A Meditation on Pilgrimage and Poetry
As Reviewed By: Alfred Corn
Oxfordshire: A contingent of scholars from the University of Tulsa has come to Wroxton Abbey, near Banbury, to spend a month in relative seclusion while working on private projects and participating in a series of seminars designed to foster interdepartmental collegiality. Actually, the current designation of the venue is Wroxton College and has been that since 1963, when Fairleigh Dickinson U. acquired a venerable, dilapidated country seat, restoring and revamping it in order to provide an extra instructional option for its undergraduates. The doors are also open (between semesters) to other academic groups. Because I’m not a permanent member of the Tulsa faculty, I don’t altogether qualify as a participant-invited merely on the strength of a visiting appointment for the past two terms and a fairly reliable sociability. Meanwhile, who’d refuse the opportunity to be put up in a handsome 17th century pile built in ochre Horton stone, with slate-roofed gables and at least twelve chimneys, the baronial interior starred in the guidebooks for its profusion of baroque wood-carving? The surrounding park is an attraction in its own right, with rolling lawns and monumental trees, including a Biblical cedar of Lebanon, a 400-hundred year-old country squire of a chestnut, and an expatriate couple of California redwoods. If the pastoral note needed reinforcement, the treble and bass bleat of sheep grazing on a nearby slope supplies it. Black-faced, innocent in expression, puffed out with a winter coat not yet sheared, the bellwether just on the other side of the fence gives me a frightened look and trots off. Did He who made the tyger make thee?
[private]That September 11, 2001, isn’t so far behind was borne in on us a few evenings ago, when a jet fighter, at a terrifying low altitude, shot over Wroxton and strafed it with a sonic scream that sounded like an approaching missile. I wasn’t the only one, apparently, to have the thought, Here comes trouble. The same nagging uneasiness infiltrated the security check I went through at the airport before my flight to England, the latest in a mounting series of irritants (restrictions for hand luggage, cramped seating, skimpy or omitted in-flight meals) that have made international travel the ordeal it now is. And yet the crowds were there, tourist hordes determined to overlook everything so they could make their trips. Hijack anxiety didn’t succeed in getting people to stay put.
It happens that my project for this scholarly month in the country is an essay on poems involving journeys or pilgrimages. For several years I’ve led a sort of nomadic existence, teaching here, teaching there, absorbing and participating in location after location. Besides, all of my books have included poems about places far from home-”Wherever that may be,” as Elizabeth Bishop puts it in “Questions of Travel.” There’s a kind of ironic fittingness in choosing to write about poetry and travel when I am in fact abroad, though, admittedly, I’ve spent so much time in England it really is a familiar refuge to me. At this point I’m almost ready to say that home is wherever I switch on my laptop, and I often write about the places where I happen to be living for a time. I notice, nevertheless, that reviewers tend to dismiss poems involving travel as “travelogues” or “Guggenheim poems.” That sort of smugness and back-yardism grates on the nerves of at least one poet who has chosen to record pivotal experiences unfolding on foreign soil. Why can’t such poems be regarded as an antidote to our endemic American isolationism and xenophobia? Ellis Island over the past century and a half has welcomed people from all over the planet. Citizenship once granted, though, the good American was supposed to stay put, not backslide into the old country. It’s an attitude that has become less and less tenable the more technology has shrunk the globe. When someone sneezes in Zimbabwe, repercussions are soon felt in New York and San Francisco. When China doesn’t control industrial emissions, forests sicken in California. (Mr. President, the Kyoto Accords still need a signature.) Because of the Internet, I’m in touch with writers in both hemispheres and many latitudes. I get the distinct impression that writers elsewhere find reassurance when they encounter Americans who actually know something about their national traditions and who, ¡milagro!, actually read or even speak their language. The most important American ambassador of all is our literature, known to readers worldwide who’ve never set foot in an actual embassy. (Before I’m dismissed as anti-American, let me go on record as having traveled in all fifty states and visited every major American city except Las Vegas, and I’m even weakening on that one.) Political issues entirely aside, the fact remains that travel has been one of poetry’s key subjects from the very beginning.
Once the work desk is set up and I’m stationary enough to write, I begin by noting that the condition of travel-of wandering-is one of the fundamental human experiences. Its adepts appear in common or rare guises as vacationer, sailor, soldier, explorer, astronaut, legate, pioneer, missionary, itinerant peddler, bandit, trucker, hobo, nomadic herder or hunter, immigrant, migrant worker, refugee, quester, pilgrim. Few people loathe leaving the home there’s no place like, most of them planning to repatriate later, confirmed in the rightness of their original (and sometimes parochial) choice. Accordingly, the Journey is a central theme in literature, too. Some of the great travel narratives are prose works-the book of Exodus, Hakluyt’s Voyages, Don Quixote, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, Moby-Dick, and a host of twentieth century Baedekers or literary travel books by authors such as Robert Byron, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Sybille Bedford, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Paul Theroux. But those deserve a separate study; I’ve chosen to limit the frame to narratives that embody the theme in the form of poems. Certainly there was more than enough to deal with, in fact, whole careers have been devoted to the first and possibly greatest poem of journeys in Western tradition, which lends its name to rigorous expeditions in general. Anyone whose travels have involved risk and hardship in the interest of some urgent goal qualifies as having gone on an “odyssey.”
Since I have no credentials as a Greek literature specialist, I risk discussing this inexhaustible and minutely studied work only because, in an essay of a couple of dozen pages (one dealing with other works as well), brevity is everything. It also seems true that scholarship in the classics is much more often philological than critical. An aspect of The Odyssey that hasn’t been dwelt on in the commentaries I’ve read is Homer’s consistent effort to present himself as the poetic equivalent of Odysseus, embarked on the journey of writing his epic, and faced with trials analogous to his hero’s. “Sing to me, Muse, about the man . . .” the poem begins. In the Greek “the man” is the first word, and “me” is the second. Throughout the poem Homer establishes subtle parallels between the journey of the hero and the author’s unfolding of the poem. He describes Odysseus as polútropon, “having many turns,” or “devices” or “tricks.” But the English derivative “tropes” (from tropos) is relevant, too. Homer has as many tricks or tropes up his sleeve as Odysseus; without which he would never have reached his Ithaca, the conclusion of the poem, where his true Penelope, the reader, faithfully waits.
