “more enthusiastic than skillful”. Had Borges’ poetic career fizzled out after San Martín Copybook, he would have perhaps been best known as a minor Argentine poet of the Roaring 20s.

As he entered his 30s, Borges would turn his attention to the short stories we now most associate with him, and it would not be until 1960’s El hacedor (“The Maker”, but I prefer the Spanish title) that he would return to poetry. El hacedor is very much a transitional period between his short stories and later poetry — it begins with his major collection of prose poems, including his most famous work of all, “Ragnarök”, before segueing into a collection of formal odes that mark the first major output of his mature period. El hacedor’s second half has some of his greatest works of all: “Chess”, “Mirrors”, “The Hourglass”, “The Other Tiger”, and “Ariosto and the Arabs” — works where he succeeds in translating some of the major themes he found in his Labyrinths period into verse.

Like several other famous poets and writers — James Joyce and John Milton, for example — Borges started going blind as he entered middle age, and El hacedor’s return to verse has to be, in some sense, a reflection of increasing blindness. It is easier for a blind man to compose poetry because he can rehearse it in his mind before dictating it, and it is perhaps in response to his blindness that Borges entered his second, and by far his most fecund, creative phase: after El hacedor came 1964’s The Self and the Other, 1965’s For Six Strings (a collection of milongas, or Argentine ballads), and 1969’s In Praise of Darkness by the time he delivered his This Craft of Verse lectures. This period would continue through the 70s, ending only with 1976’s The Iron Coin.

It is a period marked by devotion to formal poetry. There are occasional pieces of free verse, yes, but The Self and the Other, The Unending Rose, and The Iron Coin all have large sonnet collections, and the poems opening The Self and the Other, “The Cyclical Night”, and closing The Iron Coin, “The Iron Coin”, are both alexandrine odes — they have a sense of bookending this period about them.

By the late 1970s, though, Borges’ traditionalist period had begun winding down, and in 1977’s History of the Night, we would see a complex admixture of free and more formal verse, an admixture that continues with 1981’s The Limit. With 1984’s Atlas, Borges returns to prose poetry and short stories as well, and 1985’s Los conjurados — the last collection he ever published — is a sort of sampler of Borges in miniature, with a short story, “The Leaves of the Cypress”, that evokes his Labyrinths period, as well as, in “Clouds”, a more formal ode, and in “The Web,” an elegiac example of free verse.

Thematically, Borges’ poetry parallels his short stories and essays. Mirrors and reflections, dreams, questions of where dreams end and reality begins, labyrinths — in particular, the labyrinth of mirrors — and a complex relationship with his ancestral past all define his work. If Luis de Camões, who wrote the Lusiads, is the exemplar of a swashbuckling poet whose work comes out of lived experience, Jorge Luis Borges is the exemplar of an academic poet, one whose work comes out of a life devoted to reading and amassing knowledge in the hopes of seeking insight.

But perhaps the thing that most marks Borges’ poetry is a middle-class ennui, a sensibility more in tune with his formative period, perhaps, and half-forgotten in our love of madmen artists e.g. Baudelaire and van Gogh, a sense that his work speaks to a society dominated not by soldiers and adventurers but rather by cogs in various bureaucratic machines. Where madman artists get idealized because they’re spanners in the works, Borges — director of the Argentine National Library — was, like Wallace Stevens, an exemplar of society — someone who speaks to fitting in and still feeling void.

A labyrinth: a maze, a construct to hide the voidness inside.

Seats of Civilizations Never to Be

Cradles of Unmade Civilizations?

It has long bothered me that the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers never became centers of agriculture the way the Tigris, Ganges, Indus, and Nile did. It implies a question: well, why not? After all, both the Colorado and Rio Grande basins are, like their Middle Eastern cousins, dependable streams in harsh environments. And arguments that they are unsuitable for crop production for this or that reason don’t really sway me: these are river systems powered by snowmelt from the Rockies, after all, implying they should have regular seasonal flooding cycles … just as the Tigris is powered by snowmelt from the Zagros, and the Indus by snowmelt from the knot of mountains where the Himalayas, Tian Shan, and Hindu Kush all meet just above Kashmir.

