"It has been your lot to achieve that the obedience to manifold rules should not hamper poetry."
October 25, 2012 12:40 PM   Subscribe

During the reign of Constantine the Great, the Roman senator and poet Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius was sent into exile for crimes unknown. He succeeded in regaining favor and his good name by composing a series of poems in praise of the emperor which looked like nothing else. His poetry was an evolution of the Greek tradition of pattern poetry, but he took it a much more complex level, as Arrigo Lora Totino explains. In an illustrated article, John Stephan Edwards goes through the poetry of Porphyrius, showing the evolution of his craft.
posted by Kattullus (14 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Note: To see a pdf with the images that Arrigo Lora Totino references, click on "pictures" at the top of the page.
posted by Kattullus at 12:42 PM on October 25, 2012

I kinda like to imagine that the dialogue between Constantine and Porphyrius went something like this.

Constantine: "What makes your poetry so special, Porphyrius?"
Porphyrius: "This poem has a battleship in it."
posted by Kattullus at 1:09 PM on October 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

Huh. I see Massachusetts.
posted by maryr at 1:23 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by frecklefaerie at 2:27 PM on October 25, 2012

Not everyone has appreciated the gimmick:

"The poems of Porphyrius are some of the worst specimens of a dying literature. The author has purposely made them exceedingly difficult to be understood ; and their merit in his eyes, and in those of his contemporaries, seems to have consisted in the artificial manner in which he was able to represent, by lines of various lengths, different objects, such as an altar, an organ, et cetera."

Smith, William. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: J. Walton, 1870.
posted by General Tonic at 2:35 PM on October 25, 2012

F.J.E. Raby was equally unimpressed:

The corruption of triviality had eaten deep into poetry, as is seen with startling clearness in the verses of Publius Optatianus Porphyrius .. The fifteenth poem is the triumph of the poet's futility. The first four verses consist respectively of words of two, three, four and five syllables; the fifth verse begins with a word of one syllable and continues progressively until it ends with a word of five syllables .. and the poem ends with a series of verses which if read backwards form an intelligible poem in a different metre. (Raby, A History of Secular Latin Poetry in the Middle Ages, 1934)

Porphyrius was clearly an Oulipian born sixteen centuries out of time.

In the ninth century, Rabanus Maurus produced a similar set of pattern poems, also of great visual beauty.
posted by verstegan at 3:16 PM on October 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

"Like nothing else!" Bah, those are find-a-word puzzles. I see them all the time in the Sunday newspaper. Generally not in Greek, mind you.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:17 PM on October 25, 2012

And generally not in bilingual Greek and Latin either. But yeah, all of the stuff Porphyrius does has been done since, but as far as anyone knows, he was the first to do it. And, if you read through the links, you'll find he was up to all kinds of crazy stunts within his visual tricks. A part of the red letters in the "battleship poem" make up a proteus poem, which is a type of poem where you can swap the individual words around and create new verses while still keeping everything metrically accurate and consistent.
posted by Kattullus at 4:35 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I take it that early 20th century critics weren't into formal experimentation.
posted by empath at 4:47 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bet poor Ovid wished he had thought of this.

(More aging scholarship on the subject.)
posted by BWA at 6:31 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

empath: I take it that early 20th century critics weren't into formal experimentation.

To be fair to them, most contemporaneous English-speaking critics of new poetry also disparaged formal experimentation. Actually, come to think of it, that's generally true today too. Good to know that Constantine the Great had better sense than that.
posted by Kattullus at 6:43 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pattern poetry lived on in Islamic calligraphy and enjoyed a brief Western revival in the early 20th century, thanks to Apollinaire's calligrams. Contemporary typesetters were probably less than thrilled about it.
posted by Skeptic at 11:55 PM on October 25, 2012

Great post. Thanks, Kattullus.
posted by homunculus at 12:48 AM on October 26, 2012

Early seventeenth century Welsh-born English poet George Herbert produced many figurative poems, collected posthumously into The Temple:
On his deathbed [aged 39, with advanced tuberculosis], he reportedly gave the manuscript of The Temple to Nicholas Ferrar, the founder of a semi-monastic Anglican religious community at Little Gidding (a name best known today through the poem Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot), telling him to publish the poems if he thought they might "turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul", and otherwise, to burn them.
The Wikipedia page reproduces a good example of one of these poems:
Herbert's "Easter Wings", a pattern poem in which the work is not only meant to be read, but its shape is meant to be appreciated: In this case, the poem was printed (original image here shown) on two pages of a book, sideways, so that the lines suggest two birds flying upward, with wings spread out.
I love Herbert's poetry, and have one of those tiny Oxford volumes to turn to when I want to try to grasp what true religious devotion could feel like.

And perhaps Herbert's pattern poems don't seem artificial to me-- in the pejorative modern sense-- because of their manifest sincerity; a line quoted by that page (not necessarily of Herbert's) is making me think Herbert could have seen the bound and outward forms of his pattern poems as an analogue of, or even an aspect of the form giving power of the Holy Ghost:
Many of the poems have intricate rhyme schemes, and variations of lines within stanzas described as 'a cascade of form floats through the temple.'
posted by jamjam at 10:55 AM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

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