Monday, February 11, 2013

Sisyphus by Bulwer-Lytton

Edward Bulwer-Lytton is infamous for having penned originally that immortal opening line, "It was a dark and stormy night." Much maligned, Bulwer-Lytton's lowest annual commemoration is the awarding of the eponymous prize to the worst writing in the English language.

Bulwer-Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii remains a fascinating artifact of 19th-century classicizing Romanticism. As engaging as it is off-putting, the historical novel seems to be receiving again increased attention. Or maybe it's just in my circles that people are talking about it of late. A marvelous show at the Getty Villa is now reopening at the Cleveland Museum of Art to run through the summer 2013. The Last Days of Pompeii: decadence, apocalypse, resurrection is based upon a narrative foundation of Bulwer-Lytton's novel.

Later in his life, Bulwer-Lytton composed a batch of narrative poems called, collectively The Lost Tales of Miletus. These were published in 1866, some 40 years after LDoP. Still striving for the integration of his own propensity for fictional narrative into existing classical survivals, the poet here writes a batch of poems that he pretends are lost narratives that once stood beside the Fabulae Milesianae

Having now read two of them, I'll give a mixed review: thumbs up to "Death and Sisyphus", but a negative to "Cydippe, or the Apple." What the latter lacks in real wit and charm (try as it might!), the Sisyphus poem really scores quite nicely. This, of course, is my own opinion.

"Death and Sisyphus" narrates at some length the reasons behind the epic punishment of Sisyphus. We know it famously from the moment that Odysseus tells of having seen Sisyphus rolling the stone incessantly up that hill in the world of the dead (Odyssey 11). Homer spends only a clutch of lines. People have been memorizing and recommenting them for the centuries since. And, remarkably, Homer takes no thought of telling us why Sisyphus is consigned to this immortal activity; rather, he states only that Sisyphus rolls and rebounds.

Bulwer-Lytton draws upon ancient "mythologists," specifically the scholist on Pindar's Olympian Odes. But he creates a charming narrative of Sisyphus as supreme trickster, who deceives Death on the day of his visit. Who knew that Sisyphus was as tricky and clever as Prometheus or Hermes? And who remembered that the detention of Death at Sisyphus' home resulted in such disruption on earth, in Olympus, and in the Underworld? No wonder, observes Bulwer-Lytton, Zeus was compelled eventually to send Hermes to release Death from Sisyphus' wiles and restore order to the universe.

Bulwer-Lytton concludes his narrative, of course, with the "sentence" of Sisyphus. Not at all demoralized by his consignment to rock-rolling for all time, Sisyphus explains to Orpheus that life can thus go on.

Check out Bulwer-Lytton's poem: 1008NOTSisyphus_Bulwer-Lytton

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