Archive for August, 2013


“With a torch in your pocket, and the wind at your heels…”

Disentangling sickly cucumber vines, dispatching peppers that chose not to thrive—the maudlin side of late summer gardening got me thinking this week about Walahfrid Strabo, the 9th-century abbot and gardener who tutored Charlemagne’s grandson. Walahfrid was famously unafraid of hard work, so perhaps I cheapened his memory when I sat down to translate his poem “To a Friend.”

Because the poem is only 10 lines long and grammatically compact, I made the same careless assumption as the day I broke ground in my garden: “How hard can this be?”

AD AMICUM

Cum splendor lunae fulgescat ab aethere purae,
Tu sta sub divo cernens speculamine miro
Qualiter ex luna splendescat, lampade pura,
Et splendore suo caros amplecitur uno
Corpore divisos, sed mentis amore ligatos.
Si facies faciem spectare nequivit amantem,
Hoc saltem nobis lumen sit pignus amoris.
Hos tibi versiculos fidus transmisit amicus;
Si de parte tua fidei stat fixa catena,
Nunc precor, ut valeas felix per saecula cuncta.

I haven’t been in a Latin classroom for 15 years, so when I try to translate verse, I get that Flowers for Algernon feeling—but it’s not hard to render this poem into clunky English prose:

“TO A FRIEND: When the splendor of the moon glitters from the pure heavens, stand under the sky and behold with wonder as you see the pure light shine from the moon, see its brilliance embrace dear ones divided bodily but connected by love in their minds. If face may not gaze on beloved face, then at least let this light be proof of our love. Your faithful friend has sent these little verses. If, for your part, your bond of loyalty stands firm, then I pray you be happy and well forever.”

Translating Latin poetry into English is a nasty job; you’re duty-bound to smother some gasping aspect of meaning or form and bury it deep in your notes. Lines of Latin verse don’t rhyme at the ends; they’re ruled by vowel quantity, using long and short vowels where we use stressed and unstressed syllables. Walahfrid composes hexameter lines: the first four feet have to be dactyls or spondees, the fifth foot is usually a dactyl, and the sixth foot is always spondaic—but there are also three places where a good Latin hexameter line ought to have a caesura, and at least two places where it’s verboten to break up a word across different feet.

Ever versatile, “Hexameter Hank” Longfellow adapted the form for English metrical verse in the 1,400-line Evangeline: “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (I’ve tried it too by adapting elegiac couplets, which alternate hexameter and pentameter.)

So I sat down to translate Walahfrid’s poem, expecting to be done in a day.  I stumbled first on the diction: A poet who varies his language is a translator’s dream, so I frowned to realize that Walahfrid twice uses both pura (“clear, pure, simple, plain”) and splendor (“brilliance, brightness, luster”).

Using the same word twice (and then doing it twice) emphasizes a bond between two friends, but that’s just a small part of what’s going on in this poem. You don’t need to know a word of Latin to see it:

Cum splendor lunae fulgescat ab aethere purae,
Tu sta sub divo cernens speculamine miro
Qualiter ex luna splendescat, lampade pura,
Et splendore suo caros amplecitur uno
Corpore divisos, sed mentis amore ligatos.
Si facies faciem spectare nequivit amantem,
Hoc saltem nobis lumen sit pignus amoris.
Hos tibi versiculos fidus transmisit amicus;
Si de parte tua fidei stat fixa catena,
Nunc precor, ut valeas felix per saecula cuncta.

Rhyme! Medieval Latin poets often played with internal rhyme, but one German scholar in 1965 spotted Walahfrid doing something special: Each line has two rhyming syllables, one on a rising, stressed syllable, the other on a falling, unstressed syllable. Like Walahfrid and his friend, they’re distant, and a little bit different, but share a bond. At the end, the tenth line brings them as close as can be in an idiom that means “forever.”

