In memory of Edmund Keeley
In his 1914 poem “Exiles,” Cavafy (1863-1933) wrote:
In the evenings we meet on the sea front, the five of us (all, naturally, under fictitious names) and some of the few other Greeks still left in the city…. The other day we read some lines by Nonnus: what imagery, what rhythm, what diction and harmony! All enthusiasm, how we admired the Panopolitan. (tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
What’s going on in this poem? Who are “we”? In the Notes to their C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (1975), Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard provide a plethora of dates and facts that set the general scene. Their note on “Exiles” reads in part:
The anonymous exiles of the poem cannot be identified precisely, yet their situation falls well within what Cavafy called “historical possibility.” The scene is set in Alexandria, obviously after its conquest by the Arabs (641) and probably shortly after the murder of the Byzantine emperor Michael III…by his co-emperor Basil I (867-886)…
There’s much more, but most relevant here is the note’s final sentence: “The “Panopolitan”…is of course the Egyptian-Greek Nonnus (5th c. A.D.?)…” Of course? I have to confess that Nonnus wasn’t a name I knew until I was invited in 2019 to be one of the forty-odd translators of Nonnus’s immense poem, Dionysiaca, an epic account of the life of the god Dionysus. Tales of Dionysus, edited by William Levitan and Stanley Lombardo, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2022. And although I’d been a reader of Cavafy’s work for many years, it was Gordon Braden’s introduction to Tales of Dionysus that sent me to “Exiles.” Cavafy’s short poem presumably refers to Nonnus’s very long poem.
Nonnus’s dates, like much else about this poet, are a mystery. But a likely floruit, as Keeley and Sherrard mention, is the fifth century CE. Thus the Dionysiaca, as Levitan and Lombardo point out in their Preface to Tales of Dionysus, is as close in time to a Renaissance poet like Ariosto as it is to Homer.
At forty-eight books and over twenty thousand lines, the Dionysiaca is as long as the two Homeric epics laid end to end. Although Nonnus wrote in Homeric hexameters, his poem is a monumental potpourri of modes and styles. Levitan and Lombardo observe that “…the Homeric Muses, daughters of memory, are not the only spirits presiding over this poem… Out of its formal epic frame spills a tumult of literary types: tragedy, elegy, didactic, panegyric, pastoral idyll, and the novel are all parts of this gigantic enterprise, each genre and its ancient instances coming to the fore one after the other after the other. A son of Homer to be sure, Nonnus is no less a child of Euripides, Hesiod, Callimachus, Theocritus, Longus, and Ovid, among many others.”
When my invitation to be one of the team of translators arrived, many of the poem’s forty-eight books had already been spoken for. The plot of the Dionysiaca is a rollicking ride, featuring not only juicy passages about the god’s complicated love life, but episodes from his war with the Indians. (Edith Hall notes that “Dionysus’s journeys were systematically reconceived by the Ptolemies as a sequence of colonial annexations extending to India.”)
Looking over the synopsis of each book’s contents which the editors had thoughtfully provided, I chose Book Sixteen, which, unlike some of the other books, appeared to be more about courtship and nature than about war. Possibly the relative brevity of this book was also a factor.
I began working on my translation as soon as the fall semester of 2019 at Rutgers was over. In February 2020, the Harvey Weinstein trial was in the headlines. It felt more and more uncomfortable to be reading and writing about Dionysus’ long-thwarted but ultimately successful pursuit of the nymph Nicaea, whom he rapes while she, having drunk from a river the horny god has turned into wine, is in a drunken sleep.
……….…being unaware That lovestruck Dionysus uses liquor as a snare, And spying the amber waters of the river loved by men Who drink, she gulped from that sweet stream where Indians had been. Then Bachically tipsy, and with her mind askew, She reveled, tossing back her head, and saw the world as two. Perceiving an expanse of lake, she thought she saw its twin, And, dizzy, saw a double hill instead of only one, Till, stumbling in the dust, she fell; and winged Sleep, beside Her, overtook the maiden, soon to be a slumbering bride. ……….(Bk. 16. 242-251)
“Slumbering bride”: the phrase I used is in keeping with the numerous references to a bridal couch, an arbor, a bower, and so on which follow. But the bridal is a “Strange ceremony – like a marriage dreamed in someone’s sleep; / The maiden lost her maidenhead and never once woke up…” (266-267).
I enjoyed the process of translating, although Harvey Weinstein kept interposing between me and the lavish and expansive mythological tapestry I was at work on – a part of that tapestry that depicted sexual predation by a powerful male figure who uses first flattery and then violence to overcome an elusive young beauty. In any case, by the time I finished my portion late in February 2020, Harvey Weinstein was no longer front-page news. The pandemic was approaching.
