Category Archives: Tragedy

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:


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.


Works and Days

Winslow_Homer_-_The_Plowman_28187829-2After Homer, the next-most-important archaic Greek poet was Hesiod, who, like Homer, has two works associated with him which carry down to the present day, namely, the Theogony and Works and Days.

Hesiod is, for all intents and purposes, Homer’s opposite. Where the latter is highly mysterious — we know next to nothing about him, beyond that he was a professional (or a school of professionals, perhaps) — the former tells us quite a bit about himself, and nowhere is this more so than in his Works and Days.

The poem is addressed to the poet’s evidently-perfidious brother, Perses, who is apparently the younger; the poem reads like advice given by an older brother to a younger. Perses seems to have been quite envious, scheming (perhaps successfully?) to cheat Hesiod of his birthright, and one who later squandered his own inheritance to the point where he was reduced to begging. Through Works and Days, Hesiod’s advising his brother to start a farm, advice Perses is evidently refusing to listen to.

Instead, Perses would rather sail, their father’s vocation, albeit one Hesiod himself rather intensely dislikes … Hesiod thus dispenses his nautical advice — advice he admits to be, at best, secondhand — only at length, and after some cajoling.

It would not surprise me if Hesiod got seasick: his lone sea voyage, he says, was from Aulis on the mainland to Chalcis on Euboea, a journey so short that it’s spanned by a bridge today. There, at Chalcis, he won first prize in a poetry contest — a type of iron cauldron known as a tripod (think Dutch oven) — a feat, the proudest moment in his life, he tells us about in Works and Days.

As he seeks (apparently unsuccessfully to convince his brother to give up his dreams of winning wealth on the high seas, Hesiod invokes what may be the poem’s most famous characteristic: its telling of some early myths, such as Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, or Pandora’s box, as well as some less famous ones, such as the swallow’s origin.

Most famous of these is, of course, the Ages of Man, from which we derive the terms Golden and Silver ages, to describe high points in culture or craftsmanship (e.g. calling Statius a Silver Age poet implies he is inferior to the Golden Age poets Virgil and Ovid), as well as Bronze and Iron ages, terms now used in archaeology, based on the predominant form of metalworking — terms that are, remarkably enough, coterminous with Hesiod’s conception of them.

His pessimism is also worth remarking on here. Each of Works and Days’ four Ages of Man — the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron — were characterized by a worsening state of affairs of mankind. And guess what? From Hesiod’s perspective, he would have been vindicated! Hesiod himself lived at the tail end of the Greek Dark Ages, which began with the Bronze Age collapse … at the time he was alive, states associated with the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean cultures would have been far more able to secure their land and keep trade routes open than anything the early Iron Age kingdoms could do, while the major Greek powers of early antiquity (i.e. Athens and Sparta) had yet to rise.

Hesiod also gives the Age of Heroes, the three or four generations opening with Perseus and closing with Orestes, its own existence between the Bronze and Iron Ages. This, again, strangely — and perhaps surprisingly — enough, accords well with Homer and the archaeological record. Homer’s Trojan War seems to be an early Iron Age memory of a late Bronze Age conflict, one which matches a burning of the the Troy Schliemann found in his excavations of the site. Through the strata of legends surrounding it, the Trojan War seems to have been a Mycenaean-Minoan alliance to break the Troad’s power, where the latter exerted control over the waters of the Hellespont and thus a monopoly over shipping between the Black and Aegean seas. But I’ve digressed wildly … in a manner not unlike Hesiod’s own digressions.

Around a third of Works and Days consists of an agricultural calendar, an expansion on Ecclesiastes’ dictum “There is a time to sow and a time to reap”: Works and Days tells us how to know when the times to sow and reap are. Beyond that, there is other down-to-earth yeoman advice (Hesiod often gets called a “peasant”, but his vocation, a freeholder-farmer, was more yeomanly), such as how to find a woman and so on.

Works and Days is perhaps the greatest vindication that salt-of-the-earth types have never really changed. Despite being some 2700 years old, it still feels like advice my farmer cousins would give me.

If you read: Hesiod in general tends to be more available in prose translation than poetic. That said, I was able to find a couple of poetic translations at the library, and I read Daryl Hine’s. Hine has a technical skill with dactylic meter that captures the original’s rhythmic drumbeat, the constant DUN dunn dunnh DUN dunn dunnh that characterizes this meter.


