The Epistles of Horace: Book 1

In a world torn by hope and worry, dread and anger,
imagine every day that dawns is the last you’ll see;
the hour you never hoped for will prove a happy surprise.
(Epistle 4)

As to the genre of ‘epistles, according to translator Niall Rudd in his introduction, one of the earliest examples of an epistle as a literary form is a fragment of an epistle by Lucilius (180 to 103; the founder of the genre of satire, none of whose works have survived complete) complaining to a friend who had failed to visit him when he was sick. And it appears from other references that Lucilius had given some thought to the place of ‘the epistle’ in literature. But the idea of composing a whole book of verse epistles was completely novel and apparently invented by the ancient Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (usually referred to in English as Horace).

Horace wrote two books of epistles, which take their place in his oeuvre thus:

Book 1 contains 20 epistles. Book 2 contains just 2 (long ones), followed by the 476-line epistle universally referred to the Ars Poetica or Art of Poetry.

Horatian urbanity

The epistles are characteristically Horatian in the way they are addressed to the same kind of circle of friends as the odes and reflect on similar themes of: friendship, the nature of civilised behaviour and how to achieve true happiness (adopt the golden mean; leave the stressful city for the relaxed countryside; don’t hanker after wealth and luxury; be content with the simple things of life, like wine and the company of good friends).

What is an epistle?

The English word ‘epistle’ comes direct from the Latin word epistola which means ‘a letter’, itself derived from the Greek epistole meaning ‘message, letter, command, commission, whether verbal or in writing’.

Were Horace’s ‘epistles’ actual letters, written to people, sent and expecting a reply? Critics debate this question to this day. Some of the epistles contain specific questions to the addressee and explicitly expect a reply (for example, Epistle 3 to Julius Florus posted to Tiberius’s army). Others are more like moral essays, addressed to an individual but which make general points about life i.e. not letters in our sense (Epistle 2 to Lollius Maximus). The shortest one really feels like a note to a friend (Epistle 4, 16 lines). Either way, there’s no doubt they are the result of much art and effort; no-one ‘dashes off’ a 300-line poem in finely judged hexameters on the spur of the moment.

One other thing that’s so obvious no-one comments on it, but in a standard letter the author indicates their identity. In English we used to write ‘Your sincerely’, ‘Kind regards’ or similar. There’s nothing like that here. The text of each epistle just ends.

Wikipedia has a handy one-line summary of each of the epistles, which I found very useful to consult before reading each one, and so get a quick grasp of the general purpose and shape of each of the poems.

Age-appropriate genres

Rudd mentions a twelfth century scholar who suggested that Horace wrote his four major types of poetry for four different age groups: the odes for boys, the Ars Poetica for young men, the satires for mature men, and the epistles for old and complete men.

This doesn’t reflect modern scholarly opinion about when the different types were published, but contains a big grain of truth. The odes feel very active and exuberant; the Ars Poetica is a useful vade mecum for poets just starting out; the satires are for men of business and affairs; the epistles are for men heading into old age, who are past life’s storms and stresses and able to look back and reflect on their own and other people’s behaviour.

‘Morality is obvious’

In some ways Horace’s epistles continue the form of the satires, but the epistles are more philosophic, more ethical and meditative. For me the most obvious difference is that many of the satires were in dialogue form, like mini plays; whereas the epistles are more often monologues (although several of them include the imagined dialogue of critics or opponents, and some of them morph into anecdotes which features the dialogue of the characters involved).

As so often when classic poets or writers give life advice, Horace’s lessons are often obvious and a bit boring. In Epistle 1 (to Maecenas) Horace tells us that Virtue’s first rule is ‘avoid vice’ and Wisdom’s first rule is ‘get rid of folly’. Not exactly ground-breaking information stuff, is it? In Epistle 2 (to Lollius Maximus) he says:

  • despise pleasure – often the price of the resulting pain outweighs it (drunkenness leads to illness, promiscuous sex leads to disease)
  • the greedy are never content, always wanting more
  • envious people are driven mad by wanting what everyone else has
  • unrestrained anger drives people away and makes them hate you

So don’t overdo it. Moderation in all things. Train yourself to be happy with what you’ve got.

Maybe this is as useful as moral writing can get. Maybe reflecting on these suggestions for the half hour or so it takes to read each poem does make readers stop and think a bit about their own attitudes and behaviour. Maybe they have had a beneficial effect on people’s lives. But it’s difficult to know how you’d go about measuring this.

I’m tempted to say, though, that the interest isn’t in the moral lessons, which are a bit samey and a bit obvious, it’s in two other things. One is the incidental social history which the epistles are full of, descriptions of the habits and behaviour of the rich and boastful of his day, of the poor in their crappy slums, tips on how to be the client of a rich patron, how to approach Augustus so as not to irritate him and so on – a mosaic of snapshots of Roman society.

Second, and a bit deeper, is the psychology of the thinking about the moral lessons. The lessons themselves, when bluntly stated, are a bit trite. But when he reflects on his own attitudes to them, how he’s come to these conclusions, how he tries to apply them in his own life – then the lessons come a bit more to life, they are dramatised. If the ostensible lessons are mostly a bit obvious, the text and texture and presentation are often interesting and genuinely entertaining.

Addressees

In my review of Horace’s Odes I remarked that the sheer number of people Horace addresses in them creates a sense of a sociable, civilised society. Same here, along with endearingly casual references to the ordinary humdrum concerns of him and his friends. Not great affairs of state or business deals or law cases, but who’s going to whose dinner party, who’s falling in or out of love, impressions of famous tourist attractions, what the weather’s like on the coast this time of year, the changing scenery around his farm (1.16) and so on. Tittle tattle. Gossip. Thoughts.

The poems are addressed to:

  • Maecenas, Horace’s patron (1.1, 1.7, 1.19)
  • Lollius Maximus, served under Augustus in Spain (1.2, 1.18)
  • Julius Florus, a young aristocrat who wrote satires (1.3)
  • Albius Tibullus, the poet famous for his elegies (1.4)
  • Manlius Torquatus, an aristocrat (1.5)
  • Numicius (unknown) (1.6)
  • Celsus Albinovanus, serving on Tiberius’s staff in Asia (1.8)
  • Tiberius, future emperor, recommending a friend (1.9)
  • Aristius Fuscus, friend (1.10)
  • Bullatius (unknown) (1.11)
  • Iccius, steward of Agrippa’s property in Sicily (1.12)
  • Vinius Asina, a centurion in Augustus’s praetorian guard (1.13)
  • the unnamed bailiff of his country property, written to when Horace is in Rome on business (1.14)
  • Numonius Vala (1.15)
  • Quinctius Hirpinus (1.16)
  • Scaeva (1.17)

But just listing the addressees doesn’t convey their sociable quality. The poems address named individuals, as above, but often refer to other people as well, male or female, sometimes to mutual friends, sometimes to the rich and grand, sometimes to figures from Roman history (all Roman writers were obsessed with figures from their history), to figures from myth and legend (that bloody Trojan War!), and sometimes contain anecdotes like the extended story about the lawyer Philippus who persuaded the auctioneer Volteius Mena to change professions and become a farmer ((1.7). The epistles are inclusive, chatty, populous. From one perspective, the pleasure of Horace’s poems is the pleasure of gossip.

Themes

Since Wikipedia and umpteen other websites give epistle-by-epistle commentaries, I’ll look instead at recurring themes.

Maturity

Born in 65 BC, Horace was about 44 when the first book was published. He says his age and keenness are not what they were. He feels like an old horse which has had its best days. Time to get a bit serious:

Now I am laying aside my verses and other amusements.
My sole concern is the question ‘What is right and proper?’

Certainty instead of change

Everyone has an opinion, and even people with well-worked out opinions change them from time to time. The great flux of dinner party chat and commentating. Instead of this endless flux, Horace wants certitude.

Be content with what you have

…Avoid what’s big. In a humble house
you can beat kings and the friends of kings in the race for life….
If you’re happy with the deal you’ve received, you’ll live wisely. (1.10)

Whatever lucky hour heaven has offered you, take it
gratefully (1.11)

The retired life

Small things for the small. It isn’t royal Rome
that attracts me now, but quiet Tibur or peaceful Tarentum. (1.2)

Country over city

If we are supposed to live in accordance with nature,
and we have to start by choosing a site to build a house on,
can you think of any place to beat the glorious country?

In any case, do what you will, you can’t fight the deep slow force of nature.

Expel nature with a fork; she’ll keep on trotting back.
Relax – and she’ll break triumphantly through your silly refinements. (1.10)

In praise of wine

Think of the wonders uncorked by wine! It opens secrets,
gives heart to our hopes, pushes the cowardly into battle,
lifts the load from anxious minds, and evokes talents.
Thanks to the bottle’s promptings no-one is lost for words,
no one who’s cramped by poverty fails to find release.
(Epistle 5)

The first half of 1.19 jokingly claims that all the best poets were drunks.

Sex and slavery

Maybe I’m overdoing it, maybe it’s a personal obsession; I wonder because so few of the translators and writers of introductions mention it, but – this was a slave society. A society built on slavery. Slaves were worked to death in the gold and silver mines to produce the fancy trinkets which Catullus and Horace mock. Slaves by the hundreds of thousands worked the huge estates which produced the food to feed the empire.

Horace writes repeatedly about his lovely little farm, the Sabine farm, the lovely scenery around it and so on. (Scholars and historians refer to it as the Sabine farm because he tells us, in Epistle 1.10, that his villa was next to the sanctuary of the Sabine goddess, Vacuna.) He describes it with such affection that it is easy to join his affectionate tone. But it was run by slaves, 8 slaves, slaves he called ‘boy’. Slaves who I know, from umpteen other sources, were not only bought and sold, but could be whipped or subject to any other form of punishment at the whim of the owner.

If a slave’s testimony was required in a trial, it had to be extracted under torture. Quite trivial offences could be punished by having your legs broken, or being crucified. Plautus’s plays are full of slave characters nervously worrying about being crucified if their master’s scams and tricks are revealed.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m eccentric, but the knowledge that the lovely lifestyle praised in all these poems was based on the sweat and punishment of hundreds of thousands of slaves brings me up short. Makes me shiver with horror.

Epistle 1.18 is quite a long set of advice to Lollius Maximus on how to behave well if you are the client of a rich patron. There’s loads of points of etiquette or correct behaviour you have to look out for. Immediately after telling him to be careful what he says, and who to, because tactless remarks are always passed on, he comes to this bit of advice:

Don’t let any maid or lad arouse your desires
within the marble hall of the friend you hope to impress.
The owner may give you the pretty boy or the darling girl
(and add nothing of substance!) or cause you pain by refusing.

Hang on. ‘The owner may give you the pretty boy or the darling girl…’ As if you said, ‘Oh I like that vase’ and the rich blasé owner said, ‘Well, have it’, in the same spirit you might say, ‘Your wine girl is very sexy’ and the rich blasé owner would just say, ‘Well, you can have her.’ The girl gets no say. She is a slave. So is the boy you fancy. Either of them are just handed over to you for your sexual pleasure.

All this is said in passing because Horace is concerned about the problems of etiquette which arise if you let one of your patron’s slaves arouse you. The fact of a human being being treated as an object by everyone, including (apparently) the translator, goes unremarked. But I remark it. And I can’t help finding it disgusting.

Bookishness

In 1.18 Horace utters a little prayer, which includes the line ‘May I have a decent supply of books and enough food for the year’. In 1.2 he instructs Lollius Maximus to send for a book and a lamp before daylight and study noble aims. In 1.7 he tells Maecenas he plans to go down to the seaside and ‘take it easy, curled up with a book’. Epistle 13 entirely consists of instructions to Vinius Asina about delivering a copy of his odes to Augustus. Epistle 3 enquires about the literary activities of a bunch of young writers who are officers with Tiberius’s army.

These and other references add a layer of bookishness the general air of civilised chat and banter. But I couldn’t help starting to detect in them what I understand is called ‘the Liberal Fallacy’, which is the belief that, if only people – the population in general – were more bookish, and read the right sort of books, and read them in the right sort of spirit, well…the world would be a much better place.

A decade ago I read an article in the Guardian by a nice middle-class white man which overflowed with empathy for black people and women, with sensitive support for #metoo and Black Lives Matter. What made it Peak Guardian was that at the end of the article he included a reading list. The article wasn’t about a particular subject and so the reading list wasn’t addressing a particular topic: it was a reading list to help the article’s readers become like the author, sharing, caring and inclusive. I wish I’d bookmarked it because it perfectly embodied this belief: If only everyone were bookish like me, what a wonderful world it would be.

The two obvious flaws with this view are that:

  1. Most people don’t read, certainly not books. Huge numbers of working class people struggle to read or have a low reading age, or aren’t interested; and I’ve met many highly educated professional people who have the smarts to read, but are simply too busy: one or two thrillers on their annual holiday and that’s their lot. So an outbreak of mass reading is never going to happen.
  2. Anyway, reading doesn’t make you a better person, in fact excess study can reinforce evil behaviour, vide the very intelligent and well-read Lenin, Trotsky, and any number of revolutionaries. Pol Pot was educated at some of Cambodia’s most elite schools and worked as a teacher. Mao went to university, worked for a while as the university librarian, was an intellectual, wrote numerous books. Bookishness, by itself, means nothing.

Obviously book learning was nowhere near as poisonous in Horace’s day as it had become 2,000 years later, and curling up with a good book is still a fabulous thing to do, I do it all the time. But believing that reading makes you a better person or that if only more people read books, the world would be a better place are both absurd contentions. It would be lovely, but…

Leave your cares

Ultimately Horace has three messages:

  1. Stop worrying, be happy.
  2. Learn to be content with what you have.
  3. Enjoy the simple and good things in life while you can.

They’re summed up in Epistle 5 where he tells Manlius Torquatus to leave Rome. Leave the city. Stop worrying about politics and ambition and money. Forget about your wretched law case. Stop worrying about the ‘threat’ from the Parthians or the Cantabrians or whoever. Come down to my place in the country. I’ve got some good wine stored up and I’ve invited all our friends. We’re going to drink our fill and stay up late into the night laughing and joking. Who knows what the future holds. Stop worrying about it because you can’t do anything about it. This is what life is about. Wine and good company. As he tells Albius in Epistle 4: ‘Come and see me when you want a laugh.’

It is a hugely attractive and sane worldview.


Credit

Niall Rudd’s translation of the Epistles of Horace was published by Penguin books in 1979. All references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Virgil and the Christian World by T.S. Eliot (1951)

T.S. Eliot: a potted biography

The great Anglo-American poet, playwright and critic T.S. Eliot (1888 to 1965) came from America to England just before the First World War, published a small number of sensuous, ‘modernist’ poems displaying a sensibility in debt to French Symbolism. Soon after the Great War ended he published the seminal modernist poem, The Waste Land (1922), but also established a reputation as a deeply insightful and intelligent critic of much earlier English literature, particularly the Jacobean playwrights and metaphysical poets of the early 1600s.

His reputation was enhanced and his influence steadily spread, especially among the younger generation of writers and critics, due to his editorship of a literary and philosophical magazine, The Criterion, which he edited from 1922 to 1939. Readers of The Criterion came to realise that, far from being a youthful revolutionary who was set on overturning literary values, and despite the radical format of The Waste Land (collage, fragments, quotes from multiple foreign languages), Eliot was, in fact, a profoundly conservative thinker.

This was made explicit when in 1928, in the foreword to a book of essays titled ‘For Lancelot Andrewes’ (the Jacobean bishop and writer) Eliot ‘came out’, declaring himself ‘a classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion,’ committing himself to hierarchy and order in all three fields.

He had already taken British citizenship. In the later 1930s he attempted to revive the verse drama of the Elizabethans which he had spent so much time analysing, on the modern stage, writing a series of plays in verse, starting with Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

During the Second World War Eliot worked as a reader for the publishers Faber & Faber during the day and a fire warden at night. The masterpiece of his maturity was the set of four longer poems collectively titled the Four Quartets (Burnt Norton, 1936, then East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, published in 1940, 1941 and 1942, respectively).

After the war, Eliot settled into the position of Grand Old Man of Poetry, with a leading role at the leading publisher of poetry, Faber. He continued to write essays and make broadcasts on the radio. With his public conversion to Anglicanism he had achieved an ideological and psychological stability.

Having lived through two ruinous world wars, a lot of Eliot’s effort was now devoted towards helping to define and preserve the best of European civilisation. His early essays had been offshoots of a poet working through his own problems and interests; the later essays are a conscious effort to establish a canon of classic literature, trying to formulate universal categories to define and preserve it.

It is in this spirit that in 1951 he delivered a lecture on BBC radio titled ‘Virgil and the Christian World’, which was then printed in The Listener magazine and collected in the volume On Poetry and Poets.

Virgil and the Christian World

As befits radio this is not an address to a specialist audience of literary scholars but a more broad brush approach for a general audience. Eliot explains that he is not setting out to assert Virgil’s special value as a poet or moralist, but to pay attention to ‘those characteristics of Virgil which render him peculiarly sympathetic to the Christian mind’.

Straight away he addresses the notorious issue of the Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. This, the fourth and final of Virgil’s set of lengthy poems about the countryside or ‘eclogues’, contains extravagant praise of the forthcoming birth of a special child, who, the poet claims, will bring a new golden age, the return of Saturn and the Virgin, the gift of divine life etc.

As early Christianity established itself, early Christian apologists ransacked all available texts, from old Jewish scriptures to the entire literature of the ancient world, looking for proofs and prophecies, any text anywhere which could be made to prefigure and predict the arrival of their messiah.

Thus the Fourth Eclogue was quickly adopted by these apologists and Virgil was made an honorary Christian before the fact because Christians claimed he had been gifted with spiritual prophecy to foresee the coming of the Christ. Throughout the entire Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance scholars and theologians genuinely believed that Virgil had predicted the coming of the Christ child.

Eliot makes clear right at the start that he in now way thinks that Virgil foresaw the birth of Christ (some 19 years after he himself died). Rather, Eliot thinks the Fourth Eclogue was written to a friend of his, Pollio, whose wife was expecting a baby.

[In fact, the notes to the OUP edition of the Eclogues which I recently read, suggest that this passage of the Fourth Eclogue was describing the hoped-for son of the recent marriage of Antony and Octavius’s sister, Octavia (in 40 BC), because contemporaries devoutly hoped that their union would usher in a final end to Rome’s endless civil wars.]

Eliot then ponders the meaning of the words prophet, prophecy and predict. He himself has no doubt that Virgil had no inkling of the coming of Christ. On the other hand, he suggests that if the word ‘inspiration’ means writing something the poet himself does not completely understand, and which he or she may themselves misinterpret once the ‘inspiration’ has passed, the maybe Virgil was ‘inspired’.

This is by way of preparing the way for some autobiography, for Eliot then paints an obvious portrait of himself and how his most famous poem, The Waste Land, which arose out of his purely private concerns, amazed him by going on to become the rallying cry for an entire generation of writers.

A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression both of their own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation.

A poet need not know what his poetry will come to mean for others just as a prophet need not understand the meaning of their prophetic utterance. Thus there may be any number of secular, historical explanations for the Fourth Eclogue; but he repeats his definition of ‘inspiration’ as tapping into a force which defies all historical research.

Anyway the point is that the existence of the Fourth Eclogue which so many Christians mistakenly thought was divinely inspired, gave Virgil and his writing a kind of free pass into the new Christian order, opening ‘the way for his influence in the Christian world’, something mostly denied to other explicitly ‘pagan’ authors. On the face of it this is a lucky accident but Eliot doesn’t believe it was an ‘accident’.

Eliot anticipates Jackson Knight’s view, expressed in his Penguin translation of the Aeneid from a few years later (1956), that Virgil was the poet of the gateway, looking both back to the pagan world and forwards to the Christian dispensation.

So after these preliminaries, Eliot gets to the meat of his essay: In what way did Virgil anticipate the Christian West? Eliot tells us that, to answer his question, he is going to rely on a book by a German scholar, Theodor Haecker, titled Virgil: The Father of the West.

