Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

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Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

Black Sea Letters by Ovid, translated by Peter Green

I lie at the world’s end in a lonely wasteland.
(Black Sea Letters book 1, poem 3, line 49)

One cry for help, many addresses.
(3.6 line 42)

My review of Ovid’s Tristia praises Peter Green’s compendious notes and fluent, flowing translations of the 50 or so poems from exile which that volume contains. Alongside the Tristia, Ovid wrote another 50 or so verse letters from exile which were collected in a different volume titled Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’). The difference between the two sets is that whereas the poems of Tristia sometimes address anonymous figures as part of his generalised lament about exile, each of the ‘Black Sea Letters’ is very much addressed to a specific, named individual, and the poems devote space to describing this person’s career, relationship with Ovid, before he turns to his familiar refrain of asking them to intervene for him.

Green gives the collection a slightly different title, calling it the Black Sea Letters, and both his translations – of the Letters and Tristia – are included in the same Penguin paperback omnibus edition, which is collectively titled Poems from Exile.

The reason for Ovid’s exile

In late 8 AD the Roman poet Ovid, at the age of 51, was sent into exile by the (ageing) emperor, Augustus. Although he wrote about 100 poems from his exile (which he endured from late 8 AD until his death in 17 AD) and describes his miserable plight endlessly, he nowhere specifies what crime he had committed to justify this harsh sentence.

He does mention that there were two causes: the official one, given out by the regime, was that the tendency of Ovid’s light, sophisticated and fashionable love poetry, in particular the scandalous Art of Love – which is an extended guidebook on how to pick up and conduct affairs with married women – flew in the face of Augustus’s legislative attempts to promote marriage and traditional morality (collectively known as the Leges Iuliae).

But Ovid himself, and all commentators since, regard this as camouflage, not least because the Art of Love had been published around 1 AD so had been in public circulation for nearly a decade when Ovid was suddenly summoned for an audience with Augustus, given a dressing down and told his fate.

No, the real reason is that Ovid saw something incriminating and failed to alert the authorities. He insists again and again and again that he committed no crime, intended no bloodshed or to break any laws; instead, in poem after poem he insists that he committed an error (he uses the original Latin word) of witnessing and seeing something, something criminal, something scandalous, something with infuriated the emperor but…what, exactly?

Infuriatingly, he never tells us. In an early poem in Tristia he tells us he was sworn to secrecy. In other poems he says he doesn’t want to discuss it, it is best buried in darkness and oblivion. With the result that we have 100 or so poems self-pityingly lamenting his fate – and not one clear explanation of what it was that he saw that so infuriated the emperor. Leading to 2,000 years of scholarly speculation.

Peter Green’s view is that Ovid was present at either a meeting of a group or cabal who discussed a plot to overthrow Augustus or a secret marriage which created an alliance between players and families which was a preparation for the overthrow of the dynasty.

The last decade of Augustus’s long rule (from 31 BC to 14 AD) was troubled with military defeats, famine and unrest, and numerous plots.

In 2 BC Augustus surprised Rome by arresting his own daughter, Julia (who he had forced to marry his wife’s son, Tiberius), and exiling her under very harsh conditions to a stony island off the coast of Italy, forbidden to have any visitors or travel anywhere. She was charged with adultery and treason. Augustus must have known for some time about Julia’s sexual promiscuity – which was the official reason given for this surprise move; so it was (presumably) details of a plot to overthrow him which prompted Augustus’s harsh action. We know that at the same time several of Julia’s lovers were exiled and one was forced to commit suicide. The assumption is that her sexual activities overlapped with assembling a cabal of men who were conspiring to a) get her divorced from Tiberius, then b) get rid of both Augustus and Tiberius and crown Julia and her lover. All this occurred just before Ovid published the second edition of his stylish love poems, the Amores. The assumption is that Ovid’s stylish, cynical, anti-establishment poems were popular among the promiscuous, privileged set which surrounded Julia.

What makes things a little confusing is that Ovid’s actual banishment, 8 or so years later, coincided with Augustus exiling a second Julia, Julia the Younger, the daughter of the Julia I just described, Julia the Elder, and her husband Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Born in 19 BC, Julia the Younger was 27 when she was banished in 8 AD.

According to ancient historians Julia was exiled for having an affair with one Decimus Junius Silanus, a Roman senator. She was sent to Tremirus, a small Italian island, where she gave birth to a child. Augustus rejected the infant and ordered it to be left on a mountainside to die. Harsh, eh? Absolutely unforgiving. Silanus went into voluntary exile. The plot thickens when you learn that sometime between 1 and 14 AD, Julia the Younger’s husband, Paullus, had been executed as a conspirator in a revolt.

So: modern historians theorise that Julia the Younger’s exile was not actually for adultery but for involvement in her husband, Paullus’s, revolt. And, to come back to Ovid, the view of people like Green is that Ovid’s witty, cynical, erotic poetry formed a kind of soundtrack to the amoral lifestyle of this very upper class set and that somehow, during that fateful year of 8 AD, hanging out with Julia the Younger’s people, he saw something take place which he failed, out of loyalty to the fast set, to report to the authorities, and it was this failure to speak out which was the error which he talks about obsessively in poem after poem.

But what it was, exactly…we’re back at the dead end. Again and again he says he never planned anything, never intended bloodshed, was entirely passive, that he saw something incriminating without himself intending anything criminal. Again and again Ovid insists he made a mistake but didn’t commit a crime. So you can see why scholars like Green speculate that what he saw, if it was just one activity, was either a group of conspirators discussing a seditious plan or swearing an oath or, the rather more florid speculation, that he witnessed the secret marriage of Julia the Younger which somehow bound her into the conspiracy to overthrow the emperor. Nobody knows.

Repeatedly Ovid compares himself to the mythological figure Actaeon, who accidentally stumbled into a clearing and saw the hunter goddess Diana bathing naked and so, as punishment, was transformed into a deer and torn to pieces by his own hunting hounds. Ovid says he was just as innocent as Actaeon, had no intent to do harm, stumbled upon a scene he barely understood, but has been just as harshly punished.

The condition of exile

Thus it was that in December 8 AD Ovid was ordered to make his way by ship from Italy, past all the islands and promontories of Greece, through the Dardanelles and into the Black Sea and onto the frontier settlement known as Tomis (modern-day Constanța in Romania), 70 miles south of the massive marshy delta where the river Danube empties into the Black Sea. And this was to be his home for the remainder of his life, for the next nine years (scholars think he died sometimes during the winter of 17/18).

Here in Tomis, as the Tristia poems make abundantly clear, Ovid fell into a deep depression, lost his appetite and weight, grew pale, suffered anxiety, often felt suicidal. The reasons included:

  • the miserable scenery about Tomis, which was flat and bleak and windswept
  • the extreme cold, such that during the long winter the Danube and even parts of the Black Sea froze over
  • the lack of even one person in the town who spoke Latin; almost everyone spoke one of the two or three local tribal languages – this was crushing for a man who had spent his entire life enjoying and playing with the Latin language, and whose art depended on reading his poems out loud to an audience and getting intelligent feedback; not in Tomis
  • but above all, the constant fear of attack by the fierce tribes who lived outside the town, who routinely swept into the area, looted all farmers’ properties, either taking them off to slavery or murdering them on the spot – several times Ovid mentions being forced to buckle on a sword and take part in the defence of the town, which only survived these assaults because of its good defensive position and wall (which Ovid perpetually worries about being too low and too weak)

One minute he was a pampered poet sauntering through the salons of fashionable Rome, a few weeks later he was frozen, isolated, unable to talk to anyone, and terrified for his life

Poems of exile

In exile Ovid wrote two distinct volumes of poems. The Tristia (which can be translated as ‘Poems of Desolation’ or ‘Lamentation’) consists of five ‘books’ of 50 or so short poems (a page or two in length, with the exception of book 2 which consists of one 580-line poem, which is a sustained address to Augustus proclaiming his innocence and asking for his exile to be ended). I have reviewed the Tristia in the excellent translation by Peter Green.

The other set of poems he wrote is the Epistulae ex Ponto or ‘Letters from Pontis’ (Pontis being the name of the Roman province on the north coast of the Black Sea). Green translates this as Black Sea Letters. Both the Tristia and the letters are included in one excellent Penguin edition, translated with extensive notes by the America-based English academic Peter Green.

Black Sea Letters

The ‘Black Sea Letters’ is a collection of verse epistles describing Ovid’s exile in Tomis written in elegiac couplets (the ‘six-five beat’ as he calls it in book 3 poem 3) and addressed to his wife and a wide variety of friends and contacts back in Rome.

The academic consensus is that the first three books were composed between 12 and 13 AD. They give every evidence of having been carefully assembled and ordered to create an artistic effect. The fourth book, by contrast, is believed to have been published posthumously, not least because it has a more miscellaneous feel.

The themes of the poems are identical with those of the Tristia (‘same theme different title’, as Ovid himself puts it in 1.1) namely:

  • the grimness of his place of exile, the cold, the wretched scenery, the lack of company
  • his deteriorating state of health
  • terror at the constant threat of violence from rampaging tribesmen
  • requests to intercede with the emperor on his behalf, if not to rescind his exile, to at least post him somewhere less bleak and terrifying: both the Julias were sent to islands off Italy, why can’t he get the same?
  • excoriations of his enemies and critics back in Rome

So a lot of the subject matter is already very familiar from the Tristia. The main difference with the Tristia is that all these poems are in epistolary format which means that almost all the poems are addressed to named individuals, unlike the 50 poems in Tristia which all address unnamed, anonymous figures. Ovid highlights this difference in the very first poem of the collection.

Augustus features heavily in the collection, as he does in Tristia, as absolute arbiter of Ovid’s fate. In between these begging passages, are appeals to Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the emperor Tiberius, who was widely seen as a civilised, gracious, moderate influence.

All to no avail. No-one in authority gave any hint of relenting and Tiberius, when he replaced Augustus at the latter’s death in August 14 AD was, if anything, even more adamant against Ovid. When his highest-ranking correspondent, the senator Paullus Fabius Maximus, died in the same year as Augustus, Ovid’s last hopes petered out, and the collection ends on a deeply depressed note, the final letter being to an enemy who is bad mouthing him. Then…silence.

Books 1 to 3 were conceived of as one unit and are topped and tailed by poems to Ovid’s publisher and editor in Rome, one Brutus. Green, as usual, gives very thorough summaries of other scholars who have found deeper patterns in the structuring of the three books. There’s no doubt they were carefully arranged.

Book 1 (10 poems)

Letters to Brutus, Paullus Fabius Maximus, Rufinus, his wife, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Publius Pomponius Graecinus, Messalinus, Severus, Flaccus.

1.1 To Brutus

The set opens with an envoi to Ovid’s publisher, Brutus, asking him to accept this volume of verse letters and slip them into the gap created by Ovid’s now-banned Art of Love. He argues that the works of more subversive figures (Mark Anthony and Brutus the assassin) remain publicly available. He makes some fancy comments about worshippers of Isis or the Great Mother but then bursts out in anguish:

I repent, I repent! If the damned have any credence,
I repent, I’m tormented by the thing I did.

Misery: his mind is melting like snow, being eaten away like rust, being eaten into like bookworms eat books, suffers a perpetual canker of anguish. Maybe, maybe, the all-powerful Jove will remit his punishment and move his place of exile to somewhere less appalling.

1.2 To Paullus Fabius Maximus (150 lines)

Ovid’s most high-ranking contact, who had married a first cousin of the emperor and accompanied Augustus himself on a secret mission to Agrippa Postumus in exile. Ovid rehearses the same old themes, giving a vivid variation on the theme of the terrifying tribesmen who regularly assault Tomis’s walls and fire off their poisoned arrows. The cold is endless, winter turns into winter. It’s his fourth year and he weeps continually with misery.

What is my life? Stark bitterness never-ending,
torment exacerbated by time.

He dreams of home, of his wife, but that makes awaking even harder to bear. Often he prays for death. He asks Maximus to aid his exile ‘with a kind word or two’. He optimistically claims that Augustus (‘that god’) can’t possibly have known how bleak and horrible it was in Tomis, otherwise he wouldn’t have sent him. And God forbid he dies and is buried there, far from all his friends and family, his spirit abandoned on a bleak windswept shore. Ovid’s wife came from Maximus’s household so, if only for her sake:

Speak up for me…Petition to have my place
of exile moved nearer home.

1.3 To Caius Vibinius Rufinus (94 lines)

A senior figure who shared in Tiberius’s triumph of 12 AD and went on to serve as proconsul in Asia. The poem makes it clear that he has sent Ovid a consolatio or message containing philosophical precepts designed to cheer him up. Ovid thanks him and tells him it has been some comfort (‘I was down but your message revived me’) but cannot fully heal his heart. He gives examples from medicine, of which he obviously knew something.

But all humans want to return to the land of their birth, even to a wretched hole like Tomis, and he cannot find peace till he returns to Rome. Lines repeating the wretched flat landscape and continual fear of attack by tribals. Nobody in all history has been exiled to a remote of nastier spot.

1.4 To his wife (58 lines)

A sad poem to his wife saying he has aged, his hair is white, his face is lined, she’d no longer recognise him. It’s not just age, it’s ‘unremitting hardship, distress of mind.’ He embarks on an extended comparison (known as a synkresis) between himself and Jason who led the Argonauts because the land of Colchis that they sailed to was identified with the east coast of the Black Sea. But the comparison is designed to bring out how Jason was surrounded by comrades and friends, whereas it is Ovid’s complete isolation, with no friends or support, which has ground him down.

He hopes to be reunited with her soon, soon, and vividly imagines the tears and hugs of their reunion.

1.5 To Cotta Maximus (86 lines)

By all accounts an unpleasant young man, Cotta was, nonetheless, rich.

Ovid apologises for the poverty of his verse, claims his talents have atrophied and the Muse cannot be persuaded to visit distant Scythia. This poem, like others of the same ilk, were forced out of his mind with no pleasure. Now he regrets having written so much frivolous verse. So why does he keep writing? Because he can’t give it up. Every man has his vocation: Ovid’s is writing. There it is. He doesn’t expect fame or reward. He writes because it passes the long empty days and fills his mind, distracting him from his misery.

1.6 To Caius Pomponius Graecinus (54 lines)

Graecinus was suffect consul in 16 AD, an old friend of Ovid’s. He is quoted in Amores 2.10 arguing that no man can love two women at the same time. Graecinus had now become a friend and drinking buddy of the heir apparent, Tiberius, so Green detects in this poem a cooling of the friendship, now that Ovid is persona non grata.

Ovid testifies to their friendship and Graecinus’s interest in the liberal arts, says Graecinus was one of the bulwarks of his heart, repeats that it isn’t ‘safe’ for him to describe his ‘culpable error’ explicitly.

Strikingly, Ovid lets slip that he has contemplated suicide, held a sword in his hand, but the goddess Hope intervened. He begs that Graecinus add some words in his favour to the emperor.

1.7 To Valerius Messalla Messalinus (70 lines)

Messalinus was a distinguished soldier and consul who accompanied Tiberius on his campaign in Pannonia. (Pannonia was a Roman province consisting of present-day western Hungary and parts of eastern Austria several Balkan states.) Ovid wrote Messalinus three poems/letters because of the poet’s friendship with Messalinus’s influential father, but all betray a certain nervousness as if he knew that Messalinus’s closeness to Tiberius meant he would do nothing for the disgraced poet.

Ovid nervously acknowledges that Messalinus might not be pleased to receive a letter from him, or it might be inappropriate for him to reach out to a friend of the Caesar’s. He nervously repeats that he committed no ‘crime’ just a ‘folly’, which leads him on to bless Augustus’s clemency, mildness and restraint. Maybe they weren’t that friendly, maybe he attended his brother’s house more than his: still, would Messalinus mind lending his voice to his cause.

1.8 Severus (74 lines)

Opens, as always, with a brief summary of his woes – illness, depression, bitter cold and the ever-threatening natives with their poisoned arrows. He sadly describes how in his mind’s eye he walks through Rome, visiting his wife and daughter, strolling past the theatres and temples. He remembers the scenery of the Field of Mars, canals, orchards which he helped plant with his own hand. Are they still there? In fact he’d love to be a farmer here, plough the soil and sow and water it – but that’s impossible because of the endless raids by the barbarian Getans, murdering farmers, burning down their farms, carrying survivors off into slavery.

He asks Severus to intercede with Augustus with a modest request: to have him moved somewhere peaceful, not exposed to warfare, to somewhere he could farm land in peace.

1.9 To Cotta Maximus (56 lines)

The poem opens with a lament for the death of one Albinovanus Celsus. Green points out in his notes that both Cotta and Celsus had dodgy reputations, Celsus (according to Horace) for plagiarising other people’s poetry. The fact that Ovid refers to them as his bestest friends reflects poorly on the poet.

Ovid tells Cotta that Celsus was one of the few friends to stick by him when disaster struck, came to visit him, put his arms round him, shed tears and restrained Ovid when he talked about suicide, telling him Augustus was merciful so he should live in hope of a reprieve.

He praises Celsus for his loyalty, laments his death, wishes he could have attended the funeral, praises Maximus for supervising the funeral obsequies with ceremony and honour. Well, just as he behave honourably and dutifully for Celsus – so should he now do the same for his suffering friend Ovid.

1.10 To Licius Pomponius Flaccus (44 lines)

Flaccus was brother to Graecinus addressed in 1.6 and was another high-ranking soldier and drinking companion of Tiberius. Suetonius claimed he was given the governorship of Syria solely for accompanying Tiberius on a long drinking session. He may or may not have shared the future emperor’s predilection for kinky sex but his general profligacy makes it (deliberately) ironic that this poem is devoted to describing how Ovid’s physical appetites have all atrophied.

He’s lost his appetite, is pale and listless, has lost weight. Green speculates he might have had recurring diarrhoea caused by the bad or brackish water of the region (he claims never to have been a drinker of wine). He ends, as usual, by begging that Flaccus and his brother Graecinus put in a good word for him with ‘Caesar’s godhead’, not to be allowed to return, just the milder request to be exiled somewhere less appalling and depleting.

Book 2 (11 poems)

Letters to Germanicus, Messalinus, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Atticus, Salanus, Publius Pomponius Graecinus, Cotys of Thrace, Macer and Rufus.

2.1 (68 lines)

Ovid imagines Tiberius’s triumph through Rome on 27 October 12 AD.

Ovid had obviously received an account of it, either by letter or from a visitor, because he describe the way the weather was rainy for days beforehand but cleared up at the last moment. It’s noticeable that although it was Tiberius’s triumph, Ovid chooses to not to name him but instead to address Germanicus, the much more charismatic figure (‘flower of our youth in peace and war’) who, he hoped, would intercede for him.

2.2 To Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalinus (126 lines)

Same addressee as (probably) Tristia 4.4. Same appeal, mentioning his father, praising Augustus and the health of his extended family – then asking Messalinus to use all his charm, exert all his influence, to win Ovid a change of exile.

2.3 To Cotta Maximus (100 lines)

The usual themes and pleas: notable because it describes the scene when Ovid was holidaying on Elba and Augustus’s abrupt, angry summoning of the poet arrived along with rumour of what his offence was. Ovid describes how Cotta was shocked, disappointed, but then persuaded that Ovid had committed no crime, merely made an ‘error’ – and then it was all tears and condolence.

2.4 To Atticus (34 lines)

All that’s known about this Atticus derives from Ovid’s two or three poems to him, namely that the friendship was of long standing, back in Rome they went everywhere together, he criticised Ovid’s work and, since Ovid’s fall, had grown cool towards him.

2.5 To Cassius Salanus (76 lines)

Not much is known about this Cassius Salanus except that he was tutor to Germanicus. To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 BC to 19 AD) was a Roman general noted for his victories in Germany, and a powerful member of the Julian-Claudian dynasty. He was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia the Younger and was the nephew of the future emperor Tiberius. In 4 AD he was adopted as legal son by Tiberius. His connection to the Julii was consolidated through a marriage between himself and Agrippina the Elder, a granddaughter of Augustus. The agnomen Germanicus was added to his full name in 9 BC when it was posthumously awarded to his father in honour of his victories in Germania. Germanicus was central to the line of emperors in that he was the older brother of Claudius, the father of Caligula and the maternal grandfather of Nero.

Obviously the later emperors were in the future. For Ovid’s purposes, Germanicus had emerged as a young, successful, charismatic figure, far more open and sympathetic than his grouchy adoptive father, Tiberius. In the Black Sea Letters the reader can increasingly see Ovid adopting what Peter Green calls ‘the Germanicus gambit’ with more and more space given to praise of ‘that Prince of the Youths’ (line 41).

Green points out that, as the letters progress, old patrons are dropped (the family of Messalla Corvinus) or die (Paullus Fabius) and Ovid focuses on figures in Germanicus’s circle. However, this didn’t exactly endear him to the adoptive father, Tiberius – especially the way Ovid chose to end his poem describing Tiberius’s ‘Pannonian triumph’ of 12 AD with a digression in praise of Germanicus, which – Green says – friends pointed out to him had offended more than pleased Tiberius.

This poem is interesting to me because of a throwaway reference to the fact that Ovid’s heard that Salanus liked and praised the poems he’s sent from the Black Sea and that his approval ‘helped them’. This raises, for me, an issue Green doesn’t clarify, which is: what was the status of these poems of exile? Was each of the five books of Tristia despatched as he completed them to Rome? Who published them, the shadowy Brutus addressed in poem 1 of the Letters? If the Ars Amatoria had been banned from Rome’s libraries, how come the emperor allowed these poems, obsessed as they are with Ovid rehearsing his unhappiness and grievances, to be published? Were they copied and so freely available that someone he didn’t know very well, like Salanus, came across or was given a copy?

If they were made generally available, what was the feedback from Rome? What did contemporaries make of them? Do we know?

And even more mystifying, how did Ovid find out what contemporaries thought? Green makes a passing comment to the possibility that a visitor to Tomis gave Ovid an eye-witness description of Tiberius’s triumph. But this raises the huge question did Ovid receive visitors from Rome? He never mentions any in the poems. Or did Green mean something more like a visiting trader or merchant or government official?

Now I reflect on it, many of the poems in Tristia and the Letters respond to things he’s heard about from Rome, from word that this or that individual is bad mouthing him or has insulted his wife. So he was receiving letters from Rome, but how many and how regularly? Ovid repeatedly asks people to write to him more but this begs the question of how much mail he received and how often.

Back to the poem itself, the sickly sweet over-praising of Germanicus is astonishing.

2.6 To Caius Pomponius Graecinus (38 lines)

Also addressed in 1.6. Ovid is clearly replying to a letter in which Graecinus chided him, telling him to count his blessings, and that his ‘crime’ merited a much worse punishment (death?). Ovid replies, what’s the point warning him now and being wise after the event? It’s too late.

Ovid delivers a perfunctory blessing for Graecinus’s family before delivering a far more powerful denunciation if he should abandon his hapless friend (‘shame on you’). Then delivers a little list of mythological figures famous for the steadfastness of their friendship (Pylades, Orestes, Theseus, Pirithoüs) winding up by promising that, if Graecinus continues his support, and if Ovid’s verse endures, then he will make his name immortal. As he has done.

2.7 To Atticus (84 lines)

Also addressed in 2.4. It’s worth copying Green’s summary of the poem as a good example of what had, by this stage, become a very stereotyped layout:

  • Ovid admits he exaggerates his fears (5 to 20)
  • he gives a list of adynata ‘I’d sooner number the ears in a Libyan wheatfield’ than reckon up all the woes he’s suffered (25 to 30)
  • he parades the usual troubles and worries (31 to 48)
  • over-sensitivity produced by excess of suffering (37 to 45)
  • others achieved fame through the liberal arts, but they have destroyed him (47 to 48)
  • his prior life was blameless (49)
  • his friends have failed to be active enough on his behalf (51 to 52)
  • he was not on the spot when the storm broke (53 to 54)
  • he was forced to take ship at the worst possible time of year (with the stock comparison of himself to long-suffering Ulysses) (57 to 60)
  • his travelling companions robbed him (61 to 62)
  • his place of exile is a hellhole with constant threats to life, impossible to pursue agriculture (63 to 70)
  • endless cold, undrinkable water (71 to 74)
  • all that keeps him going is hope that Augustus’s anger will abate (79 to 80)
  • he addresses ‘you few friends’, begging them to continue the battle on his behalf

In fact so standardised has this list of complaints become that you can almost feel him going through the motions. I wonder why he didn’t just write the same stock letter and just change the first few lines of greeting and a few details in the middle and send them to everyone he knew back in Rome? Is it because he knew they’d be handed round, read widely, that he had to go to the trouble of making each one individually tailored to its recipient?

2.8 To Cotta Maximus Messalinus (76 lines)

Cotta has sent the poet two images in silver, two ‘Caesars’ (presumably Augustus and Tiberius) and one of Livia (Green debates whether they might have been statuettes or medallions).

The poem is one of the most embarrassingly fulsome acts of lavish sycophancy in Roman literature. He calls Augustus:

  • that Celestial being
  • he embodies our country’s image
  • his virtues eclipse the boundless cosmos
  • imperishable glory of our era
  • lord of the world

Plus extravagant praise of Livia and his extended family, all leading up to grovelling begging to have his place of exile moved to somewhere less appalling.

2.9 To King Cotys IV of Thrace (80 lines)

Because in 12 AD Augustus divided the kingdom of Thrace between two client rules, King Cotys IV and his uncle Rhescuporis. Ovid is writing a celebration of Cotys because his kingdom would form a buffer between the Hellenised colonies of Moesia and the savage tribes of the hinterland. (According to the Wikipedia article, Ovid must be talking about Moesia Inferior, which you can see on the map [just about] forming a buffer between the coast at Tomis and the untamed interior.)

He hails Cotys and straightaway asks him to grant his plea to be moved to a less dire location. He argues that the great feature of power is to grant appeals for the powerless, otherwise what is the point of the sacrifices made across the Mediterranean by everyone from peasants to emperors to the mighty gods, unless they hear and grant appeals?

Let him be worthy of his noble father. The liberal arts, which he is known to cultivate (Cotys wrote poetry) soften a man’s heart. In fact the writing of poetry creates a bond between them. As ever he mentions he is guilty of two offences, 1) writing the Ars Amoris 2) one which cannot be named.

2.10 To Macer (52 lines)

Precise identity unknown, maybe the companion of Ovid’s Grand Tour of Greece when he was a student and, according to the poem, some kin with Ovid’s wife. Macer is, apparently a poet, but unlike the foolish subjects which got Ovid into trouble, he apparently wanted to write another poem about the Trojan War. So Ovid repeats the stock trope that all poets are linked by their trade (‘a cult they all share in common’). Then moves onto a vivid description of their tour round the sights of the Mediterranean (lines 21 to 42).

2.11 To Rufus (28 lines)

We know nothing about this Rufus except what Ovid tells us in this short poem (Rufus was one of the most common cognomina or surnames in ancient Rome). Green makes the point that the addressees of book 2 become more peripheral to the centres of power, more literary and familial as it progresses. He has worked through his list of influential powerful contacts and is getting to the bottom of his address book.

Briefly, Ovid thanks him for his tears of sympathy back in Rome when the news was announced. He thanks Rufus for guiding and advising his wife (apparently he was her uncle). And thanks him for carrying out Ovid’s ‘instructions’.

Book 3 (9 poems)

Letters to his wife, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Paullus Fabius Maximus, Rufinus, an unknown friend and a group of unknown friends.

