Introductions to the Aeneid – 2. Allen Mandelbaum

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

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

This is the middle of three blog posts giving detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. This one looks at Allen Mandelbaum’s introduction to his 1970 translation. (The third blog post, about David West’s introduction, includes examples of each of the translators’ actual translations, including Mandelbaum’s.)

1970 introduction by Allen Mandelbaum

Allen Mandelbaum (1926 to 2011) was a Jewish-American professor of literature and the humanities, poet, and translator from Classical Greek, Latin and Italian. After going to live for decades in Italy he returned to the States and taught English and comparative literature at the City University of New York from 1966 to 1986. His translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1980 to 1984) won him Italy’s highest award, the Presidential Cross of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity. Impressive. This translation of the Aeneid won the 1973 National Book Award in the translation category. The preface to it, which am now going to summarise, was published in 1970.

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Before we even get to Mandelbaum’s introduction, the blurb on the inside cover about Virgil is interesting. It says that as part of Octavius’s sweeping land reallocation to retired soldiers after the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), he confiscated Virgil’s parents’ extensive farmlands around Mantua. It says Virgil travelled to Rome to argue for its return, and this certainly chimes with the accounts in several of the Virgil’s eclogues of land confiscation and of the shepherd who has travelled to Rome and seen the young prince i.e. Octavius to try and get his land back.

The blurb goes on to say it was as a result of Virgil’s pleading that he became friends with Octavius and was handed over to be managed by his arts minister, Maecenas. This close relationship between patron and poet leads the blurb writer to say that it was at Augustus’s express command that Virgil’s request to burn the draft of the Aeneid was overruled, and that it was Augustus who handed it to the scholars Varius and Tucca with specific instructions to edit only the obvious errors and repetitions, but to add nothing new to it, and to publish the result, which they did in 16 BC.

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Mandelbaum’s introduction is only 8 pages long but it’s packed. He gets stuck in right away by saying he came to Virgil late because he was put off him by three judgements. First was a quip by the American critic Mark Van Doren (1894 to 1972) that ‘Homer is a world; Virgil, a style’. Mandelbaum associated this comment with Coleridge’s similarly negative judgement that ‘If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?’ So these two adverse opinion come under the heading of ‘Homer is the Great Original, Virgil is a Poor Copy’.

Mandelbaum goes on to mentions the judgement of the great Marxist critic, György Lukács (whose thoughts on Kafka I’ve reviewed). György boy who wrote in his Theory of the Novel that: ‘The heroes of Virgil live the cool and limited existence of shadows, nourished by the blood of noble zeal, blood that has been sacrificed in order to recall what has forever disappeared.’

Lukács was a swine but I still enjoy this kind of class-based Marxist criticism, ancient though it now feels; after all, we still live in a heavily class-based society where privately educated ministers hand out multi-million pound contracts to their friends and wives while northern proles queue at foodbanks, where gas and energy prices makes billions in profits while old age pensioners freeze to death in their flats.

Anyway, Lukács’s implication is that Virgil’s characters are contemptible because they harbour a utopian hankering for what has irredeemably disappeared, namely a nostalgic memory of a land of small family-owned farms, which had mostly been swept away by vast estates worked by slaves by the time Virgil wrote.

Anyway, Lukács’s criticism, as well as being vague and impressionistic, seems wrong to me. To me the Aeneid reads as a poem very much of the harsh present, reeking with the blood of animals slaughtered at the altar and men being stabbed, eviscerated and burned to ashes in a very perilous present.

(In case you needed to know, the third dismissal came in Concetto Marchesi’s History of Latin Literature which deprecated Virgil in favour of Lucretius.)

It is when Mandelbaum goes on to describe the personal importance to him of the English poet John Milton that the reader begins to realise that this is not going to be a scholarly introduction, but the personal musings of Mandelbaum the poet (for in addition to his prizewinning translations, Mandelbaum also published several volumes of his own poetry, as the preface now proceeds to tell us). This introduction is going to be a description of his own personal odyssey from these boyhood influences who put him off Virgil, to his late-flowering realisation of Virgil’s brilliance.

Central to Mandelbaum’s conversion were the poems of Giusseppe Ungaretti (1888 to 1970). Mandelbaum was deeply involved in translating Ungaretti’s Italian poems into English as he wrote them, and helped get them published in America throughout the 1950s. And many of Ungaretti’s poems invoked characters or themes from Virgil. So Mandelbaum first really discovered Virgilian themes through the lens of Ungaretti. He quotes a florid passage of Ungaretti’s:

Aeneas is beauty, youth, ingenuousness ever in search of a promised land, where, in the contemplated, fleeting beauty, his own beauty smiles and enchants.

Personally I’d have thought nothing could be further from a true picture of Aeneas, the careworn early-middle-aged son of decrepit Anchises and anxious father of young Ascanius, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, stumbling from one disaster to another, his hands red with blood.

As so often with ‘criticism’ by writers or poets, this isn’t objective analysis but a deliberate, and I’d say knowing, teasing, rewriting of Virgil’s character entirely to suit Ungaretti’s own poetic preoccupations. Heavily misleading, in other words. Mandelbaum goes on to quote an even more overripe slice of tripe:

Dido came to represent the experience of one who, in late autumn, is about to pass beyond it; the hour in which living is about to become barren; the hour of one from whom the horrible, tremendous, final tremor of youth is about to depart. Dido is the experience of nature as against the moral experience.

This may be a fine expression of Ungaretti’s (mimsy, impressionist) concerns but strikes me as having nothing whatsoever to do with the Dido who features in the Aeneid. All this is a worrying indication that Mandelbaum’s response to Virgil is going to be hugely contaminated by his embroilment in Ungaretti’s highly ‘poetic’ prose, all ‘tremors of youth’ and ‘the moral experience’ and fuck-all to do with the Dido who calls down the vengeance of the gods on Aeneas and makes her people swear eternal enmity with Rome.

Reminiscing about those happy times in Italy in the 1950s you can almost hear Mandelbaum relaxing the sinews of his mind and slipping into an odoriferous bath of fine feelings, claiming that Ungaretti helped him to see:

the underground denial – by consciousness and longing – of the total claims of the state and history.

I think he means the persistence in the poem of numerous threads which oppose or undermine the overt worship of Rome, of Roman patriotism, of obeisance to the predictions of Rome’s rise to world-dominating empire, which occur throughout it on a surface level.

But like so many other aesthetes what comes over strongly is the way Mandelbaum wants to reject the overt meaning of the text in front of him, preferring to project his own bourgeois fantasies of rebellion and subversion onto Virgil – very much as W.F. Jackson Knight projected his fantasies about spiritualism and universal truth onto the poor Roman in his introduction to his translation.

So much literary criticism from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century consists of this kind of whipping-up meringues made of knowing references and stylish allusions, like a conjuror pulling a string of multi-coloured flags out of his mouth, designed to impress us with the author’s wide reading and fine feelings, but leaving behind no tangible insights or ideas.

Next, Mandelbaum shows off by telling us how he loves a passage by Mark Van Doren, which uses a ‘brilliant suggestion’ by Jacob Klein to use a passage from Plato’s text The Statesman to shed light on the episode in Aeneid book 6 where Anchises is explaining to Aeneas how the souls of the dead are made to forget their past lives before being reincarnated in new bodies back on earth.

It feels like a competition to see how many names he can drop in a single passage.

Van Doren claims this passage is evidence that Virgil believed in the reassuring and ‘lulling myth of cycles’, and the hope that peace would come about by magic. Mandelbaum cites all this in order to disagree with it. He points out that far from finding the creation of new generations ‘lulling’, Virgil had demonstrated in the Georgics the sheer amount of hard physical labour which goes into producing the basics of civilisation.

With this much, I can agree, although Mandelbaum then goes on to equate the hard physical manual labour of maintaining the land depicted in the Georgics with the 11 years of dedicated mental labour involved in writing the Aeneid.

Contrary to all this talk of lulling cycles, Mandelbaum asserts that Virgil believed in power, dominion and the rule of law. As the Sibyl predicts to Aeneas:

yours will be the rulership of nations;
remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer
to spare defeated peoples, spare the proud
(6. 1,134 to 1,137)

But Virgil was aware of the price to be paid in the triumph of positive law over natural law. King Evander explains to Aeneas how his people originally lived at peace and plenty under the rule of exiled Saturn when humans needed no laws or rules. But then an Age of Iron came, violence increased, and laws became vital. All this is an accurate summary of this part of the Aeneid.

But then Mandelbaum is back to Ungaretti, telling us that he was, apparently, ‘a true Petrarchan’. I can’t see any relevance whatsoever of this random observation in a supposed introduction to Virgil. It just feels like another example of Mandelbaum’s compulsive name-dropping and/or personal reminiscence. Develop the idea, man! What are you trying to say?

But the thought isn’t developed or even explained properly. Instead, Mandelbaum switches to tell us that his other route into Virgil was via a long-lasting engagement with Dante, whose Divine Comedy he has also translated. Having lived with the Inferno, in particular, for years, he knew that Dante learned not from the style of Virgil but the styles of Virgil.

Mandelbaum quotes a passage from the English critic Donald Davie who distinguishes poets into two classes (how many critics, over how many centuries, have taken this simple-minded approach of dividing the thing under consideration into just Two Types?)

Davie says the first type of poet revels in words, that Shakespeare would have ended up using every word in the language if he’d enough time. The second type of poet is one who carefully employs a narrower selection of words, consciously excluding ones which don’t fit, in order to create a style, a verbal world.

On this reading Dante is a Shakespearian, with a very wide lexis while Virgil is the second type, with a much more limited vocabulary.

Now Mandelbaum explains what Dante learned from Virgil: he quotes the ancient grammarian Macrobius who says Virgil’s style was ‘now brief, now full, now dry, now rich, now easy, now impetuous’ to suggest that what Dante learned from Virgil was variety of tone.

Also he learned a free approach to the line, the free use of enjambment and runover.

And lastly, the free mixing up of time, the ‘rapid shifts of tenses’ which are, indeed, very noticeable in the Aeneid as Virgil mixes up the past and present, sometimes in the same sentence.

Only as he approaches the end of this brief but packed introduction does Mandelbaum explain his aims as a translator. He has tried to ‘impress’ on his translation ‘the grave tread’ but also ‘the speed and angularity’ of Virgil, ‘the asymmetrical thrust of a mind on the move’. This is fair enough, an interestingly impressionistic description of something which maybe can’t be fully put into words.

But then Mandelbaum goes into full late 60s mystical mode:

The other part of the self brings me to the last way, the unmediated one. The way is the path that opens when the guides, for whom one has been grateful, fall away or say: ‘I crown and mitre you over yourself.’

Mandelbaum doesn’t tell us, because his technique is one of flashy meringue-making, that this last phrase is in fact a quote from Dante’s Paradiso canto 27. I suspected as much though I had to Google it to confirm my hunch.