Some dates from around then are easy to remember. I clearly recall Leap Day, February 29, 2020, when I taught a poetry workshop on The Lyric Leap at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow. Travelling on MetroNorth to and from the workshop took me through a Grand Central Terminal which at that date was still crowded. Even then, unless I’m projecting backwards, it felt strange to see the insouciant crowds in the station.
Soon enough, everyday life felt strange. As plenty of people have observed, time began to blur; it became difficult to pinpoint the many changes in all our lives. One change that affected teachers (though not only teachers) was of course the advent of remote teaching. In the prevailing murk that settled over us suddenly in March 2020, academic administrators leaned heavily on the verb “pivot,” as teachers were asked to adjust nimbly (“nimble” was another favorite word) to remote learning. We had entered the age of Zoom.
Early in 2023, we have yet to emerge wholly from the Zoom world, and I don’t think we ever will. For even though these days most teaching again takes place in the classroom, Zoom has become a familiar resource, a tool in constant use. So I have Covid-19 to thank for the fact that early in 2022, though it feels like longer ago, I was invited to join a weekly Zoom discussion of a long myth-based poem from the ancient world, a poem we read a couple of hundred lines at a time: not Nonnus’s Dionysiaca but the Metamorphoses of Ovid.
Our Ovidian group’s sea front was Zoom, and there were usually, though not always, more than five of us. Nor did we meet under fictitious names, though the technology would have allowed us to. (When, in 2020 and 2021, A.E. Stallings visited my Rutgers mythology class to talk about Odysseus’s visit to the Underworld, she labelled her Zoom square “Shade of Alicia,” and one or two of the students quickly followed suit.) But despite such minor differences, our Ovid group’s meetings offered distinct resemblances to the scene portrayed in Cavafy’s poem.
By now, our routine of weekly meetings feels so engrained that we seem to have been reading and discussing the Metamorphoses for years, as if our meetings stretched far back into the past and forward into the future. In reality, the end is in sight – we’re up to the long and beautiful episode of Ceyx and Alcyone in Book Eleven. Five of us live in New York: “However much smaller it’s become, / it’s still a wonderful city.” Some of us are in Italy; some in the U.K. Some of us are still teaching; some of us are retired. Some tune in together with their spouses; most of us join the group solo. Some of us knew each other before we embarked on this long cruise, others did not, but we’ve all made friends. So week by week, “… what with…books / and various kinds of study, time does go by….and our stay here / isn’t unpleasant because, naturally, / it’s not going to last forever.”
Our stay here: Cavafy’s exiles – “fugitive Byzantines meeting quietly…in what was by then Arab Alexandria,” according to Gordon Braden – clearly have extra-Alexandrian plans in mind. And what about us Ovidians? Does here signify our digital sea front? Or are we here as in this open-ended era that started with the pandemic and has yet to reach, perhaps will never reach, a definitive end? Or here in the lengthy, elaborate, and hard-to-encompass mythological phantasmagoria of Ovid’s poem? So often in poetry, as in life, the answer seems to be: All of the above.
The Metamorphoses is a work famously generative of echoes and resonances that range from Titus Andronicus to The Waste Land to Ted Hughes and Michael Longley, to name only a few successors. But early on in Ovid’s poem, as our group read about Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne, I was reminded of another episode in ancient literature I had only recently discovered and translated: Dionysus’ pursuit of Nicaea in Book Sixteen of the Dionysiaca.
Such an amorous pursuit was surely a well-worn literary trope. It was hard not to think of Keats’s “mad pursuit…struggle to escape,” a scene in the same mode. Nonnus and Ovid couldn’t have read Keats. Yet it seemed not impossible that Nonnus, living centuries later than Ovid, had read and been influenced by the Augustan poet.
In his Introduction to the Dionysiaca, Gordon Braden (also one of the team of translators) touches upon the complex matter of Nonnus’s many influences:
The poem is densely but playfully self-conscious about its own literary past. Epic conventions are conspicuously observed, specific Homeric passages quoted or imitated. It’s likely that if the records of classical Greek literature, especially post-Homeric epic, weren’t so tattered, the catalogue of evocations of Nonnus’s predecessors would be even longer. Some scholars think it should include nods to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which would be an un-paralleled instance of Latin influence on Greek literature (that library at Alexandria did have a lot of books).
Braden adduces reasons for thinking it probable that Nonnus composed his epic in Alexandria. And he adds that if this was indeed the case, then “in view of the considerable, if often chaotic, book-learning represented in his poetry, it is entirely likely that he had the assistance of the Roman world’s greatest library.”
Surely for the group of friends in Cavafy’s “Exiles,” the great library is one crucial feature that makes the city go on “being Alexandria still.” I like to think that the same group in “Exiles” who meet on the sea front in the evenings have often spent some time earlier in the day in the Library, for as the poem’s speaker remarks, “what with …books and various kinds of study, the time does go by.”
