The Aeneid by Virgil – books 4 to 6

‘[This is] Trojan Aeneas, famous for his devotion and his feats of arms.’
(The Sibyl defending Aeneas to Charon in Aeneid book 6, line 404)

Book 4 Dido, love and death

Dido admits to her sister, Anna, that she is falling in love with Aeneas. Anna says she has held aloof from suitors from all the neighbouring tribes, but yes, she needs to let go of her dead husband and fall in love. Encouraged by this, Dido falls madly in love. Virgil – in his Epicurean, anti-emotion way – describes it as a madness, a fever, a fire in the bones, and other alarming analogies.

Remember that in the third Georgic Virgil wrote an extended denunciation of love and sex and passion in all its forms, whether in animals or humans, as a fire and frenzy which completely derails efforts to live rationally and orderly:

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(Georgic 3: lines 242 to 244, translated by Peter Fallon)

Venus meets with Juno. Juno suggests they let Aeneas and Dido marry, thus uniting exiled Tyrians and Trojans into a super-tribe. Venus interprets this as a transparent attempt to stop Aeneas continuing on to Italy and founding the Roman people who will, centuries hence, crush Dido’s heirs. She agrees in principle but diplomatically suggests Juno asks her husband, Jupiter, king of the gods, what he thinks. Juno outlines her plans to interrupt Dido and Aeneas’s next hunting trip, conjure up a storm, separate the lovers from their entourages, drive them into a cave and there have them consummate their love.

And this is what happens, with fire flashing and nymphs wailing from the mountaintops. For centuries of readers their love has been reinterpreted in the light of the medieval concept of courtly love and the sentimental romantic ideas which followed. But Virgil is harshly critical. Not only does this mark the beginning of the end for Dido:

This day was the beginning of her death, the first cause of all her sufferings. (4. 170)

But it had a ruinous effect on her people. When she slackened her leadership, they stopped building the city. The towers ceased to rise. The harbours and fortifications were left half-finished. All stood idle.

Virgil spends a page describing the genealogy and character of Rumour which runs fleet of foot among all men and communities spreading lies and when he describes Rumour as telling foreign rulers that Dido and Aeneas have ceased leading their people in order to wallow in lust…I immediately realise Virgil has made them Antony and Cleopatra, ‘lovers who had lost all recollection of their good name’ (4.221) which makes Creusa the emblem of Octavia, Antony’s loyal dutiful Roman wife, abandoned for an oriental whore.

The local king, Iarbas, had long harboured plans of marrying Dido so now he is infuriated that she abruptly abandoned herself to another. He offers up heartfelt angry complaints to his father, Jupiter.

Jupiter hears and is angry that Aeneas is shirking his duty. He calls Mercury and tells him to deliver an angry message to the Trojan. Is this the hero Venus promised them? Hardly. ‘He must sail. That is all there is to say.’

Mercury puts on his winged sandals, takes his caduceus and skims down through the skies to alight by Aeneas, busy helping build a temple. Mercury gets straight to it, telling Aeneas he is a disgrace by abandoning his destiny and to think about his little son who is meant to inherit leadership of a brave new race: ‘You owe him the land of Rome and the kingdom of Italy.’ (4.286)

So Aeneas immediately calls his lieutenants to him and tells them to ready the ships and the people for departure. Dido obviously hears about this and comes raging to see him, eyes blazing with anger. he tries to justify himself, but furious Dido dismisses all his excuses, calls him a traitor, mocks his stories about Jupiter this and Mercury that, then dismisses him, tells him to leave, but warns that her furious ghost will return to haunt him. (Lots of ghosts, a poem of ghosts, bringing with them the sad wisdom of the dead.)

Dido runs off into her palace, collapsing with despair. Virgil points the moral: See? This is where ‘love’ gets you:

Love is a cruel master. There are no lengths to which it does not force the human heart. (4.413)

But Aeneas, unlike Antony, is faithful to his duty (4.394) and continues preparations for departure. Dido pours her heart out to her sister, Anna, and sends her again and again with heartfelt pleas for pity or at least a delay – but the Fates forbade it and God blocked his ears to all appeals.

‘Possessed by madness’, Dido perceives all kinds of portents. Her sacrificial offerings turn black and bloody, She hears muttering at the shrine of her dead husband. She has nightmares in which she is abandoned on the African shore alone. Madness is the key word, repeated again and again.

She instructs her sister to build a big funeral pyre in the atrium of the palace where she says she will burn all Aeneas’s belongings. She attends ceremonies supervised by a terrifying priestess from Ethiopia who chants incantations to all the deities of hell.

Like all suicides Dido can’t see a way out: if she goes with Aeneas and the Trojans she will be their chattel; if she tries to persuade the entire Tyrian people to follow her they will refuse; if she stays behind she will be the laughing stock of all the tribes around who she used to treat so haughtily and will now see her humbled. No. She must die. [Virgil dramatises the logic of her thinking all too vividly.] And she reproaches herself for ever abandoning her independent single status as a widow.

Aeneas is asleep in the stern of a ship but he has a terrifying dream vision of ‘the god’ who warns him not to wait, but to leave now before morning comes and Dido comes to talk him out of leaving or to burn his ships. He wakes and wakes his men, they weight anchor and depart.

Dido waking with the dawn sees the sea covered with their ships and the harbour empty and delivers a magnificent harangue cursing Aeneas mightily and ends with an actual curse, invoking all the gods to ensure Aeneas in his new homeland never enjoys it, but is harried by a strong race, and driven from his own land, and beg for help and see his people dying. Let him die before his time and lie unburied on the sand. And may undying enmity be between her people and his (obviously referring to the legendary enmity which grew up between Rome and Carthage in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC).

Then she climbs onto the pyre she has prepared, delivers another magnificent speech about her destiny and her good intentions and plunges upon Aeneas’s sword and her blood foams out. Her serving women see and a great wailing spreads across the city as if the enemy were within and destroying everything (exactly as they had at Troy: repetitions and echoes).

Her sister Anna comes running, cursing herself for not realising this is what her sister really wanted the pyre built for and recriminating Dido for not waiting or sharing her death. She climbs atop the pyre and holds her sister as three times she tries to rise on her elbow but collapses and then expires.

Thus Dido died ‘in a sudden blaze of madness’ and Juno took pity and sent Iris down to loosen the binding of her soul. And so Iris descends as a rainbow through the sky and alights on the pyre and cuts a lock of Dido’s hair and thus releases her soul from its anguish.

God, surely this is the most magnificent and moving book ever written! It is breathtakingly powerful, cuts deep, and yet is short, just 23 pages in the Penguin edition, with not an ounce of fat, nothing verbose or long-winded or tiresome, but fast-moving, alert and to the point, fiercely and deeply imagined, and transcendently moving!

Book 5 Funeral games

Another storm hits, forcing them ashore back in Sicily, in the port run by his brother Eryx, where the bones of his father Anchises are buried. They are greeted by Acestes, half Trojan. The months pass until it is a full year since Anchises died and was buried. Aeneas leads sacrifices and ceremonies at his tomb.

Then he holds grand funeral games. First a boat race across the sea to a prominent rock and back. Then a running race. Then boxing matches. All are described in loving (and surprisingly exciting) detail. An arrow shooting competition and then equipage, horse management by the young contemporaries of Ascanius. They young cavalry perform a mock battle. Virgil explains how Ascanius will pass this on to his descendants and eventually it will be performed in Rome by youthful cavalry and called the lusus Troiae.