Veering off in another direction, Mandelbaum then overshares with us the personal fact that he left Italy after many years and embarked on his translation of Virgil ‘at a time of much personal discontent’. He had long thought poetry shouldn’t be used for consolation (why?) but now his experience of ‘personal discontent’ changed his mind.

And now, abruptly and dramatically, he casts a vivid slash across his entire preface when he suddenly starts talking about the Vietnam War!

The Vietnam War has, he claims, as of 1970, made it impossible to talk about American ‘society’ any more – he insists we have to use the harsher word, ‘state’. In Vietnam, the American ‘state’ ‘has wrought the unthinkable, the abominable’.

Wow. With one flash you get the full colour of Mandelbaum’s mindset. In this book, in this translation, in this introduction, it is 1970, America is just starting to withdraw its forces from Vietnam after a shameful military debacle, and Allen Mandelbaum is applying the atmosphere of these times to his thinking about power and dominion as described by a poet from 2,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, instead of drawing any kind of analogy between America’s intervention in Vietnam and Aeneas’s intervention in Italy – which would be unexpected but potentially very illuminating – Mandelbaum’s mind once again veers off into impressionistic mush and hero worship. It is frustrating that he thus raises but fails to address the key political aspect of the Aeneid, which is Virgil’s attitude towards Augustus, his violent conquests and domestic tyranny.

I take the point that the expression of these political themes in the poem is complex and multi-levelled but Mandelbaum’s entire analysis of this huge subject amounts to the following:

Virgil is not free of the taint of the proconsular; but he speaks from time to time of peace achieved, and no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost.

Two points. 1. See how he mentioned Virgil’s complicity in Augustus’s regime in just ten words, ten words expressed in the pompous and evasive phraseology of a nineteenth century politician (‘not free of the taint…’). Mandelbaum avoids the issue; he tries to gloss over it by saying that although Virgil might have been complicit with the crimes of the regime, it’s alright because he was so sensitive to the suffering of ‘the defeated and the lost’ and so that redeems him. But does it?

Second point is the rather offensive hyperbole of claiming that ‘no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost’. Really? No man? Ever? Primo Levi describing the damned in Auschwitz? Solzhenitsyn describing the defeated millions in the gulags? Even if those authors are not directly comparable with Virgil, Mandelbaum’s claim is still wildly hyperbolic, symptomatic of the way hero worship replaces analysis.

At regular moments throughout the poem the text may express what might be Virgil’s feelings about the pity of war, the pity of loss and death and grief. BUT. At the centre of the poem is the brute fact of Aeneas as a huge man-killing machine, raging like Mars across the battlefield, slaughtering hecatombs of men to achieve his God-given destiny. And his last action, the memorable last image of the poem which is left squelching in the mind’s eye – is of Aeneas thrusting his sword right up to the hilt into the chest of a man begging for mercy.

Both Jackson Knight and Mandelbaum have spent years with the Aeneid but, in their respective introductions, repress or ignore the off-the-scale levels of toxic, masculine hyper-violence which runs through it in rivers of blood, preferring to write willowy tripe about universal values and deep feelings.

Instead of analysis, Mandelbaum has namedropping combined with hero worship:

And if the relative weights of the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Pythagorean in him are often hard to assess, his humanity is constant.

Is it, though, Allen? I didn’t find it so. I find the Aeneid very uneven, manufactured from hundreds of strands and themes and tones which often sit very uncomfortably together, and all of it drenched in psychopathic anger and rivers of gore. You can pick out the moment of sad sympathy with suffering humanity, stitch them together and claim this is the ‘real’ Virgil. But what about the far greater number of passages of brutal animal sacrifice? Or passages describing insensate fury? Or the many many passages describing slaughter and massacre? Or the frequent passages expressing slavish sycophancy to the great Augustus. All of these and numerous other topics and tones need to be incorporated into an proper assessment of the ‘real’ Virgil.

Instead of addressing all this, Mandelbaum thanks Virgil for not being ‘shrill’, and then brings in yet another unnecessarily personal angle:

and when, with the goad of public despair, my own poetic voice has had to struggle often with shrillness, the work on this translation has been most welcome.

So, if I read this correctly, we are to be grateful to Virgil for helping Allen Mandelbaum to overcome the tone of shrill invective which his protests against the Vietnam War and the evil American state often led him into. No doubt this is useful if you are a big Allen Mandelbaum fan, but if you’re mainly interested in understanding Virgil, maybe not so much.

Finally, Mandelbaum returns to the notion raised in the comparison with Dante, of Virgil’s limits. In Mandelbaum’s view Virgil does not swarm with the really full variety of a Homer or Dante or Shakespeare. He is not as exhaustive as they are. His is a world, not the world. He is more selective and less objective than the other three greats. At which point, as he reaches the conclusion of his preface, Mandelbaum becomes quite hard to understand:

Virgil is ‘sustained’ and is not ‘of the young’ (though for them, and for the aged, too, of Plato’s Laws); and none of his selection and imagination seems to involve what I think of as premature stripping, where the other world of poetry takes over before this world is known: Virgil selects after his knowing this world. For this he is a name-giver whose letters and syllables seem to imitate not what Lukács called ‘the cool and limited existence of shadows’ but ‘the real nature of each thing’.

After repeated reading I think the second half of this proposition indicates that Virgil is a poet who described the real world, selecting descriptions of the world as experienced and not reaching out to describe the world of shadows beyond this one, which Mandelbaum appears to think the superior approach. But if this is what Mandelbaum means, why doesn’t he say so? Surely a teacher is paid to teach.

Mandelbaum’s short introduction flashes insights like a striptease artist, momentary promises of insights which he never delivers on. One or two of his ideas hove into view, make sense, but then are smothered by his autobiographical reminiscences or detour into namedropping allusions. It’s maybe worth reading for these moments but, on the whole, Mandelbaum’s introduction is not very helpful as any kind of guide to reading the huge, magnificent and appalling epic poem the reader is about to embark on.


Roman reviews

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 4 to 6

‘[This is] Trojan Aeneas, famous for his devotion and his feats of arms.’
(The Sibyl defending Aeneas to Charon in Aeneid book 6, line 404)

Book 4 Dido, love and death

Dido admits to her sister, Anna, that she is falling in love with Aeneas. Anna says she has held aloof from suitors from all the neighbouring tribes, but yes, she needs to let go of her dead husband and fall in love. Encouraged by this, Dido falls madly in love. Virgil – in his Epicurean, anti-emotion way – describes it as a madness, a fever, a fire in the bones, and other alarming analogies.

Remember that in the third Georgic Virgil wrote an extended denunciation of love and sex and passion in all its forms, whether in animals or humans, as a fire and frenzy which completely derails efforts to live rationally and orderly:

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(Georgic 3: lines 242 to 244, translated by Peter Fallon)

Venus meets with Juno. Juno suggests they let Aeneas and Dido marry, thus uniting exiled Tyrians and Trojans into a super-tribe. Venus interprets this as a transparent attempt to stop Aeneas continuing on to Italy and founding the Roman people who will, centuries hence, crush Dido’s heirs. She agrees in principle but diplomatically suggests Juno asks her husband, Jupiter, king of the gods, what he thinks. Juno outlines her plans to interrupt Dido and Aeneas’s next hunting trip, conjure up a storm, separate the lovers from their entourages, drive them into a cave and there have them consummate their love.

And this is what happens, with fire flashing and nymphs wailing from the mountaintops. For centuries of readers their love has been reinterpreted in the light of the medieval concept of courtly love and the sentimental romantic ideas which followed. But Virgil is harshly critical. Not only does this mark the beginning of the end for Dido:

This day was the beginning of her death, the first cause of all her sufferings. (4. 170)

But it had a ruinous effect on her people. When she slackened her leadership, they stopped building the city. The towers ceased to rise. The harbours and fortifications were left half-finished. All stood idle.

Virgil spends a page describing the genealogy and character of Rumour which runs fleet of foot among all men and communities spreading lies and when he describes Rumour as telling foreign rulers that Dido and Aeneas have ceased leading their people in order to wallow in lust…I immediately realise Virgil has made them Antony and Cleopatra, ‘lovers who had lost all recollection of their good name’ (4.221) which makes Creusa the emblem of Octavia, Antony’s loyal dutiful Roman wife, abandoned for an oriental whore.

The local king, Iarbas, had long harboured plans of marrying Dido so now he is infuriated that she abruptly abandoned herself to another. He offers up heartfelt angry complaints to his father, Jupiter.

Jupiter hears and is angry that Aeneas is shirking his duty. He calls Mercury and tells him to deliver an angry message to the Trojan. Is this the hero Venus promised them? Hardly. ‘He must sail. That is all there is to say.’

Mercury puts on his winged sandals, takes his caduceus and skims down through the skies to alight by Aeneas, busy helping build a temple. Mercury gets straight to it, telling Aeneas he is a disgrace by abandoning his destiny and to think about his little son who is meant to inherit leadership of a brave new race: ‘You owe him the land of Rome and the kingdom of Italy.’ (4.286)

So Aeneas immediately calls his lieutenants to him and tells them to ready the ships and the people for departure. Dido obviously hears about this and comes raging to see him, eyes blazing with anger. he tries to justify himself, but furious Dido dismisses all his excuses, calls him a traitor, mocks his stories about Jupiter this and Mercury that, then dismisses him, tells him to leave, but warns that her furious ghost will return to haunt him. (Lots of ghosts, a poem of ghosts, bringing with them the sad wisdom of the dead.)

Dido runs off into her palace, collapsing with despair. Virgil points the moral: See? This is where ‘love’ gets you:

Love is a cruel master. There are no lengths to which it does not force the human heart. (4.413)

But Aeneas, unlike Antony, is faithful to his duty (4.394) and continues preparations for departure. Dido pours her heart out to her sister, Anna, and sends her again and again with heartfelt pleas for pity or at least a delay – but the Fates forbade it and God blocked his ears to all appeals.

‘Possessed by madness’, Dido perceives all kinds of portents. Her sacrificial offerings turn black and bloody, She hears muttering at the shrine of her dead husband. She has nightmares in which she is abandoned on the African shore alone. Madness is the key word, repeated again and again.

She instructs her sister to build a big funeral pyre in the atrium of the palace where she says she will burn all Aeneas’s belongings. She attends ceremonies supervised by a terrifying priestess from Ethiopia who chants incantations to all the deities of hell.

Like all suicides Dido can’t see a way out: if she goes with Aeneas and the Trojans she will be their chattel; if she tries to persuade the entire Tyrian people to follow her they will refuse; if she stays behind she will be the laughing stock of all the tribes around who she used to treat so haughtily and will now see her humbled. No. She must die. [Virgil dramatises the logic of her thinking all too vividly.] And she reproaches herself for ever abandoning her independent single status as a widow.

Aeneas is asleep in the stern of a ship but he has a terrifying dream vision of ‘the god’ who warns him not to wait, but to leave now before morning comes and Dido comes to talk him out of leaving or to burn his ships. He wakes and wakes his men, they weight anchor and depart.

