On Old Age by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Of what immense worth is it for the soul to be with itself, to live, as the phrase is, with itself, discharged from the service of lust, ambition, strife, enmities, desires of every kind!’
(On old age by Cicero)

Cicero wrote De senectute or ‘Of old age’ to disabuse people of their negative stereotypes about old age, to defend old age, to make it less feared. It’s a relatively short treatise by Cicero’s standards. It is dedicated to his good friend Titus Pomponius (who gave himself the nickname ‘Atticus’ because he loved Athens so much).

Cicero sets it, like De republica and De amitia, back in the time of Scipio Aemilianus, about 130 BC, and has the characters in the dialogue be Scipio, his friend Caius Laelius, and the stern moralist Cato the Elder, who lived a very long life (234 to 149 BC) and so was eminently qualified to talk about age.

In De senectute Cicero, like the defence lawyer he was, mounts a defence of the state of old age against its alleged disadvantages. He has Cato tell Scipio and Laelius how foolish general attitudes to old age are. The best way to live is to ‘follow and obey Nature, the surest guide, as if she were a god,’ (which my recent reading has taught me to see as pure Stoicism). Hence the Stoic insistence on Virtue:

CATO: “The best-fitting defensive armour of old age, Scipio and Laelius, consists in the knowledge and practice of the virtues, which, assiduously cultivated, after the varied experiences of a long life, are wonderfully fruitful, not only because they never take flight, not even at the last moment, — although this is a consideration of prime importance, — but because the consciousness of a well-spent life and a memory rich in good deeds afford supreme happiness.”

Those who criticise old age are often simply projecting their own vices and shortcomings onto an inevitable part of life.

About a quarter of the way into the text, after this fictional Cato has given us profiles and anecdotes about quite a few eminent Romans of his time, he gets round to tabulating the four main criticisms people make of old age.

“One, that it calls us away from the management of affairs; another, that it impairs bodily vigour; the third, that it deprives us to a great degree of sensual gratifications; the fourth, that it brings one to the verge of death.”

The essay consists of him examining and refuting each of these claims in turn:

1. Old age withdraws us from active pursuits

It’s true old age prevents activities which are appropriate for youth and strength of body. But there are many activities appropriate to maturity and statesmanship, and he gives a list of eminent Romans who played decisive roles at key moments of Roman history:

The old man does not do what the young men do; but he does greater and better things. Great things are accomplished, not by strength, or swiftness, or suppleness of body, but by counsel, influence, deliberate opinion, of which old age is not wont to be bereft, but, on the other hand, to possess them more abundantly…Unless these were the characteristics of seniors in age, our ancestors would not have called the supreme council the Senate.

The word senate derives from senex, the Latin for old man, implying that with age comes wisdom and decision.

If you see fit to read or hear the history of foreign nations, you will find that states have been undermined by young men, but maintained and restored by old men.

Rashness, indeed, belongs to youth; prudence, to age.

Indeed, the crowning glory of old age is authority.

Old age, especially when it has filled offices of high public trust, has so much authority, that for this alone it is worth all the pleasures of youth.

Old men are said to forget, but Cato insists this is only true among those who do not exercise their memory or were slow-minded to begin with. No, old men remember everything that they care about and:

Old men have their powers of mind unimpaired when they do not suspend their usual pursuits and their habits of industry.

Examples of men who excelled at their craft well into old age include Sophocles, Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Stesichorus, Isocrates, Gorgias, Pythagoras and Democritus, Plato, Xenocrates, Zeno and Cleanthes and so on. Did these men not continue working at the top of their bent till the end of their lives?

Some say old age is repellent to the young, but it need not be so if is considered with respect to the wisdom age has to offer:

As wise old men are charmed with well-disposed youth, so do young men delight in the counsels of the old, by which they are led to the cultivation of the virtues.

And so another of the benefits of age is the respect of the young and he details the respect afforded successful elder statesmen, such as being saluted in the morning, grasped by the hand, received by the rising of those present, escorted to the Forum, escorted home, asked for advice.

What pleasures of body are to be compared with the prerogatives of authority?

2. Old age makes the body weaker

It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength

But the eloquence that becomes one of advanced years is calm and gentle, and not infrequently a clear-headed old man commands special attention by the simple, quiet elegance of his style

You can at least help others by your counsel; and what is more pleasant than old age surrounded by young disciples? Must we not admit that old age has sufficient strength to teach young men, to educate them, to train them for the discharge of every duty? And what can be more worthy of renown than work like this?

If you know someone stronger than you, does that make them better than you? No, each of us has the strength appropriate to our bodies and exercise, so:

Provided one husbands one’s strength, and does not attempt to go beyond it, one will not be hindered in one’s work by any lack of the requisite strength.

Accept the course of nature.

Life has its fixed course, and nature one unvarying way; each age has assigned to it what best suits it, so that the fickleness of boyhood, the sanguine temper of youth, the soberness of riper years, and the maturity of old age, equally have something in harmony with nature.

But do what you can to remain fit.

Exercise and temperance, then, can preserve even in old age something of one’s pristine vigour.

Live a healthy life.

Old age, like disease, should be fought against. Care must be bestowed upon the health; moderate exercise must be taken; the food and drink should be sufficient to recruit the strength, and not in such excess as to become oppressive. Nor yet should the body alone be sustained in vigour, but much more the powers of mind; for these too, unless you pour oil into the lamp, are extinguished by old age. Indeed, while overexertion tends by fatigue to weigh down the body, exercise makes the mind elastic.

Cato lists the intimidating roster of activities he is undertaking in his 84th year, including:

  • he is writing a history
  • he is collecting memorials of older times
  • he is writing out the speeches he gave in all his law cases
  • he is treating of augural, pontifical, civil law
  • to exercise his mind he recalls every evening whatever he has said, heard or done during the day
  • he often appears in court on behalf of friends
  • he attends the senate and still has motions he wants to propose

These are the exercises of the mind; these, the race-ground of the intellect.

If you remain alert and active:

One who is always occupied in these studies and labours is unaware when age creeps upon him. Thus one grows old gradually and unconsciously,

3. Old age deprives us of almost all physical pleasures

This is a positive thing, considering that the lure of physical pleasure is one of the most harmful things to youth. He quotes a violent speech against pleasure by Archytas of Tarentum:

“There is no form of guilt, no atrocity of evil, to the accomplishment of which men are not driven by lust for pleasure. Debaucheries, adulteries, and all enormities of that kind have no other inducing cause than the allurements of pleasure.

“Still more, while neither Nature nor any god has bestowed upon man aught more noble than mind, nothing is so hostile as pleasure to this divine endowment and gift. Nor while lust bears sway can self-restraint find place, nor under the reign of pleasure can virtue have any foothold whatever.”

If reason is the greatest gift of the gods and the highest faculty of man, and if indulgence in physical pleasure overrides or extinguishes it, then thank God for old age if it means all these harmful forces leave you.

For pleasure thwarts good counsel, is the enemy of reason, and, if I may so speak, blindfolds the eyes of the mind, nor has it anything in common with virtue.

Plato called pleasure ‘the bait of evil’, and so:

It is not only no reproach to old age, but even its highest merit, that it does not severely feel the loss of bodily pleasures.

It is said that old men have less intensity of sensual enjoyment. So I believe; but there is no craving for it. You do not miss what you do not want.

Sophocles very aptly replied, when asked in his old age whether he indulged in sensual pleasure, “May the gods do better for me! I rejoice in my escape from a savage and ferocious tyrant.”

So one can feel grateful for it:

I am heartily thankful to my advanced years for increasing my appetency for conversation, and diminishing my craving for food and drink.

Speaking personally, I’m glad I’m middle aged. When I was a young man I felt I had a raging fire burning in my mind which could only be extinguished by intoxicants and inebriants, I hurtled round London feeling like I might explode at any moment. Now the fires of testosterone have banked right down and I am content to read literature and tend my garden, like the best of the ancients. It is an enormous relief not to be young any more.

it is to Solon’s honour that he says, in the verse which I just now quoted, that as he advanced in age he learned something every day, — a pleasure of the mind than which there can be none greater.

He then has a passage about the joys of what he calls agriculture, but is nearer to horticulture, with an extended description of the joy of growing grapes and watching the vines grow and spread.

What can I say of the planting, upspringing, and growth of vines? It is with insatiable delight that I thus make known to you the repose and enjoyment of my old age.

I know what he means. This year I have planted seven trees, set up 10 trellises and planted five climbers to grow up them, and sown wild flowers seed along 20 metres of border. There is no pleasure like the calm pleasure of planning, planting, watering and tending your own garden.

He introduces some further accusations against old men 1) that they are morose, uneasy, irritable and hard to please, 2) that they become avaricious with age.

But these are faults of character, not of age itself.

He defends (some) old men from being uneasy and irritable because this is, in fact, a justified response to the way they are sometimes treated – when they are scorned, despised, mocked. Who can blame old people from being grumpy about being badly treated and neglected.

Also, if you have a weaker body, sometimes undermined by chronic health problems, then any cause of vexation is felt more keenly. But such infirmities of temper should be corrected by good manners and liberal culture.

As to old men becoming greedy, he can’t understand it at all. With less of life to live, why bother devoting your energies to acquiring wealth you won’t have time to spend. Better to cultivate a calm but active mind.

4. Old age is liable to excessive solicitude and distress because death is so near

But one of the key achievements of wisdom is to overcome your fear of death and learn to despise it. There are, after all, only two scenarios: either the soul / mind ceases to exist at death (in which case there is nothing to worry about) or we pass to an immortal realm (which is highly desirable). Win-win, either way.

In fact, young people are more liable to fatal incidents than old people: young people commit suicide, are killed in car or motorbike crashes, in fights or murders and, in Cicero’s time, in battle, much more than old people.

Young people hope to live to a ripe old age. An old person should rejoice because he has achieved that wish.

Each one should be content with such time as it is allotted to him to live.

In order to give pleasure to the audience, the actor need not finish the play; he may win approval in whatever act he takes part in; nor need the wise man remain on the stage till the closing plaudit. A brief time is long enough to live well and honourably.

But if you live on, you have no more reason to mourn over your advancing years, than the farmers have, when the sweet days of spring are past, to lament the coming of summer and of autumn.

What can be more natural than to die old. It is those who die young who are the tragic waste. Dying old is part of the natural cycle of things.

Old men die as when a spent fire goes out of its own accord, without force employed to quench it…This ripeness of old age is to me so pleasant, that, in proportion as I draw near to death, I seem to see land, and after a long voyage to be on the point of entering the harbour.

And:

Because old age has no fixed term, one may fitly live in it so long as one can observe and discharge the duties of his station, and yet despise death.

Old age, fearless of death, may transcend youth in courage and in fortitude.

As to the actual pain of dying:

There may be, indeed, some painful sensation in dying, yet for only a little while, especially for the old; after death there is either desirable sensation or none at all.

It is possible to have had enough, to have lived well and done everything one wanted so as to reach a stage of being ready for death:

satiety of life, as it seems to me, creates satiety of pursuits of every kind. There are certain pursuits belonging to boyhood; do grownup young men therefore long for them? There are others appertaining to early youth; are they required in the sedate period of life which we call middle age? This, too, has its own pursuits, and they are not sought in old age. As the pursuits of earlier periods of life fall away, so in like manner do those of old age. When this period is reached, satiety of life brings a season ripe for death.

Cato ends by sharing his personal thoughts about the soul. He believes, with the Pythagoreans, that each human soul is a fragment of the Divine Mind forced, for a while, into the prison of an earthly habitation. Indivisible and immortal, human souls knew things before we were born (as per Plato).

The wise soul knows it will live on after death:

Since men of the highest wisdom die with perfect calmness, those who are the most foolish with extreme disquiet, can you doubt that the soul which sees more and farther perceives that it is going to a better state, while the soul of obtuser vision has no view beyond death?

Cato is looking forward to meeting the great men he knew in life, as well as legendary figures from earlier days. And so, after a lifetime of toil for his nation, Cato is ready to move on for a better place, the abode of bliss and the company of heroes:

I depart from life, as from an inn, not as from a home; for nature has given us here a lodging for a sojourn, not a place of habitation. O glorious day, when I shall go to that divine company and assembly of souls, and when I shall depart from this crowd and tumult!

Thoughts

Unlike Cicero’s treatise on friendship, which was impossibly high-minded and deformed by Cicero’s obsession with Stoic philosophy, his insistence on spelling out the belief in God which underlies his belief in a God-given Human Nature and therefore God-given Moral Laws – this essay is far less theoretical, and therefore a genuinely useful, insightful guide to how to age gracefully and well.

Once or twice he mentions the Stoic nostrum that virtue can fortify the mind against all vicissitudes, but the philosophy is tamped right down in favour of the many practical, real world examples of fellow Romans who Cato has known or whose grace and wisdom and ongoing energy in old age offer genuinely inspiring examples, both to him and to anybody who reads it.


Related link

Roman reviews

The life of Brutus by Plutarch

(1) Marcus Brutus was said to be a descendant of the Junius Brutus who overthrew the last king of Rome in 709 BC. But unlike his ancestor who has harsh and unbending, Marcus Brutus was civilised and softened by philosophy and literature. Contemporaries attributed all that was good in the conspiracy to Brutus and all that was bad to his colleague Gaius Cassius Longinus.

(2) Brutus’s mother was Cato’s sister. Cato was his uncle. He had a higher esteem for him than any other Roman. Brutus was good friends with many philosophers, some of whom stayed with him, He was a devotee of Plato and the Old Academy. His letters demonstrate great literary style.

(3) He accompanied his uncle Cato on a mission to Cyprus.

(4) Plutarch in a huge jump skips right the way over Brutus’s boyhood and young manhood, and skips all the political travails of the 60s and 50s to arrive at the breach between Gnaeus Pompeius (usually referred to in English as Pompey) and Julius Caesar in 50 BC. Everyone expected Brutus to side with Caesar as Pompey had had his father executed, but he reasoned that Pompey represented the public good and so sided with him. He sailed to Cilicia but had nothing to contribute there so journeyed to Illyricum to meet Pompey who had just fled from Italy and was greeted by the great man who paid him the honour of getting to his feet. Even here he continued to spend most of  his time with his books.

