The Civil War by Julius Caesar – 1

Fortune, which has great influence in affairs generally and especially in war, produces by a slight disturbance of balance important changes in human affairs.
(The Civil War Book 3 chapter 68)

I picked up this 1967 Penguin paperback of Julius Caesar’s Civil Wars, translated by Jane Gardner, in the sensible A format size (18 cm by 11 cm) with reassuringly browned paper, in a second hand bookshop for just £2. Though nearly 60 years old it has fewer scuff marks and scratches than a book I recently bought ‘new’ from Amazon, ‘destroyer of books’, whose cover was smeared, scuffed and scratched.

This Penguin volume actually contains four ‘books’:

  • The Civil War, the longest text at 112 short ‘chapters’ or sections (often no more than paragraphs), making up 130 Penguin pages
  • The Alexandrian War (78 sections, 42 pages)
  • The African War (98 sections, 49 pages)
  • The Spanish War (42 sections, 22 pages)

Only the first of these is nowadays thought to have been written by Caesar. The second is generally attributed to one of Caesar’s lieutenants, Aulus Hirtius, who had written the eighth and final book in The Gallic Wars, the final two by someone who was an eye witness but of lower military rank and a lot lower literary ability than Caesar.

However, the four texts are always included together because, whatever their shortcomings, they are clearly conceived as a set, taking the reader through the entire civil war, from Caesar’s crossing the river Rubicon a little south of Ravenna in January 49 BC, through to the final mopping up of Pompeian forces in 45.

Having read numerous accounts of the civil war, I think the single most important fact (which often doesn’t come over) is that within a few weeks of Caesar entering Italy with his army of Gaul, his opponent, Gnaeus Pompeius, fled Rome and fled Italy. We know from Cicero’s letters on the subject that even at the time, his allies and supporters thought this was a mistake and so it proved to be, handing mainland Italy and the capital over to Caesar almost without a fight (this narrative describes a handful of sieges and confrontations before almost all the towns and cities and army units in Italy simply went over to Caesar’s side).

Pompey’s flight a) handed Rome and Italy over to Caesar and b) meant that the civil war would be fought on foreign soil, eventually in all the provinces Rome ruled, meaning (from west to east) Spain, north Africa, the Province (the south of France featuring the major port of Marseilles), Greece, Egypt and Asia Minor.

Despite Caesar defeating Pompey’s main army at the battle of Pharsalus in central Greece in August 48 and Pompey’s flight to Egypt where he was murdered a month later, in September 48 – nonetheless, forces loyal to Pompey and led by his sons fought on in Spain, Africa and Asia. This explains why the civil war(s) continued for another 3 years and why the main text, The Civil War, which ends with the death of Pompey, needed to be continued with the three subsequent shorter texts, and why each of them focuses on a particular arena of the later stages of the war.

Gardner’s introduction

Jane Gardner gets straight to the point with a solid factual introduction to the fraught background to the outbreak of civil war between Caesar and Pompey in 49 BC. I was struck by the way she goes back 80 years to start her historical background with two key events:

  1. The attempt by Tiberius Gracchus to implement major land reform, which led to his assassination by conservative elements of the Senate in 133 BC
  2. How Gaius Marius got himself appointed consul for five years in a row (104 to 100 BC) to deal with the threat from barbarian tribes who threatened to invade Italy from the north.

1. The killing of Gracchus was the first time the forces competing in the Roman state spilled over into political violence.

2. Marius’s career showed that the system of annually changing magistrates and proconsuls was becoming too limited for Rome’s farflung military needs. (Julius Caesar’s aunt married Marius. His father and brother supported Marius. He grew up in the shadow of Marius’s populares party and narrowly avoided execution when the dictator Sulla, representing the optimates, took power in 82.)

Gardner gives a good brief overview of the events which led to the formation of the Triumvirate which Caesar set up between himself, Pompey and Crassus (60 BC); how he used this to secure his posting as proconsul to Cisalpine Gaul (swiftly expanded to include Transalpine Gaul); how friction in the triumvirate led to its renewal at a big conference at Luca in 56; and how it was undone by two hammerblows:

  1. The death in 54 of Caesar’s daughter, Julia, who he had married to Pompey and acted as a family tie between them.
  2. The death of Crassus during his ill-fated campaign in Parthia 53.

In Gardner’s hands, the centre of the story is Pompey’s inability to make his mind up. The same self-knowledge teetering on reticence which led him to peacefully disband his army on returning from the East in 62 plays out less positively in his inability to really make his mind up how to behave in the growing political crisis of the late 50s.

In Gardner’s account it is Pompey’s lack of decisiveness which creates the crisis of uncertainty and vacillation which Caesar eventually cuts through by crossing the Rubicon and creating a state of civil war. If Pompey had grasped the nettle and agreed with Caesar’s suggestion that they both lay down their commands at the same time and meet to discuss their issues, peace could have been preserved. But Pompey left it to others – senators such as Marcus Marcellus and Lucius Lentulus – to make proposals and counter-proposals which Caesar found unacceptable, until it was too late.

Eventually Caesar felt his position was so threatened that he decided to make a lightning strike from Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), where he legitimately held command, into Italy proper, where he very much didn’t. The river Rubicon separated these two territories. So crossing the Rubicon with one of his legions was illegal and universally interpreted as an attack on the government and constitution of Rome.

How it was written

During the eight years of his command in Gaul Caesar had got into the habit of writing commentarii or reports on each campaigning season, summarising his military campaigns, in brisk no-nonsense factual accounts. He had these sent to Rome to, in effect, justify his (often dubious) actions. These were probably dictated to secretaries while he was on the move, amid the numerous other correspondence and paperwork he dealt with. There are eight of them, one for each year of his command, and taken together they make up the document known as The Gallic Wars.

Having established the habit and method for doing this, it seems likely Caesar simply continued it to document the new conflict, which continued more or less without a break from his Gallic campaigns.

The Civil War

Caesar’s paranoia: ‘What is the aim of all these preparations but my destruction?’

At the start of his narrative Caesar deals briefly with the politics, with his offers and attempts at negotiations with the Senate, but it quickly falls into another litany of towns besieged and Pompeian forces which come over to his side, very similar in feel to the Gallic Wars.

Admittedly there isn’t the total destruction, massacres, selling into slavery and hostage-giving which characterised the Gallic Wars. But it is a general’s view of things i.e. a long list of territories and cities and towns which need to be taken and then secured by posting loyal officers in them.

A note on the army

A cohort contained 480 men. A legion contained ten cohorts. When you add in officers, engineers and cavalry (120 men plus horses) a legion numbered about 5,000 men.

The text of The Civil War is divided into three ‘books’, volumes or parts, each of which is further sub-divided into short numbered sections, conventionally referred to as ‘chapters’.

Part 1: The struggle begins (87 chapters)

(N.B. These dramatic titles don’t exist in the original text. They are inventions of the editor of the Penguin edition.)

1 to 6: Intransigence at Rome

Haste and confusion characterised every transaction. (5)

Quick summary of the hasty and confused debates in the Senate at the end of 50 BC, with the anti-Caesar faction calling for JC to be sent an ultimatum to lay down his command before negotiations could begin about his future. Caesar wanted to be allowed to stand for the consulship in his physical absence. He wanted to be elected consul because it would give him immunity from all prosecution for a year. Most of the Senate refused this idea because it was unprecedented and unconstitutional. Caesar read this refusal as a deliberate ploy so that when he laid down his command in Gaul and returned to Rome as a private citizen, he would be vulnerable to prosecution by his many enemies for his many dubious actions in Gaul. Senators like Cato had made it crystal clear he would launch a legal action against Caesar the second he set foot in Italy. Hence Caesar’s demand that he be given a consulship / legal immunity. But the legitimists, traditionalists and his actual enemies all rejected this. Impasse.

Caesar also learned that the end of 50 and start of 49 was seeing widespread conscription of soldiers across Italy. Pompey’s mouthpiece in the Senate, Scipio, tells them Pompey is ready to defend the state. When the Senate meets outside the city (because Pompey as a proconsul [of Spain] is not allowed within the city limits) Pompey tells them he has command of 10 legions and is ready to defend the state. The Penguin notes tell us this presumably means the 2 legions he had withdrawn from Caesar ostensibly to be sent to the East but which hadn’t left Italy yet; seven legions loyal to Pompey in Spain; and one under Domitius. (The fact that so many of Pompey’s legions were in Spain explains why Spain would turn out to be a main crucible of the war).

Caesar goes to some lengths to single out the treatment of the tribunes of the plebs, Mark Antony and Gaius Scribonius Curio. When they continued to lobby the Senate in Caesar’s favour, the most vehement senators threatened them with violence, and they were roughly manhandled out of the building, convincing both to disguise themselves and flee north to join Caesar. In constitutional terms they had been deprived of their right of veto and Caesar tries to give his agenda a gloss of respectability by saying one of his war aims is the restoration of the tribunes’ rights.

Caesar describes his demands as moderate and just, and implies that all his enemies had vested interests of one kind or another, not least securing positions of power from which they could extract bribes. He says all the year’s appointments to governorships, proconsulships and so on were hurried and unconstitutional.

7 to 15: Caesar reacts

Caesar assembles his men and pleads his cause. The Senate has:

  1. seduced Pompey and led him astray, although they have always been friends and he has helped Pompey win positions
  2. removed the right of veto from the tribunes, something never done before
  3. declared a state of emergency when there is no emergency
  4. insulted his reputation and achievements as the pacifier of Gaul

So the troops all clamour to right these wrongs and protect his reputation. Caesar moves his legions south to Ariminum just within his province (of Cisalpine Gaul). Here he receives envoys from Pompey who remind him they have been friends and tell him to put his own grievances aside for the good of the state. Caesar adds to his list of grievances:

  1. having his command in Gaul ended 6 months early
  2. the voted will of the people that he stand for the consulship in absentia being overturned
  3. his proposal for a general demobilisation being ignored

(9) Caesar makes counter-proposals:

  1. Pompey should go to his allotted province i.e. Spain
  2. they shall both demobilise their armies
  3. there shall be a general demobilisation throughout Italy
  4. free elections to all magistracies
  5. a face to face meeting with Pompey at which everything can be settled

When these demands are presented to Pompey and the consuls at Capua, Pompey replies that Caesar must return to Gaul, disband his army and only then will Pompey go to Spain. But until he does so, the Senate will continue with a general levy of troops throughout Italy (10).

Caesar rejects these demands as unfair, not least because no date would be set for Pompey’s departure, so he would be left in Italy with his two legions indefinitely. And Pompey’s refusal to meet and talk indicates lack of goodwill. So Caesar places cohorts in the towns surrounding Arretium and the narrative becomes a description of towns seized for his side (Pisarum, Faunum, Ancona).

Iguvium comes over to him. He sets off to take Auximum which is held by Attius Varus and the narrative settles down into a long list of small Italian towns and little known Roman officers who hold them. Caesar is at pains to emphasise that when he took towns he thanked the populations and, more often than not, let the officers who’d opposed him go free, as in the case of Lucius Pupius.

(14) The ease with which towns go over to Caesar causes panic at Rome where the two consuls raid the treasury then travel south to join Pompey at Capua, where he is stationed with his two legions. Arguably, the authorities’ abandonment of Rome meant the war was lost from the start.

Caesar continues marching south towards Asculum which was being held by Lentulus Spinther who, hearing of his approach, flees; Lucilius Hirrus similarly abandons Camerinum. But Lentulus rallies the remaining forces of both and takes them to Corfinium, which was being held by Domitius Ahenobarbus.

16 to 23: The siege of Corfinium

Caesar moves with characteristic speed and comes across Domitius’s forces dismantling a bridge over the river before they’ve finished the job, fights them off, and forces them into the town. Domitius is an effective opponent. He reinforces the town defences, sends a message to Pompey telling him to bring legions to surround Caesar, and addresses his men.

Sulmo, a town 7 miles away, is being held by the senator Quintus Lucretius and Attius but Caesar sends Mark Antony there and the townsfolk gladly open their gates and the troops go over to Caesar, who incorporates them into his own forces and lets Attius go free.

