The Epistles of Horace: Book 1

In a world torn by hope and worry, dread and anger,
imagine every day that dawns is the last you’ll see;
the hour you never hoped for will prove a happy surprise.
(Epistle 4)

As to the genre of ‘epistles, according to translator Niall Rudd in his introduction, one of the earliest examples of an epistle as a literary form is a fragment of an epistle by Lucilius (180 to 103; the founder of the genre of satire, none of whose works have survived complete) complaining to a friend who had failed to visit him when he was sick. And it appears from other references that Lucilius had given some thought to the place of ‘the epistle’ in literature. But the idea of composing a whole book of verse epistles was completely novel and apparently invented by the ancient Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (usually referred to in English as Horace).

Horace wrote two books of epistles, which take their place in his oeuvre thus:

Book 1 contains 20 epistles. Book 2 contains just 2 (long ones), followed by the 476-line epistle universally referred to the Ars Poetica or Art of Poetry.

Horatian urbanity

The epistles are characteristically Horatian in the way they are addressed to the same kind of circle of friends as the odes and reflect on similar themes of: friendship, the nature of civilised behaviour and how to achieve true happiness (adopt the golden mean; leave the stressful city for the relaxed countryside; don’t hanker after wealth and luxury; be content with the simple things of life, like wine and the company of good friends).

What is an epistle?

The English word ‘epistle’ comes direct from the Latin word epistola which means ‘a letter’, itself derived from the Greek epistole meaning ‘message, letter, command, commission, whether verbal or in writing’.

Were Horace’s ‘epistles’ actual letters, written to people, sent and expecting a reply? Critics debate this question to this day. Some of the epistles contain specific questions to the addressee and explicitly expect a reply (for example, Epistle 3 to Julius Florus posted to Tiberius’s army). Others are more like moral essays, addressed to an individual but which make general points about life i.e. not letters in our sense (Epistle 2 to Lollius Maximus). The shortest one really feels like a note to a friend (Epistle 4, 16 lines). Either way, there’s no doubt they are the result of much art and effort; no-one ‘dashes off’ a 300-line poem in finely judged hexameters on the spur of the moment.

One other thing that’s so obvious no-one comments on it, but in a standard letter the author indicates their identity. In English we used to write ‘Your sincerely’, ‘Kind regards’ or similar. There’s nothing like that here. The text of each epistle just ends.

Wikipedia has a handy one-line summary of each of the epistles, which I found very useful to consult before reading each one, and so get a quick grasp of the general purpose and shape of each of the poems.

Age-appropriate genres

Rudd mentions a twelfth century scholar who suggested that Horace wrote his four major types of poetry for four different age groups: the odes for boys, the Ars Poetica for young men, the satires for mature men, and the epistles for old and complete men.

This doesn’t reflect modern scholarly opinion about when the different types were published, but contains a big grain of truth. The odes feel very active and exuberant; the Ars Poetica is a useful vade mecum for poets just starting out; the satires are for men of business and affairs; the epistles are for men heading into old age, who are past life’s storms and stresses and able to look back and reflect on their own and other people’s behaviour.

‘Morality is obvious’

In some ways Horace’s epistles continue the form of the satires, but the epistles are more philosophic, more ethical and meditative. For me the most obvious difference is that many of the satires were in dialogue form, like mini plays; whereas the epistles are more often monologues (although several of them include the imagined dialogue of critics or opponents, and some of them morph into anecdotes which features the dialogue of the characters involved).

As so often when classic poets or writers give life advice, Horace’s lessons are often obvious and a bit boring. In Epistle 1 (to Maecenas) Horace tells us that Virtue’s first rule is ‘avoid vice’ and Wisdom’s first rule is ‘get rid of folly’. Not exactly ground-breaking information stuff, is it? In Epistle 2 (to Lollius Maximus) he says:

  • despise pleasure – often the price of the resulting pain outweighs it (drunkenness leads to illness, promiscuous sex leads to disease)
  • the greedy are never content, always wanting more
  • envious people are driven mad by wanting what everyone else has
  • unrestrained anger drives people away and makes them hate you

So don’t overdo it. Moderation in all things. Train yourself to be happy with what you’ve got.

Maybe this is as useful as moral writing can get. Maybe reflecting on these suggestions for the half hour or so it takes to read each poem does make readers stop and think a bit about their own attitudes and behaviour. Maybe they have had a beneficial effect on people’s lives. But it’s difficult to know how you’d go about measuring this.

I’m tempted to say, though, that the interest isn’t in the moral lessons, which are a bit samey and a bit obvious, it’s in two other things. One is the incidental social history which the epistles are full of, descriptions of the habits and behaviour of the rich and boastful of his day, of the poor in their crappy slums, tips on how to be the client of a rich patron, how to approach Augustus so as not to irritate him and so on – a mosaic of snapshots of Roman society.

Second, and a bit deeper, is the psychology of the thinking about the moral lessons. The lessons themselves, when bluntly stated, are a bit trite. But when he reflects on his own attitudes to them, how he’s come to these conclusions, how he tries to apply them in his own life – then the lessons come a bit more to life, they are dramatised. If the ostensible lessons are mostly a bit obvious, the text and texture and presentation are often interesting and genuinely entertaining.

Addressees

In my review of Horace’s Odes I remarked that the sheer number of people Horace addresses in them creates a sense of a sociable, civilised society. Same here, along with endearingly casual references to the ordinary humdrum concerns of him and his friends. Not great affairs of state or business deals or law cases, but who’s going to whose dinner party, who’s falling in or out of love, impressions of famous tourist attractions, what the weather’s like on the coast this time of year, the changing scenery around his farm (1.16) and so on. Tittle tattle. Gossip. Thoughts.

The poems are addressed to:

  • Maecenas, Horace’s patron (1.1, 1.7, 1.19)
  • Lollius Maximus, served under Augustus in Spain (1.2, 1.18)
  • Julius Florus, a young aristocrat who wrote satires (1.3)
  • Albius Tibullus, the poet famous for his elegies (1.4)
  • Manlius Torquatus, an aristocrat (1.5)
  • Numicius (unknown) (1.6)
  • Celsus Albinovanus, serving on Tiberius’s staff in Asia (1.8)
  • Tiberius, future emperor, recommending a friend (1.9)
  • Aristius Fuscus, friend (1.10)
  • Bullatius (unknown) (1.11)
  • Iccius, steward of Agrippa’s property in Sicily (1.12)
  • Vinius Asina, a centurion in Augustus’s praetorian guard (1.13)
  • the unnamed bailiff of his country property, written to when Horace is in Rome on business (1.14)
  • Numonius Vala (1.15)
  • Quinctius Hirpinus (1.16)
  • Scaeva (1.17)

But just listing the addressees doesn’t convey their sociable quality. The poems address named individuals, as above, but often refer to other people as well, male or female, sometimes to mutual friends, sometimes to the rich and grand, sometimes to figures from Roman history (all Roman writers were obsessed with figures from their history), to figures from myth and legend (that bloody Trojan War!), and sometimes contain anecdotes like the extended story about the lawyer Philippus who persuaded the auctioneer Volteius Mena to change professions and become a farmer ((1.7). The epistles are inclusive, chatty, populous. From one perspective, the pleasure of Horace’s poems is the pleasure of gossip.

Themes

Since Wikipedia and umpteen other websites give epistle-by-epistle commentaries, I’ll look instead at recurring themes.

Maturity

Born in 65 BC, Horace was about 44 when the first book was published. He says his age and keenness are not what they were. He feels like an old horse which has had its best days. Time to get a bit serious:

Now I am laying aside my verses and other amusements.
My sole concern is the question ‘What is right and proper?’

Certainty instead of change

Everyone has an opinion, and even people with well-worked out opinions change them from time to time. The great flux of dinner party chat and commentating. Instead of this endless flux, Horace wants certitude.

Be content with what you have

…Avoid what’s big. In a humble house
you can beat kings and the friends of kings in the race for life….
If you’re happy with the deal you’ve received, you’ll live wisely. (1.10)

Whatever lucky hour heaven has offered you, take it
gratefully (1.11)

The retired life

Small things for the small. It isn’t royal Rome
that attracts me now, but quiet Tibur or peaceful Tarentum. (1.2)

Country over city

If we are supposed to live in accordance with nature,
and we have to start by choosing a site to build a house on,
can you think of any place to beat the glorious country?

In any case, do what you will, you can’t fight the deep slow force of nature.

Expel nature with a fork; she’ll keep on trotting back.
Relax – and she’ll break triumphantly through your silly refinements. (1.10)

In praise of wine

Think of the wonders uncorked by wine! It opens secrets,
gives heart to our hopes, pushes the cowardly into battle,
lifts the load from anxious minds, and evokes talents.
Thanks to the bottle’s promptings no-one is lost for words,
no one who’s cramped by poverty fails to find release.
(Epistle 5)

The first half of 1.19 jokingly claims that all the best poets were drunks.

Sex and slavery

Maybe I’m overdoing it, maybe it’s a personal obsession; I wonder because so few of the translators and writers of introductions mention it, but – this was a slave society. A society built on slavery. Slaves were worked to death in the gold and silver mines to produce the fancy trinkets which Catullus and Horace mock. Slaves by the hundreds of thousands worked the huge estates which produced the food to feed the empire.

Horace writes repeatedly about his lovely little farm, the Sabine farm, the lovely scenery around it and so on. (Scholars and historians refer to it as the Sabine farm because he tells us, in Epistle 1.10, that his villa was next to the sanctuary of the Sabine goddess, Vacuna.) He describes it with such affection that it is easy to join his affectionate tone. But it was run by slaves, 8 slaves, slaves he called ‘boy’. Slaves who I know, from umpteen other sources, were not only bought and sold, but could be whipped or subject to any other form of punishment at the whim of the owner.

If a slave’s testimony was required in a trial, it had to be extracted under torture. Quite trivial offences could be punished by having your legs broken, or being crucified. Plautus’s plays are full of slave characters nervously worrying about being crucified if their master’s scams and tricks are revealed.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m eccentric, but the knowledge that the lovely lifestyle praised in all these poems was based on the sweat and punishment of hundreds of thousands of slaves brings me up short. Makes me shiver with horror.

Epistle 1.18 is quite a long set of advice to Lollius Maximus on how to behave well if you are the client of a rich patron. There’s loads of points of etiquette or correct behaviour you have to look out for. Immediately after telling him to be careful what he says, and who to, because tactless remarks are always passed on, he comes to this bit of advice:

Don’t let any maid or lad arouse your desires
within the marble hall of the friend you hope to impress.
The owner may give you the pretty boy or the darling girl
(and add nothing of substance!) or cause you pain by refusing.

Hang on. ‘The owner may give you the pretty boy or the darling girl…’ As if you said, ‘Oh I like that vase’ and the rich blasé owner said, ‘Well, have it’, in the same spirit you might say, ‘Your wine girl is very sexy’ and the rich blasé owner would just say, ‘Well, you can have her.’ The girl gets no say. She is a slave. So is the boy you fancy. Either of them are just handed over to you for your sexual pleasure.

All this is said in passing because Horace is concerned about the problems of etiquette which arise if you let one of your patron’s slaves arouse you. The fact of a human being being treated as an object by everyone, including (apparently) the translator, goes unremarked. But I remark it. And I can’t help finding it disgusting.

Bookishness

In 1.18 Horace utters a little prayer, which includes the line ‘May I have a decent supply of books and enough food for the year’. In 1.2 he instructs Lollius Maximus to send for a book and a lamp before daylight and study noble aims. In 1.7 he tells Maecenas he plans to go down to the seaside and ‘take it easy, curled up with a book’. Epistle 13 entirely consists of instructions to Vinius Asina about delivering a copy of his odes to Augustus. Epistle 3 enquires about the literary activities of a bunch of young writers who are officers with Tiberius’s army.

These and other references add a layer of bookishness the general air of civilised chat and banter. But I couldn’t help starting to detect in them what I understand is called ‘the Liberal Fallacy’, which is the belief that, if only people – the population in general – were more bookish, and read the right sort of books, and read them in the right sort of spirit, well…the world would be a much better place.

A decade ago I read an article in the Guardian by a nice middle-class white man which overflowed with empathy for black people and women, with sensitive support for #metoo and Black Lives Matter. What made it Peak Guardian was that at the end of the article he included a reading list. The article wasn’t about a particular subject and so the reading list wasn’t addressing a particular topic: it was a reading list to help the article’s readers become like the author, sharing, caring and inclusive. I wish I’d bookmarked it because it perfectly embodied this belief: If only everyone were bookish like me, what a wonderful world it would be.

The two obvious flaws with this view are that:

  1. Most people don’t read, certainly not books. Huge numbers of working class people struggle to read or have a low reading age, or aren’t interested; and I’ve met many highly educated professional people who have the smarts to read, but are simply too busy: one or two thrillers on their annual holiday and that’s their lot. So an outbreak of mass reading is never going to happen.
  2. Anyway, reading doesn’t make you a better person, in fact excess study can reinforce evil behaviour, vide the very intelligent and well-read Lenin, Trotsky, and any number of revolutionaries. Pol Pot was educated at some of Cambodia’s most elite schools and worked as a teacher. Mao went to university, worked for a while as the university librarian, was an intellectual, wrote numerous books. Bookishness, by itself, means nothing.

Obviously book learning was nowhere near as poisonous in Horace’s day as it had become 2,000 years later, and curling up with a good book is still a fabulous thing to do, I do it all the time. But believing that reading makes you a better person or that if only more people read books, the world would be a better place are both absurd contentions. It would be lovely, but…

Leave your cares

Ultimately Horace has three messages:

  1. Stop worrying, be happy.
  2. Learn to be content with what you have.
  3. Enjoy the simple and good things in life while you can.

They’re summed up in Epistle 5 where he tells Manlius Torquatus to leave Rome. Leave the city. Stop worrying about politics and ambition and money. Forget about your wretched law case. Stop worrying about the ‘threat’ from the Parthians or the Cantabrians or whoever. Come down to my place in the country. I’ve got some good wine stored up and I’ve invited all our friends. We’re going to drink our fill and stay up late into the night laughing and joking. Who knows what the future holds. Stop worrying about it because you can’t do anything about it. This is what life is about. Wine and good company. As he tells Albius in Epistle 4: ‘Come and see me when you want a laugh.’

It is a hugely attractive and sane worldview.


Credit

Niall Rudd’s translation of the Epistles of Horace was published by Penguin books in 1979. All references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The odes of Horace

The gods watch over me; a heart
That’s reverent and the poets art
Please them.
(Horace Book 1, ode 17, in James Michie’s translation)

Come, learn this air
And sing it to delight me.
A good song can repair
The ravages inflicted by black care.
(Book 4, ode 11)

Horace’s works

Scholars broadly agree the following dates for Horace’s body of poetry:

Horace’s odes

Horace published 104 odes. They are divided into 4 books. He published the first 3 books of odes in 23 BC, containing 88 carmina or songs. He prided himself on the skill with which he adapted a wide variety of Greek metres to suit Latin, which is a more concise, pithy and sententious language than Greek.

I shall be renowned
As one who, poor-born, rose and pioneered
A way to fit Greek rhythms to our tongue… (3.30)

Horace aimed to create interest by varying the metre as much as possible, using over a dozen different verse formats. He was particularly indebted to metres associated with two Greek poets, Alcaeus and Sappho. Of the 104 odes, 37 are in Alcaics and 26 in Sapphics i.e. over half.

The precise definition of these forms is highly technical, so I refer you to the Wikipedia articles for Alcaics and Sapphics.

Despite all this skillful adaptation, the odes were not greeted with the acclaim Horace hoped for, which may explain why he seems to have abandoned ode writing and returned to the hexameters in which he had written the satires. Using this he now proceeded to write two books of epistles, ‘elegant and witty reflections on literature and morality,’ according to James Michie, which scholars think were published in 20 and 12 BC, respectively.

In 17 BC Augustus commissioned Horace to write an ode to be sung at the start of the Secular Games which he had reinstated as part of his policy of reviving traditional Roman festivals, customs and religious ceremonies. Soon afterwards, Augustus asked Horace to write odes on the military victories of his grandsons Drusus and Tiberius. Whether these commissions renewed an interest in the form or spurred him to assemble works he’d been writing in the interim we don’t know but in about 11 BC Horace published his fourth, final and shortest book of odes, containing just 15 poems.

What is an ode?

The following is adapted from the Wikipedia definition:

An ode (from Ancient Greek: ᾠδή, romanized: ōdḗ) is a sub-type of lyrical poem. An ode generally praises or glorifies an event or individual. Whereas a pure lyric uses impassioned and emotional language, and a satire uses harsh and demotic language, an ode – insofar as it is an address to a named individual, whether friend, emperor or god – generally has a dignified and sincere tone (although part of Horace’s practice was experimenting with and varying that tone).

Greek odes were originally poetic pieces performed with musical accompaniment. As time passed they gradually became known as personal lyrical compositions whether sung (with or without musical instruments) or merely recited (always with accompaniment). The primary instruments used were the aulos and the lyre. There are three typical forms of odes: the Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular.

  • The typical Pindaric ode was structured into three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. However, Horace’s odes do not follow this pattern.
  • Horatian odes do not have the three-part structure of Pindaric odes. They tend to be written as continuous blocks of verse, or, more often, are divided into four-line stanzas. It’s in this division into neat 4-line stanzas that they most imitate Greek lyricists such as Alcaeus and Anacreon.
  • Irregular odes use rhyme but not the three-part form of the Pindaric ode, nor the two- or four-line stanza of the Horatian ode.

An ode is short. I’ve recently read the Eclogues of Virgil which are fairly long and the Georgics which felt very long: Horace’s odes are the opposite. Some are as short as 8 lines, for example book 1 ode 30 and 4.10.

Subject matter

Horace was praised by critics for not just adapting the Greek forms of Alcaeus and Sappho to Latin, but filling them with details of the social life of Rome in the age of Augustus. He broadened the subject matter to cover a much wider range of subjects including love and jealousy, friendship and mourning, hymns to various gods, addresses to the all-powerful emperor Augustus, reflections on mortality, promotion of the golden mean and patriotic criticism of excess luxury and calls for society to return to the sterner, abstemious values of their Roman ancestors. There are several poems consisting entirely of eulogy to Augustus, describing him as a blessing to the nation, the only man who could bring peace and wishing him success in his military campaigns in the East. I enjoy John Dryden’s description of Horace as “a well-mannered court slave”. It doesn’t feel that when you read all his other poems, but when you read the Augustus ones, you immediately get what Dryden was saying. The word ‘poet’ is only one letter away from ‘pet’.

Underlying all the poems, and appearing them as either passing references or the central subject, are two ‘philosophical’ themes: the uncertainty and transience of life, and the need to observe moderation in all things, what Aristotle had defined as ‘the golden mean’ between extremes:

All who love safety make their prize
The golden mean and hate extremes… (2.10)

James Michie

Greek and Latin poets did not use rhyme to structure their poetry, they used the counting of syllables in each line according to a variety of patterns established by various ancient Greek poets and copied and adapted by the Romans.

English poets by contrast, since the Middle Ages, use beats or emphasis instead of counting syllables, and have used rhyme. Not exclusively, witness the reams of blank verse used in the dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries or in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but certainly in short lyrics and Horace’s odes are short lyrics. All 104 of Horace’s odes fit onto just 114 pages of English verse.

This explains the decision of James Michie, translator of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of the complete odes of Horace, to cast them into predominantly rhymed verse.

The Penguin edition is interesting and/or useful because it features the Latin on one page, with Michie’s English translation on the page opposite. I did Latin GCSE and so, with a bit of effort, can correlate the English words to the original Latin phrases, though I don’t have anything like enough Latin to appreciate Horace’s style.

Book 1 is the longest, containing 38 odes. Book 2 has 20. Book 3 has 30, and the final, short one, book 4, has 15.

Themes

Direct address to gods

Any summary of Horace as the poet of friendship and conviviality has to take account that about one in six of the poems are straight religious hymns to named deities. Michie’s (admirably brief) introduction explains that the poems give no evidence about how sincerely Horace felt these religious sentiments. Probably he was religious in the same way most educated Romans of his time were, as Cicero was: viewing religion and the old festivals and ceremonies as important for the social cohesion of Rome.

In this view the correct ceremonies had to be carried out on the correct occasions to the correct deities in order to ensure the state’s security and future. Whether an individual ‘believed’ in the gods or not was irrelevant: correct action was all. The importance of internal, psychological ‘belief’ only became an issue with the slow arrival of Christianity well over a hundred years later. In the meantime, correct invocations of the gods could be seen as part of civic and patriotic duty, especially for Augustus, who in so many ways tried to restore the old ceremonies, rites and festivals of Republican Rome.

1.10 To Mercury

You are the one my poem sings –
The lyre’s inventor; he who brings
Heaven’s messages; the witty
Adventurer who takes delight
In slyly stowing out of sight
Anything he finds pretty.

1.21 To Diana

Virgin maidens, praise Diana.
Young men, sing a like hosanna

1.30 Prayer to Venus

O Queen of Cnidos, Paphos,
Come, leave, though dearly thine,
Cyprus; for here’s thick incense,
And Glycera calls divine
Venus to her new shrine.

1.31 Prayer to Apollo

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine request?

Incidentally, note the slight complexity of this long sentence. It took me a few readings to realise it is:

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet (as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine) request?

We’ll come back to this issue, the sometimes grammatically challenging nature of Michie’s translation.

1.35 Hymn to Fortuna

O goddess ruling over favoured Antium,
With power to raise our perishable bodies
From low degree or turn
The pomp of triumph into funeral,

Thee the poor farmer with his worried prayer
Propitiates…

To women

The poems of heterosexual men are often about difficulties with relationships. Horace has poems directly addressing women, lovers, more often ex-lovers; or addressing women who are messing with his friends’ emotions; or poems to male friends offering advice about their relationships with women. I can see how a feminist critic might object to Horace’s basic stance and to much of the detail of what he says. For me the main effect is to create a sense of the extended social circle the poet inhabits.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key. (2.1)

Horace plays at being jealous, while never achieving the emotional intensity of Catullus. And this is because his ‘love’ poems, such as 1.13, often turn out to be really promoting his philosophy of life, namely moderation in all things, wine, women, politics and poetry.

1.13 To Lydia

Happy are they alone whom affections hold
Inseparable united; those who stay
Friends without quarrels, and who cannot be torn away
From each other’s arms until their dying day.

