There is a reason why the moral doxography so characteristic of the earlier periods of European literature commands but a tiny audience of scholars today. Boscán's Conversión is an erudite, technically proficient and philosophically weighty poem, but there is not much juice in it. It may have the concentrated moral nourishment of long-dried fruit, but also its desiccated texture. A reader may feel, perhaps, a less than adequate proportion of placere to docere. There is, however, one almost extravagantly “poetic” décima. It is the sixteenth, just as the narrator approaches the poem's (and his own) turning point toward definitive conversion.
It is time for the fellow to wake up to his moral reality. He starts his preparation in the fifteenth décima:
Yo viendo que amaneciera,
comencé de apercebirme;
ya era tiempo de partirme…
This language almost certainly echoes Romans 13:11 (et hoc scientes tempus quia hora est iam nos de somno surgere nunc enim propior est nostra salus quam cum credidimus; nox praecessit dies autem adpropiavit…) This is perhaps the most famous “conversion text” in Christian history, as it is part of the passage upon which Augustine's eyes fed when in response to mysterious infantile voices he “picked it up and read it.”
The actual waking up is then described, and described with a striking and ambitious simile:
Como pastor que ha dormido
en la noche en su cabaña
que viniendo la mañana
se levanta amodorrido,
y se va por la montaña,
y soplándose las manos
se sacude y se despierta;
así el alma que era muerta
en deseos harto vanos,
se halló que fue despierta.
As a shepherd who has slept
In his cabin all night,
Seeing the morning
Rises up heavy with sleep
And goes along the mountain
And blowing on his hands
Shakes himself and wakes up,
Thus my soul which was dead
In too vain desires
Found itself awake.
There are several remarkable features of this passage, but the one that interests me here is its ancestry.
This book attempts an introduction to a very beautiful and complex poem written in Portuguese by Luís de Camões in the latter part of the sixteenth century. The poem, which has no authorial title, is sometimes called Sôbolos rios (after its incipit) or Babel e Sião (“Babylon and Jerusalem”) after the binary images around which it is constructed. As neither Portuguese literature nor sixteenth-century poetry has been a prominent subject of my earlier published work, I perhaps owe my reader some explanation of how the book has come about. Humanistic study, at least in my experience, is seldom linear. Much more often it is erratic in the old Latin sense that suggests digression and divagation, a wandering from one's original, ideal perception of a broad, straight path to explore the byways, and then the little lanes and alleys into which they branch. A great deal of my own long scholarly life has been taken up with exploring things that I came to believe, in the course of pursuing some original intention to which I had committed myself, were preliminary necessities to its achievement.
One of the subjects on which I have expended scholarly energy in the past is the history of the Franciscan movement in the Middle Ages. (This topic, incidentally, began in digression. I was trying to understand the “background” to the antimendicant satire prominent in such important vernacular poets as Jean de Meun and Geoffrey Chaucer.) The Franciscan Order, which played such a major role in the religious life of late medieval Europe, was destined to play a major role in the religious history of the Americas as well. Christopher Columbus himself was animated by a number of distinctively Franciscan ideas and attitudes. Some public lectures I gave on this topic indirectly led to an invitation to serve as one of the guest curators of a major public exhibition at the Library of Congress (“The Continuing Voyage”) marking the Columbian Quincentenary in 1992.
The experience was pleasant and memorable, but the task presented me with a considerable challenge as well as an opportunity, for I felt obliged to undertake an extensive course of reading in a number of large subjects concerning which I knew very little.
As a classical poet, Camões was necessarily an imitative poet—one who willingly sought in a spirit at once respectful and bold to enroll his poem in recognized and admired anterior tradition. In the very opening phrase of the Lusíadas he acknowledges his principal allegiance. It is to the Æneid of Virgil, and it is followed by literally hundreds of other Virgilian echoes and borrowings. Of course, he was familiar as well with the “modern” epic poets of Italy, Boiardo and Ariosto. From Ariosto in particular he had learned much, but the prominent, explicit, and early reference to him in the Lusíadas (I, xi) seems hardly that of a respectful disciple. The inventor of Adamastor denigrates the adventures of Rodamonte and Rugeiro as fantásticas, fingidas, and mentirosas (fantastic, made-up, and lying)! The superiority of his own work, implicitly, rests upon the historicity and truth of its epic matter. The question of the comparative truth claims of different modes of poetry is a significant one in the current context as well.
