Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes (1997)

Given his reputation for avoiding anything which smacked of ‘the Poetic Tradition’, the fact that he dropped English at Cambridge because he found studying the classics too stifling for his imagination, and his lifelong preference for depicting the harsh realities of a brutal, untamed nature – it might come as quite a surprise that, right at the end of his life, in 1997, Ted Hughes published a full-on translation of the Metamorphoses by the ancient Roman poet, Ovid, the kind of thing you might expect from a far more traditional, decorous, academic poet.

An odd choice?

Having just read the full Ovid poem I can see that Hughes’s decision is less surprising than might at first appear. I had fond memories of reading the Metamorphoses 30 years ago and had completely forgotten that they are consistently brutal, intense and often very cruel indeed. As such, they obviously chime with Hughes’s lifelong obsession with the brutality, intensity, and visionary otherness of the natural world.

Also, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Hughes had, earlier in his career, translated another work by a canonical Roman writer, the Oedipus of Seneca. In fact I was surprised, double checking his bibliography, to discover that after his death a whole suite of translations was published – translations of The Oresteia of Aeschylus, Phèdre by Jean Racine, and Alcestis by Euripides, all published in 1999. What do they have in common? Classic stories from classical antiquity. So the Ovid translations are far from unique. Hughes’s imagination clearly took a classical turn in his last decade.

And then, on rereading his poetry as I just have, I realised there are scattered references to classical mythology throughout – not many, admittedly, but they’re there.

Plus the entire sequence in Moortown named ‘Prometheus on his crag’, and the poem in that volume about Actaeon, and one titled ‘Pan’.

So once you start looking, you find a strong undercurrent of classical references and subject matter throughout his oeuvre.

The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses is a long poem in Latin in which the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, generally referred to as Ovid (43 BC t o18 AD) brought together into one continuous narrative some 250 ancient Greek myths and legends.

these ancient stories all have one thing in common – the protagonist, the figure at the centre of the story, be they man, woman, child, sometimes a minor divinity such as a nymph or nereid – at the climax of the story, each of them is transformed into something else. Sometimes into an animal, like a bird or pig or wolf or dog; sometimes into flora, such as a tree or flower; sometimes into inanimate matter, like stone – various characters are turned into statues or just into stone – or into water – several characters are turned into standing pools or streams.

Hughes’s approach

Ovid’s poem is huge. At just short of 12,000 lines of regular dactylic hexameter it is as long and detailed and complicated as the canonical epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Hughes’s version is nowhere near as long. For a start he restricts himself to just 24 of the longer or more complete tales.

So instead of a continuous narrative describing stories big and small, containing full length treatments with throwaway references in a line or two, as Ovid does, Hughes presents us with what is, in effect, a collection of 24 individual poems.

Second, and a more glaring difference, is Hughes translates Ovid into free verse. Hughes employed free verse and flexible stanza shapes right from the start of his career, so by 1997 he’d had 40 years of practice. The result is a style where every line is its own thing, its own measure, justifying its own length and rhythm by its meaning and poetic force, rather than being compelled to fit into a regular metre.

Tales from Ovid does in fact contain regular stanza structures, though I only slowly realised it. Thus the opening story about Phaethon who fools his father, the god of the sun, into letting him drive his chariot for a day and proves totally inadequate to the task – a kind of ancient Greek Liz Truss – and loses control of the immortal horses and lets the sun chariot swoop low over the earth causing widespread destruction – in Hughes’s hands this narratives begins by being told in 47 5-line stanzas, each line being as flexible as he needed it to be.

When Phaethon bragged about is father, Phoebus
The sun-god,
His friends mocked him. ‘Your mother must be crazy
Or you’re crazy to believe her.
How could the sun be anybody’s father?’

In a rage of humiliation
Phaethon came to his mother, Clymene.
‘They’re all laughing at me,
And I can’t answer. What can I say? It’s horrible.
I have to stand like a dumb fool and be laughed at.’

And so on. However, Hughes has no hesitation in switching format as required so that, for example, when Phaethon enters the palace of his father, the verse switches to long verse paragraphs in order to describe its grandeur.

Fittingly magnificent
Columns underpropped a mass
Of gold strata so bright
The eyes flinched from it.
The whole roof a reflector
Of polished ivory.
The silver doors like sheet flame –
And worked into that flame
Vulcan, the god of fire,
Had set, in relief, a portrait of the creation…

Back to 5-line stanzas for a bit and then, when Phaethon loses control of the horse of the sun so that they fly down, far too close to the surface of the earth, it switches again to verse paragraphs, although the freedom of individual lines remains identical to what it was in the stanzas i.e. there’s no particular rhyme or pattern except the power of the phrases themselves.

