Ezra Pound.

The spirit of romance; an attempt to define somewhat the charm of the pre-renaissance literature of Latin Europe online

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THIS book is not a philological work. Only by
courtesy can it be said to be a study in comparative

I am interested in poetry. I have attempted to
examine certain forces, elements or qualities which
were potent in the mediaeval literature of the Latin
tongues, and are, as I believe, still potent in our own.

The history of an art is the history of masterwork,
not of failures, or of mediocrity. The omniscient historian
would display the masterpieces, their causes and their
inter-relation. The study of literature is hero-worship.
It is a refinement, or, if you will, a perversion of that
primitive religion.

I have floundered somewhat ineffectually through the
slough of philology, but I look forward to the time
when it will be possible for the lover of poetry to study
poetry even the poetry of recondite times and places
without burdening himself with the rags of morph-
ology, epigraphy, privatleben and the kindred delights
of the archaelogical or "scholarly" mind. I make no
plea for superficiality. But I consider it quite as
justifiable that a man should wish to study the poetry
and nothing but the poetry of a certain period, as
that he should study its antiquities, phonetics or
palaeography and be, at the end of his labours, incap-
able of discerning a refinement of style or a banality of

There are a number of sciences connected with the


study of literature. There is in literature itself the
Art, which is not, and never will be, a science.

Art is a fluid moving above or over the minds
of men.

Having violated one canon of modern prose by this
metaphysical generality, I shall violate another. I shall
make a florid and metaphorical comparison.

Art or an art is not unlike a river. It is perturbed
at times by the quality of the river bed, but is in a way
independent of that bed. The colour of the water
depends upon the substance of the bed and banks
immediate and preceding. Stationary objects are re-
flected, but the quality of motion is of the river. The
scientist is concerned with all of these things, the
artist with that which flows.

It is dawn at Jerusalem while midnight hovers above
the Pillars of Hercules. All ages are contemporaneous.
It is B.C., let us say, in Morocco. The Middle Ages are in
Russia. The future stirs already in the minds of the
few. This is especially true of literature, where the
real time is independent of the apparent, and where
many dead men are our grand-children's contemporaries,
while many of our contemporaries have been already
gathered into Abraham's bosom, or some more fitting

What we need is a literary scholarship, which will
weigh Theocritus and Mr Yeats with one balance, and
which will judge dull dead men as inexorably as dull
writers of to-day, and will, with equity, give praise to
beauty before referring to an almanack.

Art is a joyous thing. Its happiness antedates even
Whistler ; apropos of which I would in all seriousness
plead for a greater levity, a more befitting levity, in our
study of the arts.

Good art never bores one. By that I mean that it



is the business of the artist to prevent ennui ; in the
literary art, to relieve, refresh, revive the mind of the
reader at reasonable intervals with some form of
ecstasy, by some splendour of thought, some presentation
of sheer beauty, some lightning turn of phrase for
laughter, especially the laughter of the mind, is no
mean form of ecstasy. Good art begins with an escape
from dulness.

The aim of the present work is to instruct. Its
ambition is to instruct painlessly.

There is no attempt at historical completeness. The
u Grundriss von Griiber " covers somewhat the same
period and falls short of completeness in divers ways.
It consists of 21,000 folio pages, and is, needless to say,
Tedescan. To this admirable work I cheerfully re-
commend anyone who has a passion for completeness.
For, omitting though it does, many of the facts con-
cerning mediaeval literature, it yet contains references
to some hundreds of other works wherein the curiosity
of the earnest may in some measure be slaked.

As to my fitness or unfitness to attempt this treatise :
Putnam tells us that, in the early regulations of the
faculty of the University of Paris, this oath is pre-
scribed for professors : u I swear to read and to finish
reading within the time set by the statutes, the books
and parts of books assigned for my lectures." l This law
I have, contrary to the custom of literary historians,
complied with. My multitudinous mistakes and in-
accuracies are at least my own.

