Ovid’s Amores translated by Christopher Marlowe

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet (3.13)

Introduction to Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, generally known as Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) was a well-known Latin poet who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and a younger contemporary of arguably the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Virgil (70 BC – 19 AD).

After years of success and public honours, at the height of his fame, in 8 AD the emperor ordered Ovid to be summarily exiled to the remote backwater of the Black Sea. Possibly some of his verse had offended, either because of their satire or their erotic content. Possibly he had a relationship with the emperor’s daughter Julia. To this day, scholars aren’t completely sure. Augustus ordered Ovid’s works removed from libraries and destroyed, but that seems to have had little effect on his popularity. He was always among the most widely read and imitated of Latin poets and more copies of his works survive than of any other Latin poet.

Amores is Latin for ‘loves’ and the work consists of 48 poems, all in the first person, which describe the poet’s love affair with a rich and unhappily married woman, named Corinna. The series doesn’t tell a well-defined narrative with beginning, middle and end. Some poems seem to refer to specific events, but more often they address topics arising from the general idea of being in love. Some seem aimed at a generic female figure, others wander off the central topic altogether to make general points about Poetry, or the poet’s Muse. One is an elegy to fellow poet Tibullus, who had done much to establish the genre of the erotic elegy.

The word ‘elegy’ has come to mean a lament for someone who’s died, but in Ovid’s day it had the broader meaning of a poem written to or about a specific person – in this case Corinna, although many of the poems are actually written to figures surrounding her, such as her eunuch.

Scholars credit Ovid with taking aspects of the love elegy and developing them further, in particular a subversive irony and humour, ironising his own role as lover, the beloved’s character and, indeed, the whole palaver of being in love, wooing and all the rest of it.

Summary of the Amores

Book 1 contains 15 poems. The first tells of Ovid’s intention to write epic poetry, which is thwarted when Cupid steals a metrical foot from him, changing his work into love elegy. Poem 4 is didactic and describes principles that Ovid would develop in the Ars Amatoria. The fifth poem, describing sex in the afternoon, first introduces Corinna by name. Poems 8 and 9 deal with Corinna selling her love for gifts, while 11 and 12 describe the poet’s failed attempt to arrange a meeting. Poem 14 discusses Corinna’s disastrous experiment in dyeing her hair and 15 stresses the immortality of Ovid and love poets.

The second book contains 19 poems. The opening poem tells of Ovid’s abandonment of a Gigantomachy in favour of elegy. Poems 2 and 3 are entreaties to a guardian to let the poet see Corinna, poem 6 is a lament for Corinna’s dead parrot; poems 7 and 8 deal with Ovid’s affair with Corinna’s servant and her discovery of it, and 11 and 12 try to prevent Corinna from going on vacation. Poem 13 is a prayer to Isis for Corinna’s illness, 14 a poem against abortion, and 19 a warning to unwary husbands.

Book 3 contains 15 poems. The opening piece depicts personified Tragedy and Elegy fighting over Ovid. Poem 2 describes a visit to the races, 3 and 8 focus on Corinna’s interest in other men, 10 is a complaint to Ceres because of her festival that requires abstinence, 13 is a poem on a festival of Juno, and 9 a lament for Tibullus. In poem 11 Ovid decides not to love Corinna any longer and regrets the poems he has written about her. The final poem is Ovid’s farewell to the erotic muse.

The most accessible poems

I have boldened the poems I found easiest to understand and so most enjoyable, being 1.5, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13 and 2.14 about abortion, 3.6 about impotence, 3.8 the elegy to Tibullus, 3.13 telling his mistress to be discreet.

The summaries in italics are in the Penguin edition and appear to be the summaries given in the original Elizabethan edition.

Book 1

1.1 How he was forced by Cupid to write of love instead of war – At the time epic poetry was written in hexameters which have six ‘feet’ or units per line, whereas love poems were written in pentameters with five ‘feet’. The poet humorously complains that he set out to write bold, manly war poetry but that Cupid stole one of the ‘feet’ of his verse, and so now he is condemned to write love poems. He complains this is topsy turvey, Cupid should not have the power to intervene in poetry, but Cupid replied by shooting him with one of his arrows.

Thus I complaind, but Love unlockt his quiver,
Tooke out the shaft, ordaind my hart to shiver:
And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,
Saying, Poet heers a worke beseeming thee.
Oh woe is me, he never shootes but hits,
I burne, love in my idle bosome sits.

1.2 First captured by love, he endures being led in triumph by Cupid – What is keeping him awake at night? It is love. He gives examples of types of animals which know that fighting against man’s shackles and bridles only makes it worse. Similarly, he has the wisdom to submit.

Yielding or striving do we give him might,
Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.

1.3 To his mistress – He describes his devotion and his good qualities as a lover:

Be thou the happy subject of my books
That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.

1.4 He advises his love what devices and signals they ought to employ when they were at dinner with her husband present – The poet goes to a dinner party along with his lover and her husband and gives a long list of instructions to her not to dally too much or too openly with him, not to hang about his neck, fondle his chin, entwine her legs with his and the secret signs they will use to convey their passion to each other.

View me, my becks, and speaking countenance;
Take, and return each secret amorous glance.
Words without voice shall on my eyebrows sit,
Lines thou shalt read in wine by my hand writ.

1.5 Sex with Corinna – He describes an afternoon when Corinna comes to his rooms and they make love (quoted in full below).

1.6 To her porter, to open the door for him – He begs Corinna’s doorkeeper to let him into the house to see his love. This is an example, believe it or not, of a recognised genre, the paraclausithyron, the ‘door poem’ or ‘lament beside the door’, in which the exclusus amator (‘shut-out lover’) addresses the door or doorkeeper keeping him from his mistress. Horace wrote a poem threatening the door, Tibullus appealed to the door, Propertius wrote a poem in which the door is the speaker. The trope was revived by some of the troubadors, recurs in Victorian poetry, and lives on into our day, witness the 1971 song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? by the Rolling Stones:

Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door

1.7 That his mistress, who he has beaten, should make peace with him – In a blind rage he hits his lover, then sees her tears and throws himself at her feet in regret.

1.8 He reviles the bawd who has been introducing his mistress to the courtesan’s art – The longest poem in book 1, the poet describes the ancient bawd and procuress Dipsas as a witch and then overhears, from a hiding place, the old crone giving his mistress lessons on how to keep a lover on tenterhooks. At the end of her lecture the poet heartily curses her.

1.9 To Atticus: that a lover may not be lazy, any more than a soldier – The poet compares lovers with soldiers, including the greats of the tale of Troy, and says he is like a soldier, at his mistress’ beck and call as a soldier is of his captain’s.

1.10 To his girl, that she should not demand money for her love – He complains that alone among species, female humans refrain from sex until given gifts, until bought like whores.

The mare asks not the horse, the cow the bull,
Nor the mild ewe gifts from the ram doth pull.
Only a woman gets spoils from a man,
Farms out herself on nights for what she can;
And lets [prevents] what both delight, what both desire,
Making her joy according to her hire.

He swears that the gift he gives his mistress – his – will last long after the gold and jewels that common mistresses demand.

1.11 He pleads with Nape to carry a letter to Corinna – He asks Corinna’s maid to take a message to her and await her reply.

1.12 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – He seems to be attacking a book or books or manuscript, maybe it’s a letter announcing his mistress cannot visit.

1.13 To Dawn, not to hurry – He criticises the dawn for waking humanity from its rest and forcing all kinds of people, trades and animals to their daily work.

Poor travellers though tired, rise at thy sight,
And soldiers make them ready to the fight.
The painful hind by thee to field is sent;
Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.
Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them
To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

But, worst of all, parting him from his mistress.

1.14 He consoles his girl, whose hair has fallen out from excessive hair-washing  – He mocks Corinna for cutting off her hair and dyeing the rest and then complaining about the result.

She holds, and views her old locks in her lap;
Ay me! rare gifts unworthy such a hap!

1.15 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – The book ends with Ovid describing the immortal fame achieved by the great poets of the past and the subjects they wrote about (Troy, Aeneas, the golden fleece) and that he will be among them (as he, indeed, is).

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,
Verse is immortal and shall ne’er decay.
To[ verse let kings give place and kingly shows,
And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vild things;
Fair Phœbus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

Book 2

2.1 Why he is impelled to write of love, rather than of titanic struggles – The poet describes the sort of audience that he desires, hot maids looking for a husband and boys hurt, like him, by Cupid’s arrows. He jokingly says what good will it do him to write about Achilles or Odysseus, they’re long dead? But if he writes a poem to a pretty woman, he might get a snog out of it!

2.2 To Bagous, to keep a more lax watch over his mistress, who has been entrusted to him – The poet asks Bagous, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress in a poem I found largely incomprehensible.

2.3 To the eunuch serving his mistress – The poet addresses a eunuch, arguing he should let him see his mistress.

2.4 That he loves women of all sorts – An unusually comprehensible poem in which the poet explains that he loves every woman he sees, tall or short, dark or fair, coy or brazen, singing or silent, dancing or plodding:

I cannot rule myself but where Love please;
Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.
No one face likes me best, all faces move,
A hundred reasons make me ever love.

2.5 To his faithless mistress – How lucky is a lover who intercepts letters or hears gossip that his lover is unfaithful: because she can deny it and he can believe her. But the poet saw with his own eyes how, when a dinner party had ended, she kissed at length, with tongues, ‘another’ (presumably her husband).

2.6 On the death of his parrot – A pet parrot has died and he expends numerous classical analogies in mourning it. Despite reading the poem several times I can’t work out whether the parrot belonged to Corinna, or the poet, or whether Corinna is meant to be speaking (‘The parrot, from East India to me sent/Is dead…’)

2.7 He swears to his mistress that he has not made love to her maid – The poet complains that she’s always accusing him of something, in this case of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis. The poet denies it based on class loyalty, he would never demean himself to have sex with a slave. He throws in an unnerving detail – that her back is ‘rough with stripes’. From being whipped!?

With Venus’ game who will a servant grace?
Or any back, made rough with stripes, embrace?

2.8 To Cypassis, Corinna’s maid – In humorous contrast to the preceding poem, the poet now addresses Cypassis freely admitting that they’ve been having sex, and using classical precedents (Achilles and Agamemnon both had affairs with servants) as freely to justify the affair to Cypassis as he had used others to deny it to Corinna.

The poem appears to take place in real time, i.e. is his part of a dialogue, because after he’s taken the credit for speaking up in her defence when Corinna accused her, he promptly asks her to lie with him as a reward and, when she refuses, gets cross and threatens to reveal the truth to her mistress (which would, presumably, lead to another whipping).

2.9 To Cupid – The poet reproaches Cupid for causing him so much pain in love, for driving him like a headstrong horse or a storm at sea, when he (the poet) is a fellow soldier, a colleague, in love’s wars.

2.10 To Graecinus, that he can love two at once – His friend Graecinus told him it was impossible to be in love with two women at the same time, but he is (‘Which is the loveliest, it is hard to say’)! He describes the joy of two lovers at length and humorously gloats over his enemies who lie alone at night in their big empty beds.

2.11 To his mistress sailing – He is very anxious indeed about a planned sea voyage Corinna is going to make, curses the pioneers of sea adventures, and then invokes a ton of gods to look after her, before anticipating the joy of their reunion when she returns.

2.12 He rejoices that he has conquered his mistress – A humorous poem in which he compares himself to a mighty warrior and says he deserves to be crowned with bay leaves like the traditional victor of a campaign because he has won Corinna who is even at this moment lying on his breast, a victory greater than the defeat of Troy.

2.13 To Isis, to aid Corinna in Labour– He prays to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to Lucina goddess of childbirth, to protect and save Corinna who is having an abortion he is sure is from him, save Corinna and, in doing so, also save the anxious poet.

My wench, Lucina, I entreat thee favour;
Worthy she is, thou should’st in mercy save her.

2.14 To his mistress, who has attempted an abortion – The poet laments that, although women are not involved in war, they have come up with ways to harm themselves, namely having abortions which, apparently, involves ‘hid irons’ and ‘dire poison’. If all women had practiced abortion, the world would be empty, there would have been no Priam or Achilles (as usual his mind goes straight to the Trojan Wars), no Romulus and Rome, in fact no Ovid and Corinna.

2.15 To a ring which he has given his mistress – He wishes he were his mistress ring so he could familiarly touch her lap and pap.

2.16 To his mistress, to come to his country estate – He wishes his mistress would come to his country estate in Sulmo (in the Abruzzi, a region of east-central Italy). He gives an extensive description of the region’s natural beauties but says that, without her, it means nothing.

2.17 That he will serve only Corinna – He laments that his mistress is well aware how beautiful she is and this makes her haughty and disdainful. He recalls how many women from classical myth accepted a more junior lover e.g. Venus with club-footed Vulcan.

And thou, my light, accept me howsoever;
Lay in the mid bed, there be my lawgiver.

2.18 To Macer, writing of his love poems – Another poem pointing out that he would like to write of war and high tragedy but his mistress is wriggling on his lap, refuses to go when he orders her, and so his poems end up being about love and his love emotions.

I yield, and back my wit from battles bring,
Domestic acts, and mine own wars to sing.

2.19 – To his rival, her husband, who does not guard his wife – He is irritated with the husband for making Corinna so available. Forbidden love is sweeter, and he rattles off a list of women from myth and legend who were difficult to attain and so fired up their lovers more (Danae kept in a high tower, Io guarded by Juno)

What flies I follow, what follows me I shun.

In fact, he warns the husband, unless he starts protecting her more seriously, Ovid is going to give up being her lover, it’s too easy, it’s boring.

Now I forewarn, unless to keep her stronger
Thou dost begin, she shall be mine no longer.

Book 3

3.1 The poet’s deliberation whether to continue writing elegies or to turn to tragedy – Walking in a wood he is confronted by personifications of Elegy and Tragedy. Tragedy says he has become a laughing stock, writing about his lewd love affairs. Time to fulfil his talents and write Great Things. Elegy replies that she is light and trivial and yet suited for some subjects. She dresses out Venus and Corinna. The poet says he will turn to Grand Things in time and Tragedy appears to grant him a period to continue dawdling with trivial love, before turning to Higher Things. A worry which is still nagging him in 3.10:

When Thebes, when Troy, when Cæsar should be writ,
Alone Corinna moves my wanton wit.

3.2 To his mistress watching the races – He has come to the races, not to look at the horse, but his mistress. As avidly as she feeds on the arduous horse, he feeds on sight of her. There is an extended description of every element of a Roman horse-race and how they can be metaphorically applied to his feverish wooing.

3.3 On his mistress, who has lied to him – He is appalled that his mistress has lied to him and yet looks just as beautiful and desirable as before. Are there no gods, is there no justice? Characteristically, he launches into a long list of legendary figures and asks why the gods bothered punishing them so excessively if they are going to let his mistress off scot-free?

3.4 To a man who guards his wife – He warns a man who is trying to guard his lover from adultery that it will have the opposite effect: forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; it is nature to hanker for what is banned.

3.5 To a torrent, while he is on his way to his mistress – He has travelled day and night to reach his lover and now is prevented by a river in flood as the mountain snows thaw. Characteristically, he then compares the flooded river to numerous other rivers in Graeco-Roman mythology, an extended litany which helps to make this the longest poem in the book.

3.6 He bewails the fact that, in bed with his mistress, he was unable to perform – 

Though both of us performed our true intent,
Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Interestingly, he points out that whatever caused the first failure, it was compounded by shame i.e. embarrassment. Interesting because that is, indeed, how erectile disfunction works, the more aware you become, the worse it gets, and the more humiliated you feel. At several points he directly describes the failing member:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mockèd me, hung down the head and sunk…

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,
Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday…

3.7 He mourns that his mistress will not receive him – He is consumed with anger and jealousy that his mistress has rejected him, ‘the pure priest of Phoebus and the Muses’, for a battle-scarred hunk whose hands are bloody from the men he’s killed. Alas, poetry and the arts are now worth less than gold – Barbarism!

3.8 He mourns the death of Tibullus – Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. In Ovid’s poem Cupid has broken his bow and mourns. He compares Tibullus’ death to those of legendary heroes and says death makes him doubt the existence of the gods.

Outrageous death profanes all holy things,
And on all creatures obscure darkness brings.

It is a sweet and moving elegy, in the modern sense of the word.

3.9 To Ceres, complaining that because of her ceremonies he is not allowed to sleep with his mistress – The Festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from meeting his mistress who lies alone in an empty bed. There is an extended description of Ceres’ history and attributes, before he concludes that he’d rather be celebrating a festival to Venus!

3.10 To his mistress, from whose love he cannot free himself – So many times he has been turned away from her door and slept on the floor. ‘Long have I borne much, mad thy faults me make.’ He has impersonated one of her servants and seen many a sated lover leaving her bedroom, observed her tricks and signs to lovers at dinner parties, put up with her lies and deceptions. But now he has made some kind of break:

Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain,
And what I have borne, shame to bear again.

Now hate and love fight in his breast.

Now love and hate my light breast each way move,
But victory, I think, will hap to love.
I’ll hate, if I can; if not, love ‘gainst my will,

Torn: ‘Nor with thee, nor without thee can I live.’

3.11 He complains that his lover is so well known through his poems that she is available to many rival lovers – Actually, when you stop and reflect on the previous 40 or so poems, you realise that he has not in fact painted a particularly vivid picture of his lover. Horse-racing, his native countryside, the maid he had a fling with, the doorkeeper, her husband, even the details of horse-racing – and lots and lots of references to classical myths, yes, certainly. But in a curious way, the mistress – if her name is Corinna – is strangely absent from many of the poems, and even when she’s explicitly named, a strangely fugitive presence.

Which makes you realise how conventional this poem lamenting that fact that he’s made her famous, actually is.

Characteristically, he turns to classical mythology to give examples of how vivid and blazing and enduring the poet’s myths and fables have been.

3.12 On the feast of Juno – A straightfoward description of the Festival of Juno, which takes place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins. He ends the poem by piously hoping that Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

3.13 – To his mistress; if she will be licentious, let her do it discreetly – He tells her not to boast about her night’s adventures, if she is going to stray, at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Be as wanton as she likes in bed, but, risen and dressed and in company, be sage and graceful and proper. That will make it easier for him to overlook her infidelities.

3.14 To Venus, putting an end to his elegies – In a relatively short, poignant poem, he bids farewell to ‘tender Love’s mother’ i.e. Venus, to ‘weak elegies’ and his ‘delightful muse’. What gives it a particular feel is that it is almost devoid of the extensive lists of gods and heroes which pad out most of the poems. Instead he speaks fondly of his home among the Paeligni tribe of the Abruzzi. Whereas visitors might think it fitting that Mantua sired the great poet Vergil and Verona was home to Catullus, they might be surprised that the little town of Sulmo was his birthplace. But he loves it and will praise it. And now it is time to move on, to tackle a greater ground with a greater horse. To move onto the more Serious kind of poetry which has periodically nagged him throughout the series.

Marlowe’s translation

Marlowe’s Ovid is the earliest, the least studied of his works and the most dismissed. One reason is the technical inaccuracies, errors and mistranslations which, apparently, crop up in every line, partly Marlowe’s errors, partly because the printed texts he was working from were themselves inaccurate.

This, understandably, irks Latin scholars and has resulted in 400 years of negative reviews. We, however, need not be very troubled by these pedantic concerns about literal accuracy. A hundred years ago Ezra Pound showed that translations can be full of howlers but still be very beautiful (Cathay). The thing deserves to be judged on its own terms.

That said, these poems are often boring and quite hard to follow. Why? Having just read Hero and Leander and the first couple of plays, I think it’s for several inter-connected reasons:

The couplet form

Ovid’s original was written in couplets, that’s to say paired lines, sentences divided into two lines which end with a full stop. The impact of reading a series of self-contained rhymed couplets quickly becomes monotonous. It feels mechanical.