For the first time Virgil associates specific companions of Aeneas with the patrician Roman families they will establish (Mnestheus giving his name to the Memmii family, Sergestus the Sergii, Cloanthus the Cluentii [5.120], Atys founder of the Atii [5.569]).

The games are then officially ended but meanwhile the wretched women of Troy, fed up with seven years wandering over the endless ocean, rebel. Juno, font of endless schemes against Aeneas, sends Iris in disguise of one of their number to rouse them to indignation and insist that they sail no further but settle here on Sicily. Possessed by divine fury, they seize brands from the various altars and throw them into the Trojan ships.

The men quickly drop their games and rush to the beach just as the goddess leaves the women’s minds and, coming to their senses, the realise what they’ve done and run off into the woods and hills. Aeneas stares at his burning fleet and calls on Jupiter to save what little remains – at which there is a sudden torrential downpour. Most of the ships are saved but four are write-offs.

Aeneas is downhearted. But old Nautes gives good advice: he says Aeneas and the young and fit must continue on to Italy; but leave here on Sicily the old men, the women worn out by the sea, the ‘heart-weary’. Let them build a city and call it Acesta.

Still, Aeneas is worried and careworn when the ghost of his father slides down through the dark. He reinforces Nautes’ advice to leave the old and sick here on Sicily and only take the young and strong with him to Italy for there, as he has been told quite a few times by now, he will have to overcome ‘a wild and strong people’.

But Anchises tells him something new. First he will have to go down into Dis, the underworld, to meet his spirit there. He will be helped through the doorway to hell by a Sibyll. There he will learn about all the descendants who are to follow him. Then, like so many of his visions, he disappears into thin air like smoke.

Aeneas, as is his wont, goes straight into action (as he did after the god told him to leave Carthage immediately). For nine days he helps the people they’re leaving behind lay out the boundaries of the new city, build a forum, ordain laws and erect a temple to Venus, building a mini-Troy.

Then they say their farewells, make the sacrifices and oblations, and set sail, with a fair wind and rowing. Cut to Venus visiting Neptune god of the sea and bewailing Juno’s unending spite against the Trojans and beseeching Neptune to take pity on them. Neptune reminds her how he protected Aeneas when Achilles was running mad in front of Troy, and promises fair seas.

All the mortals see is the appearance of a clear sky and fair winds and they set sail for Italy with good heart. Thus Virgil shows us, behind every physical event, especially large scale ones like the weather, storms, shooting stars, erupting volcanoes and so on, the direct involvement of the gods. The gods are the environment through which mortals walk, purblind and ignorant.

And Palinurus, the loyal helmsman who has always given the best advice – the god of sleep wafts down from heaven, taps him on the temples with a stick dripping with water from the rivers Lethe and the Styx (rivers of the underworld), Palinurus is plunged into a deep sleep and the god of sleep chucks him overboard where he drowns down down down into the blue ocean.

Noticing something wrong, Aeneas goes astern and discovers his top helmsman has fall overboard, and blames him for trusting to a calm sea. But, as we know, it is not his fault. Like all mortals, there is nothing he can do to resist the whims of the gods.

Half way through the book I am noticing:

  • how many visions, ghosts, dream visitations, spectral appearances and just as sudden disappearances there are
  • by extension, the way there are few if any conversations, but rather great block chunks of speeches
  • the enormous amount of sacrifices – so many bullocks slaughtered, so many entrails, so much steaming gore

Book 6 The underworld

They make land at Cumae (according to Wikipedia ‘the first ancient Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, founded by settlers from Euboea in the 8th century BC and soon becoming one of the strongest colonies.’) Aeneas makes to the citadel with its huge temple of Apollo, and a vast cave, retreat of ‘the awesome Sibyl’. On the doors of the temple are depicted scenes from legend including the story of the Minotaur. For legend has it that this is where Daedalus touched down after making wings for himself to escape from captivity in Crete.

The daughter of the high priest tells them to make animal sacrifices then come with her. She is suddenly possessed by the go and tells Aeneas to pray. Aeneas delivers a page-long supplication to the god Apollo to have mercy on his people.

The priestess fights against the god but finally he possesses her and delivers his prophecy to Aeneas. They have finished their travels by sea. But what awaits them by land will be worse.

I see wars, deadly wars, I see the Thybris foaming with torrents of blood. (6.86)

Immigration

This line was notoriously quoted out of context by the British politician Enoch Powell in his virulently anti-immigration speech of April 1968. Reading it here, I realise there’s a political irony here, because this speech, about bloodshed, isn’t addressed to the native people, warning them against immigrants – Aeneas is the immigrant. He is the one arriving in a strange land and it is his god-inspired conviction that he’s owed a living and a future here which brings bloodshed and war.

Women’s wombs

Anyway, the god goes on to predict he must face ‘a second Achilles’. More interestingly, he warns that ‘Once again the cause of all this Trojan suffering will be a foreign bride’ – just as the entire Trojan war was fought over Helen (and just as the action of the Iliad is triggered by a squabble between Agamemnon and Achilles about who should be assigned a slave girl they captured at a raid on an outlying temple). The rightful ownership of women, and their reproductive capacity, is the core cause of these wars between violent men. Next to ownership of the land and its food-producing capacity, comes ownership of women and their baby-producing capacity. It is as primitive as that.

Madness

The visionary state in which the priestess speaks Apollo’s words is described as ‘madness’. Did Virgil use the same word for this as for the ‘madness’ of Dido? In which case it weakens the rhetoric of his argument against love and passion. If so, is it the same word he used for the ‘madness’ of the Trojan women who set fire to the ships in Sicily (5.660, 670)? In which case, is he making the point that a certain kind of madness is restricted to, or characteristic of, women?

Aeneas begs the Sibyl to allow him to go down into hell to see his father. The Sibyl warns the way down is easy, it’s the coming back that’s difficult. When the Sibyl warns that undertaking such a journey is ‘the labour of madness‘ I begin to see frenzy, insanity and madness as being a recurring theme or motif of the poem.

The Sibyl tells him a) there is a dead man lying unburied which is polluting the fleet; he must find and bury him and perform the rituals b) there is a tree in a dark grove which bears a golden bough; he must pluck it and carry it down to hell to please Queen Proserpina; but only the favoured of the gods can find it or pluck it.

Aeneas leaves, accompanied by his faithful friend Achates, and on the shore above the tideline they discover the body of Misenus. He had engaged in a horn blowing competition with a Triton who drowned him. So the Trojans chop down a load of trees (whose species Virgil carefully lists) to build a shrine and altar. While doing so Aeneas prays for help in finding the grove of the golden bough and his mother Venus sends two white doves who lead him to the tree.

He plucks the golden bough, presents it to the Sibyl, who insists on numerous more rites and sacrifices and then leads him down into hell, taking him past a checklist of the florid monsters who guard the gates, centaurs, scyllas, chimera, gorgons, harpies and so on.

Dante

I can see why Virgil was such a model for Dante in terms of format. Aeneas spots individuals among the various crowds (such as the crowd waiting to be ferried by Charon across the Styx), asks them a question, and the other briefly tells his story, explaining why he’s ended up here. This is more or less the recurring format for the entire Divine Comedy.