What poems had he studied in preparing Sôbolos rios? Most obviously, of course, he had studied the psalm itself. The incipit Sôbolos rios bears the same relationship to the phrase Super flumina that the incipit As armas e os barões bears to the phrase Arma virumque. In the cultural and religious context of his age, “studying the Bible” included as a matter of course acquiring familiarity with the exegetical tradition, that is, with the textual penumbra of “spiritual” or allegorical interpretation that was the work of many centuries of earlier commentary. But there are in his poem so many obvious echoes of or borrowings from secular poets both pagan and Christian that Sôbolos rios might be regarded as a kind of emblem of his life-long literary education. Any serious analysis of Camões's enterprise must necessarily include a consideration of his complex relationship to his “sources.”
There are in Camões numerous traces of the great giants of the late medieval canon—Virgil, Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Petrarch and others. In subsequent chapters I will frequently make reference to such major authors in the great tradition, but it is necessary to begin with two texts that have largely fallen into oblivion.
George Herbert, a great religious poet and a near contemporary of Luís de Camões, wrote a well-known poem called “The Altar,” the typography for which, when artistically presented on the printed page, actually looks rather like an altar. It is, of course, not Herbert's spatial manipulation of his material that makes it such a good poem. “The Altar” has to earn its readers’ appreciation as all other poems do, on the basis of its intellectual aptness and its verbal felicity. But it can be said that the cleverness with which the poet has handled an external aspect of his construction, linking the form with the intellectual content, makes a good poem even better.
The “numerical” aspects of the construction of Sôbolos rios do not make it a good poem, but they nonetheless magnify its greatness. No one who reads Graça Moura and accepts even half of his claims will doubt that the poet expended a very great deal of thought and ingenuity on his plan, submitting to formal limitations and constraints as well as enabling certain desired possibilities as he did so. He exemplified that ancient Christian aesthetic idea that the human artist could, and so far as possible, should, imitate the creation of the Divine Artificer. Camões structured his poem in such a way as to allow the persistent reader intimations of a higher, an ideal, and permanent stability capable of redeeming the disasters and mudanças of all human life. What is the poem's spiritual trajectory, and what vivid realities do its shadows foreshadow?
Among the striking themes of Sôbolos rios is authorial regret, linked with an expression of emended intention. Viewed from the psycho-theological point of view, which is unquestionably one of the poem's perspectives, the theme is penance. From a secular and literary point of view, the posture is that of the palinode. As with so many aspects of this poem, Camões approaches the subject in a fashion that combines brilliant originality with deference to long-established tradition. In this chapter I propose to examine the aspect of palinode in Sôbolos rios from several points of view.
Any attempt to demonstrate the exegetical nature of Camões's project must inevitably involve some close readings of specific textual passages—readings that are unlikely to be fully satisfying without considerably more preparation. One obvious place to begin is with the poem upon which Camões's own poem is most clearly dependent: the psalm Super flumina. Like many great poets, Camões was first a great reader. Contemporary literary criticism has adopted a grandiose neologism—intertextuality—to denote the phenomenon of an author's commerce with anterior literary tradition. In the old Latin literary vocabulary the term most frequently used was imitatio, a word of far greater denotative range than its modern English reflex. As a poet of tradition, Luís de Camões is a conspicuously “imitative” or “intertextual” writer. The opening lines of Sôbolos rios engage with at least two very famous earlier texts, the Consolatio philosophiae of Boethius and the Commedia of Dante Alighieri. Among the great poets of classical Latinity with whom Camões has commerce, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid are conspicuous. His development of the theme of Orpheus is built upon texts in Virgil and Ovid as already engaged by Boethius. Petrarch is in his poem, which also includes an actual citation, in Castilian, of his much-admired Juan Boscán.