Aye me an Eunuch keepes my mistrisse chaste,
That cannot Venus mutuall pleasure taste.
Who first depriv’d yong boyes of their best part,
With selfe same woundes he gave, he ought to smart.
To kinde requests thou wouldst more gentle prove,
If ever wench had made luke-warme thy love.

It feels like Marlowe is cabined and confined by this format. He is clearly constrained to convey Ovid’s original meaning and struggles to do so within the narrow bounds of the couplet. It routinely feels like he is contorting normal English phrasing or rhythm, so much so that I found it very difficult to understand what entire poems were actually about. 1.2 mentions a husband and husbands generally, but I struggled to understand even one line.

I sawe ones legges with fetters blacke and blewe,
By whom the husband his wives incest knewe.
More he deserv’d, to both great harme he fram’d,
The man did grieve, the woman was defam’d.
Trust me all husbands for such faults are sad
Nor make they any man that heare them glad.
If he loves not, deafe eares thou doest importune,
Or if he loves, thy tale breedes his misfortune.

The pronouns, and the apparent subject, of the poem keep changing so that I’m not sure who’s being talked about. I’ve no idea why incest has cropped up, I’ve no idea who the man is, or the woman is in the first four lines. I don’t understand what faults are being referred to, and I nearly understand the last couplet but don’t really know who the ‘thou’ referred to is. Is it the poet’s lover Corinna? But if so, why does her tale breed ‘his misfortune’?

Latin

Latin is a more compact language than English. Its declensions and conjugations, the way it changes the ends of the words to convey changes in case for nouns, and tense and person for verbs, mean that one Latin word can convey what can easily take two, three or four English words to express.

Latin can elegantly fit into two lines ideas and meanings which English can only fit into the tight straitjacket by mangling word order and meaning. To give one repeated example of this at work, many of the poems start with a ringing couplet whose first line sounds fine because he has written it out at full length, so to speak – but whose second line is incomprehensible, as Marlowe tries to fit into the second line a meaning which really requires one and a half or two. Quite often the second lines are incomprehensible.

I ask but right, let her that caught me late,
Either love, or cause that I may never hate… (?)

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains,
While rage is absent, take some friend the pains…(?)

I, Ovid, poet, of my wantonness,
Born at Peligny, to write more address. (?)

It explains why Marlowe continually distorts normal word order and sense. In the poem about the doorkeeper, he writes:

Little I ask, a little entrance make,
The gate half-ope my bent side in will take.
Long love my body to such use makes slender,
And to get out doth like apt members render.

So, the first line is fairly smooth and understandable, the second is peculiarly phrased (‘bent side’?). The third line is understandable if you make the effort to read it carefully, and the fourth line is gibberish. He’s mangling the English because he’s trying to shoehorn a Latin meaning which simply contains more than an English couplet can handle.

The net effect is that it’s possible to read line after line, poem after poem, without really understanding what they’re about. Easy to begin skipping verse which is so hard to get a grasp of, or reading through entire passages without properly understanding them. Takes this couplet from 1.3:

I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The first line is so compacted you have to read it several times to parse the meaning – the second half of the second line is clear enough, but I don’t quite get why he’ll live with his love forever ‘if men have faith’. What have other men got to do with it? Maybe it means something like, ‘as long as men are faithful, I’ll live with thee forever’, but the little shoebox of the heroic couplet forces him to abbreviate English words so much as to teeter on the incomprehensible.

Contrast with Marlowe the playwright

Taken together what the set highlights, by being such a sharp contrast to it, is Marlowe’s natural gift for a completely different type of verse when he is writing at will and with freedom – for verse which flows freely for entire paragraphs – his gift for rolling lines which convey a luxurious flow of meaning over 5, 6, 7 or more lines, the kind of wonderfully fluent passages you find again and again in the plays. Here is Jupiter flirting with Ganymede at the start of his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of Time;
Why, are not all the gods at thy command,
And Heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine daughters sing when thou art sad;
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face:
And Venus’ swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed:

What makes this both enjoyable and understandable is they way the same basic thought (‘I’ll give you anything you want, sweet Ganymede’) expands out over ten lines. All the examples repeat the same basic idea – that all the gods will dance at Ganymede’s command – and the reader, having once grasped the basic idea, is freed up to enjoy the poet’s embellishments and elaborations. We readers revel in Marlowe’s inventiveness and fluency and therein lies the mental pleasure, the sense of luxury which derives from the effortlessness with which Marlowe spins out elegantly phrased elaborations of the theme. It’s like a luxury hotel, every room is smoothly and tastefully furnished.

Seeing Marlowe pace up and down the cage of these rhyming couplets, makes you appreciate it even more when you see him released to go bounding joyfully across the open sunny savannah of the blank verse of his plays.

The dead parrot

Whereas in the Ovid translations, the reader continually feels, along with the poet, that his natural grandiloquent discursiveness has been chopped up and cramped into bite-sized couplets. The poem about the death of Corinna’s parrot ought to be funny, the subject is potentially humorous, but the performance feels stuttery and confined.

Elisium hath a wood of holme trees black,
Whose earth doth not perpetuall greene-grasse lacke,
There good birds rest (if we beleeve things hidden)
Whence uncleane fowles are said to be forbidden.
There harrnelesse Swans feed all abroad the river,
There lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever.
There Junoes bird displayes his gorgious feather,
And loving Doves kisse eagerly together.
The Parrat into wood receiv’d with these,
Turnes all the goodly birdes to what she please.

What does ‘if we believe things hidden’ really mean? That belief in the afterlife is some esoteric knowledge? – but it wasn’t. As in hundreds of other lines, the meaning is puzzlingly meaningless or unclear. The line about harmless swans on the river is easy enough to understand but, although you can see the idea lurking behind ‘there lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever’, the actual phrasing feels clumsy and contorted, and poetry is about the actual phrasing.

Juno’s bird (the peacock) displaying her gorgeous feather I understand alright, and the loving turtle doves are a stock cliché – but the final couplet is horrible: ‘The parrot into wood received with these’ is just horrible phrasing, and what does the final line actually mean? Is it something to do with the parrot’s ability to mimic the other birds? I’ve no idea.

Love in the afternoon

Of the 45 poems only one manages to be both completely understandable and to show the extended fluency on a simple idea which distinguishes the more relaxed and fluent verse of his plays – which explains why it’s the one that is always included in anthologies.

Book 1 Elegy 5

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed
Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered there withal.
And striving thus, as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see!
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest; being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!

And then, it’s about a naked woman and sex, which always helps.

Legacy

There are several points to make.

1. Marlowe’s sonnet sequence

Although they are obviously not sonnets, and he didn’t write them from scratch, nonetheless the Amores can be thought of as ‘Marlowe’s sonnet sequence’. Most other leading poets of the day wrote an extended series of sonnets, all addressed to the same remote and aloof mistress, which they used to explore different moods and subjects, some tragic, some humorous. Examples include Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser’s sequence Amoretti, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the set which is sometimes seen as ending the fashion, Michael Drayton’s Idea sequence.

The point is, the Amores played something of the same role for Marlowe, allowing him to experiment with how to phrase in English a wide variety of moods, emotions and tones of voice. Each of the poems tends to make a case i.e. is not a flow of emotion, but a string of rhetorical arguments around a particular love-related issue (jealousy, passion, anger, regret). So you could argue that the Amores was practice, warming up and rehearsal for deploying variations on all these emotions in the mouths of the characters in his plays, for example the variety of arguments deployed by Aeneas and Dido as they fall in and out of love.

2. Grabby openings

One of the often-noted features of both Shakespeare’s sonnets and John Donne’s lyrics, is their colloquial, dramatic, buttonholing opening lines – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ or ‘I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved…’ being examples of Shakespeare and Donne, respectively.

The point is you can make the case that Marlowe helped establish this tone – that instead of the long and formal exordium of earlier Renaissance poetry,  Marlowe’s translations leap straight in with colloquial, chatty or arresting openings:

What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Thy husband to a banquet goes with me…

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains…

Leave colouring thy tresses, I did cry…

Ay me, an eunuch keeps my mistress chaste… (2.3)

Well, maybe. Maybe some of them. But just as many start with crabbed or obscure lines, simple situational setups, or promising phrases which are then bent and broken:

An old wood stands, uncut of long years’ space,
‘Tis credible some godhead haunts the place…

I sit not here the noble horse to see;
Yet whom thou favour’st, pray may conqueror be.

What, are there gods? herself she hath forswore,
And yet remains the face she had before.

Rude man, ’tis vain thy damsel to commend
To keeper’s trust: their wits should them defend.

Flood with reed-grown slime banks, till I be past
Thy waters stay: I to my mistress haste.

3. The ubiquity of classical mythology

So obvious it’s easy to overlook, but the Amores are stuffed with references to the gods and legends of the ancient world. Probably Marlowe read Horace and Virgil, too, and many other Latin authors, but the way the characters of the gods and the stories of their adventures continually pop into the poet’s mind to illustrate almost every point he’s making, will also characterise the plays – certainly Dido and Tamburlaine – where all the characters invoke the Roman gods, the characters from the tale of Troy, plus stock stories from ancient myth.

4. Classical padding

About half way through I began to notice a pattern to many of the poems: Ovid states the situation and describes it in fairly realistic terms. And then, around line 10, he will suddenly switch to invoking classical precedents. One minute he’s addressing his mistress, doorkeeper, friend etc. Then there is almost always a swerve, a change of tone, and he suddenly begins a (usually very extended) list of comparisons with figures from myth and legend. This suggests two thoughts:

  • It is padding. He can pad out any thought, emotion or moment by invoking a classical precedent and then describing it at length, or alternatively piling up a list of quickfire precedents. Either way, most of the poems are twice as long as the ostensible subject justifies, because they have these long passages invoking Venus and Vulcan and Jove and Achilles and so on.
  • I wonder to what extent people living in those times really did structure, categorise and make sense of their human experience through the filter of classical myth and legend. We nowadays – I think – invoke a range of discourses, popular sayings about mental health, maybe, or gender stereotyping or other cliches, maybe about northerners and southerners, or class-based tropes. I’m not in a position to make a full list and I dare say it varies from person to person. But whereas we might think ‘I’m depressed, I’m stressed, it’s sexism, the management don’t know what they’re doing’ – those kinds of categories – I wonder if denizens of the ancient world actually thought, ‘Well beautiful Venus had an affair with ugly Vulcan, this is like jealous Juno taking her revenge on Hercules, he’s sulking like Achilles’ and so on. Or was it only in the poems? Is it an entirely literary artifact?

5. Poetry lasts forever

People still talk about Troy, the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, getting on for 3,000 years after the stories were first told. Ovid is still mentioned, discussed and quoted long after most of the generals and all the politicians of his day are forgotten. Poetry really does outlast not only men’s lives, but entire civilisations. It’s an ancient trope because it’s true. In this couplet, I like the way he places poetry alongside ‘history’s pretence’.

Poets’ large power is boundless and immense,
Nor have their words true history’s pretence.

That’s a complicated word, ‘pretence’, because it involves effort and aspiration (pretensions), but also acting and dissembling. History is the attempt to make sense of what has happened but, as I’ve made clear in my 350 history reviews, it is always a story, or an attempt to frame a meaningful narrative. And the sense of what history is, what it is for, as well as the actual ‘histories’ of every period, change and mutate over time. But not Ovid’s words, or Marlowe’s. When Marlowe wrote ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships’ he made something which will last as long as the English language.

It’s a trope, it’s a cliché which recurs as on of the threads running through the Amores. But it’s true.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe

Scholarship attributes Marlowe’s poems – Hero and Leander and his translations of Ovid and Lucan – to his time at Cambridge, before he came down to London and started writing for the stage i.e. before he was 23.

Hero and Leander is incomplete. Marlowe conceived it as a miniature epic or epyllion retelling the ancient love story of Hero and Leander in rhyming couplets. He wrote two sections (of 484 and 334 lines, respectively) before breaking off. The poem takes up just 24 pages of the Penguin edition of Marlowe’s complete poetry.

After Marlowe’s death, the poem was continued and completed by fellow playwright and poet, George Chapman. Chapman’s continuation takes up 56 pages i.e. is twice as long as the original. It was Chapman who divided the ‘completed’ poem, including Marlowe’s part, into sestiads, a word he made up referring to the city of Sestos where the poem is set, on the model of The Iliad which describes the war at Ilium (as Troy was then known).

These medium-length poems on a classical subject were popular in late-Elizabethan England. Frequently taken from the works of the Roman poet Ovid, they were generally about Love, often with strong erotic or sensual overtones. They were fashionably Italian in tone and were aimed at a refined and knowledgeable audience. Shakespeare wrote something similar with his Venus and Adonis.

The legend

The first thing to get straight is that Hero is the name of the woman in the story. She is a priestess of Aphrodite who lives in a tower in Sestos, a city on the European side of the Hellespont (the narrow strip of water near modern Istanbul which separates Europe from Asia Minor.

Leander is a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander spies Hero at a festival of Adonis, on the spot falls in love with her, woos and wins her then every subsequent night swims across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lights a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him on his nightly swim.

Their meetings last a long, hot summer. But one stormy winter night, a strong wind blows out Hero’s lamp and Leander loses his way in the storm-tossed sea and drowns. When Hero sees his dead body, she throws herself from the top of her tower to join him in death.

Sestiad one (484 lines)

The tone, the register, the descriptions are from the start over the top and exorbitant, much like the style of the plays. We learn that Hero was wooed by Apollo, no less, that her dress is stained with blood for all the suitors who have died for her sake. She has soaked up so much beauty that nature wept and turned half the world black (the commentators aren’t quite sure whether this means black-haired [as opposed to radiant blonde] or to the fact that any one moment half of the earth is in darkness):

So lovely-fair was Hero, Venus’ nun,
As Nature wept, thinking she was undone,
Because she took more from her than she left,
And of such wondrous beauty her bereft:
Therefore, in sign her treasure suffer’d wrack,
Since Hero’s time hath half the world been black.

Cupid was said to have looked on her and been struck blind her beauty. Or to routinely mistake Hero for his mother, the goddess of Love. Nor is Leander any less heroically beautiful. His hair would have outshone the famous golden fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. The moon (Cynthia) longs to be embraced by him. Zeus might have drunk from his hand.

Many commentators have pointed out that Marlowe devotes just as sensual a description to Leander as to Hero, and use this as evidence for the claim that Marlowe was gay.

His dangling tresses, that were never shorn,
Had they been cut, and unto Colchos borne,
Would have allur’d the venturous youth of Greece
To hazard more than for the golden fleece.
Fair Cynthia wished his arms might be her Sphere;
Grief makes her pale, because she moves not there.
His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;
Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.
Even as delicious meat is to the tast,
So was his neck in touching, and surpast
The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,
How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back; but my rude pen
Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men,
Much less of powerful gods: let it suffice
That my slack Muse sings of Leander’s eyes;
Those orient cheeks and lips, exceeding his
That leapt into the water for a kiss [Narcissus]
Of his own shadow, and, despising many,
Died ere he could enjoy the love of any.
Had wild Hippolytus Leander seen,
Enamour’d of his beauty had he been:
His presence made the rudest peasant melt,
That in the vast uplandish country dwelt;
The barbarous Thracian soldier, mov’d with nought,
Was mov’d with him, and for his favour sought.
Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,
For in his looks were all that men desire,—
A pleasant-smiling cheek, a speaking eye,
A brow for love to banquet royally;
And such as knew he was a man, would say,
‘Leander, thou art made for amorous play:
Why art thou not in love, and loved of all?
Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own thrall.’

So, yes, possibly, you might claim some of these lines as proving that Marlowe was gay or had a gay sensibility – although, rereading the factual information about him, I now realise the evidence for this is actually very slender, based on hearsay and the written evidence of spies and liars.

The real point, for me, of a passage like this is surely how easy it is to read, easy and stylish and confident, brash, verging on the bombastic. Zeus would have drunk out of his hand! Because the poem starts in this high tone it’s easy to overlook how absurdly overblown a lot of its descriptions and claims are. Here is the description of Venus’ temple where Hero is a ‘nun’:

The walls were of discolour’d jasper-stone,
Wherein was Proteus carved; and over-head
A lively vine of green sea-agate spread,
Where by one hand light-headed Bacchus hung,
And with the other wine from grapes out-wrung.
Of crystal shining fair the pavement was;
The town of Sestos call’d it Venus’ glass:
There might you see the gods, in sundry shapes,
Committing heady riots, incests, rapes;

The vigour, the energy of the conception is captured in the riots, incests and rapes of the disgraceful gods (which he goes on to summarise for another ten lines). Power. Energy. Dynamism. This is what Ben Jonson meant when he referred to Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

The lion’s share of the first sestiad (lines 199 to 340) is devoted to a long section of Leander pleading with Hero to have sex with him, ‘his worthy love-suit’. Leander lines up a battery of arguments, cast in the pseudo-philosophical form popular at the time, to persuade Hero out of her priestly virginity and into loving and sleeping with him. In fluent succession he argues:

  • why does Hero worship Venus when she surpasses her so much in beauty
  • he vows to excel all others in her service
  • women must be used like musical instruments or metal jars, both of which go off and tarnish without use
  • lone women are like empty houses, which collapse and decline
  • women need men to validate them:

One is no number; maids are nothing, then,
Without the sweet society of men.

  • women are like raw gold which needs to be stamped with the owner’s imprimatur to gain value
  • virginity is nothing, has no reality, you can’t point to it or weigh it – therefore it means nothing

This idol, which you term virginity,
Is neither essence subject to the eye,
No, nor to any one exterior sense,
Nor hath it any place of residence,
Nor is’t of earth or mould celestial,
Or capable of any form at all.
Of that which hath no being, do not boast;
Things that are not at all, are never lost.

  • how can virginity be called virtuous when we are born with it – only that can be virtuous which we strive for and achieve
  • she is so beautiful that if she lives alone, people won’t think she is virtuous, they’ll think she is being maintained by some rich man as his mistress
  • Venus likes banquets, Doric music, midnight revel, plays and masks – by rejecting all this life and human interaction for the life of the cloister Hero is ‘a holy idiot’ (line 333) in fact she is committing a sin against her goddess
  • she will most resemble Venus when she carries out ‘Venus’ sweet rites’ i.e. sex
  • rich corn dies if it is no reaped – beauty in solitude is lost

Who cares whether any of this is true or not (or sexist or misogynist) – the point is the roll, the rise, the rhythm of Marlowe’s arguments, breaking over Hero’s poor bowed head like the waves of the sea.

In fact Hero had long ago given in to his arguments, to his good looks and to Cupid’s arrow, though, as he reaches to embrace her, she eludes him. Instead she explains that she lives in a high tower on the coast, attended by ‘a dwarfish beldam’ who keeps her company with chatter and ‘apish merriment’. Before she knows it she’s said ‘Come thither’ but is immediately ashamed, regrets her boldness, casts her hands up to heaven – but Cupid beats down her prayers, turning her tears to pearls.

The digression about Hermes and the Destinies

At this point the entire narrative shifts scene and the last hundred lines (377 – 484) go off at a strange tangent, describing a peculiar story using Greek characters but, apparently made up by Marlowe himself. In this digression, Hermes messenger of the gods, on the same day he laid Argus asleep, spied a country maid and pursues and woos her and tumbles her to the ground, but as he’s undressing her she suddenly starts up and runs off shouting, so Hermes follows her, wooing her with stories and these make her stop to listen. At length she asks him to bring him a cup of the ‘flowing nectar’ on which the gods feast, and so Hermes pops up to heaven and steals some off Hebe, handmaiden to the gods and returns to earth to hand it to his shepherdess-lover.

