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On Thursday, I went to hear Benjamin Kreith give a solo violin performance at the Mondavi Center, where he played as part of the Shinkoskey Noon Concert series. The beginning of the program featured sestinas by Ezra Pound and Dante Alighieri, both of which Pound later set to music that he composed for the violin: “Sestina – Altaforte” and “Al poco giorno.”

Dantes_Inferno_Canto_28-1The first, “Altaforte,” is a dramatic monologue in the voice of Bertrand de Born, a twelfth-century French lord, a troubadour, and a man whom Dante placed in his Inferno, in the eighth circle of hell, in the ninth bolgia, with the sowers of discord. Ezra Pound respected Bertrand de Born as a poet, translating some of his French songs, but his dramatic monologue imagines him along the lines that Dante did:  as one who sowed discord and reaped war. Pound wrote the poem in 1909 and first performed it about that time. Later, Pound composed violin music to accompany the sestina.

This past Thursday, Kreith provided a recording of Pound’s reading at Harvard in 1939. Then he played Pound’s music, and it is, on the violin, as uncomfortable as the voice of the poem. Another version, with piano and vocals, can be heard partially here.

The sestina is spoken in Bertrand de Born’s voice to his jongleur (singer), Papiols, and reveals Born’s bloody-mindedness. A commentary on the poem is available from The Modernism Lab.

SESTINA ALTAFORTE by Ezra Pound

LOQUITUR: En Bertrans de Born.
Dante Alighieri put this man in hell for that he was a stirrer up of strife.
Eccovi!
Judge ye!
Have I dug him up again?
The scene is at his castle, Altaforte. “Papiols” is his jongleur. “The Leopard,” the device of Richard Coeur de Lion.

I

Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace.
You whoreson dog, Papiols, come! Let’s to music!
I have no life save when the swords clash.
But ah! when I see the standards gold, vair, purple, opposing
And the broad fields beneath them turn crimson,
Then howls my heart nigh mad with rejoicing.

II

In hot summer have I great rejoicing
When the tempests kill the earth’s foul peace,
And the lightnings from black heav’n flash crimson,
And the fierce thunders roar me their music
And the winds shriek through the clouds mad, opposing,
And through all the riven skies God’s swords clash.

III

Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
And the shrill neighs of destriers in battle rejoicing,
Spiked breast to spiked breast opposing!
Better one hour’s stour than a year’s peace
With fat boards, bawds, wine and frail music!
Bah! there’s no wine like the blood’s crimson!

IV

And I love to see the sun rise blood-crimson.
And I watch his spears through the dark clash
And it fills all my heart with rejoicing
And pries wide my mouth with fast music
When I see him so scorn and defy peace,
His lone might ‘gainst all darkness opposing.

V

The man who fears war and squats opposing
My words for stour, hath no blood of crimson
But is fit only to rot in womanish peace
Far from where worth’s won and the swords clash
For the death of such sluts I go rejoicing;
Yea, I fill all the air with my music.

VI

Papiols, Papiols, to the music!
There’s no sound like to swords swords opposing,
No cry like the battle’s rejoicing
When our elbows and swords drip the crimson
And our charges ‘gainst “The Leopard’s” rush clash.
May God damn for ever all who cry “Peace!”

VII

And let the music of the swords make them crimson!
Hell grant soon we hear again the swords clash!
Hell blot black for always the thought “Peace!”

Ezra Pound

“Al poco giorno” is in radical contrast to “Altaforte.” It is based on an Italian love sonnet by Dante, and the music is both subtler and sweeter. The song has been recorded on the album Ego Scriptor Cantilenae: The Music of Ezra Pound (2003), featuring conductor Robert Hughes:  the first thirty seconds as well as the entire song may be heard online. On the relation between the poem and the music, see this commentary.

AL POCO GIORNO by Dante Alighieri

I have come, alas, to the great circle of shadow,
to the short day and the whitening hills,
when the colour is all lost from the grass,
though my desire will not lose its green,
so rooted is it in this hardest stone,
that speaks and feels as though it were a woman.

And likewise this heaven-born woman
stays frozen, like the snow in shadow,
and is unmoved, or moved like a stone,
by the sweet season that warms all the hills,
and makes them alter from pure white to green,
so as to clothe them with the flowers and grass.

When her head wears a crown of grass
she draws the mind from any other woman,
because she blends her gold hair with the green
so well that Amor lingers in their shadow,
he who fastens me in these low hills,
more certainly than lime fastens stone.

