Poets in a Landscape

Poets in a LandscapeGilbert Highet Was A Legendary Teacher At Columbia University, Admired For His Scholarship And His Charisma As A Lecturer Poets In A Landscape Is His Delightful Exploration Of Both Latin Literature And The Italian Landscape As Highet Writes In His Introduction, I Have Endeavored To Recall Some Of The Greatest Roman Poets By Describing The Places Were They Lived, Recreating Their Characters And Evoking The Essence Of Their Work. The Poets Are Catullus, Vergil, Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid, And Juvenal Highet Sketches The Stories Of The Poets Lives And Fills In The Historical Background, While Offering Crisp Modern Translations Of Their Finest Work And Memorably Vivid Descriptions Of The Natural World The Result Is An Entirely Sui Generis Amalgam Of Travel Writing, Biography, Criticism, And Pure Poetry Altogether An Unexcelled Introduction To The World Of The Classics. Barbarian that I am, my knowledge of the central Latin poetry, excepting Ovid s exilic Epistulae, and what bits of the Metamorphoses an English major meets in footnotes to the Fairie Queene, has never amounted to than names on a timeline Poets in a Landscape is the introduction I needed It s graceful, engaging, conversational dense with learning, but fluent and fleet Scottish classicist Gilbert Highet was one of the great teacher critics on the Columbia faculty, alongside Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Mark Van Doren Brilliant scholars and critics, travelers to the most exalted, and often the most problematical, stations of art and ideas and manners Cynthia Ozick, once a student of Trilling s , they were also energetic and unforgettable classroom presences Highet s written style has a personal, pedagogic presence Someone I forget who, perhaps a Roman poet whose quips have passed into commonplaces defined good writing as cultured talk Poets in a Landscape meets that standard Highet works on a few levels simultaneously First, biographical criticism with each poet Highet, said Cyril Connolly, another devotee of sensuously contemplative Latinity, succeeds in finding the man in the style Next, Highet invokes the consequent canon He shows Goethe and Byron, Browning and Baudelaire, Eliot and Pound as they summon, echo and emulate the poets of the early empire And as its title suggests, the book is also travelogue In 1956 Highet and his wife, the spy thriller writer Helen MacInnes, made a tour of the conjectural birth villages, spurious tombs and excavated villas of the poets under discussion The couple s fine snapshots illustrate the book I like Highet s archeological capriccio churches built upon pagan temples villas annexed to monasteries crypts and ossuaries planted in the once genial baths Our learned cicerone surveys the layered landscape, comments on the additions and alterations of so many centuries As we pick our way along the cobbled streets, it becomes and evident that this is a medieval town It is not the Roman town at all Juvenal s home was a flourishing township with twenty thousand inhabitants, lying on a plain near the river Melfe This is a cowering village of two thousand people at most, crusted along rocky slopes, comfortless and sad Juvenal s Aquinium was destroyed in the Dark Ages by German invaders the tough Lombards who pushed down the Italian peninsula from the Alps, dominated some of the country for a time, and gave their name to the northern province of Lombardy The survivors of the catastrophe built a new Aquinum some miles to the east, near a castle where they could take refuge in any later invasion and this is now Aquino Again and again in Italy, we see how the peaceful prosperity of the Roman empire was followed by the dangers and disasters of the Dark and Middle Ages In a peaceful valley, among fertile fields, lie the ruins of a Roman town, often traceable only by the faint lines of its market place or a few pillars built into a farmhouse High above it, on the peak of a hill, wedged into the topmost crags and slipping nervously down the gentler slopes, like a cat that has run up a tree and clings there spitting at the savage dogs, is its medieval successor The snarling face of the cat is usually a castle, on the loftiest peak of all Rome fought many wars, but during the five centuries when she had no foreign enemies to threaten her heartland, the towns and cities of Rome grew and prospered in the rich Italian plains, unfortified and happy and secure.Like many Americans, I think of Italian hill towns as adorable specimens of a romantic impracticality It s therefore chastening to learn they are medieval legacies of precipitous and paranoid resettlement, of scrambling for the hills ahead of an invader Highet also mentions that during the Early Middle Ages, with Roman engineering lost, Italian peasants believed the ruins to be the magical handiwork of visitant devils Outside of the literate covens of monks, the memories of the Roman poets, too, underwent fanciful mutations, persisted in strange tales In the folklore of the lands around Naples, Vergil figured as a benevolent sorcerer, able to relight cold hearths with flame summoned from his mistress s vagina and Ovid, in the legends of his native Abruzzi, became an avaricious wizard who lived underground, guarding his barrels of silver and gold So, Highet has definitely piqued my curiosity Juvenal, the street level satirist venerated by Flaubert, cannot but head the list Catullus and Propertius, laureates of erotic suffering, their short lives and shorter careers marked by subjection to cruel mistresses, sound interesting as well Tibullus is memorable for this contrast a stoical soldier whose poetry wallows in masochism Highet finds excessive even when measured against the