Saturday, February 14, 2004

Pyramus and Thisbe: Death do us not part

15 Febr 04 Pyramus and Thisbe: Death do us not part

On March 20, 43 BC in Salmo, Ovid was born into a knighted family. He was sent to study law in Rome, but disappointed parental expectations by developing into a poet. Seneca remembered him for not being good with logical arguments and writing briefs. Ovid rather failed at law, but succeeded with poetry, leaving a legacy of The Amores, Tristia and Metamorphoses. Rebelling against the establishment of Virgil and Horace, he associated with the rebels, Propertius, Tibullus and Catullus.

His affairs with the Emperor's daughter, didn't earn him brownie points. In 8 AD, he was packed off to the Black Sea , where he wrote the Tristia. The same year, he published the Metamorphoses. He helped to establish the romantic movement, passed down generation after generation, as medieval romances and Elizabethan literature drew from his writing. His works were standard exercitia tedia for students from the 12th-14th century alongside Petrarch, Virgil, Horace and Cicero. The first known English translation of Metamorphoses came from no one less illustrious than William Caxton, returned to England in 1480. His writing influenced just a few: Boccaccio, Petrarch, Chreten de Troyes, Chaucer and Shakespeare.

William Golding is oft accredited for the first English translation in 1567, but never mind. Dryden took him up tenderly in 1657 as a writer to be examined for the divinity of God in man.

Ovid is the crossroad between classical myth and modern romanticism as the emphasis of myth, presented in the Metamorphoses, is not superstition or etiological; but psychological study of man: a rich source for the Renaissance when man became the proper study of man.

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in Book IV, introducing and ever memoralizing romantic love in the story of two neighbors, separated by a wall, who whisper through a chink.
Ach yes, who can ever forget the Prologue to Romeo and Juliet:

"Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair
Verona, where we lay the scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where cold blood makes civil hands unclean
From forth the fatal loins of those two foes
A pair of star-crossed lover's take their lives..."

However, Shakespeare reverses the roles. In Ovid, Pyramus takes his life first on discovery of the bloody cloak and Thisbe does likewise.

And yes, it does appear in Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V. Theseus and Hippolyta enter introducing the theme of romantic love:

"Theseus: More strange than true: I never may believe
These antik fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact—
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,--
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in the brow of
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives them airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.."

The rustics present the play, garbling the names as truly as any public schoolkid forced-fed Latin would. Remarkably close to the original, Shakespeare's version parodies. Whether Ovid meant his as a tragedy is doubtful. His wit is sharp, making Pyramus a coward, afraid of shadows and vainly killing himself. Shakespeare hams it up majestically:

"Pyramus: O wherefore, Nature, didst thou lions frame?
Since lions vile hath here deflower'd my dear:
Which is—no,no—which was the fairest dame
That lived, that loved, that liked, that lookt
with cheer

Come, tears, confound;
Out, sword and wound
That pap of Pyramus,--
Ay, that left pap,
Where heart doth hop:--

Thus die I, thus, thus, thus:
Now I am dead,
Now I am fled;
My soul is in the sky:
Tongue, lose thy light;
Moon, take thy flight:--

Now die, die, die, die, die."

Leaving Pyramus sprawled on the ground with his blood spurting over the mulberry, which then came only in basic white. Thisbe re-enters after dodging the lion:

"Asleep my love?
What dead, my dove?
O Pyramus, arise!
Speak, speak. Quite dumb?
Dead, dead? A tomb
Must cover thy sweet eyes.
These lily lips,
This cherry nose

These yellow cowslip cheeks,
Are gone, are gone:
Lovers make moan:
his eyes were green as leeks.
O Sisters Three,
Come, come to me,
With hands as pale as milk;
lay them in gore,
Since you have shore
With shears his thread of silk.

Tongue not a word:
Come, trusty sword;
Come blade, my heart imbrue.