(5) It is said that Caesar commended his officers to look out for Brutus during the Battle of Pharsalus. This was because Brutus was the son of Servilia who, although married to Cato, was madly in love with Caesar so that Julius had some grounds for believing Brutus might be his own son. Plutarch tells the same anecdote he used in the life of Cato, only told less well here – that when Caesar and Cato were speaking in the senate about the Catiline conspiracy, Caesar was handed a note which Cato excitably declared must be a message from the conspirators. So Caesar nonchalantly handed it over to Cato who realised it was a love note from his own sister to Julius. 1-0 Caesar.

(6) After Pharsalus Brutus fled to Larissa and wrote to Caesar who was delighted and asked him to join him. They discussed whither Pompey might have fled and Brutus’s opinion influenced Caesar towards Egypt. Plutarch says he was an effective public speaker who achieved his ends by reasoning and noble principles.

When Caesar travelled to Africa to fight Cato and Scipio he appointed Brutus governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and he proved an exemplary governor.

(7) Cassius was married to Brutus’s sister, Junia. But they became rivals running for praetorship of Rome in 47. Caesar hears them speaks and makes the decision. Brutus could have been Caesar’s top confidante but the colleagues of Cassius warned him not to succumb to the tyrant’s flattery.

(8) Plutarch repeats the anecdote he tells in the life of Caesar, that when the latter was told that Mark Antony and Dolabella were plotting revolution, he said it was not the fat and long-haired fellows that troubled him, but the pale and lean ones, meaning Brutus and Cassius, a story used by Shakespeare.

So Plutarch argues that, if he had waited, Brutus might have inherited from Caesar. But he was fired up by Cassius who had no noble scruples about tyranny and liberty, but just hated Julius. Plutarch attributes this, improbably, to the incident of the lions of Megara which Cassius had lined up to be part of games he was staging as aedile, but which Caesar, on taking Megara, appropriated.

(9) Plutarch says this interpretation is wrong and that Cassius had always been opposed to tyranny and calls to witness a story about how Cassius as a boy thrashed the son of the then-dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, at school. Brutus was exhorted to conspire against Caesar by flocks of supporters who left messages at the tomb of his ancestor and graffiti on monuments and so on, as listed in his life of Caesar.

(10) And so it becomes very important to the conspirators that they secure the support of Brutus as he was widely seen as a man of principle and would lend the murder dignity. So Plutarch imagines the scene where Cassius inducts Brutus into the conspiracy, writing the dialogue as for a movie and ending when the two men kiss and embrace, in perfect agreement.

(11) Short anecdote about Caius Ligarius, a declared enemy of Caesar. Brutus comes to visit him when he’s ill and when he mentions it is a bad time to be ill Ligarius twigs that something’s up, sits up in bed and declares: “Nay, Brutus, if thou hast a purpose worthy of thyself, I am well.”

(12) They recruit conspirators. Not Cicero, because he is too timorous and pernickety. Nor Statilius the Epicurean and Favonius the devoted follower of Cato. But the other Brutus, Albinus, because he was maintaining lots of gladiators in Rome. They were all won over by Brutus’s reputation for integrity. They manage to keep it a close secret, despite the many signs of ill omen (which Plutarch records extensively in his life of Caesar).

(13) During the day Brutus keeps tight control of himself but at night he is troubled and anxious. His wife, Porcia, was the daughter of Cato and realises something is wrong. One day she takes some nail scissors and deeply gashes her thigh. Then she makes a long speech about how she isn’t just some concubine brought to warm his bed, but the daughter of a famous man reared to endure hardships and determined to share her husband’s joys and sufferings. Then shows the wound in her thigh to prove it. Then Brutus lifts his hands to heaven and hopes his undertaking will be worthy of his noble wife.

(14) They decide to do it at a meeting of the senate because then all the important they need to pledge allegiance to liberty will be on the spot. It is apparent (though I’m not sure I’ve read it anywhere) that the senate met in different buildings i.e. moved around central Rome. This meeting, for the 15th March 44, was scheduled to take place in the Curia Pompeii, a part of the big theatre complex Pompey had built a decade earlier. Hence the big statue of Pompey which Caesar ends up collapsing against.

On the big day Brutus straps on his dagger and walks to the portico of Pompey where he meets the other senators, either waiting or conducting the business of praetors i.e. adjudicating petitions from a crowd of applicants.

(15) A list of misunderstandings and encounters on the morning which nearly wreck the plot. A paragraph devoted to the anxiety of Porcia who keeps racing to the door to hear news, becomes pale and faints and her women shriek that she’s dead and the rumour spreads to the senate and appals Brutus but he determines to carry on. I.e. Plutarch’s usual procedure of cranking up the melodrama.

(16) Highly detailed depiction of the scene. Caesar arrives late, delayed by his wife and soothsayers. He travels by litter which is more private. He is engaged at the door to the room by Popilius Laenas who speaks to him for some time and all the conspirators think they are being betrayed. But he is merely asking for something at great length.

(17) The detail that Trebonius engaged Antony in conversation outside the hall (apparently, this is wrong but like so much Plutarch, is highly dramatic). The precise manner in which they gather round Caesar’s chair, led by Tullius Cimber pleading for his brother in exile, Caesar becomes irritated and tries to shake them off at which point Tullius tears his toga from his shoulder and Casca stabs him and calls to his brother in Greek to join him. Caesar castigates Casca, then is inundated by other blows but when he sees Brutus draw his dagger, covers his face with his toga and submits. The body is riddled with cuts, there is blood everywhere and the conspirators injure each other in their enthusiasm.

(18) Very vivid description of the way the other senators panicked and thronged the exists. Brutus had made it quite clear no-one else was to be killed; it wasn’t to be a Sulla-esque bloodbath but a return to liberty. This was even extended to Antony who was unpopular and arrogant, but Brutus hoped that, with the tyrant removed, he would come over to their side. Mistake number one.

The murderers walked to the Capitol sporting their daggers. Rumour and panic among the people but when it became clear there wasn’t to be a massacre they thronged to hear the speech by Brutus which was noble. They applaud and bring him down and take him to the Rostrum to further address them. The mood changes when Cinna addresses the crowd. He’s not popular and the murderers withdraw to the Capitol.

(19) Next day the senate met and Antony, Plancus, and Cicero moved a vote of amnesty. Antony gives his son to the conspirators as a hostage and this gives them the confidence to leave the Capitol.

Cassius was taken home and entertained by Antony, Brutus by Lepidus, and the rest by their several comrades or friends. Early next morning the senate assembled again. In the first place, they gave a vote of thanks to Antony for having stopped an incipient civil war; next, they passed a vote of commendation for the followers of Brutus who were present; and finally, they distributed the provinces. It was voted that Brutus should have Crete, Cassius Africa, Trebonius Asia, Cimber Bithynia, and the other Brutus Cisalpine Gaul.

(20) Antony argues that Caesar’s body should be carried to his funeral and his will read to the people. Cassius is vehemently opposed but Brutus, out of gentleness of spirit, agrees. This was the second mistake. The will:

When it was found that the will of Caesar gave to every Roman 75 drachmas, and left to the people his gardens beyond the Tiber, where now stands a temple of Fortune, an astonishing kindliness and yearning for Caesar seized the citizens.

When Antony commenced his eulogy he realised the crowd was in a sentimental mood and so changed his tone and held up Caesar’s toga, showing the many places the daggers had torn it. At this the crowd went nuts and stormed local shops, dragging out wooden objects to make an ad hoc funeral pyre for the body; then took brands from it and ran off to the houses of the murderers and set them on fire.

The story of Cinna the poet who had a bad dream about Caesar the night before but nonetheless, the next day went along to the funeral and was mistaken by the mob for the Cinna who was one of the conspirators and was torn to pieces. Oh dear. Not the dignified gratitude which Brutus and Cassius had expected at all. The opposite: bloodlust fury.

(21) This incident is important because it was this which convinced the conspirators to flee Rome, despite the senate trying to bring to justice the mobsters who had attacked their houses. Unexpectedly Brutus continued to perform his role as praetor in laying on lavish games (I thought the aediles did this). And in the absence of Brutus and all the other conspirators it is Antony who emerges as the strong man in control.

(22) Everything is transformed with the arrival of Octavian.

He was pursuing his studies at Apollonia when Caesar was killed, and had been awaiting him there after his determination to march at once against the Parthians. As soon as he learned of Caesar’s fate, he came to Rome, and as a first step towards winning the favour of the people, assumed the name of Caesar and distributed to the citizens the money which had been left them by his will. Thus he deposed Antony from popular favour, and by a lavish use of money assembled and got together many of Caesar’s veteran soldiers.

Hit the ground running, very smart, very strategic. When Cicero eventually opted to support Octavian Brutus wrote him a long bitter letter saying he had no principles but just preferred a tyrant who would be nice to him.

(23) “Already one faction was forming about Octavius, and another about Antony, and the soldiers, as though for sale at auction, flocked to the highest bidder.” Against all is expectations Brutus finds himself driven out of Italy and goes to Greece. His wife, Porcia accompanied him before turning back for Italy and Plutarch paints a tear-jerking scene of departure and Brutus’s words of praise for his strong wife.

(24) Brutus sails on to Athens and purports to be socialising with philosophers but in fact sent out to the commanders of armies around Greece to recruit them for the cause of liberty. He meets Cicero’s son and praises him as a hater of tyranny. But at a feast he makes an odd quote from Homer which seems to indicate he sees himself as doomed by fate. Did he? Or is this the literary tradition, the kind of thing he ought to have said?

(25) Brutus rounds up various forces throughout Greece. Brutus marches his forces to Epidamnus but falls ill.

(26) The garrison of Epidamnus brings food to Brutus wherefore he treats the city well. Fighting between the forces of Brutus and Caius Antonius until the former has the latter surrounded in a marshy region and prevents his men massacring them and persuades them to come over to him. For a long time he respects Caius Antonius until he discovers he is conspiring to subvert Brutus’s officers and so has him locked up.

(27) News arrives that Octavian is consolidating power, has had Antony evicted from Italy, is canvassing for the consulship illegally. When he sees how unpopular this is he changes tack, sends envoys of friendship to Antony. But still gets himself elected consul at the ridiculously young age of 20. As soon as Octavian is consul he promotes prosecutions against Brutus, Cassius and the rest who are tried in absentia, and exemplary sentences intimidated out of the juries. Then, very briskly:

After this, the three men, Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus, were reconciled with one another, distributed the provinces among themselves, and sentenced to death by proscription two hundred men. Among those put to death was Cicero.

(28) The importance of family, kinship and friendship networks demonstrated by this sentence:

When tidings of these events were brought to Macedonia, Brutus felt compelled to write to Hortensius commanding him to kill Caius Antonius, on the plea that he was thus avenging Cicero and Brutus Albinus, one of whom was his friend, and the other his kinsman. For this reason, at a later time, when Antony had captured Hortensius at the battle of Philippi, he slew him on the tomb of his brother.

In mid-43 Brutus crossed into Asia where he performed the role of governor, adjudicating between native kings. He wrote to Cassius saying they shouldn’t settle into exile but be raising armies to return to Rome and ‘free’ it. Now they met at Smyrna, strong in arms.

(29) An extended description of the character of Brutus who even his enemies admitted was motivated by the highest motives of liberty. Just a shame that hardly anyone else was, including most of the population of Rome. Brutus:

The virtues of Brutus, as we are told, made him beloved by the multitude, adored by his friends, admired by the nobility, and not hated even by his enemies. For he was remarkably gentle and large-minded, free from all anger, pleasurable indulgence, and greed, and kept his purpose erect and unbending in defence of what was honourable and just.

(30) Cassius takes Rhodes, Brutus campaigns against the Lycians with many battles, namely the siege of Xanthus.

(31) When Xanthus catches fire Brutus orders his troops to put the fire out but the Xanthians in a kind of frenzy assist in the burning down of their town. Plutarch goes to town, describing little children who throw themselves into the flames, mothers jumping from the battlements and so on. Maybe there was a fire but folk legend and Plutarch’s fondness for the gruesome have added the rest.

(32) Brutus’s clemency dealing with the city of Patara compared with Cassius’s extreme exactions from Rhodes.

(33) Plutarch repeats the story told in the life of Pompey about h ow the council of young king Ptolemy deliberated what to do when Pompey approached Egypt and were persuaded by the arguments of the rhetorician Theodotus to kill him. How everyone involved in the murder was, in their turn, killed on Caesar’s orders, except this Theodotus who fled to a wretched life traipsing round Asia. Well, Brutus chanced across him and had him killed. No-one dies a natural death in these stories.

(34) In early 42 Brutus and Cassius met with their huge armies at Sardis. they lock themselves into a tent and fall into a furious argument, enumerating the list of wrongs each has done the other. All their followers have been forbidden from intervening but Marcus Favonius knew no fear and pushed his way through the throng outside the tent and insisted on going in and jokingly quoting some verse from Homer who has old Nestor say:

“But do ye harken to me, for ye both are younger than I am.” (Iliad book I 259)

This makes Cassius laugh and, although Brutus tries to have Favonius ejected, breaks the ice. That night there is a feast of the uneasy allies which Favonius gatecrashes and barges his way into the place of honour.

(35) Brutus and Cassius disagree about whether to publicly shame their officials when they catch them behaving corruptly, in this case embezzling public funds. The story is told to show Brutus the more principled of the two.

(36) Plutarch tells us Brutus needed little sleep but worked or conversed until very late. This is prologue to a repeat of the story told in the life of Caesar about how very late one night he hears someone come into his tent and turns to see a monstrous and fearful shape standing at his side who announces that he is his evil genius and will meet him at Philippi.

(37) Next morning Brutus tells Cassius about his vision and Plutarch gives Cassius an extended passage describing the philosophy of the Epicureans, namely that the senses and the imagination of man are infinitely malleable and so it was a product of his fantasy.