Before he gets started though, Eliot rather surprisingly devotes a page to autobiography, telling us that as a boy learning the Classics he much preferred Greek to Latin (and still does). However he found himself immediately more drawn to Virgil than Homer. The main reason was that the gods in Homer are so capricious, selfish and immoral and all the so-called ‘heroes’ are in fact coarse ruffians. The only decent character in the entire book is Hector.

Nowadays, if forced to explain his preference, he’d say he prefers the world of Virgil to the world of Homer: it was ‘a more civilised world of dignity, reason and order’. Eliot goes on to compare the Greek and Roman worlds, saying the culture of Athens was much superior in the arts, philosophy and pure science. Virgil made of Roman culture something better than it was. Then he quietly makes a very big leap in the argument, claiming that Virgil’s ‘sensibility was more nearly Christian than any other Roman or Greek poet’. How so?

He says he is going to follow Haeckel’s procedure of examining key words in the poem and highlights laborpietas and fatum. However, he immediately drops this plan and veers off into a consideration of the Georgics. What Virgil really intended the Georgics for remains a bit of a mystery: they’re not particularly useful as a handbook to farming, and they contain many digressions completely extraneous to their ostensible subject matter. After pondering Virgil’s motivation, Eliot concludes that Virgil intended to affirm the dignity of agricultural labour and the importance of the cultivation of the soil for the wellbeing of the state, both materially and spiritually.

The Greeks may have perfected the notion that the highest type of life is the contemplative life (Plato et al) but they tended to look down on manual labour. For Eliot the Georgics affirm the importance of manual labour on the land. Then he makes a leap to talk about the monastic movement which grew up within medieval Christendom and how the monastic orders combined both aspects, combining a life of contemplation with quite arduous labour, as both being essential for the life of the complete man.

It may be that the monks who read and copied Virgil’s manuscripts recognised their spirit in the Georgics.

Now onto the Aeneid. Eliot says this epic poem is:

concerned with the imperium romanum, with the extension and justification of imperial rule.

(quite unlike W.A. Camps with his silly claim that the Aeneid is not a work of propaganda.) But Eliot claims that Virgil’s ‘ideal of empire’ was founded on a devotion to the land, to the region, village, and family within the village. This brief explanation is his discussion of labor because Eliot now turns to the more important concept of pietas.

In English someone is called ‘pious’ if they make a great show of their religious faith. Eliot says that pietas for Virgil had much wider associations: it implies a respectful attitude to the individual, the family, the region, and towards ‘the imperial destiny of Rome’. Aeneas is also ‘pious’ in his respect towards the gods and punctilious observance of rites and offerings.

Eliot delves further into the meanings of the word. Piety to a father can, for example, mean not only affection for an individual but acceptance of a bond which one has not chosen. Piety towards the father is also an acceptance of the correct order of things, and so, obliquely, respect of the gods. After some shilly-shallying Eliot gets to the point he wants to make: all these forms of piety involve some form of humility and humility is a professedly Christian virtue. Aeneas is, in this respect, the polar opposite of Achilles or Odysseus, who have not a shred of humility about them.

[Interestingly, given the date of the essay, written soon after the end of the Second World War, Eliot describes Aeneas as the original Displaced Person, a fugitive from a ruined city and an obliterated society.]

Odysseus endures ten years of exile but eventually returns to his home hearth, to a loyal wife, a dutiful son, his slaves and faithful dog. Whereas Aeneas can’t go home: he is a man on a mission and accomplishing that mission, the poem makes repeatedly clear, is only the very beginning of the long history of Roman origins and rise. Odysseus’s story ends when he gets home (and kills the suitors); Aeneas’s entire journey is itself only an episode in the much larger history of Rome.

Therefore, Eliot asserts (with a bit of a stretch, in my view) Aeneas is ‘the prototype of a Chistian hero’. He accepts the duty laid on him by the gods regardless of the price to himself. He subjugates his own will and desires to his god-given task.

This brings Eliot to fatum (so, OK, we are proceeding via the key word process). There is an excess of words to cover this concept. Eliot says maybe the best translation is ‘destiny’ but then makes the polemical point that you cannot have ‘destiny’ in a purely mechanical universe.

Eliot then tries to give a Christian interpretation to Aeneas’s ‘destiny’. It is a burden and a responsibility rather than a reason for self glorification. It happens to some men and not others because some have the gifts and the responsibility but they did not make these; something external made these and the humble man accepts the gifts and the responsibility. Who made them? Not the anthropomorphised pagan gods who behave so selfishly and vulgarly in the poem. Some power much deeper.

He zeroes in on the entire Dido episode (book 4) in particular Aeneas’s shame at abandoning Dido, shame which is revived when he meets her shade in the underworld in book 6 and she refuses to look at him or speak. This, for Eliot, more than personal shame, symbolises how much Aeneas suffered to carry out his god-given destiny. Making his point completely explicit, he says: ‘it is a very heavy cross to bear.’

Eliot can think of no other pagan poet who could have created this situation with its emotional, psychological and philosophical subtlety.

What does this ‘destiny’ mean? For Virgil’s conscious mind, and his contemporary readers, not least the all-powerful Augustus, there’s no doubt it means the imperium romanum. But Eliot then makes some dubious and sweeping generalisations. He claims that Virgil proposed for his contemporaries a noble ideal of empire – personally, I don’t see that in the poem. There are Anchises’ lines reminding Romans they must rule well and there’s praise of Augustus for bringing peace and order, but that’s about it. Eliot stretches it by claiming that Virgil’s work proposed ‘the highest ideal’ for any secular empire. Personally, I just don’t see that. In my view what the Aeneid praises is military conquest, might and power. There might be a strong thread of regret and sadness running through it, but that is the poem’s overt message.

Eliot proceeds to claim that ‘we are all, so far as we inherit the civilisation of Europe, still citizens of the Roman Empire’. Is that true? I can see strong points on either side of the argument.

But he then goes on to claim that the Roman Empire Virgil imagined was ‘greater’ than the actual one of generals and proconsuls and businessmen. Eliot claims that Virgil invented this ideal and ‘passed [it] on to Christianity to develop and to cherish.’ I disagree on a number of levels.

First, I find the actual process of creating empire, as described in the Aeneid, to be hyper-violent and destructive, flagrantly contrary all Christian morality.

Second, part of the ideal which Eliot is describing must include the idealisation of the first Roman emperor Augustus. I can see why Virgil a) pinned his hopes for peace on b) sucked up to, the most powerful man in Rome, but in the end the entire poem amounts to the propagandistic adulation of a mass murderer, a man who achieved supreme power by liquidating all his enemies and then ensuring nobody could threaten his unique rule for the next 40 years. The Aeneid defends a military dictator.

So I just don’t agree when Eliot claims that it passed onto its Christian heirs any kind of noble model for how to run a spiritual empire. The exact opposite.

Eliot reiterates his claim that we are all still citizens the Roman Empire. Well, there are arguments both ways but ultimately I think he is incorrect. The state we inhabit in England in 2022 owes more to the non-Roman traditions of the pagan Danes and Anglo-Saxons and feudal Normans who each conquered this country, than to the Roman civilisation which they eclipsed. Our democracy owes nothing to Rome; it developed out of medieval feudalism, itself an import from Normandy, itself a colony of Vikings.

I think Eliot’s vision of a total European civilisation is erroneous and that his claim that this civilisation was in part inspired by Virgil is wrong.

Moreover, there is a blindingly obvious problem here, which is that Eliot is defending empire as an ideal form of government. Obviously this was considerably easier to do in 1951 than it would be nowadays. Millions of inhabitants of the former British Empire have immigrated to Britain and their children, in politics, in culture and in academia, have enthusiastically set about damning the British Empire, rubbishing any claim that it ever had anything positive about it. So just the sound of Eliot defending empire as a ‘noble ideal’ sounds badly in our time.

As to whether Virgil’s ideal of a suprahuman noble empire actually did inspire church authorities in the Middle Ages, I think you’d need a book examining the impact of the Virgilian ‘ideal’ on theologians, political thinkers, churchmen and statesmen throughout the Middle Ages and that would be a vast undertaking. I bet one exists, though. I’d love to read it.

This was, after all, only a half-hour radio lecture. Eliot’s sensitivity and insight and intellect bring out all kinds of aspects of Virgil’s achievement. And his thesis – that Virgil’s achievement of creating the notion of an ideal empire was to haunt the European imagination – is one of those ideas which is itself so big and vague that you can’t really prove or disprove it. But it’s an interesting perspective to add to the hundreds of other perspectives with which we can view Virgil’s epic poem.

Eliot concludes his essay with a page about a word which is missing from Virgil which is ‘love’. Amor does crop up, especially in the story of Dido and Aeneas. But it has nowhere near the force and central importance that it has for a Christian poet like Dante. It never has:

the same significance as a principle of order in the human soul, in society and in the universe that pietas is given.

Thus Eliot agrees (no surprise) with Dante’s positioning of Virgil in the Divine Comedy as an inspired teacher and guide right up to the barrier of belief, which he is not allowed to cross. In Eliot’s view Virgil mapped out a universe which in many ways anticipated the Christian universe, and handed many of its values onto later generations of Christian thinkers (and poets). But there is a line and Virgil doesn’t cross over into being a Christian. He can’t.

Instead, Virgil was limited by his position in history: the highest value he can conceive of, the value which underpins so much of the character and action of the Aeneid, was pietas, respect for father, family and fatherland.

But the highest value for the Christian poet Dante was love, the love which has created the entire universe and moves the sun and the stars and which we can all aspire to. Next to the gorgeous rose of Dante’s universe of love, Virgil’s pietas is a hard, iron sword, the colour of Roman imperialism.


Other Eliot reviews

Roman reviews

An introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps (1969)

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind’)
(Aeneid Book 1, line 462)

The Aeneid’s structure

The first six books describe wandering, the second six books describe war.

The first six books are set on or near the sea, the second six books are set on land.

The first six books copy a lot from Homer’s Odyssey, the second six books copy a lot from Homer’s Iliad.

The first half focuses on Carthage, leading to the death of Dido, the second half focuses on Latium, leading to the death of Turnus. (In fact, it’s not quite as neat as that because Dido dies at the end of book 4, leaving book 5 to describe the funeral games for Anchises and book 6 the journey to the underworld, so the deaths of Dido and Turnus don’t perfectly bookend each half.)

Historical background

Virgil lived through stormy and decisive political times. He was born in 70 BC only 15 or so years after the end of the Social War, a 4-year-long bitter and needless fight between Rome and various tribes and peoples of Italy who demanded full Roman citizenship. In the end Rome acquiesced and gave it them. The precise relationship between Rome and the other local tribes is implicit in the whole idea of Aeneas coming as an immigrant and stirring up a huge ruinous war between its existing inhabitants, and then is specifically addressed right at the end of the Aeneid when Juno demands equal rights for the Latins vis-à-vis the newcomers from her husband Jupiter, as a condition of giving up her vicious vendetta against the Trojans.

Then Virgil was 21 when civil war broke out in 49 BC between Caesar and Pompey. He saw what it was like for the Roman ruling class to be split right down the middle and many men die pointlessly, as, arguably, all the terrible deaths in the second half of the Aeneid are, ultimately, pointless and unnecessary.

Then Virgil was 26 when Caesar was assassinated and Rome plunged into a further 15 years of instability and recurring civil wars, before Octavian finally brought peace by defeating Antony in 31 BC, as Virgil turned 40.

The price of peace

Virgil composed the Aeneid over the 10 or so years from 29 BC to his premature death in 19 BC. After a life lived against a backdrop of unending civil strife you can see why Virgil would desperately have wanted peace and order to be restored and pinned his hopes for that outcome on the new rule of Augustus. But you can also see why one of the Aeneid‘s main themes is the price that has to be paid for the final arrival of peace and order, and it is a very, very high price in tragedy and bloodshed. Hecatombs of the dead. So many brave young lives cut short. Aeneas wins his place in the promised land of Hesperia, but my God what a trail of death and destruction he leaves behind him.

Aspects of patriotism

All elements in the poem are multi-levelled and dense with allusiveness. Thus the poem’s patriotism is plain for everyone to see, and yet is effective because it works at so many levels. Central is the plot itself, Aeneas’s journey to Italy to found a new city and new people. The gods repeatedly reassure him of the future greatness of the Roman people. He sees a procession of eminent Romans in the underworld at the end of book 6. The figure of Augustus appears here, and as the central figure on the shield his mother gives him at the end of book 8, as well as being invoked several other times, crystallising the hopes of the world.

But it also works in a host of other ways. Most poignantly and hauntingly when we discover that King Evander’s little township is built on the site of the future Rome and that he and Aeneas are walking through the landmarks of the greatness that is to come. But also in the mention throughout the poem of beliefs and customs which first came with the Trojans or, conversely, are already practiced by the Arcadians or the Latins:

  • they Latins are referred to as ‘the people of the Roman gown’
  • the Roman custom of covering the head at sacrifice is enjoined on Aeneas by the seer Helenus before his arrival in Italy (3.403)
  • the exhibition of horse drill known to the Romans as lusus Troiae is demonstrated by Ascanius and the young horsemen during the funeral games for Anchises (5.596)
  • Aeneas promises to inaugurate the tradition of the Sibylline Books (6.71)
  • the practice of opening or closing the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war already exists in Latium (7.601)
  • the worship of Hercules at the great altar in the cattle market which existed in Virgil’s time is said to already exist when Aeneas arrives in Latium (8.268)

So the poem’s patriotism is shouted from the rooftops in the shape of the plot and in the multiple predictions but also threaded subtly into a fabric of hints and allusions.

A political poem?

Camps surprises me by claiming the Aeneid is not a political poem. He deploys the kind of sentimental humanism found throughout post-war Anglophone literary criticism, deflecting analysis off into fancy fondling about morality or spirituality:

The Aeneid is in no sense political propaganda, for it is not in its nature a political poem. The Rome that is its inspiration is not conceived in terms of a political system; and the background against which the humans in the story act and suffer is provided not by contrasting political ideas but by the working of the historical process and the conflict of spiritual powers. (p.2)

This is plain wrong, isn’t it? It’s as if someone who wrote a long poem in praise of Nazi rule over occupied Europe claimed that it wasn’t a political poem because the Nazi rule it praises ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system’. Well, it doesn’t need to be. If politics in the broadest sense is defined as how a society chooses to run itself, then this poem explicitly says that Rome will reach its height when it is ruled by the enlightened dictator Augustus, and that the Roman people are destined to rule the entire known world – and are justified in doing so because of their unique skill at ruling justly.

Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.
(6.1,151 to 1,154)

This prophecy of Anchises is only the most famous of several passages which justify Roman conquest and rule over the entire world. The Aeneid is a hymn to Roman hegemony. Nothing could be more political. Claiming it is ‘not in its nature a political poem’ because it doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of the constitution or describe any particular ‘political system’ or discuss political parties is being disingenuous or naive. Try telling any of the peoples Rome had conquered, whose towns they had destroyed and populations they’d sold into slavery (read Caesar’s Gallic Wars) that writing an elaborate poem justifying Rome’s eternal rule over the entire known world was not a political statement and watch them laugh in your face.

Clearly your answer to the question, ‘Is the Aeneid a political poem?’ depends on how you define ‘politics’, but there’s also another level or type of definition of politics in play here: this is the issue of taking sides during a civil war. This, also, is a glaring ‘political issue’: whether one is on the side of, say, the nationalists or the republicans during the Spanish Civil War could hardly be a more political and politicised decision.

Well, in the civil war with Antony, Virgil hugely comes down on the side of Augustus and writes it into his poem. In the epic scene where Vulcan forges a mighty shield for Aeneas he depicts on it the Battle of Actium where Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and the narrator throws in criticisms of the doomed lovers. And the shield then goes on to celebrate Augustus’s unprecedented three triumphs over his political and military opponents.

It beggars belief that Camps thinks that this hugely committed work of propaganda is ‘in no sense political propaganda’ solely because it ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system.’ As I’ve been writing this I’ve realised I myself am missing another way to argue against him, which is to point out that he is wrong even on his own terms: that the entire poem is ‘conceived in terms of a political system’, namely – the imperial rule of Augustus. Rule by an emperor emphatically is a political system and this poem consistently and repeatedly predicts and celebrates this political system.

Copying the Greeks

Virgil wrote three great works. In each of them he copied Greek originals. The Eclogues copy the Idylls of Theocritus, the Georgics copy the Work and Days of Hesiod, the Aeneid very closely copies the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Camps claims Virgil is not stealing – he is reconciling the two cultures.

Camps lists some of the major plot devices he is indebted to Homer for:

  • an extended sea journey packed with adventures – the Odyssey
  • enmity of a god who hates the hero drawing out the journey to extended length – the Odyssey
  • councils of the gods in heaven – both Odyssey and Iliad
  • descent to the underworld – the Odyssey
  • funeral games – the Iliad
  • massive, sustained war featuring a siege and many detailed battle scenes – the Iliad
  • the aristeia in which a warrior reaches the peak of their excellence before being cut down – the Iliad
  • the blacksmith god creating a suit of armour and a shield decorated with emblematic events for the hero – the Iliad
  • strong female warrior (Camilla) – the Iliad
  • a foray into the enemy camp by night – the Iliad
  • retirement of the protagonist in whose absence the other army comes right up to the allies’ base and threatens to storm it and win the war – the Iliad
  • hero’s beautiful young friend killed by the main antagonist, a loss which drives the hero to psychopathic vengeance – the Iliad
  • climactic single combat between two epic heroes – the Iliad

(Camps gives a much longer list of direct copying on page 81.) Camps says that Virgil used Homer to supply ‘a deficiency in the possibilities of his own imagination’ (p.9) but it’s bigger than that: the Aeneid doesn’t borrow elements from Homer’s epics, it couldn’t have existed without them. They provide the entire historical background, the entire worldview of gods interfering in the lives of mortals, the entire concept of a long poem focusing on an epic hero, and almost all the significant events. ‘Borrowing’ or ‘copying’ aren’t adequate enough words for the wholesale reincarnation of Homer’s epics in Virgil’s work, and in a later chapter Camps seems to acknowledge this:

To a very large extent the story told in the Aeneid is made by remoulding Homeric materials, as well as owing to Homer the broad motifs which govern its design. (p.82)

The process of composition

Camps devotes an appendix to describing some of the short biographies of Virgil which were written after his death. Suetonius wrote one, now, unfortunately, lost. The best early one which survives is by Aelius Donatus and Camps presents a translation of the full text (6 pages long).

Donatus and fragments from other biographies tell us that Virgil’s method in composing poetry was to make a complete prose summary of the entire story before he began writing any verse. Donatus says that every morning Virgil dictated some verses to a secretary for as long as inspiration lasted, then, after lunch, spent the afternoon working over what he had dictated, sometimes whittling a mass of verses down to just a handful of lines, sometimes just one. Apparently, Virgil compared the process to the ancient folklore notion that a mother bear gave birth to formless lumps of life and then literally licked them into shape (p.117).

(In fact, Donatus describes this as Virgil’s method in writing the Georgics but everyone has silently agreed that this is probably how he composed the Aeneid as well.)

Crucially, Donatus says that Virgil did not compose the poem by starting at the beginning and working through. Instead, he was inspired to versify particular ad hoc scenes as the inspiration took him, sometimes composing later scenes years before earlier ones. This explains all sorts of discrepancies which a close reading of the poem brings to light, notably the lack of linking and smoothing passages, for example the abrupt ending of the famous book 6, and the even more abrupt ending of the entire poem.

Moreover, Donatus tells us that the poem contains many lines of poor quality, as well as lines which are metrically incomplete which Virgil deliberately left in because he needed the padding and structure to get onto the more finished sections, but would have returned to improve had he lived.

