Martial Epigrams

Readers and listeners like my books,
Yet a certain poet calls them crude.
What do I care, I serve up food
To please my guests, not fellow cooks.
(Book 9, poem 81)

The first thing you discover in the 1964 Penguin Classics paperback edition of Martial’s epigrams, as translated by James Michie, is that this is very far from being a complete edition, in fact it represents only about ten per cent of Martial’s total output.

Martial biography

Martial’s full name was Marcus Valerius Martialis, the cognomen ‘Martialis’ indicating that he was born in March. He was born about 40 AD in the Roman province of Spain and came to Rome around 63, during the reign of Nero. Here, apparently, rather than embark on the cursus honorem or sequence of recognised public offices (quaestor, praetor, aedile, consul) or undertake a recognised profession such as lawyer and advocate, Martial preferred to live by his wits, making himself a witty entertainer and dinner party companion to rich patrons.

Amazingly, Martial seems to have been able to support himself this way for 35 years until he retired back to Spain about 98. (12.18 is a good-humoured song of praise to the simple life back in his home town far from the rigours of Roman life, apparently addressed to his friend, Juvenal the satirist.)

During all those years Martial was dependent on his wealthy friends and patrons for gifts of money, for his dinner, and even for his dress. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in his earlier career he used to accompany his patrons to their villas at Baiae or Tibur and to attend their morning levées. Later on, he owned a own small country house near Nomentum, and sent a poem, or a small volume of his poems, as his representative to the morning levée. He cultivated patrons far and wide and was especially proud at being invited to dinner with Domitian.

And yet, God, it was a shabby, humiliating and tiring sort of life, as his later poems convey:

Have mercy on me, Rome, a hired
Flatterer desperately tired of flattery…
(10.74)

Martial is best known for his twelve books of epigrams, published in Rome between 86 and 103, during the reigns of the emperors Domitian (81 to 96), Nerva (96 to 98) and Trajan (98 to 117). Martial wrote a rather terrifying total of 1,561 epigrams, of which 1,235 are in elegiac couplets. This Penguin selection contains only about 150 of them. A notable feature of the Penguin edition is that it contains the Latin original next to Michie’s translation of it (although this seems to be standard practice; the much more recent Oxford University Press selection does the same).

What is an epigram?

“An epigram is a short, pithy saying, usually in verse, often with a quick, satirical twist at the end. The subject is usually a single thought or event.” (Academy of American Poets)

It derives from the Greek epigraphein, meaning ‘to write on, to inscribe’ and originally referred to the inscriptions written on stone monuments in ancient Greece. Slowly the term became separated from the act of inscription and by 300 BC referred to any brief, pointed poem, generally about or addressed to someone.

In his 1,500 epigrams Martial is widely agreed to have taken the form to its highest point and every proponent of the epigram for the following 2,000 years to some extent echoes or copies him.

Two texts preface the selection, a 2-page translator’s note by James Michie and an 8-page introduction by scholar Peter Howell.

Translator’s note

In his translator’s note, Michie says the selection is not intended as ‘Martial’s greatest hits’. Rather, the entries were selected to demonstrate Martial’s variety. The texts of the twelve books of epigrams which have come down to us were not arranged logically or thematically, but to ‘reflect the odd juxtapositions of life itself’.

Thus a scatological squib is followed by a deeply felt epitaph (for his 6-year-old slave, Erotion mentioned twice, in 5.34 and 10.61; for the dexterous slave boy Pantagathus, 6.52; or for Pompey the Great, 5.74); contrived panegyrics to Domitian (for liking his poems 4.8; for having impressive fish 4.30; for widening Rome’s roads, 7.61) next to scabrous abuse of someone with bad breath (1.87); a pornographic poem about buggery (1.46) next to a poem lamenting the fickle condition of the dinner party hanger-on (2.27); extended descriptions of a country house (4.64) next to a vivid description of a sumptuous dinner (5.78); corruption at the chariot races (6.46) next to comic behaviour at a slave auction (6.66); insults to a rival poet (7.3) next to a jokey profile of a woman who seems doomed to marry only effeminate men (7.58); a bitter complaint against a noisy schoolmaster whose shouts wake him up early (school lessons started at dawn; 9.68) next to a shrewd criticism of a friend who’s always complaining the world is going to hell (9.70); a fond poem to a friend who’s mean and stingy but makes up for it by being a wonderful farter (10.15) next to the anecdote of the retired boatman who used his boat, filled with rocks, to plug a gap in the Tiber banks (10.85); a comic portrait of the superthief Hermogenes (12.28) next to a short but heartfelt summary of the Good Life (10.47). Variety.

There are a lot of poems about heirs and hangers-on waiting for the elderly to snuff it so they can inherit their money, a lot of anxiety about who cranky old people are favouring in their wills that’s reminiscent of Dickens:

If you were wise as well as rich and sickly
You’d see that every gift means, ‘Please die quickly!’
(8.27)

Or:

She longs for me to ‘have and hold’ her
In marriage. I’ve no mind to.
She’s old. If she were even older,
I might be half inclined to.
(10.8)

(In his fascinating introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Juvenal’s satires, Peter Green says this was an obsessive subject for authors of this generation. Professional legacy hunters were called captatores and he reminds me that an entire chapter of Petronius’s Satyricon describes a visit to a town entirely populated by legacy hunters.)

There’s a recurring theme criticising the kind of affected connoisseur who dismisses the moderns and only values ‘the Classics’, a type the elegiac poets also despised:

Rigidly classical, you save
Your praise for poets in the grave.
Forgive me, it’s not worth my while
Dying to earn your critical smile.
(8.69)

Michie devotes half his note to an impressionistic prose summary of the cumulative portrait of late-first century Roman locations and people which Martial’s epigrams depict, the Rome of:

shops, amphitheatres, law courts, lavatories, temples, schools, tenements, gardens, taverns, and public baths, its dusty of muddy streets filled with traffic, religious processions, , and never-ending business, its slaves, millionaires, prostitutes, philosophers, quacks, bores, touts, dinner-cadgers, fortune-hunters, poetasters, politicians and layabouts. (Introduction, page 9)

Michie makes the point that the epigrammatist, rather like the satirist, has to pretend to be angry and full of bile, but that a cumulative reading of Martial makes you suspect this was just a pose – or the kind of sentiment appropriate to the genre. For, as you work through these scores of short sharp vignettes, what actually comes over is Martial’s ‘great capacity for fun and for friendship, and an evergreen curiosity about people’.

Michie doesn’t mention Chaucer, but Martial shares Chaucer’s fascination with the huge diversity of real people of his time, their names and occupations, and shapes and sizes and ages and habits and mannerisms and verbal tics and sex lives and businesses. Thus a poem about typical scenes through the hours of the day:

The first two hours of the morning tax
Poor clients; during the third advocates wax
Eloquent and hoarse; until the fifth hour ends
The city to her various trades attends;
At six o’clock the weary workers stop
For the siesta; all Rome shuts up shop
At seven; the hour from eight to nine supplies
The oiled wrestlers with their exercise;
The ninth invites us to recline full length,
Denting the cushions. At last comes the tenth…
(Book 4, poem 8)

Michie also doesn’t mention Baudelaire, but you could draw the comparison between the French poet’s fascination with the endlessly teeming life of Paris, and Martial’s endless snapshots of life in what was, at the time, the biggest city in the world, with its extremes of poverty and luxury, power and enslavements, stinks and smells and endlessly fascinating inhabitants. Maybe the thronged novels of Balzac are a better comparison and, in England, Dickens.

Introduction

The introduction is written by historian and editor of Martial, Peter Howell, who makes a number of points:

Spanish writers

Martial was one of a generation of talented writers who hailed from the fully Romanised province of Hispania, which included Seneca the Elder and Younger; the latter’s nephew, Lucan; Quintilian; and Columella.

A career choice

In their writings both Martial and Juvenal give the impression that they were forced by a social system which made if impossible for middle-class, well-educated men to earn a living by respectable means to become the hangers-on and flatterers of the rich, living from hand to mouth. But this was largely false. Friends urged Martial to take up the law or stand for public office, but he turned down both options.