1.16 is addressed to an unnamed women who he has, apparently, infuriated by writing a witty lampoon about her. Horace apologises unreservedly for upsetting her. But the poem is really about the emotion of anger, how ruinous it is for individuals and nations, how it must be avoided at all costs. Moments like this accumulate to make you suspect that even Horace’s most ‘passionate’ poems are clever artifice. It is hard to imagine the poet who promoted moderation and sensible restraint at every opportunity ever losing his head over anyone, no matter how he poses.

1.19 The Poet’s Love for Glycera

The Mother of the Loves, unkindly
Goddess, and Semele’s son combine
With wild abandon to remind me
That though I had thought desire
Dead, it still burns. The fire

Is Glycera.

1.23 To Chloe

This is such fun I’ll quote it in its entirety. Whether it reflects any real situation, I doubt. It feels more like a witty exercise, in the manner of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. To understand it you need to realise the first line means ‘Chloe, why won’t you venture near ME’, but Michie cannot quite say that in order to preserve his tight rhyme scheme. And to know that ‘dam’ is an archaic poetic word for ‘mother’. So that the majority of the poem is treating this young woman, Chloe, as if she is as timorous and scared as Bambi.

Chloe, you will not venture near,
Just like a lost young mountain deer
Seeking her frantic dam; for her each
Gust in the trees is a needless fear.

Whether the spring-announcing breeze
Shudders the light leaves or she sees
The brambles twitched by a green lizard,
Panic sets racing her heart and knees.

Am I a fierce Gaetulian
Lion or some tiger with a plan
To seize and maul you? Come, now, leave your
Mother: you’re ready to know a man.

So, in fact, this middle-aged man is preparing ‘to seize and maul’ this timorous young woman. If we attribute the speaking voice to 40-something Horace, it is inappropriate. But if it is a song to be sung by any young man, less so.

Here he is gently mocking a friend (in fact a fellow poet, Tibullus) because his girlfriend’s dumped him:

Tibullus, give up this extravagant grieving
For a sweetheart turned sour. ‘Why was she deceiving?’
You ask, and then whimper long elegies on
The theme of the older man being outshone… (1.33)

In praise of booze

Horace is surprisingly insistent on the blessings of wine and the vine, with a number of poems recommending it as the appropriate accompaniment to all sorts of situations, from cheering up a doleful lover to consoling a parent for the loss of a child, celebrating an old friend having his citizenship restored or safely returned from a long journey (1.36), or just a way to forget sorrows and anxieties and be sociable (2.11). In ancient Rome wine was never drunk neat, but always diluted with water:

Come, boy, look sharp. Let the healths rip!
To midnight! The new moon! The augurship
Of our Murena! Mix the bowls – diluted
With three or nine parts wine: tastes must be suited.
The poet, who loves the Muses’ number, nine,
Inspired, demands that measure of pure wine. (3.19)

Above all wine was shared. In ancient Rome wine was drunk in social situations, among friends and with slaves to open the bottles and mix them correctly. In Horace’s day, men who got together to hold a convivial evening elected one of their number ‘president’ by rolling dice to see who got the highest score, and the president then selected which wines were to be drunk, in which order, to command the slaves, and institute topics of conversation or games.

Who’ll win the right to be
Lord of the revelry
By dicing highest? (2.7)

In other words, ‘wine’ symbolises not just a drink but a much deeper concept of sociability and conviviality. And importantly, this sociability was the cure for anxiety, depression and grief. So ‘wine’ isn’t at all about seeking intoxication or oblivion; quite the opposite: ‘wine’ symbolises the moderation and sociable common sense which Horace is always promoting. Even when he appears to be promoting booze, it’s really this idea he’s promoting.

Let Damalis, the girl we crown
Champion drinker, be put down
By Bassus at the game of sinking
A whole cup without breath or blinking. (1.36)

And, as with almost all aspects of Roman life, there was a ‘religious’ aspect in the sense that the Romans thanked the gods for all their blessings (just as they attributed all disasters to the malign influence of Fortune). It was ‘fitting’ to thank the gods, and often this was done with ‘libations’ i.e. pouring part of each bottle of wine onto the ground as an offering to the gods, as thanks for blessings received, as hope for blessings continued.

Pay Jove his feast, then. In my laurel’s shade
Stretch out the bones that long campaigns have made
Weary. Your wine’s been waiting
For years: no hesitating! (2.7)

In the following extract the ‘fast-greying tops’ means the greying heads of hair of Horace and his friend, Quinctilius, who he’s trying to persuade to stop being so anxious about life.

Futurity is infinite:
Why tax the brain with plans for it?
Better by this tall plane or pine
To sprawl and while we may, drink wine
And grace with Syrian balsam drops
And roses these fast-greying tops.
Bacchus shoos off the wolves of worry. (2.11)

1.11 carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

Horace’s attitude overlaps with the modern notion of mindfulness. According to this website, ‘Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. As he tells Maecenas:

Be a plain citizen for once – you fret
Too much about the people’s sufferings.
Relax. Take what the hour gives, gladly. Let
Others attend the graver side of things. (3.8)

The shame of recent Roman history i.e. the civil wars

This attitude is not bourgeois complacency (‘Hey slave, bring us more booze!’). Well, OK, it is – but it is given more bite by the historical background. Rome had just emerged from about 13 years of civil war (Antony and Octavian against Caesar’s assassins) or a very uneasy peace leading to another civil war (Octavian against Antony). Unlike most bourgeois Horace had led a legion in a major battle (Philippi), seen men hacked to pieces around him, and seen his cause completely crushed. What good had the assassination of Julius Caesar and then Brutus and Cassius’s war against Octavian and Antony achieved? Nothing. Absolutely nothing except tens of thousands of Roman dead and devastation of entire provinces.

And he refers to it repeatedly, the utter pointlessness and futility of war.

Alas, the shameful past – our scars, our crimes, our
Fratricides! This hardened generation
Has winced at nothing, left
No horror unexplored… (1.35)

Our fields are rich with Roman
Dead and not one lacks graves to speak against our
Impious battles. Even
Parthia can hear the ruin of the West. (2.1)

So Horace’s is not the complacent attitude of a pampered aristocrat who has never known trouble, but of a self-made man who has seen a whole lot of trouble and therefore knows the true value of peace. Although he wears it lightly, it is a hard-won philosophy. And he refers to it, repeatedly.

Greek mythology

Horace is so identified in my mind with Rome, with Augustus, with the golden age of Roman literature, that it comes as a shock to see just how much of the subject matter is Greek. Take 1.15 which is a dramatic address to Paris as he abducts Helen by the sea goddess Nereus, foreseeing the long siege and destruction of Troy. 2.4 is about inappropriate love but stuffed with examples from Troy. But all of the poems contain references to Greek mythology and require a good working knowledge of its complex family trees: just who is son of Latona, who is Semele’s son? Who are:

Yet how could mighty Mimas or Typhoeus
Or Rhoetus or Porphyrion for all hid
Colossal rage or fierce
Enceladus who tore up trees for darts

Succeed? (3.4)

Or take the long poem 3.27 which contains a rather moving soliloquy by the maid Europa who, in a fit of madness, let herself be raped by a bull, a sophisticated poem full of unexpected compassion for the miserable young woman who is, of course, Jupiter in disguise. The poem contains a twist in the tail, for Venus has been standing by all through the girl’s frantic speech, enjoying the scene with that detached cruelty typical of the gods and only at the end reveals the bull in question was none other than Jupiter in disguise, hence explaining the girl’s powerlessness to resist.

False modesty

That said, there is another repeated trope which, as it were, modifies the Hellenic influence and this is Horace’s stock protestations that his muse and lyre and skill aren’t up to epic or serious verse, are instead designed for more homely, lowly subject matter. He turns this into a joke on a couple of occasions when he’s getting carried away invoking the Mighty Warriors of the Trojan War and suddenly realises what he’s doing, back pedals and dials it down.

Where are you rambling, Muse? This theme’s beyond your
Light-hearted lyre. End now. Absurd presumption
To tell tales of the gods
And mar high matters with your reedy voice! (3.3)

Maybe 1.6 is the best expression of this repeated trope of inadequacy. To understand it you need to know that Varius is a rival Roman poet, famous for his high-flown tragedies, and that the poem is directly addressed to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the Roman general who Augustus relied on to win his battles.

That eagle of Homeric wing,
Varius, will in due course sing
Your courage and your conquests, every deed
Of daring that our forces,
Riding on ships or horses
Accomplish with Agrippa in the lead.

But I’m not strong enough to try
Such epic flights. For themes as high
As iron Achilles in his savage pique,
Crafty Ulysses homing
After long ocean-roaming,
Or Pelops’ house of blood, my wings feel weak.

And both my modesty and my Muse,
Who tunes her lyre to peace, refuse
To let her tarnish in the laureate’s part
Our glorious Augustus’
Or your own battle-lustres
With my imperfect and unpolished art…

Feasts, and the war where girls’ trimmed nails
Scratch fiercely at besieging males –
These are the subjects that appeal to me,
Flippant, as is my fashion,
Whether the flame of passion
Has scorched me or has left me fancy-free.

As usual, the translation is fluent and clever, but I stumbled over the grammar of ‘Augustus” and it took me a few goes to realise he’s saying ‘my muse refuses to tarnish either Augustus’s, or your, battle-lustres’. Maybe you got it first time, but at quite a few places, Michie’s ingenuity in rhyming results in phrases which made me stumble. Anyway, here is Horace again, protesting the modesty of his poetic aims and means:

The history of the long Numantian war;
Iron Hannibal; the sea incarnadined
Off Sicily with Carthaginian gore;
Wild Lapiths fighting blind-

Drunk Centaurs; or the Giants who made the bright
Halls of old Saturn reel till Hercules
Tame them – you’d find my gentle lyre too slight
An instrument for these

Magnificent themes, Maecenas… (2.12)

Friends

The majority of the poems address a named individual, buttonholing and badgering them, and the number of these addressed poems, added to the variety of subject matter, creates a sense of great sociability, of a buzzing circle of friends. Horace comes over as a very sociable man with a word of advice for all his many friends, something which really struck me in the run of poems at the start of book 2:

Sallustius Crispus, you’re no friend of metal
Unless it’s made to gleam with healthy motion… (2.2)

Maintain and unmoved poise in adversity;
Likewise in luck, one free of extravagant
Joy. Bear in mind my admonition,
Dellius… (2.3)

Dear Phocian Xanthias, don’t feel ashamed
Of loving a servant… (2.4)

Septimius, my beloved friend,
Who’d go with me to the world’s end… (2.6)

Pompeius, chief of all my friends, with whom
I often ventured to the edge of doom
When Brutus led our line… (2.7)

Barine, if for perjured truth
Some punishment had ever hurt you –
One blemished nail or blackened tooth –
I might believe this show of virtue… (2.7)

The clouds disgorge a flood
Of rain; fields are churned mud;
The Caspian seas
Are persecuted by the pouncing blasts;
But, Valgius, my friend, no weather lasts
For ever… (2.9)

Licinius, to live wisely shun
The deep sea; on the other hand,
Straining to dodge the storm don’t run
Too close in to the jagged land… (2.10)

‘Is warlike Spain hatching a plot?’
You ask me anxiously. ‘And what
Of Scythia?’ My dear Quinctius
There’s a whole ocean guarding us.
Stop fretting… (2.11)

Male friends he addresses poems to include: Maecenas his patron and ‘inseperable friend’ (2.17), Virgil, Sestius, Plancus, Thaliarchus, Leuconoe, Tyndaris, Aristius Fuscus, Megilla of Opus, Iccius, Tibullus, Plotius Numida, Asinius Pollio, Sallustius Crispus, Quintus Dellius, Xanthias Phoceus, Septimius, Pompeius Varus, C. Valgius Rufus, Lucius Licinius Murena, Quinctius Hirpinus, Postumus, Aelius Lama, Telephus, Phidyle, Ligurinus, Julus, Torquatus, Caius Marcius Censorinus and Lollius.

The women he addresses include: Pyrrha, Lydia (who appears in 4 poems 1.8, 1.13, 1.25, 3.9), the unnamed lady of 1.16, Glycera (twice 1.19, 1.30, 1.33), Chloe, Barine, Asterie, Lyce, Chloris, Galatea and Phyllis.

All go to create the sense of a thriving active social life, an extended circle of friends and acquaintances which is very…urbane. Civilised, indulgent, luxurious:

Boy, fetch me wreaths, bring perfume, pour
Wine from a jar that can recall
Memories of the Marsian war… (3.14)

The predominant tone is of friendship and fondness and frank advice:

Then go, my Galatea, and, wherever
You choose, live happily… (3.27)

But the reader is left to wonder whether any of these people (apart from Maecenas and Virgil, and maybe one or two others) ever actually existed, or whether they are characters in the play of his imaginarium.

The simple life

Again and again Horace contrasts the anxious life of high officials in Rome with the simplicity of life on his farm out in the country, and the even simpler pleasures of life the peasants who live on it. The theme is elaborated at greatest length in one of the longest poems, 3.29, where Horace invites careworn Maecenas to come and stay on his farm, yet another excuse to repeat his injunction to Live in the Present, for nobody knows what the future holds.

Call him happy
And master of his own soul who every evening
Can say, ‘Today I have lived…’

Homosexuality

As long as a Roman citizen of the upper class married, sired male children and performed his religious and family duties, the details of his sexuality weren’t important, or might have prompted waspish gossip, but weren’t illegal. Homosexuality isn’t as prominent in Horace’s poetry as it is in Virgil’s, but it’s here as part of his urbane mockery of his own love life and one poem in particular, 4.1, is a passionate and surprisingly moving poem of unrequited love for a youth named Ligurinus.

Why then,
My Ligurinus, why
Should the reluctant-flowing tears surprise these dry
Cheeks, and my fluent tongue
Stumble in unbecoming silences among
Syllable? In dreams at night
I hold you in my arms, or toil behind your flight
Across the Martian Field,
Or chase through yielding waves the boy who will not yield.

This Ligurinus is (apparently) a pre-pubescent boy because another entire poem, 4.10, is devoted to him, pointing out that one day soon he’ll sprout a beard, his peaches and cream complexion will roughen, and he’ll no longer be the hairless beauty he is now.

It is very striking indeed that earlier in book 4 Horace writes a series of poems lamenting the decline and fall in Roman social standards, singling out greed and luxury, and also adultery which, of course, makes it difficult to determine the real father of a child – and yet this flagrantly homosexual and, possibly, if the boy is under 16 which seems pretty certain, pederastic poem, passes without comment and presents no obstacle to the poet’s earlier harsh moralising.

Sucking up to Augustus

As is fitting, the first poem in book 1 addresses his patron (and friend) Augustus’s minister for the arts, Maecenas. And the second poem addresses the boss man himself, Augustus, unquestioned supreme ruler of Rome and its empire, who is subsequently addressed at regular intervals throughout the series of poems. Here is Horace, addressing Jupiter king of the gods but describing Augustus (referred to here by the name of his adoptive great-uncle, Caesar, by which he was widely known, before the title ‘Augustus’ was bestowed in 27 BC):

Thou son of Saturn, father and protector
Of humankind, to thee Fate has entrusted
Care of great Caesar; govern, then, while Caesar
Holds the lieutenancy.

He, whether leading in entitled triumph
The Parthians now darkening Rome’s horizon,
The Indian or the Chinese peoples huddled
Close to the rising sun,

Shall, as thy right hand, deal the broad earth justice. (1.12)

Here Horace is asking the fickle goddess Fortune to protect Augustus and the Roman armies engaged in battle:

Guard Caesar bound for Britain at the world’s end,
Guard our young swarm of warriors on the wing now
To spread the fear of Rome
Into Arabia and the Red Sea coasts. (1.35)

1.37 includes a brief description of Octavian’s historic victory over the fleets of Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Thunder in heaven confirms our faith – Jove rules there;
But here on earth Augustus shall be hailed as
God also, when he makes
New subjects of the Briton and the dour

Parthian. (3.5)

Incidentally, I don’t know why there are so many references to conquering Britain. In his long reign Augustus never sent armies to invade Britain, that was left to his great-nephew, the emperor Claudius, in 43 AD.

Book 4 contains noticeably more praise of Augustus (‘O shield of Italy and her imperial metropolis’) than the previous books: was it clearer than ever that the new regime was here to stay? Had Horace got closer to Augustus? Was it a shrewd political move to butter up the big man?

We know that Horace had been personally commissioned to write the two odes in praise of Drusus (4.4) and Tiberius (4.14) which overflow with slavish praise of their stepfather, Augustus, and the book includes a poem calling on Apollo to help him write the Centennial Hymn which Augustus commissioned (4.6). So this book contains more lickspittle emperor-worship than the previous 3 books combined.

How shall a zealous parliament or people
With due emolument and ample honours
Immortalise thy name
By inscription and commemorative page,

Augustus, O pre-eminent of princes
Wherever sunlight makes inhabitable
The earth? (4.14)

And the final ode in the entire series, 4.15, is another extended hymn of praise to Augustus’s peerless achievements.

Book 4

In his edition of Horace’s satires, Professor Nial Rudd points out that book 4, published about 12 years after books 1 to 3, has a definite autumnal feeling. Virgil is dead (19 BC) and Horace’s patron, Maecenas, no longer plays the central role he had done a decade earlier. The odes to Tiberius and Drusus highlight that a new young generation is coming up, and Horace refers to his own grey hair and age. Had Maecenas previously formed a buffer between him and the emperor, and, with his declining influence, has the emperor become more demanding of direct praise?

Famous phrases

It’s difficult for a non-Latinist to really be sure of but all the scholars and translators assure us that Horace had a way with a phrase and that this meant he coined numerous quotations used by later generations.

Probably the three most famous are ‘carpe diem’ and ‘nunc est bibendum’ and ‘dulce et decorum est’, from 1.11, 1.37 and 3.2, respectively. Here’s the source Latin and Michie’s translations of each instance:

Carmen 1.11 (complete)

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare 5
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Don’t ask (we may not know), Leuconie,
What the gods plan for you and me.
Leave the Chaldees to parse
The sentence of the stars.

Better to bear the outcome, good or bad,
Whether Jove purposes to add
Fresh winters to the past
Or to make this the last

Which now tires out the Tuscan sea and mocks
Its strength with barricades of rocks.
Be wise, strain clear the wine
And prune the rambling vine

Of expectation. Life’s short. Even while
We talk, Time, hateful, runs a mile.
Don’t trust tomorrow’s bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.

Carmen 1.37 (opening stanza)

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero
pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus
ornare pulvinar deorum
tempus erat dapibus, sodales…

Today is the day to drink and dance on. Dance, then,
Merrily, friends, till the earth shakes. Now let us
Rival the priests of Mars
With feasts to deck the couches of the gods…

3.2 comes from the series of 6 poems which open book 3, which are longer than usual and adopt quite a strict scolding tone, instructing Romans of his day to abandon luxury and return to the noble warrior values of their ancestors. It needs to be read in that context:

Carmen 3.2 (Opening only)

Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta

vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. Illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo

suspiret, eheu, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo…

Disciplined in the school of hard campaigning,
Let the young Roman study how to bear
Rigorous difficulties without complaining,
And camp with danger in the open air,

And with his horse and lance become the scourge of
Wild Parthians. From the ramparts of the town
Of the warring king, the princess on the verge of
Womanhood with her mother shall look down

And sigh, ‘Ah, royal lover, still a stranger
To battle, do not recklessly excite
That lion, savage to touch, whom murderous anger
Drives headlong through the thickest of the fight.’

The glorious and the decent way of dying
Is for one’s country. Run, and death will seize
You no less surely. The young coward, flying,
Gets his quietus in his back and knees…

Two points. One, quite obviously ancient Rome was an extremely militarised society with all its politicians expected to have served in the army or, as consuls, be sent off in command of armies in umpteen foreign campaigns. Two, with this in mind it’s worth pointing out that the poem goes on to contrast the glory won by death in battle with the vulgar world of democratic politics and elections.

Unconscious of mere loss of votes and shining
With honours that the mob’s breath cannot dim,
True worth is not found raising or resigning
The fasces at the wind of popular whim…

The fasces being the bundle of wooden rods, sometimes bound around an axe with its blade emerging, which was carried by the lictors who accompanied a consul everywhere during his term of office and which symbolised a magistrate’s power and jurisdiction.

Summary

Michie is very proficient indeed at rhyming. More than that, he enjoys showing off his skill:

Boys, give Tempe praise meanwhile and
Delos, the god’s birthday island. (1.21)

A cheap hag haunting alley places
On moonless nights when the wind from Thrace is
Rising and raging… (1.25)

When the brigade of Giants
In impious defiance… (2.19)

But I think the cumulative effect of so much dazzling ingenuity is that sometimes  the poems reek more of cleverness for its own sake than the kind of dignified tone which the Latinists describe as having. At times the cleverness of his rhyming overshadows the sense.

Boy, I detest the Persian style
Of elaboration. Garlands bore me
Laced up with lime-bark. Don’t run a mile
To find the last rose of summer for me. (1.38)

Throughout the book, in pretty much every poem, although I could read the words, I struggled to understand what the poem was about. I had to read most of them 2 or 3 times to understand what was going on. Half way through, I stumbled upon the one-sentence summaries of each ode given on the Wikipedia page about the Odes. This was a lifesaver, a game changer. From that point on, I read the one-sentence summary of each poem to find out who it was addressed to and what it was about – and so was freed to enjoy how it was constructed, and the slickness of Michie’s translations.

Bless this life

Above all, be happy. Life is short. Count each day as a blessing.

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully… (1.9)

You can see why all the translators, scholars and commentators on Horace describe him as a friendly, reassuring presence. A poet to take down off your shelves and read whenever you need to feel sensible and grounded.


Related links

Roman reviews

The satires of Horace, translated by Niall Rudd (1973)

Take a thousand men, you’ll find
a thousand hobbies. Mine is enclosing words in metre.
(Satire 1, book 2)

Penguin classics translations are often old. This translation of Horace’s satires was first published in 1973, a date which evokes fond memories of David Essex and Glam Rock for me but it is, of course, 50 years ago, now, and the translator of this edition, Professor Niall Rudd, born in 1927, is as dead as his hero Horace.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, usually referred to in English simply as Horace, was born in 65 BC and died in 8 BC. His life therefore spanned the transition of Rome from free republic to proto-empire under the first emperor, Augustus.

Horace was the son of a slave, who was granted his freedom and made a successful career as an auctioneer’s agent (Introduction page xvii), earning enough to send the boy Horace to a good school then on to Rome to study. Horace served as an officer in the republican army of Brutus and Cassius which was defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 by the allied forces of Octavian and Antony, but (obviously) survived and returned to Italy. (In Satire 1.6 Horace specifies that he was a tribune in charge of a legion in the army of Brutus, and the experience of seeing the republican ranks breaking and fleeing is described in two of his odes, 2.7 and 3.4.)

