Voices of the Epic

A Reading of Contest in Bethlehem
Followed by a Discussion of Epic Poetry

Sun. June 4, 2000, 3-5 P.M.

Andrew J. Parks

ANDREW J. PARKS received his M.Phil. in English Literature from Drew University in 1995. Over the past 10 years, he has written and directed over 30 staged performances, including Before Genesis, a play about the War in Heaven, and Asgard, A Tale of the Norse Gods, a retelling of the ancient Norse myths. For over a decade he served as one of the chief playwrights and directors for the New Jersey Renaissance Kingdom, with audience members numbering in the thousands each year. His study guide on Homer's The Odyssey was published by the Research & Education Association in 1994. He is currently working on a dissertation which explores the Author's narratorial self in Dante's Commedia and Milton's Paradise Lost.

Contest in Bethlehem is a narrative poem written in a Miltonic style. The poem was composed in blank verse and modelled on the pastoral genre, a classical style created by the Greek Theocritus and imitated by Virgil and a host of later poets including John Milton in his poem, Lycidas. Pastoral poetry is set in the idyllic Golden Age and focuses on simple shepherds engaged in a variety of activities, not the least of which is poetic competition. Contest in Bethlehem employs rhetorical and poetic devices derived from centuries of pastoral and epic tradition, including the use of dynamic visual imagery, loftiness of style and tone, streams of alliterative verse, and an intricate layering of narrative voices.

Voices of the Epic is a discussion which attempts to discover the elusive presence of the Author within the narrative layers of epic poetry. The presentation explores the earliest forms of the epic as well as the genre's evolution over the course of five millenia. Each narrator who exists within a textual world shapes his or her material to suit his or her individual telos, or purpose in telling the story. In what ways does this corrupt the storytelling process? In what ways does it enhance the literary experience? In what way is the author connected to the narrative selves found within his or her work? Whose narrative voice can we trust to help us discover the true meaning of an epic work, assuming such a meaning actually exists? Voices of the Epic will take us on a journey through the epic genre in an attempt to better understand this powerful but enigmatic mode of expression.


Contest in Bethlehem

by Andrew J. Parks

THE ARGUMENT

 

Two shepherds, tending their sheep at night, fall into debate about whether Heroism or Love is the greatest source of poetic inspiration. Their argument awakens their fellow shepherds, and Judex, the Judge of Shepherd Poetry, asks the fellows to step forth and explain themselves.

Calliopus, an epic poet, explains that he sought to enlighten Eratus, his companion, about Heroism's precedence over Love. Eratus asserts that Love is indeed the greatest source of poetry. Judex decides that they must settle the matter in poetic competition: each is to sing the song that best represents his case.

Calliopus tells a tale of Hercules at his youth, and how he bested the titan Cronos, then in the guise of a serpent. Eratus' tale concerns Orpheus, who descends into the underworld to free his wife, Euridyce, from the clutches of death.

Both tales are well received, and Judex prefaces his judgment with a statement on the incompatibility of Love and Heroism. He is interrupted by an unknown shepherd youth (really the Angel Gabriel) who quiets Judex, then proves that Love and Heroism may indeed reside together, for the greatest Champion of Love is born that evening in the town of Bethlehem.

The shepherds, excited by this news, race to the scene of this new king's birth. The shepherd boy reveals his divinity and flies upward to join his ecstatic brethren. The narrator, also a shepherd youth, reflects upon the death of the old world, and the birth of the new.

