Monday, February 4, 2013

Ode on a Circus Animal

I first encountered the work of David Grene, translator of my copy of Prometheus Bound and co-editor of the University of Chicago Press edition of the Complete Greek Tragedies, when I was in high school. We were assigned to read Oedipus the King, by Sophocles, in the long-lived Grene translation.

I didn’t know it at the time, but one day, I would be a student at the College of the University of Chicago, Grene’s stomping grounds. He was already an emeritus by this time (some fifteen years ago), and as far as I had heard, he spent most of his time on his dairy farm in Ireland, and taught the occasional graduate seminar class when he was in Chicago.

At the beginning of one quarter midway through my college career, I noticed in the time schedule that he was teaching a class, entitled simply, “Poetry.” It was a graduate class, every Friday, for three hours from 6PM to 9PM. I thought, here is a chance to learn from one of the giants of academia, a guy who knows more about Greek tragedy than probably anyone in the world, a guy who probably did his undergraduate work side by side with Euripides. I imagined all the brilliant insights he would teach me about poetry.

So I gave him a call.

On the other end of the line, David Grene sounded like a rusty saw going through tree bark. I knew he was old, but he sounded like someone who had actually sailed with Odysseus or berated Oedipus at the head of a Chorus. It was charming. And confounding.

I asked if I could add his class, despite my lowly undergraduate status. He sounded like he was inviting me to come. Certainly his manner of speaking was encouraging and surprisingly energetic, even if I could barely comprehend the words. And then he said something that perplexed me for the whole week before I attended his class:

“(garble garble) circus animals (grumble grumble)!”

Circus animals. Everything else was static, but those two words came in loud and clear. Circus animals. What on earth was he talking about? Lord forgive me, I thought maybe he was slightly senile. I asked him to repeat himself, and once again, I heard “circus animals,” the words seemingly spat out from a coffee grinder.

“Okay. Thank you very much,” I said.

That Friday, I went to his class. I had never seen a picture of the man, but I don’t think any picture could have adequately encapsulated him.

He was large, not very tall, but he had something of the look of a portly professional wrestler. He wore faded blue overalls, and his shaggy gray hair grew down past his shoulders in a wild profusion of wisps. His eyes smiled behind a clutch of skin and brows.

He was old. I could well believe that this was Very Old McDonald just arrived from his farm in rural Illinois. Sitting in his chair, he didn’t look like he’d be able to stand up without help. I didn’t expect this to be a peripatetic exercise, and it wasn’t.

I didn’t say a word all through the class. I thought any student who spoke would be mercilessly hushed for stealing oxygen away from this man who resembled a revivified Sophocles, brought back for just one evening to sing his mysteries.

I suppose I need not have worried so much. As far as I knew, most of the other students were graduates, but seasoned though they were, they were much in the same position as me. They had come for a curiosity, a revered name in the academy, and once there, they really didn’t know what to say to him without sounding, not stupid, but simply young. I mean, what could anyone say that David Grene hadn’t heard a thousand times before? There were one or two graduate students there who were clearly Grene’s acolytes and/or personal valets, but aside from these lieutenants, everyone else seemed to sit with a mixture of subdued delight and hushed discomfiture.

At the time, as a budding English major with little to recommend me beyond the ability to attend every class, the thought of spending three hours every Friday night in a room with David Grene and about fifteen graduate students, frankly, terrified me. Too ignorant to see past the legend, yet incapable of understanding the man, I left that night, never to return.

I wish I could say that even this one class with Grene was a revelation, but it wasn’t. I had hoped for his words to enlighten me, but I’ve forgotten them. All I remember is the overalls, the hair, the voice like a storm-beaten crag.

That, and the circus animals. It turns out that on the phone, he was informing me of the reading for the week: a poem called “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” by William Butler Yeats. And here I was imagining a man plagued by dementia, a once brilliant professor, now a veritable mummy drooling bits of animal crackers out of his stroke-addled mouth.

And yet, this somehow makes sense when we read the poem itself, wherein Yeats sees himself as “a broken man,” ambling through a literary gallery of the now-departed “circus animals” that were his former glories, bemoaning his lack of a new “theme” in his “old age.” This is one of Yeats’s last poems, published in 1939, and in it, he reflects on three of his previous works, verses steeped in mythology, heroism, and romance. He seems to conclude that however much he loved the fantastical artistic worlds he had created, and however airy and elusive they seem now, they were born out of real emotions that are not lost to him: “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Though I never really knew David Grene, perhaps it is almost as well that I know him through his work, which continues to teach me after his death. His translation of Oedipus the King was (along with Shakespeare’s Othello) one of the treasures of my literary adolescence, and his Prometheus Bound has brought me back into the lavish yet stern bosom of Greek drama. A little way into his Herodotus, it is quickly becoming one of my favorite books. And now, all these years later, I come to Yeats’s poem, and I see why Grene thought it worth reading and teaching. 

I sing thee, Prometheus: fire-bringer, light-bearer, teacher. 

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