Earth began to burn, the summits first.
Baked, the cracks gaped. All fields, all thickets,
All crops were instantly fuel –
The land blazed briefly.
In the one flare noble cities
Were rendered
To black stumps of burnt stone.
Whole nations, in all their variety,
Were clouds of hot ashes, blowing in the wind,.
Forest-covered mountains were bonfires…

Later on the 9-page tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in a series of free verse 3-line stanzas so popular with contemporary poets for some reason. (Maybe this is for the simple reason that they’re no couplets which tend to make you expect rhymes, and not quatrains, ditto. Triplets are free of those old traditional expectations.)

Throughout the East men spoke in awe of Thisbe –
A girl who had suddenly bloomed
In Babylon, the mud-brick city.

The house she had grown up in adjoined
The house where Pyramus, so many years a boy,
Brooded bewildered by the moods of manhood.

These two, playmates from the beginning,
Fell in love.
For angry reasons, no part of the story,

The parents of each forbade their child
To marry the other…

In other words, Hughes felt utterly free to pick and choose verse forms, or variations of free verse forms, as they suited his needs.

List of the poems

  1. The Creation of the Universe. The Four Ages (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron). the Flood. The story of Lycaon (20 pages)
  2. Phaethon (21 pages)
  3. Callisto and Arcas (7 pages)
  4. The Rape of Proserpina (15 pages)
  5. Arethusa (4 pages)
  6. Tiresias (2 pages)
  7. Echo and Narcissus (11 pages)
  8. Erisychthon (10 pages)
  9. Semele (6 pages)
  10. Peleus and Thetis (4 pages)
  11. Actaeon (8 pages)
  12. Myrrha (15 pages)
  13. Venus and Adonis (16 pages)
  14. Pygmalion (7 pages)
  15. Hercules and Dejanira (13 pages)
  16. The Birth of Hercules (3 pages)
  17. The Death of Cygnus (6 pages)
  18. Arachne (9 pages)
  19. Bacchus and Pentheus (18 pages)
  20. Midas (11 pages)
  21. Niobe (12 pages)
  22. Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (5 pages)
  23. Tereus (17 pages)
  24. Pyramus and Thisbe (9 pages)

The merits of Hughes’s version

Characteristic, trademark phrasing, precise, brisk, no fat on the bone, no extraneous syllables. Hard, precise and clinical.

Hercules, the son of Jupiter,
Was bringing his new bride home
When he came to the river Evenus.

Burst banks, booming torrent,
Where there had been a ford. Hercules
Had no fear for himself, only for his wife.

No namby-pamby, stuff-and-nonsense, decoration or silly sentiment for our Ted. Stick to the facts, son, and tha’ll do alreeght.

The weaknesses of Hughes’s version

1. Verbosity

The weakness of Hughes’s later verse is its verbosity, as I tried to demonstrate in my overview of Hughes’s career. Much of Crow is dazzlingly brilliant, Gaudete is an extraordinarily weird achievement, but by the time of Moortown in 1979, you feel Hughes could churn this stuff out by the yard, by the mile if necessary. Same is true in spades of Tales from Ovid.

There are still flashes of brilliance in his phrasing, and his shaping of lines i.e. deciding how many words and beats to include in each line, and his ability to build up rhythms over successive free verse lines remains very impressive. But his commitment to a diction which is ‘a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical’ often ends up emptying the lines of colour. His verse feels oddly empty.

2. Functionality

Also, in order to tell stories in verse some of the lines need to be unavoidably functional. Now, if you’re Dryden or Pope, you could use a standard format like the rhyming couplet or blank verse, both of which are utterly predictable in layout, pace and metre and so very suitable for settling down to hear a very long narrative in.

Hughes tries to translate his 24 stories into ad hoc verse shapes and line lengths but, whereas these were justified when they contained a blitz of stunning images in his own poems, this approach works less well for narrative poetry.

Somewhere the critic (and mate of Hughes’s) Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems leap from one dazzling image to the next. That’s fine if that’s all the poems are meant to do – dazzle. But telling a story requires something a bit more predictable, a regular repeatable style which can take a backseat to the narrative.