True, some of the analogical force of the poem is lost on modern readers who, instead of listening to a recitation accompanied by a lyre, silently absorb the work via a printed text. Once prompted, though, most of us can switch on the interior Camcorder and reconstruct the entertainment that Homer’s audience would have witnessed. Whereas the performing bard was present, visible, and physically active, the character Odysseus would be summoned to consciousness only through the imagination. To fill out their impression of orally presented epic, readers must not only listen to the account of the protagonist’s rigorous itinerary and supply visuals for it; they must also imagine the acting skills of the reciter, whose face and body no doubt offered histrionic counterparts to Odysseus’s actions and emotions as a way of reinforcing author-hero equivalence. A vignette of bardic recitation is given us in Book I of the poem, when, in Odysseus’s house in Ithaca, the poet-singer Phemius begins to recount the heroes’ return from Troy to an audience that includes the dissolute suitors, Telemachus, and a disguised Athena. Phemius’s theme is the same as Homer’s (the Trojan aftermath), but recounted minus Odysseus’s history, which hasn’t yet reached Ithaca. At that point Penelope comes down and asks the singer to choose a less painful theme. But her son states firmly that she must not interfere-his first bid for authority in a household where, up to now, he has mostly accepted his status as an underage supernumerary. (One indicator of his changed attitude appears shortly after this, when the suitors, noticing the new assertiveness, decide that it’s time for him to be eliminated.)
A more developed presentation of the bardic art appears in Book VIII. King Alcinous has arranged a banquet and recital described there as a reward for the crew of sailors assembled in order to help his guest, an incognito castaway, to return home. Odysseus is one of the audience listening to Demodocus sing a narrative about the heroes of Troy; and we’re told that Demodocus is blind, a detail that helped to found the tradition concerning Homer’s own blindness. (Another such clue is the mention of a blind poet from Chios in the Homeric Hymns.) Demodocus chooses to sing about the conflict between Achilles and Odysseus, with the result that the disguised hero begins to weep, trying to hide suspicious tears beneath his cloak. But Alcinous sees them and interrupts the feast, telling everyone to leave the hall and begin a round of athletic contests. Odysseus complies and bests several much younger athletes, offering an impressive display of temper at the arrogant boasts of one of the young contenders. Curiosity about his identity intensifies. In the hall again, Demodocus begins a second narrative about the dalliance between Aphrodite and Ares. Homer at first only describes Demodocus at his singing but soon slips seamlessly into the narration as though it were his own. In effect, he fuses with his fictional bard. The recitation concludes, followed by an elaborate celebration that Alcinous urges the disguised hero to remember and recount to others when he returns home. Alcinous also instructs the gathered nobles to give Odysseus costly gifts. Once again Demodocus takes up his harp and begins singing of the Trojan War-which has the same effect on the marooned wanderer as before. He weeps, and Alcinous can contain his curiosity no longer: He asks for an account of his guest’s origins.
The request effects a transition into Book IX, in which Odysseus finally agrees to give his name and tell his story. From this point up to Book XII inclusive, the poem moves forward through a narration spoken in Odysseus’s voice, who, in effect, is transformed into the bard of his own personal epic. That is another way of saying that Homer has (as before with Demodocus) fused with Odysseus-the crucial difference being that Homer continues to sing a narrative that Odysseus is understood (in the fiction of the poem) as delivering in the “prose” of ordinary speech. Passages recounted by the omniscient narrator, passages of Demodocus’s chants, and passages of Odysseus’s speechly narrative are all cast, in the original Greek, as metrical verse. Although the modern audience does not receive the text through public performance, reading can still accommodate Homer’s sonorous hexameters, available as such for those with access to the text in Greek, and approximated in translation by metrical equivalents or at least careful lineation. Books IX through XII present an Odysseus who tells his story in hexameters, a literary stunt beyond the powers of any non-professional attempting on-the-spot improvisation. Homer, masked as Odysseus, sings the hero’s odyssey in his verse counterpart.
A striking feature of the two levels of narrative is that Homer’s in the opening eight books is for the most part realistic. Excepting the appearance and intervention of Athena, plot turns presented in the first third of the epic involve nothing supernatural. (Well, there is Menelaus’s story about his encounter with Proteus, as he tried to make his way home from Troy; but that is his yarn, not Homer’s). What Homer describes is the “everyday life of archaic Greece”-heightened by the double crisis of an absent lord and importunate suitors, certainly, but no less credible for that. On the other hand, once Odysseus begins his account in Book IX, a fantastic panoply of supernatural beings and occurrences becomes the norm. Lestrygonians, Cyclopes, immortal nymphs, a sorceress, animal metamorphoses, miraculous escapes, all the stock in trade of Grimm and Disney come into play. It’s as though Homer wouldn’t strain audience credulity so long as he sings in propria persona. When a character speaks, though, Homer will always be able to evade responsibility for that character’s extravagances. In Odysseus’s saga, our human appetite for the dreamlike and nightmarish is allowed to brush aside the rational demand for verisimilitude. True, Odysseus’s account may be a form of paradoxical realism, a tall tale cleverly designed to grip his hearers and reinforce the sympathy they may feel for a sojourner down on his luck. But Homer’s text never disavows Odysseus’s romance. The saga is presented as factual, unless earlier and later reminders of Odysseus’s cunning are designed to set off alarms regarding his reliability as a narrator. It doesn’t really matter to the audience at large because fantastic events have a way of engraving themselves on consciousness more intensely than realism. When readers think of The Odyssey, the incidents most likely to spring to mind are those that the hero tells in his own voice-the Cyclops, the Sirens, the Lotus-Eaters, Scylla and Charybdis, Aeolus’s overwhelming bag of winds. Subtler narrative components emerge only after a more reflective and critical kind of attention is brought to the work.
Odysseus retells his fantastic narrative once again in Book XXIII, this time to Penelope as they lie together in bed. If it’s fair to regard the reader as a counterpart to Penelope, the inference is that a narration of wonders is a sort of lovemaking, one of its purposes being to win over the mesmerized beloved. In distilled form, the repatriated exile reproduces the same story told at Alcinous’s court-the hero’s dalliances with Circe and Calypso tactfully minimized. Though he does admit to having been detained by Calypso, he paints himself as always resisting her bribes of comfort and immortality. Excusing his infidelity by a plea based on the double standard would have been a jarring feature in a scene of marital reunion, certainly. But this is also Homer’s way of rounding out the hero’s character, introducing a doubt as to his perfect trustworthiness even where Penelope is concerned. If he is capable of a lie during this intimate encounter, he may also have lied on another more public occasion; therefore, some of his amazing adventures may be, finally, a cunning fabrication.
Narratives involving journeys have at some point to be told to listeners who weren’t part of the tour, and so the preterit is inevitably the tense of choice: “I traveled there, I saw this, and this happened.” Almost irresistible under the circumstances is the temptation to exaggerate, embroider, or even invent out of thin air. Without going so far as to say, “The truest love is the most feigning,” Homer’s suggestion may be that love is partly an illusion in the same way that an engaging narrative needs fanciful embroidery in order to make a lasting impression. Absent highly colored fictional components, readers would probably never be moved to voice that common outcry of literary appreciation, “I love this book!”
Homer conflates the art of epic narration and Odysseus’s story most nakedly in Book XXI. Taking up the heroic bow he left behind in Ithaca, the disguised owner rises to the challenge of stringing it, a task none of the suitors has so far managed. In my translation:
But Odysseus, skillful, seasoned, wise,
Lifted and inspected the great bow.