Her beauty has more virtue than rare stone.
The wound she gives cannot be healed with grass,
since I have travelled, through the plains and hills,
to find my release from such a woman,
yet from her light had never a shadow
thrown on me, by hill, wall, or leaves’ green.

I have seen her walk all dressed in green,
so formed she would have sparked love in a stone,
that love I bear for her very shadow,
so that I wished her, in those fields of grass,
as much in love as ever yet was woman,
closed around by all the highest hills.

The rivers will flow upwards to the hills
before this wood, that is so soft and green,
takes fire, as might ever lovely woman,
for me, who would choose to sleep on stone,
all my life, and go eating grass,
only to gaze at where her clothes cast shadow.

Whenever the hills cast blackest shadow,
with her sweet green, the lovely woman
hides it, as a man hides stone in grass.

Dante Alighieri (translated by A.S. Kline, 2008)

Snowdon_-_Green_Hills_and_Stone

 

 

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I was recently visiting my good friend, Dr. Jerry Root, in order to share with him and his beloved wife Claudia that I will be moving to Colorado to teach creative writing ~ where they are welcome to come visit me and go skiing anytime they please!

My conversations and experiences with Jerry never fail to be interesting (as I have noted before and in posts on the Brotherhood of the Briarmore than once!) for Jerry Root is a man with an expansive soul, a tender heart, and a brilliant mind. He is a professor of Christian Formation and Ministry, the assistant director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and a C.S. Lewis scholar. He preaches sermons that always change something in my soul and writes publications that have reached countless readers, including the books The Quotable Lewis and C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil. He generally makes the world a better place to live in just by being alive and being himself. He is one of the most encouraging people I have ever met, and that is no doubt why he has had such a positive impact on Wheaton College students (like our mutual friend Liz!) and the members of the churches where he has pastored.

Jerry has a penchant for remembering everything. For instance, when my housemate and I met up with him and others from Wheaton College to attend the midnight showing of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he immediately recognized her from a class she’d been in with him years before — and recalled that her mother had once visited and asked how her mother was doing now! Jerry also remembers stories about all kinds of famous people and events, especially literary sorts, and tells them to delight (and subversively instruct) whoever is listening.

On this occasion of my visit with him, in addition to celebrating the progress of the mead (a honey wine) currently fermenting in the Root Cellar, we spoke about poetry since I am going to go teach it in Colorado. We fell to talking about the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, and Jerry reached for a book our colleague, Brett Foster, had given him for his birthday, opened it, and read the poem, “Digging”:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney
Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Jerry said he never was himself much interested in potatoes but that Seamus Heaney made them interesting to him — that the poet’s descriptions invoke them in such a way that they come to matter. He was glad that Seamus Heaney didn’t dig with a spade, but with a pen, and so brought vividly to life for everyone who reads this poem the reality of the men in his family, Irish farmers, working the land. (We did not talk about the phrase “snug as a gun,” which does imply a darker side to Seamus Heaney’s penmanship, but it is worth thinking on further …)

Then Jerry Root read one of his favorite sonnets to me, sonnet 45 from Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence, “Astrophil and Stella.” The Greek origins of the name “Astrophil” make it mean “star lover” and “Stella” is, of course, Latin for “star.” Sonnet 45 is about Astrophil’s temporarily unrequited love, a moment when Stella reads a story about unrequited love, and Astrophil’s hope that, in so reading, her heart might be turned toward him whose experience is so like that of the protagonist in the romance she has read.

Stella oft sees the very face of woe
Painted in my beclouded stormy face,
But cannot skill to pity my disgrace,
Not though thereof the cause herself she know;
Yet hearing late a fable, which did show
Of lovers never known a grievous case,
Pity thereof gat in her breast such place
That, from that sea derived, tears’ spring did flow.
Alas, if fancy, drawn by imaged things,
Though false, yet with free scope, more grace doth breed
Than servant’s wrack, where new doubts honor brings;
Then think, my dear, that you in me do read
Of lovers’ ruin some sad tragedy.
I am not I; pity the tale of me.

Sir Philip Sidney (16th c.)

This reminded me of Dante’s story of Paolo and Francesca (and an image of them painted by one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; see my post on myDante), who fell in love reading a book together (and paid the price for it in hell — see Dante’s Inferno, Canto V!). Both Sidney’s poem and Dante’s are about how stories can affect the human heart in love. It’s a powerful idea.