The book treats only of such mediaeval works as
still possess an interest other than archaeological for
the contemporary reader who is not a specialist. My
criticism has consisted in selection rather than in

1 This meant from four to six books for the Doctors of Law or
Medicine. Usually one professor had one book on which to lecture.


presentation of opinion. Certain portions of the book
are in the strictest sense original research. Through-
out the book all critical statements are based on a
direct study of the texts themselves and not upon

My thanks are due to Dr Wm. P. Shepard of
Hamilton College, whose refined and sympathetic
scholarship first led me to some knowledge of French,
Italian, Spanish and Provengal, and likewise to Padre
Jose Maria de Elizondo, for his kindness to me when
studying in Spain.

Some stigma will doubtless attach to Mr Ernest
Rhys, at whose instigation the present volume was
undertaken. Guilty of collusion, he is in no way
responsible for its faults.

Amplissimas ac manu quae trans crips it gratia s.

I would express also my thanks to Messrs Smith,
Elder & Co. for permission to quote from J. A.
Symonds' translation of " The Sonnets of Michael
Angolo Buonarroti."

E. P.





IL MIGLIOR FABBRO . . . . . . . .13


PROEN9A . . . . . . . . . -33

GESTE AND ROMANCE . . . . . . .61


IL MAESTRO ......... 105









CAMOENS . . . . . . . . .226

POETI LATINI . . . ... 235




THERE is, I believe, one sense in which the word
Romance has a definite meaning that is, when it is
applied to the languages derived from the Latin, and
to the literature written in these languages. This
literature, that part of it which was produced during
the Middle Ages, is my subject.

For convenience sake, and remembering that such
points of departure are arbitrary, one might date the
Middle Ages from that year early in the sixth century
when Cassiodorus retired to the monastery at Vivaria,
taking with him the culture of an age that was over
and sealed.

Cassiodorus had seen the end of the Roman Senate,
of which he had been a member. He had held high
office under Odoacer and Theodoric, and had seen the
final victory of Belisarius.

To his taste and to Chapter XLVIII. of the " regola"
of St Benedict we may trace much of the inner culture
of the Middle Ages.

" Concerning daily manual labour: Idleness is the
enemy of the soul; hence brethren ought at certain
seasons to occupy themselves with manual labour, and
again at certain hours in holy reading. Between Easter


and the Kalends of October let them apply themselves
to reading from the fourth to the sixth hour. From the
Kalends of October to the beginning of Lent let them
apply themselves to reading until the end of the third
hour, and in these days of Lent let them receive a book
apiece from the library and read it through." Regola,
St Benedict.

Speaking strictly, the annals of Romance Philology
begin with certain treaty oaths signed at Strasburg in
A.D. 842. Romance literature begins with a Provencal
u Alba," supposedly of the tenth century. The stanzas
of the song have been written down in Latin, but the
refrain remains in the tongue of the people.

" Dawn appeareth upon the sea,

from behind the hill,
The watch passeth, it shineth
clear amid the shadows."

But before the Romance tongues, Provengal, Italian,
Spanish, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Roumanian and
Romansch were anything more than ways of speaking
Latin somewhat more corruptly than the Roman
merchants and legionaries spoke it ; there had been in
the written Latin itself a foreboding of the spirit which
was, in great part, to be characteristic of the literature
of the Middle Ages.

This antelucanal glamour of something which is
supposed to correspond to the Gothic in architecture
is clearly perceptible in the works of Lucius Apuleius.
Apuleius was born 125 A.D. in the Roman colony of
Madaura in Numidia; he was educated at Carthage
and in Athens, and was a lecturer by profession. His
" Metamorphoses " popularly known as " The Golden
Ass" were written between 150 and 155 A.D. Of his
other works there survive theological philosophizings ;


" On the Universe," " On the God of Socrates," " On
Plato and his Teachings " ; also his " Apologia," a
defence against the charge of practising black magic ;
and the "Florida," a collection of passages from his

The " Golden Ass," written around an outline found
in Lucian, is a picaresque novel, the forerunner of the
Archipreste of Hita, Lazarillo de Tormes and the tales
of Rabelais.

Apuleius writes in a style not unlike Rabelais, a style
that would have offended Tacitus and disgusted Cicero
and Quintilian. Like Dante and Villon, he uses the
tongue of the people, for he writes in a new, strange
Latin, at a time when the language of the Roman court
was Greek. The Troubadours, Dante and Apuleius
all attempt to refine or to ornament the common speech.

