Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


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Friday, July 1, 2016

Poetry's Long Memory

The lesser poems of a master can sometimes bear more information about a culture’s deepest assumptions than more original and idiosyncratic works. Such an expectation is all the more likely in the case of a piece like Horace’s ode beginning “Dianam tenerae” (I.21) which is apparently, like the grand “Carmen Saeculare,” composed to order for a public occasion. To me this poem, for all its sophistication and polish, suggests far more archaic liturgies, reaching back to the Palaeolithic.

The persona addresses a troupe of adolescent boys and girls, dancing and singing praises to the gods and to a range of wilderness locations, with the express hope that their performance will ward off the chief sources of collective suffering: war, want, and sickness. As maidens the girls are asked to address Diana, and the boys the youthful Apollo (with long hair), and these deities also provide a transition to the wild and holy places catalogued through the poem.

The dancers are asked also to celebrate Latona, mother of Diana and Apollo by Jupiter. She (known in Greek as Leto) was born of Titans [1] and is in a sense backward-looking, as she plays little role in mythology other than as parent to this important pair. She, like earlier archaic Near Eastern fertility goddesses is a mistress of animal figures, associated with wild beasts. [2] Her ancient generative power is split in two in her children. [3]

Each child is then associated with specific localities. As the primary projection of the mother goddess, Diana is treated first. She is identified with three mountains: Algidus, Erymanthus, and Cragus. Each is chosen in part for reasons of cult. Algidus in Latium was known as a center of worship of Diana and of Fortuna; Erymanthus in Arcadia is considered a site for Artemis’ hunts [5] as is Cragus in Lycia. Next Tempe and Delos are mentioned as haunts of Apollo. The mention of these wild places, important for hunting and for signifying earth’s generative powers altogether independent of human agency, reinforces the élan vital as the generalized object of the poet’s (and the young performers’) praise.

Yet the specific place names, while serving this exceedingly ancient purpose, are also chosen as sophisticated literary ornament, to produce the maximum intertextual effect. The Vale of Tempe, for instance, in Thessaly, anciently associated with Apollo and the Muses as a cult center, is mentioned as well by Catullus, Vergil, and Ovid. [5]

The address to Diana and Apollo to constitute a fertility charm through the powers of art in both poetry and dance is not peculiar to this ode alone. Indeed the magic in the service of fecundity is more explicit in other of Horace’s works. In the last four stanzas of his ode beginning “Dive, quem proles Niobae” (IV.6) after paying homage to Apollo for his literary gift, Horace asks the young people to dance, keeping strict time to his Sapphic meters, in order that the moon might bless the harvest. [5] He then foresees the dancers later in life, in marriage, presumably with children. Then, he says, they may boast of having pleased the gods with Horace’s meters. Again, his petition to Latona and her children Diana and Apollo employs the power of words, of poetry, to obtain life through food-crops and children.

Horace’s “Carmen Saeculare” is a sort of restarting of time at the conclusion of an era of the sort most familiar from Central American ceremonies. Written for the national games, which included dance and song, this text includes again in the reader finds the same elements as in “Dianam tenerae”: Apollo the sun and Diana the moon, a troupe of young virgins, both male and female. Diana is here identified with Ilithyia, goddess of childbirth, and the poet explicitly asks for the birth of many children as well as for rich harvests and prospering herds. Here, however, the concern is national, as befits the ritual occasion and the poet’s commission from the emperor. The poet recalls Aeneas and asks for Rome’s protection and for military victories as well as plenty.

Such passages as these bring the reader back to the dawn of art and religion alike. Such rituals, at once hopeful for the favor of a gracious deity and fearful of the many calamities that bring suffering to mortals, surely resemble in essence the rituals enacted in Palaeolithic caves and yet today in scattered regions all about the earth. The basic human prayer is simply for life, both increase of the human community and of those plants and animals, both wild and domestic, on which people rely for their sustenance. World-wide, the technology for obtaining such blessings has regularly involved prayerful petition and sacrifice. Often, people reassured themselves with the principle of “do ut des,” assuming that their rewards should be assured if the verbal formulae and sacrificial offerings conform to prescribed requirements.

