Friday, February 23, 2007

Ash Wednesday

I went to a rather nice Mass yesterday, with the nowadays obligatory but nevertheless rather nice Allegri Miserere and the Byrd 5-part. Unfortunately I managed to miss half the service by the unusual expedient of having done nothing whatsoever all day except sit aorund waiting to go to Mass. Am I the only person who is only ever late when they are early? Being in good time is the utter death knell to punctuality in my life. I get it into my head that I have plenty of time, and then I always think I can fit one more bit of pottering in before it's time to go, and I can't, and I'm late. Whereas if time is pressing on me then I hop about to make sure I'm where I'm meant to be and that I know where I'm going and when and have all my bits and doings. Leisure is my enemy. Roll on the end of Reading Week (a sort of midterm holiday - I love the idea that in the life of a University, "Reading Week" should signify a break from the norm).
Right, I'm about to do it again, but this time with sour apple martinis in the bar down the street. I have been home for two hours, and now I need to be there in 17 minutes and I'm not even dressed. It is actually ridiculous.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A thaw

I got up yesterday and got dressed and went outside and it was warm. By which I mean that it was not cold. I walked to brunch (what sort of brunch joint doesn't sell pancakes on Pancake Day? What sort of brunch joint doesn't sell pancakes at all?) through streets running with water, although there neither was nor had been any rain. Very odd. Shopowners were out poking their canvas awnings with sticks to dislodge the melted snow before it dripped on potential custom. Passers-by were dodging the puddles. The drains ran and the mountains of snow piled up along the edges of every road and pavement shrank and thinned, and the sun was shining, and it felt like spring.
It put me in in mind of Horace Ode 4.7, which begins
"Diffugere niues", " The snows have scattered" and which A.E.Housman famously considered "the most beautiful poem in ancient literature". It is rather lovely, but not, I think, as lovely as Odes 1.4. I am conscious of the danger of this blog becoming tediously rebarbative to non-classicists, but on the truly astonishing upliftingness of spring, Horace has it nailed.
Besides which, thinking about this poem is an accurate reflection of What I Have Been Up To, since I have just spent the last five hours making a translation of it. Just for fun. I am not putting it up here, however, since making other people read your poetry is like making them smell your socks. If anyone is interested I'll send it to them.

Soluitur acris hiems grata uice ueris et Fauoni
trahuntque siccas machinae carinas,
ac neque iam stabulis gaudet pecus aut arator igni
nec prata canis albicant pruinis.
Iam Cytherea choros ducit Venus imminente luna
iunctaeque Nymphis Gratiae decentes
alterno terram quatiunt pede, dum grauis Cyclopum
Volcanus ardens uisit officinas.
Nunc decet aut uiridi nitidum caput impedire myrto
aut flore, terrae quem ferunt solutae;
nunc et in umbrosis Fauno decet immolare lucis,
seu poscat agna siue malit haedo.
Pallida Mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas
regumque turris. O beate Sesti,
uitae summa breuis spem nos uetat inchoare longam.
Iam te premet nox fabulaeque Manes
et domus exilis Plutonia, quo simul mearis,
nec regna uini sortiere talis
nec tenerum Lycidan mirabere, quo calet iuuentus
nunc omnis et mox uirgines tepebunt.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Update: the patient with tonsilitis turns out to have glandular fever. So much for Dr Scarlet. I am beating a humbled retreat back into the uninfectious (not to say uncommunicable) realm of classical philology, from which standpoint the most pertinent contribution I have to make is the quite harmless one that "Mono" (as glandular fever is called on these shores) is a pleasingly ironic name for the Kissing Disease.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Niece Again

I haven't bored everyone with pictures of Alessandra recently, so here she is. Hopelessly cute, no? When she was born we asked my brother whom she looked like, and he said she looked like me, which I do hope turns out not to be the case. Anyway, it's plainly not true even now, as I was by common assent an unlovely infant. One old amour called a picture of me aged 3 months "grotesque". When mother met Alessandra she said "She looks just like Scarlet when she was born, only MUCH prettier!" It's official: a face not even a mother could love.
Anyway, I have started writing letters to Alessandra, which even I, in my obsessional auntly doting, realise is a bit strange, since like most seven week old babies she can't read. Never mind, she may as well have an early introduction to her Zia's eccentricities, and better letters than stilettoes or vin. My darling.