Patrons and clients

The relation of patron and client evolved during the history of Rome. At the beginning it meant the relationship between a full Roman citizen and foreigners who wanted favours done for them within the legal and political system. By Martial’s time a wealthy, well-connected patron prided himself on having large numbers of dependents, clients or hangers-on. The client acquired protection (for example, from lawsuits) and welfare (most often in the form of being invited to lavish dinners) but in return the patron claimed the client’s support, in law courts, at election time, at social events, and their general flattery at all times:

Labullus, I court you,
I escort you, I support you
By lending an ear to your chatter,
And everything you say or do I flatter…
(11.24)

Clients were expected to be at their patron’s house early in the morning to greet them, then accompany them on their day of social duties, at the end of the day receiving maybe a little cash, preferably an invite to dinner. (See poem 2.27 quoted below.)

Hence the many poems Martial writes about the lamentable plight of the humiliated client and the expressions ‘parasite’, ‘dinner cadger’ and ‘hanger-on’ which Michie uses to describe this social type, known in Latin (and in Roman theatre) as the parasitus.

For hours, for a whole day, he’ll sit
On every public toilet seat.
It’s not because he needs a shit:
He wants to be asked out to eat.
(11.77)

The parasite as poet

Martial was a cut above the average parasitus because he quite early became famous as a poet. The earliest surviving work of his is called Liber Spectaculorum, written to celebrate the opening of the Flavian amphitheatre (what came to be called the Colosseum) in 80 AD. But it was the terse, witty epigrams which he appeared to be able to knock out at will, many either flattering a specific client or appealing to their sense of humour, which kept him in free dinners for 35 years.

How Roman authors made money

A Roman author didn’t make money by selling copies of a work. Copies had to be written out by hand and so remained limited in number. Instead there appear to have been two sources of income for an author:

  1. Dedicate your work to a patron who would respond in kind with gifts – the ultimate patron being the emperor, the classic example being Augustus who worked through his minister, Maecenas, to give both Virgil and Horace gifts of property, land and slaves which made them comfortable for life.
  2. It seems that some notable ‘publishers’ would pay an author for the privilege of having first dibs at copying a work they estimated would be popular and which they could guarantee selling copies of.

Thus by the time he came to publish what is conventionally known as Epigrams Book 1, in about 85, Martial must have been writing poetry for about 20 years and so is able to refer to himself as well known, even if all the other works he was known for, appear to have disappeared.

A Roman book

When all these authors refer to what is translated into English as ‘a book’, they mean a cylindrical roll of papyrus whose ends were often smoothed with pumice-stone and the whole roll wrapped in vellum (note, page 192). The wooden stave round which the papyrus was wrapped often had carved knobs at each end to secure the roll and make it easier to handle. The back of the papyrus was dyed yellow with cedar oil to preserve it from mould and moths (note, page 196). According to poem 1.117 a ‘book’ of Martial’s cost 5 dinarii.

Reasons for Martial’s popularity

Most contemporary poetry was long and long-winded, written about stock mythological subjects in elaborate and stylised verse. Thus Virgil’s Aeneid gave rise to poets who tried to ape his success with long epics such as Valerius Flaccus, Statius and Silius Italicus.

By contrast Martial developed a form which was not just short but very short, but which managed to create drama in a very small number of lines (sometimes as few as two lines). Despite their shortness the epigrams, when collected into books, were arranged to offer a pleasing sense of variety and range.

Martial’s epigrams are sometimes contrived in the sense of carefully structured to make a joke or damning point; but never contrived in the sense of striving to be grand and pompous. They are never pretentious.

No real people are skewered

The short poems of Catullus are packed with gleeful abuse of real individuals. The satires of his friend and contemporary, Juvenal, very much flay real life individuals, albeit under pseudonyms. But Martial, scathing though some of them may be, categorically states that he has not satirised any real people, even under fictitious names. Hence the large number of characters in the poem named Flaccus and Labulla and Lesbia and Cinna and Galla and Postumus. They’re just bland common names used as pegs for the jokes.

Obscenity

Many of the poems are what used to be called ‘obscene’ and still was at the date of this translation (1964). In one of the first poems he uses the same argument that Catullus and Ovid had, namely that although his verse may be pornographic his life is pure.

Roman sexual attitudes

The attitude towards sex that emerges from Martial is one of cheerful permissiveness but not wild and orgiastic promiscuousness. (Introduction, p.16)

Sex is acceptable (unlike in, say, Victorian England) and prostitution is widespread. Adultery is theoretically forbidden but in practice also widespread. Homosexuality and bisexuality are regarded as natural, especially with teenage boys. The active role in male gay sex was through acceptable but for an adult man to take the passive role was more shameful. Poem 12.75 is an amusing squib listing all the types of gay boys he’d prefer to ‘some bitch/Who’d make me miserably rich’ (12.75). The poem about the woman who weighs men’s penises erect and flaccid (10.55) is amusing but the long one complaining that his ‘wife’ isn’t sexually adventurous enough is genuinely funny because so outrageous (11.104).

Domitian

Howell entertainingly speaks up for the emperor Domitian (reigned 81 to 96). He says that Domitian had (as of 1964) the reputation of a Hitler (!) but claims this is the result of the works of Tacitus, Juvenal and ‘other biased writers’. Apart from his paranoid vendetta against the senatorial class (which Tacitus and Juvenal and the other biased writers wrote for) Howell claims Domitian’s rule was for everyone else ‘calm and prosperous, marked by beneficial social and moral legislation’ (p.16).

But Domitian liked Martial and awarded him the privileges of a father of 3 children although Martial was never, as far as we know, actually married and had no children. Hence Martial’s numerous poems sucking up to Domitian (as Virgil and Horace and Ovid shamelessly sucked up to Augustus) (I especially like the panegyric to the imperial fish, 4.30); although Howell disapproves of how, following Domitian’s assassination in 96, Martial quickly knocked off poems saying he’d never liked him anyway and praising the new regime.

Rhyming couplets

The great majority of Martial’s poems were written in elegiac couplets, one hexameter followed by a pentameter, such as we’ve encountered in all the elegiac poets (Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid). The most important single thing about Michie’s translation is he chooses to translate every poem he selects into rhyming couplets, quatrains or other rhyming forms. The precise metre varies from poem to poem, but pretty much all of them rhyme.

It’s a bold decision. It aligns Michie’s versions with the rhyming couplets of the Augustan Age of English verse, very roughly from the 1680s to the 1750s. On the upside rhyme in English poetry creates opportunity for humour and often prompts the author to ingeniously amusing collocations. Rhyme is associated with limericks and light verse of all types. On the down side, ‘serious’ modern poetry abandoned rhyme around the time of the First World War so the solid use of rhyme for all the translations signals and lack of…a lack of seriousness or depth, which, from what both Howell and Miche say about Martial, is maybe not appropriate in every instance.

The epigrams

There are all kinds of ways of grouping and categorising them, starting with the 12 books which Martial himself used as a structuring device. Very broadly there are two types of Martial epigram – ones you ‘get’, which have an appealing twist or sting or point which you can understand; and those which don’t have such an obvious payoff, which presumably made sense in their time but seem flat or pointless or even incomprehensible to us today, even with extensive notes. If a joke needs extensive notes to explain it, it isn’t a very good joke.