3. Thin

In stripping his versions back to the bone, Hughes loses a lot of what makes Ovid Ovid, which is the myriad digressions and throwaway references, about genealogy and relationships and attributes of this god or the achievements of that hero; all the peripheral detail which goes to build up a rich imaginative world. These are just some of the aspects which make the original Metamorphoses feel very dense and rich, sumptuous, luxurious. Hughes deliberately chucks all that out in order to hone things down to maximum intensity for each line. But what if the sumptuous detail is the point of Ovid?

4. Scene setting and landscapes

Now I’m really thinking about this, I realise that Ovid, in his best most extended stories, often goes in for slow, lush, storytelling descriptions of scenery and setting.

There was a valley there called Gargaphie, dense with pine trees and sharp cypresses, sacred to Diana of the high-girded tunic, where, in the depths, there is a wooded cave, not fashioned by art. But ingenious nature had imitated art. She had made a natural arch out of native pumice and porous tufa. On the right, a spring of bright clear water murmured into a widening pool, enclosed by grassy banks. Here the woodland goddess, weary from the chase, would bathe her virgin limbs in the crystal liquid. (book 3)

Hughes chucks all this out in order to get to the pith of the action.

A deep cleft at the bottom of the mountain
Dark with matted pine and spiky cypress

Was known as Gargaphie, sacred to Diana,
Goddess of the hunt.
In the depths of this goyle was the mouth of a cavern

That might have been carved out with deliberate art
From the soft volcanic rock.
It half-hid a broad pool, perpetually shaken

By a waterfall inside the mountain,
Noisy but hidden. Often to that grotto,
Aching and burning from her hunting,

Diana came
To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.

I suppose Hughes’s version is more crisp, factual, minimalist and modern – but, in a poem of Ovid’s type, half the pleasure is in the details, the lushness and the time taken to elaborate and decorate the subject. It’s nice to know that Diana is the goddess ‘of the high-girded tunic’ and a thousand and one other details and spin-off phrases which adorn and enrich the Ovid. All burned away in Hughes. Hughes’s version is like a concrete multi-story car park – admirable in its stark, uncompromising efficiency. But difficult to warm to, let alone love.

5. Blank style

And that brings me round to the lack of sensuality in Hughes’s verse. His is a powerful sensuality of imagery but not of language, as such.

Right from the start Hughes was capable of using simple words in unexpected combinations to convey his otherworldly insights into nature with stunning power, but there was rarely anything special about the words themselves. they are often very ordinary indeed. It was always the novel combinations of words into brilliant, often mind-bending phrases which had so much impact on readers. In fact, paradoxically, Hughes often works with a very limited, plain diction.

Somehow, for me, his translation of the Tales really brings this out. The deliberate blankness of a lot of the style, and the occasional dazzling phraseology, can’t conceal the fact that a lot of the lines are, lexically speaking, rather, well, pedestrian.

The introduction

There’s a case for saying the best part of the book is the introduction. For a start, it’s admirably brief at just four and a half pages. After some fluff about Ovid’s biography, it quickly turns to Hughesian interests. After mentioning the Metamorphoses‘ importance to Chaucer as a source book for all manner of myths and legends, Hughes goes on to cite Shakespeare.

Characteristically, Hughes dismisses Shakespeare finding sweet and beautiful images amidst Ovid’s dense foliage. Instead:

A more crucial connection, maybe, can be found in their common taste for a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion that border on the grotesque.

Now, admittedly these elements are present in Shakespeare’s earliest, goriest plays and remain in moments of the high tragedies, especially King Lear. But roughly speaking who do ‘a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion’ remind you of? Hughes. and his hyperbolic brain-damaged worldview (see my overview of Hughes’s oeuvre for quotes to back this up).

But it’s worth bearing with this over-passionate man for the insights he offers into Ovid:

Above all, Ovid was interested in passion. or rather, in what a passion feels like to the one possessed by it. Not just ordinary passion either, but human passion in extremis – passion where it combusts, or levitates, or mutates into an experience of the supernatural.

Then Hughes says something really interesting and profoundly insightful. I quote it in full to give the rhythm and rise of his argument:

The act of metamorphosis, which at some point, touches each of the tales, operates as the symbolic guarantee that the passion has become mythic, has achieved the unendurable intensity that lifts the whole episode onto the supernatural or divine plane. Sometimes this happens because mortals tangle with the gods, sometimes because mortal passion makes the breakthrough by sheer excess, without divine intervention – as in the tale of Tereus and Philomela. But in every case, to a greater or lesser degree, Ovid locates and captures the particular frisson of that event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles out into the mythic arena and is transformed.