The violence

I think my view of the poem has been very strongly skewed by the hyper violence of the second part of the poem. The orgies of testosterone-fuelled slaughter which it describes with such relish strongly affect my impression of the first half, so that I remember mainly the violence – for example, the extended description of the fighting at the sack of Troy. Camps wants us to feel soft and sentimental about the book-long love affair with Dido but what I mainly remember from book 4 is:

  • the murder of Dido’s husband and the unhappiness of his ghost
  • the self slaughter of Dido, who does it in the Roman way, falling on her sword
  • Dido’s extended curse on the Romans and getting her people to swear eternal enmity, an enmity which will lead to three ruinous wars and then the eventual sack of Carthage, the killing of tens of thousands of soldiers and the selling of her entire people into slavery

Similarly, I take the point that the journey to the underworld is genuinely weird and spooky, and Aeneas encounters many strange sights, that his pity for suffering humanity especially aroused by the sight of the pitiful shades waiting to be ferried across the river Styx and then his doleful reunion with the shade of his father.

But for me this all tends to be eclipsed by the shiny vision of the procession of his Roman descendants and, when you look at this list of Great Romans, what are they famous for? What all Romans are famous for, their military victories. David West in his 1991 Penguin edition has a handy little appendix which lists the figures Aeneas sees in the procession of Great Romans:

  • Silvius the warrior king
  • Brutus, famous for expelling the last kings and executing his two sons when they tried to restore them
  • the Decii, father and son, famous for giving their lives to win victory in two wars
  • Torquatus, led an army against the Gauls and executed his own son for disobeying orders
  • Lucius Mummius who not only sacked Corinth in 146 but utterly destroyed it as an example of Roman power
  • Aemilius Paullus credited with the conquest of Greece for defeating Pyrrhus king of Epirus
  • Cornelius Cossus defeated a foreign king in single combat
  • Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, the reforming tribunes, both of whom were murdered in the streets of Rome along, in the latter case, with thousands of their supporters
  • Scipio Africanus Maior defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama
  • Scipio Africanus Minor leading the army which sacked, utterly destroyed Carthage and sold its 50,000 inhabitants into slavery
  • Fabricius who led an army against Pyrrhus
  • Fabius Maximus Cunctator, the general who delayed and delayed confronting Hannibal in Italy
  • M. Claudius Marcellus killed a Gaulish chieftain in single combat

This is (not quite all) the people who feature in Aeneas’s vision of his glorious descendants, and what do they all have in common? Violence and killing. Slaughter. Rome was hyper-violent state, engaged in almost non-stop war (the Gallic Wars) and when they weren’t destroying other peoples’ cities (Corinth, Carthage, Gaul) they fought with terrible ferocity among themselves (Pharsalis, Philippi, Actium).

If any contemporary Roman set out a pageant of their glorious history, what would it consist of? Except a litany of wars and battles. It was a phenomenally militaristic state. Even the humanist’s favourite, Cicero, not only went to serve as governor on Cilicia but led his army in a siege and battles. Even the sternly principled Cato sided with Pompey in the civil war and was made governor of north Africa where he managed the military campaigns. Holding a senior magistracy at any time in Roman history almost inevitably entailed leading a Roman army.

Camps’s attempts at a moral interpretation undermined by the violence

Maybe I’m getting this way wrong, but I read Camps’s introduction from end to end and I think it gives a deeply misleading impression of the Aeneid. He devotes a chapter to Aeneas, then one to Dido and Turnus, and these overflow with sensitive empathy for their sufferings and the deeply ‘moral’ choices which they face.

But the poem I read venerates power, might, military strength, masculinity, supreme ability in battle and its centre stand two awesome killing machines, terminator-figures, Aeneas and Turnus who rampage across the battlefield beheading, belimbing, skewering and butchering anyone who stands in their way.

This is one of the reasons I dislike the moralising tone of humanist literary criticism, because it distorts the facts, it deceives and lies. You can read Camps’s book from end to end and get no sense of the piles of bodies, bloody gore and funeral pyres which clot the poem, and end up thinking it’s a Henry James novel making sensitive discriminations about moral scruples. It really isn’t.

At the end of Camps’s chapter about Aeneas, he does, eventually, concede, that there is a bit of fighting, and, OK, Aeneas is a bit brutal. He lists some examples. On the battlefield at the height of his rage Aeneas taunts a victim with the thought that his body will lie unburied; he consigns some of the prisoners they’ve taken to be executed in cold blood to adorn Pallas’s funeral.

There’s more like this but Camps deliberately omits it. Instead he goes out of his way to exonerate his vision of a caring, sharing, sensitive hero, these brutalities:

are altogether at variance with the hero’s usual humanity, and indeed with the standards of the poet’s civilised contemporaries.

Rubbish. A quick checklist of Augustus’ behaviour refutes this, not to mention a scan of Caesar’s record in Gaul, Roman behaviour in Carthage or Corinth or in the Wild East of Asia Minor. Camps limply goes on to concede that ‘the Roman world was not a gentle one’ [sic], and then devotes a paragraph to trying to justify Aeneas’s brutal, bloody execution of an unarmed prisoner on his knees at the end of the poem. He claims that this execution ‘would seem to Virgil’s readers poetically just’. Right at the end of his introduction, he returns to the fact that the entire poem builds up to this ominous and disturbing conclusion, the enraged murder of Turnus, and finds it:

strangely discordant with the normally disciplined humanity of Aeneas (p.142)

But reading Camps’s efforts to explain away this glaring, brutal event I thought: ‘But what if…what if the brutal killing, maiming and taunting, the sending for execution and murderous mayhem Aeneas enacts at the end of the Aeneid is NOT the temporary aberration Camps tries to explain away? What if it is the real Aeneas coming through and showing his “civilised contemporaries” what the real Rome is really like and it is – a killing machine?’

To be really crude, Camps is an apologist for a poem glorifying a mass killer and a violent empire.

The animal sacrifices

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be disgusted by the vast number of animals who are ritually slaughtered on almost every page of the Aeneid, led to the place of sacrifice and having their throats cut so their hot blood splashes over the altar by the gallon. Thousands and thousands of animals are butchered in the name of religion, in fact, in practical terms, animal butchery is their religion, both Trojans and Latins.

You know the line they’ve been putting on movie credits for decades, ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this movie’? Well, thousands of animals were slaughtered, had their throats slashed while they were alive and fully conscious, in the making of this poem.

Two points. 1. Again, this is the kind of really obvious in-your-face aspect of the text which a ‘moralising’ critic like Camps completely ignores. It’s just not there for him, because his ideology that literature must be about humanistic morality and sensibility simply prevents him from registering what is in front of him. As soon as I see a critic (of literature or art or film or whatever) mention the words ‘moral’, ‘morality’, ‘moral choices’ etc I know they are going to give a distorted and inaccurate account of the work under consideration, because their obsession with ‘moral values’ restricts them to just one narrow aspect of the characters and the text and blinds them, like the blinkers on a carthorse, to everything else which is going on around them, to the totality of the work.

Anyway, Camps doesn’t have the ‘moral’ awareness to even register that the cruel slaughter of thousands of sentient animals might be wrong.

But 2. The relentless animal slaughter plays a really important role in the fabric of the poem by making the human slaughter seem natural. It desensitises you. If you’ve already waded through lakes of animal blood, spurting from slashed throats, it makes the butchery of human beings just that bit more assimilable. The entire poem becomes a welter of blood and gore.

As I said, I’m aware that this is also a biased and partial view and that there are plenty of passages of delightful description, Aeneas’s sensitivity and sea nymphs frolicking in the waves etc. I am just pointing out what Camps’s supposedly thorough introduction to the poem completely omits from its account.

Virgil’s multi-levelled and holey theology

Christian theology has spent 2,000 years trying to reconcile the paradox that, while on the one hand God is all-knowing and so knows the future as well as the past, on the other hand, the theology of reward and punishment only makes sense if humans have free will. If everything is foreordained, then I have no free will, and therefore cannot be guilty or innocent of my actions. Therefore cannot be sent to hell or heaven. Whereas Christian theologians and hierarchies and organisations, very much do want to emphasise our free will precisely in order to threaten us with punishment in the afterlife and keep us in line.

Now the same problem is raised by the Aeneid only in a much more intense form because at every step of the way, at almost every decisive moment, it is the gods’ intervention which makes things happen. Venus makes Dido fall in love with Aeneas, going to some lengths to do so, luring Aeneas’s son into a copse where she puts him asleep and replacing him at Dido’s reception feast for Aeneas with her other son, Eros god of love, assuming the form of Eros entirely to soften her spinsterhood and make her fall for the Trojan. And then it is Venus who, at the end of their affair, comes to Aeneas in a dream and tells him he must get up and rouse his companions and load his ships and leave Carthage right now.

Similarly, the entire action of the second half of the book, the entire war between the Trojans and the Latins, with the enormous destruction and loss of life on both sides, only takes place solely because Juno makes it happen, commissioning the Fury Allecto to fire up the Latins against the peace treaty with the Trojans.

And yet, throughout the poem, the narrator also assigns praise and blame to individual actors, and they themselves debate their guilt and responsibility. For example, Aeneas tells Dido it is not his fault that he is running off and abandoning her: sed me iusa deum – the nasty god made me do it.

It would be interesting to read a clever analysis which explained what we know of Roman theology and sets Virgil’s depiction of the issue within that framework of belief. Camps sketches out the issues in his chapter 5 but doesn’t tell us anything which wasn’t already obvious from the poem.

For me the key to thinking about this problem is suggested by something Camps explains at the start of his book, which is to do with Virgil’s method of composition. Namely, it was episodic. (Camps uses the Latin word particulatim which means ‘piecemeal’, p.125). According to Donatus’s Life of Virgil, the poet first wrote out a prose version of his story but then chose not to work through it in order, but to work up particular ad hoc scenes from different parts of the narrative into verse.

And in doing so, he focused on producing as intense and vivid a scene as possible for the scene’s sake and we know that this sometimes led to discrepancies between episodes; characters behave inconsistently or say one thing in one scene, another in another; characters are introduced who we have already met and so on.

(Camps mentions the two apparently different deaths of Palinurus, who, at the end of book 5, plunges down into the sea, drowning, but in book 6 is said to have swim to shore, p.125. Or there are the two completely different versions of how Helen reacts to the sacking of Troy a) hiding in terror 2.567, or b) out confidently leading the Greeks around the city in book 6. He gives more examples of this kind of contradiction in appendix 4.)

Well, Virgil’s theology can be thought about in the same way as his method of composition, namely that he is not expounding a consistent and thought-through theology in the manner of Tertullian or Augustine; rather he is writing a dramatic poem and all that matters is the intensity of particular episodes. The momentary impact is the thing. Therefore it creates a great dramatic effect to show Juno or Venus interfering almost all the way through the narrative. But at other moments, on the human plane, mortals may discuss their decisions and implications in human terms of agency and responsibility. And because Virgil is concerned with creating whatever is most effective at any particular point, he isn’t concerned with trying to reconcile the theological contradictions thrown up by these different approaches.

In fact there are at least three levels at work in the poem, because above the continual interfering of the gods, which is continually described, sits another force – this is the power of fate or the Fates. This isn’t described but referred to at various points, mainly by the gods themselves. Nothing at all, not even Jupiter, can change what is destined and fated. He and the other gods can only interfere with what, in the end, are details, but the overall Fate and Destiny of everyone is fixed and unalterable.

Thus Juno herself is made to admit that she cannot change Aeneas’s ultimate destiny to settle in Italy and found the Roman race; she can only delay it. Which she does, at the cost of thousands of needless deaths including, ironically, that of her own favourite, Turnus.

On this view, you can pray to the gods, and the gods are depicted answering some (though not all) prayers (mortals can never be sure which ones will be answered and which ones won’t). But no prayers can alter the fixed outlines of Fate.

Fate has built the matrix with bands of steel. Nothing can change or alter them. But within the matrix, individual gods are free to mess about with details, to delay, to alter, to bend – but never to change the fundamental ends.

It’s in this context that Camps makes the shrewd point that the gods themselves pursue their own ends. The gods are as selfish as mortals, maybe more so. Only Jupiter rises above their endless squabbles and tries to adjudicate fairly but, as many readers have observed, he is only an intermittent presence in the poem: Juno and Venus are much more prominent, Juno most of all. The Aeneid could accurately be called the Book of Juno, or The Book of Juno’s Anger.

To anyone who takes this mirage, ‘morality’, seriously, the gods in Virgil are quite demonstrably monsters of immorality, cruel, thoughtless, heartless, irresponsible – like children. Any real consideration of the pagan gods of antiquity eventually suggests why they had to be superseded by the Christian god. They were just not worthy of serious intellectual consideration. And they are fundamentally indifferent to human life, breath-takingly callous. Serious consideration of the pagan gods led philosophers to sets of beliefs like Epicureanism or Stoicism, very different ideologies but alike in their aim of trying to eliminate the role of the gods in human life. Paganism tends towards a brutal indifference to human existence.

Compare and contrast that with the intense feeling of personal salvation which Christianity offered its believers. As Camps puts it, ‘the promise of the new kind of religion is evidence of the terrors of the old’ (p.49).

Anyway, the existence of these three levels of action allows Virgil to switch between them as it suits his narrative ends. Jupiter apologises to Juno, saying his hands are tied by Fate. Aeneas apologises to Dido, saying his hands are tied by the gods, and so on.

How are humans meant to know what the devil is going on? Via the welter of omens, signs and prophecies which the text is full of. These are the channel of communication between the three levels.

Sometimes a god personally explains something to Aeneas, but far more often it is the shade of a dead mortal (Hector or Anchises) who can explain things up to a point but not the full picture. This up-to-a-pointness is really striking: ghosts and spirits are continually telling Aeneas just so much of his future and, when he wants to know more, fading into smoke.

At other times it is the mute symbolism of some sign or portent like a comet in the skies or a swarm of bees or the eagle carrying off a swan who is beaten off by all the other birds – in other words, portents which mortals are forced to interpret and guess at.

My position is that none of this amounts to a worked-out theology on the analogy of Christian theologies. The opposite. Although these elements fill the text to bursting, they don’t indicate a coherent worldview, but one that is cheerfully incoherent: one which is ragged and flexible enough for the characters and narrator to switch between at least 3 levels of belief: belief in a Fixed and Unchangeable Fate, belief in the continual intervention of the gods, and belief in man’s free will which is sufficient to allow him to carry out free actions which can, accordingly, be judged within a ‘moral’ framework.

The overlap and interplay of the different systems is one of the things which keeps the poem dynamic and varied, keeps the reader in a continual sense of flux and uncertainty.

Furens

Alongside the multiple levels of destiny, goes a kind of dualistic theory of human nature. Dido and Turnus have two modes of being: their ‘normal’ selves and themselves possessed. In their states of possession they are associated with a range of frenetic adjectives, to wit: amens, turbidus, fervidus, ardens, furens, trepidans, in a state of inania, furor and violentia.

Furor in particular is applied to Dido a dozen times and Turnus half a dozen times. And Aeneas, after the death of Pallas, becomes a man ‘possessed’ on the battlefield. If you felt so inclined you could read the entire poem through the vector of frenzied possession just as much as by Camps’s limp metric of ‘morality’.

The poetry

It’s difficult to follow Camps’s chapter about the verse itself (chapter 7) unless you can not only read Latin but have a good feel for it as a medium of expression. I did Latin GCSE but have nowhere near the ability to judge it as poetry. Some key points which come over from Camps’s account are:

Vocabulary Virgil used a consciously ‘poetic’ diction, on the model of Milton in Paradise Lost or Tennyson in Idylls of the King, with a sprinkling of words from earlier poetry and archaic forms to give it sonority and authority.

Syntax Flexible, sometimes an adjective whose meaning attaches to one noun is grammatically attached to another; two nouns related by a verb have their normal relationship inverted; a phrase is compressed by omitting a term of meaning, letting the reader supply it; sometimes grammar as well as meaning is understated or omitted and the reader needs to supply it, too. These and other tactics create:

  • flexibility in writing lines and passages
  • compactness

But Camps says that, more distinctive than either of these is Virgil’s coining of highly expressive original phrases out of very basic words. Alongside their power goes a certain ambiguity. This has meant that many phrases of Virgil’s can be extracted from their original context and acquire new, more powerful meanings. Take lacrimae rerum.

Aeneas has been washed up on the coast of Africa and welcomed into the new city of Carthage and now he is looking at a mural in a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Juno that depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. He is moved to tears and says ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

Apparently, even in the original Latin, this phrase is grammatically ambiguous and can equally mean, ‘There are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind’ or, ‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind.’

Either way, the phrase went on to have a tremendous afterlife, being widely quoted in later writers as pithily summing up the sadness of human existence. Then, in the early twentieth century, it began to be used on Great War memorials, thus entering wider consciousness. It’s one example of the way Virgil’s just-so selection of very ordinary words was done in such a way as to pack an eerily powerful – and enduring – punch.

Pederast

The single most striking thing in Camps’s book is not by him but is in Aelius Donatus’s short Life of Virgil which Camps includes in its entirety in an appendix. In the early section about his appearance and nature, Donatus writes:

He was somewhat inclined to pederasty, [his particular favourites being Cebes and Alexander, whom he calls Alexis in the second Eclogue. Alexander was given to him by Asinius Pollio. Both of them were well-educated and Cebes wrote poetry himself.] (p.115)

Donatus then goes on to report the rumour that Virgil had a relationship with an apparently notable woman named Plotia Hieria, but that she denied it in later life. Apart from that ‘his conduct and demeanour were so respectable’ that at Naples he acquired the nickname Parthenias, an adjective applied to Athena and meaning chaste and virginal.

Three points. 1. This entirely chimes with several of the Eclogues which describe passionate love between  some of the poems’ idealised young shepherds and are plainly homoerotic. 2. The fact that ‘Alexander’ was a gift shows that the young men in question were slaves. Virgil had gay relationships with his male slaves. Slavery.

3. It’s interesting how Donatus’s description moves easily from describing his fondness for male slaves to his rumoured affair with a Roman matron. I.e. the homosexuality had the same kind of value or scandal value as a rumoured ‘straight’ affair i.e. merited a sentence or two, but not worth making any fuss over.

It’s a demonstration of the point made in M.I. Finley’s essay about women and marriage in ancient Rome, that what mattered more than anything else was the legal integrity of the official family, and in particular the legal status of sons and daughters to ensure the efficient heritance of property, titles and lineage. As long as these legal forms were observed, then there was considerable leeway in how citizens (mostly men) (mis)behaved.


Credit

An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps was published by Oxford University Press in 1969. All references are to the 1984 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Lament For The Makaris by William Dunbar (1505)

William Dunbar (1460 to 1520) was a Scottish poet active in the late fifteenth century and the early sixteenth century. He was closely associated with the court of the King James IV and produced a large body of work, distinguished by its variety of themes and literary styles. He wrote in the Scots dialect. His most famous poem is a lament for the ‘makaris’, which is the Scots equivalent of the English word ‘makers’ and which, in this content, was a common medieval term for ‘poets’. Which explains why the poem turns, at one point, into a list of poets he either respects or has known personally, who are all dead and gone, alas and alack (Chaucer died 1400, John Gower d.1408 and Robert Henryson d.1500 being the most famous names mentioned).

The thing to do with older poems like this, in Middle English, Scots or even Anglo-Saxon, is not to be afraid – but to read them out loud and see what happens. See which bits you understand and which bits take a bit of decoding. Quite quickly dialect words which, on the page seem challenging, when read aloud start to make sense. For example, in the first two lines, ‘heill’ obviously means ‘health’, ‘wes’ means ‘was’, ‘trublit’ means ‘troubled’, ‘seiknes’ means ‘sickness’ and so on.

The repeated refrain of each fourth line, Timor mortis conturbat me, is Latin for ‘fear of death disturbs me’. As on many other occasions in literature, repetition of foreign words after a while begins to give them a charge and meaning which a one-to-one literal translation lacks. They become more powerful left in the original language, acquiring an aura and charge which a straight translation would lack.