And farewell friends,--
Thus Thisbe ends,--
Adieu, adieu, adieu."

This makes for great death scenes in all hot-blooded romances ever after, including Wagnerian ones with 45 minute duets. Gotterdammerung and Tristan und Isolde are relatively easy to spot even by the operatically uneducated.. And yes, Tristan and Isolde, Troilius and Cressida extend that far into classical mythology. In the Middle Ages nothing was more delightful than creating new classics akin to the Aeneid, but with the theme of Pyramus and Thisbe star-crossed love. Chretien de Troyes established the ideals of chilvalry. His romances translated into English via the roaming poet, Chaucer, erstwhile international diplomat, ambassador and what-all.

And if Chaucer, who was but a kitchen-page could reach such heights, then it should be no surprise that a few centuries later, another copied—but conveniently not getting shipped off to Italy for a war. Shakespeare fought his battles on the stage vicariously, not in the field.

In the last century, Ovid was spurned; but in the 1990's new scholarship blossomed. Used in psychology by Jung, incorporated into innumerable forms of literature, Ovid is very much alive and thriving once more.

And the theme? Never ends. Bernstein turned out West Side Story to improve on the dynamics of Wagner's static staging. The best thing about Wagnerian opera is that you can do your ironing and never miss anything on stage.

Ovid, 43 B.C. - 17 or 18 A.D.
The Metamorphases of Ovid; Translated by William Caxton, 1480. New York: G.
Braziller, in association with Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1968. 2 Volumes.

Reference : Kline, A. S., (poetry translation) “Ovid The Metamorphoses
enjoyable reading with an in-depth mythological index, fully hyper-linked. 4 MB .pdf 880 MR downloadable

Ovid Metamorphoses

Dryden, transl Metamorphoses

Book 4 with Pyramus and Thisbe
look for the side note that begins the section

University of Vermont Ovid Project
special Ovid exhibit with illustrated works from the 17th century German artist, Johann Wilhelm Bauer, depicting 150 scenes from the Metamorphoses with a brief description in Latin and German. plates from a 1640 edition, transl by George Sandys

Ovid Metamorphoses, transl Golding
The Fifteen Books of Ovid's Metamorphoses, 1567

The piteous tale of Pyramus and Thisbee doth conteine
The headie force of frentick love whose end is wo and payne. ... [Ep.110]
The snares of Mars and Venus shew that tyme will bring to lyght
The secret sinnes that folk commit in corners or by nyght.
Hermaphrodite and Salmacis declare that idlenesse
Is cheefest nurce and cherisher of all volupteousnesse,
And that voluptuous lyfe breedes sin: which linking all toogither
Make men to bee effeminate, unweeldy, weake and lither.

A reading list for Metamorphoses
from U of Leeds with hypertext links

special exhibit

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Snow Queen: Old Woman's Flower Garden

4 Febr 04 Snow Queen: Old Woman's Flower Garden

From the beginning of the story, Andersen introduces blindness and journey as symbols. Eons before the story takes place, a demon constructed a mirror that contorted the images of reality so that beautiful things looked loathsome. The demon becomes the foil of Kay who goes out one day to skate. A splinter of the broken mirror his pierced his eye and froze his heart so that anything that previously beautiful became ugly and distasteful.

However, simplistic this sounds, the message conveys psychological truth. How often, we become embittered by a particularly shattering experience and are no longer able to see the beauty within the world. We lose a job, and suddenly life becomes a terrible struggle without the means for financial support or social engagement. We no longer have the means to enjoy public entertainment or spend money on delightful things. Our perspective becomes twisted like the images in the mirror made by the demon.

Kay goes off to skate, abandoning his friend, Gerda. Entranced with the Snow Queen, he ties his sled to her sledge and vanishes from Gerda's life. His disappearance alarms Gerda. Although not rich, Gerda is determined to find him and bring him back into her life. The theme is that of Rake's Progress, composed by Strawinsky and written by Auden, based on the etchings of Hogarth. Abandoning the security of her home, Gerda forsakes persoanl belongings, sacrificing her new red shoes to the river in hopes of finding Kay again.