Zeus discovers this theft and is more angry than he was when Prometheus stole the fire (everything is more than, the best, the toppermost). Zeus banishes Hermes from heaven and the sad god goes wandering up and down the earth till he bumps into Cupid and tells his tale of woe. This is all the prompting Cupid needs to take revenge on Zeus, and he shoots the ‘adamantine Destinies’ with his golden darts so they fall in love with Hermes and will do anything he asks.

Hermes goes way over the top and commands the Destinies to topple Zeus from his throne and replace him with his father, Saturn, who Zeus had overthrown. But barely was Saturn upon the throne and Zeus incarcerated in hell than Hermes stopped paying court to the Destinies, they noticed this and felt scorned, forswore Love and him, and promptly restored Zeus back to his throne.

Hermes nearly ended up locked in hell except that learning will always overcome all obstacles and rise to heaven and so Hermes, as the patron god of learning, eventually regained his place.

Yet, as a punishment, they added this,
That he and Poverty should always kiss;
And to this day is every scholar poor:

And explains why rich fools always seem to lord it over the Muses’ sons, well-educated wits, and the ‘lofty servile clown’ ‘keep learning down’. In other words, why deserving poets like Marlowe are always short of money and dependent on aristocratic fools.

It has the neatness of a fable, the folk tale origin of a proverb. Except that it is easy to overlook the fact that Marlowe just described the overthrow of the king of the gods by the keepers of the universe. He is, on other words, a poet whose imagination is always soaring off into the uttermost extremities of enormity.

Sestiad two (334 lines)

It’s a bit of an effort to click back to the original story, and find Hero playing hard to get, skipping off from Leander’s clutches, but turning round and eyeing him coyly, dropping her fan oops. She seems to make it home because the next thing we know Leander sends her a love letter, she replies telling him to come to her tower, and he arrives to find the front door wide open, and her room strewed with roses. He asked, she gave ‘and nothing was denied’. Marlowe is a very sexy writer:

Look how their hands, so were their hearts united,
And what he did, she willingly requited.
(Sweet are the kisses, the embracements sweet,
When like desires and like affections meet;)

Then she is overcome with guilt and shame and then fear that she has given herself too easily and he will tire of her, so she goes to him again, throwing herself on his bosom, making her body a sacrifice to her own anger at herself.

Leander, meanwhile, is a relatively naive and innocent lover and he is nagged by a suspicion that he hasn’t done enough or isn’t doing it right, and so he clasps her to him even more and suddenly finds his ardour rising again and the pleasing heat revived ‘Which taught him all that elder lovers know’. And yet she fled, keen to maintain ‘her maidenhead’ (in which case, all the shenanigans the poet has been describing must be merely foreplay).

Dawn comes, deliberately slowing her pace to let the two lovers take a long, drawn-out farewell. Hero gives Leander a myrtle to wear in his bonnet, a purple ribbon round his arm and the ring wherewith she had pledged her devotion to Venus. He is so liberally festooned with love’s tokens that Leander has barely got back to Abydos before everyone in both cities knows all about their love.

But Leander burns with love, flames for Hero’s absence. Leander’s father notices and pooh-poohs his love which only makes Leander burst out even more passionately like a wild horse that tamers try to restrain.

Sitting on a rock looking across the Hellespont to Hero’s tower, Leander’s love overcomes him, he tears off his clothes and leaps into the sea. But Poseidon god of the ocean, is convinced by his beauty that the legendary Ganymede has entered his element, and grasps Leander.

Leander strived; the waves about him wound,
And pull’d him to the bottom, where the ground
Was strewed with pearl, and in low coral groves
Sweet-singing mermaids sported with their loves
On heaps of heavy gold, and took great pleasure
To spurn in careless sort the shipwreck treasure;

It’s brilliantly vivid and colourful. Poseidon at first embraces Leander but our hero wriggles free of his grasp and, realising he is not Ganymede, Poseidon drops his lustful intent and turns to sporting with Leander. He fixes Helle’s bracelet on his arm so the sea can’t harm him and then frolics, as Leander strides through the water towards Hero, Poseidon swims between his strong arms and kisses him.

He watched his arms, and, as they open’d wide
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
And, as he turn’d, cast many a lustful glance,
And throw him gaudy toys to please his eye,
And dive into the water, and there pry
Upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb,
And up again, and close beside him swim,
And talk of love. Leander made reply,
‘You are deceiv’d; I am no woman, I.’

Hm, many people seem to be mistaking Leander for a woman. Is this sexy? Is it gay? Or is it more a kind of imaginative exuberance, a super-sexed hyperbole which transcends love or sex or gender, reaching for a kind of super-human vivacity and energy.

Poseidon starts telling a story about a shepherd who dotes on a boy so beautiful, who played with

a boy so lovely-fair and kind,
As for his love both earth and heaven pin’d;

(OK, maybe it is gay) but Leander is in a hurry to get across the strait and pulls ahead of Poseidon lamenting he is going so slow. Angered, Poseidon throws his mace at Leander but immediately regrets the decision and calls it back, where it hits his hand with such violence it draws blood. Leander sees it and is sorry, and Poseidon’s heart is softened by the lad’s kind heart.

Leander finally staggers ashore and runs to Hero’s tower. She hears knocking at the door and runs to it naked but seeing a rough dirty naked man in the doorway, screams and runs off to hide in her dark room. But here Leander follows her, spying her white skin in the gloom, she slips into her bed, Leander sits on it, exhausted, and speaks these lovely lines:

‘If not for love, yet, love, for pity-sake,
Me in thy bed and maiden bosom take;
At least vouchsafe these arms some little room,
Who, hoping to embrace thee, cheerly swoom:
This head was beat with many a churlish billow,
And therefore let it rest upon thy pillow.’

She wriggles down inside her bed, making a sort of tent of the sheets, while Leander whispers and entreats to her, and reaches in and begs and she is tempted but resists and is finally, at length, won like a town taken by storm,

Leander now, like Theban Hercules,
Enter’d the orchard of th’ Hesperides;
Whose fruit none rightly can describe, but he
That pulls or shakes it from the golden tree.

He appears to take her virginity:

she knew not how to frame her look,
Or speak to him, who in a moment took
That which so long, so charily she kept;

But I made the mistake of thinking they were having sex earlier, when it was only foreplay and here, again, what happens is obscure because next thing we know Hero slips out of the bed like a mermaid and stands and a kind of twilight breaks from her, and Leander beholds her naked for the first time. And at this moment Apollo’s golden harp sounds out music to the ocean and the morning star arises, driving night down into hell.

And it is there that the poem breaks off.

Famous quote

The poem contains one of Marlowe’s two most famous lines. Early in the first sestiad Hero is stooping down to a silver altar within the temple of Venus with her eyes closed. As she rises she opens her eyes and Cupid shoots a gold-tipped arrow through Leander’s heart, and Marlowe breaks off for a little digression on the nature of Love:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-rul’d by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows, let it suffice,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?

We know not what we do – or we have no idea why we like one thing instead of another, even when they’re indistinguishable like two identical gold ingots. We can’t explain why we love one thing instead of another just like it. It is fate.

Footnotes

Just some of the scores of Greek myths Marlowe refers to. Notice how many of them are about sex.

  • Before the advent of carpets, rooms in houses rich and poor, were strewn with rushes i.e. dried grasses.
  • Actaeon a fair youth, out hunting he accidentally saw the goddess Artemis bathing naked and as punishment she drove his hunting hounds into a wild frenzy so that they tore him to pieces.
  • Argus was a hundred-eyed monster sent by Hera to watch over beautiful maid Io and prevent Zeus sleeping with her, so Zeus sends Hermes to slay Io.
  • Cupid’s arrows According to Ovid, Cupid has two types of arrow, gold-tipped to kindle love and lead-tipped to extinguish it (Metamorphoses I, lines 470-471).
  • Ganymedea beautiful youth carried off by Zeus in the shape of an eagle and brought to heaven to be the cupbearer of the gods. The Latin for Ganymede is Catamitus which is the origin of the English word ‘catamite’ denoting a pubescent boy in a pederastic relationship with an older man, or the receiver of anal intercourse.
  • Ixion was the treacherous king of Thessaly who murdered his father-in-law. Zeus took pity on him and brought him to Olympus where Ixion promptly repaid his kindness by trying to seduce Hera. Learning about this, Zeus created a fake model of Hera out of clouds and sent it to Ixion. The fruit of their union was the race of centaurs. Ixion was punished for his hubris by being bound to a wheel perpetually turning in hell.
  • Pelops was killed by his father Tantalus, cut up, cooked, and served at a dinner of the gods. Only Demeter actually ate anything, though, unknowingly eating Pelops’ shoulder. When Hermes was subsequently tasked with reconstituting Pelops, he gave him a shoulder made of ivory. The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, VI, l.403-11.
  • Phaëthon was a son of Apollo, the sun god. He undertook to drive the chariot of the sun but lost control of the horses and was destroyed by Zeus to prevent him setting fire to the world (Metamorphoses II, 30)
  • Proteus the sea god, a byword for continual continual change.
  • Salmacis was a nymph who loved the fair youth Hermaphroditus who ignored her. But she embraced him and begged the gods that they never be parted, the gods granted her wish and transformed them into one being with the attributes of a man and a woman (Metamorphoses, IV, 285ff)
  • Tantalus was King of Lydia and a son of Zeus. He stole nectar from the gods to give to men and was consigned to hell where he suffered permanent thirst and hunger with goblets of water and plates full of rich food just out of reach.

Sources

An ancient work, The Double Heroides, is attributed to Ovid and, among other fictional letters, it contains an exchange of verse letters between Hero and Leander. In that text Leander has been unable to swim across to Hero in her tower because of bad weather and her summons to him to make the effort will prove fatal to her lover.

But research has shown that most of the details in Hero and Leander are taken from the much later 340 line-poem by the 6th century Byzantine poet Musaeus, who is actually namechecked in Marlowe’s poem (although Marlowe makes the error, common in his time, of mistakenly thinking Musaeus was a contemporary of Homer).


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Derek Mahon RIP

Oblique light on the trite…

Irish poet Derek Mahon (1941-2020) just passed away. I liked his poetry very much.

Courtyards in Delft

Mahon’s best poems are typically a couple of pages long, stylish and lyrical ruminations set in traditionally shaped stanzas and using rhyme or half-rhyme. They are comfortably conservative in form and approach, such as one of his greatest hits, Courtyards in Delft.

The delight is in the detail, as lovingly and clearly described as words can manage, struggling as they do to convey anything like the lush fullness of the oil painting the poem is based on. It’s about the verbal capture of winning details.

… late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.

Courtyards in Delft is also an example of Mahon’s engagement with the European civilisation of the past – not in a show-off way, but a comfortable, accessible approach which brings old paintings, poems and stories wonderfully alive in the present.

The Mute Phenomena

But the Mahon poems I really love feature something more – his distinctive handling of the gritty detritus of modern life, forgotten trash, discarded and ignored like the hub cap which has a starring role in ‘The Mute Phenomena’.

The Mute Phenomena

Your great mistake is to disregard the satire
Bandied among the mute phenomena.
Be strong if you must, your brisk hegemony
Means fuck-all to the somnolent sunflower
Or the extinct volcano. What do you know
Of the revolutionary theories advanced
By turnips, or the sex-life of cutlery?
Everything’s susceptible, Pythagoras said so.

An ordinary common-or-garden brick wall, the kind
For talking to or banging your head on,
Resents your politics and bad draftsmanship.
God is alive and lives under a stone;
Already in a lost hub-cap is conceived
The ideal society which will replace our own.

The Mute Phenomena is a loose adaptation of a sonnet by the nineteenth century French poet Gerard de Nerval (cf what I said about his engagement with the art and literature of the past), with the half-rhymes loitering in the middle distance till full rhymes come swimming right into focus, bringing with them the power of the details they describe.

In a blunter-than-usual tone, Mahon addresses his favourite subject, which is the weird, ominous and visionary aspect of everyday objects, the eerie sense you sometimes have that they are immensely present in our lives – the tin opener, the microwave, the allen keys – right here and now, in your hand, as you need them – but at the same time are strangely transient.

They break, we chuck them away and get a new one, and in doing so we throw away something of ourselves. For a moment, we catch ourselves half-aware that we, too, are throwaway implements. In fact our whole society is in the process of throwing itself away.

The wordless phenomena, the clutter of stuff we surround ourselves with, knows this very well. The mute phenomena watch us and mock our absurd pretensions to permanence or meaning. Silently, when we’re not looking, our possessions are sniggering at us.

A Garage in County Cork

I grew up in a petrol station so I’ve always loved A Garage in County Cork for the very strong memories it evokes of the sights and smells of my own boyhood.

The sadness of abandoned buildings is a time-honoured subject, from Anglo-Saxon laments about Roman ruins through to Wordsworth’s elegies for Tintern Abbey etc. What makes Mahon distinctive is 1. the underlying humour of applying this sentimental approach to the very unromantic subject of an abandoned gas station, and then 2. the power of the details – the rain dancing on the exhausted grit, the sodden silence of the abandoned kitchen garden, rainbows on oily puddles and, a line I’ve loved for nearly 40 years, the vision of ‘Tyres in the branches such as Noah knew’.

Surely you paused at this roadside oasis
In your nomadic youth, and saw the mound
Of never-used cement, the curious faces,
The soft-drink ads and the uneven ground
Rainbowed with oily puddles, where a snail
Had scrawled its slimy, phosphorescent trail.

Like a frontier store-front in an old western
It might have nothing behind it but thin air,
Building materials, fruit boxes, scrap iron,
Dust-laden shrubs and coils of rusty wire,
A cabbage-white fluttering in the sodden
Silence of an untended kitchen garden —

Nirvana! But the cracked panes reveal a dark
Interior echoing with the cries of children.
Here in this quiet corner of Co. Cork
A family ate, slept, and watched the rain
Dance clean and cobalt the exhausted grit
So that the mind shrank from the glare of it.

Where did they go? South Boston? Cricklewood?
Somebody somewhere thinks of this as home,
Remembering the old pumps where they stood,
Antique now, squirting juice into a cream
Lagonda or a dung-caked tractor while
A cloud swam on a cloud-reflecting tile.

Surely a whitewashed sun-trap at the back
Gave way to hens, wild thyme, and the first few
Shadowy yards of an overgrown cart track,
Tyres in the branches such as Noah knew —
Beyond, a swoop of mountain where you heard,
Disconsolate in the haze, a single blackbird.

Left to itself, the functional will cast
A death-bed glow of picturesque abandon.
The intact antiquities of the recent past,
Dropped from the retail catalogues, return
To the materials that gave rise to them
And shine with a late sacramental gleam.

A god who spent the night here once rewarded
Natural courtesy with eternal life —
Changing to petrol pumps, that they be spared
For ever there, an old man and his wife.
The virgin who escaped his dark design
Sanctions the townland from her prickly shrine.

We might be anywhere but are in one place only,
One of the milestones of earth-residence
Unique in each particular, the thinly
Peopled hinterland serenely tense —
Not in the hope of a resplendent future
But with a sure sense of its intrinsic nature.

Note how the penultimate stanza reuses an old trope of the kind associated with Ovid’s great and very entertaining work, the Metamorphoses. In the Metamorphoses Ovid brought together all the Greek myths and legends in which people changed into animals or objects, and there turned out to be hundreds – just the stories about Zeus turning into a bull or a swan or a shower of gold and so on took up a whole section. And there’s an entire category describing the Greek gods wandering the world in disguise, as mere mortals and, when they encounter love or sadness or hospitality, transforming humans into flowers and trees and natural phenomena, into narcissus and echo and rainbows and weeping willows.

So in the penultimate stanza Mahon picks up this ancient trope but gives it a cheeky modern spin. Contemplating the two petrol pumps out front of this abandoned old gas station, he ponders what a perfect couple they make, standing together since their inception, through thick and thin, come rain or shine, an inseparable couple. If Ovid were alive today, he’d be writing poems about petrol pumps – and so the cheeky conceit of applying Ovid’s trope to two grubby symbols of our modern, petrol-driven world.

And in doing so, Mahon himself metamorphoses the old story into an entirely modern form – with his habitual wry smile and cheeky grin, playfully juxtaposing ancient and modern, high and low registers, the acme of Western culture cheek by jowl with coal sheds and leaking old sacks of cement – one of the things I value most in his poetry.

How to live

How to Live is a short poem freely adapted from one of Horace’s odes, another example of his calm, confident and smiling engagement with the art and literature of the past. (About a third of the works in the Selected Poems are translations, especially from Latin writers and 19th century French poets.)

How to live

Don’t waste your time, Leuconoé, living in fear and hope
of the imprevisable future; forget the horoscope.
Accept whatever happens. Whether the gods allow
us fifty winters more or drop us at this one now
which flings the high Tyrrhenian waves on the stone piers,
decant your wine: the days are more fun than the years
which pass us by while we discuss them. Act with zest
one day at a time, and never mind the rest.

You don’t have to like every line in a poem, it’s fine to like just certain lines, as you might like a particular passage in a pop song or piece of classical music. Thus I actively dislike the first line because I don’t know how to pronounce Leuconoé and it takes its time getting into a rhythm – although he immediately makes up for it with the phrase ‘the imprevisable future’.

(Regarding ‘imprevisable’, many of Mahon’s poems feature just one special, rare or obscure word, such as ‘esurient’ in the Delft poem, winking out at you from behind a cloud on a dark night.)

The sentiment of the final line is a little too obvious for me, a little too close to ‘Keep calm and…be happy, drink tea or whatever…’. I prefer ‘The days are more fun than the years’ because it is a little more oblique, less expected, makes you stop and reflect for a moment…

And because it is positive. So much poetry is gloomy or ends with a dying fall, the poet flopping down on their knees and asking us to feel sorry for them. Mahon’s poetry encourages us to be cheerful, smile, rejoice at the cornucopia of paintings and sculpture and great literature in a score of languages from all across Europe — and at the same time to be aware of the weirdness of the human environment, the uncanniness of everything we’ve built and designed and buy and use and throw away. 

The rusty hub-cap, the dung-caked tractor, the sodden kitchen garden, the old wooden gate, the oily puddles, the scrubbed and polished deal table – our lives are made up of these kind of details which we briefly register and then get on with our agendas. But Mahon stops, pauses, sees and captures them in lucid phrases which not only bring them to our attention but make us realise that all these things we’re surrounded by are full and charged with meaning, that we move through a manmade world packed with strange, teasing and undefinable meanings.

Tractatus

And it’s that sense of a world full of lovely, smiling, teasing mysteries which Mahon’s poetry wonderfully conveys. ‘The world is all that is the case’ is the first line of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1922, in which he set out to tabulate the rules by which everything which can be stated derives meaning, according to a theory of language & meaning which he set out in a series of carefully numbered propositions.

Twenty years later Wittgenstein conceded it was a misconceived project, the product of a young man’s overconfidence, and he returned to philosophy after the war with a completely different model, the notion that ‘meaning’ is generated at multiple levels, by a multiplicity of language and meaning ‘games’ whose basic rules can be grasped but whose possible combinations and outcomes are infinite.

So Wittgenstein himself came to realise that the world is much, much more that can be captured by one mind, one language, one system. The two stanzas of Mahon’s short poem dramatise the movement from early to late Wittgenstein (though not in a systematic way, any symmetry is unbalanced – what is God doing in the poem, it says nothing particularly interesting about him?)

Instead the highlights are the typically Mahonesque juxtaposition of one of the ‘great achievements’ of European civilisation – the huge Greek statue of Winged Victory – with one of the most insignificant things imaginable, a fly expiring in some coal-shed somewhere. And the second stanza is devoted to the big image which blots out everything else, a huge vision of the sun sinking enormous and burning hot into the wide Atlantic with a vast turbulation of roaring steam.