THE POEM

And I remember, as a youth, when once
The braying wind had fin'lly settled down,
I gathered up my flock and brought them to
The fold of Bethlehem. To my surprise,
A host of fellow shepherds had drawn up,
Despite the morning's darkling hour, to th'knoll
With patches brown and green, that shimmeréd
Beneath the flitting glow of th'dim-lit moon.
Upon the high oak seat, bestrewn with leaves,
Sat ancient Judex, Judge of Shepherd Verse,
Who, arbiter and lawful voice among
Our playful band, decided daily who
Should wear victorious laurels o'er his brow.
   Behold, some great contention 'mongst our group
Had raised the men from out their sheltered tents:
Two shepherds sitting bleary by the fire,
Of wolves, all 'ware, not warmed with wine watched they,
But sudden grew to hot debate and proud
Contesting that with forceful volume woke
The others from their happy slumbers deep.
Then one was sent to waken Judex old,
Still snoring haply undisturbed, as did
Dread Polyphemos, drugged by wiles, though soon
To wake bereft of sight, so snored this judge;
Him only could the fierce debate subdue,
For worldly wise those workers weened he was,
And I believed it too, as yet so young.
And so, with baleful glances cast about,
His weathered robes begirt with black rams' wool
And head adorned with serpent skin all shed,
His shepherd's hook entwined with mistletoe,
He, upward gazing at the rising Star
Of Morning, boldly to them raspéd thus:
   What strange and scand'llous feuding have ye brook'd?
The sheep themselves are silent in the wind;
The chilling air of morn doth freeze their throats!
Yet some among you find it fit to fright
Us with your violent stir. Come, come, now say,
What men have brought this quarrel to our home?
Step forth, if ye but dare, and I shall judge.
   So spake the withered justice of our world.
Now proudly strode them forth two noble men,
Both known throughout the fold for deeds, and more,
For words poetic, filled with style and depth.
Calliopus was first, a handsome youth,
Whose furrowed brow bespoke sincerity,
But sparkling fiery eyes betrayed his zeal.
His winding robe, that darkened was and stained
With buffeting from many midnight storms,
Was girded by a golden belt he'd found
Within a cave. Eratus was the oth'r:
His legs were slender stalks, and open bare,
Because his gown was shortened by the rake
Of hungry canine claws, so close he came
To death two days before defending sheep.
The cause of quarrel still lay hidden in
These somber two, until at length one spoke:
   I am Calliopus, as all do know,
And many boys do boast I've brought bright life
And spir't to our happy home. For songs
Of epic legend do I sing, and I
Do not but brag to say I brandish verse
As boldly as the bards that earth has borne.
And do not think that works of war are all
That pique my voice. Besides the shatt'ring thrust
Of swords, and clang of shields, and fire of siege,
And glorious deeds of battle, do I sing
Of grave philosophy of mind and soul,
And how the Will, if strong, shall weather blows
That Passion sends, whose purpose is to smash
Our sturdy walls, well propped with virtues good.
Eratus here doth still prefer to sing
Of that which men call Love, and I, that griev'd
His sorry state, sought fit to satisfy
His lust by sating him with honest Truth.
   So spoke Calliopus most modestly,
But soon opposed by th'others' voice, that said:
Nay, nay, I swear to one and all, believe
You not Calliopus, whose wagging words
Do offer more offense t'th'air than e'er
The howling winds that do beset us round.
I am Eratus; Venus truly doth
Inspire my heart with words of Love, and yet:
The works of Eros are the nobler works!
The liquid, molten passion of true Love
Doth drown the drier heat of bristling War.
Behold this knave, that dares suggest my song
Be changed to war-like notes, that dares imply
That cackling kites the warbling lovebirds' song
Outshine! Delusion mis'rable! O pity:
Calliopus is blinder yet than e'er
My patron shooter of the arrows barbed.
Th'entire sum of all the glories that
This world has rained on War are but a flick'r
Of smoke to th'conflagration spewing forth
The glories that on Love attend. O gods!
   With this, he wept; and so convincing were
