Why learn Latin?

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

Cicero, Orator Ad M. Brutum

For the last week or two I’ve been fairly obsessively ruminating about my personal biographical relationship to some little spots around the Bay of Naples and the sweep of history upon which that relationship is contingent.  And for a number of years I’ve been ruminating about the absolutely vital necessity of a Liberal Arts education for all citizens of a free society. If citizens are not trained in the arts of life in a free society (the Liberal Arts), any other training or education is the manufacturing of Orwellian cogs for a grey, meaningless social machine.

This morning a tweet by Kelly MacFarlane, a “Contract Academic” at the University of Alberta, got me a little more obsessive about getting some of these thoughts down on (virtual) paper. Ms. MacFarlane asked “What can we do to make Latin More Appealing to more students?”

I replied “I find this a troubling question. Latin IS interesting. Students must be shown why/how it is. Trying to doll it up is misrepresentation.” What I meant, in more than 140 characters, is that marketing a Latin course as something other than “learning to read the language of the Romans and to appreciate their literature and thought and all that appreciation implies” is misrepresentation. Learning Latin probably isn’t going to get you a good job. But learning Latin, like any of the Humanities, will very likely make you better at whatever job you get. It might give you intense entertainment on your commute. Other than that, pretty much all I have to offer is meaning.

Ruminations and a couple of text messages

A week or two ago as I was obsessively ruminating, I wrote to a friend one evening:

I find it exciting that just now I’m linking up Virgil and Pliny the Younger who described the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder who described the painting of the Greek painter Apelles which description led me to paint my series of little paintings of the area around the Bay where Vesuvius erupted and Pliny (elder) died and Pliny (younger) studied, and Virgil lived and wrote, and Aeneas descended to meet his past and his future, and where I wrote and studied and marveled and . . .

I just had a vision of me as a University lecturer in an alternate universe, bawling my eyes out as I describe to a gaggle of baffled undergrads what poetry and history and life can do when it’s all working right.

It’s probably a good thing I left Academia; weeping would probably be frowned on by the arbiters of tenure.

I also wrote to my friend about some homemade wine:

I might save the apple wine for later in the summer with a crowd. Vinalia might be time to open a half bottle of last Fall’s bucket of juice from Italy and read some Ovid or something.

In those two sentences I have linked a laughing summer afternoon outside in the sun with friends and neighbours putting about a hundred pounds of apples from another friend’s backyard trees through a meat grinder. The glorious fragrant pulp went into plastic vats to be fermented into country wine. The reference to “Vinalia” is to the twice a year celebration of the grape in Ancient Rome, Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, and Vinalia Rustica, the festival of the grape harvest. On further consideration, it seems obvious to me that the poetry of Tibullus would be more appropriate than Ovid for either festival, and certainly for an Alberta high-summer backyard neighbourhood festival celebrating those apples we had processed together.

If you knew Latin, you’d fully understand the above paragraph and the following bit of verse.  And you’d probably be pretty good at whatever job you have.

nec Spes destituat sed frugum semper acervos
praebeat et pleno pinguia musta lacu.
Tibullus, I.i.

What does all this have to do with getting undergrads interested in Latin?

When I was in grad school studying Anglo-Saxon poetry I often was asked “what are you going to do with that?”

My long answer was “I’d rather drive a cab with a Master’s Degree in Anglo-Saxon poetry than drive a cab without one.”

My short answer should have been “Live.”

My best answer, an answer that I only found with time is “Live with meaning.”

Cicero wrote in a letter to his friend Varro: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit.” Ad Familiares IX, 4

I’ve always imagined that Cicero’s garden and library were often visited by friends and neighbours, that Cicero “networked” with living, present people as well as with his books.

“pulcherrimarum clade terrarum”

We are a network of experiences, of memories applied to each other, to the present, and to the future. We are not the product of our personal history, we, at this very moment, are our personal history made manifest, a history which includes what we read, what we see on Netflix, the games we play, the people we have met, the places we have been, our family . . . . The richer our personal history, the deeper our references and experiences, the more we have personal connections to the deep history of our families, of our nations, of our cultures, and of humanity itself, the richer, deeper, and more alive we are, the more meaning our time on this whirling ball of rock has, whatever we may be doing in the present moment.