Themes

The poet as celebrity and showman

May I present myself – the man
You read, admire and long to meet,
Known the world over for his neat
And witty epigrams? The name
Is Martial. Thank you, earnest fan,
For having granted me the fame
Seldom enjoyed by a dead poet
While I’m alive and here to know it.
(Book 1, poem 1)

Insufferable amateur poets

Whether or not Apollo fled from the table
Thyestes ate his sons at, I’m unable
To say: what I can vouch for is our wish
To escape your dinner parties. Though each dish
Is lavish and superb, the pleasure’s nil
Since you recite your poems! To hell with brill,
Mushrooms and two-pound turbots, I don’t need
Oysters: give me a host who doesn’t read.
(3.45)

To Domitian, pleading his moral probity

Caesar, if you should chance to handle my book,
I hope that you’ll relax the frowning look
That rules the world. Soldiers are free to mock
The triumphs of you emperors – there’s no shame
In a general being made a laughing-stock.
I beg you, read my verses with the same
Face as you watch Latinus on the stage
Or Thymele the dancer. Harmless wit
You may, as Censor, reasonably permit:
My life is strict, however lax my page.
(1.4)

Heterosexual sex

Lesbia, why are your amours
Always conducted behind open, unguarded doors?
Why do you get more excitement out of a voyeur than a lover?
Why is pleasure no pleasure when it’s under cover?
Whores us a curtain, a bolt or a porter
To bar the public – you won’t find many chinks in the red-light quarter.
Ask Chione or Ias how to behave:
Even the cheapest tart conceals her business inside a monumental grave.
If I seem too hard on you, remember my objection
Is not to fornication, but to detection.
(1.34)

inside a monumental grave‘?

Gay sex

think what’s going on is the narrator is buggering a boy who, as a result, is on the edge of orgasm. I’m happy to be corrected if I’ve misunderstood.

When you say, ‘Quick, I’m going to come,’
Hedylus, I go limp and numb.
But ask me to hold back my fire,
And the brake accelerates desire.
Dear boy, if you’re in such a hurry,
Tell me to slow up, not to worry.
(1.46)

Slave or paedophile sex

The eroticism of being blocked or prevented is taken a step further in this poem:

The only kisses I enjoy
Are those I take by violence, boy.
Your anger whets my appetite
More than your face, and so to excite
Desire I give you a good beating
From time to time: a self-defeating
Habit – what do I do it for?
You neither fear nor love me more.
(5.46)

Heterosexual smears

Lesbia claims she’s never laid
Without good money being paid.
That’s true enough; when she’s on fire
She’ll always pay the hose’s hire.
(11.62)

Thumbnail sketches

Diaulus, recently physician,
Has set up now as a mortician:
No change, though, in his clients’ condition.
(1.47)

Or:

You’re an informer and a tool for slander,
A notorious swindler and a pander,
A cocksucker, gangster and a whore…
So how is it, Vacerra, you’re so poor?
(11.66)

Chaucerian physicality

Hoping, Fescennia, to overpower
The reek of last night’s drinking, you devour
Cosmus’ sweet-scented pastilles by the gross.
But though they give your teeth a whitish gloss
They fail to make your breath any less smelly
When a belch bubbles up from your abyss-like belly.
In fact, blended with the lozenges, it’s much stronger;
It travels farther and it lingers longer.
(1.87)

His cheap lodgings in a block of flats

Lupercus, whenever you meet me
You instantly greet me
With, ‘Is it alright by you if I send
My slave to pick up your book of epigrams? It’s only to lend:
I’ll return it when I’ve read it.’ There’s no call
To trouble your boy. It’s a long haul
To the Pear-tree district, and my flat
Is up three flights of stairs, steep ones at that…
(1.117)

Behaviour of a hanger-on and dinner cadger

When Selius spreads his nets for an invitation
To dinner, if you’re due to plead a cause
In court or give a poetry recitation,
Take him along, he’ll furnish your applause:
‘Well said!’ ‘Hear, hear!’ ‘Bravo!’ ‘Shrewd point!’ ‘That’s good!’
Till you say, ‘Shut up now, you’ve earned your food.’
(2.27)

Or this poem about not only being a client, but being a client’s client.

I angle for your dinner invitations (oh the shame
Of doing it, but I do it). You fish elsewhere. We’re the same.
I attend the morning levée and they tell me you’re not there,
But gone to wait on someone else. We make a proper pair.
I’m your spaniel, I’m the toady to your every pompous whim.
You court a richer patron. I dog you and you dog him.
To be a slave is bad enough but I refuse to be
A flunkey’s flunkey, Maximum. My master must be free.
(2.18)

Miniatures of abuse

You ask me what I get
Out of my country place.
The profit, gross or net,
Is never having to see your face.
(2.38)

And:

Marius’s earhole smells.
Does that surprise you, Nestor?
The scandal that you tell’s
Enough to make it fester.
(3.28)

Crude humour

If from the baths you hear a round of applause
Maron’s giant prick is bound to be the cause.
(9.33)

Or:

Why poke the ash of a dead fire?
Why pluck the hairs from your grey fanny?
That’s a chic touch that men admire
In girls, not in a flagrant granny…
(10.90)

Sarcasm about his readers

Caedicianus, if my reader
After a hundred epigrams still
Wants more, then he’s a greedy feeder
Whom no amount of swill can fill.
(1.118)

Self portrait in retirement

Poor morning client (you remind me
Of all I loathed and left behind me
In Rome), if you had any nous,
Instead of calling on my house
You’d haunt the mansions of the great.

I’m not some wealthy advocate
Blessed with a sharp, litigious tongue,
I’m just a lazy, far from young
Friend of the Muses who likes ease
And sleep. Great Rome denied me these:
If I can’t find them here in Spain,
I might as well go back again.
(12.68)


Credit

The Epigrams of Martial, translated by James Michie with an introduction by Peter Howell, was published by Penguin Books in 1973.

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Metamorphoses by Ovid – 2

‘The heavens and everything which lies below them change their shape, as does the earth and all that it contains.’
(Pythagoras in his great discourse about mutability in book 15 of the Metamorphoses)

(This is the second of two notes-and-summaries of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically of books 8 to 15. Read my previous blog post for notes on the first seven books of the poem.)

Book 8

King Minos of Crete arrives on the Greek mainland and attacks the town of Algathous whose king is Nisus. The town’s security is guaranteed by a purple lock in his hair. His daughter, Scylla, falls hopelessly in love with manly, handsome Minos as she watches him fighting from the town’s battlements. She wants to marry him. Eventually her crush leads her to betray her father and town by cutting off the purple lock while he’s asleep, then taking it through the enemy ranks to present to Minos. Minos accepts it and the fall of the town but recoils at Scylla’s treachery, sacks the town and sails away without her. Enraged, Scylla throws herself off the cliffs into the sea but half way down is transformed into a bird called a shearer; so it is another ‘etymological myth’, working back from a name which happens to be cognate with a meaningful word to invent a story to explain it.

What’s interesting is how much Ovid enters Scylla’s thought process, giving us full access to the series of arguments leading up to her decision to betray her father. Very much like the extended soliloquy of Medea deciding to betray her father for handsome Jason. Both very like the extended argumentation of the Heroides, and a new thing – not present in the first 7 or so books.

Minor returns to Crete and Ovid spends far less time (half a page) dealing with the entire story of the Minotaur, Daedelus constructing the labyrinth in which to hide it, and how Theseus killed it and found his way out using the thread provided by Ariadne (another maiden who betrays her father out of love for a handsome warrior).

Ovid goes into more detail about Daedalus making the wings of feathers for himself and his son and flying away from Crete. I’d forgotten that Ovid includes a passage which anticipates the opening of Auden’s famous poem about Daedalus, not the precise details, but the idea that it was observed by ordinary peasants. Ovid 6 AD:

Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of them as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment…(book 8, p.185)

Auden 1938 AD:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;

Icarus crashes and dies, his father recovers his body from the sea, builds a tomb, settles in Sicily. What struck me about this long-ish account is it isn’t really a metamorphosis at all. Clipping on fake wings is not changing your essential nature.

Back in Athens Theseus is greeted as a hero, having killed the Minotaur. He then gets involved in the great hunt of the Calydonian Boar. This beast was loosed on Calydon after King Oeneus made the bad mistake of giving offerings to all the other gods except Diana – who plagued his land with a giant boar.