From a geographic perspective, the Colorado and Rio Grande basins certainly seem optimal for the development of complex civilization. Indeed, we find the beginnings of this in the remains of various pueblo societies: perhaps the most developed was the Hohokam canal network in the Gila River valley (the Gila being a tributary of the Colorado), but it is also true that the Patayan culture practiced early floodplain agriculture in the lower Colorado valley and delta, various Pueblo peoples stretched all the way from the Grand Canyon area in the west (a Pueblo ruin is in fact partly submerged by Lake Mead) to the uppermost reaches of the Rio Grande and its tributary, the Pecos — the Pecos itself being named after a pueblo — and the Mogollon culture broadly occupied an area west of the Rio Grande north of its tributary the Conchos, west to the uppermost basins of the Sonora and Yaquí rivers in Mexico. Various Uto-Aztecan peoples in contact with the region had also adopted an early agriculture to supplement their diet, remains which can be found into the Sierra Nevada.

All of this suggests that the state of play of Oasisamerica at contact provides a valuable insight into how the Fertile Crescent became the Fertile Crescent. We know, for example, from archaeology that the oldest ruins are not found in the lowlands of the Tigris, Euphrates, or the Nile, but rather in the Anatolian highlands — the most famous of such sites being Çatalhöyük and Göbekli Tepe and including settlements such as Jericho (famously the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city).

It also suggests that time is an underappreciated ingredient in the development of complex societies. While one may note that (surprisingly enough) the earliest known remains of wheat and maize are roughly contemporary, maize did not show up in Oasisamerica until ca. 3500 BCE. Where the earliest known sites in the Fertile Crescent began to develop contemporaneously with the domestication of wheat some 12,000 years ago, maize had only been in the Desert Southwest for ~5000 years at contact: quite a massive gap! To put that into perspective, Sumer had already been around for a thousand years when Oasisamerican peoples began to adopt maize cultivation, while the Harappan civilization and Egyptian Empire were both just beginning!

From, that is, the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent to the rise of Sumer took some 5500 years — and, since Egypt postdates the formation of Sumer by about 1500 years, from the dawn of agriculture in the Nile to the foundations of Egypt proper about 7000 years. From this perspective, thus, we can see that the Desert Southwest societies that have left us pueblos and ruins, being about 5000 years old, are comparable with the Samarra and Ubaid cultures immediately predating Sumer in Mesopotamia, or the Amratian Culture in Egypt. (Indeed, like the Hohokam in Oasisamerica, the Samarra in Mesopotamia seem to have been the first to use irrigation on a larger scale.)

From this, we can infer that while major civilizations — civilizations much more significant than those that gave us Chaco Canyon or Pueblo Grande, ones as sophisticated as the Aztec, Maya, and P’urépecha civilizations to the south — had yet to arise in Oasisamerica, they were about to, and had another millennium elapsed before the Europeans discovered the New World, they would have found several other civilizations of equivalent splendor as those they discovered in Mesoamerica.

Applying the Insight

It should be fairly self-evident that this line of thinking has given us a couple of considerations when developing an alternate history scenario. Scenarios designed to push contact back, for example, would likely need to work a blossoming of Oasisamerican civilization into their worlds . . . just as much as they would need to craft a believable narrative of the Mississippian culture’s trajectory after the mid-1400s CE. Such scenarios, however — unfortunately — do not change the underlying issues that led to the post-contact depopulation of the Americas, as Thomas Mann outlined in his 1491; rather, they enlarge the Mesoamerican sphere of influence (recall that Oasisamerica is at the outer edge of the Mesoamerican cultural horizon), stretching it to a position where it abuts California in the west and the Eastern Woodlands in the east.

There are problems with stalling European exploration, though. Not that it’s particularly difficult: the Age of Sail is contingent not just on technological innovations in Iberian shipbuilding that occurred during the High Middle Ages, which opened the Atlantic up as an explorable basin, but also on subtle ways the Black Death permanently changed the European labor market, ending what had been a long-term trend towards ossification of feudal society’s classes into something more akin to the caste system, and on major world events such as the fall of Constantinople in 1453. At a certain level, you can’t just bottle it up without having something else to hold the pressure in.