Caesar spends days building siege works. Domitius receives a reply from Pompey who refuses to come to his help, saying it would jeopardise his cause and no-one asked him to go to Corfinium. So Domitius deceitfully tells his troops Pompey is on his way, while making a plan with his closest advisors to secretly flee the town.

Word leaks out and the soldiers decide to abandon such a two-faced leader, arrest Domitius and send messages to Caesar saying they’re prepared to surrender. Caesar is wary of sending his troops into the town that night lest they loot it, so he sends the envoys back and maintains the siege. At dawn Lentulus asks for a private interview, is let out of the town and taken to Caesar who takes the opportunity (in the narrative) to reiterate his demands. He:

  1. does not intend to harm anyone
  2. wants to protect himself from the slanders of his enemies
  3. to restore the expelled tribunes to their rightful position
  4. to reclaim for himself and the Roman people independence from the power of ‘a small clique’

Are these the demands of ‘a revolutionary proconsul who placed his own dignitas above his country’? Discuss.

In the morning Caesar orders all the senators and magistrates hiding in Corfinium to be brought to him. He protects them from the jeers and insults of the soldiers, berates them for giving no thanks for the benefits he’s brought them and then, quite simply, lets them go. He has all the soldiers in the town swear allegiance to him. The magistrates of the town bring him 6 million sesterces but Caesar simply gives it back to Domitius to prove he is not interested in financial gain.

24 to 29: Pompey leaves Italy

Pompey had already abandoned Rome. Now he moves quickly to Canusium and then onto Brundisium, then, as now, the port for ships to Greece.

Caesar follows him, picking up Pompeian forces who abandon their leaders on the way. Caesar discovers the two consuls and most of Pompey’s army have taken ship for Dyrrachium, leaving Pompey inside Brundisium with 20 cohorts.

Caesar immediately starts building a great breakwater to block the port, but continues to send envoys to Pompey requesting a face-to-face meeting. Characteristically, Pompey doesn’t grasp the nettle but hides behind the constitutional nicety that, in the absence of the 2 consuls (who have fled) he is not authorised to negotiate.

In Caesar’s version, it is Pompey’s inability to take responsibility and engage in the kind of face-to-face discussions they had during the triumvirate which condemns Rome to civil war.

Caesar’s patience wears out, he realises he’s never going to get a sensible reply, and finally decides to conduct an all-out war (26).

The ships which had ferried Pompey’s first contingent to Greece now return and Pompey makes plans to  embark the second and final cohort of troops. He fills the town with booby traps and a light guard on the city walls while the rest of the troops embark. At the last minute the guards are called and run down to the port, as the ships are setting off. Caesar’s men scale the walls, are helped by the townspeople to evade the traps, and some make it onto the water and capture two of Pompey’s ships which had gone aground on a breakwater.

Strategically, the best thing for Caesar would have been to pursue Pompey as quickly as possible but for the simple fact that Pompey had commandeered all the ships and waiting for new ones to be sent from Sicily or Gaul would lose the advantage. Meanwhile, most of Pompey’s legions were in Spain where a lot of the country’s nobles owed Pompey big debts of gratitude (for making them Roman citizens).

30 to 33: Caesar’s Senate

Accordingly Caesar sends lieutenants to Sardinia and Sicily which the Pompeian governors promptly flee.

Caesar’s noted enemy, Cato the Younger, governor of Sicily, makes a public speech about how Pompey had deceived him and the Senate into believing they were ready for war when they weren’t at all, and then flees to Africa, where the Pompeian Attius Varrus has taken control.

Having made his deployments Caesar goes to Rome and makes a long repetition of his complains directly to the remaining senators (32). He asks them to join him in governing Rome, otherwise he’ll do it by himself. But no-one volunteers to go as emissary to Pompey as they are afraid, and one of the tribunes has been suborned to filibuster events as long as possible, and so Caesar gives it up as a bad job and heads off for Gaul.

34 to 36: Resistance at Massilia

In the Province Caesar learns that Domitius has seized Massilia. Caesar makes a speech to the elders of Massilia who promise neutrality but meanwhile Domitius takes control, requisitioning ships from neighbouring ports. Caesar orders ships to be built in nearby ports then leaves Gaius Trebonius in charge of the siege of Massilia and marches on towards Spain.

37 to 55: The first Spanish campaign – Ilerda

The complex deployment and redeployment of Pompey’s lieutenants to the different provinces of Spain, which leads up to the siege of Ilerda, held by the Pompeian Lucius Afranius.

This is the first full-blown military encounter of the war and is described in Caesar’s usual technical detail, with siegeworks, attack and counter-attack. The river running past the town, the Sicoris, plays a key role, especially when there’s heavy rainfall and it and another river flood and wash away the bridges, leaving the Roman forces trapped between them, cut off from supplies of corn which, in any case, were short at this time of year. When a train of senators, magistrates, cohorts and cavalry arrive to join Caesar, they are prevented by the flooded rivers and attacked by Afranius’s forces.

All this is talked up by Afranius’s supporters and word spreads to Rome that the war is virtually over, which encouraged more to go over to Pompey’s side. But Caesar has boats made in a lightweight style he had seen in Britain, ferries enough of his troops over the flooded river to set up a base and then build a bridge from both sides. His cavalry attack a party out foraging Pompeians then fight off an enemy cavalry attack.

56 to 58: The naval fight at Massilia

The Pompeians under Domitius had built 17 warships while Caesar’s force under Decimus Brutus had hurriedly built far less at an island near Massilia. Domitius attacks. Caesar describes the composition and strengths of the opposing forces. Despite bad odds Caesar’s forces prevail.

59 to 80: Spain – a war of attrition

The situation swiftly changes:

  1. the bridge has allowed Caesar’s force full mobility
  2. five important local tribes switch allegiance to Caesar
  3. and promise to deliver corn, thus solving the crisis in provisions
  4. optimistic rumours that Pompey was marching through north Africa to cross into Spain to reinforce his garrisons prove to be untrue (60)

Afranius and his colleague Petreius worry that they’re going to be cut off and so decide to abandon Ilerda and move deeper into Celtiberia, where the reputation of Pompey will guarantee support. They build a bridge across the Ebro 20 miles away just as the river hemming Caesar in becomes fordable. (To be honest, it is pretty difficult making sense of these complicated and often obscure descriptions of flooded rivers, bridges and fords.)

Caesar’s forces protest that they are hanging around while the enemy gets away, so Caesar selects the weakest to stay behind and guard the camp and the strongest to ford the river, which they just about manage to do. He forms them up and they pursue the fleeing Pompeians. They come up to them within a few miles of mountains, where both sides make camp.

Next day Caesar takes his men by a roundabout route to get to the bridge across the Ebro first. Afranius’s forces at first jeer them for fleeing the battlefield until they slowly realise they are going to be cut off. There follows complex manoeuvring to seize the high ground and the first of the mountain passes. Caesar’s forces massacre some of the Pompeian cavalry. Caesar’s men are all for finishing them off but Caesar thinks he can win without bloodshed and gives himself a speech saying he wants to avoid the deaths of citizens if at all possible. His army mutters and disagrees.

Next day some of the Pompeians are harassed when going to fetch water, so the leaders decide to build a protective rampart from their camp down to the water and go to supervise it. In their absence there is a mutiny with soldiers of all ranks, up to and including Afranius’s own son, fraternising with Caesar’s forces, calling out to friends, asking if they will be well treated if they surrender.

When Afranius hears all this he is ready to fall in with the capitulation. Petreius, on the other hand, stays resolute and with a small cavalry bodyguard descends on the fraternising soldiers, killing as many of Caesar’s as he can. He then tours the army, begging them not to abandon Pompey their leader; has the entire army, by centuries, repledge its oath of allegiance to him; and calls for anyone harbouring Caesarian soldiers to hand them over, before having them publicly executed in front of his soldiers. By terrorising his troops, Afranius restores discipline.

In his own camp Caesar shows his famous clemency, ordering soldiers from the opposing camp to be not punished but protected. And many chose to stay on with his side and Caesar was careful to show them honour. The Pompeians are running out of food and finding it hard to access water so they decide to march back to Ilerda. Caesar harasses their rearguard all the way.

81 to 87: The Pompeians capitulate

Caesar forces the Pompeians to make camp a distance from water, sets up his own camp and starts making siegeworks. On the second day the Pompeians come out to offer battle but a) Caesar doesn’t want unnecessary bloodshed and b) he doesn’t think there’s sufficient space (2 miles) between the camps to enforce a decisive victory. In the event, despite being impressively drawn up, neither side offers battle and at sunset they both withdraw to their camps.

Caesar sends his cavalry ahead to secure the ford over the river Sicoris thus cutting off the Pompeians from their intended route. At which point, starving and thirsty, the Pompeian leaders sue for peace, at a public meeting held in sight of both armies. Caesar makes a long speech in which he recapitulates the wrongs he has endured and the broader historical picture in which he claims that an army has been maintained in Spain (which is at peace and hardly needs it) purely to attack him. He lists other innovations whose sole purpose has been to threaten and attack him at the will of a ‘clique’ in Rome.

In a magnanimous display of clemency Caesar announces his only condition for peace is the disbanding of this Spanish army and everyone can go free. The location of demobilisation is set as the river Var. The Pompeian army cheer, as they had expected punishment of some sort, and clamour to be demobilised sooner rather than later. Caesar promises to supply them corn till they reach the Var and compensate all soldiers for any property lost to his men.

A third of the army was disbanded in the next 2 days, the rest marched under escort to the Var and was disbanded there. Caesar is at pains to convey his consistent humanity and clemency.

Part 2: Securing the West (44 chapters)

1 to 16: The siege of Massilia

Caesar’s lieutenant Gaius Trebonius continues the siege of Massilia. Pompey sends Lucius Nasidius with a fleet of ships to help out. These join forces with Lucius Domitius and Caesar describes a big sea battle which the Caesarean fleet of Decimus Brutus wins.

Caesar gives a very detailed description of the siege works his men build against the wall of Massilia which eventually weaken it. Envoys from the city come out and plead for mercy from Trebonius and beg to wait the return of Caesar. The result is a ceasefire during which both sides slacken off. Until some of the besieged garrison, that is, make a sortie with firebrands and successfully burn down one of the besieging towers. This makes the besiegers return to construction with a vengeance and less inclined to forgiveness.

17 to 21: Spain – surrender of Varro

In Further Spain Pompeian governor Marcus Varro hesitates which side to support until he hears misleading news of Pompeian victories at Ilerda and Massilia, whereupon he comes down fiercely on the Pompeian side, persecuting towns and individuals said to sympathise with Caesar.

Caesar for his part wants to return to Italy but knows he must finish the job in Spain or it will remain a Pompeian stronghold in his rear. In the event the plans of the Pompeian governor Marcus Terentius Varro are overthrown as town after town of Hither Spain declares for Caesar till eventually Varro surrenders to Caesar without a fight all his forces and money.

Caesar holds councils at Corduba and elsewhere, rewarding towns and communities. He puts Quintus Cassius in charge of the province and travels back to Massilia.

22: Massilia capitulates

Two defeats at sea, the undermining of their walls, starvation and an outbreak of pestilence convince the inhabitants of Massilia (called Massiliotes) to surrender. Their governor Lucius Domitius escapes by ship. Caesar accepts Massilia’s submission, leaves two legions to guard it and hastens back to Rome.

23 to 36: Africa – Curio’s campaign

Caesarean Gaius Scribonius Curio’s campaign in Tunisia against the Pompeian Publius Attius Varus. Curio is over-confident of success, only taking 2 of the 4 legions Caesar gave him to Africa. Here he camps opposite Varus’s camp outside Utica and has an initial success when his cavalry routs some of Pompey’s.

Now a lot of Curio’s men came from the Pompeian forces which surrendered at the siege of Corfinium. Varus has one of his men ride up and down opposite Curio’s lines, reminding them of their original oath to Pompey. This gives rise to rumours and dissension within Curio’s army and his advisers are split between forcing an attack on Utica or withdrawing to their original camp, Castra Cornelia, along the coast.