Back in Italy, Horace discovered his father was dead and his properties had been confiscated as part of the huge land appropriations carried out by Octavian after Philippi. Horace managed to get a job in the treasury and wrote poetry in his spare time (p.xvii). His verse came to the attention of Virgil, favourite poet of the new regime, who brought it to the attention of Augustus’s schoolboy friend and cultural commissar, Maecenas (an event described in satire 1.6). This was in 37 BC. Two years later Horace published his first book, of ten satires.

Maecenas realised Horace’s gift and became his patron, eventually buying him a large country estate , thus removing Horace’s money worries. Henceforth the poet mixed with the top rank of Roman society and its leading writers.

Horace is most famous for his odes, which have charmed and consoled readers for 2,000 years. They are wise and gracious. Some of them are extremely flattering to his lord and master Augustus, so a regular debating point about Horace’s poetry has been assessing how much he managed to keep his independence and how much he truckled to the wishes of the regime. The English poet John Dryden knew a thing or two about writing political poetry, so his opinion bears weight when he calls Horace ‘a well-mannered court slave.’

Apparently, scholars broadly agree the following dates for Horace’s poetry:

  • Satires 1 (c. 35 to 34 BC)
  • Satires 2 (c. 30 BC)
  • Epodes (30 BC)
  • Odes 1 to 3 (c. 23 BC)
  • Epistles 1 (c. 21 BC)
  • Carmen Saeculare (17 BC)
  • Epistles 2 (c. 11 BC)
  • Odes 4 (c. 11 BC)
  • Ars Poetica (c. 10 to 8 BC)

Less well known than the odes are Horace’s satires, written in elegantly crafted hexameters i.e. verse with six ‘feet’ or beats per line. There are two books of satires, book 1 containing 10 poems and book 2 containing 8 poems i.e. 18 satires in all.

This Penguin edition also contains Horace’s epistles, book 1 containing 20 epistles, book 2 containing two standard epistles and then the longer, third, epistle which is a treatise on the art of poetry, the Ars poetica in the Latin.

This Penguin edition contains three brief forewords which show how Professor Rudd successively revised his translations in 1979, 1996 and 2005, the latter edition in particular being comprehensively revised ‘to produce a smoother and lighter versification’.

Aspects of Horace’s satire

Satire as argument

Horace’s satires remind me a lot of Cicero’s law speeches in that they are arguments; more precisely a series of arguments strung together around a central topic. They are designed to persuade you or, maybe like Cicero’s speeches, to amuse and entertain the auditor while they go through the motions of persuading. They are a performance of persuading.

Dramatised

The second way they’re like Cicero is the way they routinely dramatise the text by inventing opponents, antagonists who make a point against Horace, his beliefs or his practice of poetry – so that Horace can then neatly refute them. For example the imaginary accuser in this excerpt:

‘You like giving pain,’
says a voice, ‘and you do it out of sheer malice.’ Where did you get
that slander to throw at me?

The invented antagonist is just one component of the surprisingly chatty, conversational, buttonholing tone of Horace’s satires.

Names

Another feature is the way Horace fleshes out general observations by embodying vices in certain named individuals. The notes to the book point out that we don’t know who most of these people are. My hunch would be that Horace invented them, gave them plausible names, added them to the rogues gallery or cast of characters which populate the satires. He gives this trick a down-home explanation by attributing it to his dad:

Yet if I’m a little outspoken or perhaps
too fond of a joke, I hope you’ll grant me that privilege.
My good father gave me the habit; to warn me off
he used to point out various vices by citing examples. (1.4)

The lyric poet tends to write about him or herself and their fine feelings. By contrast, Horace’s satires overflow with people, talking, jostling, lecturing him, criticising, talking back. Thus characters named Ummidius, Naevius, Nommentanus, Tigellius the singer, Fufidius, Maltinus, Rufillus, Cupiennius, Galba, Sallust, Marsaeus, Origo, Villius, Fausta, Longarenus, Cerinthus, Hypsaea, Catia, Philodemus, Lady Ilia, Countess Egeria, Fabius appear in just the first two satires.

As a whole, as a genre, the satires overflow with recognisable social types and characters, all jostling and arguing with him, like an urban crowd or maybe like a very packed house party at a rich man’s villa.

Anyway, the net effect is to make you, dear reader, feel as if you are in the swim, you are in the know, you are part of this smart set, fully informed of all the goings-on in Rome’s smartest circles. Sometimes Horace’s satires are like high society gossip columns.

The origin of satire

There has a been a lot of scholarly debate about the origin of the word and genre of ‘satire’. The Middle Ages thought it had something to do with satyrs, the half men, half goats of mythology. Nowadays, scholars think it derives from the Latin word satura. It is now seen as a development of the rough, rude, vulgar plays and written entertainments the Romans composed in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, before they were really exposed to the long-established forms of Greek literature.

But in his introduction, the translator, Professor Niall Rudd, makes an important distinction between satire and satura. The Greeks, obviously, had countless expressions of the satirical spirit; what they didn’t have was a genre named satura. The saturae that Horace wrote overlapped with the idea of satire, but not completely and not all the time. Saturae seem from the beginning to have been associated with the idea of medley and mixture. Rudd traces its origins from Naevius via Ennius, the first major Roman poet, to Lucilius, ‘the first European satirist’ (p.xi).

Horace himself refers to the key role played by the Roman poet Lucilius in inventing this genre. We know Lucilius died in 103 BC, because a state funeral was held for him, but nobody knows when he was born.

It is now routinely thought that Lucilius took ‘the rude inartistic medley, known to the Romans by the name of satura‘ and used it as a vehicle for the kind of aggressive and censorious criticism of persons, morals, manners, politics, literature, etc. which the word satire has denoted ever since.

The reason we’re not sure about any of this is because no single poem of Lucilius’s has survived. We know that he wrote some thirty books (!) of satires, but we only have fragments, admittedly a lot of fragments, some 1,300 (!), but which are mostly single lines taken out of context and quoted in the works of later grammarians.

Lucilius seems to have begun his career by ridiculing and parodying the conventional language of epic and tragic poetry, setting against it the ordinary language of educated men of his time. You can see how there would be something intrinsically humorous in juxtaposing the highflown language of epic and tragedy with the actual humdrum, rather shabby lives most of us lead.

And how it would be only a small step from that to devoting entire poems to the real social practices of his time, with sarcastic commentary on the intrigues of politics, the ubiquitous greed not only of the rich but of grasping merchants, the gossip and scandal about well-known figures, the perennial disapproval of other people’s sex lives, the equally perennial disapproval of other people’s gluttony and drunkenness, the ghastly vulgarity of the addle-headed mob who will follow any populist who throws them simple slogans, promises a better life, and so on.

But Rudd emphasises that Lucilius’s range was huge: the fragments include dramatic scenes, fables, sermons, dialogues, letters, epigrams, anecdotes and learned exposition. Medleys, indeed.

One other point: As part of mocking highfalutin’ language, Lucilius used the more ordinary speech of educated members of his society and, especially when talking about himself, used a relaxed, open and candid tone of voice, an informal, candid tone which Horace copies.

But Rudd’s discussion also raises a point which Horace himself repeatedly mentions, which is whether satire is even poetry at all, but more like a form of rhythmical prose. If the tone and subject matter become so casual and realistic, is it much more than rhythmic prose? Well, we can judge because in some translations Horace’s verse is changed into English prose and even a cursory glance at these shows you  that something is lost. This is a) the rhythmical pleasure which always comes from of reading lines of verse and b) admiration of his skill at coining a phrase, or turning a phrase, within the strict limitations of the metre. The display and performative aspects of verse are lost. Verse is better; it gives a more multi-levelled pleasure. When deciding what translations of these Roman poets to buy I always prefer the verse translation.

And so the genre of satire was born, the only literary genre the Romans could claim to have invented without Greek precedent.

Satire’s limitations

However, the most obvious thing about satire is it doesn’t work. American satirists ripped the piss out of Donald Trump during his bid to win the Republican nomination, then during his presidential campaign of 2015, and then, of course, during his entire 4 years in power. But in the November 2020 presidential election, the total number of votes cast for Donald Trump went up, from 62,984,828 to 74,216,154! So much for the tens of thousands of satirists, comedians, commentators, academics, film-makers, playwrights, novelists and so on who relentlessly mocked him for 4 years. Net result: his popularity increased!

Same with Boris Johnson in the UK. What brought him down was emphatically not the efforts of the thousands of liberal comedians and satirists relentlessly mocking his every move and word etc etc but the desertion of key allies in his own cabinet when they thought his erratic judgement threatened their own careers.

So if satire doesn’t change anything, what is it for? Well, obviously to entertain and amuse. But there’s another motive. If you reflect on what the effect of reading Private Eye or other satirical magazines, or being in the audience of some standup comedian is on the reader or audience, maybe the most obvious one is making them feel virtuous, making them feel an insider, in with the good guys, on the side of the angels.

I lost interest in, and then actively avoided, comedy programmes during the Trump presidency, because they became so lazy. All a joker had to do was make reference to Trump’s hair or hands or two or three of his most notorious quotes and the audience exploded with laughter. This is the risk with satire, that you end up preaching to the converted. You are telling them jokes they already know, mocking figures that everybody already mocks – laughable politicians, corrupt businessmen, the royal family, rich bankers etc. It has little or no effect on the target but makes its audience feel knowing and justified. Everyone else is laughing. It’s not just me.

But maybe by ‘everybody’ I mean mainly the well educated. The audience that finds the slightest reference to Trump howlingly funny is probably young, white, university educated. If we apply this model to Horace, we see that he explicitly appeals to a similar readership – not to the uneducated mob, not to the corrupt politicians or greedy merchants he mocks: but to a hypothetical readership of People Like Us; educated, moderate, sensible, guilty of a few forgivable foibles maybe, but innocent of all grosser corruptions and turpitudes. Decent people, yes, we agree with Horace.

So a working model of satire is that its main purpose is both to entertain, sure, but also to reinforce the group identity and groupthink of its educated, middle (in Rome, upper) class audience.

The other limitation of satire is the extreme narrowness of its range. The best novels take into the minds and experiences of people drastically different from their readers. Lyric poetry can interweave acuteness of perception with psychological insight. Epic poetry transports our minds to the superhuman realm of gods and heroes. Whereas, on the whole, satire hits its subjects with a mallet, and it is a narrow range of subjects.

In satire 1.4 (i.e. book 1, satire 4) Horace makes a provisional list of the kinds of people he mocks: the greedy, the ambitious, those sexually obsessed with married women or with boys; over-rich collectors of objets d’art in silver or bronze; merchants anxious about their shipments and the next deal i.e. businessmen.

It’s a familiar list, indicative of the way human nature hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years, at least in complex societies. These societies seem to throw up the same types of character again and again, along with an audience of the non-rich, the non-perverted, the not-involved-in-politics, who enjoy being entertained by someone taking the mickey out of those members of society who are (rich, perverted,  incompetent politicians or corrupt businessmen).

So if satire’s targets are predictable, if the list of behaviours which are going to be mocked are known in advance, why is it not boring? Well, the answer is in the stylishness, zip and intelligence of the satirist, the vim and twist of their delivery. Plus – their sheer aggression. The best satire is malicious, so that beneath the jokes you sense real anger, and this anger, the way it is managed and shaped and directed can be immensely entertaining.

So it’s a balancing act, satire: you’ve got to hit targets familiar enough for the audience to laugh in recognition but not so obvious as to become boring; you’ve got to display inventiveness and wit in hitting those targets; you mustn’t attack your audience, for the most part you have to reassure them that they’re on the side of the angels (although occasional good-natured jabs at the audience’s complacency keep things lively – but not too much).

And any genuine anger you feel must be reined in and channeled into the show, not openly displayed – sublimated into comic invention, because raw anger changes the tone from comedy to rant. Watching performers like Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks walk that line between inventive invective and rant can be thrilling, invogorating, shocking, hilarious.

Horace’s satires display the kind of skill, variety and inventiveness which I’m suggesting good satire requires. They mock the usual suspects but often come at them from unexpected angles. And they do sometimes range a bit beyond the usual targets of satire into unexpected subject matter.

And this is because they are describing a society which, although in some respects similar to ours (the greedy rich, corrupt politicians, who’s shagging who etc) in many other details is significantly different, and therein lies another pleasure in reading Horace – for the details of ancient social history which pack the poems. Maybe this is all best demonstrated by a brief summary of each of the satires.

Summary of Horace’s satires

Book 1

Satire 1 (121 lines)

Why do people work so hard and yet almost everybody is fed up with their job and would swap it in a moment for someone else’s? Is it to do with greed? The poem turns into a dialogue with a miser.

Satire 2 (134 lines)

About sexual morality, it seems to say that whereas some rich men prefer sex to have obstacles, such as seducing other men’s wives, the author likes to keep sex simple and simply available.

Satire 3 (142 lines)

Numerous details of people being quick to criticise others (even their own friends behind their backs) yet hypocritically asking indulgence for their own flaws. It turns into a general point, which is that the punishment ought to fit the crime, arguing against Stoic doctrine that all crimes should be treated with equal severity. Because:

no-one is free from faults, the best is the man who is hampered by the smallest

Therefore:

Let’s have a fair penalty-scale for offences.

Satire 4 (143 lines)

Horace defends his writing of satires by claiming he writes very little, does not claim everyone’s attention, does not give public recitations, his writings are for his own improvement and amusement. He makes the significant point that satire is barely poetry at all, but more like rhythmic prose. He has an invented interlocutor accuse him of malice but refutes the accusation, contrasting himself with the kind of creep who gets drunk at a dinner party and abuses all his friends; now that’s malice. Then making the point that his father tried to teach him about life by pointing out men brought low by various flaws or low behaviour. His poetry is his notes to himself continuing that tradition.

Satire 5 (104 lines)

An amiable description of a journey Horace took from Rome to Brundisium, decorated with incidents and people encountered along the way, not least his good friend Virgil and his mates Plotius and Varius.

Satire 6 (131 lines)

On ambition and snobbery. Horace starts by thanking his patron, Maecenas who, although he came of pretty exalted parents, is free of snobbery. He laments his own position (‘only a freedman’s son, run down by all as only a freedman’s son’, l.46). This morphs into an extended tribute to his father who scrimped and saved to send him to the best school. Horace earns very big brownie points in a patriarchal society like Rome’s for his exemplary filial devotion. And then onto very attractive praise of the free and simple life he leads, being free of political office or ambition.

Satire 7 (35 lines)

A short piece telling the story of the half-breed Persius and the venomous outlaw Rupilius King. I didn’t understand the narrative but I could see that at various points he mocks their confrontation by comparing it to episodes in the Iliad, i.e. mock heroic, presumably to some extent echoing Lucilius’s mocking of high epic style.

Satire 8 (50 lines)

Spoken in the person of an old wooden statue of Priapus set up in the former common graveyard of the Esquiline Hill. Now, in line with Augustus’s policy of beautifying cities, Maecenas has converted the cemetery into pleasure gardens, hence, presumably, the commission to write a speech for the old statue. Half way through it unexpectedly changes into a vivid depiction of the sorcery and witchcraft the statue has been forced to observe late at night as hags tear a black lamb apart with their teeth and trying to summon the spirits of the dead from the resulting trench of blood.

The poem ends with the Priapus triumphantly telling us how, in the middle of their spells, he let rip an enormous fart and sent the witches scurrying off in fear. As usual Horace gives the witches names but, as usual, scholars have been unable to identify them with historical individuals.

The Latin for witch was saga.

Satire 9 (78 lines)

Comic anecdote about how he was strolling out one day when he was accosted by an aspiring writer who begs an introduction to Maecenas and won’t leave him alone. He drolly comments that a soothsayer (‘a Sabine crone’) predicted he wouldn’t die or any ordinary ailment, but was fated to be bored to death!

The pest pesters him for insights about Maecenas who Horace proceeds to describe as a fine example of a wise and moderate man who has made the best of his fate (what else was he going to say?) A friend of Horace’s joins them but, realising what’s up, playfully refuses to intervene or help him by agreeing to a private conversation.

In the end it appears the pest is due in court and his opponent now spots him and roars, ‘why isn’t he in court?’ It ends with a few obscure lines in which the opponent asks whether Horace will act as a witness (to what? why?) and Horace allows the opponent to touch his ear (why?), hustles the pest off to court, while people come running and shouting from every side. (Why?)

Satire 10 (92 lines)

Horace’s fullest statement of his own theory of satire. The poem opens with him answering critics who have obviously objected to his comments in 1.4 about Licinius’s lines being ‘rough’. What you need for satire is:

  • terseness, the opposite of verbosity
  • a flexible style, sometimes severely moralising, sometimes light-hearted
  • humour is often better at dealing with knotty issues than sharpness (as we saw in many of Cicero’s legal speeches)

He creates the kind of puppet interlocutors I mentioned above in order to refute or address their points. A critic praises him for blending Latin with Greek but Horace says that’s very outdated now. Catullus used Greek phraseology to introduce sensuality into his poetry. Horace eschews Greek, preferring only Latin. He says Greek is banned in law court, implying a comparison, implying satire is at least as serious as legal pleading.

Horace attributes the founding of satire to Lucinius (line 48) and replies to his critics that if Licinius were alive in Horace’s day, he’d have to make a significant effort to slim down his verse and polish it. Then more rules:

  • if you hope for a second reading of your work, delete and edit
  • don’t seek mass adulation, be content with a few, informed, readers

How many readers should the poet aim for? Strikingly, Horace names 14 individuals ‘and several others’, suggesting that he is writing for an audience of about 20 people.

The poem, and so the first book of satires, ends with an instruction to a slave to take this poem away and add it to ‘my little volume’.

Book 2

Satire 1 (86 lines)

Dialogue with Trebatius, an imaginary legal expert, giving Horace the opportunity to defend his practice of satire. In the poem Trebatius gives Horace a series of sensible suggestions which the poet comically complains he can’t implement.

It starts with Horace saying he is attacked from al sides for either stretching the genre beyond its limit or, alternatively, writing too much. Trebatius advises he take a rest. Not a bad idea, but he can’t get to sleep at nights and finds writing soothing. Trebatius advises he try swimming the Tiber three times or souse himself in wine; if he still needs to write, how about a history of the triumphs of Caesar? Even if he does a bad job it won’t rouse the anger of his victims as satire does.

Again he namechecks Lucilius as his forebear and a better man than either of them. He asks Jupiter for a quiet life but if anyone crosses him, he’ll make them the laughing stock of Rome.

Lucilius stripped away the facade of the great and the good parading through Rome and yet he still enjoyed the friendship of that hero Scipio Africanus and his wise friend, Laelius (the culture heroes who Cicero chose to set some of his philosophical dialogues among).

It ends abruptly as Trebatius warns Horace that if he composes foul verses to the detriment of someone’s reputation he can expect to end up in court; to which Horace replies that he composes fine verses which a) please Augustus b) only target public menaces.

Satire 2 (136 lines)

A sermon on the virtues of the simple life put into the mouth of Ofellus, a peasant Horace knew in his youth. The basic idea is that a good appetite comes from the body, comes from exercise and bodily need, making redundant the increasingly exquisite choices of Rome’s notorious gourmands and gluttons. Horace reserves an insult for ‘the youth of Rome’, ‘always amenable to any perverse suggestion’.

A simple diet needn’t be a stingy one, which allows him to lampoon misers who serve musty old food. The benefits of a simple diet include health, avoiding sickly excess, compared to gluttons who come away green from rich meals. When he’s ill or as he gets old, the simple man can treat himself, but the glutton has used up all his treats.

A rich man should spend his money to help out the deserving poor or pay to rebuild old temples?

Who will fare better in a crisis, the spoiled man used to luxury, or the simple man with few needs who has prepared his mind and body for adversity?

Interestingly for social historians, Horace has his boyhood farmer friend, Ofellus, recount in some detail how his farm was confiscated as part of Octavius’s policy of reassigning property to demobbed soldiers after his victory at Philippis (42 BC). Compare this with the bitter descriptions of land confiscation in Virgil’s Eclogues.

Satire 3 (326 lines)

By far the longest satire. Horace is spending the holiday of Saturnalia on his Sabine farm when a guest arrives, Damasippus. The poem opens with Damasippus accusing Horace of fleeing the city but failing to write a line i.e. having writer’s block. Damasippus goes on to describe how his business as an art dealer went bankrupt and he was standing on a bridge over the Tiber thinking about throwing himself in, when he was buttonholed and saved by a Stoic thinker, Stertinius.

With the zeal of a convert to the faith Damasippus proceeds to deliver a sermon on the text ‘everyone is mad except the sage’, asserting that loads of human vices, including greed, ambition, self indulgence and superstition, are all forms of madness.

Being so long exposes the fact, less obvious in shorter poems, that it’s often hard to make out what’s meant to be going on, and difficult to follow the presumed flow of thought or narrative. Stories come in unexpectedly, with characters we don’t fully know, obscure references being made we know not why. Presumably his audience found that the logic of the arguments flowed smoothly and sweetly, but I found this one impossible to follow.

It’s the biggest problem with ancient literature, that the reader has a good rough feel for what the author is on about but is often perplexed by an apparent lack of logical flow and ends up reading a series of sentences, sometimes themselves very obscure, which don’t really seem to explain or convey anything. There are passages where you just zone out because you’ve lost the thread of the grammar or argument.

Satire 4 (95 lines)

Horace is given a lecture on gastronomy by Catius who has just attended a lecture on the subject. There’s no satire or attitude, the entire thing is a very detailed list of which type of food, how to store and cook and serve it; it’s like a guidebook and, as such, sort of interesting social history. Most of the actual cooking, like the instructions for preparing the best oil for cooking, sound complex and pointless. It includes the kind of rubbish pseudoscience the ancients delighted in (Aristotle believed that round eggs were male and long eggs were female etc).

Satire 5 (110 lines)

A satire on how to get money, in an interestingly imaginative setting. This is a dramatic dialogue set in hell between Ulysses who has gone down to hell, as described in Homer’s Odyssey, book 11, and the wise blind seer Tiresias who he meets there.

Ulysses is afraid of returning home penniless, so Tiresias gives him advice on how to pick up money. The satire lies in the cynical worldliness of the advice. Thus: if you’re given a thrush or a similar present, present it to the household of the nearest rich, old man. Apples and other fruit from your farm, give to a rich man first. He may be a crook or a murder, doesn’t matter; butter him up.

