Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Poetry and the contagion of affect

Balaustion (Browning's Balaustion) prefaces her by-heart recital of Euripides' Hecuba with these words, which can form a kind of motto for the practice of rapturous quotation:
                                 no one of all the words
O' the play but is grown part now of my soul,
Since the adventure. 'T is the poet speaks:
But if I, too, should try and speak at times,
Leading your love to where my love, perchance,
Climbed earlier, found a nest before you knew —
Why, bear with the poor climber, for love's sake!
I think Browning is remembering -- and so he, too, is speaking -- the words that end Shelley's "When the Lamp is Shattered":

When hearts have once mingled,
Love first leaves the well-built nest;
The weak one is singled
To endure what it once possessed.
O Love! who bewailest
The frailty of all things here,
Why choose you the frailest
For your cradle, your home, and your bier?

Its passions will rock thee,
As the storms rock the ravens on high;
Bright reason will mock thee,
Like the sun from a wintry sky.
From thy nest every rafter
Will rot, and thine eagle home
Leave thee naked to laughter,
When leaves fall and cold winds come.
These lines have occasioned much unnecessary confusion.  What Shelley meant, and what Browning saw, was that the personification of Love ("thee") opens it to the experience of all human beings: abandonment by love.  Love itself experiences the loss of love.  (Personifications of love, from the Symposium onwards, will often have this strange effect; it may indeed be in view of this effect that love is so often personified, standing on the burning deck reciting "Casabianca", hiding his face among a crowd of stars.) Balaustion's beautiful inversion of this fate leads us back to love's nest: her love for Euripides encouraging our own.

It may be too that in remembering Shelley Browning is remembering Dante, and the strange affection between shades that Statius and Virgil feel for each other.  In Purgatory the saved Statius tries to embrace the unsaved Virgil's feet, but Virgil reminds him that they are shades that that they are seeing shades.  Statius replies that his love for Virgil was so great that he forgot this unforgettable fact: that they are dead.

Virgil returns the compliment at the beginning of the next Canto (Purgatorio 22):
acceso di virtù, sempre altro accese,
pur che la fiamma sua paresse fore;

onde da l’ora che tra noi discese
nel limbo de lo ’nferno Giovenale,
che la tua affezion mi fé palese,

mia benvoglienza inverso te fu quale
più strinse mai di non vista persona,
sì ch’or mi parran corte queste scale.


Ignited by some power, spreads its flame
to others, if its fire flares above

The surface, vividly. When, Hellwards, came
Juvenal to Limbo, joined us there, and
made me know your love, I felt your claim

On my benevolence, by far more fair
Than any had yet felt for unseen persons,
so now it seems with ease I climb this stair.
Virgil loves Statius because Statius loves Virgil's poetry, loves it right, loves it deeply, loves it as should be loved: loves a shade.  There is nothing remotely self-absorbed about Virgil's love for Statius. Rather the poetry he wrote is, like all poems, an invitation to loving something together: something, to put it in the most banal and yet the deepest terms, quotable.

And indeed that's what Statius is about to to do: he quotes from the Aeneid to explain his own salvation.  Virgil's bitter critique of the corruption that gold produces among all humans wakens Statius to clearer thinking about avarice and prodigality, and he narrowly escapes hell, thanks to his master, who does not.  The words have a life of their own, like Love.

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