When young, the network is loose. It’s hard to see how things fit together, we search for meaning, too often we give up.  Trust me, it gets tighter. A point will come as you pursue you living and learning, whether that learning involves Latin or another language or languages, when everything starts to fit together, where everything is linked to everything else in a glittering, beautiful, tragic and joyful web of association and causality and meaning. The depth is plumbed gradually, but my own life has shown me that within a couple of years of first taking Latin, experience was enriched, landscapes came to deep life, and things began to fall into place.  And I began to understand other languages. And even others. It all meant something.

Making a loaf of bread in the Bakery of Modestus

Because of Latin, and travel in youth, when I knead bread  I am connected, to my mother, of course, but, more deeply, I am connected to a man named Modestus who owned a bakery in Pompeii. Modestus most likely died on August 24, 79 A.D., shortly after enjoying Vinalia. But I have a photo I took of his bakery, and I have a photo of my mother standing in that bakery many years later, after I painted a little picture of Modestus’ grain mills. And I painted that picture because of the words of a man who died that same day, in that same Hellish disaster.

When I knead bread, I am connected to my mother, who taught me to bake bread, and who stood in the Bakery of Modestus where I had stood years before, and to people who died half a world away and two thousand years ago.

The Bakery of Modestus, Acrylic, 4″ x 6″

We are connected in this way because I learned Latin.

Below is a reverse timeline that may show some of the depth of connection that Latin has brought to my life.

A Reverse Timeline

Sometime before the end of 2006 A.D., a middle aged Canadian man started painting some tiny paintings using only red, yellow, black, and white paint.

Sometime after the end of 2005 A.D., a middle aged man from Canada chanced upon a passage about a Greek painter in a natural history written by an uncle who had launched the ships under his command to investigate a volcanic eruption, an eruption which soon claimed his life.

In late summer of 1983 A.D. a young man from Canada was having a wonderful time admiring the landscape and studying in the library of the Villa Vergiliana, in Cumae, Italy, just over the ridge from Misenum, on the Bay of Naples.  He wrote in his journal:

I’m in heaven, or perhaps Hades. I’ve got a vast (comparatively) library at my disposal, including The Idylls of the King and Dryden’s Aeneid; and Avernus is on one side while the Sybil’s cave is on the other. Up on the roof I can see for miles.  We’re staying in the Villa Vergiliana, a possession of the American Virgilian Society. I’ll never have enough time here. . . .

In the spring of 1981 A.D., a young Canadian was happily studying in an introductory Latin course at the University of Alberta.  The professor had big ambitions for his students and they rose to the challenge.  As the leaves budded out in the North Saskatchewan River Valley, these students, Latin neophytes a few months before, were reading their way through an epic description of a descent into Hell at Cumae and Lake Avernus. This glorious poetry had been written two thousand years earlier by a man from Gaul who was quoted by a man from Como in his description of his own descent to Hell.

Around 110 A.D., a middle aged man from Como in Northern Italy, who had studied as a volcano erupted, was asked by an historian friend to describe the events around the Bay of Naples during a late August week in his youth, when Vesuvius buried Herculaneum, Pompeii, and dozens of other cities, towns, and villages.

In late summer of 79 A.D., a young man from Como was contentedly studying literature at his uncle’s villa in Misenum. The Vinalia Rustica, the great festival of the grape harvest, had concluded a few days before. Every expectation was that in the spring the Vinalia Urbana, the festival of the new wine, would be celebrated in the towns and villages on the slopes of Vesuvius and in the villas along the bay.

As the young man studied, his uncle, commander of the Roman fleet at Misenum and author of an important work of Natural History, climbed to a high point of land to observe an unusual cloud on the far distant opposite shore of the Bay.  He stood studying the cloud with a scientist’s eye and soon decided his ships should be launched for a closer look. That closer look soon turned into a rescue mission.

In 77 A.D., the uncle who would die on a scientific expedition turned rescue began to write his monumental Natural History. That Natural History contained a brief passage about an Ancient Greek painter who had miraculous abilities with a remarkably limited set of four colours.

Sometime before 19 B.C., a man nearing the end of his life who had once lived at Cumae wrote a line of verse that would be quoted by a man from Como as he undertook to describe his own journey in flight through Hell on Earth across the Phlegraean Fields near Lake Avernus.