So Aeneas sees Palinurus, quizzes him, and Palinurus tells him his sad fate – he was not drowned after all, but swam to shore where he was murdered by ruffians. He begs to be allowed to cross the river; the sibyl says this is not possible till his body is given a decent burial; the sibyl reassures him that the people who live near his corpse will be driven by signs from heaven to find it and give it a decent burial

This entire story of Palinurus seems designed to evoke a sweet sadness, as we observe his grief, his regrets, Aeneas’s grief for him, their manly love for each other – commander and staunch helmsman – who met a cruel fate through no fault of his own. The Palinurus story encapsulates Virgil’s pity for suffering humanity. Seeing the great tide of woeful humanity waiting on the river bank, ‘the helpless souls of the unburied’, Aeneas ‘pitied their cruel fate.’

The hell sequence is packed with mythological details (three-headed Cerberus etc), but it is the human moments which strike home, not least his encounter with the shade of Dido. Till this moment he wasn’t sure what became of her but now he realises the rumours were true and she killed herself. He fulsomely apologises, saying he was driven on by the command of the gods, but she won’t even look at him, stands silent, then wafts away to be with her first, murdered, husband, grief speaking to grief.

In Wilfred Owen’s famous preface to his war poems he said ‘the poetry is in the pity’. Well, there is poetry in every aspect of this magnificent poem, but the consistent underlying tone of the Aeneid is heartfelt pity at the sad and tragic plight of humanity.

There is an awesome description of their walk through hell while the aged priestess of Apollo explains the variety and ingenuity of the punishments for all who have broken the laws of gods and men, including the shades of all the Greeks and the Trojans who fought and died during the recent war. Then they come to the home of the blessed: here there is singing and games, poets, leading up to the great Musaeus, who tells Aeneas where to find his father.

Aeneas is reunited with the spirit of his father. He goes to embrace him three times (the rule of three; just as Aeneas tried to embrace the ghost of Creusa three times, 2.792) but, like Creusa, Anchises is soft as the wind (6.700). But he can speak. He is delighted to see his son and then explains how some souls in the afterlife are purged of their earthly memories and returned to the primeval fire which first began the universe; but others buzz round Elysium for a thousand years and then are sent back to inhabit new bodies on earth. In other words, reincarnation.

He leads Aeneas and the Sibyl to a slight mound in the plain and predicts the long line of Aeneas’s descendants who will make Rome and Italy great. Reincarnation seems very unGreek but then, if his prime aim was to have scene where Aeneas is shown all his descendants, it’s hard to see how else this could have been achieved. The souls of famous men had to be available before they were born in order for Aeneas to review them. The more you think about it, the weirder it becomes.

Anchises points out Aeneas’s descendants starting with his posthumous son, Silvius who will be followed by Procas, Capys, Numitor, Silvius Aeneas, founders of Alba Longa and other settlements. Then Romulus founder of Rome ‘whose empire shall cover the earth’.

Then Anchises turns to the Caesar, mentioning Julius Caesar (remote descendant of Iulus, or Ascanius, Aeneas’s son). Then follows the famous hymn to Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will bring back the golden years of the age of Saturn, who will extend the borders of the empire to the edge of the known world, who will achieve more than Hercules or Bacchus. Is that enough brown-nosing?

Rather anachronistically, Anchises goes back to recount the line of kings who ruled Rome, before switching to heroes of the early Republic, the Brutus who drove out the Tarquins, others who invented the consulship, Cato the Elder, the Gracchi, the two Scipios, Fabius Maximus, great figures from Roman history. And then some sternly patriotic rhetoric:

Your task, Romans, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud. (6.851)

Then Anchises delivers a page-long lament for a young man they see accompanying Marcellus on his triumph. This is Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42 to 23 BC), nephew of Augustus and his closest male relative, who enjoyed an accelerated political career and was married to Augustus’s daughter, Julia. But he died of an infection which swept through Italy (Augustus got it but recovered) dashing Augustus’s hopes of making him his heir. So it seems likely that this extended passage in praise of young Marcellus was written just after his death in 23 BC, in order to please Virgil’s patron, the great Augustus.

David West, the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Aeneid, devotes a 3-page appendix to this section, the procession of Roman heroes, giving brief descriptions of all the eminent Romans who feature in it. He mentions the story, recorded in a near-contemporary biography of Virgil, that when he was reading his poem to Augustus and his family, his sister – Octavia (mother of Marcellus) – fainted at this passage. It’s worth repeating this anecdote to emphasise just how direct and personal Augustus’s relationship with Virgil was, and therefore, by extension, with much of the content of the poem.

After the long passage of praise for Marcellus the last few sentences of the book are an anti-climax. Virgil tells us that Anchises told Aeneas about the entire future course of events, his war against the Laurentines, how he should maximise his fate.

Aeneas’s return through hell, crossing back over the Styx, climbing back up to the entrance to the great cavern – all this isn’t even described. Instead all we get is a short, abrupt sentence saying that Aeneas made his way back to his ships and his comrades, then steered a straight course to the harbour of Caieta, where they dropped anchor.

It’s an oddly abrupt ending to one of the most magnificent and influential books of poetry ever written.

Epithets of Aeneas

I’ve slowly been realising that, as the poem progresses, Aeneas comes to be accompanied by more and more adjectives. I mean that, in the early books, he is mostly plain ‘Aeneas’. But it’s noticeable that, certainly by book 6, his name rarely occurs without being accompanied by an adjective indicating his greatness. By this sly method, Virgil implies the way Aeneas grows in stature, experience and leadership as the adventures continue. I’d noticed the same happening to Anchises who, in the earlier books, comes to be referred to more and more frequently as Father Anchises. When he dies the title passes quietly to Aeneas, Father Aeneas, sometimes referred to as ‘the son of Anchises’, and then the epithets begin to occur more frequently:

  • the leader of the Trojans (4.165)
  • the son of Anchises (5.424)
  • the great-hearted son of Anchises
  • Father Aeneas (5.461)
  • dutiful Aeneas (6.233)
  • devout Aeneas (5.685, 12.175)
  • the hero Aeneas (6.103)
  • huge Aeneas (6.413)
  • great glory of our Troy (6.547)
  • Aeneas, greatest of warriors (9.41)
  • great Aeneas (10.159)

Roman reviews

Lament For The Makaris by William Dunbar (1505)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lament for the makaris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Poetry reviews

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

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

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

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

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

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

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

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

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

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

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

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

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

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

Titus Lucretius Carus

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

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

The various modern translations

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

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

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

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

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

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

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

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

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

(Book III, lines 907-909)

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

Epicurus’s atomic theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

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

Epicurus the god

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion the enemy of freedom

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

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

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

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

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

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

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

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

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

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

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

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

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

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

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

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

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

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

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

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

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

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

The good life

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

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

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortcomings of Latin

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

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

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

(Book III, lines 293-295)

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

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

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

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)

Synopis

Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

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

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

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

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

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

– on the characteristics of atoms

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

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

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

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

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

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

– the conservation of energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book III (1,094 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

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

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

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

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

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

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

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

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

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

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

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

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

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

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

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

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It must be unfinished.