Like a master of the lyre and epic song
Who quickly knots a tight-stretched cord of catgut
To pegs at either end, thus, gracefully,
With no false moves, Odysseus strung the bow-
Which he held in his right hand as he tested the line,
The tightly twined sinew singing sweetly
As a swallow’s call.
This is Homer’s prelude to the scene of slaughter when that very same bow will serve as an instrument of doom for the gathered suitors. The bard’s music, beyond its charm as an inspirer of love, has the power to dispatch the evildoer. Translations of this passage have tended to blur distinctions made in Homer’s language, rendering both the chordé of the lyre and the neuré (or neura) of the bow as “string.” The first word comes from a root meaning “gut” or “entrail,” and it is the regular term for the strings of a lyre. The second originally meant “sinew,” or “tendon,” the material of choice for bowstrings. It’s easy, once the word-origins are established, to see connections between, on one hand, music that comes “from the gut,” and, on the other, a component of weaponry that shares in the muscular strength of the animal from which it was taken. In the Greek, both chordé and neuré fall at the end of the line, suggesting that Homer’s lines themselves are musical strings and martial bowstrings. Cords for both lyre and bow must be attached at two pegs or extremities, just as a line has a beginning and an end. The double nature of these strings (and of allegory, which needs two conceptual “pegs”) is confirmed in the final simile, where the plucked bowstring is said to sing as sweetly as a swallow. But there is more to it than sweetness, as the suitors are about to discover. The epic bard sings beautifully, and yet his song is also a martial art-at least in the voice of a singer supported by ethical and musical strength. Many suitors attempted to bend the bow; many poetic aspirants tried, no doubt, to forge the conscience of the archaic Greeks in a great national epic. But the Odysseus-Homer tandem is the one that succeeded.
Admittedly, the modern reader may find Odysseus at his least appealing during this final triumph. The punishment of the suitors may seem, by contemporary standards, excessive. Like medieval Europe, archaic Greece was a military society, and one not tempered even by lip service to Christian pacifism. Yet Homer himself seems to sense the danger, and leads up to the scene of vengeance with several incidents of exaggerated provocation. After so many ordeals and insults, Odysseus deserves to win his match. Meanwhile, Homer’s own triumph seems indefeasible-to the point of overriding most objections. Singer of an age of heroes, he found the techniques and tropes able to meet their legacy without embarrassment. The very will to undertake an epic is the same will that established a foundational principle for quest romances coming later: The hero’s journey parallels, and sometimes allegorizes, the artistic expedition embodied in it.
* * *
A day of sun and ideal temperatures. Scents blow in from all sides-from the cut grass, from rose bushes, from wheat fields, from flowering hedges, elderflower, and “pastoral eglantine.” I wonder why I don’t just settle here permanently and see the world through Keats-tinted glasses. Hank Knight, the organizer-director of our seminars, takes longer and longer walks to nearby hamlets and villages. I begin to do the same, striking a cross-country route to Banbury that involves fence climbing; passage through flocks of sheep; a pause at an obelisk in Wroxton Park, commemorating the visit of Frederick, Prince of Wales in 1739, when he stayed at the Abbey while attending the Banbury races. This is followed by an up- and then a downhill stride through beanfields as far as an 18th-century “folly” in the form of a stone arch placed at the top of a hill by Sanderson Miller, Wroxton’s landscaper. A quarter mile on from there, and you’re puffing aerobically alongside a green sea of waving wheat stalks, tramp, tramp, until you reach a housing development at the outskirts of Banbury, which tells you that the picturesque section of the hike is over. The landmark guide and beacon has been the cupola atop the church of Saint Mary the Virgin, now being renovated. Not far beyond that is the Gothic marker for Banbury Cross, celebrated in the old nursery rhyme:
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.
Strictly speaking, the term “pilgrimage” should be applied only to journeys with a religious object in view. In this narrower frame, only a few poems qualify as “poems of pilgrimage,” yet they include some of the central works in the tradition. What distinguishes Dante’s Commedia from others is that his itinerary is non-geographical; it is spiritual or imaginary only. He does ask the reader to suspend disbelief and accept that Hell is a place below the earth’s surface, whose entrance could be reached on foot, and its deeper recesses penetrated with the assistance of a guide, a boatman, and a fanciful monster. Moreover he assigns a surface-of-the-earth location for the entrance to Purgatory, positioning it on the side of the globe directly opposite Jerusalem. But once the pilgrim exits the Earthly Paradise at the top of the Purgatorial Mountain, he has left our planet behind and catapulted himself into pure vision. Otherwise he observes the conventions of the pilgrimage poem closely, describing how he gets from place to place and even specifying that, as he spirals down into Hell, his left foot is always lower than his right. This and other specific details about his progress force us to describe him as a literalist of the imagination-and one who rubbernecks at the sights as much as any modern-day tourist on a package tour to Florence. Dante knew that his readers would follow his itinerary with all the curiosity and eagerness that travel writing usually excites, sufficient reason to be as specific as possible. Besides, no one can reproduce his journey in actuality; the only way to sign on for the Dante excursion is to read his poem. His freedom to invent is balanced by a responsibility to make his invention as concrete and credible as possible.
Stating the obvious-that the Commedia is a religious poem-dispenses no one from observing that it is the least pious, least orthodox sacred poem ever written. In traditional teaching, the sole judge of humanity’s test scores is or will be Christ, who on Judgment Day will separate the sheep from the goats. But Dante has arrogated this responsibility to himself, slipping his sinners and saints into the pigeonholes he on his own authority chooses for them, in advance of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming. He even appropriates to himself phraseology connected to the Incarnation. In Canto VIII of Inferno, Virgil throws his arm around the pilgrim’s neck and says, “Blessed is she who conceived you,” a transparent allusion to the Ave Maria‘s, “Blessed art thou among women. Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Virgil’s salutation is a strong puff, considering that it is spoken by the author of the Fourth Eclogue, which predicted the coming of a miraculous child, the harbinger of a new Golden Age. That Eclogue is the poem that allowed medieval scholars and clerics to view Virgil as a proto-Christian-as such, a plausible guide for Dante, at least during the first two-thirds of his poem.
There were other pagans medieval Christianity regarded with considerable respect, including Aristotle, whose philosophical writings gave a conceptual framework to Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. Monastics also spent months and years poring over the writings of the pagan Sibyls, a group of figures probably fanciful but credited with historical existence in Dante’s day. Still remembered, though no longer canonical, is the famous medieval lyric “Dies irae,” which used to be incorporated into the Requiem Mass of the Roman Catholic Church. The first stanza, describing the coming Day of Wrath, ends with this line: “Teste David cum Sibylla,” “Thus David testifies along with the Sibyl.” This was no doubt the Sibylla Cumana (Cumaean Sibyl), but there were several others, including the Sibylla Delphica, the Sibylla Lybica, and the Sibylla Tiburtina. (Their names come to mind easily because they are depicted in the 17th-century stained glass windows of the little chapel at Wroxton Abbey.) The Cumaean Sibyl had the distinction as well of appearing in Book VI of the Aeneid as an actual character, not merely (as in the Fourth Eclogue) a literary allusion. When Constantine instituted Christianity as the state religion of Rome, he made these prophetic hints the basis for regarding Virgil as a pagan herald of the coming Christian era, and the church accepted this view during the following centuries. At no point in the Commedia does Virgil ever resist the sovereignty of the new faith or the classing of a Latin poet as someone born too early for redemption.