Dido waking with the dawn sees the sea covered with their ships and the harbour empty and delivers a magnificent harangue cursing Aeneas mightily and ends with an actual curse, invoking all the gods to ensure Aeneas in his new homeland never enjoys it, but is harried by a strong race, and driven from his own land, and beg for help and see his people dying. Let him die before his time and lie unburied on the sand. And may undying enmity be between her people and his (obviously referring to the legendary enmity which grew up between Rome and Carthage in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC).

Then she climbs onto the pyre she has prepared, delivers another magnificent speech about her destiny and her good intentions and plunges upon Aeneas’s sword and her blood foams out. Her serving women see and a great wailing spreads across the city as if the enemy were within and destroying everything (exactly as they had at Troy: repetitions and echoes).

Her sister Anna comes running, cursing herself for not realising this is what her sister really wanted the pyre built for and recriminating Dido for not waiting or sharing her death. She climbs atop the pyre and holds her sister as three times she tries to rise on her elbow but collapses and then expires.

Thus Dido died ‘in a sudden blaze of madness’ and Juno took pity and sent Iris down to loosen the binding of her soul. And so Iris descends as a rainbow through the sky and alights on the pyre and cuts a lock of Dido’s hair and thus releases her soul from its anguish.

God, surely this is the most magnificent and moving book ever written! It is breathtakingly powerful, cuts deep, and yet is short, just 23 pages in the Penguin edition, with not an ounce of fat, nothing verbose or long-winded or tiresome, but fast-moving, alert and to the point, fiercely and deeply imagined, and transcendently moving!

Book 5 Funeral games

Another storm hits, forcing them ashore back in Sicily, in the port run by his brother Eryx, where the bones of his father Anchises are buried. They are greeted by Acestes, half Trojan. The months pass until it is a full year since Anchises died and was buried. Aeneas leads sacrifices and ceremonies at his tomb.

Then he holds grand funeral games. First a boat race across the sea to a prominent rock and back. Then a running race. Then boxing matches. All are described in loving (and surprisingly exciting) detail. An arrow shooting competition and then equipage, horse management by the young contemporaries of Ascanius. They young cavalry perform a mock battle. Virgil explains how Ascanius will pass this on to his descendants and eventually it will be performed in Rome by youthful cavalry and called the lusus Troiae.

For the first time Virgil associates specific companions of Aeneas with the patrician Roman families they will establish (Mnestheus giving his name to the Memmii family, Sergestus the Sergii, Cloanthus the Cluentii [5.120], Atys founder of the Atii [5.569]).

The games are then officially ended but meanwhile the wretched women of Troy, fed up with seven years wandering over the endless ocean, rebel. Juno, font of endless schemes against Aeneas, sends Iris in disguise of one of their number to rouse them to indignation and insist that they sail no further but settle here on Sicily. Possessed by divine fury, they seize brands from the various altars and throw them into the Trojan ships.

The men quickly drop their games and rush to the beach just as the goddess leaves the women’s minds and, coming to their senses, the realise what they’ve done and run off into the woods and hills. Aeneas stares at his burning fleet and calls on Jupiter to save what little remains – at which there is a sudden torrential downpour. Most of the ships are saved but four are write-offs.

Aeneas is downhearted. But old Nautes gives good advice: he says Aeneas and the young and fit must continue on to Italy; but leave here on Sicily the old men, the women worn out by the sea, the ‘heart-weary’. Let them build a city and call it Acesta.

Still, Aeneas is worried and careworn when the ghost of his father slides down through the dark. He reinforces Nautes’ advice to leave the old and sick here on Sicily and only take the young and strong with him to Italy for there, as he has been told quite a few times by now, he will have to overcome ‘a wild and strong people’.

But Anchises tells him something new. First he will have to go down into Dis, the underworld, to meet his spirit there. He will be helped through the doorway to hell by a Sibyll. There he will learn about all the descendants who are to follow him. Then, like so many of his visions, he disappears into thin air like smoke.

Aeneas, as is his wont, goes straight into action (as he did after the god told him to leave Carthage immediately). For nine days he helps the people they’re leaving behind lay out the boundaries of the new city, build a forum, ordain laws and erect a temple to Venus, building a mini-Troy.

Then they say their farewells, make the sacrifices and oblations, and set sail, with a fair wind and rowing. Cut to Venus visiting Neptune god of the sea and bewailing Juno’s unending spite against the Trojans and beseeching Neptune to take pity on them. Neptune reminds her how he protected Aeneas when Achilles was running mad in front of Troy, and promises fair seas.

All the mortals see is the appearance of a clear sky and fair winds and they set sail for Italy with good heart. Thus Virgil shows us, behind every physical event, especially large scale ones like the weather, storms, shooting stars, erupting volcanoes and so on, the direct involvement of the gods. The gods are the environment through which mortals walk, purblind and ignorant.

And Palinurus, the loyal helmsman who has always given the best advice – the god of sleep wafts down from heaven, taps him on the temples with a stick dripping with water from the rivers Lethe and the Styx (rivers of the underworld), Palinurus is plunged into a deep sleep and the god of sleep chucks him overboard where he drowns down down down into the blue ocean.

Noticing something wrong, Aeneas goes astern and discovers his top helmsman has fall overboard, and blames him for trusting to a calm sea. But, as we know, it is not his fault. Like all mortals, there is nothing he can do to resist the whims of the gods.

Half way through the book I am noticing:

  • how many visions, ghosts, dream visitations, spectral appearances and just as sudden disappearances there are
  • by extension, the way there are few if any conversations, but rather great block chunks of speeches
  • the enormous amount of sacrifices – so many bullocks slaughtered, so many entrails, so much steaming gore

Book 6 The underworld

They make land at Cumae (according to Wikipedia ‘the first ancient Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, founded by settlers from Euboea in the 8th century BC and soon becoming one of the strongest colonies.’) Aeneas makes to the citadel with its huge temple of Apollo, and a vast cave, retreat of ‘the awesome Sibyl’. On the doors of the temple are depicted scenes from legend including the story of the Minotaur. For legend has it that this is where Daedalus touched down after making wings for himself to escape from captivity in Crete.

The daughter of the high priest tells them to make animal sacrifices then come with her. She is suddenly possessed by the go and tells Aeneas to pray. Aeneas delivers a page-long supplication to the god Apollo to have mercy on his people.

The priestess fights against the god but finally he possesses her and delivers his prophecy to Aeneas. They have finished their travels by sea. But what awaits them by land will be worse.

I see wars, deadly wars, I see the Thybris foaming with torrents of blood. (6.86)

Immigration

This line was notoriously quoted out of context by the British politician Enoch Powell in his virulently anti-immigration speech of April 1968. Reading it here, I realise there’s a political irony here, because this speech, about bloodshed, isn’t addressed to the native people, warning them against immigrants – Aeneas is the immigrant. He is the one arriving in a strange land and it is his god-inspired conviction that he’s owed a living and a future here which brings bloodshed and war.

Women’s wombs

Anyway, the god goes on to predict he must face ‘a second Achilles’. More interestingly, he warns that ‘Once again the cause of all this Trojan suffering will be a foreign bride’ – just as the entire Trojan war was fought over Helen (and just as the action of the Iliad is triggered by a squabble between Agamemnon and Achilles about who should be assigned a slave girl they captured at a raid on an outlying temple). The rightful ownership of women, and their reproductive capacity, is the core cause of these wars between violent men. Next to ownership of the land and its food-producing capacity, comes ownership of women and their baby-producing capacity. It is as primitive as that.

Madness

The visionary state in which the priestess speaks Apollo’s words is described as ‘madness’. Did Virgil use the same word for this as for the ‘madness’ of Dido? In which case it weakens the rhetoric of his argument against love and passion. If so, is it the same word he used for the ‘madness’ of the Trojan women who set fire to the ships in Sicily (5.660, 670)? In which case, is he making the point that a certain kind of madness is restricted to, or characteristic of, women?

Aeneas begs the Sibyl to allow him to go down into hell to see his father. The Sibyl warns the way down is easy, it’s the coming back that’s difficult. When the Sibyl warns that undertaking such a journey is ‘the labour of madness‘ I begin to see frenzy, insanity and madness as being a recurring theme or motif of the poem.

The Sibyl tells him a) there is a dead man lying unburied which is polluting the fleet; he must find and bury him and perform the rituals b) there is a tree in a dark grove which bears a golden bough; he must pluck it and carry it down to hell to please Queen Proserpina; but only the favoured of the gods can find it or pluck it.

Aeneas leaves, accompanied by his faithful friend Achates, and on the shore above the tideline they discover the body of Misenus. He had engaged in a horn blowing competition with a Triton who drowned him. So the Trojans chop down a load of trees (whose species Virgil carefully lists) to build a shrine and altar. While doing so Aeneas prays for help in finding the grove of the golden bough and his mother Venus sends two white doves who lead him to the tree.

He plucks the golden bough, presents it to the Sibyl, who insists on numerous more rites and sacrifices and then leads him down into hell, taking him past a checklist of the florid monsters who guard the gates, centaurs, scyllas, chimera, gorgons, harpies and so on.

Dante

I can see why Virgil was such a model for Dante in terms of format. Aeneas spots individuals among the various crowds (such as the crowd waiting to be ferried by Charon across the Styx), asks them a question, and the other briefly tells his story, explaining why he’s ended up here. This is more or less the recurring format for the entire Divine Comedy.

So Aeneas sees Palinurus, quizzes him, and Palinurus tells him his sad fate – he was not drowned after all, but swam to shore where he was murdered by ruffians. He begs to be allowed to cross the river; the sibyl says this is not possible till his body is given a decent burial; the sibyl reassures him that the people who live near his corpse will be driven by signs from heaven to find it and give it a decent burial

This entire story of Palinurus seems designed to evoke a sweet sadness, as we observe his grief, his regrets, Aeneas’s grief for him, their manly love for each other – commander and staunch helmsman – who met a cruel fate through no fault of his own. The Palinurus story encapsulates Virgil’s pity for suffering humanity. Seeing the great tide of woeful humanity waiting on the river bank, ‘the helpless souls of the unburied’, Aeneas ‘pitied their cruel fate.’

The hell sequence is packed with mythological details (three-headed Cerberus etc), but it is the human moments which strike home, not least his encounter with the shade of Dido. Till this moment he wasn’t sure what became of her but now he realises the rumours were true and she killed herself. He fulsomely apologises, saying he was driven on by the command of the gods, but she won’t even look at him, stands silent, then wafts away to be with her first, murdered, husband, grief speaking to grief.

In Wilfred Owen’s famous preface to his war poems he said ‘the poetry is in the pity’. Well, there is poetry in every aspect of this magnificent poem, but the consistent underlying tone of the Aeneid is heartfelt pity at the sad and tragic plight of humanity.

