Momus, Critic of the Gods

Momus is the Greek god of satire. To me he is an obscure yet fascinating figure. You have to admire a minor god who gets kicked out of Olympus for constantly mocking the immortals. He calls Zeus a violent god and a horny womanizer, and tells Aphrodite that her sandals squeak and she talks too much. I always wanted to find the god of comedy, and it seems I’ve found him. Unfortunately, he has a dark side as well, being subject to accusations of unfair criticism and envy. He certainly sounds like a comedian.

Sophocles, the famous Greek tragedian, wrote a satyr play called Momos, now almost entirely lost. Satyr plays “featured choruses of satyrs… and were rife with mock drunkenness, brazen sexuality (including phallic props), pranks, sight gags, and general merriment.” What fun! It’s nice to see that Sophocles can lighten the mood a bit and offer some bawdy, burlesque comedy. This is the same playwright who horrified us with the story of Oedipus, who if you recall, inadvertently murdered his father, married his mother, and stabbed his own eyes out.

Let us end with a fine tale about Momus:

“According to an ancient legend, the first man was made by Jupiter, the first bull by Neptune, and the first house by Minerva. Upon completion of their labors, a dispute arose as to which had completed the most perfect work. They agreed to appoint Momus as judge and abide by his decision. Momus, however, being very envious of the handicraft of each, found fault with all. He first blamed the work of Neptune because he had not made the horns of the bull below his eyes so he might better see where to strike. He then condemned the work of Jupiter, because he had not placed the heart of man on the outside, that everyone might read the thoughts of the evil disposed and take precautions against the intended mischief. And lastly, he inveighed against Minerva because she had not contrived iron wheels in the foundation of her house, so its inhabitants might more easily remove if a neighbor proved unpleasant. Jupiter, indignant at such inveterate fault-finding, drove him from his office of judge, and expelled him from the mansions of Olympus.”

— from Aesop’s Fables, “Jupiter, Neptune, Minerva and Momus”; Collins Classics edition.

Momus or Momos (μῶμος) was in Greek mythology the personification of satire, mockery, censure; a god of writers and poets; a spirit of evil-spirited blame and unfair criticism. His name is related to μομφή, meaning ‘blame’ or ‘censure’. He is depicted in classical art as lifting a mask from his face. — Wikipedia (the main source of information for this post).

“Muses bright and Muses pale;
Sombre Saturn, Momus hale,
Laugh and sigh, and laugh again,
Oh! The sweetness of the pain!”

– From Keats’ poem, Welcome Joy, Welcome Sorrow

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Keats – On Joy and Sorrow

Fragment: Welcome Joy, and Welcome Sorrow

“Under the flag
Of each his faction, they to battle bring
Their embryo atoms.”
Milton

Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow,
Lethe’s weed, and Hermes’ feather,
Come to-day, and come to-morrow,
I do love you both together!
I love to mark sad faces in fair weather,
And hear a merry laugh amid the thunder;
Fair and foul I love together;
Meadows sweet where flames burn under;
And a giggle at a wonder;
Visage sage at Pantomime;
Funeral and steeple-chime;
Infant playing with a skull;
Morning fair and storm-wreck’d hull;
Night-shade with the woodbine kissing;
Serpents in red roses hissing;
Cleopatra, regal drest,
With the aspics at her breast;
Dancing Music, Music sad,
Both together, sane and mad;
Muses bright and Muses pale;
Sombre Saturn, Momus hale,
Laugh and sigh, and laugh again,
Oh! The sweetness of the pain!
Muses bright and Muses pale,
Bare your faces of the veil,
Let me see, and let me write
Of the day, and of the night,
Both together, – let me slake
All my thirst for sweet heart-ache!
Let my bower be of Yew,
Interwreath’d with Myrtles new,
Pines, and Lime-trees full in bloom,
And my couch a low grass tomb.

This poem, composed in 1818, was not published during Keats’ lifetime. I’ve also found it titled “A Song of Opposites.”

Keats opens with a misquotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The scene is from Book II, lines 899-901. Satan confronts Sin and Death, who guard the Gates of Hell, only to find that Sin is his daughter, and Death is his son. After Sin unlocks the nine gates, they gaze upon Chaos, depicted as a roiling, clashing mix of elements.