Francisco_de_Goya2C_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_281819-182329Perhaps the most Biblical of the Greek poems, in the sense that it concerns itself wholly with the sacred. Theogony is the better-known of Hesiod’s two poems — I hesitate to call them “epics”, though they traditionally belong to that genre — and quite possibly the one that won him the tripod (an iron pot not unlike a Dutch oven) at Chalcis mentioned in his Works and Days.

The name Theogony literally means “birth of the gods”, and so the poem functions as the Hellenic creation epic. Here we find the creation of Being out of the Nothingness that is Chaos; the account of Uranus and Gaia, the Sky, that is, and the Earth; and the engendering of the Titanic and Olympian generations of the gods, as well as the war between the two.

Hesiod, though, is a clumsy storyteller. The whole Theogony is given primarily as a genealogy, one which contradicts itself at times, with the embedded stories getting summarily brusque treatment, an effect that is, again, more akin to that other early Iron Age work handed down to us, and utterly unlike the brilliant characterization and swelling set pieces of Homer. If this is an epic, it is a very clumsy attempt at epic.

Still, much like Genesis is in Hebrew, the Theogony is the lone real source for the Hellenic creation narratives, and embedded in the overwrought genealogy, we find a seductive cosmology. Unlike the Judaeo-Christian God, who just is — recall Gen. 1:2 here: “And the earth was without form, and void … And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” — or the Sumero-Akkadian deities, who apparently predate creation (based on the Atra-hasis and Enuma Elish) — the Greek chaos starts with absolutely nothing, with Chaos, from which the Earth (Gaia) springs into existence unconceived.

From there, she, too, bears an unconceived child, specifically, Uranus, who lies with her and creates conception. But Earth is fecund, moreso than the Sky can handle, and he tries to manage her output by stopping her up with … himself. So she creates the iron sickle and gives it to one of their children, Kronos, to lop off Uranus’ privates and disgorge her groaning womb. With this act, Kronos becomes the king of the gods, specifically of the Titans, the first generation begot by Sky and Earth.

The Titans are themselves and interesting mélange (yes, a geriatric spice) of anthropomorphic personifications and apparent former cult deities. If this is the first generation of gods, this makes sense: personifications (like Pratchett’s Death) are purer and more primitive than gods; they don’t require rites and worship and belief; they just are. A personification can no more not be a part of the world than the phenomena they personify. And half-forgotten cult deities would, too, be part of this first, half-forgotten generation of the gods.

The great cyclic theme that makes the Theogony hang together, though, is one of familial strife — specifically, injustices done by fathers and sons’ responses. Kronos castrates Uranus due to his preventing Gaia’s children’s birth, and in time, he comes to perpetrate injustices on his own children by his sister-consort Rhea … namely, he eats them.

One wonders at the role of prophecy in all of this. The Greeks were obsessed with prophecy and divination, after all, and Kronos’ consumption of Hades and Poseidon, Demeter and Hestia and Hera, seems likely to be triggered by a prophecy (namely, that one of his sons would usurp him); one suspects Uranus’ actions, too, were similarly motivated. And of course, Zeus’ rule in Olympus is foreordained to give way, in the fullness of time, to that of the Gigantes, that just as Kronos did to Uranus and Zeus to Kronos, a son of Zeus is destined to rise up and overthrow him.

In time, of course, Rhea becomes pregnant with Zeus and fools Kronos into consuming a rock instead of her son; much of the Theogony’s latter part (though still couched in genealogical tables) consists of Zeus gathering forces for the forthcoming war with Kronos and the Titans — the Titanomachy, if you will.

Ultimately, the poem’s last part details how Zeus consolidated rule over the gods, dispensing with threats as they arose. Some of the backstory (e.g. the prophecies) is omitted here, and comes from other, later sources, but in general the Theogony tells of the births of further gods — the “junior” Olympian deities e.g. Athena, Ares, and Hephaestus — and demigods by mortal hands. Finally, the poem gives us another version of the Prometheus and Pandora myths, the former tied to the reason why thighbones wrapped in fat are the proper offering to the gods.

Much as with Biblical narratives, the Theogony is sparse and skeletal, a poem written by a poet who was ultimately a farmer first. It feels much more the work of a purely oral early Iron Age poet than does Homer. And, though the two are of a piece, composed at the dawn of writing in Greece, there’s no denying that the gifted amateur Hesiod’s poetry is rawer and more primitive than the consummate professional Homer’s.