There is an awesome description of their walk through hell while the aged priestess of Apollo explains the variety and ingenuity of the punishments for all who have broken the laws of gods and men, including the shades of all the Greeks and the Trojans who fought and died during the recent war. Then they come to the home of the blessed: here there is singing and games, poets, leading up to the great Musaeus, who tells Aeneas where to find his father.

Aeneas is reunited with the spirit of his father. He goes to embrace him three times (the rule of three; just as Aeneas tried to embrace the ghost of Creusa three times, 2.792) but, like Creusa, Anchises is soft as the wind (6.700). But he can speak. He is delighted to see his son and then explains how some souls in the afterlife are purged of their earthly memories and returned to the primeval fire which first began the universe; but others buzz round Elysium for a thousand years and then are sent back to inhabit new bodies on earth. In other words, reincarnation.

He leads Aeneas and the Sibyl to a slight mound in the plain and predicts the long line of Aeneas’s descendants who will make Rome and Italy great. Reincarnation seems very unGreek but then, if his prime aim was to have scene where Aeneas is shown all his descendants, it’s hard to see how else this could have been achieved. The souls of famous men had to be available before they were born in order for Aeneas to review them. The more you think about it, the weirder it becomes.

Anchises points out Aeneas’s descendants starting with his posthumous son, Silvius who will be followed by Procas, Capys, Numitor, Silvius Aeneas, founders of Alba Longa and other settlements. Then Romulus founder of Rome ‘whose empire shall cover the earth’.

Then Anchises turns to the Caesar, mentioning Julius Caesar (remote descendant of Iulus, or Ascanius, Aeneas’s son). Then follows the famous hymn to Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will bring back the golden years of the age of Saturn, who will extend the borders of the empire to the edge of the known world, who will achieve more than Hercules or Bacchus. Is that enough brown-nosing?

Rather anachronistically, Anchises goes back to recount the line of kings who ruled Rome, before switching to heroes of the early Republic, the Brutus who drove out the Tarquins, others who invented the consulship, Cato the Elder, the Gracchi, the two Scipios, Fabius Maximus, great figures from Roman history. And then some sternly patriotic rhetoric:

Your task, Romans, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud. (6.851)

Then Anchises delivers a page-long lament for a young man they see accompanying Marcellus on his triumph. This is Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42 to 23 BC), nephew of Augustus and his closest male relative, who enjoyed an accelerated political career and was married to Augustus’s daughter, Julia. But he died of an infection which swept through Italy (Augustus got it but recovered) dashing Augustus’s hopes of making him his heir. So it seems likely that this extended passage in praise of young Marcellus was written just after his death in 23 BC, in order to please Virgil’s patron, the great Augustus.

David West, the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Aeneid, devotes a 3-page appendix to this section, the procession of Roman heroes, giving brief descriptions of all the eminent Romans who feature in it. He mentions the story, recorded in a near-contemporary biography of Virgil, that when he was reading his poem to Augustus and his family, his sister – Octavia (mother of Marcellus) – fainted at this passage. It’s worth repeating this anecdote to emphasise just how direct and personal Augustus’s relationship with Virgil was, and therefore, by extension, with much of the content of the poem.

After the long passage of praise for Marcellus the last few sentences of the book are an anti-climax. Virgil tells us that Anchises told Aeneas about the entire future course of events, his war against the Laurentines, how he should maximise his fate.

Aeneas’s return through hell, crossing back over the Styx, climbing back up to the entrance to the great cavern – all this isn’t even described. Instead all we get is a short, abrupt sentence saying that Aeneas made his way back to his ships and his comrades, then steered a straight course to the harbour of Caieta, where they dropped anchor.

It’s an oddly abrupt ending to one of the most magnificent and influential books of poetry ever written.

Epithets of Aeneas

I’ve slowly been realising that, as the poem progresses, Aeneas comes to be accompanied by more and more adjectives. I mean that, in the early books, he is mostly plain ‘Aeneas’. But it’s noticeable that, certainly by book 6, his name rarely occurs without being accompanied by an adjective indicating his greatness. By this sly method, Virgil implies the way Aeneas grows in stature, experience and leadership as the adventures continue. I’d noticed the same happening to Anchises who, in the earlier books, comes to be referred to more and more frequently as Father Anchises. When he dies the title passes quietly to Aeneas, Father Aeneas, sometimes referred to as ‘the son of Anchises’, and then the epithets begin to occur more frequently:

  • the leader of the Trojans (4.165)
  • the son of Anchises (5.424)
  • the great-hearted son of Anchises
  • Father Aeneas (5.461)
  • dutiful Aeneas (6.233)
  • devout Aeneas (5.685, 12.175)
  • the hero Aeneas (6.103)
  • huge Aeneas (6.413)
  • great glory of our Troy (6.547)
  • Aeneas, greatest of warriors (9.41)
  • great Aeneas (10.159)

Roman reviews

The Eclogues by Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Historical background

Virgil was born in 70 BC, in the consulships of (the bitter rivals) Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaius Pompeius. When Virgil was 7, Cicero was consul and managing the Catiline conspiracy. When he was 10, the rivals Pompey and Crassus were reconciled by Julius Caesar who formed them into the behind-the-scenes alliance which later came to be called the First Triumvirate.

The 50s BC in Rome were characterised by the street violence of rival political gangs led by Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo. For most of the decade (58 to 50) Julius Caesar was racking up famous victories in his campaign to conquer all of Gaul. In 53 Crassus’s army was destroyed by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae and he was killed, ending the triumvirate.

At the end of the 50s, the 18 year old Virgil arrived in Rome to find a career. Throughout 50 BC the political crisis grew deeper and, eventually, in January 49, Caesar illegally led a legion of his Army of Gaul across the river Rubicon, thus triggering civil war with Pompey and the senate. Virgil was 21.

This civil war dragged on for 5 long years, dividing families, laying waste tracts of land which armies marched across despoiling, with a series of battles in which Romans killed Romans at locations around the Mediterranean, until Caesar’s final victory in Spain at the Battle of Munda in March 45.

Caesar returned to Rome and began administering the empire, briskly and efficiently. Soon after he had had himself made dictator for life, he was assassinated in March 44. Virgil was 26. But removing the dictator did not bring the moribund forms of the old Republic back to life, as the conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, had hoped. Instead it inaugurated another 13 years of political instability, with the arrival in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, Gaius Octavius, complicating an already fraught situation.

After initially fighting against Caesar’s former lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, Octavius made peace with him in November 43, inviting a third military leader, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to form what became known as the Second Triumvirate. Virgil was now 27.

In 42 BC the combined forces of Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi (where the poet Horace led a legion on the losing side).

The second triumvirate lasted a long time, from 43 to 31 BC, although the partners often fell out, fiercely criticised each other and sometimes threatened open conflict. Antony assigned himself rule of the eastern Mediterranean in which capacity he a) embarked in 36 BC on an ill-fated attempt to invade the Parthian Empire, which ended in complete failure; and b) based himself in the capital of Egypt, Alexandria, where he famously had a long relationship with its queen, Cleopatra, fathering 2 children by her.

In 36 a war against Pompey’s surviving son, Sextus, who obstinately held the island of Sicily and was using his fleet to attack Roman ships, provided the pretext Octavius needed to accuse Lepidus of ineffectiveness and corruption and send him into internal exile in Italy. Virgil was 34.

The second triumvirate had become a duumvirate and very unstable, with Octavius using Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra to paint him as undignified, unroman, unpatriotic. Eventually Octavius declared open war on Antony, marching his forces to meet Antony’s legions in Greece, and defeating his fleet at the naval Battle of Actium, in September 31, after Cleopatra famously led her small contingent away from the battle, prompting the latter to follow her and abandon his own sailors to defeat.

The ill-fated couple returned to Alexandria and, when Octavius approached the city with his legions, both committed suicide.

Not only was Octavian now the only one of the triumvirate left but, after the long 18 years of almost continual civil war since Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he was the only figure with any authority left in Roman politics.

With astonishing assurance he proceeded to transform the constitution of the old Republic into the shape of what would become the Roman Empire, with him at its centre holding all the strings. Virgil was 39 when Octavius emerged as the strongest figure in Rome, and 43 when, 4 years later, the senate awarded him the title by which he is known to history, ‘Augustus’. His entire adult life had been lived against a backdrop of war, dispute and destruction.

The Oxford University Press edition

The 1930s poet Cecil Day Lewis made translations of The Georgics in 1940 and of The Eclogues in 1963. These (fairly dated) translations are still available in a nifty Oxford University Press paperback, with a 1983 introduction by academic R.O.A.M. Lyne (both, like most classicists, educated at private school and Oxbridge).

Virgil the poet

Let Athena dwell in the cities she has founded. For me the woodlands.
(Eclogue 1, line 62)

Between 42 and 39 Virgil wrote ten short poems known as the Eclogues. In the introduction to this OUP volume, R.O.A.M. Lyne explains that Virgil’s explicit model was the Greek poet Theocritus (300 to 260 BC). Theocritus wrote a variety of poems but is famous for his idylls and bucolics. The word idyll is Greek and originally meant simply ‘little scene’ or ‘vignette’. In Theocritus’s hands, an idyll became a short poem describing an idealised view of country life among peasants, farmers and especially shepherds. A bucolic is a similar form, describing idealised peasant life in the country.

Theocritus helped establish the long literary tradition whereby apparently artless depictions of idealised country life turn out to be the opposite of naive and simple-minded but often the most sophisticated verse of all. Theocritus’s shepherds display a surprising ability to quote previous poets or refer to Greek legend and seem to spend far more time reciting beautifully formed verse to each other than tending their flocks.

Theocritus stands at the start of that tradition that pretending to rural simplicity is nearly always associated with sophisticated and aristocratic audiences who like to take a break from their more serious urban responsibilities with fantasies of country living. Look at the elaborate form and demandingly allegorical content of Spenser’s Faerie Queene or the 18th century’s endless paintings of shepherds and swains. Vide Marie Antoinette’s fondness for dressing up as a shepherdess.

Virgil takes the already sophisticated form Theocritus had developed and adds a whole new range of subterranean depths to it. His stretching of the form he inherited is indicated by the very first eclogue in the set. This deals, albeit tangentially, with a controversial aspect of contemporary Roman policy (see below). Other poems address the turmoil of romantic love with a disruptive intensity not found in Theocritus.

An indication of his difference is that Virgil didn’t use Theocritus’s term, idyll, but called his poems eclogues, eclogue in Latin meaning ‘draft’, ‘selection’ or ‘reckoning’. By the Middle Ages the terms idyllbucolic and eclogue had become almost synonymous.

Eclogue 1

A dialogue between Tityrus and Meliboeus. Tityrus describes having been up to Rome to petition ‘the young prince’ to keep his family land. The prince grants his petition and so Meliboeus is a ‘fortunate old man’, whereas Tityrus laments that he and many like him will be dispersed to Scythia, ‘bone-dry Africa’, even to Britain, ‘that place cut off at the world’s end (line 66).

