All For Love, or, The World Well Lost by John Dryden (1677)

….we have lov’d each other
Into our mutual ruin.
(Antony to Cleopatra, All For Love Act 2)

John Dryden (1631 to 1700) was the dominant literary figure of the Restoration period, loosely 1660 to 1700. The period is sometimes called the Age of Dryden by academics who are paid to label things.

Dryden was extremely prolific. He not only wrote original poems – notably extended satires on the fierce politics and bickering theatre-world of the Restoration era – but produced an awe-inspiring number of translations, notably of Virgil’s Aeneid, of episodes from Homer, Ovid, and Boccaccio and translations from the Middle English of some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Not only this but during the revival of the theatre under the restored King Charles II, Dryden wrote some 30 plays, including texts for some of the earliest English operas.

Dryden’s dominance was in part due to his development of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters) and rhyme royal (rhymed iambic pentameters) into extremely flexible and expressive tools, for writing satirical poems, plays comic or tragic, and narrative verse, whether high toned or entertaining. He added a few variations to add variety, namely alexandrines and triplets. Triplets are when not two but three lines share the same end rhyme, and an alexandrine is a line of six beats or feet rather than the usual five of the pentameter, such as this line from the Faerie Queene:

And to the Dwarfe awhile his needlesse spere he gave.

Setting standards

But there’s a further reason for Dryden’s dominance. No other poet or playwright wrote so extensively about literature. Dryden not only set about establishing orderly blank verse as the standard medium for verse, and set out to revive serious high poetic drama in the theatre; he wrote numerous essays explaining why he wanted to do this and how he was setting about doing it. He was the greatest theorist and justifier of the great change in poetic style and medium which took place during his lifetime.

In Restoration England there was a great hankering for law and order and regularity. Laws were brought in to compel conformity to the state religion, the Royal Society brought together scientists who were seeking the fundamental laws of nature, and writers of the period were motivated to seek out the laws and rules which underpinned the best literature of the ages.

Dryden wrote very appreciatively about both Chaucer and Shakespeare – in fact his translations of Chaucer helped revive interest in him – but at the same time he deprecated them for ignoring what he took to be fundamental rules about correct format and diction and style appropriate to each poetic genre.

Bringing order to the drama

In particular, when it came to plays, Dryden was among many authors of the period in thrall to the so-called Three Unities. Two thousand years earlier the Greek philosopher Aristotle had delivered a series of lectures analysing the tragic plays of his time and noting what the most successful of them had in common. The most successful Greek tragedies tended to focus on just one subject and not waste the audience’s attention on sub-plots and distractions. They tended to happen in one place rather than a confusing variety of locations. And they tended to be very focused in time, often taking place in just one day, sometimes, like Oedipus Rex, taking place in real time, with no jumps, gaps or ellipses.

These were the three unities which later generations converted from being a shrewd analysis of the particular cohort of plays Aristotle chose to analyse into grand universal laws which ought to be applied to all serious dramas.

All this is by way of explaining why Dryden chose to rewrite Shakespeare’s tragic drama Antony and Cleopatra in order as nearly as possible to comply with the three unities.

Unity of Time Shakespeare’s play covers an extravagant ten years of ancient history, from Fulvia’s death in 40 BC to the lover’s suicide after the Battle of Actium in 30 BC. By contrast Dryden’s play covers just the last few days leading up to the main characters’ double suicide.

Unity of Subject Shakespeare’s play is diffuse in the sense that, beside the central story, it also touches on the war against Sextus Pompeius, the character of Lepidus, vivid portraits of Octavius Caesar and his entourage. Antony and Cleopatra covers a larger timeframe and has more named characters than any other Shakespeare play, some 57. By deliberate contrast, Dryden focuses right down on just ten named characters.

Unity of Setting And whereas Shakespeare’s play makes huge leaps in location, from Alexandria to Rome to Greece to Sicily to Athens, Dryden’s sticks to a handful of buildings in the capital of ancient Egypt, Alexandria.

So a concerted focus on setting, subject and time. All depicted in neat, regular and easily understandable verse.

Synopsis

Act One

The Egyptian priest Serapion sets the scene by describing ominous portents and prodigies which are afflicting the country, such as the untimely flooding of the Nile.

Cleopatra’s eunuch and chief minister Alexas dismisses all these omens, tells Serapion to stop broadcasting them, and instead focuses on the army of Caesar which is camped within sight of Alexandria.

Alexas rues the day Cleopatra ever met Antony and so got Egypt dragged into Rome’s civil wars. Alexas gives us the backstory that, since his ignominious defeat at the naval Battle of Actium, Antony has been hiding in the temple of Isis ‘a prey to black despair’, and refusing to see Cleopatra.

Enter Ventidius, a Roman general who is an old friend and colleague of Antony’s (‘A braver Roman never drew a sword’). He is appalled to witness Antony wandering distracted and depressed and insists, over the objections of Antony’s assistants, in seeing the great man.

In their dialogue Antony expresses worldweariness unto death and Ventidius laments that a man who was once ‘the lord of half mankind’ has been reduced to such a pitiable state out of wretched submission to ‘one light, worthless woman’).

After having a good cry together, Ventidius gets to the point of his visit which is that he has brought 12 battle-hardened legions with him from Syria. They will fight for Antony – but only on condition that he abandons Cleopatra. They are not prepared to die for a flighty foreign queen.

Antony is inspired and agrees these terms.

Act Two

The focus switches to Cleopatra who laments the tragic downturn in her fortunes to her maids, Charmion and Iras. Charmian reports back from a visit to Antony where she tried to persuade him to come see Cleopatra but she refused. Cleopatra sends Alexas.

Cut to Antony in company with Ventidius when Alexas enters bearing flattering messages from Cleopatra and gifts of jewellery for his generals and a bracelet of rubies for Antony. Ventidius gives vitriolic comments on this activity, calling Alexas a ‘vile crocodile’.

When Alexas fumbles to fix this bracelet on Antony’s wrist, he slyly asks wouldn’t he prefer the sender to tie it on herself, and introduces Cleopatra who enters, for the lover’s first confrontation in the play. Ventidius is disgusted and warns Antony to keep his resolve and Antony starts well by delivering a long speech outlining how love for Cleopatra has reduced him and his career to ruins. In fact ‘ruin’ is a key word in this act.

But, inevitably, Antony, like an alcoholic offered a bottle of scotch, relapses. The crux comes when Cleopatra presents a letter from Octavius himself in which Caesar has offered her not only continued rule over Egypt but the kingdom of Syria as well, if she would only surrender Antony. Now, by proving that she refused to do so, Cleopatra wins Antony all over again, he falls into her arms and proclaims his undying love.

Ventidius is disgusted:

VENTIDIUS: ⁠O Women! Women! Women! all the gods
Have not such pow’r of doing good to Man,
As you of doing harm.

Nonetheless Antony orders Ventidius to unbar the gate facing towards Caesar’s army, as he is keen to lead his (Ventidius’s) legions into battle.

Act Three

Between acts 2 and 3 Antony has led an army out of Alexandria and defeated Caesar’s army, leaving five thousand dead. The act opens with he and Cleopatra celebrating and mutually praising each other. But after a certain amount of hailing each other as Venus and Mars, respectively, Cleopatra and her entourage exit, allowing Antony’s loyal general and conscience, Ventidius to enter.

He pours cold water on Antony’s good mood by pointing out that Caesar has the whole world and any number of allies and their armies to draw on while Antony has only the finite resources and manpower of Alexandria.

Antony laments that he has had only one true real friend and proceeds to describe the kind of friendship which consists of a complete unity of mind and spirit, which makes me wonder whether he had read Cicero’s Essay on Friendship. (Although the idea of super friendship had been recycled countless times during the Renaissance and was probably available to Dryden as a cliché both of humanistic discourse.)

Anyway, this One True Friend he has in mind is the young Dolabella and Ventidius now proceeds, to Antony’s great surprise…to invite this same Dolabella on stage!

Antony recovers from his shock, embraces his young friend, and there is some dialogue where Dolabella upbraids him for falling thrall to Cleopatra, while Antony reminds Dolabella how utterly enthralled the latter was when Cleopatra made her grand entrance at Cydnus, and explains it was jealousy lest his young soul mate fall equally for Cleopatra which led Antony to banish him from his side (!)

[This offers Drydren the opportunity to do a direct rewriting of the most famous speech from Shakespeare’s play, when Enobarbus describes Cleopatra’s magnificent arrival at Antony’s camp by boat. Below I give a detailed comparison of Shakespeare and Dryden’s styles using a much smaller excerpt.]

Dolabella has come from Caesar’s camp to offer terms. Antony asks who was man enough to stand up to mighty Caesar and plea for terms? Was it Dolabella? Was it Ventidius? No, they reply; someone nobler and stronger than either of them. Then pray produce this prodigy, Antony demands.

At which, with a magician’s flourish, and with rather cheesy dramaturgy, Dryden presents Antony’s forsaken wife Octavia and their three small children! All of them then proceed to gang up on Antony:

⁠DOLLABELLA: ⁠Friend!
OCTAVIA: ⁠Husband!
BOTH CHILDREN: ⁠Father!

– his best friend Dolabella, his loyalest general Ventidius, his noble wife and his three children all beg him to abandon the Egyptian queen and treat with Caesar, who has made a surprisingly generous offer:

OCTAVIA: I’ll tell my Brother we are reconcil’d;
He shall draw back his Troops, and you shall march
To rule the East: I may be dropt at Athens;
No matter where, I never will complain,

At which point Antony utterly capitulates, giving in, begging their forgiveness, weeping, saying Octavia can lead him wherever she wills.

It seems that Cleopatra has heard of this reconciliation because her representative, Alexas, hurriedly arrives and…is ironically dismissed as too late by Ventidius, before he too departs. Alexas has a moment alone onstage to lament that a) as a eunuch he has never known love and passion b) he advised Cleopatra to drop Antony, she refused, so now she’s the one being dropped.

Enter Cleopatra and her entourage. Alexas barely has time to tell her that Antony has defected to the enemy when Octavia herself enters and the stage is set for a set-piece dramatic confrontation between wife and mistress, between duty and passion, between married chastity and sexual indulgence. Cleopatra wins on the topic of beauty and ‘charms’ but Octavia triumphs with her virtue, calling her rival, in effect, a whore.

Obviously this is all a man’s creation, written for a highly patriarchal society, in which the male-created characters speak and argue in terms dictated by patriarchy. Yet Shakespeare was writing for an even more hierarchical society and his women soar.

In Octavia’s handful of scenes in Antony and Cleopatra she emerges as a well-defined character and in her brief scene with Antony in Rome there is real affection and gentleness on both sides. Here, in Dryden, this little set-piece feels like a contrived and highly schematic binary opposition of the kind you find in his political poems.

That said, after Octavia sweeps off the stage, Cleopatra staggers with affliction:

CLEOPATRA: My sight grows dim, and every object dances,
And swims before me, in the maze of death.
My spirits, while they were oppos’d, kept up;
They could not sink beneath a Rivals scorn:
But now she’s gone they faint.

Act Four

Act 4 takes an unexpected turn. Antony asks Dolabella to tell Cleopatra he is leaving and the scene is initially mildly comic because Antony makes to leave three times but each time comes back to give Dolabella just a few more points to say to Cleopatra. It’s a portrait of a man struggling to tear himself away.

But this one request turns out to be the focus of the entire act because Ventidius overhears this arrangement and turns, rather suddenly, into a kind of organising spirit. For he realises that Dolabella is himself still in love with Cleopatra. Now Ventidius fantasises about stepping into Antony’s shoes (‘What injury/To him to wear the Robe which he throws by?’)

Ventidius also overhears (suddenly there is lots of overhearing and eavesdropping – all very Restoration comedy and very unlike the plain dealing of the first three acts) Alexas suggesting to Cleopatra that she make Antony jealous by encouraging Dolabella’s love making, the idea being that Antony will hear about this and be prompted to come running back to her.

ALEXAS: Th’ event wil be, your Lover will return
Doubly desirous to possess the good
Which once he fear’d to lose.

To make it even more staged and contrived, Ventidius gets Octavia to accompany him in eavesdropping on this scene, namely Dolabella supposedly passing on Antony’s final farewell to the queen. At first both play up to their roles i.e. Cleopatra feigns upset at Antony leaving but then says she might accede to Dolabella’s passion and Dolabella, thus encouraged, admits that he’s always loved her from afar. Flirtation:

DOLABELLA: ⁠Some men are constant.
CLEOPATRA: ⁠And constancy deserves reward, that’s certain.

Ventidius and Octavia see and hear all this from the back of the stage (in a very stagey contrived kind of way). They see Dolabella pretend that Antony had been fierce and heartless in casting her off. But they are all surprised at the extent to which Cleopatra is distraught and collapses to the floor in a faint. This prompts Dolabella to regret his scheming and admit he was lying and to stagily beg forgiveness. Cleopatra joins in the mutual confessing, that admitting she was leading him on as a scheme. Now both succumb to guilt at their respective betrayals (of lover and friend).

But this doesn’t stop Ventidius and Octavia then returning to Antony and swearing they’ve seen Cleopatra and Dollabella holding hands and kissing. Ventidius even ropes in Alexas, who backs them up because, although he hadn’t witnessed the scene himself, this is what he recommended Cleopatra to do.

This all backfires for Ventidius. He hoped portraying them as lovers would finally extinguish any love for Cleopatra and set Antony free, but in the event Antony is so full of jealous anger at Cleopatra’s betrayal that it shocks and disgusts Octavia.

OCTAVIA: Tis not well,
Indeed, my Lord, ’tis much unkind to me,
To show this passion, this extreme concernment
For an abandon’d, faithless Prostitute.

Antony repeatedly tries to argue that Ventidius cannot be right, Cleopatra cannot have pledged love to Dolabella, that she still loves him and his obstinate determination to exculpate her infuriate Octavia. She thought they were completely reconciled at the end of Act 3 but now she sees how naive she has been. She realises Antony has but ‘half returned’ to her. And so she storms out for the final time, Ventidius, like any Restoration schemer, lamenting that Heaven has blasted his ‘best designs’.

The last element in the unfolding of this grand misunderstanding comes after Octavia has stormed out and Dolabella and Cleopatra enter only to be surprised at the ferocity of Antony’s accusations against them, calling them ‘false and faithless’ serpents.

They try to explain themselves but Antony refuses to believe them and Cleopatra in particular beats herself up that one minute’s feigning has now wrecked a lifetime of love. Antony orders them out of his sight, forever but even as he does so he weeps bitter tears. In other words, pity, fear and sympathy are wring to the maximum.

Act Five

Obviously the entire audience knows Antony and Cleopatra will die in this act so the only question is how Dryden handles the scenes, what speeches he gives them.

The act opens with Cleopatra grabbing a knife ready to kill herself and her maids Charmian and Iras struggling to stop her. With comic timing Alexas walks in and Cleopatra forgets suicide and turns her entire fury on him, the counsellor who suggested she play act being in love with Dolabella. Wretch! He has killed her!

Alexas reassures her that the plan half worked – Dolabella and Octavia both banished, Antony has returned to being a wounded animal and may, again, be wooed. He is right now up the tower of the Pharos watching the sea battle between the Egyptian and Roman fleets.

Right on cue, the high priest Serapion enters and announces that, far from attacking Caesar’s fleet, Cleopatra’s fleet sailed right up to it and…joined it! Everyone cheered and the Egyptians fell into line behind the Romans. Now they are entering the port and will soon be in the palace. Antony was beside himself with rage and tried to throw himself tom his death, was prevented, and is hurrying back into the city.

Serapion tells her to flee to her Monument and orders Alexas – the author of her recent banishment – to go and confront Antony and admit the pretending-to-be-in-love-with-Dolabella scheme was his idea. Cleo, Serapion and the others leave quivering Alexas to a soliloquy lamenting his fear.

Enter Antony and Ventidius who roundly insult the craven Egyptians then vow to rouse what men they can and launch an attack on the invaders and so meet their death like Romans.

They come across Alexas and Ventidius is prompted to kill him on the spot, but Antony thinks he’s too despicable to kill. He just wants to know where Cleopatra is. At which, Alexas tells them both the whopping lie that she has holed up in her Monument where, overcome with grief, she has stabbed herself to death.

Alexas’s motivation for this appears to be an extreme way of extenuating and justifying Cleopatra, faithful unto death, for he says her last words were of undying love for Antony. Antony is, of course, stricken with grief and guilt. Alexas thinks to himself his plan has worked, it has prompted Antony to realise how much he loves/loved Cleopatra. All he has to do now is say it was a false report and they will leap back into each others’ arms.

Ventidius expresses satisfaction that the bloody woman is dead and reminds Antony they promised to go out, all guns blazing. But Antony doesn’t care any more, is overcome with apathy and indifference: if Cleopatra is dead, then nothing matters any more.

ANTONY: What shou’d I fight for now? My Queen is dead.
I was but great for her; my Pow’r, my Empire,
Were but my Merchandise to buy her love;
And conquer’d Kings, my Factors. Now she’s dead,
Let Cæsar take the World,———
An Empty Circle, since the Jewel’s gone
Which made it worth my strife: my being’s nauseous;
For all the bribes of life are gone away.

There follows quite a long dialogue between Antony, who asks Ventidius to kill him and live to tell his story, and Ventidius who complains what it will look like if he lives on like a coward after his master has nobly quit the stage. But as Antony turns away his face in readiness for the death blow, Ventidius betrays him by stabbing himself.

Antony laments but praises his friend’s amity unto death; then falls on his own sword but messes it up, so he is badly wounded but not dead. He’s trying to kneel up to have another go when Charmian and Iras enter and Cleopatra!

In his agony, for a moment Antony thinks he has died and gone to heaven and his mistress is greeting him, but then realises he is still alive and Alexas lied to him.

Antony, rather trivially, double checks with Cleopatra that she is true and she never felt anything for Dolabella. Of course not! They place Antony, rather incongruously, in a chair and he delivers a stirring requiem:

ANTONY: ⁠But grieve not, while thou stay’st
My last disastrous times:
Think we have had a clear and glorious day;
And Heav’n did kindly to delay the storm
Just till our close of ev’ning. Ten years love,
And not a moment lost, but all improv’d
To th’ utmost joys: What Ages have we liv’d?
And now to die each others; and, so dying,
While hand in hand we walk in Groves below,
Whole Troops of Lovers Ghosts shall flock about us,
And all the Train be ours.

He gives Cleopatra a last kiss. [It’s notable how little actual sensual activity there is from this pair of lovers who are supposedly wallowing in the sink of sin. One kiss – that appears to be it.]

Despite the protests of her maids, Cleopatra resolves to die, motivated not least by a refusal to be led in triumph through the streets of Rome to be gawped at by the plebs. She bids the maids go fetch her finest clothes and jewellery and ‘the aspicks’.

They return, dress Cleopatra in her finery, who sits in the chair next to Antony’s, and addresses a speech to the snakes which are going to deliver her from a cruel world. Offstage they hear Serapion declaring Caesar is approaching so she hurries, forcing the snake to bite her on the arm. As Serapion beats on the locked doors the two handmaids apply the snake to themselves, too and slowly drowse down, laying on the body of their queen as Serapion’s men burst open the door and run up to them.

SERAPION: ⁠Charmion, is this well done?
CHARMION: ⁠Yes, ’tis well done, and like a Queen, the last
Of her great Race.

Serapion delivers a eulogy to the dead lovers and now we realise the point of the business with the chairs, the apparently incongruous notion of propping the dying Antony up on a chair. The intention was that the two dead lovers present a striking tableau, at the play’s very ending, of sitting on royal thrones:

SERAPION: See, see how the Lovers sit in State together,
As they were giving Laws to half Mankind.
Th’ impression of a Smile left in her face,
Shows she dy’d pleas’d with him for whom she liv’d,
And went to charm him in another World.
Cæsar’s just entring; grief has now no leisure.
Secure that Villain, as our pledge of safety
To grace th’ Imperial Triumph. Sleep, blest Pair,
Secure from humane chance, long Ages out,
While all the Storms of Fate fly o’er your Tomb;
⁠And Fame, to late Posterity, shall tell,
⁠No Lovers liv’d so great, or dy’d so well.