Are there artful ways to render this in English? I tried:

“When the pure moon sends forth its brightness in splendor from the heavens…”

Bleah. Even if I pretend that’s a proper rhyme, the hexameter is lifeless, and the diction is novice, pocket-dictionary stuff. Walahfrid may have bonded by moonlight with his long-distance friend, but I won’t be the one to craft an English translation that illuminates modern readers with a medieval truth: that the body and soul of a poem are one.

“A week without you, thought I’d forget…”

Colorado! Spectacular vistas by day, darkness and quiet at night—all draws for the vacationing medievalist.

I was determined to take a mental vacation, to look past the state’s old, medieval-minded Missions and Gothic Revival buildings and dwell instead on the American West. Mountains! Sand dunes! Cowboys!

The Denver airport had other ideas.

There he was, on a pedestal overlooking the baggage carousels: a familiar face.

This guy is the most famous gargoyle from Notre-Dame in Paris—only he’s not a gargoyle, since he doesn’t spit water, and he’s not medieval, but a modern beastie grafted onto the building during a 19th-century restoration. Architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who oversaw the work at Notre-Dame, called these 54 replacement monsters chimères—chimeras.

In his 2009 book The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity, the late Michael Camille explains how these modern “chimeras” entered European and North American popular culture through engravings, etchings, photographs, postcards, paintings, and books—and how quickly the world forgot that they weren’t medieval creatures at all.

Ever since this monster—dubbed le stryge, or “the vampire,” by the engraver who made him famous—first glared down at Paris in the middle of the 19th century, no one has been sure what he is. The embodiment of evil? An icon of Romantic melancholy? An ambassador from an era that predated him by centuries? An antisemitic caricature? Is he bitter and apathetic, or contemplative and morose—or is he being cheeky? And what is he doing in Denver?

According to a nearby wall plaque, Notre Denver by artist Terry Allen has been installed here since 1994: “Historically, gargoyles were placed on buildings to protect the site. These are placed slightly above the travelers’ heads to oversee and ensure that baggage will arrive safely at DIA.” Popping out of a suitcase to protect travelers is a new role for le stryge, who’s now part of the Denver airport’s art program—although few people noticed him until they saw me snapping his picture. (The humungous Gamma World laser space mustang outside the airport is literally far more grotesque.)

Far across the baggage-claim area, le stryge has an unexpected counterpart.

When I spotted this critter, I was certain I’d seen him before. I mentioned to my traveling companion that several of Notre-Dame’s 19th-century chimeras didn’t look “medieval” at all but reflected 19th-century France’s fascination with Egypt. Although that’s true, when I later flipped through The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame, past demonic birds, a goat, an elephant, a pelican, a wild boar, a two-headed dog, a (now destroyed) unicorn, and (lamentably) a Wandering Jew, I was surprised to find that the chimère I remembered didn’t look much like the statue in Denver at all.

Le stryge is the only Notre-Dame chimera who makes that Home Alone gesture, and the birdlike face of this second monster only somewhat resembles one actual creature on the cathedral. This baggage-sentinel seems to be Terry Allen’s own invention, a horror that might exist if late one night, weary from another day of menacing glares, le stryge and his fellow chimera threw back too much Beaujolais nouveau, discovered a shared adoration of Edith Piaf, and one thing led to another…

So what are le stryge and his grotesque partner doing here? I could point out that 19th-century architect-designer Viollet-le-Duc and sculptor Victor Pyanet accomplished something akin to what Grant Wood did with American Gothic by creating something so recognizable and yet so enigmatic that people have never tired of seeing their own beliefs reflected by it.

Or perhaps artist Terry Allen, who appears to have a sharp sense of humor, got one over on the Denver airport authority by casting the miseries of air travel as downright “medieval.” One screeching infant or some surly cretin kicking the back of our seat, and we all might make such a face.

(Related post: Spotting the grand-nephew of the Notre-Dame chimeras on a pharmacy in Newark, Delaware.)