This poem was probably written in 41 BC, when Octavian was arranging the demobilisation and settlement around Italy of soldiers who had fought for him and Antony in the campaign to defeat the assassins of Julius Caesar, which climaxed in the Battle of Philippi (October 42 BC). Antony went on to sort out the East while Octavian was given the unwelcome task of settling the demobbed veterans. He carried out the very unpopular policy of dispossessing current farmers from their land in order to assign it to veterans (who often had no clue about running a farm, something Meliboeus bitterly points out in this poem):

To think of some godless soldier owning my well-farmed fallow,
A foreigner reaping these crops!

And laments that this is what the civil wars have brought them to:

…To such a pass has civil
Dissensions brought us: for people like these have we sown our fields.

So the first eclogue may be cast as a Theocritan idyll, and feature descriptions of idealised country scenery and farming practices – but it makes no bones about dealing with very contemporary politics, unfair state policy, unfairness and bitterness.

Eclogue 2

By contrast the second eclogue consists of the soliloquy or monologue of the shepherd Corydon who burns with love for the ‘handsome boy’, Alexis. Corydon boasts of his ability with the Pan pipes, the fertility of his flocks, and the idyllicness of the lives they could live together…but to no avail.

And, again, although the poem is deceptively dressed in rural imagery, the feeling is intense:

Yet love still scorches me – love has no lull, no limit. (line 68)

It’s worth pointing out that this is an explicitly homosexual poem, which did Virgil no harm at all with his patron, Maecenas nor his emperor.

Eclogue 3

The third eclogue feels different, again. It features rough and tumble squabbling between Menalcas and Damoetas, which leads up to Damoetas suggesting they hold a singing contest to decide who’s best.

At which point the poem turns from consisting of Virgil’s standard hexameters into alternating series of four-line, four-beat stanzas which have much shorter lines, a lyric format which Day-Lewis captures by making them rhyme.

The wolf is cruel to the sheep,
Cruel a storm to orchard tree,
Cruel is rain to ripened crops,
Amaryllis’ rage is cruel to me.

Eclogue 4

A dramatic departure from the stereotypical idea of an easy-going chat between shepherds, this eclogue is an extremely intense, visionary poem prophesying the birth of a divine baby who will usher in a Golden Age, peace on earth and describes a new age of peace and plenty when farm animals mind themselves and there is enough for all.

Later, Christian, commentators took this to be a prediction of the birth of Christ (about 40 years after the poem was written) and this was part of the mystique that grew up around Virgil in the Middle Ages, one reason why Dante chose him to be his guide through Hell in his long poem, the Divine Comedy.

Chances are, however, that Virgil had a much more mundane practical event in mind. The alliance between Octavian and Antony following Caesar’s assassination was very ropey indeed, and kept needing patching up. One such occasion was the Pact of Brundisium, agreed in 40 BC, whereby, among other provisions, Antony agreed to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia (a betrothal portrayed in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra). According to this interpretation, the ‘saviour child’ of this poem is the son everybody hoped would be born of this union, who would usher in a post-civil war era of peace and plenty.

In the event, the alliance wore very thin before Octavius eventually declared war on Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, leading to their naval defeat at the Battle of Actium and their double suicide soon thereafter. Thus, the cynical reader may conclude, all hyperbolic expectations of a New Age tend to be brutally disappointed by real world politics.

Eclogue 5

In a completely different mood, back in the land of idylls, shepherds Menalcas and Mopsus bump into each other and decide to have a singing contest, taking turns to sing poems they have written about the lovely Daphnis.

Eclogue 6

Two naughty shepherds (Cromis and Mnasyllus) come across the old drunk, Silenus, in a cave and tie him up, but he insists on singing a series of strophes absolutely packed with references to Greek mythology, a kind of 2-page summary of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Eclogue 7

Goatherd Meliboeus relates how Daphnis called him over to listen to a singing competition between Corydon and Thyrsis, who proceed to take turns singing 12 4-line rhyming stanzas.

More sweet than thyme, more fair than pale ivy,
More white to swans you are to me:
Come soon, when the bulls through the meadows are homing,
Come soon, if you love me, my nymph of the sea!
(lines 37 to 40)

Eclogue 8

Another singing competition, this time between Damon and Alphesiboeus, and this time, instead of alternating short verse, each takes it in turn to sing a page-long poem made of longer, rhyming stanzas, each ending with the same line repeated as a refrain. Damon’s verses go like this:

A child you were when I first beheld you –
Our orchard fruit was chilled with dew –
You and your mother both apple gathering:
Just twelve I was, but I took charge of you.
On tiptoe reaching the laden branches,
One glance I gave you and utterly
My heard was ravished, my reason banished –
O flute of Maenalus, come, play with me!

Alphesiboeus’s verse is more interesting: it describes the magic, witchcraft, incantations and magic objects the narrator creates and casts in order to get his beloved, Daphnis, to return to him:

These keepsakes he left with me once, faithless man:
They are things that he wore – the most precious I own.
Mother earth, now I dig by my door and consign
Them to you – the dear keepsakes that pledge his return.
Make Daphnis come home from the city, my spells!

This also appears to be an explicitly gay poem, a man keening for his male lover.

Eclogue 9

This is another poem lamenting the unfair and divisive policy of land sequestration. Two out of the ten poems are on this subject. Sad Moeris complains to Lycidas that an outsider has taken over his farm and made him a servant on his old land and that’s why he is now driving his (the new owners’) goats to market.

Interestingly, Lycidas says he’d heard that the intercession of the poet Menalcus had prevented the land appropriation going ahead. Not so, replies bitter Moeris. But the interesting point is: is this a reference to Virgil’s attempts to moderate the land confiscation policy by appealing to Augustus? And a sad reflection on his failure?

MOERIS:… But poems
Stand no more chance, where the claims of soldiers are involved,
Than do the prophetic doves if the eagle swoops upon them.

This touches on the broader point of Virgil’s ambiguity: his verse is very finely balanced between political allegory, factual description and poetic fantasia. It hovers and shimmers between different layers of meaning.

Meanwhile, the two characters manage to get over their initial bitterness and swap fragments of poems they themselves have written or other people’s lines which they remember. Lycidas points out that the wind has dropped, the lake waters are still. It’s a golden opportunity to stop their trudge to the market town and recite to each other their favourite old songs. At which point the poem ends.

Complex effects. Although the rural setting and the simple names and many of the homely details about goats and plants and whatnot frankly derive from his Greek model, the emotion or psychological effect is more complex and multiflavoured than Theocritus.

Eclogue 10

A poem dedicated to Virgil’s friend, Caius Cornelius Gallus, politician and poet. He wrote elegies devoted to a fictional female figure, Lycoris who, the note tells us, is probably a code name for the courtesan Cytheris, also Mark Antony’s lover. (Shades of Catullus’s beloved Lesbia, being the code name of Clodia, lover of umpteen other young Roman men. Roman poets and their aristocratic affairs).

The translation

I liked Day Lewis’s translation well enough, it is light and clear, as the examples I’ve quoted demonstrate. I suppose you could quibble about the slight unevenness of register: some of his phrasing uses the vague, rather stagey diction of so much translationese:

Let us honour the pastoral muse of Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Whose singing, when they competed together, left the lynxes
Dumbfounded, caused a heifer to pause in her grazing, spellbound,
And so entranced the rivers that they checked their onward flow.
(Eclogue 8, opening lines)

It’s clear enough but not really what any actual modern poet would write. Anyway, my point is that this slightly stiff style comes a cropper in the many places where Day Lewis attempts a more demotic, matey note:

I’m driven from my home place but you can take it easy…

I have two roes which I found in a dangerous combe…
Thestylis has been begging for ages to take them off me…

‘Bumpkin! As if Alexis care twopence for your offerings!’

I wonder when the last time was that any English speaker used the word ‘bumpkin’ in a literal, serious sense? Or:

‘Watch it! What right do you have to lecture a chap!’

‘You desperado, while his mongrel was barking his head off!’

‘Strike up if you have a song to sing, I’ll not be backward…’

‘I’ll not be backward’ – of course I understand the meaning, I just kept being brought up short by Day Lewis’s well-meaning 1950s slang. Maybe it’s in the original: maybe the Virgil has a variety of tones, from the tragically lovelorn to the banter of farm workers. But this unevenness is definitely a feature of the Day Lewis translation.

Scansion

Scansion means the method of determining the metrical pattern of a line of verse. Latin (and French and Italian) verse uses patterns based on the number of syllables in a line and the different ‘lengths’ of each syllable. English poetry, rather more crudely, is based on the number of beats in each line. In English poetry each beat is at the heart of a ‘foot’, and each foot can have 1, 2 or 3 other unstressed syllables either before or after the beat. Thus a iambic pentameter is a line made up of five beats and so five ‘feet’, with each ‘foot’ made up of two syllables, the beat falling on the second one, di dum. A ‘foot’ with two syllables with the stress falling on the second one was called, by the ancient Greeks, a iamb, and so a iambic pentameter is a five-beat line, consisting of five feet, all of them in the form di dum.

Di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

But I struggled to figure out the metre of many of Day Lewis’s verses. First off, the eclogues are not all written in the same style. Day Lewis varies the verse forms a lot. There appears to be a long form line for the basic narrative sections, which he varies when the various shepherds and goatherds go into their singing competitions. But I found it difficult to scan even his basic form. Take the opening of Eclogue 4:

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

This seems to me a regular iambic heptameter i.e. seven beats.

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

But the next two lines throw me:

Shrubberies or meek tamarisks are not for all: but if it’s
Forests I sing, may the forest be worthy of a consul.

If the first line is intended to have only 7 beats in it, surely it would end on ‘if’. Not only do these lines not have 7 beats but the beat is difficult to assign. Is it shrub-be-ries or shrub-ries? Either way that appears to be a trochee i.e. a foot which starts with the beat instead of having it second.

Maybe it’s deliberate. Maybe Day Lewis writes a loose long line which occasionally falls into the regularity of a heptameter but just as often skips round it. Maybe it’s designed to shimmer round regularity just as Virgil’s allegories and political meanings shimmer into view then disappear again.

At the start of the book Day Lewis writes a brief note about his approach to translation, which mentions that in some of the singing competitions between shepherds he uses ‘rhythms of English and Irish folk song’. This explains the stimulating variety of verse forms found throughout the book. Some of them have a regularity I enjoyed, but I found others puzzling and a bit irritating:

The fields are dry, a blight’s in the weather,
No vine leaves grow – the Wine-god is sour

So far I read these as having four beats per line (and so tetrameters), with variation in the feet i.e. they’re not all strict iambs. But having got into that swing, the next 2 lines (and there are only four; this is a quatrain) threw me by having five beats, but beats which don’t occur in any neat way:

Shading our uplands – but when my Phyllis comes here,
Green shall the woodlands be, and many the shower.