Fish around for old men’s wills. If a law case comes up volunteer to help any party who is old and childless, regardless of the rights or wrongs. Tell the old geezer to go home while you manage his affairs for him. If you do well other fish will swim into your net.

Or find a man with a delicate, sickly son and worm your way into his affections, with the hope that the sickly son dies and you inherit. If the old guy offers you a look at the will, blithely wave it away as if of no interest. If he writes terrible poetry, praise it. If he is an old lecher, don’t hesitate to hand over your wife. And so on, all painting a picture of the untrammelled greed and corruption of contemporary Rome.

But what if Penelope is pure and moral? Offer her a share of the takings, she’ll agree to prostitute herself quickly enough. Even after the old boy’s died and you’ve inherited some of the fortune, make a show of building a decent tomb, if other heirs need financial help offer it: the more you plough, the more you sow.

Satire 6 (117 lines)

Written in 31 BC 3 or 4 years after Maecenas removed all Horace’s money worries by presenting him with a farm in Sabine country. It is a straightforward comparison of the advantages of country life versus the stress of the city, much imitated by later authors.

There’s some reference to the hurly burly of business, of being accosted in the street and the forum and asked for this or that favour. But a lot of it revolves around his friendship with Maecenas, endless petitioners asking his opinion about this or that state policy, because they know he is friends with Maecenas, who was Octavian’s deputy on his absence during the final war against Antony. When Horace claims to know nothing, the petitioners are upset or angry, convinced he does but is refusing to share.

How much nicer to be at his country place, to enjoy a simple but filling dinner, and then interesting, unrancorous conversation with good friends. Unexpectedly, the poem ends with a retelling of the proverbial story of the town mouse and the country mouse.

Satire 7 (118 lines)

Another sermon on a Stoic theme. As with some of the others, I found the exact structure confusing. I think Horace’s slave, Davus, delivers an extended sermon invoking Stoic doctrine to assert that Horace is just as a much a ‘slave’ to his passions and habits as Davus is an actual, literal slave.

Satire 8 (95 lines)

Another dialogue which goes straight into an ongoing conversation, as the poet tells his friend Fundanius that he knows he was at a dinner party given by the arriviste, Nasidienus Rufus, for Maecenas and some others last night: what was it like?

Fundanius gives a wry description of the over-fussy meal, with its multiple courses of ridiculous luxury, plus an absurd over-selection of wines. Two of the guests decide to wind the host up by drinking vast mugs full of the very expensive wine and the pretentious fish dish has only just been served when the awning, presumably over the whole party, collapsed, causing a great cloud of black pepper. Nobody is harmed, the awning is fixed. The host wants to abandon it but Nomentanus persuaded their host to continue and the meal proceeds

The guests bend to each others’ ears and whisper gossip and criticism. I feel sorry for Nasidienus with such ungrateful badly-mannered guests. Then the extravagant culinary pièces-de-resistance are brought in, namely crane, goose liver and hare’s legs – but the narrator ends the poem by saying the guests got their own back on the arriviste by leaving without touching a thing. Pretty mean but vivid indication of the snobbery which was central to life in Rome’s educated classes.

Summary

I’m very glad I made the effort to track down and buy this Rudd edition. The satires are astonishingly personable and accessible, even if some patches are (to me) incomprehensible, on either a first or second reading.


Credit

Niall Rudd’s translation of the satires of Horace and Persius was published by Penguin books in 1973. A revised edition with Horace’s epistles was published in 1979. All references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch (1945)

The silver lamp next to the couch swung gently to and fro on its long silver chain and outside the window the emanation of the city, ebbing and flowing above the roofs, was dissolved into purple, from purple-violet into dark blue and black, and then into the enigmatic and fluctuant.
(The Death of Virgil, page 47)

The Sleepwalkers

A few years ago I read and reviewed The Sleepwalkers (1931), the masterpiece of Modernist German novelist Hermann Broch (1886 to 1951). The title in fact refers to a trilogy of novels each of which focuses on a troubled individual from successive generations of German society, the novels being titled: The Romantic (1888), The Anarchist (1903) and The Realist (1918).

I reviewed each novel individually but also subjected the magniloquent claims often made about the trilogy to fierce criticism, using evidence from Walter Laqueur’s blistering attack on the failure of intellectuals in the Weimar Republic, Weimar: A Cultural History 1918 to 1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974). I argued that calling the trilogy things like ‘a panoramic overview of German society and history’ were wrong in fact and misleading in implication. The three novels are more eccentric and particular than such generalisations. But then lots of critics make sweeping claims about books they haven’t read.

Broch flees Austria

In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria in a move known as the Anschluss. Within days Broch was arrested by Nazi authorities for possession of a Socialist pamphlet and thrown into a concentration camp. A campaign by western writers managed to get him freed and he immediately emigrated to Britain, then moved on to America where he settled in 1939.

Before this happened, in 1937, in Austria, Broch had delivered a radio lecture about Virgil. Over the following years he enormously expanded and elaborated this text to become his other great masterpiece, Der Tod des Vergil or The Death of Virgil. This big novel was first published in June 1945 in both the original German and English translation simultaneously. Symbolically, it appeared in the month after the Second World War in Europe finally came to an end, with the complete destruction of Nazi Germany. A crushing end to all illusions about Germany politics, history and culture.

Schematics

Broch’s imagination is schematic: the three novels which make up The Sleepwalkers trilogy each centre on a character who a) come from successive generations and are in some sense emblematic of them; and who b) are each of a distinct and categorisable type. The same urge to structure the material is immediately evident in The Death, which is divided into four equal parts, portentously titled:

  • Water – The Arrival
  • Fire – The Descent
  • Earth – The Expectation
  • Air – The Homecoming

Despite these universal-sounding categories the ‘action’ of novel in fact only ‘describes’ the last 18 hours of the Roman poet Virgil’s life in the port of southern Italian port of Brundisium. The year is 19 BC. Virgil had travelled to Greece, according to this novel hoping to a) escape the fevers of Rome b) finally complete the long poem which has been dogging him, and c) be free to pursue his first love, philosophy.

But he was foiled in this ambition when the princeps or proto-emperor, Augustus, returning from the East, stopped off in Athens, called on Virgil and invited/ordered him to accompany him back to Italy. Hence Virgil’s regret at the start of the novel at giving in to Augustus’s insistence and abandoning his hopes of finally being rid or ‘art and poetry’ and devoting his life to meditation and study.

Anyway, on this return journey Augustus, Virgil and others of the party fell ill. Augustus fully recovered, but the novel opens with Virgil lying in a hammock that’s been rigged up in one of the ships, feeling very unwell indeed. Starting from this moment the long novel portrays the last 18 hours of his life.

The central theme or subject of the novel is Virgil’s wish to burn the manuscript of his epic poem, The Aeneid, a wish which is decisively thwarted by his master and ‘friend’, Augustus.

Modernist?

Blurbs about the novel claims it uses well-established modernist techniques, mixing poetry and prose with different styles and registers to convey the consciousness of a sick man drifting in and out of reality and hallucination but I didn’t find this to really be the case.

When I think of modernism I think of the combination of fragmented interiority matched by collage used in The Waste Land, or the highly collaged text of Berlin Alexanderplatz or the tremendous stylistic variety of Ulysses. There’s none of that here: the text is fluent and continuous. There’s no collage effect, no newspaper headlines or scraps of popular song or advertising jingles. Instead the text is continuous and smooth and highly poetic in style.

Modernism is also usually associated with the accelerated rhythms of the western city, as in the examples above or in John dos Passos’s huge novel, USA (1930 to 1936). Quite obviously a novel set nearly 2,000 years, before anything like the modern city had been imagined, could not use, quote or riff off any aspects of the twentieth century urban experience. So in that respect, also, the novel is not modernist.

What is modernist about it, maybe, is a secondary characteristic, which may sound trivial but is the inordinate length of Broch’s sentences. These can be huge and very often contain multiple clauses designed to convey the simultaneous perception of external sense impressions with bursts of interior thought, memory, opinion and so on – all captured in one sentence.

The Jean Starr Untermeyer translation

The 1945 translation into English was done by Jean Starr Untermeyer. I have owned the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition of this translation (with an introduction by Bernard Levin) since the mid-1980s and never got round to reading it till now. This edition contains a longer-than-usual 4-page translator’s note by Jean Starr Untermeyer who, we learn, devoted five years of her life to translating this novel. We also realise, within a few sentences, that her English is non-standard i.e. a bit quirky and idiomatic. On the whole I think that is a good thing because it continually reminds you of the novel’s non-English nature.

Untermeyer makes a number of good points about the difficulty of translating German into English. An obvious one is German’s tendency to create new words by combining individual nouns into new compound nouns. A second aspect of German style is that it can often have a concrete practical meaning but also a ghostly metaphysical implication. This doesn’t happen in English which has traditionally been a much more pragmatic down-to-earth language.

Long sentences

The biggest issue, though, is sentence length. Good German prose style has for centuries allowed of long sentences which build up a succession of subordinate clauses before being rounded out or capped by a final main verb.

English is the extreme opposite. English prefers short sentences. Hemingway stands as the patron saint of the prose style taught in all creative courses for the past 40 years which recommends the dropping of subordinate clauses, the striking out of all unnecessary adjectives, the injunction to keep sentences short and unadorned, a process Untermeyer colourfully refers to as ‘exfoliation’.

As Untermeyer points out, Henry James’s use of long, multi-clause sentences was very much against the general trend of 20th century English prose (as was the extravagant prose style developed by William Faulkner a generation or so later, contrary to the Hemingway Imperative).

Untermeyer says that English prose works by placing its thoughts in sequence and separately expressed in short, clear sentences; German prose more often works by seeking to express multiple levels of meaning ‘at one stroke’ i.e. in each sentence.

But Broch not only came from this very different tradition of conceiving and writing prose, but he pushed that tradition to extremes. Untermeyer reckons some of the sentences in the middle of the book might be the longest sentences ever written in literature. (I’m not so sure. Samuel Beckett wrote some very long sentences in Malone Dies and The Unnameable.)

Thought-groups

Broch’s sentences are long, very long, but they don’t have the deliberately confusing repetitiveness, the incantatory repetitiveness of Beckett. They are clearly trying to capture something and Untermeyer explains in her note that the aim can be summed up by one maxim: ‘one thought – one moment – one sentence’.

Each sentence is trying to capture what she calls one ‘thought-group’, the flickering and often disparate impressions and sensations which occur to all of us, all the time, continually, in each changing second of perception and thought. The difference between you and me and Hermann Broch is that Broch spent a lifetime trying to develop a prose style which adequately captures the complexity of each fleeting moment of consciousness.

In English we do have a tradition of hazy impressionistic prose maybe best represented by the shimmering surfaces of Walter Pater’s aesthetic novel, Marius the Epicurean (also about ancient Rome). And a related tradition of deliberate over-writing in order to create an indulgently sensual effect, maybe associated with Oscar Wilde and sometimes dismissively called ‘purple prose’.

Broch’s intention is different from both of those because he is trying to be precise. His sentences are so very long only because he is trying to capture everything that his subject felt in that moment. The superficial comparison in English is with James Joyce’s Ulysses but Joyce wove an intricate web of symbolic and sound associations, at the same time as he steadily dismantled the English language, in order to make his text approximate the shimmering a-logical process of consciousness. Broch goes nowhere near that far. His sentences may be epic in length, but they are always made up of discrete clauses each of which is perfectly practical and logical and understandable in its own right.

And from Pater to Joyce, the English style of long sentences has tended to choose sensual and lugubrious subject matter, from the lilies and roses of Wilde’s prose to the astonishing sensuality of Ulysses. Broch, by contrast, uses his long sentences to cover a much wider range of subject matter, much of it modern, unpleasant and absolutely not soft and sensual.

In the warehouse district

One example will go a long way to demonstrating what I’m describing. Early in the novel the little fleet carrying the emperor and Virgil docks at Brundisium. Virgil is then carried off the ship and carried in a litter by slaves to the emperor’s mansion in the city, led by a young man with a torch who leads them among the warehouses of Brundisium. Here is one sentence from the passage describing this journey.

Again the odours changed; one could smell the whole produce of the country, one could smell the huge masses of comestibles that were stored here, stored for barter within the empire but destined, either here or there after much buying and selling, to be slagged through these human bodies and their serpentine intestines, one could smell the dry sweetness of the grain, stacks of which reared up in front of the darkened silos waiting to be shoveled within, one could smell the dusty dryness of the corn-sacks, the barley-sacks, the wheat-sacks, the spelt-sacks, one could smell the sourish mellowness of the oil-tuns, the oil-jugs, the oil-casks and also the biting acridity of the wine stores that stretched along the docks one could smell the carpenter shops, the mass of oak timber, the wood of which never dies, piled somewhere in the darkness, one could smell its bark no less than the pliant resistance of its marrow, one could smell the hewn blocks in which the axe still clove, as it was left behind by the workman at the end of his labour, and besides the smell of the new well-planed deck-boards, the shavings and sawdust one could smell the weariness of the battered, greenish-white slimy mouldering barnacled old ship lumber that waited in great heaps to be burned. (Pages 24 to 25)

What does this excerpt tell us? It demonstrates both a) Broch’s ability to handle a long sentence with multiple clauses and b) the complete absence of modernist tricks such as collage, quotation etc.

And there is none of the shimmering incoherence of, say, Virginia Woolf’s internal monologues. Instead it is quite clear and comprehensible and even logical. What stands out is the repetition, and the way it’s really more like a list than a wandering thought.

I’ve mentioned that Broch is a systematic thinker and many of these long sentences don’t really meander, they work through all the aspects of a thought or, in Untermeyer’s phrase, thought-group. We are in the warehouse district, a place saturated in the stinks of the goods stored there. And so Broch enumerates them, not in the English style, in a series of short, discrete sentences, but in one super-sentence which tries to capture the totality of the sense impression all together, as it were, capturing one moment of super-saturated perception.

Pigs and slaves

Far from the shimmering impressionism of the English tradition, The Death of Virgil is also capable of being quite hard, almost brutal. Thus the opening passages contain quite stunning descriptions of being on deck of an ancient Roman galley on a very calm sea as it is rowed at twilight into the harbour of Brundisium just as a thousand lamps are lit in the town and reflected like stars on the black water. So far, so aesthetic.

But Broch mingles this soft stuff with over a page harshly criticising the aristocratic guests on the ship whose only interest on the entire journey has been stuffing their faces like pigs. At these moments the narrative is more like Breughel than Baudelaire.

He also devotes a page to a nauseated imagining of the life of the galley slaves, chained below decks, condemned to eternal toil, barely human, a frank admission of the slave society the entire narrative is set among. The theme is repeated a bit later as Virgil watches the slaves carrying goods from the ship once it’s docked and being casually whipped by their bored overseers.

And there’s another theme as well. When the imperial ship docks, it is greeted by roars of approval from the crowd who have gathered to greet their emperor. Suddenly Broch switches to a more socio-political mode, meditating on the terrible evil to be found in the crowds which seek to suppress their individual isolation by excessive adulation of The One – an obvious critique of Nazism.

From far off came the raging, the raging noise of the crowd frantic to see, the raging uproar of the feast, the seething of sheer creatureliness, hellish, stolid, inevitable, tempting, lewd and irresistible, clamorous and yet satiated, blind and staring, the uproar of the trampling herd that in the shadowless phantom-light of brands and torches dove on towards the evil abyss of nothingness… (p.47)

German brutalism

These passages also epitomise what I think of as ‘the German quality’ in literature, which is a tendency to have overgassy metaphysical speculation cheek-by-jowl with a pig-like brutality, qualities I found in the other so-called masterpiece of German Modernism.

The claim about metaphysical bloat is merely repeating the claim of Walter Laqueur, who knew more about Weimar literature than I ever will and found it present in much of that literature. The comment about piggishness is based on my reading of:

  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, which starts as the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, is released from prison where he’d been serving a sentence for murdering his girlfriend, Ida, and one of the first things he does is go round and rape his dead girlfriend’s sister, Minna. There’s the scene where the scumbag Reinhold drunkenly smashes his girlfriend, Trude’s, face to a pulp or when Franz beats his girlfriend Mieze black and blue etc.
  • The surprising crudity of much Kafka, the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle jumping on their female companions without warning, and the visceral brutality of stories like The Hunger Artist or In The Penal Colony.
  • The crudity of Herman Hesse’s novels, such as The Steppenwolf, in which the ‘hero’, Harry Haller, murders the woman who took pity on him and loved him, Hermine.
  • The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil which I was enjoying very much for its urbane and humorous tone until – sigh – being German, it had to introduce a psychopath, Moosbrugger, who is on trial for murdering a prostitute and chopping her up into pieces, a process which the author describes in gratuitous detail.
  • In Broch’s own novels, Esch, the piggish ‘hero’ of The Anarchist rapes the innkeeper he subsequently shacks up with, and thinks well of himself because he doesn’t beat her up too much, too often.
  • Wilhelm Huguenau, the smooth-talking psychopathic ‘hero’ of The Realist, murders Esch and then rapes his wife.
  • Bertolt Brecht made a point of dispensing with bourgeois conventions in order to emphasise the brutal reality of the ‘class struggle: ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.’

Phenomenology

I’ll quote from my own review of The Romantic:

Aged 40 Broch gave up management of the textile factory he had inherited from his father and enrolled in the University of Vienna to study mathematics, philosophy and psychology. I wonder what kind of philosophy Broch studied because this focus on trying to describe the actual processes of consciousness – the flavour of different thoughts, and the ways different types of thought arise and pass and sink in our minds – reminds me that Phenomenology was a Germanic school of philosophy from the early part of the century, initially associated with Vienna. According to Wikipedia:

In its most basic form, phenomenology attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective: consciousness and the content of conscious experiences such as judgements, perceptions, and emotions. Although phenomenology seeks to be scientific, it does not attempt to study consciousness from the perspective of clinical psychology or neurology. Instead, it seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.

‘Through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.’ That’s not a bad summary of what Broch does in The Sleepwalker novels and does again here. The obvious difference is that whereas The Sleepwalker novels have plots and numerous characters who interact in a multitude of scenes, in The Death of Virgil Broch found a perfect subject – a deeply sensitive, highly articulate poet – to host/inspire/articulate an enormous number of these phenomenological speculations, long passages which not only describe Virgil’s sensations and thoughts, but analyse, ponder and reflect on the nature of thought itself.

Thus the first part of the passage through the warehouses, which I’ve quoted, amounts to a catalogue of sense impressions. But the smells of country produce awaken a yearning in him for the peace he knew back when he was growing up on his parents’ farm, but not some peace described in the English purple prose tradition – instead a highly theoretical and metaphysical notion of ‘peace’, as representing longing for a full integration of the self, a longing-yearning which haunts Virgil but which he is fated never to achieve.

Here’s an excerpt from that scene. To understand it you need to know that the roaring greeting of the mob in Brundisium town square had led Virgil to pretty negative thoughts about humanity in all its crudity. And so, in this sentence, the two themes –yearning, and the mob – are blended.

It was himself he found everywhere and if he had to retain everything and was enabled to return all, if he succeeded in laying hold on the world-multiplicity to which he was pledged, to which he was driven, given over to it in a daydream, belonging to it without effort, effortlessly possessing it, this was so because the mutiplicity had been his from the very beginning; indeed before all espial, before all hearkening, before all sensibility, it had been his own because recollection and retention are never other than the innate self, self-remembered, and the self-remembered time when he must have drunk the wine, fingered the wood, tasted the oil, even before oil, wine or wood existed, when he must have recognised the unknown, because the profusion of faces or non-faces, together with their ardour, their greed, their carnality, their covetous coldness, with their animal-physical being, but also with their immense nocturnal yearning, because taken all together, whether he had ever seen them or not, whether they had ever lived or not, were all embodied in him from his primordial origins as the chaotic primal humus of his very existence, as his own carnality, his own ardour, his own greed, his own facelessness, but also his own yearning: and even had this yearning changed in the course of his earthly wanderings, turned to knowledge, so much so that having become more and more painful it could scarcely now be called yearning, or even a yearning for yearning, and if all this transformation had been predestined by fate from the beginning in the form of expulsion or seclusion, the first bearing evil, the second bringing salvation, but both scarcely endurable for a human creature, the yearning still remained, inborn, imperishable, imperishably the primal humus of being, the groundwork of cognition and recognition which nourishes memory and to which memory returns, a refuge from fortune and misfortune, a refuge from the unbearable; almost physical this last yearning, which always and forever vibrated in every effort to attain the deeps of memory, however ripe with knowledge that memory might be. (pages 25 to 26)

Here we have some choice examples of the German tendency to make up new compound nouns to describe elusive philosophical or psychological categories: ‘world-multiplicity’, ‘self-remembered’, ‘animal-physical’.

And the use of repetition is pretty obvious – I’ve singled out the words ‘yearning’ and ‘memory’. It isn’t really repetition for the sake of either euphony (purely for the sound), or to drive home a point (as in, say, Cicero’s legal speeches). It is more that, with each repetition, the meaning of the word changes. Broch is examining the concepts behind these key words from different angles. Each repetition sheds new light, or maybe gives the word additional connotations. It is a cumulative effect.

An obvious question is: does this kind of thing actually shed light, does it help us to understand the human mind any better? Well, not in a strictly factual sense, but in the way that literature forces us to have different thoughts, sensations, expands the possibilities of cognition, vocabulary and expression, then, maybe, yes. And the epic length of Broch’s sentences are indicative of his attempt to really stretch the possibilities of perception, or perception-through-language, in his readers.

Then again, it isn’t an actual lecture, it’s not a scholarly paper appearing in a journal of psychology; it’s embedded in a work of literature so a better question is: how does it work within the text?

Any answer has to take account of the fact that this is only one of literally hundreds of other passages like it. No doubt critics and scholars have tabulated and analysed Broch’s use of key words and concepts and traced them back to works of psychology, philosophy or phenomenology he may have read. For the average reader the repetition of words and phrases and the notions they convey has more of a musical effect, like the appearance, disappearance, then reappearance of themes and motifs, building up a complex network of echoes and repetitions, many of which are not noticeable on a first reading. I ended up reading passages 2 or 3 times and getting new things from them at every reading.

Last but not least: do you like it? I found The Death of Virgil difficult to read not because of the clever meanings or subtle psychology but because a lifetime of reading prose from the Hemingway Century, compounded by a career working on public-facing websites, has indoctrinated my mind into preferring short, precise sentences. So I found it an effort to concentrate fully on every clause of these monster sentences – that, the sheer effort of concentrating of every element in these long sentences, holding all the clauses in your mind as they echo and modify each other – that’s what I found difficult.