Similarly, it is much more effective to read or say out loud ‘The flesche is brukle, the Fend is sle’ than to translate it into: ‘the human body is fragile, the devil is cunning’. ‘Sle’ is obviously related to modern English ‘sly’ but isn’t the same. It is a different word with different, more flavoursome, resonances. This is why it’s best to read Chaucer in the original Middle English. Partly for the pleasure of doing something moderately difficult, but mostly because you enter into and acquire a new language, while you read and engage with it, and a different language is a different way of seeing the world.

Why bother to travel expensively and pollutingly abroad, when you can open a copy of Chaucer for free and enter a whole new world, a world of delight and sensual mental pleasure?

The simplicity of the poem’s rhyme scheme – aabb – contributes to its sense of plangency. Rather than triumphant lyricism, the rhythm of the verse enacts a mood of exhaustion, reduction to the bare bones, to a flat, unillusioned acceptance of the universal triumph of death. Which is entirely fitting because the poem is a ‘lament’. This was a formal genre or type of poem with its own rules and expectations and so the poet is using the conventions of the genre to produce a powerful poem of that type – repetitive, flattening, mournful, dirge-like.

Lament for the makaris

I that in heill wes and gladnes,
Am trublit now with gret seiknes,
And feblit with infermite;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Our plesance heir is all vane glory,
This fals warld is bot transitory,
The flesche is brukle, the Fend is sle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The stait of man dois change and vary,
Now sound, now seik, now blith, now sary,
Now dansand mery, now like to dee;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

No stait in erd heir standis sickir;
As with the wynd wavis the wickir,
Wavis this warldis vanite.
Timor mortis conturbat me.

On to the ded gois all estatis,
Princis, prelotis, and potestatis,
Baith riche and pur of al degre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He takis the knychtis in to feild,
Anarmit under helme and scheild;
Victour he is at all mellie;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

That strang unmercifull tyrand
Takis, on the moderis breist sowkand,
The bab full of benignite;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He takis the campion in the stour,
The capitane closit in the tour,
The lady in bour full of bewte;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He sparis no lord for his piscence,
Na clerk for his intelligence;
His awfull strak may no man fle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Art-magicianis, and astrologgis,
Rethoris, logicianis, and theologgis,
Thame helpis no conclusionis sle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

In medicyne the most practicianis,
Lechis, surrigianis, and phisicianis,
Thame self fra ded may not supple;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

I se that makaris amang the laif
Playis heir ther pageant, syne gois to graif;
Sparit is nocht ther faculte;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes done petuously devour,
The noble Chaucer, of makaris flour,
The Monk of Bery, and Gower, all thre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

The gude Syr Hew of Eglintoun,
And eik Heryot, and Wyntoun,
He hes tane out of this cuntre;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

That scorpion fell hes done infek
Maister Johne Clerk, and Jame Afflek,
Fra balat making and tragidie;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Holland and Barbour he hes berevit;
Allace! that he nocht with us levit
Schir Mungo Lokert of the Le;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Clerk of Tranent eik he has tane,
That maid the Anteris of Gawane;
Schir Gilbert Hay endit hes he;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes Blind Hary and Sandy Traill
Slaine with his schour of mortall haill,
Quhilk Patrik Johnestoun myght nocht fle;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes reft Merseir his endite,
That did in luf so lifly write,
So schort, so quyk, of sentence hie;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

He hes tane Roull of Aberdene,
And gentill Roull of Corstorphin;
Two bettir fallowis did no man se;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

In Dumfermelyne he hes done roune
With Maister Robert Henrisoun;
Schir Johne the Ros enbrast hes he;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

And he hes now tane, last of aw,
Gud gentill Stobo and Quintyne Schaw,
Of quham all wichtis hes pete:
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Gud Maister Walter Kennedy
In poynt of dede lyis veraly,
Gret reuth it wer that so suld be;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Sen he hes all my brether tane,
He will nocht lat me lif alane,
On forse I man his nyxt pray be;
Timor mortis conturbat me.

Sen for the deid remeid is none,
Best is that we for dede dispone,
Eftir our deid that lif may we;
Timor mortis conturbat me.


Poetry reviews

Pro Archia by Cicero (62 BC)

Pro Archia is the shortest of the five speeches contained in the excellent Oxford University Press edition of Defence Speeches of Cicero, edited and translated by D.H. Berry (2000). It’s barely 12 pages long and yet even this slip of a thing requires a detailed three-page introduction from Dr Berry. In it he explains that: Aulus Licinius Archias was born plain Archias in Antioch in Syria in the mid-120s. As a young man he established himself as a poet and travelled round the eastern Mediterranean writing poems to order. In 102 he arrived in Rome and was welcomed into the home of Lucius Licinius Lucullus where he tutored the two young sons. He was sought out by other noble Roman families.

During this period Cicero himself took instruction from Archias (among his other achievements, Cicero was no mean poet) and explains in the speech that gratitude for his old teacher was one reason why he took the case.

As a result of the Social War, most of the tribes and towns of Italy were granted Roman citizenship, under a series of franchise laws. Archias took advantage of these laws to adopt full Roman citizenship, taking the Roman style name Aulus Licinius Archias, the Licinius a tribute to the family who took him in and sponsored him.

Archias accompanied the general Lucius Lucullus to Asia when the latter was put in charge of managing the war against King Mithridates, 73 to 67 BC. Although successful Lucullus lost the confidence of his troops and was replaced, much to his chagrin, by the charismatic general Gnaeus Pompeius (generally referred to as Pompey in English), who wound up the campaign and claimed the credit. Lucullus commissioned Archias to write a poem praising his conduct of the war.

In 65 the tribune Gaius Papius passed a law expelling from Rome all non-citizens who did not have a fixed residence in Italy. In 62 Archias was named in a prosecution alleging he was not a proper citizen and so should be expelled.

Berry explains that Archias had, in fact, done everything necessary under the social laws to gain full citizenship and that therefore scholars have seen the prosecution as politically motivated. it is thought the prosecutor, Grattius, was an agent of Pompey’s who was continuing his vendetta Lucullus by attacking the latter’s pet poet. Alternatively, maybe Grattius undertook the prosecution on his own initiative to curry favour with Pompey.

Therefore, as so often, the case was not a narrowly legal matter, but was embedded in the fraught power politics of the time. The case for Archias’s citizenship was so straightforward that Cicero deals with it in the first few pages. Thereafter he shifts the entire debate away from laws or politics and onto the subject of literature. Thus he was deftly able to avoid alienating either side in the feud – doing the Lucullus family a favour by defending their poet, but without casting any aspersions on Pompey, who is mentioned only once, in a deliberately flattering way (24).

Cicero’s self-centredness and patriotism

This is the third Cicero speech I’ve read and I’ve gotten used to what I at first thought was his immense self-centredness but I’m coming to realise must have been the accepted style – that the speaker dwells at inordinate length on his own experiences and character and his motives for taking the case, his relationship with the accused and so on.

The other thing which is becoming apparent is the immense amount of space devoted to naming famous Romans. These Romans may be forebears of the prosecutor or accused, or people involved in the case for one reason or another, but, as a rule, Roman literature involves an inordinate number of references to previous generations of eminent Romans. If a lot of Cicero’s texts repeatedly refer to himself, this self-centredness is mimicked, at a higher level so to speak, by the way the texts are so very Roman-centric (see below).

The modern reader is tempted to skip past these sections in order to get to the meat, but I am coming to realise their importance in creating a kind of fabric of authority in a text or speech. It is often blatant name-dropping but with the purpose of adding weight and lustre to a client’s case by associating him with great men from the past.

Section by section synopsis

(1) Cicero tells the jury he owes a great deal of his ability as an orator to early training with Achias.

(2) It may seem illogical, given that Achias is not an orator but a poet, but Cicero tells the jury he has always been interested in all branches of culture, which are ‘linked by a sort of common bond’.

(3) He flatters his auditors, describing the magistrate as an excellent man, the jury as a most excellent jury and apologises that he is using a style not conventionally used in a law court, to ‘speak more freely on cultural and literary matters’ than is usual.

(4) He gives a brief resume of Achias’s life: born in Antioch (‘to high ranking parents’); as soon as he reached maturity, devoting himself to literary composition; then plying his trade around the Med, exciting admiration wherever he went.

(5) Arriving in south Italy, Achias was celebrated wherever he went and awarded citizenship of various cities. Arriving in Rome during the consulship of Marius and Catulus he was taken in by the Lucullus household.

(6) A typical display of eminent names: Cicero says Archias was sought out by Quintus Metellus Numidicus and his son Pius, Marcus Aemilius, Quintus Catulus and his son, Lucius Crassus, and was on close terms with the Luculli, Drusus, the Octavii, Cato, and the Hortensii.

(7) Cicero tells that, travelling back from Sicily with Marcus Lucullus, they passed through the town of Heraclea where they took advantage of the law of Silvanus and Carbo to legally make him a citizen. He fulfilled all the requirements and presented himself before the praetor Quintus Metellus to be registered.

(8) Thus, by section 8 of this 32-section speech, Cicero has made his case: Achias cannot be convicted of fraudulently behaving like a citizen because he is a citizen which can be proved by reference to the register of Heraclea – and the citizens who have come from Heraclea to vouch for him – and to ‘a man of the highest standing and the greatest possible conscientiousness and honour’, Marcus Lucullus, who is here in court to testify. Cicero says he could rest his defence right there, after only 3 or 4 minutes of speaking.

(9) Cicero concedes that the town records of Heraclea were destroyed in the Social War but what need for them beside the witness of the town itself. If the prosecution wants proof of Archias’ residence in Rome then this can be presented thanks to the conscientious record-keeping of Metellus, which he goes on to describe.

(10) Two difficult-to-grasp points: Cicero sarcastically says that, when numerous other Greek towns were handing out citizenship to unworthy artisans, he supposes places like Tarentum were unprepared to grant citizenship to one who had gained the greatest glory! This is clearly a kind of exasperated sarcasm but its point is a little lost on us. Then Cicero says Archias didn’t take advantage of the other lists in which he was enrolled but insisted on being counted as a Heraclean – ‘under circumstances such as these, is Archias really to be driven out?’ It’s also a little hard to see the point of this fact, maybe it displays Archias’s nobility in not slipping in as a citizen of umpteen south Italian towns. Both points feel very secondary to the basic key facts he established in sections 7 and 8.

(11) He addresses a specific point of the prosecution that Archias’s name is missing from the census roll. Cicero simply states that at the last census Archias was on campaign with general Lucius Lucullus and that during the census before that he was also absent with Lucullus.

An additional fact: during the period the prosecution alleges Archias was not a citizen, he made a will according to Roman laws, took inheritances left him by Roman citizens and was nominated for a reward from the treasury – i.e. behaved in numerous ways as a Roman citizen and was accepted by other Roman citizens as such.

(12) It is at this point that the speech suddenly detours into a consideration of literature and Archias’s literary importance. Cicero does this, as so often, in a surprisingly personal way, baring his breast and speaking in a vainglorious way:

Yes, I for one am not ashamed to admit that I am devoted to the study of literature… Why should I be ashamed, gentlemen, given that in all the years I have lived, my private pastimes have never distracted me, my own pleasures have never prevented me, and not even the need for sleep has ever kept me away from helping anyone in his hour of danger or of need?

This is pure self-promotion, isn’t it? With a touch of wholly spurious self-dramatisation.

(13) Surprisingly, Cicero then goes on for another paragraph, saying no-one can blame him if he spends the time others devote to sport or games or pleasures on literary study – especially if the study results in the powers of oratory which he puts to the use of his friends in adversity. Why, you might reasonably think, is Cicero clogging up a short speech about Archias’s citizenship with a lengthy apologia of his own penchant for studying literature?

(14) More self promotion as Cicero explains that only the example of great men recorded in literature inspired him to expose himself ‘to so many great struggles and to the daily attacks of desperate men, which I have been facing for the sake of your security.’

(15) Cicero invents a rhetorical question from a fictitious critic, asking whether the great men he invokes were experts in literature. This allows Cicero to concede that many of them probably weren’t but that, nonetheless:

When a natural disposition which is noble and elevated is given in addition a systematic training in cultural knowledge, then something remarkable and unique comes about.

(16) As mentioned above, Cicero then gives a list famous Roman forebears as evidence of the importance of literature to leading Romans of times gone by. He names the younger Africanus, ‘a godlike man’ [who we know Cicero made the key figure in several of his philosophical writings, on the gods, on the republic and on friendship], Gaius Laelius [central speaker in On friendship], Lucius Furius and Cato the Elder. So the study of literature definitely added to the wisdom and honour of these great men.

But he adds a second point, that even if the study of literature did not lead to statesmanlike qualities, still it should be recommended because:

this form of mental relaxation broadens and enlightens the mind like no other.

Whereas other forms of relaxation may be appropriate for specific times and places and age groups, literature is universal:

The study of literature sharpens youth and delights old age; it enhances prosperity and provides a refuge and comfort in adversity; it gives enjoyment at home without being a hindrance in the wider world; at night, and when travelling, and on country visits, it is an unfailing companion.

(17) It may be that some have no taste for literary achievement but surely they can recognise it in others? The great actor Roscius had died earlier that year (62) and was universally mourned when he died and yet he only entertained with his body, with his external self. How much more should ‘extraordinary motions of the mind and quickness of intellect’ be celebrated?

(18) Cicero then testifies to having seen Archias on countless occasions extemporise poetry on the topics of the day. And his written compositions have been acclaimed as equal to the ancients.

Should I not love such a man, should I not admire him, and should I not think it my duty to defend him by every means possible?

As so often, the client is the intended subject of the sentence and yet, somehow, the main presence is Cicero himself, booming his virtue. He goes on to give the standard account of a poet’s divine inspiration which was already, in his time, a stock cliché and would last another 2,000 years:

A poet is created by nature itself, activated by the force of his own mind, and inspired, as it were, by a kind of divine spirit. Rightly does our own great Ennius call poets ‘sacred’ because they seem to us to be marked out by a special gift and endowment of the gods.

(19) Even barbarian races respect their poets. Rocks and deserts have responded to the poet’s voice. Wild animals are turned aside by his singing. Cicero asks, in a typically plangent rhetorical question, whether the excellent race of Romans, alone, will ‘remain unmoved by the voice of a poet’?

He elaborates the point: various cities have competed to claim the great Homer as a citizen, long dead though he is. Is Rome to turn away a great poet who is not only alive, but belongs to Rome both by law and his own choice?

Third point: Archias has devoted much of his time in Rome to celebrating the Roman people. For he wrote a long poem about Marius’s war against the Cimbri, which the general, despite not caring about poetry, was said to like.

(20) And the value of poets is indicated by the way great men have vied to be celebrated by them. Themistocles wanted to hear his exploits celebrated by singers or performers; Marius thought his achievements would be made famous by the poet Lucius Plotius.

(21) Continuing the point, Cicero says that Archias has written a long poem celebrating the war against Mithridates, shedding glory not only on the commander in chief Lucullus, but also on the entire Roman people.

You can see how this is a convenient fact for Cicero because he then goes on to itemise some of the great victories, battles, sieges and so on of the war, all carried to success under the excellent Lucius Lucullus, mentioning his name four times. Sucking up is a crude term, but Cicero was doing it to the great general who was, of course, present in court. Maybe he turned and gestured to him at each name call. Maybe the crowd cheered each namecheck.

Back to the speech, Cicero draws the conclusion that all this writing up of heroic Roman military achievement means that Archias deserves the people’s gratitude:

Those who use their talents to write about such events serve therefore to increase the fame of the Roman people.

(22) It is really important to grasp just how patriotic Cicero was (see the deeply patriotic motive which runs throughout his tract De republica). Here he clarifies that the fancy words about a poet being created by nature and being ‘sacred’ are really only valid when he is praising Rome:

The praises of a poet shed glory not only on the person who is praised, but on the reputation of the Roman people also.

Because this is what all human beings desire:

We are all motivated by the desire for praise, and the best people are the ones who are most attracted by glory.

He repeats the idea that the Roman poet Ennius not only praised great men like Maximus, Marcellus and Fulvius, but shed glory on the whole Roman people and so their ancestors bestowed citizenship on him – are the jury, then, to disenfranchise this citizen of Heraclea who has been sought by so many cities as their own?

(23) A rather garbled passage in which he starts by saying that Greek literature is far more widely spread than Roman, then continues to say that literature not only records deeds of glory but thereby acts as an incentive to men to be heroic.

(24) Thus Alexander the Great kept a bevy of writers with him to record his deeds while in our own day Pompey conferred citizenship on Theophanes of Mitylene because he had written about him, and before his soldiers who shouted a great hurrah because they realised that they shared in the praise and glory of their leader.

(25) Cicero tells a funny story about Sulla who was handed a laudatory poem by the author, scanned it, then awarded him the value of the property he was auctioning at the time on condition that he never wrote another line. But the point is: would Archias have failed to gain citizenship from Sulla?

(26) Or would he have failed to gain citizenship from Quintus Metellus Pius who has given citizenship to so many others and once listened to some rather crude poets from Corduba? Because everyone is motivated by a desire for praise.

(27) More stories about great Romans: Decimus Brutus decorated the entrances to his temples and monuments with poems by Accius; Fulvius took Ennius with him when he went to fight the Aetolians and devoted the spoils of Mars to the Muses. How is this relevant? Because if generals have barely laid down their armour before they are honouring the names of poets, how much more so should jurors who wear the toga of peacetime.

(28) Characteristically, Cicero then decides to share even more about himself and let the jurors know that his exploits during the heroic year of 63 are even now being written up by Archias into an epic poem! For if you take away praise and glory what incentive does anyone have to get involved in great undertakings?

(29) If people had no concept of posterity they would never do anything great or crush themselves under obligations and work. It is the notion that our fame and glory will live on after our deaths which motivates the truly great.

(30) If great men take care to leave behind statues depicting their mere bodies, shouldn’t they take even more trouble to leave a record of their thoughts and deeds? As usual, Cicero adverts back to himself and his own sense that, even as he performed his heroic deeds, he was motivated by the thought that they would live on to aftercomers.

(31) A stirring peroration which summarises all the points to date.

(32) Cicero briefly explains that his speech has been in two parts: the technical part in which he dealt with the accusation, and then the slightly more unusual part where he digressed to discuss his client’s literary achievement and literature in general. He hopes the court will forgive his speaking on this subject.

Thoughts

Pro Archias is often considered important because of its discussion of literature but, as this summary indicates, that’s a little misleading; it would lead the reader to expect an essay about the origins or manner of Roman poetry, but there’s none of that, really. Instead what we get, in my opinion, is an explanation of the social function of poetry, and above all, the purpose of poetry in serving the Roman state, in praising great military leaders, in shining glory on Rome’s great military victories, in incentivising young men to emulate the great military deeds of their forebears.

Cicero is often talked about by his fans as if he is a sensitive, liberal figure and he often is – passages in this speech can be quoted out of context to make him sound like a completely contemporary professor of poetry. But surely, deep down, the evidence of De republica, De legibus and all these speeches is that Cicero has more in common with Kipling‘s notions of a hyper-patriotic literature designed to celebrate Victorious Generals and serve the Great Cause of Empire!


Credit

Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

Cicero reviews

Roman reviews

Molloy by Samuel Beckett – part one (1950)

Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition.
(Molloy, page 27)

Molloy is the first of a trilogy of novels which continued with Malone Dies and The Unnamable, and quickly came to be referred to as The Beckett Trilogy. That’s how it’s titled in the old Picador paperback edition I bought in the late 1970s.

Beckett wrote Molloy in French and it was first published by Paris-based Les Éditions de Minuit in 1951. The English translation, published in 1955, is by Beckett and Patrick Bowles.

Molloy is in two parts of equal length. This review is of part one, the long, first-person narrative by Molloy himself.

Beckett’s prose mannerisms

Let’s look at the continuities of style and approach Molloy shares with More Pricks than Kicks, Murphy and The First Love tetralogy of short stories:

Wall of solid prose The book is divided into two halves. The first half of about eighty pages has no paragraph breaks at all. It is like a wall of prose, and sometimes feels like an avalanche of concrete. It is physically difficult to read. It is challenging to know where to stop for a break, and how to mark your place so you find exactly the same place to resume at.

