CINEMA AND LATIN POETRY
Cinema is the legitimate artistic child of our times, and we can be rightly proud of what film has done, barely seventy years from its incunabulous beginnings. But it is easy to let ourselves into the odd error of imagining that our century, by inventing camera and screen, discovered all by itself a new and "modern" way of seeing.. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is the aim of this paper to make it clear that people in the Classical world had a ''way of seeing'' virtually identical to what we call cinematic vision., which is an ancient and basic property of the human mind. We live our lives in a mobile medium, so it is natural for man to develop artistic techniques which are consonant with the norms of his daily living. Visual imagery in real-time motion is not only natural for the human mind, it is required for the daily progress of life in a constantly moving, shifting set of circumstances. Just walking down the street and seeing where you are going, we perform a myriad of real-time calculations, which are incidentally reflected in 20th c. cinema, as well as in ancient poetry. The very successs of film and its mis-bred offspring TV, permits much of our new poetry to be "un-visual" and idea-based, a process which offers new prospects with some advantages and some losses.
Classical scholars, bred in a literary tradition dating from the Renaissance, have tended to see Classical literary artwork as static, as a series of snapshots to be explored one by one, like the layers of microtomed sections through the tissue of an organ.. The visual arts through the last century have reinforced this penchant, since painting and sculpture by their nature "freeze" dynamic tableaux, leaving the imagination of the viewer to fill in suggested motion. Over the years a developed taste for artistic staticness became the dominant model for "high art", and Classical criticism came to interpret the ancient poets on an exact verbal level, exploring every conceivable word-relationship in painstaking detail, but unaware of word-art as a lively representation of life lived in a matrix of real time, for which poetry was, in the Greco-Roman culture, the representative vehicle. Ancient painting and sculpture implied motion in their frozen stances, but they could not represent it; while poetry, which had real-time to work with as the reader spoke it aloud, could use a compressed time-sequence to bring to the reader a sense of expansible time and real motion. Cinema, by its nature functions in a real-time world, hence does this effortlessly and automatically.
Word-scenes in ancient poetry are seen as a series of separate frames, often serving as decoration or "illustration" to the idea-content. This follows the critical notion of the Greek critic Longinus, who saw Form as a way of attractively cloaking Meaning and making it palatable, thus missing the artistic thrust of poets who, for centuries, had been skilled at painting images of their world from a palette of words. Even as formidable an intellectual as Lucretius likened his own technique of writing to the practice of doctors who honey the lip of a cup of medicine for children.
In this paper I would like to present two examples of ancient poems which evoke clear visual responses, and must be judged in that light if they are to be understood at all.. I have intentionally selected these poems, which have consistently been overlooked since the Renaissance, because they are an interesting example of how easily artistic intent can be misconstrued. The scant attention paid these poems can be countered by a new estimate of their meaning, based on "word-painting" couched in their visual imagery. In a sense Horace's Ode 12 of Book 3, and the last short poem in the Monobiblos of Propertius are curiously undiscovered poetry. Their meaning only surfaces through the succession of visual images which they contain, without which Horace's poem is notable mainly as a rare example of a rare Greek verse form, Ionic a Minore, while the poem of Propertius is merely perplexing in its wording, and usually misunderstood in its striking, final line.
.I believe a fusion of "word-with image-in time" was in large part the way the ancients thought of their poetry, not as a series of mechanical arrangements like a "rhetoric of poetry", but as an integral function of the poet's work. They understood the deep, psychological aspects of what poems with complex, multi-layered features can do with minds, and were aware that high art, operating to the limit, is not only lovely and beautiful to behold. It is intensely spiritual We will start by outlining the visual thread of these poems, and construct, as it were, film-scenarios for them, in which the phonetics of the words and their rhythmic patterns flow along on a synchronized auditory track..