Tractatus

‘The world is everything that is the case.’
From the fly giving up in the coal-shed
To the Winged Victory at Samothrace.
Give blame, praise, to the fumbling God
Who hides, shame-facedly, His aged face;
Whose light retires behind its veil of cloud.

The world, though, is also so much more –
Everything that is the case imaginatively.
Tacitus believed mariners could hear
The sun sinking into the western sea;
And who would question that titanic roar,
The steam rising wherever the edge may be?

What does it mean? Quite a lot can be spun out of its entrails and guileful juxtapositions – Wittgenstein, ancient sculpture, nature, religion. On one level it is an invitation to learned analysis and disquisitions. But on another, it just is – calmly, confidently, amusedly, enrichingly, as awesome, preposterous and lovely as the fat old sun sinking into the sea with a titanic roar.


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Other poetry reviews

Selected Poems by John Dryden edited by Donald Thomas (1993)

John Dryden was the most successful poet, playwright, critic, translator and man of letters of his time, that time being roughly the late-1660s through to his death in 1700.

Early life

Dryden was born into a Puritan family in Northamptonshire in 1631. He was sent to the prestigious Westminster private school in 1645, the year Charles I’s army was defeated at the Battle of Naseby. In 1649 Charles I was executed in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, just a few hundred yards from Dryden’s classroom. He went up to Cambridge in 1650 and four years later returned to London to work as clerk to his cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was Cromwell’s Lord Chamberlain. When Lord Protector Cromwell died in 1658, Dryden wrote a set of Heroic Stanzas about him, but when Charles II was restored to the throne eighteen months later, Dryden wrote a poem celebrating this event too – Astraea Redux.

To modern eyes this abrupt switching of allegiances might look like hypocrisy, but the editor of this selection of Dryden’s poetry makes two points:

  1. Dryden was merely following the mood of the entire nation which switched, with surprising speed and conviction, in favour of the restoration of Charles II.
  2. Stepping back from the politics, what these two early examples of his work show is Dryden’s natural predilection to be a poet of politics and political power.

Marriage and public poetry

In the mid-1660s Dryden made a fashionable marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard but he was not making money. He decided to make a conscious career decision to commit himself to ‘the poetry of public life and political argument’, to writing poems on public occasions and poems about political life. The first great example was Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders 1666, 1,200 lines of verse divided into 304 quatrains.

Three points.

1. The obvious one is that the poem deals with major public events – in the first half some of the sea battles which were part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667), in the second half the Great Fire of London. It isn’t love poetry or elegiacs or pastoral poetry.

2. Second, Dryden rewrote history to cast Charles as the hero of the age. The poem emphasises Charles’s wisdom and strategic prowess during the war, and his heroism during the fire, and how his prayer to God for help was answered. Dryden was a conservative: he believed in hierarchy and the monarch and law and order. All his poetry supports the existing order against the constant threat of factions and politicking which, he feared, would lead to anarchy and civil war. Annus Mirabilis earned Dryden his reward. In 1668 he was made Poet Laureate with an annual salary of £200 and a barrel of sack, and two years later was appointed Historiographer Royal (although he continued to be for many years, relatively hard up). Here’s Dryden sucking up to Charles:

This saw our King; and long within his breast
His pensive counsels ballanc’d too and fro;
He griev’d the Land he freed should be oppress’d,
And he less for it than Usurpers do.

His gen’rous mind the fair Ideas drew
Of Fame and Honor, which in dangers lay;
Where wealth, like Fruit on precipices, grew,
Not to be gather’d but by Birds of prey…

He, first, survey’d the Charge with careful eyes,
Which none but mighty Monarchs could maintain…

His pensive counsels, his grieving for his country (abused by the Dutch), his generous mind, ready to pluck fame and honour from their dangerous precipice, his ‘careful’ eyes (careful in the modern sense but also full of care and responsibility), trademark of a mighty monarch… and so on. Top brown-nosing, Dryden deserved his £200 a year.

3. Thirdly, Annus Mirabilis wasn’t an original work – it was a polemical riposte or reply to an earlier work by someone else. It was part of a literary dialogue. In 1661 a seditious pamphlet titled Mirabilis Annus: The Year of Prodigies had predicted God’s vengeance on a nation which tolerated a sinful king and a wicked government, and was followed by other pamphlets using the same title. Dryden’s poem is a deliberate and polemical response. It isn’t a Wordsworthian inspiration. It is arguing a case about the nature of Charles’s rule and society in the 1660s.

This is what becoming a ‘poet of political argument’ meant – that his works more often than not actively engaged in public debates and controversies, often as direct replies to previous publications by other writers with contrary views.

Drama

But public poetry wasn’t the only string to Dryden’s bow. In 1663 he published his first play, The Wild Gallant, and for the next 20 years produced a stream of comedies (Marriage-a-la-Mode) and heroic tragedies (All For Love, The Conquest of Granada). Some of these were original works but, rather as with the political poems, it’s notable how many weren’t. All For Love is based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and The State of Innocence is a dramatised version of Paradise Lost. These are pretty obvious large-scale copyings, but Dryden was also to be criticised throughout his career for plagiarising lines and entire passages from other poets.

This volume includes some of the many prologues and epilogues he wrote to his plays, as well as poems addressed to specific actors and fellow playwrights such as George Etherege and William Congreve.

Satire – Absalom and Achitophel

Writing plays under the Restoration required a thick skin since new works were savaged by scores of wits and self-appointed critics. The plays themselves often contained scabrous satire about the values of the times and sometimes lampooned specific individuals. To write and publish almost anything involved exposing yourself to extremes of ridicule and abuse.

So that by the time the Popish Plot (1678) had evolved into the Exclusion Crisis (in which leading Whig politicians three times tried to pass an Act of Parliament excluding Charles II’s Catholic brother, the future James II, from the succession) Dryden had developed a thick skin and a razor-sharp pen. And he used it, as the king’s Poet Laureate, to savage and ridicule the king’s Whig enemies. The result was his masterpiece, Absalom and Achitophel.

In the Bible (2 Samuel xiv-xviii) handsome young Absalom is encouraged by the sinister old politician Achitophel to rebel against his father, King David. In Dryden’s work scheming old Achitophel is a portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who emerged as leader of the radical Whigs and led the three attempts to exclude James II from the succession. Absalom stands for King Charles’s illegitimate son, James Duke of Monmouthshire, charming but gullible, who was egged on by the canny Shaftesbury to position himself as the rightful, Protestant heir to the throne. Various other key political figures appear under Biblical names and the and poem leads up to a grand speech by King David from the throne which echoes Charles’s final speech to his recalcitrant Parliament before he dissolved it for good in 1681.

Horace versus Juvenal

When it came to satire, Thomas makes the point that Dryden, like many others, drew a distinction between the satires of Horace – which were designed to laugh men out of their follies – and those of Juvenal, which expressed what he called his saeva indignatio, his fierce contempt for the vices of his time.

Horace is often amiable and funny; Juvenal is rarely funny, his satire is full of wit and attack. Absalom and Achitophel is a Juvenalian satire. It is grounded in the grim and bitter reality of the political struggles of the Exclusion Crisis and aims to give insightful, psychologically perceptive and devastating criticisms of its key characters. It is not intended to be funny. But Dryden was just as capable of a completely different style of satire, the laughable and ludicrous.

The mock heroic – Mac Flecknoe

As 17th century literary critics discovered and popularised classical ideas about poetry, so the notion spread that the highest achievement a poet could aspire to was to write a great Epic Poem, in the lineage of Homer and Virgil. Dryden was no exception:

A Heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest Work which the Soul of Man is capable to perform.

He nurtured ambitions to write some kind of national epic tracing the history of Britain and dedicated to his hero Charles II as Virgil had dedicated the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus. But it was not to be. His long-meditated epic was never written. Instead Dryden ended up helping to develop the anti-epic, written in the so-called mock heroic style. This consisted in applying all the trappings of the epic poem – lofty diction, elaborate similes, mythological trappings, men mighty as gods – to subjects which were low and pathetic, in order to create a comic disjuntion, to create burlesque and travesty.

Dryden’s early poem, Annus Mirabilis, had already used many of the exaggerated trappings of heroic poetry, notably the extended epic simile and the direct involvement of heavenly powers (or gods or angels).

Heavenly powers

To see this Fleet upon the Ocean move,
Angels drew wide the Curtains of the Skies:
And Heav’n, as if there wanted Lights above,
For Tapers made two glaring Comets rise.

Extended epic simile

So Lybian Huntsmen on some Sandy plain,
From shady coverts rouz’d, the Lion chace:
The Kingly beast roars out with loud disdain,
And slowly moves, unknowing to give place.

But if some one approach to dare his Force,
He swings his Tail, and swiftly turns him round:
With one Paw seizes on his trembling Horse,
And with the other tears him to the ground.

So far, so epic but, as Thomas explains, the mock epic, like the epic itself, needs to address one central theme – and Annus Mirabilis is more of a series of episodes or incidents strung together, impressively so, but it is a scattered work.

It’s this idea of uniting everything in one central theme which is what makes MacFlecknoe Dryden’s masterpiece of the mock-heroic. Basically, it is a hilarious 217-line demolition of one of Dryden’s rivals in the theatre, the poet Thomas Shadwell, renowned for being dull and unimaginative, who is transmuted via Dryden’s mock-heroic style into a monstrous burlesque figure.

The aim of the mock-heroic is to attribute to a trivial person or subject such ludicrously over-inflated actions and qualities as to make them ridiculous. Thus the poem describes the not-very-successful poet Thomas Shadwell in superhuman terms and attributes him a royal progress and coronation, garlanded with biblical and imperial comparisons. But his ‘throne’ is set up among the brothels of Barbican and instead of the royal orb he holds a Mighty Mug of Ale in his hand, and every other detail of the poem is carefully undermined and burlesqued.

The name Mac Flecknoe derives from the comic notion that Shadwell is the son (‘mac’ in Gaelic) of Richard Flecknoe, an even more obscure poet, who appears in the poem declaiming a grand abdication speech, before comically disappearing down through a trapdoor, leaving Shadwell the undisputed ruler of the land of Nonsense. It is all blown up to enormous proportions in order to be mocked and ridiculed.

Dryden was extremely proud of Mac Flecknoe because it was, at that point, the most complete and finished example of its kind in English. Relatively brief though it is, it was to form a template or inspiration for the mock epics of a later generation, most notably Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712) and then his enormous satire on the literary world, The Dunciad (1728).

Poetry of religion 1. Religio Laici

Dryden published two major poems about religion.

Religio Laici or a Layman’s Faith (1682) consists of 456 lines of rhymed couplets arguing against the fashionable Deism of the time and defending the Church of England against Roman Catholicism. It is characteristic of Dryden, as we’ve seen, that many of his works are responses to previous publications and Religio Laici is a good example. An English translation had recently appeared of a theological book by a Frenchman, Father Richard Simon, A Critical History of the Old Testament which laid out the many ways in which the text of the Old Testament is compromised and imperfect. In the Catholic Father’s view, Protestantism relied too heavily on the (highly imperfect) text of the Bible; it was wiser for Christians to base their faith on the unbroken traditions of the (Catholic) church as an institution.

Dryden’s poem directly addresses Father Simon’s ideas and points out that, if the Biblical text can err, so can tradition. Both need to be supplemented or informed by God’s revelation. In this, Dryden was defending the Anglican media via between the extreme reliance on the Bible of the Puritans and deference to a tradition cluttered with saints and absurd legends which characterised Catholicism.

Several things strike me about Religio Laici. For a start it is preceded by an enormous preface which is longer (4,317 words) then the poem itself (3,573 words). And this brings out just how disputatious a poet Dryden was. Even after he has cast his elaborate series of arguments into verse, he cannot stop, but has to repeat or anticipate them in a long prose preface.

Having just struggled through the poem twice, with the help of notes, I think I’ve understood most of its meaning. But when I studied English at university, it was a standard strategy to read any text on at least two levels – on one level for the overt sense or meaning; but at the same time, alert for key words, themes or ideas which recur, and work on the reader at a less logical level, by virtue of their repetition.

So the third or fourth time I read the word ‘safe’, I began to realise that although Religio Laici consists of a series of theological points, at a deeper level it works on a polarity between the twin extremes of safety and danger. To put it more clearly, Religio Laici doesn’t come from an era when a person could speculate about religion and God and the Bible in calm and comfort. On the contrary, Puritan views had, in living memory, contributed to a catastrophic civil war which had led to the execution of the king, the overthrow of traditional institutions and a military-religious dictatorship; and more recently, scare rumours about a Catholic plot to murder the king and seize control of the state had led to a mood of hysterical witch-hunting. Speculation about religious belief was fraught with danger.

Dryden’s use of the word ‘safe’ points to the fundamental message of the poem which is that all speculations on this subject should remain private, personal and moderate, in order to preserve the peace of the realm. He espouses moderation in belief and behaviour because his generation are acutely aware what lack of moderation leads to.

And after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is Mankind’s concern.

Poetry of religion 2. The Hind and The Panther

However, just five years later Dryden published The Hind and the Panther, A Poem in Three Parts (1687) a much longer and more complex poem. At 2,600 lines it is much the longest of Dryden’s original poems (i.e. excluding the long translations he made at the end of his life) and it comes as quite a surprise because he now rejects the theological position of the earlier poem and wholeheartedly embraces Roman Catholicism.

Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1687, a couple of years into the reign of the openly Roman Catholic king James II in 1685, much to the disgust and mockery of his many enemies. The Hind and the Panther is divided into three distinct parts and derives its title from part one, which presents an extended allegory or animal fable in which the different religious denominations in the England of the day appear as animals, namely Roman Catholic as ‘A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged’, the Church of England as a panther, the Independents as a bear, the Presbyterians as a wolf, the Quakers as a hare, the Socinians as a fox, the Freethinkers as an ape, and the Anabaptists as a boar.

Critics from Dryden’s day to our own praise the skilful use of verse, vocabulary and imagery, but lament the fact that the animal fable was a poor way to convey complex theological arguments and positions, which would have been much more effective if plainly stated. Dr Johnson commented that it was a good poem despite its subject matter.

Translator

Unfortunately for Dryden, his new patron, the Roman Catholic King James II, only lasted three years on the throne before being booted out by the so-called Glorious Revolution. He was replaced by William III who was not just a Protestant but a Calvinist, a humourless man ruthlessly focused on the essentials of international power politics, and completely indifferent to art, culture, plays or poems. All officials in William’s new court were required to take oaths of allegiance including clauses pledging allegiance to the Church of England. As a newly devout Catholic Dryden couldn’t do this and so he was sacked as Poet Laureate and, in one of the supreme ironies of literary history, replaced by the man he had expended such labour ridiculing in Mac Flecknoe, Thomas Shadwell.

Deprived of all public offices Dryden now had to live by his pen and – after the public poems of the 1660s and 70s, his many plays, the satires of the Exclusion Crisis and the poetry of religious debate, in his final decade Dryden turned to literary translation.

In 1693 he published translations of the satires of Juvenal and Persius which he prefaced with a Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire. In 1697 his translation of the works of Virgil, including a complete translation of the Aeneid was published by subscription and brought him the notable sum of £1,400. And in 1700 he published Fables Ancient and Modern which included translations into contemporary English of tales Chaucer, Ovid and Boccaccio.

Heroic couplets

In Thomas’s account, the 1610s and 20s produced poets who liked far-fetched comparisons and irregular verse forms, such as John Donne (d.1631) or George Herbert (d.1633). Later generations dubbed them the ‘metaphysical poets’ (the expression was first used by Dr Johnson in 1780 but in fact Dryden himself had already referred, in an essay, to Donne’s ‘metaphysicals’). The Caroline poets of Charles I’s court similarly wrote lyrics and other forms in sometimes complex metres and forms, although with markedly less convoluted similes and metaphors.

But the future lay with neither of these groups but with the much more open, smooth and regular form of the rhyming couplet. The medium of two rhyming iambic pentameters had long ago been used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Bifel that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
(Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lines 19 to 26)

and couplets were a familiar device in Elizabethan theatre to bring a speech in unrhymed verse up to a kind of boom-boom conclusion.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
(Claudius in Hamlet, Act 3, scene 3)

Many of Robert Herrick’s short poems from the 1630s are in rhyming couplets, and so on. But the use of nothing but rhyming couplets over extended distances was revived in the mid-17th century by poets like Edmund Waller (1606-87) and Sir John Denham (1615-69). Denham is remembered for his bucolic poem, Cooper’s Hill with its lulling melliflousness. These are its best-known lines, two out of a long series of smooth rhyming couplets:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’er-flowing, full.

Relaxing, isn’t it? Dryden’s achievement was to take the rhyming couplet, use it for extended poems, and hugely expand its potential, turning it into a versatile medium for panegyric, satire, political argument, theological debate or straightforward narrative. In the right hands these couplets have all sorts of potential. Individual lines can be used to make sharp distinctions or antitheses:

They got a Villain, and we lost a Fool.

Or in this description of the Duke of Buckingham, who would do anything for amusement.

Beggar’d by fools, whom still he found too late:
He had his jest, and they had his estate.

The couplet lends itself to express maxims or pearls of wisdom, the end-rhyme of the second line giving it a kind of proverbial or didactic power:

What cannot praise effect in mighty minds,
When flattery soothes, and when ambition blinds!

But the obvious risk with the rhyming couplet is that each set of paired lines becomes a unit in itself, the temptation being to provide a boom-boom payoff at the end of the every second line, so that each couplet ends up standing alone, and reading them becomes like having hiccups – every ten seconds another clever rhyme, so that an extended poem comes to feel like a sequence of same-shaped bricks, and that this becomes wearing and tedious over the long haul.

But Thomas demonstrates how Dryden expanded the form’s potential by breaking through this barrier, to create units of meaning across multiple lines, letting the logic of his thought overflow the potential boundaries of the couplet to create what are, in effect, fluid verse paragraphs. These are particularly suitable to argufying and putting a point of view:

What shall we think! Can people give away
Both for themselves and sons, their native sway?
Then they are left defenceless to the sword
Of each unbounded arbitrary lord:
And laws are vain, by which we right enjoy,
If kings unquestion’d can those laws destroy.

They’re still rhyming couplets but the thought, the argument flows through them, so that it no longer feels like a series of stops and starts. Moreover, the way the logic of the argument flows over the cat’s eyes or bumps of each couplet’s end-rhyme creates a complex mental pleasure – the reader processes the cleverness of the rhyme but doesn’t stop at it because the flow of the argument carries you forward. There’s a kind of counterpointing, or two rhythms going on at the same time, which is not unlike musical counterpoint.


Poetry

History

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The Cavalier Poets: An Anthology edited by Thomas Crofts

This is a volume of the cheap and cheerful Dover Thrift Editions. It cost £1 and is 94 pages long including index. In his very short introduction, Thomas Crofts tells us that by the 1630s there were roughly speaking two ‘schools’ of English poetry, the followers of John Donne and followers of Ben Jonson.

It was Dr Johnson who, in 1780, first used the term ‘metaphysical poets’ to refer to Donne and his school, but in fact John Dryden a hundred years earlier had criticised Donne for using complex and philosophical ideas not only in his satires but in his love poetry. Not just philosophical ideas – metaphysical poetry characteristically invokes abstruse imagery from mathematics and the sciences, astronomy and theology. The most famous example is the short lyric love poem A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning in which Donne compares the souls of himself and his love to the two legs of a compass.

If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Clever – too clever and contrived in the opinion of both Dryden and Johnson. Other poets usually put in the metaphysical category include George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne and Richard Crashaw. Their poetry is intense, intellectual, full of clever and sometimes grotesque conceits, ideas, similes and comparisons. Sometimes the style is applied to love poetry, but also to very intense religious meditations, notably in Donne and Herbert’s religious works.

