Bag Girl Reviews: The Homeric Hymns

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Perhaps my favorite Greco-roman myth is the tale of Hades and Persephone. I remember reading it during my fourth grade mythology unit and we read its definitive version, Hymn to Demeter by Homer, in my reading broadly course in college. Hymn to Demeter comes as part of the Homeric Hymn, a collection of poems both long and short addressing a number of Greek deities.  

Several of the hymns are fairly long, taking over a half hour to read aloud, and tell full stories. Hymn to Demeter is maybe the longest and tells of how Demeter, goddess of agriculture, become depressed and restless after the abduction of her daughter, Persephone, by her brother Hades, god of the underworld. Zeus, king of the gods, had promised Persephone in marriage to Hades without Demeter’s knowledge, and Demeter is, quite rightly, upset by this and neglects her duties as goddess of agriculture. A compromise is struck between the gods where Persephone spends a third of the year with her husband/uncle Hades and the rest with her mother Demeter, which explains why the earth is blooming and fruitful in the spring and summer and gloomy and barren in the fall and winter. 

The myth of Hades and Persephone is problematic to modern audiences as it contains abduction, incest, rape, and may-december relationships. The implication given is that the only thing wrong with Hades’s marriage to Persephone is that it was without Demeter’s knowledge or consent. Incest was common among the greek gods, as it was with royals for many centuries, because, though the gods and goddesses had many affairs with mortals, the only person good enough for a deity to marry is another deity. Even the age difference was not much of a problem to the ancient greeks, considering the average greek woman married around thirteen while the average man married around thirty. Although this tale being problematic, it is one of the best known and most popular of the greek myths and Hades and Persephone are among mythology’s favorite characters. Despite the dubious start to his marriage, Hades is the only one of the greek gods who is what you would consider a good husband, at least compared to his womanizing brother, Zeus.

Other stories which feature in the Homeric Hymns include the conception and birth of Apollo and the founding of the oracle at Delphi, the humorous tale of Hermes’s theft of Apollo’s sacred cattle, and the romance between Aphrodite and Anchises, which results in the birth of the Trojan hero Aeneas.

Ancient Greek mythology is packed with enough drama for a long running soap opera and it’s little wonder than they have endured over the millennia.  It often reads as a supernatural version of General Hospital or One Life to Live, two shows which my roommate Jasmine got me into, due to the tangled up web of characters, and the constant infidelity and backstabbing.  If I was going to recommend a book that gives an overview of greco-roman mythology it would be Ovid’s Metamorphose, which has a wider array of stories and is more narrative in character, rather than the more lyric Homeric Hymns.

 

 

A Quiet Passion and Donuts and Death

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Jasmine learned about a showing of A Quiet Passion, a biopic about the poet Emily Dickinson, at Salem Cinema and suggested it as something we could do. I said of course, since Dickinson was one of the writers we studied in my American lit. class this semester. At 4:30, we went to Omega Pizza, our favorite pizza place in Salem, and then caught the 5:50 shuttle downtown. When we got there, we still had about an hour until the movie so I passed the time by playing Jasmine some of my latest musical obsessions. The movie began at 7:20 and was shown in the tiny theater where we saw The True 1692.

A Quiet Passion is a visually stunning and beautifully made film. It’s cinematography is exquisite, combining the natural beauty celebrated in Dickinson’s poetry and the prim mid victorian domesticity in which she and her family lived. It was also a brilliant choice to include voice overs of her poetry. The film was a fascinating psychological portrait of this most enigmatic of American writers, showing her as a rebellious school girl, an old maid who still harbored some hopes of romance, then as a sickly recluse. Cynthia Nixon gave a compelling and nuanced performance as Emily Dickinson, managing to be both a shy, uptight, nineteenth century spinster, and a feisty, outspoken protofeminist. I could easily sympathize with the trials that Dickinson went through: her literary ambitions, health problems, and romantic frustrations.

Some of my biggest complaints with the movie are that the movie was very short on coherent story and mostly seemed to be series of vignettes. It also had a tendency to drag. But the thing which stuck in my throat was how the adulterous affair of Emily’s brother Austin is pretty much dismissed as “he’s only human” and her outraged reaction to it is treated as her needing to lighten up.  Adultery and its casual treatment and justification are things which I cannot abide. 