Caesar depicts Curio giving a speech to his advisers saying he’ll take neither course of action, and then addressing his troops at length, saying it was their example of abandoning Pompey which helped turn over Italy to Caesar, how Caesar has won 2 provinces in Spain, plus Massilia, pointing out that they didn’t desert their general Lucius Domitius, it was Lucius Domitius who deserted them. And lastly asking whether he has been a good and fair general to them.

This rouses them so much that on the following day they brave a difficult ravine between the two armies to take Varus’s forces by storm and force him right back, to abandon his camp and take refuge in the town.

37 to 44: Curio’s last stand

Then Curio hears that king Juba of the Numidians is approaching and withdraws his legions from the advanced camp back to Camp Castra, and sends to Sicily for food. The camp would be very well positioned to stand a long siege, but when Curio hears the king himself has been distracted by a tribal war and is only sending his lieutenant, Saburra, with a smaller force he willingly believes it. At nightfall Curio sends all his cavalry to ambush Saburra at the river Bagradas, which they successfully do.

Curio receives the triumphant cavalry back with their prisoners and loot as proof of victory and leads his infantry out in the middle of the night with the plan to force march to attack Saburra while the latter is still in confusion. What he doesn’t know is that King Juba very much is marching his way and that, when he hears of Saburra’s setback, he sends him 2,000 of his best cavalry and continues his infantry march to join him.

With the result that Curio’s force confronts Saburra’s forces in full battle order. Curio is victorious wherever he attacks but a) his on cavalry is slow and tired and b) his men are outnumbered. Reinforcements from the king continually arrive until Curio is surrounded. He sees a nearby hill and orders his men to gather there to make a stand, but enemy cavalry possess it first, at which point Curio’s men give up. His officers encourage him to flee the field but he says he couldn’t face Caesar after losing the army he gave him and so fights on till he’s killed.

Back at Camp Cornelia the rest of Curio’s forces panic and, when the quaestor Marcus Rufus tries to organise an orderly departure by ship, the men panic and swamp the boats, sinking many and discouraging the other ships from coming into harbour. Only a handful of officers and centurions make it aboard and so back to Sicily alive. The rest surrender to Varus.

Next day when King Juba arrives and sees cohorts of survivors in front of Utica he declares them his spoils of war and has them all executed. Varus is too weak and scared to prevent him.

End of Part 2. Part 3 is summarised in the next blog post.

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The Gallic War by Julius Caesar – 1

I’d just bought the Oxford University Press edition of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars off Amazon when I walked into my local charity shop and found the old Penguin edition going second-hand for £2. So I snapped it up and am now reading the two editions interchangeably.

The OUP edition (1996)

The OUP edition (1996) is translated and introduced by Carolyn Hammond. She began to put me off almost immediately when, in her preface, she writes:

The subject-matter of The Gallic War is potentially distasteful, even immoral, for the modern reader. The drive to increase territorial holdings, high civilian as well as military casualties, and the predominance of economic motives for organised aggression – all these belong to an accepted norm of international activity in the ancient world, and hence need careful introduction and explanation…

This begs all kinds of questions. For example: Why are you devoting so much time to translating a work which you find ‘distasteful and immoral’? It’s the same question as arose when reading Mary Beard’s history of Rome: Why has an ardent feminist dedicated her life to studying a world of toxic men?

Second problem is Hammond’s assumption that war to increase territory and incur high casualties for economic motives is somehow unique to, and restricted to, the ancient world and so needs ‘careful introduction and explanation’. Really? Had she not heard of the Yugoslav wars or the Congo wars, which were ongoing as her book went to press? Or the Second World War, possibly? Korea, Vietnam, Biafra, Afghanistan. The world always has wars. Not understanding them means you don’t understand the world you live in.

In fact Hammond’s statement that the concept of ‘war’ needs explaining is rather patronising, isn’t it? Her attitude bespeaks a certain kind of academic condescension, a voice from the bosom of woke academia telling people who have bought a book about a famous war that she needs to explain what ‘war’ is, and that some readers might find ‘war’ ‘distasteful, even immoral’. Maybe her edition should have warning stickers on the cover: ‘This book about an eight-year-long war may contain scenes of a violent nature’. Just in case the purchaser of a book titled ‘The Gallic War’ hadn’t figured that out for themselves.

In her introduction Hammond covers a lot of material but in a consistently confused way. She tells the story (which I’ve read so many times I am now heartily sick of it) about Publius Clodius Pulcher being found in Caesar’s house dressed as a woman and trying to infiltrate a women-only religious ritual. She refers to it mainly to lead up to Caesar divorcing his wife and making his ‘famous’ declaration that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. But she tells the whole thing in such a cack-handed way that I was left dismayed by her inability to tell a simple story.

Hammond refers to key aspects of ancient Rome, such as the consuls, in an oddly throwaway manner as if we all ought to know about this already. Frequently her prose is, well, questionable:

This was the year of the conspiracy of Catiline. It was also the year in which the sacrosanctity of the people’s tribunes was raised once more, this time through the prosecution of an old man called Rabirius, a prosecution behind which Caesar’s hand was detected. (p.xvi)

a) That last phrase doesn’t inspire confidence in her ability to express herself, does it? b) This is all she tells you about both Catiline and Rabirius. I don’t care about Rabirius but if she’s going to mention the Catiline conspiracy, surely it deserves a decent explanation rather than a nine-word sentence. And why does she write the elaborate and clunky phrase ‘the conspiracy of Catiline’ rather than the more smooth and usual ‘the Cataline conspiracy’.

It feels very much like Hammond has a bullet point list of issues to get through but doesn’t have the space to explain any of them properly, instead cramming them into clunky, broken-backed sentences which shake your confidence in her ability to translate anything by anyone into decent English prose.

As happens with many writers, Hammond’s uncertain grasp of English phrasing reflects a clumsiness in conceptualising the ideas she’s trying to express:

In 60 BC Pompey, Crassus and Caesar formed an unofficial pact which came to be known as the ‘first triumvirate’ (on the analogy of the triumvirate of Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus in 43).

I know what she’s trying to say but it’s badly phrased because it’s badly conceived. The first triumvirate wasn’t formed on the analogy of the second triumvirate because the second triumvirate, quite obviously, hadn’t happened yet; it only happened 17 years later. She means something like, ‘this pact is now referred to as the first triumvirate because the same kind of deal was arranged 17 years later between Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus. Historians came to refer to them as, respectively, the first and second triumvirates’. I see what she’s trying to say, but her phrasing literally doesn’t make sense. Again it feels like a) an item on her checklist which she had to cram in but b) didn’t have the space to explain it more clearly and so ends up doing it clumsily.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in her ability to understand and translate complex content from the Latin if, when given free rein to express herself in English, she produces such mangled ideas and tangled-up sentences.

Hammond’s account of the politicking around the triumvirate ticks it off her checklist but isn’t as clear as Beard, Holland or Scullard. You need to understand what the first triumvirate was: that Caesar brokered a deal between the rivals Crassus and Pompey whereby Crassus used his money to bribe voters and Pompey used his influence in order to pass laws and get decisions they each wanted:

  • Pompey wanted land and money awarded to his veterans who’d returned from his wars in Asia Minor in 62
  • Caesar wanted to be made governor of Gaul where he scented an opportunity to acquire military glory and, thereby, political power
  • and Crassus wanted to be awarded governorship of Syria, from where he planned to launch a military campaign into Armenia and Parthia which would bring him not only glory but troves of Eastern loot

It was a deal between three uneasy rivals to manipulate political elections behind the scenes using Crassus’s money and to ensure they each got their way. They didn’t abolish the tools of the Roman constitution; they took them over for their own purposes. Many contemporaries (for example, Cicero) and later historians took the signing of this pact in 60 BC as the defining moment when the old forms of Roman politics were eclipsed by the power politics and rule of Strong Men which was, after 30 years of increasing instability and civil war, to lead to the rise of the ultimate strong man, Octavian.

It would have been nice to have learned something about ancient Gaul but instead Hammond wastes the last seven pages of her introduction on another tick box exercise, an examination of Caesar’s posthumous reputation and influence. She produces a huge list of European historians and poets, not to mention later generals or theorists of war, who she claims were influenced in one way or another by the great dictator but rattles through them at such high speed with barely a sentence about each that you learn nothing.

How much does it help you understand Caesar’s Gallic Wars to learn that Dante placed Brutus and Cassius in the deepest pit of hell next to Judas Iscariot? Not a whit. This kind of thing should either be done properly or not at all.

In summary Carolyn Hammond’s introduction so put me off her ability to think, instruct or write plain English that I hesitated to even begin her translation.

On the plus side, the OUP edition has one big map of ancient Gaul and five other maps of regions or specific battles, scattered through the text as needed; a 3-page timeline; a 15-page glossary of names; and 21 pages of notes, three times the number in the Penguin edition.

The Penguin edition (1951)

Unlike the OUP edition, the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition (titled The Conquest of Gaul) offers a crisp, useful summary of the subject:

  • Between 58 and 50 BC Julius Caesar conquered most of modern France, Belgium and Switzerland along with parts of Holland and Germany and invaded Britain, twice.
  • Caesar’s texts are an invaluable source for these events.
  • Caesar’s texts are the only narratives written by any military leader from the ancient world about his own campaigns.
  • Caesar’s writings were not disinterested academic histories but part of Caesar’s ongoing campaign for power, designed to promote his achievements and forward his political career with his peers and the Roman people.

Good. Feels like we are among adults. As to the extras, this edition also has a big map of Gaul, plus one of southern Britain and a useful one of the crucial siege of Alesia. It has a 17-page glossary, 8 pages of notes (far fewer than the OUP), but on the plus side, a useful 3-page appendix on the Roman army of Caesar’s day.

The Penguin translation was made by Stanley Alexander Handford (born in 1898) and first published in 1951. It was revised and given a new introduction by Jane Gardner in 1982. It would be a relief to report that it is a model of lucidity but the introduction, alas, also reveals an odd way with the English language. For example:

Political necessity, rather than military or than his personal irreplaceability in command, required that he continue in post.

That adjective, ‘military’, in normal English would require a noun after it. I fully understand that it refers back to the noun ‘necessity’ and can, after a moment’s confusion, be understood that way. But it would be clearer to use a synonym such as ‘need’ or maybe just write ‘Political rather than military necessity…’ And the second ‘than’? Delete it. And then ‘continue’? I understand that this is a subjunctive following the conditional preposition ‘that’ so that it is technically correct. But it is not, nowadays, standard English. We’d probably just say ‘continued’ or make it crystal clear with ‘should continue’:

Political necessity rather than military need or his personal irreplaceability in command required that he continued in his post.

The point is that all three of these dubious elements reflect Latin rather than modern English usage. Instead of spelling out the precise relationships between parts of speech it leaves some implicit in ways which are technically correct but strongly influenced by the highly inflected nature of Latin in which grammatical relationships are shown by changes within words rather than prepositions or word order.

In fact this make the third book in a row I’ve read (A.J. Woodman’s Sallust, Carolyn Hammond’s Gallic War, S.A. Handford’s Conquest of Gaul) in which the English translators struggled in the introduction to write in plain English – before I’d even started reading the translation. Instead all three betray an addiction to Latinate ways of thinking, Latinate ways of forming sentences, and to odd, unenglish phraseology.

Anyway, Gardner’s introduction (once you acclimatise to her occasional Latinate phraseology) is much better than Hammond’s directionless ramble – it is direct, straightforward, factual and clear. She establishes the basic fact that Caesar spent 9 years away from Rome, campaigning in Gaul.

The Roman constitution

She has a good stab at explaining the complicated Roman constitution. Theoretically, legislative and electoral sovereignty was vested in popular assemblies. In practice the state was dominated by the Senate which consisted of 300 or so men who had held any of the four ‘magistracies’ (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul) which were elected for one-year posts These posts were arranged in the so-called cursus honorem. There were quite a few other posts such as censor or pontifex maximus, and elections to other priesthoods, such as the College of Augurs. Surprisingly, the Senate could not propose legislation: this was proposed (and vetoed) by the ten or so tribunes of the people elected every year.


Then Gardner recaps the military and political background to Caesar’s career: Caius Marius saved Rome from invasion by Germanic tribes around 100 BC but at the cost of holding seven successive consulships and developing a close relationship with his army which looked to him to provide money and land for veterans. I.e. he created the template for the Strong General which was to bedevil Roman politics for the next 70 years.