In the late summer of 49 B.C., a yet-young man from Cisalpine Gaul was living at Cumae, carefully observing the volcanic countryside, and studying, creating the mind, the sensibility, the developed consciousness, that would produce some of the greatest poetry in World Literature.

In the depths of mythic time, a hero arrived from Troy to the shores of Italy at Cumae. After retrieving the Golden Bough, he consulted with the mystical Sybil and then, on the banks of Lake Avernus, in the heart of the Phlegraean Fields, that hero descended to the Underworld, met with the dead, learned of his past and of his future, and returned to the land of the living through the Gate of False Dreams.

And, because I learned Latin, I was there. For all of it.

Why study anything?

Because I studied Latin with Dr. Bob Buck in 1981-82, I grew to love the poetry of Virgil, was able to read the letters of Pliny the Younger and the Natural History of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Because I could read Latin, I learned of the Greek Painter Apelles. Because I could read Latin I painted a series of paintings which launched a funny little late-life career.

But, most important to me, those months in Dr. Buck’s class helped give to my life a rich depth of meaning. I am a network of experiences. I am linked to Apelles, to Virgil, to Pliny the letter writer and Pliny the Naturalist.  I have stood on the same ground. We have wondered together at the power of Vesuvius. We have looked deeply into other lives and other times with the tools forged by study and tempered with a life in society, and we have found meaning.

If that doesn’t make Latin interesting . . .

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The Freewill Players’ Summer of Love

I make no bones about it: I love seeing Shakespeare outside. For me, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is the peak of Edmonton’s rich and varied Festival Season (which season really lasts year round).  Always interesting, always fresh, always squirrel-challenged, the Freewill Players have, in my experience, always made the plays accessible and challenging to modern audiences without compromising the poetry and drama of Old Bill’s work.  A group of actors simply sitting in the Heritage Amphitheatre competently reading the plays aloud would be joy enough. But the Freewill Players consistently dig deep, reach high, and always pull out a sack of gems and a constellation of stars to toss to their happy audiences.

This year the Freewill Players have gone retro, which may seem an odd thing to say about the production of a couple of four-hundred year-old plays.  Billing it a “Summer of Love”, the promotional materials and merchandise for Freewill’s productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet are all a clear reference to the 1960s graphic design style of Peter Max and Heinz Edelmann’s work on The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. The set for Love’s Labour’s Lost is marked by a London-style street sign reading “Academe Road”, a riff on Abbey Road. While the production of Romeo and Juliet is a little more traditional, apparently set pretty much in a timelessly Elizabethan Verona, Love’s Labour Lost‘ design and attitude is all the 60s of the Beatles, a bit of the Monkees, and a dash of Laugh-in.

And it works.

Romeo and Juliet has been shortened (as has Love’s Labour’s Lost) with careful judgement to fit the time constraints of Hawrelak Park’s 11 pm closing, but the result is not bad. The action moves quickly and falls nicely into two contrasting acts.  The first half is all bawdy and joyous boyish and girlish exploration and risk taking while in the second half “All,” as Capulet says, “is Death’s”.

Hunter Cardinal and (overachieving) Cayley Thomas make a charming and anxiously hormonal Romeo and Juliet. Jesse Gervais is finely eccentric and fascinatingly varied in the challenging roll of Mercutio, flitting between manly-man and mincingly gay three times per line. Louise Lambert nicely reprises her Nurse roll from Tom Wood’s Citadel production a few years ago, and Sheldon Elter as Benvolio turns in his usual sterling performance.  Belinda Cornish does a nice job of demonstrating that the conjugal love she promises Juliet will see blossom with Paris hasn’t quite fallen on rich soil in her own case.

A theme emphasized in both plays this year — and it is a theme well worth emphasizing — is the strength of the women, most concretely illustrated by casting Mary Hulbert as Escalus, the Prince of Verona, politically the most powerful character in Romeo and Juliet. But also in Love’s Labour’s Lost, which flirts at the beginning with being a new Beatles film with the four mop-top lads from Navarre, it is the women who dominate. In this case the eight principals, the King of Navarre (Nathan Cuckow) and his three lords (Gervais, Cardinal, and Neil Kuefler) and the Princess of France (Kristi Hansen) and her three ladies (Thomas, Cornish, and Lambert), are of roughly equal socio-political station, but it is the women who steer the men, it is the women who control the men, and, in the end, it is the women who impose the final resolution on the men.

