Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Thralls of Circe Climb Parnassus

Read "The Thralls of Circe Climb Parnassus" at The Eldritch Dark:

This sonnet from Clark Ashton Smith (CAS) was originally titled in manuscript "Swine and Azaleas".  

It is of course derived from Book X of Homer's Odyssey, where Circe uses her magic and her cunning to transform some of Odysseus' shipmates into swine.  Part of the tragedy of this episode is that those suffering from Circe's enchantments retain their memories and their intellects:

Which eat, she touch’d them with a rod that wrought
Their transformation far past human wonts;
Swine’s snouts, swine’s bodies, took they, bristles, grunts,
But still retain’d the souls they had before,
Which made them mourn their bodies’ change the more.

The lines quoted above are from George Chapman's translation (1614) of the Odyssey.

In CAS' poem, he imagines that some of those former men have escaped their enclosure, and found their way to the slopes of the mountain that was sacred to Dionysus, the god associated with all the best things in life.  

Interestingly, CAS seems to have a different view of the misfortune of the transfigured seamen; for example, their new forms do not prevent them from experiencing floral aromas:    

High-rearing on their miry haunches, where
Some grassy-bottomed tarn had sunk and died,
A black hog and his mate stood side by side,
Sniffing those elfin blossoms cool and fair.

These renegade swine-men are "As those who haply seek for husks and swill / Amid the flowers upon Parnassus blown."  Given that the legend makes it clear that these creatures are fully aware of their former existence as humans, CAS seems to be suggesting that they are in fact content in their new form, now that they have escaped captivity and are free to roam in the realm of Dionysus.  

It's a ponderous conclusion for a work from the Bard of Auburn, but perhaps in keeping with his enthusiasm for hedonistic pleasures and the rejection of many of the social norms of his era.  

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