The other school followed Ben Jonson, the tremendously successful author in the 1600s of a series of ‘city comedies’, scathing satires on the follies and vices of his fellow Londoners, who then transitioned to writing a large number of masques for the court and aristocratic patrons in the 1620s and 30s, as well as a steady stream if incidental poetry.

Jonson is much blunter. He celebrates wine, women and the well-stocked larders of fine country mansions. Maybe his most famous poem is the lyric To Celia:

Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I’ll not look for wine.
The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine;
But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,
I would not change for thine.

Nothing obscure or taxing about that song. The younger generation of poets who started writing in the 1620s generally followed Ben, indeed a group of them self-consciously referred to themselves as the Sons of Ben. They became associated with the Royalist cause, celebrating aristocratic life, fine living, the arts, all flourishing under the patronage of good king Charles.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Herrick was the oldest of the Tribe of Ben and wrote at least five poems to the older poet. Herrick is master of the blithe lyric, bringing a sane, balanced joie de vivre to amorous songs, satiric couplets, drinking songs and devotional poetry. He dealt with English country life and its seasons, village customs, complimentary poems to various ladies and his friends, themes taken from classical writings and a solid bedrock of Christian faith.

Herrick was ordained in 1623 and in 1629 became the vicar of Dean Prior in Devonshire, which is surprising when you read the casual sensuality of his love poetry, for example the poet imagining himself a vine which spreads over his beloved’s body, encompassing her breasts and then her private parts, or has a vision of a woman in the woods with her skirts tucked up to reveal ‘the happy dawning of her thigh’.

Herrick was ejected by the Puritans in 1647 for refusing to sign the Solemn Covenant but reinstated on the Restoration. He had, after all, written poems celebrating the births of Charles II and James Duke of York in the 1630s, and had dedicated to the Prince of Wales his major volume of verse, Hesperides, published 1648, which contains quite a few poems praising Charles I. His loyalty was rewarded.

Herrick writes directly and clearly. Life is sweet, life is beautiful, life is full of good things, the seasons, the country, the fruits of the earth and the love of God, and we should enjoy it all while we can.

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.

His most famous lines are the opening of To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.

Thomas Carew (1595? – 1639)

Carew began his professional career as assistant to the English ambassador to the Netherlands in 1616 and was sacked for insulting the ambassador and his wife. He went on to have a successful career as poet and courtier, being appointed to King Charles’s Privy Chamber in 1628. He acquired a reputation for mischief and debauchery, and his poems have an edge. He feels more varied than Herrick: there are the usual lyrics to haughty mistresses named Celia, but also some genuinely moving elegies, for example to Lady Mary Villiers. The three most impressive poems are a long hymn of praise to Saxham, a country house owned by Sir John Crofts, the poem being an example of the ‘praise of a country house, its setting, household and host’ which was popular at the time, whose best example is Jonson’s poem To Penshurst. There’s also a page-long poem praising Jonson himself, though it appears to surprisingly tell the Master that his newest play is not as good as Volpone. The third outstanding work is the long elegy to John Donne:

In the middle there’s an extended section where he says Donne’s predecessors and contemporaries were servile imitators who pretend to a mimic fury, pretend to be possessed by a divine fire copied from the classics such as Anacreon or Pindar…

The Muses’ garden, with pedantic weeds
O’erspread, was purg’d by thee; the lazy seeds
Of servile imitation thrown away,
And fresh invention planted; thou didst pay
The debts of our penurious bankrupt age;
Licentious thefts, that make poetic rage
A mimic fury, when our souls must be
Possess’d, or with Anacreon’s ecstasy,
Or Pindar’s, not their own…

But Donne purged this overgrown garden, cleared away ‘the lazy seeds of servile imitation’ and planted ‘fresh invention’. In terms of poetry the age was bankrupt but Donne paid off its debts and set it up anew. Then, embedded in the following lines and amid this extended argument, are a couple of standout lines:

… the subtle cheat
Of sly exchanges, and the juggling feat
Of two-edg’d words, or whatsoever wrong
By ours was done the Greek or Latin tongue,
Thou hast redeem’d, and open’d us a mine
Of rich and pregnant fancy; drawn a line
Of masculine expression, which had good
Old Orpheus seen, or all the ancient brood
Our superstitious fools admire, and hold
Their lead more precious than thy burnish’d gold,
Thou hadst been their exchequer, and no more
They each in other’s dust had rak’d for ore.

Opened us a mine of rich and pregnant fancy – that expertly captures the way Donne invented something utterly new, in his poetry’s concentration, its intellectual demandingness, its extravagant intellectualism, its unexpected and dazzling imagery. The lines after it describe that Donne and Carew’s contemporaries as ‘superstitious fools’ for admiring ‘the ancient brood’ of classical poets, for considering their ‘lead’ more precious than Donne’s ‘burnished gold’ – but goes on to make the Donne-ish image that, had Orpheus (the legendary founder of poetry and song) and the ancient Greeks known about Donne, ‘thou hadst been their exchequer’, that’s to say, they would have been able to draw an indefinite supply of money i.e. poetic imagery, from him, and wouldn’t have had to rake around in each other’s dust i.e. copy each other’s ideas and images.

It’s an extended argument, which combines imagery and metaphors in a dense a knotty way which Donne would have appreciated, though it lacks the lightness, and the spare and unexpected line lengths of a Donne poem.

Sir John Suckling (1609 – 41)

Rich and good looking, Suckling was also swashbuckling. Aged just 22 he volunteered to fight in the army of Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years War. Back in Charles I’s court, he wrote poems and some of the masques which Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria loved (and acted in!). He led his own troop of soldiers on the king’s side in the first Bishop’s war with Scotland and then had a series of improbable adventures. He is said to have been involved in a Royalist plot to release the Earl of Strafford from the Tower of London and forced to flee to Paris. From here he was, apparently, also forced to flee after a love affair, then he was in Spain, where he was said to have been arrested by the inquisition, before settling in Holland. Eventually, crushed by poverty and debts, he took his own life, just as the civil wars began.

His tone of voice is ‘witty, decorous, naughty’ as well as cultivating a certain military swagger, entirely appropriate in a writer who, though he wrote comparatively little, in some ways epitomises the bravura qualities of the Cavalier Poet. When I was young I memorised his song:

Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can’t win her,
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee why so mute?

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

‘The devil take her!’ It has the real insouciant tough-mindedness of the true cavalier. It entirely anticipates the amused cynicism of the Restoration wits. And, rereading this book, I was surprised to rediscover just how cynical and unillusioned Suckling is. His poems argue against love, against ‘fruition’ i.e. possessing your beloved, because love quickly turns stale, how the excitement is all in the game, in the chase.

Women enjoy’d (whate’er before th’ have been)
Are like romances read, or sights once seen :
Fruition’s dull, and spoils the play much more
Than if one read or knew the plot before.
‘Tis expectation makes a blessing dear ;
Heaven were not heaven, if we knew what it were.

There’s a genuinely funny little dialogue between J.S and T.C., which stands for Thomas Carew (presumably they were friends) which contrasts their differing approaches to watching a noted beauty walk through the ornamental gardens at Hampton Court. TC expresses the traditional lover’s rhetoric, that the passing beauty woke the flowers, her voice was like music etc, while J.S. is having none of it and says he spent his time undressing her with his eyes and if she’d only taken one last turn round the gardens, he’d have succeeded in stripping her naked, dammit!

There is a Farewell to love, a comic poem comparing wooing a woman to laying siege to a town (imagery that crops up in many Restoration comedies), a poem telling a pale-faced lover to stop bloody whining. Suckling is having none of that nonsense. I particularly liked the poem comparing love and debt i.e. only the man who is free of both can be called happy. He runs through all the poets and professions which are rich in this or that but still prey to debt or still prey to love.

But he that can eat beef and feed on bread which is so brown
May satisfy his appetite, and owe no man a crown:
And he that is content with lasses clothèd in plain woollen,
May cool his heat in every place, he need not to be sullen,
Nor sigh for love of lady fair; for this each wise man knows,
As good stuff under flannel lies, as under silken clothes.

Richard Lovelace (1618 – 1658)

Lovelace was heir to an old Kentish family which was distinguished in Elizabeth’s reign. He was a soldier and fought for Charles. Just as the war was about to break out, he presented a Royalist petition to Parliament in April 1642 and was imprisoned for a couple of months for his pains. Upon his release, he raised a militia and joined Charles at his headquarters in Oxford. When Charles surrendered himself to the Scots, Lovelace fled abroad and offered his services as a soldier to King Louis of France. He was wounded at a battle at Dunkirk. He returned to England in 1648, during the period of the second civil war and was promptly locked up again, this time for a year. He was released in 1649 and died in poverty in 1658.

Crofts makes the simple, central point that the carpe diem mode, the gather ye rosebuds, live for today mindset was very appropriate for supporters of the king who were oppressed by a sense of the gathering storm, and then watched their side go down to defeat. Life is beautiful, sweet and full of pleasure but, as the soldiers among these poets knew, could be ended in a moment. Lovelace expresses this feeling sweetly and simply.

To Lucasta, Going to the Wars

Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.

True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.

Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Dear) so much,
Lov’d I not Honour more.

That said, Lovelace struck me as the most Donne-like of the four, routinely using quite complex or our-of-the-way conceits in his love poetry. The Grasshopper is an example of an unusual subject, just as mention of the ostrich in another poem suggests a drive to include or use unusual imagery. But there’s one poem that not only adopts a Donne-like tone i.e. lectures his beloved with an elaborate metaphysical argument, especially in the 3rd and 4th stanzas – but actually echoes a famous rhyme of Donne’s.

To Lucasta, going beyond the Seas

If to be absent were to be
Away from thee;
Or that when I am gone
You or I were alone;
Then, my Lucasta, might I crave
Pity from blustering wind or swallowing wave.

But I’ll not sigh one blast or gale
To swell my sail,
Or pay a tear to ‘suage
The foaming blue god’s rage;
For whether he will let me pass
Or no, I’m still as happy as I was.

Though seas and land betwixt us both,
Our faith and troth,
Like separated souls,
All time and space controls:
Above the highest sphere we meet
Unseen, unknown; and greet as Angels greet.

So then we do anticipate
Our after-fate,
And are alive i’ the skies,
If thus our lips and eyes
Can speak like spirits unconfined
In Heaven, their earthy bodies left behind.

The hyperbole that the lovers’ faith and troth control ‘all time and space’ is very Donne, as is the notion that in some other, higher sphere, their souls ‘greet as Angels greet’. What attracted the derogatory description ‘metaphysical’ is the way the poet is taking a fairly run-of-the-mill sentiment – telling his beloved they’ll still be in love even though he’s going abroad – and using this hyperbolical language of time and space, higher spheres and angelology.

As to the echoed rhyme, compare and contrast with The Good Morrow by Donne:

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.

Summary

So Herrick is happy-go-lucky, Carew is knotty, Suckling is cynical and Lovelace is the most metaphysical, in the sense that his poems are often making a case and use unusual and arcane imagery to do so. A good example is his densely argued poem about his mistress’s glove.

Elinda’s Glove

Thou snowy Farm with thy five Tenements!
Tell thy white Mistresss here was one
That call’d to pay his daily Rents:
But she a-gathering Flowers and Hearts is gone,
And thou left void to rude Possession.

But grieve not pretty Ermine Cabinet,
Thy Alabaster Lady will come home;
If not, what Tenant can there fit
The slender turnings of thy narrow Room,
But must ejected be by his own doom?

Then give me leave to leave my Rent with thee;
Five kisses, one unto a place:
For though the Lute’s too high for me;
Yet Servants knowing Minikin nor Bass,
Are still allow’d to fiddle with the Case.

Where ‘minikin’ means treble, so that the final couplet means that even servants who know nothing about music are allowed to touch the case (of an instrument) and in the same way the poet claims that actual music-making on a lute – by which he means making love to, fondling the actual snow-white hand of his mistress – is far above his status but nonetheless, just like servants who know nothing about music are allowed to fiddle with music cases, so he, knowing nothing about love, is allowed to touch and revere love’s implement, the empty glove of his lover.

Quite packed, isn’t it?


Related links

Restoration art

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The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics People 1933-75 by Stephen Spender (1978)

Artists always have been and always will be individualists (p.52)

In this book Spender brought together key reviews, essays and other documents from each decade of his writing career. There’s a section of writings from the 1930s, but also from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

As you know, I don’t have much time for Spender’s poetry, but he has sensible, honest liberal views on a wide range of subjects, and is a fantastic gossip. His very sensibleness seems to have made him a good editor (by all accounts), of Horizon magazine which he co-founded in 1939, and literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967.

As an affable, clubbable fellow, he sat as a judge for various prizes and could be counted to take part in innumerable ‘writers congresses’, with the result that he seems to have met and chatted with just about every important writer from the middle of the twentieth century. The index of this handy little paperback is a who’s who of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights from the 1920s to the 70s.

These are notes on his essays and reviews from, and comments about, the 1930s.

The Thirties

Background

Spender thinks the left-wing feel of literature in the 1930s has deep roots, going back at least to the Fabians (who included H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw). He points out that the famous war poets Sassoon, Graves and Owen were all, by the war’s end, ‘socialists’ too, based on:

  • hatred of the older generation who had sent out the young to be slaughtered
  • sympathy for the working class men they supervised
  • admiration for revolutionary movements in Europe, political cultural and sexual
  • resentment of the way the British establishment tried to strangle the Bolshevik revolution
  • dislike of the British Empire

That said, all arts undergraduates of the late 1920s revered T.S. Eliot whose masterpiece The Waste Land prophesied the end of all civilisation, an apocalyptic vision which made conventional politics irrelevant.

But although the Modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis) held extreme right-wing views, their young fans still revered them because they were revolutionary in form & content. Also, although right-wing in tendency, the Modernists were heartily loathed by the dead, dull, philistine Conservatives who ran the artistic and literary establishment and thought them dangerous radicals and Bohemians (foreigners, too). The English conservative establishment was, Spender tells us, ‘philistine, stupid, respectable and frightened’.

As an undergraduate Auden held the view that the poet should be utterly unpolitical, in fact that he should be as unemotional and detached as a scientist: his own emotions, the lives around him and society at large were merely a field for his forensic enquiries. The exact opposite of, say, Shelley.

Writing in the 1970s, Spender now sees how that view stems from T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay Tradition and The Individual Talent i.e. was indebted to the detached classicism of the Modernist generation.

Spender thinks he and the Auden Gang initially continued to adhere to the apolitical aesthetics of the Modernists. Only slowly did they let politics enter their work and it felt, to them, like a conscious lowering of standards. They had a ‘we’re only doing this for the duration’ feel about them. MacNeice in particular barely wrote any ‘political’ poetry during the 30s.

Spender sees the real generational break being between his friends – Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice – and the genuinely younger generation of fire-eating communist poets – Julian Bell and John Cornford – who were sincerely and utterly political (though he tempers this by pointing out that they were, in every instance, rebelling against the apolitical bourgeois aestheticism of their Bloomsbury parents).

Spender suggest that even when they were writing ‘political’ poems, he and Auden were in a way simply continuing the anti-war attitude of Wilfred Owen. He suggests his own poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, and Auden’s sonnets from China. They are anti-war protests, a kind of ‘anti-fascist pacifist poetry’.

In fact Spender thinks there wasn’t a thirties ‘movement’; movements have meetings and manifestos. But Auden was a ‘leader’ in the sense that he was intellectually in advance of all the rest, had through things through more thoroughly, and had a more highly developed technique.

Spender describes Auden’s advanced knowledge of psychoanalysis and how he used it to psychoanalyse his friends, inviting them to his darkened rooms in Christ Church and exposing them to penetrating psychological investigation. He liked doing this one-on-one, and preferred to keep his friends apart, which partly explains why the members of the so-called ‘movement’ rarely actually met.

In other words people didn’t ‘follow’ Auden because he commanded obedience. He simply was a cleverer, more fully formed and fascinating character than everyone else.

What triggered the ‘political content was simply the extremity of the times, the early 1930s, when it really looked as if the capitalist system might collapse, and the well-heeled literati in the south of England couldn’t fail to notice mass unemployment, squalor, and millions going hungry, their lives going to waste.

Because it was part of every educated person’s consciousness, the social crisis inevitably entered their writing. Overlapping it and extending the sense of crisis was the rise to power of Hitler and the sense, by the mid-30s, that war was inevitable. And they had an H.G. Wells-style horror of what the approaching war would entail. Spender was told by a leading government expert that British cities would be flattened in days by mass bombing.

Adding bite to this mood was the appalling complacency of almost everyone outside the ‘intellectual class’ – the complacency of Stanley Baldwin and the Empire exhibition. You can hear the same note of exasperation in George Orwell’s novels – he wants to shake England out of its myopic slumber. Wake up! so many of those poems say.

Spender sympathises with the critics who point out the 100% private school nature of these lefties. There was something laughable, Spender himself admits, in their attempts to write for the working classes. Spender thinks that, if anyone, their poems were aimed at ‘sixth-formers from their old schools and at one another’ (p.23).

But what else could they have done? Ignored the mass unemployment and economic collapse of the Great Depression? Ignored the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War? In a society in crisis every work becomes political.

The essence of the Modernist movement was it created works which centred on themselves, were self contained as art. The next generation, his generation, took Modernist tools and reinjected what the Modernist works had lacked, namely day-to-day subject matter. ‘We were putting the subject back into poetry’.

In his opinion the members of the movement were very varied, never had a manifesto, and had all kinds of doubts about putting politics into poetry – but were made to seem like a movement because of the deep sleep of everyone else around them. Writing about the Slump or Hitler created the impression of a camaraderie among writers who were, deep down, very disparate.

Real political poetry was that written by committed Communists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Tom Wintringham – but the first three of these were killed in Spain and the tradition they might have created, vanished with them.

All these concerns came to a head with the Spanish Civil War which triggered a crescendo of political commitment among the bourgeois poets – and then a collapse of cynicism and disillusion. One way of seeing it is that all the bourgeois writers were brought by the crisis right up against the need to write propaganda, that is, to lie, to write things they doubted or knew were lies (about the unity of the left, about the Moscow show trials, the wisdom of Stalin, and so on). When push came to shove, they all rebelled against this.

In face of Stalinist propaganda and methods it was a reversion to the view that individual conscience is the repository of witnessed truth. (p.29)

Once the scales fell from their eyes, they realised they had let themselves be cajoled into writing in ways, about subjects and reaching conclusions, that they knew to be false or disagreed with. This concern for individual truth-telling explains why many of them, most famously Auden, tried to suppress much of their work from the 30s as ‘dishonest’. Thus he tinkered with Spain, the long poem he wrote trying to support the Republicans, but eventually came to hate its entire tone and banned it.

This notion of individual truth was the reef that the ‘movement’ of political poetry ran aground on.

Review of A Vision by W.B. Yeats (April 1938)

In this book Yeats systematically laid out the complex system of images and ideas which underpinned his later poetry and which, he claimed, had been communicated to his wife by messages from the spirit world. With restrained irony Spender says that, if these complex insights into the meaning of human history, its patterns and recurrences really are true, it is a shame this long and complicated book makes no attempt to prove the fact or to relate it to the world the rest of us live in. More sharply, Spender notes that when Yeats writes that when he read Oswald Spengler’s vast epic about The Decline of the West (1918-22) he found an eerie similarity with his own thought – that is because both of them, along with Stefan George and d’Annunzio, in their attacks on the rotten littleness of modern democratic society and the need for new Caesars to rise up and restore civilisation – all prove ideological and artistic justifications for fascism.

Review of One-Way Song by Wyndham Lewis (December 1933)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was an avant-garde artist who, just before the First World War, founded the short-lived movement of Vorticism, a British response to Italian Futurism. After the war (in which he served) he continued to paint, including marvellous modernist portraits of his chums T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, plus the doyenne of 1920s poetry, Edith Sitwell; but also wrote a lot, novels, huge meditations upon Western Man, and, as in this case, poetry.