Both are, however, worth reading, in part because, I found, if Homer spoils us as readers, Hesiod reminds us that typical Greek storytellers were … typical Levantine storytellers, ultimately.

If you read: Hesiod tends to be found in equal measure in poetic and prose translations. Not as many good poetic translations exist of him as does Homer. I read Daryl Hine’s, and found that his rendition of the dactylic DUN dunn dunnh DUN dunn dunnh was quite seductive on the ears.

The Homeric Hymns

Auguste_Leloir_-_HomC3A8reMost of us are familiar with the Iliad and Odyssey, but these are hardly the only works — either in antiquity or today — attributed to Homer. We have, as well, a collection of some 33 poems traditionally ascribed to him, called the “Homeric Hymns”, all of which invoke some deity or another, and some of which tell longer stories about those deities.

Translator Daryl Hine calls the Hymns something to the effect of “the world’s first short-story collection”: I heartily disagree. Several of the Hymns are short stories, yes, and most of the hymnal’s literary value comes from them, but the bulk of the Homeric Hymns are invocations, with one (13, To Demeter) being as short as three lines long.

This is not to say such short hymns can’t develop stories of their own. Hymn 18 (To Hermes) is a restatement, in its own right, of the conception narrative that begins Hymn 4 (also To Hermes), for example, and Hymn 32 (To Selene) tells a tale of how Zeus once laid with Selene, the Moon, in lust, while its counterpart, Hymn 31 (To Helios), focuses on Helios’ — the Sun’s, that is — appearance.

But to call the Homeric Hymns a collection of short stories implies that they are all short stories, which they are clearly not.

Of the short stories, Hymn 2 (To Demeter) contains what is perhaps the best-known tale in the entire collection: that of Demeter and Persephone and Hades. The whole story is spelled out in exactly the same way it is in e.g. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Hades’ rape of Persephone, Demeter’s taking away the spring, suffering on Earth driving Zeus to rescind his decision, and Hades feeding Persephone the pomegranate, thereby ensuring Persephone splits the year between his court and Demeter’s, creating the seasons. It is the wellspring of our modern knowledge of this ancient tale, and among the Hymns’ most ancient as well.

Hymn 3 (To Apollo) is actually a twofer: its first part, dedicated to Delian Apollo, records his birth narrative, where Leto, heavy with child, at last alights on Delos (hence the name) and there bears Apollo in exchange for making the place, rocky and infertile, sacrosanct to him; the second, to Pythian Apollo, tells the story of Apollo’s wanderings to found another cult center.

In this tale, Apollo tries to found a temple at Telphousa, but the river there, pushing him away, suggests rather Mount Parnassus. The vale he finds there, though, is protected by a dragon — he slays it, and from its pollution he hallows both himself and the place, making it his temple and commandeering a boatload of Cretan pirates — as a dolphin, natch — to be his priests, all before returning to Telphousa and building a temple there anyway out of revenge for being deceived. So it is Delphi, the greatest of the Greek cultic centers, comes into being.

3b is probably the weakest Homeric hymn: it is excessively ornate and rather poorly structurally laid out (Delphi’s foundations, for example, are being laid before Apollo bothers killing the dragon). It, in fact, degrades into silliness, with the dolphin Apollo’s commandeering of the Cretan pirate boat having an altogether comic aura to it. (Apollo here reminds me of nothing so much as Meemai from Baiten Kaitos.)

Hymn 4 (To Hermes), by contrast, is my favorite: a rip-roaring comedy about the infant Hermes where he, barely a day old, manages to — (1) befriend the tortoise, (2) kill it, (3) make its shell into a lyre, (4) invent sandals, (5) rustle Apollo’s cattle, (6) kill and quarter some, (7) invent fire, and (8) make a meal of them, and, when Apollo shows up wondering where on earth his cattle have gotten off to, (10) invent toilet humor too. Then he (11) defends himself in court before their father Zeus! Hymn 4 is a rollicking good yarn that you don’t really want to come to an end.

Hymn 5 (To Aphrodite) is rather more erotic, and here we have Aphrodite’s affair with Anchises recounted in some detail. Not quite a prurient narrative, mind — get your mind out of the gutter! It also gives a folk etymology of Aeneas’ name — Aeneas, hero of the Iliad and Aeneid — and subtly hymns the three virginal goddesses as well.