Several thoughts:

1. Shakespeare had ended his play with a scene of Cleopatra’s death which is so intense as to be uncanny, spectral, supernaturally intense. Dryden clearly had to end his play with a bang and you can imagine him casting around for a suitable final setup/scene/page and lines. This closing spectacle of the two dead lovers propped up on thrones makes a striking – and strikingly different from Shakespeare – final tableau.

2. But it is also subject to a very negative interpretation. They may be sitting there like emperors giving laws to half mankind, but they are in fact corpses, dead, powerless, defunct. they are a mockery of living power, a travesty of real authority. The real thing – Caesar – is at the door. And although he (tactfully on Dryden’s part) never makes an appearance in the play, his presence – and the awe due to real power – is present throughout and, in a sense, drives the entire plot.

3. Thus Dryden presents actors, directors and audiences with a very ambiguous tableau at the play’s end. It might be possible to take Serapion’s words at face value. But the more I mull it over the more the sight of two dead losers propped up on outsize thrones by their sycophants should probably be made to look macabre, outlandish, like the gruesome finale of a Hammer horror movie.

General thoughts

All For Love is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s an easy read. This is due to its greatest strength which is also its weakness, which is its tremendous clarity. Everything is clearly explained in calm and lucid iambic pentameters. The rhythm of the verse is as regular as the German train network. Everything arrives on time and in correct order. All the characters explain how they feel or what they are going to do with admirable candour and clarity. There is very little metaphor or simile and certainly nothing obscure or difficult, nothing to disturb the flow of high-toned sentiments. Even when the characters claim to be in a transport of passion, they still manage to explain it in clear and lucid language expressed with regular rhythm:

CLEOPATRA: … My Love’s a noble madness,
Which shows the cause deserv’d it. Moderate sorrow
Fits vulgar Love; and for a vulgar Man:
But I have lov’d with such transcendent passion,
I soar’d, at first, quite out of Reasons view,
And now am lost above it…

Even when it sounds poetic, the language, on closer examination, always turns out to be clear and rational:

VENTIDIUS: I tell thee, Eunuch, that she has unmann’d him:
Can any Roman see, and know him now,
Thus alter’d from the Lord of half Mankind,
Unbent, unsinew’d, made a Womans Toy,
Shrunk from the vast extent of all his honours,
And crampt within a corner of the World?

There are lots of places in Shakespeare which are puzzling to scholars and readers alike, lots of places where the thought is compressed into clever wordplay so convoluted or uses words referring to things or practices which are now so lost or obscure to us, that even the experts aren’t clear what he was trying to say. Nothing like that ever happens in Dryden. There is a steady trickle of metaphor and simile but nothing obscure, nothing puzzling, no sudden imaginative leaps to take your breath away. He has followed Cleopatra’s injunction to:

CLEOPATRA: ⁠Be more plain.

Mermaid’s inadequate notes

The notes to the 1975 Mermaid paperback edition I read, written by the editor N.J. Andrew, are disappointing. There aren’t many of them and what there are are mostly concerned with pointing out textual variations in the early printed editions, described in the clipped abbreviations of editorial scholasticism i.e. the dullest kind of notes possible for a classic text.

There is, admittedly, a second type of note, which is where he quotes passages from Shakespeare to indicate where Dryden copied or imitated the Bard. This also is pretty boring and he need only have given the reference not take up half the page quoting the entire passage. Editions of Shakespeare are easy to access.

What the reader very much does want is notes explaining the characters’ motivations, any obscurities, explaining some of the incidents referred to in the text which took place before the play started, or other people referred to in the text who don’t appear, and so on.

But there are almost no notes like that. Better than the tedious textual notes might have been references to the lives of Plautus or other ancient sources Dryden used. But again, nada. The Mermaid paperback is clearly printed and nice to hold in the hand but there must be editions with fuller, more useful notes.

A comparison

One of the places where Andrew highlights the comparison with Shakespeare is particularly famous and instructive. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra Act 2 scene 2 line 239 onwards, Enobarbus is drunkenly praising Cleopatra’s amazing charisma to a table of Roman diners:

ENOBARBUS: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies

The first line is clear enough but the ‘cloy the appetites they feed’ bit requires a moment to process, as does its repetition in the next phrase. I think the idea is that male sexuality is usually quenched and dowsed after sex with a woman, sometimes leading to boredom or even repulsion. I had to look up the dictionary definition of ‘cloy’ to find that it is: ‘disgust or sicken (someone) with an excess of sweetness, richness, or sentiment.’ So I think the passage is based on the idea that women attract men who, however, often grow sick of them, particularly after their initial sexual appetite is satisfied. BUT that Cleopatra is not only different, but has the opposite effect, that the more men are with her and have sex with her, the more wild they are driven by love and lust.

Now I’m not very interested in this idea, as an idea, just the way it’s so densely expressed. Maybe I’m being dim, but I did have to look up the word and read the passage half a dozen times to be sure I understood it. So that’s what I mean by describing Shakespeare’s later style as dense and compact.

Compare that with a passage which seems pretty obviously derived from it in All For Love. Dryden has Antony tell Cleopatra to her face:

ANTONY: There’s no satiety of Love in thee;
Enjoy’d, thou still art new; perpetual Spring
Is in thy armes; the ripen’d fruit but falls
And blossoms rise to fill its empty place;
And I grow rich by giving.

It’s less impactful in at least three ways:

1. It’s more clearly expressed: ‘Enjoyed [i.e. after sex] thou still art new’ and the even clearer ‘Perpetual spring is in thy arms’.

2. For sure, there’s a metaphor about ripened fruit falling but being continually replaced with new blossoms (which promise evermore fruit), the implication being that her sexual allure is always new, and never falls into that surfeit or male repulsion which Shakespeare refers to. But the thing about both these metaphors (perpetual spring, ripened fruit) is how easy they are to understand. They’re more sensual and easy to process and so, also, more…well, relaxing. Contrast with the Shakespeare phrase that Cleopatra makes hungry where most she satisfies. This feels much more primeval; he is describing basic physical appetites, physical hunger, physical satisfaction after sex. At the same time, though, although these words describe basic physical processes they are, in a sense, also quite abstract, hunger being a very abstract word, like anger or love. So the Shakespeare passage manages to feel both more intellectual and more basic, at the same time! This maybe explains why, as a description, it feels a lot more intense, intensely physical yet intensely psychological, and all these factors help explain why it feels more dramatic.

3. And this brings me to my final point, which is the speech’s dramatic placement or context: by this I simply mean that having Enobarbus give his vivid description gives it all kinds of dramatic and psychological reverberations; because Enobarbus is a chorus to Antony’s actions who both approves and disapproves of his master’s infatuation, and so is ambivalent about the figure of Cleopatra. The opening lines sound like extravagant praise but Enobarbus goes on to be scathing about Cleopatra in the very next phrase, so it is an ambivalent, complex speech.

Moreover, it is a description of her in her absence given to a dinner party table of Romans who have never seen her so are all agog at Enobarbus’s account, which, of course, allows the old soldier, a bit drunk, to crank up his description, to exaggerate. In doing so he is bigging up himself as the top eye-witness to all Antony and Cleopatra’s affairs. The grandeur of the description reflects well on its teller.

4. And, lastly, and pretty obviously, Cleopatra is not there, so this is a conjuration from empty air, it is a word painting, it is a tone poem, it is Enobarbus showing off his way with words at the same time that Shakespeare is showing off his ability to conjure magnificence on a bare wooden stage. Quite apart from the subject matter, the speech conjures the pure magic of poetry on the stage, like Prospero with his staff.

Returning to the Dryden passage we find it lacks all of these complex multi-layered effects. In Dryden the speech is just part of Antony telling Cleopatra how wonderful she is. Obviously there’s some context in the specific context in the play i.e. it reflects Antony’s over-confidence in the military victory he’s just won, and the fact that he’s been swung round from deep depression into a renewed will to live, conquer and be in love; so, arguably, it reflects his manic mood and this explains why it is hyperbolic overstatement. But still…it almost completely lacks the complex psychological and dramatic multidimensionality of the Shakespeare version.

Hopefully, just this one comparison demonstrates how the Dryden is easier to process and enjoy, has merits of its own, but almost completely lacks the verbal, psychological and dramatic complexity which Shakespeare achieves.

‘Ruin’

Key words and symbols are often buried in Shakespeare and take rereading or rewatching to bring them out. Not least because his language is so packed with metaphors, imagery and word play it can be like spotting a needle in a haystack. By contrast, as in so many other things, keywords in Dryden are much easier to spot and process because his language is so much plainer and clearer, so repetitions stand out like a church spire in a landscape.

Thus it wasn’t difficult to notice the word ‘ruin’ recurring again and again. Not a very subtle choice of word or image or metaphor, on the contrary, a very rational choice for a drama about two people who ruin themselves, each other, their causes and countries. But it is repeated so many times it is clearly an attempt to create the same kind of verbal threading and echo that Shakespeare does so effortlessly.

ALEXAS: And Dolabella, who was once his Friend,
Upon some private grudge, now seeks his ruine

ALEXAS: She dotes, Serapion, on this vanquish’d Man,
And winds her self about his mighty ruins

VENTIDIUS: O, she has deck’d his ruin with her love,
Led him in golden bands to gaudy slaughter,
And made perdition pleasing…

VENTIDIUS: ⁠So, now the Tempest tears him up by th’ Roots,
And on the ground extends the noble Ruin.

ANTONY: I was so great, so happy, so belov’d,
Fate could not ruine me; till I took pains
And work’d against my Fortune,

ANTONY: ⁠That I derive my ruin
From you alone—
⁠CLEOPATRA: ⁠O Heav’ns! I ruin you!

ANTONY: ⁠All this you caus’d.
And would you multiply more ruins on me?

CLEOPATRA: …’twill please my Lord
To ruine me, and therefore I’ll be guilty.

VENTIDIUS: ⁠O Syren! Syren!
Yet grant that all the love she boasts were true,
Has she not ruin’d you?

ANTONY: This, this is she who drags me down to ruin!

VENTIDIUS: Justice and Pity both plead for Octavia;
For Cleopatra, neither.
One would be ruin’d with you; but she first
Had ruin’d you: the other, you have ruin’d,

OCTAVIA [going up to Cleopatra]: ⁠I would view nearer
That face, which has so long usurp’d my right,
To find th’ inevitable charms, that catch
Mankind so sure, that ruin’d my dear Lord.

And so on. No great perspicacity required to spot the keyword or to understand how Dryden intends it as the central theme of his play. For though Dryden gives the lovers the best love and passion poetry he can conceive, the long introductory essay to his play makes it crystal clear that he takes a strong moral line and thinks they were wrong and immoral. That their neglect of their duties – to their families, their friends, their armies and their countries – mean that their wretched fate was entirely deserved and fitting.

In Dryden’s view, we are not meant to admire history’s most famous lovers, but to condemn them.


Related links

Poetry

History

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Restoration drama

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606)

“These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,
Or lose myself in dotage…”
(Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, scene 2)

Plot summary

Act I

The assassination of Julius Caesar in March 44 BC led to a period of chaos with warlords commanding legions around the Roman world, until a deal was brokered the three most powerful of them, Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus, who formed what came to be called the Second Triumvirate in November 43.

They divided up the provinces of the empire and Mark Antony was assigned command of the eastern Mediterranean. The play opens three years later, in 40 BC, and finds him living in Egypt where has fallen deeply in love with the queen, Cleopatra, where he has abandoned himself to a life of luxury and debauchery.

Act 1 scene 1 sets the scene quickly: the chorus of Demetrius and Philo lament that Antony, the fearless warrior, is ignoring his responsibilities and wasting his time in thrall to a seductive queen. They have barely finished before Antony and Cleopatra enter and give us a prize example of the foolish flirting of love. But they have barely begun – are in fact only 4 lines in – when a messenger from Rome arrives and prompts Antony to an outburst of vexed frustration. Cleopatra then taunts him, saying he must listen to the messenger in case he brings instructions from his ‘master’ Octavius in Rome, or from his true Roman wife, Fulvia.

CLEOPATRA: Fulvia perchance is angry; or, who knows
If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
His powerful mandate to you, ‘Do this, or this;

At which Antony eloquently summarises his own devil-may-care, laddish irresponsibility for the benefit of the audience:

MARK ANTONY: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man: the nobleness of life
Is to do thus;

And he embraces his Greco-Egyptian squeeze. The messengers tell Antony that his Roman wife, Fulvia, is dead. (Fulvia was a tough cookie. She had united with Antony’s brother, Lucius, to raise an army in Italy against Octavian which led to the so-called Perusine War, because it boiled down to a siege of Perusia, modern Perugia, and had taken Octavian over a year to quell. Out of respect for Antony, Caesar spared Lucius, who was sent to be governor of a province in Spain, but he exiled Fulvia to Sicyon in Greece where, we now learn, she has died from unspecified causes.)

As if this wasn’t enough another messenger arrives to tell him that the son of the Gnaeus Pompeius who had fought Julius Caesar in the first civil war of 49 BC – Sextus Pompeius – has established a naval base on Sicily from which he is attacking Roman shipping.

The guilt Antony feels at the death of his wife is compounded by news that the state he is charged with defending is in danger, and so he announces that he must return to Rome.

ANTONY: I must from this enchanting queen break off:
Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know,
My idleness doth hatch

Cleopatra is angry, mocking, scornful, upset. Antony travels with his friend, the general Enobarbus who has become even more of a wastrel in the fleshpots of Egypt and who acts as a foil to Antony’s drunken antics, a licensed jester who delivers satirical opinions about Antony, Cleopatra and everything else.

Act II

Meanwhile in Rome Octavius Caesar, adopted heir of the murdered Julius, has been consolidating his power and acting with stern dutifulness. Their first meeting is difficult, with Octavius and his entourage freely criticising Antony’s unpatriotic, unroman behaviour in Alexandria, which he is forced to acknowledge and admit to.

One of Caesar’s closest advisers, Agrippa, then proposes an ingenious solution to their problems: Antony should marry Octavius’s sister, Octavia. Antony ponders this for a moment, then willingly agrees and the two triumvirs shake hands on it.

The red-faced old general, Enobarbus is shown reunited with officer friends who are part of Octavius’s entourage, and he rather too candidly tells them the marriage will never work out. Antony will never be able to kick his addiction to Cleopatra and he paints a glowing portrait of her multi-faceted character:

ENOBARBUS: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies…
(Act 2, scene 2)

The third triumvir, Lepidus, attends these meetings but is depicted as a well-intentioned but weak-minded older man who just wants everyone to be friends.

Antony had been prompted to return to Rome by news of the threat young Sextus Pompeius poses to Rome’s merchant fleet and so the next scene shows Antony, Octavious and their followers  having a summit meeting with Sextus aboard the latter’s ship. At one point Sextus’s admiral suggests they cut the cables, put out to sea, and murder all the triumvirs but Sextus refuses. Once agreement is made, Enobarbus and Antony lead all the delegates into a boozy dinner which turns into a drinking session in which Lepidus is humiliated in front of everyone while Octavius coldly refuses to get drunk and holds himself aloof from the partying which degenerates into drunken dancing.

Act III

Cleopatra is amusing herself with her serving women, Charmian and Iras, when a messenger arrives and tells her her beloved Antony has married someone else. Furious she attacks the messenger before demanding to know everything about her rival. Only slowly does she reassure herself that this prim and proper Roman matron is no real rival for Antony’s affections.

Meanwhile Antony and Octavia arrive at Athens en route for his command in the East only to learn that Octavius has gone back on the deal he made, and attacked Pompey. He has also ended the triumvirate  by dismissing Lepidus on a trumped-up charge relating to the campaign against Pompey in Sicily.

Compassionately enough, Antony sends his new wife back to Rome to parlay with her brother – but also because, like an alcoholic hitting the bottle at the first sign of trouble, this rupture of the triumvirate makes him hanker for his real love, Cleopatra. So he heads back to Egypt with a view to raising an army to take on Octavian.

Caesar had handed over his beloved sister to Antony with visible reluctance, and had repeated his  injunction that Antony respect and love her, so her unannounced reappearance in Rome makes him furious, part of which he directs at her (the poor woman). Incensed, he declares war on Antony and Cleopatra.

Antony ignores the advice of Enobarbus and his other generals, to fight on land, and decides to tackle Caesar’s fleet at Actium. During the battle, Cleopatra’s ships flee from the Roman fleet and Antony loses his head and sails after her in his admiral’s ship, abandoning his fleet. He effectively loses the battle, his fleet, and the allegiance of the many eastern kings he had cultivated as allies.

Act IV

Initially very downcast, much weeping and wailing between the loves, Antony eventually pulls himself together and vows to rally his land forces and attack Caesar on land.

However, we are shown various soldiers and generals questioning his judgement and then, in the one supernatural scene in the play, a squad of guards at his camp at night think they hear strange music coming from underground; they take this to be Hercules, Antony’s ancestor and protector, abandoning him.

Back in the real world, Antony’s bosom buddy and drinking companion, Enobarbus, disillusioned at Antony’s string of bad decisions, defects to Caesar’s army. He had been very conflicted about doing this and when Antony graciously sends him all his belongings and a kindly message, Enobarbus is so overcome with guilt that he kills himself.

So a second, land, battle takes place between Caesar and Antony’s forces but Antony’s bullish confidence turns to despair when Cleopatra’s forces abandon Antony and, like everyone else, go over to the unstoppable force of destiny which is young Caesar.

Terrified of the Roman army which is now approaching Alexandria, Cleopatra leads her serving women and eunuchs into the stronghold of her ‘monument’. Wrongly thinking Antony will blame her for her army’s defection, she sends a messenger to Antony, wandering forlorn in the city, to say that she is dead.

She had hoped this would soften his heart to her but it is a colossal miscalculation (and eerily reminiscent of the misunderstanding at the end of Romeo and Juliet). For Antony is so distraught at her death that he resolves to die and falls on his own sword. However, like many a Roman before him (e.g. Cato) he makes a bad job of it and is writhing in agony from his injury when messengers arrive to tell him that Cleopatra is alive after all. Oh.

So he asks the messengers to carry his dying body to Cleopatra’s ‘monument’ where she has holed up. Here they have a piteous exchange, before his body is lifted up on a rope and pulley and fetched inside the ‘monument’ where they exchange touching last words, then Antony dies in her arms and Cleopatra is distraught.

Act V

With Antony defunct, the entire last act is devoted to Cleopatra and builds steadily towards a kind of apotheosis.

The Romans trick their way into the ‘monument’ and there is, at last, the confrontation between the future world emperor Caesar, and the legendary woman who seduced his father (Julius Caesar) and fellow triumvir.

Caesar is, as usual, suave and reasonable and tells her to live, for her children’s sake, and that he will allow her to continue her rule of Egypt – on Roman sufferance, of course. Cleopatra is more resolute and self possessed than, I think, a woman was expected to be in Elizabethan culture i.e. she shows herself to be exceptional and there are hints that, even in her grief and loss, she may very slyly be laying the groundwork to seduce a third great Roman leader in a row.

But as soon as Caesar leaves, she gets her women to send for a countryman who brings a basket of figs which contain the famous asps, small poisonous snakes. Suspecting nothing the Roman guards let him through. He is, in fact, a yokel, a simpleton, on a par with the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the hungover porter who pops up at the most dramatic part of Macbeth.

It’s a prime example of the incongruity and tonal unevenness which the classically minded French reject about Shakespeare and made the classically-minded Restoration playwright John Dryden rewrite the play to make it conform to enlightened standards.

Long story short, Cleopatra takes not one but two asps from the basket, gets them to bite her and dies, along with her two long-serving maids, Charmian and Iras. However, the intensity of her wish to travel quickly to the afterlife to be reunited with her beloved Antony achieves an intensity and luminance absent from most of the rest of the play and really, for me, takes it to a new level.

She dies, Caesar is called back to see the corpse, delivers the standard eulogy over the dead body of his adversary, orders the lovers to be buried together with all due ceremony etc, then tells his people they must head back to Rome where, of course, he will become undisputed ruler of the state and, in effect, the first Roman Emperor.

But still. In this final act Cleopatra rises above the skittish, ironic, mocking, bad tempered, squabbling middle-aged woman she appears in much of the rest of the play to become a force of nature. And it’s  the image of this transcendent icon that she leaves blazing in the audience’s memory.