An immense troop of heroes assembles, led by Meleager and featuring a rare female warrior, Atalanta. Many are injured, some killed as they corner the boar, but Atalanta draws first blood then Meleager finishes it off. Smitten, he hands Atalanta the spoils, being the head and skin. But his uncles, Plexippus, and Toxeus, are outraged at giving spoils to a woman and overrule him. Blind with anger Meleager kills both his uncles. When his mother (and their sister) Althaea hears of this she fills the city with her weeping and wailing etc, then takes out the old log which soothsayers said would match Meleager’s life and throws it on the fire. Back in the forest Meleager feels a burning sensation and, inexplicably finds himself consumed to ashes. Althaea then kills herself.

Two things: once again, this isn’t a metamorphosis at all and b) Ovid, once again, devotes his creative energy to Althaea’s soliloquy in which she agonises over whether to avenge her brothers and kill her own son. These anguished moral debates by female figures obviously fascinate him.

Meleager’s sisters bemoan his death and in pity Diana gives them feathers and transforms them into birds (guinea fowl).

On the way back to Athens Theseus and his companions are blocked by a swollen river, the River Acheloüs, which advises them to wait till his waters have dropped. He invites them to a feast then tells the story of how he turned nymphs who didn’t worship him into islands, especially the nymph he seduced (or raped?), Perimele, whose outraged father threw her into the sea but Achelous persuaded Neptune to change into an island.

A very rare heart-warming story: Philemon and Baucis. As part of the same scene after the meal given by River Acheloüs, Ixion’s son Pirithoüs mocks the notion of the gods intervening in mortal lives. Which prompts Lelexto tell the story of how Jupiter and Mercury toured a region of Phrygia looking for good people to take them in. They were spurned by all the households until they came to the poorest of all, owned by Philemon and Baucis who took them in and shared all their food. Impressed by their goodness, the god makes them climb a hill and watch the area be flooded and everyone drowned and their own house turned into a temple. Then Jupiter offers them a wish, and they decide they want to tend his temple for as long as they may, and then both die at the same time. And so it comes to pass and when their time comes they are transformed into an oak tree and a lime tree.

The river then mentions Proteus, capable of changing into any number of shapes. And goes on to tell the story of Erysichthon. This was an impious man who got his men to chop down a huge oak tree sacred to Ceres. As they chop it they hear the voice of the dying dryad inside prophesying that he will be punished.

The other dryads beg Ceres to take revenge so Ceres sends an oread (mountain spirit) in her chariot all the way to the Caucasus to meet Hunger in her lair and order her to haunt Erysichthon. Sure enough Hunger comes by night and embraces him, breathing her spirit into his soul. As soon as he wakes he calls for feast after feast but can never slake his hunger. He eats his way through his entire fortune then sells his daughter, Mestra, for more money for food.

Mestra, sold into slavery, begs help and Neptune takes pity. As she is walking along the shore before her master, Neptune changed her into a fisherman. When the master asks whether she/he has seen a girl she denies it and he goes off puzzled – at which Neptune changes her back.

This ability to change at will is now permanently hers and her father sells her again and again to different masters and she assumes a shape and escapes. But eventually even the money brought in from selling and reselling his daughter isn’t enough to slake his invincible hunger and Erysichthon ends up eating himself!

Book 9

Achelous tells his guests about the time he wrestled with Hercules for the hand of Deianira, transforming himself into a snake then a bull. Hercules rips off one of his horns, thus mutilating his forehead permanently, but otherwise unscathed and now river nymphs decorate his head with willow leaves so that no one notices. Next morning Theseus and companions leave his cave.

Segue to the story of Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira i.e. Nessus the centaur offers to carry Deianira over a flooded river but then goes to carry her off so Hercules downs him with a single arrow. As he dies Nessus soaks his blood into his shirt and tells Deianira, standing nearby in horror, that his blood is a love potion (lying, as he knows it is a fierce poison). Hercules rescues Deianira and takes her off. Some time later Deianira hears that Hercules is having an affair with Iole (daughter of Eurytus) and is going to being her back to their house. She agonises about how to win back her husband, remembers the shirt soaked in Nessus’s dried blood and gets a servant, Lichas, to take it to Hercules as a token of her love. He puts it on and the toxic blood immediately starts burning him. He tries to tear it off but it rips his skin, bellowing in agony. He throws the cowering servant, Lichas, into the sea, who is turned to stone so that a stone in human sometimes appears in the Euboean Gulf at low tide and sailors call it Lichas to this day.

Eventually Jupiter takes pity on his son, sloughs off his human part and translates his immortal part into the heavens.

Cut to Hercules’s mother, Alcmena, telling Iole about the hero’s birth, namely how Juno, hating Hercules even before his birth, orders the goddess of birth Lucina to squat outside Alcmena’s house with her arms and legs crossed which, magically, effected Alcmena’s womb and prevented the child’s birth. Until Alcmena’s loyal servant Galanthis fools Lucina by telling her the baby’s already been born. Surprised, Lucina uncrosses her legs and the baby Hercules then can be born. Furious, Lucina grabbed Galanthis by the hair and dragged her head down to the ground and the loyal servant was changed into a weasel.

Continuing this conversation, Iole then tells a story to Alcmena, about her half sister, Dryope. She ‘suffered the assault’ of Apollo i.e. was raped, but then respectably married off to a mortal man. One day she came to a lovely pool with her one-year-old son and innocently picked some flowers from a lotus tree, only for it to bleed. She learned the tree was the nymph Lotis fleeing the sexual advances of Priapus (sometimes the narrative feels like one rape after another). At which point Dryope is transformed into a tree. She pleads she has done nothing to justify such a sad fate, and her sister (Iole, the narrator the tale) tries to intervene, but nothing can prevent her sad fate.

They are surprised by the arrival of Iolaüs, Hercules’s nephew and companion, who has been rejuvenated, made young again. At this all the gods complain and demand similar rejuvenation for their mortal partners, lovers or children.

Even the gods are subordinate to Fate

However, Jupiter replies with an important statement about the limits of his powers, about his own subservience to the unseeable dictates of Fate, which echoes the same thought found in the Aeneid.

l Jupiter opened his mouth and said: ‘O, if you have any respect for me, where do you think all this talk is heading? Do any of you think you can overcome fate as well? Through fate Iolaüs’s past years were restored. Through fate Callirhoë’s children must prematurely become men, not through ambition or warfare. Even you, and I, too, fate rules, if that also makes you feel better. If I had power to alter fate, these late years would not bow down my pious Aeacus. Just Rhadamanthus would always possess youth’s flower, and my Minos, who is scorned because of the bitter weight of old age, and no longer orders the kingdom in the way he did before.’

‘You and I, too, fate rules.’ A profound vision of the world, where even the gods are, in the end, subservient, to darker powers.

Mention of Minos links to his rival Miletus who left their kingdom and founded his own city on the shore of Asia Minor, married Cyanee, and fathered twins, Byblis and her brother Caunus. This story is about Cyanee, the daughter of Maeander, whose stream so often curves back on itself, when she was Byblis’s incestuous love for her brother Caunus. As with Medea and Scylla, Ovid gives us another long soliloquy by a female character agonising about what to do in light of her passionate love. In the end she sets down her thoughts in a long letter declaring her love for her brother which she gets a slave to deliver. Alas, he doesn’t reciprocate but is shocked and then furious, throwing away the tablets the letter is written on.

But Byblis continues her suit, becoming more passionate, until Caunus flees, setting up his own city in Asia Minor. Byblis goes mad, roaming the hills and plains, until she falls to the ground endlessly weeping, and the naiads turn her into a fountain.

But another miraculous transformation happened around that time in Crete. Ligdus was married to Telethusa. When she gets pregnant he tells her it had better be a boy child; if a girl, they’ll expose it to die. In a dream the goddess Isis comes to Telethusa and says she will protect her. In the event she gives birth to a girl but swears all the servants to pretend it is a boy. And so Iphis is raised as a boy.

When Iphis turns 13 her father betroths her to the 13-year-old daughter of a neighbour. Iphis loves this other girl, but as a lesbian. Ovid gives another prolonged female soliloquy, this time of Iphis begging the gods for a way out of her dilemma. Telethusa prays some more and, the night before the wedding is due, Isis changes Iphis into a boy.