Hymn 7 (To Dionysus) has a tale of Dionysus getting abducted by pirates, and the God of Wine getting his revenge in suitably ridiculous fashion, and Hymn 19 (To Pan), the last of the longer hymns, celebrates Hermes’ goat-leggèd son Pan, telling the tale of his conception and how he came to rule the wild places. And Hymn 33 (To the Dioscuroi), though less than 20 lines long, has a sacred-sounding story about the twins Castor and Pollux — the Dioscuroi (or Gemini) — saving a shipful of mariners foundering at sea.

Let me draw attention, finally, to Hymn 8 (To Ares), where the singer beseeches the Iliad’s berserker god of war to quell the anger in his own heart and let him go in peace. Moreso than any of the other Homeric hymns, this has the ring of genuine prayer, and suggests that Ares had a role in the Greek pantheon unattested elsewhere in our sources. Not even the great explainers of Greek mythology (e.g. Edith Hamilton or this video) seem to have picked up on the subtle import Hymn 8 implies.

All in all, the Homeric Hymns take no more than a leisurely evening’s reading, and offer an — above all — genuine view into the tales of the Greek gods, beyond the summarizations offered by Bulfinch’s and Hamilton’s respective Mythologies. They are invocations, and prayers, and short stories (actually, the term is epyllons) — a truly remarkable collection of poetry worth just as much as the name dubiously attached to them.

If you read: I found it sort of at random, in the back of Daryl Hine’s translations of Hesiod. I suspect there are other, perhaps more up-to-date poetic translations out there. Or Chapman, if that’s what tickles your fancy.

Paradise Lost

250px-rubens_painting_adam_eveMuch 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’ Lusiadsyet 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.

Borges, Lovecraft, and Metaphysical Horror

The more I read Borges’ Labyrinths, the more I appreciate how deeply unsettling and even scary its stories are. These are stories of ideas — “The Library of Babel”, for example, has no obvious plot — and characterization is oftentimes minimal. But the architecture of such stories suits Borges’ purpose just fine, which is not to create a compelling narrative but rather explore a compelling idea.

Ideas which often have unsettling implications.

It’s not an accident that one of Borges’ most unsettling tales, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius”, is Labyrinths’ first. In this story, we read of an Illuminati-esque conspiracy, Orbus Tertius, engaged in a holistic, centuries-long worldbuilding exercise with the goal of overwriting our existence with their fictional one. When Borges was writing, he likely had Mormon “archaeology” in mind, and at its most surface level this story seems a parody of archaeological attempts to vindicate the Book of Mormon (usually with questionable methodology).

Yet in recent years, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius” has taken on a keener edge, at least in the United States. The growing realization that American politics are now governed by two oppositional worldviews, neither of which considers the other reality-based at all, hones concepts like Borges’ hrönir. Suddenly we have become aware that a compelling fictional world can overwrite our own … a lesson people under totalitarian regimes have long known. The story becomes more topical in subtly unsettling way, a creeping horror.

Similarly unsettling themes pervade Labyrinths. “Three Versions of Judas” almost prophesied the Gospel of Judas’ unearthing, where the Gnostic community who wrote it argued that Judas’ actions were preordained by the divine Plan and hence could not possibly have been sinful, for sin implies a deviation from divine Will, and it was His will that Jesus be crucified (indeed, there’s a suggestion that Jesus and Judas co-orchestrated his arrest, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly-style). It is a theme, however, that couldn’t have been explored had it not been there at all, and Borges is a master at drawing out the inevitable consequences of thematic ideas.

“The Circular Ruins” turns on hermetic irony: just as the guru inhabiting the fire god’s temple dreams the valley’s hero into being, so too does the fire god dream the guru into being. Are we real, then, or figments of another’s imagination? This is a tale that anticipates postmodern metacommentaries on text, such as the characters’ realization, late in the Illuminatus! Trilogy, that they are, in fact, characters in a book. But “The Circular Ruins” takes it one step further — what if the dreamer himself is dreamt up? What if God is, in fact, a novelist, and we are just His playthings? The suggestion unsettles.

Just so, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” is another commentary on writing, this time on the limitations of originality. I’ve seen commentaries on it allude to the idea of writer as “perfect reader”, but it goes further than that. For Pierre Menard to perfectly reproduce passages of Don Quixote — reproductions with greater depth due to the self-consciously literary act of the reproduction itself — calls into question both our claims to originality — perhaps someone else can arrive at the same words but through different methods? — as well as the depth of meaning these words carry, and how important context is in establishing this depth. “Pierre Menard’s” message is couched in humor — “History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding” remains one of the funniest punchlines in all of literature — yet it is there nonetheless, and it is unsettling.

