Welcome, as always, dear readers.
It’s almost Halloween once more and, to honor an ancient (and favorite) holiday, I’m writing on a creepy subject.
(This is pretty spooky, too, I think. To create one for yourself, see: https://pinkpixieforest.blogspot.com/2012/09/lawn-ghost-re-post.html#.VFEW0fl4pAU )
Halloween is our version of the Celtic Samain (which, in Old Irish, would be SAH-vin, more or less, modern spelling being Samhain and modern pronunciation SAH-win), the beginning of a celebration which ends summer (Samh) and looks towards winter (Gamh). It’s also a time when the dead are thought to appear briefly among the living. (For an entertaining article with lots of detail see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain#Etymology )
In this month which borders summer and winter, the dead and their (under)world have appeared several times in my teaching. First, Herakles, as the last of his Labors, was required by his (distant) cousin, Eurystheus, to go down into that underworld to bring back Cerberus, the watchdog of Hades.
(Eurystheus, although related to Herakles through the hero Perseus, clearly hasn’t inherited an heroic qualities. Eventually, in one version of the story, he orders Herakles to leave the fruits of his labors at the city gates.)
In another version of tradition, Herakles rescues Theseus (but not his companion, Perithoos) from a botched attempt to kidnap Persephone from the Underworld.
In the class, we went on to the Odyssey, where, in Book 11, Odysseus is told by Circe that he must visit the Land of the Dead, to learn something important from the seer Tireisias,
but also meets a recently-dead crewman, Elpenor,
as well as his mother, and the hero Achilles, killed at Troy.
(That’s Achilles on the left, Ajax on the right, playing a game with numbers—perhaps a board game?, as Achilles is saying “Tesara”, “Four” and Ajax is saying “Tria”, “Three”.)
Near the end of the poem, we return to the Underworld where we see everyone from the ghost of the murdered Agamemnon
to the crowd of suitors killed by Odysseus and his son, Telemachos, with the aid of a pair of faithful slaves, Eumaios and Philoitios.
After Herakles and Odysseus, perhaps the most famous visit to the Underworld occurs when Orpheus attempts to rescue his wife, Eurydice,
which is also the subject of two of my favorite operas, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) L’Orfeo, 1607,
(its first printing, two years later)
which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mD16EVxNOM
and C.W. Gluck’s (1714-1787) Orfeo ed Euridice—
Gluck produced several different versions of this—this which you can see here is the original 1762 Vienna version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUpZ1Npj23M
There is also Offenbach’s (1819-1880) comic version Orfee aux Enfers, Orpheus in the Underworld, 1858, revised version, 1874—of which this is the cover of the 1874 score–
and you can watch a very well-sung modern performance of the 1858 version here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKjaT1GV9gg )
In all of these stories, the main character goes to the Otherworld to bring back someone (or something, if you consider Cerberus an “it”). Recently, I’ve been re-listening to a beautiful and sometimes eerie symphony by J.J. Raff (1822-1882) based upon a once-famous ballad, “Lenore”, by Gottfried August Buerger (1747-1794),
in which the opposite takes place: a visitor comes from the Otherworld to bring someone there, instead.
(I’m guessing that this is the earliest published illustration, by Daniel Chodowiecki, 1726-1801, which appears in Gedichte von Gottfried August Buerger Mit 8 Kupfern von Chodowiecki—“Poetry of G.A. Buerger with 8 Copperplate Engravings by Chodowiecki”–Goettingen, 1778. This and other Chodowiecki illustrations may be found at: https://www.gottfried-august-buerger-molmerswende.de/Burger_und_sein_Museum/Rund_um_Burger/Illustrationen/illu2/body_illu2.html )
Buerger’s ballad, which was first published in the Goettinger Musenalmanach for 1774 (here’s your copy: https://www.gottfried-august-buerger-molmerswende.de/musenalmanach_1774.pdf See pages 214-226 for the poem), has a very simple plot:
1. Lenore is engaged to Wilhelm, a cavalryman in the army of Frederick the Great during the Seven Years War (1756-1763)
2. The war over, others return, but not Wilhelm
3. Lenore becomes increasingly distraught and, eventually, curses God for what she sees as Wilhelm’s (and her) undeserved fate
4. One night, there is a knock at the door and it appears to be the missing Wilhelm, who asks Lenore to mount up behind him and ride to their marriage bed
5. Their ride through the night is at a breakneck speed and around them the landscape becomes increasingly disquieting, to say the least
6. Finally, they arrive—at a cemetery gate–and, riding in, they come to an open grave—Wilhelm’s—and Wilhelm turns into Death himself, informing Lenore that one does not quarrel with God and the poem ends with her marriage bed being the grave (although there is an faint implication that perhaps Lenore’s soul will be saved)
In 1774, intellectual currents in the German states (no “Germany” as a whole will exist till 1871) were flowing towards what would become Romanticism, and the poem was an immediate success, combining prevailing early Romantic favorite themes: death, the supernatural, and history—with a little morality thrown in. It took about twenty years for this poem to reach a similar popularity in England, but, when it first appeared, in multiple translations—or, considering how they differ from the original, better to say “versions”—in 1796, the same current began at least to trickle into English literary thought. (For a very full treatment of the Englishing of “Lenore”, see: https://archive.org/details/earliestenglish00emergoog/page/n2/mode/2up?view=theater )
Needless to say, after that initial flood of versions, literary people through the 19th century continued to try their hand at translating—or adapting—Buerger’s original poem. I think my favorite is an early attempt by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1828-1882, which you can read here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lenore_(Rossetti)
Raff’s symphony, first publically performed in 1873, was, like Buerger’s poem, an immediate success, being a big later Romantic piece, which begins with the depiction of passionate love, moves to Wilhelm’s march off to war (watch out—that march is very catchy), then to Lenore’s anguish, the wild ride, but then a less terrible ending, entitled, in the score, “Wiedervereinigung in Tode”—“Reuniting in Death”, which is quite peaceful. Here’s the first modern recording of it so that you can see what you think: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h77-FLvJ3sM .
In the meantime, thanks, as ever for reading (and perhaps I should also say listening),
If, on 31 October, you leave your outside light on, be prepared for goblins,
And know that, as always, there’s
Buerger’s poem has had many illustrators over the years. Here are the works of a few as (I hope) a little extra Halloween treat.
(by William Blake, 1757-1821, of all people—but then his good friend, Heinrich Fuessli/Henry Fuseli, 1741-1825, painted that bizarre “The Nightmare”, 1781)
(by J.D. Schubert, 1761-1822)
(by Frank Kirchbach, 1859-1912)
I’ve always loved Halloween, but there was one tradition which turned up each year and which always really frightened me as a child—Disney’s Headless Horseman.
Even though I quickly learned that it was only a bully’s trick to scare off a potential suitor, the setting is so skillfully done in the Disney version that my knowledge of what was behind that frightening figure never really helped. If you don’t know the story, here it is, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” from Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., first published in book form in 1824 (this is an 1864 illustrated text of the author’s revised edition): https://gutenberg.org/cache/epub/2048/pg2048-images.html