In all those stories the hero
is beyond himself into the next
thing, be it those labors
of Hercules, or Aeneas going into death.
I thought the instant of the one humanness
in Virgil's plan of it
was that it was of course human enough to die,
yet to come back, as he said, hoc opus, hic labor est.*
That was the Cumaean Sibyl speaking.
This is Robert Creeley, and Virgil
is dead now two thousand years, yet Hercules
and the Aeneid, yet all that industrious wis-
dom lives in the way the mountains
and the desert are waiting
for the heroes, and death also
can still propose the old labors.
*Aeneid, 6.129. When Aeneas asks the Sibyl, a priestess and prophet, how he might visit his dead father in the underworld, she answers that the descent is easy, but to return -- "that is the task, that is the labor."
As some of you may or may not know, the poet Robert Creeley died this week (thanks to Steve Fisher for letting me know), so I decided to do one of his poems; happily, I had this poem marked to do soon anyway! A good place to start with a poem is something that you don't understand, so: What I had trouble with when I read this poem was the line "the one humanness." What is this one humanness? And what is the antecedent to the "it" that follows? I take the "it" to be heroes, or at least the heroic plan - that is the only thing that makes some sort of grammatical sense. Maybe the one humanness, then, means that there is only one powerfully human part of Virgil's story. Or perhaps there is one thing all humans have in common, and, the poem proposes, it has to do with death. Returning from death - "that is the task, that is the labor." This wisdom runs through the whole earth, and it remains true even though thousands of years have passed. Creeley points out that, even if it seems that we don't have heroes any more to journey through the underworld, or great storytellers of yore to carry on their story, we have people and the opportunity to work. In that way, there is something heroic in the way every single person walks around the earth. Or maybe our task is not to simply walk around; maybe that's not heroic. I think that it might only be heroic to strive, for death only "proposes" the old labors. It requires an answer, an action.
There are lots of perhaps-es and maybes in this PotW criticism, but that in itself points to one of the things that I love most about literature in general - all of these ideas may be true within the body of the poem even if they conflict. Poets, authors and literary critics often welcome paradox. So as I have said before, if anybody disagrees with my read of the poem (because they are never ever perfect, and who would want them to be) or has any extra comments or anything, you ought to email me back! I hope that everybody enjoyed this Poem of the Week, and I hope that your days are great!