Such themes pervade all of Labyrinths’ tales. “A New Refutation of Time” concatenates Berkeley and Hume, philosophers whose worldviews could not have been more different, to arrive at something that seems like a reductio ad absurdum on the outside yet makes its own kind of queer logical sense inside, especially in light of e.g. general relativity, where time is seen as an extension of (or extra dimension attached to) space. Stranger still, the essay is presented in two separate drafts … an artfully crafted déjà vu.

“Death and the Compass” investigates the idea of a detective who creates the narrative the serial killer follows — an idea Eco’s The Name of the Rose further elaborates on — while “Averroes’ Search” plays with the concept that one’s existence does not matter anymore once they’ve fulfilled their essential cause — in Averroes’ case, translating Aristotle, and in the context of his Poetics, understanding the idea of theater. “The Zahir” (“Zahir,” incidentally, brings to mind the Legend of Korra character “Zaheer”) explores the idea of an idea object imbued with such obsessive power that it inevitably brings those who come into contact with it to ruin. “Funes the Memorius”, which I regard as Labyrinths’ weakest work, is an exploration of hyperthymesia. “The Garden of Forking Paths” plays again with hermetic themes and illusory time. “The Library of Babel” uses its extended conceit to play with themes revolving around the limitations of knowledge, and how knowledge, when pushed to its edge, breaks down into contradictions. And so on.

All of these stories share this same unsettling quality. It is an unsettling-ness that becomes stronger, too, the more you read Borges.

In a way, it’s the exact opposite of Lovecraft’s horror. Lovecraft’s horror is fundamentally a fear of the unknown, which means that if you’ve read “The Rats in the Walls” a few times, say, it ceases to be scary. You can start to critique stories of his like “The Shadow over Innsmouth” for rambling too long for their own good, sometimes, once you’ve gotten used to how Lovecraft develops his themes, while you’re reading the work for the first time. Lovecraft is not a very subtle writer — “The Shadow over Innsmouth’s” biggest problem is that he can’t just let the last horror be inferred, that he has to hit you over the head with what he had already embedded in the text.

Yet, strangely enough, Lovecraft and Borges are allied writers. “The Shadow over Innsmouth’s” last horror — the secret contained within the narrator’s own bloodline — is, as I’ve pointed out, a subtle horror, an embedded horror, a horror of the uncanny. And it is this latter that Borges specializes in. He creates the uncanny. This is why so many of Labyrinths’ stories — even ones that end in heroic exultation like “We drew our heavy revolvers (for suddenly there were revolvers in the dream) and exultantly killed the Gods” (“Ragnarök”) — fill us with a deep sense of unease. This is what I’ve come to think of as metaphysical horror — horror embedded in ideas themselves.

This is why Borges’ stories become stronger the more you read him while Lovecraft’s become weaker. Most of Lovecraft’s dénouements are essentially — gimmicks. And when the horror starts to last, it’s because he’s tapping into concerns which discomfort him (a big obsession of his being tainted bloodlines). So much of Lovecraft’s plots involve confrontation with secrets that ought to be left well enough alone and in so doing drive the the narrator, not infrequently, insane; even in the way he writes you can tell this sense of forbidden knowledge is one of his driving thematic obsessions.

Borges actually explores hidden knowledge — not secret or apocryphal knowledge — but the hidden logical consequences of the everyday and from them mines the uncanny. Borges’ horror is the culmination of Lovecraft’s program. Lovecraft needs to couch his narrators as academics in a decidedly non-academic narration. Borges uses academic narration to establish his (characters’?) academic credentials. And by doing so, Borges manages to tap a horror Lovecraft could never find: the horror lurking within things themselves.

Metaphysical horror.

Merry Christmas.

Pharsalia / De Bello Civile

maxresdefaultMost of us, when we think of the classics, think of Homer — the Iliad and they Odyssey — and sometimes of the Aeneid. Greek and Latin literature aren’t as important nowadays as they used to be, when during e.g. John Milton’s time they formed as core a part of the curriculum as the Bible. Even Aristophanes — without a doubt, the funniest man on Earth — is half forgotten. Which is a shame, because not only was the literature of the Greeks and Romans fundamental to the whole of Western culture, but it’s pretty darn good as well.

