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(Une nuit de Cléopâtre)
(A young hunter is willing to die to be with queen Cleopatra for just one evening.)
Alexandre Cabanel’s 1887 painting, Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Those Condemned To Death (Cléopâtre essayant des poisons sur des condamnés à mort). It can be seen at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), Antwerp.
Word for word, this little novella (three times the length of a typical short story at about 12,700 words) probably paints the most vibrant description of ancient Egypt in all of literature. This is my favorite aspect of the work, though for others it might be the engaging romantic plot, or the typical though attractive take on the queen’s psychology. It is a simple tale, but richly set and beautifully told.
(After treating a needy friend superficially for years, Georg finally pays the price.)
Crop of Charles Bridge (2009), by Paul Cook. Charles Bridge (Karlův most) lies over the Vitava River in Kafka’s hometown of Prague.
This is an existentialist horror tale about a man Georg who treats a distant friend superficially, then pays for this crime with his life. The distant friend is sick, poor and unmarried. Georg cannot think of what to say to him, so he writes only trivial things. He offers no advice or heartfelt consolation. He conceals his own prosperity and even (for a while) his own engagement. His father, meanwhile, behind his back, has been revealing the truth about Georg to the friend, and has been lying in wait for Georg to raise the situation in conversation. When Georg finally does broach the subject, his father condemns him as a betrayer of his friend and a selfish cold-hearted bum, and orders him to drown himself. As elderly as the father is, he is stronger of will than his son, who feels himself urged out of the room and to a nearby bridge. Georg flings himself to his death.
(A poetic sage takes lessons on goodness and beauty from nature.)
Crop of Tintern Abbey (1804), by William Havell. Hikers laze above the abbey in the Wye Valley, just as Wordsworth did with his sister before composing his most famous poem. This painting is at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.
A man of wisdom, a poet of nature, is Wordsworth. These are the goals to which he aspires, goals that are discernable in his work from a very early age. He wrote many of his greatest poems in the years covered here, before he reached 30. Wisdom, or more specifically a yearning for and contemplation of goodness and beauty, suffuses his poetry. Thus he is keen to deliver moral advice, and almost seems to teach or prophesy rather than reflect. But it is the deepest and most profitable kind of reflection, I can almost hear him replying, whose results teach the reflector something. And since he insists in the Preface to his Lyrical Ballads that he writes each poem with a purpose, and with the intent of delivering objective truths rather than ideas that one may take or leave as a matter of preference, we must prepare for a slight didactic or pedagogical flavor now and then. For Wordsworth, though firmly against elitism in poetry, is aware of his own wisdom, and is driven to share it with others. The topics range from attitudes towards people (as in “Matthew”), to attitudes towards nature (as in “Lines Written in Early Spring”), to a straightforward exhortation to be good (as in “Goody Blake and Harry Gill”). He imparts his values on social matters as well, regarding for instance the evil of slavery (at the end of “Descriptive Sketches”), the necessity of legislated charity (at the beginning of “The Old Cumberland Beggar”), and thoughts on education (e.g. “Expostulation and Reply”).
(Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut)
(A knight and a lady pursue their magical love through bloodshed and sorrow.)
Detail from Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (1916), by John William Waterhouse. The philtre on the high seas cements their love for all time– a draught unto death. This painting is in the private collection of Fred & Sherry Ross. Read about this collection at the Art Renewal Center
When tales pass through centuries of retellings, they tend to become what of audio media we would call “overproduced”: too many interpreters have slanted the story their various ways, too many embellishments and new episodes have been inserted, too many accommodations and updates have aimed at suiting the fancies of each audience. In the process the story can lose some of its grip on our imagination and our romantic sensibilities. It can be so cobbled and abused that we are left to distill the heart of it as best we can from a variety of sources. The only way such a beautiful old tale could ever be told today in anything like its original form and spirit, would be for three literary virtues to unite: a single author must be simultaneously an expert scholar, a great poet, and above all, modest. Only a scholar will know the history of the work; will be able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in elements of theme, characterization, and plot; and will sufficiently understand an ancient teller’s perspective so as to effectively reproduce it. And only a great poet will be able to convey this perspective, and the story itself, with convincing unity and supreme skill—for expectations of quality and beauty are very lofty when we pick up a beloved and popular story. And finally, many a great poet and scholar will have great pride as well, in which case there will be too much of the writer and not enough of the legend in the text. Granted, we love our authors’ egos when it is them we want to see; but if the aim is to represent something of the original (or at least old) character of a romance, an author must exercise admirable self-control. We can thank Joseph Bédier for being this author for the legend of Tristan & Iseult.