Archive for June 2015
From George P. Marsh, Lectures on the English Language (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885).
James Russell Lowell is for me the epitome of a perfectly good program uninstalled from most computers because the software is no longer supported. Which is to say: there are no more updates or fixes coming. And compatibility with other programs? Forget about it.
Yet some people — very few, it is true — still read him. Why? Here are some thoughts borrowed from the software world:
- Many people read forgotten poets simply because they didn’t keep current or don’t read poetry very often.
- Some actively choose to read forgotten poets. What are they thinking?
- Contemporary writing is too difficult or too annoying. This is a common reason for sticking with Longfellow and Whittier.
- Setting the old aside might risk values you need. Conceptual Writing is a good example. Its demands for attention and indifference to response caused accessibility problems for a number of users.
- There’s a huge amount of nervousness around keeping up to date. It’s also difficult and time-consuming to find new poets. Why risk the search when the old standbys are just fine?
- You’re busy and have better things to do. To be honest, this is often why I don’t read new poetry. I have my own work to do and a life to live. I just don’t have time to for non-essential reading.
From Poems of Places, vol. 21, Asia: Syria (Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1878), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
A chain of associations led me from Longfellow to Longinus, by way of Nicholas Michell and Charles Morris. It began with the news from Syria. Or rather, it began with a drive past Palmyra, Maine, which brought the news from Syria back into mind. Getting home, I turned to Longfellow’s anthology, wondering if there were any poems for the fallen city. In fact, there were three: a prize-winning undergraduate poem from the 1820s by John Henry Bright; “Tadmor of the Wilderness” by Connecticut poet Jesse Erskine Dow; and a section from Ruins of Many Lands by Nicholas Michell. All three were written in Longfellow’s own lifetime, two by Brits, one by an American, and all are forgotten today. I dare say they were already forgotten in Longfellow’s day. Finding poems for all the cities of Syria was no easy task— and Arabic poems are notably absent. Obscurities were necessary to fill out the pages.
The extracts from Michell take more space than the other two choices combined, but they caught my eye for the phrase “Murdered Longinus,” which occurs in this passage:
The street of graves! where kings laid down their pride,
And many a restless phantom yet may glide:
Murdered Longinus here may wander still,
And she whose dust was laid by Tibur’s hill,
Far-famed Zenobia, for her kingdom wail,
Sweeping with viewless form the desert gale.
I’ll admit, I did not know the story of Longinus, but a little Googling brought me to Charles Morris’s telling of it in Historical Tales: The Romance of Reality (1896), a book that enjoyed wide circulation and so may have appeared in many a house alongside Longfellow’s anthology. The gist of the story is this: born, apparently, in Syria, Longinus was secretary and counselor to Queen Zenobia, whose realm, encompassing Egypt, “extended from the Euphrates over much of Asia Minor and to the borders of Arabia.” Her seat of power was Palmyra. A decisive victory over Rome maintained her independence, at least while Claudius was emperor. With Aurelian’s succession, hostilities were renewed. Rome advanced on Palmyra, subjugating the city after several hard-fought battles. Zenobia, for her part, misjudged the chances of victory, which led her to reject Rome’s first terms of surrender. This in turn unleashed Rome’s fury, and the city succumbed:
The soldiers, with angry clamor, demanded [Zenobia’s] immediate execution, and the unhappy queen, losing for the first time the courage which had so long sustained her, gave way to terror, and declared that her resistance was not due to herself, but had arisen from the counsels of Longinus and her other advisers. It was the one base act in the woman’s life. She had purchased a brief period of existence at the expense of honor and fame. Aurelian, a fierce soldier, to whom the learning of Longinus made no appeal, at once ordered his execution. The scholar died like a philosopher. He uttered no complaint. He pitied, but did not blame, his mistress. He comforted his afflicted friends. With the calm fortitude of Socrates he followed the executioner, and died like one for whom death had no terrors. The ignorant emperor, in seizing the treasures of Palmyra, did not know that he had lost its choicest treasure in setting free the soul of Longinus the scholar.
But this was not the end.
What followed may be more briefly told. Marching back with his spoils from Palmyra, Aurelian had already reached Europe when word came to him that the Palmyrians whom he had spared had risen in revolt and massacred his garrison. Instantly turning, he marched back, his soul filled with thirst for revenge. Reaching Palmyra with great celerity, his wrath fell with murderous fury on that devoted city. Not only armed rebels, but women and children, were massacred, and the city was almost levelled with the earth. The greatness of Palmyra was at an end. It never recovered from this dreadful blow.
I put the above together over a week ago and neglected to post it. In the meantime, the flow of news from Palmyra has slowed considerably. A few days ago the Independent (UK) published survivor stories. The occupation has been bloody but so far the city’s archeological remains are more or less intact.
A few more lines of Longfellow’s excerpt from Ruins of Many Lands:
Deserted Tadmor! queen of Syria’s wild!
Well may’st thou fill with rapture Fancy’s child;
Yet not by day — too garish, harsh, and rude —
The eye should scan thy fairy solitude;
But when the still moon pours her hallowing beam,
And crumbling shrine and palace whitely gleam,
Then pause beneath the lofty arch, and there
Survey the mouldings rich and sculptures fair;
See how like spectral giants columns stand,
And cast long shadows o’er the yellow sand;
How the soft light on marble tracery plays,
And busts look life-like through that silvery haze!