I think the thought behind this, and the phrasing, are wonderfully vivid and evocative. I’m not at all sure what he says is true of the entire Metamorphoses, which feature just as many nymphs and Naiads and whatnot as mortals – and also includes some happy endings, such as Pygmalion, and Baucis and Philemon (the happiest story in the Metamorphoses and so, symptomatically, not included in Hughes’s selection of tales.)

But as a description of what does happen to the poor, stricken mortals among Ovid’s hapless protagonists, this is a wonderfully, energetically perceived and phrased insight.

Conclusion

As Hughes’s last volume of poetry, Tales from Ovid has interest, though it’s not the best place to start if you’ve never read him before.

If you want to find out what Ovid’s Metamorphoses is actually like, then emphatically do not read this translation, try the more traditional versions from Penguin or OUP which give you the full text along with all the wonderful details and grace notes which welcome you into an entirely new world. Every bit as savage and cruel as Hughes’s, but redeemed and enlivened by far more colour and variety.


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

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

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

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

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

And to the Dwarfe awhile his needlesse spere he gave.

Setting standards

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

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

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

Bringing order to the drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synopsis

Act One

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antony is inspired and agrees these terms.

Act Two

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

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

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

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

Ventidius is disgusted:

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

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

Act Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several thoughts:

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

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

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

General thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

CLEOPATRA: ⁠Be more plain.

Mermaid’s inadequate notes

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

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

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

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

A comparison

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s less impactful in at least three ways:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Ruin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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British Baroque: Power and Illusion @ Tate Britain

British Baroque: Power and Illusion covers art and architecture (and gardens and sculpture and oddities and gimmicks) from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The big word in the title is Baroque but it’s a problematic term and by the end of the exhibition I was left wondering, in my non-scholarly way, whether any of the art on display here actually qualifies for the description ‘Baroque’.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio (c.1674) The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II

1. Dates

Traditionally, in art h istory, the term Baroque denotes Power – Religious and Royal Power. Baroque art and architecture are big, heavy and imposing.

The Baroque is one of the major Periods of Western Art, preceded by the Renaissance and Mannerism and followed by the Rococo. The dates usually given are:

  • Early Renaissance 1400-1495
  • High Renaissance 1495-1520
  • Mannerism 1520-1600
  • the Baroque 1600-1740
  • Rococo 1730s-1760s
  • Neo-Classicism 1760-1830

The convention is to date the Baroque from the early 1600s, at least in Italy and on the Continent. It is a striking decision by the curators to delay it as late as 1660 for this exhibition, though you can see why – England was always slow to adopt developments in continental art and architecture.

Some outliers and pioneers may have been introducing ‘baroque’ styles into the English court in the 1620s and 1630s (the designer and architect Inigo Jones is often mentioned), but then all artistic and architectural endeavour was suspended during the great cataclysm of the British civil wars, which lasted:

  • from the rebellion in Scotland in 1637
  • through the civil wars in England (1642-48)
  • the execution of King Charles I in 1649
  • continued wars in Scotland and Ireland into the early 1650s
  • the rule of Oliver Cromwell from 1653 till his death in 1658
  • the collapse of the Parliamentarian regime in 1658-59
  • to the triumphant restoration of Charles II in 1660

Quite obviously the commissioning of royal art and architecture was put on hold for the whole of this war-torn and then republican period.

So starting the exhibition in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II provides a neat, clean starting point to a period which was distinctive in music (Purcell), literature (Dryden, Restoration Comedy) and philosophy (John Locke), as well as architecture (Christopher Wren) and art (Peter Lely) – the subjects specifically covered in this exhibition.

Plus – England was always late. Stuck up here on the remote periphery of Europe, England was late to experience all the trends which originated in the Mediterranean heartland. Thus Renaissance art and literature was flourishing in Italy in the 1400s but we date ‘our’ Renaissance period from the 1530s or later. Literature students tend to equate it with the reign of Queen Elizabeth which started in 1558, getting on for 150 years after the Renaissance started in Italy, by which time the Italians had been all the way through the Renaissance, High Renaissance and Mannerism. During the 18th century the motor for artistic innovation moved to France and stayed there until, arguably, the First World War, maybe beyond.

Anyway, for centuries the Europeans were waaaay ahead of us Brits. Mind you, we had something they didn’t have, which was an empire to set up and run.

2. The term ‘Baroque’

Its origin is obscure. It seems to derive from the Portuguese barocco meaning, ‘irregular pearl or stone’, i.e. a technical term in jewellery for a kind of pearl which was not perfectly round: for a pearl which was ugly and misshapen.