One-Way Song is an extended satire written with Lewis’s demonic energy which sets out to flail every cause Lewis can think of, including parliamentary democracy, Progress, relativity, the expanding universe and racial equality. Some of the lines tend towards fascism i.e. saying society can only be saved from its pettiness by a Strong Leader, but on the whole Spender admires Lewis for his vigour and his openness, unlike many a fascist sympathiser who couches their support in suaver support for ‘the corporate state’ etc.

Review of Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence (January 1937)

Lawrence was one of a kind, sui generis. Not many major writers have emerged from the genuine working class, his Dad being a miner in the coalfields outside Nottingham. As Lawrence got educated he moved out of his own class, but was never at home with the smug bourgeoisie which runs English culture (in his day, the Bloomsbury Group).

Despising the middle class for its post-impressionist pusillanimity, but unable to expect anything of a working class he knew was crushed and cowed, he found a solution, a way out – Sex.

In the sexual act two people could transcend the petty restrictions of class and country and rediscover human dignity and authenticity. On this discovery he posited a potential social revolution, and described and wrote about it on countless occasions. He was against crowds, the masses and their filthy representation politics and democracy. In this respect he was anti-democratic and gave way sometimes to brooding images of Dark Power and the Strong Leader. But at its core he revolted against all of society, of whatever shape, in favour of a revolution in the head of individuals, then of men and women in their relationships with each other.

All settlement of the property question must arise spontaneously out of the new impulse in man, to free himself from the extraneous load of possession, and walk naked and light.

This is why he is among the Great Writers – because he took the key subject of the most serious novels – relationships between men and woman, or a man and a woman – to new levels of intensity.

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

A review of a zealously communist poem by the French poet, Louis Aragon. Spender is blisteringly critical of its calls for the proletariat to rise up and shoot the bourgeoisie. Why, asks Spender. Why is one lot of people arresting, imprisoning, torturing and executing another group of people terrible if it’s group A, but fabulous and deserving hymns of praise if it’s group B? They’re all people.

Marx had an answer. The proletariat represent Hegel’s Spirit of History. They are not only good and just in themselves, they represent the future of mankind. Spender obviously doesn’t buy this.

Spender says this isn’t a poem it’s propaganda and, what’s more, threatening propaganda. He treats Aragon to about the most withering criticism possible by saying its invocations and threats of violence are directly comparable to Hitler. Compare this poem to any speech by Hitler. Whoosh!

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

A poem is complete in itself, it does not reach out and affect the real world. Poetry is idealist in the sense that it is restricted to the world of thought. It is, therefore, the opposite of materialist thought. Individuals locked in their own little worlds is the opposite of the mass movement which the revolutionist calls for.

Basically Spender argues that all literature is middle class. To read it or be able to write it, workers have to get educated enough to lose their working class roots and enter the bourgeoisie. Even rebels against the bourgeoisie tend to be bourgeois, and their ‘rebellion’ tends to be into precisely the kind of visionary individualism which the true revolutionary hates most (he evidences the French poet, Rimbaud).

The bourgeois artist can not rebel against his bourgeois origins. But he can serve revolutionary ends by writing honestly. If he writes honestly his writings will accurately reveal the symptoms of a decaying society.

He defends poetry with these arguments:

  • poetry records the changing meaning of words, it preserves words in their pure and historic meaning
  • poetry saves the language from degenerating
  • poetry is a function of our emotional life
  • ‘poetry is the language of moments in which we see ourselves or other people in their true relation to humanity or nature’
  • poetry expresses compassion for all human beings regardless of race or class

Contemporary writers who wish to be communists cannot join the communist cause because of their economic condition, which forces them to be individuals, alone and alienated. Come the revolution, this will be solved.

(Compare and contrast Spender’s lightweight ideas with the fully worked out theory of Realism in fiction propounded by Marxist philosopher György Lukács.)

The Poetic Dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (Autumn 1938)

Spender had written a poetic drama himself, Trial of a Judge, this same year of 1938.

He praises the poetic dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, specifically The Dog Beneath The Skin and The Ascent of F6, but enters a few typically sensible caveats.

  • Not much of the poetry in them is as good as Auden’s individual poems.
  • None of the characters has the subtlety of the characters in Isherwood’s novels.
  • Lastly, the pop nature of some of the lyrics created a kind of lowest common denominator style which Auden’s younger fans are now copying.

The public figures in F6 are too true to life to be believable. The satire on them is too crude to be believable and therefore effective. In this respect, yes, they are rather schoolboyish, as older critics claimed. Spender considers Dog works in its long journey round Europe, but when the protagonist returns to his English village, the climax of the play is him delivering a sermon indistinguishable from one any ordinary vicar would deliver.

Spender acutely points out the several ways in which the conclusion of The Ascent of F6 is not only unsatisfactory, it is incoherent. I agree with him that lots of it are just chunks of Auden which have been inserted into the play without too much regard for context. But that the chorus poetry of Mr and Mrs A is excellent (the best thing in the play, in my view).

With a touch of the apocalyptic, Spender hopes Auden and Isherwood have laid the foundations of what might be a much wider social change in coming decades which would see ‘the emergence of the theatre as the most significant and living of literary forms’ (p.61). Of course, they hadn’t.

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

Six months into the Spanish Civil War, Spender tried to get into republican Spain but was refused a visa so he did the next best thing which was to travel to Tangiers – where he attended meetings, speeches etc by Republican supporters – then Gibraltar, where he dwells on the revolting Franco sympathies of the British authorities and old British colonels’ mithering about ‘Red atrocities’. Even if these atrocities are true, Spender excuses them as the inevitable excesses of the suffering imposed on the people by the ‘monstrous Spanish system’ (p.64).

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

Finally Spender got himself into Republican Spain and reports on what he saw and the Unity of the People as he travelled round for six weeks.

Spender takes exception to calling anyone who dies in a war, a ‘hero’, saying this is just a rhetoric people use to hide from themselves the disgusting reality of war. He testifies that the actual soldiers dislike talk of heroes and heroics; in the reports they read they are far more concerned to hear the simple truth.

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

Being notes on the International Writers Congress held in which Spender attended. He is very impressed by André Malraux (‘a hero’) and his talk of will, how the writer must create an environment which allows them to write. They drive from Barcelona to Valencia and on to Madrid, seeing sights, meeting the People, excited by the social revolution very obviously going on around them. The essay concludes with a conversation with the Spanish poet, José Bergamín who, when asked about his Catholicism, says yes yes yes he believes all the articles of faith, but no no no he believes the Catholic Church in Spain has allied with one particular class and is trying to prevent ‘the spiritual growth of the Spanish people’. Spender optimistically concludes that, within the political revolution sparked by the war, is also taking place a Catholic Reformation. (In both predictions he was, of course, wrong.)

I join the Communist Party (Daily Worker, February 1937)

Spender explains that the motivation of his book Forward From Liberalism, published in 1937, was to show the mindset of a typical bourgeois liberal (i.e. himself) approaching communism, namely his belief in social justice and international peace rather than imperialist aggression.

In this article he announces that he has a) formally joined the communist party b) is setting off to Valencia to support the Republican government.

In fact these three short pages conclude with a description of his whistlestop tour of Tangiers and Gibraltar (mentioned above) and how he found everywhere how a minority of capitalist-imperialists was wedded to the Francoist attachment to property and in doing so seeking to suppress and put down the 80% of the population who wanted revolutionary change to their society.

Everywhere he went he saw Communists leading the fight against fascism, the best and most dignified of the working class were the Communists. And so he’s joined the Party.

When he puts it like that, his decision sounds eminently reasonable.

However, the first half of the little essay indicates a massive problem he faced: even before he joined the Party he had been sharply criticised by a critic in the Daily Worker for passages in Forward From Liberalism in which he had questioned the Moscow Show Trials i.e. Stalin’s word.

This is the crux of this entire section and of Left-wing politics in the 1930s as a whole. In contrast to the rotten, do-nothing democracies, Communism was actively fighting the unambiguous evil of fascism, and everywhere communist workers provided inspiring examples of human heroism and high-mindedness. Plus, to the anxious bourgeois intellectual, the Communist Party provided a wonderful sense of community and acceptance in a greater task. Good.

But, as they all discovered, Communism-in-practice meant lying for Stalin. Lying about the show trials, the deportations, the famines, the labour camps, the murder of opponents and rivals in Russia, and lying about the undermining of the entire Spanish Republican war effort by commissars more concerned with eliminating Trotskyists or Anarchists than with fighting the supposed enemy.

And this was the enormous disillusion which woke Spender, Auden and many other writers from their dream of solidarity with the working class. They would love to show solidarity with the working class and overthrow the rotten old system. But central to membership of the Party was abandoning their individual ‘bourgeois’ consciences and lying for a brutal, murderous dictator. And none of them could do that.

Postscript

With the ending of the Spanish Civil War it became clear that the thirties was being wound up like a company going into bankruptcy. The departure of Auden for America in 1939, whatever personal feelings it aroused, considered as a public act only underlined what most of his colleagues already felt: that the individualist phase was over. From now on, people did not join anti-fascism as individuals who might influence history. They joined armies in which they were expected to forget that they were individuals. (p.85)

With a few exceptions the writer associated with the thirties tried after 1939 to break with their political connections. This was particularly true of Auden who edited out of his works what might be termed the Thirties Connection. His departure for Isherwood in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (p.276)

(In this second passage Spender makes a small but telling mistake. Auden and Isherwood sailed for New York in January 1939, at the start of the year. Spender’s memory has smoothed this out by making it occur in ‘late’ 1939, right at the end of the year and so of the decade – thus making it appear more symbolic and neat. Well, he’s a poet, not a historian.)


Credit

The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender was first published by Macmillan Books. All references are to the 1978 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Journey To A War by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1939)

When we awoke early next morning the train was crossing a wide valley of paddy fields. The rising sun struck its beams across the surfaces of innumerable miniature lakes; in the middle distance farmhouses seemed actually to be floating on water. Here and there a low mound rose a few feet above the level of the plain, with a weed-grown, ruinous pagoda, standing upon it, visible for miles around. Peasants with water-buffaloes were industriously ploughing their arable liquid into a thick, brown soup.
(Journey To A War, p.191)

Collectively, perhaps, we most resemble a group of characters in one of Jules Verne’s stories about lunatic English explorers. (p.104)

The Sino-Japanese War

In July 1937 – exactly a year after the start of the Spanish Civil War – Japan attacked China. It was hardly a surprise. In 1931 the so-called ‘Mukden Incident’ had helped spark the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (the large area to the north east of China, just above Beijing). The Chinese were defeated and Japan created a new puppet state, Manchukuo (setting up the last Qing emperor as its puppet ruler) through which to rule Manchuria.

Going further back, in 1894–1895 China, then still under the rule of the Qing dynasty, was defeated by Japan in what came to be called the First Sino-Japanese War. China had been forced to cede Taiwan to Japan and to recognise the independence of Korea which had, in classical times, been under Chinese domination.

In other words, for 40 years the rising power of militaristic, modernising Japan had been slowly nibbling away at rotten China, seizing Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. Now the military junta in Tokyo decided the time was right to take another bite, engineered an ‘incident’ at the Marco Polo bridge on the trade route to Beijing, and used this as a pretext to attack Beijing in the north and Shanghai in the south.

Thus there was quite a lot of military and political history to get to grips with in order to understand the situation in China, but what made it even more confusing was the fact that China itself was a divided nation. First, the nominal government – the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang under its leader Chiang Kai-shek – had only with difficulty put down or paid off the powerful warlords who for decades had ruled local regions of China after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

But second, Chiang faced stiff competition from the Chinese Communist Party. The two parties had lived in uneasy alliance until Chiang staged a massacre of communists in Shanghai in 1927 which brought the tension between Chinese nationalists and communists into the open.

It was the three-way destabilisation of China during this period – warlords v. Nationalists v. Communists – which had helped Japan invade and take over Manchuria. Prompted by the 1937 Japanese attack the Nationalists and Communists formed an uneasy alliance.

Auden in Spain

Meanwhile, back in Europe, the great political issue of the age was the Spanish Civil War which began when General Franco led a military uprising against the democratically elected government in July 1936. Like many high-minded, middle class liberals, Auden and Isherwood both felt the time had come to put their money where their mouths were. Auden did actually travel to Spain in January 1937 and was there till March, apparently trying to volunteer to drive an ambulance in the medical service. Instead, red tape and the communists who were increasingly running the Republican forces apparently blocked him from getting a useful job. He tried to help out at the radio station but discovered its broadcasts were weak and there were no vacancies.

Frustrated and embarrassed, Auden was back in England by mid-March 1937. The long-term impact of the trip was his own surprise at how much it upset him to see the churches of Barcelona which had all been torched and gutted by a furious radical populace as symbols of oppression. Auden was shocked, and then shocked at his reaction. Wasn’t he meant to be a socialist, a communist even, like lots of other writers of his generation? The Spain trip was the start of the slow process of realisation which was to lead him back to overt Christian faith in the 1940s.

Also Auden saw at first hand the infighting on the Republican side between the communist party slavishly obeying Stalin’s orders, and the more radical Trotskyite and Anarchist parties who, later in 1937, it would crush. Later he paid credit to George Orwell’s book Homage To Catalonia for explaining the complex political manoeuvring far better than he could have. But watching the Republicans fight among themselves made him realise it was far from being a simple case of black and white, of Democracy against Fascism.

So by March 1938 Auden had returned to Britain, where he was uncharacteristically silent about his experiences, and got on with writing, editing new works for publication (not least an edition of his play The Ascent of F6 and Letters From Iceland).

Meanwhile, Christopher Isherwood was living in Paris managing his on-again, off-again relationship with his German boyfriend Heinz. And although he had accommodated Auden on an overnight stop in the French capital and waved him off on the train south to Spain, Isherwood hadn’t lifted a finger for the Great Cause.

Then, in June 1937, Auden’s American publisher, Bennet Cerf of Random House, had suggested that after the reasonable sales of his travel book about Iceland, maybe Auden would be interested in writing another travel book, this time travelling to the East. Isherwood was a good suggestion as collaborator because they had just worked closely on the stage play, The Ascent of F6 and had begun work on a successor, which was to end up becoming the pay On The Frontier. The pair were considering the travel idea when the Japanese attacked China, quickly took Beijing and besieged Shanghai.

At once they seized on this as the subject of the journey and the book. Neither had really engaged with the war in Spain; travelling east would be a way to make amends and to report on what many people considered to be the Eastern Front of what was developing into a worldwide war between Fascism (in this case Japan) and Democracy (in this case the Chinese Nationalists).

China also had the attraction that, unlike Spain, it wouldn’t be stuffed full of eminent literary figures falling over themselves to write poems and plays and novels and speeches. Spain had been a very competitive environment for a writer. Far fewer people knew or cared about China: it would be their own little war.

And so Auden and Isherwood left England in January 1938, boat from Dover then training it across France, then taking a boat from Marseilles to Hong Kong, via Egypt, Colombo and Singapore.

Journey to a War

Journey To A War is not as good as Letter From Iceland, it’s less high spirited and funny. There isn’t a big linking poem like Letter To Lord Byron to pull it together, and there isn’t the variety of all the different prose and verse forms Auden and MacNeice cooked up for the earlier book.

Instead it overwhelmingly consists of Isherwood’s very long prose diary of what happened to them and what they saw in their three months journey around unoccupied China.

The book opens with a series of sonnets and this was the form Auden chose to give the book poetic unity – sonnets, after all, lend themselves to sequences which develop themes and ideas, notably the Sonnets of Shakespeare, or his contemporaries Spencer and Sidney. There’s a collection of half a dozen of them right at the start, which give quick impressions of places they visited en route to China (Macau, Hong Kong). Then, 250 pages of Isherwood prose later, there’s the sonnet sequence titled In Time of War.

But instead of the bright and extrovert tone of Letters From Iceland, Auden’s sonnets are often obscure. They are clearly addressing some kind of important issues but it’s not always clear what. This is because they are very personal and inward-looking. Auden is clearly wrestling with his sense of liberal guilt. The results are rather gloomy. Spain had disillusioned him immensely. He went to Spain thinking the forces of Evil were objective and external. But his first-hand experience of the internecine bickering on the Republican side quickly showed him there is no Good Side, there are no Heroes. History is made by all of us and so – all of us are to blame for what happens. Travel as far as you want, you’re only running away from the truth. If we want to cure the world, it is we ourselves that we need to cure first.

Where does this journey look which the watcher upon the quay,
Standing under his evil star, so bitterly envies,
As the mountains swim away with slow calm strokes
And the gulls abandon their vow? Does it promise a juster life?

Alone with his heart at last, does the fortunate traveler find
In the vague touch of a breeze, the fickle flash of a wave,
Proofs that somewhere exists, really, the Good Place,
Convincing as those that children find in stones and holes?

No, he discovers nothing: he does not want to arrive.
His journey is false, his unreal excitement really an illness
On a false island where the heart cannot act and will not suffer:
He condones his fever; he is weaker than he thought; his weakness is real…

(from The Voyage by W.H. Auden)

‘An illness on a false island’ which is clearly England, a place ‘where the heart cannot act’. The traveller is trying to escape himself but cannot and glumly realises ‘he is weaker than he thought’. Or the thumping final couplet of the sonnet about Hong Kong:

We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.

Isherwood’s diary

Luckily, the prose sections of the book are written by Isherwood and these are much more fun. He keeps up the giggling schoolboy persona of the novel he’d recently published, Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), he notes the way the Chinese pronounce their names Au Dung and Y Hsaio Wu, he sounds wide-eyed and optimistic. He hadn’t seen what Auden had seen in Spain, wasn’t struggling with the same doubts.

On February 28 1938 they leave Hong Kong by steamer for Canton and Isherwood finds everyone and everything hilarious. Look a Japanese gunboat! Listen, the sound of bombs falling! He has same facility for the disarmingly blunt image which he deploys in the Berlin stories. The mayor of Canton (Mr Tsang Yan-fu) is always beaming, has a face like a melon with a slice cut out of it. After dinner the Chinese general entertains them by singing Chinese opera, showing how different characters are given different tones and registers (‘the romantic hero emits a sound like a midnight cat’).

He refers to the whole trip as a dream and as a landscape from Alice in Wonderland – they expected Chinese people to behave as in a Gilbert & Sullivan opera and had rehearsed elaborate compliments, and are disarmed when they’re much more down to earth. The train journey on through Hunan province is boring, the tea tastes of fish, they amuse themselves by reading out an Anthony Trollope novel or singing in mock operatic voices.

But this sense of unreality which dogs them is simply because both of them didn’t have a clue what was going on, what was at stake, the military situation,  had never seen fighting or battle and weren’t proper journalists. They were privileged dilettantes, ‘mere trippers’, as Isherwood shamefacedly explains when they meet real war correspondents at a press conference (p.53).

In Hankow the Consul gives them Chiang, a middle-aged man with the manners of a perfect butler to be their guide. They attend the official war briefings alongside American and Australian journalists, they meet Mr Donald, Chiang Kai-shek’s military adviser, the German adviser General von Falkenhausen, Agnes Smedley, Madame Chiang Kai-shek herself, and with delight are reunited with Robert Capa, the soon-to-be legendary American war photographer who’d they’d met on the boat out. They attend traditional Chinese opera, which Isherwood observes with the eye of a professional playwright.