3.1 To his wife (166 lines)

The longest poem in the entire exilic corpus, complex and problematic. The first page (30 lines) gives a vivid portrait of how awful Tomis was, in the style of his earlier poems i.e. full and detailed. One of the best passages in the poems. Only at line 31 does he address his wife and then in bitter ungracious terms, accuses her of not doing enough for him. He says some call her a model wife, but she must up her game and work harder to get him freed. In return he will make her name last for ever, give her the immortality of other famous wives from mythology. (The massive irony is that we don’t, in fact, know her name for sure.)

He goes on at length about how their marriage contract, her upbringing, the house she came from, and a host of classical examples, all demand she do more for her tragic husband’s cause.

The poem ends with a passage about Livia (‘possessing Venus’ beauty, the character of Juno’), second only to Augustus in wisdom etc etc. Ovid advises his wife to be cautious about approaching her; do it now, when the city is at peace, when there have been no deaths, no public grief – not if she’s busy and distracted with other matters; and only on an auspicious day, if the auguries are favourable; kindle a fire on the altar of Augustus, offer incense and wine – that’s the time when his wife should make her approach.

Ovid tells his wife not to try to defend him, it’s best to simply admit his guilt: but be free with tears, bow down, fall prostrate, reach out your arms, ’embrace those immortal feet!’

Worth noting that Livia was 71 when this poem was written (so much for Venus’ beauty) and Juno was famous, if anything, for prolonged spiteful vendettas against heroes (Hercules, Aeneas). So, as Green points out, Ovid doesn’t seem above to prevent ironic and ambiguous elements entering everything he wrote; even when he’s trying to be grovellingly sycophantic, he still manages to give the impression that Livia is a monstrous ogre.

3.2 To Cotta (110 lines)

The fifth appeal to Cotta in the letters, with one more to come. Ovid praises Cotta for his loyalty to him and magnanimously forgives those friends who quickly abandoned him – he understands they were just scared to death of Augustus’s anger. He gives the usual roll call of loyal friends from mythology (Orestes, Theseus) before letting slip that he has learned how to speak ‘the native tongue’. This triggers a note by Green discussing just how much of the native tongues Ovid knew. His own testimony is mixed and confusing. Sometimes he writes that he’s learned enough Getan to contemplate writing poems in it. Other times he emphasises that he can only make himself understood by sign language and that the natives laugh at his Latin and attempts to speak their language. Green’s conclusion is that Ovid probably learned the local Greek-based pidgen or patois, used to facilitate trade but not the two local languages we know about, Getic and Sarmatian.

The poem is notable for introducing a mythical story, in the manner of the Metamorphoses, in this case he uses the device of having an local old man tell the story to him of Iphigeneia and Orestes, the point of which is to say that, if these local barbarians can value friendship, then how much more so should a civilised Roman like Cotta.

3.3 To Paullus Fabius Maximus / Eros (108 lines)

This is an interesting departure from the grind of repetitive poems. Same could be said of the opening section of 3.1 and the old man’s story in 3.2.

Anyway 3.3 opens with Ovid telling Cotta about a dream he had, first painting the picture of a balmy evening, him sleeping and dreaming he had a visit from the god of Love, so familiar to him from his umpteen appearances in the Amores. And the poem turns into a dialogue with Eros, son of Venus, with his bow and arrow. Ovid blames Eros for inspiring him to write that ‘stupid poem’ which got him into so much trouble, then mounted a spirited defence that it was never intended to lure married women into adultery and thus (the key point, from Augustus’s point of view) ‘raise doubts about whose heir is whose’.

To which Eros gives a very tendentious reply, affirming that Ovid’s poems never misled or corrupted anyone and concludes with an uplifting assurance that Augustus will change his mind and relent. This is all interesting, colourful and much more dramatic than most of the poems.

Then the poem concludes with grovellingly sycophantic praise and thanks to Cotta (93 to 108).

Green makes the interesting point that the setting – falling asleep on a divan – recalls the famous Amores 1.5.

3.4 To Rufinus (116 lines)

Ovid asks Rufinus to support the poem describing Tiberius’s triumph which he sent him. In fact it goes on to be an extensive lament on what he missed out on, and how his poem must fall short, by virtue of not seeing it at first hand, but only hearing second hand reports.

Then he laments the poem will have been poor because he is simply unaccustomed to joy and celebration, seeing as he lives in a land of woes: he has forgotten happy words!

And then he claims it can take up to a year for a poem of his to travel the journey from Tomis to Rome so that, by the time it arrives, everyone is glutted and bored with the subject so his poem is ignored.

As with quite a few of these letters, Ovid repeats the idea that poets make up a secret fraternity (with the implication that he misses the support, the practical criticism and advice he enjoyed from belonging to the fraternity of Roman poets).

The last 30 lines of the poem claim to be direct inspiration from ‘the god’ who predicts a second German triumph for Tiberius (though not mentioning him by name; Ovid had a strange reluctance to do so) though he does mention Livia and tells her to hasten to make the elaborate arrangements for her son’s soon-coming parade!

3.5 To Cotta Maximus (58 lines)

Cotta has thoughtfully sent Ovid copies of ‘the clever speeches you made to a packed forum’, which the latter has enjoyed reading and asks for more. In exile modes he laments the fact that he wasn’t there in Rome to witness the speeches being given and no approval in person. In his mind’s eye he can escape his wretched location ‘among the shaggy Goths’ and walk around Rome once more and meet and chat to Cotta like in the old days. Then he asks querulously, have people forgotten him? Do they still read his poems? Do they still talk about him?

3.6 (60 lines)

Ovid tetchily writes to an unknown addressee asking why he insists on not being named in the letter: what has he to fear from the cosmically magnanimous Augustus – ‘no god’s more moderate than our Prince’? If Ovid sent letters not naming the addresses that wasn’t out of doubt of Augustus’s wisdom and mercy, but more out of his own panic fear when the bombshell struck. Now he’s calmed down a bit he doesn’t mind adding the name but will politely wait till his correspondent gives him permission to.

The poem mentions Augustus’s establishment of a cult and shrine of Justitia Augusta, on 8 January 13 AD. Unsurprisingly, Ovid argues that ‘Justice’ must necessitate moderation of his punishment i.e. removal to somewhere less hostile.

3.7 To his friends (40 lines)

Now I’m out of words, I’ve asked the same thing so often;
now I feel shame for my endless, hopeless prayers.
You must be bored stiff by these monotonous poems…

For the first time Ovid acknowledges that maybe his exile won’t be abated, he won’t even be allowed to move somewhere nicer. Maybe all his pleas and poems and letters have been a waste of time. Why kick against the pricks and swim against the current? Hope brings only endless disappointments. Some wounds are made worse by meddling. Better than drown than prolong the agony of thrashing around in ‘mountainous seas’. He adds the bitter sting that he expected hope and remedy from his friends’ efforts but won’t make that mistake again. So it’s bitter recrimination as much as Stoic acceptance.

3.8 To Maximus (24 lines)

This is a spirited little number, one of the best of the poems because it is short and pithy and mostly empty of self pity. He wonders what present to send the addresses (one of the Maximuses, either Cotta or Fabius) and the poem consists of a miserable list of all the facilities and goods Pontus does not possess, until he comes to the sting in the tail and says the one thing it is notes for is its poisoned arrows. So he’s sending a quiverful so that they may ‘be reddened with your enemies’ blood!’

3.9 To Brutus (56 lines)

Green repeats the scholarly consensus that the first 3 books of Black Sea Letters weren’t just assembled at random but carefully arranged to form a pattern of addressees. The most basic proof of this is the way the collection starts and ends with a poem to the same person, Ovid’s publisher in Rome, Brutus.

Ovid writes in reply to Brutus who has, apparently, told him that critics back in Rome are criticising Ovid for the monotony of theme of his poems. (Green humorously summarises the message of the entire Black Sea Letters as ‘Get me out of here!’)

He gives an insight into his poetic practice i.e. initial creation, then going back over the verse to amend words and phrases. He apologises to Brutus but says, know what? He can’t be bothered any more. It hardly seems sane taking the immense trouble required to polish his poems amid savage Goths who don’t understand a word of Latin.

As to the accusation that his Pontic poems are monotonous, well, guess what?

Cheerful, I wrote cheerful verses; sad, I write sad ones. (line 35)

And:

Of what should I write but the faults of this bitter region,
what pray for, but to die in a better place?

One last point: when a poet makes something up he is free to introduce the themes and variations he wants. But Ovid’s theme was dictated by his pitiful situation. He didn’t write these poems to achieve high poetic repute but a bread-and-butter practical means to a practical end. The variation, such as it is, came from varying the exact content to be appropriate to each addressee:

Not to make a book, but to send the appropriate letter
to each person – this was my object and my care.

In fact, in his commentary Green comes down quite hard on Ovid, accusing him of, ultimately, defeating his own ends by boring his readers with the monotony of his subject matter and complaints until they stopped listening. Better if he’d made the effort to diversify his subject matter; that might have had more impact. Maybe. Unlikely, though.

Book 4 (16 poems)

Letters to Sextus Pompeius, Cornelius Severus, Brutus, Vestalis, Suillius, Graecinus, Albinovanus, Gallio, Carus, Tuticanus and an unnamed enemy.

Scholars think that books 1, 2 and 3 of the Black Sea Letters were carefully assembled and shaped by Ovid, a literary operator to the end. However, the scholarly consensus is that the fourth book of letters was added later, possibly after his death, for several reasons:

  • it’s longer than all the others, 16 poems 880 lines
  • its addressees are new to the series
  • Ovid’s wife is conspicuous by her absence
  • in some places Ovid displays embarrassment at not having communicated with new addressees before

So it’s considered a mopping up exercise, collecting the best of the rest.

What the new addressees almost all have in common is service under or support for Germanicus (see 2.5, above), for example Sextus Pompeius, recipient of four epistles, related to Augustus and an adherent of Germanicus.

Because when Augustus died in August 14, Ovid stood no hope of clemency from Tiberius, sterner than Augustus and under the powerful dominance of his mother Livia. So Ovid turned his hopes towards the emperor’s adopted son, the famously charming, civilised and accessible Germanicus.

4.1 To Sextus Pompeius (36 lines)

Pray accept a poem composed, Sextus Propertius,
by one who owes you his life…

Pompeius takes over the role of prime addressee performed in earlier books by Fabius Maximus and the sons of Messalla Corvinus. Ovid sounds nervous and embarrassed that he hasn’t written to him before, saying he meant to, often wrote his name by mistake at the head of previous letters etc. In a moment of weird hyperbole, Ovid claims that Propertius made him into a work of art.

4.2 To Cornelius Séverus (50 lines)

What you are reading, Séverus, great bard of mighty monarchs,
comes to you all the way from the long-haired Goths…

Séverus was an epic poet (he wrote an epic poem about the Sicilian War) and in the same literary circle as Ovid, that of Messalla Corvinus. Like many of the other poems, he apologises for not having addressed a poem to him before but, interestingly, writes that they have been keeping up a correspondence in verse. What happened to all those letters to and from Ovid for those ten long years?

The poem is an opportunity to complain that his inspiration has left him, he is ploughing the seashore. He has writer’s block because he has no intelligent audience or critical feedback. Paradoxically this poem about poetic barrenness throws up one of the most quotable lines in all the 100 exilic poems:

Writing a poem you can read to no-one
is like dancing in the dark.
(lines 33 to 34)

4.3 To Unnamed (58 lines)

A generic poem castigating a close friend, known since boyhood, who has not only not written to him, but denied they were ever a friend of his. Traitor and dissembler. Ovid warns him just how fickle Fortune is, as light as a breeze, and lists great men brought low (Croesus, Pompey). One day he might fall low and need other people’s help, then he’ll regret abandoning his friends.

4.4 To Sextus Pompeius (50 lines)

A variation on a stock poem or subject, the laudatio consulis i.e. in praise of someone about to be appointed consul for a year. Scholars point out it resembles stock letters that Cicero sent to about-to-be-installed consuls. It invokes and plays against the conventions of the form. Also notable because Ovid introduces the figure of Rumour which gives the sense, not often mentioned in the poems, that he was, all the time, carrying on a busy correspondence in prose with friends and family back in Rome.

He paints a scene of himself walking along the barren seashore when the voice of the allegorical figure of Rumour whispers in his ear that the coming year will be one of joy for ‘the consul will be Pompeius, your dearest friend in the world’ and this leads him into a vivid imagining of the sights and scenes involved in a consul’s entry into power, which Ovid conjures up to console himself.

4.5 To Sextus Pompeius (46 lines)

The poem is an envoi, conceived as a messenger sent to Pompeius who has now commenced his consular year (14 AD).

Go, lightweight elegiac, to our consul’s ultra-learned
ears, take this message for the man of honours to read.

And paints an interesting picture of how the poem-messenger must make his way through the throng around Pompeius as he performs his duties, until he can speak to him and remind him of its sad author. Interestingly, Ovid says he owes his life to Pompeius, that he ‘ensured safe passage for [Ovid] through the wilds’ and has, subsequently, given him ‘life-sustaining gifts.’

The imperial family feature in the poem as those Pompeius must praise and placate but it’s interesting that Germanicus gets the longest mention, 6 lines, Augustus 2, and Tiberius isn’t mentioned at all.

4.6 To Brutus (50 lines)

Ovid’s publisher and literary confidante whose full name we don’t know. He says he’s moving into his second five-year spell in exile (14 AD) and that he’s heard the new that Augustus is dead (August 14) so it must have been written about October-November of that year. Ovid optimistically writes that Augustus ‘had begun to forgive my unwitting error’. Seems optimistic. He says he’s sent Brutus a poem celebrating the new deity i.e. the deification of Augustus. He mentions it in other exile poems, too. it hasn’t survived, but it would have been a treat to see just how oleaginous Ovid could be.

The poem praises Brutus for being compassionate and so surprising many by his forensic ferocity in prosecuting law cases. And implies he’s fat (‘the great frame of yours!’) And claims that ‘the greater part of [his] private circle] abandoned him, denying all knowledge of him.

4.7 To Vestalis (54 lines)

Vestalis was the ‘son of a native prince’ and ‘scion of Alpine kings’, who rose through the ranks of the Roman army and was appointed prefect to the coast of Pontus i.e. across the Black Sea from Tomis.

Since you’ve been posted to the Black Sea’s shore, Vestalis,
to keep the peace in these sub-polar lands,
you can see for yourself the kind of country I lie in,
can testify that mine are no feigned complaints.

The poem turns into a long list of Vestalis’s achievements as a soldier and commander, vividly describing various battles and victories, notably Aegisos. To quote A.S. Kline’s notes, “Aegisos was a Moesian town on the Danube delta. The modern Tulcea, it lies about forty miles inland from the southern mouth of the delta and about seventy miles north of Tomis. It was retaken by Roman forces led by Vestalis in AD12 after a Getic incursion.” hence this poem in praise of Vestalis, comparing him to Ajax before Troy:

conspicuous in your gleaming armour,
ensuring your brave deeds could not be missed,
with great strides you charged the swords, the strong position,
stones thicker than wintry hail,
and neither the downflung rain of javelins could halt you
nor arrows envenomed.

4.8 To Publius Suillius Rufus (90 lines)

Ovid was connected to Rufus twice over. He had married Ovid’s step-daughter, Perilla, in around 12 AD, 5 or 6 years after Ovid’s relegatio; and he was quaestor to Germanicus, Ovid’s last best home of forgiveness.

This explains why the poem morphs into an appeal to Germanicus, in three parts: a) Ovid cannot offer Germanicus money but he can offer him poetic immortality:

Let opulent houses and cities present you with temples; Ovid’s
gratitude will be shown through his sole riches – verse.

b) His (Ovid’s) praise will amplify his fame and reputation. This launches an extended example of the common trope that poems of praise are the best and longest lasting monument. Not only famous contemporaries but the great men of legend and even the gods themselves are to some extent kept alive – we have heard of them – because of poetry.

Than time
there’s nothing in existence has greater strength.
The written word defies the years.

c) Germanicus is himself an author – they have ‘rites in common’ – and so all the more should free Ovid from his horrible exile among ‘the savage Goths’.

4.9 To Graecinus (134 lines)

Same addressee as 1.6 and 2.6, Graecinus was an old friend of Ovid’s but also a drinking buddy of Tiberius’s so had probably made the sensible move of dropping his old friend.

Graecinus was appointed suffect consul in 14 AD so in this poem Ovid: a) imagines the scene of his installation, saying how much he’d have liked to have been there to offer congratulations in person; b) hopes Graeconus will use his position to intercede with the emperor.

Ovid then goes on to celebrate the happy fact that Graecinus will be replaced as consul by his brother, Lucius Pomponius Flaccus. Since Flaccus served as commander of a district on the Black Sea coast (where he distinguished himself in a campaign of 12 AD), Ovid asks Graecinus to get his brother to confirm Ovid’s descriptions of the miserable climate, warlike tribes and so on.

Ovid describes how he is esteemed in Tomis, how his behaviour has won him privileges and exemptions. He goes on to describe how he has a shrine to the entire royal family, Augustus, Livia, Tiberius and the two adopted grandsons Drusus and Germanicus. He asks Graecinus to ask anyone how zealous he is in offering incense to this little group of statuettes every single morning – poor desperate grovelling man.

It’s an unusually long poem and ends with a vision of Augustus, now deified, up in heaven looking down on Ovid, appreciating the poems on his deification which Ovid mentions having recently written.

4.10 To Albinovanus Pedo (84 lines)

Ovid says he’s writing this in his sixth summer. If he departed Rome in December 8 and arrived in the spring of 9, this makes it 15 AD. Albinovanus Pedo was a soldier who’d served under Germanicus. Some of his exploits are described in Tacitus’s Annals and, rather amazingly, he wrote an epic poem about the huge storm which wrecked Germanicus’s fleet in the North Sea in 16.

Anyway, this poem is unusual because, although it raises some super-familiar topics about Tomis – the bleakness of the flat plain, the sea freezing over, the barbarian Goths with their poisoned arrows – there is, surprisingly, no pitiful begging and pleading for help. On the contrary, Ovid, for once, boasts about his toughness, his duritia, at having survived it all.

Can you
compare any flint or steel, dear Albinovanus,
to my endurance?…
All things but me, then, time that great corrosive,
will destroy: even death holds off, quite overcome
by my toughness…

He has heard that people back in Rome simply don’t believe his stories about the cannibal tribes or the sea freezing over, let them come and see for themselves! In fact he goes on to give a technical explanation of why the shore-sides of the Black Sea do freeze over in the winter which Green, in his notes, points out is, unlike most natural history written by the ancients, scientifically correct.

4.11 Junius Gallo (22 lines)

Gallo was a noted rhetorician and friend of the elder Seneca. In one of his typically full and fascinating notes, Green tells us that Gallo’s senatorial career was cut short years later, in 32 AD, when he suggested that ex-praetorians should be given seating privileges in the theatre. ‘Tiberius reprimanded him, removed him from the Senate and sent him into exile.’ Crikey! This fact is more interesting than the poem, a striking insight into the immense importance of hierarchy and precedence and procedure in ancient Rome. Sent into exile! For suggesting a minor change in the seating plant at the theatre?

Anyway, in this short poem Ovid greets Gallo, apologises for not having written earlier, and commiserates on the death of his wife. He laments it takes so long for his letters to travel to Rome (Green, in his notes, says the period of a year is a gross exaggeration). So Ovid speculates that, given this long delay in Gallo’s letter reaching him, maybe he has remarried!?

4.12 To Tuticanus (50 lines)

Although Ovid describes him as an old friend (‘through all the long years we’ve enjoyed together/I’ve loved you like a brother’) and that they developed a very close relationship through sharing and critiquing each other’s poems, Tuticanus hasn’t appeared in any earlier poem and so Green detects a (by now fairly familiar) tone of embarrassed apology in this poem.

Ovid tries to make a joke by pointing out that it is impossible to fit Tuticanus’s name, which consists of a double trochee, into the tight metrical scheme of his elegiac metre. Ovid runs through the various distortions he could make of his friend’s name to fit it in, but says they’d all be laughed at. You don’t have to totally understand the metrical variations which he describes to grasp the point that the kind of verse Ovid (and his contemporaries) wrote was extremely strict in every single syllable of its beats and measures. So when he read his poetry aloud to a literary audience and they critiqued it, as often as not it would be about the strict mathematical count of the metre as about the things we moderns care more about (metaphors and sentiment). Maybe it can be summarised as saying that Roman poetry as considerably more mathematical than we are used to.

Tuticanus has clearly asked in a poem what Ovid wants, but by now, demoralised and defeatist, Ovid confesses he doesn’t know:

I can find nothing to do, or want, or not want,
nor do I clearly know what’s best for me.

4.13 To Carus (50 lines)

We know little about Carus except that he, too, was a poet and, according to this poem, a tutor to Germanicus’s two young sons (Nero and Drusus III). Well-placed, then.

But this poem is noteworthy because in it Ovid claims he has mastered enough of the local lingo to be writing poetry in it and to have become ‘a Getic bard’. Green doubts this means Ovid had become fluent in the local tribal language. More likely he had mastered the bastardised Greek or Greek patois used at this remote trading post. Thus Ovid’s verse technique, based on counting syllables, would still work in a language which retained Greek syllable counts. It is extremely unlikely this syllabic technique could be applied to a non-Mediterranean language based, more than likely, on stresses and beats.

Anyway, he tells Carus he’s had a popular hit among the natives with a poem praising the imperial family, describing how Augustus’s soul had gone to heaven and his virtues been inherited by his wise and good successor (as usual, he can’t bring himself to use Tiberius’s name). Then he jokily describes the scene of assembled Goths, who have listened in silence, at the poem’s end breaking into applause, nodding and shaking their quivers full of arrows – a cartoon scene.

Then he has one of the Getic leaders asking why, when he writes such wonderful praise of Caesar, Caesar doesn’t recall him to Rome.’ But it’s too late. This is his sixth winter. Ovid asks Carus to intercede for him with Germanicus, but it’s half-hearted. His sixth winter is approaching. He’s worn out.

4.14 To Tuticanus (62 lines)

Same addressee as 4.12. It quickly becomes an angrily desperate plea to be moved somewhere, anywhere but wretched Tomis. But this leads into a new and interesting topic: turns out that his incessant bitching about how dreadful Tomis is has vexed the locals. Which leads into a self-pitying lament that whatever he writers, his poetry seems to get him into endless trouble. Maybe he should cut off his fingers so he can’t write any more. Rather unconvincingly he now addresses the ‘men of Tomis’ and assures them that, deep down, he loves them, it’s just their land and its wretched climate he hates. Nice try, Publius.

Then he moves on to positive praise of the way the people of Tomis have welcomed, celebrated and even honoured him. (My God, it would be fascinating to know more about this.) He has been granted a tax exemption. A wreath has been placed around his head ‘by popular acclamation’. Tomis has proved ‘ever loyal and hospitable’. If only it wasn’t so close to the frozen pole!

4.15 To Sextus Pompeius (42 lines)

For once this is a poem of thanks to someone who clearly has given Ovid material aid, and more than once. He writes that he owes all his welfare to him, after the gods he takes first place, his kindnesses have been as many as grapes in a vineyard.

In exchange Ovid describes himself as a chattel and a possession which now belongs to Pompeius, going far beyond the dutifulness described in a usual client-patron relationship. Ovid’s abandonment of himself to Pompeius is abject, complete.

He then apologises for writing the same old thing; whatever subject he sets out to address it always comes back to the same old rut, his plea for forgiveness.

4.16 To anonymous (52 lines)

The final poem in book four and therefore the entire Black Sea Letters is an angry execration of an unnamed person who is bad-mouthing him back in Rome. He adopts from the start the pose he has created before that Ovid is dead – the fashionable man-about-Rome who wrote all those witty poems died the day he was sent into exile and everything since has been written by a corpse. So what on earth is the point of calumniating and criticising a dead man?

The poem opens with an impressive roll call of contemporary poets (listed below), long and exhaustive, leading up to the defiant conclusion that Ovid was, and knew he was, head and shoulders among this packed competition. But what does any of it matter? Ovid is dead now. So, Malice, sheathe your bloody claws. Ovid has lost everything. What’s the point stabbing a dead body?

There is no space in me now for another wound.

Thoughts

1. Ovid more of a hanger-on than we thought

The letters shed light on the real nexus of relationships Ovid navigated back in Rome and it is not a pretty one. More than once you get the impression Ovid was a hanger-on to much more important, powerful, rich men, leading figures in politics or the army, who indulged the wimpy poet because of his quick tongue and his outrageous wit, but never really liked him and, now he’s in trouble, have promptly dumped him and wouldn’t dream of jeopardising their standing with the old or new emperor for such a hanger-on. Not flattering.

2. Why repetition works for love but not for exile

It’s difficult not to get worn down by the sheer repetition of the same half dozen tropes repeated in almost all the 100 poems, illustrated by the same half dozen metaphors and the same half dozen mythological references (endlessly comparing himself to storm-tossed Ulysses, long-suffering Philoctetes, Capaneus, comparing his dutiful wife to Penelope, Andromache, Evadne et al).

But there’s a point to be made here: the Amores mercilessly reshuffled half a dozen tropes about love – about the poet being a slave for love, shackled for love, love’s servant, love’s soldier, love’s long-suffering victim, twanged through the heart by love’s arrows etc – and these are endlessly enjoyable.

My suggestion is that from Ovid’s time right up to the present, we are so indoctrinated by the mass media with the importance of ‘Love’ that we accept reading the same love tropes in poetry, reading the same love stories in novels, watching the same half dozen love plots (competition for the pretty girl, marriage then infidelity, torn between two lovers etc) without complaint.

As a Darwinian materialist I see the never-ending and enormous obsession of all our media and cultural productions with ‘love’ and sex as reflecting the central concern of human beings (when regarded as mammals just like all the other mammals on the planet) which is to mate, to nest and to reproduce.

When Ovid applies the same half dozen tropes about love (in the Heroides, Amores, Art of Love) we lap it up, the repetition doesn’t seem to matter, the expression of the same old love plaint seems fresh and new and heartfelt each time we read it.

But when he applies the same technique of endless repetition of a half dozen tropes regarding a different subject, namely his unhappy exile in windswept, tribe-infested Tomis, we react with growing boredom and exasperation.

It’s because this highly specific situation doesn’t have anything like the same basic, animal, evolutionary interest for us that sex and love do. This is why we mostly remain on the outside of his poems and don’t take them to heart as we do his love poems. And helps to explain why the constant repetition eventually becomes really wearing.

The extent of repetition with variation is comparable in both cases: but one subject is core to almost everyone’s central purpose as human beings (love and sex), the other is marginal and niche.