Dante makes a reciprocal gesture of literary ecumenism by incorporating pagan features into his mapping of the afterlife. Christian Hell inherits its place-names from Greek mytho-geography: Acheron, Styx, Dis, Phlegethon, Cocytus. And the poem is crowded with figures drawn from paganism, not only the classical poets of ante-Inferno’s nobile castello, who graciously welcome the Tuscan singer into their fraternal order, but mythological figures such as Cerberus, Minos, and Charon, installed as indispensable gatekeepers in the intake sector of the subterranean penal colony. Dante’s decision to make use of Greek and Roman myth and history has provocative results. Numbers of historical or fanciful pagans find their allotted prisons in the circle that best matches their shady reputations. Monotheism notwithstanding, there’s a certain logic in Canto VII’s demotion of a pagan deity like Plutus (the Greek god of riches, not Pluto, the Roman ruler of the underworld) to the rank of a noisy gargoyle spouting infernal gibberish to all comers. But how to understand Virgil’s long harangue in the same canto about the goddess Fortune? Scot-free, alive and well, she is described as indulging her whims along with other powers divine and Christian. If one pagan deity survives, so must they all, yet Dante keeps a prudent silence as to the eternal fate of attractive Olympians like Phoebus, Minerva, or Venus, who would excite pity if visitors tripped over them in some medieval sty below stairs. Dante’s self-censorship in these areas must have cost him something, but even a novice poet would see that the project of welding the classical to the Christian cosmos would collapse if the incongruous extras weren’t barred from the set.
Illegal alien or not, Venus appears in the guise of Francesca da Rimini, the magnetic transgressor in Inferno most often alluded to by later artists. One of Dante’s discoveries is that an avatar of a deity actually has a more vivid appeal than the original, whose special qualities may have been defaced by overuse. And a good critical detective would probably discover that several other contraband gods are incarnated in the various denizens of the three realms. Even more than for the inventive geography of the hereafter, the Commedia‘s reputation rests on the extraordinary human characters developed in it. Dante’s narration proceeds by increments in a series of personal histories summarized either by the poet’s cicerone Virgil or by the voluble shades themselves. As such, the work displays another earmark of the quest poem, which always contains several sub-narratives dealing with the lives of fellow pilgrims. In Dante, only the sojourners of Purgatorio could be described as pilgrims, questers still on the move. The hordes of the damned will never advance a step farther; and souls of the blessed have already arrived in Heaven. But the overall convention is preserved because Dante himself is in transit and encounters other personages while, step by painstaking step, he logs in his miles.
And why has no one ever commented on the more-than-natural aspects of his hike in purely physical terms? The distance covered alone is staggering, given the three-day time frame. But never does he eat a meal or drink so much as a cup of water. Recalling the several brilliant banquets in The Odyssey, it is striking that only Inferno contains any instances of eating, all of them disgusting. In the circle of the Gluttonous, when Cerberus starts baying at his visitors, Virgil reaches down and scoops up a handful of dirt, which he flings into the triple-headed pit-bull’s mouths. But this doesn’t exhaust the possibilities of “the meal from hell.” In Canto XXV, thieves are jumped by serpents with jaws wide enough to accommodate the head of their prey before going on to complete ingestion; and the process is repeated ad nauseam as in an adroitly morphed horror movie. Even more emetic is Count Ugolino’s revenge on his earthly tormentor: For all eternity the Count will gnaw at Archbishop Ruggiero’s brainstem, both malefactors immobilized in the ice of betrayal. The Gothic spectacle of Inferno concludes with a giant, bat-winged Lucifer who chews on the heads of the three arch-traitors Brutus, Cassius, and Judas. Considering these several Black Mass anti-sacraments, who can wonder that Dante never expresses the least desire for a meal.
Among the pre-Christian mortals who crop up in Inferno, Ulysses commands the most space, in fact, nearly the full text of Canto XXVI. After Francesca, he is the sinner we most often admire. It’s become standard to repeat that modern readers must not attribute virtue to figures like these two (no more than to Brunetto Latini or Farinata), given that Dante put them with the other goats in Hell. Yet why would any critic ever feel compelled to discourage admiration for these characters if Dante hadn’t invested them with sympathetic qualities? On many occasions the pilgrim makes it clear that he sees himself in the condemned prisoners he meets. He still has time to amend, as they do not; but the original attraction remains strong, the incarnate pagan deity still exercising its fascination through its chosen vessel-and rendered still more powerful by the additive of a particular personality. Odysseus may have been the favorite of Athena and an adept of Hermes, but to that god’s wiles Dante’s Ulysses adds the stout heart of the warrior, the boldness of a navigator through uncharted seas, and a craggy nobility of speech it would be priggish to disparage as impious. Ulysses’ fame, furthermore, is connected to a journey, different of course from Dante’s and yet sharing some of its features.
Once Ulysses sails through the Pillars of Hercules, he will eventually catch sight of a mountain regarded in his day as the former site of the Earthly Paradise and transformed after Christ’s Harrowing of Hell into the very Purgatorial Mount the poet himself will later have to climb. But Ulysses drowns before reaching it, presumably because he lacks a holy mission and a heavenly sponsor like Beatrice. Adding this coda to Homer’s narrative transforms Ulysses into a figure from classical tragedy. Meanwhile, Dante’s project was a Christian work given the title La Commedia partly because it turned out well in the end and partly because of its dramatic quality and the vernacular idiom used in it. Different as Dante’s poem is from The Odyssey, the pilgrim even so recognizes in Ulysses a colleague, a fantastic voyager like himself; on the strength of that, the poet feels a bond with the Greek hero. To dismiss that bond as purely literary is to underrate the value literature holds for those who produce it. The orthodox view is that Dante, because he knew no Greek, never read Homer. But Homer had been translated into Latin verse, and Dante was an excellent Latinist. We know of a translation made of The Odyssey in the early days of Latin literature, made by Livius Andronicus and an anonymous Ilias Latina, an abridgment of Homer made in the Julio-Claudian period, often mentioned by Christian medieval scholars. References to Troy and its sequels in the Commedia are numerous enough to establish that Dante was acquainted with at least parts of the earlier poems. He would have found support, too, for a positive estimate of Ulysses’ character in Horace’s Epistle I.2, which summarizes the Homeric epics and sees Ulysses as a hero, not as a wily and irresponsible counselor.