But what is being offered in Horace’s poems? It is the dancing and melodious poetry the gods are understood to relish. The formal beauty of art which mimics the order of the phenomenal world thereby guarantees to the community that all is well and even, almost, under control. Though the Romans were not at this point practicing human sacrifice [6], the beauty of the young dancers is clearly part of the excellence of the offering. Perhaps we retain remote echoes of such practices not only in Broadway choruses, but also in our culture’s exaltation of young actors and athletes. Furthermore, many people today who have little faith in either institutional religion or modern philosophy receive an extraordinary comfort from the beauty of works of art. The chorus in Oedipus the King knows that the very existence of their dance is a sign that the world is well, that all is functioning as it should. [7]

These poems represent an attempt at magic, the familiar ambition to influence through symbols the decisions of fate. The question of whether Horace in fact believed in the literal efficacy of such a verbal formula need not arise. Though even from early times, the modern reader often wonders in what way, if at all, the intelligent and spiritually cultivated thinkers of the ancient world accepted the pantheon of gods and the marvelous interlocking tales of their doings. One need not expect the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to come galloping across the sky to recognize the poignant power of the identification of humankind’s most dread enemies: war, pestilence, famine, and death, all very real threats. [8]

In Horace’s poem the yea-saying implied by the delight in young bodies, in nature, and in art is primarily affective. Supportable by a number of ideologies or by none, it is in itself a sufficient strategy for dealing with existence. Horace’s assumption of an entire community feeling the same emotions in the context of a public performance adds a love of community to that of form itself, of individuals, of new life manifested in both people and wilderness. Even a wholly inefficacious petition to the gods is an eloquent outcry of human desire. If the horrors of life are not eliminated by the poet’s song, they are held at bay as the singer and the dancers and the audience join in a melodious and rhythmic statement of desire, the elaboration of which will, if nothing else, beguile a festive afternoon. Informative as a digital photograph, it is a snapshot of consciousness that perfectly and precisely preserves emotions and ritual responses from the very earliest human era. How much of modern art is likewise a worried attempt to impose order on the unpredictable chaos of reality? How many modern poems seek, like Horace, to overcome the anxiety of existence with beauty?


1. Today most accept the derivation of Leto from the Lycian word for wife, emphasizing her essential generative character. Some regard Latona as representative of the human mind as her parents were Phoebe, associated with prophetic wisdom and Coeus, governing rational inquiry.

2. See Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses and Aelian, On the Nature of Animals.

3. Indeed, according to Callimachus’ “Hymn to Artemis,” Leto’s daughter was born without labor, as a natural doubling of the mother, while Apollo’s birth according to the “Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo,” took nine days. The displacement of the prehistoric goddess resulting in the mastery of the sky-god Zeus/Jupiter took, apparently, considerable time and effort.

4. Odyssey 6.103 ff. Leto is observing her daughter with pride. In a striking example of the complexly interwoven mythological system, Erymanthus is also a son of Apollo, who watched Aphrodite making love to Adonis (or bathing)and was inconsequence blinded. Apollo took revenge on Aphrodite by changing himself into a boar and killing Adonis. (The Erymanthian boar is, of course, also the one killed by Heracles.)

5. Diana as the moon complements Apollo as the sun, which one might think has the greater influence on crops. The stress here on the beneficent effect of Diana’s lunar nature is a reminder of the primary mother goddess historically underlying the earliest cults of farmers and pastoralists.

6. Livy and Plutarch record instances of human sacrifice in archaic Rome. Prohibited only in 97 BCE, human sacrifice thereafter persisted only in such vestiges as the Vestal Virgins tossing of puppets from the Pons Suplicius and the suspension of dolls in trees as part of the Feriae Latinatae.

7. Oedipus the King, ll. 895-6.

8. In a suggestive variation of the motif, the Buddha set out upon his quest for enlightenment after encountering an old man, a diseased one, a corpse, and an ascetic, thus enclosing one solution (though not the one the Buddha ultimately adopted) with the problem.

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