3. More poets than you’d expect

Neither Green nor anyone else I’ve read makes much of this last point, but a surprising number of the people Ovid writes too wrote poetry. It was clearly a really common activity among the educated classes of Rome which must, therefore, have created a highly qualified audience for Ovid’s recitations, and plenty of feedback and criticism. Only towards the end did I start listing people he writes to who are described either in the poem itself or in Green’s notes as poets and then discovered that the final poem in the entire book, 4.16, includes a handy list of the poets among Ovid’s contemporaries:

  • Cornelius Severus (4.2) author of an epic poem about the Sicilian Wars
  • Albinovanus Pedo (4.10) wrote an epic poem on Theseus and on the exploits of Germanicus
  • Tuticanus (4.12) wrote a Phaeacid a reworking of the Phaeacian books in Homer’s Odyssey
  • Carus (4.13) wrote a poem about Hercules
  • Domitius Marsus (4.16) wrote an epitaph on Tibullus
  • ‘bombastic’ Rabirius (4.16) wrote an epic on the civil wars which the critic Velleius Paterculus thought equal to Virgil
  • Clutorius Priscus (4.16) wrote a lament on the death of Germanicus
  • Julius Montanus (4.16)
  • Sabinus (4.16) wrote verse replies to Ovid’s Heroides and ‘an almanac in verse’
  • an unnamed poet (4.16) ‘who versified Rome’s wars in Libya’
  • Marius (4.16) who could turn his hand to anything
  • Camarinus (4.16) wrote an epic account from the death of Hector to the end of the Trojan war
  • Rufus (4.16) a lyric poet, ‘one man performer upon Pindar’s lyre’
  • a ‘Sicilian friend’ (4.16) wrote a Perseid
  • Lupus (4.16) who described Menelaus and Helen’s adventures on the journey back to Sparta
  • Turranius (4.16) author of unnamed tragedies
  • Gaius Melissus (4.16) developed a new type of social comedy
  • Lucius Varius Rufus (4.16) wrote tragedies, a panegyric to Augustus, an epic On Death, and was commissioned by Augustus, along with Plotius Tucca, after Virgil’s death, to edit and produce a publishable version of the Aeneid
  • Graccus (4.16) composed a poem on Thyestes
  • Proclus (4.16) an imitator of the Greek poet Callimachus and so one of the ‘neoteric’ poets, most famous of whom was Catullus
  • Grattius (4.16) author of a 540-line poem on hunting and the training of hunting dogs
  • Fontanus (4.16) ‘tossed off the amours of nymphs and satyrs’
  • Capella (4.16) ‘crammed phrases in the elegiac mould’
  • Cotta Maximus (4.16) rich, powerful patron and dabbler in poetry

Where are they now? Well, Green dolefully informs us, of the 16 poets I’ve mentioned above, who Ovid references in 4.16 (plus two or three I haven’t mentioned because they are referred to by work not name), none of their works have survived intact, with the one rather sad exception of the hunting poem by Grattius.

The collected works of all the others, including all those epic poems about death, the Trojan war, the civil war, all those plays…all vanished into oblivion.


Credit

Peter Green’s translation of Ovid’s Black Sea Letters was included in Ovid: The Poems of Exile, published by Penguin Books in 1994. All references are to this 1994 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Amores by Ovid

The Peter Green edition

I read Ovid’s Amores in the 1982 Penguin edition, which also includes Ovid’s later works, The Art of Love and the Cures for Love, all translated and introduced by Peter Green. This edition contains an awesome amount of editorial paraphernalia. The introduction is 81 pages long and there are 167 pages of notes at the end, so that’s 248 pages of scholarly apparatus (not counting the index). The text of the three Ovid works only take up 180 pages. So in the Penguin/Peter Green edition there’s a hell of a lot of information to process. And in doing so, it’s possible to get caught up in the matrix of interconnections (this passage from an Amor resembling that passage from the Art of Love and so on) and the web of mythological references and end up quite losing yourself in what is quite a deceptively huge book.

Ovid’s Amores

Ovid’s Amores (Latin for ‘loves’) is a set of 50 short love poems written in the elegiac metre – pairs of lines or couplets in which the first line is a hexameter, the second line a pentameter – a format which had become traditional in late-Republican Rome for this kind of subject matter. Poets such as Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius and several others whose works are now lost (notably Gallus), had used the elegiac metre for this kind of personal love poem, generally addressing poems to a beautiful but inaccessible and capricious lady. Catullus (born 84 BC) addressed poems to Lesbia, Tibullus (b.55 BC) to Delia, Propertius (b.55 BC) to Cynthia and Ovid (b.43 BC) to Corrina.

A.M. Juster in his introduction to the love poems of Tibullus suggests that Ovid took the form to such a peak of clever irony, witty pastiche and knowing self-mockery that he hollowed out the form and ended the tradition; nobody after him attempted such a long sequence of love poems in this format and metre.

A little epigram at the start of the work tells us that Ovid’s Amores were initially published in five volumes in about 16 BC. The Penguin translator, Peter Green, devotes some of his huge introduction to speculating that these were very much a young man’s poems and that some time in middle life, Ovid went back, deleted some, rewrote others, and republished them in the three-volume edition we have today.

The Amores’ contents are very straightforward. The poet writes in the first person of his love affair with an unattainable higher-class woman, Corinna. Each poem picks a different incident or mood in this love affair then explores or develops it with rhetorical, logical and poetical skill. The sequence builds into a showcase for the poet’s skills at handling different subjects and feelings.

In line with the idea that Ovid was the most sophisticated and knowing poet in this tradition, many scholars doubt whether the ‘Corrina’ addressed throughout the poems ever actually existed, but was merely a literary pretext for the poet’s powers.

Ovid’s sequence feels more unified and planned as a narrative than those of Tibullus or Propertius; both those poets include in their works lots of poems on unrelated subjects. On closer examination, so does Ovid, addressing a number of husbands, lady’s maids, and women he’s pursuing who are evidently not Corrina. Nonetheless, the sequence somehow feels more smooth and structured than those of his predecessors.

Of course, if the other poets were describing actual events, the order of their poems is likely to be as scrappy and haphazard as real life generally is; whereas, if Ovid was making the whole thing up, he could afford to be more carefully structured and calculating.

Carefree Ovid

Unlike all the previous Roman authors I’ve reviewed, the key thing about Ovid is that he grew up in times of peace. Born in 43 BC, Publius Ovidius Naso was just a toddler during the civil wars which followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, and just 12 when Octavius won his decisive battle against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC, which brought 60 years of civil wars to an end.

This may explain the tone of frivolous irresponsibility which marks most of Ovid’s poetic career. Green makes the point that from about 25 BC (when he’s thought to have started the Amores) through to 1 AD (when he published the Cure For Love) Ovid devoted the best years of his maturity to writing about sex.

OK, he also wrote the 21 love letters of the Heroides (themselves on the subject of love) and a play on the subject of Medea (now, tragically, lost) but what survived, and survived because it was so popular, were his witty, clever poems depicting the author as a stylish man-about-town and sexual athlete. He may describe himself as a ‘slave to love’ (a trope so common it had its own name, the servitium amoris), stricken by Cupid’s arrows and plunged into despair – but it’s impossible to ever take Ovid seriously. Irony, parody and irreverent laughter are his thing, what Green describes as ‘his wit, his irony, his bubbling sense of fun’ (p.80). As Green puts it, ‘Ovid is Homo ludens in person’.

The translation

On page 79 of his long introduction Green explains that he is going to translate the strict elegiac metre (a hexameter followed by a pentameter) very freely, using ‘a variable short-stopped line with anything from five to two stresses’. This approach hints at the metrical regularity of the original, yet gives scope for changes of pace and emphasis, ‘often through a casual enjambment that works more easily in English than it might in Latin.’ None of this prepares you for the tone and style of Green’s translations, which is wild, flippant and jazzy.

Arms, warfare, violence – I was winding up to produce a
Regular epic, with verse form to match –
Hexameters, naturally. But Cupid (they say) with a snicker
Lopped off one foot from each alternate line.
‘Nasty young brat,’ I told him, ‘Who made you Inspector of Metres?
We poets comes under the Muses, we’re not in your mob.’

Right from the start Green announces the flippancy and slanginess of this translation. The result is that the number of beats in each line is difficult to ascertain and, as Green indicated, not at all regular. Instead we are carried away by the energy of the diction, although this, also, is a little difficult to nail down. That ‘Hexameters, naturally’ sounds like a confident posh boy, but ‘snicker’ is an American word, whereas ‘mob’, I suppose, is an America word associated with the 1930s but makes me think of the Lavender Hill Mob. So I found his tone wildly all over the place.

‘Look boy, you’ve got your own empire and a sight too much influence…’

‘Boy’ is either the demeaning word used by southern Americans to blacks (unlikely) or the tone of a posh, public school banker to a waiter at his club (maybe); ‘a sight too much’ strikes me as a very English locution, again of a posh variety, something I don’t think anybody says any more. I give plenty of quotes below, and you can see for yourself how Green uses a variety of locutions to create a witty, slangy, vibrant register.

The Amores

Book 1

1.1 The poet announces that love will be his theme.

In a trope familiar from all the elegists, the poet declares he wanted to write a grand epic as society (and Augustus) require, but was foiled by Cupid. When he wails that he hasn’t got a subject to write about Cupid promptly shoots him with his arrows, making him fall furiously in love.

‘Hey, poet!’ he called, ‘you want a theme? Take that!’
His shafts – worse luck for me – never miss their target:
I’m on fire now, Love owns the freehold of my heart.

So that’s going to be the subject, love, and Ovid himself, right here in the first poem, describes the process of abandoning ambitious plans to write a highfalutin’ epic poem in regular hexameters and settling for the alternating metre of elegiacs:

So let my verse rise with six stresses, drop to five on the downbeat –
Goodbye to martial epic and epic metre too!

1.2 He admits defeat to Cupid

He tosses and turns at night and then pleads with Cupid that he’ll come quietly. The ox that resists the yoke suffers most or, as Green puts it in his deliberately uncouth, slangy style:

It’s the same with Love. Play stubborn, you get a far more thorough
Going-over than those who admit they’re hooked.
So I’m coming clean, Cupid: here I am, your latest victim.

Sounds like a character from ‘The Sweeney’ – I’m surprised he doesn’t address Cupid as ‘guv’nor’. Anyway, the poet says he’ll submit to Love’s demands, he’ll be a captive in Love’s great triumphal procession, and then gives a mock description of a Roman triumph as burlesqued by Love and Love’s army:

And what an escort – the Blandishment Corps, the Illusion
And Passion Brigade, your regular bodyguard:
These are the troops you employ to conquer men and immortals…

1.3 He addresses his lover for the first time and lists her good qualities

Green’s Cockney register continues in this poem, where the poet addresses Venus and vows to be true to her if she can make his mistress love him.

Fair’s fair now, Venus. This girl’s got me hooked. All I’m asking for
Is love – or at least some future hope for my own
Eternal devotion. No, even that’s too much – hell, just let me love her!
(Listen, Venus: I’ve asked you so often now.)
Say yes, pet. I’d be your slave for years, for a lifetime.

‘Pet’? Very casual locution, originally from the North East of England. Anyway, Ovid goes on to say that he doesn’t come from some posh, blue-blood family with ‘top-drawer connections’.

What have I got on my side, then? Poetic genius, sweetheart.

‘Sweetheart’? This is fun.

1.4 He attends a dinner part where his beloved and her husband are also present

The poet is driven so mad with jealousy that his beloved is going to be embraced and kissed and pawed by her husband, in full view of himself and everyone else at this dinner party, that he gives her a list of secret signs to reassure him that she secretly loves him.

As with everything else in the Amores, you strongly feel these are stock clichés of the form, but jived up by Ovid’s breezy attitude. So: when she’s thinking about the last time they made love, she should touch her cheek with her thumb; if she’s cross with him but can’t say so, pinch her earlobe; if he says or does something which pleases her, she should turn the ring on her finger.

If her husband kisses her, he swears he’ll leap up, declare his love, and claim all her kisses as his own! He’ll follow them home and, though he’ll be locked outside at her door, he begs her to be frigid with her husband, ‘make sex a dead loss’.

1.5 Corinna visits him for afternoon sex

This is the poem brilliantly translated by Christopher Marlowe one and a half thousand years after it was written. It’s the first time in the sequence that Corrina is called by her name.

1.6 He begs Corrina’s doorkeeper to let him into her house to see his love

This is an example of the paraclausithyron or ‘poem at the beloved’s door’ and Ovid adopts the traditional figure of the exclusus amator (the ‘shut-out lover’). Similar poems were written by Horace (Odes 3.10), Tibullus (Elegies 1.2) and Propertius (Elegies 1.16). Propertius’s variation on this familiar theme is notable, for he gets the door itself to give its opinion about all these weeping lovers hanging round outside it.

In Ovid’s version, the poet tracks through a range of topoi associated with this genre – how the poet’s tears water the doorpost, how the porter need only open the door a fraction because the poor poet has lost so much weight pining away that he’ll be able to slip through a mere crack, etc.

What struck me was the opening line where he describes how the door slave is chained to the doorpost. At line 20 he reminds the door slave of the time he was stripped ready for a whipping but he, the poet, talked Corrina out of punishing him. This is all meant to be part of the playful banter, but…chains and whips. Slavery.

1.7 He hits his lover and is remorseful

Obviously he’s consumed with regret, says he was momentarily out of his mind with rage – but the alleged hitting is really only a pretext to invoke a whole host of precedents from myth and legend of psychotically angry heroes like Ajax and Orestes. And after all (he whines), all he did was mess up her hair a little, which made her look even more beautiful, like Atalanta or Ariadne or Cassandra about to be raped at the fall of Troy (!).

To be precise, he grabbed her hair and scratched her face (line 50) – an oddly girlish form of assault. He asks himself why he didn’t do something more manly, such as ripping her dress from neck to waistline (an interesting notion). What’s most effective in the poem is his description of how Corrina didn’t say anything but stood shivering and crying mute tears. That sounds horribly believable.

As a side point, he remarks that, instead of tears, the proper marks of love should be bruised lips and bites around the neck and shoulders. Now, love bites are mentioned in Propertius and in Plutarch’s life of Pompey: it was obviously an accepted part of love play in ancient Rome.

1.8 Dipsas’s monologue

Dipsas is a bawd or procuress. The poet violently describes her as a cursed witch. This is because, one day, he claims to have overheard her giving cynical advice to Corrina on how to bewitch young men and wangle rich gifts out of them, gifts she can then share with her mentor, Dipsas.

He particularly hears Dipsas disrespecting Ovid because he’s poor, telling Corrina to angle for richer lovers, and not even to be fussy about freed slaves, so long as they’re rich. Dipsas tells Corrina to play hard to get, to agree to sex now and then but often say she’s got a headache or abstain because of Isis (attendants at ceremonies for Isis had to be celibate 10 days beforehand). He overhears Dipsas telling Corrina to stage strategic arguments to drive him away, though not permanently. She should learn how to cry at will. She should get a houseboy and a maid, who can both extract even more presents from her desperate lover.

Like the beating poem or the door poem, above, this feels like Ovid adopting a standard topic (the wicked old adviser) and determined to write the best, most comprehensive poem on the theme.

As a footnote to Roman love, Dipsas tells Corrina to cultivate a few bruises on her neck i.e. indicating that she’s having sex with someone else to make her lover jealous. Love bites and bruises.

1.9 The poet compares lovers with soldiers

Both belong to the same age group, lusty young men.

A soldier lays siege to cities, a lover to girls’ houses,
The one assaults city gates, the other front doors.

Obviously this is mocking the martial traditions of Rome, in a style previously done by Propertius, but somehow in Ovid’s hands it feels that much more mocking and derisive. And the poem ends with the mocking thought that he was a lazy good-for-nothing scribbling poems until – he fell in love! Now look at him – ‘fighting fit, dead keen on night exercises’!

1.10 He complains that his mistress is demanding material gifts instead of the gift of poetry

So he mounts a list of arguments why this is corrupt, why love should be naked, why sex should be equal, only prostitutes ask for money or gifts etc. All gifts are trash and will rot, but his poetry, if he gives it to her, will last forever and make her immortal. Another very familiar trope.

1.11 Praise of Corinna’s maid

Let me tell you about Napë. Though she’s expert at setting
Unruly hair, she’s no common lady’s maid.

The poem is set in the present as the poet calls Napë over and instructs her to take this note to his beloved, right now, and wait while she reads it, and mark her expression, and insist on a reply, and not just a brief note but ‘a full tablet’: get her (Corrina) to squeeze up the lines and scribble in the margins.

1.12 The poet curses his tablet

Corrina says NO to a visit and so the poet vents his fury on the wood and wax tablet which failed in its duty, cursing the tree which made the wood, the beeswax etc. It turns into a full blown execration of the wretched tablet, which is inventive and funny.

1.13 He addresses the dawn and asks it to wait, so he can stay longer with his mistress

The poet addresses Aurora asking her to rise slowly, to wait, so he can extend his time with his beloved. He invokes the mythology surrounding Aurora, cruelly claiming she’s only in such a rush each morning to get away from her ancient withered lover, Tithonus.

1.14 He mocks Corinna for ruining her hair by dyeing it

A very uxorious, familiar poem in which the poet scolds his beloved for ignoring his advice to lay off hair dyes and rinses; she used them and now her hair’s all falling out. It used to be so long, could be arranged in a hundred different styles, was so fine, like spider’s web, a ‘brindled auburn’ colour. It was also damaged by her insistence on applying heated tongs to corkscrew it.

Oh well, he says, look on the bright side – after ‘our’ recent German conquests she can get a wig made from some captive German woman’s hair.

1.15 The book ends with Ovid writing of the famous poets of the past, and claiming his name will be among them

He gets the allegorical figure of Envy to articulate all the criticisms which could be made of his position: drone, parasite, layabout who should be using his youth as a soldier or his intellect as a lawyer – then refutes these accusations. He wants to be numbered among the immortal poets:

What I seek is perennial fame,
Undying world-wide remembrance.

Though Time, in time, can consume the enduring ploughshare,
Though flint itself will perish, poetry lives –
Deathless, unfading, triumphant over kings and their triumphs,
Richer than Spanish river-gold.

And here I am, 2,000 years later, reading his poetry, proving him correct.

Preliminary thoughts

1. In his mockery of a soldier’s life, his description of a mock triumph, his jokey comparison of a soldier and a lover (1. 9) Ovid mocks Rome’s military tradition (‘the dusty rewards of a soldier’s career’, 1.15). And in his whole approach promotes the lifestyle of an upper-class layabout lover with no sense of public duty, frittering his life away on girlish emotions. This, as his later career was to make clear, was a risky strategy. As with Oscar Wilde, traditional society eventually took its revenge on a taunting provocateur.

2. In his introduction, Peter Green spends a lot of effort suggesting that ‘Corrina’ is based on a real figure and that it was Ovid’s first wife, who he married when he was just 18. Although the convention for these poems was that the beloved was the wife of another man, high-born and unattainable, or a moody and capricious courtesan – and this certainly fits some of the poems, such as the door poem and the pair about sending a note to his mistress – on the other hand the ‘Corrina was Ovid’s wife’ theory is a better fit for the poems about sex on a summer’s afternoon (1.5), the poem to the dawn and especially the one about her hair (1.14). These have none of the stress of stolen visits while husband is away, but have the relaxed candour of married love.

3. Above all else, the poems feel very programmatic, systematic, as if he’s listed all the topics which poems in this genre ought to address, and then set out to write the best possible example of each type.

4. Ovid’s persona is of supreme self-confidence, a very attractive, brash, bullet-proof, man-about-town cockiness. Even when he pretends to be downhearted we know he’s only playing

5. Lastly, re. Green’s style of verse, I like the way his lines are of unpredictably varying length, they rock along in perfect match with his laddish, demotic diction. BUT. One small point of criticism – I don’t like the way he starts each line with a capital letter. It has the effect of cluttering lines which are already cluttered with italics, brackets, exclamation marks and so on. I wish that, like most modern poets, he’d started new lines with small letters, unless it is actually starting a new sentence.

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
than ignored.

is better than:

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
Than ignored.

Clearer, easier to read and parse (understand the grammar of), and looks more modern, has more swing.

Book 2

2.1 The poet describes the sort of audience he wants (girls)

A formal opening to the second book by ‘that naughty provincial poet’, ‘the chronicler of his own wanton frivolities’. Ovid describes how he was actually writing a worthy epic about war in heaven when his mistress locked her door against him and straightaway he forgot his epic and fell back on soft love poems, for

Soft words
Remove harsh door-chains. There’s magic in poetry, its power
Can pull down the bloody moon,
Turn back the sun, make serpents burst asunder
Or rivers flow upstream.

Yes, ‘epics’s a dead loss for me’:

I’ll get nowhere with swift-footed
Achilles, or either of Atreus’s sons.
Old what’s-his-name wasting twenty years on war and travel,
Poor Hector dragged in the dust –
No good. But lavish fine words on some young girl’s profile
And sooner or later she’ll tender herself as the fee.
An ample reward for your labours. So farewell, heroic
Figures of legend – the quid
Pro quo
you offer won’t tempt me. A bevy of beauties
All swooning over my love songs – that’s what I want.

2.2 The poet asks Bagoas, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress

The poet addresses Bagoas, a beautiful woman’s maid or servant and delivers a long list of reasons why she should engage in all kinds of subterfuges to help her mistress’s lover gain his ends, the main motive being she’ll be paid and can save up enough to buy her freedom (line 40).

What struck me is the poem opens with him describing taking a walk in some cloisters and spying this young woman and being struck by her beauty i.e. it doesn’t seem particularly about Corrina.

2.3: The poet addresses a eunuch (probably Bagoas from 2.2) who is preventing him from seeing a woman

A short poem in which the poet laments the condition of men who’ve been castrated and says they (the poet and his mistress) could have got round the neuter minder anyway, but it seemed more polite to make a direct approach and offer him cash for access.

2.4 The poet describes his love for women of all sorts

Other people are going to criticise his character so why doesn’t he go ahead and do it himself. He despises who he is, his weakness for every pretty face he sees, his lack of self discipline. Thick, clever, shy, forward, sophisticated, naive, fans of his, critics of his, dancers, musicians, tall, short, fashionable, dowdy, fair, dark or brunettes – he’s ‘omnisusceptible’, he wants to shag them all.

Young girls have the looks – but when it comes to technique
Give me an older woman. In short, there’s a vast cross-section
Of desirable beauties in Rome – and I want them all!

2.5 The poet addresses his lover, whom he has seen being unfaithful at a dinner party

Describes the rage of jealousy he’s thrown into when he sees her fondling and snogging another man at a dinner party. When he confronts her, later, about it, she denies it means anything and, like a fool, he believes her. Still. Her kisses show a new style, technique and passion. She’s been learning from a master!

2.6 The poet mourns the death of Corinna’s parrot

A comic exequy for Corrina’s parrot, a gift from the East, who was so sociable and clever and ate so little and now is dead. He gives an extended comparison with all other types of birds ending with a vision of pretty Polly in paradise.

2.7 The poet defends himself to his mistress, who is accusing him of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis (28 lines)

Short one in which he accuses his mistress of being too touchy and jealous. Of course he isn’t having an affair with her maid! God, the thought! Why would he bother with ‘a lower-class drudge’? More to the point:

What gentleman would fancy making love to a servant,
Embracing that lash-scarred back?

‘Lash-scarred back.’ I know I’m developing an obsession with this subject, but the ubiquity in Roman social life of slaves, performing every possible function, present at almost all events, present throughout everybody’s house, who can be chained to the doorpost, who can be shackled and manacled and who can be stripped and whipped at a moment’s notice, seriously impairs my enjoyment of these ‘light-hearted’ poems.

2.8 The poet addresses Cypassis, asking her to keep their affair a secret from her mistress

The joke is that, having just denied it in 2.7, he now lets us in on the secret that he is shagging his mistress’s slave. The poem bespeaks the furtiveness of a secret affair. Did they get away with it when Corrina accused him point blank? When Cypassis blushed, did the poet’s fierce oath that it wasn’t true convince her? Now – he wants sex.

I did you a good turn. Now it’s time for repayment.
Dusky Cypassis, I want to sleep with you. Today.

‘Dusky’? Is she black?

2.9a The poet rebukes Cupid (24 lines)

He blames Cupid for trapping him in this life of love for good. The old soldier can retire, an old racehorse is put out to grass, warships are dry docked, an old gladiator can hang up his sword. Why won’t Cupid let him go?

2.9b The poet professes his addiction to love (30 lines)

He admits to sometimes feeling sick of the whole business of love but some kink in his nature addicts him to it. He just can’t kick the habit of loving and shagging. He’s Cupid’s best customer, his arrows know the way to his heart without needing to be fire. They’re more at home in his heart than Cupid’s quiver. He sounds quite a bit more tired and cynical than previously:

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
Than ignored.

2.10 The poet bemoans being in love with two girls at once

The poet addresses a man, Graecinus, and makes you realise it’s the first time he’s done so on 25 poems. A lot of Tibullus and Propertius’s poems are addressed to other blokes; surprisingly, this is rare in Ovid. Maybe showing how much of a lady’s man he is.

Anyway, this Graecinus told him no man could possibly fall in love with two women and yet – here he is, in love with two women! It seems like an unnecessary surfeit but he’d rather have two than none at all. And he proceeds to show off a bit:

I can stand the strain. My limbs may be thin, but they’re wiry;
Though I’m a lightweight, I’m hard –
And virility feeds on sex, is boosted by practice;
No girl’s ever complained about my technique.
Often enough I’ve spent the whole night in pleasure, yet still been
Fit as a fighting cock next day.

He wants to die in mid-act, ‘on the job’.

2.11 Corinna’s voyage (56 lines)

He deploys the full range of arguments against taking a sea voyage (the danger, the monsters, the boredom) but Corrina is determined to go, so he switches to wishing her good luck.

2.12 His triumph (28 lines)

Meaning Roman triumph because the poet has, finally, despite all obstacles, won his Corrina. Again he compares himself to a soldier, conscripted and fighting in great battles , except:

The credit is mine alone, I’m a one-man band,
Commander, cavalry, infantry, standard-bearer, announcing
With one voice: Objective achieved!

What’s odd is we saw him having lazy summer afternoon sex with Corrina back in 1.5, so why is ‘winning’ her, here, depicted as such a huge triumph? Is it a reminder that we should never take these poems as telling any kind of coherent narrative, but more a selection, arranged in a vague but not narrative-based order?

2.13 The poet prays to the gods about Corinna’s abortion (28 lines)

Corrina has carried out an abortion on herself and now lies badly ill. The poet addresses the goddesses Isis and Ilythia, saying he’ll do anything for them offer them anything, if only his beloved recovers. If we’re talking about possible narratives and orders, it is odd to have a poem this serious immediately after the one in which he claims to only just have ‘triumphed’ and won her (2.12).

2.14 The poet condemns abortion (44 lines)

A fairly playful development of the anti-abortion position, to wit: if every woman acted like Corrina the human race would die out. This is followed by a list of amusing counterfactuals: what if Thetis had carried out an abortion? No Achilles, no defeat of Troy. Or what if the priestess of Mars had done the same? No Romulus and Remus, no Rome. What if Corrina’s mum had done the same? No Corrina! Or Ovid’s mum, if he’d been ‘mother-scuppered before birth’? No Amores!

From a social history point of view the poem makes clear that self-attempted abortion was quite a common occurrence in ancient Rome and equally common girls dying from it (line 40).

2.15 The ring (28 lines)

He sends her a ring and then, in flights of fantasy, imagines being the ring, fitting snugly on her finger, accompanying the finger when it strokes her skin, her cleavage or…elsewhere.

2.16 At Sulmona, a town in his native region (52 lines)

His home town, Sulmona, is lovely and fertile and all…but his girl isn’t with him so it feels barren and strange. Suddenly, urgently, he wills her to call out her cart, harness the quick-stepping ponies and make haste to be with him.

2.17 His devotion to Corrina (34 lines)

Corrina’s loveliness makes her treat him like dirt. He describes beautiful legendary women who paired with less attractive men e.g. Venus and Vulcan, and then compares them to the way the hexameter and pentameter are combined in the elegiac couplet.

Well, look at the metre I’m using – that limps. But together
Long and short lines combine
In a heroic couplet.

Apparently some other woman is going round claiming to be the ‘Corrina’ of his poems, but gently and sweetly he assures her she is his only beloved.

…none but you shall be sung
In my verses, you and you only shall give my creative
Impulse its shape and theme.