But short answer: Yes, I did enjoy it. Very much. And it grows and adds new resonances with every rereading. It’s a slow read because I kept picking it up after putting it aside to make lunch, water the garden, feed the cats etc, found I’d forgotten where I was (because so many of the pages are solid blocks of text without any paragraph breaks) and so ended up rereading pages which I’d read once and not even realising it, but when I did, deliberately rereading it with a whole new pleasure, hearing aspects of the text, its meanings and implications and lush style, which I’d missed first time around.

Lyricism

Because The Death of Virgil is highly lyrical. Untermeyer says the entire text is in effect a poem because of its sustained lyricism. It certainly overflows with lyrical passages of deliberate sensuality.

Through the open arched windows well above the city’s roofs a cool breeze was blowing, a cool remembrance of land and sea, seafast, landfast, swept through the chamber, the candles, blown down obliquely, burned on the many-branched, flower-wreathed candelabrum in the centre of the room, the wall-fountain let a fragile, fan-shaped veil of water purl coolly over its marble steps, the bed under the mosquito netting was made up and on the table beside it food and drink had been set out. (p.41)

Maybe you could posit a spectrum of the content, with pure lyricism at one end, pure abstraction at the other, and a mix in the middle. So the excerpt above is what you could call entry-level lyricism in the sense that it is concerned solely with sense impressions, sense data, describing the ‘real’ world. Here’s a passage which contains hints of the metaphysical:

Yet in the night’s breath all was mingled, the brawling of the feast and the stillness of the mountains and the glittering of the sea as well, the once and the now and again the once, one merging into the other, merged into one another… (p.42)

And here is the full-on visionary-metaphysical:

Oh, human perception not yet become knowledge, no longer instinct, rising from the humus of existence, from the seed of sentience, rising out of the wisdom of the mothers, ascending into the deadly clarity of utter-light, of utter-life, ascending to the burning knowledge of the father, ascending to cool heights, oh human knowledge, unrooted, eternally in motion, neither in the depths nor on the heights but hovering forever over the starry threshold between night and day, a sigh and a breath in the interrealm of starry dusk, hovering between the life of the night-held herds, and the death of light-flooded identification with Apollo, between silence and the word, the word that always returns into silence. (p.48)

By now I hope you can see how Virgil’s mind is in almost permanently visionary mode. In his last hours he is entirely concerned with huge abstract ideas of human nature and destiny and personal intimations about being and consciousness and awareness, all mixed into a great, prolonged swirl. Every conversation, every new event, stirs a new aspect of this endless flow of thoughts, triggers a new long rhapsody. The novel as rhapsody, where rhapsody is defined as ‘an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling’.

Plot summary

Part one, ‘Water – The Arrival’, is just 53 pages long. The third person narrator records Virgil’s thoughts about the sea journey, his swinish companions, his regret at being forced to leave Athens, notifies us that he is very ill, all as the fleet of 6 ships pulls into the harbour of Brundisium as night falls.

The emperor’s ship navigates among the many other ships in the harbour, ties up and slaves start to unload it, while Virgil is carried ashore in a litter borne by 4 slaves.

A huge crowd has turned out to greet Augustus in the central square, roaring approval. Virgil is carried through them, overcome with disgust at humanity, led by a youth who has appeared out of nowhere carrying a torch.

This youth leads the slaves bearing Virgil’s litter through the smelly warehouse quarter and then into a very dirty narrow back passage, reeking of poverty, as raddled women hang out their windows yelling abuse at the rich guy in the litter. This is a sort of vision of hell and goes on for some pages, Virgil repeatedly calling it Misery Street.

They finally emerge into a plaza, also thronged, and make their way through the surging crowd to the gates to the emperor’s palazzo. Here they are let through by the guard and handled by an efficient major-domo who escorts them to their room.

The mysterious torch-bearing boy is unaccountably still with Virgil and when the major-domo tells him to leave, Virgil, on an impulse, says the boy is his ‘scribe’ and can stay. When he asks how long the boy slave will stay with him, the boy gives the portentous reply ‘forever’, which triggers a characteristic response in Virgil:

 Everlasting night, domain in which the mother rules, the child fast asleep in immutability, lulled by darkness, from dark to dark, oh sweet permanence of ‘forever’. (p.44)

The slaves depart. Virgil is alone in the bedroom he’s been allotted, perceiving the night sky, the plash of the fountain in the gardens outside, overcome with swirling thoughts about peace and youth and sense impressions and memory, as he lies on the bed and tries to sleep. End of part one.


Credit

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch was published by Pantheon Books in 1945. References are to the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

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Classical Epic: Homer and Virgil by Richard Jenkyns (1992)

W.A. Camps’s Introduction to Virgil was horrible to read, long-winded, verbose and highly repetitive; he describes the same series of events 3, 4, 5 times, first from the point of view of Aeneas, then of Turnus, then of the gods, then for its poerry, then for its symbolism etc etc, all without telling you anything particularly interesting or insightful. I found it so frustrating I gave up.

Richard Jenkyns’s dinky little primer (80 pages including Further Reading) is, by contrast, jaunty, accessible, logically structured, covers all the territory. It aims to be popular i.e. aims at a general audience, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Camps writes at great length without ever saying anything interesting. Jenkyns says something interesting in almost every sentence. Key learnings include:

Who was Homer?

There are two camps, unitarians and analysts. Unitarians think the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by one man in the same sense that Shakespeare was the author of Hamlet.

Analysts think the poems were the work of successive generations of anonymous authors. Analysts can themselves be subdivided into 2 groups: one group think the poems grew gradually as successive generations of minstrel poets added plotlines and details; the other type think this is so but posit the existence of a ‘redactor’, standing at the end of the oral line, who sorted the works out, synthesised various stories and consciously created the works we have today.

Milman Parry

In the 1930s a young American academic named Milman Parry revolutionised Homer studies. He had been on several extended sociological expeditions to poor illiterate villages in Bosnia, in the Balkans, and there was introduced to a fraternity of oral poets who could recite epic poems of enormous length purely from memory. He made many recordings of them in action and in conversation. It became clear that they had at their command a large number of ready-made formulae which they could slip into the poems at will to fit any metrical gap. Milman’s notions of ‘formulae’ were characterised by scope and economy: scope meant there were phrases to describe everything; economy indicated that they were short phrases, although they often came in grammatical variations which meant the poet could slip in the appropriate phrase to fill gaps in his lines. I like that Parry was dubbed the ‘Darwin of Homer studies’ in the sense that he gave it an utterly new, scientific basis.

Homer’s Greek was never spoken. It mashes together grammar and vocab from different dialects, embedded like different colours in a tapestry.

Parry didn’t actually change the who-was-Homer theories, just gave them a whole new dimension. But scholars stlil squabble to this day about whether they were written by one person at the end of a tradition of oral poets, or were assembled by a master writer but then continued to be adapted and retold in later generations. Nobody knows.

Against great men

Jenkyns highlights what you could call the bourgeois fallacy of literature which is that there is a kind of reader and critic who wants their literature to be produced by Great Geniuses. They are upset by the idea that the Iliad and Odyssey might be the result of communities of makers, spread over generations. Their critical approach depends on the notion that works of literature ought to display Fine Sensibilities and Moral Choices and Profound Psychological Insights and all the rest of it. So if it turns out that some of the greatest works of literature ever were produced by committees and communities, the entire humanist-bourgeois-moralistic school of criticism loses its assumptions and all its tools, what is there to write about?

Which is why I distance myself from that approach. For me a work of literature is a verbal machine, a semantic device, for eliciting psychological, cognitive and emotional responses. Who made it or why or what they intended are very secondary questions to analysing how the machine works and what it does to our brains when we read or hear it. This approach just seems to me more flexible and answerable to the weird, diverse and often inexplicable jungle of literary texts we engage with. Or proverbs or maxims or folk stories or limericks or the many other types of literary form or genre.

The whole insistence that literature must be original and must express the super-fine feelings of creative geniuses is a very narrow, blinkered view which only came into being with the Romantic Revolution around 1800. People who have only read literature from the last few decades, or the last two centuries at most, will get on fine with theis blinkered view because a lot of literature post 1800 was conceived and written in this way and a lot of criticism can justifiably focus on the author, their biography, their intentions and so on.

But if you read literature from before 1800 – from the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, the Icelandic sagas, the huge range of anonymous poems, the literature of the ancient world – it’s conceived and originated in completely different ways. Anglo-Saxon poetry, Beowulf, say, can’t be fitted into the post-Romantic, sensitive genius model but, like Homer, it obviously exists. So your critical approach must be modified to take account of the widest possible variety of literary artefacts.

An illiterate peasant can say something as profound as Shelley. Some of the greatest stories are folk stories. Some of the greatest wisdom is in proverbs. Get your head round it.

Back to Homer, most critics think the author of the Iliad and of the Odyssey cannot be the same man. Jenkyns tends to think they are but not because he’s wedded to the Great Man theory, more for the accumulation of technical evidence.

Homer’s gods

The ungodlike behaviour of Homer’s gods offended Plato. He thought they ought to be more dignified. Indeed, Homer’s men and gods are very similar in their selfishness and their emotional responses, but with 2 key differences: the gods are immortal and the gods are happy; men are mortal and, on the whole, miserable. But this means:

The gods’ desires and passions are shallower and more transitory than men’s. Men are complex and deep in a way that the gods are not; they face challenges and dilemmas from which the gods are exempt. (p.29)

The most distinctive thing about the Iliad is its phenomenal virile energy. It has a fierce love of life. It is Nietzschean. It asserts life and nothing but life. The most intense experience a man can have is fighting in battle. Death is always near so every moment is superhumanly intense. Nothing matches the complete, pure, 100% masculine experience of victorious fighting, of killing an opponent.

The pitilessness seems to be a necessary part of the vision…a fundamentally tragic conception, high, austere and unflinching in a fashion not easily grasped by the modern liberal imagination. (p.28)

Menis, anger, is the first word of the Iliad. It is a 11,693-line long poem about male anger.

The Christian idea is that God is great because he loves us. Homer’s idea is the reverse: the gods are great because they get involved, a bit, superfically; but deep down they are immortal and wonderfully indifferent, light-hearted, care-less. Essentially frivolous.

This offended the stern moralist Plato. Which is why I don’t like Plato, whose philosophical approach leads him to the ludicrous idea that this world is simply a cheap reproduction of the Ideal World which exists on some other plane and is much to be preferred. Nonsense. This is the only world and that is why it is so important to live as intensely and fiercely as Homer’s heroes.

The Iliad is named after Troy because Ilium was the old Greek word for Troy. So the title Iliad could be translated as ‘Troy Story’. Except that isn’t what the poem is really about. It is the story of Achilles’ anger and the tragic vision of the universe which that anger invokes, calls forth, embodies.

The Iliad covers a period of one month. The central 21 books of the poem cover just three days.

The Odyssey

Many readers remember the Odyssey as a picaresque series of exotic adventures. But it isn’t. The actual action ofthe poem covers a similiarly brief period with all the exotic adventures being told in a flashback to the court of King Alcinous of hte Phaeacians.

The Odyssey is actually a nostos, the story of ‘a return home’. It’s also easy to forget that Odysseus’s journey home is mirrored by his grown-up son Telemechus’s journey away from home, to mainland Greece, to meet and ask Odysseus’s comrades in the war what has become of him.

In the Iliad man is alone, and Homer dramatises this in the superficial bonding of Priam and Achilles when the former comes to beg the latter for Hector’s body. I’ve always through this scene one of the most beautyiful and heartrending in all literature, but Jenkyns brings out how they are grieving for different things and remain isolated in their own worlds.

Anyway, by contrast, Odysseus’s nostos continually brings him into greater and greater society.

There is lots of evidence that there were and are two Odysseuses in the ancient tradition: one was a wily trickster, whose character appears much earlier than the Homeric poems, and owes a lot to folk legend. The other is the upright noble king of the Iliad type. The two traditions are combined in the Odyssey.

The Odyssey is, despite its many grim moments, a comedy. The hero arrives home safe and sound to be reunited with his wife and son. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished.

It is also a poem about showing hospitality to the stranger at the door.

Virgil

Virgil obviously copied the worldview, historical setting, characters and key events from Homer. Yet there would have been no point doing it if you just ended up as a second-rate Homer. Virgil co-opts Homer big time but he is trying to do something different and the poem is full of this effort, of struggle, of difficulty, to rethink and remodel his exemplars.

Virgil co-opts huge parts of both the Iliad and the Odyssey into a poem which somehow manages to be shorter than either of them.

Primary and secondary epic

The distinction between primary epic (anonymous product of illiterate societies) and secondary epic (written product of literate societies, generally with a named author) is boringly familiar. Jenkyns adds a wrinkle I hadn’t thought of: secondary epic is generally more moralising, more earnest and serious than primary epic. That’s one of the appeals of primary epic – its amoral energy.

In Homer the gods are frivolous and happy-go-lucky, and the human heroes have a kind of heroic freedom of action: they defy the gods as they go to their deaths. In the Aeneid (or Paradise Lost) the characters carry a heavy burden of meaning/destiny and nobody is ever happy-go-lucky. The fierce Nietszchean joy has evaporated. Everything is an effort and a burden and a sacrifice. I’ve just read T.S. Eliot’s essay on Virgil where he describes Aeneas as having ‘a very heavy cross to bear.’ Exactly, and the poem also bears that weight.

Poiund’s definition of epic

It’s easy to overlook but when Ezra Pound says an epic is a long poem with history in it, both the Iliad and the Odyssey do NOT have history in them, not proper history, autheticated factual history. They both come from the Greek Dark Ages of legends and myths.

By contrast, Virgil’s Aeneid emphatically is a poem with history in: book 6 features the parade of future Roman heroes which refers to umpteen real historical personages and their military achievements, and here and at the end of book 8 (the shield) Virgil goes out of his way to include real history in his poem.

The burden of meaning

Again: many poets in Roman times wrote long epic poems, but the heroes generally had their adventures and that was it. Only in Virgil is their this tremendous weight of significance and symbolism, and all the way through the sense of tremendous effort, and its self conscious sense of burden and heavy historical meaning which Milton copied.

Aeneas introduces himself as ‘pius Aeneas’ (1.378) and his awareness of the burden of responsibility to family, state and the gods repeatedly threatens to crush him. It makes Aeneas a new type of epic hero. This is cognate with Eliot’s notion that Aeneas has what none of the Homeric heroes have, and what will become a great Christian virtue, humility. He accepts that his destiny is bigger than he is.

Virgil’s prisms

Virgil uses a prismatic method. He walks round his men and women, examining them from all angles. The most obvious way this is done is by comparing them to other figures from myth or history. Thus Aeneas is compared at various points to Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Hercules, Theseus, Jason and Augustus. The point is not that Aeneas is like any of these: it is precisely the differences that the reader is invited to ponder and define.

Dido and Aeneas

Jenkyns makes a neat observation about Aeneas and Dido: it is best to think of them as Homeric characters who have got out of their depth. They continue to behave with the insouciance of the Homeric heroes, but somehow their world they inhabit has become darker and dominated by this effortful quest and destiny which Aeneas is cursed to fulfil. Aeneas starts out as a Homeric hero but he rapidly finds himself in a world where the Homeric rules no longer apply. Compare and contrast with the heroes of the Iliad in particular, who are confidently in and of their world. They are masters of it. Aeneas gropes his way through an alien world.

Jenkyns makes the neat point that, after her moving appearance to him as a phantasm after the fall of Troy, Aeneas never sees, or even thinks about, his lost wife Creusa again: and this is because ‘a good marriage is complete; its memory does not trouble the spirit.’ Unlike the doomed affair with Dido which, of course, very much does trouble his spirit for some time afterwards.

Aeneas the listener

One mark of the Homeric heroes’ at-homeness in their world is the long fluent speeches they make. It’s their world, they’re completely at home in it, they make lengthy speeches about it.

Aeneas, by contrast, speaks but doesn’t make many speeches. More often than not he is listening to ther people’s speeches, taking instruction, learning about his destiny.

And he is frequently puzzled and perplexed, led on by half-prophecies and obscure omens, knowing that something awaits him in Italy but only given the details half way through the poem. No-one in a Homeric poem is perplexed in this way. They are crystal clear about their grievances and their anger etc.

The Aeneid is a poem about a troubled man. It should start: ‘Arms and a troubled man I sing’.


Roman reviews

Virgil and the Christian World by T.S. Eliot (1951)

T.S. Eliot: a potted biography

The great Anglo-American poet, playwright and critic T.S. Eliot (1888 to 1965) came from America to England just before the First World War, published a small number of sensuous, ‘modernist’ poems displaying a sensibility in debt to French Symbolism. Soon after the Great War ended he published the seminal modernist poem, The Waste Land (1922), but also established a reputation as a deeply insightful and intelligent critic of much earlier English literature, particularly the Jacobean playwrights and metaphysical poets of the early 1600s.

His reputation was enhanced and his influence steadily spread, especially among the younger generation of writers and critics, due to his editorship of a literary and philosophical magazine, The Criterion, which he edited from 1922 to 1939. Readers of The Criterion came to realise that, far from being a youthful revolutionary who was set on overturning literary values, and despite the radical format of The Waste Land (collage, fragments, quotes from multiple foreign languages), Eliot was, in fact, a profoundly conservative thinker.

This was made explicit when in 1928, in the foreword to a book of essays titled ‘For Lancelot Andrewes’ (the Jacobean bishop and writer) Eliot ‘came out’, declaring himself ‘a classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion,’ committing himself to hierarchy and order in all three fields.

He had already taken British citizenship. In the later 1930s he attempted to revive the verse drama of the Elizabethans which he had spent so much time analysing, on the modern stage, writing a series of plays in verse, starting with Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

During the Second World War Eliot worked as a reader for the publishers Faber & Faber during the day and a fire warden at night. The masterpiece of his maturity was the set of four longer poems collectively titled the Four Quartets (Burnt Norton, 1936, then East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, published in 1940, 1941 and 1942, respectively).

After the war, Eliot settled into the position of Grand Old Man of Poetry, with a leading role at the leading publisher of poetry, Faber. He continued to write essays and make broadcasts on the radio. With his public conversion to Anglicanism he had achieved an ideological and psychological stability.

Having lived through two ruinous world wars, a lot of Eliot’s effort was now devoted towards helping to define and preserve the best of European civilisation. His early essays had been offshoots of a poet working through his own problems and interests; the later essays are a conscious effort to establish a canon of classic literature, trying to formulate universal categories to define and preserve it.

It is in this spirit that in 1951 he delivered a lecture on BBC radio titled ‘Virgil and the Christian World’, which was then printed in The Listener magazine and collected in the volume On Poetry and Poets.

Virgil and the Christian World

As befits radio this is not an address to a specialist audience of literary scholars but a more broad brush approach for a general audience. Eliot explains that he is not setting out to assert Virgil’s special value as a poet or moralist, but to pay attention to ‘those characteristics of Virgil which render him peculiarly sympathetic to the Christian mind’.

Straight away he addresses the notorious issue of the Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. This, the fourth and final of Virgil’s set of lengthy poems about the countryside or ‘eclogues’, contains extravagant praise of the forthcoming birth of a special child, who, the poet claims, will bring a new golden age, the return of Saturn and the Virgin, the gift of divine life etc.

As early Christianity established itself, early Christian apologists ransacked all available texts, from old Jewish scriptures to the entire literature of the ancient world, looking for proofs and prophecies, any text anywhere which could be made to prefigure and predict the arrival of their messiah.

Thus the Fourth Eclogue was quickly adopted by these apologists and Virgil was made an honorary Christian before the fact because Christians claimed he had been gifted with spiritual prophecy to foresee the coming of the Christ. Throughout the entire Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance scholars and theologians genuinely believed that Virgil had predicted the coming of the Christ child.

Eliot makes clear right at the start that he in now way thinks that Virgil foresaw the birth of Christ (some 19 years after he himself died). Rather, Eliot thinks the Fourth Eclogue was written to a friend of his, Pollio, whose wife was expecting a baby.

[In fact, the notes to the OUP edition of the Eclogues which I recently read, suggest that this passage of the Fourth Eclogue was describing the hoped-for son of the recent marriage of Antony and Octavius’s sister, Octavia (in 40 BC), because contemporaries devoutly hoped that their union would usher in a final end to Rome’s endless civil wars.]

Eliot then ponders the meaning of the words prophet, prophecy and predict. He himself has no doubt that Virgil had no inkling of the coming of Christ. On the other hand, he suggests that if the word ‘inspiration’ means writing something the poet himself does not completely understand, and which he or she may themselves misinterpret once the ‘inspiration’ has passed, the maybe Virgil was ‘inspired’.

This is by way of preparing the way for some autobiography, for Eliot then paints an obvious portrait of himself and how his most famous poem, The Waste Land, which arose out of his purely private concerns, amazed him by going on to become the rallying cry for an entire generation of writers.

A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression both of their own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation.

A poet need not know what his poetry will come to mean for others just as a prophet need not understand the meaning of their prophetic utterance. Thus there may be any number of secular, historical explanations for the Fourth Eclogue; but he repeats his definition of ‘inspiration’ as tapping into a force which defies all historical research.

Anyway the point is that the existence of the Fourth Eclogue which so many Christians mistakenly thought was divinely inspired, gave Virgil and his writing a kind of free pass into the new Christian order, opening ‘the way for his influence in the Christian world’, something mostly denied to other explicitly ‘pagan’ authors. On the face of it this is a lucky accident but Eliot doesn’t believe it was an ‘accident’.

Eliot anticipates Jackson Knight’s view, expressed in his Penguin translation of the Aeneid from a few years later (1956), that Virgil was the poet of the gateway, looking both back to the pagan world and forwards to the Christian dispensation.

So after these preliminaries, Eliot gets to the meat of his essay: In what way did Virgil anticipate the Christian West? Eliot tells us that, to answer his question, he is going to rely on a book by a German scholar, Theodor Haecker, titled Virgil: The Father of the West.

Before he gets started though, Eliot rather surprisingly devotes a page to autobiography, telling us that as a boy learning the Classics he much preferred Greek to Latin (and still does). However he found himself immediately more drawn to Virgil than Homer. The main reason was that the gods in Homer are so capricious, selfish and immoral and all the so-called ‘heroes’ are in fact coarse ruffians. The only decent character in the entire book is Hector.