It has a first-person narrator who is fantastically vague about every aspect of his life:

I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got here. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. I’d never have got there alone. There’s this man who comes every week. Perhaps I got here thanks to him. He says not.

I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know much…

Forgotten To say the narrator is forgetful is an understatement. His main activity is not being able to remember anything.

  • Her name? I’ve forgotten it again
  • I’ve forgotten how to spell too, and half the words.
  • I’ve forgotten the half of it. Ah yes, I too needed her, it seemed. She needed me to help her get rid of her dog, and I needed her. I’ve forgotten for what.

I don’t know The phrase ‘I don’t know’ is a real mannerism or tic, cropping up numerous times on every page.

  • Yet I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know. The truth is I don’t know much. For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know.
  • She never called me son, fortunately, I couldn’t have borne it, but Dan, I don’t know why, my name is not Dan.
  • They let me keep my hat on, I don’t know why.
  • And the thing in ruins, I don’t know what it is, what it was, nor whether it is not less a question of ruins than the indestructible chaos of timeless things, if that is the right expression.

This is doubly true of the phrase I don’t know why. You just add it to the end of a common-or-garden sentence to make a Beckett phrase. ‘I’m in this room. I don’t know why.’

  • Dear bicycle, I shall not call you bike, you were green, like so many of your generation. I don’t know why
  • She never called me son, fortunately, I couldn’t have borne it, but Dan, I don’t know why
  • They let me keep my hat on, I don’t know why.
  • It was she dug the hole, under a tree. You always bury your dog under a tree, I don’t know why.

It is the poetics of Alzheimer’s Disease, of dementia, a permanent fog of unknowing. Possibly some readers find some of this funny, but it reminds me all too much of my Dad losing his mind, and that wasn’t funny at all.

And when the narrator describes visiting his gaga old mother and devising a method of communicating with her which amounts to giving her a number of taps on the skull, up to five taps, each number meaning a different thing, despite the fact she’d ceased to be able to count beyond two… I can see that it might be designed to have a certain dark humour, but it reminded me of my mother’s state at the end of her life.

She knew it was me, by my smell. Her shrunken, hairy old face lit up, she was happy to smell me. She jabbered away with a rattle of dentures and most of the time didn’t realize what she was saying.

Perhaps Nearly as much of a mannerism is the recurrent use of ‘perhaps’:

  • Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet.
  • All I need now is a son. Perhaps I have one somewhere.
  • I’ll manage this time, then perhaps once more, then perhaps a last time, then nothing more.
  • Perhaps I’m inventing a little, perhaps embellishing…
  • But perhaps I’m remembering things…
  • For the wagons and carts which a little before dawn went thundering by, on their way to market with fruit, eggs,
    butter and perhaps cheese, in one of these perhaps he would have been found, overcome by fatigue or discouragement, perhaps even dead.
  • And she did not try and hold me back but she went and sat down on her dog’s grave, perhaps, which was mine too in a way…

Or The two tics above are accompanied by a less frequent but just as tell-tale mannerism, which is to make a declarative statement then tack ‘or’ and an alternative clause at the end – ‘or nearly x’, ‘or about y’. The narrator describes something, then immediately says ‘or’ it was something else. Much virtue on your ‘or’. It creates a permanent sense of uncertainty and indeterminacy.

  • All that left me cold, or nearly.
  • But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without, when they were all gone they would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any.

It’s part of the way that more or less every declarative sentence i.e. one that appears to be conveying a piece of information, is immediately contradicted or queried or undermined by uncertainty.

A and C I never saw again. But perhaps I shall see them again. But shall I be able to recognise them? And am I sure I never saw them again? And what do I mean by seeing and seeing again?

The English language is continually crumbling away and collapsing in his hands.

They Some undefined group – ‘they’ – have done a lot of this to the narrator, like the ‘they’ that kicked the narrator out of his cosy home in the four short stories.

  • What I’d like now is to speak of the things that are left, say my good-byes, finish dying. They don’t want that. Yes,
    there is more than one, apparently.

Highfalutin In fact, one big noticeable change from Beckett’s previous prose fictions is that he has now dropped the Joycean fascination with out-of-the-way vocabulary which clotted Pricks and Murphy and to some extent Watt. There are some arcane words, but only a handful, instead of the riot of incanabula you find in the earlier books.

  • that would have allowed me, before parading in public certain habits such as the finger in the nose, the scratching of the balls, digital emunction and the peripatetic piss, to refer them to the first rules of a reasoned theory.
  • But not knowing exactly what I was doing or avoiding, I did it and avoided it all unsuspecting that one day, much later, I would have to go back over all these acts and omissions, dimmed and mellowed by age, and drag them into the eudemonistic slop.
  • And when I see my hands, on the sheet, which they love to floccillate already, they are not mine, less than ever mine, I have no arms

Presumably this was one major result of Beckett’s decision to start writing his texts in French and then translating them back into English: a) French doesn’t have so many words as English b) and nothing like so many weird and functabulous words c) and therefore sentences which could have been conceived around an arcane English word, can’t be reconceived around one when he translates back from the simpler French, otherwise he’d have to have rewritten the book. Instead the vocabulary is much more limited and plain.

Crudity There is, however, just as much interest in bodily functions described in vulgar words as in all his previous works. He enjoys shocking the bourgeois reader with his potty language:

  • My mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury. I don’t know. Perhaps they haven’t buried her yet. In any case I have her room. I sleep in her bed. I piss and shit in her pot.
  • For if they accused me of having made a balls of it…
  • What a story, God send I don’t make a balls of it.
  • I give you my word, I cannot piss, my word of honour, as a gentleman.
  • I shall have occasion to do so later perhaps. When I seek refuge there, beat to the world, all shame drunk, my prick in my rectum, who knows.
  • Unfortunately it is not of them I have to speak, but of her who brought me into the world, through the hole in her arse if my memory is correct. First taste of the shit.
  • How difficult it is to speak of the moon and not lose one’s head, the witless moon. It must be her arse she shows us always.
  • For as long as I had remained at the seaside my weak points, while admittedly increasing in weakness, as was
    only to be expected, only increased imperceptibly, in weakness I mean. So that I would have hesitated to exclaim, with my finger up my arse-hole for example, Jesus-Christ, it’s much worse than yesterday, I can hardly believe it is the same hole.

Or this pretty dithyramb about farting. People talk about Beckett’s bravery in facing the nihilism of the universe or the emptiness of existence. They shouldn’t forget about the farting.

I wrapped myself in swathes of newspaper, and did not shed them until the earth awoke, for good, in April. The Times Literary Supplement was admirably adapted to this purpose, of a never failing toughness and impermeability. Even farts made no impression on it. I can’t help it, gas escapes from my fundament on the least pretext, it’s hard not to mention it now and then, however great my distaste. One day I counted them. Three hundred and fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all it’s not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. It’s nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes. It’s unbelievable. Damn it, I hardly fart at all, I should never have mentioned it.

Summary of Beckett’s prose mannerisms

So you could argue that, on one level, the text is assembled from these seven or eight mannerisms (plus others I’ve probably missed), and which are deployed over and over and over again.

About thirty pages in the narrator appears to say that he is dead, so maybe this is a literary vision of what death is like:

But it is only since I have ceased to live that I think of these things and the other things. It is in the tranquillity of decomposition that I remember the long confused emotion which was my life…

And again:

And I too am at an end, when I am there, my eyes close, my sufferings cease and I end, I wither as the living can not.

But later he appears to imply that neither of the terms living or dead are adequate to describe his situation. So, characteristically, maybe he is dead and maybe he isn’t. It hardly matters. The situation, the attitude and the prose mannerisms are so like the ones displayed in More Pricks and Murphy and First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End (except for the omission of the highfalutin terms) that any ‘factual’ claims the text makes seem secondary to the consistency of the same old same old prose style.

It isn’t what the prose says that matters – it’s what it does and this is create a kind of quite novel and distinctive kind of poetry of decreptitude.

A flow of prose

It is not quite stream of consciousness but nearly –  one apparent subject leads on to another, seamlessly, in a great mud flow of prose.

This is one of the things which makes it so hard to read – that it isn’t really ‘about’ anything, about particular events or objects or people in ‘the real world’ but flows on continuously, introducing new subjects, people and perspectives, few of them ever named or identified, just abstract de Chirico figures in a barren colourless environment, who bob up for a while – like the men he names A and C – and disappear just as inconsequentially.

Some passages have a real surrealist vibe and could be describing a Max Ernst landscape:

For what possible end to these wastes where true light never was, nor any upright thing, nor any true foundation, but only these leaning things, forever lapsing and crumbling away, beneath a sky without memory of morning or hope of night.

A short example of how the intensity of his worldview, his bleak landscape, can become visionary and beautiful.

Facts as colours

There is one effect I’d like to try and define. For in the endless river of ‘perhaps, or something else, what do you call it, I can’t remember, I don’t know, well that’s one way of putting it’-type prose, just occasionally things like actual ‘facts’ surface for a moment. Nuggets of what, in another text, would be ‘information’ about the narrator or some of the other ‘characters.

For example, the narrator, remembering watching two men set off for a walk into the country, casually mentions that he is on an ‘island’.

Or suddenly mentions that he was on his crutches, hobbling, because of his bad leg (p.14).

Or that he has no teeth.

All I could see was her taut yellow nape which every now and then I set my teeth in, forgetting I had none, such is the power of instinct.

In a normal narrative, these facts might have had ‘significance’ i.e. they would have gone towards building up a picture of the narrator and maybe developing a psychological profile. But there is no psychology in Beckett, or rather there is just the one big Alzheimer Psychology – the inside of a mind which can’t remember anything or make head or tail of anything and isn’t sure whether it’s alive or dead.

Thus these ‘facts’ are not ‘facts’ in the conventional sense. They are more like sudden streaks of paint, a daub of blue here, a splat of red there, which suddenly crystallise certain ‘areas’ of the text, but don’t ‘mean’ anything, certainly don’t carry the literal meaning they would bear in a traditional novel.

Maybe it’s a kind of prose abstract expressionism. Take Blue Poles painted by Jackson Pollock in 1952, the year after Molloy was published.

Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock (1952)

The right-angled splash of red at the top left, what does that ‘tell’ you? Nothing. It just kind of crystallises an area of the canvas, it brings that particular area into focus. The red splash need not have gone there, but it did, and once it did, it adds another layer to an already complex composition, and it feels like a kind of finishing touch, a cherry on the icing that brings that particular area into… focus.

I’m suggesting that the ‘facts’ in Beckett’s text do something similar. On one level – because language can never escape its primary purpose of conveying meaning – on one level we learn that the narrator has a gammy leg and uses crutches. Fine. But when you actually read these nuggets embedded in the vast flow of text, moments like this don’t come over as they would in a normal novel, it’s more as if they’re moments of clarity around which the huge fog of the rest of the text arranges itself, highlights like the tip of an iceberg appearing in an Atlantic of uncertainty – or sudden splashes of red which somehow bring that area of the canvas into focus. They’re part of a design rather than pieces of information.

Words convey meanings. You can take many of the hundreds of ‘facts’ contained in the text and spin these into a meta-narrative, a literary critical interpretation. Or take my view, that the words and even their ‘meanings’ are more like colours deployed on a canvas to create an overall design or effect.

Take the ‘fact’ that the narrator appears to attempt to commit suicide at one point.

I took the vegetable knife from my pocket and set about opening my wrist. But pain soon got the better of me. First I cried out, then I gave up, closed the knife and put it back in my pocket. I wasn’t particularly disappointed, in my heart of hearts I had not hoped for anything better. So much for that.

In a ‘normal’ narrative this would be a big deal. Maybe in Molloy it is, but it doesn’t feel like it and doesn’t shed any particular light on what preceded or what follows it. It’s the apparent inconsequentiality of ‘incidents’ like this which suggests to me that they are more part of an abstract pattern or design than a catalogue of important ‘facts’ which need to be analysed and assembled into a psychological profile.

Other mannerisms

Sex

I like Leslie Fiedler’s description of Beckett ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ a) because it seems accurate b) because it conveys something of the spotty schoolboy element in Beckett. ‘Miss, Miss, Sam said a naughty word, Miss’. And indeed he enjoys writing arse, prick, piss, shit, and one four occasions, cunt. Ooh. I feel so twitted.

Now the obvious way to twit the bourgeoisie from the era of Madame Bovary or Les Fleurs du Mal (both French books which were banned for immorality in the 1850s) onwards, was to be explicit about sex. But here Sam double-twits the bourgeoisie by writing about sex but in an entirely banal, unglamorous, factual and rather sordid way.

Thus, half-way through the first half of the book, Molloy remembers an affair with a woman whose name, characteristically, he can’t remember (‘She went by the peaceful name of Ruth I think, but I can’t say for certain. Perhaps the name was Edith.’) They have sex, fine, but the point is the entirely blunt, factual, downbeat way the narrator describes it.

She had a hole between her legs, oh not the bunghole I had always imagined, but a slit, and in this I put, or rather she put, my so-called virile member, not without difficulty, and I toiled and moiled until I discharged or gave up trying or was begged by her to stop. A mug’s game in my opinion and tiring on top of that, in the long run. But I lent myself to it with a good enough grace, knowing it was love, for she had told me so. She bent over the couch, because of her rheumatism, and in I went from behind. It was the only position she could bear, because of her lumbago. It seemed all right to me, for I had seen dogs, and I was astonished when she confided that you could go about it differently. I wonder what she meant exactly. Perhaps after all she put me in her rectum. A matter of complete indifference to me, I needn’t tell you. But is it true love, in the rectum? That’s what bothers me sometimes. Have I never known true love, after all? She too was an eminently flat woman and she moved with short stiff steps, leaning on an ebony stick. Perhaps she was a man, yet another of them. But in that case surely our testicles would have collided, while we writhed.

So you there you have Beckettian sex. Frank and factual but treated with the same indifference and puzzlement as everything else in a Beckett narrator’s life. But, you are also aware of the deliberate crudity, designed to offend.

I would have preferred it seems to me an orifice less arid and roomy, that would have given me a higher opinion
of love it seems to me. However. Twixt finger and thumb ’tis heaven in comparison. But love is no doubt above such base contingencies. And not when you are comfortable, but when your frantic member casts about for a rubbing-place, and the unction of a little mucous membrane, and meeting with none does not beat in retreat, but retains its tumefaction, it is then no doubt that true love comes to pass, and wings away, high above the tight fit and the loose.

By the way, Molloy says he met Ruth or Edith or whoever in a rubbish dump, which literary critics might point out as an anticipation of the setting of the entire play Happy Days but which can equally be seen as an indication of the narrowness of Beckett’s range of settings.

Flexible style

As the text progresses it becomes more varied. Beckett deploys different registers of English. Not wildly so, this isn’t Joyce, but he creates a narrating voice which can slip easily into older locutions, invoking older English prose styles or syntax. For example in the sex passage, above, ‘Twixt finger and thumb ’tis heaven in comparison’ feels like a quotation or is certainly cast in the style of 18th century English to achieve that effect.

What I do know for certain is that I never sought to repeat the experience, having I suppose the intuition that it had
been unique and perfect, of its kind, achieved and inimitable, and that it behoved me to preserve its memory, pure of all pastiche, in my heart, even if it meant my resorting from time to time to the alleged joys of so-called self-abuse.

It’s easy to be distracted by the mention of self abuse in this sentence from its other elements, particularly ‘it behoved me’. My point is that his tone of voice is flexible enough to allow 18th century pastiche and more formal registers to weave in and out of the pricks and arses, or the more dully limited passages where he forgets this or that. In other words, when you really come to study it, Beckett achieves a surprisingly flexible and varied style.

So I was able to continue on my way, saying, I am going towards the sun, that is to say in theory towards the East, or perhaps the South-East, for I am no longer with Lousse, but out in the heart again of the pre-established harmony, which makes so sweet a music, which is so sweet a music, for one who has an ear for music.

Or:

But I preferred to abide by my simple feeling and its voice that said, Molloy, your region is vast, you have never left it and you never shall. And wheresoever you wander, within its distant limits, things will always be the same, precisely.

‘Wheresoever you wander’ sounds like Romantic poetry. ‘Saving your presence’ is a 17th century phrase:

But I am human, I fancy, and my progress suffered, from this state of affairs, and from the slow and painful progress it had always been, whatever may have been said to the contrary, was changed, saving your presence, to a veritable calvary, with no limit to its stations and no hope of crucifixion…

Or:

I apologise for having to revert to this lewd orifice, ’tis my muse will have it so.

By contrast, the first part of the following passage seems to be a parody of Communist Party rhetoric, which then, in its last clauses, carries out a characteristic Beckettian tactic of deflating into a common or garden image.

It is indeed a deplorable sight, a deplorable example, for the people, who so need to be encouraged, in their bitter toil, and to have before their eyes manifestations of strength only, of courage and of joy… without which they might collapse, at the end of the day, and roll on the ground.

Clichés

How would you describe those homely common-or-garden phrases which your old ladies or stupid people use, clichés, chatty rags and tatters of speech? Beckett likes including them, as if to undermine, throw away, banalise the endless meandering.

  • And though it is no part of my tottering intentions to treat here in full, as they deserve, these brief moments of the immemorial expiation, I shall nevertheless deal with them briefly, out of the goodness of my heart, so that my story, so clear till now, may not end in darkness,
  • And this is perhaps the moment to observe, better late than never, that when I speak of my progress being slowed down, consequent on the defection of my good leg, I express only an infinitesimal part of the truth
  • The idea of strangulation in particular, however tempting, I always overcame, after a short struggle. And between you and me there was never anything wrong with my respiratory tracts.
  • You can’t have everything, I’ve noticed…

Humour

Some of it clearly is intended to be funny, and is funny. Especially if you say it out loud in an Irish accent.

Oh well, I may as well confess it now, yes, I once rubbed up against [a woman]. I don’t mean my mother, I did more than rub up against her. And if you don’t mind we’ll leave my mother out of all this.

Maybe it’s an optical illusion created by growing familiarity with the text and its mannerisms, but as I became more familiar with the tone and voice, it seemed to me that, as it went on, there were more funny moments. Or turns of phrase which are humorous, especially if said aloud.

…for I knew I was bound to be stopped by the first policeman and asked what I was doing, a question to which I have never been able to find the correct reply.

Molloy contains a celebrated sequence where the narrator debates with himself how to keep the 16 ‘sucking stones’ he has found on the seashore distributed equally between his four pockets. (He sucks stones to keep off hunger and thirst.)

I’ve just come across this sequence being performed by Jack MacGowran on YouTube, and it seems to me the two important things about this are that a) Jack was Irish and so delivered the English text with a noticeable Irish certain lilt from which it hugely benefits, and b) MacGowran was a character actor i.e. used to playing parts which are a bit cartoony, almost caricatures of the humble and downtrodden, for example his performance as the everso ‘umble servant, Petya, in the movie version of Dr Zhivago. Beckett liked MacGowran’s performances of his works. He wrote the solo monologue Eh Joe specifically for MacGowran. Here he is bringing Molloy to life.

Maybe you just have to imagine Molloy as a derelict, half-senile, Irish tramp and then the highfalutin’ words and occasionally ornate phraseology become that of a gentleman beggar, down on his luck.

Maybe. It would be nice to think so. An easy solution to the problems of the text. But I don’t think it solves everything – meaning there are sentences and passages I don’t think fit even the most flexible notion of the erudite tramp, passages which speak with a different voice altogether:

There are things from time to time, in spite of everything, that impose themselves on the understanding with the force of axioms, for unknown reasons.

Kafka’s presence

Kafka’s very short story, A Messenger from the Emperor, is only 388 words long in Ian Johnston’s translation but it is a great example of the way Kafka takes a factual premise and turns it into a kind of surreal vision which piles up obstacles which make every effort to escape or progress more and more impossible in order to convey to readers a claustrophobic sense of the hysteria and panic Kafka felt, according to his letters and diaries, almost all the time.