A problem play

In the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Antony and Cleopatra is categorised as a tragedy, but it is far longer, more complex and problematic than the earlier tragedy, Julius Caesar (1599), to which it is a sort of sequel.

Julius Caesar has one obvious central event to which the first half leads and from which everything in the second half follows; I’ve come to realise that although he is physically absent from the second half, it is nevertheless Caesar’s play because his spirit haunts the subsequent actions of all the characters, actually appears as a ghost to Brutus on the eve of the Battle of Philippi, and that both the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, address his spirit just as the commit suicide, and do so using the same swords they murdered him with. So there is one central figure dominating Julius Caesar.

Antony and Cleopatra is more complicated. There is no one central event and no one central figure. Instead acts 1 and 2 contain a confusing mish-mash of scenes, introducing us to different settings, characters and events in swift succession; and 3 and 4 depict a series of battles which are all defeats for Antony and lead to his downfall…but not immediately; the process is dragged out.

I agree with the assessment of Jonathan Miller who directed the BBC Shakespeare production of it, that there is something elegiac about the whole play: both Antony and Cleopatra are past their prime: Cleopatra is touchy about her age, Antony looks back to past military glories, and both, when they talk about happy love, refer to it in the past. Antony refers to the grey hairs appearing among their brown (Act 4, scene 8).

They are both on the way down and for this reason, maybe, deep down, not that sad to be beaten by confident young Octavian. The whole thing has a dying fall right from the opening lines where two Romans lament Antony’s falling-off from a world-bestriding general to the plaything of an Egyptian strumpet.

Time covered

Whereas Julius Caesar packed two years (44 to 42 BC) into its 3-hour span, Antony and Cleopatra tries to cram in ten years of complex history – from the death of Antony’s wife Fulvia, in 40 BC, to Antony and Cleopatra’s double suicides in 30 BC.

Ten years is a long time and these years were packed with events, the most notable being Antony’s vast ill-fated campaign to invade and conquer Parthia in 36 BC a huge 2-year undertaking of which we hear nothing whatsoever in the play (Wilder, p.58).

This drastic cutting and collaging is testament to Shakespeare’s skill at picking out what he needed, at throwing away references to entire wars (such as the Perusine War) in just a few lines in order to stay focused on the central psychological theme of his play, of the bickering, addicted central lovers. But still, despite all his skill, and even stripped of many key events and virtually all details, the sheer logic of the events which the play sets out to depict is still irreducibly complex and, well, big. The result is that the play is very long and feels it. Picking up on all the historical events and references is quite an ask.

Maybe this is why the final act, Cleopatra’s apotheosis, is, from one angle, the most effective thing in the play. It is the only event that is entirely in the present. It is the most mindful of the acts. It fulfils the old (and misunderstood) Aristotelian idea of the unity of time and action. With Antony dead and her cause roundly defeated, Cleopatra is intensely present. Like many suicides, once the decision is made, those last few minutes of life take on a supernatural intensity. Every word, every gesture, is lovingly scrutinised as the last this mind and this body will take. The never-ending web of Roman wars and alliances which Caesar completely mastered, which Antony miserably failed at, disappear.

Instead the audience is privileged to share the last moments of an extraordinary human being about to turn themselves into a legend.

Stats

A quick check with this website which gives basic stats about the plays reveals that, if Julius Caesar was notable for its relative shortness and the brevity of some of its acts, Antony and Cleopatra is the reverse.

At 3,039 total lines Antony and Cleopatra is longer than the average Shakespeare play (average play: 2,768 lines; average tragedy: 2,936). It has more scenes – 43 – than any other Shakespeare play (average play 21; average tragedy: 24). And far more characters – 57 – than any other play (plays: 36; tragedy: 39).

The obvious conclusion is that the excessive length and the unusually large number of scenes and characters, reflect the complexity of the history Shakespeare is trying to pack in (see below).

Knotty verse

And there’s something else. The verse is more sinewy and knotty than before. As Shakespeare’s career developed, the prolific invention of the early plays evolved into a more mature but still gorgeous style around 1600, dense with metaphor and dazzling flights of fancy. But by the time he wrote Antony and Cleopatra in late 1606, Shakespeare had been writing plays for about 17 years (first play 1589). Antony and Cleopatra follows a run of three major thrillingly visceral tragedies but, as this list demonstrates, represents a pivot into a series of later, less famous and less outstanding works:

  • All’s Well That Ends Well (1602–1603)
  • Measure for Measure (1604–1605)
  • Othello (1604–1605)
  • King Lear (1605–1606)
  • Macbeth (1605–1606)
  • Antony and Cleopatra (1606–1607)
  • Coriolanus (1607–1608)
  • Timon of Athens (1607–1608)
  • Pericles (1608–1609)
  • Cymbeline (1609–1610)

Either Shakespeare was out of juice or he was pivoting towards a late style in the conception, construction and style of the plays. Assessing the structure of the plays would require an examination of their sources and quickly turn into a book, so it’s easiest to focus on the verse style:

To me Antony and Cleopatra feels characterised by less flashily beautiful verse and a kind of sparser, knottier style than previously. Julius Caesar sounds like this:

CASSIUS. Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

This is a vivid metaphor and it is developed over four lines which run confidently over the end of each line to create one long, fluent sentence. It is clear, vivid and enjoyable to read or hear spoken. Compare it with a random passage from Antony and Cleopatra:

ANTONY: Go, Eros, send his treasure after. Do it.
Detain no jot, I charge thee. Write to him–
I will subscribe–gentle adieus and greetings.
Say that I wish he never find more cause
To change a master.

This is deliberately staccato, broken up into bitty phrases (except the more fluent sentence at the end, which caps the thought). Whereas sentences in the earlier play are long and complete, confidently running over a series of lines with little punctuation to create a fluid, mellifluent effect, in the later play, again and again, the full stop comes in mid-line and phrases are not an easy sentence in length, but are often shorter, sometimes three little phrases wedged into one line.

CLEOPATRA: Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,
But bid farewell and go. When you sued staying,
Then was the time for words, No going then.
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent. None our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven. (Act 1, scene 3)

And speeches hand over from one character to another, not at the neat end of a line, but joltingly, in mid-line.

CLEOPATRA: Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turn’d the greatest liar…
ANTONY:                               How now, lady!
CLEOPATRA: I would I had thy inches; thou shouldst know
There were a heart in Egypt.
ANTONY:                                Hear me, queen.

This creates a clotted, knotty style, a lot less fluid.

POMPEY: I shall do well.
The people love me, and the sea is mine.
My powers are crescent, and my auguring hope
Says it will come to the full. Mark Antony
In Egypt sits at dinner and will make
No wars without doors. Caesar gets money where
He loses hearts. Lepidus flatters both,
Of both is flatter’d.

It also has the related effect of making the poetry less metaphorical. There are a lot more orders and instructions or sudden thoughts, a lot less florid poetry, similes and comparisons. When Cleopatra asks whether she or Antony is at fault, Enobarbus replies:

ENOBARBUS: Antony only, that would make his will
Lord of his reason. What though you fled
From that great face of war, whose several ranges
Frighted each other? Why should he follow?
The itch of his affection should not then
Have nick’d his captainship.

See what I mean about the sentences ending (and the next one beginning) in mid-line and so creating a stuttering, staccato, clipped effect. There’s similes even in this little passage (the face of war, ‘the itch of his affection’ meaning his lust, ‘nicking his captainship’ meaning cut short his command [of the fleet at Actium]). But none of them are developed at relaxed length into a gorgeous conceit expanding over multiple lines as in his earlier style. Instead they are tightly compressed, expressed in as compressed a form as possible before the verse moves onto the next one.

It is a style less appropriate for the flowing love duets of Romeo and Juliet, than for undecorated sarcasm or irony, which doesn’t need elaborate conceits, as when Cleopatra jokes with Antony that she has something important to say to him, but can’t remember what it is:

CLEOPATRA: Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there’s not it;
That you know well: something it is I would,
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.

Here’s another example from Julius, showing what I mean by the fluent flow of long sentences running through a sequence of lines with hardly any punctuation, or coming only at the end of each line, thus allowing the lines to breathe through their full length:

SOOTHSAYER: The throng that follows Caesar at the heels,
Of senators, of praetors, common suitors,
Will crowd a feeble man almost to death.
I’ll get me to a place more void and there
Speak to great Caesar as he comes along.

It flows, each iambic pentameter has the entire line to breathe and display. It’s a pleasure to read or say aloud. By contrast here’s Octavian from the later play giving instructions to his envoy Thyreus:

CAESAR: From Antony win Cleopatra. Promise,
And in our name, what she requires. Add more,
From thine invention, offers. Women are not
In their best fortunes strong, but want will perjure
The ne’er touch’d vestal. Try thy cunning, Thyreus.

Completely different. This must be deliberate, a deliberate creation of a late style. Why? What does it do? Well, I think that instead of the long verse paragraphs, the far fetched metaphors, the open rhythms of the earlier plays, this style creates something closer to the jerkiness of actual thought and real speech. Fragments of phrases, even individual words, several different thoughts expressed in fragments bolted together to make lines. Much more bitty, fragmented, less florid, less gorgeous.

This explains why the one set-piece speech in the entire play stands out so much, namely Enobarbus’s magnificent long speech describing to Octavian’s lieutenants the scene when Antony first met Cleopatra, when she had herself rowed up the Nile in a magnificent galley.

ENOBARBUS: The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their stroke

Even this, when you look closely, is in the same manner, with the first sentence ending half-way through the second line, and sentences stopping mid-line 3 times in these 7 lines, at ‘water’, ‘them’ and ‘stroke’. The effect of ending sentences and starting new ones in mid-line is to break up the untrammelled liquid flow of the earlier style. But in this speech the effect is overruled by the gorgeousness of the metaphors and the magnificence of the vision. Its rich colour highlights how relatively grey, functional and gnarly a lot of the rest of the play is.

And difficult. The thought is often so compressed as to be hard to follow. In the excerpt below, I don’t  really understand what the first half means. It is Antony telling Octavian’s sister, the honest but boring Octavia, who he has married in a purely political marriage to try and patch up his alliance with Caesar – telling her that if she’s unhappy, she’s free to go:

ANTONY: When it appears to you where this begins,
Turn your displeasure that way. For our faults
Can never be so equal, that your love
Can equally move with them. Provide your going.
Choose your own company, and command what cost
Your heart has mind to.

It’s not only the verse that is choppy and fragmented. It feels like something clever is going on in the sentence starting “For our faults…” but, to be frank, I don’t follow it.

This kept happening to me while reading Antony and Cleopatra. I enjoyed reading and rereading Julius Caesar because each reading revealed new depths to the characters, made me realise how certain symbols or topics cleverly recur, made me see the subtle linguistic threads which bind the fabric together. Not so Antony and Cleopatra, with its fewer metaphors and similes, and its thought so compressed I often didn’t understand it. I read and reread passages and they remained obstinately gnarly in rhythm and opaque in meaning. They remain what they first appeared.

Here’s Cleopatra lamenting that Antony has married Octavia and regretting her first angry impulse to smack and slap the messenger who brought this news:

These hands do lack nobility, that they strike
A meaner than myself; since I myself
Have given myself the cause.

It sounds interwoven and self-entwining as if there ought to be a hidden meaning, but repeated readings leave it what it was.

And this brings me back to my earlier reference to the theme of age and decline. Because maybe this is a style suited to mature characters. It is not the show-off prolixity of the young and flashy. It feels like the poetic style of a man who has ‘done all that’, has written unbeatably show-off verse in Romeo and Juliet and Henry V and Hamlet and knows it, knows he’s written the best pyrotechnic verse in the world and so is now trying something different.

He’s deliberately cutting back on mellifluous flashiness and trying for something more…tough and wizened. As leathery and furrowed as the face of Colin Blakely playing Antony on the BBC Shakespeare production I’ve just watched. The lined and grizzled face of a man who, although the play gives the impression it’s taking place over a few hectic weeks, in fact ages ten years over its duration.

Lack of oomph

Admittedly ‘oomph’ is not a common technical term in literary criticism. What I mean is something like impact and atmosphere. The first three acts of Julius Caesar not only have dramatic unity because they are entirely about the conspiracy to murder him, but are given thrilling dramatic and psychological atmosphere by the use of the wild storm the night before the murder. The night the assassins hold their final meeting is characterised by a wild storm of thunder and lightning which terrifies half the characters, during which people see ghosts and wild animals prowling the streets and fire in the sky.

This is a fairly obvious effect – the same depiction of discord in nature reflecting the overthrow of the social order on earth is used in Macbeth and King Lear – but it is fantastically successful at giving the play a kind of unity of palette and the same feeling is, of course, revived at the end of the play when Brutus sees the ghost of Caesar appear to him in his tent. Once introduced, this supernatural vibe runs throughout the play.

Antony and Cleopatra lacks any of that. There are occasional attempts to give the thing an orientalist exotic Egyptian vibe, but not many, and you don’t really notice them. There is no comparable melodramatic setting / scene / vocabulary / diction which dominates and unifies the scenes. A couple of times characters refer to the stars, but this is bog standard stuff, passing references: all Shakespeare protagonists refer to Fortune or the stars at some point, even in the comedies:

ANTONY: And at this time most easy ’tis to do’t,
When my good stars, that were my former guides,
Have empty left their orbs, and shot their fires
Into the abysm of hell…

ANTONY: Alack, our terrene moon
Is now eclipsed; and it portends alone
The fall of Antony!

It isn’t the large scale dramatisation of astrological doom, as in the storms of Lear or Macbeth. The one ‘spooky’ scene is, as so often, on the eve of the last battle, a standard moment for protagonists to soulfully muse about the destinies which have brought them to this point etc, when none of the main characters are about but soldiers on guard at Antony’s camp hear strange music coming from underground and one, as if clairvoyant, says it is the sound of Hercules, Antony’s ancestor, leaving him to his fate (Act 3, scene 3). That, I grant you, is strange and eerie but not, by itself, enough to spook up the overall story.

Far more emblematic is the setpiece scene where the triumvirate meet with Pompey aboard his flagship, make peace then drink till they’re drunk and perform a drunken dance, accompanied by music. Which has no symbolic overtones at all; it’s just another party.

One way to demonstrate the lack of oomph is to compare the soothsayers in the two plays. In Julius Caesar the soothsayer’s warnings about the Ides of March are genuinely spooky and concern the central event of the play. The murder scene itself (Act 3, scene 1) opens with Caesar progressing to the senate building with his entourage and spotting in the cheering crowd the soothsayer who’d warned him about the Ides of March. Caesar shouts mockingly to him:

CAESAR: The ides of March are come.
SOOTHSAYER: Ay, Caesar; but not gone.

This has real bite. It links up to the strong supernatural theme, it revives the sense of destiny and fate, and purely in dramatic terms, it gives Caesar and his entourage pause for a moment of doubt, before Caesar recovers his composure and blusteringly dismisses him as ‘a dreamer’. In other words, this two-line exchange packs a punch on a number of levels.

There is also a soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra but a) he isn’t integrated into any other supernatural aspect or indicators; he is a rather isolated almost forlorn figure. And b) his scope is limited to reading the fortunes of Cleopatra’s giggling maids, who mock him and each other. From the sublime to the ridiculing.

Schoolgirls

I watched the BBC Shakespeare production, starring Colin Blakely and Jane Lapotaire, and the 1984 TV movie, starring Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave. Neither of them really convince and both of them bring out Shakespeare’s odd decision to make the second scene in the play a comic one featuring Cleopatra’s two serving women (‘My noble girls!’), Charmian (very much the main one) and Iras (who hardly speaks at all).

Alexas, supposedly Cleopatra’s chief minister but who appears to be her chief male servant, introduces the Egyptian soothsayer to the giggly women and, instead of adding to and crystallising the sense of world-encompassing doom, as his avatar in Julius Caesar does, this soothsayer is reduced to answering their gossipy enquiries about their husbands and children.

Now, the canny audience will spot the way the soothsayer accurately predicts the fact that both women will die alongside their mistress, but in the obscure, limited way of the Delphic Oracle, so that neither of them grasps the truth and, in any case, are too busy making jokes about each other’s future husbands to notice.

Maybe the audience will remember his predictions three hours later when Charmian and Iras accompany their mistress to her death; maybe the audience who knows they’re all going to die will enjoy the dramatic irony when they hear it – but either way, it’s indicative of the way that a supernatural element is vestigially present but much tamped down, itself symptomatic of the more muted, adult focus of the play as a whole.

The unattractive protagonists

The puzzling effect of the play is also a function of the lack of a clear protagonist. Cleopatra emerges in the final act as the dominating figure of the play, but before that was often absent for long periods or, when she was present, was a very reactive figure, reacting to Antony’s decisions or apologies or outbursts. Even when she is alone with her handmaids and Alexas, she is constantly thinking about Antony, reacting to him even in his absence.

Brutus is the protagonist of Julius Caesar and his antagonist is the savvy, virile Antony of that play, drolly ironic, cleverer than all the conspirators put together – with the ghost of Caesar lurking under the stage until he emerges in the last few scenes to neatly round everything off by haunting the assassins to their deaths. I liked the clever, ironic Antony of the earlier play, with his devil-may-care confidence.

The Antony of this play and his Cleopatra, by contrast, I found tiresome, as people. Maybe it’s me, but right at the start Shakespeare goes out of his way to show how quickly the famous lovers fall out and bicker like teenagers (‘Fie! wrangling queen!’).

Along with the immediately following scene of the schoolgirl handmaids, this sets a tone of silliness in their relationship, a stroppy teenage quickness to fall into heated arguments over nothing, from which the play, for me, never qute recovers.

I found Antony’s flip-flopping between infatuation with Cleopatra and guilty acknowledgement that he needs to break free and return to his Roman duties and responsibilities, irritating rather than profound.  I wanted to tell him to grow up.

Also, by the time we meet him, he is a loser. He has lost the insouciant, devil-may-care brashness of the earlier play. Now Caesar is the winner, and knows he will win, and goes on to win.

Antony, by contrast, is a loser. He fails in his negotiations with Cesar. He fails as a husband to innocent Octavia, setting out to damply please her but all-too-quickly letting himself and her down.

Antony never comes over as the world-bestriding general the other characters describe him as having been, once, in the play’s heretofore. When we meet him he is well on the way to making a series of catastrophic errors, which lead up to his military blunders: first, deciding to fight by sea, and then abandoning his fleet when Cleopatra sails away.

This sequence of bad calls is capped when he believes the messenger who tells him Cleopatra is dead and makes the foolish decision to kill himself; and then makes a botch of it, terribly injuring himself but failing to die. It’s failure all down the line. It’s a fine line between Tragic Fall and pathetic failure.

Similarly, Cleopatra, for me, for the first four acts, never achieves the awe and majesty which the play claims for her. Enobarbus’s description of her is far more impressive than the reality.

In Julius Caesar both Portia (wife of Brutus) and Calpurnia (wife of Caesar) have real presence and depth. Your heart bleeds for poor Portia, tormented by her husband locking her out from his feelings (i.e. not telling her about the conspiracy to murder Caesar).

Jane Lapotaire is a handsome woman but I found her continual arbitrary switching from anger to irony to sarcasm so tiresome that, when she finally got around to something like genuine expressions of love and/or soulful introspection about her feelings, I’d stopped caring. I found her unpredictable mood swings alienating rather than entrancing. Maybe she’s just not my type.

That said, I suppose Cleopatra’s depiction is on a different plane from that of the men, if only for the sheer length of time she is on stage and the phenomenal number of lines she gets to deliver. But for me, only right at the end, locked away in her strongpoint, as she commits herself to ending her life, does she attain a kind of visionary transcendence, which lifts her onto a different plane from all the other characters.

Enobarbus and Caesar

First a word of explanation: after Julius Caesar was assassinated, it turned out that in his will he left the majority of his estate to his great-nephew (his sister’s daughter’s son) Gaius Octavius who he legally adopted as his son. Octavius, only 18 at the time, promptly came to Rome to claim his inheritance, to ratify his adoption by Caesar, and, as was common with Roman adoptees, to take his adoptive father’s name, calling himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, where Octavianus is the adjectival form of Octavius. Quite quickly he took to referring to himself as ‘Caesar’ since this helped in winning the loyalty of the dead dictator’s legions. And all this explains why he is referred to as ‘Caesar’ throughout this play.