In seeking to differentiate between Apuleius' style
and that of classic Latinity, Adlington, who translated
him in 1566, describes it as "such a frank and flourish-
ing a stile as he seemed to have the muses at his will
to feed and maintain his pen " : " so darke and high a stile,
in so strange and absurd words and in such new invented
phrases as he seemed rather to set it forth to shew his
magnificincie of prose than to participate his doings to
other." In short, he "parleys Euphues."

I have used the term " classic " in connection with
Latinity : in the course of this book I shall perhaps be
tempted to use the word " romantic " ; both terms are
snares, and one must not be confused by them. The
history of literary criticism is the history of a vain
struggle to find a terminology which will define some-
thing. The triumph of literary criticism is that certain
of its terms chiefly those defined by Aristotle still
retain some shreds of meaning.


Certain qualities and certain furnishings are germane
to all fine poetry ; there is no need to call them either
classic or romantic. It makes little difference whether
Ulysses dally with Calypso, or Ywain be graciously
entreated by Morgana. Philomel is ubiquitous.

The perverted asceticism which is called " classic "
in drama like Racine's, or verse like Pope's, never
existed in the Greek. The following fragment of
Sophocles has all the paraphernalia of the " Romantic "
school, and something besides. " Oidipous epi Kolonoi."
Jebb's translation.

" Stranger, in this land of goodly steeds, thou hast
come to earth's fairest home, even to our white Colonus ;
where the nightingale, a constant guest, trills her clear
note in the covert of green glades, dwelling amid the
wine-dark ivy and the Gods' inviolate bowers, rich in
berries and fruit, unvisited by sun, unvexed by wind of
any storm, where the reveller Dionysus ever walks
the ground, companion of the nymphs that nursed

" And, fed by heavenly dew, the narcissus blooms morn
by morn with fair clusters, crown of the great goddesses
from of yore ; and the crocus blooms with golden beam.
Nor fail the sleepless founts, whence the waters of
Cephisus wander, but each day with stainless tide he
moveth over the plains of the land's swelling bosom, for
the giving of quick increase ; nor hath the Muses' quire
abhorred this place, nor Aphrodite of the golden rain."

Neither are witches and magical fountains the peculiar
hall-mark of the " romantic " : the following lines from
Ovid are as haunted as anything in Ossian.

" Stat vetus et multos incadua silva per annos.
Credibile est illi numen inesse luco.
Tons sacer in medlo speluncaque pumice pendens,
Et latere ex omni dulce querunter aves"


" Ancient the wood stands

unhewn for many a season.
It seems some presence dwells

within the grove.
A sacred fount is there

o'erhung with glittering stones,
And from all sides there sounds

birds sweet complaining."

The difference is neither of matter nor of para-
phernalia. Seeking a distinction in the style, we are
nearer to sanity, yet even here we might do well to
borrow an uncorrupted terminology from architecture.
Such terms as Doric, Romanesque and Gothic would
convey a definite meaning, and would, when applied to
style, be difficult of misinterpretation. When Eng-
land had a u romantic school" it was said to join
" strangeness " with " beauty " ; this also admits a

Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics, which gives
us equations, not for abstract figures, triangles, spheres,
and the like, but equations for the human emotions. If
one have a mind which inclines to magic rather than to
science, one will prefer to speak of these equations as
spells or incantations ; it sounds more arcane, mysterious,
recondite. Speaking generally, the spells or equations
of " classic " art invoke the beauty of the normal, and
spells of " romantic " art are said to invoke the beauty
of the unusual. However, any classification of works
of art is unsatisfactory. I fear the pigeon-hole, though
it bring apparent convenience.

I am inclined to doubt Mackail's opinion that this
ornate style of the later Empire is related to the
" Gothic" quality of mediaeval literature, and to consider
Apuleius' floridity a purely oriental quality, analogous
to the Byzantine in architecture. This would ultimately
bring us to the question of the correspondences of


Indian to Gothic art, and we were so the more entoiled.
The " Golden Ass " is our objective fact.

To find out how these metamorphoses of Apuleius
differ from preceding Latin, we may compare them
with the metamorphoses of Ovid. Both men write
of wonders, and transformations, and of things

Ovid, urbane, sceptical, a Roman of the city, writes,
not in a florid prose, but in a polished verse, with the
clarity of French scientific prose.