As Romeo and Juliet do in their play, the men of Love’s Labour’s Lost move with haste and foolishness. Fortunately the result for them is not lethal: the women of France impose just a third of the original vow of celibacy while Romeo and Juliet’s crossed-stars (and parental feud) imposes death.

Freewill’s Summer of Love may seem to promise a whole lot of joy, and it delivers, but, walking out of the big tent into the wonderful park in the heart of Edmonton, it’s clear that the Players have seen themselves – and shown to us – the bitter with the sweet. Navarre and Verona are in a world with consequences. Yes, we laugh, we party, we huff some helium, and we love in Navarre and Verona, but we also fight, and wait, and hunger, and die. For all their Yellow Submarines and Queen Mabs, for all their inaccessible references and high poetry, for all their Worthies (with feet of clay), Romeo, Juliet, the King, the Princess and all the lords, ladies, merchants, and commoners are here.

They are us.

In a Summer of Love.

 

The Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s Summer of Love continues in the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 17, 2016.

 

It’s All Greek To Me

image

The other day an interesting blog post about astronomical information in a lovely piece by the Ancient Greek poet Sappho came up in my twitter feed. After reading the translations in that post, I said to a friend, “I really should sit down and learn Greek so I can really read Sappho’s poetry. Catullus is at his best when he’s translating her.”  The next morning I sat down for a few hours with my old copy of C. A. E. Luschnig’s An Introduction to Ancient Greek, a long-ago gift from a friend who felt “Old Norse will have to wait!” as she wrote inside the cover.  I don’t think I’ve learned Old Norse yet.

That afternoon I ran to The Edmonton Bookstore, one of a few fine second-hand booksellers in town, hoping that in their collection of Loeb Classical Library books there would be a copy of Sappho’s poems. Sure I’d be able to find texts online, but a real book is always better.  Fortunately, there was one copy of Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus on the shelf for me to grab and clutch to my book-loving heart.

In the evening I relaxed with my old Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon and the text of Sappho’s poem:

Δέδυκε μὲνἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληίαδες· μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα·
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

 

With an ease and rapidity which startled me, I had a scribbled (in green ink) English version of the beautiful poem in front of me:
image

 

More clearly:

Together the Moon and Pleiades
have set. It’s midnight now.
The hours in bunches run away.
But I lie down alone.

I feel satisfied that the grouped, companionable departures of the heavenly bodies and of the hours contrasting Sappho’s lonely solitude have been captured in my translation.  I am not, however, satisfied with the translation of Δέδυκε, with its connotations of dedication to the gods, by the colourless “have set.” But, considering that just twelve hours before I was under the impression that I knew little Greek, I’m feeling pretty good!

I wonder now whether I actually do know Old Norse.

Looking into Yeats has Repercussions, or, That Escalated Quickly

The other day I was reading a bit of Yeats. I’m not quite sure why my glance fell on his “A Thought from Propertius” nor why it was held. Perhaps the name Propertius caught my eye. Although I had at one time been mentored by a scholar of Propertius, I had never read a word of the man’s poetry. For some reason I had spent my time with Catullus and Tibullus.

Here is Yeats’ little thought from Propertius:

She might, so noble from head
To great shapely knees
The long flowing line,
Have walked to the altar
Through the holy images
At Pallas Athene’s Side,
Or been fit spoil for a centaur
Drunk with the unmixed wine.

Well! I had to do some searching and find out what old W. B. had read in Propertius’ Latin to inspire that lovely celebration of a particular woman!  After a bit of mucking about on the Internet, I pinned it down to the second elegy in Propertius’ second book of elegies, conveniently titled “Propertius II, ii”.  As I read the Roman boy’s Latin I thought, “Wow! William Butler really distilled the thing down to its bare essence!”  After spending a week or so with Propertius’ deeply mythical allusions — first while translating them into English verse while riding the LRT, then in just rolling the result around in my head — I think I can honestly say I prefer Propertius’ celebration of his lover.

Here’s what I jotted down on that rush hour train ride (Propertius’ Latin follows):

Propertius II, ii.