Leaving Cavafy’s little group of book-loving exiles sitting by the sea front and returning to Nonnus, with his long list of possible predecessors, it’s clear that whoever he was and whenever he lived, the poet of the Dionysiaca was an avid reader. And the “books and various kinds of study” available to him were various indeed. For if it’s a bit startling to think that Nonnus may have read Ovid, it may be even more unsettling to realize that in addition to the range of modes and poets already cited, there’s another plausible ingredient, historical as well as literary, in Nonnus’s murky biography and mixed brew of genres: Christianity. Braden writes:
At least two Christian churchmen possibly of the right time, more or less – a bishop and an abbot – were called Nonnus (maybe a nickname, something like “uncle”), and our author could conceivably have been one of them. The historical odds are certainly strong that our poet was some kind of Christian. It accordingly both is and is not a surprise that Nonnus’ name has also been consistently attached to a verse paraphrase (metabole), in almost exactly the strange style as the Dionysiaca, of the Gospel according to John. That attribution has sometimes been disputed but is now accepted, and it locates Nonnus astride the great cultural division of his time, though without giving us any clear indication of what to make of that…. All we can say with assurance is that as classical Greek poetry Nonnus’ two big poems share the same literary space, and for a poet with a strong sense of style that may be all that needs saying.
Note Braden’s delicate choice of words: “may be all that needs saying.” But even if Nonnus’s being “some kind of Christian” is no longer in dispute, other critics have evidently felt that there was more to say. That the poet who was both a Christian and the author of the Dionysiaca was therefore “astride the great cultural division of his time” can admit different ways of conceptualizing what such a double identity means.
In Hellenistic Culture: Fusion and Diffusion (1959), Moses Hadas is not specifically referring to Nonnus when he writes of the movement of cultural influences as “a sort of oscillation, with the pendulum acquiring added color or force at either extreme.” It’s striking that the image of the pendulum reappears in a similar context in Joseph Brodsky’s 1977 essay about Cavafy. Brodsky writes that the poet “did not choose between paganism and Christianity but was swinging between them like a pendulum.”
The sense of a dynamic process envisioned by both Hadas and Brodsky leaves more room for writerly imagination, and for ambiguity, than the image of a figure straddling the gaping maw of Braden’s “great cultural division.” For Hadas, there’s movement, not stasis, and the movement is inevitably back and forth. Hadas cites the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who also envisioned cultural transmission spatially. Benedict writes:
We must imagine a great arc on which are ranged the possible interests provided either by the human age-cycle or by the environment or by man’s various activities…. Every human society everywhere has made such a selection of its cultural institutions. Each, from the point of view of another, ignores fundamentals and exploits irrelevancies.
Neither Hadas nor Benedict refers to Nonnus. But the classicist Edith Hall, in her 2015 study Introducing the Ancient Greeks, provides a helpful anatomy of how, given that he was both the author of the Dionysiaca and a Christian who turned the Gospel of John into Greek hexameters, we might read Nonnus. Her analysis assumes the existence of what Braden calls the great cultural division but also leaves room for Hadas’s oscillation – though as Hall presents it, what oscillates may be not so much the Dionysiaca as our reception of it. (Edward Said’s concept, in Culture and Imperialism, of contrapuntal reading is also relevant here.) The back-and-forth swing of the pendulum is replaced in Hall’s summation by a road that branches into three possible paths:
It was particularly common to accommodate pagan Greek myths and narratives to Christianity in the figure of Dionysus, a process exemplified in…a massive Greek epic poem called the Dionysiaca by the well-read Nonnus of Panopolis in Egypt in the fifth or sixth century A.D. The poem tells how Dionysus won many victories in India before returning to the Near East in a triumphal procession, and includes the pagan mythical foundation stories of many of its Greek cities. By Nonnus’s date, pagan worship was actually against the law, and so some scholars have seen the Dionysiaca as a serious defense of the old religion at a time when it was in terminal decline. But Nonnus also knew the Gospel of St. John and indeed paraphrased it in verse, which may mean he converted to Christianity after writing the epic. But there is a third interpretation, which is that the poem is a lighthearted and rather secular work, intended to be entertaining, and could have been written by a cultured Christian…
The members of the group meeting by the sea front in Cavafy’s “Exiles” would seem to lean toward Hall’s third interpretation: they admire Nonnus’s poetry as polished literary entertainment. The speaker does refer discreetly to the cultural division of the time:
Sometimes we discuss church affairs (the people here seem to lean toward Rome) and sometimes literature.
The group’s choice of topics appears to be either church affairs or literature, not both at once. Yet if (in Braden’s words) Nonnus’s “two big poems share the same literary space,” that is, style, perhaps there’s no need for Cavafy’s exiles to choose between these two topics. Can’t church affairs and literature not only coexist but also nourish each other?
