Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Tenth Muse

The Favourite Poet by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888

Some thoughtlessly proclaim the Muses nine ;
A tenth is Lesbian Sappho, maid divine.
- Plato

Plato called Sappho the tenth muse and never was a poet more deserving of deification. In Sappho's poetry the emotions of the individual found their first true expression. Sappho is the poet of love and the pure beauty of her verse remains unsurpassed even to this day.

Although highly revered in classical times, Sappho's works were widely burned in the middle ages along with those of the other lyric poets because of their paganism. Her work has been condemned, censored, and suppressed ever since because of the love for other women expressed in many of her poems. Only one complete poem and a few fragments remain. It's speaks of the power and beauty of her words that some of them have survived to be admired by us today.

I am currently reading Sappho: Memoirs, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation by Henry Thornton Wharton. First published in 1895, Wharton nobly endevoured in this book to collect and translate all the known extant fragments attributed to Sappho. He also collected and analysed all the biographical information from the classical sources and included the best of earlier translations. New translations were contributed by such notables as Charles Algernon Swinburne and John Addington Symonds.

In the 1880's Renee Vivien had published the first uncensored french translation of Sappho inspiring popular interest in Sappho's poetry. Wharton sought to provide as reliable and complete a translation and biography as possible for english readers.

The book itself is very beautiful, featuring a frontispiece by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and a gilt decorated cover with a lyre motif designed by Aubrey Beardsley for the third edition.

Here is my current favorite of the translations.

Blest as the immortal gods is he,
The youth who fondly sits by thee,
And hears and sees thee all the while
Softly speak and sweetly smile.

'Twas this deprived my soul of rest,
And raised such tumults in my breast;
For while I gazed, in transport tost,
My breath was gone, my voice was lost:

My bosom glowed; the subtle flame
Ran quick through all my vital frame;
O'er my dim eyes a darkness hung;
My ears with hollow murmurs rung.

In dewy damps my limbs were chilled;
My blood with gentle horror thrilled;
My feeble pulse forgot to play;
I fainted, sank, and died away.

Translation by Ambrose Phillips, 1711

And John Addington Symond's version.

Peer of gods he seemeth to me, the blissful
Man who sits and gazes at thee before him,
Close beside thee sits, and in silence hears thee
Silverly speaking, Laughing love's low laughter.
Oh this, this only
Stirs the troubled heart in my breast to tremble!
For should I but see thee a little moment,
Straight is my voice hushed;
Yea, my tongue is broken, and through and through me
'Neath the flesh impalpable fire runs tingling;
Nothing see mine eyes, and a noise of roaring
Waves in my ear sounds;
Sweat runs down in rivers, a tremor seizes
All my limbs, and paler than grass in autumn,
Caught by pains of menacing death, I falter,
Lost in the love-trance.

Translation by John Addington Symonds, 1883

Some Sapphic sources:

Sappho: Memoir, text, selected renderings, and a literal translation by Henry Thornton Wharton, 1895

The Sappho Page, Department of Greek and Roman Classics, Temple University

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Who is Ferragus?

Detail from Ruggiero rescuing Angelica
by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1819

In The History of the Thirteen, Ferragus XXIII is the Chief of the Companions of the Order of Devorants, a secret society known as The Thirteen. He uses the alias Henri Bourignard and also poses as a Portugese count. But who is Ferragus and who are the Thirteen?

In the various legends based on the exploits of Charlemagne, Ferragus is alternately a giant or a Saracen knight.

From Thomas Bulfinch's Legends of Charlemagne:

Orlando, or Roland, particularly distinguished himself by his combat with Ferragus. Ferragus was a giant, and moreover, his skin was of such impenetrable stuff that no sword could make any impression upon it. The giant's mode of fighting was to seize his adversary in his arms and carry him off, in spite of all the struggles he could make. Roland's utmost skill only availed to keep him out of the giant's clutches, but all his efforts to wound him with the sword were useless. After long fighting, Ferragus was so weary that he proposed a truce, and when it was agreed upon, he lay down and immediately fell asleep. He slept in perfect security, for it was against all the laws of chivalry to take advantage of an adversary under such circumstances. But Ferragus lay so uncomfortably for the want of a pillow, that Orlando took pity upon him, and brought a smooth stone and placed it under his head. When the giant woke up, after a refreshing nap, and perceived what Orlando had done, he seemed quite grateful, became sociable, and talked freely in the usual boastful style of such characters. Among other things, he told Orlando that he need not attempt to kill him with a sword, for that every part of his body was invulnerable, except this; and as he spoke, he put his hand to the vital part, just in the middle of his breast. Aided by this information, Orlando succeeded, when the fight was renewed, in piercing the giant in the very spot he had pointed out, and giving him a death-wound. Great was the rejoicing in the Christian camp, and many the praises showered upon the victorious paladin by the Emperor and all his host.

In Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Ferragus is a Saracen Knight named Ferrau rather than a giant. In the beginning of this glorious epic he loses his knightly helmet in a stream. After an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve his knightly helmet, the angry ghost of the brother of the fair Angelica, from whom Ferrau captured the knightly helmet after defeating him in a previous glorious battle, rises from the water, knightly helmet in hand reclaiming his rightful property post mortem.

The ghost then promptly informs Ferrau that he must wear no other knightly helmet until he captures the one that Orlando is wearing, which was captured by Orlando from a Saracen knight named Almontes, whom he defeated in a previous glorious battle. Ferrau swears an oath to do this. Fighting without a knightly helmet is no problem for Ferrau, who, like the giant Ferragus, is invulnerable, except for his belly button.

Incidentally Ferrau is one of Orlando's many rivals for the love of the fair Angelica. They will fight many a glorious battle. In the end of this glorious epic neither one of them has been able to defeat the other. But we know that Orlando is destined to defeat Ferrau in a future glorious battle because the Saracens always lose in these glorious epics. Angelica, for her part, is in love with some other guy and has no interest in Orlando, Ferrau, or her numerous other admirers.

Ruggiero rescuing Angelica by Jean
Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1819

But what does any of this have to do with the Ferragus in The History of the Thirteen? Who is Ferragus and who are the Thirteen, The answer to this question may lie in Balzac's political views.

The History of the Thirteen was written in 1833 during the early days of the July Monarchy. A liberal constitutional monarchy which began with the overthrow of the restoration government of Charles X in the July Revolution of 1830.

Under the July Monarchy government Louise-Phillipe of the Orleans branch of the house of Bourbon was crowned king. This regime, dominated by the haute bourgeois, was bureaucratic, inefficient, and very corrupt. Only the wealthiest members of society could vote. Common people did not have the right to vote or assemble. Republicans who supported a democratic goverment were considered enemies of the state and in 1834 the very word Republican was made illegal. Consequently a host of secret societies and clubs like the Thirteen formed during this era of conspiracies and intrigues.

Balzac was a conservative and supported Charles X as the legitimate monarch, but with some reservations. While criticizing the aristocracy for it's self interest and it's failure to perceive political realities, Balzac wanted to restore the monarchy and the church to what he considered their proper place as the social, political, and moral leaders of society.

At the time Balzac wrote The History of the Thirteen he was deeply involved in politics and was even considering running for public office. Balzac thought France needed a man of vision such as himself to restore balance and harmony to society. In The History of the Thirteen he is making of a study and critique of french society as a vehicle to express his political views.

In Ferragus, the first of the three novella that make up The History of the Thirteen, Balzac uses a story about a young baron's selfish pursuit of a respectable married borgeois lady as a analogy for the political situation in France during the July Monarchy.

The characters in the story are types representing entire classes of society. A young baron represents the younger generation of aristocrats, selfishly courting the favor of the borgeois government of Louise-Phillipe without considering the consequences. His aunt, a dowager duchess, represents the old aristocracy, too out of touch to perceive the situation until it is too late to prevent a calamity. A respectable married borgeois lady represents the borgeois government whose reputation may be ruined by the selfish ambitions of young aristocrats. A pretty young gizette represents the third estate, disenfranchised, used, and abused.

But who are Ferragus and the Thirteen? My theory is that Ferragus and the Thirteen represent the rationalists of these clandestine republican clubs. He must have perceived rationalism and the liberal democratic ideas of these clandestine clubs as amoral and atheistic, the cause of years of bloodshed during the Revolution and Napoleonic wars, an infidel invasion analagous to the Saracen invasion in Charlemagne's day. Ferragus is Orlando's invincible adversary. Perhaps Orlando is Balzac himself using his pen as a sword to save France and Angelica is France herself, a damsel in distress.