(38) They march across Greece till they face the armies of Antony and Octavian. ‘The plains between the armies the Romans call Campi Philippi.’

(39) As usual, Plutarch gleefully describes the various ill omens before the battle of Philippi:

  • the lictor brought Cassius his wreath turned upside down
  • in a procession at some festival, a golden victory belonging to Cassius, which was being borne along, fell to the ground, its bearer having slipped
  • many carrion birds hovered over the camp daily, and swarms of bees were seen clustering at a certain place inside the camp

All these incidents began to weaken Cassius’s Epicurean rationalism and also demoralised the soldiers. The leaders disagreed: Cassius wanted to drag the war on and wear down their opponents; Brutus wanted to get on with it and lessen the damage to Rome. Also, men were deserting to the other side. So Cassius was won round to giving battle the next day.

(40) That night Brutus dines and goes to bed but Cassius dines with intimate friends and is unusually quiet. Plutarch gives him a speech telling one friend, Messala, that he is in the same plight as Pompey, venturing the destiny of his country on one battle.

At daybreak a scarlet tunic is displayed before the tents of Brutus and Cassius which is the sign for battle. The pair are given a noble dialogue about death. Brutus tells Cassius that when he was younger he blamed Cato for killing himself and not being man enough to face whatever the fates had in store. Now he’s changed his mind. On the ides of March he gave his life for his country. Since then he has lived a life of liberty. If they lose, he will ‘go hence’ with praise for Fortune. Cassius embraces him and thus emboldened they prepare for the battle.

(41) The Battle of Philippi October 42 BC. Antony’s men were building elaborate fortifications to keep Cassius from the sea. Ocatvian was absent from the field with illness. Both were surprised when Brutus and Cassius’s men let out a great shout and ran forward. They did so in bad order and almost immediately lost touch with their neighbouring legions, but the right wing outflanked the cavalry and stormed Octavian’s camp, massacring some Lacedaemonians and wrecking Octavian’s litter leading to rumours that he was killed.

(42) According to Plutarch the defeat was down to miscommunication. Brutus’s legions were completely victorious and took the enemy camp. But Cassius’s wing was routed and the enemies took his camp.

And one thing alone brought ruin to their cause, namely, that Brutus thought Cassius victorious and did not go to his aid, while Cassius thought Brutus dead and did not wait for his aid.

(43) What happened on Cassius’s wing. He is beaten back, his forces panic and break, he makes for a hillside, sees cavalry riding towards him, can’t make out if they’re friend or foe, sends out an officer, Titinius, to find out. This man is surrounded by whooping horsemen so that Cassius thinks he has been captured. In fact it is cavalry send by Brutus celebrating finding a colleague unharmed. But under the impression that all is lost, Cassius retreats to his tent.

Here the account becomes very characteristically Plutarchian, for he reminds us that Cassius was quaestor with Marcus Crassius on his catastrophic expedition into Parthia in 53 BC. Ever since he survived that debacle he has kept by him a freedman named Pindarus. Cassius drew his robes over his head, bared his neck and instructed Pindarus to strike. So Pindarus cuts his head off. By the time Titinius returns to the camp on the hill it is to find all his generals weeping and wailing. Cursing his tardiness at returning and bringing the good news that the cavalry were Brutus’s, Titinius draws his sword and stabs himself.

(44) When Brutus hears of Cassius’s death he has the body decorated and sent to Thasos for funeral. From which one deduces we are no longer still in the heat of the battle. Brutus addresses Cassius’s men and tries to lift their spirits and gives them generous payment. He was the only one of the four generals (Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Octavius) who wasn’t defeated, but he threw away his victory by letting his soldiers loot the enemy camp.

(45) The losses on both sides. When Antony is brought the robe and sword of Cassius he is energised to fight again the next day. But the two camps Brutus is commanding have lots of problems, his own guarding numerous prisoners of war, Cassius’s men demoralised by their defeat and resentful of a new commander.

(46) Brutus tries to motivate Cassius’s demoralised men by promising them they can loot two cities, Thessalonica and Lacedaemon. This is the one time Brutus did this kind of thing, mostly he was careful to preserve the cities he passed by or took submission from. But these were desperate times and he had to do whatever he could to motivate Cassius’s surly soldiers.

(47) Octavian and Antony were in an even worse state, for their camp was on low lying land prone to flooding by the frequent rains, water which immediately froze (it was October). Moreover a large fleet Octavian had ordered from Italy was intercepted by Brutus’s fleet and destroyed. If Brutus had learned of this he probably wouldn’t have fought, because his camp was in the better position, he had more provisions and control of the sea to bring food and reinforcements. Plutarch slips into sententious mode:

But since, as it would seem, the government of Rome could no longer be a democracy, and a monarchy was necessary, Heaven, wishing to remove from the scene the only man who stood in the way of him who was able to be sole master, cut off from Brutus the knowledge of that good fortune.

(48) More omens, inevitably:

  • the foremost standard was covered with bees
  • of its own accord the arm of one of the officers sweated oil of roses, and though they often rubbed and wiped it off, it was of no avail
  • just before the battle two eagles fought a pitched battle with one another in the space between the camps, and as all were gazing at them, while an incredible silence reigned over the plain, the eagle towards Brutus gave up the fight and fled
  • and the story of the Ethiopian who, as the gate of the camp was thrown open, met the standard-bearer, and was cut to pieces by the soldiers, who thought his appearance ominous

(49) As he reviews his troops he notices how ill at ease and reluctant they are and even as his army lines up a notably brave soldier defects to the enemy. It’s now or never so Brutus decides to attack at 3pm. Brutus’s wing is triumphant but Cassius’s command spread their line too thin and are overwhelmed and then Brutus’s army is surrounded and massacred. Many fine Romans lost their lives etc, not least Cato’s son.

(50) The story of Lucilius who, as darkness falls, sees Brutus being chased by barbarian horsemen and so pretends to be him, crying out that he is surrendering and asking to be brought to Antony. The barbarian cavalry is delighted and so is Antony to hear his great opponent is coming but then is thrown into doubt about how to greet him. When he sees it is this man Lucilius he is hugely relieved, and although Lucilius makes a speech saying he is prepared to accept death for his deception, Antony in fact grants him his life, welcomes him and he becomes one of his most loyal adherents.

(51) Brutus escapes with loyal officers and takes refuge by a stream by a big rock. There is an incomprehensible anecdote about a soldier who is sent twice to fetch drinking water. Statyllius promises to cut his way through the enemy and make his way to the camp and light a flaming torch if it is safe to return. After a while they see a blazing torch raised because Statyllius managed to reach the camp but… he never returned, being struck down on the return journey.

(52) Night comes on and Brutus asks each of his companions to help him kill himself but they all refuse. Then he shakes all their hands and thanks Fortune to be left surrounded by such loyal men and considers himself lucky to be leaving behind a reputation for honesty and virtue which none of those who conquered him would have. Then he got another old friend to hold a sword steady while he plunged onto it and so died.

(53) A lot of Plutarch’s account seems to derive from an account by Messala, the comrade of Brutus, an eye witness. After Brutus’s death he went over to Octavian who found all the Greeks loyal.

Antony had the body of Brutus wrapped in his best robe and burned on a pyre, then sent the ashes home to his mother Servilia. (Suetonius, by contrast, says that the head of Brutus was sent to Rome to be thrown at the feet of Caesar’s statue.) Brutus’s wife Porcia now wanted to die but she was closely watched by all her friends till she found the opportunity to snatch up hot colas from a fire, swallow them and kept her mouth firmly closed till she died.

Plutarch ends his account very inconsequentially by stating that this might, in fact, be wrong, since a letter exists purporting to be from Brutus in which he chides them for neglecting her when she was ill and so driving her to her death while he was still alive. If this letter is genuine, that is. Who knows.

Thoughts

Plutarch excels himself at jumping right over Brutus’s family, boyhood, young manhood, political career or education in order to leap straight to the start of the civil war in 49.


Related links

Roman reviews

The way things are by Lucretius translated by Rolfe Humphries (1969)

I try to learn about the way things are
And set my findings down in Latin verse.

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

This is a hugely enjoyable translation of Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura which literally translates as ‘On the nature of things’. Fluent, full of force and vigour, it captures not only the argumentative, didactic nature of the poem but dresses it in consistently fine phrasing. It has an attractive variety of tones, from the lofty and heroic to the accessible and demotic, sometimes sounding like Milton:

Time brings everything
Little by little to the shores of light
By grace of art and reason, till we see
All things illuminate each other’s rise
Up to the pinnacles of loftiness.

(Book V, final lines, 1,453 to 1,457)

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

We had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth.

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

Sometimes like the guy sitting next to you at the bar:

I keep you waiting with my promises;
We’d best be getting on.

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

What once was too-much-feared becomes in time
The what-we-love-to-stomp-on.

(Book V, lines 1,140 and 1,141)

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from about 99 to about 55 BC. Not much is known about him. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a didactic epic poem of some 7,500 lines, written entirely to promote the abstract philosophy of Epicureanism. No heroes, no gods, no battles, no epic speeches. Just 7,500 lines comprehensively describing Epicurus’s atomic materialism and his ‘scientific’, rationalist worldview.

The title is usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. It is a mark of Rolfe Humphries’ attractive contrariness that he drops the almost universally used English title in favour of the slightly more confrontational and all-encompassing The ways things are. He himself in his preface describes this title as ‘simple, forthright, insistent, peremptory’. Peremptory. Nice word. Like so much else in his translation, it feels instantly right.

The various modern translations

In the past few months I’ve had bad experiences with both Oxford University Press and Penguin translations of Latin classics. I thought the Penguin translation of Sallust by A.J. Woodman was clotted, eccentric and misleading. But I also disliked the OUP translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars by Carolyn Hammond, which I bought brand new but disliked her way with English in just the introduction before I’d even begun the text, so that I ended up abandoning her for the more fluent 1951 Penguin translation by S.A Handford (which also features a useful introduction by Jane Gardner, who comes over as intelligent and witty in a way Hammond simply isn’t).

Shopping around for an English translation of Lucretius, I was not impressed by the snippets of either the Penguin or OUP translations which are available on Amazon. It was only when I went further down the list and read the paragraph or so of Rolfe Humphries’ translation which is quoted in the sales blurb that I was immediately gripped and persuaded to cough up a tenner to buy it on the spot.

I knew an OUP edition would be festooned with notes, many of which would be insultingly obvious (Rome is the capital city of Italy, Julius Caesar was the great Roman general who blah blah blah). Humphries’ edition certainly has notes but only 18 pages of them tucked right at the very back of the text (there’s no list of names or index). And there’s no indication of them in the actual body text, no asterisks or superscript numbers to distract the reader, to make you continually stop and turn to the end notes section.

Instead the minimal annotation is part of Humphries’ strategy to hit you right between the eyes straightaway with the power and soaring eloquence of this epic poem, to present it as one continuous and overwhelming reading experience, without footling distractions and interruptions. Good call, very good call.

[Most epics are about heroes, myths and legends, from Homer and Virgil through Beowulf and Paradise Lost. Insofar as it is about the nature of the universe i.e. sees things on a vast scale, The way things are is comparable in scope and rhetoric with Paradise Lost and frequently reaches for a similar lofty tone, but unlike all those other epic poems it doesn’t have heroes and villains, gods and demons, in fact it has no human protagonists at all. In his introduction, Burton Feldman suggests the only protagonist is intelligence, the mind of man in quest of reality, seeking a detached lucid contemplation of the ways things are. On reflection I think that’s wrong. This description is more appropriate for Wordsworth’s epic poem on the growth and development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude. There’s a stronger case for arguing that the ‘hero’ of the poem is Epicurus, subject of no fewer than three sutained passages of inflated praise. But ultimately surely the protagonist of The way things are is the universe itself, or Lucretius’s materialistic conception of it. The ‘hero’ is the extraordinary world around us which he seeks to explain in solely rationalist, materialist way.]

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

It was a grind reading Cicero’s On the nature of the gods but one thing came over very clearly (mainly from the long, excellent introduction by J.M. Ross). That Epicurus’s philosophy was designed to allay anxiety and fear.

Epicurus identified two causes of stress and anxiety in human beings: fear of death and fear of the gods (meaning their irrational, unpredictable interventions in human lives so). So Epicurus devised a system of belief based on ‘atomic materialism’, on a view of the universe as consisting of an infinite number of atoms continually combining in orderly and predictable ways according to immutable laws, designed to banish those fears and anxieties forever.

If men could see this clearly, follow it
With proper reasoning, their minds would be
Free of great agony and fear

(Book III, lines 907-909)

Irrelevant though a 2,000 year old pseudo-scientific theory may initially sound, it has massive consequences and most of the poem is devoted to explaining Epicurus’s materialistic atomism (or atomistic materialism) and its implications.

Epicurus’s atomic theory

The central premise of Epicureanism is its atomic theory, which consists of two parts:

  1. Nothing comes of nothing.
  2. Nothing can be reduced to nothing.

The basic building blocks of nature are constant in quantity, uncreated and indestructible, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Therefore, everything in nature is generated from these elementary building blocks through natural processes, is generated, grows, thrives, decays, dies and decomposes into its constituent elements. But the sum total of matter in the universe remains fixed and unalterable.

Once we have seen that Nothing comes of nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no ‘gods’ will’ about it!

It may sound trivial or peripheral, but what follows from this premise is that nature is filled from top to bottom with order and predictability. There cannot be wonders, freak incidents, arbitrary acts of god and so on. The unpredictable intervention of gods is abolished and replaced by a vision of a calm, ordered world acting according to natural laws and so – There is no need for stress and anxiety.

Because if no new matter can be created, if the universe is made of atoms combining into larger entities based on fixed and predictable laws, then two things follow.

Number One, There are no gods and they certainly do not suddenly interfere with human activities. In other words, nobody should be afraid of the wrath or revenge of the gods because in Epicurus’s mechanistic universe such a thing is nonsensical.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see
That nature has no tyrants over her,
But always acts of her own will; she has
No part of any godhead whatsoever.