His words that men inspired were to weep
Beside the youth. Yet chortled not, nor smiled
Calliopus to mock his show, but frowned
In pity of his comrade's view. For each
Did truly love his foe, I think, and meant
No harm but that which was required to find
The honest Truth. Then Judex closed his eyes,
And, murm'ring softly, spoke unto them thus:
   'Tis true, dear friends, that Love and War do oft
Contend for place within the breasts of men,
But, peace, I pray you still: Shall Heroism
Be measured great'r than Love? Let us not bant'r
With hasty, empty words! Resolve this strife
In fashion apt for this our station proud;
For shepherds since dark ages past have e'er
Found fit their quarrels to decide with Song.
So sing, dear friends! And find within thy souls
The Song which is, as thou dost think, the One
Which is the Greatest Hymn of All, the Song
That best doth serve to represent your case.
   So said, his eyes he opened up again,
Still fixed upon the Rising Star of Morn,
That now its zenith had at last attained,
And Judex smiled. And many cried out in
Delight, for then they knew a Contest would
Be held in Bethlehem that starry morn.
The crowd at once began to stir, and soon,
Wool blankets and fur cloaks were thrown about
The eager shoulders of those anxious men,
Who so desired to see the awesome Duel
That would decide the outcome of the matt'r;
The time of day discour'ged them not at all.
   Eratus and Calliopus began
To pace the meadow, each with careful mind
To choose the Song that best would show the strength
Within his anxious heart. Decision had
Been made t'allow the one that first felt well
Enough to start to do so at his will,
So that his Muse would stay with him, and not
Be lost by chance delay. The first at last
To speak, Calliopus, did ope his mouth,
And filt'ring through his heart these words, he sang:
   Lend Voice, O Singing Muse, to this my bold
And noble Song, that which thou tellest me
Is Greatest of its kind. Sing to me of
The greatest hero, god and man, that bards
Have called strong Hercules, and how, though sad
And tragic were th'events his life possessed,
His were the greatest deeds in all the world.
Infected by the jealous Hera's sins,
He sought redemption through twelve labours harsh.
In noble wise he grappl'd with Nemea's Lion,
And burnt fierce Hydra's ever-growing heads.
To complement these mighty deeds, that man
Accomplished wondrous other acts which Time
Alloweth not my leisure to disclose.
Fulfilling thus these awesome feats of pow'r,
The gods admitted Hercules to heav'n,
To walk both god and man among their ranks:
He'd died three days before by treach'rous hands.
Yet of these great events I will say naught;
The Muse doth sway my voice to other matt'rs.
My tale concerns this half-god's noble birth,
The valiant exploits of an infant child
Beset with death and evil from the first.
Our heav'nly father Zeus affection held
For this our world, and thereby worked his will
Upon a mortal girl, who acquiesced
To holiness, and birthed a godly son
Who'd prove a hero to the common man.
But jealous Cronos and his Titan horde,
Whom father Zeus consigned with thunderbolts
To Hades' raging fires when time was young,
Devised a scheme to taint young Hercules
Before the lad could grow and teach all men
With willful souls Desire to resist.
Intending dark deceit, the evil Lord
Of Titans then transformed his outer shell
To figure serpentine, and snake-like stole
Into the godling's chamber, choosing guile
To tempt his young divinity before
Attempt of outward force. Full craftily
He writhed and wriggled round about the room,
And wrapped his scaly rind about the rod
Supporting th'infant's crib. Then up he wound
His worm-like way and inched his warpéd mass
Full upward, till his flowing flesh fell smooth
Upon the blanket of that babe's warm bed.
Up jerked young Hercules, and then let loose
A childish squeal, not signifying fear,
Of course, but pure delight that he'd been sent
This pliant plaything from the pleasing gods.
Then Cronos, sore disturbed his shape had wrought
No fright upon the child, spoke freely to
The boy's immortal soul that, cognizant
Of godly tongues, well understood the words
That, dripping venom, rasped from serpent's lips.