Enobarbus, meanwhile, is based on this historical figure of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, Roman general and politician, birth date unknown, who died in 31 BC. A quick scan of his Wikipedia entry indicates how thoroughly Shakespeare has fictionalised the character, and is also a good indicator of how completely Shakespeare ignores the long historical duration covered by the play, and the extremely complex web of shifting alliances which took place during the ten years the action supposedly covers.

Instead of a highly successful general who led forces against Antony at Philippi and persisted in opposing the triumvirate, until he was eventually reconciled with Antony, and went on to play a leading part in the latter’s ill-fated invasion of Parthia (36 BC), Shakespeare’s Enobarbus is depicted as a fellow drunk, a kind of embodiment of Antony’s devil-may-care debauchery. He’s a sort of cut-price Falstaff.

And a chorus to the main action. His main structural function is to be a court jester to Antony, licensed to say anything: to mock him, to mock the queen, to mock their love affair, to mock Rome and responsibility and pour Antony another drink. In the scenes where Antony and Caesar and their entourages meet, parley and party, he is shown getting on well with two of Caesar’s senior advisers, Agrippa and Maecenas, and speaking probably tactlessly about he and Antony’s party ways back in Alexandria. He very tactlessly shares his belief that Antony’s marriage to Octavia won’t last.

So he is not intended to be a pleasant man, and in his asides to the audience he has something of Iago – not in orchestrating and motivating the action, but in his increasing tone of malevolence and misanthropy. He becomes more bitter and cynical as the play progresses, eventually defects from Antony’s service altogether, going over to young Caesar, but finally malevolences his way right out of existence by killing himself (as does, of course, his former master). So he is like a barometer indicating the steady, relentless decline in Antony’s fortunes.

So from out of this pack of squabbling lovers and their cynical hangers-on, I couldn’t help coming to admire Caesar. He is quite obviously depicted as a Spock-like emotionless automaton, a ruthlessly efficient calculating machine. His speeches are very deliberately made as emotional as computer printouts.

But if one person was going to end up ruling the Roman Empire who would you prefer it to be? The childishly irresponsibly, changeable, unreliable, petulant self-pitying drunk, Antony? Or the sober, hard-working, focused and efficient young Octavian? Antony is like Boris Johnson: an impetuous, charismatic, changeable, unreliable, making-it-up-as-you-go-along party animal. A great bloke to stay up all night carousing with but shouldn’t be left in charge of a whelk stall, let alone half the Roman Empire – as his over-ambitious, badly managed, and disastrous foray into Parthia (36 BC) conclusively proved, and then his catastrophic decision to abandon his fleet and his legions at Actium (31 BC) proved all over again.

Just like Boris Johnson, Antony’s supporters keep giving him the benefit of the doubt as he proves himself unfit for high office again and again and again, as one by one his senior allies defect, until he managed to dig his own grave and even his most loyal hanger-on (Enobarbus) abandoned him.

ANTONY: O, my fortunes have corrupted honest men!

No, Octavian for me. If you want someone to manage a country, let alone an empire, you want a managerial type: hard working, sober, efficient, fair, and also – a winner. As he always does, right from the start Shakespeare plants the seed of the character’s eventual fate – in this case Octavian’s complete triumph – by pointing out that he just wins. Whatever enterprise he undertakes, whether it’s playing dice or taking on the senate, he just wins. Enobarbus comes to realise Caesar is ‘twenty times of better fortune’ than Antony. As the soothsayer (they crop up everywhere, these soothsayers, don’t they) tells Antony:

If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose; and, of that natural luck,
He beats thee ‘gainst the odds: thy lustre thickens,
When he shines by…

And so it ultimately proves here.

Binaries and dichotomies

Antony is a man caught between two contrasting worlds and sets of values:

  • Egypt versus Italy
  • Alexandria versus Rome
  • East versus West
  • Femininity (all those Egyptian handmaids plus the eunuchs) versus masculinity (all those Roman senators and generals)
  • Cleopatra versus Caesar
  • Love versus Reason
  • Irresponsibility versus duty
  • Sensual pleasure versus puritan abstention (Caesar’s fastidious dislike of the drunkenness at Pompey’s party)
  • An empire of the senses versus the real-world empire of war and conquest
  • Mistress versus wife
  • The personal versus the public
  • Colourful exotic costumes versus the plain white Roman toga

Indeed the play overflows with carefully contrasted binaries and contrasts:

  • (Cleopatra’s) playfulness versus (Caesar’s) earnestness
  • Humour versus seriousness
  • Irony versus sincerity
  • Hyperbole versus statements of fact
  • Emotional instability versus fixed resolution

Right down to the contrast between the two suicides, one botched and hideously painful (Antony’s) in which he is pitifully abandoned by his servants; the other ceremonious, beautiful and painless (Cleopatra’s) in which she is loyally served to the end by her maids.

Suicide

1. History. The era is packed with famous suicides: Cato, Portia, Brutus, Cassius, Enobarbus, Eros, Antony, Cleopatra, a generation of generals and rulers liquidated itself to make way for Octavius.

2. Shakespeare. Throw in Shakespeare’s most famous depictions of suicide, Romeo and Juliet and you can reasonably ask: Has any other major author so glamorised and romanticised suicide?

CLEOPATRA: The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired.

The end speech

While Antony was alive, Caesar’s cronies queued up to mimic their master’s mood and mock and insult Antony. When, in Act 5 scene 1, they learn he is dead, they queue up to praise him (‘A rarer spirit never / Did steer humanity’). Octavian joins in and then, a long 20 minutes later, after Cleopatra has also killed herself and Octavian stands over her lifeless body, he delivers the same kind of eulogy.

This naturally reminds me of the same Octavian standing over Brutus’s corpse while Antony delivers a noble eulogy to him (Brutus) at the end of Julius Caesar. All of which prompts a simple thought: it is easy to be noble and generous about your opponent after he is safely dead.

Boys will be girls

Last thought about the characters, and a fact which opens up a Pandora’s box of debates about gender and identity – women characters in the theatre of Shakespeare’s time were played by boys. The numerous scenes between Cleopatra and her maids, the opening scene where the maids discuss marriage, all those furious arguments with Antony, and Cleopatra’s final, transcendent apotheosis – all this was depicted by pubescent boys.

Historical background

The first thing to emphasise is that, like Julius CaesarAntony and Cleopatra leaps through long, complicated historical events, cutting and paring and cherry picking just what it needs to produce a narrative which focuses on two of western history’s most famous lovers. But even more ambitiously than the 2 years covered by the earlier play, Antony and Cleopatra depicts events spanning no fewer than ten years of Roman history.

After Julius Caesar’s assassination in March 44 a complicated political and military situation emerged. You’d have expected a straight fight between Mark Anthony as Caesar’s loyal lieutenant and the conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. In fact the opposing factions patched together a compromise peace and all sides, including the senate, were struggling to understand what to do next when the situation was further complicated by the arrival of 18-year-old Gaius Octavius, named by Caesar as his main heir, who arrived in Rome within weeks of Caesar’s murder, determined to claim his legacy.

Brutus and Cassius were amnestied by the senate for the assassination but thought it wise to leave Rome and so secured from the senate governorships in faraway Asia (modern-day Turkey), leaving space for a conflict emerged in Italy between Octavian – who quickly raised troops by playing on his adoptive father’s name – and Antony who marched his legions north to besiege the town of Mutina, held by the legions of another of the assassins, Decimus Brutus.

The conflict developed into one between Antony, determined to seize complete control of Italy, and the senate, who supported Decimus and were persuaded to give their backing to Octavius. This was achieved largely through the influence of Cicero who delivered a series of stinging attacks on Antony’s character and aims, so much so that Antony was declared ‘an enemy of the state’. Meanwhile Brutus and Cassius gathered their forces in Asia, anticipating involvement in the war racking Italy.

Then there came an extremely unexpected development which transformed the situation. Despite having just led their legions in bitter fighting against each other, Octavian in particular came to realise he had more to gain by declaring a truce and even allying with Antony. There was always both an emotional and legal logic to the idea that Caesar’s best friend and his adoptive son would eventually unite against the men who murdered him.

And so it turned out. The senate and all the other political actors in the drama, not least Cicero who had heartily supported Octavian against Antony, were flabbergasted when in October 43 BC Octavian convened a meeting in northern Italy with Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who had seized the provinces of Hispania and Narbonese Gaul. They called themselves the ‘triumvirate for organizing the republic’ (Latin: tresviri rei publicae constituendae) known to history as the Second Triumvirate, and divided the Roman Empire between them: at least initially Lepidus held Hispania and Narbonese Gaul, Antony retained Cisalpine Gaul and hegemony over Gaul itself, and Octavian was assigned Africa, Sicily Sardinia.

Octavia and Antony’s joined forces then embarked for Greece to confront the armies of the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, who they defeated in two clumsy, unwieldy battles fought with huge forces on both sides near Philippi in northern Greece on 3 and 23 October 42 BC. Both the assassins committed suicide and their cause dissolved. Antony and Octavian took over control of their legions and divided the Mediterranean world between them, Antony taking the East, where he wanted to win glory by taking on the Parthian Empire, and Octavian, shrewdly assuming control of Italy, Gaul and Spain. Lepidus was reassigned north Africa and Sicily.

The thing about the triumvirate is that it lasted for ten years, from 43, when the senate formally recognised it, to 33 when open conflict broke out between Octavian and Antony. Ten years is a long time and a lot happened, including a wide range of reforms back in Rome and in the administration of the empire (notably very contentious policies to seize land to settle veteran soldiers), plus wars in various places (notably against Gaius Pompeius’s son Sextus, in Sicily, in 36 BC, and the ill-fated Perusine War of 40 BC), and major disagreements between the partners, which were raggedly patched up. The triumvirate was ratified by the senate for five years, but the behaviour of the triumvirs increasingly sidelined the senate and all constitutional processes. It signalled the end of the Republic.

In 36 the triumvirate was renewed for another 5 years but Octavian took advantage of Lepidus’s mismanagement of affairs in Sicily to strip him of his powers in September of that year and force him into exile. The situation had thus evolved into just two Great Men dominating the Roman world, Antony based in the East and Octavian in Italy, Gaul and Spain.

Antony had responsibilities all round the Eastern Mediterranean but fell in love with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt and chose to spend years based in her capital, Alexandria, eventually fathering twin children by her, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II.

Octavian made use of every rumour of Antony’s partying, drunkenness, neglect of his duties, and his subservience to a foreign (and therefore, ipso facto, immoral) ruler, and a woman to boot, as part of his propaganda campaign against Antony back in Italy.

Cleopatra the movie

John Wilders, editor of the 1995 Arden edition of the play, optimistically claims that Shakespeare’s depiction of the star-crossed lovers defined them for all time:

Shakespeare clearly set a challenge for himself. He rose to it so splendidly that in most of our minds Antony and Cleopatra actually were the people he created. (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 1)

I disagree. There were plenty of other literary depictions of them, both before and after –by Chaucer in his Legend of Good Women (1380s) and by John Dryden, the Restoration playwright (1677), to pick two famous authors. In fact a quick check of the Dryden Wikipedia page tells us that Dryden’s retelling of the story was widely performed in the 18th century: ‘becoming the preferred version of the story; Shakespeare’s play did not reappear on the London stage until 1813.’

And if you had to choose just one depiction of the story, surely it would be Plutarch’s Life of Antony without which none of the other accounts would exist.

But anyway, leaving the leafy groves of academe, I’d have thought a million times more influential than any literary depiction is the fabulous 1963 Hollywood movie, Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton at the peak of their fame. Quite obviously this provides the epic spectacle, the awe and majesty, which all the stage productions I’ve watched completely lack.

And although it’s easy to dismiss it as American kitsch, I think it very effectively depicts the kind of middle-aged ‘love’ which is closer to cantankerous addiction, to perpetual arguing with someone you can’t leave, of leaving them and then discovering you can’t live without them, which is the central theme of the play.

Mind you, all this is, of course, before we get to what is indisputably THE most important cultural representation of the story in our time:

Asterix and Cleopatra by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1963)


Related links

  • Antony and Cleopatra text online
  • 1974 RSC TV production starring Janet Suzman and Richard Johnson – my favourite production: I like Richard Johnson (47 at the time) with his smoker’s laugh, as Antony, Suzman (35) has genuine sex appeal, manipulation and threat, the direction (by Jon Scoffield) captures the nuances and subtleties in the script far better than the others. And the court and party scenes, like the massage scene in 1.5, convey a genuine sense of party decadence which the other productions refer to but never show. And Corin Redgrave (35), looking younger than his years, is intimidatingly cool and calculating. The use of soft focus or blurring works very well to convey: messengers approaching from a distance; montages of events being reported, such as Antony and Cleopatra’s enthronement; and the swift transition and overlap of the short scenes conveying the Battle of Actium, the appearance of Cleopatra and her entourage to victorious Antony or of Cleopatra appearing to defeated Antony. All appear shimmering out of the sand yellow which very effectively evokes the blistering deserts of Egypt and also gives a successful visual unity to the sequence of very short scenes which critics from the 1700s onwards have criticised as too bitty.
  • 1981 BBC Shakespeare production starring Jane Lapotaire and Colin Blakely – savour Blakely (51)’s fixed rictus grin in the opening scene: he is not at home playing an abandoned sensualist; Jane Lapotaire is good but, ultimately to thin and light to convey earthy majesty as Suzman does; I very much liked Ian Charleston (32)’s cool Caesar, and liked his careful, even enunciation of the verse.
  • 1984 TV production starring Timothy Dalton and Lyn Redgrave – Dalton is fabulously handsome but not so good in the quieter scenes depicting emotion, and Redgrave comes over as a suburban housewife, Cleopatra played by Margot Ledbetter

Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Shakespeare

Theatre

The Legend of Cleopatra by Geoffrey Chaucer (1386)

And as for me, thogh that I can but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte
And in myn herte have hem in reverence;
And to hem yeve swich lust and swich credence,
That ther is wel unethe game noon
That from my bokes make me to goon.

(The narrator describing his love of books in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1380s)

The Legend of Good Women is a long-ish poem by the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 to 1400). Like so many poems from the period, it features a dream vision i.e. the narrator falls asleep and then has a supernatural fantasy (in this case of the god of Love) which is described in a naturalistic manner. Chaucer wrote three other dream vision poems (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls) and it was a very popular genre for other poets of the period (for example, William’s Vision of Piers Plowman, written by William Langland about a decade earlier).

In the prologue to the poem, after he has fallen asleep, the god of Love appears to the narrator (pretty obviously Chaucer) and reprimands him for giving a negative image of women in a) his translation of the long French poem, The Romance of the Rose ‘that is an heresye ayeins my lawe’, and b) his portrayal of the fickle and inconstant Criseyde, in his very long poem, Troilus and Criseyde. The god of Love demands that Chaucer correct this breach of manners by depicting women from myth or legend who have lived well according to the medieval religion of courtly love i.e. lived and died for Love. Who have been ‘Cupid’s saints’.

This is meant to be a poetic version of the real-life story behind the commissioning of the poem, for it is said that Anne of Bohemia, the wife of King Richard II, expressed the same sentiments of gentle disapproval and so laid on Chaucer the commission of writing a poem in praise of women and hence The Legend. Nice, if it’s true.

Courtly love

In the Middle Ages the cult of Courtly Love arose, stemming supposedly from the south of France and spreading to all the courts of Europe. Courtly love wittily and sophisticatedly reworked the format and rhetoric surrounding Christian saints and, indeed, the Christian religion itself, into a mock-serious ‘religion’ centred around the adoration of a courtier knight or poet for his semi-divine mistress or Lady.

Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. To quote my review of Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995):

The twelfth century saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service of a noble knight to an aristocratic lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

As it spread, the cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address recommended to courtiers who wanted to play this sophisticated game. As the Dutch historian of the late Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga, put it, back in 1919:

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life.
(The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, Penguin paperback edition, page 105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

And so Chaucer is reprimanded by the stern god of Love for having been discourteous to women as a whole in his portrayal of Criseyde, and must – by the rules of Courtly Love – atone to all noble women for this transgression.

A ‘legendary’

The structure of the poem is based on the ‘legendary’, a well-established medieval format of a collection of lives of saints. Thus each section of the poem is the courtly love equivalent of a saint’s life, except that these saints died not out of devotion to the Christian God, but as martyrs to the god of Love.

Thus, for example, the very title of the legend of Cleopatra invokes Christian rhetoric in a light, sophisticated play on ideas: Incipit Legenda Cleopatrie, Martiris, Egipti Regine, meaning ‘Here starts the legend of Cleopatra, martyr, queen of Egypt.’ She was, quite obviously, not a martyr to the Christian religion, which didn’t exist when she committed suicide (in 30 BC); but viewed through the prism of Courtly Love, she and any number of other fine ladies from pre-Christian myth and legend were martyrs to the religion of Love.

The Legend of Good Women devotes a chapter or legend to each of nine virtuous women from myth and legend, being:

  1. The legend of Cleopatra
  2. The Legend of Thisbe
  3. The Legend of Dido
  4. The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea
  5. The Legend of Lucretia
  6. The Legend of Ariadne
  7. The Legend of Philomela
  8. The Legend of Phyllis
  9. The Legend of Hypermnestra

Unfinished

Like Chaucer’s most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, the Legend appears to be unfinished. The Retraction or Apology for the Canterbury Tales mentions 25 legends and we only have nine, so maybe some are lost or maybe he never completed it. The balade embedded in the prologue mentions several women — Esther, Penelope, Marcia Catonis (wife of Cato the younger), Lavinia, Polyxena and Laodamia — who don’t appear in the legends we have; were they meant to be included?

At the end of the Prologue the god of Love indicates that the nineteen women who are attending Queen Alceste must all be included in the poem (though he doesn’t name any of them):

Thise other ladies sittinge here arowe
Ben in thy balade, if thou canst hem knowe,
And in thy bokes alle thou shalt hem finde;
Have hem now in thy Legend alle in minde.

It’s discrepancies like this which lead scholars to conclude the poem was abandoned. Whether the poem’s state is due to Chaucer becoming bored with it is uncertain, but it is now regarded as very much a lesser work, despite being popular when first written. The legends are a bit repetitive, with the same high-minded behaviour tending to recur again and again, so that it lacks the drama of Troilus and and the wonderful variety and vivid characterisation which is key to The Canterbury Tales.

Iambic pentameter

The poem is among the first works in English to use the iambic pentameter, which Chaucer later used throughout The Canterbury Tales. A pentameter is a line with five beats:

When I consider how my light is spent

Lines of poetry can be divided up into units surrounding a beat. A long time ago, the Greeks categorised all this and called these units ‘feet’. When you write a line of verse it naturally has strong or emphasised or accented syllables, and weak or soft or unaccented syllables, and a moment’s reflection makes you realise there’s a certain amount of variety to these.

For a start, a ‘foot’ can have one, two, three or possibly more syllables. And the accented syllable can come first, second, third in the order of these syllables. All the possible permutations were defined and named by the ancient Greeks two and a half thousand years ago, which explains why we still use unusual (Greek) words to describe them.

A Wikipedia article lists all the possible permutations of beat within a foot, with their Greek names. By far the most common ‘foot’ in English is the ‘iamb’, where the unit has two syllables and the emphasis falls on the second syllable. If you emphasise the syllables in bold you’ll get it straightaway:

When I consider how my light is spent

Or just:

di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum

It is a pentameter because it has five beats. It is a iambic pentameter because each of the beats comes in a pairing with a softer, unaccented syllable, which comes before it. The accent falls on the second syllable of each unit or ‘foot’. di dum.

Anyway, the point is that, even if he didn’t introduce it to English poetry, Chaucer was the first poet to write extensively in this metre. With the vast examples of Troilus and the Canterbury Tales, he helped to establish it as the basic, default metre for English poetry, which it has remained ever since.

Reading Chaucer’s verse

The single most important thing to do when reading Chaucer’s medieval verse is to pronounce the final ‘e’ in every word – then the lines will scan as five-beat pentameters. Here I’ve bolded the e’s which need to be pronounced, not the beats.

The moste party of thy tyme spende

Don’t pronounce these e’s as eee, but as schwa, or ‘er’.

The most-er party of thy tym-er spend-er

Now the line has five regular beats and is a iambic pentameter (nobody minds that it has a final unstressed syllable dangling at the end, this dangling syllable is very common in Chaucer’s verse and gives it a nice bouncy feel).