- David

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Balzac's girlfriend

Eveline Hańska by Holz von Sowgen, miniature on ivory, 1825.

The portrait above is from a minature on ivory in the Maison de Balzac Museum. The lady in the portrait is Madame Eveline de Hańska, nee Comtesse Rzewuska, a Polish noblewoman.

In 1832, Madame Hańska wrote an anonymous letter to Honoré de Balzac expressing her displeasure at the negative portrayal of women in his novel La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Asses Skin). She left no return address and signed the letter simply L'Étrangère (the foreigner).

Balzac responded by placing a personal ad in the Gazette de France in hopes that the author of the letter would see it and respond. Thus began a correspondence of over fifteen years and a legendary literary romance.

It was Madame Hańska, in one of her letters from 1832, that first suggested to Balzac the idea of a series depicting every aspect of Parisian and Provincial Society, which he first called Etudes de Moeurs before adopting the title La Comédie humaine.

Balzac met Madame Hańska for the first time in 1833. This letter reveals how deeply smitten Balzac was with her.

Our love will bloom always fairer, fresher, more gracious, because it is a true love, and because genuine love is ever increasing.

It is a beautiful plant growing from year to year in the heart, ever extending its palms and branches, doubling every season its glorious clusters and perfumes; and, my dear life, tell me,branches, doubling every season its glorious clusters and perfumes; and, my dear life, tell me, repeat to me always, that nothing will bruise its bark or its delicate leaves, that it will grow larger in both our hearts, loved, free, watched over, like a life within our life...

Balzac had fallen in love with a respectable married lady. It is interesting that around this time he was writing Ferragus, the first of the three novellas of The History of the Thirteen, in which a man's selfish obsession with a respectable married lady causes a series of tragedies.

In 1835 Balzac dedicated the novel Seraphita to Madame Hańska.

Here is the work which you asked of me. I am happy, in
thus dedicating it, to offer you a proof of the respectful
affection you allow me to bear you. If I am reproached for
impotence in this attempt to draw from the depths of mysticism a
book which seeks to give, in the lucid transparency of our
beautiful language, the luminous poesy of the Orient, to you the
blame! Did you not command this struggle (resembling that of
Jacob) by telling me that the most imperfect sketch of this
Figure, dreamed of by you, as it has been by me since childhood,
would still be something to you?

Apparently Madame Hańska had asked Balzac to write the Swedenborgian novel Seraphita after having a dream about it.

Reading Balzac's letters to Madame Hańska, it soon becomes apparent that her influence on Balzac and his work was profound. In a letter from 1836 Balzac writes to her -

I am nearly mad about you, as much as one can be mad: I cannot bring together two ideas that you do not interpose yourself between them.

I can no longer think of anything but you.  In spite of myself, my imagination carries me to you.  I grasp you, I kiss you, I caress you, a thousand of the most amorous caresses take possession of me.

As for my heart, there you will always be - very much so.  I have a delicious sense of you there.  But my God, what is to become of me, if you have deprived me of my reason?  This is a monomania which, this morning, terrifies me.

In 1841 Madame Hańska's husband died. In 1843 Balzac visited her at her country estate in the Ukraine. His rival for her affections at this time was none other than the composer Franz Liszt. She must have been quite a lady to have Balzac and Liszt competing for her.

Madame Hańska chose Balzac, doubtless due to his way with words, and they traveled together through Germany and Italy. Afterwards Balzac wrote La Cousin Bette(1847) in which the character Madame Hulot is modeled on Madame Hańska.

In 1848 Balzac returned to the Ukraine and after overcoming many obstacles, including a prohibition from the Tsar, Madame Hańska became Madame Balzac on March 14, 1850. Balzac wrote in a letter to a friend - three days ago I married the only woman I ever loved.

On the wedding trip Balzac suffered from serious heart trouble. Sadly, he passed away just five months later on August 18, 1850. The story of Madame Balzac is a romance not unlike some in her husband's novels, except that the heroine of this romance survived. Madame Balzac lived for another 32 years after Balzac's death.


The Letters of Honoré de Balzac to Madame Hańska born Countess Rzewuska afterwards Madame de Balzac (1833-1846) by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley(1900).