Tag Archives: Vikram Seth

November Sonnet No 1 for 2015

November in Sydney: Sculpture by the Sea; jacaranda, coral trees and bougainvillea in startling bloom; moustaches; exams; and here on Me Fail? I Fly! a sonnet challenge.

For the last few years I have set myself the task of writing 14 sonnets for the blog in November. It turns out that my favoured sonnet form isn’t actually a sonnet at all, but the Onegin stanza – the 14-line stanza used by Pushkin in his narrative poem Eugene Onegin and by Vikram Seth in The Golden Gate. It took me a couple of years to realise that I wasn’t even doing that form properly. Now I think I’ve got it. Here goes with my first poem for 2015.

Because this stanza was developed for narrative, and because I have unfinished business with Virgil’s great, weighty narrative, the Aeneid (I studied Book Two  in high school more than 50 years ago), I thought I’d see what happened if I tried pouring some of his lines into Pushkin’s nimble form. It was more fun than I expected. This covers Book 1, lines 1–11 (‘refugee’ is a precise translation; ‘detention’ less so):

Sonnet No 1: Aeneid 1:1–11
War and one man, that’s my story.
A refugee from Homer’s Troy
he started something, built Rome’s glory,
but on the way found little joy.
His boats were stopped, and cruel detention
held him. Courage and invention
won through: he built a dynasty,
brought culture and civility.

It’s here I seek for inspiration:
if we’re to make sense of this world,
what harm was done, what grief unfurled
that one of such sound reputation
was made to suffer, struggle so?
Was there some cosmic rage on show?

For anyone wanting to explore further, here is Dryden’s 1697 translation :

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;
For what offence the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv’d his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos’d to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heav’nly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe?

And if you’re really serious, here’s Publius Vergilius Maro:

Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnonis ob īram;
multa quoque et bellō passus, dum conderet urbem,
īnferretque deōs Latiō, genus unde Latīnum,
Albānīque patrēs, atque altae moenia Rōmae.
Mūsa, mihī causās memorā, quō nūmine laesō,
quidve dolēns, rēgīna deum tot volvere cāsūs
insignem pietāte virum, tot adīre labōrēs
impulerit. Tantaene animīs caelestibus īrae?

Added later: You notice interesting things when you translate something, even as roughly as this. I took out the references to supernatural beings – gods, the muse etc. But that, plus the largely ungendered nature of English, strips out a key bit of patterning. In Latin, nouns are generally either masculine, feminine or neuter. In these 11 lines, the man (virum), and his descendants (patres) are masculine, and almost everything else is either neuter (war, fate, godhead) or feminine (especially the goddess Juno, but also rage, cities and so on). The effect in the Latin is of a masculine figure in a feminine world, much of which is inexplicably hostile to him.

Re-reading Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986, Vintage International 1991)

I don’t do very much re-reading, at least not of whole books. This one was an ambush.

The copious notes in John Tranter’s Vagabond Press chapbook Ten Sonnets quote Wikipedia’s entry on the Onegin stanza, so called because Pushkin used it in his novel Eugene Onegin:

The work was mostly written in verses of iambic tetrameter with the rhyme scheme “aBaBccDDeFFeGG”, where the lowercase letters represent feminine endings (i.e., with an additional unstressed syllable) and the uppercase representing masculine ending (i.e. stressed on the final syllable).

That sent me looking for Vikram Seth’s novel in Onegin stanzas. Though it was this book that had launched my own excursion into sonnet land, and I had written and blogged quite a number of sonnets (for which, by the way, I don’t claim any great distinction) of what I thought was the Onegin variety, I had missed the crucial bit about the ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ endings (the quote marks are in deference to the Art Student’s objection to the gendered terminology). I went to see if Seth observed the aBaBccDD etc rhyme scheme, and indeed he did: each stanza has three feminine rhymes and four masculine, the feminine coming first in each of three configurations. That might sound awfully technical, but once you notice it you realise it accounts for the wonderful flow of the verse narrative – the feminine endings send the reader’s mind forward the way serifs in a typeface send the eye to the next letter, and the masculine endings have a kind of exclamatory effect, not necessarily stopping the flow but hitting a strong beat.

It’s a wonderfully seductive rhythm, and it had me in its grip again. I read whole slabs out loud to the Art Student as she was cooking dinner, and she who claims not to like poetry said, ‘It sounds as if he had a good time writing that.’

The narrative deals with relationships among a group of 20-somethings in San Francisco in 1980–81, with something of the feel of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (written a decade earlier), but with significant differences. It’s the Reagan era: the threat of nuclear war forms a backdrop, which comes to the foreground in some heated arguments that threaten to destroy friendships, and at an anti-war rally where one of the speeches runs for close to 20 stanzas.  There’s a wonderful ill-tempered cat named Charlemagne, and some serio-comic conflict around religion and homosexuality (I don’t know how comic it was meant to be, but it made me laugh as well as rage). It’s not all froth and bubble by a long shot: there are birth and death, seasonal rhythms and harsh disruptions, silly spats and deeply wounding fights.

In one of the book’s few self-referential moments, Seth reflects on his chosen form, discusses both the use of feminine rhymes and the tetrameter (four beats to the line rather than the five beats used by Shakespeare). He then goes on:

Reader, enough of this apology;
But spare me if I think it best,
Before I tether my monology,
To take a stanza to suggest
You spend some unfilled day of leisure
By that original spring of pleasure:
Sweet-watered, fluent, clear, light, blithe
(This homage merely pays a tithe
Of what in joy and inspiration
It gave me once and does not cease
To give me) – Pushkin’s masterpiece
In Johnston’s luminous translation:
Eugene Onegin – like champagne
Its effervescence stirs my brain.

When I read The Golden Gate the first time I contemplated moving on to Les Murray’s verse novels, one of which is told in sonnets. I will read them one day, but they aren’t a natural successor to this novel. I have now downloaded an audio book of Eugene Onegin, in which Stephen Fry reads James E. Falen’s translation – not that of Sir Charles Johnston, which Vikram Seth so loved. It may be a while before I have ‘an unfilled day of leisure’ in which to listen to its 4 hours and 21 minutes, but I’m looking forward to it.

Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986, Vintage International 1991)

A virus had me sick in bed,
Too thick of head to watch TV.
I’d try to read but lose the thread.
Oh bored bored bored, Oh woe was me!
A friend* said, ‘Read The Golden Gate.’
‘Five thou, five hundred fifty-eight
Lines in iambic tetrameter –
No way! That’s not one for the amateur
And drowsy reader.’oooo ‘Have a go!
Just take one sonnet at a time.
They zip along and even rhyme.’
I read, coughed, slept, read, slept, went slow.
My friend was wise, the book’s a joy,
Seven years before A Suitable Boy.

The year is roughly 1980,
AIDS a whisper, Soviet bloc’s
Intact. A yuppie seeks a mate, he
Finds love through a PO box.
San Francisco, sexy, witty,
Like Maupin’s first Tales of the City.
John loves Liz and Phil loves Ed,
Though Ed loves Jesus more than bed.
Jan (sculptor) holds a torch for John.
An anti-nuclear demonstration
Includes a powerful oration.
The pleasure here was so full on
I’d like to read, though there’s no hurry,
Fredy Neptune by Les Murray.
* The ‘friend’ was Jo Walton, a writer and avid reader of, and blogger about, fantasy whom I’ve never met. She enthused persuasively about the The Golden Gate earlier this year on the tor.com blog. A copy turned up on BookMooch almost instantaneously.