If you do this with all the lines (unless the e comes before a vowel, in which case don’t pronounce it), they all become regular, and the thing comes into focus as a jolly rhythmic canter (s is pronounced as z in this excerpt) (and now I am bolding the syllables to emphasise):

Of good-er wommen, maiden-ez and wyv-ez,
That weren trewe [don’t pronounce the e because it is followed by a vowel: so true-win] in lovinge [omit the e] al hir lyv-ez.

Obviously there are other differences in pronunciation between Chaucer’s English and ours but I’m not writing a book. If you just pronounce the e’s, emphasise the beat and pause at the end of every line, it will start swimming into focus. Above all don’t worry if you don’t understand half of it. Don’t stop to look up individual words. Get into the swing and the rhythm first and the general gist will emerge. Years ago I was taught how to pronounce it and remember most of the principles but, listening to myself say it out loud, I suddenly realised I sound a bit like the Swedish chef from the Muppets, especially if you really pronounce those final e’s.

The prologues

Actually there are two prologues, one scholars think was the original (Prologue A), and a second one which survives in just one copy and critics think was a later version, maybe composed when Chaucer revised the poem some time in the 1390s (Prologue B).

There’s a lot of overlap but also passages unique to each prologue. The solution (well, a solution) is to have an edition like the old OUP Complete Chaucer which is big enough to print both versions side by side. To compare and contrast, if you’re feeling scholarly: or just to jump from one to the other to make sure you catch everything he wrote.

They both begin with a characteristically invocation of the importance of ‘olde bokes’ from which we study and learn. Book learning.

Than mote we to bokes that we finde,
Through which that olde thinges been in minde,
And to the doctrine of these olde wyse,
Yeven credence, in every skilful wyse,
And trowen on these olde aproved stories,
Of holinesse, or regnes, of victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry thinges,
Of whiche I may not maken rehersinges.
And if that olde bokes were a-weye,
Y-loren were of remembraunce the keye.
Wel oghte us than on olde bokes leve,
Ther-as ther is non other assay by preve.

Lightly translated:

Then must we to the books that we find
Through which the old things are kept in mind,
And to the doctrine of these old ways
Give credence in every skillful ways
And believe in these old approved stories,
Of holiness, or reigns, or victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry things,
Of which I need not make rehearsings.
And if that old books were put away,
Lost would be of memory the key.
Well ought we, then, in old books to believe,
Because there is no other way to prove.

In praise of the daisy

As soon as the poem has got settled in it turns into an extended passage in praise of the humble daisy.

Now have I than swich a condicioun,
That, of alle the floures in the mede,
Than love I most these floures whyte and rede,
Swiche as men callen daysies in our toun.
To hem have I so great affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whan comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam up, and walking in the mede
To seen this flour agein the sonne sprede,
Whan hit upryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sighte softneth al my sorwe,
So glad am I whan that I have presence
Of hit, to doon al maner reverence,
As she, that is of alle floures flour,
Fulfilled of al vertu and honour,
And ever y-lyke fair, and fresh of hewe;
And I love hit, and ever y-lyke newe,
And ever shal, til that myn herte dye…

It barely needs translating, but:

Now have I then such a condition
That, of all the flowers in the meed,
Then love I most these flowers white and red,
Such as men call daisies in our town.
To them have I so great affection,
As I said before, when comes in the May,
That in my bed there dawns for me no day
But I am up and walking in the meed
To see this flower against the sun spread,
When it uprises early in the morrow.
That blissful sight softens all my sorrow,
So glad I am when I am in its presence,
To do it all manner of reverence,
As she that is of all flowers the flower,
Fulfilled of every virtue and honour,
And always alike, fair and fresh of hue,
And I love it and ever like new,
And always will until my heart dies…

Why is it so effective? Because it has a sweet and touching innocence without being naive or sentimental. Plus the language of Middle English has an intrinsic simplicity about it, a simplicity of vocabulary, for example, a pure English which was to become increasingly cluttered with new-fangled foreign imports and made-up words as we move into the Renaissance but, back in Chaucer’s time, feels simple and fresh.

But it’s also important to note that this passage is the product of tremendous poetic sophistication. Many Italian and French poets had already written poems in praise of various flowers – there is a vast epic poem named The Romance of the Rose – and Chaucer has read them and knowingly references lines and ideas from them. He tells us as much:

For wel I wot, that ye han her-biforn
Of making ropen, and lad awey the corn;
And I come after, glening here and there,
And am ful glad if I may finde an ere
Of any goodly word that ye han left.

For well I know that you have here-before,
Of making rope and led away the corn,
And I come after gleaning here and there,
And am full glad if I may find an ear
Of any goodly word that you have left.

If you think about it, praise of flowers is very compatible with the ideas of Courtly Love. It is a soft and beautiful subject very appropriate for a feminised court (as, for example, grittier stories of knights and wars, anything from the bloodthirsty ancient world, emphatically were not).

So popular did the cult of flowers as a kind of sub-category of Courtly Love become that we have records of courts dividing into factions who, in a witty, sophisticated spirit, staged debates about the relative merits of different flowers.

There are records of debates between defenders of the flour and defenders of the leaf. In the hands of this culture everything becomes allegorical, symbolic of something else, and so the flower came to be associated with beauty and sensual pleasure which is intense but, alas, fleeting; whereas the leaf symbolises fidelity and endurance – and so these debates and poems displayed the participants’ skill and graciousness, but always circled round to alight on a firm Christian moral.

An entire medieval poem survives on the subject – The Floure and the Leafe – and Chaucer references this cult, too:

Ye lovers, that can make of sentement;
In this cas oghte ye be diligent
To forthren me somwhat in my labour,
Whether ye ben with the leef or with the flour.

You lovers, that can write of sentiment,
In this cause ought you to be diligent
To further me somewhat in my labour,
Whether you are with the leaf or with the flower.

That poem is invoked half a dozen times, with Chaucer humorously clarifying that he is not coming down on one side or other of the Great Debate, but wishes to speak of ancient stories from well before the Great Strife began:

But natheles, ne wene nat that I make
In preysing of the flour agayn the leef,
No more than of the corn agayn the sheef:
For, as to me, nis lever noon ne lother;
I nam with-holden yit with never nother.
Ne I not who serveth leef, ne who the flour;
Wel brouken they hir service or labour;
For this thing is al of another tonne,
Of olde story, er swich thing was begonne.

And so the Prologue wends its lazy way, weaving a complex tapestry of references to ancient authors, to the cult of the leaf and the flower, praising the daisy but also praising a Grand Lady or muse figure to whom the narrator speaks.

The narrator describes rising early one May morning and going out into the fields to kneel down ‘Upon the smale softe swote gras’ and admire the sweet daisy (‘The Empress, and flower of flowers all’) and its lovely scent.

He hears the birds singing their songs and imagines they are taunting the hunters who hunted them in winter and lay traps for them. Some of the birds are singing lays of love in honour of their mates, some sing in praise of St Valentine, on whose day they met, and they nuzzle their beaks against each other. Any who have erred promise repentance. And the gods Zephyr and Flora give to the flowers their sweet breath.

This is all a magnificent preparation, sweet and sensitive and beautiful. For after this hard day admiring flowers and listening to the birds, the narrator makes his way home, has his servants rig up a couch in a little arbour, and there he falls asleep, and at this point the Dream Vision commences:

The Dream Vision

The narrator dreams he is in a meadow and sees come walking the god of Love, with two small wings and holding two fiery darts. He is holding hands with a queen, dressed in green with a fret of gold about her hair and a white crown, looking, in other words, very like his beloved daisy. The narrator says people say the god of Love is blind but this god of Love is looking at him very sternly and makes his blood run cold!

The queen is named ‘Alceste the debonayre’. Behind them come ‘ladyes nyntene’ in attendance, followed by a vast concourse of other women, making up maybe a quarter, maybe a third of the world’s population! (At the very end of the Prologue, the god of Love suggests that the figure is 20,000. Small world.)

It is at this point that the ladies spy the daisy the narrator is worshipping and stop to sing a ballad with a repeated refrain. Each verse lists a number of famously beautiful women from antiquity and tells them to hide or retire, because none of them can compare with the lady they are accompanying i.e. Alceste. In one version of the prologue the refrain runs:

Alceste is here, that al that may desteyne.

The other version has:

My lady cometh, that al this may desteyne.

Where I think ‘desteyne’ means ‘disdain’ in the sense of triumphs over or puts all that – all those other women – in the shade. The second version feels fractionally better, more powerful.

Now this entourage notice the narrator and call him over to them and the god of Love proceeds to reprimand him for translating the Romance of the Rose and writing Troilus and Criseyde and generally portraying women, and love, in a bad light. Why has he shown women in such a negative light?

‘Why noldest thow as wel han seyd goodnesse
Of wemen, as thow hast seyd wikedness?’

Couldn’t Chaucer find in all his fancy books stories of women who were ‘good and trewe’? After all, he has no fewer than sixty books in his library, telling of ancient Greeks and Romans, featuring many stories of women who preferred to die than betray their love, who preserved their virginity, or were faithful to their husbands, or were dutiful in their widowhood. This is a fierce indictment.

But then queen Alceste intervenes on the narrator’s behalf, reminding the angry god of Love (at great length) of the mercy of great kings and even of beasts, such as the noble lion. Such should be the mercy the god should show this errant servant who was only translating matter out of old books. (You can see how the intercession of a compassionate queen softening the wrath of a stern ruler echoes the role assigned to Mary in Catholic theology, interceding on the part of us poor sinners; a posture which could also be mapped onto countless medieval courts, where hard-headed kings and princes could (possibly) be softened by appeals for mercy from their queens.)

Alceste proceeds to plead the poet’s cause and it becomes clear (if it wasn’t before) that the sleeper and narrator of the vision is Chaucer himself, because she cites his many works which do speak favourably of love, to wit, The House of FameThe Book of the DuchessThe Parliament of Fowls, the story of Palamon and Arcite (i.e. the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales). And ‘to speke of other holynesse’ he has translated the popular medieval philosopher, Boethius.

Alceste concludes her defence of Chaucer by promising that, if the god of Love forgives him:

“Now as ye been a god, and eek a king,
I, your Alceste, whylom quene of Trace,
I aske yow this man, right of your grace,
That ye him never hurte in al his lyve;
And he shal sweren yow, and that as blyve,
He shal no more agilten in this wyse;
But he shal maken, as ye wil devyse,
Of wommen trewe in lovinge al hir lyve,
Wher-so ye wil, of maiden or of wyve,
And forthren yow, as muche as he misseyde
Or in the Rose or elles in Creseyde.”

Out of reverence for the queen (and obeying the Courtly Love injunction to cede to your Mistress’s requests), the god of Love quickly and graciously forgives the narrator, who promptly kneels and delivers his own justification. Chaucer grovellingly points out that he never meant to do any harm. He only repeated what his source authors wrote. His purpose was only ever to promote ‘trouthe in love’ and to warn his readers away from falseness and from vice. ‘This was my menynge’.

By which point I’m realising that this has turned into a court case, or a trial, comparable in structure to the debates about the floure and leefe. It has the same formal structure of accusation and two figures arguing for the prosecution and the defence.

Anyway, Chaucer is still wittering on when Alceste, rather winningly, tells him to shut up. No pleading can influence the forgiveness of a god, which proceeds by his own grace alone. And she then proceeds to itemise the penance Chaucer must undertake:

“Now wol I seyn what penance thou shald do
For thy trespas, and understond hit here:
Thou shalt, whyl that thou livest, yeer by yere,
The moste party of thy tyme spende
In making of a glorious Legende
Of Gode Wommen, maidenes and wyves,
That weren trewe in lovinge al hir lyves;
And telle of false men that hem bitrayen,
That al hir lyf ne doon nat but assayen
How many wommen they may doon a shame;

“For in your world that is now holde [considered] a game.
And thogh thee lyke nat a lover be,
Spek wel of love; this penance yive I thee.

“And to the god of love I shal so preye,
That he shal charge his servants, by any weye,
To forthren thee, and wel thy labour quyte.”

And she concludes his penance with a sudden surprising reference to the real world.

“Go now thy wey, this penance is but lyte.
And whan this book is maad, yive hit the quene
On my behalfe, at Eltham, or at Shene.”

Chaucer is grovellingly grateful. The god of Love is amused and tells him of the high ancestry of this forgiving queen, for the first time explaining why it is Alceste of all ancient women who accompanies him. It is because, according to legend, Alcestis was the wife of Admetus, king of Pherae in Thessaly. To prolong his life, she offered to die in his stead. Later she was rescued from hell by Hercules.

Thus she is an eminently fitting figure to herald a book about feminine loyalty and ‘trouthe’ unto death. What is not in any ancient version of the story is the association the poet goes on to make between Alceste, queen of women, and the daisy, queen of flowers whose colours, as we observed above, she is dressed in (green and white and gold).

The god of Love concludes the vision with two points: first, he indicates (as mentioned above) that all nineteen of the unnamed escorts of Queen Alceste should appear in this poem he has to write. Lastly, he tells Chaucer to start with Cleopatra. He gives no strong reason, just the general thought:

“For lat see now what man that lover be,
Wol doon so strong a peyne for love as she.”

‘Let’s see what man would ever suffer for love as much as she did!’ In other words, Cleopatra is arguably the most eminent example from the ancient world of a woman who died for love.

The Legend of Cleopatra, approach

And she hir deeth receyveth, with good chere,
For love of Antony, that was hir so dere.

Well, after all the buildup (the Prologue is about 800 lines long), the actual legend of Cleopatra is disarmingly short, a mere 126 lines long.

I’ve read the several Plutarch biographies which underpin modern knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra (Julius Caesar, Antony) and Suetonius’s life of Augustus, as well as half a dozen histories of the period but there’s not much point applying them here. This is an entertainingly cartoon version of the story, short and simple with sweet medieval details and phrasing thrown in.

In fact this lack of historical rigour is something the author was conscious of and expresses through the god of Love, who is made to explicitly order Chaucer to keep his legends short and sweet:

“I wot wel that thou mayest nat al hit ryme,
That swiche lovers diden in hir tyme;
It were so long to reden and to here;
Suffyceth me, thou make in this manere,
That thou reherce of al hir lyf the grete,
After thise olde auctours listen to trete.
For who-so shal so many a storie telle,
Sey shortly, or he shal to longe dwelle.”

“I know well that you may not it all rhyme,
What such lovers did in their time,
It were too long to read and to hear.
Suffices me, you write in this manner,
That you rehearse of all their life the great,
Following what those old authors liked to treat.
For whoso shall so many a story tell,
Should say shortly or he shall too long dwell.”

The Legend of Cleopatra, plot summary

After the deeth of Tholomee the king, regned his daughter, quene Cleopataras. Out of Rome was sent a senatour to rule Egypt and he was named Antonius. He abandoned his legal wife, the sister of Octavian, because he wanted another wife: ‘For whiche he took with Rome and Cesar stryf’.

Antonius was brought to such a rage and tied himself in a noose (the noose of fate), ‘Al for the love of Cleopataras, That al the world he sette at no value.’

Cleopataras loved this knight for his ‘persone and of gentilesse, And of discrecioun and hardinesse’. So they got married.

The narrator complains that, as he has so many stories to write, he doesn’t have time ‘The wedding and the feste to devyse’ so he’ll get right to the point:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

Octavian was infuriated by this marriage and so led a host of brave Romans against Antonius.

Interestingly, the longest passage in this short poem is a vivid if cartoony description of a battle at sea, the decisive Battle of Actium. The description keeps talking about ‘he’ as if referring to one person, but translations indicate it is a generic pronoun, like ‘one’, and best translated as ‘they’, thus describing the behaviour of countless sailors in incidents from the battle.

And in the see hit happed hem to mete —
Up goth the trompe — and for to shoute and shete,
And peynen hem to sette on with the sonne.
With grisly soun out goth the grete gonne,
And heterly they hurtlen al at ones,
And fro the top doun cometh the grete stones.

In goth the grapnel so ful of crokes
Among the ropes, and the shering-hokes.
In with the polax presseth he and he;
Behind the mast beginneth he to flee,
And out agayn, and dryveth him over-borde;
He stingeth him upon his speres orde;
He rent the sail with hokes lyke a sythe;
He bringeth the cuppe, and biddeth hem be blythe;
He poureth pesen upon the hacches slider;
With pottes ful of lym they goon to-gider;

And thus the longe day in fight they spende
Til, at the laste, as every thing hath ende,
Anthony is shent, and put him to the flighte,
And al his folk to-go, that best go mighte.

As:

And in the sea it happened that they meet —
Up sounds the trumpet — and to shout and beat,
And urged them to set on with the sun.
With grisly sound out booms the great gun,
And fiercely they hurtled all at once,
And from the top down came the great stones.

In goes the grapnel, so full of crooks,
Among the ropes, and the shearing-hooks.
In with the poleaxe presses one and another;
Behind the mast one begins to flee,
And out again, and drives him overboard.

One stabs himself upon his own spear;
One tears the sail with hooks like a scythe;
One brings a cup, and bids them to be blithe;
One pours out peas, so on the deck they slither;
With pot full of lime they fall together;

And thus the long day in fight they spend
Til, at the last, as every thing has end,
Anthony is beat and put to flight,
And all his folk run off as best they might.

Chaucer follows the sources so much as to say that it was the flight of Cleopatra’s fleet which plunged Anthony into despair but jumps over all the events which followed in order to get straight to his suicide. He laments the day that he was born and runs himself through the heart with his sword. Unlike Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Antony, Chaucer’s one conveniently dies on the spot.

Knowing she will get no forgiveness from Caesar, Cleopatra flees back to Egypt, ‘for drede and for distresse.’ And now we come to her suicide, but first Chaucer repeats the moral mentioned in the Prologue, that all men who make great boasts about the sacrifices they’ve made for love, should observe how it’s really done.

Ye men, that falsely sweren many an ooth
That ye wol die, if that your love be wrooth,
Here may ye seen of women such a trouthe!

Cleopatra is so bitterly pained with lost love and despair that she gets her workmen to build a shrine with all the rubies and fine stones of Egypt. She has Antony’s body laid in it, along with plenty of with ‘spycerye’. Then has a pit built next to it and gets all the serpents that she owns put into it.

And then Cleopatra delivers the point, the message, in an extended speech – for she says that on the day they were married she swore an oath to be with Antony night and day, and as he suffered wele or wo, to accompany him, to bear all with him, ‘lyf or deeth’.

“And this same covenant, while me lasteth breath,
I will fulfill, and that shall well be seen.”

She made an oath, a covenant, a promise and now – far excelling most women and all men – she will fulfil it unto death. And so she jumps naked into the pit full of snakes (!). Immediately the snakes began to bite her and she received her death ‘with good chere.’

“Was never unto hir love a trewer quene.”

Thoughts

It’s not worth wasting time pointing out the many facts Chaucer has simply dropped, he’s in a hurry to get to the only bit that matters for the purposes of his royal commission, the moment of Cleopataras’s outstanding fidelity to love:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

True to his commission, Chaucer has exonerated Cleopatra. She is not at all the wicked, oriental seductress, the Egyptian whore who seduced a noble Roman away from his family and duty, as depicted in Augustan propaganda and later male, Roman accounts.

On the contrary, in this brisk telling of her story Cleopatra emerges as an epitome, a role model of fidelity unto death, a type of fidelity no man could ever aspire to. And not just included in a collection of loyal women, but carefully and deliberately placed as the first in the list, the loyalest and truest of all the loyal and true women of antiquity. A role model for love.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

For practical purposes I date the Middle Ages from the Norman Conquest of 1066 until about 1500, and so exclude all texts from and histories about the Dark Ages, thus excluding my reviews of Anglo-Saxon poetry or the Icelandic sagas which, although written in the 13th century, refer to events before the Conquest.

Medieval art

Medieval texts

Medieval poetry

Modern histories of the Middle Ages

Lament For The Makaris by William Dunbar (1505)

William Dunbar (1460 to 1520) was a Scottish poet active in the late fifteenth century and the early sixteenth century. He was closely associated with the court of the King James IV and produced a large body of work, distinguished by its variety of themes and literary styles. He wrote in the Scots dialect. His most famous poem is a lament for the ‘makaris’, which is the Scots equivalent of the English word ‘makers’ and which, in this content, was a common medieval term for ‘poets’. Which explains why the poem turns, at one point, into a list of poets he either respects or has known personally, who are all dead and gone, alas and alack (Chaucer died 1400, John Gower d.1408 and Robert Henryson d.1500 being the most famous names mentioned).