If that’s the case, then perhaps an alternate path to explore would be acceleration of the long-term trends observable in the Mesoamerican, Oasisamerican, and Eastern Woodlander state of play . . . it is worth recalling that luck did play a not-insignificant role in Córtez’s conquest of the Aztec Empire . . .

Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

essay_manThe second of Pope’s two major verse essays — the first being the Essay on Criticism — and perhaps his most widely read work in the eighteenth century, the Essay on Man is Pope at his most philosophical, where he attempts to reason out a system of ethics.

From a philosophical standpoint, Pope is unimportant, especially compared with giants of the period like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, and other important thinkers like Hutcheson and Adam Smith. I was a gadfly in a philosophy department most of my college years, and I can assure you, I had never heard of Pope’s Essay on Man all my time there (though, to be fair, my philosophical interest tends to incline more towards metaphysics than ethics).

That is not to say Pope was not influential in his own time, though: he certainly influenced Voltaire, Kant, and Rousseau, as well as (as one would expect) the British philosophers of the period. Indeed, Voltaire claimed — somewhat narcissistically — that the Essay on Man was a rehash of content he had contributed, and thinkers of the period tended to align Pope with Leibniz (he of the “best of all possible worlds” fame).

In his essay, Pope claims that what “whatever is, is right,” which is … well … a restatement of “This is the best of all possible worlds”, but with a subtle and sly moral judgement thrown in. Of course, one can argue this concurs with Nature, in that the wrong is physically impossible. And of course the line is easily misread as “whatever is, is right,” an overly facile “might makes right” claim not at all in keeping with the character of the text. No: Pope’s “whatever is, is right” is a statement of the rectitude of existence — that is, that for a thing to exist in Nature is to have some purpose in the moral universe. This is wholly in keeping with Pope’s ideas about God, as well.

Pope next argues that “reason [and] passion answer one great aim”, setting up a duality between instinct and intellect, where they offer different avenues, each better suited to different temperaments, to achieving the same overarching goals, both in terms of personal conduct and in terms of paths to Virtue. It is this latter claim that would have been more controversial in Pope’s day; certainly it is the one he spends more time on, noting how instinctual passion can be guided and sublimated into virtuous acts.

His next argument is that “self-love” and “social love” are one and the same … a claim I am skeptical of. This is perhaps because in my reading of the Essay on Man I am coming to think that “social love” is actually a sublimated instinct — a passion — fueling Pope, while the term “self-love” is significantly more complicated, holding in it shades of narcissism as well as a philosophical ideal, enlightened knowledge of oneself. For me, though, self-love is about as far from social love as is possible … self-love is reflective; social love a pain in the ass.

(That said, it’s pretty plain to see, especially from a social dropout’s perspective, how excessively much socialization seems to matter in this world.)

Finally, Pope ends with an exhortation about Man’s place in the Universe: that we are the middle creature between beasts below and angels above, and that it is not our place to know beyond our station, a rather bland and frankly naïve-sounding claim in an industrial society built on aggressive and almost obsessive discovery of knowledge, for knowledge is power.

I find I agree with Pope surprisingly little in his ethical system. The best of all possible worlds argument never made sense to me, and the argument itself became a laughingstock in Europe after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake (which Pope was not around to see), and evolution has pretty much destroyed the whole concept of an ordered hierarchy that Pope leans on for his final claim. I have already logged my critique of what I deem his false self-love/social-love equivalence … Perhaps the only salvageable part of Pope’s system in this day and age is his instinct/intellect duality, which seems relevant in e.g. nature/nurture debates as well.

As is usual with Pope, the poetry is gorgeous, with a sparkle that no other poet has ever achieved in the English language. I am starting to think that part of the sparkle is due to subtle mora effects — Pope treats mankind as an iamb, for example, which follows its vowel length and not its natural prosodic timing, which would trend towards a spondee (as a compound word) or maybe a trochee (since there’s a long-term trend towards trochaic normalization in English). Another example is in words like quotation, where Pope would place the stress on the theme — quo-tá-tion — which follows the vowel length but goes against the word’s natural prosodic timing, which would place primary stress on the stem (i.e. quote) and secondary stress on the nominalizing suffix (i.e. -tion): quó-ta-tión. Contrasting mora and prosodic stress — to say nothing of intonation! — creates a subtle tension in Pope’s versification, one that makes each of his syllables stand out. At its most extreme, Pope may on occasion achieve a prosodic trochaic pentameter and mora iambic pentameter in the same line.

