The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

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Lars Gustafsson’s “Lines for the Prince of Venosa,” as translated by Yvonne L. Sandstroem, is a narrative poem of approximately 875 words. The poem is written in free verse with irregular line and stanza lengths. Although the predominant configuration is two-line stanzas with occasional one-line stanzas for emphasis, the five parenthetical stanzas are more irregular, varying from one to eight lines. The unpredictable line and stanza patterns reinforce the free-flowing nature of the narrative in which the speaker describes an aimless journey through time and space. Although the poem begins in November, 1971, in Sweden, it quickly moves to an encounter with nineteenth century composers Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler in Egypt’s Sinai desert. During the course of his travels, the speaker meets, in person and in daydream, a number of well-known historical figures, but he never encounters the poem’s title character, Prince Venosa.

The narrator of “Lines for the Prince of Venosa” is clearly intended to be the poet himself. This point is made clear when the speaker, a writer, complains about a newspaper review that reads: “Gustafsson, above all, is unnecessarily learned.” This offhand comment about Gustafsson’s writing reinforces the whimsical tone of the entire narrative. The poem begins by dismissing “Robinson,” apparently Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, because “he was nothing but a character in an adventure story.” Next, the narrator finds himself in Gothenburg (Göteborg in Swedish), the second-largest city in Sweden, talking with people who do not “understand” him. Then he travels to the university town of Lund, where a supposedly learned professor prophesies a series of events that actually occurred years before.

Next is a trip to the Sinai with Mahler and Bruckner, who are pictured as wearing “soulful little eyeglass frames.” The two composers accompany the speaker on a tour of the monastery of Saint Catherine, reputed to be the oldest inhabited Christian monastery, in Egypt’s Sinai desert. The tour prompts a bizarre discussion on the distinction between the way that ordinary people are buried and the way that bishops are buried in Saint Catherine’s monastery. While commoners’ bones are sorted by body parts, bishops are buried with their bones intact. Bruckner theorizes that on Judgment Day the bishops must “pull themselves together,” and Mahler agrees that they must “get on their legs quickly to take command.”

With no clear transition, the narrator finds himself back in Sweden riding a train to Karlstad for a literary reading where he is to share the lectern with two writers of primitive verse: an old Lapp woman and a football player. During the train ride, the speaker fantasizes a meeting between Jack Kerouac, American hero of the Beat generation, and “a little psychiatrist in gold-frame glasses,” apparently Sigmund Freud, who died in 1939. The narrator pictures Kerouac getting the best of Freud in their discussion concerning the differences between the definitions of neuroses and inhibitions by Kerouac’s suggestion that they drop their trousers on the count of three.

During the uncomfortable literary reading, the narrator fantasizes that he spots in the audience Maria d’Avalos, the beautiful wife of the Prince of Venosa. When he meets her again at the bar of a local hotel, the speaker is so struck with Donna Maria’s beauty that he blurts out a question about the young woman’s husband. He remembers too late that the sixteenth century composer had ordered his wife and her lover murdered. However, Donna Maria’s graceful, noncommittal reply about her husband’s beautiful music shakes the narrator out of his reverie and sends him back to snowy Sweden where his dog happily welcomes him home.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

In “Lines for the Prince of Venosa,” Gustafsson uses two techniques that are typical of American poet T. S. Eliot. The first is the deliberate omission of transitions, a technique that forces the reader to actively participate in the poem in order to arrive at some kind of understanding. For example, Gustafsson’s poem begins with a reference to a Romantic nineteenth century novel set on a tropical island and immediately shifts to late twentieth century Sweden. Gustafsson expects the reader to supply the transition.

A second Eliot-like device is the use of multiple allusions that only a widely educated reader would recognize. Even the narrator-poet jokes that reviewers complain that Gustafsson’s erudition seems “unnecessary.” Although place names such as “Gothenburg,” “Lund,” and “Värmland” would be familiar to Gustafsson’s Swedish readers, other references are more obscure. While the three composers, Venosa, Mahler, and Bruckner, may also be known to the reading public, they are hardly as well known as Johann Sebastian Bach or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Also, “Robinson” is mentioned with the expectation that the reader will fill in “Crusoe,” and one wonders whether a Swedish audience would understand the jokes about “wholesales Whitman” and Kerouac’s first-class Atlantic passage.

A third technique, one that is a distinct departure from Eliot’s style, is the humor laced throughout the poem. The picture of the supposedly erudite Professor Ehrenswärd“sucking a milk carton/ as if it were a mother’s nipple” while he poetically describes farmers as “proletarians of the plow” is perfectly delicious due to the juxtaposition of the professor’s puerile actions and his alliterative word choices. References to “Mahler and Bruckner” as both a “congenial firm” and a logical name for a delicatessen serve as perfect counterpoints to both composers’ ponderous music. In addition, the imagined argument between the freewheeling Kerouac and the stuffy Freud ends with Kerouac’s scatological test of inhibitions.