Book 10

Orpheus and Eurydice are married. She steps on a poisonous snake, dies and goes to the underworld. Orpheus follows her and sings a lament to Dis and Persephone which moves them to release Eurydice, on the condition Orpheus doesn’t look back at her on their long walk back to earth. Of course he does and she slips through his fingers back into the underworld, for good this time.

Devastated, Orpheus shuns the company of women and prefers to love boys, during the brief period of their first flowering.

On a flat hilltop there is a gathering of all the trees who come to listen to Orpheus’s wonderful songs (another List). The cypress tree was made when the fair youth Cyparissus accidentally speared a noble stag he had long loved. He wept and pined and was turned into the cypress.

Amid this assembly of trees Orpheus sings tales of transformation. All the rest of book 10 is Orpheus’s songs:

  • Ganymede: Jupiter temporarily turns himself into an eagle to abduct this boy
  • Hyacinth: Apollo went everywhere with this young man till one time they were having a competition to throw the discus, Apollo threw it a mighty distance, Hyacinthus ran forward to collect it but it bounded up into his face and killed him and the boy was turned into the purple flower
  • The Cerustae men murder all who stay with them as guests. For this impiety Venus turned them into bullocks.
  • The Propoetides denied Venus and were the first women to prostitute themselves in public. So Venus turned them into flints.
  • Pygmalion shuns women and makes a statue of one which he falls in love with until, during the festival of Venus, he asks the god to make his beloved statue real and she does.
  • longer than all the other stories put together is the story of Myrrha who conceives an illegal love for her own father, Cinyras. She tries to hang herself, her nurse interrupts, saves her, learns her shameful secret, and then helps disguise her so she can sleep with her father which she does, repeatedly, until he discovers the scandal, runs to get his sword, she fled the palace and wandered in the wild, until the compassionate gods changed her into the myrrh tree.
  • She was pregnant when she transformed and the boy is born of her tree trunk and raised by nymphs to become gorgeous Adonis. Venus is pricked by her son, Cupid’s, arrow and falls in love with him.
    • Story within a story within a story: Orpheus tells the story of Venus who one day, as they are lying in a glade, tells Adonis the story of Atalanta who refused to marry, challenging all her suitors to a running race and the losers are put to death. Hippomenes asks Venus for her help and the goddess gives him three apples. During the race he throws each of them to the side of the track and each time Atalanta detours to pick them up, so that Hippomenes wins. But when the victorious young man fails to thank and praise her the fickle goddess turns against him. She puts it in their minds to make love in a sacred cave, thus defiling it and Juno, offended, turns them into lions. In time Cybele tamed them and now they pull her chariot.
  • Back up a level, Orpheus goes on to describe how Adonis foolishly hunts a fierce boar which gores and kills him. Mourning Venus institutes an annual festival in his name and turns him into the anemone.

Book 11

The frenzied Ciconian women aka the Bacchantes aka the Maenads, kill Orpheus and tear his body to pieces which they throw in a river which carries it to the sea. His soul goes down to Hades and is reunited with his beloved Eurydice. Bacchus turns the Maenads who killed Orpheus into oak trees.

Bacchus’s tutor, Silenus, is captured by the Lydians and taken to King Midas. After ten days of partying the kind returns the drunk old man to Bacchus who grants him a wish and Midas chooses the golden touch. Then the standard account of how his delight turns to horror as even his food and wine turn to gold. In this version, he doesn’t touch his daughter and turn her to gold; he begs Bacchus to take back the gift, so Bacchus tells him to go bathe in the river by great Sardis.

Pan challenges Apollo to a competition as to who is best musician. They choose the god of the mountain of Tmolus as judge. Both play and Tmolus judges Apollo the better performer. Since his misfortune with the gold, Midas has wandered the fields and mountains. He happens to be at this competition and demurs, saying Pan was better. Apollo gives him ass’s ears.

Apollo flies over to watch the first building of Troy, by Laomedon and Neptune. When the king refused the promised payment Neptune flooded the land.

Jupiter gives Thetis to Peleus after Proteus predicts she will give birth to a son greater than her father. In fact Peleus comes across Thetis naked on the seashore and tries to rape her but she transforms through a series of shapes. Proteus advises holding her tight till she gives in so Peleus seizes her in her seashore cave and holds her through even more transformations till she gives in at which point he inseminates her with Achilles.

Earlier in his life Peleus had been expelled from his homeland for killing his brother and fetched up in the kingdom of Trachis whose king, Ceyx, tells him the story of Daedalion. This starts with the gods Apollo and Mercury both seeing and falling love with the Chione, the 14-year-old daughter of Daedalion. Both cast magic spells on her and raped her, Mercury by day, Apollo by night.

Nine months later this daughter gave birth to twins, Autolycus, crafty and Philammon, skilled the with lyre. Unfortunately, Chione boasted about this achievement, vaunting herself above the goddess Diana who promptly shot her dead with an arrow. Her distraught father Daedalion tried to hurl himself onto her funeral pyre, was restrained, but later threw himself off a cliff. Taking pity, Apollo turned him into a hawk who takes out his savage anger on other birds and small animals.

Ceyx has only just finished telling this story when Peleus’s herdsman comes running up and tells him a huge wolf is devastating his herd. Peleus realises it’s punishment for him killing his half-brother and prays the half-brother’s mother, Psamathe, to relent. Thetis intercedes on his behalf and the goddess changes the wolf to marble.

Despite the warnings of his loving wife, Alcyone, Ceyx goes on a journey by sea to consult the oracle of Apollo, at Claros. There is a bravura passage giving a terrific description of a storm at sea. He drowns. Not knowing this Alcyone goes daily to Juno’s shrine to pray for his safety. Taking pity, Juno sends Iris to the House of Sleep which is given a full and brilliant description. In the Kline translation:

There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.

Juno has tasked Iris with asking Sleep to send one of his shape-shifting sons in a dream to tell Alcyone the bad news. Sleep despatches Morpheus, expert at assuming people’s likenesses, who appears to Alcyone in a dream as her husband and tells her he is dead. Next day she goes down to the seashore to mourn and Ceyx’s corpse is washed ashore. Alcyone jumps up onto a breakwater to see better and keeps on flying, her arms turning into wings her mouth into a beak. In fact both wife and dead husband are transformed into ‘halcyons’. It is said that they mate once a year and make a nest on the sea and after she has laid the eggs, Aeolus god of the winds delivers 7 days of complete calm on the sea. Hence the expression halcyon days.

In a breath-takingly casual link, Ovid says an old man was standing nearby who added another story, telling the ill-fated love of Aesacus, Hector’s half-brother, for the nymph Hesperie. One day, chasing her (as men chase all women in these stories) she trod on a snake, was bitten and died. Despairing, Aesacus threw himself off a cliff but Tethys caught him and transformed him into the long-necked bird which repeatedly dives into the sea, and is called a ‘diver’ (the genus Mergus).

Book 12 The Trojan War

In book 12 Ovid retells the stories of the Greek siege of Troy, but focusing on moments of transformation.

The House of Rumour

Rumour of them precedes the coming Greeks and Ovid has another page-long description of an allegorical figure, Rumour (compare previous extended descriptions of the Houses of Hunger and of Sleep).

Iphigenia and Cycnus

As to the transformations:

  • when Agamemnon is about to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, she is replaced by a deer
  • Achilles fiercely attacks Cycnus who, at the moment of death, is changed into a swan

Nestor’s tales

An extended sequence is devoted to tales told by Nestor one evening after the Greek leaders have feasted.

1. Nestor tells the story of Caenis, a young woman walking the seashore who is raped by Neptune. Afterwards he asks if she wants any gift and she asks to be turned into a man so she can never be raped again, and so Neptune turns her into the man Caeneus and makes him invulnerable to weapons.

2. Nestor gives an extended description of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous to Hippodame (pages 273 to 282). The Lapiths are a group of legendary people in Greek mythology, whose home was in Thessaly. They held a wedding feast and invited the centaurs who proceeded to get drunk and attempt to abduct the Lapiths’ women. The resulting battle is one of the most enduring of Greek legends.