Horace's Ode 12 of Book 3 is an lovely little poem, but over the years its main claim to critical attention has been focussed on its rare Sapphic metre. The poem has only twelve lines, dominated by the incessant metrical beat of two shorts followed by two longs, which continues from beginning to end. This is a poem without historical or political reference, it has no references to real or imaginary biographical details pertaining to the author's life, nor does it parody a famous Greek original. For these reasons it has received little comment from Classicists.. One modern critic even speaks of the poem as "an odd and almost fragmentary ode... ", a remark which sums up the most commentators' lack of grasp of this poem.
miserarum neque amore dare ludum neque dulci
tibi qualum cytherae puer ales, tibi telas
simul unctos tiberinis umeros lavit in undis
catus idem per apertum fugientes agitato
O those poor sad little ladies, with no chance for love or playing,
To you, Neobule, for a moment now forgetting
As his smooth slick limbs he plunges in the Tiber's waters,
Sharp-eyed, about to spear the deer herd whirling there in the meadow,
With the first words one hears the background beat (short-short-long-long), which persists throughout the poem. This is the "audio track", a separate sound sequence which accompanies (through the mind's ear) what the mind's eye is observing. We see a girl sitting spinning wool, a scene familiar enough to Romans but one which in our world of man-made fabrics has been relegated to the museum.. But any one who has observed a weaver at the preparatory task of spinning wool into thread, will recognize the rhythmic pattern of the foot driving the wheel. ((Catching the treadle at 2:00 o'clock, the foot gives a second push at about 4:00, after which the wheel picks up inertia at 6:00 and coasts on it own, spinning up to and over the top.) These very different pushing and coasting motions, evoked in the metre as two shorts followed by two longs, divide each turn into two rotatory segments. Sappho knew this motion well, it was who she made it famous as the metre which known in every Greek hamlet as women spun out the thread of livelihood. The "Sapphic Ionic a minore" metre was no bit of formal Classical experimenting, but a rhythm taken from daily life.
The first stanza is drenched in the sadnesses of young girls, specifically in terms of the things girls cannot do, making love and drinking at a symposium, while on the other hand they shudder at an evil uncle's lashing tongue urging them on to work. The uncle in antiquity is the surrogate controlling the family when the father dies or is absent, he has as bad a name as the malicious stepfather often has in our society. (The first word in the poem emphasizes their feelings: miserarum..) Sadness under duress runs through this first stanza, while the pump of the wheel inexorably drones on.
Visualize this scene in an archaeologically correct work-room, perhaps like one of the rooms on the first floor in the Greek collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The walls are plastered, painted in a mild rufous hue, the window is large, shutters are folded back during daylight, there are of course no panes and no glazing, so the view is unobstructed. Through this window we are led to the outside scene, which is the business of the next stanza.
We have been looking at Neobule, overcome by the onerous burden of loom and shuttle and everything that a typically Roman Minerva-oriented production world symbolizes. But she suddenly looks through the window and sees the "brightness" of a boy, resplendent in athlete's olive-oil and youth, who bears the shiningly exotic name of "Hebrus". He comes from the bright South, from the island of Lipare just north of Sicily. (How suitable that the town-island of Lipara or Lipare is identical in form with the Greek adjective liparos "oily, oiled".) Indeed he is no dull, run-of-the-mill Roman athlete, but a smooth Magna-Grecian, and Neobule's spirit rises (the wheel spins on automatically), while she watches him with all her heart and soul.
Now we shift our gaze through the window with a medium-speed zoom, to see the boy close at hand, moving quickly, engaged in one kind of athletic exercise after another, swift, beautiful and above all "free". (This is all still through the eyes of the girl in the foreground, sitting framed in the window, watching.) Four short shots are set up in fast sequence. There he is, now swimming, now riding a horse, now boxing, now running swiftly - - - the images flash one after another. In the foreground, through the eye of the camera, we still see Neobule as she watches, her wheel spinning endlessly, while outside at a distance, as in vignette, this handsome lad Hebrus exercises..
The exacerbated physicalness of the athletic youth, demonstrating four hyper-activities in three compact lines, is a almost visual montage. Behind the alternating scenes we still hear the insistent beat of the spinning-wheel rhythm, reminding us that this is all seen through the eyes of the tired girl at the window, drearily spinning wool, in the spirit of a Roman "good girl", who was commemorated for Romans in the traditional epitaph: DOMI SEDIT, LANAM FECIT
The last stanza introduces two scenes of hunting. In the first scene the boy is "sharp, watchful" (catus) watching while the deer flee whirling in a frenzied herd. In hunting in the ancient world, the deer were driven toward the hunter, who stands waiting for the kill, an effective if not quite a sporting proposition. The deer herd whirls as unseen beaters move them forward, while Hebrus stands motionless in a freeze shot, as the scene fades. The wild boar, that most dangerous of Mediterranean animals, is hidden invisible in a dense thicket, hiding and waiting. Hebrus is standing poised before the thicket, also waiting. With one brilliant visual stroke Horace conducts us swiftly from a woman's static world, in which the only movement is the motion of the spinning wheel, by way of a young man's hyper-athletic arena of frenzied activity, a to the total immobility of a hunter watching a boar invisible in the bushes.
