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The Order of the Universe

Posted On October 15, 2015 | 11:18 am | by lainw | Permalink
The Poetic Works of Bernardus Silvestris in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

In 1147, Bernardus Silvestris—a poet, philosopher, and teacher who lived in Tours in present-day France—finished a strange and beautiful work of literature that rivalled in length some of the best and oldest books he had encountered in a lifetime of reading. He called his work, composed of alternating chapters of verse and prose, the Cosmographia (roughly translated, “a depiction of the order of the universe”), a title that conveys the daunting extent of its author’s ambitions. Bernardus wanted nothing less than to encompass all of creation as he and his contemporaries understood it—theology and astronomy, geography and biology, botany and anatomy—in a single enormous work of art. To borrow T. S. Eliot’s phrase, he wanted to “squeeze the universe into a ball.”

The result is a wild allegorical tour of the entire universe. The cosmos is seen principally through the eyes of Nature, personified as a wide-eyed and benevolent goddess who explores the order imposed on primal chaos by Noys, the mind of God. First, Nature roams the world forged by Noys—its mountains and rivers, its plants and animals—and then tours the heavens, which are represented by a sequence of deities from pagan myth. Finally, Noys charges Nature and her fellow goddesses Physis and Urania with the task of creating humankind, a process illustrated in surprisingly sensual language for a poem that was once recited to Pope Eugene III (“Touch campaigns in bed, serves the cause of tender love, and is fond of slyly exploring the smooth belly below the modest breast, or the soft thigh of a virginal body . . .”). For generations, readers have been unsure what to make of Bernardus. Is he a free spirit smuggling vestiges of paganism into Christianity? Or is he a consummate literary propagandist bending myth to serve the Church’s cosmology? The Cosmographia is a vibrant and strange work that deserves a place in literary history next to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound—both poems of impasto strokes that animate an elaborate, fiery philosophy whose contours are no longer familiar to us.

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library’s new edition of the Poetic Works of Bernardus Silvestris—edited and translated by Winthrop Wetherbee, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, at Cornell University—brings the Cosmographia together with Bernardus’s three other extant poems in a single volume that presents the original Latin alongside an English prose translation. It is the first new edition of his poetry in more than two decades, and the first ever that is aimed specifically at a general audience. It is also an ideal book for anyone who has ever puzzled over the question of how the culture and literature of the ancient world—Plato, Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid—transformed over a millennium into the first blooms of vernacular literature from writers like Dante, Petrarch, and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Wetherbee says that he got hooked on Bernardus just after graduating from college, by reading Helen Waddell’s lively book, The Wandering Scholars: “When I read her chapter on Bernardus, I was sort of like the king in a fairy tale who falls in love with a woman that he’s never seen—I decided that Bernardus was great! I wanted to marry him. And he was just as great as she said.” Later, as a graduate student in the 1960s, Wetherbee translated the poet’s works for $2.09 per hour. Wetherbee calls Bernardus “a pure stylist,” the literary star of his age: “He’s really unique in the quality of his writing within his time. He’s more like Lucretius than he is like any other twelfth-century poet.” The Cosmographia, at its best, flowers with love for the abundance of the natural world, rather like the poetic catalogs of Virgil, John Keats, or Walt Whitman; Bernardus’s verse soars in embroidering the names of the things he lists. “In the expanses of the air the winged creatures dance about,” he starts, “but a good number never abandon familiar waters: the white gull, which flies before the lunar surge of the incoming sea, and follows the waters as they withdraw again; the densely feathered bittern and the long-legged heron; the diver, glutted with fish, and the duck, foolishly bold; the swan, who alone senses the terms on which its life is lived, and goes out singing in defiance of death.”