2.18 The death of tragedy (40 lines)

He writes to his friend Macer, a poet who appears to have been writing a epic poem describing the events leading up to the Iliad describing having another go at writing a tragedy but how not only his Muse mocked him but then Corrina came and sat on his lap and covered him and kisses and asked why he wasn’t writing about her. Oh, what the hell, he might as well stick to what he’s good at, ‘verse lectures on seduction’ or ‘love-lorn heroines’ letters’ (referring to the Heroides).

Interestingly, he appears to imply that another friend of his, Sabinus, also a poet, had written letters in which the absent menfolk reply to the letters listed in the Heroides. If he did, they’re now lost.

2.19 To a husband to be more protective of his wife (60 lines)

Ironic satirical poem written to the husband of another woman who he’s seeking to woo (not Corrina) telling him (the husband) to take more care of her because at the moment, seducing her is just too easy! He prefers a battle, a struggle, the thrill of the chase.

Then the addressee seems to change to the woman in question, ‘my latest eye-ravisher’. He tells her to copy Corrina who was a master of teasing him, throwing temper tantrums, then relenting, leading him on, rebuffing him, exciting his ardour.

That’s the way I like it, that feeds the flame.

Then back to the husband and a very funny sequence of mounting frustration at his relaxed complaisance. Be more jealous, put your foot down, be a man for God’s sake. There’s no fun in an easy conquest.

Book 3

3.1 Elegy and Tragedy

Walking in a wood, the poet encounters the allegorical figure of Tragedy who tells him it’s time to grow up, drop ballads for schoolgirls and produce a really serious work. But then appears Elegy (with one foot shorter than the other, harping on that at fact of the elegiac metre, hexameter followed by pentameter) who tells Tragedy not to be so condescending, and then tells both of them what she’s been through, pinned to closed doors, torn up and flushed down the loo. If Tragedy’s interested in Ovid, it’s because of what Elegy’s done for him.

The poet asks the two ladies to stop quarrelling and admits that he chooses Elegy (again) and Tragedy will just have to be patient. (It is a big irony of history that Ovid did apparently write a tragedy, on the subject of Medea, and it was praised by Tacitus and Quintilian, but, very unhappily, it has been lost. Or ironically, in the context of this poem.)

3.2 At the races (84 lines)

A vivid description of our man chatting up a girl in the audience of the chariot races. In Green’s translation it’s a stream-of-consciousness account as the poet compares himself to a chariot racer, asks other members of the audience to stop poking and cramping them, begs Venus to give him luck with his new amour.

He describes a fixed feature of the races, which was the entrance of a procession (pompa) of ivory statues of the gods, borne on wagons or floats, which made its way through the Forum and into the Circus and proceeded the entire length of the racetrack to the cheers of the vast audience. The poet gives a running commentary on the images of the gods and how they’re useful to him, and then commentates on an actual race, yelling for the chariot his amour has bet on to win.

3.3 The lie (84 lines)

Ovid laments that his lover has not been punished for lying. He blames the gods for letting beautiful women get away with murder but coming down like a ton of bricks on men.

3.4 Give her freedom (48 lines)

Ovid warns a man about overprotectively trying to guard his wife from adultery. Do the opposite, give her complete freedom and watch her lose interest. We only chafe for what we can’t get. If it’s suddenly all available, we lose interest. ‘Illicit passion is sweeter.’ Doesn’t seem to be about Corrina.

3.5 The dream (46 lines)

The poet describes having a dream about a white heifer who is joined in a field by a black bull, but a black crow comes and starts pecking at the heifer’s breast till she stands up and waddles off to another herd of cows in the distance.

The poet asks the dream interpreter (an oneirocrit) who’s listened to his recounting, what it means, and the interpreter says that he, Ovid, is the black bull, the white heifer is his beloved, and the crow is a bawd who comes and pesters her to leave him (the poet) and go off to seek riches elsewhere.

At these words the blood ran freezing
From my face and the world went black before my eyes.

This, for me, is one of the most effective poems in the set, maybe because it’s so unusual, so unlike the familiar tropes of the genre.

3.6 The flooded river (106 lines)

The poet had got up early to make a journey to see his lover and finds his way blocked by a swollen stream. First he complains to the river about being so damn inconvenient. Then he claims the river ought to be helping him not hindering and rattles off a page-long list of rivers and how they helped lovers, or were themselves lovers, back in mythological times – although, knowing as ever, he emphasises that these old stories are:

All lies, old poetic nonsense
That never really happened – and never will.

Despite this brash dismissal, the poem is unusually long precisely because it contains a dramatised version of one these old ‘lies’, the legend of Ilia the Vestal Virgin ravished by the river Anio.

And the poem ends with an amusing execration of the river that’s blocking his path, barely a proper river at all, a desert of stones and dust in the summer, then an unpredictable torrent in winter, not marked on any maps, just a ‘no-name dribble’!

3.7 Erectile dysfunction (84 lines)

Also unusually long. The poem is about a time he lay in his beloved’s arms and she tried every trick in the book (French kisses, dirty words, called him ‘Master’) to no avail:

My member hung slack as though frozen by hemlock,
A dead loss for the sort of game I’d planned.
There I lay, a sham, a deadweight, a trunk of inert matter…

I wonder if Ovid is really as much of a Jack the Lad in the original Latin as Green’s zingy English makes him sound:

It’s not all that long since I made it
Twice with that smart Greek blonde, three times
With a couple of other beauties – and as for Corrina,
In one short night, I remember, she made me perform
Nine times, no less!

The poem is interesting because it puts his ‘love’ for Corrina in the context of sleeping with umpteen other girls as well i.e. it is nowhere near as devoted and obsessive as Propertius’s love for Cynthia, let alone the high devotion of Courtly Love which was to invoke his memory over a thousand years later.

He wonders whether some jealous rival has commissioned a magician to put a hex on him, laments that she was such a beautiful girl and yet no dice; compared to the moment when he’s actually writing, when his member is standing stiff and proud to attention, ‘you bastard’ (line 69). After trying everything, eventually his girl got cross, accused him of recently sleeping with someone else, flounced out of bed and – to fool her maids that something had happened – splashed around with some water for a bit.

Is this the reason why his beloved appears to have abandoned him in 3.5 and appears to be going out with a soldier, described in the next poem as having more money than Ovid, but maybe just being able to…get it up.

3.8 The cure of money (66 lines)

He can’t believe his beloved is now dating a soldier, just because he has money from his campaigns. This develops into a traditional curse on gold and greed, and a lament on the decline since the idyllic days of Saturn (the so-called Saturnia regna) the lost Golden Age when gold and precious metals lay in the ground. Instead gold rules Rome now and leaves a poor lover like him unable to compete with a rich soldier, flashing his rings and stolen treasure (boo hoo).

In his notes Green adds resonance by pointing out that Ovid was not well off but prided himself from coming from an old established family and not being a parvenu like so many of the nouveaux riches who had made a fortune and acquired status through the disruptions of the civil wars. Soldiers who’d done well in the wars or merchants who’d bought up proscribed land, speculators and bankers. Ovid, like hard-up poets throughout history, despised them all.

Me, genius, out in the cold,
Traipsing round like a fool, replaced by some new-rich soldier,
A bloody oaf who slashed his way to the cash
And a knighthood!

An interesting footnote points out that that the beloved who’s been taken by another man is married i.e. has swapped adultery with Ovid for adultery with the soldier. No mention of Corrina’s name.

3.9 An elegy for Tibullus (68 lines)

He says Cupid has doused his torch and broken his bow in sorrow at the death of Tibullus, the great elegiac poet (thought by scholars to have died in autumn 19 BC). There can be no gods if such good men are allowed to die. While his body is rendered down to an urnful of ashes, only the poet’s work, his songs, survive, and for all time.

Green, in his notes, points out the structural similarity with the epicedion or funeral lament for Corrina’s parrot (2.6) and that both follow the same five-part structure:

  1. introductory address to the mourners
  2. the laudatio including the ‘what avails it…’ theme, and a ritual outburst (schetliasmós) against unjust fate
  3. the deathbed scene
  4. consolatio
  5. the burial itself followed by a prayer for the repose of the dead

Interestingly, Ovid confirms the names of the two beloved women mentioned in Tibullus’s elegies, claiming that at his pyre Delia and Nemesis squabbled over who loved him most. Then says his soul will be greeted in Elysium by Catullus (84 to 54 BC) and Gaius Cornelius Gallus (69 to 26 BC), his predecessors in elegiac poetry.

3.10 The Festival of Ceres (48 lines)

The annual festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from making love to his mistress, which leads into an extended description of the rise of Ceres and her own godly love affairs.

3.11a Enough (32 lines)

He’s finally had enough of his lover, enough of being shown the door, grovelling in the street, while she was shagging someone else inside, then watch his rival, exhausted by sex, stumble out into the street. He is ashamed of watching her send secret signals at dinner parties to other men; of her broken promises. Enough! ‘I’m not the fool I was.’

3.11b Conflicted (20 lines)

He is conflicted. He loves and hates:

Your morals turn me off, your beauty on
So I can live neither with you or without you.

He loves and lusts after his lover but describes her infidelity and betrayals. He wishes she were less attractive so he can more easily escape her grasp.

3.12 (44 lines)

Ovid laments that his poetry has attracted others to his lover, led them to her front door.

What good have my poems done me? They’ve brought me nothing but trouble.

So he’s sick not just of Corrina but of poetry, or these kinds of poems – fat lot of good they’ve done him. He claims that poets’ statements shouldn’t be taken for fact, they’re much more suited to making up wild fantasies – and then goes off on a page-long digression listing some of the most florid Greek myths.

Oh, creative poetic licence
Is boundless, and unconstrained
By historical fact

A thought worth keeping in mind when we come to the Metamorphoses.

3.13 The Festival of Juno (36 lines)

A relatively chaste poem in which he describes the festival of Juno (‘sacrifice of a heifer; crowded games’) taking place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins, describing at some length, the shrine, the procession of youths and shy maidens and so on. He ends by hoping Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

Green makes the point that the poem breaks the cardinal rule of love elegies by mentioning his wife! At a stroke this dose of spousal affection and family piety undermines the elaborate poses of the entire series. Unless, like Green, you take the rather mind-boggling view that Corrina may be based on Ovid’s wife. Personally, my experience of reading the other elegists (Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius) suggests to me that these sequences are more random, and contain more random elements, than modern tidy-minded critics would like. To us a poem about his wife breaks the fourth wall, undermines the illusion of the hard-shagging, lover-about-town image promulgated in the other poems.

3.14 Keep it to yourself (50 lines)

Ovid sounds tired, resigned. He doesn’t mind if his beloved has other affairs, but can she just keep it to herself. He describes the passion of the bedroom (stripping off, twining thigh over thigh, French kissing, ecstatic moans, the bed rattling like mad) but when you reappear in public, affect respectability and virtue. Instead of which his beloved enjoys feeding tittle-tattle about her sex life to gossips. Must she flaunt her dishevelled hair, the unmade bed, those live bites? So disappointing, so vulgar. Every time she confesses another liaison it kills him by inches. Can’t she please just deny her countless other trysts and so let him live in ignorant bliss.

3.15 Farewell to love elegy (20 lines)

Mother of tender loves, you must find another poet;
My elegies are homing on their final lap.

This final very short poem gives a brief potted biography of him, not from a rich family, but an ancient and distinguished one; from the little town of Sulmona in the region of Paelignia, which fought so bravely against Rome in the Social Wars. Farewell to elegiac verse;

Horned Bacchus is goading me on to weightier efforts, bigger
Horses, a really ambitious trip.

What’s he referring to? The Metamorphoses?

Brief summary

Reviewing the Amores I can well see how Ovid took the stock subjects or topics of the genre, one by one, and took them to the limit, developing each premise to sometimes absurd extents, stuffing each poem with the maximum number of relevant mythological references, including all possible relevant emotions – but at the same time he quite visibly did it as a joke, as a game, playfully, ironically, knowingly. Homo ludens. Thus I can see the force of A.M. Juster’s point that Ovid both a) exhausted the possibilities of the content of the genre but, more profoundly b) undermined all future attempts to take it seriously. He killed it.

Latin terminology

  • consolatio – type of ceremonial oratory, typically used rhetorically to comfort mourners at funeral
  • epicedion – funeral lament
  • exclusus amator – the shut-out lover
  • Homo ludens – playful man, game-playing man
  • laudatio – epitaph in praise of someone who’s died, often a loved one
  • paraclausithyron – poem at the beloved’s door
  • rusticitas – rusticity, the quality of country life and people, by extension, lack of education, idiocy
  • schetliasmós – ritual outburst against unjust fate
  • servitium amoris – servant of love
  • urbanitas – city fashions or manners; refinement, politeness, courtesy, urbanity, sophistication; of speech – delicacy, elegance or refinement of speech; wit, humor

Credit

The Erotic Poems of Ovid, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Books in 1982. All references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 1 to 3

I am Aeneas, known for my devotion. (Aeneid book 1, line 378)

I own three translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin Classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1971 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin Classics prose translation by David West

I read most of the Aeneid in the West prose translation. It seemed easy and modern. I dipped into the Mandelbaum but was put off by his tone, too hectically American, maybe because I read it at the height of the heatwave when everything felt a bit hysterical. But I did use Mandelbaum’s comprehensive Glossary of Names and Places. The West edition doesn’t have a glossary or any notes at all. The idea is for you to rely entirely on the information Virgil gives in the poem itself which, it turns out, is all you need, most of the time.

Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to as Virgil (70 to 19 BC) was the great Roman poet who straddled the epochal transition from the Roman Republic to the early Roman Empire. There were other very important figures, such as Catullus from the generation before (b.84), Virgil’s younger contemporary, Horace (b.63 BC), and, a generation younger, the great poet of mythology, Ovid (b.43). But Virgil towers above them all.

Virgil was born near the northern city of Mantua to parents who owned farmland. He was sent to Rome to complete his education where he probably met the young Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD) and his friends, namely his future patron and Augustus’s ‘minister of culture’, Maecenas (68 to 8 BC).

Always a sickly, sensitive young man, Virgil left Rome and settled near Naples where he spent the rest of his life quietly studying and writing poetry.

Virgil left no juvenilia or collections of random poems. He wrote just three works, each of them masterpieces:

  • the ten very short and highly stylised poems of idealised country life featuring lovelorn shepherds, the Eclogues
  • the four longer, tougher-minded, sometimes lyrical, sometimes practical, sometimes sweepingly destructive Georgics, are, on paper, poems of advice to farmers and livestock owners, but in reality a lot more varied and complex than that
  • the long epic poem the Aeneid, which has a claim to being the most important and most influential poem ever written in Europe

Epic poem

An epic poem is a long poem with a historical or legendary setting, which usually tells the adventures of one or more heroes on an epic journey or pitched into a mighty struggle, all with the input of gods and goddesses. Many societies and cultures have produced epic poems.

Sometimes an epic poem has as part of its purpose to explain the origin of cities or races or gods and religions. (The Greeks had a word for such an origin story, an aition.) Always epics are characterised by long narratives with multiple incidents or episodes strung along the central plot.

In the 1940s C.S. Lewis proposed an elemental distinction between primary and secondary epic. Primary epic is produced in illiterate cultures, often by travelling poets or troubadors, often using familiar narratives, well-known characters and using time-honoured, stock descriptions. The process by which they’re written down is obscure but by the time they are recorded they already display very sophisticated techniques of oral storytelling. In our European tradition, the two Greek epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey show these characteristics. They are attributed to a figure called ‘Homer’ but it’s not certain that anyone named Homer ever existed.

By complete contrast, secondary epic is the production of a literate culture. It is the product of known authors, was written at a known time and place. It self-consciously invokes many of the tropes and techniques of primary epic, such as well-known legends and legendary characters, famous episodes or adventures, extended similes, stock descriptive phrases, episodic structure and so on. Virgil’s Aeneid has a good claim to be the greatest secondary epic.

A poem of multiple levels

The Aeneid is a carefully wrought collation of numerous themes on multiple levels.

Adventure story

In terms of storyline or plot it tells the story of Aeneas, a prince of Troy – a story familiar to all educated Romans of Virgil’s day – who escapes the destruction of the city at the climax of the ten-year-long siege by the Greeks, and describes the wanderings of him and 20 shiploads of comrades as they sail west across the Mediterranean looking for a new home.

Foundation story

Why bother with this story? Because the Romans believed that their city ultimately owed its founding to prince Aeneas. The traditional view (which is recapped in book 1) goes that Aeneas underwent numerous florid adventures as he sailed west from Troy before finally making landfall in western Italy. After fighting off the local tribes he establishes a settlement at a place he calls Lavinium.

His son, Ascanius, also known as Iulus, will move their settlement to a place named Alba Longa, where his descendants will live for 300 years. Then Ilia, the royal priestess of Vesta, will be seduced and impregnated by the god Mars and give birth to twins, Romulus and Remus. Romulus will grow up to build a new settlement, named Rome after him, which will go on to rule the world.

Patriotic story

So on one level the poem is an ultra-patriotic dramatisation of the man who founds the settlement which was to form the basis of Rome. Aeneas is shown as an epitome of the Roman virtues, a man who puts duty to family and country before self.

Pleasing Augustus

Throughout the narrative Virgil goes out of his way to suck up to the current ruler of Rome, the princeps Gaius Octavianus who was awarded the title Augustus while he was composing the work. Gaius Octavianus had been adopted by Julius Caesar in his will and so took his name, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar.

Virgil is at pains to demonstrate the extreme antiquity of the family of ‘Julii’ of which Octavianus had become a member, and so goes out of his way to tell us, repeatedly, that Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, had this second name Iulus (this name had been Ilus while Troy, which was also called Ilium, had stood). Ilus – Iulus – Iulius. The aim was to create a direct link from Aeneas via Ilus-Iulius to the house of Julius Caesar, and so to the current emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar aka Augustus.

Those are the public and political aims of the poem. Two additional factors make it a masterpiece.

Adapting Homer

One is the tremendous skill with which Virgil closely models himself on the two outstanding epics of his tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, adopting the tone of voice, the capacious bird’s-eye-view of the narrator, the confident intertwining of the human level with the character of the immortal gods who play a crucial role in the plot, either supporting or scheming against Aeneas. It is a very sophisticated invocation and twining together of the epic tradition up to his time.

Virgil’s sensibility

But more important is Virgil’s sensitivity. Homer’s heroes are killing machines. They may be sad and burst into tears, but only when there is good justification (weeping over the dead) and most of the time they are just angry and keying themselves up for yet another fight.

By contrast, the Aeneid is soulful. The narrator and his hero are sensitive to ‘the tears of things’, to the tragic inevitability of the universe. Aeneas does his duty, but with a heavy heart at the suffering he has seen and the new suffering he causes. It is an epic poem with lyrical feeling.

Book 1 Storm and banquet

In the best tradition, the poem starts in media res meaning ‘in the middle of things’. We find our hero aboard ship, having set sail from Sicily towards the cost of Italy but caught up in a violent storm. His fleet is dispersed and at least one ship sinks.

In fact the read of the poem is informed that this storm has been whipped up by Juno queen of the gods. She hates Aeneas and is his steady foe. She cannot forgive the Trojans for the snub when Paris awarded the apple of beauty to Venus. This long-standing grudge is why we see her visit the home of Aeolus, gods of the winds, and ask him to whip up a storm to shipwreck Aeneas, which he promptly does.

But we also see Venus, Aeneas’s mother, who was impregnated by Aeneas’s father Anchises, rushing to confront Jupiter, king of the gods, and tearfully ask how he can let his wife massacre her son and his colleagues. Jupiter calmly tells her to dry her eyes, he has no intention of letting Aeneas drown, and it is now that he reveals what the fates have in store for the Trojan prince (as I outlined above).

And as he speaks he gets his brother Neptune, king of the seas, to abate the storm, and gently blow the remainder of Aeneas’s fleet towards the coast of north Africa, referred to here as Libya. Here the Trojans gratefully anchor, come ashore, dry off, go hunting, shoot some deer, build fires, eat and drink wine and recover their strength.

And here Aeneas is visited by his mother in the guise of a local woman who assures him all will be well and tells him about the nearby town of Carthage, just now being built by exiles from Tyre. Venus-in-disguise tells the rather complicated backstory of this people. Tyre is a rich city on the coast of Phoenicia (what is now Israel) ruled by king Pygmalion. He has a sister, princess Dido. Dido marries a rich man Sychaeus. But Pygmalion is jealous of Sychaeus’s wealth and murders him while he worships at an altar. For a while no-one knows who committed the crime and Pygmalion hypocritically comforts his sister.

But then the ghost of Sychaeus appears to Dido, reveals the truth, warns her to flee her brother, and shows her the burial place of a huge secret treasure. She gathers her friends and supporters and the many people opposed to the ‘tyrant’ Pygmalion, they dig up the treasure, load it onto some ships and sail away forever.

Now she and her people have arrived at the other end of the Mediterranean, made land, settled and Aeneas and his crew have arrived just as the Tyrians are laying out and building a new ‘city’, a city the narrative refers to as Carthage.

You don’t need to be a literary critic to spot that both Aeneas and Dido are in similar plight, both refugees from distant lands in the eastern Mediterranean, forced by tragic events to flee their home cities, and now trying to build new lives, and new cities, in the west.

All this is explained to him by Aeneas’s mother, Venus who, having intervened to save Aeneas from the storm, now appears to him in the guise of a local maiden. She has wrapped Aeneas in a magic cloud so he and his companion can walk up to the new city walls and watch the Tyrians building Carthage.

Then she disappears the cloud and Aeneas is welcomed by the Tyrians. Their queen, Dido, welcomes Aeneas and his men to a lavish feast. Venus waylays Aeneas’s son as he comes from the beach where they’ve all landed towards the city, makes him fall asleep in a copse of trees. And gets her other son, the god Eros, to take on Ascanius’s form, and be introduced to Queen Dido, and sit on her lap during the feast (!) and deliberately make her fall in love with Aeneas. Because we all know how this love affair will end Virgil describes her as poor Dido and ‘doomed’ Dido.

Homer is always full of a kind of metallic energy. Even when his heroes weep, they do so in a virile, manly way. But in his treatment of Dido Virgil displays a completely different sensibility, sympathetic and sad.

Back at the feast, Dido asks Aeneas to tell them about his adventures. He has already told them he has been wandering for seven years since the fall of Troy. Reluctantly, Aeneas agrees.

Book 2 The fall of Troy

Aeneas’s story. He cuts straight to the final days of the 10-year-long siege as the Greeks cut down mighty trees to make the enormous wooden horse. Then strike camp and sail away leaving it alone on the plain in front of Troy. The Trojans come out to admire it. The priest Laocoön warns them all that it is a Greek scam but at that point a Trojan patrol returns with a Greek captive. He tells them he’s called Sinon and, after incurring the enmity of the mighty Odysseus (here called Ulixes) he was chosen to be the human sacrifice the Greek fleet needed to set sail (just as it had required the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigeneia in order to set sail from Greece, 10 long years ago).

Sinon tells them he managed to escape the night before he was due to be killed and has hidden. Now they can kill him or spare him as they please. But he is a plant left by the Greeks to give a false explanation of the horse. He says it is a peace offering to the gods to let the fleet sail. More precisely, it is atonement for the incident when Ulixes and Diomede stole the Palladium from the temple of Pallas Athene in the citadel of Troy. Since then she has persecuted them and their chief priest, Calchas, ordered them a) to return to Greece to worship the gods, atone for their sins, rearm and return to renew the siege, and b) to build this enormous horse as a peace offering to Athena. Sinon warns that if the Trojans damage it at all it will bring down the wrath of Athena on them. If, on the other hand, they take it into the city and venerate it, then Athena will bless them and, when the Greeks return, allies from all across Asia will rally to their cause and they will defeat the Greeks in a final battle.

The Trojans are still hesitating when an amazing thing happens. The priest of Neptune, Laocoön, is sacrificing to an altar by the shore when two might sea snakes emerge from the waves and envelop his two young sons. Laocoön goes to their rescue and tries to fight them off but the snakes strangle all three to death and then slither into the city and up to the citadel of the goddess Venus.

Well, that decides it for the Trojans who set about dismantling part of their walls (the horse is too big to go through the city gates) in a kind of mad frenzy. Aeneas tells the story with much regret and sorrow at their foolhardiness, but they were whipped on by the scheming gods. The priestess Cassandra warns against letting the horse in but, of course, she was doomed never to be believed.

That night the Trojans hold a mighty feast to celebrate the end of the war then pass out on their beds. In the middle of the night Aeneas is woken by the ghost of Hector, looking grim and broken and bloody as he was after Achilles dragged his corpse round the walls of Troy, tied by the ankles to his chariot.

Hector’s ghost warns Aeneas to flee and sure enough, now he is awake, he hears screams and smells smoke. While they were asleep, Sinon snuck out to the horse, undid the pine bolts which secured its secret trap door, the Greeks inside the horse lowered themselves by a rope to the ground and set about massacring the guards set on the horse, while a contingent went and opened the main gates to the Greeks who had a) silently sailed back from where the fleet had hidden behind the offshore island of Tenedos and b) swarmed across the plain, till they were massed outside the gates.

Now the Greek army is pouring into the city determined to kill every man, woman and child. Hector’s ghost tells Aeneas all his lost, to gather his family and companions and flee, and predicts that, after long wanderings, he will found a new city.

But if you think about it, Virgil can’t depict the legendary founder of Rome as a coward who turns and bolts. Instead Aeneas leaps from his bed, grabs his armour, runs into the street, and rallies other warriors he finds emerging from their homes. They form a troop and roam through the streets taking on Greeks. They massacre one group of Greeks and put on their armour. This allows them to mingle with other Greeks before turning on them and many, the narrative assures us, they sent down to Orcus (hell), many fled back across the plain, and some even scuttled back up inside the horse.

Then a huge fight develops around the figure of the priestess Cassandra who is being dragged bound and gagged by Greeks from her temple. Aeneas and his band rally to save her but a hornet’s nest of Greeks counter attack, and they are even struck down by some Trojan brothers because they are wearing Greek armour.

He doesn’t mention Cassandra again but shifts the focus to the battle round the palace of Priam. Trojans are reduced to tearing down their walls and roofs to throw down on the Greeks climbing siege ladders. Aeneas enters the palace by a secret back passage and makes his way to the top of the tallest tower where he joins Trojans loosening the masonry to send huge blocks of stone falling on the Greek attackers.

Aeneas knows his audience will want to know how King Priam died. He gives a vivid, heart-breaking account of the old man buckling on his armour and heading for the fight, how his wife Hecuba tries to persuade him to desist, how Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, chases and kills Polites, one of Priam’s sons, right in front of him. How Priam defies him, harmlessly throws his spear, reproaches Pyrrhus for being a shame to his noble father. But Pyrrhus doesn’t care, grabs Priam by his long hair, drags him over to the altar and thrusts his sword up to the hilt in Priam’s side. Then his head is hacked from his body which is left to rot on the shore, unknown and unmourned.

Aeneas looks around and realises all his companions are dead i.e. he has done all that honour demanded. Now his thoughts turn to his aged father Anchises, his wife, Creusa, and son, Ascanius.

He spots Helen hiding in a temple, cause of all this death and destruction. Shall she survive and be taken back to Sparta to live in luxury, waited on by Trojan slaves? In a burst of fury Aeneas rushes forward to kill her but suddenly his mother, the goddess Venus appears. She tells him the war is not really Helen or even Paris’s fault. It is the gods. And she strips away the fog which clouds his mortal vision and shows him Neptune shaking the city’s foundations, Juno opening the gates and egging on the Greeks, Pallas Athena taking command of the citadel, and Jupiter himself leading the gods and supporting the Greeks. No mortal can stop this. As the Sibyl says, much later, in book 6:

You must cease to hope that the fates of the gods can be altered by prayer. (6.376)

Venus now orders Aeneas to collect his family and flee. But Anchises refuses to leave the city he has lived in all his life, determined to die in his house. Aeneas remonstrates, the old man refuses, so Aeneas says he’ll buckle back on his armour and die defending him rather than leave him. But Creusa throws herself in front of him and tells him his first duty is to his family.

