BMCR 2007.10.29

Winged Words: Flight in Poetry and History

Piero Boitani, Winged words : flight in poetry and history. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. xiii, 262 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780226065618 $29.00.

This enjoyable book is an imaginative survey of the role of flight in literature (not, in fact, solely in poetry, despite the title) and what we might term the ‘cultural history’ of the West from Homer to the present. Its strengths lie in the range of material covered — few readers will fail to find a section which is both of interest and quite new to them — and the pleasure of stimulating juxtapositions; weaknesses, perhaps inevitably, derive from skimming sometimes frustratingly briefly or superficially over major texts or ideas, and (for me at least) from a degree of redundancy and repetition.

The book is arranged in eight chapters, plus an introduction and epilogue, and a brief preface to the English language edition (the book was published in Italian in 2004). These chapters — respectively ‘Pegasus’, ‘Icarus’, ‘Hermes’, ‘Halcyons’, ‘Eagles’, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, ‘Night Flights’ and ‘2001: The Mad Flight’ — are distinguished thematically rather than chronologically or by the authors under discussion, but there is nevertheless a loose sense of chronological structure. The discussion of divine flight in Homer, for instance, is concentrated in Chapter 3, ‘Hermes’, and in general the older material under discussion — Homer, Ovid, Virgil, Pindar and Horace among the classics, principally Dante among medieval texts — is to be found in the central chapters, buttressed in chapters 1-2 and 7-8 by more modern texts and events.

This organisational detail of the book reflects its most interesting feature: the attempt to relate political acts, and in particular twentieth-century political and literary self-definition, to the store-house of mythological motifs from which they draw. In this respect the case-study of Chapter 1, that of Lauro de Bosis and the Italian resistance to Fascism in the 1930s, and of Saint-Exupéry in Chapter 7 (‘Night Flights’) are particularly effective. In both cases Boitani succeeds in creating an effective personal and political narrative from these authors’ works and experiences alike, and I at least was persuaded and interested by the suggestive connections he makes between these accounts and the classical myths of flight and failure. Boitani outlines his position on pp. 32-3 in his discussion of Icarus: ‘What interests me here is the cultural significance of poetry that uses Icarus as a figure, rather than its actual poetic value. In other words, we are looking at the intersection of literature and history’.

The implied caveat here—that not all of the texts in question are of equal literary significance—seems justified in the section on de Bosis in particular. But the literary quality of the passages under discussion is in fact for the most part high, and the majority of readers will find themselves introduced, often tantalisingly briefly, to new authors or works which they will wish to follow up.

Different readers will I suspect vary in whether they find Boitani’s characteristically brief — although undoubtedly apposite — references to authors or works to which he does not return stimulating or distracting. Yeats’ poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’ (p. 169), for instance, has an obvious relevance to the argument and theme of Chapter Seven (‘Night Flights’), which it begins, but it is discussed only briefly. Similar comments could be made on, for instance, passing references to Shakespeare: ‘the terrifying Ovidian gale is the ancestor, the typos, of the Shakespearian storm: in Twelfth Night, Pericles, and The Tempest‘ (p. 83). Between pages 109 and 111 we move from Baudelaire to Mallarmé, Yeats and finally Leopardi in barely three pages. Personally I found this feature sometimes, but not always, successful. While the individual readings and observations are almost always of interest, the overall shape of the argument is sometimes hard to follow. In general, the shorter chapters (such as Chapter 6, on Bruegel’s The Fall of Icarus and literary responses to the painting) and those with a clear political or historical narrative focus (Chapters 2 and 7) sustain this episodic style with greatest success.

This format necessitates the close juxtaposition of several languages, widely divergent historical periods (from Homer and the Old Testament to contemporary poetry) and some very different forms and styles. Translation, in all its senses, is therefore essential to the success of the book: we need, ambitiously, both to feel the great differences between these various works, and to feel that we have some ability to compare them, or a foundation from which to do so. For the most part, Boitani prints each extract in English translation, followed by the original (also in the main text, not in a note), but there are some exceptions to this: no Greek is quoted, and very little Hebrew, and Saint-Exupéry is given only in English (it is clear from the notes that the author was himself working largely from English translations of Saint-Exupéry’s works, from which the quotations are largely taken).