Thoughts

1. The philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

2. The poem

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

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

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

Comparison with the Penguin edition

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

Textual apparatus

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

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

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

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

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stalling’s translation

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

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

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

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

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

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

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

Now Stalling:

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

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

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

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

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

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

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

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

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

Online translations

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

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

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


Roman reviews

Derek Mahon RIP

Oblique light on the trite…

Irish poet Derek Mahon (1941-2020) just passed away. I liked his poetry very much.

Courtyards in Delft

Mahon’s best poems are typically a couple of pages long, stylish and lyrical ruminations set in traditionally shaped stanzas and using rhyme or half-rhyme. They are comfortably conservative in form and approach, such as one of his greatest hits, Courtyards in Delft.

The delight is in the detail, as lovingly and clearly described as words can manage, struggling as they do to convey anything like the lush fullness of the oil painting the poem is based on. It’s about the verbal capture of winning details.

… late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.

Courtyards in Delft is also an example of Mahon’s engagement with the European civilisation of the past – not in a show-off way, but a comfortable, accessible approach which brings old paintings, poems and stories wonderfully alive in the present.

The Mute Phenomena

But the Mahon poems I really love feature something more – his distinctive handling of the gritty detritus of modern life, forgotten trash, discarded and ignored like the hub cap which has a starring role in ‘The Mute Phenomena’.

The Mute Phenomena

Your great mistake is to disregard the satire
Bandied among the mute phenomena.
Be strong if you must, your brisk hegemony
Means fuck-all to the somnolent sunflower
Or the extinct volcano. What do you know
Of the revolutionary theories advanced
By turnips, or the sex-life of cutlery?
Everything’s susceptible, Pythagoras said so.

An ordinary common-or-garden brick wall, the kind
For talking to or banging your head on,
Resents your politics and bad draftsmanship.
God is alive and lives under a stone;
Already in a lost hub-cap is conceived
The ideal society which will replace our own.

The Mute Phenomena is a loose adaptation of a sonnet by the nineteenth century French poet Gerard de Nerval (cf what I said about his engagement with the art and literature of the past), with the half-rhymes loitering in the middle distance till full rhymes come swimming right into focus, bringing with them the power of the details they describe.

In a blunter-than-usual tone, Mahon addresses his favourite subject, which is the weird, ominous and visionary aspect of everyday objects, the eerie sense you sometimes have that they are immensely present in our lives – the tin opener, the microwave, the allen keys – right here and now, in your hand, as you need them – but at the same time are strangely transient.

They break, we chuck them away and get a new one, and in doing so we throw away something of ourselves. For a moment, we catch ourselves half-aware that we, too, are throwaway implements. In fact our whole society is in the process of throwing itself away.

The wordless phenomena, the clutter of stuff we surround ourselves with, knows this very well. The mute phenomena watch us and mock our absurd pretensions to permanence or meaning. Silently, when we’re not looking, our possessions are sniggering at us.

A Garage in County Cork

I grew up in a petrol station so I’ve always loved A Garage in County Cork for the very strong memories it evokes of the sights and smells of my own boyhood.

The sadness of abandoned buildings is a time-honoured subject, from Anglo-Saxon laments about Roman ruins through to Wordsworth’s elegies for Tintern Abbey etc. What makes Mahon distinctive is 1. the underlying humour of applying this sentimental approach to the very unromantic subject of an abandoned gas station, and then 2. the power of the details – the rain dancing on the exhausted grit, the sodden silence of the abandoned kitchen garden, rainbows on oily puddles and, a line I’ve loved for nearly 40 years, the vision of ‘Tyres in the branches such as Noah knew’.

Surely you paused at this roadside oasis
In your nomadic youth, and saw the mound
Of never-used cement, the curious faces,
The soft-drink ads and the uneven ground
Rainbowed with oily puddles, where a snail
Had scrawled its slimy, phosphorescent trail.

Like a frontier store-front in an old western
It might have nothing behind it but thin air,
Building materials, fruit boxes, scrap iron,
Dust-laden shrubs and coils of rusty wire,
A cabbage-white fluttering in the sodden
Silence of an untended kitchen garden —

Nirvana! But the cracked panes reveal a dark
Interior echoing with the cries of children.
Here in this quiet corner of Co. Cork
A family ate, slept, and watched the rain
Dance clean and cobalt the exhausted grit
So that the mind shrank from the glare of it.

Where did they go? South Boston? Cricklewood?
Somebody somewhere thinks of this as home,
Remembering the old pumps where they stood,
Antique now, squirting juice into a cream
Lagonda or a dung-caked tractor while
A cloud swam on a cloud-reflecting tile.

Surely a whitewashed sun-trap at the back
Gave way to hens, wild thyme, and the first few
Shadowy yards of an overgrown cart track,
Tyres in the branches such as Noah knew —
Beyond, a swoop of mountain where you heard,
Disconsolate in the haze, a single blackbird.

Left to itself, the functional will cast
A death-bed glow of picturesque abandon.
The intact antiquities of the recent past,
Dropped from the retail catalogues, return
To the materials that gave rise to them
And shine with a late sacramental gleam.

A god who spent the night here once rewarded
Natural courtesy with eternal life —
Changing to petrol pumps, that they be spared
For ever there, an old man and his wife.
The virgin who escaped his dark design
Sanctions the townland from her prickly shrine.

We might be anywhere but are in one place only,
One of the milestones of earth-residence
Unique in each particular, the thinly
Peopled hinterland serenely tense —
Not in the hope of a resplendent future
But with a sure sense of its intrinsic nature.

Note how the penultimate stanza reuses an old trope of the kind associated with Ovid’s great and very entertaining work, the Metamorphoses. In the Metamorphoses Ovid brought together all the Greek myths and legends in which people changed into animals or objects, and there turned out to be hundreds – just the stories about Zeus turning into a bull or a swan or a shower of gold and so on took up a whole section. And there’s an entire category describing the Greek gods wandering the world in disguise, as mere mortals and, when they encounter love or sadness or hospitality, transforming humans into flowers and trees and natural phenomena, into narcissus and echo and rainbows and weeping willows.

So in the penultimate stanza Mahon picks up this ancient trope but gives it a cheeky modern spin. Contemplating the two petrol pumps out front of this abandoned old gas station, he ponders what a perfect couple they make, standing together since their inception, through thick and thin, come rain or shine, an inseparable couple. If Ovid were alive today, he’d be writing poems about petrol pumps – and so the cheeky conceit of applying Ovid’s trope to two grubby symbols of our modern, petrol-driven world.

And in doing so, Mahon himself metamorphoses the old story into an entirely modern form – with his habitual wry smile and cheeky grin, playfully juxtaposing ancient and modern, high and low registers, the acme of Western culture cheek by jowl with coal sheds and leaking old sacks of cement – one of the things I value most in his poetry.

How to live

How to Live is a short poem freely adapted from one of Horace’s odes, another example of his calm, confident and smiling engagement with the art and literature of the past. (About a third of the works in the Selected Poems are translations, especially from Latin writers and 19th century French poets.)

How to live

Don’t waste your time, Leuconoé, living in fear and hope
of the imprevisable future; forget the horoscope.
Accept whatever happens. Whether the gods allow
us fifty winters more or drop us at this one now
which flings the high Tyrrhenian waves on the stone piers,
decant your wine: the days are more fun than the years
which pass us by while we discuss them. Act with zest
one day at a time, and never mind the rest.