Beckett does something similar, takes a common or garden object or incident and then quickly extrapolates it beyond all normal limits. Thus, upon escaping from Ruth’s house and hiding out down a dark alley, as day breaks, the narrator suddenly starts talking about the threat from ‘them’, and before we know it, has amplified this trope into a state of Kafkaesque paranoia.

They wake up, hale and hearty, their tongues hanging out for order, beauty and justice baying for their due. Yes, from eight or nine till noon is the dangerous time. But towards noon things quiet down, the most implacable are sated, they go home, it might have been better but they’ve done a good job, there have been a few survivors, but they’ll give no more trouble, each man counts his rats. It may begin again in the early afternoon, after the banquet, the celebrations, the congratulations, the orations, but it’s nothing compared to the morning, mere fun. Coming up to four or five of course there is the night-shift, the watchmen, beginning to bestir themselves. But already the day is over, the shadows lengthen, the walls multiply, you hug the walls, bowed down like a good boy, oozing with obsequiousness, having nothing to hide, hiding from mere terror, looking neither right nor left, hiding but not provocatively, ready to come out, to smile, to listen, to crawl, nauseating but not pestilent, less rat than toad. Then the true night, perilous too, but sweet to him who knows it, who can open to it like the flower to the sun, who himself is night, day and night. No there is not much to be said for the night either, but compared to the day there is much to be said for it, and notably compared to the morning there is everything to be said for it. For the night purge is in the hands of technicians, for the most part. They do nothing else, the bulk of the population have no part in it, preferring their warm beds, all things considered.

Does this scary vision of a city monitored by watchmen and technicians, whose work leaves only ‘a few survivors’ and frightens the narrator into ‘hiding from mere terror’, does this mean anything? Or is it colour? Or can the text be seen as a collage of snippets like this – the sex descriptions with Ruth, the hymn to his bicycle, the description of sucking stones or knocking on his mother’s skull – are they not intended in any way to be a continuous narrative (despite appearing on one seamless chunk of prose) but more like picture-scenes cut out and pasted onto a vast canvas, not following each other in sequence, but placed just so, to counterpoise each other. Perhaps.

At moments like this the text ceases to be a hymn to collapse and decay and becomes something more feverish and excitable:

Oh they weren’t notions like yours, they were notions like mine, all spasm, sweat and trembling, without an atom of common sense or lucidity.

Sequence of incidents

It can’t be called a plot but ‘notable incidents’ occur in this order:

  • the narrator is in his mother’s room and has scattered memories of her
  • he sees two men leave the town and walk into the country, who he names A and C, one walking an orange pomeranian dog (p.10)
  • he’s stopped by a policeman
  • he gets on his bicycle which he loves (p.17)
  • maybe his father’s name was Dan, he communicates with his mother by rapping on her skull (pp.18-19)
  • he’s stopped by a policeman who takes him to the station (p.20)
  • under questioning he remembers his name is Molloy (p.23)
  • the police release him and next thing he knows he’s walking along a canal (p.26)
  • he ponders how much he farts (p.29)
  • he’s back inside the town and obsessed with asking someone whether it is the town he was born in, he can’t tell (p.30)
  • he’s cycling along when he runs over and kills the pet dog, Teddy, of a lady referred to as Mrs Loy or Sophie or Lousse (p.31)
  • she owns a parrot who can only say ‘Fuck the son of a bitch’ (p.36)
  • he wakes to find himself imprisoned in a locked room, stripped and his beard shaved off (p.37)
  • a complex obsessively detailed description of the moon moving across the barred window (p.38)
  • the valet brings him new clothes and he pushes over all the furniture in the room with his crutches (p.41)
  • they return his clothes but without some of his belongings which he enumerates (p.43)
  • the door is open now so he goes downstairs and out into the garden where he sees Loose scattering seeds on the grave of her dead dog (p.44)
  • Lousse seduces him into staying with her, he can do anything he wants but she likes to watch him (p.46)
  • he remembers living with and having regular sex with Edith (p.53)
  • Edith dies while taking a bath in a warm tub which overflows, flooding the lodger below (p.54)
  • one warm airless night he walks out on Lousse, taking his crutches (p.55)
  • he stays in a shelter but is kicked out, then on the steps of a boarding house (p.56)
  • then in the filthy alcove of a back alley where he makes a very half-hearted attempt to slit his wrist with a blunt vegetable knife (p.57)
  • he describes in minute detail a silver toy he stole from Lousse (p.59)
  • he cycles clear of the town and gives the Kafkaesque description of the terror of ‘them’ (p.62)
  • he crawls into a hole and doesn’t know what happened to him for months or years afterwards (p.63)
  • suddenly he’s describing the period he spent by the seaside, living on a beach and a detailed account of his method of sucking stones and trying to keep track of 16 stones divided between four pockets; this goes on for a very long time (p.64)
  • sometimes women come to gawp at him, the strange old joxer on the beach
  • eventually he decides to return to his town, though it requires crossing a great marsh which is being drained in a major public work (p.70)
  • he tells us his stiff leg started growing shorter (p.71) an extended description of how difficult that makes walking, and his attempts to compensate
  • a review of his physical frailties including his big knees, weak legs, silly toes, asthma and arsehole (p.74)
  • he repeats several times that he’s reached an astonishing old age (p.76)
  • he is suddenly in a forest where he encounters a charcoal burner (p.77)
  • when the charcoal burner tries to keep him there by grabbing his sleeve, Molloy hits him over the head with a crutch then kicks him in the ribs (p.78)
  • wandering in the forest, with one of his typical nonsense discussions of how the best way to go in a straight line is plan to walk in a circle (cf the discussions about which direction the moon was heading relative to the window bars, and the very long discussion of how to keep his 16 sucking stones distributed equally between his four pockets) (p.79)
  • out of nowhere comes some kind of ‘solemn warning’ in Latin
  • a meditation what exactly he means when he says ‘I said’, he is obeying the convention of fiction whereas what really happens is more like a feeling bubbling up from inside his body (p.81)
  • he wonders how to get out of the forest and considers crawling, when he hears a gong (p.82)
  • it is deep mid-winter, perhaps, or maybe autumn, when he commences to crawl out of the forest, sometimes on his belly, sometimes on his back (p.83)
  • he reaches the edge of the forest and tumbles into a ditch from where he sees a huge plain extending into the distance and faraway the turrets of a town, is it the town of his birth, where his mother lives, who he still wants to visit – the main motor of the narrative? he doesn’t know, but at that moment hears a voice saying: ‘Don’t fret, Molloy, we’re coming.’

So there’s a variety of locations, namely the unnamed town of his birth, the house of Lousse where he is prisoner for some time, the seaside where he sucks stones and is gawped at by visiting women, and the forest where he kicks the old charcoal burner.

Above all, the text is drenched in negativity, phrases describing failing, collapsing, dying or decaying, the end, end of all etc.

And once again I am, I will not say alone, no, that’s not like me, but, how shall I say, I don’t know, restored to myself, no, I never left myself, free, yes, I don’t know what that means, but it’s the word I mean to use, free to do what, to do nothing, to know, but what, the laws of the mind perhaps, of my mind, that for example water rises in proportion as it drowns you and that you would do better, at least no worse, to obliterate texts than to blacken margins, to fill in the holes of words till all is blank and flat and the whole ghastly business looks like what it is, senseless, speechless, issueless misery.

Biographical snippets

Biographical or factual snippets about the narrator do occasionally surface amid the mud. His name is Molloy. He has a mother he called Mag. She called him Dan, though it’s not his name, maybe his father’s name was Dan. His legs are infirm so he needs crutches. Despite this he loves cycling. He’s cycling on his way to visit his ailing mother when he runs over the pet dog, Teddy, of a lady named Mrs Loy, or Sophie or Lousse, who takes him in. He has a beard.

Literary significance

I can see that it is a masterful experiment in prose content and prose style. Presumably it was radical for the time, just after the war. And yet, certainly in the visual arts, it was an era of year zero painting depicting devastated worlds, post-nuclear worlds. I’m not saying this is that, but Molloy’s extended minimalism falls in with that mood. There are no colours. Everything is grey, the grey of a brain-damaged Alzheimer’s patient unable to make any sense of the constantly shifting pattern of memories and half memories.

And many, many passages just seem like inconsequential gibberish.

The Aegean, ‘thirsting for heat and light, him I killed, he killed himself, early on, in me. The pale gloom of rainy days was better fitted to my taste, no, that’s not it, to my humour, no, that’s not it either, I had neither taste nor humour, I lost them early on. Perhaps what I mean is that the pale gloom, etc., hid me better, without its being on that account particularly pleasing to me. (p.29)

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe up. Maybe down. Maybe nothing. More varied and strange mixing learned references and crudity and Alzheimer’s tramp with something larger than that, a strange voided narrative voice, perhaps without it maybe moving forward, forward, me, not me, speechless talking. It has a strange and brooding and puzzling and confusing magnificence.

Credit

Molloy by Samuel Beckett was published in French in 1950. The English translation by Patrick Bowles was published in 1955. Page references are to the Picador paperback edition of the Beckett TrilogyMolloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Every Man In His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)

‘O, manners! that this age should bring forth such creatures! that nature should be at leisure to make them!’
(Ned Knowell, Every Man In His Humour, Act 4, scene 5)

When he came to oversee the collection of all the poetry and plays he wished to preserve in a Folio edition of his Works in 1616, Jonson chose to open the volume with Every Man In His Humour, ignoring all the earlier plays he’d written or had a hand in and asserting that this was his first mature play.

He didn’t just tweak the play, but subjected it to a major overhaul, changing the setting from an unconvincing Florence to a vividly depicted contemporary London, anglicising the names of all the characters, cutting speeches, making the thing more focused. Since the earlier version of the play had been published in a Quarto version in 1601, students of the play are quickly introduced to the existence of these two versions and invited to play a game of ‘Compare The Versions’.

The other issue you’re quickly made aware of as you read any introduction to the play, is the issue of ‘humours’. This seems to be simpler than it first appears. The ancient Greeks (starting with Hippocrates, then Galen) developed a theory that the human body consisted of four elements or humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These were quickly associated with the four elements which make up the world, as posited by Empedocles, namely earth, air, fire and water – and over the next 1,500 years the theory was elaborated into a system of vast complexity, drawing in the star signs of astrology and much more.

The basic idea is that the ‘humours’ must be in balance for the body to be healthy. All illnesses can be attributed to an imbalance or excess of one or other ‘humour’. If you were ill, doctors would diagnose the imbalance of your ‘humours’ and submit you to any one of hundreds of useless treatments, the most florid being the ‘purges’, or bleeding, which poor King Charles II was repeatedly subjected to on his death bed.

But it wasn’t just illness – human character could be attributed to the excess of a particular humour. Thus blood was associated with a sanguine nature (enthusiastic, active, and social); an excess of yellow bile was thought to produce aggression; black bile was associated with depression or ‘melancholy’, in fact the word melancholy derives from the Greek μέλαινα χολή (melaina kholé) which literally means ‘black bile’. And an excess of phlegm was thought to be associated with apathetic behavior, as preserved in the word ‘phlegmatic’ i.e. unmoved by events.

Jonson applies the theory to comedy by making the theory of humours into the basis of psychology. The idea is that every person has a hobby horse or leading passion or quirk or obsession. He explains the idea at length in a speech given to a character in the play’s sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour:

ASPER: So in every human body,
The choler, melancholy, phlegm, and blood,
By reason that they flow continually
In some one part, and are not continent,
Receive the name of humours. Now thus far
It may, by metaphor, apply itself
Unto the general disposition:
As when some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way,
This may be truly said to be a humour
CORDATUS: He speaks pure truth; now if an idiot
Have but an apish or fantastic strain,
It is his humour.
ASPER: Well, I will scourge those apes,
And to these courteous eyes oppose a mirror,
As large as is the stage whereon we act;
Where they shall see the time’s deformity
Anatomised in every nerve, and sinew,
With constant courage, and contempt of fear.

So the title of the play means something like ‘Every man looked at in the context of his guiding passion or eccentricity’. A really blunt translation might be ‘People as obsessives’.

It is really just a variation on the idea of comic stereotypes or types, which flourished in Roman comedy and has formed the basis of comedy down to the present. Dad’s Army springs to mind with its collection of comic types – the pompous bank manager, the lugubrious public schoolboy, the shady spiv, the weedy mummy’s boy, the excitable veteran, the gloomy Scot and so on.

But for Jonson, as for other Renaissance theorists, mere entertainment wasn’t enough, and his criticism and the plays themselves are full of snarling animosity at poets who churned out haphazard entertainments. In Jonson’s view, the comic portrayal of characters dominated by their humours or obsessions serves a purpose: by showing people behaving ridiculously on stage, comedy should make the audience reflect on their own obsessions, on their own quirky and irrational behaviour, and thus teach them to behave more rationally and charitably.

Hence the hundreds of references to the same basic idea, which is that comedy ‘scourges the follies of the time’ or ‘laughs people out of their follies’, and so on.

I, for one, don’t believe for a minute that watching a comic play for a few hours will change anyone’s behaviour. If so, if satire did change anything, how come there has always been an endless need and market for it? People are people and human nature goes very deep and laughing at a handful of caricatures for a couple of hours is not going to change anyone’s personality or behaviour.

Also there’s a subtler reason. There’s a case for saying that Jonson’s own practice undermines his theories, in the sense that all the prologues and prefaces and dedicatory letters and even characters within his plays certainly repeat ad nauseam variations on the same idea the ‘Comedy Laughs The Age Out of Its Follies’. And yet, when you actually experience the plays onstage, as dramatic experiences, it becomes vividly clear that Jonson loves the follies of the age. They’re what energise and inspire him.

Cast

KNOWELL, an old Gentleman, laments the old days and jealous of his son’s debauchery
EDWARD KNOWELL, his Son
BRAINWORM, the Father’s Man, looking to curry favour with the son and heir
MASTER STEPHEN, a Country Gull (‘he is stupidity itself’)
MASTER MATHEW, the Town Gull
GEORGE DOWNRIGHT, a plain Squire
WELLBRED, Kitely’s half-Brother, suave and sophisticated friend of Ed Knowell
CAPTAIN BOBADILL, a Paul’s Man, a bragging liar, close relative of Shakespeare’s Pistol in Henry IV
JUSTICE CLEMENT, an old merry
KITELY, a merchant driven out of his mind by obsessive jealousy of his wife
THOMAS CASH, KITELY’S Cashier
DAME KITELY, KITELY’S Wife
MRS. BRIDGET his Sister.
OLIVER COB, a simple water-bearer
TIB Cob’s Wife

Every Man In His Humour

Act one

Old Knowell dotes on his scholar son Edward until he intercepts a letter to him (Edward) from his student buddy, Master Wellbred, inviting him to debauchery. More specifically, the letter is sent from Wellbred who lives in Old Jewry (a street in the City of London) to Ned Knowell who lives in Hoxton, a few miles to the north, telling him not to be a stranger, to evade his controlling father, to pop down and see him because he is being visited by a couple of pompous idiots who will be worth his entertainment.

Scandalised, Old Knowell tells his servant, Brainworm, to pass the letter on to his son, not mentioning that he (the father) has read it. Brainworm delivers it to young Ned alright, but fully mentions that his father has read it and we begin to

During the whole act both Knowells and Brainworm are plagued by Ned’s cousin, the blowhard Stephen who combines idiocy – he has splashed out on an expensive hawk without knowing anything about hawking, and now feebly asks old Knowell if he has a book on the subject – with untimely belligerence e.g. he threatens to get into a duel with the delivery boy who brings the letter from Wellbred and is quick to imagine anyone turning their back on him or muttering is slighting him – but when faced up, quickly and feebly backs down.

Master Matthew pays a visit to the very humble abode of Cob the water carrier to see the braggart soldier, Bobbadil who is lodging with him. All three characters are played for laughs, I like the passage where the captain asks Matthew not to tell anyone where he’s staying, not because it’s too humble and squalid but because he doesn’t want to be inundated with visitors 🙂 And when Bobbadil offers to defend Matthew against the foul insults of Squire Downright, Wellbred’s elder brother, it is very funny the way Matthew praises the captain’s immense martial skill and the captain poo-poohs him while enjoying the praise, before putting him through a farcical rehearsal of sword fighting.

Act 2

At Kitely’s house. Kitely tells Squire Downward he took in a foundling and has made him his cashier and runner and named him Cash. Then he gets on to his main point which is lamenting that he ever allowed Wellbred to come and lodge with him, for he has turned the house into a tavern and brothel with loose company at all hours. Kitely now asks Downward – as Wellbred’s older brother – if he can politely ask Wellbred to leave.

During this dialogue both characters reveal their ‘humours’. Downward is quick to anger and expresses it in a volley of cliches and oldd proverbs. Kitely, for his part, reveals that the real root reason for wanting Wellbred to leave is he is consumed with jealousy about his recently-married wife.

Bobadill and Matthew briefly intrude on the scene looking for Wellbred, giving Matthew just enough time to insult Downward, who goes to draw his sword while Kitely restrains him and the others quickly exit.

Kitely has a long speech about how his doubts about his wife’s infidelity have slowly become his obsession. Two points: 1. It is (arguably) part of Jonson’s didactic strategy to have his humour-ridden characters soliloquise about them – in the sense that their description of their symptoms helps the audience identify (and counter?) them. Here is Kitely giving a vivid description of Jealousy:

But it may well be call’d poor mortals’ plague;
For, like a pestilence, it doth infect
The houses of the brain. First it begins
Solely to work upon the phantasy,
Filling her seat with such pestiferous air,
As soon corrupts the judgment; and from thence,
Sends like contagion to the memory:
Still each to other giving the infection.
Which as a subtle vapour spreads itself
Confusedly through every sensive part,
Till not a thought or motion in the mind
Be free from the black poison of suspect.

2. Martin Seymour-Smith, editor of the edition I read, suggests that Kitely’s envisioning of his wife being debauched is so vivid because, not very far from the surface, Kitely wants his wife to be ravished and wants to watch. Obviously Dame Kitely is oblivious of her husband’s feverish imaginings.

Scene 2 Moorfields, Brainworm is disguised as an army veteran and bumps into Ned Knowell and the idiot Stephen heading south to visit Wellbred. There is comedy when Brainworm tells whopping lies about his army record (mentioning battles which are nearly 100 years old) tries to sell Stephen his rapier and Knowell tries to stop stupid Stephen buying the rusty bit of trash.

Cut to Knowell making his way south to spy on his son. A soliloquy lamenting how corrupt the times are and how fathers corrupt their sons – the timelessness of this kind of sentiment confirmed when you learn that a lot of it is copied from the satires of Juvenal, written in the second century BC.

He encounters Brainworm in his disguise as a disabled soldier. Brainworm wheedles on and on begging for some alms, Knowell disapproves and asks him if he is not ashamed to be a beggar, and finally tells him to follow him and do him honest service in return for money.

Brainworm soliloquises. His ultimate aim is to ingratiate himself with young Knowell who will be his future. But meanwhile he gleefully tells the audience he will have fun doing his master mischief.

Act 3

Scene 1 Ned Knowell and his gull Stephen finally meet Wellbred, who is with Bobadill, and there is a festival of stupidity. Basically, Knowell and Wellbred are the clever ones, the ones who egg on the stupid gulls – boasting Bobadill, Matthew and Stephen who pretends to have fashionable melancholy – to display their foibles and follies in dialogue while the two smart or superior ones give a running commentary in asides to each other, and to the audience.

They are just discussing the sword Matthew bought off Brainworm, when the latter arrives onstage, still in disguise as the begging soldier. They argue about the sword he sold Matthew, more importantly Brainworm takes Ned Knowell aside and reveals his true identity, explaining that his father has tracked him and is even now putting up at Justice Clement’s house, a little further down Old Jewry, where it turns into Coleman Street.