I had to attend the Massachusetts Poetry Festival as part of the requirements for my creative writing class and I decided to attend an event called “Donuts and Death. Jasmine and I took a taxi to the Hawthorne Hotel, where the event was held. It was called “Donuts and Death” because it focused on Emily Dickinson’s sad poetry and was held in the morning (9:30 to be exact) and donuts were served. The speaker puts these poems in the context of real life events in Dickinson’s life, her romance with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, one of her father’s friends. Dickinson almost married Lord late in her life but health problems and distance prevented it (marrying Lord would have meant taking a gruelling journey from Amherst to Salem). Also discussed was the divide in the Emily Dickinson scholar community between the version of her poems edited by her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and the version edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother Austen’s mistress.

Gingerbread donuts made from Emily’s own recipe (apparently she was quite the baker) were promised but were not provided. In their place were some delicious treats from a celebrated Amherst bakery. The speaker was hysterical and made the event a blast. I was inspired to go to Wicked Good Books and buy a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  At eleven o’clock, I was picked up by my dad; Jasmine stayed beyond to explore more of the festival. As dad and I drove away, I read from my favorite Dickinson Poem “some keep the Sabbath…”  

 

 

William Blake and Childhood Poverty

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The poet and artist, William Blake, spent most of his life living in London, eaking out a living as an engraver. The London of Blake’s day was a dark, violent, and oppressive place where violence and exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, specifically child abuse, was rampant. In 1822, the British Parliament passed the Martin’s Act, which prohibited the cruel treatment of animals; legislation preventing cruelty towards children was not passed until much later. During Blake’s lifetime, you could buy three children from an orphanage or workhouse for the price of a horse (Mayall). Poor and unwanted children were subject to appalling living and working conditions and beatings from both their employers and parents. Corporal punishment was a fixture of the British school system and would remain so until the 1990s. Much of Blake’s work addressed the issues of his day rather directly or indirectly and was inspired by his strong but unconventional religious and spiritual beliefs. In discussing the themes of innocence and experience, Blake gives a voice to the abused underclasses (Martin 1)

William Blake believed that his poetry and engravings were divinely inspired. He was born into family of what was known as “dissenters,” those who did not follow the Church of England; they were possibly Baptists. Blake himself disapproved of the Church of England and did not follow any specific religious denomination, though he had a strong spiritual bent and belief in God (Campe 3). His unusual and controversial religious beliefs are expressed through his art which he felt a moral and sacred obligation to create.  Songs of Innocence and Experience shows Blake’s views on human nature. Blake describes innocence and experience as “two contrary states of the human soul” and the poems in this body of work show many of its subjects from two different perspectives: one childlike and idealistic, the other more mature and world-weary. When read together, the parallel  poems highlight contradictions in their intended subject. The England of Blake’s day may have a rich and prosperous place but only thrived due to an oppressed underclass. Children may be pure innocents but the world is filled with forces which can destroy them or turn them into ferocious and corrupt monsters (Campe 6).

The companion pieces Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience deal with man’s essential purity which is corrupted by the hardships and evils of the world. The themes of purity and corruption are expressed in the two corresponding Chimney Sweeper poems through the use of black and white. Little Tom Dacre, the sweep in the Innocence version, is presented as an angelic figure in a dark and dirty world; Tom’s curly blond hair is describe as being like the wool of a lamb, a conventional symbol for innocence and saintliness “You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair” (8) and the sooty chimneys he works in are compared to black coffins  “Were all of them lock’d up in coffins of black” (12). The coffin imagery is used to foreshadow Tom’s possible early death but the poem gives him the possibility of salvation, “And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy, He’d have God for this father & and never want joy… Tho’the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm; So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm,” (19-24). His life is hard and will likely be short, but his innocence gives him the hope of heaven.

The chimney sweeper in the Experience version is presented as much more tragic and pathetic figure. In contrast to the white angelic Tom in his coffins of black, this sweeper is described as “A little black thing among the snow, crying’weep, ‘weep, in notes of woe!” (1-2), an ugly black blot on the superficial purity of the world. It is implied that this sweeper was carelessly abandoned by his parents, who hypocritically attend church to appear respectable while he suffers in the streets, “And because I am happy, & dance & sing, They think they have done me no injury, and are gone to praise God & his Priest & King, Who make up a heaven of our misery,” (9-12). God, the Priest, and King refer to religion and government, those who are supposed to look after the poor and needy but do not. The Experience chimney sweeper is a miserable and doomed character, “Because I was happy upon the heath, and smil’d among the winter’s snow; the clothed me in the clothes of death, and taught me to sing the notes of woe.” (5-8). Both poems refer to the likely fate of these poor and unwanted children: a life of exploitation and an early death.