Tristia Ex Toronto

I have just been reminded of Ovid, more's the pity, by Scottish Friend, who is grumbling about what rot it is. I wasn't able to offer him any consolation, since Ovid reminds me of the creep at a party who always thinks he can improve on the punchline of other people's jokes.
[Incidentally, Canadians have a similar problem, to judge by the greetings cards available here. For instance, a few weeks after I got here I was looking for a birthday card and was delighted to see some decorated with Gary Larson "The Far Side" cartoons, which my learned reader will be aware have rather witty one-line captions beneath them. However, these versions had been defaced by terrible lame quips on the inside of the card. Either the original bon mots are so subtle as to evade the grasp of the Canadian greeting-card market, or else there is some dreadful little Ovid working for Hallmark Canada Inc. who hovers, blue pencil in hand, over each tight, cleverly-wrought cartoon, scoffing "Call that a punchline? This is a punchline...". However that may be, it makes buying cards a trying task. There are always plenty of those bland ones of vases of flowers and sleeping cats and what have you, but it frequently happens that a reflective-looking bowl of peonies, a pair lace curtains billowing at a sunlit window etc do not strike the note one is after. Stylish cards, undefiled by inane addenda, are at such a premium that it is no wonder they cost about seven dollars each (a sum which will buy you a pretty decent lunch in this city, before tax).]
Anyway, as I was saying. The observant may have noticed that the subtitle of my blog has changed. The new title is a hilarious malapropism on the title of one of Ovid's very worst poems, the Tristia Ex Ponto (Sorrows From The Sea-Side), a load of repetitive self-indulgent whining about how much the poet likes Rome and how much he hates the freezing, wet, desolate dump he now finds himself in, devoid of culture and beauty and all his books, and how terribly hard done by he is and just wants to go home. The new title was suggested to me by Scottish Friend. I hope he wasn't making a point.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Call that a feast day?

Well, that was Valentine's Day. I realise that I'm not meant to care and should by this advanced age have cultivated the appropriate air of thorough-going disdain for the whole business. I haven't, of course, (maturity? moi?) and am gnashing my teeth with ill-temper at having received not one single solitary card, e-card, or even text-message. The only missives I had all day were from my mother, telling me about presents and pestering for news of similar largesse falling in my lap, and from my granny, telling me all about her roses, chocolates and lovely dinner out. Can it be right that my aged forebears revel in luxury and bask in adoration while I, a flourishing maiden in my prime, should trip downstairs to discover my matutinal doormat decked with not so much as a bank statement? That my evening hold nothing more romantic than a bag of crunchy cheetoes? That the sole hint of mystery in my day consist of attempting to decode Aeschylus' Agamemnon? (and quite mysterious enough it was, too).
Worse, not even my trusty exes came through, although there are at least a couple who can normally be relied on to do the good-ex thing and remind you that though it was never meant to be, you remain a goddess to them. Worse and worse, the morning's class was on the incomparable Catullus 64, which, while its brilliance cannot but be uplifting, could have done with being a bit less about weddings for my taste. That said, the real message of the whole work seems to be that if you are a nice girl and have a divinely and legally sanctioned wedding to a handsome and worthy hero, your issue will cause fathomless grief and wholescale bloodshed. If, on the other hand, you are an over-sexed harlot, you will devastate the bonds of family, law and public reputation, and cause wretched heartache to self and/or to the generation's greatest poet. So that's love, then. Perhaps I was better off with the cheetoes after all.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Dr Scarlet

Well, apologies for silence, but I haven't attempted to get any vaccinations for tropical diseases, nor have I housemates whose searing madness causes them secretly to decant my half-drunk coffee when I leave the room. And I have nothing to report from the weekend since no one has been sick on me recently. However, since sickness of various kinds is plainly theme du jour, I can report that I seem to have become the Classics Department's answer to House. Evidently the fame of my nursing exploits has led to a swift promotion.
Anyway, I had had the impression that the Woodbury Library was a small repository of philological resources, but this is clearly a trick of the elaborately wrought classical decor: in fact it appears to be the consulting room of some sort of General Practitioner who, I ween, looks not unlike me. Perhaps someone should replace the sign which must have gone missing from the door, and thereby spare the confusion of innocent graduate researchers into ancient languages who amble in for a quick squiz in Der Neue Pauly and instead find a wild-haired Scotswoman inspecting the anatomy of one or another comely youth. It turns out that I can diagnose tonsilitis, conjunctivitis and whatever it is that's making Hubristes' left knee all creaky, but if anyone would like to vary the diet then I can be found in there most days. I like to seem to be reading Hesiod, but in truth I am just waiting for my next case.
I do note, however, that everyone who has so far demanded that I fondle their neck, gaze into their eyes or stroke their knee has been a well-favoured young man; which, since they can have had no reasonable expectation of meeting with any medical expertise whatsoever, is rather intriguing. I wonder if I should abandon the high-minded pretence that anyone really wants me for my subtle manipulation of -mi verbs or cunning appreciation of Virgilian thematics and set up shop as a quack. I'd still get to be Dr Scarlet, but with a prescription pad. Oh, the fun...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

And while I'm at it...