Finally, Tom Jones’ notes to An Essay on Man leads me to consider the role of translation in the 18th century. It’s worth pointing out that most scholarly work was done in Latin into the latter half of the 17th century; it was in the early 18th century when vernacular scholarship displaced Latin scholarship in England and France, and this is also the period when the Insular and Continental philosophical traditions began to diverge. A Belgian professor, Crousaz, published a critique of Pope’s Essay on Man which seems to be one more of flaws in the du Resnel French translation, for example; this seems to be a period when English and French philosophy began to diverge simply because the discipline of scholarly translation hadn’t caught up yet. By the time it did catch up, when German became the third major scholarly vernacular by the middle part of the century — thanks in no small part to Immanuel Kant — the rifts between French and English readings, perhaps more than a few caused by mistranslations — had grown too far apart to be easily reconciled, while German readings were much more easily reconciled into both the French and English continua (in different ways).

In a sense, then, Pope’s Essay on Man casts an oblique light on an understudied issue of the day, namely that of translation in philosophy. It’s not particularly strong ethics from a modern standpoint, but more interesting (as Adam Smith was the first to note) as a work of poetry from one of the great standout poets of the English language; it was much more influential in its milieu than is normally given credit for; and, due in no small part to Pope’s lightning-rod penchant for controversies, an exemplar of how translation and mistranslation affected the growing rift between French and English philosophy.

The Prosodic Structure of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”

 

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is — famously — the most played rock song ever. Lauded as an anthemic classic and occasionally reviled (perhaps because of its success), its chords are among the most immediately recognizable in the entire rock music canon, and its singer, Jimmy Plant, is among the genre’s most immediately recognizable voices.

Yet at the same time — despite its popular success — “Stairway to Heaven” is the very antithesis of a pop song. It hews to none of the genre conventions of pop music, then or now, electing instead to develop lyrics that feel like an extended poem, and to structure the song’s musicality around its famous guitar solo. At 8:02 long, “Stairway to Heaven” is twice the length as a typical pop song, giving it time to develop a more intricate musical and prosodic structure. It’s the latter that we’ll be concentrating on today.

The song develops in three principal parts — acts, if you will — with increasing speed and fervency. Choices in instrumentation, key, and time reinforce this structure — as do choices in prosody. “Stairway to Heaven” has a complex and maintained prosodic rhythm — a meter — that reflects its instrumentation: lyrics and music complement each other perhaps more than most other examples in the genre. Let us examine, then, “Stairway to Heaven’s” metrical structure.

Act I

The song opens with the two stanzas

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

Lyrically, there’s a sense of constant waiting, a sort of stretch — one feels as if the beat keeps going on longer than one would expect — a cadence of a long rise, and then a release. This is a calling card of an anapest, a type of cadence that develops like so:

a long phrase, / a short pause

Thus, if we were to scan the first two stanzas we should expect to see this type of pattern emerge:

There’s a la-/-dy who’s sure / all that glit-/-ters is gold
And she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.
When she gets / there she knows, / if the stores / are all closed
With a word / she can get / what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, / and she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.

There’s a sign / on the wall / but she wants / to be sure
‘Cause you know / sometimes words / have two mean-ings.
In a tree / by the brook, / there’s a song-/-bird who sings,
Sometimes all / of our thoughts / are mis-giv’n.

Indeed, we see the beat regularly fall on the third syllable, a hallmark of anapestic meter. Occasionally, however, we find very long feet: what she cáme for, have two meánings. This type of foot is called a third paeon and commonly occurs in anapestic meter, as we can see in the first two lines of Francis Scott Key’s “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” which is in anapestic tetrameter: “Oh say, / can you see / by the dawn’s / ear-ly light // What so proud-/-ly we hailed / at the twi-/-light’s last gleam-ing“.