In a subsequent chapter I shall attempt a more comprehensive demonstration of his “art of intertextuality” in Sôbolos rios, as it involves a rich tradition of anterior secular poetry. But there are more pressing preparatory tasks, the first of which is to consider some implications of his most fundamental “intertextual” engagement—with what was universally in Camões's age called the sacred text (meaning the Bible), and indeed with its most literarily privileged pages. The Book of Psalms is a unique bridge or conduit, channeling the poetic life of ancient Israel into the liturgical life of the medieval Church. The Psalms kept ever vivid in the Church's memory a poetic history of God's marvelous dealings with his people of old, and offered prophetic promises of interventions yet greater to come.
For this reason, it would be nearly impossible to exaggerate the importance of the Psalms in the creation of the medieval literary imagination. For the better part of a millennium professional ascetics had a near monopoly on the skills of literacy and the arts of their cultural transmission.
We now face a slight scholarly embarrassment. How is it that literary history has thus far failed to identify the obvious vernacular “source” of Camões's poetic inspiration in this extraordinary work? Sôbolos rios is a poem about poetry, and also about poets—subjects treated in a fashion at once responsibly traditional and highly original. One of Camões's principal themes is mutability, the decay of matter, the dissolution of hope, the brevity of human happiness, the impermanence and fragility of life itself. The summary statement of the third décima—vi que todos os danos/ se causavam das mudanças/ e as mudanças dos anos)—is a comprehensive lament for the vanity of human wishes. He writes in, from, and about Babylon. But his pessimism is measurably heightened by the exegetical originality of his interpretation of “Zion,” which at least for the moment offers little relief, as it is to be compared, he says, to time past (tempo passado). From the new and very bleak perspective from which the poet begins, even the superficially happy memories (lembranças contentes) of the past are illusory, insubstantial, and fleeting dreams. “I saw that all the past ‘good’ was not pleasure, but pain.”
Now, among the things that pass away are poets and poetry itself. Were there to be a sixth book of the Consolation of Philosophy there would be no poems in it, for “Boethius” would by then have reached the ethical status of his Hercules. The poetry, as Lady Philosophy makes clear, is a kind of alluring garment, a come-on, a sugar-coated pill needed by those who as yet lack the robust moral health to face the naked truth of prose. We speak of certain modern writers as having a “total commitment” to their art. In a world without religious transcendence—the burden or the comfort of the pre-modern Christian poet— art, politics, philosophy, patriotism, and many other things might be regarded as terminal goods. The serious palinode, which we find even in somber theologians like Augustine and which characterizes such great poets as Jean de Meun, Chaucer, and Camões himself, is not a frequent topic of modern literature. The commitment of Luís de Camões to his poetry was intense but contingent, as a reading of the poetry in its full corpus will demonstrate.
A very important structural element of Sôbolos rios, long recognized by the scholars who have analyzed it, is its geometrical and numerological organization. Numerology is not on the whole a science congenial to the contemporary taste. It is also something of a rabbit-hole, down which an incautious scholar can too easily disappear. On the other hand, Camões obviously invested a great deal of energy and ingenuity in perfecting his poem's internal harmonies, which resonate with many of its themes, such as music, proportion, and (as in the Conversión of Juan Boscán), an erring narrator's restitution of moral equilibrium. One simply cannot ignore a major aspect of the poem that its maker obviously regarded as of great significance. This is particular true in that the numerical theme in the poem is closely related to the exegetical instinct.
“I lisped in numbers,” wrote Alexander Pope in the eighteenth century, “for the numbers came.” The idea that certain poets were born to poetry, that poetry was in their blood and made its appearance uninvited in their precocious childish scribblings, was by the age of neoclassicism already a “topos” or recurrent literary theme. Most obviously, Pope was offering a creative imitation of a well-known “autobiographical” poem of Ovid (Tristia iv, 10), in which the Roman poet wrote: “I endeavored to write words disengaged from poetic measures. Spontaneously, my lines ran according to befitting numbers, and whatever I tried to express, the same was poetry.” That the fourth book of the Tristia, and this poem within it, have left upon Sôbolos rios a clear impress in its lines concerning recreational poetry will be obvious to anyone familiar with the two poems.