(Book II, lines 1,192 to 1,195)

And the second consequence is a purely mechanistic explanation of death. When we, or any living thing, dies, its body decomposes back into its constituent atoms. There is no state of death, there is no soul or spirit, and so there is no afterlife in which humans will be punished or rewarded. We will not experience death, because all the functioning of our bodies, including perception and thought, will all be over, with no spirit or soul lingering on.

Therefore: no need for ‘the silly, vain, ridiculous fear of gods’ (III, 982), no need to fear death, no need to fear punishment in some afterlife. Instead, we must live by the light of the mind and rational knowledge.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

Interestingly Lucretius likes this phrase so much that he repeats it verbatim at Book II, lines 57 to 61, at Book III, lines 118 to 112, and Book VI, lines 42 to 45. Like all good teachers he knows the essence of education is repetition.

Epicurus the god

The radicalness of this anti-religious materialist philosophy explains why, early in Book I, Lucretius praises Epicurus extravagantly. He lauds him as the man whose imagination ranged the lengths of the universe, penetrated into the secrets of its origin and nature, and returned to free the human race from bondage. One man alone, Epicurus, set us free by enquiring more deeply into the nature of things than any man before him and so springing ‘the tight-barred gates of Nature’s hold asunder’.

Epicureanism is as much as ‘religious’ experience as a rational philosophy and Lucretius’s references to Epicurus in the poem could almost be hymns to Christ from a Christian epic. They are full of more than awe, of reverence and almost worship. (Book I 66ff, Book II, Book III 1042, opening of Book V).

He was a god, a god indeed, who first
Found a new life-scheme, a system, a design
Now known as Wisdom or Philosophy…

He seems to us, by absolute right, a god
From whom, distributed through all the world,
Come those dear consolations of the mind,
That precious balm of spirit.

(Book V, lines 11 to 13 and 25 to 28)

Lucretius’s idolisation of Epicurus just about stops short of actual worship because Religion is the enemy. Organised religion is what keeps people in fear of the gods and makes their lives a misery. Epicurus’s aim was to liberate mankind from the oppression and wickedness into which Religious belief, superstition and fanatacism all too often lead it.

Religion the enemy of freedom

Lucretius loathes and detests organised Religion. It oppresses everyone, imposing ludicrous fictions and superstitions about divine intervention and divine punishment. Nonsense designed to oppress and quell the population.

I teach great things.
I try to loose men’s spirits from the ties,
Tight knotted, which religion binds around them.

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

As a vivid example of the way Religion always stands with evil he gives the story of Agamemnon being told by soothsayers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the gods, to calm the seas, so that the fleet of 1,000 Greek ships can sail from Greece to Troy. Could you conceive a worse example of the wicked behaviour religious belief can lead people into.

Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness…
A mighty counsellor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.

(Book I, lines 83 to 84 and 99 to 100)

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

The notes to the book were written by Professor George Strodach. Like the notes in H.H. Scullard’s classic history of Republican Rome, Strodach’s notes are not the frequent little factoids you so often find in Penguin or OUP editions (Democritus was born in Thrace around 460 BC etc), but fewer in number and longer, amounting to interesting essays in their own right.

Among several really interesting points, he tells us that after Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in the late 4th century (320s BC) many of those city states decayed in power and influence and their citizens felt deprived of the civic framework which previously gave their lives meaning. To fill this void there arose two competing ‘salvation ideologies, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each offered their devotees a meaningful way of life plus a rational and fully worked out account of the world as a whole. In both cases the worldview is the groundwork for ‘the therapy of dislocated and unhappy souls’. In each, the sick soul of the initiate must first of all learn the nature of reality before it can take steps towards leading the good life.

Lucretius’ long poem is by way of leading the novice step by step deeper into a worldview which, once adopted, is designed to help him or her conquer anxiety and achieve peace of mind by abandoning the chains of superstitious religious belief and coming to a full and complete understanding of the scientific, materialistic view of the way things are.

There’s no good life
No blessedness, without a mind made clear,
A spirit purged of error.

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

Hence the poem’s extreme didacticism. It is not so much a long lecture (thought it often sounds like it) as a prolonged initiation into the worldview of the cult of Epicurus, addressed to one person, Lucretius’s sponsor Gaius Memmius, but designed to be used by anyone who can read.

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

Hence the didactic lecturing tone throughout, which tells the reader to listen up, pay attention, focus, remember what he said earlier, lays out a lesson plan, and then proceeds systematically from point to point.

I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run.

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

The poem is littered with reminders that it is one long argument, that Lucretius is making a case. He repeatedly tells Memmius to pay attention, to follow the thread of his argument, not to get distracted by common fears or misapprehensions, and takes time to rubbish the theories of rivals.

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

If you know this,
It only takes a very little trouble
To learn the rest: the lessons, one by one,
Brighten each other, no dark night will keep you,
Pathless, astray, from ultimate vision and light,
All things illumined in each other’s radiance.

And it’s quite funny, the (fairly regular) moments when he insists that he’s told us the same thing over and over again, like a schoolteacher starting to be irritated by his pupils’ obtuseness:

  • I have said this many, many times already
  • I am almost tired of saying (III, 692)
  • as I have told you all too many times (IV, 673)
  • Be attentive now. (IV, 878)
  • I have said this over and over, many times. (IV, 1,210)
  • This I’ve said before (VI, 175)
  • Don’t be impatient. Listen! (VI, 244)
  • Remember/Never forget this! (VI, 653 to 654)
  • As I have said before… (VI, 770)
  • Once again/I hammer home this axiom… (VI, 938)

The good life

Contrary to popular belief the Epicureans did not promote a hedonistic life of pleasure. Their aim was negative: the good life is one which is, as far as possible, free from bodily pains and mental anxiety. They deprecated the competitive and acquisitive values so prevalent in first century BC Roman society:

The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day
To win towards heights of wealth and power.

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

What vanity!
To struggle towards the top, toward honour’s height
They made the way a foul and deadly road,
And when they reached the summit, down they came
Like thunderbolts, for Envy strikes men down
Like thunderbolts, into most loathsome Hell…
…let others sweat themselves
Into exhaustion, jamming that defile
They call ambition…

(Book V, lines 1,124 to 1,130 and 1,134 to 1,136)

Instead the Epicureans promoted withdrawal from all that and the spousal of extreme simplicity of living.

Whereas, if man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, lines 1,117 to 1,120)

This much I think I can, and do, assert:
That our perverse vestigial native ways
Are small enough for reason to dispel
So that it lies within our power to live
Lives worthy of the gods.

This kind of life is challenging to achieve by yourself which is why the Epicureans were noted for setting up small communities of shared values. (See what I mean by the disarmingly open but powerful eloquence of Humphries’ style.)

If man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, 1,118 to 1,121)

Shortcomings of Latin

Lucretius repeatedly points out that it is difficult to write about philosophy in Latin because it doesn’t have the words, the terminology or the traditions which have developed them, unlike the Greeks.

I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor and this material is new.

The poverty of our speech, our native tongue,
Makes it hard for me to say exactly how
These basic elements mingle…

(Book III, lines 293-295)

Interesting because this is the exact same point Cicero makes in the De rerum deorum. Cicero, in his books and letters made clear that his philosophical works as a whole have the aim of importing the best Greek thinking into Latin and, as part of the process, creating new Latin words or adapting old ones to translate the sophisticated philosophical terminology which the Greeks had spent centuries developing.

The really miraculous thing is that Humphries captures all this, or has written an English poem which is actually worth reading as poetry. ‘I

for your sake, Memmius,
Have wanted to explain the way things are
Turning the taste of honey into sound
As musical, as golden, so that I
May hold your mind with poetry, while you
Are learning all about that form, that pattern,
And see its usefulness.

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)

Synopis

Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

– hymn to Venus, metaphorical symbol of the creative urge in all life forms

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

– the two basic postulates of atomism, namely: nothing comes of nothing and the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, cannot be destroyed

– the importance of void or space between atoms which allows movement

– everything else, all human history, even time itself, are by-products or accidents of the basic interplay of atoms and void

– on the characteristics of atoms

– a refutation of rival theories, of Heraclitus (all things are made of fire), Empedocles (set no limit to the smallness of things), the Stoics (who believe everything is made up of mixtures of the 4 elements) and Anaxagoras (who believed everything was made up of miniature versions of itself) – all comprehensively rubbished

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

– the good life is living free from care, fear or anxiety

– varieties of atomic motion namely endless falling through infinite space; atoms travel faster than light

– the atomic swerve and its consequences i.e. it is a slight swerve in the endless downward fall of atoms through infinite space which begins the process of clustering and accumulation which leads to matter which leads, eventually, to the universe we see around us

– how free will is the result of a similar kind of ‘swerve’ in our mechanistic lives

– the conservation of energy

– the variety of atomic shapes and the effects of these on sensation

– atoms themselves have no secondary qualities such as colour, temperature and so on

– there is an infinite number of worlds, all formed purely mechanically i.e. no divine intervention required

– there are gods, as there are men, but they are serenely indifferent to us and our lives: in Epicurus’s worldview, the so-called gods are really just moral exemplars of lives lived with complete detachment, calm and peace (what the Greeks called ataraxia)

to think that gods
Have organised all things for the sake of men
Is nothing but a lot of foolishness. (II, 14-176)

– all things decay and our times are degraded since the golden age (‘The past was better, infinitely so’)

That all things, little by little, waste away
As time’s erosion crumbles them to doom.

Book III (1,094 lines)

– Epicurus as therapist of the soul – this passage, along with other hymns of praise to the great man scattered through the poem, make it clear that Epicurus was more than a philosopher but the founder of a cult whose devotees exalted him

– the fear of hell as the root cause of all human vices

– the material nature of mind and soul – their interaction and relation to the body – spirit is made of atoms like everything else, but much smaller than ‘body atoms’, and rarer, and finely intricated

– rebuttal of Democritus’s theory of how atoms of body and spirit interact (he thought they formed a chains of alternating body and spirit atoms)

– descriptions of bodily ailments (such as epilepsy) and mental ailments( such as fear or depression) as both showing the intimate link between body and spirit

– an extended passage arguing why the spirit or soul is intimately linked with the body so that when one dies, the other dies with it

– the soul is not immortal – therefore there is no ‘transmigration of souls’; a soul which was in someone else for their lifetime does not leave their body upon their death and enter that of the nearest newly-conceived foetus – he ridicules this belief by envisioning the souls waiting in a queue hovering around an egg about to be impregnated by a sperm and all vying to be the soul that enters the new life

– the soul is not immortal – being made of atoms it disintegrates like the body from the moment of death (in lines 417 to 820 Lucretius states no fewer than 26 proofs of the mortality of the soul: Strodach groups them into 1. proofs from the material make-up of the soul; proofs from diseases and their cures; 3. proofs from the parallelism of body and soul; 4. proofs from the various logical absurdities inherent in believing the soul could exist independently of the body)

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

– vivid descriptions of types of people and social situations (at funerals, at banquets) at which people’s wrong understanding of the way things are makes them miserable

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

Because I teach great things, because I strive
To free the spirit, give the mind release
From the constrictions of religious fear…

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

– atomic images or films: these are like an invisible skin or film shed from the surfaces of all objects, very fine, passing through the air, through glass – this is his explanation of how sight and smell work, our senses detect these microscopic films of things which are passing through the air all around us

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

all knowledge is based on the senses; rejecting the evidence of the senses in favour of ideas and theories leads to nonsense, ‘a road to ruin’. Strodach calls this ‘extreme empiricism’ and contrast it with the two other ancient philosophies, Platonism which rejected the fragile knowledge of the senses and erected knowledge on the basis of maths and logic; and Scepticism, which said both mind and body can be wrong, so we have to go on probabilities and experience

– his explanations of sight, hearing and taste are colourful, imaginative, full of interesting examples, and completely wrong

– how we think, based on the theory of ‘images’ derived by the impression of atomic ‘skins’ through our senses; it seems wildly wrong, giving the impression that ‘thought’ is the almost accidental combination of these atomistic images in among the finer textured atoms of the mind

– a review of related topics of human experience, including movement, sleep and dreams, the latter produced when fragments of atomistic images are assembled by the perceiving mind when it is asleep, passive and undirected

– an extended passage ridiculing romantic love which moves on to theory about sex and reproduction, namely that the next generation are a mix of material from each parent, with a load of old wives’ tales about which position to adopt to get pregnant, and the sex or characteristics of offspring derive from the vigour and other characteristics of the parents. Lucretius tries to give a scientific explanation of the many aspects of sex and reproduction which, since he lacked all science, come over as folk myths. But he is a card carrying Epicurean and believes the whole point of life is to avoid anxiety, stress and discombobulation and so, logically enough, despises and ridicules sex and love.

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

– the world is mortal, its origin is mechanical not divine

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

– an extended passage describing the rise of man from lying under bushes in a state of nature through the creation of tribes, then cities – the origin of civilisation, including the invention of kings and hierarchies, the discovery of fire, how to use metals and weave clothes, the invention of language and law and, alas, the development of Religion to awe and terrify ourselves with

This book is the longest and also the weakest, in that Lucretius reveals his woeful ignorance about a whole raft of scientific issues. He thinks the earth is at the centre of the universe and the moon, sun, planets and stars all circle round it. He thinks the earth is a flat surface and the moon and the sun disappear underneath it. He thinks the sun, moon and stars are moved by the wind. He thinks all animals and other life forms were given birth by the earth, and that maggots and worms are generated from soil. In her early days the earth gave birth to all kinds of life forms but this no longer happens because she is tired out. Lucretius is anti-evolutionary in the way he thinks animals and plants and man came into being with abilities fully formed (the eye, nose, hand) and only then found uses for them, rather than the modern view that even slight, rudimentary fingers, hands, sense of smell, taste, sight, would convey evolutionary advantage on their possessors which tend to encourage their development over successive generations.