The thing to do with older poems like this, in Middle English, Scots or even Anglo-Saxon, is not to be afraid – but to read them out loud and see what happens. See which bits you understand and which bits take a bit of decoding. Quite quickly dialect words which, on the page seem challenging, when read aloud start to make sense. For example, in the first two lines, ‘heill’ obviously means ‘health’, ‘wes’ means ‘was’, ‘trublit’ means ‘troubled’, ‘seiknes’ means ‘sickness’ and so on.

The repeated refrain of each fourth line, Timor mortis conturbat me, is Latin for ‘fear of death disturbs me’. As on many other occasions in literature, repetition of foreign words after a while begins to give them a charge and meaning which a one-to-one literal translation lacks. They become more powerful left in the original language, acquiring an aura and charge which a straight translation would lack.

Similarly, it is much more effective to read or say out loud ‘The flesche is brukle, the Fend is sle’ than to translate it into: ‘the human body is fragile, the devil is cunning’. ‘Sle’ is obviously related to modern English ‘sly’ but isn’t the same. It is a different word with different, more flavoursome, resonances. This is why it’s best to read Chaucer in the original Middle English. Partly for the pleasure of doing something moderately difficult, but mostly because you enter into and acquire a new language, while you read and engage with it, and a different language is a different way of seeing the world.

Why bother to travel expensively and pollutingly abroad, when you can open a copy of Chaucer for free and enter a whole new world, a world of delight and sensual mental pleasure?

The simplicity of the poem’s rhyme scheme – aabb – contributes to its sense of plangency. Rather than triumphant lyricism, the rhythm of the verse enacts a mood of exhaustion, reduction to the bare bones, to a flat, unillusioned acceptance of the universal triumph of death. Which is entirely fitting because the poem is a ‘lament’. This was a formal genre or type of poem with its own rules and expectations and so the poet is using the conventions of the genre to produce a powerful poem of that type – repetitive, flattening, mournful, dirge-like.

Lament for the makaris

I that in heill wes and gladnes,
Am trublit now with gret seiknes,
And feblit with infermite;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Our plesance heir is all vane glory,
This fals warld is bot transitory,
The flesche is brukle, the Fend is sle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The stait of man dois change and vary,
Now sound, now seik, now blith, now sary,
Now dansand mery, now like to dee;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

No stait in erd heir standis sickir;
As with the wynd wavis the wickir,
Wavis this warldis vanite.
Timor mortis conturbat me.

On to the ded gois all estatis,
Princis, prelotis, and potestatis,
Baith riche and pur of al degre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He takis the knychtis in to feild,
Anarmit under helme and scheild;
Victour he is at all mellie;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

That strang unmercifull tyrand
Takis, on the moderis breist sowkand,
The bab full of benignite;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He takis the campion in the stour,
The capitane closit in the tour,
The lady in bour full of bewte;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He sparis no lord for his piscence,
Na clerk for his intelligence;
His awfull strak may no man fle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Art-magicianis, and astrologgis,
Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
Thame helpis no conclusionis sle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

In medicyne the most practicianis,
Lechis, surrigianis, and phisicianis,
Thame self fra ded may not supple;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I se that makaris amang the laif
Playis heir ther pageant, syne gois to graif;
Sparit is nocht ther faculte;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes done petuously devour,
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bery, and Gower, all thre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The gude Syr Hew of Eglintoun,
And eik Heryot, and Wyntoun,
He hes tane out of this cuntre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

That scorpion fell hes done infek
Maister Johne Clerk, and Jame Afflek,
Fra balat making and tragidie;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Holland and Barbour he hes berevit;
Allace! that he nocht with us levit
Schir Mungo Lokert of the Le;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Clerk of Tranent eik he has tane,
That maid the Anteris of Gawane;
Schir Gilbert Hay endit hes he;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes Blind Hary and Sandy Traill
Slaine with his schour of mortall haill,
Quhilk Patrik Johnestoun myght nocht fle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes reft Merseir his endite,
That did in luf so lifly write,
So schort, so quyk, of sentence hie;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes tane Roull of Aberdene,
And gentill Roull of Corstorphin;
Two bettir fallowis did no man se;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

In Dumfermelyne he hes done roune
With Maister Robert Henrisoun;
Schir Johne the Ros enbrast hes he;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

And he hes now tane, last of aw,
Gud gentill Stobo and Quintyne Schaw,
Of quham all wichtis hes pete:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Gud Maister Walter Kennedy
In poynt of dede lyis veraly,
Gret reuth it wer that so suld be;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Sen he hes all my brether tane,
He will nocht lat me lif alane,
On forse I man his nyxt pray be;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Sen for the deid remeid is none,
Best is that we for dede dispone,
Eftir our deid that lif may we;
Timor mortis conturbat me.


Poetry reviews

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


Related links

Borges reviews

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

‘Unless you want me to call a policewoman,’ said Murphy, ‘cease your clumsy genustuprations.’
(Murphy page 56)

This is Beckett’s first published novel. I expected it to be an improvement on his first published book, the collection of linked short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but the essential feel, the worldview and style are very much the same.

Hard to read

It’s a very difficult book to read. Though only 170 pages long it took three days because I was so reluctant to pick it up and quick to put it down to do almost anything else.

The prose is mannered, stilted and extremely repetitive. Quite quickly I realised that its paragraphs rarely move the story along or analyse character: they almost exclusively consist of repetitions, iterated phrases spinning out a handful of ideas or words, sometimes driving you mad with frustration, irritation and boredom.

Take this passage where the lead figure, Murphy, has moved into a garret which he discovers has no form of heating. ‘No heating!!’ he exclaims to the friend, August Ticklepenny, who has fixed him up with a new job and the garret. ‘Why couldn’t someone just extend the electricity or gas up there to fuel a heater?’

He went on to speak of tubes and wires. Was it not just the beauty of tubes and wires, that they could be extended? Was it not their chief characteristic, the ease with which they could be extended? What was the point of going in for tubes and wires at all, if you did not extend them without compunction whenever necessary? Did they not cry out for extension? Ticklepenny thought he would never stop, saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways. (p.103)

Repetition

‘Saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’. Now arguably this was to be Beckett’s central contribution to 20th century literature, Repetition, the depiction of characters absolutely paralysed in their physical activities or thought processes and doomed to endless repetition.

In this respect Beckett is obviously undertaking quite radical experiments with the form of the novel, largely throwing out traditional notions of ‘plot’ or ‘character’ or ‘character development’ in order to focus on ‘saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’ to such an extent as to create a new sort of poetic.

But so even the most trivial aspects of the lead character’s life are described with a pedantic thoroughness which are surely on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

  • When he stops in a tea room for a cup of tea, Murphy spends at least a page working through a series of ploys he could use to get the reluctant waitress, Vera, to top up his cup for free.
  • When Murphy takes the six biscuits he bought at the tearooms to Hyde Park, he lays them out on their paper bag on the grass, and then elaborately works through all the possible permutations of eating them in different orders, 120 ways, apparently, though it all depends whether he keeps the ginger biscuit fixed as the first choice, or mixes it in with the rest.
  • When Murphy starts work at the lunatic asylum, we are given a grindingly precise description of the layout of the building in every detail, which lacks any warmth or sympathy, is completely irrelevant to the ‘plot’, but pursues the description with obsessive pendantry.

I am probably using the term incorrectly, but it seems to me the narrative has a kind of autistic quality. It doesn’t bother much to describe other people or relationships between people – the ‘dialogue’ mostly just reveals misunderstanding and the ‘characters’ inability to communicate.

Comic?

Now, from some angles this obsession with the most trivial details could be made to seem comic – that a grown man puts so very much thought into how to arrange his six biscuits sounds, in principle, like it could be handled comically. The trouble is that, in practice, I found it grindingly boring, but more than that, brain-inflamingly frustrating.

For page after page the text maintains its obsessive and repetitive focus on the inner workings of the over-educated, under-motivated slob of an antihero as he shuffles round London, not really trying to get a job and surviving on a pittance while he does the only thing he enjoys, which is pore and pick over his own interminable mental lucubrations at gigantic length.

He distinguished between the actual and the virtual of his mind, not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only. Thus the form of the kick was actual; that of caress virtual. The mind felt its actual part to be above and bright, its virtual beneath and fading into dark, without however connecting this with the ethical yoyo. The mental experience was cut off from the physical experience, its criteria were not those of the physical experience, the agreement of part of its content with physical fact did not confer worth on that part. It did not function and could not be disposed according to a principle of worth. It was made up of light fading into dark, of above and beneath, but not of good and bad. It contained forms with parallel in another mode and forms without, but not right forms and wrong forms. It felt no issue between its light and dark, no need for its light to devour its dark. The need was now to be in the light, now in the half light, now in the dark. That was all. (p.70)

1. To be fair, this is not a completely characteristic passage, it comes from the four pages of chapter 6 in which the narrative comes to a dead stop while the narrator undertakes to explain to us the nature of ‘Murphy’s mind’. But the basic ‘ideas’ expressed in it underpin the whole book, and the obsession with the inner workings of Murphy’s self-absorbed consciousness is very much the book’s real subject.

2. Spending this much time on the experience of consciousness reminds us that Murphy was published in the late 1930s, when Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the dominating intellectual themes on the continent, picked up and refracted through the heavyweight existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The phenomenological approach of examining and describing the inner workings of the mind is important to the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, was published in this same year as Murphy, 1938, and is also about an aimlessly unhappy man (a post-graduate researcher in Sartre’s case), so obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings that the real world becomes intolerably alien and threatening to him, filling him with the nausea of the book’s title.

The plot

Murphy is a shiftless layabout, a ‘seedy solipsist’ (p.53) (much like Belacqua, the male protagonist of Beckett’s previous (and first) book, More Pricks Than Kicks).

He’s living in London. He’s met a streetwalker named Celia on the corner of Stadium Street and Cremorne Road in Chelsea (which nowadays looks like this). Celia is now haplessly trying to look after weird Murphy. His favourite hobby is tying himself to an armchair in dingy flats (in this he foreshadows the various trapped protagonists of Beckett’s later plays) and rocking rocking rocking back and forth, a process described several times in numbing detail.

As with Belacqua, it struck me that Murphy is a glaring epitome of the clever young would-be writer who is full of fluent sentences and feel for language, but has no real subject to write about. He wanders the streets not really looking for a job and feeling mighty superior about it.

For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one’s lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. (p.49)

(This vaunting superiority to the bourgeoisie with their regular jobs and pay packets reminds me of the intellectually superior but wretchedly poor protagonist of George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A common delusion among young layabouts of all ages, that being poor but ‘free’ is superior to having a job, money and a life.)

Celia reports all this to her paternal grandfather, Mr Willoughby Kelly, who suggests she chucks him.

Meanwhile, in faraway Dublin (288 miles as the crow flies), Professor Neary smashes his head against the statue of Cuchulain inside the General Post Office building because he is in love with Celia, how or why, I never understood. He is rescued by one of his students, Needle Wylie who promises to track her down for him, by employing a private detective, Cooper. They meet the very beautiful Miss Counihan. It emerges that Murphy was till recently a student of Prof Neary’s and made all sorts of promises of love to Miss Counihan before leaving for London, after which no-one has heard from him.

Murphy goes to a tea rooms and spends a lot of time finagling to get a free top-up of tea from the reluctant waitress Vera. This process takes a long time. I could quote the several pages it stretches on for. Everything happens with a teeth-pulling slowness.

He is approached by an impecunious Irish poet, Austin Ticklepenny, who bewails his job at a mental home, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. ‘Mental Mercyseat’ made me laugh, though it’s more Irish than English-sounding, and is obviously one of the many aspects of the book which are intended to be funny, like most of the characters’ names.

Murphy escapes from Ticklepenny, having dumped him with paying for the tea and biscuits ha ha! much to the frustration of Vera the waitress, and takes a bus to Hyde Park, where he is debating in what order to eat his biscuits when he is asked by a clairvoyant to mind her dachshund while she feeds the sheep (which apparently lived in Hyde Park back in those days) lettuce which she’s brought for them.

After the immense thoroughness of Murphy’s calculations about the biscuit, the dog eats them while he’s not looking! The sheep refuse the lettuce. Murphy falls asleep.

Murphy awakes in the park. It’s night. When he gets back to the flat he shares with Celia he discovers her spread-eagled, face-down on the bed. Why? Well, first we have to read chapter six describing in great detail the tripartite character of Murphy’s cerebellum and sensorium, and then the narrative moves on to more distractions so that we never, in fact, find out.

The old man in the room above is found having slashed his throat with a razor. Celia negotiates with the hard-bitten old landlady, the virgin Miss Carridge, for her and Murphy to move into the dead man’s smaller room and so pay less rent. With his usual punning obscurity, Murphy says to Celia:

‘A decayed valet severs the connexion and you set up a niobaloo as though he were your fourteen children.’

This is typical of the ‘dialogue’ which is not really intended to be communication between human beings in the way you and I are used to. Instead it is a laborious literary in-joke.

Niobe is a figure from Greek legend whose children were slain by the gods and lay unburied while she wept for them. This figure of weeping Niobe is a commonplace classical reference in Elizabethan literature i.e. Shakespeare. Beckett has made it into a very James Joycean joke/pun by combining the words Niobe and hullabaloo into niobaloo. So this apparently gibberish sentence can be explicated as Murphy criticising Celia for weeping for some dead old servant as extravagantly as Niobe did for her children. ‘Severs the connexion’ being a fancy phrase for ‘dying’ which obviously references the severing of the old man’s artery.

Whether you enjoy this book, and a lot of Beckett in general, will come down to whether you found pleasure in that sentence, whether you were able to decode its literary references, and whether you think it was worth the effort.

I can see what he’s trying to do, I can see how he is making his hero into a kind of linguistic car crash and that he is highlighting the absurdity of all communication, and the absurdity of language as a whole, and the ridiculousness of texts themselves.

I think I understand the intention, and appreciate a lot of his strategies of repetition and numbingly detailed analysis of language and thought. And if you read short passages, it has a gladsome liberating effect. But if you try to read it as a novel i.e. to read extended sections at one go, it becomes very wearing.

Murphy goes off to see about starting the job he had discussed with Ticklepenny at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (chuckle).

Celia takes the Tube to Hyde Park to see if she can find her wheelchair-bound protector, Mr Kelly, flying his kite, because this is his hobby. Unbeknownst to her, Celia is followed by a man named Cooper who is acting as a private detective for Wylie so as to find Celia so as to reconcile her with his revered Professor Neary.

Maybe I slept through the paragraphs where it was explained but I never did understand why Neary was so besotted with Celia. Anyway, Celia doesn’t find Kelly in the park. Cooper doesn’t speak to Celia, but follows her home to the flat she shares with Murphy in Holloway.

Meanwhile, Murphy is introduced to the head nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr Thomas (‘Bim’) Clinch who, it turns out, has staffed the place with his family, including his twin brother Mr Timothy (‘Bom’) Clinch and an aged uncle, ‘Bum’ – obviously humorous names. It is obviously intended at some level as a comedy.

Murphy is enraptured by the place and especially the offer of a garret room on the premises, instantly moving into it and pulling up the ladder up to it in order to prevent anyone else ever entering it. Solipsist heaven! He forgets all about Celia.

Chapter 10 is long. The private eye Cooper joins Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan (who is convinced she is in love with Murphy) to discuss their plans, and then they all proceed to meet Celia in her flat. The dialogue throughout this chapter is, I think, some kind of satire on all the normal dialogue ever written by novelists and playwrights. It applies Beckett’s overlocution and vocabularical exuberance to every single statement… for twenty pages!

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’
But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it. (p.144)

If you recall, Wylie has paid Cooper to find Celia so as to bring her together with his infatuated patron, Professor Neary.

But they all behave so incomprehensibly that I just read the words and sentences for their verbal quality, ignoring the dialogue and so-called ‘plot’ because I suspect both are made complex and/or impenetrable, deliberately to frustrate and provoke the ‘conventional’ reader.

I think the characters all agree to spend the night in Celia’s flat while they wait for Murphy to return there.

But Murphy doesn’t return. He does a night shift at the mental home. Some paragraphs describe his closeness to the dwarfish psychotic Mr Endon. On this night shift Mr Endon somehow gets out of his cell and releases some other inmates but any reader hoping for mayhem or some kind of romantic climax is disappointed, for all the inmates are all locked safely back up – though not without a compulsive-obsessive description of the home’s elaborate security systems and the schedule according to which warders are meant to visit each cell throughout the night.

Murphy plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game is laid out in standard chess notation in the text so we can follow it. In fact it includes po-faced comments on particular moves, as if it was annotating a fiendishly clever game between grand masters. But in fact, if you play it out, as I did on my own chess set, you quickly realise it’s gibberish, not played with any serious intent.

In fact there’s a useful video on YouTube which works through the entire chess game in Murphy. After just two moves you can see it’s unorthodox and after four or five you realise it’s a nonsense game, a mockery of a game. On the YouTube video you can hear the (Russian?) guy who made it laughing at the ridiculousness of the moves.

For me this epitomises the book, as Beckett may well have intended it to. In every respect – in terms of narrative, plot, style, dialogue, character and setting, Murphy is – deliberately – a travesty of a mockery of a sham.

From small puns to larger pratfalls to the inconsequence of most of the dialogue, to the silliness of the plot, the entire text is a ‘joke’, or a series of interlocking ‘jokes’, clever, witty and, in some passages actually quite funny – but taken as a whole a very heavy and demanding read.

After the night shift ends Murphy heads back to his garret, stripping off his clothes as he walks through the dark grounds, till he’s naked. He lies in the wet grass trying to remember Celia, his mother, his father, anyone, and failing. He goes up to his garret, sits naked in his beloved rocking chair, rocking rocking rocking back and forth, as usual described in autistic detail. I use this word because several friends have autistic sons and this kind of rocking back and forth, sometimes accompanied by moaning, is a big feature of their behaviour as I have personally witnessed it.

Then the gas heater Murphy’s rigged up explodes and kills him. Oh. That was unexpected.

In the next chapter Celia, Miss Conihoun, Neary, Wylie and Cooper are summoned from Celia’s flat by the head of the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat  Dr Angus Killiecrankie, to learn that Murphy is dead.

They are taken to see his scorched corpse in the refrigerator room. They confirm Murphy’s identity, Celia pointing out the birth mark on his thigh, which gives rise to the bad taste joke that, by being important to the identification, it is also a kind death mark. Birth mark, death mark, I see the play on words, indeed the play on ideas. Maybe someone with a different sense of humour from mine would find this very witty.

One by one the various characters drift off, some pairing off on the way.

In the short final chapter Celia takes her grandad to Hyde Park to fly his kite. She is absent for a while during which she has sex with someone for money. She needs money, after all. Old Mr Kelly dozes off and his kite string falls out of his hand, snaps and the kite flies off into the sky, lost forever. He clambers out of his wheelchair and totters after it yelling in despair till Celia catches him up, with help from passersby restores him to the wheelchair, and pushes him home.

The End.


Superelaborate style

There are far fewer really arcane and obscure words in Murphy than in Pricks, which is a shame because I enjoyed looking them up. But Murphy‘s basic approach is still one of exorbitant super-pedantry and arch contrivance for its own sake.

The blue glitter of Mr Kelly’s eyes in the uttermost depths of their orbits became fixed, then veiled by the classic pythonic glaze. He raised his left hand, where Celia’s tears had not yet dried, and seated it pronate on the crown of his skull – that was the position. In vain. He raised his right hand and laid the forefinger along his nose. He then returned both hands to their points of departure with Celia’s on the counterpane, the glitter came back into his eyes and he pronounced:
‘Chuck him.’ (p.17)

I suppose this might be funny if you have the right sense of humour. Sometimes I do. I found some of it funny, the insistence on a madly pedantic precisionism, the more trivial the gesture or thought the more extreme description is devoted to it. Thus the text is worried and nagged by an obsessive attention to the characters’ precise physical positions and movements. Often it is more modern ballet than fiction.