I frankly consider this to be among the finest things I have ever read. I have my friend Ben, the other half of my soul, to thank for this discovery.
The Vastest Things are Those We May Not Learn by Mervyn Peake
The vastest things are those we may not learn.
We are not taught to die, nor to be born,
Nor how to burn
With love.
How pitiful is our enforced return
To those small things we are the masters of.

More emoting about poetry

My friend James has a theory that it is better not to do academic research into the writers whom one really loves. Similarly, my grandfather once said that at eighteen he fell in love with Yeats, but would no more discuss him with another man than he would his wife. I took issue with my beloved bro when he first reported, and supported, this latter dictum, but I think I was wrong.
It is true that I have had worlds upon worlds of beauty and truth and pathos, not to mention artistry and skill and brilliance, uncovered for me by being "taught" the works of certain authors; layers of meaning upon which, I am confident, I would not have happened unaided. For these I am more than grateful. However, there exists (for me, at least) a class of writing which speaks to one too intimately to wish to have it mishapen by the push and pull of academic rigour. Of course, one gains a great deal by the application of intellectual scrutiny. But a very different kind of satisfaction is also to be derived from certain works of literature, something akin to - or rather, something that is - emotion. And this you wish to dissect no more than you would wish to dissect the wordless joy of an embrace.
I do not allege that poetic effects add nothing to my apprecation of the sentiment (that would be positively nonsensical). I merely mean that mounting a laborious and closely-argued case about the historical importance or counter-cultural atrificiality of, say, Catullus XI does not cause me to find it more or less affecting. Of course, I can say many interesting things about the poem and why I think it fine, and that is one real and meaningful level of response, and worthwhile. But my deepest reponse to it is not rational and therefore is not open to rational analysis: I cannot *defend* my love of Catullus XI, or Catullus VIII, or Catullus LXVIII, any more logically than I can defend my love of my mother. I can point to admirable things about both, but as anyone knows who has ever loved anyone or anything, admirable qualities are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for the kindling of that emotion.
So I could write criticism of these poems, but it woudl never say the things I would really want to say: that the fourth line of Catullus CI makes hot tears start to my eyes; that Catullus VIII evokes in me a longing to be loved with terrible passion. This all says a very great deal more about me than about Catullus. Which is why it may conceivably interest readers of my blog, but not, I think, readers of the Journal of Roman Studies.
(Catullus, btw, is the reason I am a classicist. Poems VII, XIII and LXXVI, specifically. Ah, to be 15 again.)

Monday, February 05, 2007

At least it was a leather skirt

It is 4.30am and you are walking home alone through the stark streets of a concrete city. It is -14 degrees and the wind is bitter and blowing right in your face. In the manner of Saturday nights, you are so shod and clothed as to require a taxi. There are no taxis. Your stilettoes pinch and your favourite leather skirt is covered in someone else's vomit. You are carrying bulging carrier bags full of linen soiled with someone else's vomit. Your hands, clothes, hosiery and hair smell of bleach and of someone else's vomit. You have spent the last four hours dealing with someone else's vomit. You have not slept for twenty-two hours or eaten for thirty, you still have Friday night's hangover, your legs have lost all feeling owing to the cold, and when you get back it takes another two hours to fall asleep. If anyone can beat that for the end of a night out, I would like to hear about it. And I missed Mass.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Why follow the crowd?

I had what will surely turn out to be the nicest half hour of my week yesterday, when a fellow graduate student asked me to hold her three-month-old baby while she popped over to the library. I wandered round the ground floor of the department for twenty minutes singing to this delectable infant, and afterwards, as I stood talking to his mother, he fell asleep on me, which I regard as a something of a compliment as well as a pleasure. Luscious. My brother put my niece on the phone to talk to me on Saturday and she made very pleasing gurgles and squeaks, out of which the words "hello auntie" are surely only a few developmental months away. Some friends of mine in Britain have just announced that their first bambino/a is due in the summer; two engagements have been announced since I got back; I have been reading book 6 of the Odyssey; and I am corresponding with an old friend about the dress I will wear at her wedding in July, in which I am cast, perhaps presciently, as The Bridesmaid.
Meanwhile, I continue to eke out my fertile years in a dusty library, pursuing my studies. Studies in a completely obsolete verse genre. In an elaborately artifical literary tradition. In a proverbially long-dead language. Belonging to an ancient and long-extinct culture. And the subject of my investigations? Presentations of thwarted maternity. You couldn't make it up.