Before their eyes in sudden view appear [ 890 ]
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable Ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, Ancestors of Nature, hold [ 895 ]
Eternal Anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless Wars, and by confusion stand.
For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce
Strive here for Mastery, and to Battle bring
Their embryon Atoms; they around the flag [ 900 ]
Of each his faction, in their several Clans…

Lethe — one of the rivers of Hades, the Greek underworld. Here is Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book II, in which he describes the five rivers of hell, ending with a description of Lethe:

Far off from these a slow and silent stream,
Lethe the River of Oblivion rules
Her watery Labyrinth, whereof who drinks,
Forthwith his former state and being forgets, [ 585 ]
Forgets both joy and grief, pleasure and pain.

“Lethe’s weed, and Hermes’ feather” — “The contrast is between dull obliviousness and mercurial sharpness” – Oxford World’s Classics edition footnote. Hermes is the swift and clever messenger of the gods in Greek mythology (known as Mercury by the Romans).

night-shade — Following the pattern of the poem, Keats is likely referring to deadly nightshade, or belladonna, a highly poisonous plant. According to Wikipedia: “Most parts of the plant, its leaves, its berries are known to be very poisonous. Children have died from eating as little as three berries. One leaf contains enough poison to kill an adult. The root usually contains the most poison.”

wood-bine –commonly called honeysuckle; a flowering plant.

aspic — obsolete spelling of asp

asp — Anglicized form of aspis, the name used in classical antiquity for a venomous snake, probably the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje). The asp was the symbol of royalty in Egypt, and its bite was used for the execution of criminals in Greco-Roman times. Cleopatra is said to have killed herself with an asp. (Although this is disputed by a German scholar, who argues that she opted for a more effective method of suicide.)

Death of Cleopatra

Death of Cleopatra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Momus — God of Satire. Momus is so interesting that I’m going to have to post about him.

Hale — having exceptional health and vigor

Wanted: a poem celebrating life-long monogamy

“For a man to be a poet he must be in love, or miserable.”  – Lord Byron

I defy you, dear reader, to find one poem by a major poet — one poem — that celebrates lifelong monogamy. Hallmark anniversary cards do not count. Why is there such a yawning void when it comes poems addressing this subject? Perhaps because poets understand the transitory nature of love more fully than most. Poets celebrate love, not love’s longevity. Poetry will help you woo your woman, but after that… good luck.

Please understand, I support marriage, as I support modern civilization. That doesn’t mean it isn’t problematical for a whole host of reasons. And I’m not a complete cynic. When I see old couples dancing, it makes me believe. Couples can love each other, with mutual respect, with rewarding emotional initimacy and affection, for many years. But love — passion and giddiness — you’re not going to retain. The best you can hope for is a warm glow that flares up now and again on rare occasions — and that’s if you’re compatible and properly devoted.

But enough of what I think. Let’s hear what Lord Byron has to say on the topic. He slept with quite a number of married women, so he knows what he’s talking about. I give you two stanzas from Canto III, from his best work, Don Juan:

V.

‘Tis melancholy, and a fearful sign
Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
That Love and Marriage rarely can combine,
Although they both are born in the same clime;
Marriage from Love, like vinegar from wine —
A sad, sour, sober beverage — by Time
Is sharpened from its high celestial flavour
Down to a very homely household savour.

VIII.

There’s doubtless something in domestic doings
Which forms, in fact, true Love’s antithesis;
Romances paint at full length people’s wooings,
But only give a bust of marriages;
For no one cares for matrimonial cooings,
There’s nothing wrong in a connubial kiss:
Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife,
He would have written sonnets all his life?

connubial = of or relating to the married state : conjugal <connubial relations>

Coming soon… who is Petrarch?

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Byron Spends the Night with Spanish Ladies

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage continues… Spain is beset by war, and Harold is on his way to Seville (Sevilla). I recommend first reading the stanzas and going back a second time to enjoy my excessive commentary.

XLV.

Full swiftly Harold wends his lonely way
Where proud Sevilla triumphs unsubdued:
Yet is she free? the Spoiler’s wished-for prey!
Soon, soon shall Conquest’s fiery foot intrude,
Blackening her lovely domes with traces rude.
Inevitable hour! ‘Gainst fate to strive
Where Desolation plants her famished brood
Is vain, or Ilion, Tyre might yet survive,
And Virtue vanquish all, and Murder cease to thrive

Ilion = Ilos was the founder of Illium or Illion, also known as Troy, which of course was destroyed by the Greeks.

Tyre = An ancient seaport. Despite being an island city fortified with walls, Alexander the Great managed to conquer it in a siege in 332 B.C. He built a causeway allowing him to bring his catapults (ballistas) within firing range.

XLVI.