It seems that early uses of the term ‘baroque’ were all negative and used to criticise unnecessary complication and ugliness which were creeping into art. The word was never used by the artists or architects actually working during the ‘Baroque’ period; it wasn’t a self-conscious movement like Cubism.

Baroque is a term which was imposed a long time later, by late-eighteenth century or nineteenth century historians who, looking back, needed terms to assign to all the ‘period’s they wanted to divide art history into.

The Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari (1686) The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida

3. The origins of the Baroque in the Counter-Reformation

Articles about the Baroque all point to its origins in the Councils of Trent, the organisational centre of the Counter-Reformation.

In 1517 the monk Martin Luther had nailed his theses about theology to the door of his local church (in fact a traditional way to announce a theological debate). Luther called for a revolution in all aspects of European Catholicism, sweeping away scores of central dogmas and traditions and ceremonies which he regarded as later additions, corrupt folklore and legends and superstitions and inventions which had been grafted onto what was originally the pure and spartan teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels.

Many German princes and north European kings took Luther’s teachings as an opportunity to throw off the shackles of Catholic rule from Italy, and within a generation a host of independent ‘Protestant’ churches and states had been established across northern Europe, not least in England where Henry VIII rejected rule of his church from Italy by an Italian pope and declared himself head of a newly-styled Church of England.

One aspect of the Protestant revolt had been aesthetic. In rejecting the cults of saints and relics – the excessive worship of Mary Mother of God and a host of other Catholic traditions – the really revolutionary Protestants (who came to be nicknamed the Puritans, in England) cleaned out their churches, smashing statues, defacing medieval paintings, burning wooden rood screens and so on in an orgy of iconoclasm.

Result: by the 1550s or so European Christianity existed in two forms, a stripped-down, militantly white-walled protestant form held in bit white undecorated halls – and a defiantly gold candelabra-ed, smells and bells Catholicism performed in churches crammed with statues of saints and the crucified Christ and a blue-robed Mary.

In light of the Protestant attacks, the Catholic authorities called a series of congresses at Trent (Trento in northern Italy) to thrash out just what they did agree on, in order to redefine every element of Catholic theology and practice, to create a new, stronger, more centralised ideology. Reacting against what had become known as the Protestant Reformation, this fightback became known as the Counter-Reformation.

Among a host of new theological and administrative rules emerged a belief that Catholic churches, Catholic aesthetics, should defy the know-nothing, philistine, iconoclastic, whitewash-everything Protestants and build their churches on an even more elaborate scale.

Catholic architecture should be enormous, characterised by domes soaring into heaven and festooned with flocks of angels and risen Christs flying over the heads of the congregation. Every nook should be full of florid statues of saints in the agony of their martyrdoms, and the authorities encouraged a style where every fold of their robes and cloaks became more and more elaborate, intricate and charged with emotion.

Italian Catholicism deliberately set out to be as flamboyant, as big, as majestic and as over-awing as could be achieved in buildings, statuary and painting. This is the key impulse behind the new heavy, elaborate, contorted and highly emotional style which later ages were to term the Baroque.

Examples of the Baroque: from top left: The interior of the church of Santa Maria, Rome; The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio; The Trevi Fountain in Rome, designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1732.

4. Royal Power

Not surprisingly, kings liked this style. ‘Big, imposing, overpowering, yep that’s me’ was the thought of rulers all over Europe, who proceeded to commission artists and architects to copy this new, super-solid, massive and imposing architectural and artistic style in their realms, from Poland to the Palace of Westminster.

It’s important to remember that, although he rarely features in histories of the civil war and Republic, Charles II was very much alive during all the events and where was he living? In the French court of Louis XIV (in fact the extended reign of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King more than matches the entire period covered in this exhibition, he reigned from 1645 to 1715.)

Thus Charles didn’t just return in triumph to the palace of Westminster and resume all the rights and accoutrements of a king of England; he returned:

  • with his head full of European theories about the Divine Right of Kings
  • with the example of Louis XIV firmly in his mind about how to be such a king
  • and with his imagination packed with the architectural and artistic achievements of the French courtly builders and painters

It was under Louis XIV in the 1680s that the Palace of Versailles was redesigned and rebuilt to become the largest and grandest royal palace in Europe. Charles had watched his French peer think and plan on the grandest scale.

The British Baroque

So that’s a brief background to the ascent of the supposed Baroque style in Britain. But was it really Baroque? Here’s one of the thousands of definitions you can find on the internet:

The Baroque style is characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music. Baroque iconography was direct, obvious, and dramatic, intending to appeal above all to the senses and the emotions.