Heaven can therefore be analyzed as a single syllable (which it is by default in traditional prosody e.g. in Paradise Lost) or as two, that is, that the feet it stresses are either anapests or third paeons. Misgiven is likewise, as it is consonant (weakly rhyming) with heaven.

Scanning the first two stanzas, however, reveals an interesting alternation:

(4) There’s a la-/-dy who’s sure / all that glit-/-ters is gold
(3) And she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.
(4) When she gets / there she knows, / if the stores / are all closed
(3) With a word / she can get / what she came for.
(4) Ooh, ooh, / and she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.

(4) There’s a sign / on the wall / but she wants / to be sure
(3) ‘Cause you know / sometimes words / have two mean-ings.
(4) In a tree / by the brook, / there’s a song-/-bird who sings,
(3) Sometimes all / of our thoughts / are mis-giv’n.

Our stanzas, that is, are not purely in an n-meter. Some lines have four feet, and others three. Nor is it just that some lines are x-meter and others y-meter; instead, there’s a regular alternation between tetrametric and trimetric lines. What you are looking at is a type of ballad meter, a meter associated with folk poetry. It is a meter that is best exemplified in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in, for example, a quatrain such as the one which opens Part II:

(4) The Sun / now rose / u-pon / the right:
(3) Out of / the sea / came he,
(4) Still hid / in mist, / and on / the left
(3) Went down / in-to / the sea

It is at this point we come to the poem’s first chorus, a simple repeated line:

Ooh, it makes / me won-der,
Ooh, it makes / me won-der.

The line is, in fact, an alternation between an anapest and an amphibrach, a type of foot whose stress falls in its middle. There’s a sense that these lines are actually half-lines divided out by the repetition of ooh, keeping this first chorus a quiet feature which elides out of the listener’s mind. It is followed by another quatrain in anapestic ballad meter:

There’s a feel-/-ing I get / when I look / to the west,
And my spir-/-it is cry-/-ing for leav-ing.
In my thoughts / I have seen / rings of smoke / through the trees,
And the voi-/-ces of those / who stand look-ing.

It is at this point that the chorus repeats, and reveals a variation in meter:

Ooh, it makes / me won-der,
Ooh, it real-/-ly makes / me won-der.

Robert Plant realizes the second line as I’ve scanned, eliding the second it out entirely and developing what had been prior anapestic dimeter into iambic trimeter. This line is the song’s first metric quickening. This sense of variation is also an ancient poetic device, which can be seen, for example, in the opening lines of the Sumerian poem Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld:

In those days, in those distant days,
in those nights, in those remote nights,
in those years, in those distant years;
in days of yore . . .

(Note that the variation in repetition is the poem’s primary structural mechanic.)

The song is developing, but at this point it returns to its roots for one more quatrain in anapestic ballad meter:

And it’s whis-/-pered that soon, / if we all / call the tune,
Then the pi-/-per will lead / us to rea-son.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long,
And the for-/-ests will ech-/-o with laugh-ter.

Plant’s ability to maintain anapestic meter is breaking down, though, at this point, which is revealed in the quatrain’s third line. The phrase ánd a new dáy is a choriamb, which would naturally decompose into a trochee and an iamb: ánd a / new dáy. The net result is a line that wants to resolve into iambic pentameter

Ánd a / new dáy / will dáwn / for thóse / who stánd long

but needs to resolve into some simulacrum of four anapestic beats. Robert Plant is aware the line is metrically fighting the rhythm and so lays in an exaggerated caesura which forces anapestic resolution across the first part of the line

And a new / day will dawn . . .

but is unable to resist the line’s iambic snap

. . . for those / who stand lóng.

He finally tries to make up for the (defective) final amphibrach by artificially lengthening long, a device I have marked with an acute accent: lóng.

Act II

The second act breaks in on a drum intro, one which signals a shift from the anapestic ballad meter which has so far defined this song, lyrically, to something else entirely. Consider the quatrain:

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
There are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.