I appreciate that Lucretius was trying his best to give an objective, rational and unsupernatural account of all aspects of reality. I understand that although his account of the origins of lightning and thunder may be wildly incorrect (clouds contain particles of fire) his aim was worthy and forward looking – to substitute a rational materialistic account for the absurdly anthropocentric, superstitious, god-fearing superstitions of his day, by which people thought lightning and thunder betokened the anger of the gods. He had very good intentions.

But these good intentions don’t stop the majority of his account from being ignorant tripe. Well intention and asking the right questions (what causes rain, what causes thunder, what is lightning, what is magnetism) and trying hard to devise rational answers to them. But wrong about almost everything.

Reading it makes you realise what enormous events the invention of the telescope and the microscope were, both around 1600, Galileo’s proof that the earth orbits round the sun a decade later, the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 1620s, Newton’s theory of gravity in the 1680s, the discovery of electricity around 1800, the theory of evolution in the 1850s, the germ theory of the 1880s and, well, all of modern science.

Reading Lucretius, like reading all the ancients and medieval authors, is to engage with intelligent, learned, observant and sensitive people who knew absolutely nothing about how the world works, what causes natural phenomena, how living organisms came about and evolved, next to nothing about astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry or any of the natural sciences. Their appeal is their eloquence, the beauty of their language and the beguilingness of their fairy tales.

And of course, the scientific worldview is always provisional. It may turn out that everything we believe is wrong and about to be turned upside down by new discoveries and paradigm shifts., It’s happened before.

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

…he cleansed
Our hearts by words of truth; he put an end
To greed and fears; he showed the highest good
Toward which we all are aiming, showed the way…

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

– meteorology: thunder, lightning because the clouds contain gold and seeds of fire, waterspouts

– geological phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, clouds, rain, why the sea never overflows considering all the rivers running into it, the inundation of the Nile

– why noxious things oppress humanity; pigs hate perfume but love mud!

– four pages about magnetism, noticing and describing many aspects of it but completely wrong about what it is and how it works

– disease, plague and pestilence, which he thinks derive from motes and mist which is in the right ballpark

The odd thing about the entire poem is that it leads up, not to an inspiring vision of the Good Life lived free of anxiety in some ideal Epicurean community, but to a sustained and harrowing description of the great plague which devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). For four pages the poet lays on detail after detail of the great plague, the symptoms, the horrible suffering and death, its spread, social breakdown, streets full of rotting corpses. And then – it just ends. Stops. Not quite in mid-sentence, but certainly in mid-flow.

The abruptness of this unexpected ending has led many commentators to speculate that Lucretius intended to write a seventh book, which would have been devoted to religion, theology, ethics and led up to the hymn to the Good Life everyone was expecting. I agree. Throughout the poem he is chatty, badgering the reader, telling us he’s embarking on a new subject, repeating things he’s said before, haranguing and nagging us. For the text to just end in the middle of describing men fighting over whose family members will be burned on funeral pyres is macabre and weird. Here are the very last lines:

Everyone in grief
Buried his own whatever way he could
Amid the general panic. Sudden need
And poverty persuaded men to use
Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place
Their dead on pyres prepared for other men’
Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl
To keep the corpses from abandonment.

(Book VI, lines 1,279 to 1,286)

It must be unfinished.

Thoughts

1. The philosophy

I’m very attracted by Epicurus’s thought, as propounded here and in Cicero’s De natura deorum. After a long and sometimes troubled life I very much want to achieve a state of ataraxia i.e. freedom from mental disturbances. However, there seems to me a very big flaw at the heart of Epicureanism. One of the two cardinal fears addressed is fear of the gods, in the sense of fear of their arbitrary intervention in our lives unless we endlessly propitiate these angry entities with sacrifices and processions and whatnot. This fear of punishment and retribution is said to be one of the principle sources of anxiety in people.

Except that this isn’t really true. I live in a society, England, which in 2022 is predominantly godless. Real believers in actual gods are in a distinct minority. And yet mental illnesses, including depression and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, are more prevalent than ever before, afflicting up to a quarter of the population annually.

It felt to me throughout the poem that accusing religious belief in gods as the principle or sole cause of anxiety and unhappiness is so wide of the mark as to make it useless. Even in a godless world, all humans are still susceptible to utterly random accidents, to a whole range of unfortunate blows, from being diagnosed with cancer to getting hit by a bus, losing your job, losing your house, losing your partner. We are vulnerable to thousands of incidents and accidents which could affect us very adversely and it is not at all irrational to be aware of them, and it is very hard indeed not to worry about them, particularly if you actually do lose your job, your house, your partner, your children, your parents etc.

The idea that human beings waste a lot of time in fear and anxiety and stress and worry is spot on. So the notion that removing this fear and anxiety and stress and worry would be a good thing is laudable. And Epicurus’s argument against the fear of death (death is the end of mind and body both; therefore it is pointless worrying about it because you won’t feel it; it is less than nothing) is still relevant, powerful and potentially helpful.

But the idea that you can alleviate anxiety do that by disproving the existence of ‘gods’ is, alas, completely irrelevant to the real causes of the problem, which have endured long after any ‘fear of the gods’ has evaporated and so is of no practical help at all. All Epicurus and Lucretius’s arguments in this area, fluent and enjoyable though they are, are of purely academic or historical interest. Sadly.

2. The poem

Cicero’s De rerum natura was a hard read because of the unrelentingness of the arguments, many of which seemed really stupid or petty. The way things are, on the contrary, is an amazingly enjoyable read because of the rhythm and pacing and phrasing of the poem.

Lucretius is just as argumentative as Cicero i.e. the poem is packed with arguments following pell mell one after the other (‘Moreover…one more point…furthermore…In addition…’) but this alternates with, or is embedded in, descriptions of human nature, of the world and people around us, and of the make-up of the universe, which are both attractive and interesting in themselves, and also provide a sense of rhythm, changes of subject and pace, to the poem.

Amazingly, although the subject matter is pretty mono-minded and Lucretius is banging on and on about essentially the same thing, the poem itself manages never to be monotonous. I kept reading and rereading entire pages just for the pleasure of the words and phrasing. This is one of the, if not the, most enjoyable classical text I’ve read. And a huge part of that is, I think, down to Humphries’s adeptness as a poet.

Comparison with the Penguin edition

As it happened, just after I finished reading the Humphries translation I came across the 2007 Penguin edition of the poem in a local charity shop and snapped it up for £2. It’s titled The Nature of Things and contains a translation by A.E. Stallings with an introduction and notes by Richard Jenkyns.

Textual apparatus

As you’d expect from Penguin, it’s a much more traditional layout, including not only the translation but an introduction, further reading, an explanation of the style and metre of the translation, 22 pages of factual notes at the end (exactly the kind of fussy, mostly distracting notes the Humphries edition avoids), and a glossary of names.

In addition it has two useful features: the text includes line numberings, given next to every tenth line. It’s a feature of the Humphries version that it’s kept as plain and stripped down as possible with no indication of lines except at the top of the page, so if you want to know which line you’re looking at you have to manually count from the top line downwards. Trivial but irritating.

The other handy thing about the Penguin edition is it gives each of the books a title, absent in the original and Humphries. Again, no biggy, but useful.

  • Book I – Matter and Void
  • Book II – The Dance of Atoms
  • Book III – Mortality and the Soul
  • Book IV – The Senses
  • Book V – Cosmos and Civilisation
  • Book VI – Weather and the Earth

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

Epicurus’s own writings are austere and he was said to disapprove of poetry. Lucretius’s achievement, and what makes his poem so great, was the tremendous depth of lyric feeling he brought to the, potentially very dry, subject matter. He doesn’t just report Epicurus’s philosophy, he infuses it with passion, conviction and new levels of meaning.

This, for Jenkyns, explains a paradox which has bugged scholars, namely why a poem expounding a philosophy which is fiercely anti-religion, opens with a big Hymn to Venus. It’s because Venus is a metaphor for the underlying unity of everything which is implicit in Epicurus’s teaching that there is no spirit, no soul, nothing but atoms in various combinations and this means we are all united in the bounty of nature.

The opponents of Epicureanism commonly treated it as a dull, drab creed; Lucretius’ assertion is that, rightly apprehended, it is beautiful, majestic and inspiring. (p.xviii)

Lucretius’s was very influential on the leading poet of the next generation, Virgil, who assimilated his soaring tone.

The passages praising Epicurus are strategically place throughout the poem, much as invocations of the muses open key books in the traditional classical epic.

Jenkyns points out that Lucretius’s tone varies quite a bit, notable for much soaring rhetoric but also including invective and diatribe, knockabout abuse of rival philosophers, sometimes robustly humorous, sometimes sweetly domestic, sometimes focusing on random observations about everyday life, then soaring into speculation about the stars and the planets. But everything is driven by and reverts to, a tone of impassioned communication. He has seen the light and he is desperate to share it with everyone. It is an evangelical poem.

Stalling’s translation

Quite separate from Jenkyns’s introduction, Stalling gives a 5-page explanation of the thinking behind her translation. The obvious and overwhelming differences are that her version rhymes, and is in very long lines which she calls fourteeners. To be precise she decided to translate Lucretius’s Latin dactylic hexameters into English rhyming heptameters, where heptameter means a line having seven ‘feet’ or beats. What does that mean in practice? Well, count the number of beats in each of these lines. The first line is tricky so I’ve bolded the syllables I think need emphasising:

Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea – for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
For you, the oceans laugh, the sky grows peaceful after showers…

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

Stalling concedes that the standard form for translating foreign poetry is probably loose unrhymed pentameters, with five beats per line – exactly the metre Humphries uses:

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered ocean, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.

Clearly Humphries’ unrhymed pentameters have a much more light and airy feel. They also allow for snazzy phrasing – I like ‘marinered ocean’, a bit contrived, but still stylish. Or take Humphries’ opening of Book III:

O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise
The shining light out of tremendous dark
Illumining the blessings of our life
You are the one I follow. In your steps
I tread, not as a rival, but for love
Of your example. Does the swallow vie
With swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats
Compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds?

Now Stalling:

You, who first amidst such thick gloom could raise up so bright
A lantern, bringing everything that’s good in life to light,
You I follow, Glory of the Greeks, and place my feet,
Within your footsteps. Not because I would compete
With you, but for the sake of love, because I long to follow
And long to emulate you. After all, why would a swallow
Strive with swans? How can a kid with legs that wobble catch
Up with the gallop of a horse? – the race would be no match.

Stalling makes the point that the heptameter has, since the early Renaissance, been associated with ballads and with narrative and so is suited to a long didactic poem. Arthur Golding used it in his 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and George Chapman in his 1611 translation of the Iliad. Stalling hopes the ‘old fashioned rhythm and ring’ of her fourteeners will, implicitly, convey ‘something of the archaic flavour of Lucretius’s Latin’ (p.xxvi).

OK, let’s look at the little passage which I noticed crops up no fewer than four times in the poem. Here’s Stalling’s version:

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun or by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us – her first principle: that nothing’s brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught
.

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

That use of ‘naught’ transports us back to the 1850s and Tennyson. It is consciously backward looking, in sound and meaning and connotation. I can see why: she’s following through on her stated aim of conveying the original archaism of the poem. But, on the whole, I just don’t like the effect. I prefer Humphries’ more modern-sounding diction.

Also, despite having much longer lines to play with, something about the rhythm and the requirement to rhyme each line paradoxically end up cramping Stalling’s ability to express things clearly and simply. Compare Humphries’ version of these same lines:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods’ will
.

‘Insight into nature’ and ‘systematic contemplation’ are so much more emphatic and precise than ‘by observing Nature and her laws’ which is bland, clichéd and flabby.

Humphries’ ‘Our starting point shall be this principle’ is a little stagey and rhetorical but has the advantage of being crystal clear. Whereas Stalling’s ‘And this will lay/The warp out for us – her first principle…’ is cramped and confusing. Distracted by the odd word ‘warp’, trying to visualise what it means in this context, means I miss the impact of this key element of Lucretius’s message.

In her translator’s note Stalling refers to earlier translations and has this to say about Humphries:

Rolfe Humphries’ brisk, blank verse translation The way things are (1969) often spurred me to greater vigour and concision. (p.xxviii)

Precisely. I think the Stalling is very capable, and it should be emphasised that the fourteeners really do bed down when you take them over the long haul. If you read just a few lines of this style it seems silly and old fashioned, but if you read a full page it makes sense and after several pages you really get into the swing. It is a good meter for rattling through an extended narrative.

But still. I’m glad I read the poem in the Humphries’ version. To use Stalling’s own phrase, it has ‘greater vigour and concision’. Humphries much more vividly conveys Lucretius’s urgency of tone, his compulsion to share the good news with us and set us free:

…all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void of empty space. I see
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing mars their peace of mind.

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

I’m with him, I’m seeing the vision of the passionless gods with him, and I’m caught up in his impassioned repetition of ‘nothing, nothing‘. All of which, alas, is fogged and swaddled in the long fustian lines of Stalling’s version:

…The gods appear to me
Enthroned in all their holiness and their serenity,
And where they dwell, wind never lashes them, cloud never rains,
And snowfall white and crisp with biting frost never profanes.
The canopy of aether over them is always bright
And unbeclouded, lavishing the laughter of its light.
And there they want for nothing; every need, nature supplies;
And nothing ever ruffles their peace of mind. Contrariwise…

The key phrase about the gods’ peace of mind should conclude the line; instead it ends mid-line and is, as a result, muffled. Why? To make way for the rhyme, which in this case is supplied by another heavily archaic word ‘contrariwise’ which has the unintended effect of trivialising the preceding line.

Stalling’s translation is skilful, clever, immensely rhythmic, a fascinating experiment, but…no.

Online translations

Now let me extend my argument. I’ll try
To be as brief as possible, but listen!

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

There have been scores of translations of De rerum natura into English. An easy one to access on the internet is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 verse translation. Compared to either Stalling or Humphries, it’s dire, but it’s free.