One of Dante’s strangest borrowings from classical antiquity is the monster called Geryon-but radically transformed according to the author’s needs. Canto XVIII figures him as a fantastic allegorical representation not only of the sin of Fraud but also of the whole poem. Like it, the monster is divided into three parts. The reptilian body corresponds to Hell, the furred, mammalian forelegs to Purgatory, and the face (“of a just man”) to Paradise. Not to be overlooked, though, is its scorpion tail, fully capable of lashing out with the sting of judgment whenever appropriate. Virgil (in Canto XVI) instructs Dante to hand him the knotted rope belt he wears (a standard item of the Franciscan friars’ monastic habit), which is then tossed over the edge of a precipice in order to summon the monster. This detail, too odd not to be intended as a symbol, has puzzled scholars; and none of the existing interpretations seems complete. But couldn’t it recall the cord that Odysseus attaches to his bow in order to prove who he is? Homer’s allegory also transforms it into the bard’s harp string; taking his cue from the Greek poet, Dante has his rope belt become the same thing, though tempered by its Franciscan origin. The parallel will seem less farfetched if we examine the end of Canto XVII, where the poet says that Geryon himself “shot away like an arrow from a string.”
Yet the fabulous beast has been touched with ambiguity from its first appearance in the previous canto, where, before describing it, Dante says that one ought to avoid stating a truth that seems to be a lie, to avoid incurring shame. After the panoply of supernatural creatures and events unfolded earlier, this seems a delicate sentiment. Nevertheless, it introduces the question of credibility in works of fiction, an issue Dante immediately pushes a notch higher with these words: “ma qui tacer non posso; e per le note / di questa comedía [sic], lettor, ti giuro, / s’elle no sien de lunga grazia vote…” (“But here I cannot be silent; and I swear, by the notes of this comedy, reader, lest they prove empty of grace [or appeal] for the long term . . . .) What the poet goes on to swear is that Geryon looked exactly like the description Dante proceeds to give of him. What he swears by is not his sacred honor nor Scripture, but instead the “notes” of his poem. But even to term his words “notes” is a fiction, suggesting that a bard is singing them, with or without the accompaniment of a lyre. The paradoxical warrant Dante offers is a feigned oath taken on the work of fiction in which it is sworn; and the matter being fictively affirmed is the veracity of the poet’s description. Seldom has doubletalk been deployed with so much artistry. It opens a fictive space for Dante at the moment when a fantastic creature is about to transport him down into the Eighth Circle, a series of concentric ditches where fraud in several guises is punished.
Geryon embodies Dante’s concession that he is participating in a species of fraudulence, viewed as necessary to make his “notes” function, lest they prove empty of appeal for the long term. Fiction, then, is the “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna,” “truth that has the face of lies,” a neat reversal of Geryon’s “face of a just man.” For that kind of fraudulence Dante asks readers to extend grace now and later so that his truth can make a memorable impression-and n.b. that the word note in Dante’s Italian meant not just “notes,” but “marks,” “notches,” the kind made by a sharp instrument. The text, then, can be thought of as marked on human parchment, the product of sufferings physical, psychological, and artistic (“written on the body” like a tattoo). A curiosity about Geryon no one has much commented on is that he seems to move through the air, but without the assistance of wings. He is described as “notando” (“swimming”) through the air, the participle used here the same as for the verb “to note.” Both Geryon and Dante, then, are “notando,” one of them swimming along, the other taking notes (and psychological lashes) as he moves forward, so as to write the figurative music of his poem. It is hard to withhold the suspension of disbelief (and offer the “grace”) Dante petitions for; centuries of readers have been willing to be taken for a ride along with Virgil and Dante on Geryon’s back as he spirals down a cascade that plunges into the lower depths. Helpful to remember, too, is that the words “fiction” and “feign” are etymological cousins of Italian fingere, which means “to pretend” and “to forge,” but also “to imagine.” Reflecting on these word origins and the transcendent aims of Dante’s poem will help us grasp, too, some of Wallace Stevens’s intentions in Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.
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A long tramp around Wroxton Abbey’s park this afternoon. From a little Doric temple off to the side a path leads past a statue of paired lovers to an open archway through a tall hedge. Passing through it, you see a graveled terrace with stairways to either side. These lead to a lower level marked out formally with low boxwood hedges, hemming in borders of lavender. At the center of it all, a basin and a pedestal supporting an urn. Another broad flight of steps leads down to the sloping lawn with a vista of a distant lotus pond. I let myself wander aimlessly then pause before a huge mass of rhododendron. The steady buzz surrounding the flowers is a sonic equivalent to one of those signs saying Caution: Men at Work. In this case, bumblebees. Why have I never troubled to look closely at a rhododendron flower before? With its six petals and curving stamens, it’s clearly a cousin of the azalea, only not so brightly colored. These flowers are all a pale purple, the topmost petal having a lighter concave section tinged with orange. Here, rather than in the deepest part of the flower is where nectar collects, at least, to judge by the harvesters’ modus operandi. They go no deeper than that petal, uncoiling a threadlike proboscis to siphon up what must be a minute drop of sugar-water. And then bounce on to the next-though most of them also try to glean some pollen as well by scratching their innocent behinds against the stamens. Gene-bearing protein collects in dusty clumps on the bumbler’s black-and-yellow lower abdomen. A touching spectacle, these single-minded, dangling gatherers of sweetness. Keats hoped to fly “on the viewless wings of poesy,” which might well be the bumblebees’, since their apparatus moves too fast to be perceived as much more than a blur. The same holds for all wings designed to give their animal the helicopter’s ability to hover-flight at its most contemplative. But the midsummer night is falling and even immobile objects are becoming a little hard to see.
Characters in pilgrimage poems should in theory reach their goal; in one of the greatest they do not, and the title Caunterbury Tales is something of a misnomer. Chaucer’s original plan was to have his pilgrims each tell two stories on the way to Canterbury Cathedral and two during the return. In fact, they tell only one and never reach the shrine of the “holy blisful martir” Thomas Becket-exposure to which might have affected them enough to change the nature of stories told on the return. But that is speculation only, given that Chaucer never completed the work. It hasn’t been established that Chaucer himself in fact made the pilgrimage to Canterbury, but his basic sense of how pilgrimages work is sound. Any traveler knows that, when a random group of strangers are thrown together, something in their joint dislocation leads to self-disclosure in the form of narration, either autobiographical sketches or anecdotes about earlier trips or jokes or accounts of incidents in the lives of friends or relatives. In the Tales, Chaucer’s narrator supplies most of the “contributor’s notes” for his pilgrim fabulists, the main exception being the Wife of Bath, who speaks extensively and in her own voice about her life.