Our ears will be, by this point, attuned to one line being metrically longer than the next, but the meter has quickened by quite a lot. Not only that, but the rhythm has become much more metrically complex. The first line leads with a pair of iambs

If there’s / a bustle . . .

but the scansion soon becomes determined by the natural spondee hédge-rów. We’d seen such spondees before (e.g. stáir-wáy), but one or another of the stresses had been suppressed by the beat. Here, though, the spondee begins to drive the beat:

. . . in your / hedge-row / don’t be / ‘larmed now:

This type of foot is called a minor ionic (or double iamb). It occasionally occurs in iambic meter, where it creates a sort of emphasized iamb, as the second name suggests, but Plant makes it drive the couplet’s rhythm:

It’s just / a spring clean / for the / May queen*

(where the second foot is an bacchiuswhich serves to transition from the line’s iambic lead to its ionic tail).

What Plant has done is retained the syllabically long lines the anapestic ballad had developed (12/13 syllables – 9/10) but restructured their internal stresses so they move more quickly, in time with a sped-up musical time. The ionics are much more memorable here, but the couplet still finishes with an example of iambic hexameter leading into iambic tetrameter — the anapestic 4/3 has become an iambic 6/4. (A pun, perhaps, on the concept of time signatures?)

There are / two paths / you can / go by, / but in / the long run
There’s still time / to change / the road / you’re on.

Note that Plant uses a bacchius and an anapest to resolve the odd syllable count (13/9) into an even-foot meter (iambs have two syllables).

When we look at the quatrain as a whole,

If there’s / a bustle / in your / hedge-row, / don’t be / ‘larmed now,
It’s just / a spring clean / for the / May queen.
There are / two paths / you can / go by, / but in / the long run
There’s still time / to change / the road / you’re on.

we see that Plant has changed the song’s prosody from anapestic meter to iambic meter through the use of minor ionics.

At this point we see yet another repetition of the chorus:

And it makes me wonder.

Yet again we find the variations-in-repetition theme we’ve found throughout the chorus. This time the chorus line resolves as a trochaic trimeter:

And it / makes me / won-der.

We’ve see several different ways the core makes me wonder ends up resolving based on its context: It began as an anapestic dimeter, before becoming an iambic trimeter with the really, and now at last the and resolves it into its most natural paradigm: trochaic trimeter.

Not only has the pace of the song picked up, but the whole bridge has a certain lyric brevity, being just a pair of quatrains linked by the chorus. We now move into the second:

Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?

These lyrics are cadentially complex — it is, in fact, the most cadentially complex quatrain of the entire song. Let us examine it further, line by line:

Your head / is hum-/-ing, and / it won’t go, / in case / you don’t know

The quatrain starts with an iambic hexameter extended via a pair of anapests, which harks back to the song’s opening act, entirely in anapestic meter. But this is sped up by the next line,

The pipe-/-r’s call-/-ing you / to join him,

in an iambic tetrameter with a single amphibrach extending it to nine syllables. After having sped up, the next line now slows down with an amphibrach inserted into the iambic meter:

Dear la-/-dy, can / you hear / the wind blow, / and did / you know

But this pause is just a launchpoint for the act’s last line,

Your stair-/-way lies / on th’whisp-/-ring wind,

which sees Plant contract the into whispering to achieve iambic tetrameter and moan off into the song’s iconic guitar solo. This iambic resolution also previews where the song is going:

Act III

Coming out of the guitar solo, the song is in full crescendo mode now, and the final stanza is in and of itself something of a coda to the solo, which functions as the song’s climax:

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.

By this point, the song is moving very fast indeed, and unable to sustain a longer foot than a trochee or an iamb. We can see this when we scan this stanza:

And as / we wind / on down / the road
Our sha-/-dows tall-/-er than / our soul.
There walks / a la-/-dy we / all know
Who shines / white light / and wants / to show
How ev-/-ry-thing / still turns / to gold.
And if / you lis-/-ten ver-/-y hard
The tune / will come / to you / at last.
When all / are one / and one / is all
To be / a rock / and not / to roll.