Free I was and was prepared
for life in an empty bed.
But now the peace I had composed
has been betrayed by Love.
Why does such a human form
loiter on this earth?
I, Jupiter, forgive you your
intrigues in ancient times.
Yellow her hair and long her hands,
her body statuesque.
When walking she is dignified
like the sister of high Jove,
or Pallas when she strides unto
Dulichium’s altars,
her breast concealed by gorgon head
and its snake-bearing locks.
And she is like Ischomache,
the Lapith heroine,
desired spoil of Centaurs’ rape
while they were in their cups.
Like Brimo when, by sacred font
of Boebeis, laid down
her virgin body, so it’s said
beside swift Mercury.
Now yield the contest, goddesses
whom in those ancient days
the shepherd saw take tunics off
up on Mount Ida’s heights.
And oh! may old age never have
the power to change that face
although she reach the span of life
of Cumae’s prophetess.

And, in Latin:

Liber eram et vacuo meditabar vivere lecto;
at me composita pace fefellit Amor.
cur haec in terris facies humana moratur?
Iuppiter, ignosco pristina furta tua.
fulva coma est longaeque manus, et maxima toto
corpore, et incedit vel Iove digna soror,
aut cum Dulichias Pallas spatiatur ad aras,
Gorgonis anguiferae pectus operta comis;
qualis et Ischomache Lapithae genus heroine,
Centauris medio grata rapina mero;
Mercurio satis fertur Boebeidos undis
virgineum Brimo composuisse latus.
cedite iam, divae, quas pastor viderat olim
Idaeis tunicas ponere verticibus!
hanc utinam faciem nolit mutare senectus,
etsi Cumaeae saecula vatis aget!

 

Creative Commons Licence

My translation of Propertius II, ii is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Like I need to tell you.

The Middle Ground Between Marlowe’s Shepherd and Raleigh’s Nymph

For some reason in the past few weeks and months I’ve been revisiting love poems, from  Classical through the Renaissance.  Perhaps I’m feeling my second childhood, although I don’t remember the end of the first.  While certain poems of Catullus have been much in mind, an Elizabethan love lyric and a jaded old courtier’s parodying “response” have preoccupied me a bit.

Christopher Marlowe’s “A Passionate Shepherd to his Love” is well known to anyone who has ever been young and passionate.  Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymphs Reply to the Shepherd” is equally well known to anyone who was ever a pinched and defensively smug young person without a date on a Saturday night.  I have been wondering whether there is a poem which stands somehow on the middle ground between Marlowe’s charming, beautiful, mannered, Arcadian cry of carpe diem, and Raleigh’s bitter little embrace of sad, narrow mutability.

Marlowe is sometimes credited with bringing the pastoral mode into English Literature with “The Passionate Shepherd”, although Spencer’s “A Shepherd’s Calendar” appeared more than a decade earlier.  Certainly Marlowe’s poem stands squarely on that rustic Arcadian road walked by shepherds, swains and their lovers from Theocritus, through Horace, Virgil, Tibullus, Spencer and, after Marlowe, to Milton, who murdered Lycidas (I’ll never forgive him or be grateful enough) with a magnificent pastoral elegy.  Marlowe’s poem is a beautiful exercise in what is a highly conventional mode. Everything of the Pastoral is crammed into the twenty-four lines: the geography of mountains, hills, fields, groves, river valley; the idylic agriculture of sheep, myrtle, roses and song birds; and the fantasy gifts envisioned of coral and amber and gold.  It is a tour de force and a pretty gem of a poem, a lovely fantasy to charm into warmth any heart that still can feel.

Marlowe was twenty-nine when he died, younger — in his early twenties, perhaps — when he wrote “The Passionate Shepherd”.  Raleigh was  in his forties when he wrote his “Nymph’s Reply”.  I would happily argue that the sensibilities of a forty-something-year-old man are rarely the same as those of a twenty-year-old man particularly when it comes to passionate love.  Raleigh’s poem, despite the appropriate trappings, is not in the pastoral mode. Rather, “The Nymph’s Reply” stands on that line of satire running through Juvenal up to and through Alexander Pope.  While Raleigh may stir a bit of a chuckle by pointing out the naivete of Marlowe’s Shepherd, what Raleigh is really doing is dismissing the pleasures of the world in a very Medieval way.  “The Nymph’s Reply” is really little more than a line from the Old English poem The Wanderer: “eal þis eorþan gesteal    idel weorþeð” (Every thing on this earth turns to waste).  Factual, perhaps, but not certainly or humanly True.