Because the Narrator gives no information about himself (apart from his stay at the Tabard Inn and his going on the pilgrimage), readers are free to assume that he is Chaucer-or, alternatively, that he isn’t. Narrative theory in the fourteenth century stood at a rudimentary level, and certainly the point-of-view issue had not yet been raised. The Narrator, without saying how, knows the lives of the other pilgrims in minute detail. His virtual omniscience can’t be explained away by assuming that his fellow travelers gradually filled in a complete picture of their identities as the journey progressed because the Narrator knows things about them that they themselves don’t know. Modern readers are bothered or not bothered by this fact, depending on how important a plausible point of view is to them. In any case, the essential truth about this and all pilgrimages taken in company is that the interpersonal aspect informs them and expands their scope. A pilgrimage involves motion toward a goal, but each stage in that progress counts as well, and a secondary goal is always the forging of a temporary community out of a disparate group of decontextualized travelers.
In their book Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, Victor and Edith Turner (p. 30) want to remind us that the endeavors of pilgrimage and tourism are related: “As we hinted earlier, a tourist is half a pilgrim, if a pilgrim is half a tourist. Even when people bury themselves in anonymous crowds on beaches, they are seeking an almost sacred, often symbolic, mode of communitas, generally unavailable to them in the structured life of the office, the shop floor, or the mine.” Christian faith intends two kinds of redemption, individual salvation, obviously, but before that, the creation of communities. The latter, though, are generally projected at the parish level, and official religion is left nonplussed by the unsupervised communities formed during pilgrimages. Sorts and conditions, classes and titles, tend to get jumbled as pilgrims’ social status is leveled by the nature of their undertaking. Not quite anarchic, pilgrimages are even so subversive. Despite high and holy objectives, pilgrimages may take on a carnival aspect, especially at the moment of arrival, where travelers are likely to find markets or fairs selling unusually attractive wares. One of the standard facts about the Crusades (pilgrimage at its most martial) is that its knights and Templars became acquainted with Eastern spices during their time in Asia Minor, thus creating markets for them in Northern Europe. Considering the secular aspects of sacred journeys in the abstract may be helpful when considering the often worldly or even profane nature of Chaucer’s characters and their at times bawdy tales.
Chaucer’s debt to Dante has been studied in recent scholarship, and, without going into minutiae, it’s easy to see that Chaucer, too, presents his pilgrims under the sign of universal judgment, without deferring the verdict and sentence until the afterlife. On the theory that each sin is its own proper punishment and each virtue its own reward, he gives us a series of life studies that bless or curse their models and attract or repel readers according to the choices illustrated. In this schema, we see that the Parson, the Knight, and the Ploughman belong to Heaven, and probably the Oxford Clerk as well. On the other hand, the Pardoner, the Friar, the Summoner, and the Merchant would fit easily into the ditches Dante reserved for his greedy hypocrites and simoniacs. Somewhere in between stand the worldly Prioress, the Franklin, and the Sergeant at Law. Yet Chaucer’s judgments avoid the brimstone flavor of Dante’s, a temperamental difference that must be the direct result of the exile and poverty of the one, as opposed to the comparatively comfortable public life of the other. Whatever else Chaucer is doing, he isn’t settling scores with personal enemies or enemies of state. Even his darkest portraits are lightened by touches of sympathy, as though to confirm the adage, “To understand everything is to pardon everything.” Also, we remember Chaucer’s self-inculpation appended to Caunterbury Tales, in which he renounces everything that is unholy in the work. He judges himself along with his characters. Disclaimers like this were common in the fourteenth century, and yet, paired with the long and pious sermon the Parson provides as a conclusion to the narrative, Chaucer’s confession of probable wrongdoing must be taken overall as sincere.
Caunterbury Tales affords plenty of sport for experts in intertextuality, drawing as the poem does on French medieval allegories such as the Romance of the Rose, on Boccaccio’s Teseide (and just possibly on the Decameron), on Dante, and on the Roman poet Statius, who influenced both Dante and Boccaccio. But, again, there also seems to be a debt to Homer, if only a faint one. It’s possible to see the Knight as a Northern European (and Christian) equivalent to Odysseus, duplicating and even bettering the latter’s martial engagements as well as his wanderings, some of which involve Mediterranean journeys even as far as Turkey, the site of ancient Troy. Among the pilgrims, he is the most traveled and the noblest, so it’s fitting for him lead off in the tale-telling project. “The Knight’s Tale” lacks a prologue, unless the author’s Prologue counts as that. Furthermore, his tale is the longest and the most courtly, though not the most pious.
If the Knight is a version of Odysseus, then the Wife of Bath is a parody version of Penelope, a humorous departure from the undying fidelity associated with Odysseus’s noble spouse. They also differ as to their respective mobility. After the Knight, the Wife is the least sedentary of the pilgrims, having been three times to Jerusalem, and also to St. James of Compostela in Galicia, to Rome, and to Cologne. The Wife’s prologue is much longer than her tale; in fact, it is the longest of all the pilgrims’. Her tale, too, seems closest in content to the substance of her own life as presented in its prologue. Whereas the Knight’s tale, ungrounded by an autobiographical prologue, is romantic and fable-like, removed from the plausibility of ordinary experience, the pages allotted to the Wife seem thoroughly realistic, unfolding without the benefit of noble ideals or even polished manners. The Wife’s tone and substance are close to the bawdy crudeness of the Miller, exhibiting an energy and lustiness modern readers usually associate with vitality. One of Chaucer’s strong points is his reach, his ability to imagine experience consonant with widely varied class norms. Caunterbury Tales is not a complete cross-section of medieval English society as has sometimes been claimed. Only those with the leisure to make a pilgrimage could be included (which meant neither peasants nor the urban poor could participate), and no members of the nobility higher in rank than the Knight’s appear at the Tabard Inn. The work does have, even so, an amazing range of characters, greater than any work in English before and greater than most that came after, Shakespeare the overwhelming exception.
* * *
Several days a week seminar participants clamber into a bus and are carted into Oxford to make use of the Bodleian Library. It’s a month late for a Chaucerian pilgrimage, and, besides, Canterbury is on the other side of England. So we shouldn’t feel too bad if no one in the group much resembles the “Clerk of Oxenford.” Right from the start all are disqualified on the basis of the observation the Narrator makes about his bookish fellow pilgrim: “Noght o word spak he more than was nede.” Lively chatter on the inward and the outward bound trip witness to the firming up of the collegiality that was a goal of the seminars. Nor could these university people be said to lack a “benefice” since all are tenured faculty. Yet it seems clear that “gladly would they learn and gladly teach,” every one of them. That much granted, the choice to spend the in-town days in a reading room isn’t unanimous, what with all the sights to see and attractive goods to buy. But the present essayist is a serious character, he has a goal in mind; and, to achieve it, he tramps resolutely past the Sheldonian Theatre and into the golden stone courtyard of the venerable and gentle Bodleian. Duke Humfrey’s Library, with its hushed gloom, painted beams, and handsome cabinetry is just the place to request a manuscript copy of Caunterbury Tales, as I immediately do. It’s there, it will be brought, but not for several hours. So I get to do some sightseeing in the interim. To make, for example, a pilgrimage to University College, New College, Merton, and Bailliol, which vie for status as the oldest in the university system. Oxford is a mini-principality where Gothic, neo-Gothic, and neo-classical architecture is the norm, along with gardens and lawns of startling perfection, plus the occasional tutee wearing academic gown and pink carnation rushing to his lunch appointment at the High Table. Not to mention other undergraduates in jeans and sneakers, with occasional lip and eyebrow piercings, indistinguishable from their counterparts at Trinity College, the Sorbonne, Salamanca, Columbia, or Michigan. Out of a Gothic casement the universal language of rock music pours, and the Rolling Stones or Sting will do what they can to alleviate the routine tranquility of the surrounding cloisters and lawns.