On top of its beauty, Bernardus’s poetry is crucial to understanding how the ancient world of ideas turned into the modern world. The great scholar of medieval literature Ernst Robert Curtius wrote of Cosmographia, “It is a link in the ‘golden chain’ which connects late Paganism with the Renaissance of the twelfth century.’” Wetherbee points out that Bernardus’s defining framework for comprehending the universe was built on Plato’s Timaeus, the only work of Plato that survived into the Middle Ages in Western Europe: “Bernardus knew as much of ancient philosophy as it was possible to know in his day, when Plato was limited to just one dialogue and Aristotle was only gradually being translated from Arabic.” (The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library will publish Calcidius’s influential Latin translation of Timaeus in Spring 2016.) Bernardus was alive to the full range of Latin writings still surviving, including those of Cicero, Ovid, and Virgil—and there are even faint echoes in his language of poets he couldn’t possibly have read, like Lucretius, who had been lost or suppressed.

“What does it avail Silva, mother of all, that her birth preceded all others, if she is deprived of light, abounds only in darkness, cut off from her fulfillment—if, finally, in this wretched condition, her countenance is such as to frighten her very creator?” Nature asks of Noys in the Cosmographia’s opening lines, imploring her to impose order on formless matter. In Wetherbee’s book Platonism and Poetry in the Twelfth Century, he finds in this speech echoes of Venus’ plea in Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Heroides, the Vulgate Psalms and Philosophy’s prayer in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. (The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library publishes the Psalms and the Old English translation of Boethius.) Wetherbee explains: “The continuity of the Middle Ages with the ancient world is really what I’ve been trying to demonstrate in all of my scholarship . . . It’s demonstrable that Bernardus was an excellent classicist, that he was clearly a very highly educated man.”

The Cosmographia points forward in literary history, as well. The idea of an enormous allegorical poem taking the shape of a tour of the cosmos, framed around visits to the supernatural beings who live throughout it, should seem familiar: it is the basic structure taken up by Dante a century and a half later. Parts of Nature’s voyage through the stars are evoked in the Divine Comedy and even rival the haunting clarity of its language, as when she suddenly encounters

a numberless throng, a mob of souls clustered about the boundary of Cancer; the faces of all were such as one sees at a funeral, and they were shaken by a kind of sobbing. And certainly they who were about to descend, pure and simple as they were, from splendor into shadow, from heaven to the kingdom of Pluto, from eternal life to that of the body, grew terrified at the clumsy and blind fleshly habitation which they saw prepared for them.

The Cosmographia is an important work for understanding the intellectual and literary traditions on top of which stood not just Dante, but many of the other figures of the Renaissance. Together with the writings of Bernardus’s student Alan of Lille (also published by the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library), “their poems became more or less classic works,” Wetherbee explains:

They became part of the canon along with classical poetry. So [Giovanni] Boccaccio had his own copy of Cosmographia, which he had written out with his own hands, and the manuscript still survives in Florence. And the Platonists of the fifteenth century, [Marsilio] Ficino and so forth, knew these poems. Edmund Spenser talks in the Mutabilitie Cantos about Chaucer’s allusions to Alan of Lille in the Parlement of Foules. They were humanists, and they contributed to the evolution of humanism as it ran through the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.

Bernardus was also an ethical thinker, as shown in the other poems in this volume: “The Astrologer,” “The Twins,” and “The Ungrateful Pauper,” each of which poses an ethical or legal conundrum (or controversia) to be solved by an enterprising student of rhetoric. (The latter two poems, though likely Bernardus’s, are of uncertain authorship.) Though barely known, if at all, by contemporary philosophers, these poems strongly resemble thought experiments in modern ethics like the notorious trolley problem. In “The Twins,” the audience is asked to consider whether a father of two dying twins is right to sacrifice one in order to save the other, and in “The Astrologer,” a Roman soldier who learns he is doomed to kill his own father plans to commit suicide to avoid his fate. “I think that the poetry’s kind of fatalism was fascinating to people . . . The whole question of the necessity of suicide in order to prevent murder was a rather striking thing to choose as the subject of a poem,” Wetherbee says.

There is very little contemporary poetry about the trolley problem, or physics verses about the cosmic microwave background. One of the virtues of Bernardus for the modern reader—even one completely unconcerned with the history of ideas—is a sense of recovering past poetic practices and feeling out the range of what poetry was in a different age and language. “The subject matter remains the same, though its form pass away, and a new form only gives this matter a new name,” Bernardus writes. Almost nine centuries later, the form he imposed on his matter may yet help us see the subject of our own age’s songs a little more clearly.