Roman reviews

The world of Stonehenge catalogue by Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin (2022)

All the catalogues to British Museum exhibitions come in the same format and style. They are big, heavy and black. The front cover image emerges out of a dead black, matt black background as if from an unfathomable past – the cover of the Nero exhibition had this style, and the Peru exhibition, and in the case of this catalogue it is a collage of a night-time photo of Stonehenge itself dominated by the most striking exhibit in the show, the Nebra sky disk (made in Germany 3,600 years ago).

Front cover of The world of Stonehenge catalogue.

The hardback versions are very heavy and have the dimensions of coffee table books, 13.8 inches tall by 11.5 inches wide. But the classic coffee table book consists of mostly full-page photos or illustrations with captions and minimal text. Whereas, although it has photos on almost every page, beautiful photos of Stonehenge and scores of other prehistoric sites, and hundreds of images of finds and relics, they are what you might call moderate size, and embedded in a great deal of information-rich prose.

Main ideas

I dare say the authors (Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin) had numerous ideas they wanted to get across, but three really big ones came over for me:

1. What is a henge?

Ironically Stonehenge is not a henge. A ‘henge’ is a type of Neolithic earthwork which features a ring-shaped bank and ditch, with the ditch inside the bank (the term was coined by British Museum curator Thomas Kendrick in the 1930s). So the ‘henge’ in Stonehenge doesn’t refer to the stone circles at all; it refers to the circular ditch and bank which surrounds the stone circle. There are some 120 henges, or prehistoric circular ditches with a bank, scattered across the British Isles, but there’s a much larger number of stone circles, at over a thousand. Whole passages of the catalogue are devoted to discussing in detail many of these other stone circles, particularly in Ireland and in the Scottish islands of the Orkneys and Hebrides, all accompanied by beautiful photos (pages 95 to 99).

Anyway, even the ditch part of Stonehenge isn’t a ‘true’ henge because its ditch runs outside its bank (Stonehenge catalogue, page 19).

Henges often have entrances i.e. an earth bridge across the ditch, sometimes marked just inside by a pair of flanking wood poles or standing stones – but far from being consistently aligned with astrological features i.e. the sun or moon, there is a wide variety of placement and no consistency or pattern. Henges which are large enough to contain a sizeable central flattened area where structures were subsequently erected are called ‘henge enclosures’.

Because another key thing about henges is that the wooden or stone circles built inside them were often built a lot later so the two might not have had the same purpose or meaning. Maybe stone circles were built within henges because they had become holy sites, but the cultures which built them were separated by up to 1,000 years in time.

2. Packed landscape

Nowadays we see Stonehenge as a strange and mysterious edifice, standing unique and solitary on the windswept Salisbury Plain. But nothing could be further from the archaeological truth. If there’s one thing to take away from the exhibition and the catalogue it is that, in its day, Stonehenge was embedded in a crazily busy, heavily developed landscape.

The Avenue We now know there was a wide ‘avenue’ carved into the chalk which led off northeast from the henge, before bending east, then south to join the River Avon.

Blick Mead This is a chalkland spring about a mile east of Stonehenge and excavation at the site indicates that there was continuous human habitation here from 10,000 to 6,000 years ago, an immense period of time, and covering the early stages of the construction of Stonehenge (p.36).

Bluestonehenge Very recent excavations have discovered that at the landing place from the river there was a flattened area and another circle, 60 feet wide. Excavations have revealed 27 holes which held stones. No stones remain but flakes of stone suggest they were ‘bluestones’ like the ones used at Stonehenge, so archaeologists speculate that some time after it was erected, the circle was taken down and the stones moved to form the middle circle at Stonehenge (p.89).

Bush Barrow less than a mile south-west of Stonehenge is a burial site dating to around 3,900 to 3,700 years ago. The burial chamber contained one individual accompanied by some of the most spectacular grave goods ever found in Britain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

Car park postholes Just 250 yards north-west of Stonehenge three massive pits have been discovered which held upright wooden poles. The holes and poles date back ten thousand years and mark the earliest known human building activity in the area (p.29). At this point Britain was still fully connected to the continent by the large area of land, subsequently drowned to form the North Sea, and now referred to as Doggerland (p.33).

Coneybury henge A mile south east of Stonehenge is the remains of Coneybury Henge, an oval ditch around 45 metres by 55 metres in diameter, inside which are some pits and stakeholes and an arc of postholes which may have represented a post circle (p.44).

Durrington Walls Two miles north east of Stonehenge is Durrington Walls, which is now known to have been a substantial Neolithic settlement and site of the second-largest Late Neolithic palisaded enclosure known in the UK. Excavations suggest the settlement may once have included 1,000 houses and perhaps 4,000 people, making it the largest settlement in northern Europe, the London of its time (p.86). Durrington was inhabited for about 500 years, from about 4,800 to 4,100 years ago.

Excavations as recent as 2020 revealed a number of pits and holes apparently designed to hold massive timbers, which could be part of a 1.2-mile-wide circuit of 33 foot pits. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument (p.84). Meat was consumed her in huge quantities. Pig was the most popular source of meat (p.87).

Professor Mike Parker Pearson has proposed the theory that the organic wooden nature of buildings and circles at Durrington may have symbolised food and community and Life, by contrast with Stonehenge, a site dominated by cold, lifeless, hard stones and laced with burials, a site devoted to Death and ancestral spirits, not living people (p.88).

Greater Cursus A mile to the north of Stonehenge is the Greater Cursus, an earthwork 1.9 miles long and between 330 and 490 feet wide. It was built before the stone circle, dated to 5,630 and 5,375 years ago, several hundred years before the earliest phase of Stonehenge 5,000 years ago. Cursus is the Latin word for racetrack, as this is what 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley mistakenly speculated it may have been for (p.57). In fact its exact purpose is unknown. Maybe it was a boundary between sacred and profane territory. Maybe it had a ceremonial purpose.

Lesser Cursus Same uncertainty surrounds the Lesser Cursus to the north-west of the Greater Cursus. The Lesser is  a 400 metres long and 60 metres wide earthwork. Its purpose is utterly unknown. It is mind boggling to learn that both long, deep, wide trenches were dug with reindeer antlers fashioned into basic picks, and ox shoulder blades used as shovels.

Barrows At the eastern terminal of the Cursus is a Neolithic long barrow. To the south-west of the Cursus is the Cursus Barrows Group, a round barrow cemetery which extends 1,200 metres west-to-east along a ridge and measures 250 metres wide (p.54).

In total a staggering 670 burial mounds are known in the landscape around Stonehenge, though the real number may be closer to 1,000 (p.197).

Larkhill enclosure Two miles north of Stonehenge a monumental enclosure has been discovered at the village of Larkhill which seems to be aligned to the solstices and was built 3,750 to 3,650 BC i.e. maybe 500 years before the first stones were erected at Stonehenge. Maybe it acted as a kind of template for the later building? (pages 19 and 56).

Winterbourne Stoke Two miles west of Stonehenge a massive barrow was built in around 5,500 years ago i.e. 500 years before the earliest building at Stonehenge (p.55).

Woodhenge And that’s not all – a short walk from the south of the henge is the structure called Woodhenge, a henge and timber circle dated to between 2,470 and 2,000 BC, about the same time as, or slightly later than, construction of the stone circle at Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating of artefacts shows that the site was still in use around 1800 BC.

The site consists of six concentric oval rings of postholes, 168 holes in total. Most of these held wooden posts but excavations in 2006 indicated that there were at least five standing stones on the site arranged in a ‘cove’. The deepest post holes measured up to 6 feet and are believed to have held posts which reached as high as 25 feet above ground. Those posts would have weighed up to 5 tons, and their arrangement was similar to that of the bluestones at Stonehenge.

Some theorists speculate that woodhenge maybe symbolised the organic transient world of Life, while the huge stone circle a mile away, which was also a burial ground, symbolised the cold eternity of Death (60 cremation burials dating between 5,000 and 4,800 years ago have been found in or just next to the henge, containing up to 120 bodies; p.67).

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Durrington South timber memorial And just 20 metres away from the periphery of Woodhenge is a completely separate edifice, the Durrington South timber memorial (p.100).

Summary

So what emerges is a picture of Stonehenge the opposite of how we see it today. Far from rising in splendid isolation from a flat plain, it would have been surrounded by numerous other circles of stone or wood, plus the long ditches of the cursuses and the dramatic wide Avenue leading down to another circle by the river. Maybe there were more paths or tracks between these various sites. Maybe pilgrims to the sites had to process around them in a ritual order, as Muslim pilgrims do at the sites of Mecca. Certainly the more we discover, the more densely packed the prehistoric terrain becomes and the more puzzlingly dense with long lost meanings and rituals.

Prehistoric sites around Stonehenge Ordnance Survey (source: Wikipedia) compare with the map on page 90 of the catalogue.

Avebury stone circle Not that much further afield, at Avebury just 25 miles north of Stonehenge, is another, huge stone circle with multiple associated henges and circles and causewayed enclosures and barrows.

Silbury Hill Between the two is Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe, 30 metres high and 160 metres across, in the construction of which an estimated half a million tons of chalk were moved requiring about 4 million man hours of labour (p.94).

3. Speculation

It’s not surprising but it is noticeable how much of what the exhibition and the catalogue describe is pure speculation. Obviously it’s speculation by highly experienced experts in their field but, nonetheless, it is speculation, informed guesswork. This really struck home in a paragraph of six sentences on page 101, every one of which hinged on the verb ‘may’. ‘May’, along with ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, ‘probably’ and ‘likely’ do a lot of work in this text. Maybe this, perhaps that, possibly the other. This carving could indicate, that dating might suggest…The reader moves from one conditional speculation to another.

On this same page the authors speculate freely that the close proximity of the two massive complexes at Stonehenge and Avebury may have played a part in social rivalry and competition (p.101). Maybe. Maybe not.

The entire chapter 3, about the possible religious beliefs of the henge builders, is a high point of speculation. Just about every relevant object is subjected to flurries of conditionality – these rock carvings may indicate some form of mythological story, these objects might have taken part in religious ceremonies, perhaps these sites had resonant astronomical significance.

  • The sight of flames baking the solar images to the bottoms of these special pots may have added an extra layer of meaning to their production and use. (p.129)
  • Lunulae may have been regarded as too powerful or special to be grave goods associated with any one individual. (p.129)
  • Perhaps the role or identity they conveyed on their wearer was fleeting or part of a rite of passage or ceremony. (p.130)
  • The bronze axe may have been a product of both Ireland and Cornwall. (p.130)
  • It may be impossible to divorce the benefits of trade from beliefs about the cosmos and the role and origin of the sun itself. (p.131)
  • In a ceremony with all kinds of sensory stimuli, from fire, smoke, sounds and spectacle, the movement of the cart may have enacted the passage of the sun through the heavens… (p.133)
  • The bird-sun-boat motif may symbolise a myth or story distinct from but related to the Scandinavian version… (p.135)
  • The chariot might have played a part in ceremonies that did not require a fixed temple… (p.135)
  • Two bronze horses from Scania, Sweden, may have come from a similar model, their glowing amber eyes, again, perhaps representing the sun. (p.137)
  • Sacrificing valuable objects that represented the sun to supernatural forces may be an example of exhortations to the powers of spirits or ancestors, perhaps perceived as the best way to guarantee fertility, regrowth and regeneration. (p.138)
  • [The Amesbury Archer] may have been a specialist metalworker, bringing knowledge of this new, apparently magical, craft… (p.165)

As I read on I became increasingly sceptical about such claims, for the simple reason that the experts  and their theories often radically contradict each other. The authors candidly explain the two or three theories about the meaning and purpose of every site and ditch and stone circle and passage tomb and bronze object and rock carving, and they are often interesting and stimulating speculations.

But the net effect is that a moderately intelligent layman like myself soon comes to realise that there are two utterly distinct levels at play here: on the basic level are the objects themselves, the sites and henges and stones and carvings and axes and metal objects, together with concrete, factual information about the sites where they were discovered – and then, completely separate, is a distinct second layer of speculation, initially tied to these objects but often roaming off into misty worlds of speculation, fantastic descriptions of night-time ceremonies, of the multi-sensual impact of religious rites, for which there is no evidence beyond the authors’ imaginations.

It is also noticeable that many of the conditional speculations are in the direction of current academic and modishly woke concerns: in other words, the academics tend, often without any evidence whatsoever, to rope in ideas about ‘gender’ and ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’ as if they were writing a Guardian article or a BBC documentary or a Tate gallery label.

I was particularly struck by the half dozen times they speculate that pots and beakers may have contained ‘intoxicating substances’ to help participate in cult rituals. This sounds cool and modish but there is absolutely no evidence at all of any such substances, after thousands of years there couldn’t be. It’s just a cool Channel 4-type guess or speculation that fits the mood of our drug-soaked times, that gives otherwise dry scholarly articles a rakish, rebel air.

A hundred and fifty years ago the Victorians superimposed their ideas of race and history and religion onto these objects, and now contemporary archaeologists are projecting our values onto them, in turn. The artifacts are like Rorschach tests, complex but unknowable objects onto which scholars project very vividly the concerns and clichés of our own day.

So reading the book tells us about its subject, an encyclopedic overview of the archaeological knowledge of the years 8,000 to 800 BC. But it’s also like looking in a mirror at the values and issues uppermost in the mind of the academic community of archaeologists and ethnographers and ancient historians.

What this aspect of the book displays in spades is the human need for narrative and explanation and causation, all subsets of the fundamental human need for meaning and purpose. A woman friend of mine goes to as many exhibitions as I do, but rarely reads the big wall labels explaining the detailed historical context, or the small labels describing individual exhibits. She just enjoys the objects for what they are, here and now, enjoys them as necklaces, earrings, pendants, figurines, whose presence ennobles and enriches your life, even for a few moments, as you walk among them, with no straining after meaning or context. Just for their beauty alone. I wish I had her courage.

Plain v-perforated jet buttons from Harehope Cairn, Peeblesshire, Early Bronze Age, 2200 to 1750 BC. On display at The world of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum (Photo © National Museums, Scotland)

Prehistoric trivia

Impossible to summarise such an encyclopedic text, but certain facts stood out:

– Stonehenge was built between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago, roughly contemporary with the construction of the great pyramid at Giza, the Sphinx (4,500 years ago) and the royal cemetery at Ur in Iraq.