" Convenit esse deos et ergo esse creaemus"

"It is convenient to have Gods, and therefore we
believe they exist/' says the sophisticated Naso; and
with all pretence of scientific accuracy he ushers in
his gods, demigods, monsters and transformations. His
mind, trained to the system of empire, demands the
definite. The sceptical age hungers after the definite,
after something it can pretend to believe. The
marvellous thing is made plausible, the gods are
humanized, their annals are written as if copied from
a parish register ; the heroes might have been
acquaintances of the author's father.

Thus : in Crete, in the reign of Minos, to take a
definite instance, Daedalus is constructing the first
monoplane, and " the boy Icarus laughing, snatches at
the feathers which are fluttering in the stray breeze,
pokes soft the yellow wax with his thumb, and with
his play hinders the wonderful work of his father."

A few lines further on Ovid writes in witness of
Daedalus' skill as a mechanic, that it was he who,
observing the backbone of a fish, invented the first
saw : it might be the incident of Newton and the apple.
On the whole there is nothing that need excite our
incredulity. The inventor of the saw invents an


aeroplane. There is an accident to his son, who dis-
regards his father's flying instructions, and a final jeer
from an old rival, Perdix, who has simplified the
processes of aviation by getting metamorphosed into
a bird. It is told so simply, one hardly remembers to
be surprised that Perdix should have become a partridge ;
or at most one feels that the accurate P. O. Naso has
made some slight error in quoting well-established
authority, and that we have no strict warrant for
assuming that this particular partridge was Daedalus'
cousin Perdix.

Turning to Apuleius' tale of Cupid and Psyche, we
become conscious of a different atmosphere. This
particular tale is put in the mouth of a most suspicious
old beldame ; it is told in a robber's cave to a maiden
captive, snatched from the arms of an expectant
bridegroom. We are in the era of u once upon a time " ;
on the sea-coast of Bohemia. The indefiniteness is
very like that of the later writers, who speak of " the
Duke Joshua" and "that good Knight Alexander of
Macedon," and refer to the Talmud as if it were a man ;
thus, u Master Talmud says."

The mood, the play is everything; the facts are
nothing. Ovid, before Browning, raises the dead and
dissects their mental processes ; he walks with the
people of myth ; Apuleius, in real life, is confused with
his fictitious hero. He keeps up the farce of truth-telling
by putting his exaggerated and outrageous tales in the
mouths of strangers, who repeat what they have heard
from chance acquaintances. The whole book purports
to be of the adventures of a certain young traveller.
The " Cupid and Psyche " is the best and longest of the
interpolated tales. Thus the old beldame begins :

" There dwelt in a certain city a King and Queen


who had three very beautiful daughters ; but although
the two elder were very beautiful indeed, it was yet
thought possible to tell about them with human praises.
But to tell the truth, the youngest was so very especially
and exquisitely beautiful that her beauty simply could
not be expressed or sufficiently praised with the penury
of mortal speech."

From which passage it is impossible not to know
what kind of story it is going to be. The one hope is
that the things " which never were on sea or land "
will be more weird and marvellous than any others you
have ever heard of: you read, as a child who has
listened to ghost stories goes into a dark room ; it is no
accurate information about historical things that you
seek, it is the thrill ; mere reality would never satisfy.

Ah, no ! We have already read of a marvellous city
in St John's "Revelation"; our taste has become
Christianized ; our heroine must move through wonder-
ful places : thus Pater's version :

" And lo ! a grove of mighty trees, with a fount of
water, clear as glass, in the midst ; and hard by the
water, a dwelling-place, built not by human hands, but
by some divine cunning. One recognized, even at the
entering, the delightful hostelry of a God. Golden
pillars sustained the roof, arched most curiously in cedar
wood and ivory. The walls were hidden under
wrought silver : all tame and woodland creatures leap-
ing forward to the visitor's gaze. Wonderful indeed
was the craftsman, divine or half divine, who by the
subtlety of his art had breathed so wild a soul into the
silver ! The very pavement was distinct with pictures
in goodly stones. In the glow of its precious metal the
house is its own daylight, having no need of the sun.
Well might it seem a place fashioned for the conversa-
tion of gods with men ! "


Then come voices in the air; voices " unclothed of
bodily vesture " ; the harping of invisible harpers,
singing; the musicians invisible, subject to her will;
and, most wonderful of all, the invisible Eros, and the
wind Zephyrus, who does her bidding.