If the Baroque is anything it is dramatic, operatic and exuberant, grand gestures in enormous buildings, huge and heavy marble statues, imposing porticos. Histrionic is a good word.

But after a few sort-of grand paintings in the first room (such as The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review), the exhibition leads into a room of court beauties, a handful of Charles II’s many mistresses – and ‘grand’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘exuberant’ are not really the words which describe these paintings at all.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child by Peter Lely (c.1664). National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s a nice pillar in this painting and, to those in the know about painterly symbolism, the Duchess of Villiers is wearing the bright red and blue traditionally associated in Renaissance painting with the Virgin Mary, but… It’s not really ‘grand’, ‘melodramatic’ or ‘histrionic’, is it? In fact Barbara’s snub nose, poky little mouth and bulbous eyes are more homely than grand and intimidating.

The seed of doubt whether the term ‘baroque’ really applies to the British art and architecture of the period is sown early and crops up throughout the rest of the exhibition.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review is certainly an elaborate allegorical composition and contains a neat pyramid of tumbling sea nymphs and sea goddesses and so on, but the figure the whole composition leads you to… Charles II’s black moustachioed face of an old debauchee… to me it completely lacks awe or grandeur or dignity.

To me Charles looks a bit of a twerp, as if his face has been photoshopped onto a foreign fantasia.

There’s a moment in the room devoted to architecture where we learn about the murals the painter Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to create to decorate the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent new St Paul’s Cathedral. They are a series of large murals depicting scenes from the life of St Paul, so far so good. But then we learn that he rendered them in black and white in order to be restrained and dignified and to suit the Protestant atmosphere of what was, in effect, the world’s first Protestant cathedral.

Restrained? That’s like saying we’re going to an all-night Brazilian samba party and we’re going to drink lemonade and dance the waltz.

It is completely against the spirit of the Baroque. The baroque is drama and opera and huge flights of angels soaring up into vast church domes. But that isn’t the English spirit at all. The English spirit then as now is faaar more sensible and restrained and undemonstrative.

A glaring indicator of this was the simple lack of religious imagery throughout the show. Of the exhibition’s ten rooms, only one is devoted to religious imagery and that one is virtually empty. The only interesting thing in it is a wonderful carved wooden cover for a font by Grinling Gibbons which is all Italianate grapes and leaves, with a few winged putti holding up the swags, but there’s nothing particularly Christian about it. Certainly none of the agony and ecstasy and religious melodrama of the Italian Baroque. There are no bleeding saints rolling their eyes to heaven.

Font cover from All Hallows by the Tower church, London, by Grinling Gibbons, carefully avoiding all religious imagery whatsoever

Instead, what comes over is the way British and foreign painters domesticated the brash, grand, outdoors Italian Baroque for a culture which is far more indoors, domestic and family-orientated.

The Children of John Taylor of Bifrons Park by John Closterman (1696) National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s as much, in fact I think there’s more in the exhibition about the late 17th century fashion for trompe l-oeil optical illusions in paint as there is for Christian imagery. We just didn’t go in for the melodrama, the agony in the garden, the upturned eyes of adoring angels and the flurried cloaks of muscular saints.

A quick review

Here’s a quick overview of the ten rooms and my highlights:

Room 1 – Restoration

Artists who returned with King Charles and became associated with his reign included Peter Lely, the King’s Principal Painter; Samuel Cooper, his official miniaturist; and the mural painter, Antonio Verrio.

Miniaturist? Yes there are a number of miniature portraits of Charles and leading courtiers. Couldn’t help thinking that the entire concept of a miniature is the exact opposite of the Baroque spirit which is to be as big and imposing as possible.

Room 2 – The Restoration Court

Contains classy but surprisingly restrained full-length portraits of half a dozen of Charles’s mistresses and assorted courtiers, including John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the rudest poet in English, one of whose poems begins:

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St. James’s Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St. James has th’ honor on ‘t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and cunt…

What is really striking about these portraits is nothing to do with Power and Magnificence, and everything to do with the extremely stylised depictions of their faces. They all look the same. All the women have the same rounded faces, long noses, white skin relieved by heavily rouged cheeks and, above all, the same rather bulbous eyes, the overlids and underlids of the eyes deliberately shadowed to create a sense of an unhealthy prominence of the eyeball.

Two Ladies of the Lake Family by Sir Peter Lely (c.1660) Tate

Room 3 – The religious interior

As I’ve mentioned, a thin collection. Some surviving paintings and wall paintings from the Catholic chapels in London, at St James’s Palace and Somerset House, where the Catholic consorts Catherine of Braganza (Charles’s wife) and Mary of Modena (James II’s wife) enjoyed freedom of worship, providing a focal point for the Catholic community.

But this was a very small, constrained part of English life or architecture.

Room 4 – Illusion and Deception

Much more fun, much more interesting, and much more English, is this room full of fashionable trompe l-oeil optical illusions. Highlights include a series of paintings by Edward Collier of items apparently pinned to a real wooden board or held in place by tape, which appear astonishingly lifelike and three-dimensional.

There’s an elaborate peepshow by Samuel van Hoogstraten: you look through a little pinhole to the side and see what looks like a realistic interior of a house with rooms giving off in front of you and to the side. There’s Chatsworth’s famous violin painted as if hanging on the back of a door, and the hyper-real flower paintings of Simon Verelst which looked so real that they fooled the diarist Samuel Pepys.

A Vase of Flowers by Simon Verelst (1669)

Room 5 – Wren and Baroque architecture

Here, in the magnificent churches designed by Christopher Wren and his student Nicholas Hawksmoor, with the Queens House and other buildings built at Greenwich and plans to rebuild Whitehall Palace after it burned down, and the country houses designed by the later John Vanbrugh, you approach something like the continental Baroque in scale and ambition.

But as the story of Sir James Thornhill’s murals indicates, it is a European style which has been restrained, watered down and made sensible.

Room 6 – Country mansions and courtly gardens

How Hampton Court was remodelled to be more like Versailles and so was William III’s grand Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. Diagrams and paintings of Chatsworth and Bleinheim, the grandest of grand English country houses.

Paintings of huge, geometric, symmetric formal gardens.

Room 7 – Painted interiors

This was maybe my favourite room. It contains a photo of the vast and sumptuous mural on the ceiling of the dining room at Old Greenwich Palace, and is lined by preparatory paintings of other vast mythological murals by the likes of Antonio Verrio and Louis Chéron and Sir James Thornhill.

Apparently, it was the arrival of seasoned muralist Verrio in England in 1672 which sparked a new fashion for grandiose murals, and it’s in these (essentially private) murals – vast compositions awash with Greek mythical or allegorical figures  that you get closest to thinking the English had a Baroque period or style.

Lower Hall ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich by Sir James Thornhill

But what I really liked was the preparatory sketches for these works. The exhibition includes huge sketchbooks in which Thornhill sketched out his initial designs and compositions for various murals. For me, these rough sketches often had more energy, vim and dynamism that the finished works.

In particular, the human shapes and faces, although left as rough outlines, somehow, have more character and vibrancy than the smooth finished oil paintings, in many of which Thornhill has had to defer to the peculiar contemporary style of restoration faces, with their rounded features and bulging eyes.

Thornhill’s sketches are fun, mad profusions of tumbling cartoon characters. This one shows a grand mythological scene which was clearly designed to cover the wall of a staircase (hence the 45 degree angle at the bottom left): at the bottom-right Venus is being born from the waves; watched from the left by Neptune King of the oceans holding his triton; and above her a frothing scramble of other gods and goddesses.

A Ceiling and Wall Decoration (circa 1715-25) by Sir James Thornhill

Room 8 – Beauty

A striking and inventive piece of curating in which the Tate has taken seven of eight massive, full-length portrait paintings of English society beauties and made an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the kind of grand drawing room they would have adorned. They’re selections from two series of paintings:

  • The Hampton Court Beauties, a set of eight full-length portraits, commissioned by Mary II in 1690–1
  • The Petworth Beauties, commissioned by the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset for their country mansion Petworth House

In a way, though, the real star of the room is the huge heavy wood furniture, adorned with gold clasps and legs modelled from what appear to pregnant black woman (!?) and which bear a set of massive Chinese vases. There are candelabra on the walls and one can only wish the curators had had the courage of their convictions and turned the gallery’s electric lights off and installed replica candles so we really could have seen what paintings like this would have looked like in the flickering candlelight of the 1690s.