At one point I thought about trying to write my own Response, of finding some middle ground between Marlowe’s idyll and Raleigh’s morbidity.  There have of course, been dozens of Responses written in the last four hundred years. As much as I like to reinvent the wheel, I gave up on the idea of my own Response when I reread Wordsworth’s “She Was a Phantom of Delight” and saw that my goal had been realized far more completely than I could ever have done.
Wordsworth was not, of course, writing a “Nymph’s Reply”.  I don’t imagine he had any thought of Marlowe when composing “She Was a Phantom of Delight (although his poem is in iambic tetrameter couplets, like Marlowe’s and Raleigh’s).  But Wordsworth has captured Marlowe’s youthful care-not-for-tomorrow, has acknowledged the decay Raleigh cannot see past, and has found a permanence of love more profound than the two Elizabethan fellows seem to have imagined possible.  Wordsworth does this by shedding the conventional pastoral imagery as the poem progresses, moving from “May-time and the cheerful Dawn”, through simple, profoundly human realism in the middle bit of household life and ending on a transcendent note of Pantheism/Panhumanism.  The transient Phantom of Delight of Wordsworth’s youth becomes “something of angelic light” precisely because she became

A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food,
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

Wordsworth has been Marlowe’s Shepherd, but he grew up. He did not, however, grow out of his wonder, and his love, as poor Raleigh did.  With a clear, mature, unjaded eye, Wordsworth looks at his middle-aged Love, perhaps a little saggy and creaky, and at once he sees the Phantom of Delight, the Woman, the sorrows, the strengths and the joys. The only word I think is missing from Wordsworth’s poem is “Friend”.

Wordsworth stands on that middle ground I had searched for, between Marlowe’s dreamy Shepherd and Raleigh’s hopelessly pragmatic Nymph, and he sees so wonderfully much more than they or the poets who created them did!

The Poems

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Christopher Marlowe

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove,
That Valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of Roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of Myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty Lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and Ivy buds,
With Coral clasps and Amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The Shepherds’ Swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me, and be my love.

The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

Sir Walter Raleigh

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every Shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move,
To live with thee, and be thy love.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold,
When Rivers rage and Rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb,
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields,
To wayward winter reckoning yields,
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of Roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and Ivy buds,
The Coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last, and love still breed,
Had joys no date, nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee, and be thy love.

She Was a Phantom of Delight

William Wordsworth

She was a Phantom of delight
When first she gleamed upon my sight;
A lovely Apparition, sent
To be a moment’s ornament;
Her eyes as stars of Twilight fair;
Like Twilight’s, too, her dusky hair;
But all things else about her drawn
From May-time and the cheerful Dawn;
A dancing Shape, an Image gay,
To haunt, to startle, and way-lay.

I saw her upon nearer view,
A Spirit, yet a Woman too!
Her household motions light and free,
And steps of virgin-liberty;
A countenance in which did meet
Sweet records, promises as sweet;
A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature’s daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles.

And now I see with eye serene
The very pulse of the machine;
A Being breathing thoughtful breath,
A Traveller between life and death;
The reason firm, the temperate will,
Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;
A perfect Woman, nobly planned,
To warn, to comfort, and command;
And yet a Spirit still, and bright
With something of angelic light.

I guess I haven’t completely wasted my life

Thirty-two years ago, shortly following my first scholarly publication (“On The Seafarer, line 34b”), after spending an idyllic summer in the Lucanian countryside helping to dig up a ruined Roman villa – a summer which a quarter century later inspired the twenty-four wee paintings which seem to have made me into some sort of “artist” – I sat down in a small upstairs room in a tiny house in the London suburb of Watford and translated a Latin love poem (Catullus 3) into English verse and wrote that translation out on the rear flyleaf of the little book of Latin poetry I was just now perusing once more.

I guess I haven’t completely wasted my life.

