Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Maggots in the Sunset [long post]

One of the minor pleasures of literary criticism is following an image or thought as it develops, deepens, and eventually mutates. A neat example of this is the carpe diem poem in English, which moves with surprising coherence from the pretty to the frankly horrifying through a sequence of poems linked by allusions. One of the valuable things about this sequence is that it roots one of Alexander Pope's angriest passages of satire in Renaissance lyric verse, and provides an explicit bridge between the traditions.

Most of the poems in this sequence are famous, and all of them are quite obviously linked by allusion. It begins with Catullus's Poem 5 (Vivamus, mea Lesbia), as translated by Thomas Campion ca. 1600:

My sweetest Lesbia, let us live and love,
And though the sager sort our deeds reprove,
Let us not weigh them. Heaven's great lamps do dive
Into their west, and straight again revive,
But soon as once set is our little light,
Then must we sleep one ever-during night.

"The sager sort" translates Catullus's "senum severiorum," or "censorious old men," the incipient maggots in the sunset. However, they are there only as a rhetorical counter, and the general tone of the poem is celebratory, like the Catullus. It doesn't seem terribly likely that Lesbia will weigh the sager sorts; after all, who does?

A decade or so later, Ben Jonson reworked the Catullus into a song in his play Volpone (1607):
Time will not be ours for ever:
He at length our good will sever.
Spend not then his gifts in vain;
Suns that set may rise again,
But if once we lose this light
'Tis, with us, perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumour are but toys.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies?
Or his easier ears beguile,
So removed by our wile?
Except that this is a dirty old man trying to rape a woman he bought from her husband. The worms are implied, but only by the dramatic situation in which the poem is embedded. Auden remarks somewhere that "carpe diem" is a dirty old man's song, but this comes from reading the history backwards; Campion and Jonson are both translating Catullus, who was dirty but not old. Besides, the song is so jarringly effective in the play because of its inappropriateness, because it isn't what an old lecher ought to be thinking about, and because it emphasizes the general depravity of Volpone's world.

The next step in the progression is Robert Herrick (in Hesperides, 1648):
GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
Herrick is channeling Catullus-Campion-Jonson (stanza 2), but death and age are much more evident in this poem than in the previous ones. The threat of an ever-during night is fleshed out, though not yet maggoted, and the third stanza is evidently an old man writing about aging. Herrick was generally one of the least morbid poets of his generation, and the darkness is far from idiosyncratic.

Curiously, the antithesis between the recurring sun and death's "perpetual night" has become a parallel: just as the sun will set, so will your beauty. Presumably this has to do with the complex of Roman ideas about the gradual decline of the world from its Golden Age to the present, and it also evokes the fact that as you age the sun no longer seems to warm you quite so well (hence the old couples swaddled and shivering on park benches). However, the metaphor is somewhat muddled -- the sun is a lamp running a race -- and probably shouldn't be looked at too hard.

Andrew Marvell (ca. 1655) turns the lamp into a chariot, and puts the worms front and center:
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Marvell was certainly alluding to Herrick in this poem (titled "To His Coy Mistress," cf. "coy" in the Herrick) and they're often read together in English courses, but the emphasis is markedly different. "Quaint" was a common 16th cent. euphemism for "cunt"; though somewhat dated (quaint?) by Marvell's time, it was known and occasionally used -- "quaint honor" is an image, not just an abstraction. The passage is somber and grand in the way a lot of medieval work is, albeit with a lighter and wittier touch, because it is so general; it is beautiful because of the grandeur, in which the worms -- being universal and natural -- share some of the dignity of the marble vault and its "dust and ashes."

Lord Rochester (ca. 1675) gets a strikingly different texture out of the Herrick-Marvell formula by injecting an element of the sordid:

Phyllis, be gentler, I advise;
Make up for time misspent:
When Beauty on its deathbed lies,
’Tis high time to repent.

Such is the malice of your fate:
That makes you old too soon,
Your pleasure ever comes too late,
How early e’er begun.

Think what a wretched thing is she
Who stars contrive, in spite,
The morning of her love should be
Her fading beauty’s night.

Then, if to make your ruin more,
You’ll peevishly be coy,
Die with the scandal of a whore
And never know the joy.

The entreaty becomes "advice" -- "gather ye rosebuds since everybody thinks you're a whore" -- as the speaker grows progressively more insolent, and the threatened fate grows nastier and more specific. While everyone dies, only some are remembered as whores. Rochester learned his technique from the Metaphysical poets and his sensibility from Restoration society, and the juxtaposition is a good part of his importance. In this case it doesn't really do the poem much good (though the last stanza is worthwhile) but it does make it interesting, because Rochester's getting at the missing piece in Marvell's poem, which is that one grows unattractive before one dies. The ideas in this poem resurface, in 18th cent. dress, in Alexander Pope's "Epistle to a Lady":

From loveless youth to unrespected age,
No Passion gratified except her Rage.
So much the Fury still out-ran the Wit,
The Pleasure missed her, and the Scandal hit.

Writing in the third person solves the tonal ugliness of Rochester's poem; gossip is less offensive than hectoring. Besides, the come-on poem is ill-suited to social commentary for obvious reasons. Pope returns to the ungathered rosebuds, and to Rochester's sentiment, a hundred lines later, in one of my favorite passages of 18th cent. verse:

Pleasures the sex, as children Birds, pursue,
Still out of reach, yet never out of view,
Sure, if they catch, to spoil the Toy at most,
To covet flying, and regret when lost:
At last, to follies Youth could scarce defend,
It grows their Age's prudence to pretend;
Ashamed to own they gave delight before,
Reduced to feign it, when they give no more:
As Hags hold Sabbaths, less for joy than spite,
So these their merry, miserable Night;
Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their Honour died.

See how the World its Veterans rewards!
A Youth of Frolicks, an old Age of Cards,
Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
Young without Lovers, old without a Friend,
A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot,
Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot!

"Their merry, miserable Night" is the ultimate descendant of "nox perpetua una dormienda," and the "deserts of vast eternity" are filled with assed-out dowagers playing euchre. Of course, Pope isn't accusing the women of virginity -- just of the incompetent pursuit of happiness -- but the pathos of an insufficiently lived life is the same, and Pope gets it across with incredible vividness. One wouldn't normally think of "Epistle to a Lady" as a carpe diem poem at all, but the Rochester is a clear bridge from Herrick to Pope.

Note that the days get more and more unseized as we progress toward the 18th cent. -- if one can read Campion as "stop brushing your teeth and let us have sex instead," Marvell's more like "don't drag this out for years, you know you want me," and by Pope the day is irrevocably past.

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