(This obsession with characters’ precise positions and movements would become central to Beckett’s plays of the 1950s and 60s, where every gesture of the stricken protagonists becomes charged with hypertrophic punctilio.)

And intellectual tricksiness. The adjective ‘pythonic’ in the quote above refers to the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, where the supernatural pythia supposedly spoke its prophecies through the mouth of a woman put into a demonic trance. So that one phrase ‘classic pythonic’ is enough to indicate – to those in on the joke – that the text is (absurdly) comparing Grandad Kelly to an ancient Greek oracle – an absurdly mock heroic comparison.

This fact goes some way to explaining the glitter of his eyes and his generally unnatural gestures, notably placing his left hand ‘pronate’ on his skull, pronate meaning “to turn into a prone position; to rotate (the hand or forearm) so that the surface of the palm is downward or toward the back”.

And once you’ve grasped this fact you realise that the whole paragraph is, in its arch, contrived way, an elaborate joke. The joke is in the contrast between the classical epitome and its degraded modern-day embodiment. It is in other words, the classic Modernist trope of holding up the classical world as perfect, as a model of dignity and decorum (implicitly in Eliot’s The Waste Land, more overtly in Joyce’s Ulysses) and contrasting it with the sorry sordid shambles of the modern world.

This is why many critical studies of Beckett describe him as the last of the Modernists, a Johnny-come-lately to the game of contrasting the marmoreal perfection of the classics with the squalid spit and sawdust de nos jours.

The same structural disjunction underlies the boom-boom ending when, after a paragraph making this calculated intellectual parallel, which is leading the (informed) reader to expect a declaration of potency and magnificence – all Grandad Kelly comes out with is the bathetically commonplace output, the pub slang expression: ‘Chuck him’.

Bathos refers to rhetorical anticlimax – an abrupt transition from a lofty style or grand topic to a common or vulgar one (Wikipedia)

I happened to ‘get’ this joke because I had the opportunity of a very literary education, so I spotted the python allusion and thus grasped the overall dynamic of the paragraph and the mock comic intention. But I doubt whether anyone who studied more worthwhile subjects than ancient and modern literature would get the reference or realise the humour.

So is it funny? Yes, to the correct audience.

Humourless humour

Is a joke which isn’t really funny still a joke? Does a joke need humour to be a joke? Can you have an utterly humourless joke, which has the structure of a joke, the shape of a joke, a build-up and a pay-off – but none of the warmth and collusion required for humour? These are some of the questions Murphy raised in my mind.

The modern introduction to the edition I read is by a Beckett scholar who talks breezily about Murphy being a great comic novel but, perhaps wisely, doesn’t give any actual examples of its comedy.

Is there comedy in the sustained mock-heroic tone, the use throughout of ridiculously highfalutin’ language to describe what are in fact very humdrum activities?

At this moment Murphy would willingly have waived his expectation of Antepurgatory for five minutes in his chair, renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose, looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation until he should have dreamed it all through again, with the downright dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. (p.51)

It’s a very distinct and striking style of writing. But is it funny? Is it meant to be?

Neary arrived the following morning, Cooper threw himself on his mercy, abated not one tittle of the truth and was turned off with contumely. (p.77)

For me this is the central question in reading early Beckett: I can see that much of it is intended to be arch, contrived, dry, bookish, intellectual, rarefied, allusive and ultra-clever humour – but I wonder if many other people do, and I wonder whether any of us should give a damn.

This was a joke that did not amuse Celia, at the best of times and places it could not have amused her. That did not matter. So far from being adapted to her, it was not addressed to her. It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered. (p.88)

‘It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered.’

Since Murphy is transparently another avatar of frustrated, impoverished, unpublished, would-be highbrow writer Beckett, maybe we can simply say, ‘It amused Beckett, that was all that mattered’. Beckett and his tiny number of pre-war readers. The introduction is very long on the book’s textual history, and very short on actual analysis, but it does include its sales figure.

1938 – 568 copies
1939 – 23
1940 – 20
1941 – 7

The remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid. In all, Beckett made £20 out of this book – before income tax. Not Harry Potter, is it?

It was only after Waiting For Godot completely transformed his fortunes in 1953, that publishers rereleased Beckett’s early novels and they quickly found a place in a retrospectively-created canon of his works, now used as evidence to interpret the difficult post-war plays, and to argue for his mock heroic, comedic roots.

Leslie Fiedler

Leslie Fiedler (1917 – 2003) was an American literary critic whose writings about American novelists I really enjoyed as a student. About Beckett, and Murphy in particular, he wrote in the New York Times:

Too much of the merely mannered is present, too much evidence of a desire to twit the bourgeoisie, too many asides, too many heavy-handed cryptic remarks, too much clumsy surrealist horseplay.

Which I agree with. But I can also see that amidst the mechanical verbiage of this over-erudite novel is the core Beckett which will emerge after the Second World War; that once he had abandoned the attempt to have realistic characters or plots or dialogue, he would arrive at grim scenarios where human puppets, trapped in repetitive plights, repeat the same meaningless gestures over and again and speak a speech composed of the inane repetition of shreds and tatters of clichéd, stereotyped, worn-out language.

As Fiedler also points out:

But the eerie deadpan humour is already at work: the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation, the savage eagerness to find in the disgusting occasions for laughs. It is as vaudevillian of the avant-garde that Beckett especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.

‘Serious gags’. Maybe that phrase encapsulates the difficulty I’m having coming to terms with this book.

Astride the grave

Typical of the stretched humour is a paragraph describing how Murphy’s problems go right back to his vagitus. I had to look up ‘vagitus’ to find out that it means ‘a new-born baby’s first cry’ – and then read on to process the extended ‘joke’ that Murphy’s vagitus was not on the international agreed standard of A (on the musical scale) but a woeful double flat of A, thus missing the correct note by two semi-tones.

Never mind, writes the author – ‘His rattle will make amends’ (p.47), obviously meaning his death rattle. Birth-cry, death-cry. Everything comedic is here, a kind of structural symmetry, a neatness of vision and phrasing – everything except the warmth or the unexpected jolt which characterises a good joke.

Instead, this paragraph’s flat, obvious nihilism reminds me of one of the most famous quotes from the 1953 play which made Beckett’s name, Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

This kind of self-pitying, maudlin, depressiveness strikes me as very male. Having been present at the birth of both my children I know that no-one gives birth astride the grave, they give birth in a cluttered operating theatre surrounded by surgeons and nurses, in a welter of blood and other substances. And – contrary to Beckett – it is actually quite a happy moment for all concerned.

Believing in Beckett’s words involves a kind of wilful denial of the world as we know it to be. The focus on the grim and pointless is contrived. I.e. it is not necessary. I.e. it is a choice whether to enter his artificial and gloomy worldview or not. Ditto the style.

Irish

About half way through I had a kind of breakthrough. To keep myself going in what seemed a never-ending slog, I read chapter 9 – the long description of Murphy’s arrival at, and work duties in, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (I grant you the name is quite funny) – out loud and in an Irish accent.

Suddenly, it all made a lot more sense. Read – perceived and processed – in a received English, BBC accent, lots of the text seems pretentious and flat. You can hear this in the impeccably English pronunciation of actor Ronald Pickup, reading a clip from Murphy on YouTube. The prose falls dead from his lips.

Read, however, in the accent of a Dublin chancer, with a bit of a brogue and touch of the blarney and comic inappropriateness, as of two peasants discussing the finer points of your man St Augustine, I realised that quite a lot of the time the text is winking at you slyly, out of the corner of its eye.

Here is Murphy reflecting on the notion that the mental cases in the sanatorium are in fact correct to despise the worldly chaos of the scientists and psychiatrists. They are in fact happy to be locked up in their little worlds – as indeed Murphy would love to be completely sealed in his, but keeps falling afoul of the horrible quotidien.

(It’s a separate issue that this is a dangerously childish, misinformed and romantically adolescent view of mental illness which isn’t – as I have witnessed it in my own family – much of a seraphic, Buddhist self-containment.)

Anyway, Murphy thinks:

The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace [by the authorities] they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark. (p.113)

‘The Messiah overstepped the mark’. Saying it out loud in a cod Irish accent suddenly recalled the tone of all those characters in James Joyce who discuss religion and politics in floods of high-flown language which are liable at any time to give way to a sly crack or gutter phrase, all the better to puncture the mood.

‘Ah, sweet Jaysus, he was a good man, I’ll grant you that, but not always strictly following the orders of Him Upstairs, if you know what I mean. Ahr, that raising of Lazarus from the dead, sure I think that was overstepping the mark a bit, what do you say, Seamus?’

Maybe as an Englishman I’m not allowed to try on this accent, but it is the mocking sacrilegious tone found in Joyce’s early stories, the Joyce who gave us ‘The Ballad of Joking Jesus’.

From this point onwards it struck me that the prose ought to be declaimed in a larger-than-life Irish accent, as of a Dublin pub politician declaiming with the gift on him of a divine afflatus, giving maximum weight to every rare and toothsome topic, rolling and relishing his fine array of grandee locutions but keen to avoid the accusation of being a preening gobshite by occasionally ducking into street slang for the humour it gives the audience of his erogatory ejaculations.

Murphy meets the improvident drunken Irish poet Augustus Ticklepenny who had been prescribed work at the mental home in a bid by an estimable German doctor to cure him of his alcoholism. Being relieved of the stressful burden of writing poetic epics for the Ole Country turns out to work surprisingly well.

This view of the matter will not seem strange to anyone familiar with the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose, as free as a canary in the fifth foot (a cruel sacrifice, for Ticklepenny hiccuped in end rimes) and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine flatus and otherwise bulging with  as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of porter. No wonder he felt a new man washing the bottles and emptying the slops of the better-class mentally deranged. (p.57)

Only in the scenes in the mental home did the book make total sense to me. Here is the appropriate subject for Murphy’s spavined consciousness and it is no coincidence that Murphy surprises Bim, Bom and Ticklepenny by turning out to have a wonderful empathy with the closed-in mental cases, shut up in their own worlds. For that is how he would devoutly love to be, himself.

The fully at home feel of the asylum scenes tend to show up the earlier scenes of being pointless in London for the rather shabby contrivances they are (counting biscuits in Hyde Park!) and when we return to what has now become the travelling gang of Neary, Wylie, Counihan, Cooper and Celia the narrative falls apart, and the dialogue becomes dismayingly divagatory – as presumably intended.

The text – like the lead ‘character’ – is only really at home amid a certain kind of utterly fictional mental illness. Which also points forward to the bleak post-war plays, much shorter, much more focused, than his earlier palaverously periphrastic prose.


Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

The first half of the book is threaded with an elaborate concern for astrology, with Murphy very aware of the position of planets rising and falling in the various star signs and so on, and the narrator similarly concerned to pin down the precise dates, times, and positions of the planets when various events occur. Thus Celia meets Murphy ‘on midsummer’s night, the sun being then in the Crab’ (p.10).

In chapter three Murphy opens a long analysis of his star signs, lucky numbers, days, colours, years and so on that has been generated for him by ‘Ramaswami Krishnasawmi Narayanaswami Suk’.

Is this meant to be a satire on the post-Great War fad for all things spiritual, of the kind that snared W.B. Yeats or Conan Doyle? Murphy periodically relates Suk’s predictions to all the subsequent happenings in the book.

For Chaucer in the 1300s, astrology is a sign of his intellectual delight in the beautiful complexity of God’s wonderful creation. It closely counterpoises lots of events in The Canterbury Tales, notably the long Knight’s Tale which is awash with astrological symbolism.

In Beckett, this transient interest in astrology feels very like a) another elaborate but somehow contentless scaffold, a machine to help generate more reams of prose b) an affectless piss-take.

It is indicative that the astrology theme disappears in the book’s second half. In my opinion this is because the reality of the mental home eclipses it i.e. the text finds its proper subject matter.

2. Timeframe

Much is made in commentary and introduction of the elaborate timeframe of the novel, with characters and narrator carefully referring to specific days, weeks, months in which events occur, referring back to them, calculating the time past or to go before further meetings or activities.

Fine. I can see this generating innumerable PhDs, but, again, it doesn’t really add to any enjoyment of the narrative, unless you accept that the needless becluttering of the text with bootless incunabula is the point of the text. The divagations are the purpose.

Sex

Surprisingly for such an alienated, disconnected narrative, there are regular references to sex. I think that some, maybe all of them, are at least partly there to cause controversy and fuss in the faraway 1930s, the decade when Joyce’s Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover were still banned.

For example, it is broadly hinted that Celia, the streetwalker enjoys being tied up and ravished, what we might nowadays call BDSM.

She could not go where livings were being made without feeling that they were being made away. She could not sit for long in the chair without the impulse stirring, tremulously, as for an exquisite depravity, to be naked and bound. (p.44)

And it is strongly hinted that Ticklepenny has his job at the sanatorium – and wangles a job for Murphy – because he is the gay boyfriend of the head man there, ‘Bim’ Clinch.

Earlier in the book there is a not-so-subtle reference to kissing and not of the kind which removes the clapper from the bell i.e. French kissing.

In the final stages Miss Counihan emerges as a Baywatch babe:

Miss Counihan rose, gathered her things together, walked to the door and unlocked it with the key that she exiled for that purpose from her bosom. Standing in profile against the blazing corridor, with her high buttocks and her low breasts, she looked not merely queenly, but on for anything. (p.136)

‘On for anything’ another example of bathos, of ending a mock heroic description with a crude, pub locution.

Maybe these deliberately close to the knuckle references are what Fiedler meant by ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’.

The Beckett vision

There may or may not be an absurdist, nihilist, existential, phenomenological, post-Christian or whatever philosophy behind the novel. One thing that is certain is that phrases periodically pop out which certainly do anticipate the monocular and above all repetitive vision of the post-war plays.

So all things hobble together for the only possible (p.141)

So all things limp together for the only possible. (p.146)

Buried amid the textual tapenade, are ripe examples of the tone, the phraseology and the crippled worldview of the plays which made Beckett famous.

Kneeling at the bedside, the hand starting in thick black ridges between his fingers, his lips, his nose and forehead almost touching Mr Endon’s, seeing himself stigmatised in those eyes that did not see him, Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr Endon’s face, Murphy who did not speak at all in an ordinary way unless spoken to, and not always even then.

‘the last at last seen of him
himself unseen by him
and of himself.’

A rest.
‘The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.’
A rest.
‘The relation between Mr Murphy and Mr Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former’s sorrow at seeing himself in the latter’s immunity from seeing anything but himself.’
A long rest.
‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen.’
That was the whole extent of the little afflatulence. (p.156)

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Credit

Murphy by Samuel Beckett was published in 1938 by G. Routledge and Company. All page references are to the 2009 Faber paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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. Dryden 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 in praise of 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 from within the poet’s mind. 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 (the second book of Samuel, chapters xiv to 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 had 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 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, instead 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 bitty, 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 appear ridiculous. Thus the poem describes the not-very-successful poet Thomas Shadwell in superhuman terms and attributes to 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 ‘epic’ 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. So speculation about religious belief in Dryden’s time was fraught with danger.

Seen against this background, 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 he and 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 a new area of activity – 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 from 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 (died in 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 texts was revived in the mid-17th century by poets like Edmund Waller (1606 to 1687) and Sir John Denham (1615 to 1669). 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 smoothly 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 expressing 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 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.


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Pre-Raphaelite Sisters @ the National Portrait Gallery

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was an art movement set up initially by three idealistic young art students (John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt) in 1848 and lasted in its first form until 1853.

However, the initial founders were joined by followers, including the young disciples William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, who evolved a style of medievalising, idealising and spiritualising art which endured till the end of the nineteenth century. In the latters’ hands many of the PRB values evolved into the Arts and Crafts Movement which went on to influence craftspeople across the country and abroad.

Possibly the most memorable style associated with the original Pre-Raphaelites is the depiction of long-gowned, long-necked beautiful women with cupid lips and frizzy hair, brought to perfection in the later paintings of one of the founders and central figures, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1877) The model is Jane Burden, daughter of a stableman, who married William Morris, became the iconic beauty of the movement, and for whom Rossetti developed an unhealthy obsession during the 1870s

The Pre-Raphaelite World

Reading about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood often reminds me of the the Bloomsbury Group, the group of writers, artists, critics, historians and economists which loosely associated before, during and after the Great War. The two groupings were:

  • a complex matrices of artists, writers, critics, friends and extended families, and wives and lovers, who all bring with them the complicated stories of their intertwined adulteries and affairs
  • many of the wives or children or grandchildren or greatgrandchildren capitalised on their connection to write biographies or memoirs, which helped to add to the ‘legend’ of the group as a whole

Both are characterised by the very pukka English trait of everyone in the group thinking that everyone else – their friends and partners and lovers – was a genius.

Of course this was partly because they all suffered from attacks by the brutal English critics and, quite naturally, sprang to the defence of the paintings / designs / poems / novels or whatever else, produced by their close friends, or bothers, or sisters, or lovers.

The result is that entering the PRB world, like entering the Bloomsbury world, is to quickly become aware of the legends and well-told stories surrounding each of them, of the way the commented on and supported each other’s work, and of a small industry of secondary and tertiary artworks and criticism and writing devoted to them, with a number of descendants working alongside devoted scholars, to pour out a never-ending stream of PRB-related material.

When you go into the shop (which you have to walk through on the way out, just as you have to walk through the shop on the way out of V&A or British Museum exhibitions) you realise that, in any case, this or that new book about the PRBs – in fact all scholarly or biographical writing about the PRBs – forms only a small subset of the wider merchandising surrounding the movement. Alongside the many biographies and memoirs are the posters and prints, reproductions, cards and label pins, fridge magnets, tote bags, scarves, pillowslips and duvet covers, and much more, much more, extending out to the huge range of William Morris-inspired designs you can buy at Liberty’s for wallpapers and carpets and tapestries and so on.

And that’s before you get to the talismanic geographical locations you can visit connected with the group, such as William Morris’s house in Hammersmith, the William Morris museum in Walthamstow, the Red House (now a National Trust property) in Bexleyheath, the remnants of the Morris and Co fabric factory at Merton Abbey Mills, the restaurant at the Victoria & Albert Museum decorated by Arts & Crafts designers, and so on.

So to engage with one or other of the Pre-Raphaelites is not just to go and see a bunch of paintings, it is to enter a large and complex and multifaceted imaginative world. I think this is part of what draws the PRB devotees: the fact that the PRB world is so large, so complex, there were so many of them, who produced so many works, that once you’re in, you can forget all about the actual world we live in and never come out again.

Georgiana Burne -Jones, long-suffering wife of adulterous Edward Burne-Jones, with her children Philip and Margaret in the background, painted by Edward Burne-Jones (1883)

The Pre-Raphaelite Women

As you might expect, many of the women connected to the Pre-Raphaelites – their wives and lovers and models and muses – have been extensively written about, and even had films made about them (for example, a quick search on Amazon shows that the first woman in this exhibition, the model Effie Gray, has had two books written about her, plus a 2015 movie based on her life).

But, rather surprisingly, this big show at the National Portrait Gallery appears to be the first exhibition ever devoted to putting the female point of view of all the women connected with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement, as a whole, as a group.

Specifically, the exhibition showcases the lives and works of twelve Pre-Raphaelite woman, bringing out the extent to which many of them were not passive models or wives-in-the-background, but were studio managers, businesswomen, promoters, mothers, sisters, lovers and muses, as well as – and this is the key revelation of the exhibition – often being notable artists in their own right.

Having pondered how to convey this information, I’ve fallen back on the actual layout of the exhibition as being the most objective, least subjective way of presenting it. The main NPG exhibition space is divided into 12 rooms or parts of rooms, each devoted to one of the twelve women they are showcasing. These are thumbnail portraits of the women’s biographies and achievements:

1. Effie Gray Millais (1828-97) Model, wife and businesswoman

Euphemia (‘Effie’) Gray married the art critic John Ruskin in 1848. She was very beautiful and John Everett Millais used her as the model for the woman in The Order of Release painted during the movement’s first period, in 1852. This hangs as the centrepiece of the first room and we are drawn to the unusual realism of Effie’s face.