Room 9 – Triumph and glory

Critics could easily complain that the exhibition doesn’t really describe or explain the complicated and momentous political events of the years 1660 to 1700, which saw not just the restoration of Charles II, but:

  • Charles’s death in 1685 and the succession of his brother, as King James II.
  • The rebellion of Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who raised an army in the West Country, before being crushed by James’s army.
  • The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when James announced that he was going to raise his son by his second wife, Mary of Modena, a Catholic i.e. ensuring that the next in line to the English throne would definitely be a Catholic. At this point a cabal of leading aristocrats decided to overthrown James and invited William Prince of Orange (a state in the Low Country) to come and be King of Britain, using the fig leaf that William was the son of James’s dead sister, and also that his wife Mary was the eldest daughter of James II, the king she helped to overthrow.
  • Having secured the throne in England, William went on to defeat the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, a defeat/victory which is commemorated to this day in Northern Ireland.
  • And the creation of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional devices which ensured the supremacy of Parliament and other legal rights which made Britain one of the most advanced and liberated nations on earth.

But then this is an art exhibition and not a history lesson.

The advent of William as King not only overthrew the House of Stuart but created two broad political parties among the political elite – those who remained true to the old Stuart line and came to be known as Tories, and those who moved to ingratiate themselves with the polemically Protestant new rule of this progressive king and came to be known as Whigs.

And it also drew Britain deep into European politics. We gained not only a new king but a new web of complex international alliances and enmities which this king brought with him, not least total opposition to the king of France’s ambitions for European hegemony.

And thus this room has paintings of William and various of his generals, in warlike pose, astride horses, in martial postures. The thing is… most of them are a bit rubbish. Here is a painting of Charles I on a horse by the genius Sir Anthony van Dyke back in the 1630s.

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1633)

Now here is a painting of King William III, portrayed as the victor of one of his innumerable endless wars, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

William III on horseback with allegorical figures by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1701)

The van Dyck has genuine grace and dignity and regality. The Kneller has many good effects, but it’s just nowhere nearly as good as the van Dyck. And there’s something about those high wigs for men which is just… ludicrous. And whereas Charles is accompanied by a real retainer the chocolate box angels and putti flying above William are laughable.

(To be precise, the allegorical figures in the Kneller painting are: Neptune in shadow on the far left; Ceres and Flora [goddesses of fertility and crops] the two women on the right; Astrae [Justice] and Mercury [messenger of the gods] flying overhead.)

Room 10 – The Age of Politics

The constitutional and legal reforms which accompanied the Glorious Revolution which ushered in a new age. Formerly a king appointed a lead minister whose job it was to draw up policy and steer legislation through a mostly passive parliament until, that is, the increasing dissension which led up to the civil war.

Now it was agreed in law that parliamentary elections would be held every three years, and this ushered in a new era where groups and cabals of aristocrats came together to press for their own interests. It was the birth of parliamentary parties. And also the birth of an early form of journalism as magazines arose to cater to the taste for reading about the ever-more complex political intriguing and jockeying which was going on in and around Parliament, such as the original Spectator magazine, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711.

Thus it is that the final room contains portraits of leading lights of the is new world of intrigue, clubs and parties. There is a massive and unflattering portrait of Queen Anne (reigned 1702 to 1714) along with portraits of the members of the various clubs which had their origins at this time, including Kneller’s portraits of members of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, and this fine body of podgy, bewigged men – the leading figures in the Whig Junto as depicted by John James Baker.

The Whig Junto by John James Baker (1710) Tate

Conclusion

If you watch the Antiques Roadshow or flick through popular history, nobody refers to an English ‘baroque’ period – the eras and styles they refer to are the Restoration, or Queen Anne, or Georgian periods and styles (the Georgian began at Queen Anne’s death in 1714).

And the exhibition skimps on the enormous importance of the political events of the time, and skates very thinly over the momentous philosophical and scientific revolutions of the period – Newton discovering the laws of the universe and the nature of light, the Royal Society founded in 1660 and sponsoring all kinds of breakthrough in engineering, hydraulics, dynamics, the circulation of the blood and so on.

But then it’s an exhibition of art and architecture not a history lesson. And one of the most interesting lessons I took from it was how very unBaroque a lot of the art of this period was. In sharp contrast with the European Baroque, it was dedicatedly Protestant, unreligiose, unshowy, undramatic and often very tame and domestic in feel.

In fact walking slowly back through all ten rooms I came to the conclusion that in the entire exhibition there was only one real Baroque pieces, an enormous, fearfully heavy marble bust of Charles II made by the French-born, Genoa-based sculptor Honoré Pelle in 1684.

This, it struck me, was grand – large, imposing, showed its subject in a moment of movement, dramatised by the extraordinary realism of the cloak of fabric flying around his shoulders. This, for me, was by far the most convincing and successful Baroque work of art in the exhibition.

Charles II by Honoré Pelle (1684) Victoria and Albert Museum

Promotional video

Curators

  • Tabitha Barber, Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain
  • David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, National Trust
  • Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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