Later, she is cast out of her paradise for dis-
obedience, and wanders across the earth, and down into
the deep of hell.

Both themes are popular in the Middle Ages. The
probable allegory of the tale, with a reversal of sex, is
the same as that in the tales of Twain and Ossian,
although these are usually connected with a Diana
myth. The invisible harpers and voices in the air may
have suggested Ariel and his kindred sprites in " The
Tempest," as Adlington's translation was undoubtedly
known to Shakespeare.

It is, however, to the style that we must look for
our distinction between the Latin of Apuleius and the
classic Latin. Restraint, which drives the master toward
intensity and the tyro toward aridity, has been
abandoned. The charm of neatness has lost its power ;
the barbaric and the Gothic mind alike delight in
profusion. If Europe, as has been said, ends at the
Pyrenees, the similarity of Apuleius' style to the later
Spanish " culturismo " offers opportunity to some literary
theorician for investigating the Carthagenian element
in literature. Enough here to point out that there was
in Latin an " unclassical" style, from which certain
qualities in " romance " literature may be derived.

That the hero of Apuleius' book dies in the odour of
sanctity would make him only the more acceptable to
the Middle Ages. The last part of the " Golden Ass,"
which is a huge parody of the mystic rites, would not
have offended the patrons of the feast of fools ; although
certain more serious Christians did denounce the author


as Anti-Christ. Still it was not from Apuleius, but
from Ovid, that the mediaeval tale-tellers took so much
of their ornament and inspiration ; and Apuleius is
further removed from the earlier writer of metamor-
phoses than are Crestien de Troyes or Guillaume de

About the time when Apuleius was writing his
scurrilous, bejewelled prose, there was composed a
poem of some eighty odd lines, 1 which is interesting for
several reasons. It celebrates a Greek feast, which
had been transplanted into Italy, and recently revived
by Hadrian ; the feast of Venus Genetrix, which survives
as May Day. The metric is noteworthy, because in it
are seen certain tendencies indigenous to the Italian
peninsula, which had been long suppressed by the
imitation of Greek scansion. The measure is trochaic

" Cras amet qui nunguam amavit
Quique amavit eras amef."

" Let whoever never loved, love to-morrow,
Let whoever has loved, love to-morrow."

" A new spring, a spring already full of song,
Spring is reborn throughout the world.

In spring are loves in harmony, in spring the winged ones mate,
And the grove unbinds her locks unto the mated rains.
To-morrow beneath the leafage of the trees the binder of loves

will weave green lodges out of myrtle boughs,
To-morrow Dione from her lofty throne gives forth this high

Let whoever never loved, love to-morrow,
Let whoever has loved, love to-morrow.

Then from the godly blood and the foamy drops of the ocean,

Amid the two-footed steed and the cohorts cerulean,

Came forth the wave-born Dione from beneath the mated rains.

1 The " Pervigilium Veneris." I discount lines 69-74 as the
spurious marginalia of some copyist.


Let whoever never loved, love to-morrow,
Let whoever has loved, love to-morrow.

She paints the purpling year with the jewels of the flowers,

She stroketh the flower-bosoms with the west wind's breath,

It is she who scatters the damp of the gleaming dew, which the

night wind leaves behind him,
Its trembling tears gleam and are ready to fall.
The hanging, tremulous drops restrained in their falling
Make fairer the blushing shame of the flowers.
Yea, that dew which the stars rain down on cloudless nights
Will unbind thepeplum, the scarf, from their dewy breasts at the dawn :
The goddess bids the rose-maids wed at morn,
Made from Love's kisses and from Cypris' blood,
And out of gems, and flames, and the purple of the sun,
That glow which hides within the saffron sheath

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Online LibraryEzra PoundThe spirit of romance; an attempt to define somewhat the charm of the pre-renaissance literature of Latin Europe → online text (page 1 of 17)