Friday, May 01, 2009

Neronian Modernism

Robert Graves, one of the crankiest cranks of the last century, is rarely crankier than in his intro to Lucan’s Pharsalia. Granted, Lucan had some cheek, answering Virgil’s hymn to imperial goodness with a lurid epic of Rome’s civil wars. Different times, different mores.

But Graves says he went ahead and translated a work he dislikes because “Lucan exerts a strange fascination on even the reluctant reader; and because…he anticipated so many of the literary genres dominant to-day [c. 1957] that it would be unfair not to put him in modern dress for the admiration of the great majority whose tastes differ from mine.” Ha-rumph.

“Modern dress,” it turns out, means lining up Tennyson, Longfellow, and William Morris with Virgil; Eliot, Hulme, and Pound (“the most Lucan-like of modernists”) with Lucan. Nutty as that sounds, along the way Graves hits on a description that seems to fit any number of the new poetries (affix your own labels) that emerged under Bush II, our own personal Nero:
“This modernism is equally anti-Virgilian in its deliberate neglect of craftsmanship; the rhythms are monotonous; often words are clumsily iterated before the memory of their first use has faded from the reader’s ear; the argument is broken by impudent philosophical, geographical, or historical asides. Lucan lacks religious conviction; dwells lovinging on the macabre; hates his times; and allows his readers to assume that he is as self-centered, degenerate, cruel, and cowardly as the next man. His hyperboles are patently ridiculous: the Thracian cranes, for instance, delay their winter migration in order to gorge on Roman corpses at Pharsalus—though Pharsalus was not fought until the Spring, and cranes are non-carniverous. [Ha-rumph, Ed.] Yet his occasionally polished epigrams make highly serviceable quotations.”
Doesn’t that sound like something you’d want to read? Something you just read?

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