23 July 2014

Pavane for a Dead Princess: Part Ten

Text of the 1433 poem to Cleofe, in Marciana Gr Z 533 (coll. 778) f. 48b,
a collection of personal documents put together by Bessarion.  Photo, John Burke.

I have written about this poem in the past, and for a few this entry may be repetitive, but it is an important poem to me and, I think, important historically. When Cleofe Malatesta Palaiologina died in childbirth "the shattering of a precious crystal," said Cheilas, on Good Friday of 1433, her husband Theodoros was devastated. Testimony from his friends -- Gemistos, Bessarion, Pepagomenos -- gives a portrait of a man completely incapacitated by grief. But at some time in that first month of her absence, he constructed a love poem to her, bringing together passion and loss in a structure informed by his own scholarship, and by the new world she had opened to him.

Although, my dearest, we were once united,
being one flesh, the word of God claims
that it is better now to be together in the spirit,
you, living in thought, looking down from Heaven
upon my life, my words, my ways, and thought,
seeing all clearly as it is your right,
I, alas, torn apart, living in pain,
calling out for you with scalding tears,
for me, one thing is left, one good thing, song.

And so, portraying you in this image,
I have put myself beside you in every sense
wishing to be united in a third form of union.
so as to quench the terrible fire of longing
and to empty out the agony from my soul.

But, you who have died but live with God, deservedly,
when in the same tomb necessity brings
my bones together with yours in the fourth way
then, showing me what lies beyond the five senses
unite with me in the fifth and greater way
to share in delight and in the sight of God
my courage lies with you, who possess and indeed
give me, as my fellow-poet, this song.

Cleofe, his fellow-poet, made it possible for him to write. Before he was able to work, he was driven back in his grief to a poem she had showed him, one her father had written when her own mother died in childbirth.  It is written in the tradition of the family friend Petrarch:

The holy lady is dead, who used to hold
my spirit with hers, quiet and content;
Now she lives in heaven, and I in torment
am left, another man from what I was:

     not man, but brute, so that I should have
followed her body, life extinguished,
never to leave the side of her tomb
but burned myself where her heart lies.

     Then perhaps my soul might follow her
in celestial triumph, where all live
eternally by divine power.

    Yet if I with all my force were to be kept
from following her, at least
my body would be buried with her sacred bones

The fifth line -- "non huom ma bruto" -- and its verse described his condition to himself. Pepagomenos may have given him opium to calm him, and the ideas of "brute" and "drug" may have driven his tangles of thought to the Theocritean idyll about the brute, Cyclops, grieving for the loss of a lady:

There is no other drug for love . . . nor salve, nor poultice,
except the Muses, and this is something sweet and gentle
for men, yet it is not easy to discover it.

And this was then the crystal about which his poem grew.   Several things are happening in his poem.  The first, perhaps the least important is that there are two bits of information about imperial lives in Mistra.  For one, he expected to be buried in the same tomb with her at the palace chapel of Ag. Sophia.  For another, he had arranged for a double portrait to be painted over the tomb.

Theodoros may originally have set out to structure the poem on the five senses, a reasonable Byzantine and Renaissance approach, paralleling the senses to five ways in which he and Cleofe might achieve union.  He managed Touch, Sight, and Hearing, before he wisely gave up on Taste and Smell, and realized that he had to go beyond the senses, yet, if this what what he had planned, there is no sense of incompleteness of intent.

He enumerates forms of union, beginning with the union of one flesh, a union of which he had been frighted for the first six years of legal marriage, and a union which had clearly brought him joy.  He tests the idea that God's will for a spiritual union might be better, a second form of union, but the great distance between Cleofe in Heaven and him on earth reduces him to scalding tears -- tears only too familiar to those of us who have survived the loss of a partner.  But the idea of song, of poetry, remains.

He now has a portrait of her, of the two of them together, a third form of union which has not brought the comfort he expected, and he does anticipate an eventual burial with her, a forth form which he knows is beyond their senses.

There is a fifth way to find union, the ultimate union in a shared delight in the presence of God, a Dantean expression of the beatific vision, to which Cleofe must have introduced him in their shared examination of poetry.  It is a rare poet who can bring the Cyclops into the Paradisio, but Theodoros concludes with Cleofe as sharer and Muse -- 
ξυνεργὸς -- in this work of song -- μέλος

The original languages of these poems will be found here.  The translations from the Greek are by Pierre A. MacKay.

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