Scene 2 At Kitely’s house. He has business to attend to but us seized with jealousy, at the thought of what Wellbred and his friends will do to his wife if he leaves the house i.e. rape her. He calls his servant, Cash, and spends a couple of pages telling him he’s going to tell him a secret, but then repeatedly pulling back at the last minute, from extreme paranoid fear, and then ultimately leaves on business for the Exchange, leaving orders to have a message sent if Wellbred shows up.

Cash realises something is up and wonders how he can exploit it. In rolls Cob the water carrier for a scene designed to showcase his dimness and allow a little aside about the nature of ‘humour’:

Cob. Humour! mack, I think it be so indeed; what is that humour? some rare thing, I warrant.
Cash. Marry I’ll tell thee, Cob: it is a gentlemanlike monster, bred in the special gallantry of our time, by affectation; and fed by folly.

‘Affectation fed by folly’, there’s a working definition of the the kind of ‘humour’ Jonson sets out to lambast.

Then enter Knowell and Wellbred marvelling at and congratulating Brainworm for his splendid disguise as the begging soldier. This leads into a complicated scene featuring Cash, Cob, Matthew, Stephen, Brainworm, Knowell and Wellbred, in which the fools interact in various comic ways, Bobadill at one point cudgelling poor Cob, apparently because he speaks ill of tobacco after Bobadillo has made a long speech in praise of it (Cob, if you remember, currently being Bobadill’s very humble landlord).

Quite a comic aspect is the way Stephen the fool is impressed by Bobadill’s big oaths but completely garbles them when he tries to repeat them.

Scene 3 At Justice Clement’s house, Cob enters to tell Kitely that a crowd (the gang of lads we have just watched) is arriving at his house, Kitely immediately begins feverishly imagining them kissing his wife and sister and worse, much worse, which puzzles Cob who last saw them all bickering about tobacco in the street.

Kitely exits leaving Cob to vow vengeance on Bobadill for beating him up at which point enter Knowell, Judge Clement and his man Roger Formal. Cob tries to get his attention to punish Bobadill for beating him, but when he explains the reason for the beating, that Cob spoke against tobacco – in a humorous twist, Clement loses his temper and tells Formal to condemn Cob to prison because he, also, immoderately worships the fine pleasures of tobacco and won’t have anyone talking against it.

Act 4

Scene 1 Squire Downright discussing with his sister, Dame Kitely i.e. Kitely’s wife. Kitely’s unhappiness at having gangs of loose livers visiting the house. And at that moment the gang enter, being Matthew, Bobadill, Wellbred and Ned Knowell, Stephen and Brainworm. The two clever ones encourage Matthew to take out some of his verses and read them to Bridget (Kitely’s sister) while they take the mickey, it appears most of them are cribbed from Christopher Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander.

Downright disapproves of all this and finally bursts out angrily at Wellbred for keeping such rowdy company, for encouraging braggart soldiers and simpletons, and takes out his sword, at which point Wellbred takes out his and the others start screaming and/or intervening.

At which point Kitely arrives home and his servants force them all to put down their swords. Wellbred, Knowell et al all leave the stage to Downright who explains why he was so angry to his brother. The women i.e. Dame Kitely and his sister, Bridget, swear there was one among them who was a true gentleman and showed his parts. They use the word to mean honour and good nature, Kitely takes it to mean sexual parts and is immediately stricken with his morbid jealousy.

Scene 2 Cob bangs on his own front door till his wife answers it. He shows her the bruises he got from Bobadill, briefly describes his encounter with Justice Clement, then makes her swear to lick the door and not let Bobadill in the house.

Scene 3 In the Windmill tavern Knowell and Wellbred agree with Brainworm some cunning plan which the audience does not hear explained, he exits, then  Wellbred teases Knowell that he fancies Wellbred’s sister, i.e. Bridget, and promises he will make her his.

Scene 4 In Old Jewry, the London street, Brainworm in his disguise of the old soldier rejoins Knowell senior, who asks where the devil he’s been – good question, since Brainworm hasn’t exactly been much at his service since their first encounter. Anyway, now we get to hear of the boys’ cunning plan as Brainworm tells old Knowell that his son, Ned Knowell, has discovered that he – Old Knowell – read the famous letter. Anyway, Brainworm spins a florid story about how the gang of them kidnapped him but he managed to escape and overheard young Ned’s plan to go to the house of one Cob the Water Drawer for a rendezvous with a Mistress Bridget. Ha! says Old Knowell, I will go there and catch him red-handed and exits, leaving Brainworm chuckling.

Brainworm then chats to Justice Clement’s servant, a simpleton named Formal who invites him for a beer and to tell him stories about the wars.

Scene 5 In Moorfields, Bobadill swells monstrously and brags to Knowell that he and nineteen hand-picked fellows could hold at bay an army of 40,000. And he swears he will cudgel the rascal Downright next time he sees him – at which point Downright strolls onstage and, when confronted with a real threat, Bobadill piteously says he’s just remembered he had a notice of peace served on him so is not allowed to draw. Downright calls him coward and beats and disarms him, before storming off in disgust. Bobadill makes a further, hilarious excuse, that it was astrology, sure he was struck by an unlucky star that paralysed his sword arm.

In his fury Downright has stormed off leaving his cloak behind. Knowell’s companion, Stephen, picks it up, says finders keepers. Knowell warns him that wearing it might carry a cost.

Scene 6 At Kitely’s house, where he is berating brother Wellbred for egging on the fight, as Dame Kitely and sister Bridget look on. Wellbred makes a throwaway remark to the effect that Kitely’s suit of clothes might as well be poisoned which sets Kitely off in a hysterical terror that his clothes are poisoned – and the other three are all astonished at the power of his imagination, that his thoughts can make him ill. It is this scene which underpins Martin Seymour-Smith’s assertion that Jonson anticipates Freud by 300 years in attributing illnesses of the body to humours (obsessions, neuroses) of the mind.

KNOWELL: Am I not sick? how am I then not poison’d? Am I not poison’d? how am I then so sick?
DAME KNOWELL: If you be sick, your own thoughts make you sick.
WELLBRED: His jealousy is the poison he has taken.

Enter Brainworm disguised as Justice Clement’s man, Formal, who says the Justice wants to see Kitely straightaway. Reluctantly the latter exits. Wellbred sees it is Brainworm and asks how he got the disguise, viz he got the real Formal dead drunk and stole his clothes. Now Wellbred instructs him to go tell Ned Knowell to go to the Tower. He (Wellbred) will bring along Bridget and the pair will get married.

Re-enter Kitely who at some length gets his servant, Tom Cash, to promise to guard Dame Kitely, to note everyone who enters the house and, if it looks like they’re going to a bedroom, to intervene. OK? Got that? He departs.

Wellbred determines to stir up trouble and now tells Dame Kitely, his sister, that Dame Cob keeps a bawdy house and that her husband, Kitely, is often hanging round it. Well, she cries in dudgeon, she will off to catch him in the act and exits, Wellbeing watching her, chuckling at the mischief he’s stirring up.

Then he turns to his sister Bridget and tells her that Ned Knowell loves her and wants to marry her at the Tower. Not surprisingly, she points out this is all a bit sudden, and is surprised that her brother has turned pimp.

At which point Kitely returns, asking after his wife, and is horrified to learn that she’s set off for Cob’s house? What? To cuckold him? And he runs off after her. Come sister, says Wellbred, let’s go meet Ned Knowell. It’s all getting very complicated.

Scene 7 Matthew and Bobadill are in the street, Bob still explaining why he refused to fight and ran away. They bump into Brainworm, still in the disguise of Justice Clement’s man and ask him to petition the Justice for a warrant for the arrest of Downright. Brainworm/Formal says, Alright, but it’ll cost them ‘a brace of angels’, about a £1. They have no money but Bobbadil takes off and gives him his silk stockings and Matthew gives him a jewel from  his ear. Brainworm comes up with another snag which is that they will need someone to serve the warrant, them both being too scared to give it to Downright directly. So Brainworm says he’ll procure a varlet, a sergeant for them and they approve and leave.

Brainworm cackles with glee. He now has the stockings and jewel which he will pawn, along with Formal’s clothes that he’s wearing, then procure a new suit and pretend to Matthew and Bobadill to be said varlet. Money and fun!

Scene 8 Cob’s house Old Knowell arrives. Now he’s been told this is where his ne’er-do-well son is. Tib opens the door, says she’s never heard of no Knowell, and slams it in his face. Dame Kitely arrives, brought here by Wellbred’s lie that her husband attends this brothel. Knowell sees her arrive and thinks she is his son’s mistress.

Dame Kitely knocks, Tib opens and denies any knowledge of her husband. At that moment Kitely enters, muffled up in his cloak. Knowell, observing, jumps to the conclusion that it is his son, Ned, come to meet his mistress. Dame Kitely recognises her husband and accuses him to his face of coming here to meet his mistress.

Replying furiously to her accusations, Kitely accuses his wife of being a bawd and making him a cuckold with him, and indicated Knowell and accuses him directly of being a shameful old goat for debauching his wife. Knowell of course denies it all and begins to suspect someone has pulled a prank on him. Kitely says he’ll take his wife to find a justice.

At this point Cob comes home and asks his wife what all this fuss is. When Kitely accuses her of being a bawd and permitting adulterous meetings on the premises Cob starts berating and beating his wife. Knowell intervenes and says, ‘let’s all go before a justice comes to sort it out’.

Scene 9 A street Brainworm soliloquises explaining why he is wearing the costume of a city-sergeant. Enter Matthew and Bobadill, and Brainworm tells them that he is the arresting officer hired by Formal. They are pleased to point out Downright as he walks onstage.

Except that it isn’t Downright. Remember how, in scene 5, Stephen picked up Downright’s abandoned cloak? Well, the figure they all think is Downright is in fact Stephen in Downright’s cloak. So there is a moment of mild comedy when Brainworm goes to present his warrant to the wrong man. But fortunately the real Downright enters at that moment. Brainworm serves the warrant on Downright but things start to go wrong. Downright really is downright. He goes to attack Bobadill and Matthew with his cudgel till Brainworm tells him to desist. OK.

At which point Downright spots Stephen and demands his cloak back. Stephen claims he bought it at a market but Downright contemptuously dismisses this as an obvious lie and gives money to Brainworm-as-city sergeant to arrest Stephen and bring him before the justice.

This is getting a bit much for Brainworm who now tries to wriggle out of it by saying Stephen has offered to give the cloak back, all’s well etc. But Downright will have none of it and raises his cudgel, threatening Brainworm, who is now trapped into going reluctantly with the others before the justice.

Act 5

Scene 1 Justice Clement’s house. Enter the first group of miscreants, namely the people involved in the brawl at Cob’s house – Cob and his wife who he beat, Dame Kitely who thinks her husband is being unfaithful, Kitely who thinks his wife is being unfaithful, and Knowell who he thought was her lover.

When they all tell him that one person, Wellbred, told them all to go there, Justice Clement immediately realises they’ve all been had.

Next a servant enters to Clement that a soldier is waiting for him. There’s some comic business as Justice Clement insists on getting into soldier’s armour himself and going down to meet Matthew and Bobbadil, who piteously pleads that he was set upon and beaten in the street. Clements pooh-poohs him for a sorry apology for a soldier.

Next arrive Downright and Stephen and Brainworm in disguise as a city-sergeant. Clement listens to them bickering about whose cloak it is, but more to the point, quickly establishes that the first two, Bobbadil and Matthew, had got his man Formal to raise a warrant against Downright. So where is it?

Realising this is the dangerous moment for him, Brainworm says there never was a written warrant but he was ordered to do it by Clement’s man, Formal. It now emerges that this was all done on Brainworm’s say-so with no authority. Clement terrifies him by brandishing his enormous sword over his head and threatening to cut off his ears. Then tells his servant to take Brainworm to prison.

At which point Brainworm throws off his disguise (as the city-sergeant) and reveals himself as Brainworm, and is immediately recognised by his master, Old Knowell. Clement is amused by this and asks for a bowl of sack to drink while Brainworm tells his story. Brainworm explains to Knowell how he dressed up as the veteran soldier.

As well as explaining how he told Kitely to go to Cob’s, Brainworm now reveals how both Kitely and Dame Kitely were sent there to get them out the way, so Mistress Bridget could be taken by Wellbred to meet young Knowell.

Clement is so impressed by the elaborateness of the scam, that he sends a man to invite the newly married couple back to his house. But what’s become of Formal? Brainworm explains how he got him dead drunk and borrowed his clothes.

Rather improbably, Justice Clements forgives him and tells all masters present to forgive him also. At that moment Formal arrives dressed in a suit of armour. It was all they had in the bar where he woke up from being dead drunk and almost naked, so he asked the bar staff if he could wear it home! Clements forgives him his folly, also.

Enter the happy couple and friend i.e. New Knowell and his newly married wife, Bridget, and friend Wellbred. Clement welcomes them and toasts them. All are welcome – except for Bobadill and Matthew. Wellbred intervenes for Matthew, saying he is an amusing poet, if packed with prompts.

They rifle Matthew’s pockets and bring out piles of pre-written poetry, Clement is appalled and commands that they make a big pile of it and set it on fire. It blazes up, reaches a peak, then dies down – Sic transit gloria mundi.

Clement says everyone is welcome to the big wedding feast, except these two, the sign of a soldier and the picture of a poet i.e. the two pretenders Bobadill and Matthew. They will be set in the courtyard to meditate on their sins. And Formal in his suit of armour will watch over them.

As to Stephen, the cloak-stealer, Clement says he will have dinner in the kitchen with Cob and his wife who he orders to be reconciled. As must everyone. Clement tells the lead offenders to put off their humours, Downright his anger, Kitely his jealousy and Kitely does indeed give it up, recite some verse about letting it fly away into the air.

So the play ends with three happy newly-made or remade couples: Kitely and Mrs Knowell and Bridget; Cob and Tib.

Jonson’s split morality

The conclusion is fairly brief – the fifth act is by far the shortest – and its judgements seem harsh. Well, not harsh, but unfair. Bobadill and Matthew are only idiots, who boast and brag a bit, and yet they are harshly punished – whereas Brainworm is a cunning trickster, a thief and mocker of the Queen’s justice, impersonator of an officer – you’d have thought he’d be hanged by the law of the day. While Wellbred deceived Kitely and his wife, setting them at loggerheads and almost ruining their marriage.

Surely all of that is worse than being a bad poet and a pretend soldier?

Taking the theory of humours literally for a moment, Justice Clement’s final speeches claim to ‘purge’ the most humour-ridden of the characters, namely Kitely and Downright. But in my opinion, there’s quite a big gap between this purging idea and actual justice for wrong-doing, either moral or legal, according to which, as I’ve said, a different set of crooks should surely have been punished.

That play reveals that the psychological basis of the humour theory – that Jonson’s concern is to purge hobby horses and obsessions – is strangely at odds with conventional legal or moral values. There seems to be a big contradiction here and I’m not the only one to notice it. Seymour-Smith quotes the critic A. Sale as saying that Jonson: ‘is a thoroughly unorthodox moralist; it is the morality of the enemies, not the pillars, of society’.

That seems spot-on to me. The more you consider the way that the fierce Justice, Clement, takes to the crook and impersonator Brainworm as to a lost brother, pardons him his multiple crimes and toasts his health, the weirder it seems. Jonson appears to be celebrating a massive subverter of law and order.

It’s odd. Jonson’s prefaces and prologues ding on about justice and society – and yet his actual fictions are wildly anarchic and throw all their sympathy behind the biggest anarchists.

Seymour-Smith quotes the critic Elizabeth Woodbridge who long ago commented that the demarcation line in the play isn’t drawn between the good and the bad, but between the witty and the dull, and that it celebrates rogues and crooks simply because they’re quick-witted and sympathetic. The witty prevail and the stupid are punished. ‘Such a play can scarcely be called moral.’

This wonky view of justice prepares us for the imaginative thrust of his two most famous plays, Volpone and The Alchemist, in which all the best poetry and imaginative force is given to the topsy-turvy subverters of established order and morality.


Related links

Elizabethan comedies

  • The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (1597)
  • Every Man in His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)
  • The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)
  • Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston (1605)
  • Volpone by Ben Jonson (1606)
  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)
  • The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1607)
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman by Ben Jonson (1609)
  • The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)
  • A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)
  • Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Elizabethan art

Restoration comedies

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

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

Early life

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

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

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

Marriage and public poetry

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

Three points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drama

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

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

Satire: Absalom and Achitophel

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

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

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

Horace versus Juvenal

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

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

The mock heroic: Mac Flecknoe

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

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

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

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

Heavenly powers

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

Extended epic simile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry of religion 1. Religio Laici

Dryden published two major poems about religion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry of religion 2. The Hind and The Panther

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

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

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

Translator

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

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

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

Heroic couplets

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

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

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

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

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

Many of Robert Herrick’s short poems from the 1630s are in rhyming couplets, and so on. But the use of nothing but rhyming couplets over extended texts was revived in the mid-17th century by poets like Edmund Waller (1606 to 1687) and Sir John Denham (1615 to 1669). Denham is remembered for his bucolic poem, Cooper’s Hill with its lulling melliflousness. These are its best-known lines, two out of a long series of smoothly rhyming couplets:

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

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

They got a Villain, and we lost a Fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related reviews

Poetry

History

Restoration art

Restoration drama

Introduction to The Plays of William Wycherley by W.C. Ward (1893)

Old literary criticism is often valuable because it sees works of literature in the round, as a whole. Its judgements are often mature, made by people who have seen a lot of life and often had other full-time careers, as lawyers, politician and so on. So their opinions are aware of and take into account a range of audiences and their essays are written in a language designed to be accessible to all literate readers.

All this contrasts with the highly professionalised nature of contemporary literary criticism, generally written by people who have little or no experience of life beyond the academy; written in fierce competition with other academics and so often focusing on narrow and highly specific aspects of works or genres where the author desires to carve out a niche; and written in a jargon which has become steadily more arcane and removed from everyday English over the past forty years or so.

This kind of modern literary criticism is contained in expensive books destined to be bought only by university libraries, or in remote articles in any one of hundreds of subscription-only specialist journals. It is not, in other words, designed for the average reader. Nowadays, literary criticism is an elite discourse.

Older criticism can also be humane and funny, and can afford to be scathingly critical of its authors, in a way modern po-faced and ‘professional’ criticism often daren’t.

The 1893 edition of The Plays of William Wycherley which Project Gutenberg chose for their online library includes an introduction to Wycherley’s plays by the edition’s editor, W.C. Ward, followed by an extended biographical essay by Thomas Babington Macauley which dates from even earlier, from the 1850s.

(If this appears very old fashioned a) it is, and b) several of the Wikipedia articles about Wycherley appear to be cut and pastes of the relevant articles from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Introduction by WC Ward

Comedies of Manners Ward describes the Restoration comedies as Comedies of Manners, contrasting them with Shakespeare’s plays which he calls Comedies of Life.

Aristocratic audiences Restoration comedies only illustrate one aspect of life, and that the most superficial – the courtly badinage of aristocrats having affairs. They were initially designed for a tiny, upper-class clientele, and kept that sense of targeting a select audience which ‘gets’ its attitude and in-jokes.

Displays of wit The plays were designed to display Wit and Ingenuity – all other human activities, all other human emotions and psychology, are simply omitted in pursuit of these goals. Their dialogue is not intended to reveal the characters’ psychology or development. It exists solely to display the author’s Wit and to further the ‘Plot’, which also exists solely to demonstrate the author’s ingenuity.

Robot characters The characters are not people, they are ‘simulacra… puppet semblances of humanity’. They only copy human behaviour insofar as is required to further the clockwork plots.

This narrow mechanical aspect of the characterisation is, in Ward’s view, paradoxically a redeeming factor when we come to consider the plays’ indecency and immorality.

Licentiousness always superficial The very fact that the characters are barely human, are really flashy automata, means that their licentiousness and cynicism has no real depth. It doesn’t affect us in the way the same speeches put into the mouths of real characters would affect us, because we know they are the baseless vapourings of toys.