After a decade of political disturbance (the 80s) Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized power (82 to 78 BC) and implemented reforms designed to prevent the rise of another strong man.

Pompey and Crassus

But just eight years later most of Sulla’s reforms had been cancelled, mostly in the people’s enthusiasm to award the boy wonder general Gnaeus Pompeius extraordinary powers to prosecute wars against a) the pirates who bedevilled Rome’s overseas trade (67) and b) against King Mithridates of Pontus who was terrorising Asia Minor (66).

Back in Rome, ambitious young Julius Caesar (born 100 BC) attached himself to the richest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus, and they were both associated with an attempt to set up a hugely powerful land reform commission (ultimately rejected).

Their names were also mentioned in connection with the notorious conspiracy by Lucius Sergius Catilina to overthrow the state (the Cataline conspiracy which Hammond refers to in one half-sentence, quoted above) although nothing, in the end, was conclusively proved.

In 62 Pompey returned from the East and, despite everyone’s fears that he might use his loyal army and widespread popularity to mount a coup in the style of Sulla, he disbanded his army and returned to civilian life. He was unhappy, though, to discover that this weakened his power in the state and that his requests to have land granted to his veterans kept being delayed. Meanwhile Marcus Crassus was having various business ventures blocked. And when Caesar returned in 60 BC from service as governor of Further Spain and wanted to be awarded a triumph, this wish also was blocked by the Senate.

The first triumvirate

So the three men, each in their separate ways stymied by the Establishment, came to a shady, behind-the-scenes agreement to advance each other’s ambitions. Pompey got his land reform, Crassus got his business ventures approved, and Caesar got himself elected consul for 59 BC and secured legislation appointing him governor of Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) and Illyricum (the east coast of the Adriatic Sea). He then bribed one of the ten tribunes of the plebs to propose a law giving him governorship of Transalpine Gaul, the Roman province along the south coast of France. Both posts started in 58 BC and were to be held for an unprecedented five years, ending on 1 March 54.

This is where the narrative of the Gallic War commences, with Caesar arriving to take up command of his provinces.

Back in Rome

Gardner doesn’t stop there but goes on to describe the political shenanigans in Rome following Caesar’s departure for Gaul. After just one year his political opponents began lobbying for him to be relieved of his command and return to Rome as governors traditionally ought to. But if he did this, Caesar knew he would almost certainly face prosecution by his political enemies. He continued in his command until 56, when the political crisis intensified.


So he organised a meeting in the summer of that year in Luca, in north Italy (in his governorship of Cisalpine Gaul), attended by Pompey and Crassus and a third of the Senate, at which they recommitted to their pact. As a result:

  1. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was renewed for a further five years.
  2. Crassus and Pompey arranged for themselves to be elected consults in 55 BC and then…
  3. for Pompey to be awarded governorship of Spain which he would, however, administer in absentia while remaining in Rome,
  4. and for Crassus to be given command of an army to be sent to Parthia out East in 54.

Clodius and Milo

Meanwhile, escalating street violence between political gangs led by Titus Annius Milo and Publius Clodius Pulcher led to a breakdown of public order and in 52 BC the senate appointed Pompey sole consul in order to bring peace to the streets.

Should Caesar give up his command?

Gardner then gives a day by day account of the complicated manoeuvres around attempts by his enemies to get Caesar to relinquish his command and return to Rome a private citizen – and by Caesar and his supporters to try to get him elected as a consul, in his absence. The aim of this was so that Caesar could transition seamlessly from military governor to consul, which would guarantee he’d be exempt from prosecution for his alleged misdemeanours in Gaul.

It was this issue – whether he would lay down his governorship of Gaul and whether he would be allowed to stand for consul in his absence – which led to complex manoeuvring, proposal and counter-proposal in the Senate and the failure of which, finally, convinced Caesar that he would only be safe if he returned to Italy with his army.

Crossing the Rubicon

When he crossed the river Rubicon which divided Cisalpine Gaul (which he legitimately ruled) into Italy (where his presence with an army was illegal and a threat to the state) Caesar triggered the civil war with Pompey who, whatever his personal feelings, now found himself the representative of the Senate and the constitution. But this latter part of the story is dealt with in the book by Caesar now known as The Civil War and so it is here that Gardner ends her summary of events.

Gaul and its inhabitants

As with the Hammond edition, I wondered why Gardner was going into so much detail about events in Rome which we can read about elsewhere, but her summary of Roman politics only takes 6 pages before she goes on to write about the actual Gauls:

Rome already controlled the South of France whose major city was the port of Massilia (modern Marseilles), founded by the Greeks around BC. Over the 9 years of his command Caesar was to extend Roman control to all of France, southern Holland, Belgium, Germany west of the Rhine and most of Switzerland.

Caesar grouped the inhabitants of this huge area into three tribal groupings. This was an over-simplification but modern scholars still debate the complex ethnic, cultural and political relationships between the many tribes he mentions in his account. Ethnic and cultural similarities connected peoples living across a huge area of north-west Europe, from Britain to the borders of modern Turkey, but to the Greeks and Romans they were all ‘Gauls’ or ‘Celts’, terms they used interchangeably.

The whole of northern Europe was characterised be ceaseless migrations which had been going on since at least the 4th century BC, when one tribe penetrated deep enough into Italy to sack Rome in 390 BC, an event which left a lasting stain on the Roman psyche and an enduring paranoia about the ‘Gaulish threat’.

This fear had been revived at the end of the 2nd century, from 110 to 100 BC, when the two tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutoni threatened to invade north Italy. It was in order to defeat these enemies that the general Caius Marius was awarded the consulship for an unprecedented run and whose ultimate defeat of the threat made him a popular hero.

As Caesar took up his command at the start of 58 BC some tribes, the Helvetii and the Suebi, were once again on the move, threatening their neighbours and destabilising the Roman province. This was the justification Caesar used for taking aggressive military action against them.

Gardner’s introduction goes on to describe Gaulish culture, the existence of towns and trade, their fondness for Mediterranean wine (France didn’t yet cultivate grapes), their coins and art, the fact that some tribes had evolved beyond kings to elected magistrates and so on. Doubtless this would be dealt with more thoroughly in a more up-to-date history.

Last point to make is that Caesar consistently denigrates the Gaulish character. According to him the Gauls are impulsive, emotional, easily swayed, love change for its own sake, credulous, prone to panic, scatter brained and so on. Caesar links the Gauls’ instability of character to the instability of their tribal politics, where leaders routinely feud among themselves, assassinate each other and so on. (This often seems a bit rich coming from Caesar who was himself subject of the most famous assassination in history, representing a state which was about to collapse into a succession of civil wars.)

Gardner makes the simple point that what amounts to what we nowadays might call a ‘racist’ stereotyping of an entire people is deployed in an all-too-familiar tactic to justify conquering and ‘liberating’ i.e. subjugating them.

The Gallic Wars is a propaganda document: it is a set of commentaries, one for each of the eight campaigning years Caesar was in Gaul which a) justify his military conquests b) promoted his reputation as a spectacularly successful general. Each of the eight books might as well end with the same sentence: “So that’s why you ought to give me a triumph.”

His comments and reflections on Gaul and the Gauls or individual tribes or leaders sometimes strike the reader as reasonably objective and factual. But the fundamentally polemical, propaganda motive is never absent.

Which edition?

I started off reading the OUP edition because it was new and clean, the maps were embedded where they were needed in the text and Hammond’s translation, as far as I could tell, didn’t show any of the oddities of style all-too-apparent when she tries to write in her own name. About a third of the way in I swapped to the Penguin edition for no reason I can put my finger on except its prose style, and the physical object itself, felt older and cosier.

The decline in academic writing for a general audience

Older academics (from the 1950s and 60s) tended to have a broader range of life experience, vocabulary and phrasing. More recent academics, from the 1980s and 90s onwards, tend to have lived narrower academic lives and their use of English is marred by ideas and terms taken from sociology, critical theory and the inevitable woke obsessions (gender and race) which make their prose narrow, cold and technocratic.

Born in 1934, Gardner writes prose which is clear, factual, to the point and more sympatico than Hammond, born a generation later, whose prose is clunky, cluttered and confused, and whose sensitive virtue signalling (war is ‘distasteful, even immoral’) comes over as patronising.

There’s a study to be done about the decline in academic writing for a wide audience, the decline in academics’ ability to reach out and connect with a broader public. Immediately after the war, Allen Lane’s creation of the cheap paperback Penguin Classics was designed to bring the best literature from round the world, and from all of history, to the widest possible audience, accompanied by introductions by experts designed to widen their appeal.

By the turn of the 21st century many of the introductions to classic literature which I regularly read spend more time scolding the reader (or their authors) for not having the correct attitudes to race and gender which are absolutely required on their campuses and in their faculties, than explaining the world of the author and their text.

It gets boring being told off or patronised all the time. So I preferred the old Penguin edition and Jane Gardner’s intelligent, useful and unpatronising introduction. And she’s funny. Right at the end of her introduction she explains:

The glossary has been completely redone and now contains more than twice as many items as the original. There are a few additional notes and also a few changes to some of Handford’s more tendentious judgements. The editor has also seized the opportunity, in writing a new introduction, of being tendentious herself. (page 26)


Related link

Roman reviews

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

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

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

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

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

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

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

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

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

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

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

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

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

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

Titus Lucretius Carus

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

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

The various modern translations

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

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

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

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

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

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

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

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

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

(Book III, lines 907-909)

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

Epicurus’s atomic theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

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

Epicurus the god

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion the enemy of freedom

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

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

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

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

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

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

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

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

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

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

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

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

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

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

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

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

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

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

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

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

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

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

The good life

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

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

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortcomings of Latin

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

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

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

(Book III, lines 293-295)

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

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

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

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)


Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

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

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

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

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

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

– on the characteristics of atoms

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

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

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

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

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

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

– the conservation of energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book III (1,094 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

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

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

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

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

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

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

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

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

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

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

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

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

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

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

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

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It must be unfinished.


1. The philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

2. The poem

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

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

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

Comparison with the Penguin edition

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

Textual apparatus

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

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

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

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

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stalling’s translation

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

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

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

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

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

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

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

Now Stalling:

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

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

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

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

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

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

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

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

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

Online translations

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

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

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

Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 1

A mine of curious information about ancient science, religion and philosophy…
(J.M. Ross in his introduction to De natura deorum, p.62)

Cicero wrote this book to examine a central problem of theology, namely do the gods have any impact on human life and, if so, what? It approaches the issue by focusing on a specific question, namely: Is there a Providence? Meaning: are events predetermined and preordained by the gods? Because if they are, then this calls into question the entire concept of ‘free will’ upon which most concepts of ‘morality’ rest. No free will = no morality, no law, no justice.

The 1972 Penguin edition I own contains a translation of Cicero’s De natura deorum by H.C.P. McGregor and an introduction by J.M. Ross. The introduction is unusually long, at 64 pages, and gives a thorough introduction to Cicero, the sources and aims of De natura deorum and its place in the overall plan of Cicero’s works.

Cicero had already written extensively about social duties and responsibilities, about friendship, personal morality, politics and the state. But, in a sense, a person’s views about all these topics depends on the fundamental question, is there a God or not. Your position on the existence and nature of a god or gods stands at the centre of your position on all those issues, underpinning or undermining them all.

Very broadly, there are four possible positions:

1. There are no gods or God, in which case there is no divine sanction or underpinning for morality, for virtue or wisdom, for right and wrong. Human behaviour and values are completely up to us to define and judge.

Pessimists or theological propagandists denigrate this situation as Anarchy and Cicero is among them: he is of the atheism = anarchy party and strongly believed that religion was necessary to underpin morality.

If the Gods have neither the power nor the inclination to help us; if they take no care of us, and pay no regard to our actions…then what reason can we have to pay any adoration, or any honours, or to prefer any prayers to them? Piety, like the other virtues, cannot have any connection with vain show or dissimulation. When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life. (I.2)

2. There are immortal gods who in some sense underpin our moral values, but they are completely indifferent to human affairs or don’t intervene, don’t respond to sacrifices or prayers or human suffering.