The scene is frozen, but the audio track the metre drums out its beat. Here in intense outline are woman's world, vis a vis man's world, both are weft and warp in the Roman social fabric, but in spirit and fact entirely different. All this is shown through the web of interlocking words, sounds and scenes in this finely executed and compressed little vignette.
For the sake of clarity, let us re-run this poem as a compact outline for a film scenario:
l) Girl in large window, focus of camera is on her, zooms to her fingers drawing out the wool, then to her foot pushing on the treadle of the spinning wheel. (The audio track starts with the metrical pulse (short-short-long-long) continuing through to the end of the poem.) Shift upto catch her face, from side, sad profile. In an overdubbed second-track of audio-background, the incoherent sound of an uncle's mad voice threatening, then camera swings again to her, catching her desperate look. She looks toward the window, out the window, while the camera swings around behind her, sees her framed in the window........
2)... camera. zooms with her line of vision outside through the window frame, catches the boy at distance, zooms onto him, picking up his stance, body, face, finally a close-up of his features - - - hold a few seconds. Then without pause follow him in four fastmoving scenes in sequence 1) swimming, 2) horseback riding, 3) boxing, 4) running). End with a close view of his face and olive-oiled shoulders (dwell to show how he is Greekish, exotic). Finally a reversed front-shot back at the girl watching in the window. Her mood lightens slightly as camera comes in close, she shows a thin, Mona Lisa-ish half sad smile, as she watches.
3) Now a complete shift of scene - - - a herd of deer whirling across a field, on the opposite side the young man standing, waiting. Hold on him for five seconds, as he stands poised with spear raised, the deer whirl away. Cut scene,. an abrupt shift- - - - he is standing before a thicket, spear firmly down to catch the charging boar with spear in the chest.. Add to the metrical audio track the grunts of an angry boar in the thicket, while the camera spots the glint of one ferocious animal eye. Hold this freeze-shot several seconds ( interminable!) while the soft rhythm of the spinning wheel picks up, grows louder, and slowly turns into an insistent mezzo-forte., (the wheel rhythm persisting) as we come to..... END.
The poem is a remarkable example of compression of much into small, and it is the unsuspected visual richness which explodes out of this poem to grip our attention. It may be the very richness of this piece of verbal and visual tapestry which has proved so uninviting to Classical critics. In the last analysis, it is a function of any poem to make the reader "see", a word which has many levels. One can see the words, hear the sounds, see the images visually, "see" the meaning, and finally, almost in a Zen sense, perceive the world, that is, see that it is possible to "see". At this point one becomes a "see-er" or seer of some sort. It is Seeing which is the focus of this poem, not just a sad girl sitting in a window, or a boy athleticizing in a mad frenzy. If one can stop long enough to "see" a poem, one is learning to stop and "see" life.
But Horace's little poem, involved as it is with scene-shifting, with the ins and outs of the cinematically zooming eye, represents only one of the modes of cinematic seeing. An artist may view with a painterly interest at near range an actor who speaks a piece directly into the lens of the camera, and this can make a poems as well as a film episode or tirade. Homer's brilliant and deft scenes have this single-eyed concentration of focus, and stem from situations which arise naturally in life, and transfer themselves naturally into the world of storytelling and poetry. In film the technique became so well established by the time of the school of Godard that it needs no special comment here, other than to point to some of the scenes in his classic film A la Chinoise, where the focus of attention is directed not toward the political actions discussed, but toward ordinary young people who don't have importance other than being there.. Just so some of the straight-ahead scenes in Huston's Beat the Devil, most notably the long monologue of Peter Lorre seated at a Matisse-ish cafe table, derive their interest not from what is said (in this case an intentional Nothing), but from the way the highly focused scene reaches out to the audience visually. It is the way of seeing which matters.