Designed to amuse Ward also defends the plays against the frequent charge of licentiousness by pointing out that they are designed solely to amuse and make us laugh – they don’t even have the deeper ambition of Ben Jonson’s comedies, ‘to laugh us out of vice’.

Antidote to lust And, Ward says, the kind of superficial laughter they prompt on every page is in fact an antidote to lustful thoughts. The plays do not inflame the audience with genuinely licentious and immoral thoughts because the characters are so one-dimensional and the plots are so extravagantly ludicrous that real sexual thoughts never enter our heads.

Virtue triumphs Other critics charge that Restoration comedies only being Virtue on stage to be mocked and ridiculed, which is a bad thing. Ward admits that most of the characters lose no opportunity to mock honesty, hard work, sobriety, the law, business, chasteness and loyalty and fidelity and love. All true. But at the same time, love does eventually triumph (after a superficial fashion) the qualities of loyalty and virtue do, in the end, triumph.

Women of virtue And each play contains at least one female character, and sometimes a man, who is significantly less cynical than the other characters and becomes almost a defender of virtue. For example, Alithea in The Country Wife and Fidelia in The Plain Dealer are unironic emblems of Goodness and Virtue – and they and their values do, eventually, win the day.

Marriage mocked Other critics lament the way the sanctity of Marriage is routinely mocked, at length, continuously, throughout all the plays. Ward puts the defence that when you look closely, the specific examples of marriage being mocked are the marriages of ludicrous characters such as Pinchwife or Vernish. (This defence, in my opinion, is nowhere near adequate; all the characters mock marriage as a school for adulterers and cuckolds far more powerfully and continuously than Ward acknowledges.)

Wycherley’s poetry Ward goes on from Wycherley’s plays to discuss Wycherley’s poetry, which was published in two volumes late in his life and about which he is entertainingly rude. The poems are, in Ward’s opinion (and everyone else’s – he quotes Wycherley’s contemporaries) utterly worthless, beneath criticism. ‘Wycherley had no spark of poetry in his whole composition’.

It’s good to have this confirmed, as I thought the short poems which appear scattered through Wycherley’s plays were utterly lifeless.

Wycherley’s character As to his character:

It is not to be doubted that Wycherley participated in the fashionable follies and vices of the age in which he lived. His early intrigue with the Duchess of Cleveland was notorious.

The success of his plays drew him into aristocratic court circles which really did value the behaviour he describes.

Alexander Pope Late in life, Wycherley became a kind of mentor to the very young Alexander Pope, when the later was only 16 or 17 years old, and their correspondence, and also memoirs written about the great John Dryden, show that Wycherley was loved as a good friend by many of his contemporaries.

Essay by Thomas Babington Macauley

According to Joseph E. Riehl’s book about Charles Lamb and his critics, Macauley wrote his criticism of the Restoration dramatists at least in part as an attack or counter to Charles Lamb’s strong defence of them. Macauley argued that Restoration comedy is degrading to human relationships, and that it promoted ‘evil, perverted or shameful conduct’. I sympathise.

In the 22-page essay on the Gutenberg website, Macauley describes Wycherley’s life and character in some detail, with comments on the plays. Key points are:

Early life Wycherley was born in 1640. Young Wycherley was sent to France as a teenager, where he converted to Catholicism. After the Restoration of 1660, he went to Oxford, left without a degree, studied law at the Inns of Court just long enough to be able to make comic butts of lawyers and their hangers-on, as in The Plain Dealer.

Religious conversion Shrewdly, Wycherley converted back from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Macauley has a droll sense of humour and a nice turn of phrase:

The somewhat equivocal glory of turning, for a short time, a good-for-nothing Papist into a very good-for-nothing Protestant is ascribed to Bishop Barlow.

The Restoration court He gives a vivid sense of the promiscuity of Charles’s court:

The Duchess of Cleveland cast her eyes upon [Wycherley] and was pleased with his appearance. This abandoned woman, not content with her complaisant husband and her royal keeper, lavished her fondness on a crowd of paramours of all ranks, from dukes to rope-dancers.

The Dutch Wars He comments scornfully on the Dutch Wars:

The second Dutch war, the most disgraceful war in the whole history of England, was now raging. It was not in that age considered as by any means necessary that a naval officer should receive a professional education. Young men of rank, who were hardly able to keep their feet in a breeze, served on board the King’s ships, sometimes with commissions and sometimes as volunteers.

The Royal Navy There’s debate about whether Wycherley – like many other completely unqualified ‘gentleman’ – volunteered for the navy, but it would be nice to think so and that it gave verisimilitude to his depiction of Captain Manly and the sailors in The Plain Dealer.

The Country Wife he describes as:

one of the most profligate and heartless of human compositions… the elaborate production of a mind, not indeed rich, original or imaginative, but ingenious, observant, quick to seize hints, and patient of the toil of polishing.

Marriage and prison Wycherley was such a royal favourite that Charles appointed him tutor to his illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. However, Wycherley ruined his reputation with the king and swiftly lost the post of tutor by unwisely marrying the Countess of Drogheda, ‘a gay young widow’ in 1679. She was jealous and kept a close eye on him till she died young in 1685. He hoped he would leave her a fortune, but she left him a long and ruinous legal case. Possibly as a result of this, Wycherley was thrown into the Fleet prison where he languished for seven long years. The story goes that the newly crowned King James II (ascended the throne 1685) happened to see a performance of The Plain Dealer, asked about the author, was shocked to discover he was in gaol, paid his debts and settled an annuity on him.

Released, he was nonetheless impoverished, unable to sustain his old lifestyle, and unable to write another play. In 1704, after 27 years of silence, a volume of poetry appeared – ‘a bulky volume of obscene doggerel’.

Alexander Pope It was in the same year he formed the friendship with the young sickly hunchback Alexander Pope, who he mentored, took about town, and who in turn offered to rewrite and ‘improve’ the older man’s verse. Quite quickly Pope realised how dire Wycherley’s poetry was and that nothing could save it. Quite a few of their letters survive which shed light on both men.

Literary reputation Rests entirely on his last two plays, The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer. His characters are often little more than mouthpieces for the contrived wit of the time.

It was alleged he was a slow and painstaking author, but Pope claims he wrote The Plain Dealer in three weeks! Having just read both his hit plays, I am inclined to believe the slow and painstaking version. They both feel slow and laboured.

In truth, his mind, unless we are greatly mistaken, was naturally a very meagre soil, and was forced only by great labour and outlay to bear fruit which, after all, was not of the highest flavour.

Widow Blackacre Macauley is correct to say:

The widow Blackacre [is] beyond comparison Wycherley’s best comic character

In full flood she struck me as being almost a female Falstaff. But these few words of praise don’t stop Macauley taking every opportunity to damn Wycherley:

The only thing original about Wycherley, the only thing which he could furnish from his own mind in inexhaustible abundance, was profligacy.

Degrading French originals By which he means his low, mean, degraded subject matter. Macauley accuses him of taking the fine and graceful character of Agnes in the French play L’Ecole des Femmes and turning her into the degraded imbecile Mrs Pinchwife in The Country Wife.

Wycherley’s indecency is protected against the critics as a skunk is protected against the hunters. It is safe, because it is too filthy to handle and too noisome even to approach.

Similarly, Macauley accuses him of taking the light and chaste character of Viola in Twelfth Night and turning her into the much narrower and lewder Fidelia, an attempt at loyalty and fidelity who in fact acts as a pimp for her master; and of taking the misanthropic but essentially noble character Alceste in Moliere’s Le Misanthrope and turning him into the much cruder and more vengeful Manly.

So depraved was his moral taste, that, while he firmly believed that he was producing a picture of virtue too exalted for the commerce of this world, he was really delineating the greatest rascal that is to be found even in his own writings.

Wow. Not the kind of unashamed contempt a modern literary critic would allow themselves. These two pretty old essays bring Wycherely’s life and times and character and works to life far more vividly than anything else I’ve read about him. And hence the value of older literary criticism. It tends to paint a fuller picture of the man, the times and the works. And not be afraid to give pungent judgements.


Related links

Reviews of Wycherley’s plays

Other Restoration comedies

J.G. Ballard: poet or prophet?

I’ll give the game away right at the start by stating that I think Ballard is much more obviously and convincingly a prose poet than he is a social ‘prophet’.

The argument

Ballard is routinely and predictably described as a ‘prophet’, by reviewers, critics, fans and academics. The Atrocity Exhibition is described on the back as:

One of the most prophetic, enigmatic and original works of fiction of the late-twentieth century.

The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard’s most concentrated book – a prophetic masterpiece. (Introduction by V. Vale & Andrea Juno)

But was he, though? There are several reasons for thinking not:

1. A prophet of what, exactly?

Ballard’s work divides pretty neatly into two types: there’s the science fiction which includes his early disaster novels and most of his short stories, many of which are wildly speculative and set in catastrophic futures – and then the later novels, from around 1970 onwards, which are increasingly rooted in the reality of the present day with its motorways, high rise buildings, advertising billboards and gated communities in the South of France., although weird futures continue to crop up in his short stories…

When people say ‘prophetic’ they’re generally talking about the latter works. And what do they mean? They mean that Ballard described in searing, super-vivid prose the feeling of being overloaded by media stimuli, the alienating experience of inhabiting bleak modern concrete urban environments, the terror which sometimes comes over you when you find yourself trapped in an eight-lane highway packed with sleek metal boxes hurtling past at inhuman speeds.

He captured and conveyed that sense of nervous breakdown in a series of mind-blowing semi-experimental novels from 1970 to 75, being The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise. Each of these deals very intensely with nervous breakdown, physical and moral collapse which derives directly from the inhumane modern built environment.

And yet… forty years later, society hasn’t broken down, has it? People now accept modern architecture and the great sweep of motorway flyovers carving through their cities. It can still be painted as a dehumanising environment by artists and film-makers. But most people, most of the time, are not having nervous breakdowns and reverting to the primeval savagery depicted in High Rise.

And many of the specific aspects of his urban fiction feel very dated now.

Take the images of Vietnam which thread through The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. Vietnam was the first TV war and in all probability the last, as every Western government saw what giving unfettered access to reporters and TV journalists did i.e. eroded domestic support. In my reviews of the career of Don McCullin I note that he several times says how disappointed he was not to be allowed to accompany the Falkland Islands task force: the government had learned its lesson; only tame journalists whose access could be controlled and monitored were allowed along.

The British have been involved in a number of conflicts since – Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Iraq twice, Afghanistan –  but they have been completely controlled and packaged by governments and willing broadcasters. The really bad craziness which spilled into the living rooms of the average suburbanite, and was an important component in the hysterical mood of those novels, is long, long gone.

TV itself has also been utterly internalised and neutralised. In his experimental books, television is new enough to prompt paragraphs of media studies-style shock and astonishment at the bizarreness of the medium itself interrupting footage of burning villages to bring us commercials about bath cleaner.

But both ends of this spectrum have been blunted. We rarely if ever see the kind of war scenes Ballard is invoking; and everybody has learned to tune out the ads. The advent of the internet means that you can binge watch entire series of dramas or soaps without ever seeing an ad. there are a lot of aspects to this, but one is that the average punter is much more in control, instead of being bombarded with shocking images like the subjects of some extreme social experiment, which is how people appear in those novels.

Similarly, huge roadside billboards were relatively new in the 1960s but, again, old hat by now. Even the TV-style moving ads on the Tube are easy to blank out and ignore.

In other words, a lot of the elements Ballard described with such fantastically super-charged prose poetry from 1966 to 1973 are now almost over-familiar and bereft of threat. Ask my kids if they feel the saturated mediascape is giving them a nervous breakdown and (if you can get them to lift their eyes from the latest Netflix binge-watch) they’ll laugh in your face.

But his fans – and others who plough the same kind of furrow, either as media studies-type academics or contemporary writers – persist in focusing on these aspects of his work.

In his introduction to the 2014 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, the novelist Hari Kunzru doggedly repeats this idea, that Ballard’s books are mind-expanding, shock revelations which still ‘disturb’ and ‘interrogate’ and ‘undermine’ reality or modern society and all the other tired, familiar art house, would-be ‘radical’, art-curator terminology.

Kunzru slots Ballard into the same, tired old lineage, the same dusty avant-garde genealogy which reaches back to the French bourgeoisie-shockers, via Dada and the Surrealists, to the Beats in the 1950s, the Situationists in the 1960s, and so tiredly on.

But how can something be avant-garde if it’s 50 years behind the times?

I keep reading political commentators saying Labour lost the 2019 election because they were still talking the language of the 1960s, or even of the Victorian era – trapped in the delusion that there is one, homogeneous, cloth-capped, Northern working class which will always give them their vote, come what may. Wrong. The world has changed.

I can’t help feeling the same about the so-called avant-garde tradition. Nowadays talk of Dada and the Situationists feels like the treasured possession of old and out-of-date intellectuals, solemnly showing you a box of faded newspaper cuttings from the mid-1960s as if they bear any relation to the situation and experiences of the present day.

‘Look at the taboo-busting way his characters arrange prostitutes in the posture of car crash victims’, the ageing college lecturer tells us, everso proud of his yoof credentials.

The reality is that the future hasn’t shocked, disturbed, unsettled or traumatised the human spirit anywhere near as much as the solemn talk of transgressive avant-gardes would have us believe. The Archers is still running, as is Coronation Street. They still wave flags at the Last Night of the Proms. Top of the bill at this year’s Glastonbury? Paul McCartney and Diana Ross.

The future is now and people are loving it, streaming their favourite shows, chatting away to Alexa, listening to any music from anywhere at the click of a button, ordering up tasty Deliveroo meals, ordering an Uber to go home after a great night out, and generally living it up.

Compared to the wholesale way the vast majority of the population owns and revels in our technological present, Kunzru proudly telling us how excited Michael Moorcock was in 1966 when he found that the front room of Ballard’s flat was covered in a collage of pages cut out from Chemistry News seems ridiculous. Yes, granddad. We’ve seen your collection of 1960s literary magazines before, granddad. Yes, they’re very interesting, granddad. But now it’s time for your medication and your nap.

2. Two specific ways Ballard was not prophetic

Prophetic means: ‘accurately predicting what will happen in the future’. I’m now looking at the other strand in Ballard’s work, the overtly science fiction strand. Rereading these stories, mostly about dystopian futures, kept making me thing two obvious points.

1. Population boom In all of Ballard’s futures, the population has vanished. In the Ultimate City the population of the world has collapsed, in Low-Flying Aircraft humanity is dying out, in Cage of Sand whole areas of the world have been abandoned, in Chronopolis the big cities have been abandoned. Abandoned cities and terminal beaches, those are the familar zones of Ballard’s imaginarium.

But it’s simple. The world hasn’t emptied. the human population hasn’t plummeted. the exact opposite has happened. In 1970 when the Atrocity Exhibition was published the global population was 3.7 billion. Fifty years later it has doubled to 7.5 billion and counting.

Insofar as Ballard’s imaginary futures depict a world emptied of humans it is not only not prophetic, it is diametrically wrong. A truly avant-garde prose would be trying to grapple, not with what it is to live in abandoned cities occupied by a handful of dazed inhabitants – but what it’s like to live in mega-cities like Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai. Something more like William Gibson’s well-named ‘Sprawl’ trilogy.

2. Posh characters To the end of his writing carer Ballard described posh, middle or upper-middle-class characters, typified by the large number of educated, open-minded doctors who litter his stories. In a way the typical thing about High Rise is not that the characters end up descending to the depths of bestial depravity, but that they are all such pukka, posh English chaps and chapesses.

This is indicated throughout by his rather haphazard way with names so that lots of the characters have very run-of-the-mill and very English names (Talbot, Vaughan, Clifton and Ransom spring to mind).

I’m not criticising him for describing an almost 100% white middle class milieu, not at all. I’m just pointing out that it is the other, large element of his writing which was diametrically wrong. Society hasn’t carried on consisting of pukka white chaps and chapesses. The exact opposite has happened. Britain has been inundated with immigrants (and I don’t mean just ones with different colour skins, but nearly a million Poles, for example). Our society, and most Western societies have become chaotically multicultural and multilingual and show every sign of continuing in this direction.

I am not criticising Ballard for writing about the social class and kind of people he knew best, not at all. I’m just saying that those of his private and academic fans who try to hold him up as a prophet, a predictor of the future, have to take account of the fact that two of the central imaginative pillars of his fiction didn’t only not come true, but the diametric opposite took place.

3. An argument against deifying writers

Anyway, in my opinion the deifying or worshipping of writers is to be resisted. It is a primitive psychological tendency, it is a way of abdicating our own responsibility to think for ourselves.

Writers should be credited as writers, but not necessarily as thinkers. As thinkers, writers are often very charismatic, but almost always wrong. Morally wrong, yes, though that’s open to endless debate. But more often plain, factually wrong.

Dickens thought that universal free education would eradicate poverty. Wrong. Morris thought a Marxist revolution would liberate the working classes. Wrong. Dostoyevsky though Russia must turn its back on the decadent West to assert its Slavic identity. Wrong. Tolstoy thought we should relinquish all our belongings and live like peasants. Wrong. Gorky thought Lenin was the saviour of the poor. Wrong. Pound thought Mussolini would be a patron of the arts like a Renaissance prince. Kipling thought the British Empire was vital to raise the lesser breeds in our countless colonies. Wrong. Eliot thought Britain would be better off as a religious and ethnically homogeneous kingdom, preferably with few if any Jews. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In my opinion:

  1. Beware of taking any writer as a moral or political inspiration
  2. Judge writers by the quality of their writing, not by their beliefs or pontificating – their beliefs will soon become out of date or controversial or come to seem ludicrous: but their writing, if it genuinely contributes to the life of the language, will live

As Oscar Wilde said, there’s no such thing as moral or immoral writing, there is only good or bad writing.

Ballard the prose poet

So for me, the thing to do is leave these political and ‘moral’ squabbles behind and focus on what Ballard undoubtedly is, which is a creator of some of the most astonishing prose poetry ever written.

What links every element of his career – the disaster novels, the sci-fi stories and the urban nightmare series – is his extraordinary ability to make the English language sit up and beg, dance to his tune, perform extreme sports, coasteer and freebase.

Somewhere Ezra Pound says you ultimately judge a poet by the integrity of his lines, and there are hundreds of breath-taking lines in Ballard, lines no-one else could have written and which take you into wonderful, liberating new realms of language and imagination.

All day he had been building his bizarre antenna on the roof of the apartment block, staring into the sky as if trying to force a corridor to the sun.

Meanwhile the quasars burned dimly from the dark peaks of the universe, sections of his brain reborn in the island galaxies.

Bonfires of Jackie’s face burn among the reservoirs of Staines and Shepperton. With luck he finds a job on one of the municipal disposal teams, warms his hands at a brazier of enigmatic eyes. At night he sleeps beneath an unlit bonfire of breasts.

An airliner rose from the runway four hundred yards to our left, wired by its nervous engines to the dark air.

Catherine peered into my face, as if squinting through the window of a diving helmet.

The nodes of glass scattered on the ground glinted like pieces of discredited coinage.

Laing remembered the stale air in his apartment, tepid with the smell of his own body. By comparison, the brilliant light reflected off the chromium trim of the hundreds of cars filled the air with knives.

The previous night, as he prepared to leave, settling his sons and testing the locks on the doors, Helen had suddenly embraced him, as if wanting him to stay. The muscles of her thin face had moved through an irregular sequence of tremors, like tumblers trying to fall into place.

He resented speaking to Charlotte or to anyone else, as if words introduced the wrong set of meanings into everything.

On page after page Ballard is capable of writing sentences which zing with linguistic verve but also push, exercise and stretch your imagination. Maybe he was a ‘prophet’, you can make a case for or against. but without doubt he was one of the most poetic writers of English prose who ever lived, so plain and factual in appearance, and yet so glitteringly brilliant.


Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

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