When I climb back up to Duke Humfrey’s Library, my book is waiting for me-Ms. Bodl. 686, sometimes referred to as the “Lydgate Ms.,” on account of the copyist. A monk named John Lydgate, some time around 1425 patiently set to work copying and illuminating the great work. But then broke off after the Nonne’s Tale, explaining the decision this way: “Here begynneth a lytle tretis made compyled in balade by the Dan John Lydgate monke of Bury of al the Kynges that hath regned sethen William Conquerour.” Yes, there they all are, the reign of each summarized in stanzas now termed “rime royal,” which seems appropriate to the point of redundancy. He adds to that a treatise on health, then the lives of Saints Margaret and George; and, finally, “The Joyes of Our Ladye.” A would-be poet has assured himself of immortality by appending his oeuvre to a text that had already attained classic status. Never mind; the thrill of examining pages inscribed only a quarter-century after Chaucer’s death isn’t diminished. To notice, for example, that, when the copyist makes an error, he draws an elaborate blue-and-red cross in the margin, puts another at the foot of the page, and writes the corrected line there: an early form of the footnote. On the other hand, he feels no qualms about changing the spelling, so that, in his version, the first three lines read, “When that april with his showres swote / The drouth of march hat pced to the rote / And bathed evy veyne in swich licour . . . ,” a fact suggesting that English spelling and copyists’ shorthand had already shifted in the quarter-century since Chaucer’s death.
One detail not reproducible in print is a little cross mark placed on the below-the-line stem of the “p” in “pced,” which makes the letter look like the astrological symbol for Venus. The mark helps establish that the word is “perced,” by forming a cross that reminds the reader of the piercing involved in the Crucifixion. Having one of your pet theories confirmed always brings on a smile, my hypothesis in this case that Chaucer’s contemporaries would have heard echoes of the Passion and Resurrection in the poem’s opening lines. April, far more often than others, is the Easter month, and not by accident is it (in Northern Europe) the month of early spring. Among the aspects of his multiple nature, the Christ embodies the archetype of the slain deity whose death summons the return of green leaves and flowers to the world. Chaucer’s phrasing, otherwise, is hard to explain. Why say that drought is “perced to the roote” when the meaning is simply that it ends? Can showers “pierce,” and is March drought an enemy so dire it must be stabbed or castrated? And is it the metaphoric “root” of the drought being pierced or the literal roots of plants? These mixed metaphors undermine logic and place their components in slant relationships. Rain at first pierces and then bathes the “veins” of plants in sweet liquor, “Of which vertu engendred is the flour.” In the ancient religions, the deity’s blood had to be spilled so that vegetation could return to life. But Chaucer’s metaphor at this point becomes sexual, involving both “virtue” (in the sense of “energy,” from Latin virtus, “manliness”) and the process of engendering or reproduction, for which flowers are the standard means, bumblebees or other insects assisting.
Flowers, common symbols of the Resurrection and of “engendering,” are also associated with poems (like the Romance of the Rose). Therefore it’s no surprise that Chaucer now invokes Zephirus, the West Wind, who “Inspired hath in every holt and heeth / The tendre croppes . . . .” “Inspired” keeps its associations with spirare (Latin “to breathe”) and with “inspiration” in its poetic sense. Another result of this spring wind is that “smale fowles maken melodye / That slepen al the night with open yë / (So priketh hem nature in hir corages).” The making of melody is linked to nocturnal wakefulness and by extension sexual activity, the pun on “priketh” obvious to most readers, though the association of “corages” (in the plural) with genitalia may be less so. The first eleven lines of the Prologue present an awakening or resurrection with religious, sexual, and poetic resonance. Chaucer’s thought makes a further advance with line twelve: “Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,” an assertion that has a banal foundation (warm weather permits travel) but actually intends something more interesting. Chaucer is suggesting that the annual spring awakening-sacramental, sexual, and poetic-is also experienced as a wish to set out for some territory that is not home.
If the idea of pilgrimage as a natural result of sexual restlessness needs support, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue confirms it, although in negative terms. Her husband Jenkin invokes Ecclesiastes to the effect that a man should not allow his wife to go “roule aboute.” In fact, he who “suffreth his wife to go seken halwes [visit shrines] / Is worthy to been hanged on the galwes!” The implication is that a holy pilgrimage is actually a domestic infidelity, one that may lead to extramarital relations; and it’s impossible to imagine that, during the many centuries of European pilgrimages, such infractions didn’t occur. The carnival aspect of these journeys wouldn’t fail to loosen behavior along the way. Hints of license crop up in the Tales, too, not only in the bawdy nature of several stories uninhibitedly told to an audience that included churchmen and churchwomen, but also in the Narrator’s description of the amorous dalliances of the Squire, in the sexual autobiography of the Wife of Bath and, more subtly, in the motto inscribed on the Prioress’s brooch. Amor vincit omnia, it says ["Love conquers all"], which might be an appropriate sentiment for a religion of love except that the motto is pre-Christian and originally referred to the Roman god of love still invoked today: Cupid, armed with bow and arrow. Who can doubt that the Prioress, with her soigné attire, her polished deportment and French phrases, would disdain a charming flirtation during the journey even if she didn’t quite kick over the traces and let things run their full course? Besides, the connection of wanderlust and lust pure and simple is archetypal and timeless. When advertising a cruise to Tahiti or Cozumel, no copywriter ever fails to imply that the vacationer will find sexual fulfillment as part of the package. In the Tales, illicit couplings are left unrecorded, but then it is an unfinished work. Chaucer may have had them in mind when he first began writing it and then had second thoughts, these echoed in the recantation of the epilogue. The Knight never mentions having a wife, but he does have a son, the Squire, so he must have been married. The Wife of Bath is married, and probably a few of the other pilgrims, like the Franklin, the Merchant, and the Miller. But none of the spouses have signed on for the journey, and it is no great stretch to imagine, say, the Franklin engaged in pretty, private conversations with the Prioress, or the Wife of Bath smiling at overtures made by the Merchant or even that “manly man” and lusty huntsman, the Monk. So little detail is given about the nuns, we don’t know if they were young enough to catch the eye of the Squire, but the possibility isn’t excluded. Scandals in medieval convents were frequent enough to excite comment then and now even if the melodramatic scenes filmed in The Devils of Loudon don’t strike us as fully credible.