Occasionally we are presented with a poem without a direct translation: Mallarmé’s “Le Cygne” is given in full in French on page 110 without an English version, though in the analysis preceding and following the text Boitani discusses individual phrases in his own translated versions. Rather more often we find an extract given in translation without the original (as for instance the opening of Horace, Odes IV.4 on p. 120; occasionally the original is to be found in the notes at the end of the book, though not in this case). Complete or dogmatic consistency in these matters is no doubt unnecessary, but the uneveness was occasionally jarring — especially in Chapter 7, where the very beautiful and compelling extracts from St. Exupéry made me wish I could refer directly to the French.

Boitani has in most instances produced his own translations. There are a few exceptions to this: Saint-Exupéry is quoted mostly from Stuart Gilbert’s translation of his Oeuvres (San Diego, 1932), and the extracts from Pindar are borrowed from Race’s 1997 edition, with some minor changes. Translating poetry is notoriously difficult, and particularly so in exactly this context: Boitani clearly aims both to provide translations literal enough to help the reader who has only a little of the language in question make sense of the original text if he wishes (this was very much my position with the Italian extracts), while also hoping to give some sense of the literary and poetic qualities for those who have no knowledge of the original language at all. This is a demanding double (not to mention moving) target, especially given that English is not itself Boitani’s first language, and I do not think that he has entirely succeeded. For this English-speaking reader at least, some of the translations seemed awkward enough to detract from the readings and analyses based upon them. The author would I think have been wiser to print in all cases existing translations of non-English texts for the English edition.

Despite this, Boitani’s prose style is mostly readable and attractive, if sometimes a little over-expansive or vague, especially at the end of sections and chapters. Occasionally, the sheer range of material covered tempts him into passages of narrative — especially of plot-summary — which are not always effective: ‘In the second Book of Kings, David laments the deaths of Saul and Jonathon, with whom his relationship was, to put it mildly, complex: son, rival, and more than just a brotherly friend’ (p. 121). But at its best, the author’s variation of pace — from extended close readings to swift and shifting juxtapositions across centuries and languages — is well-handled and engaging.

Boitani’s attempt to relate literature and politics, and in particular the appropriation of ancient themes and topoi in modern politically-inflected literature, is by and large successful, and particularly so in his dealings with the earlier 20th century. Perhaps less succesful, though equally interesting, are the gestures he makes towards considering Biblical motifs of flight alongside those of the classical world. In his longest chapter, Chapter 5 on ‘Eagles’, at the heart of the book, his wide-ranging and compelling discussion of the many facets of Dante’s various eagles requires him to include a shorter preparatory passage on eagles in the Old and New Testament and in the early Church fathers (pp. 121-30). B.’s passionate appreciation of Dante is apparent here as elsewhere, but the discussion of the Old Testament motif in particular is, at only four pages, too compressed. (A comparable section on pages 71-4 suffers from the same problem.) Whereas even brief discussions of classical passages are supported by the book’s repeated return throughout its course to key classical texts (Homer, Pindar, Horace, Virgil and Ovid) and their major receptions (chiefly Dante and Milton), the discussion of the Biblical motifs lacks such supportive depth. For this reason, I found that the author’s attempts to relate the classical and Biblical aspects of his central theme among the most suggestive, but also the most frustrating of the book.

This is a work of comparative literature at its most wide-ranging, but it seems appropriate to make a few comments about its interest to classicists in particular. Substantial portions of Chapters 3 (‘Hermes’), 4 (‘Halcyons’) and 5 (‘Eagles’) are concerned with ancient Greek and Latin authors. I think it is fair to say that the readings of these individual texts are not themselves particularly original — Boitani is himself scrupulous about noting the works on which he has relied in his notes on these sections — but classicists are likely to find his comparative remarks of interest, and perhaps especially so outside their own particular field of expertise. The author’s love and knowledge of Dante — in whom this project has its origins — is particularly instructive, and so too is Boitani’s acute feeling for the importance of classical tropes and texts in twentieth century politics and art. Many classicists, especially those involved in any aspects of reception, will find stimulus here for new directions in thinking and teaching.

The physical quality of the book is good, and I found only a few typographical errors. Any future edition might consider including a space between the translation and original text of each poetic extract: in the current typesetting it is hard to locate the beginning of the original quoted text.