By ALEX WONG.
—after Conradus Celtis (1459-1508)
VACATE your seasonal hideaways,
…………of the charming zither.
Down the high slopes of Helicon:
….Come for a trip
…………to these chilly margins.
Sir, we invoke you, as you see, in verse.
……………………You like poetry.
Look at our blowzy Muses now
…………how nicely they warble
Under this bitter and icy pole.
….Come to our country,—
…………untilled, as untutored
In cultivation of your resonant lyre,
The graceless boor, still innocent
….Of classic glamour,
…………the lore o’ the Romans,
Soon, beneath you, bright pedagogue,
….Shall learn to write verses,
…………fresh as when Orpheus
Sang to his antique audiences—not
Murderous brutes, and the nippy deer,
….And even the towery
…………trees of the forest
Followed demurely while he picked
….The wires to a tune
…………with wizard fingers.
So come across the desert ocean, glad
……………………Of a new challenge.
Sir, over here. Long since, from Greece
….You travelled to Latium,
…………hauling the Muses,
Meaning broadly to disburse
….The arts you favour.
…………Now we petition:
As you came then to those Italian lands
Make up your mind to rove up here.
….Come to our grating
…………shores. By your office
Make all our barbarism of speech,
…………up and vanish:
Make all the dark, the whole wide cage of murk,
……………………Collapse around us.
Author’s note/causerie on the foregoing.
THERE WAS A period when, in a great effort at self-improvement which bore a little dubious fruit at the time—perishable, as fruit generally is—a big, grey Duckworth volume called Renaissance Latin Verse: An Anthology, ed. Perosa and Sparrow, 1979, was the sort of thing I would occasionally use as a lounging book. Probably these occasions were rarer than I now like to imagine. In the sections devoted to the ‘Northern’ countries, one lyric that caught my eye—in part because of my academic preoccupations at that time, but partly also because of perennial interests of a less intellectual kind—was an ode by Conradus Celtis. The author (christened Konrad Pickel) was born near Würzberg in 1459 and would die in 1508 as Professor of Poetry at Vienna after a varied career of humanistic successes. He was Poet Laureate to the Holy Roman Emperor.
I was in the throes of doctoral work. My mind swam at nights among half-understood fragments of lascivious but largely mediocre Renaissance Latin verse. My skill at making a swift evaluation of a new poem at a glance was far in excess of my ability to sight-read humanistic Latin. The Neo-Catullan voluptuousness of the poem was clear immediately, and reassuring . . . A dead giveaway was the adjective languidulus, a nice Catullan diminutive, which means approximately what it sounds as it though it ought to mean—and so much more. A footnote added the spice of authenticity: ‘Hasa, or Hasilina, was a Polish girl whom C. met at Cracow and to whom he dedicated Book I of his Amores.’ O apparatus. O paratext. I felt there was something wonderfully real about that. And this was what I would remember about Conradus Celtis, though I didn’t pursue him any further at the time . . .
With some surprise I realized later that I had in fact met Celtis before, in a very different context, and hardly knowing whether to think him a real historical person or a creature of fiction. He is mentioned (with more glamour than perhaps might have been expected) in Walter Pater’s story ‘Duke Carl of Rosenmold’, first published in 1887 in Macmillan’s Magazine and then included in Pater’s volume of Imaginary Portraits in the same year.
The story has its setting in a small and moribund German grand-duchy, about to be absorbed into neighbouring territories, at the turn of the eighteenth century. Duke Carl is a bookish aesthete, seduced by the brighter, more humanistic culture of certain less gloomy and more cosmopolitan realms abroad. In the hazy atmosphere of my Paterian fantasies he is something between Prince Hamlet and the ‘Dancing Marquess’ of Bath. (This is not submitted for serious critical scrutiny, but only to transmit a gusto.) The passage in which Celtis, here ‘Celtes’, appears—not quite in person, but in more than name—is a beautiful one. It bestows on him a touch of the same vital mystique that Pater elsewhere lavishes more fully on Pico or Pythagoras . . .
At court, with a continuous round of ceremonies, which, though early in the day, must always take place under a jealous exclusion of the sun, one seemed to live in perpetual candle-light.
It was in a delightful rummaging of one of those lumber-rooms, escaped from that candle-light into the broad day of the uppermost windows, that the young Duke Carl laid his hand on an old volume of the year 1486, printed in heavy type, with frontispiece, perhaps, by Albert Dürer—Ars Versificandi: The Art of Versification: by Conrad Celtes. Crowned poet of the Emperor Frederick the Third, he had the right to speak on that subject; for while he vindicated as best he might old German literature against the charge of barbarism, he did also a man’s part towards reviving in the Fatherland the knowledge of the poetry of Greece and Rome; and for Carl, the pearl, the golden nugget, of the volume was the Sapphic ode with which it closed—To Apollo, praying that he would come to us from Italy, bringing his lyre with him: Ad Apollinem, ut ab Italis cum lyra ad Germanos veniat. The god of light, coming to Germany from some more-favoured world beyond it, over leagues of rainy hill and mountain, making soft day there: that had ever been the dream of the ghost-ridden yet deep-feeling and certainly meek German soul; of the great Dürer, for instance, who had been the friend of this Conrad Celtes, and himself, all German as he was, like a gleam of real day amid that hyperborean German darkness—a darkness which clave to him, too, at that dim time, when there were violent robbers, nay, real live devils, in every German wood. And it was precisely the aspiration of Carl himself. Those verses, coming to the boy’s hand at the right moment, brought a beam of effectual day-light to a whole magazine of observation, fancy, desire, stored up from the first impressions of childhood. To bring Apollo with his lyre to Germany! It was precisely that he, Carl, desired to do—was, as he might flatter himself, actually doing.
The daylight, the Apolline aurora, which the young Duke Carl claimed to be bringing to his candle-lit people, came in the somewhat questionable form of the contemporary French ideal, in matters of art and literature—French plays, French architecture, French looking-glasses—Apollo in the dandified costume of Lewis the Fourteenth. Only, confronting the essentially aged and decrepit graces of his model with his own essentially youthful temper, he invigorated what he borrowed; and with him an aspiration towards the classical ideal, so often hollow and insincere, lost all its affectation. . . .”
Pater was profoundly attracted by Heine’s notion of the Greek gods in exile, living quiet lives incognito after the triumph of Christianity. It inspired him to a good deal of sumptuous writing. It was a figure for the endurance of the pagan sensibility in a later world: the spirit of the ‘Renaissance’, running underground and then spouting up from time to time, perhaps in unexpected places. He always loved the peculiar collision of the medieval with the classical—in Pico della Mirandola’s esoteric eclecticism; in the style of Botticelli; even in some of the more Peruginesque work of Raphael, the ‘semi-medieval habits’ and ‘seductively mixed manner’ that Pater found so much more exciting than the ‘purely classical presentments’ of his maturity. ‘Apollo in Picardy’, another ‘Imaginary Portrait’, develops more elaborately, and in just such a ‘mixed’ manner, the myth he glances at so vividly here—of Apollo and his boy lover Hyacinthus, killed at a stroke by the sun-god’s flying discus. There is always something potentially fatal about the old gods.
Whenever Pater writes about this kind of thing there is something fascinating about the emotive and imaginative force he can muster, for all the coyness of the prose. These ideas, or fantasies, must have had powerful mental correlatives. They have great suggestive range. The radiance of a blithe, graceful Apollo slipping into the rainy, still gothic and ghost-ridden, robber-haunted gloom of that German atmosphere—‘from some more favoured world beyond’—is evoked in so intensely memorable a way that I can never think of Celtis, potentially rather a drab figure otherwise, without the dressing of this Apollonian romanticism: not only the symbolic latency of the myth, but the grand vision of history, with its comings and goings of ‘real day’ even in the deepest, thickest ‘hyperborean darkness’.
‘Making soft day there’: this little phrase is the one that sticks most tenaciously in my own mind. Ultimately it is all about a personal history, about personal history as a general fact for contemplation, and perhaps above all about the personal sense of History. In any case, I like the poem, and I am pleased to take this occasion to set it alongside the passage from ‘Duke Carl’ and allow it to bask in the diffusive Paterian reflection it always has for me. I don’t claim to know where Apollo is laying his hat at present, but surely a little courtship couldn’t hurt . . .
Alex Wong has published two collections of poetry with Carcanet, Poems Without Irony (2016) and Shadow and Refrain (2021). He has edited the poems of Swinburne and Selected Essays of Walter Pater for Carcanet Classics, and is the author of a critical book, The Poetry of Kissing in Early Modern Europe. He teaches English at the University of Cambridge.
‘A Spell to Lure Apollo’ is from Shadow and Refrain: Poems and Translations (2021), reprinted by kind permission of Carcanet Press, Manchester, UK.