They catch the train to Cheng-chow which has been repeatedly bombed by the Japanese, capably looked after by their ‘boy’, Chiang. They are heading north on the train when they learn that Kwei-teh has fallen, nonetheless they decide to press on to Kai-feng. With them is an exuberant and seasoned American doctor, McClure, who takes them to watch some operations. They walk round the stinking foetid town. They go to the public baths which stink of urine. Then they catch a train to Sü-chow. And then onto Li Kwo Yi where they argue with Chinese commanding officers (General Chang Tschen) to allow them to go right up to the front line, a town divided by the Great Canal.

If you’ve no idea where any of these places are, join the club. I was reading an old edition but, even so, it had no map at all of any part of the journey. Which is ludicrous. The only map anywhere appears to have been on the front cover of the hardback edition, replaced (uselessly) by an anti-war cartoon on the paperback editions, and even this doesn’t show their actual route.

First US edition (publ. Random House)

With no indication where any of these places are, unless you are prepared to read it with an atlas open at your side, Isherwood’s long prose text becomes a stream of clever observations largely divorced from their context. Even an atlas is not that useful given that Isherwood uses the old form of the placenames, all of which, along with most people’s names, have changed. Thus Sian, capital of Shen-si province, is now Xian, capital of Shaanxi Province, Sü-chow is now Suzhou, and so on.

We are intended to enjoy the surreal aspects of travelling in a deeply foreign land – the village restaurant which was papered entirely with pages of American tabloid magazines, and so covered with photos of gangsters and revelations about fashionable divorcees (p.126); or the expensive hotel in Sian whose menu included ‘Hat cake’ and ‘FF potatoes’ (p.141). Beheading is a common punishment because the Chinese believe a body needs to be complete to enter the afterlife. They meet lots of tough and brave American missionaries, mostly from the American south.

Finally, back in Hankow (Hankou) they become part of polite society again, are invited to a party of Chinese intellectuals, a party given by the British admiral and consul, where they meet the legendary travel writer Peter Fleming and his actress wife Celia Johnson, the British ambassador Archibald Kerr, the American communist-supporting journalist, Agnes Smedley (p.156). Fleming pops up a lot later at their hotel in Tunki, and is too suave, handsome and self-assured to possibly be real.

Militarily, Journey To A War confirms the opinions of the modern histories of the war I’ve read, namely that the Nationalist side was hampered by corruption, bad leadership and, above all, lack of arms & ammunition. When they retook cities which had been under communist influence the Chiang’s Nationalists realised they needed some kind of ideology which matched the communists’ emphasis on a pure life and so, in 1934, invented the New Life Movement i.e. stricter morals, which Madame Chiang politely explains.

Isherwood notices the large number of White Russian exiles, often running shops, come down in the world. This reminds me of the Russian nanny J.G. Ballard had during his boyhood in 1930s Shanghai, as described in his autobiography Miracles of Life.

From pages 100 to 150 or so our intrepid duo had hoped to approach the front line in the north and had crept up to it in a few places, but ultimately refused permission to go further, to visit the Eighth Route Army, and so have come by boat back down the Yangtze River to Hankou. Now they plan to travel south-east towards the other main front, where the Japanese have taken Shanghai and Nanjing.

On the Emperor of Japan’s birthday there is a particularly large air-raid on Hankow and they make themselves comfortable on the hotel lawn to watch it. The Arsenal across the river takes a pasting and they go to see the corpses. 500 were killed. Nice Emperor of Japan.

They take a river steamer to Kiukiang and stay at the extraordinary luxury hotel named Journey’s End and run by the wonderfully eccentric Mr Charleton. They catch the train from Kiukiang to Nanchang, stay there a few days, then the train on to Kin-hwa (modern Jinhua). Here they are horrified to discover their arrival has been anticipated and they are treated like minor royalty, including a trip to the best restaurant in town with 12 of the city’s top dignitaries.

Auden and I developed a private game: it was a point of honour to praise most warmly the dishes you liked least. ‘Delicious,’ Auden murmured, as he munched what was, apparently, a small sponge soaked in glue. I replied by devouring, with smiles of exquisite pleasure, an orange which taste of bitter aloes and contained, at its centre, a large weevil. (p.195)

They are taken by car to the town of Tunki. They try to get permission to push on to see the front near the Tai Lake, They have to cope with the officious newspaperman, A.W. Kao. This man gives a brisk confident explanation of what’s happening at the front. Neither Auden nor Isherwood believe it. Isherwood’s explanation describes scenes they’ve seen on their visit, but also hints at what Auden might have seen on his (mysterious) trip to civil war Spain. Auden is given a speech defining the nature of modern war:

War is bombing an already disused arsenal, missing it and killing a few old women. War is lying in a stable with a gangrenous leg. War is drinking hot water in a barn and worrying about one’s wife. War is a handful of lost and terrified men in the mountains, shooting at something moving in the undergrowth. War is waiting for days with nothing to do; shouting down a dead telephone; going without sleep, or sex, or a wash. War is untidy, inefficient, obscure, and largely a matter of chance. (p.202)

Peter Fleming turns up looking gorgeous, professional, highly motivated, speaking good Chinese. He attends briefings, manages the locals with perfect manners. They organise an outing towards the front, with sedan chairs, bearers, two or three local notables (T.Y. Liu, A.W. Kao, Mr Ching, Major Yang, Shien), Fleming is indefatigable. On they plod to Siaofeng, Ti-pu and Meiki. Here the atmosphere is very restless, the miltary authorities are visibly unhappy to see them, half their own Chinese want to get away. The spend a troubled night, with people coming and going at the military headquarters where they’ve bivouaced and, after breakfast, they give in to the Chinese badgering, turn about, and retrace their steps. Twelve hours later the town of Meiki fell to the Japanese. On they plod up a steep hillside, carried by coolies, and down the precipitous other side, down to Tien-mu-shan and then by car to Yu-tsien (p.229).

We stopped to get petrol near a restaurant where they were cooking bamboo in all its forms – including the strips used for making chairs. That, I thought, is so typical of this country. Nothing is specifically either eatable or uneatable. You could being munching a hat, or bite a mouthful out of a wall; equally, you could build a hut with the food provided at lunch. Everything is everything. (p.230)

Isherwood hates Chinese food and, eventually, Auden agrees. At Kin-hwa Fleming leaves them. It’s a shame they’ve ended up getting on famously. It’s interesting that both Auden and Isherwood initially were against him because he went to Eton. The narcissism of minor differences knows no limits.

They say goodbye to all the people they’ve met in Kin-hwa and set off by bus for Wenchow. They take a river steamer from Wenchow to Shanghai.

Arrival in Shanghai on 25 May signals the end of their adventures. They stay in the chaotic, colourful, corrupt city till 12 June. Fascinating to think that over in his house in the International Settlement, young James Graham Ballard was playing with his toy soldiers, dreaming about flying and laying the grounds for one of the most distinctive and bizarre voices in post-war fiction.

And Isherwood confirms the strange, deliriously surreal atmosphere of a Chinese city which had been invaded and conquered by the Japanese, who had destroyed a good deal of the Chinese city but left the International and the French Settlements intact. They attend receptions at the British Embassy, are the guest of a British businessman hosting high-level Japs.

There is no doubt Auden and Isherwood hate the Japanese, can’t see the flag hanging everywhere without thinking about all the times in the past four months when they’ve ducked into cover as Japanese bombers rumbled overhead and fighters swooped to strafe the roads.

This is the only section of this long book with real bite. Isherwood interviews a British factory inspector who describes the appalling conditions Chinese workers endure and notes that they’ll all be made much worse by the Japanese conquerors.

Schoolboys

It’s a truism to point out that the Auden Generation was deeply marked by its experience of English public schools, but it is still striking to see how often the first analogy they reach for is from their jolly public schools, endless comparisons with school speeches and prize days and headmasters.

  • Under the camera’s eye [Chiang kai-shek] stiffened visibly like a schoolboy who is warned to hold himself upright (p.68)
  • Mission-doctors [we were told] were obliged to smoke in secret, like schoolboys (p.88)
  • They scattered over the fields, shouting to each other, laughing, turning somersaults, like schoolboys arriving at the scene of a Sunday school picnic (p.142)
  • The admiral, with his great thrusting naked chin… and the Consul-General, looking like a white-haired schoolboy, receive their guests. (p.156)
  • [Mr A.O. Kao] has a smooth, adolescent face, whose natural charm is spoiled by a perpetual pout and by his fussy school-prefect’s air of authority (p.201)
  • Producing a pencil, postulating our interest as a matter of course, he drew highroads, shaded in towns, arrowed troop movements; lecturing us like the brilliant sixth-form boy who takes the juniors in history while the headmaster is away. (p.200)
  • The cling and huddle in the new disaster
    Like children sent to school (p.278)
  • With those whose brains are empty as a school in August (p.291)

The photos

At the end of the huge slab of 250 pages of solid text, the book then had 31 pages of badly reproduced black and white photos taken by Auden. In fact there are 2 per page, so that’s 62 snaps in all.

I don’t think there’s any getting round the fact that they’re average to poor. Some are portraits of people they met, notably Chiang kai-shek and Madame Chiang, Chou en-lai of the communists, and celebrities such as Peter Fleming the dashing travel writer and Robert Capa the handsome war photographer. A dozen or more named people, Chinese, missionaries and so on. And then lots of anonymous soldiers and scenes, the dead from an air raid, the derailed steam train, coolies in poverty, a Japanese prisoner of war, a Japanese soldier keeping guard in Shanghai, Auden with soldiers in a trench and so on.

Remarkably, few if any of these seem to be online. I can’t imagine they’re particularly valuable and their only purpose would be to publicise the book and promote Auden and Isherwood’s writings generally, so I can’t imagine why the copyright holders have banned them. If I owned them, I’d create a proper annotated online gallery for students and fans to refer to.

In Time of War

The book then contains a sequence of 27 sonnets by Auden titled In Time of War. In later collections he retitled them Sonnets from China. They are, on the whole, tiresomely oracular, allegorical and obscure. The earlier ones seem to be retelling elements of the Bible, Genesis etc as if recapitulating the early history of mankind. These then somehow morph into the ills of modern society with its bombers.

But one of them stands out from the rest because it reports real details and rises to real angry eloquence.

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

(Sonnet XVI from In Time of War)

Those last lines have stayed with me all my life. Nanking. Dachau. The darkness at the heart of the twentieth century.

Commentary

The last thing in the book is a long poem in triplets, from pages 289 to 301 and titled simply Commentary.

It’s a sort of rewrite of Spain, again giving a hawk’s eye view of history and society, the world and human evolution. It starts off describing what they’ve seen in Auden’s characteristic sweeping style, leaping from one brightly described detail to another, before wandering off to give snapshots of great thinkers from Plato to Hegel.

But at quite a few points voices emerge to deliver speeches. Then, on the last page, the Commentary becomes extremely didactic, ending with a speech by the Voice of Man, no less, the kind of speech he turned out by the score for his plays and choruses and earlier 1930s poems.

But in this context it seems inadequate to the vast and catastrophic war in China which they have just glimpsed, and which was to last for another seven years (till Japan’s defeat in 1945) and was itself followed by the bitter civil war (1945-48) which was only ended by the triumph of Mao Zedong’s communist party early in 1949.

The Japanese invasion of 1937 turned out to be just the start of a decade of terror and atrocity, and Auden’s response is to have the ‘Voice of Man’ preach:

O teach me to outgrow my madness.

It’s better to be sane than mad, or liked than dreaded;
It’s better to sit down to nice meals than nasty;
It’s better to sleep two than single; it’s better to be happy.

Ruffle the perfect manners of the frozen heart,
And once again compel it to be awkward and alive,
To all it suffered once a silent witness.

Clear from the head the masses of impressive rubble;
Rally the lost and trembling forces of the will,
Gather them up and let them loose upon the earth,

Till they construct at last a human justice,
The contribution of our star, within a shadow
Of which uplifting, loving, and constraining power
All other reasons may rejoice and operate.

It yet another of his prayers, deliberately personal in scale, addressed mostly to chums from public school, fellow poets, friendly dons and reviewers. It is calling on people who are already well-fed, well-educated and mostly decent chaps to be a bit more decent, if that’s alright. But ‘ruffling up your perfect manners’ wasn’t going to stop Franco or the Japs, Hitler or Stalin.

It is ironic of Auden to ask people to remove from their heads ‘impressive rubble’, which I take to mean the luggage of an expensive education in the arts – as that is precisely what he was going to use to make a living out of for the next 35 years and which was to underpin and inform all his later works.

And there are numerous small but characteristic examples of learnèd wit it here, such as when they light a fire which is so smokey that it forces them out of the room and Auden wittily remarks, ‘Better to die like Zola than Captain Scott’ (i.e. of smoke asphyxiation rather than from freezing).

In this respect the Commentary is another grand speech which, like the grand speeches in the plays he’d just written with Isherwood, was, in the end, addressed to himself. Once again, as with Spain, Auden has used a huge historical event to conduct a lengthy self-analysis.

Auden’s contemporary readers were impressed, as ever, by his style and fluency but, as ever, critical of his strange inability to engage with anything outside himself and, specifically, to rise to the occasion of such a massive historical event.

Half way through the text Isherwood tells a story about Auden’s complete conviction that the train they’re on won’t be shot at by the Japanese, whose lines they are going to travel very close to. Sure enough the train emerges on to a stretch of line where it is clearly visible from the forward Japanese lines, which they know to contain heavy artillery, and so they pass a few minutes of terror, petrified that the Japanese might start shelling any second. In the event, there is no shelling, and the train veers away to safety. ‘See. I told you so,’ says Auden, and Isherwood reflects that there’s no arguing with ‘the complacency of a mystic’.

It’s a joke at his old mate’s expense and yet I thought, yes – complacency – in Auden’s case complacency means undeviating confidence in his own mind and art to hold off, inspect and analyse. He creates a rhetoric of concern but it is nothing more than that, a poet’s rhetoric, fine to admire but which changes nothing.

And he knew this, had realised it during the trip to Spain, and had lost heart in the political verse of the 1930s. The pair returned from China via America, where all mod cons were laid on by his American publishers and Auden realised that here was a much bigger, richer, more relaxed, open, friendly and less politically pressurised environment in which to think and write.

He returned to England just long enough to wind up his affairs, pack his bags, then in January 1939 he and Isherwood sailed back to the States which would become his home for the next 30 years, and set about rewriting or suppressing many of his most striking poems from the troubled Thirties, trying to rewrite and then censor what he came to think of as his own dishonesty, pursuing a quest for his own personal version of The Truth.


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1930s reviews

Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

On The Frontier by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1938)

This is the third and final theatrical collaboration between the poet W.H. Auden and the novelist Christopher Isherwood. Their previous two plays had been written for and performed by the highly political and experimental Group Theatre. They had been encouraged to use a mixture of prose and poetry and to write about ‘political’ subjects.

The Ascent of F6

Their previous work, The Ascent of F6, had been about the rivalry between two colonial powers, Britain and the fictional ‘Ostnia’ for control of a fictional African country called Sudonia. The natives believed whoever got to the top of the big mountain on the border between the two colonies – named F6 by geographers – would rule both. We are introduced to stereotypes of British Establishment types, including a blustering general, a scheming newspaper proprietor, and the Foreign Secretary and then the play follows the team of British mountaineers who set out to climb F6.

Three points: when it comes down to it the play is less about politics and more about the struggle in the mind of the lead character, the charismatic mountaineer Michael Ransom, who worries that if he succeeds he will be turned into a celebrity and even be tempted to use his power over the British public, possibly not for good i.e. be tempted to become the Strong Leader which a craven public is crying out for.

2. We meet two representatives of this craven public in the shape of Mr and Mrs A, who are given verse choruses throughout the action, who read the papers, listen to the radio, grumble about the trains and the weather and their crappy little suburban lives. They pop up in the boxes nearest the stage, are revealed and then disappear using clever lighting and are, generally, the most enjoyable part of the play.

3. The end is awful. Auden & Isherwood eventually tried out three different endings but none of them worked because they didn’t really know what they wanted to say. There’s lots of talk about the mountain being haunted by a ‘Demon’, but in the first version, when Ransom finally reaches the top, the Demon is revealed as being his own smothering, dominating Mother. Whatever this weird ending was trying to say, it was too obscure and psychological in origin to work on the stage.

On The Frontier

Despite these problems, F6 was a surprise success and was even broadcast, live, on a very early version of the new BBC television service on 31 May 1937.

This motivated Auden and Isherwood to try something more commercial, with an eye to getting a proper West End success. They attempted a more serious story and this time the verse – which had been such a highlight of F6 – was rigorously cut back.

On The Frontier reuses the fictional nations of Ostnia and Westland, who share a common border and hate each other. The play has three sets of characters. By far the most enjoyable is Valerian, Captain of Industry, owner of a vast combine which owns and runs most of the town beneath his looming plate glass offices. He is camp and droll, an Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward figure, loftily ironical about the ‘people’s’ pathetic dreams of freedom, but just as dismissive of the ridiculous new ‘leader’ whose risen to the top of the pile in Westland after a recent revolution. He is served by an impeccable butler named Manners, who reminds me of Nestor, butler to Captain Haddock in Tintin.

The main set of characters are two families, the Thorvalds of Westland and the Vrodnys of Ostnia, and the main theatrical innovation or feature of the play is that although these two families lives in houses hundreds of miles apart, in their respective countries, on the stage, in this play, they appear in the same space at the same time. The stage is simply divided in two and we watch the Thorvald family bicker and squabble on their side, and the Vrodnys argue and make up on theirs – at the same time. This allows for all kinds of counterpointing, for example when each family listens on the radio to the announcement of war from their respective leaders, the Leader of Westland and the King of Ostnia.

The main counterpoint is that the young man in the Thorvald household, Eric, is in love with the young woman in the Vrodny household, Anna. Yes, it is Romeo and Juliet. But cheesy though it sounds, I bet this made for quite dramatic stagecraft, for on several occasions the lights go down on their bickering families and the two lovers step into a spotlight to declare their love, and ask why the world is so violent and divided etc etc. Trite sentiments, but even reading it cold on the page you can see that it must have been quite visually dramatic.

And of course you realise this is that the title refers to: the frontier between the two countries runs right down the middle of the stage and between Eric and Anna.

There’s a third group, a chorus of 5 men and 3 women who play different roles to punctuate the main action, for example playing workers hanging round outside a factory at the beginning; or five Englishmen reading out loud from five British different newspapers which each report the mounting international tension in their stylised and biased ways; to soldiers firing from two opposing trenches, once the war gets going.

Because for all the fine talk, and all the stylish one-liners of the urbane Valerian, and despite the Leader (actually a gruff and tired and confused former peasant i.e. not at all a homicidal Hitler or Mussolini) pledging to withdraw his troops and declare a non-aggression pact – despite Eric and Anna pledging their troth in the spotlight – despite everyone’s good intentions, in incident on the border – a bomb explosion in which civilians from both sides are killed – triggers both countries’ latent hatred and contempt of the other, and they go to war.

Inevitably the war drags on and we see the homes of the two families become steadily more shabby and denuded. Not only that, but beloved members of the families are killed off as the conflict drags on.

And, just to rub it in, a plague breaks out which starts devastating both countries. The Thorvald family has included Martha, Dr Thorvald’s unmarried sister, a frustrated spinster who takes out her frustration by hero worshiping The Leader with a zeal which embarrasses the rest of the family. Well, rather inevitably, she‘s the one who develops symptoms of the plague and, once she realises it, breaks out in hysterics –  a classic example of Auden’s psychological theories that frustrated desires breed actual physical disease.

And Valerian, the amusingly cynical industrialist? As the war escalates first his loyal lieutenant, Schwartz, rushes in to tell him he’s leaving the country, emigrating to South America, the army’s collapsed, the war has turned into a civil war. Then he has a page-long prose speech yelling out the window at the rabble beneath, explaining that their ‘revolution’ will be defeated, how he and his ilk own the papers, the radio, and will spread lies and disinformation about their atrocities (this can be read as an upper-class denunciation of all revolutions but some aspects of it seem to refer to the way the Republican side was defeated in the Spanish Civil War).