Maybe placing it here is Ovid’s way of showing he can do anatomically detailed and gory descriptions of fighting in the approved epic manner, but without infringing on the actual fighting at Troy which Homer and Virgil (among many others) had already done so well.

In Ovid’s account the battles leads up the centaurs fighting the invulnerable human, Caeneus and, since no weapons can harm him, deciding to pile trees on top of him. Thus buried under torn-up trees, No one knows what happened to Caeneus in the end but some saw a bird with tawny wings fly out from the middle of the pile.

3. Tlepolemus asks Nestor why he hasn’t mentioned Hercules and Nestor explains that he loathes the man because he killed 11 of his brothers, even Periclymenus who Neptune gave the gift of being able to change shape, and who changes into an eagle to escape the massacre but Hercules kills him, nonetheless, with bow and arrow. And that is the end of Nestor’s storytelling.

The death of Achilles

Jump forward ten years to the climax of the siege of Troy. Ovid deals with the death of Achilles in an odd way. He starts by describing how Neptune, who helped to build Troy and fought on the Trojan side, resented the success of Achilles but is forbidden to confront him directly, and so goes to his nephew, Apollo, also fighting on the Trojan side, and asks whether he is not angry at man-killing Achilles and whether he’ll use his mighty bow and arrow to stop him. Apollo agrees and so seeks out Paris fighting ineffectually in the middle of the day’s battle, tells him to shoot at Achilles and he will guide his arrow. Which he does, and that is the death of Achilles.

It’s odd that Ovid doesn’t even mention the central aspect of Achilles’ death which is the vulnerability of his heel, which is where Paris’s poisoned arrow is said to have struck him. And there’s no transformation involved to justify its inclusion in the poem at all. But then his treatment of the entire war is odd, digressing into the battle of the Lapiths and avoiding describing all the famous incidents of the war itself.

Instead Ovid skips to immediately after the funeral of Achilles when argument arises about which of the surviving heroes will inherit the mighty shield of Achilles. The Greek leaders agree to hold a formal debate which begins in book 13.

Book 13

Debate between Ajax and Ulysses

Again, Ovid takes an odd, peripheral approach to the great subject. He describes in detail the set-piece debate about who should claim the arms of dead Achilles. Ajax, arguably the Greeks’ biggest strongest warrior, argues for a full 4 pages, describing his own merits (grandson of Jupiter, only Greek who can stand up to Hector) but mainly rubbishing Ulysses, describing him as a coward and a sneak who never fights in the light of day but cooks up secret midnight tricks. Then Ulysses speaks for 7 pages, defending himself.

The whole extended passage is a bravura demonstration of Ovid’s skill at staging a debate, reminding us that his parents and the emperor himself originally expected him to make a career in public life.

Anyway, Ulysses wins the debate, is awarded the arms of Achilles, and Ajax kills himself out of rage and chagrin. Ovid points out that out of his blood grew the hyacinth but it’s a pretty tangential reference to the poem’s theme. Any reaction by the other leaders is ignored.

Ulysses fetches Philoctetes

Instead Ulysses sails off to the isle of Lemnos to see Philoctetes, without whose bow and arrow, prophets said, Troy could not fall. There are umpteen versions of this story; Ovid short circuits all of them, says Philoctetes returned and Troy fell boom boom.

The deaths of Polyxena, Polydorus and transformation of Hecuba

King Priam sends his youngest son Polydorus away from Troy when the war begins, to the court of king Polymestor. But he sent a load of gold with him, too, and impious Polymestor stabbed the boy to death and threw him over a cliff into the sea.

Troy is captured, sacked, all the men killed and all the women dragged off into captivity including miserable Hecuba who tries to grab the ashes of her beloved son, Hector. The ghost of Achilles appears before the Greek leaders and tells them they will get no favourable wind for their ships unless they sacrifice one of Hecuba’s daughters, Polyxena, so the Greeks agree to do this.

Polyxena makes a noble speech, another one of the long closely-reasoned speeches Ovid writes for his female characters, then offers her breast to the priest at the altar. Like everyone else he is moved to tears by her speech but stabs her to death anyway.

Hecuba witnesses all this, herself making an extended soliloquy of misery, then goes running along the seashore mad with grief, but trying to console herself that at least she has her son to console her. That’s when she sees the corpse of Polydorus floating across the waves towards her, his wounds bleached and gaping.

Somehow, with the logic of a fairy tale not history, Hecuba with her attendants makes her way to the court of the treacherous King Polymestor, and asks for a private audience where she will tell him about more treasure. Polymestor agrees and when they are alone, swears he’ll hand the treasure on to his ward. Hecuba, knows he has murdered his ward and so knows he is swearing lying oaths. She stabs him in the eyes with her sharp fingernails and then smashes his eye sockets.

Then the Thracian people try to stone Hecuba and her Trojan women but she chases the stones, snapping at them and is turned into a dog. Even vengeful Juno is moved to say Hecuba didn’t deserve this fate but then that is the overwhelming moral of these stores: life is howlingly, outrageously cruel and unfair.

Memnon

During the war Memon had been killed by Achilles. His mother, Aurora, goddess of the dawn, goes to be Jupiter for some recognition of her grief and his achievement. Jupiter arranges for his body on the funeral pyre to give rise to a flight of birds which divide into two parties, fight each other and all die. They are called the Memnonides and celebrated at an annual feast. Meanwhile, every morning the dawn weeps tears for her dead son, what we mortals call the dew.

The pilgrimage of Aeneas

Aeneas flees Troy with his father, son, followers and household gods. First stop is Delos where king Anius tells the sad story of how his daughters, who had magic gifts for turning everything they touched into food and wine, were kidnapped by Greek forces but pleaded with the god Bacchus who gave them their skills and were transformed into white doves.

Next day they attend the oracle of Apollo for Anius is not only king but high priest, and the god tells them to seek the bones of their mother which Aeneas, falsely, takes to mean Crete. They exchange gifts with king Anius including a cup engraved with the story of Orion’s daughters, and set sail.

What follows is a very brief summary of Aeneas’s journeys i.e. he rejects Crete and heads north towards Italy, landed in the harbour of the Strophades, were terrified by the harpy, Aëllo, and a shopping list of other ancient islands and cities they sailed past on their way to Sicily, stopping at Epirus to have their futures read by Helenus, through the straits of Messina past the perils of Scylla and Charybdis.

Obviously this was all dealt with in detail in Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid. Presumably Ovid had to mention Aeneas as a kind of link between the Trojan War and later myths/history, but did he also feel obliged to namecheck it so as to incorporate/supersede Virgil in his own, eccentric epic?

Acis and Galatea

Back before Scylla was turned into a grotesque monster she combs Galatea the sea nymph ‘s hair (underwater) while the latter tells her about her love for 16-year-old mortal boy, Acis. Unfortunately, the Cyclops Polyphemus is in love with her and Ovid devotes a couple hundred lines to a rather moving love song he sings to her, like so many of these soliloquies making a case, in this instance all the reasons Galatea ought to love him e.g. he’s big, he owns lots of sheep and so on.

Then Polyphemus spots the lovers lying in each other’s arms and comes storming towards them. Galatea dives into the sea leaving Acis to run but not fast enough. Polyphemus throws a huge chunk of mountainside which crushes the boy. Galatea changes Acis into a river (and accompanying river god).

Scylla and Glaucus

After this tale Scylla returns to the land where she roams naked. She is startled by the attentions of Glaucus who used to be mortal but was turned into a merman. Glaucus tells the story of how he was transformed (by eating magic grass) but Scylla slips off, leaving him frustrated.

Book 14

Scylla and Glaucus continued

Glaucus swims across the sea to the land of Circe and begs her to concoct a potion to make Scylla fall in love with him. Circe advises him to forget Scylla and fall in love with her. Glaucus rejects her and swims off. This infuriates Circe with Scylla and so she concocts an evil potion, swims over to Scylla’s island and pours it into the pool where Scylla loves to bathe. When Scylla slips in up to her waits the region below is transformed into barking monster dogs. Glaucus is distraught. Scylla becomes curdled with hatred and takes to living on one side of the Strait, reaching out and capturing sailors of ships passing by e.g. Ulysses in his wandering or Aeneas, a little later.