The Order of Release 1746 (1852-3) by John Everett Millais

Millais went on a trip to Scotland with the Ruskins, during which Effie’s profound unhappiness became clear. The exhibition includes sketches made of the couple by other guests on the holiday. While Ruskin was totally absorbed in writing up the notes to his masterpiece about architecture. The Stones of Venice, Millais and Effie fell in love. In 1854, supported by her family, she brought a case to annul her marriage, and the following year married Millais. She became his business partner, helping with research, production and marketing of his artworks, researching locations, sourcing costumes, cultivating clients etc. She became Lady Ruskin in 1885 when her husband was made a baronet and there is a painting of her looking very haughty indeed.

2. Christina Rossetti (1830-94) Poet

Christina was sister to the leading Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and another brother, the critic Michael Rossetti. They were all brought up in an intensely religious atmosphere which is conveyed, here, by the painting of the Annunciation which Dante made in 1850. In 1858 she started working in a home for girls thought to be sexually at risk, an experience which (apparently) inspired her most famous poem, Goblin Market, with its ripe sublimated sexual imagery.

Christina went on to publish three volumes of adult poetry, verse for children and devotional works, was recognised and admired in her time. Fans who gave her good reviews and promoted her works included Tennyson and Browning. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ – Here is an example where that is simply not true.)

Beside portraits of her by others, the exhibition includes some of her own drawings and illustrations, her notebook containing a sonnet on Elizabeth Siddal – In an Artist’s Studio – plus a funny cartoon by her brother of Christina having one of her famous ‘rages’, in the cartoon she is smashing up a Victorian living room with an axe.

There appear to be at least six biographies of Christina, plus umpteen editions of her verse and critical studies

3. Annie Miller (1835-1925) Model and muse

The daughter of a soldier, Annie grew up in poverty in the backstreets of Chelsea, close to the studio of William Holman Hunt, one of the three founders of the RB movement and, arguably, the most conventionally Christian. He was introduced to her and used her as a model for the woman in his astonishing painting, The Awakening Conscience.

The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt (1853)

Hunt paid for her to be taught to read and write and good manners and deportment, with a view to marrying her. But then he went off to Palestine for two years (1854-6) to paint meticulously realistic Biblical paintings in the actual scenery of the Holy Land, and while he was away Annie also modelled for Millais, Rossetti, Arthur Hughes and others. On his return Hunt was disillusioned by her character which had become, he thought, lazy and addicted to luxury. He broke off the engagement and offered to send her overseas, but she preferred to stay in London and pursue a career in modelling.

By the early 1860s she had found herself an eligible husband, Thomas Thompson, a cousin of Lord Ranelagh, who she married. They moved to Richmond, had children, and in later life Annie was at pains to play down her association with disreputable bohemian artists.

There appear to be no books specifically about Annie.

4. Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62) Model, artist and poet

The working class daughter of a cutler whose shop was in Southwark, Lizzie Siddal was plucked from the street to model for another Victorian painter, before gravitating into the circle of the PRBs and especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti to whom she became a passionate muse. Her most famous commission was as Ophelia in John Everett Millais’s awesome painting of her floating in full dress amid flowers.

But Lizzie was also an artist. She was the only woman exhibitor in an 1857 PRB exhibition which was held in America, the producer of a series of watercolours taking Tennyson and medieval legends as her subject. She also wrote poetry and the exhibition includes a manuscript of her poem, At Last.

After a long and stormy courtship Siddal finally married Rossetti in 1860, but the next year she had a stillborn son, and was lunged into such a deep depression that she committed suicide by poison. Distraught, Rossetti placed the manuscript of his poems in her coffin. A year later he was reluctantly persuaded to re-excavate the coffin, open it, and retrieve the poems, a taboo actions which oppressed him for the rest of his life.

5. Fanny Cornforth (1835-1909) Model and lover

Born plain Sarah Cox into a blacksmiths family in Sussex Fanny took her name from her sister who died in infancy. She encountered Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown and Millais in the Surrey Pleasure Gardens in London and quickly began posing as a model for various paintings.

In 1860 when Rossetti married Siddal, Fanny married Timothy Cornforth, but it appears to have been a holding operation because, when Lizzie killed herself, Fanny moved in with the distraught Rossetti.

For over a decade she sat for many of Rossetti’s mature paintings of the classic pre-Raphaelite look – willowy dresses, long neck, strong jawline, cupid lips, billowing tressed hair, such as one included in the exhibition, The Blue Bower.

The Blue Bower by Dante Gabriel Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1865) The model is Fanny Cornforth, famed not only for her strong pre-Raphaelite jawline, but her sumptuous, tressed, blonde hair

Half-time thoughts

The obvious point about the exhibition so far is that, with the outstanding exception of Christina Rossetti, a notable poet in her own right, and maybe Effie Millais for her efforts as a businesswoman on her husband’s behalf, the women covered so far

  1. mostly do conform to the limited stereotype of model and ‘muse’
  2. are extremely well-known, having been on the receiving end of one or more biographies and even films, and featured in at least two BBC TV dramatisations of the lives of the PRBs

So that you begin to wonder a bit in what way this exhibition is overturning any preconceptions.

It’s in the second half that the show – or its polemical purpose – lifts off, with a raft of women who were clearly notable artists in their own right, and/or had much more to them than

6. Joanna Boyce Wells (1831-61) Artist

Joanna was encouraged to paint by her businessman father, artist brother and sister. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices…’ here is another example where that is simply not true.)

Her father paid for her to study art and her first exhibited piece was shown at the Royal Academy in 1855.

Elgiva by Joanna Boyce Wells (1855)

There are half a dozen other paintings and drawing by Joanna in her section, including The Boys Crusade and Head of a Mulatto Woman. Some of them are marvellous, some of them a bit more run of the mill. Difficult to get worked up about this head of an angle. It’s the kind of rather second-rate image you get on umpteen Christmas cards.

Thou Bird of God by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

Joanna married Henry Wells during a visit to Italy in 1857-8, and set up a joint a artistic partnership when they returned to England, Lizzie Siddal being quoted approvingly commenting that Joanna was very much the head of the firm’. It was a tragedy when she died aged just 30 from complications of childbirth.

Up till now the exhibition had featured little more than paintings and drawings. Here for the first time was an object, the exact dress which Joanna wore for a portrait of her done by her husband, Henry. This was a fascinating object in itself, with asymmetrical patterns and the jet black Victorian exterior fitted inside with bright scarlet trim.

The presence of objects in the second half of the exhibition made it feel much more interested and rounded – with a dress, a pair of shoes, a handbag, medallions and so on giving a much fuller sense of the times, and of the range of artistic channels which were available.

7. Fanny Eaton (1835-1924) Model

Possibly the most striking revelation of the whole exhibition was the life of Fanny Eaton. She was black, born in Jamaica, came to England with her mother in the 1850s and married working class carter and cabman James Eaton.

By 1859 she had been discovered as a model and sat for Rebecca and Simeon Solomon and Albert Moore. She had a thin face and frizzy hair and one of the best things about this exhibition is the way it’s pulled together half a dozen paintings by different artists which use her as a model, along with her biography and a simply stunning pencil drawing of her by Simeon Solomon.

Fanny Eaton by Joanna Boyce Wells (1861)

8. Georgiana Burne-Jones (1840-1920) Wife and model

Georgiana is one of the core figures of the PRB myth. She was one of five MacDonald sisters who all went on to achieve fame and eminence, one of her sister’s sons, for example, going on to become the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

Her main role in the mythology is a) long-suffering wife who b) suppressed her own talent in devotion to her husband. At the age of fifteen she was engaged to Edward Burne-Jones, who gave her craft and engraving lessons, and then was apprenticed to Ford Madox Brown.

She married Burne-Jones and moved into the core of the movement, getting to know Jane Morris and Lizzie Siddel, between them they discussed plans to publish a volume of illustrated fairy tales.

But the birth of her daughter Margaret put a temporary end to her own artistic aspirations. She was then dismayed by her husband’s very public infatuation with the artist Maria Zambaco. While he painted ever more torrid and sensual pictures featuring Maria as model, Georgiana found herself sidelined into the fate of motherhood, managing her husband’s studios and business, and Being There to comfort him when he returned from a series of infatuations and affairs.

A classic example of the wife as Mother and Martyr.

9. Maria Zambaco (1843-1914) Model, muse and sculptor

Maria Cassavetti was born to a wealthy Anglo-Greek businessman based in London, with patron connections with the PRBs. In 1861 she married a Paris-based doctor but the marriage failed and she returned to London with their children. Here she began modelling for Burne-Jones, an activity which quickly developed into ‘an intense love affair’.

Burne-Jones described her as ‘primeval’ and the siting of Maria’s section right next to Georgiana’s beings out Georgiana’s dowdy, proper Victorian demeanour and helps you understand why the uninhibited Greek beauty must have swept Burne-Jones into a new realm.

Georgiana Burne-Jones, née MacDonald (c.1882) photographed by Frederick Hollyer

Now compare and contrast the naked body of Maria, modelling for B-J’s astonishing painting The Tree of Forgiveness.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones (1882)

This is one of three massive paintings which fill the end wall of the exhibition, the other two being Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin, which also features Maria as model, and Proserpine by Rossetti. If you love PRB painting this is one wall with its trio of massive paintings are worth kneeling and praying to. They make you realise that at their peak, the works of Millais, Burne-Jones and Rossetti were of an other-worldly brillance in the sense that they are consummate exampes of the art of painting, but also that they successfully create an Otherworld of the imagination, vastly more rich and sumptuous and perfect and wonderful than the actual fallen world, in which Burne-Jones looked like a kindlier version of Rasputin and his wife looks like a tired childminder.

The world they all aimed to create utterly transcended this one to take us into a world of perfect bodies, perfect colours and shades, and uplifting stories of noble figures from the Bible, the Middle Ages of Greek legend.

Anyway, after the affair with Burne-Jones ended, Maria became a sculptor, studying with Alphonse Legros in London and Rodin in Paris. She produced figurines (none of which, alas, are in the exhibition) and also became an expert at portrait medallions and there are four spirited examples of portraits set in circular medallions. Apparently, most of them have been lost, these four survive because Maria presented them to the British Museum soon after they were exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy? I thought the nineteenth century was the age of the patriarchy when all women were forbidden from practising art or writing… apparently not.

10. Jane Morris (1839-1914) Model, muse and craftsperson

Jane Burden grew up in poverty and was destined for domestic service until she met the young Pre-Raphaelites who were undertaking a commission to paint a mural at the Oxford Union. Rossetti painted her as a tall elegant noble Queen Guinevere and Morris married her in 1859. She became his partner in what became Morris and Co., managing the embroidery commissions, and a close friend of the Burne-Jones family, whose children called her Auntie Janey. Henry James called her a ‘grand synthesis of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings ever made’ and photographs of her as a young woman confirm that she had the super-strong features, the strong jaw, cupid lips and tressed hair beloved by the male painters.

Jane Morris at Tudor House (1865) photographed by John Robert Parsons

In 1868 she resumed modelling for Rossetti and they began an affair which lasted until his nervous breakdown in 1876, and inspired a series of his major mature works like Proserpine, above.

Jane was a renowned needlewoman, who also experimented with bookbinding and calligraphy and the exhibition features an evening bag sweetly designed and stitched by her.

11. Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) Model and artist

Born, like Maria Zambaco, into the Anglo-Green community in London, Marie’s sister was painted by James Whistler and Marie herself was then asked to pose for the note Victorian woman photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.  The famous Victorian woman photographer. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is an example of that simply not being true.)

Spartali decided to become a painter and studied with Ford Madox Brown, who became a lifelong mentor and her first paintings were exhibited in 1867. (So she’s supported by her male father, by her male mentor, given an exhibition by a male gallery owner, and taken up by a male dealer.)

She married an American and went with him to Italy and Greece on business, painting all the while, for her male husband supported her career. She developed a particular style, ‘notable for colour harmony and evocative atmosphere’, depicting late medieval scenes from Chaucer, Dante or Petrarch.

The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman (1889) Note: this work has never been public displayed before so this is a rare opportunity to see it in the flesh

If this painting is anything to go by, her paintings are detailed, colourful and take colourful historical subjects. But they feel weak and underpowered. All the characters are limp-wristed and so are their poses, and the colouring, which is vague and wishy-washy on outline.

Sorry to be predictable, but compare and contrast with The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones, which has a tremendous dynamism, and a pictorial excitement, by which I mean he has total command over the medium of oil paints to create a wonderfully dynamic and involving image.

Back in the Jane Burden section there’d been a painting of Kelmscott Manor, the Oxfordshire home of William Morris, painted by Marie and which, it seemed to me, suited her style more than human compositions – a landscape as if on a rather misty morning, the house and garden a little foggy and unclear, making it all the more poignant and expressive.

Kelmscott Manor by Marie Spartali Stillman

Apparently her landscapes like this sold well, particularly in America, where you can imagine them providing exactly the kind of idealised view of a picture postcard Cotswold England which rich American collectors warmed to.

Objects: The exhibition includes a pair of evening shoes designed and stitched by Spartali, who was an accomplished seamstress.

12. Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919) Artist

Evelyn was born into an aristocratic family, the great-grand-daughter of the Earl of Leicester, her uncle was the Pre-Raphaelite artist J.R. Spencer Stanhope. She was a prize-winning student at the Slade School of Art. (Hmm. You read that and think – ‘So all those times I read about the Victorian patriarchy repressing women and silencing their voices and preventing them expressing themselves…’ here is another example of that simply not being true.)

She exhibited alongside Marie Spartali and others at the Grosvenor Gallery (hang on, I thought the Victorian patriarchy prevented women from expressing themselves, becoming artists or selling their work) before in 1887 marrying the noted ceramicist William de Morgan. Together they built a close professional and personal relationship, her art sales subsidising his pottery production.

She came a generation after the first PRBs and her style shows a kind of off-shoot of the style. There are several large paintings by her here and their obvious quality is a kind of cartoon simplification of the PRB style.

Night and Sleep by Evelyn De Morgan (1878)

This huge painting, Night and Sleep, is done with consummate skill, the figures, the faces and the drapery all extremely good. And yet, overall, the composition lacks a certain… vigour? Life? I can’t quite put it into words, but – placed amid so many other masterpieces – it didn’t quite do it for me.

Conclusion

1. The art

None of the women artists shown here are as good as the best of the male artists.

Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali, Evelyn de Morgan and Maria Boyce Wells are often good, sometimes very good – but nothing they made matches the tip-top best of Rossetti, Burne-Jones or Millais. We could argue about this for a long time, but for me, walking from the pallid rather lifeless pictures of de Morgan back to the big works by Rossetti and Burne-Jones was to move from the alright, quite nice, so-so, to supersonic masterpieces.

The exhibition allows you to size up de Morgan’s painting of a dryad:

The Dryad by Evelyn de Morgan (1885)

And then stroll 20 yards back through the gallery to Burne-Jone’s Tree of Forgiveness, above, in order ot make a direct comparison of their treatments of a nearly identical subject.

It was obviously her artistic choice to treat the subject like this, but de Morgan’s painting seems to me thin and cartoony. Good, but… empty and undemanding. Almost naive art. Whereas the Burne-Jones painting has tremendous, muscular energy which lifts you up into the action, like a movie, like a good book.

BUT – all that said – the exhibition DOES work in showing us that these women were not just ciphers and sidekicks. Many of them really were good and notable artists in their own rights and, as new overviews and histories are written, hopefully their achievements will receive a more coverage and understanding.

AND it brings together into one place works that have either never been seen before like The First meeting of Petrarch and Laura by Marie Spartali Stillman or have not been seen in public for 25 years like Thou Bird of God by Wells, and the cumulative effect – especially in the more artist-focused second part of the exhibition – is to create a kind of communal critical mass where you realise that there were a lot of them, they were very talented, and they did have a lot to say.

2. The lives

In a different direction, the exhibition fleshes out the lives and achievements of the women it is easy to dismiss or overlook as ‘simply’ wives or models. Thus, even though they were only, in the end, quite small sections about each of them, I nonetheless got a much better feel for the lives, hopes, aspirations, achievements and frustrations of figures who had often been only names to me (not being a PRB or Arts & Craft completist) such as:

  • Annie Miller and Fanny Cornforth
  • Jane Burden and Lizzie Siddel
  • and a sad feel for the quiet mournful figure of Giorgiana MacDonald.

And the complete revelation of the character and importance of the black model, Fanny Eaton, whose life story is presented here for the first time.

The exhibition curator Dr Jan Marsh, writes:

When people think of Pre-Raphaelitism they think of beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours. Far from passive mannequins, as members of an immensely creative social circle, these women actively helped form the Pre-Raphaelite movement as we know it. It is time to acknowledge their agency and explore their contributions.

I suspect people will continue for a long time to associate Pre-Raphaelitism with ‘beautiful women with lustrous hair and loose gowns gazing soulfully from the picture frame or in dramatic scenes painted in glowing colours’ – simply because that’s what the best of their paintings depict and are famous for depicting and nothing is going to change that any time soon.

If you’re already a fan of the PRB and the later Arts & Crafts movement this will already be a must-see exhibition. But even if you’re not, it turns into quite an eye-opening revelation as to the roles and work and achievements of many of the women who have only hovered on the periphery of the stories up till now. I don’t think it will turn the average person’s view of the movement upside down… but this exhibition marks a distinct shift of the dial.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubadour poetry for the following reason: troubadour poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in standard phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes.

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. They occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use standardised phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Once again, Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern’s account of how the Cistercian monks spread what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because they have the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour.

They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of mural panels
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to point 3 – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by their Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress – so that the workers must take up arms and stage a revolution to overthrow the regime – I take it none of these ideas come as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union and eastern Europe for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke a deep nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction. How wonderfully certain they must have been.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in Rivera’s additional twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany; he was only interested in the corrupt and unfair present.

But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World on the west wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? What – as Lenin said – is to be done?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest of his career, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: the bent figures of the mourning women entirely wrapped in their cloaks reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets of murals you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately and powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, of Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality – for example where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns – revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

The mass, the throng, the diversity of life – like Breughel.

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more, just not on walls.

The noble poor

We are meant to compare and contrast the filthy rich with the noble poor, the liberated peasants, who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Zapata repeatedly said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof.

Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar (to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

War is always wrong unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause.

Fighting in the imperialist war was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to guerrilla and civil wars across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera had become famous as a bitingly anti-capitalist, communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans.

The Yankees invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933). At the same time as Diego was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich New Yorkers and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And did you talk to his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco adorns the stairs leading up from the Stock Exchange itself to the Stock Exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

But it was the murals he made in Detroit which Rivera himself considered the best he ever made. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow.

Crucially for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. They simply show men at work in modern factories, hymns to the marvel of modern technology.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling-out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who had commissioned a big mural in the lobby of their swanky new Manhattan skyscraper but cancelled it when Rivera insisted on painting in the face of Lenin.

With no other commissions in view, Diego reluctantly returned to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism.

He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI went on to rule Mexico without interruption until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises

  1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford)
  2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican

I think this explains why modern, post-political, post-communist scholarly commentary prefers to dwell on what it calls issues of ‘identity’ rather than the more blatantly communist elements in Diego’s work. It’s safer.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at Rivera’s densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 1950s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 1920s and 1930s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history and, above all, snagged on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed-out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and the heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history.

As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

There’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters in these vast paintings – and figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as the modern equivalent of Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panoramas of Mexican history (like the one shown above) just look like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. you have to be already very well educated to understand what is going on in his murals.

Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange – the socially conscious artists – in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors.

Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled.

I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit to paint his mural there. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. This was the exact opposite of the deeply troubled intellectual class in Mexico.

And, in my opinion, the reason for this is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammelled by negative thoughts or anxieties. As far as they were concerned it was a big empty space, ripe for the taking.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation. And Mexican intellectuals could never forget this fact because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty.

The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, the systematic semi-slavery of the vast majority of the population of illiterate forced labourers, mostly descended from the original tribal peoples.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with many evocative b&w photos
  • one page carries a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Which leaves 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. It was written in 1987, which is a long time ago and people back then, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography of Rivera so enjoyable and thought-provoking.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small.

The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and a highlight is the vitriolic attack which Siqueiros launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter.

There is a lot of small detail, about minor murals missed by Marnham’s biography, and a number of sidebars pleasantly go off on a tangent from the main narrative with what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture, which are diverting and often very interesting.


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