Certain associations that for us may require a focused lexical review were nearly instinctual for Renaissance poets. For the moment it is enough that Ovid reminds us that among our most ancient words for poetry is numbers. For lyric poetry is song—words artificially organized to the accompaniment of a lyre, a stringed instrument cognate with the psaltery. Another word for a poetic composition intended for stringed accompaniment is psalm. In Camões's poem, which derives from the psalm, poetry and music are coterminous.
My subject in this book will be the vernacular poetic commentary made by Luís de Camões upon Psalm 136, Super flumina. Hispanist editors and critics, who have made the poem known under some such title as “Babylon and Jerusalem,” have frequently acknowledged it as one of the great masterpieces of the lyric poetry of the Renaissance. Its status as scriptural exegesis, however, remains largely unexplored by literary scholars. Yet one cannot get beyond the poem's first word without encountering a significant problem directly related to its exegetical tradition. Is the first phrase of the poem Sobre os rios or Sôbolos rios? We find both forms in the printed texts, and they mean the same thing. There is perhaps a rough parallel with the English phrases on top of and atop, with the latter being a more “poetic” or “euphonious” version of the former.
The first known text of Camões's poem is that in the Cancioneiro or poetic anthology that bears the name of a sixteenth-century owner, Cristovão Borges. It begins Sobre os rios. Quite apart from its temporal priority of recording, which may or may not be a trustworthy indication of textual priority, there is a good reason to attribute considerable authority to this version. The reason is that it includes, in the conventional manner of a medieval or Renaissance scriptural commentary, the Latin text of the scripture verses being commented upon. In exegetical terms, it records both “text” and “gloss.” In other words, the scribe of the manuscript from which the Cancioneiro took the poem's text explicitly acknowledged the genre of the piece—scriptural exegesis.
On the other hand, the Cancioneiro text is radically deficient in one regard. It has only about half the text of the whole poem of the earliest printed editions, ending with a few strophes of commentary on the first five verses of the nineverse psalm. (The fifth and sixth verses are combined in the “textus” apparatus in the Cancioneiro.) There is no plausible way that this could be described as an “early version” of the finished poem of the 1597 edition of Camões's poems, in which the incipit is Sôbolos rios. We are not wont to speak of the first movement of a symphony as an “early version” of the whole work. That is what we have here. The evidence is inconclusive.
“Der ächte philosophische Akt ist Selbsttödtung, dies ist der reale Anfang aller Philosophie, dahin geht alles Bedürfniß des philosophischen Jüngers, und nur dieser Akt entspricht allen Bedingungen und Merkmalen der transcendendalen Handlung.”
[The true philosophical act is the putting to death of the self, this is the real beginning of all philosophy, and every need of the philosophical disciple goes in this direction, and only this act corresponds to all the conditions and characteristics of the transcendental attitude.]
These words, written by Novalis, declare that philosophy begins in an act of self-destruction, or more precisely formulated: all properly philosophical acts aim to destroy the self. This demand is not as mysterious as it might seem. A self, by definition, is differentiated and limited, and thus represents one of the most palpable impediments to that which romantic philosophy seeks, namely, the absolute, das Unbedingte, that which is without condition and without limit. A truly philosophical act must efface the horizon of limitations and differences that constitutes selfhood: Selbsttödtung, self-annihilation. The proper name for this act is not suicide, but transcendence.
And yet: what is suicide other than the most extreme and literal form of self-extinction? E. T. A. Hoffmann would have been able to read the fragment cited above in Schlegel and Tieck's edition of Novalis's collected works. In light of this fragment, it is worth considering whether or not Hoffmann's most celebrated Nachtstück (Night Piece), Der Sandmann—which culminates in a spectacular act of self-destruction, Selbsttödtung—is much more than a story about childhood trauma, abuse, irony, or the tragic frustrations of a mediocre poet. Rather, Der Sandmann, as an aesthetic document, indexes a distinctly philosophical problem, namely, the phenomenal movements and operations associated with a conception of the absolute that exists beyond all instances of differential signification attached to a limited self. Seen from this perspective, the central problem of Der Sandmann is less psychological than ontological: it concerns not the pathological psyche of a problematic individual, but the order of beings as a whole.