   Young god, he sputtered then. Why dost thou stay
Among these mortal fools and play the part
Of mewling babe? Your cousin Hermes stole
Ten cattle on his first grand day alive.
And you, six months out of the womb, doth still
Prefer to drool yourself to quiet sleep.
Come out and join us gods, and win yourself
The greatest prize that we have ever sought:
The wine of glorious fame awaits thee still.
   To that young Hercules replied: Dear friend,
Although thy offer something pleaseth me,
I must of course refuse. Wise Zeus hath sent
Me not to win heroic fame alone,
But bids me shine that fame for men of earth.
How then, if I shed my infant flesh
For godly essence pure, am I to bring
About the will of Zeus, and glorify
Humanity through one man's braver deeds?
   Sure Cronos was dismayed by this bold quip.
Recov'ring quickly, though, he next began:
Since thou so loathéd are to flee from men,
Do revel in the pleasures mortal flesh
Can bring. I bid you stretch this earthly shell
Into a man full grown, and taste of grapes,
Not mother's milk. Go feast your senses on
Frail virgin wives, not agéd nurse's coos.
   And with a hearty infant's gleeful laugh
The child answered swift: Dear friend, I must
Admit this new idea brings redd'ning shame
To virgin senses such as mine. But know
That even if your offer had the pow'r
To move my younger parts, I'd yet decline.
Dear Father Zeus wants glory in my name,
And not a host of shameful perfidy.
   O child innocent, then spurt the snake
In hidden fury, I shall offer thee
But one suggestion more to sway your mind
To greatness paralleled by none. Stand up
At once, and wield the godly might that flows
Within your tiny veins. Rise up and call
Upon resources only true gods can.
Enthrall the men of earth and bend them to
Your will; with conqu'ring spir't take the world
And force men into fame, that mortal praise
Will sing your name from Zeus's highest throne
To Hades' lowest deep. Go sieze what's thine!
   But knowing that young Hercules with ease
Withstood his final tempting plea, the snake
With rage leapt for the babe's young fleshy throat,
Hoping to suck his holy blood and thus
Usurp celestial pow'r. But Hercules,
Though infant's limbs alone sustained his might,
Grasped firmly Cronos' slippr'y throat and squeezed
Envenomed breath of life from out his soul
Most vile. The whipping tail flailed wildly round,
And smashed the crib's supports; then hotly down
The young child fell, but still held tight secure
The serpent's nape despite the jarring crash.
And when at last the serpent limp had fall'n,
A dozen servants, wakened by the row,
Beheld the babe triumphant giggling loud.
They kneeling awed then whispered 'mongst themselves
That surely this young boy was son of Zeus.
   Calliopus had finished then, and bowed
While smiling to a host of shepherd cheers.
Never before, they cried, had there been such
A shepherd duel as this! Then silence reigned.
Old Judex from his high seat weakly smiled,
And nodded to Eratus to begin.
Dear friends, said he, I vow by shepherd's love
My woeful Song will not delay you quite
So long as has my comrade's tune. My tale,
I hope, will now but touch your hearts,
And not subdue them with the painful lash
Of penetrating wordiness sublime.
My foe possesses endless breath to sing
(Some shepherds still nudge friends awake now that
His song has reached its consummated end.)
My slender frame doth store but little wind,
And this must needs suffice to sing my hymn.
The invocation is but sweetly short:
My gentle Cupid, son of Love's own source,
The spirit of my words doth follow paths
Determined by your holy shafts of gold;
O let the vision of my soul e'er chase
Those arrows to their final resting end.
E'en if that destination leads my heart
To Gates of dreaded Hades, even still
I shall abandon not the honest quest
For inspiration sacred and profound.
Did Orpheus, whose love had fallen deep
Into the night world's darkest depths, forsake
Euridyce, his lovely maiden fair?
That hapless she, who frolicked gayly through
Her beauteous garden, strayed too far from home.
The forest verdure closed about her form,
And night descended in the woodland depths
Wherein she danced. When starlight fell upon
Her golden head, she knew at once she'd lost