As I understand it, this was the view of the Epicureans, the followers of Epicurus. Some Epicureans went so far as to claim that worshipping gods – any form of state religion – was such an irrelevance and a distraction from the problems of good governance that it amounted to a social evil.

3. There are gods but they, like humans, are caught in the mechanism of the universe, which is entirely mechanistic and deterministic. Everything has been pre-ordained by fate and nothing they or we can do can change that.

This, as I understand it, is the Stoic position. Some Stoics went so far as to claim that God is identical with the universe and that both are governed by iron rules i.e. even God himself doesn’t have free will.

4. There are immortal gods and they do intervene in human affairs, do respond to sacrifices and prayers and try to make things right.

Position 4 is Cicero’s: there are gods, they underpin a moral law, they do answer prayers and sacrifices. However, Cicero doesn’t believe this with the dogmatism that would later be associated with Christian religion, because in his time there were no widely agreed texts laying down precise rules of behaviour in the manner of Christian teaching.

Instead, Cicero was an adherent of the Academic philosophy, so-called because it was taught by members of the Academy in Athens founded by Plato back in the fourth century BC. The Academic approach was to question everything, to attack all positions and points of view with the most powerful arguments possible, until only the strongest, most likely position remained. That was then adopted. It was a thorough-going scepticism.

In his introduction Ross quotes the theory of scholar H.A.K. Hunt that Cicero’s purpose in this book was to clear the decks of the jungle of contemporary misunderstandings about the gods in order for all his other writings about friendship, citizenship and so on to make sense. The need to address the specific question of predestination (as the Christians would call it) or Providence (as Cicero’s contemporaries called it) explains why he devoted a long book to the subject of Divination, at first sight a slightly cranky choice of subject, until you realise that, if divination works and the future can be foretold, then there is no human free will, in which case all his other moral and political arguments collapse.

In fact, it turns out that Ross cites Hunt’s theory in order to refute it. Ross thinks Cicero wasn’t as narrowly focussed as Hunt suggests. He takes Cicero at his word when he says that his aim was to introduce the entirety of Greek philosophy into Latin, to ‘by devoting myself to the examination of the whole body of philosophy’ (I.4).

Ross interprets Cicero’s writings as a systematic attempt to translate all the key philosophical debates of his time from Greek – where they had a long provenance – into Latin, where they were relatively new and where some key concepts didn’t even have an adequate Latin translation. These topics included:

  • Epistemology, the problem of knowledge: can we be certain of anything, can we trust the evidence of our senses – which Cicero addresses in his book titled the Academics
  • Ethics, what is the highest ‘good’ we should aim at – treated in The Ends of Good and Evil
  • consolation for death, whether our souls survive after death – treated in the Tusculan Disputations
  • the relationship between god and the world, treated via a translation of Plato’s Timaeus
  • a more detailed look at applied ethics in On Duties


The Academic tradition Cicero followed was sceptical. It held that absolute truth is impossible for humans to find and may not even exist. All we can do is weight the balance of probabilities. In order to do this we need to consider all the available evidence before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Cicero’s philosophical position is very similar to a lawyer or judge’s approach in a court of law, a comparison he himself draws:

I am asking everyone to come into court, weight up the evidence, and return their verdict (I.6).

Therefore, in their written treatises, adherents of the Academy set down all the possible views on a topic and subject them to criticism. Only at the end of this process does a likely contender for ‘the truth’ remain standing.

The dialogue form

And this explains two things about the De naturam deorum. First, the way Cicero systematically lays out the beliefs of all the existing schools before, only at the end, revealing his own position. Secondly, the book is, like most of Cicero’s works, in dialogue format. This format perfectly suits the Academic approach as it assigns each of the key positions to an individual and then lets their position be probed and questioned by all the others.

Thus the text takes the form of an imagined conversation between four educated Romans in the year 77 BC. It is set in the house of Gaius Aurelius Cotta, who is the senior representative of the Academic point of view and features Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view, and Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view. And the fourth? Cicero is depicted as a late-comer, who arrives at Cotta’s house after the debate has begun and is invited to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So he doesn’t take part in the main debate at all.

Why only three schools of thought, when the Greek world pullulated with philosophies? Because a) to most educated Romans there were only 3 philosophical schools to choose from, Epicurean, Stoic or Academic; b) because the question itself boils down to only 3 positions:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providential / Stoic (gods exist and have foreordained everything )
  • sceptic (voicing objections to the 2 dogmatic views above and trying to find pragmatic compromises)

In fact in the text itself Cicero mentions a fourth school, the Peripatetic school, which could have been represented by its leading Roman proponent, Marcus Piso. But 1. he has Cotta explain that by the time the debate takes place the Peripatetics’ main beliefs about theology had become almost indistinguishable from Stoicism and 2. Ross suspects that Cicero probably knew less about the Peripatetics than he did about the two other schools, so preferred to stay on safe ground.

Early on, Cicero indicates that although he belongs to the sceptical Academy the last thing he wants to do is undermine religion, as he believes it provides a vital underpinning to society, is the foundation of personal morality and public justice (as per the passage quoted above). He just wants to remove the bad arguments for this position, to establish the really good arguments and then promote them. His book is a form of spring cleaning or decluttering. He wants to banish superstition (which he defines as ‘a senseless fear of the gods’), not religion (which he defines as ‘the science of divine worship’) (p.117).

It is also worth noting that Cicero himself held a post in Rome’s state religion. In 53 BC he was elected member of the college of augurs. According to Wikipedia, an augur:

was a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury: interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds – whether they were flying in groups or alone, what noises they made as they flew, direction of flight, and what kind of birds they were. This was known as ‘taking the auspices’. The augural ceremony and function of the augur was central to any major undertaking in Roman society – public or private – including matters of war, commerce, and religion. Augurs sought the divine will regarding any proposed course of action which might affect Rome’s pax, fortuna, and salus (peace, good fortune, and well-being).

So we can probably hear his own opinion expressed through Cotta in I.61.

Three books

Since it expounds and critiques three schools of thought, the text is divided into three volumes, although not quite as neatly as you might imagine. In the first half of book I Velleius propounds the Epicurean position at length; in the second half, Cotta the academic enthusiastically demolishes Velleius’s arguments, with a wealth of exuberant abuse. Book II is devoted to a lengthy exposition of the Stoic position by Balbus. Then Book III consists of Cotta’s extensive criticism of everything Balbus has said.

Three problems with philosophy

The three things I’ve always disliked about philosophy ever since I started reading it at school are:

  1. The terrible state of most of its key texts, many of which exist in such poor shape it’s not at all clear what the authors intended.
  2. The need nearly all philosophers have felt to invent new words and terms to describe their views, terms which invariably lead to endless squabbling among their acolytes and among academics about what they actually mean, resulting in needless obscurity.
  3. The way most of philosophy’s key authors changed and developed their positions, sometimes so much so that their later philosophy ends up completely contradicting their earlier views (Wittgenstein springs to mind).

De rerum deorum demonstrates all three of these problems. Regarding the text, there are gaping holes. The master manuscript, which appears to have been the source of all the later manuscripts which survive, appears to have come to pieces and been reassembled, not in a particularly rational order, and with some big and important sections (like Cotta’s refutations of key Stoic points) altogether missing. Maybe a third of book III is missing.

Then it is patchily organised. Even without this textual confusion, it’s clear that Cicero, when he has a character refuting the previous character’s presentation, often omits key points in what they said and answers points they never made. In other words, even if we had a perfect text, it would still be uneven, and badly assembled. This is because Cicero was copying his arguments from a variety of Greek sources and didn’t manage to fully assimilate them into a smooth flow or argument.

This also explains why the text contains a number of irritating digressions, when Cicero seems to have inserted vaguely relevant topics (such as the origins of the names of gods, pages 147 to 152, or a passage on astronomy) just because he had them to hand and they were sort of relevant to the topic, but which damage the flow of the argument.

To further add to the confusion, there were not one but two main traditions of Stoicism in regard to conceptions of God and Providence, and Cicero doesn’t distinguish clearly between them, either in Balbus’s presentation or in Cotta’s refutation. Early Stoicism was pantheistic, believing that God was just another name for nature and that everything in the world is divinely determined. Later, a more Platonic conception was overlaid onto this, in which God is a free rational deity caring for men, and interfering in the world for their welfare. As you can see, these are two quite distinct beliefs, but they are bundled together in Balbus’s presentation and (in what survives of) Cotta’s refutation.


All this explains two things: why De rerum deorum has been heavily criticised by commentators and why it is one of Cicero’s less popular texts. The central criticism is that it was written at great speed and so is riddled with inconsistencies in the main argument and littered with distracting digressions. Ross concludes that it was never really finished and Cicero intended to revise, trim and make it more coherent.

In addition, all readers have criticised the way the book just stops, without any kind of summary of the results of its long-winded investigation. If it was intended to be useful, then the most potentially useful part, the conclusion, is missing. Instead Cicero seems to have decided to address to sub-aspects of the problem of gods in the supplementary works, On divination and On fate.

In other words, this book is prime evidence for my case against philosophy, a good example of the way the self-proclaimed ‘lovers of truth’ in fact produce badly organised, badly thought-through, inconsistent texts which are so badly written that even their own pupils can’t agree what they mean and, instead of shedding light on ‘the truth’ serve to sink it miles deeper into oceanic depths of murky obscurity.

The philosophical buffet

In reality:

  • although reading philosophy is entertaining and often intellectually challenging (for example when, as so often, it is written in deliberately obscure language using ad hoc invented terms and phrases designed to tease you away from your normal perceptions or habits of thought);
  • although philosophical debates, especially about ‘morality’ are inevitable, can result in real changes in people’s opinions, in social attitudes and even the law;

nonetheless, there are now so many philosophical schools, systems and arguments that, as with the Bible, almost any position you care to take, from extreme idealism to extreme pragmatism, from moral altruism to cynical selfishness, from rigid obedience to strict laws to the wildest anarchism, have been fully worked out, named, popularised and made into t-shirt slogans.

With the result that, far from being the pursuit of any kind of ‘truth’, the vast realm of philosophic discourse is more like an enormous breakfast buffet where people interested in this kind of thing can choose from a huge range of options, mix and match, and cobble together whichever belief and value systems suit them. In other words, 3,000 years of philosophy has left the world and human beings in even worse conceptual and moral confusion than it found them.

In the following two blog posts I’ll summarise the arguments used in De rerum deorum in detail.

Related links

Roman reviews

John Christopher on the changing face of science fiction (2003)

Christopher’s preface

When his young adult novel The White Mountains was reissued by Penguin in 2003, John Christopher was asked to write a new introduction to it. The resulting preface is only eight pages long and mostly explains a bit about the book’s conception and execution. But it also includes quite a passage describing how science fiction developed during his lifetime, which I think is worth publicising and pondering.

Christopher tells us that he was a well-established author of a dozen or more novels for adults when he received a letter from his agent telling him a publisher was asking whether he would consider writing a novel for children.

But what sort of book was it going to be? The publisher obviously wanted science fiction, but I was getting tired of destroying the world – by famine or freezing or earthquakes – and I was no longer interested in exploring the universe outside our planet. There was a reason for that.

When I was the age of the boys and girls for whom it was now proposed I write, I’d been very excited about the possibilities of space travel, but those had been different days. In the early thirties we knew just about enough about the solar system for its possibilities to be a magnet to the imagination. The moon might be cold and dead, but the planets offered scope for dreaming. Mars, for instance, was colder than our earth and had a thinner atmosphere, but possibly not too cold or airless to support life.

And Mars had those canals. An Italian astronomer called Schiaparelli, looking through his telescope in the nineteenth century, said he had seen canali on Mars’s rust-red surface. In Italian that just means ‘channels’, but it got translated as ‘canals’, which was much more intriguing. Maybe in that thin but breathable atmosphere there were long waterways, built by an ancient race of Martians, dotted with Martian cities that were lit by day by a smaller sun and at night by the magic gleam of two low-lying moons. An ancient race, because one might suppose that on that chillier planet the process of life’s evolution had been in advance of ours. Apart from being older, the Martians might well be wiser and able to pass on to us the fruit of their knowledge. Or, if they were so ancient as to have become extinct, the ruins of their cities might still be there to be explored.