More Aeneas

Which brings us back to Aeneas. Ovid briefly describes the storm which blows his fleet onto the north African coast where he, of course, encounters Dido. Their love affair barely rates a sentence before Aeneas is off again, sailing north, back to Sicily then past the isle of the Sirens, the loss of Palinurus. It’s like the Aeneid on fast forward.

A super-brief reference to the fact that Jupiter, hating the lying and deceit of the Cercopes, turned them into monkeys.

A very rushed account of Aeneas anchoring at Cumae, seeing the Sybil, plucking the golden bough and going to the underworld where he meets the spirit of his dead father, Anchises.

The Sibyl’s story

On the way back up from the underworld Aeneas offers to build a temple to the Sibyl but she corrects him; she is no god but a mortal woman. Apollo fancied her and offered her eternal life if she would sleep with him. She said no but he gave her eternal life and the gift of prophecy – but not eternal youth; in the years to come she will shrivel and shrink with age.

Macareus and Achaemenides

In a rather contorted segue Ovid says a Greek had settled in Cumae, named Macareus. This Macareus now recognises among the Trojans a fellow Greek named Achaemenides who had got left behind on Sicily in the realm of Polyphemus. Achaemenides describes the Cyclops rage at being blinded and tricked and how he threw whole mountains after Ulysses’s departing ship.

Then Macareus tells Achaemenides what happened after they escaped Sicily, namely: a) how they used the winds put into a bag by Aeolus, b) how they docked at the city of Lamus, of the Laestrygonians, whose treacherous king Antiphates led an attack on them and killed and ate some of their shipmates before they could escape.

The island of Circe

How they next arrived the island of Circe and Macareus drew a lot to go to the palace. Pushing through flocks of wild animals (a thousand wolves, and mixed with the wolves, she-bears and lionesses) they entered the chamber where Circe’s servants were separating out her herbs and medicines. She offered them food and win then touched them with her wand and turned them into pigs. One of the party makes it back to Ulysses, tells him what happened. Ulysses has the herb moly which protects him from Circe’s magic, so when he goes up to her palace he pushes aside her wand and master her, taking her as wife. In bed he demands that his men are turned back from animals to men.

They stayed on Circe’s island for a year. Macareus tells some stories about things he saw there:

Picus and Canens and Circe

Picus, the son of Saturn, was king in the land of Ausonia and a very handsome man. All the nymphs and nerieds threw themselves at him but he wooed and wed Canens who sang beautifully. One day he went hunting in the countryside and was seen by Circe who fell madly in love with him. She conjured a phantom boar for him to chase into the depths of the forest where the cast spells and confronted him and offered him her love. But Picus rejected Circe, saying he was loyal to his wife Canens. So Circe changed him into a woodpecker. When his fellow hunters confront her, she changes them into wild beasts, too. Canens waits in vain for her husband to return, lies down beside the river Tiber and turns into nothing. The place is called Canens to this day.

Now, this story of forests and magic feels much more like Ovid’s speciality and much more like the subject of this poem than either the Troy or the Aeneas subject matter. They both feel too historical. They lack real magic. They lack the strange and unexpected. It doesn’t make chronological sense to say this, but the best of his tales have a kind of medieval feel, feel like the strange fables and magical happenings which fill Boccaccio or Chaucer.

Aeneas reaches Latium, war with Turnus

Macareus ends his tale by saying that after a year Aeneas rounded up his crew and they left Circe’s island. Again, Ovid gives a super-compressed account of Aeneas’s arrival in Latium and the war with Turnus which follows, all for the hand of Lavinia.

How Diomede lost his men

Looking for allies, Turnus sends Venulus to Diomede, a Greek in exile. Diomede can spare no men because, after long suffering, troubled journey back from Troy, one of his men, Acmon, insulted the goddess Venus who turned them all into birds a bit like swans.

En route back to Turnus Venulus passes a spot where a rude shepherd once terrorised some nymphs. He was changed into the bitter olive tree.

The Trojan ships are turned to dolphins

Turnus storms the Trojan ships and sets them alight. But the goddess Cybele remembers they’re made from trees which grew on Mount Ida which is sacred to her so she sent a thunderstorm to extinguish the fires, but then snapped their cables and sank them. Underwater, the ships were turned into dolphins.

Eventually Turnus is killed in battle and his army defeated. The city of Ardea was conquered and burned and from its midst rose a heron.

Venus asks Jupiter for permission to make Aeneas a god. His body is washed and purified by the river Numicius, then she touches his lips with nectar and ambrosia, and he becomes a god with temples where he’s worshipped.

Ovid then lists the succession of kings following Aeneas, starting with his son Ascanius and briefly describing a dozen or so until he comes to the story of Pomona.

Pomona and Vertumnis

Pomona is a skilful wood nymph wooed by many men, by Pan and Silenus. She hides herself away. But she is desperately loved by Vertumnus, god of the seasons and their produce. He disguises himself as an old woman to gain entrance to her sanctuary and there speaks eloquently in favour of Vertumnus. This pretend old lady then tells Pomona the story of Iphis, a commoner, who falls in love with the princess Anaxerete. But she is hard-hearted, refuses and mocks him. Iphis hangs around outside her locked door, sleeping on the step, hanging garlands on it (as does the stock figure of the lover in the elegiac poems, the Amores). Eventually he hangs himself from the lintel. The servants take him down and carry his body to his mother who organises his funeral procession. Anaxerete hurries up to the top floor room and leans out to watch the procession and is turned to stone as hard as her heart.

Frustrated, Vertumnus reveals himself in his glory as a handsome young man and, luckily, Pomona falls in love at first sight.

Romulus

What happens next is odd: Ovid introduces the character of Romulus but without mentioning any of the usual stuff, about the vestal virgin Ilia being impregnated by Mars, bearing twins Romulus and Remus, their being abandoned but suckled by a she-wolf, their agreeing to found settlements but Remus laughing at Romulus and the latter angrily killing his brother.

None of that at all. Ovid cuts to war with the Sabine tribe which ends in a peace whereby the Sabines’ king Tatius co-rules with Romulus. In the next sentence Tatius is dead, Romulus is ruling alone and then Mars goes to see Jupiter and asks for his son to be turned into a god (exactly as per Aeneas). And so Mars spirits Romulus – completely alive and in the middle of administering justice – into the sky.

His widow, Hersilie, receives a visit from Iris, female messenger of the gods, is told to go to the Quirinal hill, where a shooting star falls from heaven, sets fire to her hair, and she is whirled up into heaven to be reunited with Romulus. He renames her Hora, the name under which she has a temple on the Quirinal Hill.

Book 15

Cut to the figure of Numa, the second king of Rome (after Romulus) who is ambitious to understand the universe who travels to Crotona and there hears the legend of its foundation i.e. how Myscelus, the son of Alemon of Argos, was ordered in a dream to leave his home town, travel over the seas to found it.

The doctrines of Pythagoras

Turns out we’ve come to Crotona because this is where Pythagoras lived and, unexpectedly, Ovid now describes in some detail the teachings of Pythagoras.

‘I delight in journeying among the distant stars: I delight in leaving earth and its dull spaces, to ride the clouds; to stand on the shoulders of mighty Atlas, looking down from far off on men, wandering here and there, devoid of knowledge, anxious, fearing death; to read the book of fate, and to give them this encouragement!’

He has Pythagoras deliver a speech of 404 lines, roughly half the length of the book, touching on a set of Pythagorean concerns:

Polemical vegetarianism – in the Golden Age there was no hunting and killing of animals. ‘When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.’

Metempsychosis – be not afraid of death for no soul dies: ‘Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms.’

Is this why this long Pythagoras section is included? Because the belief in metempsychosis is a kind of belief in universal metamorphosis, posits a world of continual metamorphoses?

Eternal Flux – of nature, of all life forms, of human beings which grow from the womb, ever-changing.