Nowadays, if forced to explain his preference, he’d say he prefers the world of Virgil to the world of Homer: it was ‘a more civilised world of dignity, reason and order’. Eliot goes on to compare the Greek and Roman worlds, saying the culture of Athens was much superior in the arts, philosophy and pure science. Virgil made of Roman culture something better than it was. Then he quietly makes a very big leap in the argument, claiming that Virgil’s ‘sensibility was more nearly Christian than any other Roman or Greek poet’. How so?

He says he is going to follow Haeckel’s procedure of examining key words in the poem and highlights laborpietas and fatum. However, he immediately drops this plan and veers off into a consideration of the Georgics. What Virgil really intended the Georgics for remains a bit of a mystery: they’re not particularly useful as a handbook to farming, and they contain many digressions completely extraneous to their ostensible subject matter. After pondering Virgil’s motivation, Eliot concludes that Virgil intended to affirm the dignity of agricultural labour and the importance of the cultivation of the soil for the wellbeing of the state, both materially and spiritually.

The Greeks may have perfected the notion that the highest type of life is the contemplative life (Plato et al) but they tended to look down on manual labour. For Eliot the Georgics affirm the importance of manual labour on the land. Then he makes a leap to talk about the monastic movement which grew up within medieval Christendom and how the monastic orders combined both aspects, combining a life of contemplation with quite arduous labour, as both being essential for the life of the complete man.

It may be that the monks who read and copied Virgil’s manuscripts recognised their spirit in the Georgics.

Now onto the Aeneid. Eliot says this epic poem is:

concerned with the imperium romanum, with the extension and justification of imperial rule.

(quite unlike W.A. Camps with his silly claim that the Aeneid is not a work of propaganda.) But Eliot claims that Virgil’s ‘ideal of empire’ was founded on a devotion to the land, to the region, village, and family within the village. This brief explanation is his discussion of labor because Eliot now turns to the more important concept of pietas.

In English someone is called ‘pious’ if they make a great show of their religious faith. Eliot says that pietas for Virgil had much wider associations: it implies a respectful attitude to the individual, the family, the region, and towards ‘the imperial destiny of Rome’. Aeneas is also ‘pious’ in his respect towards the gods and punctilious observance of rites and offerings.

Eliot delves further into the meanings of the word. Piety to a father can, for example, mean not only affection for an individual but acceptance of a bond which one has not chosen. Piety towards the father is also an acceptance of the correct order of things, and so, obliquely, respect of the gods. After some shilly-shallying Eliot gets to the point he wants to make: all these forms of piety involve some form of humility and humility is a professedly Christian virtue. Aeneas is, in this respect, the polar opposite of Achilles or Odysseus, who have not a shred of humility about them.

[Interestingly, given the date of the essay, written soon after the end of the Second World War, Eliot describes Aeneas as the original Displaced Person, a fugitive from a ruined city and an obliterated society.]

Odysseus endures ten years of exile but eventually returns to his home hearth, to a loyal wife, a dutiful son, his slaves and faithful dog. Whereas Aeneas can’t go home: he is a man on a mission and accomplishing that mission, the poem makes repeatedly clear, is only the very beginning of the long history of Roman origins and rise. Odysseus’s story ends when he gets home (and kills the suitors); Aeneas’s entire journey is itself only an episode in the much larger history of Rome.

Therefore, Eliot asserts (with a bit of a stretch, in my view) Aeneas is ‘the prototype of a Chistian hero’. He accepts the duty laid on him by the gods regardless of the price to himself. He subjugates his own will and desires to his god-given task.

This brings Eliot to fatum (so, OK, we are proceeding via the key word process). There is an excess of words to cover this concept. Eliot says maybe the best translation is ‘destiny’ but then makes the polemical point that you cannot have ‘destiny’ in a purely mechanical universe.

Eliot then tries to give a Christian interpretation to Aeneas’s ‘destiny’. It is a burden and a responsibility rather than a reason for self glorification. It happens to some men and not others because some have the gifts and the responsibility but they did not make these; something external made these and the humble man accepts the gifts and the responsibility. Who made them? Not the anthropomorphised pagan gods who behave so selfishly and vulgarly in the poem. Some power much deeper.

He zeroes in on the entire Dido episode (book 4) in particular Aeneas’s shame at abandoning Dido, shame which is revived when he meets her shade in the underworld in book 6 and she refuses to look at him or speak. This, for Eliot, more than personal shame, symbolises how much Aeneas suffered to carry out his god-given destiny. Making his point completely explicit, he says: ‘it is a very heavy cross to bear.’

Eliot can think of no other pagan poet who could have created this situation with its emotional, psychological and philosophical subtlety.

What does this ‘destiny’ mean? For Virgil’s conscious mind, and his contemporary readers, not least the all-powerful Augustus, there’s no doubt it means the imperium romanum. But Eliot then makes some dubious and sweeping generalisations. He claims that Virgil proposed for his contemporaries a noble ideal of empire – personally, I don’t see that in the poem. There are Anchises’ lines reminding Romans they must rule well and there’s praise of Augustus for bringing peace and order, but that’s about it. Eliot stretches it by claiming that Virgil’s work proposed ‘the highest ideal’ for any secular empire. Personally, I just don’t see that. In my view what the Aeneid praises is military conquest, might and power. There might be a strong thread of regret and sadness running through it, but that is the poem’s overt message.

Eliot proceeds to claim that ‘we are all, so far as we inherit the civilisation of Europe, still citizens of the Roman Empire’. Is that true? I can see strong points on either side of the argument.

But he then goes on to claim that the Roman Empire Virgil imagined was ‘greater’ than the actual one of generals and proconsuls and businessmen. Eliot claims that Virgil invented this ideal and ‘passed [it] on to Christianity to develop and to cherish.’ I disagree on a number of levels.

First, I find the actual process of creating empire, as described in the Aeneid, to be hyper-violent and destructive, flagrantly contrary all Christian morality.

Second, part of the ideal which Eliot is describing must include the idealisation of the first Roman emperor Augustus. I can see why Virgil a) pinned his hopes for peace on b) sucked up to, the most powerful man in Rome, but in the end the entire poem amounts to the propagandistic adulation of a mass murderer, a man who achieved supreme power by liquidating all his enemies and then ensuring nobody could threaten his unique rule for the next 40 years. The Aeneid defends a military dictator.

So I just don’t agree when Eliot claims that it passed onto its Christian heirs any kind of noble model for how to run a spiritual empire. The exact opposite.

Eliot reiterates his claim that we are all still citizens the Roman Empire. Well, there are arguments both ways but ultimately I think he is incorrect. The state we inhabit in England in 2022 owes more to the non-Roman traditions of the pagan Danes and Anglo-Saxons and feudal Normans who each conquered this country, than to the Roman civilisation which they eclipsed. Our democracy owes nothing to Rome; it developed out of medieval feudalism, itself an import from Normandy, itself a colony of Vikings.

I think Eliot’s vision of a total European civilisation is erroneous and that his claim that this civilisation was in part inspired by Virgil is wrong.

Moreover, there is a blindingly obvious problem here, which is that Eliot is defending empire as an ideal form of government. Obviously this was considerably easier to do in 1951 than it would be nowadays. Millions of inhabitants of the former British Empire have immigrated to Britain and their children, in politics, in culture and in academia, have enthusiastically set about damning the British Empire, rubbishing any claim that it ever had anything positive about it. So just the sound of Eliot defending empire as a ‘noble ideal’ sounds badly in our time.

As to whether Virgil’s ideal of a suprahuman noble empire actually did inspire church authorities in the Middle Ages, I think you’d need a book examining the impact of the Virgilian ‘ideal’ on theologians, political thinkers, churchmen and statesmen throughout the Middle Ages and that would be a vast undertaking. I bet one exists, though. I’d love to read it.

This was, after all, only a half-hour radio lecture. Eliot’s sensitivity and insight and intellect bring out all kinds of aspects of Virgil’s achievement. And his thesis – that Virgil’s achievement of creating the notion of an ideal empire was to haunt the European imagination – is one of those ideas which is itself so big and vague that you can’t really prove or disprove it. But it’s an interesting perspective to add to the hundreds of other perspectives with which we can view Virgil’s epic poem.

Eliot concludes his essay with a page about a word which is missing from Virgil which is ‘love’. Amor does crop up, especially in the story of Dido and Aeneas. But it has nowhere near the force and central importance that it has for a Christian poet like Dante. It never has:

the same significance as a principle of order in the human soul, in society and in the universe that pietas is given.

Thus Eliot agrees (no surprise) with Dante’s positioning of Virgil in the Divine Comedy as an inspired teacher and guide right up to the barrier of belief, which he is not allowed to cross. In Eliot’s view Virgil mapped out a universe which in many ways anticipated the Christian universe, and handed many of its values onto later generations of Christian thinkers (and poets). But there is a line and Virgil doesn’t cross over into being a Christian. He can’t.

Instead, Virgil was limited by his position in history: the highest value he can conceive of, the value which underpins so much of the character and action of the Aeneid, was pietas, respect for father, family and fatherland.

But the highest value for the Christian poet Dante was love, the love which has created the entire universe and moves the sun and the stars and which we can all aspire to. Next to the gorgeous rose of Dante’s universe of love, Virgil’s pietas is a hard, iron sword, the colour of Roman imperialism.


Other Eliot reviews

Roman reviews

Tribute to Queen Elizabeth II

Last weekend I changed my plans to go for a walk outside London and instead headed to Buckingham Palace to observe the mourning and tributes to the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II (1926 to 2022).

I came out of Charing Cross tube and walked across Trafalgar Square and along the Mall only to find the area around St James’s Palace fenced off and filled with a crowd liberally sprinkled with what looked like mostly foreign TV presenters talking earnestly into cameras on tripods. According to a security guard I got chatting to, the crowd was there because there were rumours that a car might or might not enter or exit St James’s Palace and might or might not contain a Royal of some degree. Last Saturday we knew Charles and Camilla were at Balmoral so it was puzzling that a crowd of two or 300 had gathered on such a remote offchance.

There may well be a madness of crowds (I think of Ian Gilmour’s enjoyable book, ‘Riots, Rising And Revolution: Governance and Violence in Eighteenth Century England’, and all the decisive journées of the French Revolution). But the hysterical outbreaks of mob violence maybe have a kind of milder cousin – the curiosity of crowds. A couple of people stop to look at something happening in a shop window. A few more join in to see what they’re looking at. A crowd gathers. People on the edge of the crowd have no idea what they’re doing, but it’s something to do / something must be going on / they were curious to see what was happening.

People at the floral tributes to the Queen in Green Park, London

Anyway, the short cut through to the Mall was closed so I was forced to walk up St James’s Street to Piccadilly and then along the frontage of the Ritz to the tube station entrance to Green Park. There was a big crowd and entrance and exit to the tube barriers were separated by a crash barrier. I asked the security guy nicely and he let me slip through and 30 seconds later I was amid the crowds walking up from the tube station into Green Park.

It wasn’t football crowd density but it was very packed. I noticed the number of people carrying bouquets, hundreds of people. Almost immediately I heard one of many crowd stewards yelling through a megaphone that both the Mall and Constitution Hill were fenced off with crash barriers and so inaccessible. I went up to speak to her. I like chatting to officials. I was friendly and sympathetic but she didn’t need much provocation let out a string of complaints about the crowds who were all heading gently downhill through the park bearing their bouquets intending to put them against the railings of Buckingham Palace as per tributes to Princess Diana (1997) and the Queen Mother (2002). Then they discovered the Mall was completely locked off by crash barriers, turned around and began drifting back up the hill, bumping into the continuing crowds heading down, creating an entertaining mix of confusion.

A fallen tree festooned with floral tributes to Queen Elizabeth

The steward was trying to tell everyone there was no way through to the Palace to lay tributes against the fence and to direct everyone with flowers towards a special Floral Tribute Area half way down the gently grassy slope. So I headed in that direction and discovered quite a long queue because the Tribute Area, also, had (relatively simple) crash barriers around it, enclosing an area smaller than a football pitch and roughly almond shape. People were waiting patiently in line bearing their bouquets, mainly families with young children or older couples. Not many teenagers, some Asians, amid the crowds I saw one young black woman.

A hand-written acrostic tribute to the Queen

Once inside what immediately became clear was the utterly amateur nature of nearly all the tributes. People had written them themselves in a wide variety of styles, some with stylish scripts, some on banner shaped long placards, but more on humble sheets of A4 paper. A huge number were obviously from children, most as individuals but some obviously organised by teachers and signed off as coming from class so and so at such and such primary school. Looked like many infant and junior school teachers had incorporated the activity into the curriculum.

Thank you note to the Queen

It wasn’t the flowers, it was the sincerity of so many of these hand-written tributes which, after a while, began to move me. It was the feeling of a huge love, a nationwide feeling of love and emotion uniting so many people, so many millions of strangers from all round the country brought together by strong emotion, sorrow and respect.

Row of floral tributes to the Queen

Many of the flowers had been arranged in long narrow rows or banks and the sheer volume of bouquets, notes and gifts laid out like this was very moving. But I was struck by the way some people had also been festooning trees, laying bouquets against their trunks and attaching notes to their branches.

This struck me as unusual, not in the English tradition. The accidental presence of a Japanese woman in this photo made me wonder what countries it comes from. Is it English? I don’t know enough to decide, but I love trees, we need trees so there was a kind of respect for nature or involving nature in the mourning process which I liked. And also the idea of the tributes hanging in the air, easier to read but somehow closer to the sky, more airborne. Lots of ideas and images and symbols.

A tree in Green Park decorated at the roots with bouquets with numerous written tributes attached to branches

Written tributes everywhere but also…a surprising number of cuddly toys. There were two types: Corgi dolls and Paddington dolls; when I say dolls I mean more like bears, the kind of toy bears my children had when they were small, fake fur and cuddly.

Toy corgi among tributes to the Queen

In an as yet relatively untouched area of grass I came across a bloke and his family creating an installation. They’d already used stems from bouquets to spell out ER with some ribbons between the letters to make a heart shape. Now the bloke and his 2 junior school kids were gathering brown leaves to make a frame, to turn it into a picture or a 3D card. A bit overwhelmed by the atmosphere of love and friendliness and openness, I went up and asked him if I could help. ‘Join in, mate,’ he said, so I spent the next few minutes grabbing handfuls of brown fallen leaves off the grass and adding them to the frame.

Ad hoc tribute made of leaves

While I was helping, a small crowd gathered and the bloke addressed them suggesting they write a big THANK YOU with leaves. I didn’t want to get too involved, I knew I’d start to take it over and direct things; I very much wanted to only make a fleeting contribution and move on, leaving space for others.

But it set me thinking about all the installation art I’ve seen in the last 40 years, much of it accompanied by high minded statements from the artist or the curators talking about installing art in places where it can be enjoyed by ‘the people’ or about removing the barrier between art and ‘the people’, and so on. Well, here was a bloke and his family spontaneously creating something lovely, full of love and respect, and just one of thousands writing messages, doing drawings, hanging notes in trees, arranging their bouquets just so. I’m not saying it was ‘art’, as such, but it felt like it came from the same urge to create and beautify and say something, that art comes from.

Monarchy and republicanism

I’m not that interested in the arguments for or against the monarchy. When I went to university I discovered that 100% of the really vehement republicans I met had been to public school and that put me off republicanism in the same way that a lot of public school socialists put me off the Labour Party. It doesn’t strike me as being a ‘national debate’ but a squabble among the ruling class, between Rupert who attended Eton and the Guards, and his wildcat sister Polly who became a webel at university.

At university many a public school liberal told me how we will only get equality in this country when we abolish the monarchy because it stands at the apex of the entire system of privilege, power and money. Sometimes I’d reply that it would be easier to scrap public schools and thus hamper the perpetuation of an elite of boys and girls who have been bought privileged life chances and, very often, entrées to positions of power, by their parents’ and grandparents’ money.

But the reality is that neither of these things will happen. No political party seriously intends to abolish private schools which are, in my opinion, the single most important means by which the ruling class of Britain not only preserves itself, but is flexible enough to incorporate a steady flow of new money and new talent into its ranks. If you can afford it, you’re in (to the schools, and then to the ruling elite across numerous industries and institutions).

But back to the monarchy, and opinion polls suggest support for abolishing the monarchy and creating a republic fluctuates between 15% and 25% of the adult population. Call it 20%. Therefore any political party which puts republicanism in its manifesto automatically alienates 70 to 80% of the electorate, which is why even Jeremy Corbyn, the most ‘radical’ leader of the Labour party in a generation, realised it was not a battle worth fighting. If he wouldn’t take it on, no politician will take it on.

The argument that the monarchy stands at the apex of the system of privilege and inequality which holds Britain back, prevents the UK from fully modernising, has a number of counter-arguments:

1. America is a republic, has been since its inception. Would you say America is a paragon of fairness and equality? No. It appears to become more unequal and fractured with every year. How about republican France, dominated by a technocratic elite? Or Italy, just welcoming a semi-fascistic party into power. Or Russia? Simply being a republic doesn’t guarantee fairness and equality, far from it. Lots of other political and social elements are needed, too.

2. If we get rid of a monarchy we would almost certainly create a head of state, usually a president, to replace it. You only have to say the name Donald Trump to realise that having a president, elected by universal suffrage, does not solve your problem. If we did create a republic and have an elected head of state, what’s the betting the first one would be Boris Johnson who, despite all his lies, corruption and incompetence, remains surprisingly popular? You only have to consider the existence of President trump and President Putin or the possibility of President Johnson, to realise that straight constitutional swap for republicanism might be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

3. Conversely, it is proveable that nominally monarchical states can demonstrate a high degree of fairness, equality and progressive values. Left Liberals generally praise the equality and liberal values of the Scandinavian societies, Denmark, Sweden and Norway – yet all three are monarchies.

In other words, being a monarchy doesn’t prevent the development of a liberal egalitarian society (Scandinavia) while overthrowing a monarchy and instituting a republic does not guarantee equality and fairness (America, France).

There’s the economic argument: republicans argue that the monarchy costs the country a fortune, that the monarch owns a grotesque amount of land and assets which could be redistributed to help the poor, and so on. Monarchists tend to emphasise the earnings the monarchy brings in through tourism and the export of prestige brands with the royal seal of approval etc around the world.

There’s a politico-psychological argument: republicans argue that the existence of monarchy keeps Britain in arrested development and infantilises citizens who compete for a shake of the royal hand or the soft feel of the sword on their shoulder as they’re knighted. Conversely, monarchists point to the enormous achievements of schemes set up and sponsored by the Royals, including the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and the Princes Trust, which have done more than any government ‘Back to Work’ scheme to help the poor, the working class, the young. Republicans may concede their effectiveness but say the same kind of thing could perfectly well be run by an elected government, but could it? The actual governments we’ve had in recent times, the governments of Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss?

Monarch or no monarch, Britain would still be lumbered with the blinkered, ideologically driven, heartless and incompetent politicians we always seem to end up with.

Rebalancing the British economy

In any case, the real economic and social problems facing this country eclipse squabbling about the head of state. I am strongly influenced by Correlli Barnett’s two histories of wartime and post-war Britain:

These analyse the deep structural issue in the British economy, namely that we built towns and cities around the industries of the industrial revolution which have now disappeared. Towns and cities built around coal mining, shipbuilding, steel or car manufacturing, have all lost their raison d’etres. If you add in the fishing ports all up the east coast of England you arrive at a list of the Red Wall constituencies which have suffered terrible decline over the past 50 years, where high unemployment sits alongside poor educational achievement.

At the moment the British economy is underpinned by the cash cow of the City of London, engaged in money laundering for the Russian mafia, casino gambling on products it barely understands (see the 2008 financial crash), a nexus for the international insurance industry. All this is a result of the historical ‘accident’ of Britain building a worldwide empire and adapting more flexible and innovative financial systems than its rivals (France or Holland). However this is a fading asset. Brexit is just the latest blow which will encourage some of these financial services to relocate away from London.

So my belief is that the real challenge facing the country is to do with rebalancing the economy in such a way as to bring worthwhile jobs to those northern and eastern towns and cities, to create new industries which provide employment and give a sense of worth and dignity in people’s lives. Maybe some of this would come in the form of a renewables industry, green industries, with factories creating wind turbines, solar panels, home insulation products, carefully located in those towns. Maybe a focus on computer skills required in the 21st century digital economy by setting up centres of digital education, training and excellence in the north.

I’m no expert but it’s clear that what the country needs is an intelligent long-term plan to transform the lives and futures of its people. At the moment we have a government which combines fine talk of levelling up with no actual, tangible plans for how to achieve it, while on the ground most people are experiencing a series of crises which seem to make life relentlessly harder and harder, with the prospect ahead that things are only going to get worse, a lot worse.

You can see why people, ordinary people, living out there in Hartlepool and Ipswich and Devizes, far from the highfalutin’ intellectual arguments of the London commentariat, really need something to believe in. You can see how the Queen, quietly going about her duties with unhesitating commitment and optimism, gave many people an often forgotten, but always present, underpinning of continuity and hope, confidence that things would be alright if she was there.

Her death represents or symbolises many things, to many people, as I saw in Green Park. But for some I think it’s one more nail driven into the coffin, one more element contributing to a sense of national decline and the collapse of old certainties.

Likely prognosis

In reality, nothing will change because nothing in this country ever does. At least that’s how it often feels. Republicans hope that Charles will so miserably fail to fill his mother’s shoes that their cause will gain strength. It’s possible, but I doubt it. To even begin to get the republican ball rolling you’d have to persuade the crowds I saw in Green Park and all the adults and children who have written tributes to the Queen that they are wrong, that it is emotionally immature and politically backward to care so much for a monarch. That doesn’t seem very likely.

British Republicans can make all the logical arguments they like – but you can’t disprove love, the love I saw pouring over Green Park, and that’s what they’d have to do.

Punk queen

After a surprisingly emotional morning, I walked to the west end of Green Park and then undertook the long polluted trek along Grosvenor Place, at the rear of Buckingham Palace, down towards Victoria. South of Buckingham Palace is a warren of streets, many of them with large imposing modern buildings, many of them housing government departments. I used to work in one, the Department for International Development which the Conservatives, as they always do, have now merged with the Foreign Office. Like all big modern buildings these have service bays, scrappy concrete yards where lorries can deliver essential goods.

In a concrete cul-de-sac formed by steps up from such a bay (you can see cabling coming out of the wall at the bottom left of this photo, and general litter on the floor) someone had gone to a lot of trouble to create the following massive spray-painting-cum-collage of the Queen.

This too is a tribute, a backhanded testament to the extraordinary achievement of Queen Elizabeth, the solid, reliable, good humoured, long serving, loyal, loving and patriotic backdrop to the lives of everyone who’s lived in this country for the past 70 years. Even our rebellion was coloured by her.