The cry of the Chimney Sweepers, “ ‘weep,” gives the poems an even more pathetic tone. In the Innocence version, it is meant to show how young Little Tom Dacre is: he cannot even fully pronounce the word “sweep” (Martin 3). While the Experience version uses the cry of  “‘weep” in a more complex way; to mimic sobbing and emphasize the tragic existence of the chimney sweepers, who were often sold off at six years old or younger (Martin 3). Children in Blake’s work are often presented as paragons of innocence and purity who cannot comprehend the evil in world or why it happens and are vulnerable to exploitation because of their youth and innocence. The “God & his Priest & King” mentioned in the Experience version of “The Chimney Sweep” fail to protect them.

Holy Thursday, another pair of companion poems, refers to a religious procession during the Easter season where the poor children of London are brought to a church service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s Innocence version, uses the term “innocent” frequently to describe these poor children, “‘Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,” (1), “Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands,” (8). They are even compared to angels, “Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door” (12). Blake paints these impoverished orphans as a picture of helpless innocence to get us to sympathize with their plight.

The Experience version of Holy Thursday has a darker tone. Blake laments the fact that so many children in a prosperous country like England are living in poverty, “Is this a holy thing to see, in a rich and fruitful land, babes reduced to misery, fed with cold and usurous hand?” (1-4). His verses take a more melancholy tone,  “Is that trembling cry a song? Can it be a song of joy?” (5-6). The world for the poor orphans described in the previous poem will be desolate and difficult, cold, bleak, and filled with hardships, “It is a land of poverty! And their sun does never shine, and their fields are bleak & bare, and their ways are fill’d with thorns; It is eternal winter there,” (8-12).  The innocence of these children is not enough to protect them from suffering. Blake addresses a bitter truth about his time period; that thousands of children in London were orphaned and living in poverty. Both of the Holy Thursday poems are meant to address the plight of needy children and elicit sympathy for it.

Blake presents childhood as a double edged sword. Children might be guileless and uninhibited but they are also dependent and vulnerable. The corresponding Innocence and Experience poems show these two sides of their subjects. They present innocent and needy children but also a society that exploits and abuses them. Innocence, experience, youth, maturity, good and evil are all faces of the same coin: youth and innocence are fragile and finite states and even the most virtuous person has the potential for evil.

William Blake’s religious beliefs and social conflicts influenced his work. His Songs of Innocence and Experience show his views on the dual nature of the human soul. “Innocence” epitomizes the the purity and optimism of childhood but also it’s helplessness and vulnerability. “Experience” represents maturity and corruption as well as knowledge and enlightenment.The Chimney Sweep of the two poems of the same name is portrayed as both an angelic figure and as a crack in society’s hypocritical facade. He is destined to live a short and miserable life but has the promise of heavenly salvation. The poor orphans who attend the Holy Thursday church service are innocents worthy of protection but also a reminder of how the Church and State have failed. Blake condemns a society that exploits helpless children when it is supposed to protect and provide for them and turns them into evil and destructive individuals.  Loss of innocence through experience is an inevitable and perhaps necessary part of a person’s development but should not lead to corruption and vice.Though the lives of these children are difficult and unhappy they are also a symbol of hope. There is a chance that they make overcome their hardships and maybe grow up to change the world for the better.

The Lament of Eurydice

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*** Scroll Down for English Translation***

[Francais]

J’aimais l’automne, si tu le croirais.

Tout ce que j’ai toujours voulu était que le temps accélérerait  et de ne passer si lentement.

Mais maintenant qu’il est passé, je ne le récupérerai jamais.

Je me souviens de marcher dans un champ de fleurs,

En marchant côte à côte, main dans la main.

Maintenant, il n’y a que des  tas de feuilles mortes

Et des serpents dans l’herbe.

Je suis toute seule.

Mon coeur appartiendra toujours à celui que j’ai laissé derrière moi

Je voulais rester; j’espère qu’il souvient de cela.

Sa chanson ne peut plus me réveiller

Il restera seul  ici

Les feuilles sont vertes sur l’arbre, jusqu’à ce qu’ils

Deviennent marron et souffler loin

Les fleurs fleurissent jusqu’à ce qu’elles pourrissent

C’est le chemin de toutes choses;

Même la mienne.  

[English]

To think, I used to like the Fall.

All I ever want was for time to speed up and not go by so slowly.

But now that it was passed, I will never get it back.

I remember walking through a field of flowers,

walking side by side, hand in hand.

Now, there is only piles of dead leaves

and snakes in the grass.

I am all alone.

My heart will always belong to to the one

I left behind me.

I wished to stay; I hope he remembers that.

His song cannot wake me anymore.

He will stay here all alone.

Leaves are green on the trees until

they turn brown and blow away

Flowers bloom until they rot

It is the way of all things; even mine