obsessions of Catullus and Propertius Horace s Odes, like Pushkin s verses, sound untranslatable, their perfection a matter of nuanced rhythmic effects and subtly inspired diction translated, both poets are platitudinous I would be uninterested in Vergil, but for the fact that his song of the dutiful abstentions and public destiny of Aeneas, and of the rustic Romans who embraced him, seems to offer a perfect foil to Ovid, ever charming in his role as the most sensual and sophisticated of the Roman poets Vergil s focus on the imperially approved legendary prehistory is countered and, on same pages of the Metamorphoses, burlesqued by Ovid s absorption in the urbane, luxurious manners of contemporary Rome its indoor adventures, droll feats, boudoirs and billet doux its promiscuous, even voracious, upper class women, so recently the veiled matrons of a rustic republic Highet finds in many of the poets registers of that change Ovid was a suave rhetorician, full of lush wit and mercurial effrontery He s the quintessential ladies man, l homme femmes, displaying a subtle kind of virility, and quite at home in the intricate, feminine reaches of psychology I want to read the As, comic monologues in which sophistical avowals of fidelity alternate with adulterous asides and the Heroides, verse letters voiced by Greek heroines pining for departed lovers, entreating future ones, and brooding upon mythological trysts The day I finished Poets in a Landscape I chanced upon a selection from the Zibaldone di pensieri the hodge podge or waste books of the nineteenth century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi An entry of September, 1820, nicely captures Ovid s aloof and sportive charm Homer, Virgil, and Dantepour forth incredibly vivid imagery and description yet never seem to notice that s what they re doing they make a show of having a much higher purpose, which in fact is the only one that truly matters to them, the one they are actually always pursuing, namely the narrating of actions, their unfolding and final outcome Ovid does the opposite he doesn t dissemble, doesn t hide anything, he demonstrates and or less confesses what is in fact the case he has no higher or serious aim, really no aim at all other than to describe, to arouse and frame images, little pictures, to figure things forth, to represent, unstintingly. Just about a lifetime ago I was sitting in a plaza in Rome just across from the Pantheon I was reading Gunter Grass and the sky was perfect My luggage made it almost two days after my arrival I was content A large bald man with a fain aura of menace sat on the marble steps next to me He made a comment in a brogue ish way that it was a lovely day I concurred with a bit of flourish, saying something ridiculous like its beauty was timeless I don t think he offered his name but said he was from Ireland I find it easier to tell people I am from Louisville, Kentucky Ah, the Kentucky Derby He pulled out a fifth of vodka It was 10 a.m Such lovely horses he then took a lengthy swallow, though not as long as those last three words he shared with me, they contained centuries of verse This is a beautiful book, containing biographical sketches of the greatest pagan poets of Rome The title indicates the prominence of landscape to this analysis and that is a triumph as well The ancient soil appears to vibrate, to offer a human humility to the verse which has survived and the trappings of a physical Rome which haven t. A very pleasant read, with much unintended comedy First the good Highet writes well, and gives you just enough information so that you want to read of, or just read, the poets he discusses here Catullus, Virgil, Propertius, Horace, Tibullus, Ovid, and Juvenal He also makes me want to go back to Rome His biographies of the poets are charming, in the patrician, pre criticism manner his discussions of the poetry are intriguing, particularly when he focuses closely as in the Horace chapter and even the landscape writing, which generally bores me silly, had just enough people in it for me to care He even has the occasional, pithy, perfect phrase, as when he suggests that reading Tibullus is like watching Thomas Gray trying to write Baudelaire s Flowers of Evil As that phrase suggests, Highet s learning is broad , and he puts it to good use The unintended comedy just comes from reading a book written as popularization of Latin poetry in the fifties There is much demonization of Caesar and praise of the noble, upright, virtuous republicans who preceded him There is very little reference to the disasters and crises that led to Caesar getting his imperial diadem, nor to the fact that the Republic looked nothing like, e.g., the America from which Highest was writing There were slaves, there were very few citizens etc etc For want of a better term, I think of this as his liberal conservatism, which also creeps into the sections on the poets Ovid is a dirty minded little bugger, nobody should use nasty words in their poems and so on How, exactly, Highest managed to write a book on Juvenal is beyond me The typical biases of a classicist are on display, too you d be forgiven for thinking that between the death of Juvenal and the birth of Shakespeare nothing important happened, over, that nothing good happened That was the Dark Ages, you see Thank goodness the Renaissance was born from the head of insert your hero here , with no input from the centuries preceding it And then, what had initially looked like bad scholarship which it is eventually came to seem like something else cold war rhetoric I doubt Highet intended it, or that he was even conscious of it, but reading this book today, it s fairly obvious the Roman Republic is the good American Republic the Roman Empire is the USSR If