Seamus Heaney gives us acute observation of his family at work in the natural world. Sidney gives us, like stargazer lilies, the lover waiting for the beloved to return the heart’s desires. Jerry Root has given me cause to think of these poets and their poems.

What has he given to you?

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…as T.S. Eliot puts it:

Who then devised the torment? Love.

Love is the unfamiliar Name

behind the hands that wove

the intolerable shirt of flame

which human power cannot remove.

We only live, only suspire,

consumed either by fire or fire.

It takes great faith to open oneself to this purifying fire, to believe that it is the power of love. The extraordinary thing is that it is often imagined as a fire of roses. Eliot concludes Little Gidding, from which I have just quoted, with these lines:

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

into the crowned knot of fire

and the fire and the rose are one.

In The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald describes the fire of roses into which the princess must plunge her hands to be burned and purified. And Dante uses this metaphor in The Divine Comedy. Where did the fire of roses originate? I supsect it goes back beyond human memory.

Dare we open ourselves to this purifying fire … ?

Madeleine L’Engle
Walking on Water:
Reflections on Faith and Art
(1980, rpt. 2001)

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I love the poetry of Dante Aligheri, his Vita Nuova and Commedia Divina, better known in English as The New Life and The Divine Comedy. The latter book, an epic, consists of three separate works, Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, and tells the story of Dante the Pilgrim’s journey through the Christian otherworld following first Virgil, then his beloved Beatrice, and finally Saint Bernard of Clairvaux into the Heavenly Rose and the Presence of God. I’ve taught the works of Dante for many years, and I learn more from Dante the Poet every time I re-read his poetry.

Just the other day, I was talking to my friend Bob, and when he enthusiastically agreed with me that Dante is the greatest poet who ever lived, I was delighted! (Perhaps it is no surprise that Bob feels this way as he is Italian … ) Then, only yesterday, I was talking to my friend Ann Meyer, and she mentioned the development of a new website with the complete Vita Nuova and Commedia on it … illustrated with artwork inspired by Dante’s imagination down through the centuries … and allowing the reader to create a personalized, annotated version of Dante’s two greatest works. (I’ll have to tell Bob!) It’s called myDante.

I’ve just begun my exploration of the site, and I am enjoying it tremendously. It’s really beautiful, like a medieval manuscript, and the images are from some of my favorite illustrators: Doré and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as well as others. But it is of course the words of the poet that captivate my memory and imagination, as when Dante writes in one place, “In that part of the book of my memory before the which is little that can be read, there is a rubric, saying: incipit vita nuova …” and in another place:

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter-death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I’ll also tell the other things I saw.

I cannot clearly say how I had entered the wood;
I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path.

But when I’d reached the bottom of a hill-
it rose along the boundary of the valley
that had harassed my heart with so much fear-

I looked on high and saw its shoulders clothed
already by the rays of that same planet
which serves to lead men straight along all roads.

Dante, Inferno 1-18
trans. Allen Mandelbaum

It possible to read these words on the site as well as Mark Musa’s translation beside the original Italian. You can listen to a sound file of the Italian verses being read aloud — it’s beautiful! It’s also possible to keep on online journal/blog with your personally annotated copy of Dante’s works, too. There is no cost to the readers who become a part of the myDante project, so anyone with computer access who wants to join and read together in community can. In every way, I believe, this new approach to Dante has the potential to draw a new generation into Dante’s world to experience his sorrow, his triumph, and ultimately, his joy.

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When at night I await the beloved guest,
Life seems to hang by a thread.  “What is youth?” I demand
Of the room.  “What is honor, freedom, the rest, 
In the Presence of her who holds the flute in her hand?”

But now she is here.  Tossing aside her veil,
She considers me.  “Are you the one who came
To Dante, who dictated the pages of Hell
To him?” I ask her.  She replies, “I am.”

Anna Akhmatova (1924)
Trans. Lyn Coffin

Commentary:  Tomorrow, I’ll teach Dante’s Inferno for the 10th time. I will descend into hell again. In the role of Virgil, I will lead many pilgrims on the journey.

Every time I go down, I learn. Sometimes a lesson must be learned over and over again to be learned at all. There is a terrible sadness in that truth, and in that truth, a terrible gift.

I didn’t find the secret ring.
For days, I waited and guessed.
That tender captive, a song to sing,
Perished inside my breast.

Anna Akhmatova (1917)
Trans. Lyn Coffin

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