Collage graffiti on a concrete wall near Buckingham Palace

To Virgil by Tennyson

The commission

The Roman poet Virgil died in 19 BC. One thousand nine hundred years later, in 1881, the inhabitants of Mantua, the Italian city where he was born, approached the British Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, to commission him to write a poem celebrating Virgil’s birth. Since Tennyson was born in 1809, he was 72 at the time, the grand old man of British poetry and known across Europe.

By Tennyson’s standards the poem he wrote for this commission is on the short side (although he wrote brief lyrics throughout his career and some of his famous long poems – ‘Maud’ and especially ‘In Memoriam’ – are made up of lots of short poems on a unified theme), and it’s certainly not among his best poems – but nonetheless it’s a professional piece of work, mellifluous and stately and gracious in its compliments for one of the greatest practitioners of poetry in all European history.

The metre

In the poem Tennyson is trying to replicate the stately measure of the Latin hexameters which Virgil used in his epic poem, the Aeneid. So first and third lines of each stanza are trochaic tetrameters, meaning they have four ‘feet’ or units, and each unit contains 2 syllables, and the beat falls on the first syllable of each pair. This creates a formal tone of address.

Roman Virgil, thou that singest

By contrast, the second and fourth lines of each stanza are trochaic pentameters, meaning they have five feet, made up of two syllables each, with the emphasis on the first of the 2 syllables (which is what trochee means). The last four of the five feet or units consists of just one stressed syllable.

More than he that sang the ‘Works and Days

The contents

The poem recaps the well-known outline of Virgil’s career. First it cites his most famous work, the Aeneid, represented by ‘Ilion’s lofty temples’ being burned down by the triumphant Greeks at the climax of the Trojan war, Ilion or Ilium being the Greek word for Troy.

‘Filial faith’ refers to Aeneas’s famous devotion to his father, Anchises, so devoted he hazards a journey to the underworld to see his shade.

‘Dido’s pyre’ echoes the fire of Troy but mainly refers to the fact that Dido fell in love with Aeneas when he arrived at the new city of Carthage which she ruled over, but the gods told him he had to press on to Italy in order to found Rome, so he abandoned her and she in her misery, killed herself and had her body cremated.

Verse 2 refers to the pastoral poems Virgil wrote early in his career, specifically the Georgics which were modelled on the poem called Works and Days by the archaic Greek poet Hesiod. Verse 2 refers to the subjects Virgil describes in the Georgics, namely the care of crops and livestock, with a nod to the famous section about bees.

Verse 4 goes backwards in his career to refer to the Eclogues, either monologues or dialogues taking place in an idealised landscape between idealised shepherds, one of whom is named Tityrus. Virgil’s real-life Roman contemporary Pollio, a Roman consul, is referred to by name in several of the Eclogues, which explains why his name pops up here.

Having referred to his three key works, Tennyson can now generalise about Virgil’s tone of voice, which is famously gentle and sweetly sad at the turmoil and suffering of poor humanity.

In verse 7, describing Virgil as ‘a golden branch’ amid the shadows is a stylish visualisation of how his work shines out from the Dark Ages into which Europe fell, but also refers to the golden bough, which Aeneas in the epic poem has to find and pluck in order to journey to the underworld – although the line that follows, about kings and realms that pass, sounds as much like Tennyson’s lordly melancholy as Virgil’s. It also echoes the earlier mention of ‘golden phrases’ and ‘gilded’ in the line before, and so, subconsciously, helps create a semi-visual sense of the treasure of Virgil’s verse, glimpses of priceless treasure half-made out through shadows and undergrowth: a gleaming treasure from a buried past.

What Auden called ‘the lachrymae rerum note’ continues into the next verse which makes the deeply traditional reference to the vanished glories of Rome, its forum and emperors, a trope of European poetry since the Dark Ages.

And then, very gracefully, Tennyson turns the penultimate stanza from the past (the ‘Rome of slaves’) to the present (the ‘Rome of freemen’) gracefully referring to the (relatively new) republic of unified Italy (Italy only became a unified nation state in 1871) whose citizens had extended this kind invitation to him and to which he is so graciously replying.

The reference to the ‘northern isle’ is simple enough – it is Britain, where Tennyson was born and raised but which, during Virgil’s time, was only a distant unknown land associated with legends and exaggerations, hence the accurate description, ‘sunder’d once from all the human race’.

And so it’s from here, in rainy England, that Tennyson now sends his poem, and he ends it with beautiful praise for Virgil’s single most key achievement, the majestic rhythm of his rolling lines of verse, the use of ‘I’ to start three lines consciously emphasising the personal depth of the tribute, one great of poetry speaking across nearly two millennia to another.

there are many things to criticise in both Virgil and Tennyson’s poetry and worldviews. But sometimes, in troubled times, it’s healing and calming to enjoy a thing of beauty and be grateful that beautiful things have survived the wanton destructiveness of humanity.

To Virgil, written at the request of the Mantuans for the nineteenth centenary of Virgil’s death

Roman Virgil, thou that singest
Ilion’s lofty temples robed in fire,
Ilion falling, Rome arising,
Wars, and filial faith, and Dido’s pyre;

Landscape-lover, lord of language
More than he that sang the ‘Works and Days’,
All the chosen coin of fancy
Flashing out from many a golden phrase;

Thou that singest wheat and woodland,
Tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd;
All the charm of all the Muses
Often flowering in a lonely word;

Poet of the happy Tityrus
Piping underneath his beechen bowers;
Poet of the poet-satyr
Whom the laughing shepherd bound with flowers;

Chanter of the Pollio, glorying
In the blissful years again to be,
Summers of the snakeless meadow,
Unlaborious earth and oarless sea;

Thou that seëst Universal
Nature moved by Universal Mind;
Thou majestic in thy sadness
At the doubtful doom of human kind;

Light among the vanish’d ages;
Star that gildest yet this phantom shore;
Golden branch amid the shadows,
Kings and realms that pass to rise no more;

Now thy Forum roars no longer,
Fallen every purple Cæsar’s dome—
Tho’ thine ocean-roll of rhythm
Sound forever of Imperial Rome—

Now the Rome of slaves hath perish’d,
And the Rome of freemen holds her place,
I, from out the Northern Island
Sunder’d once from all the human race,

I salute thee, Mantovano,
I that loved thee since my day began,
Wielder of the stateliest measure
Ever moulded by the lips of man.


Roman reviews

An introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps (1969)

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind’)
(Aeneid Book 1, line 462)

The Aeneid’s structure

The first six books describe wandering, the second six books describe war.

The first six books are set on or near the sea, the second six books are set on land.

The first six books copy a lot from Homer’s Odyssey, the second six books copy a lot from Homer’s Iliad.

The first half focuses on Carthage, leading to the death of Dido, the second half focuses on Latium, leading to the death of Turnus. (In fact, it’s not quite as neat as that because Dido dies at the end of book 4, leaving book 5 to describe the funeral games for Anchises and book 6 the journey to the underworld, so the deaths of Dido and Turnus don’t perfectly bookend each half.)

Historical background

Virgil lived through stormy and decisive political times. He was born in 70 BC only 15 or so years after the end of the Social War, a 4-year-long bitter and needless fight between Rome and various tribes and peoples of Italy who demanded full Roman citizenship. In the end Rome acquiesced and gave it them. The precise relationship between Rome and the other local tribes is implicit in the whole idea of Aeneas coming as an immigrant and stirring up a huge ruinous war between its existing inhabitants, and then is specifically addressed right at the end of the Aeneid when Juno demands equal rights for the Latins vis-à-vis the newcomers from her husband Jupiter, as a condition of giving up her vicious vendetta against the Trojans.

Then Virgil was 21 when civil war broke out in 49 BC between Caesar and Pompey. He saw what it was like for the Roman ruling class to be split right down the middle and many men die pointlessly, as, arguably, all the terrible deaths in the second half of the Aeneid are, ultimately, pointless and unnecessary.

Then Virgil was 26 when Caesar was assassinated and Rome plunged into a further 15 years of instability and recurring civil wars, before Octavian finally brought peace by defeating Antony in 31 BC, as Virgil turned 40.

The price of peace

Virgil composed the Aeneid over the 10 or so years from 29 BC to his premature death in 19 BC. After a life lived against a backdrop of unending civil strife you can see why Virgil would desperately have wanted peace and order to be restored and pinned his hopes for that outcome on the new rule of Augustus. But you can also see why one of the Aeneid‘s main themes is the price that has to be paid for the final arrival of peace and order, and it is a very, very high price in tragedy and bloodshed. Hecatombs of the dead. So many brave young lives cut short. Aeneas wins his place in the promised land of Hesperia, but my God what a trail of death and destruction he leaves behind him.

Aspects of patriotism

All elements in the poem are multi-levelled and dense with allusiveness. Thus the poem’s patriotism is plain for everyone to see, and yet is effective because it works at so many levels. Central is the plot itself, Aeneas’s journey to Italy to found a new city and new people. The gods repeatedly reassure him of the future greatness of the Roman people. He sees a procession of eminent Romans in the underworld at the end of book 6. The figure of Augustus appears here, and as the central figure on the shield his mother gives him at the end of book 8, as well as being invoked several other times, crystallising the hopes of the world.

But it also works in a host of other ways. Most poignantly and hauntingly when we discover that King Evander’s little township is built on the site of the future Rome and that he and Aeneas are walking through the landmarks of the greatness that is to come. But also in the mention throughout the poem of beliefs and customs which first came with the Trojans or, conversely, are already practiced by the Arcadians or the Latins:

  • they Latins are referred to as ‘the people of the Roman gown’
  • the Roman custom of covering the head at sacrifice is enjoined on Aeneas by the seer Helenus before his arrival in Italy (3.403)
  • the exhibition of horse drill known to the Romans as lusus Troiae is demonstrated by Ascanius and the young horsemen during the funeral games for Anchises (5.596)
  • Aeneas promises to inaugurate the tradition of the Sibylline Books (6.71)
  • the practice of opening or closing the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war already exists in Latium (7.601)
  • the worship of Hercules at the great altar in the cattle market which existed in Virgil’s time is said to already exist when Aeneas arrives in Latium (8.268)

So the poem’s patriotism is shouted from the rooftops in the shape of the plot and in the multiple predictions but also threaded subtly into a fabric of hints and allusions.

A political poem?

Camps surprises me by claiming the Aeneid is not a political poem. He deploys the kind of sentimental humanism found throughout post-war Anglophone literary criticism, deflecting analysis off into fancy fondling about morality or spirituality:

The Aeneid is in no sense political propaganda, for it is not in its nature a political poem. The Rome that is its inspiration is not conceived in terms of a political system; and the background against which the humans in the story act and suffer is provided not by contrasting political ideas but by the working of the historical process and the conflict of spiritual powers. (p.2)

This is plain wrong, isn’t it? It’s as if someone who wrote a long poem in praise of Nazi rule over occupied Europe claimed that it wasn’t a political poem because the Nazi rule it praises ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system’. Well, it doesn’t need to be. If politics in the broadest sense is defined as how a society chooses to run itself, then this poem explicitly says that Rome will reach its height when it is ruled by the enlightened dictator Augustus, and that the Roman people are destined to rule the entire known world – and are justified in doing so because of their unique skill at ruling justly.

Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.
(6.1,151 to 1,154)

This prophecy of Anchises is only the most famous of several passages which justify Roman conquest and rule over the entire world. The Aeneid is a hymn to Roman hegemony. Nothing could be more political. Claiming it is ‘not in its nature a political poem’ because it doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of the constitution or describe any particular ‘political system’ or discuss political parties is being disingenuous or naive. Try telling any of the peoples Rome had conquered, whose towns they had destroyed and populations they’d sold into slavery (read Caesar’s Gallic Wars) that writing an elaborate poem justifying Rome’s eternal rule over the entire known world was not a political statement and watch them laugh in your face.

Clearly your answer to the question, ‘Is the Aeneid a political poem?’ depends on how you define ‘politics’, but there’s also another level or type of definition of politics in play here: this is the issue of taking sides during a civil war. This, also, is a glaring ‘political issue’: whether one is on the side of, say, the nationalists or the republicans during the Spanish Civil War could hardly be a more political and politicised decision.

Well, in the civil war with Antony, Virgil hugely comes down on the side of Augustus and writes it into his poem. In the epic scene where Vulcan forges a mighty shield for Aeneas he depicts on it the Battle of Actium where Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and the narrator throws in criticisms of the doomed lovers. And the shield then goes on to celebrate Augustus’s unprecedented three triumphs over his political and military opponents.

It beggars belief that Camps thinks that this hugely committed work of propaganda is ‘in no sense political propaganda’ solely because it ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system.’ As I’ve been writing this I’ve realised I myself am missing another way to argue against him, which is to point out that he is wrong even on his own terms: that the entire poem is ‘conceived in terms of a political system’, namely – the imperial rule of Augustus. Rule by an emperor emphatically is a political system and this poem consistently and repeatedly predicts and celebrates this political system.

Copying the Greeks

Virgil wrote three great works. In each of them he copied Greek originals. The Eclogues copy the Idylls of Theocritus, the Georgics copy the Work and Days of Hesiod, the Aeneid very closely copies the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Camps claims Virgil is not stealing – he is reconciling the two cultures.

Camps lists some of the major plot devices he is indebted to Homer for:

  • an extended sea journey packed with adventures – the Odyssey
  • enmity of a god who hates the hero drawing out the journey to extended length – the Odyssey
  • councils of the gods in heaven – both Odyssey and Iliad
  • descent to the underworld – the Odyssey
  • funeral games – the Iliad
  • massive, sustained war featuring a siege and many detailed battle scenes – the Iliad
  • the aristeia in which a warrior reaches the peak of their excellence before being cut down – the Iliad
  • the blacksmith god creating a suit of armour and a shield decorated with emblematic events for the hero – the Iliad
  • strong female warrior (Camilla) – the Iliad
  • a foray into the enemy camp by night – the Iliad
  • retirement of the protagonist in whose absence the other army comes right up to the allies’ base and threatens to storm it and win the war – the Iliad
  • hero’s beautiful young friend killed by the main antagonist, a loss which drives the hero to psychopathic vengeance – the Iliad
  • climactic single combat between two epic heroes – the Iliad

(Camps gives a much longer list of direct copying on page 81.) Camps says that Virgil used Homer to supply ‘a deficiency in the possibilities of his own imagination’ (p.9) but it’s bigger than that: the Aeneid doesn’t borrow elements from Homer’s epics, it couldn’t have existed without them. They provide the entire historical background, the entire worldview of gods interfering in the lives of mortals, the entire concept of a long poem focusing on an epic hero, and almost all the significant events. ‘Borrowing’ or ‘copying’ aren’t adequate enough words for the wholesale reincarnation of Homer’s epics in Virgil’s work, and in a later chapter Camps seems to acknowledge this:

To a very large extent the story told in the Aeneid is made by remoulding Homeric materials, as well as owing to Homer the broad motifs which govern its design. (p.82)

The process of composition

Camps devotes an appendix to describing some of the short biographies of Virgil which were written after his death. Suetonius wrote one, now, unfortunately, lost. The best early one which survives is by Aelius Donatus and Camps presents a translation of the full text (6 pages long).

Donatus and fragments from other biographies tell us that Virgil’s method in composing poetry was to make a complete prose summary of the entire story before he began writing any verse. Donatus says that every morning Virgil dictated some verses to a secretary for as long as inspiration lasted, then, after lunch, spent the afternoon working over what he had dictated, sometimes whittling a mass of verses down to just a handful of lines, sometimes just one. Apparently, Virgil compared the process to the ancient folklore notion that a mother bear gave birth to formless lumps of life and then literally licked them into shape (p.117).

(In fact, Donatus describes this as Virgil’s method in writing the Georgics but everyone has silently agreed that this is probably how he composed the Aeneid as well.)

Crucially, Donatus says that Virgil did not compose the poem by starting at the beginning and working through. Instead, he was inspired to versify particular ad hoc scenes as the inspiration took him, sometimes composing later scenes years before earlier ones. This explains all sorts of discrepancies which a close reading of the poem brings to light, notably the lack of linking and smoothing passages, for example the abrupt ending of the famous book 6, and the even more abrupt ending of the entire poem.

Moreover, Donatus tells us that the poem contains many lines of poor quality, as well as lines which are metrically incomplete which Virgil deliberately left in because he needed the padding and structure to get onto the more finished sections, but would have returned to improve had he lived.

The violence

I think my view of the poem has been very strongly skewed by the hyper violence of the second part of the poem. The orgies of testosterone-fuelled slaughter which it describes with such relish strongly affect my impression of the first half, so that I remember mainly the violence – for example, the extended description of the fighting at the sack of Troy. Camps wants us to feel soft and sentimental about the book-long love affair with Dido but what I mainly remember from book 4 is:

  • the murder of Dido’s husband and the unhappiness of his ghost
  • the self slaughter of Dido, who does it in the Roman way, falling on her sword
  • Dido’s extended curse on the Romans and getting her people to swear eternal enmity, an enmity which will lead to three ruinous wars and then the eventual sack of Carthage, the killing of tens of thousands of soldiers and the selling of her entire people into slavery

Similarly, I take the point that the journey to the underworld is genuinely weird and spooky, and Aeneas encounters many strange sights, that his pity for suffering humanity especially aroused by the sight of the pitiful shades waiting to be ferried across the river Styx and then his doleful reunion with the shade of his father.

But for me this all tends to be eclipsed by the shiny vision of the procession of his Roman descendants and, when you look at this list of Great Romans, what are they famous for? What all Romans are famous for, their military victories. David West in his 1991 Penguin edition has a handy little appendix which lists the figures Aeneas sees in the procession of Great Romans:

  • Silvius the warrior king
  • Brutus, famous for expelling the last kings and executing his two sons when they tried to restore them
  • the Decii, father and son, famous for giving their lives to win victory in two wars
  • Torquatus, led an army against the Gauls and executed his own son for disobeying orders
  • Lucius Mummius who not only sacked Corinth in 146 but utterly destroyed it as an example of Roman power
  • Aemilius Paullus credited with the conquest of Greece for defeating Pyrrhus king of Epirus
  • Cornelius Cossus defeated a foreign king in single combat
  • Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, the reforming tribunes, both of whom were murdered in the streets of Rome along, in the latter case, with thousands of their supporters
  • Scipio Africanus Maior defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama
  • Scipio Africanus Minor leading the army which sacked, utterly destroyed Carthage and sold its 50,000 inhabitants into slavery
  • Fabricius who led an army against Pyrrhus
  • Fabius Maximus Cunctator, the general who delayed and delayed confronting Hannibal in Italy
  • M. Claudius Marcellus killed a Gaulish chieftain in single combat

This is (not quite all) the people who feature in Aeneas’s vision of his glorious descendants, and what do they all have in common? Violence and killing. Slaughter. Rome was hyper-violent state, engaged in almost non-stop war (the Gallic Wars) and when they weren’t destroying other peoples’ cities (Corinth, Carthage, Gaul) they fought with terrible ferocity among themselves (Pharsalis, Philippi, Actium).

If any contemporary Roman set out a pageant of their glorious history, what would it consist of? Except a litany of wars and battles. It was a phenomenally militaristic state. Even the humanist’s favourite, Cicero, not only went to serve as governor on Cilicia but led his army in a siege and battles. Even the sternly principled Cato sided with Pompey in the civil war and was made governor of north Africa where he managed the military campaigns. Holding a senior magistracy at any time in Roman history almost inevitably entailed leading a Roman army.

Camps’s attempts at a moral interpretation undermined by the violence

Maybe I’m getting this way wrong, but I read Camps’s introduction from end to end and I think it gives a deeply misleading impression of the Aeneid. He devotes a chapter to Aeneas, then one to Dido and Turnus, and these overflow with sensitive empathy for their sufferings and the deeply ‘moral’ choices which they face.

But the poem I read venerates power, might, military strength, masculinity, supreme ability in battle and its centre stand two awesome killing machines, terminator-figures, Aeneas and Turnus who rampage across the battlefield beheading, belimbing, skewering and butchering anyone who stands in their way.

This is one of the reasons I dislike the moralising tone of humanist literary criticism, because it distorts the facts, it deceives and lies. You can read Camps’s book from end to end and get no sense of the piles of bodies, bloody gore and funeral pyres which clot the poem, and end up thinking it’s a Henry James novel making sensitive discriminations about moral scruples. It really isn’t.

At the end of Camps’s chapter about Aeneas, he does, eventually, concede, that there is a bit of fighting, and, OK, Aeneas is a bit brutal. He lists some examples. On the battlefield at the height of his rage Aeneas taunts a victim with the thought that his body will lie unburied; he consigns some of the prisoners they’ve taken to be executed in cold blood to adorn Pallas’s funeral.

There’s more like this but Camps deliberately omits it. Instead he goes out of his way to exonerate his vision of a caring, sharing, sensitive hero, these brutalities:

are altogether at variance with the hero’s usual humanity, and indeed with the standards of the poet’s civilised contemporaries.

Rubbish. A quick checklist of Augustus’ behaviour refutes this, not to mention a scan of Caesar’s record in Gaul, Roman behaviour in Carthage or Corinth or in the Wild East of Asia Minor. Camps limply goes on to concede that ‘the Roman world was not a gentle one’ [sic], and then devotes a paragraph to trying to justify Aeneas’s brutal, bloody execution of an unarmed prisoner on his knees at the end of the poem. He claims that this execution ‘would seem to Virgil’s readers poetically just’. Right at the end of his introduction, he returns to the fact that the entire poem builds up to this ominous and disturbing conclusion, the enraged murder of Turnus, and finds it:

strangely discordant with the normally disciplined humanity of Aeneas (p.142)

But reading Camps’s efforts to explain away this glaring, brutal event I thought: ‘But what if…what if the brutal killing, maiming and taunting, the sending for execution and murderous mayhem Aeneas enacts at the end of the Aeneid is NOT the temporary aberration Camps tries to explain away? What if it is the real Aeneas coming through and showing his “civilised contemporaries” what the real Rome is really like and it is – a killing machine?’

To be really crude, Camps is an apologist for a poem glorifying a mass killer and a violent empire.

The animal sacrifices

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be disgusted by the vast number of animals who are ritually slaughtered on almost every page of the Aeneid, led to the place of sacrifice and having their throats cut so their hot blood splashes over the altar by the gallon. Thousands and thousands of animals are butchered in the name of religion, in fact, in practical terms, animal butchery is their religion, both Trojans and Latins.