You don’t have to like every line in a poem, it’s fine to like just certain lines, as you might like a particular passage in a pop song or piece of classical music. Thus I actively dislike the first line because I don’t know how to pronounce Leuconoé and it takes its time getting into a rhythm – although he immediately makes up for it with the phrase ‘the imprevisable future’.

(Regarding ‘imprevisable’, many of Mahon’s poems feature just one special, rare or obscure word, such as ‘esurient’ in the Delft poem, winking out at you from behind a cloud on a dark night.)

The sentiment of the final line is a little too obvious for me, a little too close to ‘Keep calm and…be happy, drink tea or whatever…’. I prefer ‘The days are more fun than the years’ because it is a little more oblique, less expected, makes you stop and reflect for a moment…

And because it is positive. So much poetry is gloomy or ends with a dying fall, the poet flopping down on their knees and asking us to feel sorry for them. Mahon’s poetry encourages us to be cheerful, smile, rejoice at the cornucopia of paintings and sculpture and great literature in a score of languages from all across Europe — and at the same time to be aware of the weirdness of the human environment, the uncanniness of everything we’ve built and designed and buy and use and throw away. 

The rusty hub-cap, the dung-caked tractor, the sodden kitchen garden, the old wooden gate, the oily puddles, the scrubbed and polished deal table – our lives are made up of these kind of details which we briefly register and then get on with our agendas. But Mahon stops, pauses, sees and captures them in lucid phrases which not only bring them to our attention but make us realise that all these things we’re surrounded by are full and charged with meaning, that we move through a manmade world packed with strange, teasing and undefinable meanings.

Tractatus

And it’s that sense of a world full of lovely, smiling, teasing mysteries which Mahon’s poetry wonderfully conveys. ‘The world is all that is the case’ is the first line of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1922, in which he set out to tabulate the rules by which everything which can be stated derives meaning, according to a theory of language & meaning which he set out in a series of carefully numbered propositions.

Twenty years later Wittgenstein conceded it was a misconceived project, the product of a young man’s overconfidence, and he returned to philosophy after the war with a completely different model, the notion that ‘meaning’ is generated at multiple levels, by a multiplicity of language and meaning ‘games’ whose basic rules can be grasped but whose possible combinations and outcomes are infinite.

So Wittgenstein himself came to realise that the world is much, much more that can be captured by one mind, one language, one system. The two stanzas of Mahon’s short poem dramatise the movement from early to late Wittgenstein (though not in a systematic way, any symmetry is unbalanced – what is God doing in the poem, it says nothing particularly interesting about him?)

Instead the highlights are the typically Mahonesque juxtaposition of one of the ‘great achievements’ of European civilisation – the huge Greek statue of Winged Victory – with one of the most insignificant things imaginable, a fly expiring in some coal-shed somewhere. And the second stanza is devoted to the big image which blots out everything else, a huge vision of the sun sinking enormous and burning hot into the wide Atlantic with a vast turbulation of roaring steam.

Tractatus

‘The world is everything that is the case.’
From the fly giving up in the coal-shed
To the Winged Victory at Samothrace.
Give blame, praise, to the fumbling God
Who hides, shame-facedly, His aged face;
Whose light retires behind its veil of cloud.

The world, though, is also so much more –
Everything that is the case imaginatively.
Tacitus believed mariners could hear
The sun sinking into the western sea;
And who would question that titanic roar,
The steam rising wherever the edge may be?

What does it mean? Quite a lot can be spun out of its entrails and guileful juxtapositions – Wittgenstein, ancient sculpture, nature, religion. On one level it is an invitation to learned analysis and disquisitions. But on another, it just is – calmly, confidently, amusedly, enrichingly, as awesome, preposterous and lovely as the fat old sun sinking into the sea with a titanic roar.


Related links

Other poetry reviews

Guernica by J.F. Hendry

According to Wikipedia:

James Findlay Hendry (12 September 1912 – 17 December 1986) was a Scottish poet known also as an editor and writer. He was born in Glasgow, and read Modern Languages at the University of Glasgow. During World War II he served in the Royal Artillery and the Intelligence Corps. After the war he worked as a translator for international organisations, including the UN and the ILO. He later took a chair at Laurentian University. He died in Toronto. He edited with Henry Treece the poetry anthology The New Apocalypse (1939) which gave its name to the New Apocalyptics poetic group. His long poem Marimarusa was published in 1978.

In Valentine Cunningham’s big and compendious anthology, The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, Hendry is represented by a poem which is so striking and so unlike anything else in the book, that it deserves to be preserved and publicised. It’s a vivid description of Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica.

Here’s the painting:

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

And here’s the poem:

Frozen in the fright of light chilled skull and spine
Drip bone-shriek-splinters sharper than the Bren:
Starve franco stroke and starve the hooves of bulls.
I am the arm thrust candle through the wall.

Up cities crack firelaughter, the furious
Minutes and bark a ruin at man in
His sealoneliness; hair rearing finrays.
I am the spinning coil distilled eyes’ iron.

Neigh horse terror through steel teeth and a thicket
Of bricks! Beam an eyebomb, cellar, and stride
Nerve, peeled pupils’ enamel, rhomboid head!
I am the tiled blind hand plunged bulb in socket.

Splint for the shriven shin, I foster mantrump out
Of festered history; sprout pointed fingers
Where an afterbirth is dung-and-rubble-teat.
I am the eyeball blown world! Axis of anger!

Picasso: For Guernica by J.F. Hendry

It’s a valiant attempt to catch in language the wrecked visual onslaught of the painting.

But it also, quite plainly, announces a rejection of the entire world of the thirties poets with their public personas, their concern for clarity and reason and left-wing politics and up-the-workers and pointing fingers at the wretched bourgeoisie.

Instead Hendry is celebrating the exuberant power of the unfettered and private imagination in a tumble of extreme imagery and made-up words, and so marks the end of the Thirties era and the very different feel of the poetry of the 1940s.


Related links

 

 

Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Aubrey Beardsley must be the most distinctive British artist. If you see any of his mature works, they are immediately recognisable and almost always deeply satisfying, their elegance of line and composition emphasised by the stylish use of huge areas of unmediated black or white, and the sophistication of his sensually charged portrayal of the human figure.

The Black Cape, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) Photo © Tate

This exhibition is a feast of Beardsleiana, bringing together 200 spectacular works to make the largest display of his original drawings in over 50 years and the first exhibition of his work at Tate since 1923.

The wall labels to the fifteen or so sections the exhibition is divided into are available online:

And it contains a detailed timeline of his career. Rather than repeat all that, I’ll just single out what were, for me, the key learnings or best bits.

Key learnings

As he turned 18 and needed a job, Beardsley got a job working in an insurance office which, as you might imagine, he hated. What other early modern ‘great’ worked in an insurance office, created a distinctive body of work, and died of tuberculosis? Franz Kafka

Arts & Crafts It is interesting to see Beardsley’s tremendous indebtedness to Arts & Crafts ideas of total design, and the importance of intertwining flower and stem motifs. And considering he was only 19!

Withered Spring by Aubrey Beardsley (1891)

Beardsley began his career just as William Morris was producing his luxury designed books from the Kelmscott Press. The curators usefully summarise the elements of a Kelmscott production as:

  • elaborate decorated borders
  • decorated initial letters
  • full page illustration

The hair-line style The exhibition shows how Beardsley quickly moved from this relatively ‘heavy’ line to move to the extreme opposite, to complex compositions which are covered in a crazy network of super-fine lines. The curators call this his ‘hair line’ style.

