Swallowing Venus

St-Marks

(St Mark’s Square, Venice. Photograph: Manuel Silvestri/Reuters: via The Guardian)

An end to March, then. Looking back, it was as recently as 28 February that Greta Thunberg visited Bristol and I decided against trying to attend the rally because of the vast crowds thronging the streets. Now photographs from around the world show us places empty of people: from Piccadilly Circus to St Mark’s Square in Venice, from Gaobeidian, Beijing to Market Square, Frankfurt. That the distance from there to here is just a little over four weeks is dizzying and almost impossible to grasp securely. I’m reminded that a decade after the Boer War—‘that never to be sufficiently accursed war’—Ford Madox Ford wrote that it ‘set, as it were, an iron door between the past and the present.’ Perhaps more appositely, he remarked that it ‘appears to me like a chasm separating the new world from the old.’[1]

Across that chasm, we see the ghosts of former lives, the normal that no longer exists and may not do so again. Among strange doublenesses, it’s both reassuring and immensely sad that approaching figures in a quiet park veer off on a different trajectory, twenty or thirty metres ahead of us, if we haven’t already begun to do the same. At the dinner table, we wonder aloud how long it will be before we browse in shops again without anxiety, or move comfortably among crowds, or visit dentists and hairdressers. The answers vary from ‘maybe six months’ to ‘probably never’.

In ancient Rome, the festival of Venus Verticordia or Venus Genetrix ran for three days from the first day of April. The preceding night, 31 March, occasioned the 93-line poem the Pervigilium VenerisThe Eve of Venus or The Vigil of Venus, its authorship and date of composition uncertain.[2]

Swallow-BBC

(Swallow: via BBC)

One of the most familiar bits of the poem is lodged in the closing lines of the most famous modern poem, among the fragments that one of The Waste Land’s voices has shored against his or her ruin:

‘Quando fiam uti chelidon [When shall I be as the swallow]—O swallow swallow’

The story of Philomela, raped by Tereus, king of Thrace, who cut out her tongue so she might not make the dreadful story known to her sister Procne, the wife of Tereus—which she does at last through another voice, the tale told in a tapestry—runs from Homer and Aeschylus through Ovid and on through great swathes of English literature, as detailed in the expansive notes in the Ricks and McCue edition of Eliot’s poems.[3]

In the myth, the sisters kill Itylus, son of Tereus and Procne, cook him and feed him to Tereus. When he is told what they’ve done, he sets off in murderous pursuit of them: but the gods save them, turn Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow.

Swinburne’s ‘Itylus’ takes the form of a monologue by Philomela:

Swallow, my sister, O sister swallow,
How can thine heart be full of the spring?
A thousand summers are over and dead.
What hast thou found in the spring to follow?
What has thou found in thine heart to sing?
What wilt thou do when the summer I shed?[4]

In 1868, Dante Gabriel Rossetti published a sonnet, ‘Venus Verticordia (for a picture)’ – the picture was commissioned in 1863 and finally sent to John Mitchell of Bradford in the autumn of 1869.

Rossetti-Venus-Verticordia

(Rossetti, Venus Verticordia: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth)

She hath the apple in her hand for thee,
Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;
She muses, with her eyes upon the track
Of that which in thy spirit they can see.
Haply, ‘Behold, he is at peace,’ saith she;
‘Alas! the apple for his lips,—the dart
That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,—
The wandering of his feet perpetually!’

A little space her glance is still and coy;
But if she give the fruit that works her spell,
Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy.
Then shall her bird’s strained throat the woe foretell,
And her far seas moan as a single shell,
And through her dark grove strike the light of Troy.[5]

In 1936, Ford wrote to Allen Tate: ‘Is there, by the bye, any decent translation of the XELIDON [swallow] song? If there isn’t, I think I’d have a shot at it. Isn’t it the most beautiful thing that was ever made…or is that one of my sexagenarian delusions?’[6]

Tate did translate the Pervigilium Veneris as ‘The Vigil of Venus’ (1943). In his preface, he wrote that he had come upon the poem in about 1917 ‘in the usual way’ (in Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean), looked up the Latin text and was disappointed, because his ‘adolescent revolt’ against the influence of Swinburne made it impossible ‘to read properly any poem about pagan love.’ He didn’t look at the poem again until about 1930, when he ‘tried to work out a translation of the famous refrain’, an attempt that failed. He returned to it in the fall of 1942, and this time translated the entire poem.

Tate’s preface ends with his acknowledgements: to Robert Lowell, ‘for constant criticism’ and, for the translation of the first line of stanza XXI, to his wife Caroline Gordon, the novelist and short story writer:

Now the tall swans with hoarse cries thrash the lake:
The girl of Tereus pours from the poplar ring
Musical change—sad sister who bewails
Her act of darkness with the barbarous king!

And that famous refrain? The Latin is: Cras amet qui nunquam amavit, quique amavit cras ame. There are, Ford noted, many translations. Tate has ‘Tomorrow may loveless, may lover tomorrow make love.’[7]

Ford’s own ‘free rendering’ was: ‘He that has never loved, let him love tomorrow; the lusty lover, let him love again.[8]

Now April beckons. The cruellest month, some say. We can only hope not.

 
Notes

[1] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections: Being the Memories of a Young Man (London: Chapman & Hall, 1911), 175, 154.

[2] Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 139.

[3] The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 705-706.

[4] Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads & Atalanta in Calydon, edited by Kenneth Haynes (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 45.

[5] The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, edited with a preface by William Rossetti (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1893), 360.

[6] Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 259.

[7] Allen Tate, Collected Poems, 1919-1976 ((New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 145, 149, 161.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), 277.

 

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