Then there was Venus – closer to the sun and much hotter than the earth – with its permanent blanket of clouds. What might lie beneath the clouds? Perhaps a planet in an earlier period of evolution, as Mars was in a later one. Something like our own Carboniferous era, perhaps. Did tropical swamps teeming with dinosaurs and hovering pterodactyls await the arrival of our first spaceship?

Because that was something else we felt confident about: early experiments with rockets had already made the eventual conquest of space more than plausible. It could happen in our lifetime, and with it bring unthinkable wonders. It was a bit like being in Elizabethan England, reading stories about what might be found in the new world which was opening up on the far side of the barely explored western ocean.

But in three short decades everything changed. By the 1960s we knew more about the universe and the solar system – but what we’d learned was much less interesting than what we’d imagined. We knew that Mars was not just cold but an altogether hostile environment, Venus a choking oven of poisonous gases. The chance of any kind of life existing on either planet – or anywhere within reach of our probing rockets – was incredibly remote.

A couple of years after I wrote The White Mountains, space itself was finally conquered. The landing on the moon was televised around the world, timed to coincide with prime-time US television viewing. That meant the early hours of the morning in the Channel Islands, where I then lived. The boy I had been at fourteen would never have believed that I couldn’t be bothered to stay up to watch.

I had seen the future, and found it disappointing: so what remained? Well, there was the past. The colour which had bleached out of our interplanetary speculations was still bright in human history and there was life there, and romance and action… The publisher wanted the future: I was more interested in the past…

The Tripod trilogy reconciles future and past

Christopher then goes on to explain how he conceived a way of combining the two, the publisher’s request for science fiction with his own disillusion with science fiction tropes and growing fondness for past history, by imagining an earth set in the future and which has been conquered by futuristic machines, the tripods (very similar to the Martians of H.G. Wells’s War of The Worlds) but the invaders have realised the best way of controlling human society is to take it back to the Middle Ages, by creating small rural communities of serfs obeying the local lord of the manor who in turn owes fealty to the king who is himself guided by the tripods.

And hence the odd atmosphere of Christopher’s Tripod trilogy, which combine futuristic alien masters with a society which is thoroughly feudal and medieval in feel.

Disillusionment with space travel

So much for the origins of this particular novel, but the point of quoting his words in full is to convey Christopher’s eye-witness testimony to how young science-fiction-minded writers’ attitude changed massively between, say, 1930 and 1970.

The just-enough knowledge of the solar system which he describes in the 1930s is the imaginative backdrop to the Flash Gordon, space rocket and ray gun, bubble gum sci fi stories of the 1940s, 50s and on into the 60s. It explains the early space fiction of John Wyndham, two of whose novels are set on a Mars where humans can breathe the ‘air’, can settle and meet the native ‘Martians’, as they do in Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, the first of which was written as long ago as 1946, and as they do in thousands and thousands of other travelling-to-Mars and colonising-Venus stories.

I wonder if we could delve deeper and locate just when that sense of disillusionment kicked in. Immediately after the Second World War science fiction received a boost from at least two specific inventions: one was the atom bomb, with its ramifications for new ‘atomic power’ which imaginative writers speculated could be turned into engines which could power spaceships across the solar system; the second was the practical application of rocket technology by the Nazis, who developed their big V1 and V2 rockets, both of which are prototypes for the countless cigar-shaped rockets to the moon, to Mars or to Venus which infest the science fiction magazines of the period.

And behind specifically sci fi-friendly inventions there lay the enormous psychological boost of America’s post-war economic boom, when cars and bras got bigger and bigger, the consumer revolution of fridges, washing machines and so on, which fuelled the widespread expectation that pretty soon gadgets would be developed to solve every household or lifestyle problem – including ones for teleporting round the planet or jetting off to the stars.

Is it possible, I wonder, to date precisely when the sense of disillusion which Christopher so eloquently describes, began to kick in? Or did it happen to different people at different times? I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s and remember watching Tomorrow’s World with James Burke who also covered the Apollo moon landings, and there was still plenty of optimism about building a space station and using it as a jumping off point for Mars and all the rest of it.

J.G. Ballard was a relatively lone voice when he declared in about 1973 that the Space Age was over. That seemed a mad thing to say but what he was specifically referring to was the fact that the later moon landings were not covered live by American TV because ratings fell off. By the last moon mission, the Apollo 17 trip of 1972, the moon landings and the TV series that presented them to a worldwide audience, had been cancelled.

People were bored. Although we then went on to decades of the space shuttle and the creation of the international space station (the 1980s and 90s) Ballard was, I think, right to realise that these developments no longer captured widespread popular attention. They relapsed into being the special interest of a diminishing band of fans, with occasional flare-ups of wider interest whenever a rocket or shuttle blew up (January 28, 1986) or the occasional landing of a little buggy on Mars (as with the current Mars rover mission).

Anthropomorphism and Western chauvinism

But more than just shedding light on the trajectory from optimism to indifference about space travel in the mind of Christopher and by extension his generation (he was born in 1922), this passage also tells us something else about the sociological shape of the human imagination.

What I mean is the incredibly anthropomorphic nature of the speculations Christopher found so exciting. He expected there to be cities, or ruins of cities, or ‘wise old civilisations’ which could teach us newbies the secrets of the universe. Or maybe Venus would be at the other end of the evolutionary scale and just like earth in the age of the dinosaurs.

Either way you can see how these are obviously entirely human, anthropomorphic imaginings.

Digging a bit deeper, the notion that there might be ‘ruins’ on Mars is not only anthropomorphic but very Anglocentric. The 1920s and 30s were a great era for finding ruins of lost civilisations, crystallised by the publicity surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. But the point is that these, along with discoveries made along the Silk Road in Asia or aboriginal holy sites in Australia, or Inca and Aztec sites in Central America, or the imperial cities of Zimbabwe or Chad, these were all discoveries made by Europeans and Americans, and so became part of our culture, the relics were brought back to our countries and became part of our colonial ownership of the rest of the world.

The ruins might be in Central America or Asia but they were made by white men, written up in white men’s journals for white men organisations and popularised through the newspapers, tabloids and magazines of the West, percolating down to schoolboys like Christopher and his contemporaries as controlled and ordered and structured into heroic narratives of Western exploration and discovery and understanding.

And it’s this ordered, directed, pro-Western structuring of narratives of discovery which underpin thousands and thousands of science fiction planetary stories from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Underpinned by the basic assumption that we earthlings, generally American earthlings, have a God-given right to colonise, inhabit, discover, communicate with, define and categorise and generally own the rest of the solar system if not the galaxy.

Which makes all the narratives which share this basic underpinning or ideological framework – no matter how disturbing their surface details and gaudy monsters might be – at their core, reassuring and comforting because they reinforce the notions of order and civilisation and morality and hierarchy and category which underpinned Western discourse (i.e. the aggregated total of the news media, scientific research, history and the humanities and all types of fiction) during that era.

Christopher’s young notions about the solar system and aliens were human-friendly and Western friendly.

Moving from adult to children’s fiction

In this respect Christopher’s transition from writing for adults to writing for children at just the time he did makes perfect sense, because the adult world, at the end of the 1960s, was ceasing to be the homogenous world of the 30s, 40s and 50s, and morphing into something else, something harsher and more fragmented.

Of course the Great Depression of the 1930s and then the vast calamity of the Second World War were physically and economically much more disastrous than anything which happened in the 60s and 70s. But the late 1960s and 70s saw the breakdown of the ideological, moral and cultural consensus which had dominated the West since 1945.

John Wyndham’s science fiction novels are ‘cosy’ because the protagonists all share the same values and worldview, even when they’re taking potshots at each other – to take a tiny example, Croker, the ostensible ‘baddie’ who staged the attack on Senate House in Day of The Triffids, later candidly admits it was the wrong solution to the plight of a world gone blind, and ends up becoming the leader of a new community. Deep down everyone is on the same side, believes the same things, shares the same values.

J.G. Ballard’s fiction represents, from the start, the collapse of this consensus. In Ballard’s early works the characters go mad, have psychotic breakdowns. To be precise, his characters’ response to some environmental catastrophe is to withdraw into private worlds and fantasies and to cease altogether to share values with anyone else. The moral consensus apparent in all Wyndham’s novels vanishes like morning dew leaving a ruined landscape of wandering psychotics – not psychotic killers, just people living entirely inside their own heads, to their own made-up values.

In the mid- to late-1960s, Ballard’s novels featured a lot of casual sex and violence and psychological breakdown which outraged the philistines and traditionalists. What is not so often commented on is that, as the 1970s progressed, the decade Tom Wolfe labelled the Me Decade (‘characterised by narcissism, self-indulgence, and a lack of social concern’) Ballard’s fictions came to seem prophetic of the widespread collapse of communitarianism and the rise of atomized individualism widely observed in that decade.

By the time Reagan and Thatcher were elected in 1979, although he’d carried on writing pretty much the same kind of thing, society had so completely transformed its values that Ballard came to seem like the prophet of smug, gated, amoral, rich sybarites, the subjects of his final (and, to me, deeply unsatisfying) novels, Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).

These all describe ‘transgressive’ behaviour among upper-middle-class professional types. They’re often described as satires, but they’re not, they’re more like shopping lists or role models for the era of the Sunday Times rich list and the never-ending series of lifestyle magazines which arose during the 1980s.

Thus to read in chronological order the novels of John Wyndham in the 30s, 40s, 50s, of John Christopher in the 50s and 60s, the optimistic techno-novels of Arthur C. Clarke from the 1950s through the 1970s, and then onto the stories and novels of J.G. Ballard is to watch the decline of Western optimism and consensus, to observe the death and burial of any sense of shared values and morals.

Now we are living in the aftermath of that collapse, with ever-increasing fragmentation of Western societies into angry tribes all convinced that they are the hard-done-by ones, and demanding restitution, justice and compensation from everyone else – the splintering of shared progressive ideas on the left into a welter of special interest and identity groups which itself mirrors the anger of right-wing communities who perceive their own white ethnic and traditional (cis-) gender identities under attack.

Sometimes reading the media, especially social media, feels like watching wild ferrets snapping at each other’s throats, against the darkening backdrop of the never-ending pandemic and the relentless environmental catastrophe of global warming.

We have come a long, long way from the innocently triumphalist vision of space-suited chaps rocketing off to colonise Venus and Mars. Now, far from colonising any other planets, it looks like we don’t even know how to hold democratic elections any more, and can’t agree what they’re for (this piece was written soon after the Proud Boys invaded the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021).

We certainly don’t know how to manage the planet we live on, let alone set ourselves up to ‘conquer’ and run others.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

Notes on William Congreve

This short post consists of the interesting points from the introduction to the 1985 Penguin edition of Congreve’s plays, introduced and edited by Eric S. Rump. (I’m afraid I find it funny that a man who edited a book full of smutty jokes was called Rump.)

Congreve was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1670. His family moved to Ireland where he was educated at Kilkenny College – where he met fellow student Jonathan Swift, b.1667 – and at Trinity College in Dublin.

Aged 19, in 1689, Congreve left Ireland to travel to London and make his fortune as a wit. Aged 22 he published a novel titled Incognita: or, Love and Duty reconcil’d, whose title sounds like a play.

He befriended John Dryden, the leading literary figure of the age, who supported him through the rest of his career, writing rave reviews and introductions to his plays.

A year later his first comedy, The Old Bachelor, was performed. In all, Congreve write just four comedies, and in a relatively short career of seven years. They are:

  • The Old Bachelor (1693)
  • The Double Dealer (1693)
  • Love for Love (1695)
  • The Way of the World (1700)

And one tragedy:

  • The Mourning Bride (1697)

Congreve abandoned the stage for good in 1700, just as he turned 30.

A ‘good’ run for a play in those days was fourteen nights. Thus The Old Bachelor was a runaway success and played for… fourteen nights! A failure ran for three nights, the bare minimum required to cover its costs, a fact referred to in several of the plays themselves. William Wycherley’s second play, Love In A Wood, was not a success, ran for just 6 nights, and was never revived in his lifetime.