How Arthur saw the Questing Beast by Aubrey Beardsley (1893) Victoria and Albert Museum

It is also an early example of Beardsley slipping surreptitious rudeness or irrelevancies into his pictures. At the bottom left of the ‘river bank’, right up against the frame, is the silhouette of an erect penis and scrotum. Towards the top right is a concealed treble clef.

Morte d’Arthur The picture above is one of the Morte d’Arthur series which made Beardsley’s reputation. He was commissioned to make a hefty 353 illustrations for a new edition of the Morte by publisher J.M. Dent, including full and double-page illustrations, elaborate border designs and numerous small-scale ornamental chapter headings.

However, Beardsley quickly became bored and irked by the subject limitations and began introducing extraneous elements and flights of fancy. Thus the picture above is supposed to be of a medieval knight and a dragon though you wouldn’t really think so. Most disruptive of all is the presence of a pan or satyr from Greek mythology, absolutely nothing to do with medieval legend.

Japanese influence The exhibition includes one print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a lovely coloured woodblock which exemplifies the kind of Japanese influence which impacted European art from the 1870s onwards, and influenced everyone with their:

  • abstract depiction of pictorial space
  • linear intricacy
  • emphasis on flat pattern

Kakemonokakemono is a Japanese hanging scroll used to display and exhibit paintings and calligraphy inscriptions and designs mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage. It is a distinctly different shape from traditional Western portrait shape, and Beardsley was to incorporate it into many later works.

Mantegna Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a key influence for Beardsley. The Italian was famous for his frescos and murals showing parades and processions and groups of people, and Beardsley used ideas and figures and compositions from Mantegna throughout his career. Even in his last accommodation, a hotel room in the south of France, he had a set of photos of works by Mantegna pinned to his wall. Indeed Beardsley produced several Mantegna-style processions, notably The Procession of Joan of Arc which was included as a foldout supplement to the second edition of The Studio magazine in 1892.

Wagnerite Beardsley was a keen fan of Wagner, attending productions of his operas and illustrating scenes from them. He had ambitions as a writer as well as illustrator and in his last few years worked at a text which was a comic version of the legend of Tannhäuser which Wagner had made into an opera. Given the working title of the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, excerpts were eventually published in The Savoy magazine under the title Under The Hill, an oddly Hobbit-like title for such a grand Wagnerian subject.

Photo Lineblock Just as important for the quick evolution of Beardsley’s style was the introduction in the 1890s of the new technology of photo lineblock printing, a photomechanical process. Beardsley was disappointed at the poor reproduction of his washes and shading using this new method, but quickly adapted and made a virtue of leaving large areas of a page completely untouched, others pure black, and ensuring the lines and patterns were crisp and clear. The result is startling.

How la Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram by Aubrey Beardsley (c.1893) Alessandra and Simon Wilson

In fact this picture is singled out by the curators as exemplifying another of Beardsley’s traits which was his extraordinary ability to assimilate influences and make them his own. Thus the curators point out in this image:

  • Isoud resembles Jane Morris, with the classic pre-Raphaelite jutting chin and mountain of frizzy hair
  • the Germanic form of the desk is borrowed from Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in his Study
  • the flattened use of space recalls the influence of Japanese prints
  • whereas the elaborate border of intertwining flower motifs recalls Arts & Crafts designs

Salomé In 1892 Beardsley made a drawing in response to Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s play, originally written in French and based on the biblical story. Wilde admired the drawing and he and his publisher, John Lane, chose Beardsley to illustrate the English translation of the play. Beardsley produced eighteen designs in total, of which only ten appeared in the first printing of the play. Publisher John Lane suppressed or censored three of Beardsley’s illustrations for their overt sexual references, in particular when female characters’ hands are wandering towards their privates, as if about to masturbate, or unnecessary depictions of the male characters’ phalluses.

The Climax – illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) by Aubrey Beardsley. Photo © Tate

The Yellow Book The exhibition clarified the timeline around the Yellow Book, and has an entire room devoted to it. Beardsley was made its art editor at its inception in 1894 and contributed the front and back covers for the first five editions. But Beardsley was closely associated with Oscar Wilde (having contributed a suite of illustrations for Wilde’s ‘immoral’ play about Salome), and so soon after Wilde’s arrest in May 1895, Beardsley was fired from the Yellow Book.

On one of the days of his trial, Wilde was seen going into court holding a copy of the Yellow Book and that clinched it for the angry mobs and journalists outside. The offices of the Yellow Book’s publishers, Bodley Head, were attacked by a mob who smashed its windows. In order tonsure the survival of the firm, and its staff, and the continuity of publication of the magazine and all his other titles, publisher John Lane had little choice but to distance himself from Beardsley. The sixth volume, of July 1895, still had the cover and several illustrations by Beardsley but he no longer worked for it. (Later it transpired that Wilde hadn’t been holding a copy of the Yellow Book at all, but a French novel, which tended to be published with yellow covers.)

The Yellow Book Volume I (1894) bound volume. Photo © Tate

It looks as if you can examine every volume of the Yellow Book, all its literary and art contents, online

The room has an example of all five volumes of the Yellow Book that Beardsley was involved with. I’ve read about it ever since I was a teenager at school forty years ago, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a copy before and certainly not six. I’d always envisioned it as magazine-size, but it does indeed look like a hardback book, in size and shape and leather binding.

Beardsley’s work desk The exhibition includes the very table or desk which Beardsley used during his glory years. Standing a few feet from it, it is hard to imagine that the man produced all these pitch-perfect works without the aid of architects’ tools or computers – just him, a ruler and a pen.

Beardsley’s address With the money he made from the Salome illustrations and a small legacy Beardsley bought a house at 111 Cambridge Street, Pimlico with his mother and sister, Mabel, to both of whom he remained very close throughout his short life. Only a few hundred yards from Tate Britain where this exhibition is being held…

Oscar Wilde Wilde was an established writer when he saw the first of Beardsley’s drawings and immediately liked them. He approved the suggestion that Beardsley illustrate the original French version of Salomé and they socialised. So far, so well known. I hadn’t realised that Beardsley satirised Wilde quite so much. There are straightforward lampoons of the increasingly fat and pompous aesthete, but he also slyly slips Wilde’s epicene features into numerous other illustrations, in one giving the moon the eyes and nose of Wilde.

The Woman in the Moon by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

The Rape of The Lock is the title of Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic 18th century satire. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that ‘rape’ in the title doesn’t mean rape in our modern sense, but the older sense of ‘theft’ or stealing away. Thus Pope conceived an extended poem which uses all the devices and machinery of the classical epic to describe how one jaded aristocrat cuts a lock of hair from the head of another jaded aristocrat, and this leads to a feud between their families. Believe it or not this elaborate literary joke extends to five cantos with many extended scenes. Beardsley created nine photo-engravings for an 1896 republication of the poem, five of which are on display here for the first time.

Beardsley had been a fan of 18th century rococo prints, maybe because they – like him – are sophisticated, worldly, stylish and much more open about sexuality than the Victorians. The exhibition shows us some of the original 18th century prints which Beardsley bought at auction in Paris, and then goes on to show all the Pope pictures.