I wondered whether he was using the Latin technique of literally counting the syllables in each line and ignoring the beats, but I don’t think it’s that, since the first line has 10 syllables, the second 9, the third 12 and the fourth 12. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I found this lack of regularity in Day Lewis’s verse irksome and distracting.

Competition

All the histories I’ve read of the period describe the escalation of once-sensible rivalry between Rome’s leading men into increasingly violent, bitter and unforgiving conflict. It becomes almost an obsession of Tom Holland’s account, which blames out-of-control, toxic political rivalry for the Republic’s collapse.

That was my first thought when I realised that, far from idyllic peace and tranquility half of the poems describe and enact poetic competitions. Now I know that the competing goatherds aren’t bribing the voters and having each other’s supporters beaten up in the streets, as in the chaotic final decades of the Republic, nothing like that, the competitions are presented as amiable, good-hearted exercises (Eclogues 7 and 8). Still. Its presence in these would-be idyllic poems suggests that competition was a fundamental category which informs / underpins / infects absolutely every aspect of Roman existence.


Credit

The Eclogues by Virgil were translated into English by Cecil Day Lewis in 1963. I read them in the 1999 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

Roman 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

Heard in the Dark, One evening and others by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett short prose pieces from the 1970s.

  • Heard in the Dark 1
  • Heard in the Dark 2
  • One Evening
  • As the story was told (1973)
  • The Cliff (1975)
  • neither (1976)

Heard in the Dark 1

The two Heard in the Darks were extracts from the work in progress which was eventually published in 1980 as Company. These two extracts were published as stand-alone pieces in literary magazines.

Heard In the Dark 1 begins with unusual syntactical clarity i.e. readable sentences:

The last time you went out the snow lay on the ground.

It depicts a consciousness ‘lying in the dark’ remembering taking a spring walk in the snow. Because Beckett is determinedly anti-romantic he depicts the snow with lambs frolicking in it but also ‘strewn with red placentae’. the blood-soaked reality of farming reminded me of Ted Hughes’s many poems of farm life and lambing, from Moortown in particular.

He knows the walk inside out, could virtually do it with his eyes shut. With characteristically Beckettian obsessiveness about numbers he says, ‘you need normally from eighteen hundred to two thousand paces depending on your humour and the state of the ground.’

He used to do the walk with his father but not any more: ‘Your father’s shade is not with you any more. It fell out long ago.’ But now the walk is getting harder.

The same hundred yards you used to cover in a matter of three to four minutes may now take you anything from fifteen to twenty.

This is because the character has, as if in a nightmare, encountered what you could call The Beckett Problem which is simply: he can’t go on. Of his feet, he asks:

Can they go on? Or better, Shall they go on?

Now he lies in the dark remembering the scene and the sense of slow decline. At the very end he looks back expecting to see the usual straight line of footprints in the snow. He thinks he’s walking in a straight line, ‘a beeline’, ‘taking the course you always take’. But looking back at his footprints, he realises he’s been walking in a great swerve, anti-clockwise or ‘withershins’. And that’s the end of the fragment.

This prompts two thoughts:

1. ‘withershins’ is a Scottish dialect word and he was fond of these abstruse terms for direction, also using ‘deasil’ in several works from this time, which is a Gaelic word meaning ‘right-hand-wise, turned toward the right; clockwise.’

2. The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett suggests the counter-clockwise circular movement is a nod to the same direction taken by Dante in the Inferno. Dante isn’t mentioned anywhere, but the piece is obviously yet another journey, though that makes it sound too glamorous, it’s yet another laborious trudge and in this fairly basic way lots of Beckett’s prose pieces can be related to Dante’s Divine Comedy, insofar as they are often about people trudging through bleak, inhospitable landscapes and/or bodies contorted into uncomfortable or painful positions, which is what the Inferno is packed with.

The obvious difference is that in the Divine Comedy, Virgil carefully explains why the people they see are in the plight they’re in, there’s always a good reason and the punishment generally matches the sinner’s sins. Not only that, but the individual is generally emblematic if wider categories of sin, which themselves sit within a carefully worked-out framework of Christian reward and punishment. In other words, The Divine Comedy overflows with meaning and purpose.

Beckett is like Dante with absolutely all the meaning, purpose and understandability stripped away, leaving inexplicable trudging, crawling, contortions and punishments, for no reason.

Heard in the Dark 2

Another fragment from Company. Again, the person being addressed as ‘you’ is lying on their back in the dark and remembering a ‘cloudless May day’ when a woman joins him in ‘the summer house’. Being Beckett, we are immediately given, not the romantic, emotional or psychological aspects of this encounter, but the precise physical dimensions of the house:

Entirely of logs. Both larch and fir. Six feet across. Eight from floor to vertex. Area twenty-four square feet to furthest decimal. Two small multicoloured lights vis-à-vis. Small stained diamond panes. Under each a ledge.

Here his father liked to retire after Sunday lunch with a glass of punch and read. When he chuckled, the person addressing themselves as ‘you’ liked to chuckle along. It appears to be a disarmingly simple memory from his boyhood.

Unexpectedly, the narrative gives a major insight into Beckett’s obsession with numbers and permutations and calculations: it’s therapeutic!

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble… Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort.

And details his boyhood calculations of the size and surface and cubic volume of the summer house. Escape from feeling into maths. Hah! As if Beckett has made what appears to be a psychological coping strategy into an entire literary aesthetic.

So no surprise that he then devotes a slightly demented amount of time thinking through the issues of measurement and scale and maths triggered by the fact that when ‘she’ arrives at the summerhouse where he’s waiting, her eyes are at his own eye-level even though he’s sitting down within. Pondering this problem requires far more text than anything at all to do with ‘her’ or with his feelings.

She must have entered the summerhouse because he looks at her breasts and then at her abdomen. They are both bigger than he remembered. Could she be pregnant, ‘without your having asked for as much as her hand?’ They both sit on in the dead still of his memory, remembering it, there, as he lies in the dark.

Well, it seems, on the face of it, to be a surprisingly straightforward and surprisingly poignant boyhood memory (father chuckling) mixed and blended by a young adult memory (a presumed girlfriend) on the family property back in Ireland (which was substantial and comfortable).

It is made into Beckett material via the obsessive calculation of shape and volume and then the characteristically oblique paragraph about her possible position in order for them to have the same eye level etc. But the basic content is amazingly old school and sentimental. Beckett was 74 by the time Company was published.

One Evening

One Evening is a prose poem related to the long piece Ill Seen Ill Said. It describes a body lying on the ground in a green greatcoat where it is found by an old lady dressed in black. Once again, the style represents a massive backwards step away from the radical prose style of How It Is, back to something vastly more conventional and conservative.

He was found lying on the ground. No one had missed him. No one was looking for him. An old woman found him.

She was looking for flowers. It is lambing time (lambs, hmm – like the lambs in Heard In the Dark and therefore in Company also). The text gets a bit more adventurous with the narrator commenting that this or that detail ought to be like this or that – as if we’re overhearing the author thinking aloud about his piece.

He wore a greatcoat in spite of the time of year. Hidden by the body a long row of buttons fastened it all the way down. Buttons of all shapes and sizes. Worn upright the skirts swept the ground. That seems to hang together.

When the phrase is repeated we realise it is one of those words or key phrases, whose repetition Beckett uses to build up the strange mechanical atmosphere of his prose.

Were a third party to chance that way theirs were the only bodies he would see. First that of the old woman standing. Then on drawing near it lying on the ground. That seems to hang together.

Attention switches to the old lady who has been cooped up all day by the rain. Now it has ceased she hurries out to take advantage of the light before sunset. She is wearing the black she adopted as a young widow. It is to lay flowers on her husband’s grave that she has come out to pick them.

This is another example of the paradox that, although much of Beckett’s technique was pioneeringly avant-garde in the 1960s and 1970s, so much of the actual content of those was immensely conservative and old fashioned. His plays and prose are highly experimental but often, when there is a discernable content, actually describe old ladies and old joxers from his youth in deeply rural Ireland. Beckett has been called ‘the last Modernist’, or one of the first post-Modernists – but a lot of the content has a late Victorian feel. An old lady dressed in black picking flowers to put on the grave of the husband who died when she was young sounds like something from Thomas Hardy.

Thus the figure of an old lady in black out picking flowers at sunset literally stumbling over the corpse of a young man dressed in a green longcoat face down in the grass of a field forms what the narrator calls a ‘tableau vivant if you will’. The whole thing has a late-Victorian feel, it might be a Symbolist painting from the 1890s, The Old Lady and The Suicide, or, as the Faber Companion suggests, a nocturne in green (the coat and the grass) and black (the old widow’s mourning) and yellow (the scattered flowers).

As the story was told (1973)

A short prose piece composed in August 1973. Like many Beckett prose pieces it simply begins and he sets down words and images and then you have the strong sense that the initial formulations then have to be explained and create an ongoing momentum of their own, one detail leading to another, which needs explanation, and so the text ramifies outwards like a glass of wine spilt on a tablecloth.

As the story was told me I never went near the place during sessions. I asked what place and a tent was described at length, a small tent the colour of its surroundings. Wearying of this description I asked what sessions and these in their turn were described, their object, duration, frequency and harrowing nature.

The narrator puts up his hand and asks where he is and is told in ‘a small hut in a grove some two hundred yards away’.

The narrator is, as so often, lying down. (Beckett protagonists rarely do much more than trudge around barren landscapes, or sit cramped in claustrophobic skullscapes, or lie in bed; you can’t help thinking that these are the common physical postures of The Writer – they never, for example, run, shower, bath, drive a car, catch a plane, sit on a train. No. Trudge, Sit or Lying down, preferably in the dark, these are the Beckett positions).

The dimensions of the hut remind him of the summer house he spent so much time in as a boy. Aha. As described in Heard In The Dark 2 and Company. The penny drops and I realise that it is not just the obsession with measuring and counting and calculating displayed by so many Beckett characters which reflects his own coping strategy –

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble

… but that maybe the umpteen cramped spaces in which so many of his figures find themselves – especially in the experimental prose works like Imagination Dead Imagine or All Strange Away or The Lost Ones – are imaginative recreations of the warm and cosy, womb-like feel of the actual summerhouse in the grounds of the big Beckett family home in Cooldrinagh in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock where he spent so many happy boyhood hours.

Thus the cabin the narrator finds himself in now:

had the same five log walls, the same coloured glass, the same diminutiveness, being not more than ten feet across and so low of ceiling that the average man could not have held himself erect in it, though of course there was no such difficulty for the child.

The narrator describes himself as sitting in a cane chair with armrests, like the man in Fizzle 7 who sits at an open window facing south in a small upright wicker chair with armrests. There is a ripe slice of surrealism or Absurdity when a hand comes through the door and passes him a sheet of paper which he carefully tears into four pieces and gives back to the hand which withdraws.