Her way. The woman wept her wat'ry tears
Upon the silent dust, until at length
A serpent saw her plight, and slithered close
Beside her, stinging hard when he was near.
The venom in her veins raced fiercely fast
Throughout her tender frame until she died.
   When Orpheus at last discovered her
Discarded shell, he wept at greatest length:
Some three or four days sat he there beside
Her withering flesh, until at last he spoke:
Euridyce, my own too heavy heart,
What have ye done? When I commanded thee
To stay within the garden confines, didst
Thou think I spoke in vain or without cause?
Of all the paths which thou might tread within
Our wondrous garden fair, that one
Which was forbidden, that did lead
Beyond the garden walls, how could'st thou choose?
Think'st thou I did confine thee for my sport?
Now must I choose: to leave thee in thy plight,
Or else some bolder, vent'rous course to take.
And yet, what choice remains, where Love commands?
Then wait, my fairest dear, Euridyce,
Thy Orpheus doth come to rescue thee.
   Now Orpheus was skilled beyond all men
With soothing words he sang to somber souls.
The lyre also could he strum, they say,
And so with gifts of music did he seek
T'subdue the mighty powers of the deep.
His magic notes brought comfort to the dead,
And no fell guardian sought to bar his way
As he descended low through Tartar's depths.
The boatman gave free passage without coins;
The trinity of heads that fiercely howled
Atop old Cerb'rus' shoulders fell to
A sleepless dream: so was love poetry
Regarded in tenebrous lonesome gloom.
   At last before the darkened splendrous throne
Of Hades and his pale Persephone
Did our love poet stand, and thus begin:
O Lord of Shad'wy Hell and Darkling Queen,
What's mine I've travelled far to claim again,
That maiden fair who, tainted by a snake,
Hath taken your fell keep for her abode.
I pray you judge my right to repossess
My bride Euridyce by this fair song
That states my case most clearly and with care:
You Viper King of Death, that woman whom
You've taken could have lived a life most pure
Above the earth where Sun doth rule the day.
The girl deserved a better lot than death,
For beauty and fair manners all were hers.
She well deserved a better love than you,
Who savors only souls that cease to breathe.
And if you keep her here, the world above
Grows woeful from her loss, for though the Sun
Still shines above, its fairest object dwells
Beneath the sand. The Sun commands you yield
Her up, this maid that is not yours by right.
By treachery she fell below, but now
I bid you let her free, for Sun and Moon
And stars on high demand their jewel returned.
Thus have I come, a sacrifice of sorts,
Down into hellish depths with hope her soul
Most swiftly to redeem. To harrow hell
While wielding words as weapons is my will,
And sieze my prize, Euridyce, at last.
   Melodious waves of sound that wafted from
The strings he plucked with trembling fingers quick
Brought harmony where once discordant strains
Were heard. Enamored to that melody,
The Hellish masters of the dead could not
Help but restore Euridyce at once
To her right lord, fair Orpheus, who proved
That strength of love could move the stubborn gods
When force of arms could ne'er hope to prevail.
   With this, Eratus breathed a sigh of joy,
And many exultations raiséd were
As high as heav'n from earth to night-black clouds.
A score of happy shepherds then did lift
The younger poet up to shoulder height,
So sure were they that he would victor prove.
But like amount of swains remained steadfast
Beside Calliopus, whom many thought
Had far outshone Eratus, yea, for style
And matter both. And then did Judex speak:
   Enough of that, you hardy men, I pray!
Remember that this contest is not judged
By democratic vote, but by mine own
Authority supreme. Need I remind
You all from whence this power I derive?
When eldest of your lot was but a boy
I sat upon this throne; no mortal man
Can claim more days than me. Where years most dwell,
There wisdom also must abide. But soft!
Poetic Genius furnishes my wit
With shrewdness, thus effecting judgment soon.
Now let decision come, for it is known
Throughout the fold, and aye, the world entire,