The whole stanza is in iambic tetrameter — but more — when we scanned this stanza, it is in pure iambic tetrameter! It’s been deliberately constructed to be nothing but iambs! There’s no cadential play here, no elision, no trochees, no choriambs — no — this stanza is organized as an extended counterpoint to the anapestic ballad meter we saw at the beginning of the song, a sense of contrast and of evolution, and rhythmically the development into iambic meter mirrors the speeding up of sound as one proceeds from Renaissance musical norms to modern rock norms. It is also a stanza that develops as one long coda on the guitar solo, a sense that, after the instrumental interlude, the lyrics are the last thing thing to kick in. But it is still a coda, and as a coda, it is unable to sustain its energy, and as we hit that last line — To be a rock and not to rollllllllllll . . . — the song’s musical energy finally burns itself out.

But there is one thing more still to be said.

And she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.

It is, in fact, the song’s second line, tying the whole thing together into one neat little package. But it’s more than that: By closing this song on this line, one of anapestic trimeter, Plant interjects a note of uncertainty into it, an uncertainty we usually think of as “plaintiveness”. There is nostalgia here, yes, and the cadential slowdown comes apace with the musical and emotional crash that ends the final stanza, but Plant is suggesting something else — something more —

— that it is in fact the Renaissance ballad form that began this song that is truly timeless —

— that this form will still be there when all that can be said in rock has been said, and we have driven ourselves to exhaustion saying it —

— that it is the rock genre itself that is ephemeral; that folk music formats are the only real poetic and musical permanency.jim-warren-stairway-to-heaven_a-g-2540594-0


* This is also one of the most misheard lines in music, getting heard instead as

It’s just a sprinkling for the May Queen.

This makes sense. Clean sounds like the gerund and hence weakens here, which also yields a better overall prosodic resolution:

It’s just / a sprin-/-kling for / the May Queen.

The Boundary Forest

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Mirkwood by McNealy

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.

hallstatt_latene
Extent of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures (in shades of orange and green), from Wikipedia

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

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Regions inhabited by early Balto-Slavic peoples. Notice the Proto-Slavic peoples lived south of the Pripyat River (and marshes) and east of the Carpathian Mountains. From Wikipedia.

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 Very Gothic Poem

roman_de_la_rose_28f-_15r-b29_the_godess_of_love_locks_the_lover27s_heartSometimes the oddest things can catch your eye. While I was in the library the other day, looking for a halfway decent copy of The Song of Roland, I saw this oddity and decided to read it on a whim. Flicking through it, as someone jaundiced to challenging texts like the Aeneid and Fanshawe’s translation of the Lusiads, it didn’t even seem all that long!

I … seriously underestimated the text. It took me a week to read.

The Romance of the Rose is, along with Piers Plowman and Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the major vernacular-language texts of the later Middle Ages, and an important development in the rise of vernacular literatures (much like the somewhat later Dante, Plutarch, and Chaucer). But it’s stranger than that: It has more than one author.

The Romance was started by one Guillaume de Lorris, an elegant descriptive poet who excelled at painting pictures in verse and who set up the garden, as well as the Lover’s infatuation with his Rose, his early success, and the setback Jealousy reared, before he rather conveniently kicked the bucket. M. de Lorris was writing at courtly love’s height, and the text he was intending is rather obviously a pretty but rather blasé allegory of the idea. Some disciple of his wrote a quick and wholly unsatisfactory ending, a sort of roof over Lorris’ house’s walls.

Then, nearly half a century later, one Jean de Meun, who seems to have been associated with the University of Paris, wrote a monstrous continuation of de Lorris’ text. Where de Lorris had written marginally north of 4,000 lines, de Meun’s continuation just shy of 22,000 lines. M. de Meun is also an entirely different type of writer than de Lorris — where the latter was skilled at setting lush scenes, suggesting an almost painterly view of the world, the former was, more than anything else, a skilled rhetorician, and developed his characters in long monologuic arguments, which, combined with a plot — a war Cupid wages on the tower of Jealousy — that moves rather sedately, leaves one with the sense they’re reading nothing so much as a verse novel.

(Indeed, de Meun’s Romance is satirical where de Lorris’ was earnest, and most early novels, from the Satyricon to the Golden Ass to Don Quixote to Gulliver’s Travels where satirical in nature; one can well argue that the spirit of satirical skepticism has never left the novel format.)

It is much like reading the poetic equivalent of constructing a Gothic cathedral. M. de Lorris began the effort in a heavy and almost Romanesque way; it was briefly roofed over; and then M. de Meun expanded and completed the project with daring new and reborn techniques that seemed to almost defy Nature … who is, by the way, a character in all this hot mess.