As an example of this style, I would like to discuss a short poem of Propertius, the last in the Monobiblos. This poem of less than a dozen lines has eluded generations of scholarly inquiry, not because it is so hard to see, but because it is so simple. Housman wanted to graft two lines from another poem of Propertius onto it "to conclude it properly", F.W.Hall thought that since it was at the end of the Monobiblos, something might have been torn off the last MS leaf, and middle-of-the-road Butler-Barber calls the ending "vague although not really not absurd", while another critic cites the poem as "the troubled close" of the Monobiblos. Missing the technique by which this poem is constructed, they guide themselves by the surface meaning of the words, thereby entirely missing the very sharp point.
qualis et unde genus. qui sint mihi, tulle, penates
Rather than translate first and comment separately, we will set the scene as a scenario, with the translated monologic text distinguished by bold typeface, and as we go along, interlard a set of "director's instructions" with a line of commentary,. This is a solo virtuosic dramatic reading, done with intense dramatic effects of voice and manner.. It will take a virtuoso actor for the wide range of this emotional packet which Propertius has jammed into such small compass of words. (If I were casting for a film recreation of this scene, I would want a Hal Holbrook for the part, since he has the range of voice and facial gesture which the scene requires, and is expert,(as in his Mark Twain readings, in the sudden shifts of tone and mood which this poem requires..)
Scene: In a chamber, a serious and perhaps noble appearing man is seated directly in front of our cinematic eye, he is speaking tensely to someone inb the room whom we cannot see, someone he apparently knows well. We observe not just a man speaking to a friend (although that also is what is happening), but to us as if we were where the friend. is. He projects his monolog straight forward, and we have these words:
Tullus, you just keep on asking,
There is a note of annoyance here, bored tension, but masked, restrained...
....... who my
These are personal questions, embarrassingly personal, the sort of things friends should know about each other automatically, or ignore and repress. But this "friend" (who should know better) doesn't think before talking. and even adds :
......In the name of friendship, tell me!
To Romans this phrase (per amicitiam) is an intimate catchword, often abused. In Horace's skit (Sat.I 3,5), the Emperor asks the singer Tigellius to sing for him "in the name of his friendship and his father's too" (when he could have imperially ordered him to sing), the situation reveals a deep sense of embarrassment. So here, but in private, which is somehow worse..
From a tone of repressed annoyance, the speaker suddenly shifts to facts from the rolls of Roman civic history, at first with no trace of feeling, and it would seem without relevance to the original question ("Who the hell ARE you, anyway?"),which is apparently laid aside laid for the moment.
Perhaps you know those graves down at Perugia, our country's graves,
Here the tone hardens, perhaps for no personal reason, but in memory of war, the Civil War, which is always the worst kind, then or now. Say Antietam or Gettysburg to Americans who are conscious of their history, and you will get the same shudder and shiver up the spine.
The burial grounds of our country in those hard, hard days,
..... the tone mounts to reminiscent anger, disbelief....
When Roman discord drove its people, drove them mad.. .
Here is the peak of a fortissimo which falls off abruptly with the end of this line, as we turn inward, to a private grief which speaks low and soft, (at first). Going on somberly:
But, you, dust of Etruria, you are my special grief.. .
We veer in a strange new direction, an inner pain which does not scream out loud, perhaps something like "dirt of Virginia, soil of Pennsylvania", seemingly unconnected with the "friend", with us or with anything else. But now, proceeding with growing rancor, with increasing antagonism and edge, quickly quite loud, in real anger:
You left my kinsman's bones dumped in a pile
Sheer disbelief, that this "place", Etruria, didn't have the decency that any "person" in the Roman world would have shown to anyone, to a stranger, or even an enemy: BURIAL And it would have been such a little gesture, this rite of symbolically burying the dead, costing no more effort than tossing a handful of earth. Alas, and shame! He speaks loud here, not as loud as before yet much more agonized, his inner pain reveals itself as on the creased, Roman features of those remarkable, late portrait busts. The Romans always knew a great deal about painfully repressed feelings.
We change pace again, shifting from the history lesson (above) to what incredibly appears to be new lesson (in practical cartography), as he points out locations on some mentally envisioned map. A long pause, and then, ominously, quietly:
Well, that part of Umbria which borders directly on the land to the north,
This is so restrained, the tone so low, so flat and emotionless, that we are hardly prepared for the next two words, which at last swerve unerringly back to the remembered question of the first line: "Who are you, where do you come from... ?":
That land begot me....
