~ Archaic Poetry Redux
Well, this one was definitely worth tracking down my password for the Baltimore Sun for (awk!):
After a bittersweet guitar intro, the song's first lines tell of unrequited love. Sung in a woman's plaintive voice, the lyrics and melody evoke the primitive purity of some Appalachian old-timey tune you may have heard on a scratchy field recording.
The song, "He Seems Like a God to Me," is more than old-timey; it's ancient. It is a fragment left behind by the Greek poet Sappho, in which she admits her love for the person who is keeping the god company:
And your lovely laughter sets
my heart trembling in my breast
seeing you makes speech impossible
Sappho's confession appears on 19 Old Songs, one of four CD recordings of archaic Greek poetry translated and put to music by Chris Mason, a Baltimore City teacher, and Mark Jickling, a Library of Congress economist.
Tonight at the Roots Cafe in Charles Village, Mason, Jickling, as well as vocalist Liz Downing of Radiant Pig, accordionist Anne Watts of Boister, David Fair of Half Japanese and others, will perform the poetry of Sappho, Hipponax, Xenophanes and other lyric poets who flourished in antiquity.
Accompanied by a lyre or a flute-like instrument called an aulos, Greek poems were originally performed as choral songs. "Nobody really knows what the music sounded like," Mason says. "You can try to get a feel for the rhythm of the songs from the rhythm of the poems.
"We know it was simple music with not many notes, because a lot of music was played on the four- or seven-string lyre," says Mason, who works with deaf students at Chinquapin Middle School.
He has studied Greek on his own for about six years. Jickling was a classics major at the University of California, Berkeley. When they discovered their mutual interest at a friend's wedding, they decided to collaborate on a project that would combine their love of classical Greek with that of American roots music.
As one half of the Tinklers, a whimsical, Baltimore-based musical duo, Mason met Jickling, a member of Half Japanese, a seminal punk band, when the two groups worked together in the early 1980s. Both men have gravitated to American folk music, so it was no stretch to imagine setting Sappho to haunting mountain harmonies and string-band instrumentation.
Nor was it difficult to find the common ground that united two very different cultures. Back in the B.C. days, poets had pretty much the same concerns as did their literary descendants in rural Appalachia. In an interview that appeared online, Jickling described those concerns as "sex, crime, the dead, booze, the gods, escapism, official corruption, geography and landscapes and pure, pure love."
Still, there is no obvious explanation for Sappho's compatibility with high-lonesome melodies, Jickling says during a rehearsal in Downing's Lauraville home. Sappho and her contemporaries were "very sophisticated poets," while old-timey musicians were borne of a more rural, less studied tradition. It's a mystery, Jickling says, "one of those serendipitous collisions."
The two artists seem particularly fond of the poet Hipponax, whom Mason calls "the Greek Charles Bukowski." He "writes about the lower strata of society ... but in a really rich way," Mason says.
In one Hipponax poem, a surly beggar repeatedly demands: "Hermes give me a coat," and preys upon others for shoes and cash. From the song's roiling comedy and anger springs a fully realized character; one you could imagine prowling Baltimore streets.
Even though scholars have already translated these poems, Mason and Jickling's compositions are based on their own translations, which are made with mandolin, banjo, fiddle and sometimes flute in mind. "You get a feeling from the Greek that gives you an idea for the melody and [in turn] that melody will influence the way you translate," Mason says.
Drawing from the trove of Greek literature, Mason and Jickling selected poems to translate and score. Some of the poems are mere snippets of larger pieces lost to time. But even two lines of poetry, such as those belonging to Alcaeus' tribute to Sappho, whom he loves as she has loved so many others, can describe an emotional odyssey:
Sappho, sweet-smiling, purple hair, pure,
I want to tell you something but I don't dare
::Saturday, December 11, 2004 7:15:42 AM::
~ Robin Lane Fox Redux
The Scotsman has an interview with RLF in the wake of the tanking of Alexander:
PROFESSOR Robin Lane Fox is glowing with delight at an early Christmas present. Warner Brothers, producer of Alexander, the new $150 million film starring Colin Farrell as the Macedonian warrior, laid on a gala screening for perhaps the smartest movie audience ever assembled - the Classics department at Oxford University.
The loudest cheer of the night was not for Farrell or Angelina Jolie as Alexander’s mother, Olympias, or even for the end credits after a bum-numbing two hours 49 minutes. Instead, the stalls erupted at the split-second appearance, astride his trusty steed, of an ageing warrior otherwise known as Robin Lane Fox - professor of ancient history at New College, Oxford, and the historical consultant on Alexander.
In return for that work, the academic - the author of the definitive biography of Alexander - won a promise from Oliver Stone, the director, that he could take part in the reconstruction of the epic battle of Gaugamela, when Alexander’s 35,000 Greek warriors defeated 250,000 Persians to claim the vast empire as his own.
And so for six weeks, in late 2003 and early this year, the professor exchanged Oxford’s dreaming spires for the deserts of Morocco and jungles of Thailand, swapped his tweeds for a helmet and armour and left 21st-century Britain for Persia, circa 331BC.
"It was, unquestionably, one of the highlights of my life," says Prof Lane Fox. "To experience a part of the world of Alexander was fantastic."
When his 500-page biography, Alexander The Great, was published in 1973, he was a 27-year-old Oxford graduate. Single-handedly, he rescued Alexander from a generation of historians who argued he was little more than a bloodthirsty dictator. Prof Lane Fox elevated him to an idealist who wanted to emulate his hero Achilles, the great warrior in Homer’s The Iliad, a copy of which Alexander tucked under his pillow each night. In the 32 years of his life, Alexander conquered Persia, and fought through modern-day Afghanistan to reach northern India.