Characterization is the main thing that defines the Romance. Not of the Rose, of course … even in courtly love, this was very much an era when men tended to objectify women they were sexually attracted to. The Rose comes across more as a thing than anything else. But it’s in all the other characters — in Reason, in the Friend, the Duenna, in Nature and the Genius, that M. de Meun finds his voice and his strength. And, as a text driven primarily by monologue, it should hardly be surprising that his characters reveal surprising quirks about themselves.

Reason is an essentially tragic figure; over her monologue, where she tries to win the Lover over with, well, logic and reasoning, she slowly reveals that she, too, is very much in love with the Lover … but it’s an emotion she doesn’t understand and therefore can’t articulate. In the end the almost base way she begs for the Lover’s love drives him away … People with an analytical temperament can well recall such snubs.

The Friend, then, is an intriguing character, whose advice is clearly awful: he suggests the Lover peruse the road of Mad Largesse, whose entrance is guarded by Wealth and whose exit is guarded by Poverty (does this suggest anything to you?). Mad Largesse in fact rather recalls nothing quite so much as Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, and much like the painting one suspects a poison tree lies hidden within that paradise. Then, in one of the most adroit — read “how did he do it?” — transitions in all of literature, the Friend gets to talking about a loveless marriage, one that shows a keen psychological understanding of what it’s like to be victimized by physical and emotional abuse. For some reason, then, our recklessly naïve Lover tries to gain entrance to Mad Largesse, only to be rebuffed by Wealth.

The Duenna (the word is an archaic term for “chaperone”), which Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is probably derived from, then expounds a worldly, cynical view of love. The more I read the Duenna the more I was reminded of Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg, though in truth Nanny Ogg seems never to lost her youth’s boundless optimism whereas de Meun’s Duenna clearly has.

The last major character introduced to us — and one the Introduction points out is meant to be Reason’s counterpoint in all this discussion — is, without a doubt, the most loathsome of all: Genius, who preaches to Dame Nature’s face — in a passage that does nothing but arouse our sympathy for her — how women are subservient to men. This idiotic chauvinist in priest’s robes clearly has won not one whit of the respect he commands (does this remind you of anybody?) and is where the extreme sexism of de Meun’s time becomes apparent.

It comes across as a sour note right near the end to the wonderful mental symphony de Meun weaves for us, and I would argue that it is precisely this blemish that keeps the Romance from being truly timeless, and M. de Meun from being considered the first great master of French literature. (Yet at the same time “Genius” disillusions us of the Romance’s utility as M. de Lorris conceived it, no?)

That said, just as in life one moves from naïveté to disillusionment to cynicism to ultimately — maybe — tempered wisdom — I reckon the Romance of the Rose’s time has come around again. It is amazingly, and amazingly naïvely, postmodernist. Not only does it become self-aware and self-referential at times but M. de Meun even mounts an apology (a rhetorical defense) of himself! In the text!

If we recall David Foster Wallace, and the sense that literature needs to move beyond Postmodernism and find a new earnestness — move beyond the point of cynical despair into enlightenment* — then perhaps M. de Meun’s naïveté, at the very outset of modern European literature, would show us the way. For, despite its faults, or perhaps because of them, the Romance of the Rose is a ringingly earnest work, and one that, strangely enough, sews up much of the classical tradition and ushers in a new era and new literature.

If you read: Harry Robbins, a professor at Bucknell, spent most of his life translating the Romance into blank verse; the text was discovered among his papers after his death and eventually published by one Charles Dunn. This is probably the best available edition, despite having a lack of explanatory notes. For the notes, you’ll probably want Frances Hodge’s Oxford prose translation — and you all know how I feel about prose translations of poetic works.

I am vaguely aware of two other translations — Charles Dahlberg did one released by the Princeton University Press, and a Pre-Raphaelite Brit, F.S. Ellis, released a translation c. 1900. I want to hazard Ellis’ is probably in verse, but I don’t know the status of either of these.


* Regardless of how postmodernist his major works are. Infinite Jest is a classic of the genre.