You know the line they’ve been putting on movie credits for decades, ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this movie’? Well, thousands of animals were slaughtered, had their throats slashed while they were alive and fully conscious, in the making of this poem.

Two points. 1. Again, this is the kind of really obvious in-your-face aspect of the text which a ‘moralising’ critic like Camps completely ignores. It’s just not there for him, because his ideology that literature must be about humanistic morality and sensibility simply prevents him from registering what is in front of him. As soon as I see a critic (of literature or art or film or whatever) mention the words ‘moral’, ‘morality’, ‘moral choices’ etc I know they are going to give a distorted and inaccurate account of the work under consideration, because their obsession with ‘moral values’ restricts them to just one narrow aspect of the characters and the text and blinds them, like the blinkers on a carthorse, to everything else which is going on around them, to the totality of the work.

Anyway, Camps doesn’t have the ‘moral’ awareness to even register that the cruel slaughter of thousands of sentient animals might be wrong.

But 2. The relentless animal slaughter plays a really important role in the fabric of the poem by making the human slaughter seem natural. It desensitises you. If you’ve already waded through lakes of animal blood, spurting from slashed throats, it makes the butchery of human beings just that bit more assimilable. The entire poem becomes a welter of blood and gore.

As I said, I’m aware that this is also a biased and partial view and that there are plenty of passages of delightful description, Aeneas’s sensitivity and sea nymphs frolicking in the waves etc. I am just pointing out what Camps’s supposedly thorough introduction to the poem completely omits from its account.

Virgil’s multi-levelled and holey theology

Christian theology has spent 2,000 years trying to reconcile the paradox that, while on the one hand God is all-knowing and so knows the future as well as the past, on the other hand, the theology of reward and punishment only makes sense if humans have free will. If everything is foreordained, then I have no free will, and therefore cannot be guilty or innocent of my actions. Therefore cannot be sent to hell or heaven. Whereas Christian theologians and hierarchies and organisations, very much do want to emphasise our free will precisely in order to threaten us with punishment in the afterlife and keep us in line.

Now the same problem is raised by the Aeneid only in a much more intense form because at every step of the way, at almost every decisive moment, it is the gods’ intervention which makes things happen. Venus makes Dido fall in love with Aeneas, going to some lengths to do so, luring Aeneas’s son into a copse where she puts him asleep and replacing him at Dido’s reception feast for Aeneas with her other son, Eros god of love, assuming the form of Eros entirely to soften her spinsterhood and make her fall for the Trojan. And then it is Venus who, at the end of their affair, comes to Aeneas in a dream and tells him he must get up and rouse his companions and load his ships and leave Carthage right now.

Similarly, the entire action of the second half of the book, the entire war between the Trojans and the Latins, with the enormous destruction and loss of life on both sides, only takes place solely because Juno makes it happen, commissioning the Fury Allecto to fire up the Latins against the peace treaty with the Trojans.

And yet, throughout the poem, the narrator also assigns praise and blame to individual actors, and they themselves debate their guilt and responsibility. For example, Aeneas tells Dido it is not his fault that he is running off and abandoning her: sed me iusa deum – the nasty god made me do it.

It would be interesting to read a clever analysis which explained what we know of Roman theology and sets Virgil’s depiction of the issue within that framework of belief. Camps sketches out the issues in his chapter 5 but doesn’t tell us anything which wasn’t already obvious from the poem.

For me the key to thinking about this problem is suggested by something Camps explains at the start of his book, which is to do with Virgil’s method of composition. Namely, it was episodic. (Camps uses the Latin word particulatim which means ‘piecemeal’, p.125). According to Donatus’s Life of Virgil, the poet first wrote out a prose version of his story but then chose not to work through it in order, but to work up particular ad hoc scenes from different parts of the narrative into verse.

And in doing so, he focused on producing as intense and vivid a scene as possible for the scene’s sake and we know that this sometimes led to discrepancies between episodes; characters behave inconsistently or say one thing in one scene, another in another; characters are introduced who we have already met and so on.

(Camps mentions the two apparently different deaths of Palinurus, who, at the end of book 5, plunges down into the sea, drowning, but in book 6 is said to have swim to shore, p.125. Or there are the two completely different versions of how Helen reacts to the sacking of Troy a) hiding in terror 2.567, or b) out confidently leading the Greeks around the city in book 6. He gives more examples of this kind of contradiction in appendix 4.)

Well, Virgil’s theology can be thought about in the same way as his method of composition, namely that he is not expounding a consistent and thought-through theology in the manner of Tertullian or Augustine; rather he is writing a dramatic poem and all that matters is the intensity of particular episodes. The momentary impact is the thing. Therefore it creates a great dramatic effect to show Juno or Venus interfering almost all the way through the narrative. But at other moments, on the human plane, mortals may discuss their decisions and implications in human terms of agency and responsibility. And because Virgil is concerned with creating whatever is most effective at any particular point, he isn’t concerned with trying to reconcile the theological contradictions thrown up by these different approaches.

In fact there are at least three levels at work in the poem, because above the continual interfering of the gods, which is continually described, sits another force – this is the power of fate or the Fates. This isn’t described but referred to at various points, mainly by the gods themselves. Nothing at all, not even Jupiter, can change what is destined and fated. He and the other gods can only interfere with what, in the end, are details, but the overall Fate and Destiny of everyone is fixed and unalterable.

Thus Juno herself is made to admit that she cannot change Aeneas’s ultimate destiny to settle in Italy and found the Roman race; she can only delay it. Which she does, at the cost of thousands of needless deaths including, ironically, that of her own favourite, Turnus.

On this view, you can pray to the gods, and the gods are depicted answering some (though not all) prayers (mortals can never be sure which ones will be answered and which ones won’t). But no prayers can alter the fixed outlines of Fate.

Fate has built the matrix with bands of steel. Nothing can change or alter them. But within the matrix, individual gods are free to mess about with details, to delay, to alter, to bend – but never to change the fundamental ends.

It’s in this context that Camps makes the shrewd point that the gods themselves pursue their own ends. The gods are as selfish as mortals, maybe more so. Only Jupiter rises above their endless squabbles and tries to adjudicate fairly but, as many readers have observed, he is only an intermittent presence in the poem: Juno and Venus are much more prominent, Juno most of all. The Aeneid could accurately be called the Book of Juno, or The Book of Juno’s Anger.

To anyone who takes this mirage, ‘morality’, seriously, the gods in Virgil are quite demonstrably monsters of immorality, cruel, thoughtless, heartless, irresponsible – like children. Any real consideration of the pagan gods of antiquity eventually suggests why they had to be superseded by the Christian god. They were just not worthy of serious intellectual consideration. And they are fundamentally indifferent to human life, breath-takingly callous. Serious consideration of the pagan gods led philosophers to sets of beliefs like Epicureanism or Stoicism, very different ideologies but alike in their aim of trying to eliminate the role of the gods in human life. Paganism tends towards a brutal indifference to human existence.

Compare and contrast that with the intense feeling of personal salvation which Christianity offered its believers. As Camps puts it, ‘the promise of the new kind of religion is evidence of the terrors of the old’ (p.49).

Anyway, the existence of these three levels of action allows Virgil to switch between them as it suits his narrative ends. Jupiter apologises to Juno, saying his hands are tied by Fate. Aeneas apologises to Dido, saying his hands are tied by the gods, and so on.

How are humans meant to know what the devil is going on? Via the welter of omens, signs and prophecies which the text is full of. These are the channel of communication between the three levels.

Sometimes a god personally explains something to Aeneas, but far more often it is the shade of a dead mortal (Hector or Anchises) who can explain things up to a point but not the full picture. This up-to-a-pointness is really striking: ghosts and spirits are continually telling Aeneas just so much of his future and, when he wants to know more, fading into smoke.

At other times it is the mute symbolism of some sign or portent like a comet in the skies or a swarm of bees or the eagle carrying off a swan who is beaten off by all the other birds – in other words, portents which mortals are forced to interpret and guess at.

My position is that none of this amounts to a worked-out theology on the analogy of Christian theologies. The opposite. Although these elements fill the text to bursting, they don’t indicate a coherent worldview, but one that is cheerfully incoherent: one which is ragged and flexible enough for the characters and narrator to switch between at least 3 levels of belief: belief in a Fixed and Unchangeable Fate, belief in the continual intervention of the gods, and belief in man’s free will which is sufficient to allow him to carry out free actions which can, accordingly, be judged within a ‘moral’ framework.

The overlap and interplay of the different systems is one of the things which keeps the poem dynamic and varied, keeps the reader in a continual sense of flux and uncertainty.

Furens

Alongside the multiple levels of destiny, goes a kind of dualistic theory of human nature. Dido and Turnus have two modes of being: their ‘normal’ selves and themselves possessed. In their states of possession they are associated with a range of frenetic adjectives, to wit: amens, turbidus, fervidus, ardens, furens, trepidans, in a state of inania, furor and violentia.

Furor in particular is applied to Dido a dozen times and Turnus half a dozen times. And Aeneas, after the death of Pallas, becomes a man ‘possessed’ on the battlefield. If you felt so inclined you could read the entire poem through the vector of frenzied possession just as much as by Camps’s limp metric of ‘morality’.

The poetry

It’s difficult to follow Camps’s chapter about the verse itself (chapter 7) unless you can not only read Latin but have a good feel for it as a medium of expression. I did Latin GCSE but have nowhere near the ability to judge it as poetry. Some key points which come over from Camps’s account are:

Vocabulary Virgil used a consciously ‘poetic’ diction, on the model of Milton in Paradise Lost or Tennyson in Idylls of the King, with a sprinkling of words from earlier poetry and archaic forms to give it sonority and authority.

Syntax Flexible, sometimes an adjective whose meaning attaches to one noun is grammatically attached to another; two nouns related by a verb have their normal relationship inverted; a phrase is compressed by omitting a term of meaning, letting the reader supply it; sometimes grammar as well as meaning is understated or omitted and the reader needs to supply it, too. These and other tactics create:

  • flexibility in writing lines and passages
  • compactness

But Camps says that, more distinctive than either of these is Virgil’s coining of highly expressive original phrases out of very basic words. Alongside their power goes a certain ambiguity. This has meant that many phrases of Virgil’s can be extracted from their original context and acquire new, more powerful meanings. Take lacrimae rerum.

Aeneas has been washed up on the coast of Africa and welcomed into the new city of Carthage and now he is looking at a mural in a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Juno that depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. He is moved to tears and says ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

Apparently, even in the original Latin, this phrase is grammatically ambiguous and can equally mean, ‘There are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind’ or, ‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind.’

Either way, the phrase went on to have a tremendous afterlife, being widely quoted in later writers as pithily summing up the sadness of human existence. Then, in the early twentieth century, it began to be used on Great War memorials, thus entering wider consciousness. It’s one example of the way Virgil’s just-so selection of very ordinary words was done in such a way as to pack an eerily powerful – and enduring – punch.

Pederast

The single most striking thing in Camps’s book is not by him but is in Aelius Donatus’s short Life of Virgil which Camps includes in its entirety in an appendix. In the early section about his appearance and nature, Donatus writes:

He was somewhat inclined to pederasty, [his particular favourites being Cebes and Alexander, whom he calls Alexis in the second Eclogue. Alexander was given to him by Asinius Pollio. Both of them were well-educated and Cebes wrote poetry himself.] (p.115)

Donatus then goes on to report the rumour that Virgil had a relationship with an apparently notable woman named Plotia Hieria, but that she denied it in later life. Apart from that ‘his conduct and demeanour were so respectable’ that at Naples he acquired the nickname Parthenias, an adjective applied to Athena and meaning chaste and virginal.

Three points. 1. This entirely chimes with several of the Eclogues which describe passionate love between  some of the poems’ idealised young shepherds and are plainly homoerotic. 2. The fact that ‘Alexander’ was a gift shows that the young men in question were slaves. Virgil had gay relationships with his male slaves. Slavery.

3. It’s interesting how Donatus’s description moves easily from describing his fondness for male slaves to his rumoured affair with a Roman matron. I.e. the homosexuality had the same kind of value or scandal value as a rumoured ‘straight’ affair i.e. merited a sentence or two, but not worth making any fuss over.

It’s a demonstration of the point made in M.I. Finley’s essay about women and marriage in ancient Rome, that what mattered more than anything else was the legal integrity of the official family, and in particular the legal status of sons and daughters to ensure the efficient heritance of property, titles and lineage. As long as these legal forms were observed, then there was considerable leeway in how citizens (mostly men) (mis)behaved.


Credit

An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps was published by Oxford University Press in 1969. All references are to the 1984 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Introductions to the Aeneid – 3. David West

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1970 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

This is the last of three blog posts giving detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. This one looks at David West’s introduction to his 1991 translation. It also gives examples of each of the translators’ work, first their renderings of the Aeneid’s opening 12 lines, then of the final few lines.

1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

Unlike the vapouring spiritualist Jackson Knight, and the namedropping Vietnam War protestor Mandelbaum, West is wonderfully unpretentious and to the point. In his introduction’s brisk 6 pages he bluntly says the Aeneid is about a man who lived 3,000 years ago in Asia Minor so – why should we care?

1. The origins of Rome

He gives a fantastically compressed précis of the plot before going on to say that, 300 years after Aeneas’ legendary death, the city of Rome was founded by his descendants. So that’s one reason to read the Aeneid: because it is the foundation story of the most important city in European history, the state that underpins modern Europe.

2. Aeneas an emblem of the refugee from war

Another reason is because it is a great poem. Part of this is down to it being about a very human figure,  Prince Aeneas, a man who knew defeat and exile, love and the loss of love, who maintained his sense of duty to family and country through thick and thin, who knew war and hated it but was capable of fighting with hatred.

At the end of the twentieth century the world is full of such people.

If West was writing in 1990, then he was about to witness the First Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prolonged civil wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide and the Great War of Africa, followed by 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Yes. War and the bitterness of war, and exile and grief and lost love, these are eternal fixtures of the human condition. I am writing this on day 201 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The gods have changed but for the men there is not much difference.

3. Virgil’s humanity

But the Aeneid is not only about The Human Condition but is full of individual human touches, insights  and moments which make the poem a deeply rewarding read:

  • Dido putting the Trojans at their easy 1.567-578
  • the grief of Andromache meeting a Trojan youth who is the same age as her murdered son would have been 3.305
  • Acestes and Aeneas shaming an old champion into fighting in their games 5.389
  • the throwaway remark of Ascanius which has such momentous consequences 7.116
  • old King Evander enjoying looking upon his old friend’s son 8.152
  • the native’s abuse of foreigners 9.598
  • the glorious death of Mezentius and his horse at 10.858
  • the fussing of the doctor as he fails to treat Aeneas’s arrow wound 12.387

The Aeneid presents a ‘heroic’ view of life i.e. all the characters are super-lifesize – but it is also full of these realistic human moments. So its depiction of timeless themes of human suffering, combined with these insights into human nature mean that, even after 2,000 years, it is still not out of date.

Virgil and Augustus

West then devotes a zippy two-thirds of a page to summarising Virgil’s life and career. For me the strong part is the confiscation of his family’s land by Octavius (unlike, Mandelbaum West doesn’t mention Virgil’s trip to Rome to beg for it to be returned) but West adds a new fact: to qualify to be a member of the Senate a Roman citizen needed to be very wealthy; when Virgil died, he had property worth ten times this wealth requirement. Being Augustus’s top poet made Virgil rich. It would be fashionably easy to despise Virgil for sucking up to Augustus, in the Aeneid as in the Eclogues and Georgics, but this would be wrong because:

  1. After a century of violence and civil war, Augustus’s hard-won victories promised peace and moral regeneration. There was every reason to believe a genuine Golden Age was at hand. Virgil’s friend, Horace, believed just as fervently. It is reasonable enough to praise the peace-bringer.
  2. Virgil was no superficial tyrant-pleaser. He had a deep appreciation of the countryside and traditions of a much wider definition of Italy (his upbringing on a farm outside Mantua). He knew it had taken hard fighting to secure peace and would take hard work to create this Golden Age. I like the way West says Virgil didn’t have the answers to these questions and he didn’t even pose the questions. He told an exciting story and lets the story raise, at numerous points, thoughts and questions about love of country, love of family, and what it means to fight for peace. The critique is buried deeply within the narrative.
  3. West draws a distinction between praise and flattery. The Aeneid praises Augustus in two ways: first, it tells the story of his heroic ancestor, in such a way as to reflect well on the emperor. The second way is the direct references to Augustus at key moments of prophecy and prediction.

West’s approach to translation

Finally, a page about the translation itself. Interestingly, West says that up to his time the W.F. Jackson Knight translation (whose introduction I have considered at length) had been the gold standard English translation of the Aeneid. However, it suffers from two weaknesses and that is why it is now being replaced: 1. The prose is old fashioned 2. It follows the original Latin very slavishly, often to the detriment of good sense.

So West is setting out to right the balance, to try and capture some of the allusive, changing poetry of the original – but never at the expense of – and while always writing –good, muscular, rhythmic, expressive English prose. In my opinion, he succeeds very well (see examples, below).

As you can tell, West’s introduction is far and away the best of the three for its complete absence of swank and bullshit, for its brevity, for telling you just enough to warm you up – and then pitching the reader straight into the narrative.

I enjoyed his translation more than the others for the same reason. It is straight-talking, clear and to the point. But it also, despite being in prose, includes subtle effects of alliteration, assonance and rhythm.

Disagreement

Blazing with rage, he plunged the blade full into his enemy’s breast….(Book 12)

But even with West I disagree. He says the poem is a vision of ‘a search for peace and order for Rome and humanity’. Is it, though? The Aeneid portrays a universe of anger and death and ends with a brutal act of murder. All three of these translators, in their introductions, are inexplicably drawn to praise the humanism and sweet sadness of Virgil’s poem. I know what they mean, the sadness is there and is sometimes a very dominant mood. But the narrative is also splattered with blood, the blood of hundreds of men hacked to pieces in battle, the ravening fury of Juno and her agents, screeching harpies, the foul dira, and the stink of the hundreds which are barbarously slaughtered at altars, their hot blood spurting out onto the hungry earth.

Yes, there’s a gentle tone of sweet sadness but, for my money, all three of these translators inexplicably underplay the centrality of war and anger and death and bloodshed which run alongside and, in my opinion, overwhelm the poem’s sweet humanism.

The fact that such diametrically opposite views can be held about it makes me wonder whether, deep down, even Virgil himself knew what his great poem is actually about? What it is really saying? Despite his conscious intentions, did his poem, once he had stitched it all together, end up saying much more, and give a different impression, than he originally intended?


Samples of the translations

Which of the three translations do you prefer?

The Aeneid book 1, lines 1 to 12

Jackson Knight translation:

This is a tale of arms and of a man. Fated to be an exile, he was the first to sail from the land of Troy and reach Italy, at the Lavinian shore. He met many tribulations on his way both by land and on the ocean; high heaven willed it, for Juno was ruthless and could not forget her anger. And he had also to endure great suffering in warfare. But at last he succeeded in founding his city, and installing the gods of his race in the Latin land: and that was the origin of the Latin nation, the Lords of Alba, and the proud battlements of Rome.

Mandelbaum translation:

I sing of arms and of a man: his fate
had made him fugitive; he was the first
to journey from the coasts of Troy as far
as Italy and the Lavinian shores.
Across the lands and waters he was battered
beneath the violence of the High Ones, for
the savage Juno’s unforgetting anger;
and many sufferings were his in war–
until he brought a city into being
and carried in his gods to Latium;
from this have come the Latin race, the lords
of Alba, and the ramparts of high Rome.

West translation:

I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile, who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy to the shores of Lavinium; and a great pounding he took by land and sea at the hands of the heavenly gods because of the fierce and unforgetting anger of Juno. Great too were his sufferings in war before he could found his city and carry his gods into Latium. This was the beginning of the Latin race, the Alban fathers and the high walls of Rome.

The Aeneid, book 12, lines

Jackson Knight translation:

Aeneas stood motionless, a fierce figure in his armour; but his eyes were restless, and he checked the fall of his right arm. And now at any moment the pleas of Turnus, already working in his mind, might have prevailed on his hesitation, when suddenly, there before him, he saw slung over his shoulder the accursed baldric of Pallas and his belt, inset with the glittering rivets, which he had known of old when they belonged to his young friend whom Turnus had brought low with a wound, and overcome. This Baldric Turnus was wearing now over his own shoulder, and the trophy was fatal to him. Aeneas’ eyes drank in the sight of the spoils which revived the memory of his own vengeful bitterness. His fury kindled and, terrible in his rage, he said: ‘Are you to be stolen hence out of my grasp, you who wear spoils taken from one whom I loved? It is Pallas, only Pallas, who by this wound which I now deal makes sacrifice of you; he exacts this retribution, you criminal, from your blood.’ Saying this and boiling with rage he buried his blade full in Turnus’ breast. His limbs relaxed and chilled; and the life fled, moaning, resentful, to the Shades.

Mandelbaum translation:

Aeneas stood, ferocious in his armour;
his eyes were restless and he stayed his hand;
and as he hesitated, Turnus’s words
began to move him more and more – until
high on the Latin’s shoulder he made out
the luckless belt of Pallas, of the boy
whom Turnus had defeated, wounded, stretched
upon the battlefield, from whom he took
this fatal sign to wear upon his back,
this girls glittering with familiar studs.
And when his eyes drank in this plunder, this
memorial of brutal grief, Aeneas,
aflame with rage – his wrath was terrible –
cried: ‘How can you who wear the spoils of my
dear comrade now escape me? It is Pallas
who strikes, who sacrifices you, who takes
this payment from your shameless blood.’ Relentless,
he sinks his sword into the chest of Turnus.
His limbs fell slack with chill, and with a moan
his life, resentful, fled to Shades below.

West translation:

There stood Aeneas, deadly in his armour, rolling his eyes, but he checked his hand, hesitating more and more as the words of Turnus began to move him, when suddenly his eyes caught the fatal baldric of the boy Pallas high on Turnus’s shoulder with the glittering studs he knew so well. Turnus had defeated and wounded him and then killed him, and now he was wearing his belt on his shoulder as a battle honour taken from an enemy. Aeneas feasted his eyes on the sight of this spoil, this reminder of his own wild grief, then burning with mad passion and terrible in his wrath, he cried: ‘Are you to escape me now, wearing the spoils stripped from the body of those I loved? By this wound which I now give, it is Pallas who makes sacrifice of you. It is Pallas who exacts the penalty of your guilty blood.’ Blazing with rage, he plunged the blade full into his enemy’s breast. The limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades.


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