In terms of history, theology, politics, and culture, the answer to that question is complicated. In terms of personal relationships, the fraught coexistence between Christianity and Hellenism presents complexities that can be addressed on the intimate scale poetry affords. Precisely such complications are one of Cavafy’s great subjects. Can church affairs and Greek poetry exist in harmony? Rather than answering this difficult question, Cavafy returns to it often, probing painful emotional territory in the process.
The speaker in “Exiles” delicately hints at the cultural and very possibly political divide between church affairs and poetry. The group members are meeting under assumed names; presumably they need to be careful of what they’re talking about. It’s even possible that shifting the emphasis of their discussions from one topic to another is a kind of cover. In more than one other Cavafy poem, though, the discontinuity between paganism and Christianity presents a painful challenge chiefly in the realm of personal relationships.
Consider Cavafy’s 1929 poem “Myris, Alexandria, A.D. 340.” “Myris,” like “Exiles,” presents as its background characters a select group of wealthy Alexandrian friends who share a love for Greek poetry, among other pleasures. Myris, a beloved member of the group, has died, and one of his friends (very likely more than a friend) is speaking:
When I heard the terrible news, that Myris was dead, I went to his house, although I avoid going to the houses of Christians, especially during times of mourning or festivity…. I stood and wept in a corner of the corridor. And I thought how our parties and excursions wouldn’t be worthwhile now without Myris; and I thought how I’d no longer see him at our wonderfully indecent night-long sessions enjoying himself, laughing, and reciting verses with his perfect feel for Greek rhythm…
That “perfect feel for Greek rhythm” is almost identical to the phrasing of the enthusiastic little group in “Exiles” when they admire “some lines by Nonnus: / what imagery, what rhythm, what diction and harmony!”
But as he thinks about all the good times with Myris, the speaker also begins to remember an extra dimension, the unspoken or barely spoken differences, expressed in details of behavior that may have seemed trivial at the time.
We’d known of course that Myris was a Christian, known it from the very start, when he first joined our group the year before last. But he lived exactly as we did…. He never spoke about his religion. And once we even told him that we’d take him with us to the Serapeion. But – I remember now – he didn’t seem to like this joke of ours. And yes, now I recall two other incidents. When we made libations to Poseidon, he drew himself back from our circle and looked elsewhere. And when one of us in his fervor said “May all of us be favored and protected by the great, the sublime Apollo”- Myris, unheard by the others, whispered: “not counting me.”
In the presence of Christian prayers and lamentations, the speaker’s sense of belated alienation and his fear that he had never really known Myris become so strong that they drown out his immediate mourning for the loss of a dear friend with a different and more haunting sense of loss:
The Christian priests were praying loudly for the young man’s soul. I noticed with how much diligence, how much intense concern for the forms of their religion, they were preparing everything for the Christian funeral. And suddenly an odd sensation took hold of me: indefinably I felt as if Myris were going from me; I felt that he, a Christian, was united with his own people and that I was becoming a stranger, a total stranger. I even felt a doubt come over me: that I’d been deceived by my passion and had always been a stranger to him. I rushed out of their horrible house, rushed away before my memory of Myris could be captured, could be perverted by their Christianity. (tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
“And once we even told him / that we’d take him with us to the Serapeion. / But – I remember now -/ he didn’t seem to like this joke of ours.” The references that reticulate Cavafy’s oeuvre can easily lead from those lines in “Myris” to a small poem from 1926, “Priest at the Serapeion.” The poem reads:
My kind old father whose love for me has always stayed the same – I mourn my kind old father who died two days ago, just before dawn. Christ Jesus, I try continually in my every thought, word and deed to keep the commandments of your most holy Church; and I reject all who deny you. But now I mourn; I grieve, O Christ, for my father even though he was – terrible as it is to say it – priest at that cursed Serapeion.
Keeley and Sherrard’s Notes define Serapis as a Graeco-Egyptian god whose temple in Alexandria, the Serapeion, was “built by Ptolemy I Soter around 300 B.C. and destroyed by the Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 392.” These dates place the poem well before Nonnus’s probable floruit, but the hyphenated nationality and/or cultural mixture conveyed by “Graeco-Egyptian” or “Egyptian Greek” is often applied to Nonnus as well as Serapis. Whether we find ourselves in 300 B.C.E. or 392 C.E., these dates, and the names associated with both the building and then the destruction of Serapis’s temple, take us close to the heart of Cavafy’s imagination. Without disentangling or oversimplifying it, his vision presents a dense knot of cultural traditions with their attendant conflicting feeling of loyalty and loss, sadness and regret, guilt and confusion.
“Priest at the Serapeion” is a small mirror image of “Myris.” In “Priest,” a devout Christian feels guilty for mourning the death of a loved one who was not only not a Christian but was a pagan priest. In “Myris,” the speaker, a man to whom Christianity is obscure (“I’m not very familiar with their religion,” he admits) and perhaps threatening, mourns the death of a close friend or lover who was, in his discreet way, a Christian in his lifetime but who now, in death, seems to be more and more enfolded in Christian ritual.