Then the Storm-trooper Grimm bursts in (a character we’ve met earlier in the play, being strong and silent). Now he has rebelled. Shockingly, he tells Valerian he’s just shot dead the Leader, in his office elsewhere in the same building.

Now we discover he is a man with a grudge. At one stage in its growth Valerian’s conglomerate deliberately undercut all the small high street shops which, as a result, went bankrupt. Grimm’s father kept one. The family was reduced to poverty. His father shot himself. Young boy Grimm made a vow to meet the man who destroyed his family. It’s taken him years to enter the Storm Troopers and rise this far. And now he’s face to face with the man who did it (Valerian) holding a gun. Valerian begs for his life and offers Grimm gold, jewels, cash. It’s an extended scene in which the initiative passes between them because as Valerian talks on Grimm slowly loses his murderous impetus, while Valerian becomes more confident. Eventually Valerian oversteps the mark, passing from speculation about Grimm’s love life, or lack of, to his mother and that’s a bad mistake. Suddenly incensed, Grimm shoots him dead. Oh well.

Anyway, both Eric and Anna die. That’s it. Shame. The pity of war. The futility of conflict. Romeo and Juliet.

The play ends with Eric and Anna rising from their respective deathbeds, drifting back into the central spotlight where we’ve seen them several times before, and delivering the authors’ message, such as it is – classic Auden which invokes very generalised ideas of The City and Justice and Love and Dignity:

Now as we come to our end,
As the tiny separate lives
Fall, fall to their graves
We begin to understand.
A moment, and time will forget
Our failure and our name
But not the common thought
That linked us in a dream.
Open the closing eyes,
Summon the failing breath,
With our last look we bless
The turning maternal earth.
Europe lies in the dark
City and flood and tree;
Thousands have worked and work
To master necessity.
To build the city where
The will of love is done
And brought to its full flower
The dignity of man.
Pardon them their mistakes,
The impatient and wavering will.
They suffer for our sakes,
Honour, honour them all.
Dry their imperfect dust,
The wind blows it back and forth.
They die to make man just
And worthy of the earth.

Thoughts

Difficult to tell whether this would have worked in a theatrical setting. With good lighting, in the presence of an expectant audience, and with good actors speaking the words, maybe. But on the page it remains quite cold, reading like standard Auden fustian. By the time of its first performances (six nights in Cambridge from Monday 14 November 1938, and one night only in London on Sunday 12 February 1939), everyone in England had been traumatised by the Munich Crisis of the previous September and everyone on the Left was upset by the slow grinding failure of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (which was declared over on 1 April 1939).

Against this deeply grim political backdrop the two happy-go-lucky public schoolboys’ stab at covering contemporary anxieties just doesn’t feel deep or worked-out enough – the characters are ciphers, the plot is ludicrous. Maybe the characters dropping like flies are doing so, as the concluding chorus puts it, in order ‘to make man just and worthy of the earth’ – but these seem like pretentious lines which the preceding ‘drama’ hasn’t really justified.

Instead the most obvious thing you get from reading this closing passage cold, is its Christian feel. It is, in effect, a prayer asking God to forgive ‘them’ i.e. us.

In a later memoir Isherwood revealed that throughout their collaborations he had the devil of a struggle preventing Auden slipping into Christian attitudes; whenever Isherwood’s back was turned, Auden had the characters flopping down onto their knees and praying about something or other, and the climax of this play seems to be a classic example of this tendency.

It feels like an ambitious school play.

Lastly, the whole cartoon concept of these two stereotypical nations, ‘Westland’ versus ‘Ostnia’, kept reminding me of the warring nations Freedonia and Sylvania in the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, an anti-war satire which has aged far better.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

The Ascent of F6 by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (1936)

Very enjoyable, quite funny at moments, very clever and zips along at speed until the climax which I completely failed to understand.

Act I

A British colony, Sudoland, is troubled, the natives are restless, and our colonial rival, Ostnia, threatens to invade across the border. At  meeting of notables, the Foreign Secretary, Sir James Ransom, explains that there is a legendary mountain, F6, slap-bang on the border between the two colonies. Native tradition has it that a) the mountain is haunted and b) whoever climbs to the top of this mountain will rule over both colonies for a thousand years. Just recently we received a telegram telling us that the Ostnians have sent an expedition to climb the mountain, is on its way now.

The notables Ransom is addressing – General Dellaby-Couch, a fuddy duddy old general; excitable Lady Isabel Welwyn; and cynical newspaper magnate Lord Stagmantle – react with dismay… until Sir James announces that we, the British, are planning a counter-expedition. Who will lead it? Why, his own brother Michael Ransom, one of the world’s leading mountaineers!

But Michael is a completely different kettle of fish from his successful Establishment brother. They appear to have been twins and James was always the brash, confident, favoured one while Michael was slightly smaller, more private.

This explains the opening scene. The curtains rise to reveal Michael at the top of a peak in the Lake District very bitterly and cynically denouncing Dante, who he’s been reading. Michael mocks Dante for his fake high-mindedness, mocking the speech of Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno which mentions ‘Virtue’ and ‘Knowledge’. Michael doesn’t believe in that guff. After a lengthy monologue the voices of his mountaineering mates call him to climb back down with them.

Michael’s cynical, disillusioned attitude explains why, when his brother unexpectedly pays him a visit at the mountaineering hostel (actually a pub, the Lakeland Pub) where he’s hanging out with four of his mountaineering buddies (David Gunn, Teddy Lamp, Ian Shawcross and the Doctor, Tom), and makes him the offer of leading this fully-funded mountaineering expedition to one of the great mountains of the word… Michael turns him down. Michael’s not interested in being anyone’s hero.

Until that is, Sir James plays his trump card, introducing their mother, who walks through the door and asks him to climb the mountain for her. She gives a speech comparing the lives of the two brothers, how he was the smaller, weaker of the twins, but she always loved him best. Michael can’t refuse. He says yes.

Act II

Cut to a monastery on the Great Glacier of F6. Monks are chanting, carrying a funeral coffin. This is where Michael and his team are resting before starting the climb.

There is dissension in the team. Earnest Ian Shawcross is very upset by the way David Gunn is always mucking about and stealing things. Shawcross desperately wants to make sure he gets to the top.

In a strange scene a monk brings in a crystal to the room where the mountaineers are staying. One by one they all go over and look into the crystal and see visions in it, telling the others what they see. Only Michael (who they all jokily refer to as MF) is silent about what he saw.

The Abbot of the monastery enters and has a conversation with Michael. Michael confesses that what he saw in the crystal is the wild adulation which will greet him if he climbs to F6, the first European to do so. It’ll be reported in all the papers, he’ll get home to a hero’s welcome. And he’ll be offered power, people will want him to save the country and save them. He’s terrified by all this and asks the abbot how he can escape it. The Abbott says there is a way to escape: stay in the monastery and renounce his way of life.

This passage brings out what you could call the Christian negativity underpinning the whole play. It comes over in the play’s poor view of human nature, irredeemably corrupted. The Abbott tells Michael: ‘the human will is from the Demon’. From reading even this far you can see why Auden temperamentally could have no truck with communism, which is optimistic, confident that human beings can control their destiny and build a better future.

Michael sees himself as being tempted, like Christ on the mountain, tempted with visions of the adulation he will receive when gets home from the weak and unhappy. Acting on this, when the Abbot has left, Michael asks his comrades to cancel the climb, but they think he’s mad and insist they go on, they’ve come all this way, England expects etc. And so, feeling weak and wretched, he gives in and agrees to the climb going ahead.

In the next scene they’re on a rock ledge and, after various bits of banter, Lamp, the sweet 24-year-old botanist, climbs over the ledge and down a bit to look at some interesting flowers and a sudden avalanche carries him away.

In the next scene the doctor and Ransom are waiting in a tent on a ridge above the previous location for the other two to arrive. They discuss who Ransom is going to choose to make the final ascent with him. Only two men can go. The Doctor reviews MF’s options i.e. who should it be out of Shawcross and Gunn? In a weak moment he asks if he can go, but realises this is foolish, he is by far the oldest of the team and it will require stamina.

Ransom says he’s made his mind up. The other two (Shawcross and Gunn) arrive and Gunn is immediately all fuss and trivial, interested only in the hot chocolate and oatmeal and natters on and even sings a nonsense song… until Shawcross snaps. Shawcross is extremely tense and demands who Ransom has chosen to take to the summit. Is it him? The others try to calm Shawcross, but he is hysterical and demands to know.

Ransom announces he is taking David, the inspired amateur, scrounger, petty thief and irritating joker. Shawcross is distraught. He berates himself as a failure, says he isn’t a man. Ransom tries to explain that: now he recognises his weakness, now he has self knowledge, he is a man. Michael he is sending him back to England to live, to be useful, and not go on this mad cock-and-bull expedition up a bloody mountain precisely because he is a serious man who will do much good. But Shawcross can’t accept it, can’t cope, rising hysteria. Suddenly he breaks free of the others, struggles out of the tent, runs to the precipice and throws himself over the edge.

Scene IV Ransom is supporting Gunn in a blizzard as they struggle towards the summit. Gunn is exhausted, cannot walk, is delirious, has a short speech and dies of exhaustion. Not going well, is it? The extremity of this short scene (barely 2 pages) prompted Auden to write some of the worse verse of the play, sub-Shakespearian bombast.

Scene V I barely understood a word of the final scene. Michael has arrived at the top of the mountain. A veiled figure sites right at the top, is it the legendary Demon of the Mountain? The chorus recites some poetry, then his brother James appears wearing full Foreign Office ceremonial dress.

Michael staggers on stage wearing his mountain climbing gear. Suddenly onto the stage comes a full set of chess pieces. James’s pieces include the General, Lady Welwyn, Lord Stagmantle, Michael’s include Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn.

Mr and Mrs A – two characters who have commented on the action all the way through – ask questions about their miserable lives and the three named characters – then James – answer them in various shades of pompous officialdom.

Then James and Michael play chess with the life-size pieces, without dialogue, occasionally saying ‘Check’. Michael wins and James collapses. Michael appears to have killed him. The General, Lady Welwyn and Lord Stagmantle recite a poem accusing Michael of murdering one of England’s favourite sons, as they jostle each other, leap on each others’ backs and ‘behave in general like the Marx brothers.

A light goes up to illuminate the Abbot at the back of the stage wearing a judge’s wig and bearing the crystal. Monks enter, lift James’s body onto a stretcher and carry him out. Stagmantle and Isabel recite what was to become the most famous poem from the play

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

The Abbott accuses Michael of killing his brother. Michael hysterically points at the veiled figure on the summit of the mountain and says the Demon did it! The Abbott (wearing a judge’s wig, remember) calls his witnesses, and one by one Lamp, Shawcross and Gunn appear, worn and bloody from their deaths, to accuse Michael.

Bewildered Michael ‘appeals to the crystal’ and the Abbott lets him look at it again. Michael looks up and says he didn’t mean it, it’s not his fault. The Abbott tells him it’s too late and says ‘the case is being brought before the Crown’, indicating the veiled figure seated on the summit. A Chorus recites an Auden poem. The Chorus and all the characters cry at Ransom that he must die, die for us, die for England!

Panic-stricken Michael turns to the figure at the top of the mountain as there’s the sound of an avalanche and all the other characters disappear. The figure’s draperies fall away to reveal… Michael’s mother, lovely as a young woman. There follows a cryptic passage of verse alternating between the Chorus and the Mother sort of addressing the meaning of the play and the choice Michael has made.

During this chorus the stage slowly darkens, and then is reillumined by the red light of the rising son. The stage is empty except for the dead body of Ransom on the mountain top.


Thoughts

What was that about? Was it his confused fantasia, was it a stream of consciousness hallucination brought on by his extreme exhaustion? Or the opposite, a ‘realistic’ depiction of a highly modern, self-consciously staged and artificial poetic event?

The first audiences like the play but didn’t understand the ending. Auden and Isherwood revised it not once but twice, with the result that there were three published versions with different endings. Later in life, Isherwood acknowledged that they never did get the ending right. But you can see this is because they didn’t know what they wanted to say.

The first part – the setup taking the mickey out of Establishment types – was easy. The scenes on the mountain, once they’d decided they’d do away with the other mountaineers one by one, almost wrote themselves. But the climax where they had to explain what the play was about? They couldn’t.

Within a year, a critic had suggested that the play dramatised nothing about politics and society but really dramatised Auden’s own personal dilemma: he had become ‘the Voice of a Generation’ and he didn’t want to be. He seemed to be a leader of all these other poets and writers but was, himself, wracked with doubts. He seemed to be leading them along a path (of socially committed poetry) which would lead some to destruction (to betray their talents) and didn’t want the responsibility.

The only way out was to kill the Auden figure amid a welter of Chorus poetry, but unfortunately this personal psychological way out didn’t make for very satisfactory theatre. In fact it doesn’t make sense and invalidates much of the preceding. The heavy symbolism of the Establishment figures, the rivalry with Ostnia and the deaths of his comrades, all these important issues are just waved away.

The strong man and other themes

A recurrent feature of Auden and Isherwood’s writing of the time was anxiety about ‘the truly strong man’ (anxiety about whether they’re being true ‘he-man’ types run through the Letters From Iceland which were written immediately after F6).

Some critics work these up into being a ‘discussion’ of masculinity. In this play you could say Michael Ransom ‘represents’ the conflict in one figure between the idea of doing the Heroic Thing, making a Proud Achievement for the Nation (i.e. climbing F6) – everyone’s stereotype of the Strong Man — but he inside knows that this achievement and giving in to public adulation would be weakness; for him, being truly strong would be to cancel the expedition, not to climb the mountain and to return to a quiet life of anonymity in England.

It’s a sort of interesting issue but I can’t get very worked up about it for three reasons:

  1. it’s obviously such an entirely personal obsession of Auden’s, maybe Isherwood’s too, it feels very close to the other schoolboy obsessions and jokes which pepper their writings
  2. and indeed, from one angle, it feels like a dramatisation of the very common plight of all weedy intellectuals who are in awe of big strong types, the wallflower anxieties of the Rick Moranis character in Ghostbusters
  3. it has been swept away by 80 years of identity and gender politics so as to be barely detectable as an issue

For an up-to-the-minute discussion of masculinity I refer you to the Barbican’s recent enormous exhibition on the subject:

Finally, these issues – a bit like the Christian symbolism which sort of appears, now and then – feel trivial in comparison to the artistic inventiveness of the play – it’s quick and fun, full of special effects, and of dazzling poetry!

Auden’s verse

On one level there’s a plot and there’s some ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ and ‘issues’ you’re meant to take seriously. Maybe. But on another level, the play amounts to a barrage of Auden’s verse. There’s reams of it. About 30 pages of the 84 pages are in verse, choruses and lyrics. They cover a wide range of subject matter and affects. There are larky lyrics:

The chimney sweepers
Wash their faces and forget to wash the neck;
The lighthouse keepers
Let the lamps go out and leave the ships to wreck;
The prosperous baker
Leaves the rolls in hundreds in the oven to burn;
The undertaker
Pins a small note on the coffin saying, ‘Wait till I return,
I’ve got a date with Love.’

There’s a Chorus which echoes the action in typically elliptical, hieratic verse.

Acts of justice done
Between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones, each one.
Still the dark forest, quiet the deep,
Softly the clock ticks, baby must sleep!
The Pole Star is shining, bright the Great Bear,
Orion is watching, high in the air.

Descriptions of England’s countryside wasted by the Depression.

Let the eye of the traveller consider this country and weep,
For toads croak in the cistern; the aqueduct chokes with leaves:
The highways are out of repair and infested with thieves:
The ragged population are crazy for lack of sleep;
Our chimneys are smokeless; the implements rust in the field
And our tall constructions are felled.

Gossipy descriptions of types of profession and character.

The cat has died at Ivy Dene,
The Crowthers’ pimply son has passed Matric,
St Neots has put up light blue curtains,
Frankie is walking out with Winnie
And Georgie loves himself.

Highly schematic call and response verse reminiscent of T.S. Eliot at his most portentous.

Give me bread   Restore my dead
I am sick   Help me quick
Give me a car   Make me a star
Make me neat   Guide my feet
Make me strong   Teach me where I belong

And Mr and Mrs A with their eternal worrying and complaining:

Mrs A
Give me some money before you go
There are a number of bills we owe
And you can go to the bank today
During your lunch hour.

Mr A
I dare say;
But as it happens I’m overdrawn.

Mrs A
Overdrawn? What on earth have you done
With all the money? Where’s it gone?

Mr A
How does money always go?
Papers, lunches, tube-fares, teas,
Toothpaste, stamps and doctor’s fees,
Our trip to Hove coast a bit, you know?

Theatrical effects

So the play is not enjoyable because of its themes of the public versus the private man, or its garbled treatment of ‘redemption’ but despite them. Despite the garbled plot, the play is packed full of not only a very wide range of types and registers of verse, but this is combined with a load of snappy stage effects.

Central is the idea that the two boxes nearest the stage i.e. not on the stage but set back from all the action, are populated by Mr and Mrs A, a dowdy suburban pair, he with his wretched job as a clerk in a miserable office, she eternally grumbling and complaining.

They appear regularly throughout the play commenting directly or obliquely on the main action (when the newspapers announce Britain is sending an exhibition to climb F6 they spout patriotic pride, when it is announced that Lamb has died they recite a funeral poem). Their appearance is indicated when the lights onstage dim to darkness and lights come up to illuminate their box.

But the box idea is taken further when one of them is populated with a radio which blares out official BBC announcements. And then by the announcer themselves in BBC black tie making announcements which also commentate on the action. Lord Stagworthy even appears in the box to make a pompous radio announcement full of clichés, ‘no more fitting grave for our brave boy etc’.

But this entertaining piece of satire them segues into Mrs A declaiming a relatively serious stretch of verse saying that the dead man (Lamp) is not now subject to age and the slow decay of ideals and mind and body. When the Mother appears she declaims a long passage of Shakespearian blank verse to describe the childhood of the two boys.

There is a secret I have kept so long
My tongue is rusty. What you have said
I knew and have always known. Why do you start?
You are my Michael and I know my own…

This is immediately followed by the stage going to a dead blackout and the voices of a load of newspaper boys hawking the latest editions and shouting their headline.

Evening Moon: Late Night Final!
Young English Climber’s Daredevil Attempt!
The Haunted Mountain: Full Story and Pictures!
Monasteries in Sudoland: Amazing Revelations!

Then lights come up on the Mr & Mrs A stage box to reveal Mrs A who declaims, not in her usual nagging housewife voice, but in a more elevated, ‘poetic’ trance:

I read the papers; there is nothing there
But news of failure and despair:
The savage train-wreck in the dead of night,
The fire in the school, the children caught alight,
The starving actor in the oven lying,
The cashier shot in the grab-raid and left dying,
The young girl slain upon the surgeon’s table,
The poison bottle with the harmless label…

(The sort of thing Auden could rattle off by the yard). Some individual pieces are brilliant and were later published as stand-alone poems (for example the ‘Stop all the clocks’ lyric that became superfamous after Richard Curtis included it in the script of Four Weddings And A Funeral).

But the real point of the play is its imaginative stagecraft – the speed with which it changes scenes and lighting and tone, from naturalistic prose to a whole range of verse, all signalled and highlighted by cunning lighting and sound effects (and the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, impossible to recreate when you silently read the play). Even in a stone cold reading its tremendous energy and inventiveness comes over. it’s a shame Auden and Isherwood couldn’t devise a successful ending to the play but it doesn’t stop the journey through the play to its muddled conclusion from being thrilling and entertaining.


Related links

Works from or about the 1930s

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