But all unconscious of the coming doom,
The feast, the song, the revel here abounds;
Strange modes of merriment the hours consume,
Nor bleed these patriots with their country’s wounds:
Nor here War’s clarion, but Love’s rebeck sounds;
Here Folly still his votaries inthralls;
And young-eyed Lewdness walks her midnight rounds:
Girt with the silent crimes of Capitals,
Still to the last kind Vice clings to the tott’ring walls.

I’m sure other egregious anecdotes from history can attest to this unfortunate phenomenon: elites party while their countrymen die in war.

More trumpeting

More trumpeting (Photo credit: ianbckwltr)

clarion = a clarion is a medieval trumpet. As the familiar adjective, it means:  “brilliantly clear <her clarion top notes>; also : loud and clear <a clarion call to action>.

Detail from "Virgin among Virgins" (...

Detail from “Virgin among Virgins” (1509), by Gerard David (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

rebeck = a rebeck or rebec is a medieval, three-stringed instrument. See angel.

votaries = devotees / admirers / worshippers

inthralled = enthralled

In “The Making of the Poets, Byron and Shelley in Their Time” by Ian Gilmour, there is a great chapter describing the details of Byron’s grand tour, which, thanks to its juicy details, serves as the equivalent of a “VH1 – Behind the Pilgrimage” special. Here’s what happened in Seville:

“Owing to ‘the Grand Junta being settled here’, Hobhouse recorded, Seville had ‘30,000 more than ordinary inhabitants’, so he, Byron and the servants ended up ‘all in one little room’ in the house of two attractive Spanish ladies. From them, Byron soon found the ‘reserve [was] not the characteristic of … Spanish Belles’, who were ‘form’d for all the witching arts of love’. The night before he left, one of them, who was shortly to be married, invited Byron to ‘come to bed to’ her, an invitation made all the more enticing, presumably, by Byron’s overcrowded bedroom. But the lady wanted his ring as well, which he refused to give her. The resulting discord was perhaps part of the reason why Byron did not precede her future husband to bed. Although a few months later he wrote in Childe Harold that ‘Brisk confidence still best with woman copes’, another part of it may have been that never having made love to a lady of his own class — in that very limited sense he was still a virgin — Byron got stage fright. In any case he accepted a three-foot lock of the lady’s hair while rejecting the rest of her. Keeping quiet about the ring to his mother, he cheerfully told her that his ‘virtue’ had induced him to decline the lady’s invitation, an assertion which may have raised Catherine’s eyebrows.”

XLVII.

Not so the rustic—with his trembling mate
He lurks, nor casts his heavy eye afar,
Lest he should view his vineyard desolate,
Blasted below the dun hot breath of War.
No more beneath soft Eve’s consenting star
Fandango twirls his jocund castanet:
Ah, Monarchs! could ye taste the mirth ye mar,
Not in the toils of Glory would ye fret;
The hoarse dull drum would sleep, and Man be happy yet!

“the dun hot breath of War” – Dun is a word not commonly heard in the United States. It has several meanings, but to dun is to demand payment, in a persistent, pestering way. My guess is that here dun means pestering / plaguing; in the sense that war constantly demands payment in lives.

Eve = evening

Fandango = a Spanish dance, here personified. The dance is accompanied by guitars and castanets.

jocund = cheerful; merry; gay; blithe; glad

castanet = “either of a pair of concave pieces of wood held in the palm and clicked together, usually to accompany dancing” [dictionary.com]

XLVIII.

How carols now the lusty muleteer?
Of Love, Romance, Devotion is his lay,
As whilome he was wont the leagues to cheer,
His quick bells wildly jingling on the way?
No! as he speeds, he chants “Vivā el Rey!”
And checks his song to execrate Godoy,
The royal wittol Charles, and curse the day
When first Spain’s queen beheld the black-eyed boy,
And gore-faced Treason sprung from her adulterate joy.

Muleteer = one who drives mules; pronounced with three syllables. lay= song

execrate = to curse.

Goya's Manuel Godoy, Duke of Alcudia, Prince o...

Goya’s Manuel Godoy, Duke of Alcudia, Prince of the Peace, 1801. Godoy was Prime Minister of Spain during the 1808 Napoleonic invasion of Spain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Godoy = a most hated man! Byron, in his notes writes, “It is to this man that the Spaniards universally impute the ruin of their country.”

wittol = a man who knows of his wife’s infidelity and puts up with it, in this case, King Charles (Carlos)

Viva La Rey = “Long Live the King” / King Ferdinand the VII.

I’m going to have to leave it there for now, owing to the fact that developments in the Peninsular War are more complicated that I expected. I need to do a little more research.