The Old Bachelor is, according to Rump, ‘a play in which a young, talented writer is content to re-explore the comic territory earlier mapped out by writers such as Etherege and Wycherley, but in doing so, is able to bring to the material’. It has freshness and distinctiveness.

It is also notable for the skill with which Congreve gives each character their own speech rhythms. Some critics claim you could be given any bit of dialogue from any of his four plays and be able to identify the character solely from their speech rhythms and idiolect. Rump thinks that’s pushing it a bit, but the fact people suggest this shows the care Congreve took to give each character their own distinctive speech patterns.

Congreve’s fourth and final play, the Way of The World, followed a gap of five years and was much-anticipated. It opened to great expectation and was presented by an all-star cast – but it was a relative failure. Why?

Well, it was by 1700 twelve years since the Glorious Revolution had swept away the Stuart kings and their world of carefree aristocratic hedonism. The new queen, Mary II, was more like Queen Victoria. She was not amused by the stage’s persistent attacks on marriage and conventional morality.

The times had changed. The overthrow of James II in 1688 represented not just a change in monarch but the triumph of the new mercantile class over the libertine aristocrats of Charles’s court.

Did Congreve intend to cease writing for the stage after The Way of the World bombed? He was certainly stung by the criticism of his plays included in the detailed critique of the stage written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), so much so that he wrote a long reply, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations.

But Collier was merely reflecting what many people felt by the late 1690s. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had been founded in 1692 and began to bring lawsuits against playwrights for outraging public morality. So did Congreve abandon the stage with an aristocratic flourish of disdain? No.

The record shows that Congreve continued his association with the stage after The Way. He shared with Vanbrugh the management of the new Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Semele, set first by Eccles and a lot later by Handel. He translated the works of Molière, and produced over the next ten years a trickle of poetry and translations of Latin classics for various collections – in other words he continued to be active in the theatre and in literature and letters. But he never again wrote a play.

In 1714, on the accession of the Whig Hanoverian King George, Congreve was given financial security with the award of a sinecure, Secretary to the island of Jamaica. He never married but had dalliances with several aristocratic ladies, most notably Henrietta Godolphin, second Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. They probably met some time before 1703 and the duchess subsequently had a daughter, Mary, who was believed to be his child. Upon his death, Congreve left his entire fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough.

William Congreve died in London in January 1729 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Reviews of William Congreve

Reviews of other Restoration comedies

The Good Soldier Švejk – Epilogue to Part One (1922)

Hašek included a three-page Epilogue to Volume One of The Good Soldier Švejk, which is interesting for a number of reasons (pp.214-216 of the Penguin edition).

First and foremost it shows that even when he was not being ‘literary’, he wrote in the same blunt factual way as in the novel, for example using the kind of sententious truisms which could have come straight from the mouth of Švejk:

Life is no finishing school for young ladies

The epilogue is predominantly concerned to defend Hašek’s use of coarse language including swearwords. He bluntly tells us he disdains the use of circumlocutions or asterisks as ‘the stupidest form of sham’.

The argument from realism He, Hašek, has simply reported how real people actually talk.

Life is no finishing school for young ladies. Everyone speaks the way he is made… This book is neither a handbook of drawing-room refinement nor a teaching manual of expressions to be used in polite society. It is a historical picture of a certain period of time.

He doesn’t develop any reason why but just takes it for granted that a realistic depiction of the world, and of how people actually behave and actually speak, coarse language and all, is a good in itself and doesn’t need justification. What he is describing is ‘perfectly natural’ and therefore, by implication, writing about it is the same terms is ‘perfectly natural’, too.

The argument from hypocrisy Hašek proposes that the only people who are ashamed of ripe or bawdy language in a novel are hypocrites, the ones with the most to hide, ‘the worst swine and the experts in filth’.

It is the people who most loudly proclaim their moral indignation in public who take pleasure in frequenting public toilets in order to read the graffiti. It is those who would like to turn the whole country into a refined drawing room who in fact, in secret, practice the worst vices.

To the pure in heart everything is pure. Or, as he puts it, the well-brought-up man may read anything.

The argument from strength Then he tries another tack – that the easily offended are weak.

Those who boggle at strong language are cowards, because it is real life which is shocking them.

He, Hašek, has simply reported how actually people actually talk. Not his problem if some readers and critics – if ‘weaklings like that’ – are too sensitive to face the truth about the world.

The argument from cultural health But, says Hašek, the net impact of these ‘cowards’ and ‘weaklings’ is not neutral: it causes actual harm. They are the people who:

cause most harm to character and culture. They would like to see the nation to grow up into a group of over-sensitive people – masturbators of false culture…

Again the idea is only glancingly referred to and not explored, but clearly implies that

  1. a nation should be strong
  2. that literary realism or culture which faces up to how real people actually speak and behave requires a kind of moral and aesthetic strength
  3. and that this facing up to reality builds that kind of moral and aesthetic strength in a ‘nation’

The argument from character building It’s only referred to in one word, but Hašek slips in the idea that the kind of censorship and repression his critics promote is damaging not only to (national) culture, but to character. Implicit in that phrase is the idea that reading strong language spoken by ‘real’ people toughens the reader up and is character building.

The argument from political dissent He then goes on to say that the person the landlord Palivec is based on got in touch with Hašek when he learned he was in the book, and bought twenty copies, and frankly admitted to being well known for his foul language.

But, Hašek asserts, it is not just bad language. Palivec is a representative social and political figure. His crude language expresses ‘the detestation the ordinary Czech feels for Byzantine behaviour’ and their ‘lack of respect for the Emperor and for fine phrases’.

So in this sentence fine and polite and refined language is associated with the Imperial Court and its oppression of the Czech people, and crude language is associated with opposition to Austrian rule.

Hašek’s characters’ effing and blinding are acts of linguistic rebellion against the Austro-Hungarian ascendency and its effete and hypocritical manners.

To summarise, literary realism of the type Hašek practices:

  • describes the real world
  • avoids hypocrisy
  • is strong and healthy
  • makes the reader strong and healthy
  • helps create a strong and healthy national culture

The kind of disapproval and censorship his critics call for:

  • would result in works painting a deceptive picture of the real world
  • is the cry of hypocrites who promote beauty but are themselves leading experts in ‘filth’
  • is the cry of weaklings and cowards
  • whose censorship, if put in place, would weaken and undermine both individuals and the national culture

Hašek’s aim

Very briefly, he says he’s not sure his book will achieve its aim. Well, what is its aim? Hašek explains it in this way:

The fact that I have already heard one man swear at another and say ‘You’re about as big an idiot as Švejk’ does not prove that I have. But if the word ‘Švejk’ becomes a new choice specimen in the already florid garland of abuse I must be content with this enrichment of the Czech language. (p.215)


1. It is interesting that Hašek chooses to defend his book entirely from the accusation of bad language. As I make clear in my review of Volume One, I barely noticed that the characters saying shit or bollocks – the kind of language I’ve read in thousands of novels since, especially from the 1960s onwards.

What I did notice was the casual violence they show to each other, the frothing anger of all the officials which underpins the incidents of kicking, hitting and flogging we witness along with much worse tortures and even executions (which, it is true, we don’t tend to see, but have amply reported to us).

About this no-one seems to have complained, and Hašek doesn’t feel compelled to justify. In a way, this is the most shocking thing about this little epilogue.

2. I don’t accept the idea that Hašek went to all this trouble just to add the word ‘Švejk’ as a term of abuse to the Czech language. There’s a lot, lot more going on in his big novel, most notably his fierce satire on everything Austro-Hungarian, namely its stupid bureaucracy and its incompetent army but by extension, with everything bourgeois and fake.

Then there are the fierce statements about the horror of war, all the more bitter for their often throwaway character.

And then there’s the motivation all comedians share, to make people laugh – to make them laugh and maybe do other things too, like reflect on war and society – but first and foremost, to amuse and entertain them.

Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubadour poetry for the following reason: troubadour poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in standard phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes.

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.


Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. They occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.


Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use standardised phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Once again, Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern’s account of how the Cistercian monks spread what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because they have the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour.

They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.


I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.


If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.

Related links

Other medieval reviews

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995)

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics along with an extensive introduction explaining their historical and cultural context and explaining the rhyme scheme, scansion and pronunciation of the poems. Each work benefits from a ‘crib’ or translation of obscure phrases which is on the same page as the text, and extensive notes on each poem at the back of the book.

The pronunciation

First the pronunciation. In the following short poem ‘i’ is pronounced like a long ‘e’ as in leave so ‘miri’ is pronounced like mini except with an r in the middle and ‘while’ is pronounced weelë. ‘Sumer’ is soomer, the ‘i’ in ‘i-last’ is ee. The extra ‘e’ on the end of many words is generally voiced which is why Duncan prints it as ‘ë’ to remind the reader to pronounce it. ‘Ou’ is pronounced oo, so ‘foulës’ is pronounced foolës. Gh is like loch in Scottish. So ‘night’ is pronounced with an ‘i’ as in lit or sin and the ‘gh’ sounding as in loch, to make it sound like the German word nicht. ‘Ich’ is pronounced itch, ‘michel’ sounds like mitchell. A’s are short as in cat.

Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.

So a phonetic version would go something like this:

Mirry it is weel soomer eelast
with foolës song
oc noo neiyeth windës blast
and weder strong.
Ei, ei, wat this nicht is long,
and ich with wel mitchell wrong
sorwe and mourne and fast.

You can make out the pronunciation in this medieval setting of the poem.

‘Mirie it is’ on the Luminarium website

Read out loud

As to the meaning, well, when I studied Middle English (and Anglo-Saxon) at university I found it was best to read the poetry aloud, over and over again, to get the pronunciation and rhythms and sounds into your mouth and mind for some time before worrying about the ‘meaning’.

The kind of crib Duncan provides – i.e. not a full translation into modern English, but just picking the hardest words or phrases and suggesting a meaning – helps because it is fragmentary and doesn’t swamp the poem with a full modern version but just guides you in interpreting some of the original medieval words.

This is one of the appeals of medieval poetry, that it speaks to us before we completely understand what it means and, even after we’ve read modern translations and ‘cribs’, it still says something more than a literal translation into modern English can do.

Thus Duncan helps by pointing out in his glosses that ‘i-last’ means lasts, ‘foulës song’ means birds’ song, ‘oc’ means ‘but’, ‘neigheth’ means ‘draws near’, ‘wat’ means ‘how’ (so the line means ‘how this night is long’), and – most suggestively – that ‘with wel michel wrong’ means ‘for very great wrong doing’…

Given these clues, the reader is forced to reread the poem and assimilate these new meanings to the lines. In effect, to begin to learn Middle English. Compare and contrast the effort required and the reward of trying to understand a different language, with simply swamping your mind with a brisk modern translation:

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast.

In my opinion all the power and mystery is lost in this or any modern translation. How much more powerful, mysterious and interesting (and difficult to scan) it is to say:

and ich with wel mickle wrong

than it is to say:

And I, most unjustly

If one of the purposes of poetry is to refresh the language, or our understanding and use of language, this can be done far more quickly and deeply by learning just one medieval lyric which transports you to a different universe, than by listening to a hundred rap songs which merely entrench you deeper and deeper into the baleful, violent present.


Another cause of uncertainty, mystery and pleasure is the odd scansion of most of the lines. Some of them fall right into our modern-day feel for iambic pentameters and regular rhythms. But others just don’t. Duncan has a long essay explaining the scansion i.e. how the rhythm of the poems is made up of the emphases which should – in theory – be given to different vowels, consonants, or words which start lines or words which end them.

For example, it’s important to realise that Middle English had far more words ending in ‘e’ than we do and that sometimes the ‘e’ was voiced but sometimes it wasn’t. It is generally voiced before a consonant but if a vowel begins the next word, elided into that vowel and so not distinctly sounded.

This is why Duncan sometimes prints ‘e’ with a diaeresis over it – ë – when it is to be pronounced – as in ‘foolës song’ – but otherwise leaves the e plain, when it is to be elided into the following vowel to create just one syllable instead of two – ‘Sorwe and murne and fast’ where the e’s on the end of sorwe and murne blend into the a of the following and.