Almost immediately after it came out, the book - which went on to sell a million copies - attracted the interest of Hollywood. It has been repeatedly optioned, with legends such as Gregory Peck, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas expressing an interest in projecting Alexander on to the big screen. So, when Oliver Stone’s producer called and invited him to London for a meeting, Prof Lane Fox was blasé about the prospect of seeing his book made into a film. Yet, within a few hours, the professor discovered Stone had been working on the project for a decade. The director was dedicated to making the film - and making it as historically accurate as possible.
This meant tackling the issue that has proved to be the film’s Achilles heel in the United States: Alexander’s sexuality - or bisexuality, to be precise. Earlier historians skirted round the warrior’s sexual appetites, but Prof Lane Fox lifted the bedsheets and detailed in print the warrior’s partners as "at least one man, four mistresses, three wives, a eunuch, and, so gossips believe, an Amazon". As a result, a gay book club promoted his academic tome as the "dashing story of a spellbinding young gay who conquered the world".
The finished film, although not explicit, hints at Alexander’s desire for Hephaestion, his boyhood friend. The reaction in the US has depressed Prof Lane Fox, but he understands it, and says: "The reasons why it is so controversial in America is first, the vocal minority of the evangelical right. Second, a wish, which I think is a denial of reality, that there is an absolutely straight line; it’s light or dark, it’s gay or straight. Third, what the Warner Brothers research showed us was young males aged 18-25 don’t like ambivalence and people don’t like confronting perhaps what is a constant fact about desire in many human beings - that it can be either for males or females.
"Then there is the Oliver Stone factor - people believe, and this is quite wrong, that he wants to make mischief. Absolutely not. He has fastened on it because it was the case and it was part of a wider culture. He’s not trying to make Alexander the Gay."
The irony is the man charged with eyeing up his best male friend and making a move on a eunuch is Colin Farrell, who is arguably the most heterosexual man in Hollywood. On set, the actor sought out the academic and accused him of inducing eye-strain for writing such a long book. "I thought Colin was a great guy," says Prof Lane Fox. "A huge surprise. I know nothing about his films but I was told he drank far too much and was a tearaway. What an excellent example he set everyone on the set.
"I look at him as a tutor might look at a pupil and he was like Alexander in that he was always concerned that everyone else was down-to-earth and having fun; the least stuck-up person at every level. I don’t know which of them would have drank more vodka by the morning, Alexander or him, but I think Colin might have won."
The professor is clearly beguiled by the film, but going to its US premieres taught him about the duplicity of the movie world. People emerged in tears, raving about the film’s power and beauty, but critics were already sharpening their pencils, ready to plunge them into Alexander’s heart. The New York Times talked of "puerile writing, confused plotting, shockingly off-note performances", while the Boston Globe said: "The best thing that can be said is that it’s better than Troy."
Prof Lane Fox admits: "The critics have given it hell. But I can’t judge; I’m far too close to it. I’m concerned with only one thing: will people have a sense, through the splendour of the sets, of the ancient world?"
He admits there are moments in the film that, as a historian, make him uncomfortable. "Oliver insisted on having one man put out of his pain and misery by having a spike being knocked into his head - I don’t know where the spike came from," he says.
There is also the director’s own interpretation of Alexander’s personality, in which he seems to vacillate like Hamlet. "Personally, my idea of Alexander was never of somebody who was dreamy and looks as if he cries at every turn," says Prof Lane Fox. "But Oliver wanted him to be a man who hesitated and had uncertainty. He once said to me, which completely alarmed me, that Alexander was the first modern man because he hesitated between alternatives, which is absolute piffle."
Meanwhile, it appears that RLF has followed Candide's advice and is now (literally) tending to his garden ...
::Saturday, December 11, 2004 7:05:17 AM::
~ Mark Twain Marginalia
Interesting piece in the Times on marginalia includes this excerpt:
In the early manuscripts, space was left for the reader to add scholarly glosses or rubrics. Later editions might even be printed with these additions, with space left for more, the literature evolving with each edition. Between the middle of the 18th and the middle of the 19th centuries, with the spread of literacy and book ownership, notes written by readers and writers in their own books and those of their friends became a central part of the literary culture, a habit encouraged by new book designs offering wider margins. Few books were immune from the craze. Thomas Hardy once annotated an entire book on billiards. Some of the best examples of marginalia have been collected by H. J. Jackson, including Mark Twain’s comment on a botched translation of Tacitus: “This book’s English is the rottenest that was ever puked upon paper.”
Outside of that, though, there's an online version of Albert Paine's biography of Twain, which actually opens with reference to an interesting marginal note:
On page 492 of the old volume of Suetonius, which Mark Twain read until his very last day, there is a reference to one Flavius Clemens, a man of wide repute “for his want of energy,” and in a marginal note he has written:
“I guess this is where our line starts.”
More classical refs to follow as I find them ...
::Saturday, December 11, 2004 7:01:28 AM::
~ Firefox Followup
RS over at the Stoa informs us that he has written some Firefox plugins which make it even more useful for Classics types. He's written a bunch of search plugins which allow you to search (via the Google toolbar) Perseus (site searches and word searches), the Latin Library, the Suda Online, and the Stoa. Useful stuff (and easy to write, apparently, giving us something else to play with when the Christmas break finally arrives).
::Saturday, December 11, 2004 6:47:44 AM::