Take this Lucan guy. Here was a poet who loved the Stoic ideal yet was rashly ruled by his own intemperate emotions. An early friendship with Nero burned out for Reasons and Lucan ultimately championed a conspiracy to depose him. Something which ended, unsurprisingly, in his arrest. Suddenly realizing the consequences of his rashness, Lucan begged for a pardon, but Nero allowed him only the choice of his death. He was just 25.

Which is a pity, because the half-finished epic he left behind — what is known today as the Pharsalia and in the Roman world most likely as De Bello Civile (“On the Civil War”) — is absolutely wonderful. Did Lucan have the technical mastery of a mature Virgil? Of course not! But instead Lucan’s work is charged with an absolutely frenetic pace, a sense of gloomy realism yet with an almost Lovecraftian supernatural lurking in the shadows, and an almost addictive affection for lost causes.

Pharsalia endeavors to tell the tale of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar (the first phase of a series of civil wars that would only end with the deaths of Cleopatra and Marc Antony), with the text breaking off abruptly after Cato’s march through treacherous Libya to reach Leptis (Magna?) and Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar. It builds on a pair of epic similes — Pompey compared to a dying oak tree, and Caesar to a bolt of lightning — turning them into conceits he draws entire characterizations from. Pompey’s ill-fated wife stands with Virgil’s Dido as one of the most richly-drawn-out characters of the Roman period, and under Lucan’s hands the setting develops a raw, emotionally-charged energy.

Even Cato — the closest thing this epic seems to have to a hero — has his tragic flaw; he is strict and wooden beyond all reason, a character trait we see from him early on. Pharsalia is rather like Madame Bovary in this respect: a great tale woven wholly from unsavory heroes, and proof against the idea that you need personable characters to weave a great story, as long as the story itself offers that dramatic power, that emotional charge, all good narratives need to run. Indeed, both Pharsalia and Madame Bovary seem to be using their characters’ unsavoriness as a theme, making a point: Flaubert about bourgeoisie ennui; Lucan about Nero’s infamous den of iniquity.

For this is really the epic’s beating heart: it is one extended, sustained invective against Nero, an allegory clothed in a historical novel’s garb. And what a heart! We’re more than willing to excuse the weaknesses of our tragic heroes, Pompey and Cato, for in them we see our own weaknesses, especially against somebody like Caesar (or Nero) who seems to think — and have confirmed for them either by the world itself or sycophants — that they’re well and truly beyond anybody else.

One can just as easily read the Czech intellectual into our heroes, or Reinhold Niebuhr, and in Lucan’s Nero Caesar we can see too well the Francisco Francos, Pol Pots, Benito Mussolinis, and other orange-skinned dictatorial assholes of our day … and see ourselves as La résistance, partisans, the gallant opposition. Truly does Lucan speak when he says

Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni
“The conquering cause pleased the gods; the conquered’s, Cato.”

Is it any wonder, then, that when times get tough and we find ourselves implacably opposed to our fellow countryman, Pharsalia always seems to wax in importance?

If you read: Pharsalia badly needs a new verse translation, one fit for our times. The most current verse translation seems to be Susanna Braund’s 1992 effort, whose free verse frankly rather spoils the effect of Lucan’s almost monotonous hexameter; beyond that, Sir Edward Ridley’s 1896 blank verse effort is the easiest to obtain (being the one in the Gutenberg database), while a 1718 effort by one Nicholas Rowe into heroic couplets most accurately matches the original’s sense of overweening regularity, although at the cost of losing much of its emotive charge.

As far as prose translations go, if you have to read them, Riley’s Bohn’s and Duff’s Loeb editions are decent enough (Riley offers a literal translation of the Latin). Avoid, however, at all costs, Robert Grave’s 1957 prose translation: Graves is as giddy in  denigrating Lucan and absolutely destroying his ornament and anything remotely resembling poetic character as Lucan himself is in denigrating Nero, yielding a first three books so poorly translated as to be almost unreadable. (His notes, as insufferable and tone-deaf as they are, are, however, occasionally useful.)

A hypothesis: Much Lucan scholarship rages around the question of how he wanted Pharsalia to end, with one side arguing that its natural end would come with Caesar’s death, and the other, Cato’s. I tend to side with the Catonists here, because this is clearly a tale that grew in the telling, and I want to add an extra idea: Sulpicia’s vision at the end of Book I clearly extends well beyond the events of Pharsalia proper and suggests enough material for a trilogy, to match the three phases of the Civil War, one which a less outspoken and more dedicated Lucan would have likely been finishing up in his early 30s.