As for the scholarly seminars, all participants (with two exceptions) are married people, in fact, several of the spouses have come along for the journey. Individual and group behavior has been aboveboard, and never so much as an off-color story has been told. Yet, in the final week of the stay, our leader Hank Knight has scheduled what can only be regarded as a carnival celebration-a “Medieval Banquet,” the ground rules being that academic dignity must be put aside and the lordinges all don olde Englysshe costume. Believe it or not, there are some curmudgeons among us who groan at the thought of fancy dress. But rules are rules, so I scramble about and put together a none-too-accurate approximation of what a fellow of Robin Hood’s merrie bande might have worn: green leggings, green vest, a leather jerkin, a head scarf, mustache and goatee penciled in with mascara, and even a bow and arrow, improvised from a flexible tree branch and a length of twine. The Rec Room of the college provides an unfledged arrow, but a circuit through the park turns up a pair of magpie feathers that can be stuck on with tape. What ho! Welcome to Sherwood Forest.
Other guests appear in long velvet and silk robes of many colors. One of the children is a perfectly turned-out page in striped doublet and floppy cap. There is even a monk, in long back habit and a wig that includes the requisite bald spot for his tonsure. Middle-aged (in the non-medieval sense) legs try to fill out tight silk hose designed for calves that walked more than ours do. Several participants are ladies apparently familiar with the code of conduct surrounding courtly love. We’ve even got a Crusader, his chest marked with a red cross, his head balancing a gold coronet indicative of nobility. And there are a couple of wenches, probably scullery maids. The prevailing mood is a mixture of flustered constraint and shy pleasure in Disney-style metamorphosis. Assembled changelings are at least appreciative of everyone else’s appearance. It’s their own getup that feels embarrassing. Someone says to me, “You know, you really ought to consider growing a mustache. You look great that way.” A suggestion so far not taken up because there used to be one, maintained long after mustaches went out of fashion. Until it started turning gray, at which point a razor made short work of it. One of the stages in the pilgrimage through the decades of an existence.
After Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a work whose quest elements are outweighed by its undramatic reportage of the Grand Tour, poems involving quests or journeys are few and short. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” may or may not qualify as one because its hero looks back only briefly to the travels preceding his return to Ithaca and hasn’t yet begun his final journey, which sounds as though it will resemble the one Dante gave his own Ulysses in Inferno. In Homer, Odysseus travels because he wants to return to Ithaca. In Dante and Tennyson, Ulysses sets out again because he regards comfortable retirement as ignoble and expects to find something more out beyond the edge of the map. Tennyson’s poem is a dramatic monologue, the address given to the sailors who are to accompany Ulysses on his voyage. A more eloquent expression of an elder hero’s desire not to settle down would be hard to find, especially since the goal seems to be the kind of knowledge available only in the extreme limits of experience.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
Ulysses is exhorting himself as well as his audience here. And, though the poem concludes before Ulysses’ ship casts off, there’s no question that his men will call out a staunch response when he urges them, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Notice that Ulysses (or Tennyson) has taken the precaution of omitting any mention of Penelope by name, though he refers to his “wife”; a wife who could hardly be expected to give her blessing to a second departure and whose response to his decision he doesn’t record. In ideal circumstances, an adventurer is unmarried. When he isn’t, a suggestion of wrong conduct shadows those of his adventures that have been freely chosen. The late nineteenth century is so solidly married as to render married or even unmarried wanderers less than ideal vehicles of collective aspiration. Tennyson, the arch-Victorian poet, deserves credit for writing against the common grain; but then his most passionate feelings had always been directed outside of marriage-Exhibit A, In Memoriam.
There are a number of twentieth century short poems that could qualify as pilgrimage poems, for example, Frost’s “Directive,” Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island,” or Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water: An Essay on the Road to Compostela.” Instead of discussing these, it might make a better conclusion to consider a poem from the early twentieth century not written in English. Cavafy’s “Ithaca” is spoken to an unidentified “you,” whose journey is apparently going to duplicate Odysseus’s return to Ithaca-but only in an allegorical sense. The speaker says, “You will never meet the Lestrygonians, / the Cyclopes and fierce Poseidon, / if you do not carry them within your soul, / if your soul does not raise them up before you.” This is to say that quests or pilgrimages may be non-spatial and purely interior. The goal is not an actual home but some inner sanctum that can be reached only after personal demons have been encountered and faced down. The poem’s other innovation is to persuade questers that a long homeward journey is preferable to a short one. He says, “. . . pray that the road is long, / full of adventure, full of knowledge.” Furthermore, “Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind. / To arrive there is your ultimate goal. But do not hurry your voyage at all. / It is better to let it last for long years; / and even to anchor at the isle when you are old, / rich with all you have gained on the way, / not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.”
Cavafy’s advice predated the cliché-”It’s the journey, not the destination, that really counts”-known to millions of people who never heard of any modern Greek poet. Though his literary expression of the theme has more concretion and depth, it’s fair to say that the truth content in “Ithaca” and the adage is roughly the same. Neither is entirely true: There are quests or pilgrimages that should not last long, their value dependent on a swift passage to the destination, without stopping to meet giants or lotus-eaters or sirens along the way. The comments above about Tennyson’s Ulysses and his indifference to Penelope’s concerns suggest that destinations involving another person faithfully waiting for the pilgrim’s return differ from those in which the quester is on his own. That issue aside, if the goal were entirely irrelevant, pilgrims would just step out the front door and follow their noses with no special itinerary in mind except the one dictated by serendipity. Modern pilgrims never do that (outside of Kerouac’s novels) because a pilgrimage needs the luster and direction offered by a golden name. But it’s still worth saying that part of the value (and sometimes the greater part) of a journey resides in incidental experience gained along the way. By keeping the cliché in mind, pilgrims arm themselves in advance against the sinking feeling “Is that all there is?” that may overtake them when they finally arrive at Jerusalem, Mecca, or Compostela. Cavafy’s conclusion for his poem could hardly be bettered:
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
You must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.
This is wise, but neither Dante’s nor Tennyson’s Ulysses had the benefit of reading Cavafy. After a few years in Ithaca, they found themselves bored and ashamed of the complacent lethargy that might have persuaded them they needed nothing more. So, in quest of still greater wisdom and still wider experience, off they went. For those of us not provided with Penelopes, the last obstacle to quest-resumption is removed. It’s late June, our scholar’s retreat at Wroxton has come to an end. I have the draft of my essay, a British Rail ticket to London and then the Eurostar ticket to Paris. Surely there will be something to write about in the landfalls I vaguely glimpse on the horizon.[/private]