And Gerard Manley Hopkins Laments a Stand of Felled Poplars
Sorry to say, my enthusiasm for Lucan appears to be waning. Not through any fault of the translation, I hasten to add. Yesterday's post hinted at—if not explicitly foreshadowed—my difficulties, though it is a little more than unknown allusions or referenced person and place names.
Today I accomplished Canto III—or Book 3 I should clarify—and it was only by skimming that I was able to persist. Actually, as I noted, my reading was not well-focused, but rather hurried and distracted: the narrative in general was hard for me to follow. A character would begin speaking and I would only realize it was speech midway through; and none of the characters seemed vividly drawn to me. "Seemed" is the appropriate verb there—for I don't doubt that Lucan has had staying power over the centuries for more than just his powerfully connected uncle.
My reading is deficient, but I have never done well with epic poems or extended verse narratives. (Kind of an odd admission coming from one whose poems include The Requiem and The Resurgiad.) Surely I am due to revisit Homer. Actually, I would like to try both Homer and Virgil in the Robert Fagles translations, which have been highly touted. To date—actually since childhood—much of my reading has been project-driven; only presently am I lucky enough to have time (and sufficient health) for pleasure reading, and I find myself inclined to want to cover new ground. Besides—like many another man of my years—I am much more at ease in non-fiction; to enter the fictive realms of a novel or a long poem grates against my patience.
Something of that lies behind my displeasure with Lucan. By mistake, instead of pressing headlong forward, I reread a passage in Book 3 and found the second go-round much more accessible and pleasing. So I looked it up in the notes, to see what Susan Braund (the translator) had for it. There I encountered this:
Caesar cuts down the sacred grove, striking the first blow of the axe himself. Lucan incorporates into this passage an epic set piece expected of him, namely the felling of trees, ll 440-5. Typically he alters the usual context from seeking wood for a funeral pyre to seeking wood for siege-works, with a hint of Caesar's vindictive megalomania. For the tre-felling topos see Homer, Il 23. 108-26, Ennius, Ann. 175-9, Skutsch, Virgil, Aen. 6. 176-82, II. 133-8.
Frankly, Lucan is writing what purports to be history—and for that I would rather head to a history book. As yet I have not read Caesar's own annals of the civil war, biased and self-serving though they may be. (Some years ago I read his account of the wars in Gaul.) So I might rather turn to that, as a first step, if getting that history is my priority. Right now, however, I've moved into this whole Latin phase through an unexpected encounter with Marcus Aurelius, so the civil war period is not my immediate interest. I was hoping to learn more about Stoicism in the time of Nero, through Lucan—but I may decide to abandon Civil War at least temporarily, and pick up my Marcus Aurelius in Loeb.
The idea that this is a "set piece" —that Lucan was already writing to fulfill preexisting expectations, makes me lose interest a little. Not being schooled in the literary format—or genre—I am hard-pressed to see why such topos are desirable, even if necessary to the poet's immediate audience. (As a writer, I have preferred to strike out on my own, and if the work suffers for not containing a tree-felling scene then so be it... "strike out" possibly being a double entendre there.) Ennius is another writer much discussed by Marcus and Fronto, but on looking to see what was available (what survived), nothing struck my immediate fancy.
Possibly my favorite poem on the topic, a precursor to the modern era, belongs to Gerard Manley Hopkins:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do
When we delve or hew--
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being só slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene.