Rome or the countryside? – A letter from the World of late Antiquity

LIVING THE BUSY city life or moving to the quiet life on the countryside? That’s the question.  Even during the late Antiquity people pondered over this. Let’s take a look on a letter from the well-known Jerome (347-420) who lived in Rome while busy spreading Christianity through teaching and writings on Christian morality. He also liked to befriend Roman ladies from the Aristocracy who had promised to remain virgins for the rest of their lives. He eventuelly became a Saint and is regared as a Father of the Church.

I. Context

This letter is adressed to Marcella (325-410), a Christian widow. As wikipedia comments on her life: “After her husband’s early death, Marcella decided to devote the rest of her life to charity, prayer, and mortification of the flesh and was convinced that God was directing her to a life of poverty and service. She left behind her fashionable dresses for a coarse brown garment and abandoned her usual extravagant hair styling and makeup. Along with other women, Marcella formed a community known as the brown dress society, spending their time praying, singing, reading the Bible, and serving the needy. Her palatial home was now a refuge for weary pilgrims and for the poor.” I will not quote the entire letter, but simply point out a few sentences. 

From: Jerome

To: Marcella

Date: Rome, 385 A.D.

II. The Letter

“Wherefore, seeing that we have journeyed for much of our life through a troubled sea, and that our vessel has been in turn shaken by raging blasts and shattered upon treacherous reefs, let us, as soon as may be, make for the haven of rural quietude. There such country dainties as milk and household bread, and greens watered by our own hands, will supply us with coarse but harmless fare. So living, sleep will not call us away from prayer, nor satiety from reading. In summer the shade of a tree will afford us privacy. In autumn the quality of the air and the leaves strewn under foot will invite us to stop and rest. In springtime the fields will be bright with flowers, and our psalms will sound the sweeter for the twittering of the birds. When winter comes with its frost and snow, I shall not have to buy fuel, and, whether I sleep or keep vigil, shall be warmer than in town. At least, so far as I know, I shall keep off the cold at less expense. Let Rome keep to itself its noise and bustle, let the cruel shows of the arena go on, let the crowd rave at the circus, let the playgoers revel in the theatres and— for I must not altogether pass over our Christian friends— let the House of Ladies hold its daily sittings.”

Sources

Butler, Alban. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. 12 vols. Ed. David Hugh Farmer and Paul Burns. New full ed., Tunbridge Wells, UK: Burns & Oates and Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1995–2000.

Select Letters of St. Jerome. Jerome, Saint. F.A. Wright. William Heinemann Ltd.; Harvard University Press. London; Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1933.

Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.)

wikipedia.org (various entries)

Jerome making notes.

“The Night” – A poem by Johann W. Goethe

Context: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was one of the most well-known writers during Weimar Classicism and Sturm und Drang periods. He wrote Novels and Poetry but also a number of non-fictional works. He became a celebrity much thanks to the success of his literary debut; a novella called The Sorrows of young Werther (1774). In civil life Goethe was a manager at the theatre in Weimar and a prominent member of the City Council as well. At the age of 16 he went to the University of Leipzig and studied Law. As a student he also discovered a life long passion for Literature. The poem “Die Nacht” (1768) exists in several versions since it’s also a Song (Lied), but with minor variations.

Themes: I’ve translated the poem from German 🙂 and we can discover some themes typical of Romanticism (Heart, Feelings, Nature, Nostalgia). The major theme is undoubtedly the Night itself. Goethe wrote many poems on this theme and is famous for his quote: “‘Night is the other half of life, and the better half.'” Make some attention to the place where the narrator is present – a forest. He’s leaving his hut as the nightly adventure begins. Luna, the Moon is used as a personification here and she’s real. Pay some attention to the use adjectives.

The Night

1768

Gladly I left this hut
My beautiful residence.
And with quiet steps through
This extinct forest.
Luna breaks through the Oaks of the Night
Zephyrs report on their way,
And the bowing birches scatter with tilt
Their most sweetest incense.

Showers, the heart feels
Makes the soul melt
To walk among the bushes in the cooling air
What a beautiful, sweet Night!
Happiness, sensuality can hardly be grasped
And still I will make a Heaven
From a thousand of your Nights
And to my maidservant, one.

img_1155

“Automne” – A poem by Guillaume Apollinaire

Context: Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) was a French poet, writer of short stories and literary Critic who became very popular among Modernists; and he was himself an open spokesman of the Cubists. In 1911 he joined the Puteaux Group, a branch of the Cubist movement soon to be known as the Section d’Or. The opening address of the 1912 Salon de la Section d’Or—the most important pre-World War I Cubist exhibition—was given by Apollinaire. Some call him an early father of Surrealism. Born as Wilhelm Kostrowicki his family had both French, Italian and Polish roots. He lived a short life, enrolled as a soldier in WW1 in which he got wounded and never fully recovered. He died in the Spanish Flu pandemic which took many lives during 1918. Most of his publications including letters can be found on wikisource and wikilivres. If you follow this blog you know I often make references to English Wikipedia. The poem comes from the poetry collection named Alcools.

Themes: In this poem translated as ‘Autumn’ Apollinaire uses an external narrator who focus on a poor farmer’s life and frames his life together with an approaching autumn and the dying summer. He’s also surrounded by a fog which makes him a bit difficult to relate to as he’s working in the field. We cannot see him properly with his oxen. The poem is more like a painting in which Apollinaire refers to colours to help set the mood. The farmer is singing an old folksong about love. His song is the major theme in this short poem. The farmer refers to a true love, a love that is lying, a ring and a heart.


Automne

Dans le brouillard s’en vont un paysan cagneux

Et son bœuf lentement dans le brouillard d’automne

Qui cache les hameaux pauvres et vergogneux
Et s’en allant là-bas le paysan chantonne

Une chanson d’amour et d’infidélité

Qui parle d’une bague et d’un cœur que l’on brise
Oh ! l’automne l’automne a fait mourir l’été

Dans le brouillard s’en vont deux silhouettes grises


Guillaume Apollinaire showing his sharpnel wound. Like many soldiers his wound came from flying metals when a bomb exploded close to him. Photo taken in 1916. He died 2 years later.