That Heroism and Love may find no place
Together in the hearts of gods or men.
Where one is fierce, the other gentler sits;
Where one brings joy, the other tragic grief:
Thus light and heavy must the scales be weighed.
My verdict comes at last; and now prepare!
   With this, an anxious hush swept through our ranks,
And naught was heard but empty, wind-filled void.
Then Judex pointed towards the newborn sky,
And fixed his gaze upon his fav'rite star,
The Morning Sentinel that early climbs
The sky, and falls before the rising sun.
His jaw dropped low, as if he made to speak,
But only silence drifted from his mouth.
A subtle tremor shook his form, and then
His features framed a frozen fearful look.
From out the crowd of shepherds strode a boy,
A swain that neither I nor shepherd else
Had ever yet beheld within the fold.
He boldly marched to Judex' high oak seat
And stood there, clenched fists pressed against his sides,
The posture of a king, or prince in arms,
And upward bore his looks with eyes severe.
Old Judex nothing said, but closed his eyes,
Despondent, listless, choked with holy fire.
   Then turning swiftly to our whisp'ring mass,
The boy declaimed with great authority:
Behold, you men of earth, the time has come
To banish from your thoughts this contrast base:
Must Love and Heroism remain apart?
Cannot a lover brave heroic acts,
Nor hero's love gain heaven's merit?
O think'st thou not that love confinéd is
To earthly hearts, nor hero's work to deeds
Of bloody slaught'r and fiery swords unsheathed.
For now a hero walks among the fold
Of all men, kings and swains alike, but not
A hero vain, who wages wars unwise,
But stands a champion of Love, in all
Its majesty divine and purest shape.
E'en now the Morning Star, that earthly heav'ns
Ruled for four millenia dark, has fall'n.
A New Star, burning brighter than the sun,
Has risen on the earth, descended from
The higher heav'ns, so brave in love is he,
That all celestial trappings he has dropped
To save this fizzling mote of sparkling dust.
You who have spoken words that mortal lips
Could never speak without divine consent,
I bid ye go now to the holy place
Where Heaven's King arrives with luster none.
For hidden truths this morning you have known,
But known it not. Now go, and ne'er return,
Beneath the Newest Star your Judge awaits.
   Crooks dropped, and sandles flung, those shepherd men
With children's breasts abandoned tents and sheep;
All mortal joys and woes forgot, despoiled
By Heav'nly light. Before the leaves had settl'd,
An echoed silence filled the space they left.
I saw the boy, then, stand before the throne,
His arms outstretched like branches of a tree,
His head bowed down, in contemplation deep,
Until at last, in peace serene, it lolled.
A wind-breath's pause, and neither boy nor judge
Did stir. I felt a shiver ripple through my frame,
And shed a tear I know not what had brought:
The birth of newness or the death of old.
At once, the garments of the swain in flame
Erupted, and their ashes made a pile
Beneath his feet. Then sweeping gusts from clouds
Unleashed sustained his naked splendour on
The wind. Aloft the gales supported him,
'Till shining light envelopéd his form.
A host of brilliant figures like to him
Appeared and danced upon the ether thin.
They sang their verse unknowable to men,
And touched their mates in holy ecstasy.
   Excluded from celestial spirits' rites,
I turned away. The songs of shepherd men
Resounded from the town beneath the Star,
The Newfound Star of Bethlehem that pierced
The morning skies. The fallen Morning Star,
Its place usurped, did flicker finally,
Reflecting shadowed light on Judex' face.
So many years he ruled those peasant men,
And now lay dead, eyes clasped forever shut.
My wandering steps withdrew me from that sight,
And from the town rejoicing festive bliss.
Before me died the world that was, its close
Secured by earth's new lord, triumphant king;
With tears of joy and dread I wept its end.
Departing shadows, silent, slink away;
They faint before the coming shepherd judge
Who leads them from their night into his day.

F I N I S

 


Contest in Bethlehem is © 1993 Andrew J. Parks. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of the author.