And the arbitrary or contrived nature of the piece is made overt in the next passage:

A little later the whole scene disappeared. As the story was told me the man succumbed in the end to his ill-treatment, though quite old enough at the time to die naturally of old age.

What old man? Only in the last sentences can we maybe piece together that an old man was being subjected to ‘harrowing’ sessions – presumably, tortured – and would have been released if only he could find the right answers to the questions. The narrator asked what the old man was required to say, but no, they cannot tell him.

So there are two familiar Beckett tropes: the confined space or room within which the narrator is, initially lying down, but then finds himself sitting; and someone being tortured, as in Rough For Radio 2.

The Cliff (1975)

La Falaise was a short prose poem Beckett wrote in French in 1975. An English translation was commissioned from Edith Fournier so it could be included as The Cliff in the 1995 Complete Prose. It’s so short I can quote it in full:

Window between sky and earth nowhere known. Opening on a colourless cliff. The crest escapes the eye wherever set. The base as well. Framed by two sections of sky forever white. Any hint in the sky at a land’s end? The yonder ether? Of sea birds no trace. Or too pale to show. And then what proof of a face? None that the eye can find wherever set. It gives up and the bedlam head takes over. At long last first looms the shadow of a ledge. Patience it will be enlivened with mortal remains. A whole skull emerges in the end. One alone from amongst those such residua evince. Still attempting to sink back its coronal into the rock. The old stare half showing within the orbits. At times the cliff vanishes. Then off the eye flies to the whiteness verge upon verge. Or thence away from it all.

It demonstrates several things. First, that although the Faber Companion calls it a prose poem, there is nothing sensual or passionate about the prose. It is a very cold prose poem.

The word ‘skull’ crystallises the mood, and the whiteness of the cliff itself echoes the white skulls and white cells and white rotunda inside which the protagonists of All Strange Away and Imagination Dead Imagine found themselves, and which prompted critics to use the word ‘skullscapes’ to describe them. Although out of doors, this short piece feels like another skullscape.

The use of ‘residua’ (the plural of ‘residuum’ which is simply a more formal way of saying ‘residue’) is like a hangover from his earlier writings which he liked to stuff with arcane and obscure terminology, and has a double effect: insofar as it is a scientific term, it adds to the sense of clinical detachment and unemotion; but as an unnecessarily pedantic word it introduces a whiff of satire, self-deprecating satire against the author.

neither (1976)

Short enough to quote in its entirety:

to and fro in shadow from inner to outershadow

from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither

as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close, once turned away from gently part again

beckoned back and forth and turned away

heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other

unheard footfalls only sound

till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other

then no sound

then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither

unspeakable home

Another meditation, brief as a prayer, about the gap or space between self and unself, I and not I, the immediate consciousness which experiences and the posterior consciousness which reflects, remembers, re-assembles experience into a permanent flow of memories, thoughts, decisions, neither of which, in Beckett’s bleak phenomenology, can provide a resting place or home.

The word ‘footfalls’ anticipates or echoes the name and the subject of the stage play he wrote in the same year.

In fact, Beckett wrote neither to be set to music by the American modernist composer Morton Feldman and described its subject, living in the shadow between self and non-self as ‘the one theme in his life’.


Related link

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

Content warnings at Tate

Warning: This blog post contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including depictions of slavery, violence and suffering.

Baroque Britain

When I visited the Baroque Britain exhibition at Tate Britain I was surprised that there was a Content Warning at the entrance to the second room. This warned us that some of the images were disturbing and might upset visitors. Specifically, a massive painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger which shows black people in collars and chains. Slaves, in other words.

Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin by Benedetto Gennari the Younger (1674)

A handful of other paintings show rich people – men and women – being served or accompanied by black servants, but this is the only one where the black people (all boys, I think) are wearing very obvious metal slave collars round their throats.

William Blake

This is the second warning notice I’m aware of Tate putting up. The William Blake exhibition last year also warned visitors, in these words:

The art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering.

That’s putting it mildly, seeing as Blake illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy with its extensive descriptions of thousands of sinners being subjected to all sorts of tortures and torments in Hell, and Milton’s Paradise Lost which opens with Satan and the fallen angels languishing in agony in a lake of fire. Presumably it was these images of fire and brimstone which the warning was talking about.

Satan, Sin and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell by William Blake (1807)

Although when you actually look at Blake’s images, they are pretty inoffensive, aren’t they? Is an image like the above really thought to be so scary that visitors to an art gallery need a warning about it?

I wonder if the curators have ever seen a Hollywood film? Or even an average episode of Eastenders? Chock full of threat and violence. I can think of plenty of other Tate exhibitions which were full of much more genuinely upsetting images.

Notes and queries

Maybe visitors do need to be warned that art galleries and exhibitions contain images of slavery or violence or threat, but this new trend obviously raises a few questions:

Slavery 1 – black slavery

There must be thousands of images of black slavery scattered around the art world. Will every single one of them eventually require a Warning? For example, the huge memorial sculpture to slavery by Kara Walker currently on display in the atrium of Tate Modern. I don’t recall there being a warning for visitors about to encounter this. Should there be one?

Much more appalling and upsetting than any painting is actual period photographs of black slaves, which survive by the tens of thousands. I suppose if there’s an exhibition about slavery, or about these kinds of photographs it will be self-evident but, presumably if they’re included in exhibitions focused on other subjects – like the American Civil War or American history – presumably any photos of slavery will require a warning, as well.

Slavery 2 – white slavery

Most pre-modern societies had some form of slavery: ancient Rome and ancient Greece were based on slavery, and the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings traded in slaves (it’s estimated that at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, 1 in 10 of the British population were slaves).

The Mayans and Aztecs kept slaves in the Americas, as did the Sumerians and Babylonians in the Near East. The Egyptians employed huge numbers of slaves, including Israelites, Europeans and Ethiopians. Slave armies were kept by the Ottomans and Egyptians.

In Imperial Russia, in the first half of the 19th century, one third of the population were serfs who, like the slaves in the Americas, had the status of chattels and could be bought and sold.

In fact the English word ‘slave’ is derived from Slav, the white ethnic underclass of Eastern Europe that provided the bulk of medieval-and-later slaves, not only to Europe but to the Turks, Arabs and Tatars.

SLAVE – late 13the century, ‘person who is the chattel or property of another’, from the Old French esclave (13c.), from Medieval Latin Sclavus ‘slave’ (source also of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo), originally ‘Slav’; used in this secondary sense because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples. (Etymological dictionary)

Will any gallery displaying any images of slaves from any of these historical cultures, from any period of history, from anywhere around the world, require there to be warning messages for visitors?

‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov (1909)

If not, why not?

Violence 1 – secular

Human history is more or less the ceaseless history of wars and empires, human history is saturated with conflict and violence. Will notices warning of ‘strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering’ have to be placed outside every gallery which includes any images of conflict and war?

The first VC of the Great War won by Capt Francis Grenfell of the 9th Lancers at Audregnies, Belgium on 24th August, 1914 by Richard Caton Woodville

Violence 2 – religious

Christianity is saturated with violence. Its central image is of a man being tortured to death, and is closely accompanied by the stories and images of countless thousands of other Christian martyrs, most of whom died blood-curdling deaths.

Will all of these images require a warning notice? They would have to be put up in every gallery which includes images of the Passion of Christ or of the saints and, if we follow this logic through, outside every Roman Catholic church in the world.

Crucifix at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, USA

Why now?

Why now? The painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger has existed for 340 years and been sporadically on public display throughout that period, the Blake images for over 200 years during which they have featured in numerous books and exhibitions.

Why are these warning notices making their appearance now?

It’s not as if we are suddenly more opposed to slavery – the Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade got going during the 1780s, 240 years ago, and used as many images of atrocities against slaves as it could find. Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, was founded in London in 1839 and is still very active. I.e. graphic images of slavery have been in the public domain for over 200 years.

As to images of threat or violence, my God what have most movies for the past 100 years been about, plenty of plays and countless hundreds of thousands of art works not to mention millions of photographs taken of every war since the Crimea or the Indian Mutiny.

What is it in contemporary society which suggests that art lovers, old and young, native and foreign, have, for the last 300 years or so, been able to confront and process images like this without any kind of warning… but now they can’t.

Re. the slavery images, is it because the black population of the UK has reached a kind of tipping point where images like this are no longer acceptable, even in an obviously academic and historical context?

Have changes in social attitudes across the British population suddenly made images of black people in chains unacceptable?

But what about the warning about Blake’s pretty harmless cartoons? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Or is it not British society, is it the attitudes of art curators which have changed?

Is it not the British public that the curators are concerned about? Is it the art curating profession which has been swept by progressive views, and whose modern woke training has told them that images like this are objectionable.

When they envision visitors being offended, is it really themselves and their progressive cohorts who they are envisioning?

Conclusion

So I’m not belittling the impact that images of black slavery might well have on black, or any other, visitors to an exhibition like this, or the emotional impact of images of threat or violence might have on gallery goers more broadly.

But up until a year or so ago, curators of pretty much every gallery and museum in the world were happy to assume that gallery visitors were grown-up enough, adult enough, to take images like this in their stride. To be shocked, maybe, maybe even to have an emotional response, but to be able to cope with it.

I’m genuinely curious to know 1. what has changed and 2. where this new trend will go.

And 3. am I going to have to put warnings at the top of every one of my blog posts which is about war or slavery or violence or conflict or threat? Because that’s most of them…


Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

William Blake @ Tate Britain

This is the largest survey of work by William Blake to be held in the UK for a generation. It brings together over 300 famous and rarely seen works, from the whole of his career, from all of his publications and projects, and sets them alongside works by contemporaries, friends and influences, in a blockbuster exhibition which spreads over 13 rooms.

Engraving

Blake was born in 1757 into a poor family in London’s Soho – his father was a hosier – who, nonetheless, supported his ambitions to be an artist. Aged 15 he got an apprenticeship to an engraver. At the age of 21 he became a student at the Royal Academy. He appears to have been studious, the exhibition contains a typical plaster cast classical statue which students had to sketch along with Blake’s drawings of it.

Distinctive style

Muscles But from early on Blake developed an idiosyncratic and eccentric way of depicting the human body. Most of his work is depictions of the human body. Most of the bodies in question are naked or draped in simple Biblical robes, and all of them are extremely muscley, with a heavy, musclebound weight which is reminiscent of Michelangelo. Although the curators don’t mention it I’ve read somewhere that this striking musculature is in fact anatomically inaccurate, and designed purely for expressive purposes.

Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824-1827) by William Blake © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Flat and close Other elements of his style include the lack of perspective. Figures almost always appear in a flat space. This gives them dramatic immediacy and directness, as in this striking image.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea by William Blake (1805)

Noses In both these images note the strikingly aquiline noses of his figures. Sounds trivial but its a trademark of his style.

Anti-commercial art Blake rejected much of the commercial art of his day, came to despise the Royal Academy, hated the way late 18th century art was dominated by society portraits or landscapes of rich people’s properties.