At this tense moment there are signs from heaven. A heatless flame settles on Ascanius’s head and there was a peal of thunder and a star fell from the sky, a meteorite crashing down into Mount Ida.

This persuades Anchises to leave, so Aeneas puts a lion skin on his shoulders, tells the household slaves to meet them at a hill outside the city, puts his father on his shoulder, takes little Ascanius by the hand and Creusa follows behind as they set off through the dark side streets of the burning city.

It was then that his father heard marching soldiers’ feet and told Aeneas to run and Aeneas was overcome by irrational fear and bolted and somehow his wife Creusa got left behind, He never saw her again.

I stormed and raged and blamed every man and god that ever was. (2.745)

He puts his armour back on and runs back to the city, through the same gate they exited, trying to retrace his steps, going first to his house then to the palace of Priam, finding death, devastation and flames everywhere.

But then Creusa appears in a vision to him, calmly telling him that this is the wish of the gods and destiny. He is to sail far away and come to rest in Hesperia by the river Thybris in a land of warriors and take another bride. It is for the best. Their gods will protect her. She promises she will never be led away a slave for some Greek wife, although what her exact fate is is left unstated. He goes to put his arms around her but she fades like a phantom.

Anyway, this, like the account of Aeneas’s brave fighting, are obviously both designed to show him to best advantage, full of patriotic, familial and husbandly loyalty, but at every step overpowered by fate and destiny and the will of the gods. Now, sadly. Aeneas returns to the mound where his father and son are waiting and is amazed at the sheer number of other survivors who have gathered there. From now on he is to be their leader.

[Maybe worth pointing out the number of ghostly and visionary appearances: Dido’s husband’s ghost appears to her; Hector’s ghost appears to Aeneas; Creusa’s spirit appears to him. Although ostensibly about fighting there is a good deal of this otherworldly, visionary, shimmering quality about much of the story.]

Book 3 The wanderings

Aeneas is still talking, recounting his adventures to Dido and her court. He describes how the survivors built a settlement not far from ruined Troy, in the lee of the Ida mountains and built ships. Then set sail. This is described very briefly, in successive sentences. The lack of detail is very characteristic of Virgil. Unlike the hard-edged detailing of Homer, Virgil’s habit of skipping over details (for example, not telling us the outcome of the battle over Cassandra) creates a kind of shimmering, dreamy quality to the poem.

They sail to Thrace and begin to lay out foundations for a city but when Aeneas pulls up trees to decorate the altar he’s going to sacrifice on, he is horrified when they and spurt blood. Then terrified when a voice speaks and declares himself to be the spirit of Polydorus, sent by Priam to Thrace with a treasure, to be raised there, far from war-torn Troy. Now he tells Aeneas he was murdered by the king of Thrace who simply stole the gold.

Aeneas tells Anchises who responds that this is no place to stay. So they rebury the body of Polydorus with full rites, and set sail, letting the gods decide their final destination. They sail onto the island of Delos, dock in the harbour of Ortygia, and are greeted by King Anius.

Aeneas prays at the temple of Apollo, asking what he should do. A booming voice replies he must seek out the land of his ‘ancient mother’. Father Anchises interprets this to mean Crete, where the founder of Troy, Teucer, first came from.

So they sail and row from Delos via Naxos, Donusa, Olearos, Paros, through the Cyclades to Crete, where they land and begin to build a settlement Aeneas calls Pergamea. Things are just beginning to thrive when the settlement is struck down by a great plague and the crops wither in the fields.

One night the household gods are bathed in sunlight and speak to him, telling him again the prophecy that he will sail the seas, come to a peaceful land, and found a race who rule the world. The Greeks call the land Hesperia but it has been settled by the Oenetrians who have called it Italy after their god, Italus.

When he tells Father Anchises the latter remembers that Troy had two founders. One was Teucer from Crete but the other was Dardanus from Hesperia. They misinterpreted the message from Apollo and mistakenly came to Crete. So now they pack ship and set sail for Hesperia/Italy.

For three days and nights a black storm descends, blotting out the sky. Then it lifts and they sail into the harbour of the Strophades. They see fat cattle and goats and storm ashore, kill some and are feasting when they are attacked by the foul harpies, birds with the faces of girls, bellies oozing filth, talons like birds, which tear the food from their hands.

The harpies’ leader, Celaeno, perches on a pinnacle of rock and announces a prophecy which Jupiter gave Apollo, and Apollo gave her, and she is now giving the Trojans. They will settle a new land but not until they have passed through a famine which makes them gnaw their tables. (The prophesy is fulfilled at 7.116 to 130.)

So the Trojans abandon the feast and the land, take ship and scud over the waves to the island of Leucas. Here they performed rites of purification and then held games. They stayed here till mid-winter, when Aeneas pinned a shield taken from a Greek on the temple doors and they set sail again.

They dock at Chaonia and walk up to the city of Buthrotum. Here they are astounded to come across Andromache, wife of the great hero Hector, making ritual sacrifices for her dead husband. She tells them that she survived the sack of Troy and was taken as wife by Pyrrhus to whom she bore a child. But Pyrrhus dumped her on fellow slave Helenus (one of the sons of Priam) in order to marry Hermione. But Orestes loved Hermione and so murdered Pyrrhus. At his death some of Pyrrhus’s land descended to Helenus. He built a settlement there, a new Pergamum, and here Andromache lives.

At which point Helenus arrives and, amid much weeping by everyone, escorts them to his city which is a miniature copy of Troy in all aspects. They stay for some time. Eventually Aeneas asks the priest Helenus to answer his questions: should he set sail, will he come to the promised land?

So Helenus sacrifices some bullocks and then gives Aeneas the latest in the line of prophecies, first of all warning it won’t be a short voyage, but a long one fraught with adventures. He will recognise the place to build his city because he will find a sow suckling 30 piglets. He must make it a priority to worship Juno and try to win her over. He must make time to visit the prophetess at Cumae. He must avoid sailing through the straits of Messina, which are terrorised by Scylla and Charybdis.

Helenus gives them gifts of gold and ivory and silver, and blesses them as they set sail. They sight Italy and sail into harbour. They sail on past Tarentum in the instep of Italy. They sail past the gulf of Scylla and Charybdis and make shore in the land of the Cyclopes, a peaceful harbour but in the shadow of the fearsome Mount Etna who belching black smoke darkens the sky.

Next morning they are surprised to see a wretched filthy man in rags come running towards them. He announces he is Achaemenides, one of Ulixe’s crew. He describes how they were captured by the Cyclops which ate some of their comrades, drank and fell asleep and how, in the night, they conspired to blind him. But they sailed and left him behind. He has just about survived for three months, since then. But he warns them to flee.

At that moment they see blinded Polyphemus appear with his flocks on the side of the mountain and run down to their ships and set sail, rowing for all they’re worth. Polyphemus hears them and lets out a road which shakes the earth and brings all the other cyclops to the shore to rage at them, but they are clear of harm.

They sail down the east coast of Sicily past Syracuse. Then along the south coast, ticking off all the settlements and sights till they come to Lilybaeum. They put in at Drepanum but here Aeneas ‘lost’ his father Anchises. There is, as so often with Virgil, no detail, no explanation, just a focus on Aeneas’s loss and sadness.

When they set sail from there to head north and east to the Italian coast the great storm described at the start of book 1 was stirred up and so they were blown to the African shore which the Tyrians are settling. And with that, Aeneas’s recital of his story comes to an end.

Epicurean rest

It is noticeable that Virgil/West phrase the very end of Aeneas’s recital with ‘Here he made an end and was at peace.’ When I read Virgil’s Georgics I was struck by how much he told us he was struggling to complete the poem. He had to ask his patron, Maecenas, for help and support, he kept telling himself ‘onwards and upwards!’, he wrote with relief about reaching the end of each of the four books. Then the very opening of book 4 describes how Dido fell in love and ‘love gave her body no rest or peace‘.

It was only when I read the Georgics that I became aware for the first time of Virgil’s adherence to the teachings of Epicurus. In the blurb to the Penguin edition, I learn that Virgil lived most of his adult life in an Epicurean colony near Naples.

Epicurus’s teachings are above all designed to cultivate freedom from stress and anxiety in his followers. Peace of mind and spirit. So these references in the Aeneid to peace of spirit, or lack of it, acquired, for me, two deeper resonances. On one level, Virgil uses the word ‘peace’ to mean an end to the gruelling torment of writing this long, demanding poem, which comes over as being a huge ordeal for him. But the word also means far more than it does to you or me – for the Epicurean Virgil, ‘peace’ represents the nirvana, the blessed state sought for by his philosophy. When he says his characters achieve ‘peace’ or, conversely, are deprived of ‘peace’, it isn’t in the casual way that you or I might use the word, but has this much deeper resonance, referring to a philosophically idealised state of complete detachment from all sources of strife or worry.

Looked at this way, the entire poem represents a kind of vast detour from man’s ideal condition of rest or stasis, into a world of strife and anxiety. It helps to explain Virgil’s sad and doleful tone, lamenting the endless destiny of man to be troubled – by duties, responsibilities, the need to work, to eat, to love, to be a social animal – all of it endlessly distracting from his best, optimum state of complete Buddhist detachment. Hence Virgil’s insistent tone of lamentation over humanity in general, continually remarking on the sadness of their poor mortal existence.

It was the time when sleep, the most grateful gift of the gods, was first beginning to creep over suffering mortals… (2.270)

I guess there’s a third interpretation which is literally to do with rest after physical labour. This harks back to the many images in the Georgics of the sheer amount of physical labour involved in human existence. How many times in that long book did weary shepherds, farmers, goatherds, horticulturalists and livestock herders and outdoor workers greet the end of the day, the westering of the sun, as a welcome sign of the end of their day’s labours. Well, that tone is repeated again and again in the Aeneid. Night and, with it, sleep, represent welcome oblivion for animals and humans exhausted by their labours.

It was night and weary living things were peacefully taking their rest upon the earth. (4.522)

It was night and over the whole earth the weary animals, all manner of birds and all manner of flocks, were already deep in sleep.. (8.28)

Over the whole world the creatures of the earth were relaxed in sleep, all resting from their cares, and their hearts had forgotten their labours… (9.226)

Contrasting with the mellifluous descriptions of restful sleep are the hard descriptions of the scenes of fighting and the days of war (especially in the harsh, second half of the Aeneid, which I’ll be discussing in a later blog post).

Bitter grief was everywhere. Everywhere there was fear and death in many forms. (2.369)

Aurora meanwhile had lifted up her life-giving light for miserable mortals, bringing back their toil and sufferings. (11.184)

As an English poet wrote, 1,600 years later:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.


Roman reviews

The Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh

Waugh was a professional writer from the year he published his first short story in 1926 till his death in 1966. During that period he published some 26 short stories. There are several editions of his collected short stories, notable the Everyman one and the Penguin one. I read the Penguin one but the Everyman edition (which includes a few more stories than the Penguin) is the one that’s available online.

What all the editions tend to highlight is that Evelyn Waugh did not, in fact, write many short stories. All the editions include the juvenilia written at school, and the half dozen stories written at Oxford, to bulk up the books. And for real aficionados and completists it’s good to have everything in one volume like this. But the fact remains that in a writing career of 40 years he only published 26 short stories.

Spin-offs from novels or no short stories at all

Not only that, but when you look more closely, you realise that a number of the stories are offcuts of the novels and so closely linked as to be barely standalone narratives.

Thus ‘Incident in Azania’ is set in the fictional country created for the novel Black Mischief and feels very much like an anecdote which could have been included in that novel but was cut as surplus to requirements. ‘Cruise’ is a short squib, a lampoon consisting entirely of postcards written by a gushing, silly, posh young lady on a cruise round the Med, an idea recycled from one of his travel books. ‘Charles Ryder’s Schooldays’ is quite obviously a spin-off from Brideshead Revisited and ‘Basil Seal Rides Again’ is a final flurry for the character at the centre of Black Mischief and Put Out More Flags.

So four of the 26 are direct spin-offs from novels.

More than that, three of the stories are actual extracts from the novels: ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ is an early version of the final chapters of A Handful of Dust and ‘By Special Request’ is not a standalone story at all, but the original ending of A Handful of Dust as it first appeared when the novel was serialised in Harper’s Bazaar. ‘Compassion’ was recycled in its entirety into the end section of Unconditional Surrender.

So seven of his adult short stories aren’t really standalone narratives but either rely on the novels they derive from or are actual excerpts from them. Leaving 19.

Two of these 19 aren’t really short stories at all. The post-war narratives ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’ and ‘Love Among The Ruins’ are far longer than your normal short story, certainly than the other stories included here, and so are generally categorised as novellas. Leaving 17.

And lastly, by far the longest item in the collection, at around 80 pages, is ‘Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel’ which, as the title suggests, is not and was never intended to be a short story, but the first sections of an abandoned novel.

Leaving only about 16 short stories gleaned from a career which lasted nearly 40 years.

Commissions

Finally, the notes in the Penguin edition reveal one more fact about the ‘short stories’, which is that quite a few of them were commissions, not written off his own bat. Now there’s nothing wrong with a story being commissioned – both Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four were commissioned over the same historic dinner (30 August 1889) with the magazine editor, J. M. Stoddart. However, all of Waugh’s commissioned stories only make sense, or make a lot more sense, when you learn they were commissioned as part of series on a set theme:

Thus:

  • ‘A House of Gentlefolks’ was commissioned for a series titled The New Decameron
  • ‘The Kremlin’ was commissioned for a series titled Real Life Stories by Famous Authors (which explains its opening sentence: ‘ This story was told me in Paris very early in the morning by the manager of a famous night club, and I am fairly certain that it is true.’).
  • ‘Too much tolerance’ was commissioned for a series titled The Seven Deadly Sins of Today and only really makes sense in that context
  • and ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’ was written for the Tight Corner series in the Daily Mail, ditto

The short story not Waugh’s metier

So the conclusion I draw from this little statistical analysis is that Waugh was very much not a short story writer, certainly not in the manner of Saki or Somerset Maugham or Kipling or J.G. Ballard, writers who produced a tremendous output of short stories but, more importantly, who suited the short story format. All four of those authors, in their different ways, knew just how to manage their material into artefacts which create maximum artistic and psychological impact and a range of effects. Waugh not so much.

In fact I’m afraid to say I found a lot of Waugh’s stories disappointing. A few I didn’t even understand, I didn’t see the point of them.

In a novel like Vile Bodies Waugh took scores of anecdotes about the shallow, heartless behaviour of his upper class Bright Young Things and combined them in such a way as to produce a kind of group portrait which was much larger than the sum of its parts. But broken down into short, isolated texts, most of these anecdotes feel much weaker, and sometimes pretty lame.

For me the stories’ value was analytical, they gave me a greater understanding of what you could call the ‘mosaic technique’ of Waugh’s novels, what I’ve referred to as the importance of gossip, not only as subject matter of the novels but as a key element of his technique. The way the central events of the novels are always commentated on by the shoals of secondary characters which fill his novels, gossiping at parties and restaurants and balls and dinners, mingling catty comments about the central events of the novel’s narrative with deliberately throwaway mentions of the trials and tribulations of other, unrelated people to give a powerful sense of their ultimate irrelevance; or the way all stories, and all lives in the modern world are swamped and trivialised by the sheer number of people and tragedies and stories we’re meant to pay attention to.

This technique has multiple benefits: from the point of view of literary realism, it helps create the illusion of the throng, of the crowdedness of London High Society, where everyone knows everyone else, goes to each other’s parties and dinners, where everyone spends a lot of time energetically gossiping about each other’s ups and downs and affairs.

Seen in terms of technique it has at least two benefits: it allows Waugh to skip or cut briskly between scenes with great dramatic effect, just as films can cut from one scene to another in a split second. This encourages or suits Waugh’s tendency to be concise and clipped, so that some of his best scenes are only half a page long before they cut away to something completely different. Technique and style are perfectly combined.

(Waugh’s debt to cinema technique becomes overt in some of these texts, not least in ‘Excursion in Reality’ which is a Vile Bodies-era satire about a hapless young writer who gets caught up in the 24/7 crazy world of film production; and the very first text in the collection is a kind of commented-on version of the screenplay of a black-and-white, silent movie.)

Waugh’s understated debt to Modernism

The second benefit of Waugh’s ‘mosaic technique’ is the way this approach subtly incorporates some of the best features of the previous generation’s Modernism. Modernism refers to a movement in literature during and after the Great War which sought to depict the hectic, frantic, fragmented, fractured experience of living in big cities in styles or narrative structures which reflected psychic collapse and disintegration. Thus the disintegration of a highly sensitive mind portrayed in T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the extreme fragmentation of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the collapse of a unified narrative and then of the English language itself in James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the collapse of the patriarchal Victorian tone of voice into the swirling stream of consciousness of Virginia Woolf’s novels.

Waugh swallowed Modernism whole, experimented with it, and then adapted it for his own purposes, keeping only what he needed. The very first story in the collection, ‘The Balance’, published in 1926, is the best example (described below) in the way it is broken up into short snippets headed by the captions of the silent movie it describes. This immediately recalls the clever use of newspaper headlines in the ‘Aeolus’ chapter of Ulysses and anticipates the blizzard of newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, popular songs and so on which litter the classic example of German high Modernism, Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, published a few years later in 1929.

My point is that this technique of fragments, of consciously breaking up the text of a narrative into a mosaic of short clipped scenes, of cutting away from the main protagonists of an event to a group of their friends heartlessly laughing about their fates, a technique exemplified in Vile Bodies but which appears, with greater or lesser frequency throughout all his fiction, this was Waugh’s version of Modernist fragmentation and alienation.

Waugh and mental breakdown

And although Waugh has the (deserved) reputation of being a great comic writer, actually rereading the novels as I’ve been doing, it has been a shock to realise just how much misery, suffering and pain they include.

There are scores of examples but, focusing literally on mental breakdown, I think of the devastating impact on Tony and Brenda Last of the tragic death of their son in A Handful of Dust. Take the scene where they return from their son’s inquest to big, empty Hetton Hall and Brenda barely makes it into the entrance hall before sitting down in a decorative chair which nobody usually sits on, sitting there and looking around her in a daze. Or immediately after Tony gets news of his son’s death and trembles on the brink of going to pieces, is only saved by the compassion of ‘the Shameless Blonde’, the sturdy American woman aviator who stays with him and forces him to play cards all afternoon. A scene of tremendous psychological power.

Or take Vile Bodies which is all very hilarious up till the racing car crash which precipitates the concussion and nervous collapse and eventual death of the bright, confident heroine Agatha Runcible.

A key strand in the similarly polyphonic novel Put Out More Flags is the psychological decline of Angela Lyne, up to that point a confident, dominating presence in London High Society, whom the advent of war reduces to an alcoholic wreck, hiding out in her serviced apartment, drinking all day in dark glasses with the curtains closed.

A central thread in Brideshead Revisited is the agonising decline of the bright and beautiful young undergraduate Sebastian Flyte into a shambling, poverty-stricken, feverish wreck in the slums of Tunis.

And then, of course, Waugh wrote an entire novel dramatising his own mental breakdown, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold in 1957.

So for a writer who’s (correctly) associated with the reactionary views of England’s moneyed upper classes and (correctly) famous for his high-spirited comedy, it’s worth repeating that Waugh also wrote throughout his career about extreme tragedy, psychological trauma and mental collapse, and did so using his own version of the polyphonic, mosaic narrative technique – both a subject matter and a technique more usually associated with the avant-garde.

Anyway, to return to the short stories, my point is simply that if most of them had been included in one of his novels, they would have made one more hilarious scene amid the general mayhem of the polyphonic, multi-stranded plots and contributed to the complex artistic and psychological impact of the novels. But given here, as standalone short stories, as just one bald anecdote, a surprising number of them come over as lame and flat.

Which is why I wouldn’t really recommend these short stories to anyone. I’d recommend reading pretty much all the novels first, before you bother with them.

Pre and post-war

One last point. The stories can also be divided in chronological order into those written before the Second World War and those written after. At a glance you can see that he was far more prolific in short stories before (21) than after (5). (For the period of the war itself he was either serving in the Army or, from December 1943 to June 1944, entirely busy writing his magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited.)

If we count Scott-King’s Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins as novellas, then he can only be said to have written three short stories between 1945 and 1966, confirming my feeling that the short story was emphatically not his genre. That said, all three post-war short stories are good.

Short stories 1. Pre-war

1. The Balance (1926)

Born in 1903, Waugh was only 22 when he wrote this, by far his most experimental and avant-garde text.

In the cinema

Very much in the style of Vile Bodies, this fairly long text uses a number of highly experimental narrative techniques. Most of it, the long first part, consists of scenes from an imagined film. It opens with a cook and a house parlour maid (Gladys and Ada) making their way to their seats in a cinema and then making cheerily working class comments on the action of the movie they’re watching. Somewhere behind them (in the more expensive seats) sits a Cambridge student who drawls knowing intellectual comments (pointing out the debt to European Expressionism of some of the shots, explaining what steak tartare is). And the text is punctuated by the captions in CAPITAL LETTERS which are appearing onscreen, as this is a black-and-white, silent film.

Thus the text consists of: capitalised captions, interspersed with the narrator’s description of what is happening onscreen, interspersed with the working class comments of the two servants given in italics, and the occasional sardonic comment from Mr Cambridge.

The ‘story’ is made up of clichés and stereotypes, which allows his working class women to spot in advance what’s going to happen, the Cambridge man to make superior comments, and Waugh to mock all of them.

Adam is at art school. He loves Imogen. Imogen’s mummy tells her she must stop seeing him. They share a cab to Euston where she catches a train to the country. Ada, catches cab to home near Regent’s Park, goes up to room, melodramatically considers suicide by pills, imagines the vulgarity of family breaking down door, calling police, thinks again. Scoops up his best books and takes them to a luxury second-hand bookseller, the fussing about first editions suddenly reminding me of The Picture of Dorian Gray. He gets a tenner for his books, then a cab to Paddington and train to Oxford and goes to see, one by one, his incredibly posh undergraduate friends. Old Etonians, the Bullingdon Club, chaps who hunt, who paint, who drink very heavily.

The window blind has become stuck halfway up the window so that by day they are shrouded in a twilight as though of the Nether world, and by night Ernest’s light blazes across the quad, revealing interiors of unsurpassed debauchery.

Yes, Dorian Gray. Waugh is channeling Wilde turned into a 1920s silent movie. And deliberately elitist or excluding references to aspects of Oxford life. Eights week. Commem. The Bullingdon. The Canning. All the posh young men he tries are busy till he resorts to visiting the rooms of Ernest Vaughan.

They go for dinner at a local pub, get plastered, go on to some rough proletarian pubs, play darts, get into loud arguments, get kicked out, catch a cab back to the colleges, gatecrash a party, pour drinks on the carpet, nearly get into another fight till Ernest walks dignifiedly out into the quad, throws up and passes out.

Cut to the next evening when the pair gatecrash a Liberal Association party at Oxford town hall. Having irritated the guests and got blind drunk they walk outside where Ernest steals a car, drives it haphazardly down St Aldate’s before mounting then kerb and crashing into a shop window. Police close in and arrest him. Adam walks very depressed back to his hotel room. He uncaps the bottle of poison and drinks the contents down in one.

End of film. Glady and Ada and the smart Cambridge graduate and a hundred others exit the film, all chatting about it, the two women to make their way back to their shared rooms in Earls Court where they’ll carry on discussing it over cups of cocoa.

Adam outside the film

At which point the text cuts and changes to a series of three sections of parts. Part one finds Adam in the hotel bedroom piecing together the fragments of the last 24 drunken hours and then remembering standing by the bedroom window in a storm of nausea before throwing up through it into the courtyard, presumably evacuating the poison from his system.

A boyhood memory

In the short part two he has a vivid memory of being a 7-year-old boy and playing a game with the family cat, Ozymandias, which consisted of locking it and himself in his bedroom then chasing it round the room terrorising it at every stop; only then did the real game begin, which was the challenge of trying to coax it back to a state of relaxed affection. And the particular memory which floats into his head as he lies on the bed recovering from his failed suicide attempt, is of the time that Ozymandias escaped to the top of the wardrobe, so the 7-year-old Adam pulled his table over to the wardrobe and put a chair on top of the table and climbed up on both and reached out for the cat and… the whole lot collapsed to the floor and he fell and knocked himself out. Vivid as yesterday he remembers the sensation of slowly ‘regaining consciousness’ and piecing together like a jigsaw the scattered flowing bodily sensations till he had attached particular pains to particular parts of the body and his ego was once again in control.

This early experience of psychological fragmentation, flotation and reassembly recurs at moments of drunkenness, as now. Now he gets up and has breakfast in the hotel still in a hallucinatory state:

He had breakfasted in a world of phantoms, in a great room full of uncomprehending eyes, protruding grotesquely from monstrous heads that lolled over steaming porridge; marionette waiters had pirouetted about him with uncouth gestures. All round him a macabre dance of shadows had reeled and flickered, and in and out of it Adam had picked his way, conscious only of one insistent need, percolating through to him from the world outside, of immediate escape from the scene upon which the bodiless harlequinade was played, into a third dimension beyond it.

Adam talks to his reflection

Adam walks out of Oxford along the towpath. He had written a letter to Imogen begging her to come back. He crosses a bridge over the canal and looks at a swan sailing by whose reflection is broken and fragmented. He tears up the letter and chucks the fragments into the river, then has a brief conversation with himself. He supposes tearing up the letter means he is over Imogen, and the fact that he’s here at all means he’s resolved to go on living. Was there no moral influence on his decision to live, no wish not to burden his loved ones, no profound insight into the meaning of life? No. Simply a rest, a sleep, a change of scenery. Ultimately, those are the small measures which make all the difference. No intrinsic motives from the soul. Just as random as…circumstance.

A shift of perspective

And then in its last two pages the text does what I mentioned so many of them doing: it switches perspective altogether to create a deliberate alienation effect. Suddenly we are at a country house named Thatch and Mrs Hay has invited her undergraduate son Basil and one friend for luncheon but a whole carload has turned up, gossiping and smoking all the time.

The point being, they are all telling each other about the other night when horrible Adam gatecrashed lovely Gabriel’s party with some ghastly man named Vaughan who was offensive to everyone then threw up. Here, right at the start of his career, we find Waugh using a technique which will serve him again and again, which is spending a lot of time on a close account of the incidents and thoughts of one or two protagonists; and then suddenly cutting far away to hear the same events being retold as throwaway gossip by people who don’t give a damn about the characters we’ve just been following and have invested so much time and trouble in.

It’s a very simple technique but very modernist in feeling, pulling the rug from under our feet, suddenly making us realise how silly and trivial the little trials and tribulations we’ve been following are in the great scale of things. Making the entire fictional edifice in which we had been investing time and emotion seem infinitely fragile and inconsequential.

Short conclusion

Arguably, and certainly to someone like myself, soaked in early twentieth century modernism, this is the most interesting of all the stories in the book. It clearly foregrounds three things: one, the very self-conscious modernist technique which Waugh studied, copied and assimilated; two, the interest in altered and extreme psychological states, reflected not only in Adam’s drunkenness but the much more interesting and vivid descriptions of regaining consciousness after his concussion as a small boy; three, the determinedly, almost offensively, upper class nature of the settings and characters – Mayfair, Lord and Lady this, Old Etonians at Oxford etc.