This is a most uncharacteristic and un-Roman notion. The idea of "coming out of the land" in common Roman parlance meant growing up from nowhere like a mushroom, being a nobody, the faex populi or Dregs of Society, or a terrae filius as one of the notable nobodies in the Satyricon says of himself. But here is an educated Roman, a man of position and property, a Propertian gentleman, with land and property..... born out of the earth?
........ the land, rich, yes rich with that...that fertile soil.
Anyone who has ever walked on old battlefields or mused in deserted graveyards will recall how well plants grow over old graves. The Romans saw this for generations on the haunted battlefields of the Civil Wars, which were not converted like ours into manicured parks, suitable for centenary recreations of battle in costume, but left as strange and unholy locations to be avoided, and to be remembered!
And so the question, so long avoided (while the speaker shifted through device after device, first whispering and then roaring, and finally returning).... . that question of identity is answered after all, but in terrible terms: "Where is my background, my family,. my "blood"? It is there, there in the greening fields, where blueberries grow rampant, in those fields where we all, as Romans, found our baptism of blood, whence (for all ages), as Roman citizens and inheritors of this bad memory, we all stem..... "
No word from the unnamed and silent "interlocutor" is necessary, nothing more need be said by a Roman who had memory of the terror of the Civil Wars, and nothing need be added by a modern commentator. Through this most complicated set of devices, the words of the poem speak for themselves, ending with a sharp point queerly put. Rich fields down over there, RICH? --- (blood!)
The only thing that calls for surprise, is that this gem of compressed wording and heartfelt emotion has been so long ignored, but that comes from our blindness to the wealth of detailed artistic devices on which the poem is based. Had we watched the sequence of shifting devices, we might have been better prepared for the understated ending with its penetrating point.
I have selected these two short poems to study, in the belief that we should always start with short samples of the micro-structure, and only proceed to larger and more involved works later. Unfamiliar examples, about which we have less rigid opinion, are a better proving ground than major works about which criticism has established a norm of established opinion.
The ancient poets of the first rank, Greek and Roman, were remarkably apt in working their visual perceptions into poetry, a quality which shows in virtually every page of their writing. A later rank of imitators, the Homeric facsimilists, the empty epicists, and the Senecas who thought they were pursuing the tradition of Greek drama.... all these second-raters in their turn falsified the visual basis of art, and finally turned poetry into a specialized type of metrical and verbal rhetoric. Critics in the modern world often have taken the Neo-Classicists as serious artists, in the pseudo-democratic spirit of post-Renaissance scholarship, ignoring the original insistence on "seeing", while art degenerated into scenes being rhetorically "talked" out. Since the Renaissance we have often confused notions of ancient Classicism with Neo-Classicism, and have turned, in a the world of a developed print-culture, toward the talk and away from the vision.
It is hard for us to get the real gist of much of ancient poetry, since much vital text like Sappho's has been lost, and we have largely lost the key to the construction of what we have. But by examining the thrust of modern Cinema, as a living part both of our intellectual life as well as our mass-culture, and applying the relevant parameters to analogous functions in the ancient world, we can hope to understand aspects of ancient poetry to which we have lost the key. By the experimental device of trying to comprehend an ancient poem as if it were scripted for film presentation, (anachronistic as this effort may initially seem), we can get important clues about its function in its own time and society. If the results of such an effort are interesting, vital and (above all) enlightening, then we are probably embarked on a worthwhile interpretative path, and through the door which we have now opened, we can proceed to a better understanding of the way the ancient mind worked in its poetic art.
The best evidence for the feasibility of such interpretation, is the ubiquity of visual examples which tumble forth line after line, page after page from the pages of Classical literature. Freshness of vision, newness of artistic thinking, and an intellectual carte-blanche on which to inscribe some of the world's finest masterpieces, were the hallmarks of the ancient Classical writers. But at our point in time we have often seen their work as static monuments carved in imperishable stone by genius, for the admiration of a less gifted posterity.
The eye sees things freshly, and recombines its images in scenarios of moving thought and action, for these are the businesses of living as well as of art. The ancients of the Mediterranean Classical world saw life vividly, they infused their "vision-ness" into poetry, and it was largely this quality which made their Poetry (at a time when the kind of art film could create, were unimaginable), their master-art. If we can go back in this spirit, to re-capture the meaning of Classical poetry, much which has been missed can be recovered, and if we are not be disturbed by unexpected revelations appearing before our eyes, we can pursue the study of an enriched, if different and somewhat unfamiliar Classical heritage, in a bright, new light.