More poetically Shakespeare presents Sonnet 116, using the ship following the stars to reach its goals. The turmoil and dangers in the sonnet are hidden, as the lofty goal of love is raised to its zenith.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 Let me not to the marriage to

Gerda is no poet or lady of the white glove. She is as poor as the Goose-girl, but more generous. Climbing into a boat, she entrusts her fate and journey to God, and sets out. In the third chapter, Gerda enters the garden of the Old Woman. Andersen, contrives the accidental encounter. We do not see him scheming in the background with the meeting of the two women: one is old and childless; the other, young and childless. Andersen insists that the old woman is not a bad witch, but still a witch who can order the arrangement of her garden to suit her needs, manipulating the memory of Gerda. The one is childless from old age—and also possibly selfishness. She cannot take the risks that Gerda is willing to make and she will not give up the comfort of her tidy world to venture into harsh realities outside. The garden is an image of containment, self-interest and selfishness. Gerda is isolated where no outside force is allowed to influence or touch her. The old woman desires selfishly to retain her company. She will take no risk in allowing Gerda any freedom, including Gerda's dreams and past memories. She contrives to erase all memories of Gerda's past life by banishing the roses underground and maintaining an eternal springlike season in her garden.

In comparison, Gerda began her journey by casting away her new red shoes. Although the gesture is foolish, the reader sympathises with someone so selfless as to endure discomfort in hopes of recovering a lost love. And although, the old woman seems to be quite kind and compassionate to Gerda, she is cruel. Through deception, Gerda comes to believe that Kay is dead. Nothing can be much moer cruel than this. It ranks among the top ploys of extracting information out of a prisoner under torture and rendering a person to a zombie state.

The selflessness of Gerda is further contrasted with the stories of the flowers who are filled with self-admiration. Each is absorbed in its own small story. The Tiger-Lily sees itself as a martyr, the Convolvulus winds itself about a fantasy readily found in immature romances that idealize love as the waiting princess on a balcony. Gerda has no patience for this. She is practical and recognizes the limitation of time; she is also aggressive in her endeavor. Goals are not won by dreaming about them in airy ways. The epitome of inhumane callousness, though, is found in the Hyacinth, who repeats its story like the knell of a funeral bell and then snaps at Gerda, "We do not tolling for little Kay—we don't know him; we only sing our song, the only one we know."

Although the garden is well-ordered and flowers beautiful, there is no compassion among there. The narcissim wears away Gerda's patience. When she brushes against the Jonquil—daffodil or narcissus—her patience ends. Bending over to catch the words in hope of discovering some information regarding her lost friend, she hears,

"I can see myself! I can see myself!"

The Jonquil is immersed in absurd fascination with its own image. Of all the flowers in the garden, only the Roses have some relevant response. The imagery fits: roses have thorns. Love brings pain into the beloved's life. Without pain, there is no real love; without love, there is also no deep pain. Asleep under the ground, they have not seen him and so assume that Kay must still be among the living on earth, offering small hope to Gerda.

Remaining within the garden is not for Gerda, regardless of the easy life and the eternal joys of spring. Yearning to confront reality and overcome life's obstacles to achieve her goal, she breaks out. She leaves with no shoes and nothing in hand but hope. Regardless of the length or harshness of the journey, she is determined to find Kay and bring him back into the world she understands and sees as beautiful. Her love will sustain her through all perils. She has no real selfish interest and she puts the welfare of her beloved above her own. She is the ideal of romantic love, the idealist who lives for a dream and the peole who give themselves to their professions for a higher cause.

Shakespeare's Sonnets

116 Let me not to the marriage to


7 Dec 03 Snow Queen

2 Oct 04 Flower Stories