Caroline de la Motte Fouqué's Gothic short story “Der Abtrünnige” (The Turn Coat, 1816) opens on the evening of August 7th 1814, moments before King Friedrich Wilhelm III's regiment returns from the battlefield to Berlin, heralded with a burst of patriotic imagery and pomp. The Prussian eagle on the flag seems to circle above the newly liberated capital city; braziers illuminate the Opernplatz; and the streets of Berlin fill with a sea of lights shining amid laurels and flowers. A crowd waits in tense, silent anticipation until the king appears, in all of his regal glory; “Er wird die Sonne der Nacht” (112; he becomes the sun of the night). Transformed into the very source of light, the king embodies Prussian patriotism in this scene. The crowd erupts into a loud “Hurra!” (112) and follows the king, cheering through the streets to greet the regiment at the Brandenburger Tor.
Such patriotic scenes were common during the summer of 1814 as victorious soldiers returned from the Befreiungskriege to Prussia. For example, Fouqué's description of the events of August 7th bears striking similarities to the historical account of the homecoming celebration published in Königlich privilegirte Berlinische Zeitung. Prussia's role in the Befreiungskriege (1813–14) was in part the result of large-scale social and military reforms enacted after Prussia's defeat by the French in 1806. Following the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and the French occupation, Prussia began a series of reforms aimed at strengthening its military and uniting its citizenry against the French, with the goal of one day reclaiming its sovereignty. This provoked a rise in nationalism and anti- French sentiment among the educated middle and upper classes throughout German-speaking Europe in general and Prussia in particular. Although the fragmented state of German-speaking Europe prevented the articulation of a unified German identity, Germany existed as a Kulturnation, bound by a shared culture, language and literature. This understanding of Germany was key to promoting the war effort that would eventually defeat Napoleon. Military homecoming ceremonies, such as the one depicted in “Der Abtrünnige,” referenced this shared Germanness and therefore played an important role in constructing national identity before Germany became an actual nation.
German Romantic literature rests on unstable ground. For example, Friedrich Schlegel's notion of Romantic irony as a “permanente Parekbase” (permanent parabasis) denies the authority of a single vantage point. As parabasis— the Greek term for the chorus stepping out of the action of the play and addressing an ode to the audience—irony is the constant possibility of assuming another subject position, of viewing and representing the world from a different and even contradictory angle. Whether in Brentano's Godwi (1800/1801), where the narrator dies before the end of the novel and the protagonist completes the narration, or in Tieck's Der gestiefelte Kater (Puss in Boots, 1797), where the audience becomes part of the play, Romantic authors challenge our notions of a stable, authoritative narrative or dramatic perspective.
Romanticism lacks stable ground not only in terms of an authoritative narrative vantage point, but also in a geological sense, as manifest in the prevalence of subterranean spaces throughout Romantic literature. The quotidian surface world of bourgeois experience rests upon and can easily sink into a honeycomb of mines, caves, and other underground spaces. In Ludwig Tieck's narrative, “Der Runenberg” (The Rune Mountain, 1804), young Christian's descent into subterranean depths represents a break with the rationality and materialism of the surface world; in E. T. A. Hoffmann's “Die Bergwerke zu Falun” (The Mines of Falun, 1819), Elis Fröbom is enticed by the seductive Bergkönigin to leave the surface world only to have his dead body, perfectly preserved by “Vitriolwasser” (a sulfate solution), recovered decades later; and in Joseph von Eichendorff's “Das Marmorbild” (The Marble Statue, 1819), young Florio must resist the enticements of a magical erotic castle (Venusberg) that emerges from subterranean realms on occasion to tempt and entrap young artists like himself.
Perhaps best known among Romantic ventures into the subterranean world, however, are Novalis's frequent representations of such spaces. One thinks of the Hymnen an die Nacht (Hymns to the Night), where the poet longs to venture “Hinunter in der Erde Schoß, / Weg aus des Lichtes Reichen” (Down into the Earth's womb, / Away from Light's kingdom”), or on the numerous subterranean settings in the novel, Heinrich von Ofterdingen (Henry von Ofterdingen), whether in the underground chambers that hide the princess in the Atlantis fairy tale, the visit to the caves with the old miner, or Fabel's journey to the underworld in Klingsohr's fairy tale.
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