The mourning in “Myris” turns into what we might now call complicated grief. Myris’s Christian faith, not much of an obstacle so long as the young man was alive and enjoyed the pleasures of Greek poetry, looms far larger once he is dead and out of reach except to the Christians who are filling his house. The tormented mourning of the Christian son in “Priest at the Serapeion,” also fraught with conflict, is another example of complicated grief.
Reading “Myris,” we sympathize with the grief-stricken friend who is speaking. Yet that friend’s emotional pain would be less believable if Myris too were not presented as a sympathetic figure. In “Priest at the Serapeion,” we feel for both the bereaved son and his “kind old father.” In both these poems, even if we hear only one voice and thus only one side of the story, our vision expands to encompass both sides of the cultural division between pagan and Christian – a division which the intimate scale and emotional charge of Cavafy’s poems transforms into something more like familial estrangement.
If we now turn back from Cavafy to the ancient world, it’s clear that Cavafy’s characteristic method of presenting both sides of an issue without necessarily endorsing one or the other turns out to be a helpful technique in navigating the often murky waters not only of the Dionysiaca but also of the Metamorphoses. For the cultural ambiguity which is both one of Cavafy’s chief preoccupations and also one of his poetic tools carries over into any reading of Nonnus’s or Ovid’s poems.
Commenting on Brodsky’s image of Cavafy’s pendulum swinging between Christianity and paganism, Edmund Keeley qualifies the figure of the pendulum, observing that that “one might modify the metaphor by suggesting that it is the speaking voice that does the swinging; Cavafy’s perspective is what holds the pendulum in place.”
Nonnus’s perspective isn’t easy to grasp. When, as I translated Book Sixteen of the Dionysiaca, the brutish face of Harvey Weinstein kept getting between me and the page, how was I supposed to think about Dionysus’ pursuit and finally rape of Nicaea? Was this passage (really more than one passage, for such scenes are replicated in the poem) titillating, shocking, ironic, tongue-in-cheek, indignant, purely antiquarian? A.E. Stallings’s ingenious poem “First Love: A Quiz” presents the story of Hades’s abduction of Persephone as a multiple-choice test. The final two answers to the last question on the quiz, what we should call “the place he took me to,” are:
- is called by some men hell and others love
- all of the above
It’s tempting to answer questions about the Dionysiaca in just that both/and way. How could I catch the tone of the text in my translation if I didn’t have a clear sense of what the tone was? What, as my students might have put it, was Nonnus trying to say? Given that it’s impossible to be sure, “all of the above” might well be the best answer to questions about the tone or intention of the poem. Braden’s notion of a cultural divide or Hadas’s oscillating pendulum offer imaginative space for precisely that sense of not only this but also that.
If my reactions to Nonnus vacillated, I wasn’t alone. Some of the quite colorful language used by the handful of earlier scholars who have written about the Dionysiaca captures the contradictory feelings the poem has aroused. In 1916, Lewis Parke Chamberlayne vividly conveyed the overwhelming effect of reading the poem – an effect which the passage of a century has done nothing to diminish. Chamberlayne described Nonnus’s “attempt to bring the weltering riot of his tropical fancies to some semblance of order.” H.D. Rose in his Introduction to the 1940 Loeb edition of the Dionysiaca was more censorious and moralistic. For Rose, the poem was “a faded and overcrowded tapestry, moving a little now and then as the breath of his sickly and unwholesome fancy stirs it.” Much more sympathetic was Stefan George, who, in his 1898 eulogy for his friend Stéphane Mallarmé, recalls the two writers’ shared admiration of “the hard-born verses of the hot-blooded Egyptian, which hum and hurry along like Maenads [and] filled us with more delight than those of old Homer.” Cavafy’s “Exiles” had yet to be written, but the shared pleasure in Nonnus’s poetry described by George somewhat anticipates the admiration of the little group of exiles meeting by the sea front.
“Tropical fancies;” “sickly and unwholesome fancy”; “hot-blooded Egyptian”: it’s easy to pounce on the outdated Orientalism such language of prior generations betrays. More interesting than our current trigger alerts, though, is the gap between various ways the poem has been experienced. Is the Dionysiaca a decadent relic, a faded tapestry in an airless room, or is it a vigorous, dynamic vehicle careering along? Depending on who is doing the reading—on their literary experience, expectations, and taste; and on their attention to such extra-literary concerns as history, religion, and politics—the answer might be well be: All of the above.