Of course it was this latter strand, the supremely upper class settings and characters, which were to characterise the rest of his writings. But this, Waugh’s first published short story, makes abundantly clear the surprisingly experimental nature of his early literary taste.

And also shows how an interest in morbid or damaged psychology was not just a personal thing, but has its roots in the fin-de-siecle obsession with decadence, its hyper-Gothic interest in altered states and very deeply troubled psyches, epitomised by Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray which leaves stray echoes in some of the self-consciously aesthetic moments this text – but reborn thirty years later in the era of Freudian psycho-analysis, jazz nightclubs and cocktail bars.

For these reasons I found it by far the most interesting, and intellectually stimulating, story in the collection.

A House of Gentlefolks (1927)

Only a year later and Waugh has swallowed, assimilated and concealed his learnings from Modernism (although there is a surprising reference to the famous Modernist author, Gertrude Stein, on the second page).

This is a first-person narrative which, in style at least, is thumpingly traditional, telling a simple narrative in chronological order with no fancy tricks. The narrator arrives by train at a rural station, it is raining, catches a taxi to Stayle, a grand country house surrounded by a wall, entry via umpteen gates, seat of the Duke of Vanburgh.

The narrator tells us his name is Ernest Vaughan, same name as the drunk in the previous story and, as he tells us he was sent down from Oxford for bad behaviour, it is presumably an early example of Waugh’s career-long habit of populating his fictions with recurring characters.

Anyway, sent down from Oxford, Ernest is at a loose end when his godmother tells him the Duke of Stayle is looking for a tutor to take his 18-year-old grandson and heir to the earldom on a tour round Europe. The only snag is the boy is mad. They now introduce him to the young fellow, actual name George, who has, it must be said, odd manners. Ernest feels sorry for him, as he only attended school for a term and is obviously ill at ease with strangers. He decides to take the job on.

Within a few hours they’re on the train to London, Ernest with a check for £150 in his pocket, where they check into a hotel and Ernest takes George on a tour of London’s attractions, revues, nightclubs and parties with his super-posh friends. Plus the very best tailors to get formal suits and travelling clothes made up. Over the next few days Ernest watches George blossom, learning about food, restaurants, fine wine, and party etiquette before his very eyes.

At one point they have a candid conversation in which he suggests that he isn’t mad at all; maybe it’s his grandfather and his great-aunts (who Ernest met in the first scene) who are the eccentrics, and this certainly seems likely to Ernest and to the reader.

Then it all grinds to a halt. In an ending almost as crass as saying ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’, Ernest gets a letter from old Lord Stayle saying the family’s thought better of the experiment and are cancelling the trip. George is to come home straight away. A lawyer arrives to cancel all obligations and take him off. George’s parting words are that in 3 years time he’ll come of age and be able to do what he wants.

In a way the most telling moment comes in the final sentence:

Five minutes later Julia rang up to ask us to luncheon.

This has the brisk brevity of Vile Bodies, powerfully conveying the sense that, oh well, that adventure’s over, he’s mad, she’s dead, they’ve gotten divorced, Harry’s married Margot, he died in the war, she’s pregnant, whatever – conveying the dizzy speed of the high society social life Waugh dedicated himself to.

The Manager of ‘The Kremlin’ (1927)

The unnamed narrator likes going to a restaurant in Paris. One night he stays late and the manager, Boris, tells him his story. He was a student when the revolution joined out and joined a white army fighting the Bolsheviks. It was a motley crew which included various foreign nationals including a Frenchman. Boris helped save this man’s life by lending him his Russian uniform when they travelled through the most backward parts of Asiatic Russia. They were forced to flee east. Once in Japanese territory they shake hands and part. Boris took ship to America where he hoped to join his mother who had fled there early in the revolution. He does not thrive and after a couple of years takes ship to France, travelling to Paris where he hears there is a large diaspora. Here he really runs out of money and is down to his last 200 francs. In a very Russian gesture, he decides to blow it on one last luxury meal. As chance would have it the Frenchman he saved those years ago is dining at the next table. He accosts his old colleague and asks him how he’s doing. Boris explains he’s skint. The Frenchman runs a motor car company and toys with offering him a job but reflects that a man who could blow his last francs on an exquisite French meal is really cut out for the restaurant business. And so he loans Boris the money to start a restaurant and Boris employs some Russians he knows and now he is rich. Which is the story he tells the narrator in the early hours, as the ‘Kremlin’ restaurant closes up.

Love in the Slump (1932)

Big gap between the previous story published in 1927 and this one in 1932. During that time Waugh published his biography of Rossetti, Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), travelled to Abyssinia and produced Remote People (1931).

Originally titled ‘The Patriotic Honeymoon’, this is broad farce. An eligible if unremarkable young couple get married, decide to spend a patriotic honeymoon in England then experience a series of farcical mishaps. The portrait of the young wife is obviously a lampoon but nonetheless interesting social history about just what subjects were lampooned back then – portrait of a frustrated singleton c.1932:

Angela was twenty-five, pretty, good-natured, lively, intelligent and popular—just the sort of girl, in fact, who, for some mysterious cause deep-rooted in Anglo-Saxon psychology, finds it most difficult to get satisfactorily married. During the last seven years she had done everything which it is customary for girls of her sort to do. In London she had danced on an average four evenings a week, for the first three years at private houses, for the last four at restaurants and night clubs; in the country she had been slightly patronising to the neighbours and had taken parties to the hunt ball which she hoped would shock them; she had worked in a slum and a hat shop, had published a novel, been bridesmaid eleven times and godmother once; been in love, unsuitably, twice; had sold her photograph for fifty guineas to the advertising department of a firm of beauty specialists; had got into trouble when her name was mentioned in gossip columns; had acted in five or six charity matinées and two pageants, had canvassed for the Conservative candidate at two General Elections, and, like every girl in the British Isles, was unhappy at home.

It’s interesting that what spurs Angela on to take the initiative and propose to bland, boring, safe, accountant Tom Watch is that he father has announced he has to make economies and will probably be closing the London house in order to retrench to his place in the country, sack a few of the servants, live a simpler life. Angela doesn’t want to live a simple life. So she combines her £200 a year with Tom’s £800 a year which they reckon they’ll be able to live on, just about, though not being able to have a child.

It rains on the wedding. They catch a train to Aunt Martha’s house in Devon. At some remote rural stop Tom gets out to check if they need to change and is buttonholed by an old school acquaintance who insists on buying him a drink then another at the station bar. When they come out on the platform the train’s gone, along with his baggage and bride!

He reluctantly accepts the old school chum’s back to his place and stay over. They drink a lot. He wakes up to discover his host is going hunting. Against his better nature he dons a hunting outfit, is loaned a mare, and has a good day’s run till he’s thrown and the mare trots off. He makes his way across country to an inn, the Royal George Hotel Chagford, where he’s taken in and given a bed for the night. Next morning he discovers the stop for his aunt’s place is no fewer than three changes from his present location so he sets off on slow local stopping trains not arriving at the station till late at night. He has travelled all day in wet clothes. No car is available. He decides to stay the night in the station inn.

Next morning Tom wakes hoarse and feverish. A taxi takes him to Aunt Martha’s where he discovers that… his beloved fiancée has left, having received a telegram from his first host saying Tom had met with an accident, she has travelled to his (the first host)’s house. Tom is too coldy to do anything and goes to bed. Next day, the sixth of the honeymoon, he begins to feel it’s not working our quite as he expected. His aunt’s maid suggests the host’s name will be inside the jacket he lent Tom and so there’s a brief exchange of telegrams with Angela a) saying she’s having a lovely time and b) no point meeting up now, wait till they meet up back in London. Which they do the next day.

And, as so often, the story cuts away from the main protagonists so that we learn from a conversation between Angela’s parents that she’s been given access to a lovely cottage in Devon, quite near the estate of the chap she stayed with. Won’t that lovely? The implication is that, after less than a week of honeymoon, Angela has found someone richer and more exciting than Tom to have an affair with.

Too Much Tolerance (1932)

The narrator is stopping between ships at a stifling little port on the Red Sea. It’s important to know that this ‘story’ was commissioned for a series about the Seven Deadly Sins and as such is a lampoon on the idea of tolerance, too much tolerance. It’s a simple idea. The narrator falls in with the only other European in his hotel, an amiable round-faced moustachioed commercial agent and this man displays the virtue of tolerance to excess. He likes all the races and creeds he meets.

In a gesture towards psychology Waugh explains that he had been brought up by elderly parents, retired from India, who held very fixed beliefs about etiquette and social distinctions. So as a young man he set out to consciously rebel against all that, to be open, and tolerant and accepting.

Slowly the narrator learns how this attitude has led to the man being hopelessly abused and reduced in life. Out of kindness he took a fellow into partnership in the business he’d set up with the legacy from his parents, but while he was serving in the Great War the fellow ran it into bankruptcy. Strange thing, though, almost immediately afterwards, his partner set up a new concern and is now a rich man.

In a similar vein, he reveals he has a 27-year-old son who’s never had a job, wants to be something in the theatre, gads around London with well-off friends. So our chap sends him as much money as he can to support him.

Lastly, he has a wife, or had a wife. His father had strict moral principles about who could and couldn’t be introduced at home, but he thought that was all rubbish and encouraged his wife to have her own friends and go out and about on her own. She liked dancing, he didn’t, she went to dance lessons and then dance clubs and then left him for a chap who was good at dancing and had a bit of a fast reputation.

So here he is. Reduced to ‘selling sewing machines on commission to Indian storekeepers up and down the East African coast’, a victim of his own niceness and credulousness:

a jaunty, tragic little figure, cheated out of his patrimony by his partner, battened on by an obviously worthless son, deserted by his wife, an irrepressible, bewildered figure striding off under his bobbing topee, cheerfully butting his way into a whole continent of rapacious and ruthless jolly good fellows.

Excursion in Reality (1932)

Struggling young novelist Simon Lent, living in a pokey mews flat and managing a relationship with demanding Sylvia, is hired out of the blue by British movie mogul Sir James MacRea. He is collected from his mews flat and plunged into a mad whirligig of meetings, missed appointments, canteen breaks, tours round film studios and sets, a whirlwind affair with Macrae’s secretary, Miss Grits, all based on the nonsensical notion that he should write an updated version of Hamlet, with modern dialogue, with a bit of Macbeth thrown in. Lent demurs. Sir James steamrollers over him:

“Ah, you don’t see my angle. There have been plenty of productions of Shakespeare in modern dress. We are going to produce him in modern speech. How can you expect the public to enjoy Shakespeare when they can’t make head or tail of the dialogue. D’you know I began reading a copy the other day and blessed if I could understand it. At once I said, ‘What the public wants is Shakespeare with all his beauty of thought and character translated into the language of everyday life.’”

For three weeks Lent throws himself into the ridiculous project, working hand in glove with Miss Grits and summoned to meetings at any hour of day or night. And then, as suddenly as he was summoned Lent is dropped by the director and studio, his contract terminated, and returns to the calm life of a struggling novelist, living in a tiny mews flat and having long moody dinners with Sylvia again.

Incident in Azania (1933)

Azania is the name of the fictional African country Waugh invented as the setting for his fourth novel, Black Mischief, loosely based on Zanzibar which he had visited on his 1930 trip to East Africa, recorded in Remote People.

The story is so inconsequential, I wondered if I’d read it right. Into the small colonial society of Matodi, port city of Azania, arrives the strapping blonde Prunella Brookes, attractive feisty daughter of the local oil company agent. Since there are only eight Englishwomen in the entire town, including a 2-year-old and all the rest married, her arrival inevitably causes a stir and soon there is gossip about which of the most eligible bachelors she is likely to date.

Then she disappears, then ransom letters arrive at the club. She has been kidnapped by bandits, led by the notorious Joab! They want £10,000 for her safe return.

The story is picked up by the wider press and a strapping Australian journalist flies in, a reporter for the Daily Excess. In a repetition of the satire on the press which featured in Black Mischief and was to form the central theme of Scoop, this chap writes a series of sensational and utterly invented descriptions of the bandits and their squalid caves and their fearsome leader.

Finally, he collects the ransom money, takes a jeep and the local Armenian businessman and all-round fixed Mr. Youkoumian up in the hills determined to find and confront this Joab, hand over the ransom and free the lovely young virgin. Instead, in a tremendous anti-climax, they encounter Miss Brooks stumbling down the track towards them, apparently freed and unharmed. With complete illogicality, instead of turning and heading back to town, Prunella insists they are surrounded by Joab’s snipers and so Youkoumian had better take the car and ransom and drive further up the hill to the bandit camp.

During the wait Prunella gives the ardent journalist a detailed and obviously completely fictional account of her stay among the bandits. Then Youkoumian returns, Prunella declares the snipers have all withdrawn, they get in the car and return to Matodi.

Much fuss and bother about her, the memsahibs clucking like hens, the chaps congratulating themselves on job well done, the journalist files his last triumphant story and departs, and a couple of months later Prunella quietly sails back to Blighty.

Only slowly does it dawn on some of the senior members of the ex-pat community that they have been diddled. There’s no proof and it isn’t explicitly stated, but the implication is that the entire ‘kidnapping’ was a con set up by Prunella with Mr Youkoumian, who split the £10,000 ransom between themselves.

Bella Fleace Gave a Party (1933)

Miss Annabel Rochfort-Doyle-Fleace or Bella Fleace as she is known to the entire countryside, is a very old lady, ‘over 80’ (p.103), who lives alone in a grand house which somehow survived the upheavals surrounding Irish independence, in a place called Ballingar.

One colourless morning in November she decides to give a Christmas party in the old style. The preparations are elaborate and described in length, along with pen portraits of the house’s staff (butler Riley), the caterers and so on.

The preparations were necessarily stupendous. Seven new servants were recruited in the village and set to work dusting and cleaning and polishing, clearing out furniture and pulling up carpets. Their industry served only to reveal fresh requirements; plaster mouldings, long rotten, crumbled under the feather brooms, worm-eaten mahogany floorboards came up with the tin tacks; bare brick was disclosed behind the cabinets in the great drawing room. A second wave of the invasion brought painters, paperhangers and plumbers, and in a moment of enthusiasm Bella had the cornice and the capitals of the pillars in the hall regilded; windows were reglazed, banisters fitted into gaping sockets, and the stair carpet shifted so that the worn strips were less noticeable.

Bella takes a great deal of trouble writing the invitations by hand and considering who to invite and who to exclude, which leads to more brief portraits of the inhabitants of the grand houses in the area, including the various arrivistes and nouveaux riches.

The great night comes, the mansion is illuminated by candles, decorated by swags of flowers, the staff are ready, the expensive food is cooking but…nobody comes, nobody that is except the two arrivistes she had specifically excluded from inviting, but who are attracted by the lights and music from the old house. Puzzled, then perplexed, the old lady slumps on the sofa in the hall. Next day she dies. Her heir, a distant cousin and Englishman named Banks, arrives to make an inventory of the house and its contents. Tucked away in Bella’s escritoire, beautifully written, stamped and addressed he finds the invitations to the party, unsent.

Cruise, or Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure (1933)

Consists entirely of a series of letters and postcards sent home by a silly young woman on a Mediterranean cruise. Must have seemed very clever when it was published. Still pretty funny.

POSTCARD

This is the Sphinx. Goodness how Sad.

POSTCARD

This is temple of someone. Darling I cant wait to tell you I’m engaged to Arthur. Arthur is the one I thought was a pansy. Bertie thinks egyptian art is v. inartistic.

POSTCARD

This is Tutankhamens v. famous Tomb. Bertie says it is vulgar and is engaged to Miss P. so hes not one to speak and I call her Mabel now. G how S. Bill wont speak to Bertie Robert wont speak to me Papa and Lady M. seem to have had a row there was a man with a snake in a bag also a little boy who told my fortune which was v. prosperous Mum bought a shawl.

The Man Who Liked Dickens (1933)

A version of the story which ends the novel A Handful of Dust namely the man, named Mr McMaster here, Mr Todd in Handful, who lives an extremely isolated life among the Shiriana Indians in the Amazonas for 60 years. One day the Indians bring an Englishman to him who has staggered out of the rainforest, shattered, suffering from shock and exposure, an explorer whose partner Anderson has died.

This Paul Henty has a very similar backstory to Tony Last in Handful i.e. his wife left him for another man and, in the first flush of embitterment he got talking to a chap in his club who was planning an expedition to Amazonia and here he is.

The details of the ‘expedition’ are different. There were initially more members, who are all given pen portraits and to whom various misadventures happened, eventually depriving Henty and Professor Anderson of colleagues and a lot of supplies. And in this version Anderson simply falls ill of malaria and dies, compared to the version in the novel where it is the main hero who falls ill, and the expedition leader, Dr Messinger, who sets off to find help in a canoe and is washed over a waterfall to his death. Here the Indians who had brought him this far overnight abandon Paul, taking the canoe, leaving him to stumble along the river bank, becoming increasingly starved, feverish and hallucinatory. This, also, is less effective than the devastating description of the state of utter, helpless misery Tony Last is reduced to after Dr Messinger disappears.

As in the novel the McMaster/Todd figure has power over the local Indians because he fathered most of them – and he has a gun. He informs Henty that a black man stayed with him and read to him every afternoon. Henty is happy to do the same and is shown the man’s ant-eaten collection of Dickens novels. At first all goes well, but by the time they’re into the second volume of Bleak House Henty is restless. He brings up the idea of him leaving and returning to civilisation and for the first time McMaster becomes slightly menacing. Yes. The black man had the same ideas. Then he died. McMaster says he will get the Indians to build a canoe. The months drag on. Then the rainy season arrives and McMaster says it will be impossible to travel. He tries to communicate with the Indians but they don’t even understand sign language. He finds a token left in Martin Chuzzlewit which is a pledge McMaster gave to the black man, Barnabas Washington, that he would be allowed to leave at the end of reading that book. When Henty insists that McMaste lets him leave McMaster simply tells the Indians to stop making him food, to stop bringing him the same breakfast, lunch and dinner he’s been having as McMaster. Henty is forced to resume.

Then a lonely wandering prospector arrives at the camp. McMaster is vexed, gives him something to eat and sends him on his way in under an hour. But that’s time enough for Henty to scribble his name on a piece of paper and press it into the man’s hand. From that moment he lives in hope that his name will eventually reach civilisation, the towns on the coast, and an expedition will be launched to find and rescue him. Thus encouraged he accepts McMaster’s invitation to a feast given by the Indians. He eats and drinks heartily.

When he wakes up it is days later and his watch has gone. McMaster explains that while he slept a little expedition of three Englishmen arrived looking for him. His wife in England is offering a reward. McMaster shows the men the grave of the black man, saying it was Henty’s, and gave them Henty’s watch as proof that the poor man had gotten ill, died and been buried there. The Englishmen went off well contented with the story, the evidence and the proof. No-one else will come looking for him. Ever. He is doomed to spend the rest of his life reading Dickens to a madman in the depths of the Amazon jungle.

So in all important points it is identical with the text used as the final part of A Handful of Dust. And, as there, the final speech where McMaster explains how he tricked him and that he is now doomed meets with no reply from Henty, no indication of his reaction, making it a thousand times more powerful. In much the same way that there is no response from Basil Seal when the old native in Black Mischief explains he’s just taken part in a cannibal feast and eaten his own girlfriend. None needed. This situation itself is shock enough.

Out of Depth (1933)

This is an oddity, a science fiction story, a time travel story. It starts conventionally enough in Waugh’s usual environment, the posh upper classes. Rip is an ageing American who always dines with Lady Metroland when he’s in London (Margot Metroland having weaved in and out of Waugh’s stories since Decline and Fall). When he arrives for dinner he finds most of the other guests gathered round an unusual figure:

An elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits. It was like Mother Hippo in Tiger Tim; it was like an evening shirt-front in a du Maurier drawing; down in the depths of the face was a little crimson smirking mouth; and, above it, eyes that had a shifty, deprecating look, like those of a temporary butler caught out stealing shirts.

Lady Metroland introduces him as Dr Kakophilos, a magician. She is very proud of the sensation he creates, but Rip finds him a sinister, repellent person with a thin Cockney voice. At the end of the party a very drunk Rip finds himself driving Dr Kakophilos and old friend Alistair Trumpington home. Kakophilos invites them in and in his sitting-room is suddenly dressed in magician’s garb, ‘a crimson robe embroidered with gold symbols and a conical crimson hat.’ He launches on a discourse about time and space, recites words of power, while Rip and Alistair giggle drunkenly. As they get up to leave, the magician asks them both if they have a favourite period in time. Alistair says the time of Ethelred the Unready, Rip prefers to go forwards, to five hundred years in the future, thinking it a load of gibberish then stagger to their car and Alistair drives off very drunk and crashes into a van in Shaftesbury Avenue.

When Rip comes to he finds himself in London five hundred years hence, a deserted city in ruins which has been reclaimed by nature. Piccadilly Circus is covered in hummocky turf and a few sheep.

The entrance of the Underground Station was there, transformed into a Piranesi ruin; a black aperture tufted about with fern and some crumbling steps leading down to black water. Eros had gone, but the pedestal rose above the reeds, moss grown and dilapidated. (p.137)

He walks down to the river, almost all the buildings have gone, it is wild. He finds a cluster of huts built on stilts. At dawn the inhabitants emerge, savage tribal people dressed in skins. He walks forward and they surround him, offering no violence, just puzzled. Rip is convinced this is a drunken hallucination but it just won’t wear off.

Days then weeks pass as he is fed fish and coarse bread and beer. Finally there is a great fuss and some educated people arrive. The big thing in the story is that they are black. For a start the boat they arrive in is mechanically driven i.e. far above the scope of the savages, and they were wearing uniforms of leather and fur and well organised under a commanding leader. They trade with the natives, exchanging manufactured goods for gewgaws the natives have dug up and also taking Rip from them.

In other words, the tables have been turned, the roles reversed, and instead of technologically advanced white men penetrating darkest Africa and trading with primitive blacks, now it is the whites whose society has collapsed and the blacks who penetrate up the wide lazy Thames.

Eventually their ship arrives at a military station on the coast, in the style of the early western outposts in Africa. There is a steamer, a black anthropologist with glasses studies him, they get him to read old books with what is obviously, to them, an ancient accent, they measure his skull with calipers. In every way a reversal of white colonial practice.

Then, described in the briefest way, barely a paragraph, he is in a Christian mission and finds the congregation of illiterate whites staring at an altar where a black priest in the outfit of a Dominican friar conducts a Mass, something Rip remembers from his youth, something which has obviously not changed for 2,500 years.

Then he comes round in a hospital bed to find a priest by his bedside, obviously calling into question the extent to which anything he’s just experienced was ‘real’. But when the priest tells him that Alistair, also in hospital, has woken from a dream of being in the middle ages, Rip in a panic thinks maybe it was true, maybe his consciousness was thrown forward in time.

I have seen this described as Waugh’s most overtly Catholic story, which it might well be. But it was the vision of an England fallen back into uncivilised savagery, and visited by colonising technologically advanced Africans which caught my imagination.

By Special Request (1934)

This was the original ending of A Handful of Dust as it appeared in the original magazine serialisation in Harpers’ Bazaar. It feels very flat and banal compared to the horrifying reading-Dickens ending which he eventually chose. Above all, this original final version of the story is very, very short at just eight pages.

In this version, Tony takes the elaborate steps to secure a divorce which feature in the novel but then, when he realises how avaricious and selfish Brenda has become, he calls off the divorce settlement negotiations and – this is the point of divergence, does not set off on a hair-brained expedition to Brazil, but instead (much more likely) treats himself to a long and leisurely cruise.

The story commences as Tony’s liner returns to Southampton. He is met by his chauffeur but surprised to learn that his estranged wife, Brenda, is in the car. They are frightfully decent and polite to each other. Brenda explains she just had to give up that flat, it smelt so frightfully of hot radiators. He knows this is a Decision Moment: should or should he not take Brenda back and forgive her? But in reality, he falls asleep in the warm soft back of the car and only wakes when they reach Hetton.

Where they are greeted by the butler and the luggage unloaded and then he and Brenda inspect the work which has been done in the renovated bathrooms, checking the taps and so on like a, well, an old married couple.

After dinner they sit in the library and Brenda timidly hopes Tony wasn’t in a rage with her when he left, isn’t in a rage now. Course not, he replies, and asks after Beaver, her one-time lover. Well, it all ends up being about money. Tony cut her off without a cent and Beaver didn’t have any money, was blackballed from clubs, she tried to get a job with Mrs Beaver who turned her down, then working in her friend Daisy’s restaurant but that didn’t last.

Then Beaver met the Shameless Blonde and fell madly in love and chucked Brenda, who was now on the brink, living on scraps from the delicatessen round the corner. But the Blonde wouldn’t have anything to do with him and so his mother eventually sent him off to Europe to be a buyer for her business. And so here she is, penniless and without prospects. During the recitation Tony begins to nod off again and so she says, ‘Come on, let’s go up’, and as simply as that their marriage resumes.

In a 3-page coda months have passed and Tony and Brenda are happily married and have popped up to London to do some shopping. Brenda is on at Tony to do something about the flat she leased a year ago for her affair with John Beaver. So at last Tony goes round to see Mrs Beaver, who owns the apartment block. Only instead of simply cancelling the lease, he comes to a discreet arrangement with Mrs Beaver…to have his name removed from the lease and name board of the block, for a fee. Tony rejoins Brenda after her shopping and they catch the train back their country house.

And the train sped through the darkness towards Hetton.

Clearly that is a metaphorical darkness, for the transaction inaugurates a new era of infidelity and betrayal in their marriage. On the one hand this ending is obviously much more realistic than the reading-Dickens ending. But you can also see why it’s unsatisfactory in several ways.

  1. At a stroke it wrecks Tony’s character, his position as the unchanging moral rock at the centre of the story. And in doing so undermines the… the moral or psychological structure of everything which had preceded it.
  2. And undermines the value of the death of their son. That was such a shocking, staggering event that for the entire story to fizzle out in Tony’s go at having an affair feels cheap and nasty. The reading-Dickens ending may be weird, wildly implausible, bizarre and cruel but it has the great advantage of matching the cruel death of little John. In its madness and cruelty it is a far more fitting ending to the novel.

Period Piece (1936)

Lady Amelia, an old lady, likes having stories read to her by Miss Myers. She likes crime stories, often quite violent ones, American ones with ‘brutal realism and coarse slang’, ‘narratives of rape and betrayal’. I suppose, in Waugh’s circle and for his audience, this idea itself might be quite amusing.

When Miss Myers one day ventures the opinion that the story she’s just finished reading was far fetched, Lady Amelia replies that if you recounted stories from the lives of the people around them, you’d probably call them far-fetched. She then tells the story of ‘the extremely ironic circumstances of the succession of the present Lord Cornphillip.’

Etty a cousin of her mother’s marries Billy Cornphillip, a phenomenally boring man. Lady Amelia was a bridesmaid (p.155). Their marriage upset Ralph Bland who was Billy Cornphillip’s nearest relative and stood to inherit his fortune if he’d died without an heir. He has a wife and children to support and not much money. Over the years, though, Etty fails to become pregnant so Ralph bucks up.

Ralph comes to stay one Christmas but his 6-year-old son gives the game away when he tells Billy that, when he (Billy) inherits, he’ll pull the whole place down. At that point there is a complete breach between the two men and war declared. Billy is a Conservative and Ralph comes down to stand in his constituency as a Radical (and wins). At which point Billy accuses Ralph of corruption during the election and successfully gets him unseated.