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Prophetic Poetry from Canada’s Oil Patch: Naden Parkin’s “A Relationship With Truth”

When the Muses appeared to Hesiod on Mount Helicon, they put in his hand a branch of olive-wood and breathed into him a divine voice that he might celebrate the things that shall be and that were aforetime.  That a humble Boeotian farmer should make such claims for himself may surprise and shock those who regard the Greeks as the first rationalists and their poetry as a dawn breaking through the long Babylonian night.  But Hesiod was not alone even among the Greeks in asserting the poet’s dominion over so vast and so formidable a field.  Claims like his can be found in many ages and many places, and though not all poets were in the beginning prophets, there is abundant evidence for an ancient and intimate connexion between poetry and prophecy.
–Sir Maurice Bowra, The Prophetic Element, the 1959 Presidential Address to The English Association, p. 3.

Naden Parkin is a voice, crying in the wilderness of Canada’s Oil Patch, a Jeremiah forced by circumstances to live off the altars of the petrochemical Baal.  Naden Parkin is that perhaps most unexpected of creatures, an oil field mud-man prophetic poet.

Yesterday I was in the Chapters store in Sherwood Park – Sure White Park, as we like to call it, due to the largely pale demographics of this Edmonton bedroom community – browsing through the tiny “Arts and Letters” section, when I noticed a slim paperback with no lettering on the spine.  A Relationship With Truth: Poem and Verse Born in the Canadian Oil Patch was the title, by one Naden Parkin.  No publisher name. Must be self-published, I thought.  Parkin’s picture is on the back cover. Peaked cap, sunglasses. Round head, soft body, standing in snow in front of a Ford F150.  He looks like any of a dozen guys you’ll see in any small Alberta or Saskatchewan town standing outside the Co-op or the [Small Town Name] Hotel Tavern.  One of the thousands who end up working in the Oil Patch to support a young family, to make house payments, to pay for the case of beer on the two days out of twenty they aren’t working.  One of the thousands who do what they can in a perpetually un-diversified economy.

There are two testimonial blurbs on the back cover from poetry critics with whom I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar. One is from Logan Wild, of Discovery Channel’s Licensed to Drill.  The other is some very erudite words from Tim the thrashing machine Hague, UFC Heavyweight and former King of the Cage Heavyweight Champion:

A Relationship With Truth, offers an incredibly interesting and necessary glimpse into Alberta’s Oil-infused lifestyle.  We have the chance to see how Canada’s life blood has affected one man both negatively and positively.  This book is a treat to read from start to finish.

For anyone with preconceptions about Alberta and those who work in the Oil Patch, the whole package would seem surreal.  But here in Alberta we know the complicated contradictory truth.  Here in Edmonton, Oil Patch workers tend to be educated, are likely hipsters in their off time, collect art, go to live theatre, like to go out drinking with friends, enjoy sports, may well have voted NDP all their short lives, and are conflicted about Alberta’s and their own dependence on the fossil fuel economy.  And they may or may not drive a pick up truck.

It really shouldn’t be surprising to find a poet working in resource extraction — Robert Service in the Klondike and James Anderson in the Cariboo stand in that long line.  What I find startling and exciting is just how good Parkin’s poetry is.

A Relationship With Truth begins with a brief exhortation to the reader to “Listen”.  Whether he realizes it or not, Parkin is placing himself in the Prophetic poetic tradition occupied in English most particularly by Blake.  He has a profound message for us, if we have ears, and will,  to hear.

The second poem, “Wake Up”, is a cycling series of morning wake up calls which with remarkable economy show the generational cycle of domestic struggle and break up and hope and disappointment and perseverance of the Oil Patch life.  Here, at the outset, Parkin shows his rhythmic debt to Hip Hop, and it is clear that his poetry is meant not simply to be read aloud but to be declaimed and performed, a necessity made even more clear by “Something Inside”:

. . . Visions of mine,
A whole civilization blind, and victimized
As we lie below an invisible line
Beneath, the richest guys
Who bitch and cry over misplaced dimes
While we,
Risk our lives just to wish of times of bliss and pride
To see,
Retired at 65. Is it worth it? To work to die?
No please don’t believe those lies,
Slaves of our time
As am I. . . .

Parkin’s poetry exudes what might be seen as a rough socialism, but it’s actual a gentle communitarianism, a deep desire to get along fairly and honestly in a world in which dishonesty and greed are not rewarded.  He’s not calling for an overturning of the classes, but an idealistic, perhaps utopian, humane leveling, where everyone has enough and no one hoards at the expense of others.