The Dream by Aubrey Beardsley (1896) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

What’s immediately obvious is the that the stark clarity of the Salome illustrations has been abandoned for a much more elaborate style, characterised above all by the stippling that creates a sort of lace doily effect on almost all the fabrics. And look at the patterning of the carpet. A long way from the stark black and white of the Salome illustrations. Many critics thought these his best works as an illustrator.

Posters the 1890s were the glory decade for poster design in Paris, led by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. I didn’t realise Beardsley produced a number of posters which modified his own style to take on board the need for a) size b) colour.

There’s a room devoted to half a dozen of his posters, none of which match the quality of Lautre or Chéret, and most of which are advertiser’s promotions of new ranges of childrens books or books by women, alongside promotional posters for The Yellow Book and several plays and operas. The section contains the telling quote:

I have no great care for colour, but [in posters] colour is essential.

‘I have no great care for colour’. Worth pondering. And relevant to the one and only oil painting Beardsley is known to have made.

Oil painting There’s a rare outing for Beardsley’s only oil painting and you can see why – it’s rubbish. His entire style was built around absences, around huge areas of untouched whiteness. Trying to translate that into oil, which specialises in depth and shadow, was a hopeless task.

Porn After Beardsley was sacked from The Yellow Book, almost the only publisher who would use his drawings was Leonard Smithers. Smithers operated on the fringes of the rare book trade, issuing small, clandestine editions of risqué books with the boast: ‘I will publish the things the others are afraid to touch’. Smithers encouraged Beardsley’s already growing interest in risqué French, Latin and Greek texts and commissioned drawings to illustrate the Satires of the late Roman poet Juvenal and, most famously, Aristophanes’s bawdy satirical play Lysistrata.

In Lysistrata the women of Athens go on a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their menfolk until they stop the ridiculous war against Sparta. Beardsley made eight outrageously sexual illustrations for Smithers’ edition. Among other subjects, this is the set which includes start, beautifully made black and white line drawings of ancient Greeks with humongous erect penises. Maybe if you’re very young or innocent these are ‘shocking’ images, but to the modern viewer they are vaguely reassuring, certainly humorous. The two figures on the right are mildly realistic but it’s the guy on the left who gets the attention, not because of  his phallus as such but because the entire character is obviously created for grotesque comedy.

Illustration for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896)

The grotesque He knew he was attracted to ‘the grotesque’ and there is a wall label which usefully explains the origins of the grotesque in art. Grotesque originally referred to the decoration of grottos, and came to denote the depiction of deliberately hybrid and monstrous forms, which often combined body parts from different animals, like a centaur or mermaid. As the man himself said:

I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them. .. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.

Foetuses Nobody knows to this day why he drew so many foetuses, either as insets in frames or as characters in the more grotesque illustrations. Maybe it was simply because they are a kind of quintessence of the grotesque.

My favourite Venus framed by two statues of male gods in the form of herms (a sculpture with a head and perhaps a torso above a plain, usually squared lower section’). I like it because of its formal precision, its symmetry which is, however, broken by the asymmetric sway of Venus’s long dress. I like it because there is no indecency, boobs or penises in sight. Instead there is a sense of genuine menace from the devil eyes of the two herms. And I like it because it is a kind of reversion or revisiting of the Arts & Crafts theme of incredibly ornately interwoven bushes, stems and flowers of (I think) roses. But mostly because it is a pleasingly complete, formal, complex and rather threatening image.

Venus between Terminal Gods (1895) Drawing with india ink by Aubrey Beardsley. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford

Walter Sickert Almost the best thing in the exhibition is the full-length portrait painting of Beardsley made by the English painter Walter Sickert, after they’d both attended a commemoration ceremony for John Keats. Its sketchy unfinished quality makes it a haunting gesture to the memory of the dandy and artist who died aged just 25.

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Sickert (1894)

Crucifix The exhibition includes the last photo of Beardsley, taken in the hotel room in the Hotel Cosmopolitain in Menton where he had gone in search of a warmer dryer climate which would be more favourable to his tuberculosis. The photo shows Beardsley looking tremendously smart in a suit and well-polished shoes opposite a wall on which are pinned reproductions of his beloved Mantegna, and a mantelpiece on which sits a crucifix.

Because although I’ve probably read it numerous times, I’d forgotten that in his last months Beardsley converted to Catholicism. He died holding a crucifix. Just a few days before he died he wrote a letter to Leonard Smithers asking him to destroy all of Beardsley’s risqué images, the Lysistrata illustrations etc. Smithers refused and so they were saved for generations of schoolboys to giggle over.

Who does a deathbed request to destroy his works which its address completely ignored remind you of? Franz Kafka.

Film There is a room with benches so you can watch Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent movie version of Salomé immediately following the room of Beardsley’s illustrations. For some reason the gallery lights had been left on full power in this room which made it harder to see the image on the screen.

Legacy The exhibition closes with a sketchy overview of Beardsley’s legacy from his influence on the long sinuous lines of Art Nouveau via a string of now mostly forgotten book illustrators who copied his style (Harry Clarke, Hans Henning Voigt) through the revival of Beardley’s reputation and style which was sparked by a major retrospective of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966 which led to the incorporation of Beardsleyesque black and white swirling lines into lots of psychedelic posters and, most famously of all, into the portrait of the four Beatles in the cover art for their LP Revolver.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley 1893 by Frederick Evans. Photo-etching and platinum print on paper. Wilson Centre for Photography

This is a long, very thorough, exhaustive and informative exhibition about a truly world class and utterly distinctive English artist.

Curators

  • Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of British Art 1850 – 1915
  • Stephen Calloway
  • with Alice Insley, Assistant Curator of Historic British Art

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Across the bridge over the Serpentine is the second Serpentine Gallery, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery converted from a 200-year-old former gunpowder store by legendary architect Zaha Hadid. For the time being the Serpentine Gallery seems to be retaining its link with the Sackler family who are under attack in the States for owning one of the largest manufacturers of addictive opioid drugs, although other British galleries are severing their links with the controversial family.

This knowledge adds a pleasing level of irony to the exhibition on show here, for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is currently hosting a FREE exhibition of work by Patrick Staff (a young British artist born in 1987) which very much focuses on The Body. To quote the gallery introduction:

Through a varied and interdisciplinary body of work, Patrick Staff interrogates notion of discipline, dissent, labour and queer identity. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Staff examines the ways in which history, technology, capitalism and the law have fundamentally transformed the way we regard the body today, with a particular focus on gender, debility and biopolitics.

Oh, I thought, another contemporary artist kvetching about gender.

The corridors

The gunpowder store was originally at the core of the building, protected by double thickness walls, with a square walkway around the two inner, rectangular powder stores, each not much bigger than a long domestic living room.

By far the best thing in this installation is that the walkways around the central rooms have had their floors covered with a yellow metal and the fluorescent lights overhead given a yellowy-green tinge. The effect is to make you feel like you’re walking through the set of a science fiction film or maybe some kind of specialist industrial facility. This is pleasingly freaky.

Installation view of Patrick Staff: On Venus at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Note the two oil drums. Several of these are placed in each of the four corridors. If you look above the head of the woman in my photo you can see a latticework of very small-bore pipes suspended from the ceiling. This network carries on round all the corridors and where they pass over a drum, they have a tap which is set to allow a steady drip-drip of fluids down into each drum. What fluids?