– The first modern to carry out fieldwork, map and describe Stonehenge was antiquarian and founding trustee of the British Museum William Stukeley, during the 1720s. He was instrumental in popularising the notion that Stonehenge was built by the Druids which is wildly incorrect, out by a period of some 3,000 years (Stonehenge started construction 3,000 BC, Druids active when the Romans landed in 43 AD).

The relevant periods are:

  • the Mesolithic: c. 12,000 to 6,000 years ago
  • the Neolithic: c. 6,000 to 4,500 years ago
  • the Bronze Age: c.4,500 to 2,800 years ago

– Collective monuments to house the dead were built in Britain and Ireland for the first time around 6,000 years ago (p.21).

– The period 6,000 to 5,000 years ago i.e. the millennium before Stonehenge was the era of burial chambers and tombs and chambered graves which occur all across the British Isles which often contain numbers of dead, particularly in the period 5,750 to 5,400 years ago (pages 60 and 62). After 5,400 these developed into ‘passage tombs’ with passageways leading into one or more connected burial chambers all covered by stone lintels themselves covered in earth and grass (p.61).

All of the art and decorative work (on stone) from the early Stonehenge period (6,000 to 4,500 years ago) is abstract and non-figurative: lots of circles, whorls and lozenges (p.119).

– 4,500 years ago a major cultural change. The sarsen stone phase of Stonehenge was completed and stone circle building across Britain came to an end. Maybe due to the immigration from the continent of people who brought metal working, the Beaker People. Instead of communal activity or worship, Stonehenge became the focal point of scores of individual burial mounds. Offerings of weapons and tools start to be made at natural places, for example springs and rivers, miles away from man-made henges and circles, as if religion became more personalised, local and easy. Again and again the curators speak of ‘the waning influence of Stonehenge commencing with the arrival of the metal smelting people 4,500 years ago’.

– The last person to be buried at Stonehenge was interred between 4,400 and 4,200 years ago, an adult male aged 25 to 30 who had been shot by several arrows. It is widespread evidence like this which leads experts to suggest that, with the arrival of the Beaker People, society became more individualistic and violent (p.161).

– The agricultural revolution spread from the Middle East from about 9,000 years ago. By about 7,000 years ago it had reached most of north-west France. But then there was an epic delay, and evidence of the farming revolution in lifestyle (fixed settlements, agricultural implements, seeds, domesticated animal bones) didn’t appear until a millennium later, around 6,000 years ago. Why the huge delay? Nobody knows (p.41).

– Knowledge of domesticating plants and animals wasn’t transported to Britain in the abstract. Neither the plants nor the animals naturally existed in Britain. Wheat and corn, cows and sheep and goats and pigs and chicken had to be physically transported across the Channel in primitive boats (p.43).

– A thousand years after the first stones were erected, and several hundred years after the last reconfiguration of the stones, some of the big sarsen stones were decorated with carvings. A total of 119 carvings have been identified, 115 axes and four daggers (p.195). In the curators’ opinion this shows the Beaker People-era shift from communal edifices to the veneration of the new, metal, portable objects. Presumably it indicates the way axes and daggers had not just practical utility but some kind of numinous power.

– In the late 3,000s the emphasis switched from communal effort to create a vast edifice like Stonehenge towards numerous burials of individuals, indicating a switch towards the prioritisation of families and individuals. No fewer than 670 burial mounds are known in the vicinity of Stonehenge (p.197).

– About 3,500 years ago bronze artifacts become so common across Europe, implying a step change in trade routes and exchange of metal ores and finished products, that some scholars refer to it as the ‘bronzisation’ of Europe, comparable to modern ‘globalisation’ (p.209).

– The focus of society moved away from the heartlands of the Wessex chalkland towards the coasts. Analysis of bronze and gold objects shows that the original ore was imported across the Channel. Bronze Age ships and their cargoes have been discovered. It is at this period that precious objects begin to be deposited in waterways, springs and lakes, presumably to propitiate spirits. The huge communal effort required to build Stonehenge belongs to a long distant past.

– There was an increased shift to living close to water, reflect in and permitted by advances in boat and canoe building. In a landscape with few if any roads, waterways were the easiest way to travel and to tap into what all the evidence suggests were farflung networks of trade and connectivity (p.238).

– The closer we come to historic times, the more violent societies all across Europe became. Metal means weapons and armour. The late second millennium BC refers to 1300 or 1200 BC and the authors repeatedly compare the design and use of decorated axes, helmets, maces and armour with that described by Homer in his epics about Troy, set at a legendary epoch often dated to 1300 to 1200 BC.

– The Bronze Age, which is said to have commenced about 2,500 BC, is said to end about 800 BC with the relatively quick introduction of the much more durable, useful medium of iron, having lasted about 1,700 years.

– Not only iron but glass begins to be found in the record from 800 BC and a new type of complex interwoven zoomorphic designs which we nowadays call ‘Celtic’. It was a big revelation to me to see Celtic patterns, designs and culture as the end point of all the previous changes, as a relatively brief phase barely even a thousand years long before the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD.

– And that the late Iron Age also saw the advent of a completely new kind of edifice, the hill fort, which quickly became very widespread across the British Isles, and characterised the Britain the Romans discovered much more than the – by now – ancient and often ruined stone circles, chambered tombs, causeways and circular ditches which littered the countryside (p.243).

Video

The best video I can find consists of an interview with Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of Archaeology at University College London, who not only explains the sequence of building at Stonehenge but relates it a) in spatial terms, to the construction the huge nearby site at Durrington Walls (Pearson’s speciality) and b) in time, to the big cultural shift which took place with the arrival of the Beaker People about 4,500 years ago, which swept away the communal ethos – and, if the DNA evidence is to be believed – the actual populations responsible for the construction of Stonehenge and the many other henges and circles and chambers and barrows which are the subject of this big, beautifully illustrated and fascinating book.


Related links

Related reviews

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

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

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

Imaginary beings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bestiary manqué

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

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

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

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

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

Pictures

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

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

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

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

Favourites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

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

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

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

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

A Borges reading list

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

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

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

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

Ancient world

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

Middle Ages

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

Early modern

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

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


Related links

Borges reviews

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

Selected Poems by John Dryden edited by Donald Thomas (1993)

John Dryden was the most successful poet, playwright, critic, translator and man of letters of his time, that time being roughly the late-1660s through to his death in 1700.

Early life

Dryden was born into a Puritan family in Northamptonshire in 1631. He was sent to the prestigious Westminster private school in 1645, the year Charles I’s army was defeated at the Battle of Naseby. In 1649 Charles I was executed in front of the Banqueting House in Whitehall, just a few hundred yards from Dryden’s classroom. He went up to Cambridge in 1650 and four years later returned to London to work as clerk to his cousin, Sir Gilbert Pickering, who was Cromwell’s Lord Chamberlain. When Lord Protector Cromwell died in 1658, Dryden wrote a set of Heroic Stanzas about him, but when Charles II was restored to the throne eighteen months later, Dryden wrote a poem celebrating this event too – Astraea Redux.

To modern eyes this abrupt switching of allegiances might look like hypocrisy, but the editor of this selection of Dryden’s poetry makes two points:

  1. Dryden was merely following the mood of the entire nation which switched, with surprising speed and conviction, in favour of the restoration of Charles II.
  2. Stepping back from the politics, what these two early examples of his work show is Dryden’s natural predilection to be a poet of politics and political power.

Marriage and public poetry

In the mid-1660s Dryden made a fashionable marriage to Lady Elizabeth Howard but he was not making money. He decided to make a conscious career decision to commit himself to ‘the poetry of public life and political argument’, to writing poems on public occasions and poems about political life. The first great example was Annus Mirabilis: The Year of Wonders 1666, 1,200 lines of verse divided into 304 quatrains.

Three points.

1. The obvious one is that the poem deals with major public events – in the first half some of the sea battles which were part of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665 – 1667), in the second half the Great Fire of London. It isn’t love poetry or elegiacs or pastoral poetry.

2. Second, Dryden rewrote history to cast Charles as the hero of the age. The poem emphasises Charles’s wisdom and strategic prowess during the war, and his heroism during the fire, and how his prayer to God for help was answered. Dryden was a conservative: he believed in hierarchy and the monarch and law and order. All his poetry supports the existing order against the constant threat of factions and politicking which, he feared, would lead to anarchy and civil war. Annus Mirabilis earned Dryden his reward. In 1668 he was made Poet Laureate with an annual salary of £200 and a barrel of sack, and two years later was appointed Historiographer Royal (although he continued to be for many years, relatively hard up). Here’s Dryden sucking up to Charles:

This saw our King; and long within his breast
His pensive counsels ballanc’d too and fro;
He griev’d the Land he freed should be oppress’d,
And he less for it than Usurpers do.

His gen’rous mind the fair Ideas drew
Of Fame and Honor, which in dangers lay;
Where wealth, like Fruit on precipices, grew,
Not to be gather’d but by Birds of prey…

He, first, survey’d the Charge with careful eyes,
Which none but mighty Monarchs could maintain…

His pensive counsels, his grieving for his country (abused by the Dutch), his generous mind, ready to pluck fame and honour from their dangerous precipice, his ‘careful’ eyes (careful in the modern sense but also full of care and responsibility), trademark of a mighty monarch… and so on. Top brown-nosing, Dryden deserved his £200 a year.

3. Thirdly, Annus Mirabilis wasn’t an original work – it was a polemical riposte or reply to an earlier work by someone else. It was part of a literary dialogue. In 1661 a seditious pamphlet titled Mirabilis Annus: The Year of Prodigies had predicted God’s vengeance on a nation which tolerated a sinful king and a wicked government, and was followed by other pamphlets using the same title. Dryden’s poem is a deliberate and polemical response. It isn’t a Wordsworthian inspiration. It is arguing a case about the nature of Charles’s rule and society in the 1660s.

This is what becoming a ‘poet of political argument’ meant – that his works more often than not actively engaged in public debates and controversies, often as direct replies to previous publications by other writers with contrary views.

Drama

But public poetry wasn’t the only string to Dryden’s bow. In 1663 he published his first play, The Wild Gallant, and for the next 20 years produced a stream of comedies (Marriage-a-la-Mode) and heroic tragedies (All For Love, The Conquest of Granada). Some of these were original works but, rather as with the political poems, it’s notable how many weren’t. All For Love is based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and The State of Innocence is a dramatised version of Paradise Lost. These are pretty obvious large-scale copyings, but Dryden was also to be criticised throughout his career for plagiarising lines and entire passages from other poets.

This volume includes some of the many prologues and epilogues he wrote to his plays, as well as poems addressed to specific actors and fellow playwrights such as George Etherege and William Congreve.

Satire – Absalom and Achitophel

Writing plays under the Restoration required a thick skin since new works were savaged by scores of wits and self-appointed critics. The plays themselves often contained scabrous satire about the values of the times and sometimes lampooned specific individuals. To write and publish almost anything involved exposing yourself to extremes of ridicule and abuse.

So that by the time the Popish Plot (1678) had evolved into the Exclusion Crisis (in which leading Whig politicians three times tried to pass an Act of Parliament excluding Charles II’s Catholic brother, the future James II, from the succession) Dryden had developed a thick skin and a razor-sharp pen. And he used it, as the king’s Poet Laureate, to savage and ridicule the king’s Whig enemies. The result was his masterpiece, Absalom and Achitophel.

In the Bible (2 Samuel xiv-xviii) handsome young Absalom is encouraged by the sinister old politician Achitophel to rebel against his father, King David. In Dryden’s work scheming old Achitophel is a portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who emerged as leader of the radical Whigs and led the three attempts to exclude James II from the succession. Absalom stands for King Charles’s illegitimate son, James Duke of Monmouthshire, charming but gullible, who was egged on by the canny Shaftesbury to position himself as the rightful, Protestant heir to the throne. Various other key political figures appear under Biblical names and the and poem leads up to a grand speech by King David from the throne which echoes Charles’s final speech to his recalcitrant Parliament before he dissolved it for good in 1681.

Horace versus Juvenal

When it came to satire, Thomas makes the point that Dryden, like many others, drew a distinction between the satires of Horace – which were designed to laugh men out of their follies – and those of Juvenal, which expressed what he called his saeva indignatio, his fierce contempt for the vices of his time.

Horace is often amiable and funny; Juvenal is rarely funny, his satire is full of wit and attack. Absalom and Achitophel is a Juvenalian satire. It is grounded in the grim and bitter reality of the political struggles of the Exclusion Crisis and aims to give insightful, psychologically perceptive and devastating criticisms of its key characters. It is not intended to be funny. But Dryden was just as capable of a completely different style of satire, the laughable and ludicrous.

The mock heroic – Mac Flecknoe

As 17th century literary critics discovered and popularised classical ideas about poetry, so the notion spread that the highest achievement a poet could aspire to was to write a great Epic Poem, in the lineage of Homer and Virgil. Dryden was no exception:

A Heroic Poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest Work which the Soul of Man is capable to perform.

He nurtured ambitions to write some kind of national epic tracing the history of Britain and dedicated to his hero Charles II as Virgil had dedicated the Aeneid to the Emperor Augustus. But it was not to be. His long-meditated epic was never written. Instead Dryden ended up helping to develop the anti-epic, written in the so-called mock heroic style. This consisted in applying all the trappings of the epic poem – lofty diction, elaborate similes, mythological trappings, men mighty as gods – to subjects which were low and pathetic, in order to create a comic disjuntion, to create burlesque and travesty.

Dryden’s early poem, Annus Mirabilis, had already used many of the exaggerated trappings of heroic poetry, notably the extended epic simile and the direct involvement of heavenly powers (or gods or angels).

Heavenly powers

To see this Fleet upon the Ocean move,
Angels drew wide the Curtains of the Skies:
And Heav’n, as if there wanted Lights above,
For Tapers made two glaring Comets rise.