Ralph takes this very badly and takes to attending speeches Billy is giving and laughing of clapping in the wrong place, he gets drunk in the local pub and is found asleep on Billy’s terrace. All this is very difficult for skinny Etty who had been friends with Ralph.

One bonfire night Ralph got drunk and made a load of threats against Billy, who called the police and had him up in magistrates court and he was given a banning order but amazed everyone by leaving that very afternoon for Venice with Billy’s wife, Etty! However, the affair was not a success, they stayed in an insanitary palace, Etty fell ill, Ralph ran off with American lady who was much more his type, and so Etty returned to England. She tries to find friends to stay with but, eventually, everyone hears she was back with Billy and about to have a baby. It is a boy i.e. a son and heir.

So this is very broadly the same plot as in Unconditional Surrender – a posh chap accepts the child his wife has had by another man she’s been having an affair with.

But the point of the story, or maybe its literary feature, is the way it veers away at the very end from what might well be the most bombshell part: which is that the boy never knew he wasn’t the son of his father, and which is described only indirectly:

until quite lately, at luncheon with Lady Metroland, when my nephew Simon told him, in a rather ill-natured way. (p.159)

It is very characteristic indeed of Waugh that these kind of bombshell moments are told at one remove or prompt little or no response. Blink and you might miss them. Imagine the impact on the son, his confused feelings, the agonised conversations when he confronts his mother and father. Absolutely none of that is here, all left to the reader to work out, that’s if he or she even notices this revelation, given the way it is tucked away at the end of the little story as a throwaway sentence.

On Guard (1934)

Millicent Blade is a lovely girl but she has a small shapeless nose. In another example of the way Waugh, when reaching for a comparison for anything, thinks first of his prep or public school, his description of Millicent’s nose goes:

It was a nose that pierced the thin surface crust of the English heart to its warm and pulpy core; a nose to take the thoughts of English manhood back to its schooldays, to the doughy-faced urchins on whom it had squandered its first affection, to memories of changing room and chapel and battered straw boaters.

Hector kissed her reverently on the tip of this nose. As he did so, his senses reeled and in momentary delirium he saw the fading light of the November afternoon, the raw mist spreading over the playing fields; overheated youth in the scrum; frigid youth at the touchline, shuffling on the duckboards, chafing their fingers and, when their mouths were emptied of biscuit crumbs, cheering their house team to further exertion…

Hector gazed at her little, shapeless, mobile button of a nose and was lost again . . . “Play up, play up,” and after the match the smell of crumpets being toasted over a gas-ring in his study . . .

A good deal of the upper-class pose in Waugh’s fiction derives from the failure of all these public schoolboys to ever grow up and genuinely confront a wider world; their preference to stay within the safe sanctuaries of Oxbridge colleges or Westminster common rooms or Inns of Court chambers or their gentlemen’s clubs, mentally prisoned in their boyhoods, never growing up.

Anyway, Millicent’s fiancé, Hector, is off to Africa, buying a farm off a chap named Beckthorpe who has consistently bad luck with it. Dining with Beckthorpe at his club, Hector wonders what he can give Millicent as a memento, to make her remember him till he’s well off enough to invite her over. Some jewellery? A photo?

Beckthorpe suggests a dog, and so as to ram the point home, name it Hector. Next day Hector goes to one of London’s largest emporiums and, in rather a panic, buys a poodle. When he leans down to commune, the little perisher takes a snap at him which he adroitly avoids. Hector tells the doggy to prevent any other men getting at Millicent.

Millicent, characteristically, goes to the wrong station so misses seeing Hector off on the train to the port to the ship which will take him to Africa. Hector gives the poodle to Beckthorpe to give to Millicent. Millicent writes to tell him she loves it and it has already bitten a ‘man called Mike.’

The narrative now steps back to reveal that Millicent’s passions for men generally last about 4 months and was reaching that period when Hector’s last minute flurry of activity to find a job slightly renewed it. The comic conceit of the story is the idea that the puppy heard and understood Hector’s injunction not to let other men near Millicent.

The rest of the text develops this idea via mishaps with a series of suitors. Hector the dog adopts strategies to be the centre of attention so no suitor stands a chance: he makes a fuss of the sugar bowl, goes to the door and scratches to be let out then scratches to be let back in, or pretend to be sick, gagging and retching so that Millicent carries him from the room thus destroying any attempt at humour.

As for Hector the supposed fiancé, Millicent soon forgets about him. He writes weekly from the farm in Kenya where things are hard, but Millicent rarely even opens the envelopes and never reads to the end. When friends ask her about Hector, she increasingly thinks they’re referring to the dog not her beloved:

it came naturally to Millicent to reply, ‘He doesn’t like the hot weather much I’m afraid, and his coat is in a very poor state. I’m thinking of having him plucked,’ instead of, ‘He had a go of malaria and there is black worm in his tobacco crop.’

If young men she’s met at parties call, Hector learns to mimic taking a call, cocking his head on one side, so that Millicent gets into the habit of putting the receiver to the dog’s muzzle, deafening the (hungover) young men with a barrage of barks. If men invite Millicent for a walk in the park, Hector goes on ahead, carrying her bag and periodically dropping it so the young man has to pick it up.

Two years pass. Suitors come and go each of them, eventually, foxed by the dog. She has long ago stopped caring about her lover in Kenya. At last Hector meets his match in the person of the middle-aged Major Sir Alexander Dreadnought, Bart., M.P., a man routinely put upon by friends and family from an early age who had developed a forebearing nature.

Hector tries out all his tricks but Dreadnought simply finds him charming. Dreadnought invites Millicent and her mother to his place in the country where Hector does everything he can to be obnoxious, ragging the carpet, rolling in poo in the grounds then coming back and soiling every chair in the house. He howled all night, killed some partridges, hid so the household were up half the night looking for him. Dreadnought takes it all in good part.

Back in London Hector the poodle ponders his options and realises that, all his strategems having failed, there was only one last desperate way for him to keep his promise to his original master, his purchaser, Hector. And so the next time Millicent leans over to nuzzle him, Hector makes one quick snap and bites Millicent’s pretty little snub nose clean off! A plastic surgeon repairs it but creates a new type of nose, strong and Roman. Gone is all Millicent’s schoolboy charm. Hector achieves his aim, and turns her into a suitorless spinster:

Now she has a fine aristocratic beak, worthy of the spinster she is about to become. Like all spinsters she watches eagerly for the foreign mails and keeps carefully under lock and key a casket full of depressing agricultural intelligence; like all spinsters she is accompanied everywhere by an ageing lapdog. (p.171)

Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing (1935)

Has a great comic opening line:

‘You will not find your father greatly changed,’ remarked Lady Moping, as the car turned into the gates of the County Asylum.

Ten years earlier Lord Moping had attempted to hang himself after a particularly distressing annual garden party had been ruined by squally weather. He was taken away and housed in the wing of the asylum reserved for wealthier lunatics where the Lady Moping visited him periodically. This is the first time their grown-up daughter, Angela.

Lord Moping is brought to the doctor’s office where they wait by a kindly old gent with lovely white hair who the doctor tells them is named Mr Loveday. He has become Lord Moping’s assistant in the asylum, patient and kind.

Lord Moping is huffy and busy with all his ‘work’, under the delusion that he needs to do a great deal of research about rivers and fisheries and send off letters to important people such as the Pope. He claims not to recognise or know Angela and hurries back to his room, but Mr Loveday very kindly comes back a few minutes later to see Lady Moping and Angela and assure them that his lordship will like to see them again, it’s just he’s very busy and distracted at the moment.

When he’s gone the governor tells him Loveday is not a warder or nurse, as they thought, but himself an inmate. Why? Twenty years earlier, when a young man, he knocked a young woman off her bicycle and strangled her. Gave himself up immediately.

Angela is a noble spirit, a compassionate soul. She thinks it’s unfair such a sweet kind old man as Mr Loveday should be locked up. She studies the laws surrounding lunacy. She makes an excuse to pop over to the asylum again and asks to ‘interview’ Mr Loveday. When she asks him if he’d like to be free, Loveday replies that, yes, he has one little ambition he’d like to fulfil before he dies.

Angela leaves with the tears of the sensitive in her eyes. She studies more, lobbies the various important personages who come to stay at their house over the summer. Finally she gets her way and it is announced Mr Loveday will be released. There is a big ceremony with the governor, Angela and various lunatics in attendance, then Mr Loveday walks free.

A few hours he is back, handing himself in. He took advantage of his hours of liberty to strangle another young lady who happened to ride by.

Gruesome, in the manner of Roald Dahl’s boom-boom Tales of the Unexpected.

Winner Takes All (1936)

A tale of two brothers, Gervase and Thomas Kent-Cumberland, the first much favoured, feted, celebrated and blessed with all the gifts a grand family can bestow; Thomas an unwanted second child which his mother hoped would be a girl. Throughout their lives Gervase receives all the benefits and gifts:

  • Gervase is born in an expensive nursing home with all the trimmings, his birth celebrated with a bonfire on the beacon hill, his christening with a garden party leading to fireworks; Thomas in a shoddy modern house on the East Coast delivered by a repellently middle class doctor
  • when their uncle buys Thomas the big red model car he’s always wanted for Christmas, their mother assumes he’s got it wrong and changes the labels so Gervase receives the grand toy
  • when their father dies during the Great War their mother becomes extremely parsimonious and obsessed by the threat of Death Duties, cuts are instituted all through the grand household and in their school activities, so that poor Gervase doesn’t inherit the debts – ‘ “It is all for Gervase,” Mrs. Kent-Cumberland used to explain’
  • Gervase is sent to Eton, to save money Tom is sent to a much cheaper, modern school
  • Gervase goes up to Christ Church Oxford where he consorts with other magnificent Etonians in the Bullingdon Club; when Tom goes to visit him he is intimidated and drinks too much in a corner
  • marooned at home after school, his mother sets Tom to reorganising the family library; in it he comes across a manuscript journal kept by a Colonel Jasper Cumberland during the Peninsular War; Tom does a lot of research, identifies maps of the campaign and a picture of the Colonel and writes an introduction and notes to it; all this is taken off him and given to Gervase who publishes it under his own name and gains all the praise and kudos
  • swiftly followed by Gervase’s 21st birthday party whose celebrations are lengthy and elaborate; Tom’s old bedroom is given to a guest and he has to sleep in the local pub
  • meanwhile Tom had been found in a motor manufacturing firm in Wolverhampton and found digs over a fruitshop on the outskirts of town

After a while you realise Waugh has just sat down and made a list of every single humiliation a younger son can be put through, and then inflicted in his fictional Tom. The sequence of humiliations rises to a sort of climax when Tom falls in love with a very ‘common’ girl from the motor manufacturer works, Gladys Cruttwell. When he, finally, reluctantly, takes Gladys home to meet his mother, Mrs Kent-Cumberland is, as you might expect, appalled.

With the result that Tom is swiftly removed from the motor business and dispatched to a farm in Australia! Meanwhile Gervase has come of age and now owns and runs the estate at Tomb with lavish prodigality, extending buildings, buying hunters, contemplating a swimming pool, entertaining lavishly each weekend.

Meanwhile years pass and Mrs Kent-Cumberland does not notice from his letters (which she rarely reads) that Tom has fallen in love with an Australian girl, that he is sailing with her and her father to London, that they have arrived!

She sends Gervase to meet them who reports back that they are a) staying at Claridges (rich and b) going to stay in the country with the Chasms (socially connected). Eventually they arrive, tall Mr MacDougal and daughter Bessie. What quickly emerges is they own vast territories in Australia and are loaded. Bessie is a comically naive and impressionable young woman, impressed by everything she sees. But the more she sees of England the less remarkable Tom seems. The more his brother stands out as a copy of him but with more life. When Mr MacDougal has a confidential chat with Mrs Kent-Cumberland and informs her that his annual revenue is somewhere around £50,000, a twinkle comes into her eye.

She makes plans and carries them out. She encourages Gervase to be very nice to Bessie, drops hints to Bessie about the advantages of being attached to the eldest son and then carries off her masterstroke – she returns from London one day to tell Tom she has just bumped into Gladys Cruttwell! Of course she arranged a luncheon and told Gladys that Tom had never got over him. Now she lies to Tom and tells her Gladys never got over him. She has invited her to come and stay for a few days. She plays on Tom’s sense of guilt and fair play, asking whether he had not, in fact, led on the poor girl and then dumped her.

When they are reunited and left alone they both proceed along these carefully arranged lines with the result that two weeks later Tom and Gladys are married. Mrs Kent-Cumberland explains everything to the MacDougals, not least that Gervase, the taller, handsomer brother is free and available. They are married after 6 weeks engagement. He and Bessie have two children and six racehorses. Tom and Gladys are packed off to Australia where MacDougal gives him a junior management job on a remote ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Not so much a tale of sibling rivalry as of sibling crushing defeat. And the indomitable figure of the scheming upper class mother.

An Englishman’s Home (1939)

Mr Beverley Metcalfe made his pile in the cotton trade in Alexandria and then bought a large acreage and house in the quaint Cotswold village of Much Malcock. He is nouveau riches, he insists on calling the nice Georgian house he’s bought Much Malcock Hall, although all the locals, including his ineffective gardener Boggett, insist on referring to it by its traditional name, the Grumps. The narrative paints a lazy, comic picture of the village and its inhabitants, at least those of the ‘card-leaving class’ aka ‘the gentry’, namely Lord Brakehurst, Lord Lieutenant of the County, his wife Lady Brakehurst had, Lady Peabury (‘a diligent reader of fiction, mistress of many Cairn terriers and of five steady old maidservants’) and Colonel Hodge, and ‘the Hornbeams at the Old Mill were a childless, middle-aged couple who devoted themselves to craftsmanship’, vegetarians and bohemians. Everyone cordially dislikes everyone else. It’s all very English.

Into this placid little world drops a bombshell – a young man has bought one of old farmer Westmacott’s fields and is planning to build an estate of suburban villas there! Now this field abuts at different points the properties of Metcalfe, Peabury, Hodge and Hornbeam and so they convene a series of meetings at which they agree to find out what can be done to prevent the development, contact the local council, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and so on.

Eventually it becomes clear they are going to have to buy the field off its purchaser in order to keep it undeveloped. Colonel Hodge is sent by the committee to meet the purchaser, Mr. Hargood-Hood at the village’s one pub, the Brakehurst Arms. Here Mr. Hargood-Hood very successfully terrifies the Colonel by showing him what he intends to build: it’s not an estate it’s an experimental industrial laboratory, complete with two great chimneys to emit the poison fumes, a water tower to get high pressures, and six bungalows for his staff.

The text then includes correspondence between Metcalfe and Lady Peabury in which it is revealed that Mr Hargood-Hood wants £500 for the field (and lawyer’s fees and cost of the architect’s drawings). (Back when he bought his Georgian house Metcalfe had been offered the option of buying Westmacott’s field for some £170 but turned it down because of the expense; so this represents a tripling of the asking price.)

Peabury refuses Metcalfe’s offer to go halves on the purchase – the two obstinately refuse to co-operate – with the result it looks like the development will go ahead and both Peabury and Metcalfe begin to make plans to sell their homes and move out of the village when Colonel makes a last-ditch bid to avert building going ahead. He comes up with a solution to the great Peabury-Metcalfe standoff which is to purchase the field in order to build a scout hut on it: Lady Peabury will contribute £250, Metcalfe £500, and the other families a few pounds. This allows the field to be purchased from Hargood-Hood and disaster averted, while Metcalfe gets to have the new building named after him and can swank round the village as a public benefactor.

Only in the last few paragraphs do we learn that it was a scam all along. Hargood-Hood’s ‘lawyer’ is in fact his brother and they make a tidy living by descending on idyllic country villages, buying up a plot with suitably loaded neighbours, then threatening to build their toxic factory and letting the gentry buy back the field at a grossly inflated rate. it’s a scam, a con, although, as ‘Jock’ admits, they cut this one pretty fine. The gentry of Much Malcock squabbled for so long that the brothers were nearly left holding the baby!

The Sympathetic Passenger (1939)

Mr James hates the radio, the endless blare of music from wirelesses owned by his wife and daughter. (Dislike of wirelesses which are on all the time blaring out music being a theme which also crops up ‘Tactical Exercise’ and is prominent in the final volume of the Sword of Honour trilogy)

With relief he leaves his house and sets off to drive to the local train station. On the way he sees a man trying to flag down lifts. He stops and offers him a lift to the station. What follows is the dialogue of these two people in a car. Mr James casually mentions his dislike of the radio and this triggers the hitchhiker into an increasingly demented rant, in which he accuses the BBC of mind control and other wild, delusional accusations. A car overtakes them playing loud blaring music and the hitchhiker orders Mr James to chase it and overtake it so they can kill the heathen driver. Mr James is by now terrified but his car simply won’t go faster at which point the hitchhiker says he will kill Mr James.

They arrive at the station and Mr James leaps out but the other guy is quicker and is closing in on him when…a load of policemen sortie from the station entrance and pounce on the man, Oh yes, he’s a well known lunatic, the policeman tells him cheerily. In fact Mr James is lucky to be alive.

Mr James drives home a chastened man and when he arrives, for once, doesn’t complain about his wife or daughter playing the radio. In fact he now finds it strangely reassuring.

Work Suspended (1942)

This is a long piece and reviewed in a separate blog post.

Charles Ryder’s Schooldays (written 1945, published 1982)

I’ve mentioned the struggle many privately educated writers of Waugh’s generation had in escaping the mental world of their prep and public schools and this is a kind of quintessence of that world and that problem. The thirty or so pages of this fragment are set at a private school named Spierpoint Down which is pretty obviously Waugh’s own public school, Lancing on the South Downs. Crucially, unlike Brideshead Revisited, it is not a first-person narrative told by Charles, but a third person narrative about him. Charles is in the Classical Upper Fifth.

It is the first day back after the summer holidays, Wednesday 24 September 1919. We are treated to an excruciatingly tedious exposition of life at Spierpoint, with its hundred and one stupidly named buildings (Head’s House, Old’s House) and petty regulations and privileges for the different year groups or prefects and so on (the way one is allowed to wear coloured socks or walk arm in arm with a friend once one has graduated to this or that privileged class or clique).

It is a world of private rules designed to create a strong esprit de corps among those who are in the know and exclude everyone outside. It is drenched in hyper-privileged assumption that all the pupils are rich, know London’s restaurants and theatres, belong to a network of extended families which run everything and know each other, and the assumption that all these insufferable fifth formers will, in due course, go on to ‘the university’ meaning Oxford.

Charles likes Art and Drawing. He helps a rather over-confidential master, Mr Graves, assemble a small printing press and sort out the moveable typepieces into different fonts. There is Sunday morning communion with a lavish description of the vast Victorian and unfinished chapel. Charles and two friends are caned for refusing to say their evening prayers when ordered to by their head of house.

The diary of classes, sports, book reading, conversations and petty jealousies continues for another few days until Sunday 28 September and abruptly halts, exhausted by its own tedium. This fat chunk of public school fetishisation lacks any of the wit or humour or fun or lightness which characterises the best of Waugh’s writing. it feels intolerably smug and superior and self-satisfied. You can see why he never published it during his lifetime.

Short stories 2. Post-war

Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947)

A novella – reviewed in a separate blog post.

Tactical Exercise (1947)

This is good story, in a grim, grand guignol sort of way. John Verney hates his wife Elizabeth. He was wounded in Italy. The pain of the wound leads to outbursts of anger. He returns home to have to live with her family in house in Hampstead. Everything infuriates him: the back garden is a bomb crater, all the glass in the back windows are broken. A grimy life of rationing. John stands as Liberal in a county constituency but loses badly to a Radical who happens to be a Jew. His bitterness against life makes him increasingly antisemitic.

Meanwhile, his wife Elizabeth works in something clandestine in the Foreign Office. She’s clever, she’s a linguist. When John learns her boss is a Jew it crystallises his hatred of his wife. She becomes a symbol of everything he hates with all the resentment and bitterness of the war, his coming down in the world, his political failure. For John his wife becomes a representative of the shabby socialist bureaucracy which shackles him, she is helping communist regimes in eastern Europe, and she works for a Jew!

Still they manage to just about be civil to each other and live together. They both go to see a film, a trite murder mystery in which the wife drugs the husband and throws him out of the window of a holiday home overlooking a cliff. He falls to his death. She inherits his wealth. This gives John the idea of copying it.

A month or so later they go on holiday to a holiday cottage at the edge of a cliff. John thinks he’s being clever by softening up the locals for the crime he plans to commit by telling everyone that his wife sleepwalks, telling chaps at the golf club, down the pub. One of them even recommends him to go talk to the local doctor, a nice chap.

The twist in the tale is that she has been planning to murder John all along. She brought a bottle of whiskey along as a treat and John has been having a glass every evening before supper. Now, when he finishes the glass he starts to feel strangely woozy. She helps him to the sofa, by the window, the window overlooking the cliff, and the long fall to the jagged rocks below…

This macabre little tale is one of several which anticipate the twisted stories of Roald Dahl.

Compassion (1949)

This narrative was recycled in its entirety, and almost verbatim, into the final part of the third novel in the Sword of Honour trilogy, Unconditional Surrender.

In the novel the events involve the trilogy’s protagonist, Guy Crouchback; here they involve a Major Gordon. The basic narrative is identical: Gordon is posted as British Military Mission i.e. liaison with the communist Yugoslav partisans in a place called Begoy in Croatia. He describes the wrecked town and the heavy-handed Partisan authorities who call themselves ‘the Praesidium’. To be precise:

Begoy was the headquarters of a partisan corps in Northern Croatia. It lay in a large area, ten miles by twenty, of what was called “Liberated Territory,” well clear of the essential lines of communication. The Germans were pulling out of Greece and Dalmatia and were concerned only with main roads and supply points. They made no attempt now to administer or patrol the hinterland. There was a field near Begoy where aircraft could land unmolested. They did so nearly every week in the summer of 1944 coming from Bari with partisan officials and modest supplies of equipment. In this area congregated a number of men and women who called themselves the Praesidium of the Federal Republic of Croatia.

Gordon is assigned a creepy interpreter named Bakic who spies on him. The narrative concerns the 108 Jewish displaced persons Major Gordon discovers in the town. Their representative, an anxious young woman named Mme. Kanyi, tells Gordon they want to leave, to get away to Italy. Mme. Kanyi’s husband is an engineer and does his best to keep the struggling power plant going.

Gordon becomes obsessed with helping the Jews but is blocked at every turn, especially by the communist authorities who are very suspicious of his motivation. He manages to get two representatives out on a flight to Bari, but by the time the authorities give permission for the rest to be flown out the autumn fogs and then winter snows prevent planes landing at the airstrip.

When his mission is wound up and he is transferred back to Bari Gordon eventually learns that the Jews were in the end evacuated and sent to a camp for displaced persons near Lecce. When he visits the camp the Jews he helped crowd round but Mme. Kanyi and her husband are not there. All they know is that they were taken off the lorries evacuating them from Begoy at the last moment.

At this point occurs the biggest difference from the narrative as it appears in the novel. Here Gordon gets a cousin in the newly opened embassy in newly liberated Belgrade to do some digging for him. This cousin writes him a letter which is quoted verbatim in which he reports that the Kanyis were executed by the communist authorities. The husband was blamed for sabotaging the power plant and the wife was accused of having an affair with the British liaison officer and for concealing counter-revolutionary propaganda. Now we and Gordon know that the husband was the only person keeping the wretched power plant going, and that the wife was not at all having an affair with him, they just spoke a few times. As for the ‘counter-revolutionary propaganda’ that was a load of old London magazines Gordon left with her to help her while away the long winter nights. Their execution is, in other words, a farcical tragedy and an enormous injustice.

In the story he recounts all this to his regiment’s second in command and the chaplain. When he says it was a complete waste of time, the chaplain gives him a more subtle theological interpretation, saying that no matter how pointless it may seem, the situation a) prompted good works by Gordon but also b) that the Kanyis in some way did him good, drawing out of him a new feeling for compassion and charity which hadn’t been there before. Hmm. Thought-provoking.

In the novel the facts remain mostly the same but the treatment feels completely different. The final scene with the bluff second in command and the chaplain offering words of comfort are completely absent from the novel. But it’s not the absences, it’s the positive additions in the novel which transform the story.

  1. We have known Guy intimately for almost three novels. Everything which happens resonates with his character of sterling integrity and quiet determination.
  2. In the novel Guy has other Brits around him, namely the squadron leader and de Souza who add a kind of variety to his responses, so his obsession with saving the Jews becomes one action among multiple ones carried out by the British Mission.
  3. The final scene with the chaplain is swept away and replaced by a more complex final arrangement: in this, instead of getting a written and therefore rather bland report about the fate of the Kanyis, it is told to him by a lickspittle functionary of the army who we have, through the course of the book, come to realise is a communist fellow traveller or stooge. Unlike the anonymous cousin in Belgrade of the story, this creep, Gilpin, the coward who had to be kicked out of the plane on his first parachute jump then lied to everyone about his ‘bravery’, it is this character who Waugh has gone to great lengths to build up as a representative of the corrupt ‘values’ of the new era, who tells Guy to his face about all the ‘evidence’ of the Kanyis’ counter-revolutionary activity, and smirks that they got the revolutionary justice they deserved. It is a vastly more powerful and disgusting experience to read the version in the novel, and very effectively crystallises all the morel, military, political and social failures and compromises which he sees the end of the war as bringing.

So this is an interesting enough story, but you shouldn’t read it here, you should read The Sword of Honour trilogy where the same basic story acquires multiple extra resonances and meanings from its inclusion in a novel.

Love Among the Ruins (1953)

A novella – reviewed in a separate blog post.

Basil Seal Rides Again (1963)

This was Waugh’s last published work of fiction. All critics quote Waugh’s own description of it in the dedication to old friend Ann Fleming, as: ‘a senile attempt to recapture the manner of my youth’. It certainly contains a roll call of well-loved characters from the 1930s comic novels, including Peter Pastmaster, Parsnip and Pimpernell (the joke names he gave the left-wing 30s writers Auden and Isherwood), Lady Metroland, Sonia Trumpington and numerous others, indeed the narrative opens with Peter and Basil attending a banquet to celebrate the award of the Order of Merit to Ambrose Silk (the lisping aesthete character Waugh based on Brian Howard). Peter and Basil have let themselves go: ‘They were two stout, rubicund, richly dressed old buffers’.

Critics have judged the story harshly but I found some of it funny, for example the opening dialogue between the two old boys as they suffer through long speeches then go for a pee at the same time, gossiping all the time in an amusingly drunken senile way:

‘This Albright married someone — Molly Meadows, perhaps?’
‘I married Molly Meadows.’
‘So you did. I was there. Well, someone like that.’

Returning to his wife, Angela, in their London house, Basil, having caught sight of himself in the toilet mirrors, is more than usually aware that he is fat and unwell. Basil reviews his life and we learn that he blew all the toes off one foot while demonstrating an explosive device during the war, hence his  family nickname of ‘Pobble’ and the need to walk with a cane. Suddenly he realises he is old:

His voice was not the same instrument as of old. He had first assumed it as a conscious imposture; it had become habitual to him; the antiquated, worldly-wise moralities which, using that voice, he had found himself obliged to utter, had become his settled opinions. It had begun as nursery clowning for the diversion of Barbara; a parody of Sir Joseph Mannering; darling, crusty old Pobble performing the part expected of him; and now the parody had become the persona.