The Four Ages of Man – in the womb, helpless baby, playful toddler, young man, mature man, ageing man etc.

The four elements – being earth, water, air and fire, endlessly intermingling, changing combinations.

Geologic changes – seashells are found on mountaintops, deserts were once pasture, islands become joined to the mainland, parts of the mainland slip under the sea. The magic properties of many rivers, some of them turn you to stone, some into birds. If the earth is an animal, volcanoes like Etna are outlets for her fires.

Animals – brief references to well-known folk stories, like buried dead bulls give rise to bees, frogs are born from mud. A buried war horse gives rise to hornets. Bury a dead crab and it will change into a scorpion. Twaddle. The legend of the phoenix. Lynxes can change their sex. Coral is wavy below water but becomes stone on contact with the air. Twaddle.

Cities rise and fall: Thebes, Mycenae, Sparta. Troy was once mighty and is now ruins. This allows Pythagoras/Ovid to mention rumours of a new city, Rome, rising by Tiber’s banks. Pythagoras recalls Helenus’s prophecy for Rome:

Helenus, son of Priam, said to a weeping Aeneas, who was unsure of his future: “Son of the goddess, if you take careful heed, of what my mind prophesies, Troy will not wholly perish while you live! Fire and sword will give way before you: you will go, as one man, catching up, and bearing away Pergama, till you find a foreign land, kinder to you and Troy, than your fatherland. I see, even now, a city, destined for Phrygian descendants, than which none is greater, or shall be, or has been, in past ages. Other leaders will make her powerful, through the long centuries, but one, born of the blood of Iülus, will make her mistress of the world. When earth has benefited from him, the celestial regions will enjoy him, and heaven will be his goal.”

Surely this is all hugely channelling Virgil and his vision of the rise of Rome portrayed in the Aeneid.

Most odd. It’s a crashing example of Ovid’s love of tricks and games and poetic tours de force to include a big passage of philosophy in a supposedly epic poem, or poem about love and transformations. It’s almost a deliberate provocation, to rank alongside his odd jumping over big aspects of the Trojan War and of the life of Romulus. Is it intended to be a serious exposition of Pythagoras’s teachings on the lines of Lucretius’s vast exposition of Epicurus’s philosophy in De Rerum Natura? Or is it an elaborate joke? Was he just constitutionally incapable of taking anything seriously?

Numa listens to this great discourse and takes Pythagoras’s teachings back to Rome where he spreads them before dying of old age. His wife, Egeria, goes lamenting through the country but is confronted by Hippolytus, son of Theseus. He tells his story, namely how his father’s wife, Phaedra, fell in love and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she accused him of trying to rape her to her husband, Hippolytus’s father. He was sent into exile but when crossing the Gulf of Corinth a vast wave filled with the roars of bulls spooked his horses who galloped off dragging him behind them till he was flayed. He goes down to the Underworld but is healed by Asclepius and given a disguise by Diana.

But Egeria continues lamenting her husband til Diana turns her into a pool of water. Romulus is amazed to see his spear turn into a tree. Cipus acquires horns.

The long-winded story of how Asclepius in the form of a snake saved Rome from a plague.

Caesar and Augustus

Then the poem reaches its climax with unstinting praise of the emperor Augustus:

Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor. Is it a greater thing to have conquered the sea-going Britons; to have led his victorious ships up the seven-mouthed flood of the papyrus-bearing Nile; to have brought the rebellious Numidians, under Juba of Cinyps, and Pontus, swollen with the name of Mithridates, under the people of Quirinus; to have earned many triumphs and celebrated few; than to have sponsored such a man, with whom, as ruler of all, you gods have richly favoured the human race?

Venus warns all the gods of the conspiracy she can see against her descendant, Julius Caesar, but in another important statement of the limits of the gods powers:

It was in vain that Venus anxiously voiced these complaints all over the sky, trying to stir the sympathies of the gods. They could not break the iron decrees of the ancient sisters. (p.355)

Still Ovid enjoys devoting half a page to all the signs and portents which anticipated the assassination of Julius Caesar, as lovingly reproduced in Shakespeare’s play on the subject. And Jupiter delivers another, longer lecture on the unavoidability of fate.

Then Jupiter, the father, spoke: ‘Alone, do you think you will move the immoveable fates, daughter? You are allowed yourself to enter the house of the three: there you will see all things written, a vast labour, in bronze and solid iron, that, eternal and secure, does not fear the clashing of the skies, the lightning’s anger, or any forces of destruction. There you will find the fate of your descendants cut in everlasting adamant.

Which turns into Jupiter praising Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, worth quoting in full seeing as what happened to Ovid soon after:

‘This descendant of yours you suffer over, Cytherean, has fulfilled his time, and the years he owes to earth are done. You, and Augustus, his ‘son’, will ensure that he ascends to heaven as a god, and is worshipped in the temples. Augustus, as heir to his name, will carry the burden placed upon him alone, and will have us with him, in battle, as the most courageous avenger of his father’s murder. Under his command, the conquered walls of besieged Mutina will sue for peace; Pharsalia will know him; Macedonian Philippi twice flow with blood; and the one who holds Pompey’s great name, will be defeated in Sicilian waters; and a Roman general’s Egyptian consort, trusting, to her cost, in their marriage, will fall, her threat that our Capitol would bow to her city of Canopus, proved vain.

‘Why enumerate foreign countries, for you or the nations living on either ocean shore? Wherever earth contains habitable land, it will be his: and even the sea will serve him!

‘When the world is at peace, he will turn his mind to the civil code, and, as the most just of legislators, make law. He will direct morality by his own example, and, looking to the future ages and coming generations, he will order a son, Tiberius, born of his virtuous wife, to take his name, and his responsibilities. He will not attain his heavenly home, and the stars, his kindred, until he is old, and his years equal his merits.’

Julius looks down on his son who has superseded his achievements and the poem ends with a prolonged and serious vow, invoking all the gods, that Augustus live to a ripe old age.

You gods, the friends of Aeneas, to whom fire and sword gave way; you deities of Italy; and Romulus, founder of our city; and Mars, father of Romulus; Vesta, Diana, sacred among Caesar’s ancestral gods, and you, Phoebus, sharing the temple with Caesar’s Vesta; you, Jupiter who hold the high Tarpeian citadel; and all you other gods, whom it is fitting and holy for a poet to invoke, I beg that the day be slow to arrive, and beyond our own lifetimes, when Augustus shall rise to heaven, leaving the world he rules, and there, far off, shall listen, with favour, to our prayers!

It could hardly be more fulsome.

In a sense the entire theme of miraculous transformation can be seen as a kind of artistic validation or evidence base or literary justification for the belief that Julius Caesar really was transformed into a god at his death and that his adopted son will follow in his path. The poem dramatises the ideology which underpins Augustus’s power. In their way – a subtle, playful, colourful way – the Metamorphoses suck up to Augustus just as much as Virgil’s Aeneid does, until the sucking up becomes as overt as it could possibly be in the last few pages.

Long female soliloquies about love

As mentioned, some passages are very similar to the Heroides in that women are given long soliloquies in which they make a case, argue and discuss issues with themselves (always about illicit love).

  • Medea (book 7)
  • Scylla (book 8)
  • Byblis (book 9)
  • Myrrha (book 10)
  • Iphigeneia (book 12)
  • Hecuba (book 13)

Allegorical figures

Mostly the narrative concerns itself with mortals and gods whose attributes and abilities are only briefly mentioned, as it’s relevant to the story. But a couple of times the narrative introduces grand allegorical figures who are given the full treatment, with a description of their dwelling place, physical appearance, accoutrements and so on. Although I know they’re common in medieval literature and later, they remind me of the allegorical figures found in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and, later, in Paradise Lost (I’m thinking of Sin and Death who Satan encounters in book 2).

  • Hunger (book 8)
  • Sleep (book 11)
  • Rumour (book 12)

Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

(This is the first of two summaries and reviews of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically

Contents

Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.

(For summary and notes on the second half of the Metamorphoses, see my next blog post.)


Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

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

Restoration art

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.


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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

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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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