Although we know much more about Ovid than we do about Nonnus, nevertheless some of the same issues of reception arise when we turn to the Metamorphoses. In their After Ovid (1992), James Lasdun and Michael Hofmann collected versions by various hands of some of the many colorful episodes in the Metamorphoses. As is notorious, there’s a great deal of violence, much of it sexual violence – an abundance of what are now sometimes known as triggering moments – in the poem. Lasdun and Hofmann note in their introduction that among the poem’s themes are “holocaust, plague, sexual harassment, rape, incest, seduction, pollution, sex-change, suicide, hetero- and homosexual love, torture, war, child-battering, depression and intoxication.” The stories, the editors go on to suggest, “offer a mythical key to most of the more extreme forms of human behaviour and suffering.”
Whether “key” here means interpretation or etiological explanation, was it Ovid’s intention to provide such a key? The familiar question arises: What are we to make of – how are we to hear – the poem’s tone or tones? Ovid was exiled, he tells us in the Tristia, because of a poem and a mistake – carmen et error. But scholarly debate remains inconclusive about which poem (plenty of Ovid’s other work was also edgy) or what mistake is being referred to. Whether this famous and endlessly generative potpourri of stories is merely titillating, slyly subversive, profoundly ironic, intentionally shocking, subtly didactic, or some or all of the above, it’s impossible to be sure. And as for the vexed matter of intention, whether a central authorial perspective held any tonal pendulum in place, as Keeley suggests of Cavafy, was one of the questions we Ovidians tossed around week after week without reaching any firm conclusion.
As the months passed, our Ovidian group’s weekly meetings on the digital sea-front began to reveal roles and reactions among us readers that, as would happen in any seminar, became more and more predictable. One of us early on took on the task of the dedicated and good-humored Googler whom we soon came lazily to count on to look up genealogies, geographies, and alternate versions. Another was primarily interested in the history and politics at play in Augustan Rome: how would such and such an episode have been understood then? Another tended to ask commonsensical questions whose very practicality guaranteed that they couldn’t be answered, at least not definitively, either by us or by Ovid. Others sought clarity on Ovid’s view of women, or divine justice. Others were alert to verbal echoes both from Ovid’s many predecessors and his even more numerous successors; hence writers from Homer and Theocritus to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Frank Bidart, to name a very few, popped up in our discussions. I’m reminded of Eliot’s quote from and rebuttal of “someone” in “Tradition and the Individual Talent:” “Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are what we know.”
As well as from the poems or images of paintings or sculptures that we sometimes sent around, all of us learned from one another; and part of what we learned was the multiplicity of ways this enormous and shape-shifting poem could be read. Our principal text was Charles Martin’s 2010 translation, but W.H.D. Rouse’s Loeb edition, Rolfe Humphries, Arthur Golding, and Stephanie McCarter’s new translation also put in appearances. When it came to comparing translations, just as when we compared our interpretations or impressions of given passages, there was room for fruitful disagreement. The “all of the above” principle seemed to hold.
As we’ve seen, the same principle holds for Nonnus. I’ve sometimes tried to envision a weekly Zoom devoted to the Dionysiaca, even though the unwieldy length of the poem makes such a project daunting. But who knows? Maybe, especially if a longer lockdown looms, I’ll suggest it. (A classicist friend recently told me how much she’d benefitted from a large discussion group that started early on during the pandemic; the discussion was memorably billed as the Herodotus Helpline, and I’ve just signed onto that.) Another and even more remote possibility for our next Zoom project occurs to me: Nonnus’s rendering (assuming it’s the same Nonnus, or even if it isn’t) of John’s Gospel into Homeric hexameters. But even if (a big if) the other group members were to agree to this choice, it would be hard to find a translation.
Yet in a way a Dionysiaca discussion group exists already, in the shape of a book. For Lombardo and Levitan’s Tales of Dionysus constitutes its own kind of group by the sea front. This collaborative translation is a sort of symposium, a chorus of voices whose renderings are inevitably to some degree also interpretations. In offering the different ways each of us heard and rendered Nonnus’s poetry, our choices as translators necessarily revealed our own influences and preferences. For example, when I almost intuitively decided to use rhymed fourteeners in rendering Book Sixteen, I had two splendid examples of translations employing just this prosodic choice – Kenneth Koch’s Ovid, which appeared in After Ovid, and Alicia Stallings’s Lucretius – ringing in my ears.
Translations can be thought of as stretches or leaps, as compromises or approximations, as the translator strives to render an often elusive original. Particularly in the case of a transitional figure like Nonnus, translation functions doubly, fostering both fusion – joining separate linguistic and cultural strands – and diffusion, spreading out the results beyond their original scope. The same could be said of translations of Biblical texts, as Hadas shows in Hellenistic Culture in his discussion of the Septuagint. “Greece,” said the poet George Seferis in an interview with Keeley, “is a continuous process.”
Process: both a noun and a verb. Greece and Greekness seem to function more like verbs, processes of becoming, than nouns which denote some fixed, static entity. Writing in 1931 about Cavafy’s relation to Greek cultural traditions, E.M. Forster uses energetic, almost aggressive verbs:
…Greece for [Cavafy] was not territorial. It was rather the influence that has flowed from his race this way and that through the ages, and that…never disdained to mix with barbarism, indeed desired to mix…Racial purity bored him. The civilization he respected was a bastardy in which the Greek strain prevailed, and into which, age after age, outsiders would push, to modify and be modified.