you can extricate the good from the school marmish silliness, the tiresome acceptance of Renaissance pieties, and the self righteous Republicanism, this is very enjoyable But I do worry that people will read this book, and believe what he s saying, rather than reading it for enjoyment, with a skeptical eye. this book is adorable and i should give it to chenier, maybe it is adorable because it is, basically, of historical interest than anything else, a relic of the 50s although this adorability via historical interest dimension actually is also responsible for its most non adorable part, i.e gilbert highet s inability to write about women without being a raging misogynist, to the point that i think it negatively affected the way he assessed some of the poets the travel writing is adorable highet s weirdness about ovid is another non adorable part, highet doesn t really like ovid completely underrates him and it s upsetting also upsetting is the complete lack of latin in this book, which, i get it, it s written for a broad audience of laymen with no latin knowledge, that s the point, but it made me sad because if there s latin afoot i want to see it and translate it myself i should really not abandon latin every summer still, that does not excuse calling ovid s metamorphoses the transformations eugh gross blasphemous also, although i ve noticed this before, reading so many different latin poets at once really emphasized to me how, like, social roman poetry is it s directed to other people, so often, as if excerpted from conversation note also horace s letters in verse , and is so at odds with how people conceive of poetry now so tied up with one s own mind, so solitary it would be cool to study poetry that s been influenced by the roman mode, or to trace how the roman conception of poetry died out. In the summer of 1956, Highet and his wife toured Italy, visiting the relics of several classical Latin poets This book reports what he found Highet was a serious scholar, but in Poets in a Landscape he wears his learning lightly and sprinkles his account with plenty of interesting tidbits Catullus popularized the word basium, the ancestor of the French, Italian Spanish words for kiss Vergil was born in a ditch Propertius hailed from Assisi, like St Francis Vergil is buried next to the Italian poet Leopardi, in Naples maybe Tibullus came from just north of Rome he liked to stay home and surround himself with bad women Juvenal was exiled to Aswan, Egypt, but he eventually made it back to Rome Finally, the word grotesque comes from the word grotto, a picturesque man made cave but the notion that a grotto should be decorated with fantastic sculptures of humans and animals comes from the discovery of Nero s Golden Palace, in Rome The emperor had a great palace built for himself and had it lavishly decorated with bizarre statuary and mosaics, fitting his debauched and bizarre taste When he was assassinated, his palace fell into disrepair, was forgotten, and then was buried under centuries of vegetation and garbage During the Renaissance, workmen dug through the now 1,500 years of growth and decay several meters of dirt detritus to discover what seemed to them to be a buried palace filled with ghastly images Because it was underground, they figured their find was some sort of grotto Since that time, anything looking bizarre or overdone has been described as grotesque, fitting the underground palace of a crazed Roman emperor. There is a review from Julia please do read her review that says better than I why this book was so frustrating Highet himself Not only a raging misogynist but a bit of a self righteous one at that.I enjoyed learning about the Latin poets and did appreciate Highet s description of Italian landscapes I want a spring, nestled in a grotto, feeding a stream in my backyard.I don t recommend this book as I am sure with a little effort a better presentation by a modern author exists. This book was a life changer for me I read it one summer when I was in high school and it transformed me from someone taking Latin because I had to do so to someone who cared about Latin poetry and wanted to be able to read it in the original I ended up a classics major in university and I have been reading Latin ever since I have not reread it in a long time because I m afraid that at a different stage in my life it won t seem the same as in did all those years ago The charm of this book is the way the author uses landscape in this case the Italy of the mid 1950s to evoke the writings and characteristics of Latin poets who lived centuries before He makes Ovid, Catullus, and others come alive through the places that they loved. A beautiful, rambling, tweedy discourse on the great Roman poets The kind of gently expository scholarship that could never be written nowadays Don t get me wrong, I love French Theory and its attendant ambiguities and interstices, but don t you sometimes miss having books like this, where a guy who knows everything about something slowly and winningly teaches you why he loves it so much This was a graduation gift from my girlfriend, and whenever I look through it I miss that atmosphere of intellectual excitement Ahhh Basically a perfect book I can t imagine it being improved without losing something of its eccentric halo. I am always wanting to re read this Poets in a Landscape Travelogues are not my thing, poetry is not even really my thing, but somehow, this book was my thing when I read it It blew me away The way Highet talked about the poetry just fascinated me and made me think about language in a new way. A joy.

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  • Paperback
  • 296 pages
  • Poets in a Landscape
  • Gilbert Highet
  • English
  • 14 April 2019
  • 9781590173381