But – in practice – as Duncan admits, many of the poems seem to ignore these rules or to only obey them erratically. No manual or criticism or explanation survives by contemporaries to explain the thinking behind rhythm and syllables and beats, so scholars have had to reconstruct ‘the rules’ six or seven hundred years after the poems were written and there is still a lot of debate because whichever rules you devise, you can immediately find examples which seem to break them.

All this adds to the sense of mild challenge about the poems and forces you to read and reread each one until you think you’ve got the correct rhythm.


And finally, all the poems were in fact lyrics, designed to be set to music and this music – genuinely medieval music – worked according to rules and values most of us find strange, lacking the basic ideas of a dominant key and a structured progression through related chords with the voice picking out melodies from the chord progressions. Instead, in medieval music, the voice was its own master, far less constrained by ideas of harmony and chord progression.

This is particularly true of a solo vocal rendition, as of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ which I quote below. In this instrumental version of ‘Miri it is’, there is a strong sense of rhythm which rides over the doubts and uncertainties you get from just reading the words.

For example, they sing just one ‘ei’ whereas the presence of two ‘eis’ in the original is one of the complicating factors in trying to scan that line. As so often in musical settings of a poem, the composer / performer just ignores the problems of scansion in order to produce a smooth product.

Amended spelling

I am intrigued that the singers in this performance pronounce the word Duncan has given as ‘sorwe’ as ‘sorrich’. This is because they have spelt it ‘soregh’ and not ‘sorwe’ which brings us to a big point.

In this edition Duncan has made the big editorial decision to change the spelling of all the poems in his collection to ‘bring them into conformity’ with the dialect of south-east England. During this period – 1200 to 1400 – there were many distinct regional variations of English, complete with different grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Duncan says he has brought all the spellings into line with the dialect of south-east England – or London – because that is the Middle English of Chaucer and so the version which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with.

I think this is a controversial decision. On the whole I think I would like to be in possession of what the medieval scribes actually wrote than a cleaned-up version which Duncan thinks will be easier for me to read and understand. I don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be accurate and faithful.

There’s a fascinating article devoted to this very song:

which contains a photo of the one and only surviving manuscript of the song (complete with stave lines indicating the note to be sung over each word).

Manuscript of Miri it is

Immediately you can see that the first word is a) missing the initial M b) is written [M]irie, not ‘miri as Duncan gives us. This is a vast difference. The article suggests it should be pronounced with three syllables: mi-ree-e (the last e pronounced as in web). That’s a hell of a difference from the two syllables of Duncan’s ‘miri’.

Similarly, on the second line you can quite clearly see that what Duncan has given as ‘foulës song’ is in fact written ‘fugheles song’. They both mean birds’ song, but Duncan has changed the northern dialect word fughel to the word Chaucer would use, ‘fowl or foul’.

I don’t want to be churlish, but I object to this. 1. I prefer to know what the scribe actually wrote and 2. fugheles quite obviously has three syllables unlike ‘foulës’. Or at least there is a flicker of hesitation over the ‘ughe’ which has been removed by turning it onto ‘ou’.

(Also, as explained, none of the originals have the diaeresis over the e – ë – because that is an entirely Duncan invention, put in hte poems to help the reader with the correct pronunciation.)

In other words, any effort made trying to scan Duncan’s version is effort wasted, or led astray, by the fact that he doesn’t print the words of the actual poem! The online article I’ve referred to gives this as the poem’s correct, unexpurgated text:

[M]Irie it is while sumer ilast
with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast
and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].

(Note that the final word, ‘fast’, is not included in the text as we have it, but is a guess by all succeeding editors.)


Study of this one short poem suggests an approach to Duncan’s entire book which is:- to use it to ramble and surf and browse through the wonderful world of medieval lyrics, to let yourself be caught and captivated by individual poems and work with Duncan’s cribs and read up his notes on each one…

But then to use the wonders of the internet to search for the actual original text of each poem, and to get to know that and not the bowdlerised version Duncan has confected for us.

I sing of a mayden

One hundred and thirty-two is a lot of poems and they range from short seven-liners like the above, to the five short stanzas of a classic like ‘I sing of a mayden’, to much longer, wordier, and more complex poems, poems with elaborate refrains such as ‘Alysoun’, or even dialogue poems where alternate verses are spoken by characters.

‘I sing of a mayden’ is a favourite among fans of this period and has been set to music by many modern composers. Duncan’s version is:

I syng of a mayden
that is makëles:
King of alle kingës
to her sone she chees.

He cam also styllë
ther his moder was
As dewe in Aprylle
that fallëth on the gras.

He cam also styllë
to his moderës bowr
As dew in Aprille
that falleth on the flour.

He cam also stillë
ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
that fallëth on the spray.

Moder and mayden
was never non but she:
Wel may swych a lady
Godës moder be!

It appeals:

  • because of the short simplicity of the lines
  • because of the repetition of the three central verses which vary only the rhyme words was/gras, bowr/flowr, lay/spray
  • because of the sweet innocent purity of the floral imagery
  • and because of the way the simplicity, repetition and natural imagery convey an immensely gentle, sweet and loving relationship between Mary and her beloved son

Does it need translating? As mentioned, Duncan has already bowdlerised it a little, converting the original ‘þ’ into modern ‘th’, and adding his diaeresis e’s to clarify pronunciation and emphasis. The original version of the first two verses reads:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

You can feel the rhythm and the meaning, cant you, but your mind just needs guiding and supporting at a few of the more obscure moments, and this is the merit of Duncan’s ‘cribs’ i.e. printing the meaning of some of the more obscure terms on the same page as the poem. Thus you need to know that ‘makeles’ means ‘matchless’, ‘ches’ means ‘chose’ and that ‘þ’ is pronounced as ‘th’ as in this or that. Once you know that you’re away!

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

As to pronunciation, key points would be that ‘makeles’ is not pronounced like modern ‘make’, but mack-e-less, and that maiden is pronounced my-den. Again, once you’ve grasped its meaning and a feel for the pronunciation, how much cooler and slicker it is to say:

Moder and maiden
Was neverë noon but she


Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;

Just as it is cooler and slicker to refer to someone’s savoir faire than to their ‘knowledge of how to do things properly’. Learning Middle English is like learning another language which 1. is not, at the end of the day, that difficult because so much of it is similar, sometimes identical, to modern English, and 2. you don’t have to learn well enough to have conversations in it, just well enough to begin to have a feel for the words and phrases, enough of a feel to bring these magical poems to life.

Rhythm and repetition

These two poems epitomise one aspect of Middle English, its ability to make brief, punchy phrases pregnant with meaning:

[M]irie it is while sumer ilast

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,

But ‘mayden’ also highlights the ability of what are, for the most part, songs made to be sung, to use repetition with variation to create beautiful rhythms. (In this example remember ‘bounden’ is pronounced ‘boonden’.)

Adam lay ybounden
bounden in a bond,
fowre thousand winter
thoughte he not too long;

And al was for an appil
an appil that he took,
As clerkes finden writen
writen in hire book.

Ne hadde the apple taken ben
the apple taken ben,
Ne hadde nevere Oure Lady
ybeen hevene Quen.

Blessed be the time
that appil taken was:
Therfore we mown singen
Deo Gratias.

Even if you’re not sure what ‘Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond’ exactly means, it’s not hard to 1. get a feel for the nice rhythm of the thing and 2. get the gist of the meaning – that Adam paid dearly for his original sin of eating the forbidden appil, and defying God’s ordinance, and triggering the Fall of Man.

But all’s well that ends well, because if that appil had never been taken, there would have been no need for Christ to have been conceived and born and crucified to redeem us all, in which case there would have been no Virgin Mary, and imagine the world without the Virgin Mary! No, it can’t be done!

And therefore Adam lying bounden in a bond is a small price to pay for having the Mother of God reigning in heaven to guard over us poor sinners and hear our prayers.

(Duncan’s note explains that in medieval theology, Adam was supposed to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus patrum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ, and that this was estimated to have lasted four thousand winters.)

There’s something immensely powerful in the way the entire theology of the Christian religion, with its vast holy books and thousands of theologians, can all be compressed down into this simple carol, whose well-chosen repetitions can all be sung in less than a minute, and bring great spiritual and psychological reassurance.

The literary critic John Spiers makes the acute point that part of the poem’s appeal is the way the idea flows so naturally. ‘The doctrine of the song is perfectly orthodox… but here is expressed very individually and humanly. The movement of the song reproduces very surely the movements of a human mind.’

I think of Shakespeare with his colourful conceits, of John Donne with his far-fetched similes or John Milton with his heavy Latinate tread. Compared to all those later poets, this poem flows as simply but as profoundly as a fairy tale.

Four categories

Duncan divides his book up into four categories:

  • Love Lyrics
  • Penitential and Moral Lyrics
  • Devotional Lyrics
  • Miscellaneous Lyrics

In the modern, post-romantic world almost all the poetry and certainly all the songs we are subjected to are about worldly love. Another appeal of medieval poetry is the way it transports you beyond the limits and clichés of modern poetry to an entirely different world, which had different priorities and perspectives.

Some of the love poetry has a familiar feel, and Duncan makes the point that it was during this period that the notion of courtly love, of romantic love for a powerful and demanding mistress which originated among the troubadours of the South of France, first entered English culture. He goes on to make fine distinctions between the highly sophisticated and deliberately intellectual poetry of the troubadours and the more relaxed, more sensuous love poems to be found in medieval England.

The frailty of man’s estate

But personally, I never get tired of the central medieval theme of the decline and fall, the turn of Fortune’s wheel, the inevitable decay of all earthly success, wealth and love, the frailty of man’s estate, and so liked the section of Penitential and Moral Lyrics most. Take ‘Wynter wakeneth’. Here’s Duncan’s made-easy version.

Wynter wakenëth al my care,
Nou this levës waxeth bare.
Ofte I sike and mournë sare
When hit comth in my thought
Of this worldës joie hou hit goth al to nought.

Here’s the original text:

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Remembering medieval pronunciation, here’s my phonetic interpretation:

Winter whackeneth Al me ca [a as in car]-rë
Noo this lay-vës waxeth ba[a as in bar]rë
Ofte ee sick ant mournë sa[a as in saab]re
When hit comëth in mee thocht
Of this worldës joy, hoo hit goth Al to noght.

Once you’ve got the pronunciation right and rolled it round your mouth a few times, it shouldn’t take much translating; you just need to know that that ‘leves’ means leaves, ‘waxeth’ means grow, ‘y’ means I, ‘sike’ (pronounced sick, the final e elided into the a of ant) means sigh, ‘sare’ means sore or sorely or bitterly, ‘goth’ means goeth i.e. goes. Thus a modernisation would read:

Winter wakens all my grief,
Now these leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and sorely mourn,
When it enters my thoughts,
Regarding this world’s joy,
how it all comes to nothing.

But once you’ve really processed and absorbed the meaning, how much smoother and more musical it is to say:

Wynter wakëneth al me care

which is strange and far more invigorating, than:

Winter wakens all my grief

Which is boring.

Wele and wo

The poems describing spring and maidens and love and flowers and bowers contain sweet simple imagery, dance along with gladsome rhythms, and have been turned into songs of striking happiness and joy.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen & with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayes eyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.


Spring has come with love to town,
With blossoms and with birds’ song
Which all that this bliss bringeth;
Daisies in these dales,
Notes sweet of nightingales;
Each bird his song singeth.

‘Lenten is come with love to toune’ (pronounced toon’), isn’t that a great opening line? In fact it’s a noticeable characteristic that many of the poems, short or long, announce their presence with a striking first line.

But by the same token, the poems lamenting man’s brikkelness and the unpredictable turns of destiny also have just such a primitive, almost primeval force, reeking of a society with no safety nets, where most people were close to famine and disease all their lives, where average life expectancy was around the mid-30s.

This rendition of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ captures perfectly the sound of a lone survivor of the Black Death or one of the period’s endless wars, sitting in the pew of a burnt-out church, sole survivor of his family and his community, lamenting his fate as the cold snow falls endlessly all around, smothering the land.


If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

Related links

Other medieval reviews

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