The term “race” is problematic now. Nevertheless, what Forster vividly evokes with his suggestive image of a continuous push and pull, an ongoing and dynamic process, is absolutely relevant in our own culturally fraught times. Like Hadas’s or Brodsky’s image of a swinging pendulum or Ruth Benedict’s vision of an arc, Forster’s tropes, like Cavafy’s ambiguities, refuse to stand still.
It makes sense that readers of Nonnus or Ovid also wobble back and forth. For as our group keeps discovering week by week, Ovid, whose dates (43 BCE-18 CE) place him on the cusp of a political revolution as well as close to the birth of Christianity, was another straddler between worlds.
If Nonnus found himself astride a great cultural division, then so have many of the people who have studied, if not his poetry, then his cultural milieu. Moses Hadas; Robert Graves; Edith Hall – all seem capable of a perspective that rejects binaries and refuses to oversimplify.
Is a coincidence that Moses Hadas and Joseph Brodsky were themselves situated astride of cultural divides? My father Moses Hadas (1900-1966), raised in an Orthodox Jewish home and ordained as a rabbi before he became a professor of classics, was a multi-culturalist avant la lettre. Reviewing Hellenistic Culture, Robert Graves (1895-1985), the famously versatile, learned, and iconoclastic classicist, novelist, poet, and student of myth, singled out for praise precisely Hadas’s unusual qualifications among classicists:
as a well-jumped-upon outsider, I rejoice if ever an eminent university professor – miraculously at home both among the classics and rabbinical texts – breaks academic convention and boldly bridges ancient gaps of knowledge.
Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) straddled not only cultural traditions but languages; he transformed himself from a Russian poet into an American poet who wrote eloquently about Auden and Frost as well as Cavafy.
Edith Hall (b. 1959), whose recent pages on Hellenistic poetry in general and Nonnus in particular are among the most useful I have read, is another figure who resists pigeon-holing. Hall notes in her Preface to Introducing the Ancient Greeks that “the study of ancient Greek culture has become painfully politicized. Critics of colonialism and racism tend to play down the specialness of the ancient Greeks. Those who still maintain that there was something identifiably different and even superior about the Greeks, on the other hand, are usually conservatives who have a vested interest in proving the superiority of Western ideals and in making evaluative judgments of culture. My problem is that I fit into neither camp.”
One other scholar quoted earlier deserves mention in this context. Lewis Parke Chamberlayne (1879-1917), who was my maternal grandfather, was another straddler of cultures. In his short career, Chamberlayne turned away from the Lost Cause bitterness of his venerable Virginia family and became an urbane philologist who earned his Ph.D. at Halle (writing in Latin on the Homeric Hymn to Apollo) and went on to translate Musaeus. Chamberlayne’s friendship late in his life with Columbia University’s John Erskine places him in the context of what was to become Columbia College’s core curriculum – a curriculum Hadas did much to develop. Chamberlayne died when his daughter, my mother, was two years old. My father died when I was seventeen. But the cultural reticulation holds – and beyond that, some kind of family tradition that seems to become clearer as I get older.
These meditations have meandered (perhaps pivoted is a better word) from Cavafy to Nonnus to Ovid, taking Zoom and other topics along the way. Any ending feels arbitrary; any one topic here could be considered at greater length. Thinking about literature and culture is, as Seferis said of Greece, a process, and hence ongoing. The weekly Ovidian sessions have been a predictable part of my life for a year now; but a more recent spate of events also feels connected to the themes that keep coming up.
Tomorrow night, for example, I’ll be one of the speakers at a panel sponsored by Columbia University’s Society of Fellows, entitled “Moses Hadas and Historical Black Colleges and Universities – Classics, Racism, Segregation.” My presence there is owing to the fact that in 1963 my father delivered a series of telelectures (precursors of Zoom) on Greek thought to southern Black colleges. Perhaps I have inherited the mantle of explaining what fusion and diffusion in relation to the study of classics might mean. One of the other panelists recently served as director of Columbia’s Core Curriculum. Another example: a couple of weeks ago, I was the recipient of a flurry of obscene and threatening email responses to an article I’d written on the second anniversary of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. The bulk of my brief piece was devoted to quoting Thucydides’s analysis of the civil strife in Corcyra during the Peloponnesian War. What set the angry letter-writers off wasn’t my mention of Thucydides but my own implied political views. The positive comments generated by this piece, on the other hand, all expressed gratitude for the writers’ having been exposed (or re-exposed) to the prescient insights of the Greek historian.