I have written elsewhere, in the context of Irving Layton’s work,  about what Sir Maurice Bowra termed the Prophetic Element in poetry.  As well as clearly being in the Prophetic tradition, Parkin has something of the goaty Layton about him, in love poems such as “Goodbye”, “The Cutest Girl”, “After Love”, and “Fly Like That”, and in poems interested in chemical recreation such as “My Stoned Bliss” and the powerful and surprising earthy blend of “What I Love Doesn’t Matter”, a list of the worldly and not-so-worldly loves of the poet and an indictment of the narrowness of societal definition of the individual.

Parkin is  man of a very particular location, the oil lands of Saskatchewan and Alberta, once the bison killing-fields.  In “Northern Man” he says of the locations he lists as home:

You ask me, I’d invest in that
It’s natural gas and the oil patch
Western Canada, we’re blessed with that
And cursed with that
And if you think not, then you’re immersed in facts.

In 1959, when describing poets engaged in the Prophetic Element, Bowra wrote:

They feel that the ordinary methods of scientific or logical analysis are quite inadequate for the vast and terrifying issues befoe them and that their own kind of vision is a better way to the truth than the statistics and generalities with which publicists forecast .  ,  .
The Prophetic Element, p. 5

Immersed in facts, indeed.

Throughout the book, Parkin scatters short untitled poems, like the little gem on p. 17:

A flat land with a painted sky
Graced by the great herds
But all the grazers died.

The final line is a shock of banality because the grazers didn’t simply die – they were deliberatly exterminated, and everyone knows that fact.  And so we wonder: are the bison the great herds today? Or are human workers the grazers these days?  And we remember from “Something Inside”

. . . Is it worth it? To work to die?
No please don’t believe those lies,
Slaves of our time
As am I . . .

More than a hint of childhood trauma is buried in “The Pit”.  Parkin draws a nightmare vision of slippery references to let any childhood trauma fit and to make a definite become a universal claim of survival and reintegration in the last line:

He’s whole.

(with a play on “hole” as in “pit”, of course.)

Two poems use the image of a Heart of Gold: “Mortal’s Globe” which begins with the wonderful line:

You’ll never know whether I’m clever or slow

and the poem titled “Heart of Gold”.  I find no reason to doubt that, among other things, both poems reference Neil Young and his remarkably unnuanced opposition to Canada’s Oil Patch and it’s miners, so many with their hearts of gold.  Not only does “Heart of Gold” have an earthy whiff of Layton, it also mentions Optimus Prime, one of the more unexpected images of spiritual transformation in modern poetry.

A fascinating aspect of Parkin’s poetry is that from this young man, so immersed in the work of the Oil Patch, comes the constantly echoing warning that when it comes to living on this earth and saving it for future generations, “It’s Up To You”:

. . . gotta use yer main nerve

or crater

What ya do when ya lose and the music takes yer
Shoes to the moon cause the view is great there
But lose old blue and we’re in
Danger
And the way we use crude you can’t blame her
Neck through the noose boots down and hand her
See the future’s looking screwed
When the few control the huge
And when the few control the fuel
The few control you
It’s lose lose unless you choose to
Save her.

And in “I Know” the poet is prophet again:

. . . know that I chose to show this
to let my soul expose what all of you already know
But you hold in.

And, in “Use Your Noodle”:

You’ve got to lose the fools and use your tools
And use your noodle to search for truth,
Instead of just using Google.

And so on, through “Why I’m Here”, “My Prayer for Humanity and “I Knew a Man”, which reminds me favourable of Leonard Cohen’s “The Captain”, Parkin the prophet strolls until the end of “Surviving” in which he flicks his mantle blue and takes his leave, with just a brief untitled envoi to the reader:

As this page closes I hope you’ve taken notes
You’re a day closer to laying under roses
A shame moments fade as we grow older
So
Feel as what I’ve shown you and make love before it’s over.

Consider Cohen’s “The Captain”:

There is no decent place to stand
In a massacre;
But if a woman take your hand
Go and stand with her.

Throughout A Relationship With Truth, Parkin makes clear that society is headed for a massacre of some degree, but always the horror of past, present and future is tempered by the gentleness of love, the simple things of life, and the free pleasures, like the Aurora Borealis on a crisp winter night.

A Relationship With Truth is a profound collection of poetry from an unexpected source that should be sought out, and Naden Parkin is an Oil Patch mud-man whom poets, poetry editors and poetry readers would do well to watch.