A piping network suspended from the ceiling slowly drips a mixture of natural and synthetic acids into steel barrels, suggestive of sharing intimate fluids, or the trafficking of viruses or data.

It isn’t suggestive of bodily fluids, though, is it? It’s suggestive of offices or factories where the overhead air conditioning or other piping has sprung a leak and facilities management have put in a bucket or other container to catch the drips while they phone a plumber.

The Ian Huntley room

Remember Ian Huntley? He was convicted of murdering two 10-year-old girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002, hence the name the papers gave the case, The Soham Murders, and sentenced to a minimum term of 40 years in prison.

Anyway, in April 2018 the Daily Star newspaper reported that Huntley wanted to transition to a woman, wore a blonde wig in prison and insisted on being called Nicola. The story was picked up by other tabloids with a predictable hurricane of outrage from the highly-paid bigots who write for those papers.

Only nine months later did pressure from Huntley himself force the Star to retract the story and admit that it was entirely false in every detail. This led to a storm of comment from the other side, from queer activists, the Guardian and some left-wing politicians, lamenting the way the story was just one among a steady stream of stories designed to criticise, outlaw and ridicule trans people.

So Patrick Staff has taken front covers from the tabs who published the story, along with some of the later retractions and turned them into detailed etchings on metal, reminiscent to us old guys of the kind of heavy metal type that old-style newspapers were set in before the print revolution of the 1980.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

My reaction to this was:

1. I’m not that thrilled about being reminded of Huntley and his pointless stupid murder of two beautiful young girls and the awful, awful suffering their parents must have gone through, especially as Huntley lied his head off to the investigating police for two long weeks of one of the most intensive searches in British police history.

2. I am a little staggered that a grown man is telling us that tabloid newspapers make things up. I thought that was the most obvious thing about them, that the tabloids make things up and pander to the crudest prejudices and stereotypes, turn the complex world into a series of cartoons and clichés in order to cater to the basest instincts of their badly educated readers. I’ve known that for nearly fifty years.

If they are having a go at transgender people, now, they’re only the latest in a long line of groups who have been victimised and attacked on the basis of their gender (Page 3 girls) or race (blacks) or marital status (single mums) or disabilities (welfare scroungers) and so on. They are a poisonous blight on the country but they cannot be defeated because lots of people identify with their values and way of thinking. And that is because a lot of people in this country are pitifully badly educated, with not only the reading age but the immaturity and general stupidity of a nine-year-old.

Good luck changing that. Millions of left-wing intellectuals, politicians and activists have tried throughout my lifetime. That said, change can be achieved. The Sun in particular was virulently homophobic when I was a young man and nowadays reports on Elton John’s marriage to David Furnish or any other gay or lesbian marriage in more or less factual terms.

Social attitudes can be changed and liberalised. But I’m not sure how much impact an art installation like this can have.

On Venus

The work On Venus is in the other powder room and consists of a screen hanging from the ceiling on which two films are projected.

One consists of scratched, warped and overlapping footage of the most disgusting aspects of factory farming, showing the management of animal commodities such as urine, semen, skins and furs. I glimpsed a few shots of cows in cramped pens having their stretched udders brutally sucked dry by metal pumps so we can have the fresh milk to pour onto our organic porridge every morning.

If you didn’t realise that most livestock farming is disgusting and immoral, you are an idiot. That’s what vegetarians have been saying for fifty years or more, and countless books, articles and documentaries have revealed over and over again, with little practical effect.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

The second film is a poem describing life on the planet Venus, conceived as:

“a state of non-life or near-death, a queer state of being that is volatile and in constant metamorphosis, infused with the violence of pressure and heat, destructive winds and the disorienting lapse of day into night.”

Conclusion

These are big issues he’s taking on. After years and years of political engagement I have reached a stage of exhaustion and complete detachment. Maybe Trump will be re-elected, maybe he won’t. Maybe Boris’s crew will make a go of Brexit, maybe they won’t. So many things have happened during my life, that I have realised a kind of informed, observant detachment is the best way to preserve your sanity.

Otherwise you end up like my left-wing friends and all the columnists and commentators in the Guardian, Independent, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New Statesman, and all the curators of contemporary art, who ever since the referendum then election of Trump have lived in a state of permanent outrage and anger.

– I support the transgender movement, which has come out of nowhere in the past few years but does appear to be a genuine thing – not least because several of my daughter’s friends, and several of my middle-aged friends’ young adult children, wish to change gender. Fine.

– I support vegetarianism and would support any attempts to make farming less disgusting and less destructive of the environment.

– I’d sort of support banning all the tabloid media and their vicious, immoral, muck-raking, phone-hacking journalism – although that is never going to happen.

But Staff is clearly going beyond these specific topical issues, to ask bigger questions, or make interesting connections, or prompt more lateral thoughts – thoughts which you can sense but are just out of reach of the conscious mind, or the way we usually think about the world.

Something to do with what moral judgments are acceptable and unacceptable. Something to do with the power the tabloids exercise in defining reality for their audiences. But these are just sub-sets of the bigger question of how we define what is human and what is not, and apply treatments which are obviously inhumane and degrading to pretty much every other life form but ourselves – and even to ourselves as well.

How we long for an alien civilisation to come down from the stars and teach us how to live properly and run our societies like decent people. Quite clearly, we’re incapable of doing so ourselves.

Staff may be pushing towards some kind of change of attitudes and culture – but along with John Gray, I’ve come to believe that human nature doesn’t change. Cultural attitudes may, in some places, and for a while, be rerouted and redrawn – but the fundamental attributes of human nature don’t change.

Liberals castigate Trump and Johnson for their alleged racism or misogyny (defined as their supposed hatred of BAME people or women) but you only have to dip a little into left-wing print or social media to find equal or greater levels of anger vented against all conservatives or all republicans or all men or all white people.

Like Gray, I think a kind of informed detachment is the only practical attitude to exercise in our times, the only way to prevent yourself from being drawn into the steaming cesspit of anger which almost all political and public discourse seems to be becoming.

Patrick Staff talks about his Serpentine show

What I learned from Staff’s own introduction was a different take from actually visiting it.

I like his point that everyone lives as though everything is alright with the world when, in fact, it really isn’t. Seen from this perspective the topics he’s chosen here are just some of the things which have upset him or which he thinks lift the veil on our respectable passivity and reveal the intertwined horrors beneath.

Seen in this way, the four elements of the exhibition – factory corridor with leaking fluids, the tabloid lies about Ian Huntley which are also smears on trans people, factory farming, and the queer poem about Venus – become more like personal symbols than political statements – moments of horrified insight, from which he has constructed a personal mythology.

I find this a much more fruitful way of thinking about the installation, because it is the way many poets work, creating a network of everyday imagery which they manage to imbue with supercharged imaginative energy, and mould into a personal mythology.

The question then becomes why didn’t he or the curators explain this a bit more clearly on the one and only wall label by the front door which introduces the show and which was full of the usual curator boilerplate about bodies and gender and made Staff sound just like every other modern artist — when I had already begun to feel – and this video crystallises – the ways in which he’s not, in which he’s distinctive and interesting.

Having thought my way all around the issues and ideas and surrendered to the sensual impact of the installation, I ended up liking it much more than my initial negative impressions.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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