Seeking the Lost Quote in a Dark Wood
August 29, 2003
Down the page in my paean to poet Jack Gilbert, I complained of having mislaid a quotation from W. H. Auden. I've found it now, and discovered that it wasn't nearly so pithy and apropos as I had thought; it would have made an already longish post longer without adding much of substance. Still, I am taken with it and, because this post is not nearly so long, I can offer it up than I would have done had it actually been at hand when I originally wanted it:
Half the literature, highbrow and lowbrow, produced in the West during the past four hundred years has been based on the false assumption that what is an exceptional experience is or ought to be a universal one. Under its influence so many millions of persons have persuaded themselves that they were 'in love' when their experience could be fully and accurately described by the more brutal four-letter words, that one is sometimes tempted to doubt if the experience is ever genuine, even when, or especially when, it seems to have happened to oneself. However, it is impossible to read some of the documents, La Vita Nuova, for example, many of Shakespeare's sonnets or the Symposium and dismiss them as fakes. All accounts of the experience agree on the essentials. Like the Vision of Dame Kind, the Vision of Eros is a revelation of creaturely glory, but whereas in the former it is the glory of a multiplicity of non-human creatures, in the latter it is the glory of a single human being. Again, while in the vision of Nature, conscious sexuality is never present, in the erotic vision it always is -- it cannot be experienced by eunuchs (though it may occur before puberty) and no one ever fell in love with someone they found sexually unattractive -- but physical desire is always, and without any effort of will, subordinate to the feeling of awe and reverence in the presence of a sacred being: however great his desire, the lover feels unworthy of the beloved's notice.
I found the passage in the middle of my journey through an essay collection, The Poets' Dante: 20th Century Responses, picked up on the cheap from that treasure trove of tasty remainders, Daedalus Books. The book compiles some good lucid critical writing on Dante by 20th Century poets, living and dead: Pound, Eliot, Mandelstam, Heaney, and on and on. Recommended, of course.
P.S., My own Dante preferences run to La Vita Nuova in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's translation and to Laurence Binyon's translation of the Divina Commedia -- which gets a lengthy appreciation from Robert Fitzgerald in The Poets' Dante. Both were once conveniently available in the single volume Portable Dante, but it appears that the editors at Penguin have opted to change translators in recent years. The current Portable Dante bears little resemblance to my dog-eared college copy of too-many semesters past. *Sigh* The Binyon translation, a remarkably fluent imitation of Dante's own terza rima, seems now to be entirely out of print. Rossetti's run at The New Life, however, can still be had, and cheaply too.