He and Angela agree to try out one of those health clinics, sanatorium thingies. They drive down to Kent, check in and have an interview with the presiding doctor:

‘You complain of speechlessness, a sense of heat and strangulation, dizziness and subsequent trembling?’ said this man of science.
‘I feel I’m going to burst,’ said Basil.

For 3 or 4 days they put up with the diet of carrot juice and raw eggs but then, in an entirely predictable bit of comic business, Basil procures some brandy off the young man who runs the resort gym and runs a tidy black market in illicit booze and grub. He drinks it down in one and passes out. The sanatorium  doctor expels him. Basil and Angela return to London.

Here he discovers his daughter, 18 year old Barbara, is in love with a ghastly, uncouth young man, Charles Albright. Late at night Basil discovers the pair rummaging around in his wine cellar, basically stealing some booze to take to a ‘happening’. This is barely into the 1960s so it’s not a psychedelic 60s happening, it’s a beards-and-jazz, beatnik 50s happening.

Basil insists on having an interview with the young man by himself, a solemn occasion for both parties at which Basil is disconcerted to find himself being bested. He looks into the young man’s eyes and face and recognises himself.

After a boozy lunch Basil drops in on Sonia Trumpington who lives alone, with her son, doing charitable works and sewing. He asks Sonia is she knows this Charles Albright, she replies yes, he’s a friend of her son, Robin. When Basil whiningly asks what his daughter can see in the scuffy, beardy young man, Sonia robustly replies, you! He looks, speaks and behaves just like a young Basil.

Sonia says she has photos somewhere of the mother and digs up an old photo album from the 1930s. She identifies the young woman as Elizabeth Stayles, there’s a photo of Basil about to throw her into a lake at some gay 1930s house party.

Seeing the photo awakens an old memory in Basil’s mind. Elizabeth Stayles, yes, didn;t he have an affair with her, all those years ago?

Basil thanks Sonia and returns to his London house whence he invites young Barbara for a chat in Hyde Park by the Serpentine. Here he informs his daughter that her lover is his, Basil’s son. He had a brief fling with Elizabeth Stayles when he got out of hospital after the toes incident, during the Blitz winter of 1940. Only lasted a week then Basil took back up with Angela and Elizabeth (Betty) rooted around for someone else and ended up marrying Clarence Albright, killed in action 1943. Betty herself died young of cancer in 1956. The point is there’s no-one to gainsay his story.

His story being that his daughter, Barbara, has been going out with, and fooling around with, her half-brother. Barbara gets up from the park bench and stumbles across the park. Basil catches a cab to Bellamy’s club for an egg nog, and then onto Claridge’s to meet his wife. She says their daughter returned home looking tragic and locked herself in her room. ‘What she needs,’ says Basil, ‘is a change of scene. I’ve bought all three of us tickets to Bermuda.’

To be honest, from the text I’m not sure whether Charles really is Basil’s son or whether it’s the last in Basil’s long list of outrageous lies and scams. If it is an outrageous lie he has conjured up to scupper his daughter’s relationship with the young man, then it is obviously cruel and heartless. If is isn’t a lie, if it’s true, it’s still a pretty heartless story for Waugh to concoct; told from the father’s point of view it completely ignores the emotional devastation the revelation must have on his daughter.

But I don’t quite understand the handful of critics I’ve read who say the story is ‘disgusting’, as if it was an entirely new note in Basil or Waugh’s career. They seem to forget that Waugh has Basil unknowingly EAT the young woman he fancies in Black Mischief after she’s been caught, killed and cooked by a tribe Basil is staying with. That book was published in 1932, precisely 30 years before this story. Or that in Waugh’s first novel the kindly Mr Prendergast has his head cut off with a hacksaw by a psychotic prison inmate. Or the short story about the polite and docile Mr Loveday who strangles young women to death. Or the devastating ending of Handful of Dust. Or the heartless death of Angela Runcible in Vile Bodies. Or the not one but two suicides in The Loved One.

In other words I wasn’t upset by the story’s apparent cruelty because casual cruelty had been a stock in trade for Waugh’s fiction right from the start.

So: I like the bufferish tone of the story and I liked the old-boy banter between Peter and Basil and especially between 60-something Basil and his wife. It felt both sweet and charitable to the infirmities of age, as was the brief sad interlude where they visit old Margot Metroland and find her sitting in the dark hunched over a television set (as so many lonely old people become addicted to doing).

On the other hand, all the dialogue with his daughter struck me as hopelessly unrealistic, stiff and unnatural, really false although – but how can I know how 60-something posh fathers spoke with their debutante daughters in 1962?

And as to the harsh, cruel sting in the tail, well, it doesn’t feel to me like some sad falling-off of Waugh’s powers at all but entirely in keeping with the cruelty and sadism lurking in the wings of all Waugh’s 1930s novels and of a piece with macabre little horrors such as ‘Mr Loveday’s Little Outing’ (1935) or ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’ (1939).


Credit

The Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh was first published by Chapman and Hall in 1947. All references are to the 2018 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe (1587)

Information about Marlowe’s plays is patchy. Dido is generally thought to be Marlowe’s first play but it is anyone’s guess when it was written, sometime between 1587 when Marlowe arrived in London from Cambridge and 1594 when it was published. The Marlowe scholar Roma Gill thinks it was probably written before Marlowe left Cambridge in 1587. The title page of the 1594 edition credits the hack writer Thomas Nashe as co-writer, though scholars query this.

The play was first performed by the Children of the Chapel Royal, a company of boy actors in London a fact – like the performance of many of Ben Jonson and Dekker’s plays by companies of boy actors, which I find gob-smacking.

Dido is based on books 1, 2 and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid which opens with the Trojan soldier Aeneas, having fled Troy after it fell to the Greeks, sailed west across the Mediterranean and found refuge in Carthage, the city on the north coast of Africa, then ruled by Queen Dido, herself an exile.

The gods interfere, Venus using Cupid to trick Dido into falling in love with Aeneas, rather than with Iarbus, King of Gaetulia, her local suitor, who gave Dido refuge when she and her people were exiles, and expects to be rewarded with her hand in marriage.

Dido and Aeneas pledge their love to each other, but the Trojans remind Aeneas that their future is in Italy, which is also where Mercury and the other gods order Aeneas to proceed. The play ends when Aeneas leaves for Italy with the Trojans and despairing Dido setting off a triple suicide by throwing herself on a funeral pyre, followed by her despairing suitor Iarbus and then by Anna, her sister, who loved Iarbus all along.

A suitably lurid and exorbitant subject for the theatrical genius of extremity and intensity. The play, of course, features the main human characters, as you’d expect – what is surprising is the inclusion of quite so many gods and goddesses. Marlowe is not shy about putting words into the mouths of gods.

Cast

Immortals

Jupiter, king of the gods
Juno, queen of the gods
Venus, goddess of love
Mercury, messenger of the gods
Cupid, son of Venus, impish god of love
Ganymede, cup-bearer to the gods

Mortals

Aeneas, prince of Troy
Ascanius, son of Aeneas
Dido, queen of Dido
Anna, her sister
Achates, companion of Aeneas
Ilioneus
Iarbus, King of Gaetulia
Cloanthes
Sergestus

Act 1

Indeed the play opens in heaven with Jupiter ‘dandling’ Ganymede on his lap (‘that female wanton boy’) and flirting with his beloved boy (‘Come gentle Ganimede and play with me,’). Ganymede complains that Juno whacked him round the head when he was serving wine. Here, right at the beginning of his career, Marlowe’s ambition reaches to the utter heights, putting words into the mouth of the king of the gods on Olympus, and not just casual chit-chat, Zeus threatening vengeance on his bossy wife.

JUPITER: What? dares she strike the darling of my thoughts?
By Saturn’s soul, and this earth threatening air,
That shaken thrice, makes Nature’s buildings quake,
I vow, if she but once frown on thee more,
To hang her meteor like twixt heaven and earth,
And bind her hand and foot with golden cords,
As once I did for harming Hercules.

What scale! What bombast! Nature quaking and the king of the gods hanging his wife between heaven and earth – these are enormous image of vast power. Not only that but Ganymede cackles, like a spoilt catamite, at Zeus’s suggestion and says, Go on, go on, he would bring all the gods to marvel at the sight.

So right at the start of the play the tone is set of 1. world-reaching, heaven-aspiring settings 2. a kind of spoilt teenager cruelty and amorality, and 3, of course, Marlowe’s powerful sensuality:

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

It starts out being about Power but ends up with Venus’ swans feathering the boy’s bed, power and sensuality are amorally mingled.

Anyway, back to the plot and enter Venus berating Zeus for his frivolity and indifference when her beloved son, Aeneas, is struggling against stormy seas. More than that, she conjures a vision of the seas stirred up by Juno, queen of the gods, against Aeneas and so re-enacting a second overthrow of Troy (since Aeneas and his twenty ships carry all the survivors of the city), Aeolus god of winds summoning the waves as Agamemnon leader of the Greek army summoned his soldiers to attack.

Zeus snaps out of gay flirting mode to assure Venus that Aeneas is safe, and describes his destiny, to voyage on to Rome, to fight and defeat the native inhabitants, to found a city where, 300 years later, a priestess will be impregnated by Mars and bear the twins Romulus and Remus who will go on to found the greatest city in the world.

Ganymede and Zeus exit and Venus thanks him for saving her beautiful son, and then, next thing we know, Aeneas and some of his companions come onstage having obviously survived the storms. Venus hides so she can overhear her beamish boy. The men praise Aeneas for his leadership, and wonder where they’ve been driven ashore. Aeneas tasks them with fetching wood to make a fire to cook the meat they’ve killed.

At this point Venue steps out before them, in disguise as a native of the land. Aeneas immediately spots her for a goddess and asks what land is this. Venus explains it is the Punic shore where Sidonian Dido rules as queen. Aeneas introduces himself which gives him an opportunity to explain his backstory i.e. how he fled defeated Troy with all the survivors in 24 ships, though they’ve been battered by storms and only seven have survived to find haven here on this rocky shore. Venus assures him that all his ships have arrived safely then quickly departs, just as Aeneas realises she is his mother, the goddess Venus and laments that she never stays for them to have a proper conversation.

Act 2

Scene 1 Outside the walls of Carthage, near a temple to Juno, Aeneas laments with his friend Achates and his son Ascanius for lost Troy and her dead and momentarily mistakes a statue in the temple for old King Priam. But then Cloanthus, Sergestus, Ilioneus and others of their comrades appear, they are all joyfully reunited, and tell Aeneas they were taken in and given food, new clothes etc by Queen Dido.

Dido is introduced to Aeneas and to his son, Ascanius, who she takes a liking to. They appear to sit as for a banquet and Aeneas’s renewed laments prompt Dido to ask him to tell them all what happened when Troy fell. Which he does at length and very vividly (lines 177 to 369) how the Trojans were fooled by lying Sinon to take the wooden horse into the city walls and how that night the scheming Greeks got loose and massacred the inhabitants, how old King Priam was found at the altar of his gods by Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, who first chopped off the old man’s hands, held up in supplication, then cut him open like a fish.

Amid the mayhem, Aeneas put his father Anchises on his back, took his son Ascanius by one hand and his wife Creusa by the other and made his way out of the burning city ankle deep in blood. His wife let go his hand and was lost and he never regained her, he saw Cassandra sprawling in the street, bloodied after being raped by Ajax and, as he reached the sea and the Trojan ships, Priam’s daughter Polyxena cried out from the shore, so Aeneas saw his son and father safe onto a ship and turned to wade back for her, but as he watched Pyrrhus’s Myrmidons seized and murdered her.

Aeneas is so overcome with grief that Achates takes up the story, telling how they think Queen Hecuba was led off to slavery while Helen – the cause of all the trouble – betrayed her Trojan lover, Deïphobus, to the Greeks and so was reconciled with Menelaus.

Scene 2 Dido decides everyone needs cheering up and leads them off. The last to leave is little Ascanius and Venus and Cupid enter at just that moment, seizing his hand and Venus promises him sweets and treats to lull him, takes him in her arms and sings and… Ascanius falls asleep. They carry his sleeping body to a grove of trees where they lay him and half cover him with flowers.

Now is he fast asleep, and in this grove,
Amongst green brakes I’ll lay Ascanius,
And strew him with sweet-smelling violets,
Blushing roses, purple hyacinth:
These milk-white doves shall be his centronels,
Who, if that any seek to do him hurt,
Will quickly fly to Cythereä’s fist.

They have a Cunning Plan. Cupid will impersonate Ascanius, insinuate himself into Dido’s embrace and while she is dandling him on her lap, touch her with one of his golden arrows and make her fall helplessly in love with Aeneas. Why? So that Dido will repair his ships, victual his soldiers and give him wealthy gifts.

Act 3

Scene 1 In Dido’s palace King Iarbas is trying to persuade Dido much in love with her she is, but Dido is bewitched by Cupid-disguised-as-Ascanius and confuses Iarbas with contradictory instructions, that she will listen to his love suit, then telling him to leave and never come back. Eventually, deeply upset, Iarbas does exit.

Anna, who had entered with them and watched all this, is Dido’s sister and encourages her growing love of Aeneas because she – Anna – carries a torch for Iarbas. Cupid inflames Dido with love, so that when Aeneas does enter with comrades-in-arms she is infatuated for him. When Aeneas chastely asks if she can help the Trojans rerig their ships, Dido replies they shall have all they want so long as… Aeneas stays with her.

The verse in which she describes how she will help with the ships is typical of Marlowe’s wonderful and rich descriptive ability:

I’ll give thee tackling made of riveled gold,
Wound on the barks of odoriferous trees,
Oars of massy ivory, full of holes,
Through which the water shall delight to play:
Thy anchors shall be hewed from crystal rocks,
Which, if thou lose, shall shine above the waves;
The masts, whereon thy swelling sails shall hang,
Hollow pyrámides of silver plate;
The sails of folded lawn, where shall be wrought
The wars of Troy, but not Troy’s overthrow…

As if caught out, she hastens to say she doesn’t want Aeneas to stay because she is in love with him, no no no no, she needs a general to lead her army in war against her neighbours. She emphasises she has been wooed by famous men from around the Mediterranean, in fact she has a gallery of portraits, and indeed Aeneas’s men examine these portraits and recognise many of the great men who wooed but could not win her.

To be honest, Dido’s being in two minds about her feelings seems to me clumsily done. She says he might be her lover – but then again not. She wants him to stay as her general… but maybe something more… but no, don’t think he could become her lover… and yet he might…

Scene 2 A grove near Carthage Juno comes across Ascanius laid asleep under the flowers in the grove and is minded to murder him. But as she stands pondering the deed, Venus enters, alerted by the turtle doves she set to guard over him, and furiously accuses Juno. Juno admits she has sent storms and waves to batter Aeneas’s fleet but says she now realises it is futile to battle against fixed fate and so has come round to wanting to help him. Venus believes her and is much softened, saying that if Juno will help Aeneas, she (Venus) will give Juno all the gifts of love.

Juno points out that Dido and Aeneas are now both firmly in love (thus conveying a sense of the passage of time). She thinks it best that Dido and Aeneas, Juno’s favourite and Venus’s son, are married and thus the two goddesses will be united. Venus thinks it is good but doubts that Aeneas can be deterred from his resolution to travel on to Italy.

Juno has a plan. The couple are going hunting this afternoon, accompanied by all their attendants. Juno will send s rainstorm, separate them from their followers, make them take shelter in a cave where they will finally ‘seal their union’. Venus agrees and meanwhile lifts Ascanius and will take him ff to safety on Mount Ida.

Scene 3 The woods Enter Dido, Aeneas, Anna, Iarbas, Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, and Followers. Once again Dido humiliates Iarbas in front of everyone, Aeneas joining in on her side, leaving the Gaetulian king furious.

Scene 4 A cave As Juno promised, a rainstorm has broken and Dido and Aeneas been separated from everyone else and taken shelter in a cave. It takes a while of coyness on both parts but eventually Aeneas promises to stay in Carthage and be her love and Dido is delighted and showers him with presents.

Hold; take these jewèls at thy lover’s hand,
These golden bracelets, and this wedding ring,
Wherewith my husband wooed me, yet a maid,
And be thou king of Libya by my gift.

Act 4

Scene 1 In front of the same cave Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, Iarbas, and Anna all marvel at the sudden onset of the storm which they suspect had divine origins. When they see Dido and Aeneas emerge from the cave Iarbas is consumed with envy and anger.

Scene 2 A room in Iarbas’ house Iarbas sacrifices and makes a prayer to Jove, remembering how Dido was herself a refugee on this shore and how he, Iarbas, gave her land and help to build her city and now she scorns his love in favour of this interloper, Aeneas. At which point Anna enters and asks him what he’s praying for. To get rid of Aeneas, he explains, and win Dido’s love.

Why, Anna says, doesn’t he forget Dido and think of plighting his love somewhere else. Somewhere closer to home. Take her for example. But Iarbas laughs and says his heart is set on Dido. Anna abandons all discretion and declares she loves him ‘more than heaven’, but Iarbas rejects such a ‘loathsome change’.

Scene 3 A room in Dido’s palace Aeneas declares he must leave, his destiny calls. He summons his companions. God, Marlowe has such a way with a driving cutting line of verse:

Aboard! aboard! since Fates do bid aboard,
And slice the sea with sable-coloured ships

Enter Achates, Cloanthus, Sergestus, and Ilioneus who all reinforce Aeneas’s decision, lamenting that dallying with women effeminates warriors like them. To Italy! To Italy! They exit leaving Aeneas to lament that he ought to tell Dido they’re going, but he knows she will take him in her arms, and cry tears of pearl and beg, and he will weaken.

Scene 4 Another apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Dido and Anna. Dido laments that the Trojans seem to be doing a runner without saying goodbye. At which enter Aeneas, Achates, Ilioneus, Sergestus and Carthaginan Lords. Dido accuses Aeneas of panning to leave without saying goodbye. Aeneas lies that he had merely gone down to the harbour to see his friends off: how could he depart and leave behind his son, Ascanius? Did on the spot gives him her crown and sceptre and says he is her king, she will obey him. Dido sings the praise of how kingly, how godly Aeneas looks.

Aeneas says he will never leave, if he leaves her let death be his punishment. Which is odd because we saw him a few minutes earlier pledging to leave immediately for Italy. Is this meant to be an example of the spell she holds over him? She orders Anna to prepare her horse and have Aeneas led in triumph through the city as its new king, and Aeneas tells Achates they will stay and train and raise a host with which to voyage to Greece and punish the Greeks for destroying Troy, and he and the Trojans exit.

Left to herself Dido begins to worry that he’ll leave nonetheless, and 1. orders Anna to tell the nurse to take Ascanius away into the countryside 2. to bring her all the Trojans’s ship tackle and rigging so they cannot leave. As in the scene with Iarbas and then in the cave with Aeneas, Dido gives way in successive lines to waves of doubt, sure that he loves her yet paranoid that he will leave.

Lords enter and tell her her commands have been obeyed, Ascanius has been taken into the countryside and they have brought all Aeneas’s rigging and tackle. Dido addresses the wood and spars and ropes and rigging in a wonderfully high and eloquent speech about how all these objects were going to betray her and her love, but now she will lock them up safe and sound.

Scene 5 The country Enter the nurse, with Cupid as Ascanius. the nurse tells Cupid-as-Ascanius she is going to take him to the country. As written, the scene has the same strange schizophrenia and Dido and Iarbas and Dido with Aeneas in the cave, namely that in alternate lines she on the one hand declares she is still young and frisky and ready to take a lover and in the other lines declares, no, she is old now and ripe only for the grave. Is this odd back and forth meant to be the result of Cupid maybe touching her with his love dart – was it almost comic the way Cupid touches her and makes her feel randy, then stops and she feels old and wizened again? There are no stage directions, so we can only guess. (It’s worth mentioning that all the locations described in this review are the inventions of a British scholar named Alexander Dyce in the 1870s. This man has, therefore, had a huge impact on the way all modern readers envision, imagine and conceive the play’s action.)

Act 5

Scene 1 An apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Aeneas, with a paper in his hand drawing the platform of the city, with him Achates, Cloanthus, and Ilioneus. Aeneas is drawing a map of Carthage’s walls and confidently describe to his companions how he will make the place magnificent, borrowing the river Ganges from India to form the moat, the sun from Egypt, what shall they call it? Troy? Aenea? Anchseon after his father? We, the audience, know these are bootless fantasies.

Enter Hermes carrying the real Ascanius and explains he has been kept safe by the gods while Dido has been frolicking with Cupid in disguise. In a flash Aeneas realises why Dido is so besottedly in love with him, it is the god’s influence.

Hermes tells Aeneas he is forgetting his duty to the future, he must sail for Italy. Aeneas says, ‘How can I since Dido has taken all my masts and rigging?’ At this exact moment Iarbas enters and asks Aeneas why he looks so gloomy. When Aeneas explains that Jove is ordering him to leave for Italy but he has no rigging for his ships, Iarbas enthusiastically offers to give him everything he needs. Aeneas orders his followers to go with Iarbas and collect the necessary.

Enter Dido who asks Aeneas why his ships are fully equipped and lying in the roads off the harbour as if ready to leave (that happened quickly! in theatre there is no time). He tells her straight out that Hermes brought orders for Jove that he MUST leave. That is the only reason. But you can’t be leaving. But I am. But I will die if you go. But the father of the gods orders me to go.

Dido accuses Aeneas of being selfish and using the gods as an excuse. No I want to stay. Then why don’t you stay? Because the father of the gods has ordered me to go etc.

At which point Dido pivots round to woman scorned mode, and calls down dire revenge and hate on Aeneas, calls him a serpent she has harboured in her bosom, she hopes the waves smash their ships and their lifeless bodies are thrown up on the Libyan shore where she will leave them. Is he going to go? She opens her arms wide: Stay, stay here with me. Aeneas walks away.

Dido raves, sees him changing his mind at the last minute. Anna enters and Dido orders her to make haste to the harbour and persuade Aeneas to return. The nurse enters and tells Dido that Ascanius vanished overnight as if raptured away by the gods. He was, of course, Dido’s security, her hostage to prevent Aeneas leaving. Now nothing can prevent him. Dido orders the nurse thrown in prison.

Anna returns to say she saw the Trojan fleet set sail and cried out to Aeneas to stay but he hardened his heart and went below deck so as not to see her. Dido raves that she will follow him in verse typically full of extreme images of imaginative power and fantasy.

I’ll frame me wings of wax, like Icarus,
And, o’er his ship, will soar unto the sun,
That they may melt, and I fall in his arms;
Or else, I’ll make a prayer unto the waves,
That I may swim to him, like Triton’s niece:
O Anna! fetch Arion’s harp,
That I may tice a dolphin to the shore,
And ride upon his back unto my love!

She is beside herself with grief. She orders servants to go fetch all Aeneas’ belongings. Iarbas enters and asks Dido how much longer she will humiliate herself by mourning for a lost lover. What comes over from this as from other  moments in the play, is how time is wonderfully telescoped onstage, so that Aeneas’ ships have been rigged and set sail minutes after they were unrigged and docked. Everything takes place in this imaginative zone where wishes and thoughts come true almost immediately, where key bits of the plot take place in the time it takes to describe them.

Dido bids Iarbas help her build a large fire, ostensibly to burn all Aeneas’s things, then leave her. She is left alone onstage. One by one she throws onto the all the tokens of Aeneas and her love for him, the sword he swore love on, the tunic she first clothed him in, his letters and papers, and finally requests of the gods the Aeneas and his line may never live in peace, and from her city will arise a race to plague and pester Aeneas’ lineage (as the Carthaginians were to be the chief rivals in the Western Mediterranean for centuries).

Dido throws herself onto the funeral pyre. Anne enters, sees it, shrieks for help. Iarbas comes running, sees that Dido is dead, and kills himself. Anna makes a short speech saying life isn’t worth living and also kills herself.

Footnotes

Aeneas would sail onto Italy, where he fought the local tribes, the Rutulians led by King Turnus, as described in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. Aeneas’ son Ascanius, will be the first king of Alba Longa and his descendants will rule for 300 years.

Until Silvia, a vestal virgin, would be ravished by Mars (Ares) and give birth to the twins Romulus and Remus, the former of whom would, of course, found the city of Rome a few miles north-west of Alba Longa and where, five hundred years later, Virgil would dedicate his epic treatment of the foundation of his city to the Emperor Augustus.

And Dido’s descendants, the Carthaginians, would rise to become the main opponents of Rome in the western Mediterranean for centuries. In fact the Carthaginians were themselves recent immigrants from Phoenicia, an ancient kingdom on the coast of the Levant, whose principal cities were Tyre and Sidon. Hence Dido is sometimes referred to as Sidonian Dido or queen. They were welcomed on the north African shore of what is now Tunisia by the local king, Iarbus, which is why he is so bitter that, after everything he did for her and her people, Dido rejects him and even mocks him publicly.

For those who don’t know the ancient Romans took over Greek mythology and the Greek gods wholesale, giving them their Roman names. In what follows the Roman god is named first (because these are the names used by Virgil in his epic, and by Marlowe, following him) and the Greek name in brackets.

Ceres is the Roman goddess of crops from which we get the word cereal.

Diana (Artemis) the goddess of the hunt, was the twin sister of Apollo, the sun god (making her the sun’s bright sister). As a virgin-goddess, Diana’s woodland followers – her nymphs – were also expected to retain their maidenhoods.

Ganymede was a Trojan prince, captured by Jove (Zeus) in the shape of an eagle and carried up to Olympos to be cup-bearer at the gods’ feasts.

Hector, a cousin of Aeneas, was a Trojan prince, a son of Troy’s King Priam, and the greatest fighter on the Trojan
side. Killed in a duel by the Greeks’ great champion, Achilles.

In a single night, the Greek princess Leda both slept with her husband and was seduced by Jupiter, who had taken on
the form of a swan for this episode. The result was the birth of both Helen and her twin sister Clytemnestra, and the twin brothers Castor and Pollux.

Helen was married to Menelaus, King of Sparta in Greece, from where, on a goodwill visit, Paris son of Priam, King of Troy, abducted her. That was the proximate cause of the Trojan War. Menelaus reached out to his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and senior king among the many Greek rulers, who rounded up the other Greek leaders and assembled the fleet of a thousand ships which sailed for Troy and besieged it for ten long years.

Ulysses (Odysseus) king of Ithaca, widely described as cunning and crafty, he was credited with coming up with the scheme for a wooden horse to end the siege of Troy. The second great epic by the legendary Greek poet, Homer, the Odyssey, describes Ulysses’ ten-year-long journey home from the war, during which he had adventures with the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scilla and Charybdis and the sorceress Circe who turned his crew into pigs.

Vulcan (Hephaestus) was the god of fire and the blacksmith god. He was lame leading the other able-bodied gods to mock him. But when he discovered Mars (Ares) god of war, was having an affair with Vulcan’s wife Venus (Aphrodite) Vulcan wove a net of metal in which he caught the adulterous gods and exposed them to the ridicule of all the other gods.

Venus (Aphrodite) the goddess of beauty, was the daughter of Jupiter with the Titan goddess Dione. She was the mother of Aeneas, who got pregnant by the Trojan prince Anchises.

Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil (70 – 19 BC) was the greatest poet of the golden age of Roman poetry, as the Republic collapsed and was replaced by the Empire under its first emperor, Augustus. Virgil wrote exemplary shorter forms before creating one of the most influential epic poems in history, the Aeneid, the epic story of Aeneas’ post-Troy travels and adventures.


Related links

Dido, Queen of Carthage on the Elizabethan Drama website This excellent website gives you a choice of reading the play script unencumbered by notes, or a very comprehensively annotated text, full of fascinating facts.

Marlowe’s works

Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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