Visual purity He wanted to forge something much more visionary and pure. This search for a kind of revolutionary purity reminds me of the Republican phase of the art of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, which also features: legendary, classical or mythical subject matter; half naked men showing off their six-packs; in striking poses; flowing robes and togas.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

But a comparison with David vividly brings out the difference: Blake was never an oil painter. None of his works evince the kind of lavish, luxurious depth and perspective and colour and light and shade of an oil painter like David.

Most of Blake’s images are engravings, of which he produced over a thousand, and a central quality of an engraving is its flatness.

There are also watercolours but, as the curators point out, these have the clarity of line, formality and flatness of engravings which have simply been coloured in.

There is rarely any perspective or depth. The backgrounds are generally sketchy. All the focus is on the (generally melodramatic postures) of the foreground figures.

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God by William Blake (1799-1809) © The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

Illustrations

Cain Fleeing exemplifies a major fact about Blake’s visual work, which is that the majority of was illustrations for classic works. Over his life he was commissioned to produce illustrations for:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft – Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
  • John Gay – Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
  • Edward Young – Night-Thoughts (1797)
  • Thomas Gray – Poems (1798)
  • Robert Blair – The Grave (1805–1808)
  • John Milton – Paradise Lost (1808)
  • John Varley – Visionary Heads (1819–1820)
  • Robert John Thornton – Virgil (1821)
  • The Book of Job (1823–1826)
  • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–1827, unfinished)
  • Dante – Divine Comedy (1825–1827)

The exhibition features generous selections from most of these works, for example ten or more of Blake’s illustrations for the Grave or Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.

Bad pictures

What comes over from many of these obscure and little exhibited illustrations is how bad they are. Milky, washed out, strangely lacking in the dynamism which Blake, in his written works, claimed for his art.

Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, Design 113 by William Blake (1797-8)

Bad, isn’t it? All the illustrations for the Elegy are like this.

Towards the end of his life Blake made 29 watercolour illustrations of the Pilgrim’s Progress which are similarly not much mentioned in his oeuvre. Being woke, the curators suggest this might be because his loyal, hard-working and artistic wife, Catherine, is said to have had a say in designing and colouring them, so their neglect is a sexist conspiracy. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just because they’re not very good. Here’s an example.

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

The composition, the use of perspective, the crappy buildings, the ludicrous posture of the figures, and the badness of their faces – everything conspires to make this picture, in my opinion, poor. And there are lots more of this low standard in the exhibition.

Good pictures

But what makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to evaluate is that Blake was also capable of coming up with images which turned his manifold weaknesses – the lack of depth, the odd stylised postures, the inaccurate anatomy – into strengths. This is true of many of the illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Take this depiction of the fate of the corrupt pope – the very unnaturalness of the postures and the weirdness of the setting work in its favour. To make it a deeply strange and troubling image.

The Simoniac Pope’ by William Blake (1824-7) Tate

Take another of his archetypal images, Newton. The closer you look, the weirder it becomes – not least his musculature which makes him look more like an insect with a segmented back than a human being – and yet, and yet… it’s so weird that it’s true – true not to lived life or anything anyone’s ever seen, but to something stranger, more mysterious and more visionary.

Newton by William Blake (1795-1805) Tate

The illustrated books

Of course Blake was also a poet, an epic poet, a writer of immense long epics featuring a mythology and mythological characters he made up out of a strange mishmash of the Bible, the classics and Milton. Not many people read these long poems nowadays although, as it happens, as a schoolboy I read all of them cover to cover in the Penguin Complete Blake edition, so I have a feel for the vastness and strangeness of his imaginary world.

Blake produced the poems in books which featured his own line illustrations and decorations of the handwritten texts.

  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
  • Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
  • The Book of Thel (written 1788–1790, edited 1789–1793)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790–1793)
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
  • Continental prophecies
  • America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
  • Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794–1821)
  • The Song of Los (edited 1795)
  • There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794–1795)
  • The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794–1818)
  • All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
  • The Book of Los (edited 1795)
  • The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
  • Milton (written 1804–1810)
  • Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804–1820, edited 1820–1827 and 1832)

The exhibition features many of these illustrations to his own verse. There is, for example, half a room devoted to individual pages from America a Prophecy, which have been removed from the book and framed as prints. Some of them are displayed in doublesided cases set up on plinths so that visitors can walk around and see both sides. The most immediate thing you notice is how very small they are, old-fashioned paperback book size, which makes much of the writing very hard to read without a maginifying glass.

Title page of America a Prophecy, copy A (printed 1795) by William Blake © The Morgan Library

The shorter works

Even his contemporaries struggled with the obscure mythology, strangely named characters (Los, Urizen) and difficult-to-make-out plots of the longer poems. By contrast, two of the shorter works have always been popular, namely the pithy proverbs gathered in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

  • “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

and the short and simple poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contain his best-known and most anthologised poems. Of these probably the most famous is 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is undoubtedly a classic, but there is an odd and telling thing about it, which is that has become, over time, essentially, a children’s poem.

And this is emphasised by the illustration Blake did for it, which often comes as a shock to people who are familiar with it as an isolated text before they come to it in Blake’s illustrated version. It’s not just a children’s book illustration. It’s almost a baby‘s book illustration.

Tyger Tyger from Songs of Experience (designed after 1789, printed in 1794) by William Blake

Extremely hit and miss

And I think at some stage during the exhibition, it struck me that at some level, Blake is not a serious artist. He took himself very seriously, the small group of acolytes who gathered round him in his last years – the self-styled Ancients – took him very seriously, and critics and curators ditto, but… his long poems are all but incomprehensible and his own illustrations to his books are strange but often curiously childish and amateurish. His illustrations for Pilgrims Progress or the Elegy are deeply damaging to your sense of him as an artist. Some of the illustrations of Paradise Lost or Dante have a peculiar power, but many feel weak or half-finished. And strange random images throughout the exhibition leap out as expressing something no-one else had conceived or tried.

The Ancient of Days

Because every now and then, his peculiarities of style and technique (he pioneered new methods of acid engraving which the exhibition explains) come together to create something magical and genuinely visionary, something of depth and maturity.

‘Europe’ Plate i Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1827) by William Blake (1757-1827) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The curators end the exhibition with this painting, which Blake was working on right up to his final days, at his house overlooking the Thames. Who is it, what is he doing, nobody is sure, although the hand gesture which seems to be creating a sort of compass is, unexpectedly, a negative gesture in Blake’s symbolism, because mathematics and science are the enemies of the liberated and revolutionary imagination which Blake defended and praised.

Still, as with so much of the rest of his ‘thought’ and personal opinions, it doesn’t matter. Again and again the curators have had to admit that nobody knows what this or that picture really means or whether it is illustrating this or that scene from one of his vast mythological books – so much about Blake’s output is scattered, broken up and mysterious, that one more mystery doesn’t make any difference.

At his best, Blake created images of startling power and resonance which, even if we don’t understand their intention or meaning, have stood the test of time. But the high risk this exhibition has taken is placing that dozen or so brilliant imagines amid a sea of ok, so-so, mediocre and downright poor images which do a lot to dilute their impact.

Two gaps

No explanation of Blake’s politics The curators mention in several places that Blake was a revolutionary thinker who engaged with the Great Issues of his day, and list those Great Issues as political revolution, sexual politics, and slavery, and he certainly did, in his long radical poems and his notes and essays.

The odd thing is you’d expect there to be, in such a big exhibition, some sections devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, explaining his revolutionary  views, his support of the American and French revolutions, his ideas of the power of the unfettered Imagination, sexual liberty and his violent anti-slavery sentiments.

But panels or sections devoted to Blake’s beliefs are strangely absent. His views are mentioned in passing, in the context of t his or that work, but you can’t make sense of a work like America A Prophecy without some explanation of the attitude English radicals took to the war their own government was fighting to put down men committed to freedom & Liberty.

No explanation of Blake’s mythology More importantly you can’t understand a lot of his images without delving into Blake’s own mythology, which was built around praising the power of the unfettered Imagination, in the arts and politics and private life, and which he elaborated out inventing a whole cast of pseudo-Biblical gods and goddesses.

This also was strangely absent – I mean all it would have taken was a panel explaining the symbolic roles of the characters he invented for the epic poems:

  • Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law
  • his daughters Eleth, Uveth and Ona represent the three parts of the human body
  • his sons Thiriel, Utha, Grodna, Fuzon match the four elements but are also aligned with the signs of the Zodiac
  • Los is the fallen (earthly or human) form of Urthona, one of the four Zoas

and so on, to at least give you a flavour of how strange, eccentric, but oddly beguiling his personal mythology could be.

Maybe – I’m guessing – the curators wanted to focus narrowly on his art, and on the technical ways in which he experimented with techniques of engraving, and with the immediate facts of his biography. That would explain why there were rooms devoted to particular patrons such as John and Ann Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, Thomas Butts and the Reverend Joseph Thomas.

I bought the audioguide. At the end of several sections on specific series of works, it said; ‘If you want to know more about the relationship between Blake and John Flaxman, press the green button’. My point being that all the additional information was biographical. Not one of them said: ‘If you want to hear more about Blake and the French Revolution, Blake and slavery, Blake and sexual Liberty, Blake’s theories of the imagination’ – all topics I’d love to have heard given a modern summary.

This biographical approach also explains why there is a big reproduction of a period map of London with markers indicating where Blake lived over the years. And even an entire room recreating the room in the family home in Broad Street where Blake staged a quirky one-man show in 1809, a show which was a disaster as hardly anyone showed up and the one critic who wrote about it dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the curators have opted for a heavily biographical approach to Blake’s work, placing the works in the context of his real life career and biography, his houses and wife and friends and champions and critics. This is all interesting in its way, but not as interesting as Blake’s imaginative universe.

At the age of eight William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a bush in Peckham Rye, then a rural backwater south of London. A few years later he had a vision of a tree full of angels nearby and, a month after that, a third vision of angels, walking towards him through the rye.

Blake really meant it. All through is life he claimed to have visions of angels and other divine beings, dancing and cavorting in London fields and streets. He was a visionary in the most literal sense of the word.

Although – with over 300 images – this exhibition is thoroughly documented and copiously illustrated, maybe the reason I left feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied was because I felt that Blake’s weird, peculiar and compelling imaginative universe had been almost completely left out of it.

There were plenty of framed pages taken from the illustrated versions of his ‘prophetic books’ covered with verse. But the verse itself wasn’t printed out on a label on the wall for us to actually read. There was an introduction to the subject matter of each one, but little explanation of what they meant or what he was trying to achieve.

This exhibition feels like a big, elaborately assembled, beautifully curated and presented catalogue of all Blake’s visual works. A list. A documentation of his works. But somehow, with all the fiery life, rebellion and pride of the Imagination taken out.

Blake’s life is presented as a story of professional frustration – rather than as a life of extraordinary imaginative triumph.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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