Extended epic simile

So Lybian Huntsmen on some Sandy plain,
From shady coverts rouz’d, the Lion chace:
The Kingly beast roars out with loud disdain,
And slowly moves, unknowing to give place.

But if some one approach to dare his Force,
He swings his Tail, and swiftly turns him round:
With one Paw seizes on his trembling Horse,
And with the other tears him to the ground.

So far, so epic but, as Thomas explains, the mock epic, like the epic itself, needs to address one central theme – and Annus Mirabilis is more of a series of episodes or incidents strung together, impressively so, but it is a scattered work.

It’s this idea of uniting everything in one central theme which is what makes MacFlecknoe Dryden’s masterpiece of the mock-heroic. Basically, it is a hilarious 217-line demolition of one of Dryden’s rivals in the theatre, the poet Thomas Shadwell, renowned for being dull and unimaginative, who is transmuted via Dryden’s mock-heroic style into a monstrous burlesque figure.

The aim of the mock-heroic is to attribute to a trivial person or subject such ludicrously over-inflated actions and qualities as to make them ridiculous. Thus the poem describes the not-very-successful poet Thomas Shadwell in superhuman terms and attributes him a royal progress and coronation, garlanded with biblical and imperial comparisons. But his ‘throne’ is set up among the brothels of Barbican and instead of the royal orb he holds a Mighty Mug of Ale in his hand, and every other detail of the poem is carefully undermined and burlesqued.

The name Mac Flecknoe derives from the comic notion that Shadwell is the son (‘mac’ in Gaelic) of Richard Flecknoe, an even more obscure poet, who appears in the poem declaiming a grand abdication speech, before comically disappearing down through a trapdoor, leaving Shadwell the undisputed ruler of the land of Nonsense. It is all blown up to enormous proportions in order to be mocked and ridiculed.

Dryden was extremely proud of Mac Flecknoe because it was, at that point, the most complete and finished example of its kind in English. Relatively brief though it is, it was to form a template or inspiration for the mock epics of a later generation, most notably Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712) and then his enormous satire on the literary world, The Dunciad (1728).

Poetry of religion 1. Religio Laici

Dryden published two major poems about religion.

Religio Laici or a Layman’s Faith (1682) consists of 456 lines of rhymed couplets arguing against the fashionable Deism of the time and defending the Church of England against Roman Catholicism. It is characteristic of Dryden, as we’ve seen, that many of his works are responses to previous publications and Religio Laici is a good example. An English translation had recently appeared of a theological book by a Frenchman, Father Richard Simon, A Critical History of the Old Testament which laid out the many ways in which the text of the Old Testament is compromised and imperfect. In the Catholic Father’s view, Protestantism relied too heavily on the (highly imperfect) text of the Bible; it was wiser for Christians to base their faith on the unbroken traditions of the (Catholic) church as an institution.

Dryden’s poem directly addresses Father Simon’s ideas and points out that, if the Biblical text can err, so can tradition. Both need to be supplemented or informed by God’s revelation. In this, Dryden was defending the Anglican media via between the extreme reliance on the Bible of the Puritans and deference to a tradition cluttered with saints and absurd legends which characterised Catholicism.

Several things strike me about Religio Laici. For a start it is preceded by an enormous preface which is longer (4,317 words) then the poem itself (3,573 words). And this brings out just how disputatious a poet Dryden was. Even after he has cast his elaborate series of arguments into verse, he cannot stop, but has to repeat or anticipate them in a long prose preface.

Having just struggled through the poem twice, with the help of notes, I think I’ve understood most of its meaning. But when I studied English at university, it was a standard strategy to read any text on at least two levels – on one level for the overt sense or meaning; but at the same time, alert for key words, themes or ideas which recur, and work on the reader at a less logical level, by virtue of their repetition.

So the third or fourth time I read the word ‘safe’, I began to realise that although Religio Laici consists of a series of theological points, at a deeper level it works on a polarity between the twin extremes of safety and danger. To put it more clearly, Religio Laici doesn’t come from an era when a person could speculate about religion and God and the Bible in calm and comfort. On the contrary, Puritan views had, in living memory, contributed to a catastrophic civil war which had led to the execution of the king, the overthrow of traditional institutions and a military-religious dictatorship; and more recently, scare rumours about a Catholic plot to murder the king and seize control of the state had led to a mood of hysterical witch-hunting. Speculation about religious belief was fraught with danger.

Dryden’s use of the word ‘safe’ points to the fundamental message of the poem which is that all speculations on this subject should remain private, personal and moderate, in order to preserve the peace of the realm. He espouses moderation in belief and behaviour because his generation are acutely aware what lack of moderation leads to.

And after hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.
For points obscure are of small use to learn:
But Common quiet is Mankind’s concern.

Poetry of religion 2. The Hind and The Panther

However, just five years later Dryden published The Hind and the Panther, A Poem in Three Parts (1687) a much longer and more complex poem. At 2,600 lines it is much the longest of Dryden’s original poems (i.e. excluding the long translations he made at the end of his life) and it comes as quite a surprise because he now rejects the theological position of the earlier poem and wholeheartedly embraces Roman Catholicism.

Dryden converted to Roman Catholicism in 1687, a couple of years into the reign of the openly Roman Catholic king James II in 1685, much to the disgust and mockery of his many enemies. The Hind and the Panther is divided into three distinct parts and derives its title from part one, which presents an extended allegory or animal fable in which the different religious denominations in the England of the day appear as animals, namely Roman Catholic as ‘A milk-white Hind, immortal and unchanged’, the Church of England as a panther, the Independents as a bear, the Presbyterians as a wolf, the Quakers as a hare, the Socinians as a fox, the Freethinkers as an ape, and the Anabaptists as a boar.

Critics from Dryden’s day to our own praise the skilful use of verse, vocabulary and imagery, but lament the fact that the animal fable was a poor way to convey complex theological arguments and positions, which would have been much more effective if plainly stated. Dr Johnson commented that it was a good poem despite its subject matter.

Translator

Unfortunately for Dryden, his new patron, the Roman Catholic King James II, only lasted three years on the throne before being booted out by the so-called Glorious Revolution. He was replaced by William III who was not just a Protestant but a Calvinist, a humourless man ruthlessly focused on the essentials of international power politics, and completely indifferent to art, culture, plays or poems. All officials in William’s new court were required to take oaths of allegiance including clauses pledging allegiance to the Church of England. As a newly devout Catholic Dryden couldn’t do this and so he was sacked as Poet Laureate and, in one of the supreme ironies of literary history, replaced by the man he had expended such labour ridiculing in Mac Flecknoe, Thomas Shadwell.

Deprived of all public offices Dryden now had to live by his pen and – after the public poems of the 1660s and 70s, his many plays, the satires of the Exclusion Crisis and the poetry of religious debate, in his final decade Dryden turned to literary translation.

In 1693 he published translations of the satires of Juvenal and Persius which he prefaced with a Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire. In 1697 his translation of the works of Virgil, including a complete translation of the Aeneid was published by subscription and brought him the notable sum of £1,400. And in 1700 he published Fables Ancient and Modern which included translations into contemporary English of tales Chaucer, Ovid and Boccaccio.

Heroic couplets

In Thomas’s account, the 1610s and 20s produced poets who liked far-fetched comparisons and irregular verse forms, such as John Donne (d.1631) or George Herbert (d.1633). Later generations dubbed them the ‘metaphysical poets’ (the expression was first used by Dr Johnson in 1780 but in fact Dryden himself had already referred, in an essay, to Donne’s ‘metaphysicals’). The Caroline poets of Charles I’s court similarly wrote lyrics and other forms in sometimes complex metres and forms, although with markedly less convoluted similes and metaphors.

But the future lay with neither of these groups but with the much more open, smooth and regular form of the rhyming couplet. The medium of two rhyming iambic pentameters had long ago been used by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales.

Bifel that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
(Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, lines 19 to 26)

and couplets were a familiar device in Elizabethan theatre to bring a speech in unrhymed verse up to a kind of boom-boom conclusion.

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
(Claudius in Hamlet, Act 3, scene 3)

Many of Robert Herrick’s short poems from the 1630s are in rhyming couplets, and so on. But the use of nothing but rhyming couplets over extended distances was revived in the mid-17th century by poets like Edmund Waller (1606-87) and Sir John Denham (1615-69). Denham is remembered for his bucolic poem, Cooper’s Hill with its lulling melliflousness. These are its best-known lines, two out of a long series of smooth rhyming couplets:

O could I flow like thee, and make thy stream
My great example, as it is my theme!
Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,
Strong without rage, without o’er-flowing, full.

Relaxing, isn’t it? Dryden’s achievement was to take the rhyming couplet, use it for extended poems, and hugely expand its potential, turning it into a versatile medium for panegyric, satire, political argument, theological debate or straightforward narrative. In the right hands these couplets have all sorts of potential. Individual lines can be used to make sharp distinctions or antitheses:

They got a Villain, and we lost a Fool.

Or in this description of the Duke of Buckingham, who would do anything for amusement.

Beggar’d by fools, whom still he found too late:
He had his jest, and they had his estate.

The couplet lends itself to express maxims or pearls of wisdom, the end-rhyme of the second line giving it a kind of proverbial or didactic power:

What cannot praise effect in mighty minds,
When flattery soothes, and when ambition blinds!

But the obvious risk with the rhyming couplet is that each set of paired lines becomes a unit in itself, the temptation being to provide a boom-boom payoff at the end of the every second line, so that each couplet ends up standing alone, and reading them becomes like having hiccups – every ten seconds another clever rhyme, so that an extended poem comes to feel like a sequence of same-shaped bricks, and that this becomes wearing and tedious over the long haul.

But Thomas demonstrates how Dryden expanded the form’s potential by breaking through this barrier, to create units of meaning across multiple lines, letting the logic of his thought overflow the potential boundaries of the couplet to create what are, in effect, fluid verse paragraphs. These are particularly suitable to argufying and putting a point of view:

What shall we think! Can people give away
Both for themselves and sons, their native sway?
Then they are left defenceless to the sword
Of each unbounded arbitrary lord:
And laws are vain, by which we right enjoy,
If kings unquestion’d can those laws destroy.

They’re still rhyming couplets but the thought, the argument flows through them, so that it no longer feels like a series of stops and starts. Moreover, the way the logic of the argument flows over the cat’s eyes or bumps of each couplet’s end-rhyme creates a complex mental pleasure – the reader processes the cleverness of the rhyme but doesn’t stop at it because the flow of the argument carries you forward. There’s a kind of counterpointing, or two rhythms going on at the same time, which is not unlike musical counterpoint.


Poetry

History

Restoration art

Restoration comedies

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

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary for the rest of the interwar period, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for the Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács was fortunate enough to survive – unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the end of the Second World War Lukács was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse philosophical phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority, Lukács was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again Lukács had experienced at first hand the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957 on the condition that he abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and on this basis was allowed to keep his academic posts, to continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the clarity with which he presents his premises and works through the ideas and theories which support his case.

Lukács begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the nineteenth century, which paid more attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism, when applied to society by right-wing theorists, could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, while late-Victorian socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Émile Zola (1840 to 1902) was the chief exponent of Naturalism. He regarded his novels as sociological experiments. In Lukács’s opinion, Zola abandoned the tricky balance which the realist novelists maintained between character and ‘type’, in favour of the latter: he created countless social types, which helps explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century (during the 1890s) a shoal of literary movements developed which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity. Modernism turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot, Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into mumbling vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these Modernist works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because:

  1. it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points
  2. it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition so which we Brits are not very familiar with
  3. it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas

Time

There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Lukács compares and contrasts Joyce and Woolf’s approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is also stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar (1939). Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, when he uses stream of consciousness it is as a tool to help particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static Modernism versus dynamic Realism

Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic has pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism

A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobilise and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their backs on a healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap for Modernists, in Lukács’s view, to pass from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

  1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness, Beckett’s monads)
  2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self – a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely a record of the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

As Lukács puts it:

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (page 24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (page 26)

Heidegger versus Hegel

In this context, Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, that human beings have been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which have been promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (page 38)

By contrast, Lukács goes back to the origins of Western philosophy to invoke the fundamental insight of one of its founders – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight recurs in various Western thinkers and finds its fullest modern embodiment in the vast system of Georg Hegel (1770 to 1831) who, in the early nineteenth century, applies his theoretical model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch and the Great Reform Bill, War and Peace and the Napoleonic War).

It is the realist’s interest in the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment – from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn – which gives us a fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, Lukács goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (whereas you can, for example, have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (page 54)

So much for the Realist worldview, then.

The Modernist, on the other hand, rejects all this. More often than not Modernist characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad. Lukács points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, trapped in the cage of their solipsism, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, or of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities.

Details are chosen not to highlight the characters’ representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted (Faulkner), or barely exists (Joyce), or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or an entry-level fridge freezer, page 53)

In a striking manoeuvre Lukács invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. In other words, one of the major planks of thought underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on generalisations from the morbid and the unnatural (page 30).

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (page 36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction –which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he selected with absolute genius in order to convey his crushing sense of the utter, paralysing futility and nonsense of existence.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pages 44 to 45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a very clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable, as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s doctrine of Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of these aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

However, all this good stuff is in the first part of the book. As the book progresses an increasingly more dogmatic tone emerges. What are at first scattered references early in the book to the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into a sustained political polemic. Lukács links his concept of the Good Realist writer directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, Lukács explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism, which is clearly not true, think of Kafka, and Joyce and Faulkner.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by dropping the insights of the early part in order to make a direct and crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and current developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring. When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (page 77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude, and I immediately thought of counter-arguments:

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police or, indeed, Stalin’s Russia.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless, useless bureaucracy lampooned in his books is precisely not that of snappily efficient America or dogmatically thorough Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home with startling force.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a communist commissar like himself – and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments like this in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács – at one moment, immensely rewarding, at the next genuinely disgusting.


Related links

Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Marx and communism

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution

Communism in England

%d bloggers like this: