This weekend, international poets have converged on London to orate in 50 languages at a festival called Poetry Parnassus, with , copies of their collected work to be dropped by helicopter on the venue by the Thames. And verse has been engraved on plaques of stone, metal and wood emblazoned at strategic points throughout the Olympic Park, for the edification of athlete and spectator alike. Yet the relationship between poetry and the Olympics goes back to the very origins of the Games. In ancient Greece, literary events were an indispensable part of athletic festivals, where fully clothed writers could be as popular with the crowd as the buff athletes who strutted about in the nude, gleaming with olive oil.
Spectators packing the sanctuary of Zeus sought perfection in both body and mind. Champion athletes commissioned great poets like Pindar to compose their victory odes, which were sung at lavish banquets by choruses of boys. The refined cultural ambience could put contemporary opening ceremonies, with their parade of pop stars, to shame. Philosophers and historians introduced cutting-edge work, while lesser-known poets set up stalls or orated from soapboxes.
Criticism could be meted out brutally: when the Sicilian dictator Dionysius presented subpar poems in B. At other Greek athletic festivals, like those at Delphi, dedicated to Apollo, the god of poetry and music, verse recital was featured as a competitive event, along with contests for the lyre and choral dancing.
For much of the 20th century, poetry was an official, medal-winning competition in the Games. The French visionary who revived the Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, always insisted Greek-style arts contests should be allowed alongside athletics.
A Celebration of Words
The general literature category was then expanded in , and to include specific contests for epic and lyric poetry. O Sport, you are Justice! O Sport, you are Happiness! The body trembles in bliss upon hearing your call. But the inclusion of Olympic verse quickly proved contentious, provoking an outcry from highly competitive intellectuals. Indeed, the most famous authors of the era refrained from the Pentathlon of the Muses, lending a homespun, sideshow quality to the contests.
How could it not when the gold for literature in the Paris Olympics, for example, went not to T. Many of the poems from these seven Olympic Games have vanished and are now known only by their titles. In some cases, the obscurity may be justified: the arts contests at the Games in Berlin were held under the keen eye of Joseph Goebbels, and the fascists romped home with Germans and Italians having swept the lyric poetry medals. View all New York Times newsletters.
Laurel of Hellas noble-born,. This proved the last gasp for official Olympic poetry. Organizers began to doubt the quality of the offerings, as the gulf between the sports-related entries and contemporary poetry grew ever wider. The second lesson follows from the first: because the Muse brings knowledge we cannot attain on our own, the epic bursts the boundaries of our common experience. Theology and epistemology unite. The metaphor for this limit-testing is, naturally, a voyage or a pilgrimage.
It is a journey in space or time—usually into the deep backward and abysm of time, and hence the association of the Muse with memory—that reflects the depths fathomed or the heights scaled by the soul. Again, translating with painful literalness: "That man to me sing thou, O Muse, him of many turnings, who suffered many evils. The man is polytropos, full of shifts, an artful dodger.
Odysseus's capacity to fake left and run right shows that he's a worthy favorite of the sly goddess Athena, herself sprung from the head of Zeus the master tactician; he is also, on his mother's side, kin to Hermes, patron of thieves. Odysseus is crafty, in various senses of the word. He has knowledge in his hands; he planes the beams to build his boat on Calypso's island, he knows how to peg them together, and how to caulk up the chinks; and when he handles his famous bow in Ithaca, he strings it in one swift motion of skill and strength, and plucks the string, making it sing like a swallow—as if he were a master of the harp.
He has knowledge in his speech. He knows exactly what to say to the lovely girl Nausicaa, in that tense moment on the beach, to hold her eyes to his eyes, so she will not look down upon his nakedness. He is neither abject nor arrogant, neither skulking nor aggressive. Nausicaa turns to her playmates and says, laughing at their fear, "Haven't you ever seen a man before?
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All this know-how is a gift of the gods, but Odysseus has come to know things also that the pagan gods cannot know. He knows suffering. The gods can use strategy to get their way; Odysseus must use it, merely to survive. His life, though overseen by Athena, is deeper and more fascinating than anything the pagan goddess can ever experience.
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Zeus may weep over the death of his son Sarpedon on the battlefield of Troy, but there's always nectar and ambrosia to smooth away the grief, not to mention a tumble in the hay with any female of his liking. Thus does Homer encourage an ambivalence toward the ease of the gods, and their gift of prosperity to mortal men.
The case of Menelaus is instructive. He arrived too late to avenge his brother Agamemnon's death—one day too late. His journey to Egypt after the war was mercantile; he did not "map the minds of many," as Odysseus did. He mourns the loss of his friend Odysseus, but he hasn't lifted one finger to find him. All of his protests to Telemachus are couched in the conditional: I would do this; I would do that. And just when he and the boy think of Odysseus, and begin to weep silent tears, along comes the person who wears the greaves in the family, Helen, to slip a narcotic into their drinks, so that they could sit calmly and cheerfully even if a brother should be slaughtered before their eyes.
The journey of Odysseus, then, is existential, not just geographical; it is a journey through suffering, it defines him as the man, and though the suffering sharply distinguishes him from the gods, it is also not wholly in his power either to embrace or to conquer. Thus, his journey far north to speak to the shades from the underworld is the paradigmatic adventure of the poem. Agamemnon, betrayed by his wife Clytemnestra the sister of Helen, of course; there's a family reunion I'll skip , recommends that Odysseus exercise caution when he returns to Ithaca, though, says the bitter old chief, Penelope will no doubt prove to be a paragon of faithful women, as opposed to the bitch he married.
So there are those strategic reasons why Odysseus consults the shades. But Homer won't leave it at that. Odysseus meets Achilles, and flatters him: "Achilles, what glory it must be for you to be the greatest among the warriors here! Odysseus meets Ajax, whom he drove mad when he won the arms of the dead Achilles, and Ajax will not forgive him or even speak to him. He meets his mother, who died not of old age or disease, but of grief for him, Odysseus, her beloved son. Then he sees, one after another, the virtuous women of old—and he is in awe of them.
Odysseus, for a moment or two, seems small to us by comparison. I won't say that Odysseus learns from these experiences, to become a new Odysseus, one who achieves the knowledge of the blind Oedipus at Colonus, who says—and approaches the Christian revelation as closely as any pagan poet would—that the secret of human knowledge is love.
Even that Oedipus is still the old Oedipus, cursing his prodigal son Polynices; no slaying the fatted calf here. But Odysseus's adventures hold out for us the ideal—the man who has entered upon the threshold of a world beyond the ultimate boundary, death, and returns to tell us what he has seen. In this regard too, other poets have understood the principle. Lucretius, wishing to grace his philosophy with the glory of the epic, casts his master Epicurus as a warrior general who shatters the boundaries of the unmeasured All, and returns in a Roman triumph.
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Other generals bring back slaves and plunder, but, says Lucretius,. Our victor returns with knowledge of what can arise, What cannot, what law grants each thing its own Deep driven boundary stone and finite scope. Religion thus lies trampled beneath our feet, And we are made gods by the victory.
Setting aside the over-praise, this trampling of superstition is, in Lucretius's mind, a deeply religious thing; it merits for Epicurus the praise of an ultimate hero, far greater than that due to Hercules, the supposed benefactor of mankind. Naturally, the idea of a quest for knowledge, especially supra-mundane knowledge, was congenial to Christian poets, whose heaven is not the sensualist oasis of the Mohammedan, but the beatific vision, the sight of God. Here, if we turn to Dante, we may see a progression from what the sinner knows, which is little, and dimly, to what the human mind may know through its own powers, though with assistance, to what the human mind can only come to know by divine love—the love that is a free act of God from without, and an infused virtue or power from within.
So, near the beginning of his epic, as he prepares for the journey down to hell, Dante invokes the Muse, but abruptly and ambiguously:. Here the Muse is renamed twice, in quick succession. She is the alto ingegno, and the mente ; the high or deep indwelling genius, the native powers, and the mind that wrote down what Dante saw. It appears that Dante is calling upon his own muse here, announcing that he is about to crack his poetic knuckles, stretching mind and craft to their limits, to show their nobility to the world. But when he opens the Purgatorio, Dante compares his genius to a little boat sailing upon the sea: la navicella del mio ingegno.
The sea figures prominently at the beginning of the Purgatorio , as souls must be ferried from the mouth of the Tiber clear to the Mountain of Purgatory, in the southern hemisphere, opposite on the globe to Calvary. The sea would overwhelm his little ship of ingenuity, were it not for the Muse—now a goddess to whom Dante owes allegiance.
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Dante had traveled down into the realm of death. Now he must climb a mountain of life that brings healing, and no man can mount its slopes without the grace of God. That grace is akin to the favor of the Muses, whom Dante now calls holy:. Here rise to life again, dead poetry! The Magpies, daughters of the Thessalian king Pierus, challenged Calliope to a singing match, lost, and were for their presumption transformed into those big, gaudy European cousins of our squawking blue jays.
The word despair suggests that the defeat is spiritual; the daughters of Pierus lost their souls when they lost their contest, or tossed their souls away when they embarked upon the contest. They are like the Ulysses of Inferno 26, who gave his men evil counsel, whetting their appetite to sail beyond the bounds set for unassisted human knowledge. Ulysses is correct to suggest that it is natural in man to seek to know what transcends man:. Think well on your begetting and your seed! But the problem is that Ulysses does not seek to receive this knowledge as a gift.
The implicit lie is that the vast ocean before him is, in the end, no different from a stream that a boy may cross by stepping on stones. One may be crossed with ease, the other with great trouble and risk—but both may be crossed. The presumption of Dante's Ulysses belies a fundamental contradiction. The epistemological aim is vast, or seems to be, when suddenly the heavens collapse, and the great voyage is no different in kind from a trip from Central Park to the lower East Side, with the exception that the latter may be more dangerous at certain hours of the night.
The spirit of Hesiod, rather, and, I suggest, of Homer's own Odysseus—or of the ever-searching Socrates in the Phaedrus and the Symposium— approaches that of Dante when he prays for wisdom and poetic genius as unmerited gifts. Please keep in mind that image of the arena of battle; I shall return to it soon.
There are two things I wish to point out here. The first is Dante's prayer for the breath of Apollo: entra nel petto mio, he says, enter my breast— thinking of the Sibyl, seized by the god and compelled to speak his words— e spira tue: and breathe yours, that is, breathe your power, breathe your knowledge, breathe your song. We must not leave the breathing behind to think of some vague inspiration, as when people say they are "inspired" by a fireman singing the national anthem, meaning that they feel modestly uplifted and are glad for firemen who can sing.
The breathing recalls Genesis: when God formed Adam from the dust, and breathed into him the breath of life, and he became a living soul. The breathing here is to make Dante new.
A Divine Gift of the Muses
It is to effect what is parodied by the punishment of Marsyas. That sorry satyr had challenged Apollo to a musical duel and lost—he is therefore analogous to the Magpies at the beginning of the Purgatorio. But Marsyas wasn't condemned to shrieking at crows. He was devaginated; unsheathed from his members, flayed alive. But Dante, too, wishes to be unsheathed from his limbs, in a certain sense: to be unbound from the limitations of the flesh. He calls this transformation trasumanar, man's soaring beyond man. It elevates man to godhood. Yet in another sense he does not wish to be unbound from the flesh—because, following the cryptic words of Job, he wishes to see his Redeemer in the flesh, with his own eyes, and not another's.
Even in his ascent to Paradise he will not deny the possibility that he was raised both in the soul and in the body:.
But there it is: he didn't raise himself, but was raised, by the Love that steers the heavens. On his own, Dante is, as he'll say at the culmination of his voyage and his vision, no better than a baby who wets his tongue still at his mother's breast. Most obviously, his words allude to Mary, Seat of Wisdom, whose intercession he has entreated, but they remind us also of what he believes the true voyage of poetry and knowledge is all about. So Statius in the Purgatorio describes Homer as the Greek who drank most deeply at the Muse's breast , and again we'd be wrong to read that line as a mere nod to convention.
It expresses well the epic thirst for knowledge—which comes from beyond the self, beyond man alone. Yet there's a way in which the analogy to the baby is not adequate, either, as Dante knew. When, in the Quest of the Holy Grail, Galahad, Bors, and Perceval board the Ship of Faith, they consign themselves wholly to the direction of God, and this is well symbolized by the fact that the ship has no tiller. It sails where Providence takes it.
So far, they might all be babes at the mother's breast—except that they are all courageous and tireless warriors. The word of God, says St. Paul, is a two-edged sword, piercing to the quick, able of dividing soul and spirit and discerning the intents of men. Those three good knights bear the sword of the word of God. The unknown Cistercian author of their epic narrative makes them at once receptive and active, in the field of battle and in the field of knowledge. Adventures come to them—that's what the word adventure means, and that might lead us to think of them as blanks upon which are inscribed the plans of God; yet they are adventures indeed, in our sense of the word, battles against wicked knights, sorcerers, and demons, and voyages toward the vision of what eye has not seen, nor has it entered into the mind of man to conceive, the direct vision of Christ in the Eucharist.
Here the two characteristics I have named point us toward the third. The epic is fundamentally theological; it is epistemologically receptive, especially of knowledge beyond the unaided capacity of man to discover; therefore it naturally takes us into battle.
That's why Dante, at the beginning of the Paradiso , says he must enter the lists. It is not simply a commonplace. It is a law not arbitrarily imposed by God; it is implied by the nature of man's attempt to approach the divine, setting forth on a voyage for that divine knowledge. Death must needs stand between us and rebirth. The man who does not risk all, risks nothing—except his chance to find all, to see all. Here we may, as so often, rely upon Milton to see how the battle is central to the epic, and why this is so. I'm thinking of the passage in Book Nine, when he disclaims sole authorship or even principal authorship of his poem, and then seems—seems—to strike at the heart of the epic tradition.
He is going to describe the Fall of man and the wrath of heaven, a sad task, he says,. Yet argument Not less but more Heroic than the wrath Of stern Achilles on his foe pursued Thrice fugitive about Troy wall—.
So much for the Iliad— yet note that he does grant the heroic nature of that poem—. If answerable style I can obtain Of my celestial Patroness, who deigns Her nightly visitation unimplored, And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires Easy my unpremeditated verse—. An astonishing description of what it feels like, for a great artist, to be visited with ideas or images or words or music from beyond the self—. Since first this subject for Heroic song Pleased me long choosing, and beginning late; Not sedulous by nature to indite Wars, hitherto the only argument Heroic deemed, chief mastery to dissect With long and tedious havoc fabled knights In battles feigned; the better fortitude Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom Unsung.
It seems that battle does not make the epic, but epic demands the battle. Milton may have in mind the most arid stretches of Ariosto, whom otherwise he admired; canto upon canto describing the feats of knights such as never lived, fighting the Saracens in a battle for Paris that never took place, with all the "tilting furniture" of lances and helmets and warhorses and bannered tents and trumpets.
That's an injustice to Ariosto, but a glance toward Milton's "sage and serious Spenser" is instructive: the Knight of Temperance, says Milton,is not a puppet-Adam, but a man who enters the battle, not without dust and heat, and faces head-on the temptations of the world. Spenser's Faerie Queene, as Milton surely saw, was filled with that "tilting furniture" of jousting that he so derided, but always in the service of what Milton calls "the better fortitude.
The battlefield must be decisive. Paul, "that we strive against powers and principalities? The epic hero is, to use Milton's term, a martyr ,a fighting witness to the truth that has come to him from beyond his natural ken. That definition may shed light even upon the heroes of the pagan epics. Virgil is chary of words, not allowing us much leisure to dwell upon the turbulence of Aeneas' heart; but if we pause to notice, we see a man seeking to perform his duty in the twilight of human passions and misunderstandings, a man who learns, as he moves from one unhappy incident to another, what the gods require of him.
Aeneas has not only to fight Turnus. He has to fight Aeneas. He is not the fury-ridden young Achilles. He is a man slightly past his prime, whose wisdom is hard-won and bitter. Few sadder words have been written than those that Virgil put on the lips of this man, as he prepares for his final battle against Turnus—having already conquered his dearest desires:.
Labor and manhood learn from me, my son; Good fortune you can learn from someone else. Aeneas is a martyr to what remains, at the end of the poem, an unresolved riddle: the virtue of piety, which embraces duty to the father and the household gods and the great gods, and which Virgil has tried, and failed, to integrate with mercy to all those who suffer in this dark and baffling world. But the epic demands no less than all. Were it not for our knowledge of Achilles' dreadful dilemma—he may win everlasting glory on the battlefield but die as a young man, never to see his homeland or his father again—we would see his fury in war as no more admirable than that of a butcher.
He witnesses, wrongly I believe, to the transcendent worth of that glory. It is why Galahad must die, gratefully yet still as a martyr, as soon as he beholds the mysteries of the Grail. It is why Spenser's Red Cross Knight, in both nights of his three-day battle against the dragon, undergoes a symbolic death, raised to life again first by the water of the well of life and then by the balm of the tree of life, so that the puzzled galoot of a beast, on the morning of the third day—on the morning of the third day, note well—wonders whether it's the same knight he has been fighting, or some knight newborn.
It is why, if Beowulf had ended with the rassling match between the Geat and the monster—with Beowulf locking him in a half-Nelson, ripping his arm off, and giving our poet-monk the opportunity for the greatest line of ironic understatement in Anglo Saxon poetry, which I loosely translate as "that was not a good day for Grendel"—if the poem had ended there, Beowulf the man would never have attained full heroic stature. He must do more than risk death. He must dive into the realm of death: into the mere, where old Ma Grendel lurks, and, in the end, into the lair of the dragon.
Alyosha must leave the monastery and battle it out with his half-mad brother Ivan. Ahab must shrug aside the motive of profit and search the oceans for the white whale. Dante must enter those gates that read, Abandon all hope, you who enter here. Godfrey must lay siege to Jerusalem—and not be satisfied with an Edessa here or an Antioch there.