Another example: last week I participated in a Zoom poetry reading sponsored by Yetzirah, a “nonprofit literary organization dedicating to fostering and supporting… writers and readers of Jewish poetry now and for generations to come.” Each of the three featured readers spoke about her own complicated relationship to the Jewish tradition. Another example: a few days ago, a local group, the Morningside Poetry Series, celebrated my two recent poetry collections, Love and Dread (2021) and Pandemic Almanac (2022). Both those titles suggest precariousness. Love and Dread: both private refuge and public threat; Pandemic Almanac: a looming menace, but also the time-honored practice of keeping going by keeping track. In contrast to my previously published work, each poem in Pandemic Almanac notes the place, month, and year of the poem’s composition, so that the poems are located in time. Cavafy doesn’t note the date he composed his poems, but a date and the occasional place often make their way into his titles, from “Days of 1908” to “Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340.” Poems, as Cavafy understood and as I am beginning to understand better, are located in, and testify to, history. And a final example: next month I’ll attend a Columbia symposium whose topic is “Why Read Great Books? Liberal Education in the Twenty-first Century.”
Each in its own way, every one of the events I’ve just listed pertains to poetry, to tradition, and to a fraught political and cultural moment; each of them testifies to some part of a larger historical process. I have a feeling that any one item on the list – the panel, the hate mail and fan mail, the Zoom reading and the book party and the symposium – analyzed at any length, would eventually connect somehow with all the others.
I hope to trace some of these and other connecting threads. For example, I have a few letters Robert Graves wrote to my father, in which the Aeneid and the Bible come up. Maybe the letters Hadas wrote to Graves can be unearthed in Graves’s archive; I’m friends with a Graves scholar, formerly my colleague at Rutgers, and I can also count on the help of a resourceful librarian in Columbia’s Rare Book Room. My father’s archive at Columbia is nugatory; there are incomplete transcripts of the 1963 telectures, and so far the Ford Foundation hasn’t been able to guide me to any other texts. I have thought of trying to issue a new edition of my father’s 1962 book Old Wine, New Bottles: A Humanist Teacher at Work, perhaps with a new introduction. I have a few of my father’s mostly brief and occasional unpublished writings. And there are other ideas. Maybe I’ll write a dialogue between the father I knew too briefly, the grandfather I never knew, Robert Graves, Cavafy, and Edmund Keeley.
Edmund Keeley (1928-2022) was a teacher and mentor and friend whom, for more than forty years, I did have the privilege of knowing. When I was a graduate student at Princeton, it was Mike Keeley who introduced me to Modern Greek poetry; all the translations of Cavafy I’ve used here are his and Philip Sherrard’s work. In 2018 I had the pleasure of writing the introduction to Nakedness is My End. This was a book of Mike’s elegant translations, both poignant and wry, of selected poems from the so-called Greek Anthology, a compilation of poems spanning the chronological arc from Archaic to Byzantine. More cultural straddling? Yes, but also a continuum. Diffusion, but also fusion. All the poems in Nakedness is My End share an unmistakable family resemblance.
Mike Keeley died in February 2022, not long after his ninety-fourth birthday and the day before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. By early 2020, it had become clear that we wouldn’t meet in person again. We spoke often, although to my regret I don’t think the name of Nonnus, or Cavafy’s poem “Exiles,” ever came up. But in the dialogue I am beginning to imagine, there will be time to discuss Nonnus among many other things. Our sea front won’t be in Alexandra, nor will it exactly be in the Zoom Room, though there’s certainly something unearthly about that platform. Rather, since what I have in mind will be a colloquy of the living and the dead, it will take place in what for some will be (as James Merrill [1926-1995] put it in Mirabell: Books of Number) “their desks in heaven” and for others “the schoolhouse of our lives below.” Come to think of it, I’d love to invite Merrill, a great Cavafy aficionado and, when I first knew him, in Athens in the Seventies, the friend of many Greeks from Alexandria, to join what I expect will be wide-ranging talks.
In Cavafy’s poem “Dareios,” set around 74 BCE, the court poet Phernazis, commissioned to write an epic poem praising King Dareios, who lived centuries before, is interrupted in the midst of composing a crucial part of his poem (what was Dareios’s state of mind at a moment of great triumph?) by the alarming news that “the war with the Romans has begun; / most of our army has crossed the borders.”
The poet is dumbfounded. What a disaster!
How can our glorious king, Mithridatis, Dionysus and Evpator, bother about Greek poems now? in the middle of a war – just think, Greek poems!
And yet, frightened and distracted as he is, his mind leaping ahead to fearful scenarios, Phernazis does what poets do.
But through all his nervousness, all the turmoil, the poetic idea comes and goes insistently: arrogance and intoxication – that’s the most likely, of course – arrogance and intoxication are what Dareios must have felt.
The poetic idea comes and goes insistently. Even in the middle of a war – yes, Greek poems. Wherever we can find them, we set up groups by the equivalent of a sea front. The reticulation extends; the process continues.