Plutarch’s life of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC)

Cicero was what the Romans called a ‘new man’, meaning his family had no history of holding office and so qualifying for the senate. Yet he rose to become one of the most eminent Romans of his time, the leading advocate of his day and a key political player, first in preventing the Catiline conspiracy to overthrow the state in 63 BC, and then in the increasingly fraught political atmosphere which led up to the outbreak of civil war between Caesar and Pompey in 49 BC.

But more than that, Cicero wrote a huge amount, across a range of genres (speeches, books on philosophy, politics, oratory, political pamphlets) an extraordinary amount of which has survived. As well as his formal publications there survive some 1,000 letters written by or to him, which were edited and published by his beloved freedman and secretary, Tiro, after his death.

The high point of Cicero’s life was the Catiline conspiracy in 63 BC, a massive co-ordinated conspiracy to overthrow the state in a mix of plebeian revolutionary and military coup. Cicero was responsible for identifying and arresting the ringleaders in Rome, then having them summarily executed.

When civil war came Cicero agonised over which side to choose but thought it his duty to stick with the supporter of traditional values, Pompey, against Caesar who had brought his army of Gaul across the river Rubicon to enter Italy illegally.

In the confused situation after Caesar was assassinated in March 44, Mark Anthony emerged as one of the key players but Cicero thought him completely unsuitable for public office or leadership and so wrote a series of vitriolic articles against him. This was to cost him his life for when Anthony made peace with his main opponent, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, in 43, each of the parties made a list of opponents they wanted ‘liquidated’ and top of Anthony’s list was Cicero. Hired killers were sent to find him and cut off his head. Cicero made a career out of his fine, forceful prose style, but in the end it got him killed.

Warner’s introduction

In the Penguin paperback edition of six Roman biographies, titles The Fall of the Roman Republic, each life is preceded by a short one-page introduction by the translator, Rex Warner. These don’t introduce or focus on the subject i.e. Cicero in this case, so much as frankly assess Plutarch’s shortcomings as a biographer. So in the case of the Life of Cicero Warner points out that Plutarch:

  • makes no attempt to depict the problems facing a novo homo or new man
  • or to explain why Cicero alone of the new men of his generation rose to such giddy heights
  • fails to mention the chief problem facing Cicero upon his election as consul for 63 BC, namely that his candidature had received support from both Pompey (most powerful man in the populares interest) and his opponents among the aristocracy or boni
  • is careless and inaccurate in his account of Cicero’s quarrel with Clodius
  • completely ignores the complex political background of the 50s
  • fails to understand Cicero’s policy after Caesar was assassinated, which was to use the young Octavian to rid the state of Anthony, before dumping him (Octavian) and trying to restore the Republic – a strategy which conspicuously failed

On the plus side Plutarch:

  • had access to Cicero’s own works about his consulship and speeches and letters on the subject, none of which have survived, so his references to them are an invaluable source
  • gives some examples of Cicero’s inability to stop himself making witty quips which often offended people

The life

(1) Cicero’s parents. cicer is Latin for chickpea so some Romans thought his surname absurd but Cicero stated he wanted to make it honourable and famous.

(2) His mother’s nurse had a vision saying he would grow up to be a ‘blessing to Rome’ and as a boy he staggered his peers and other parents with his brilliance. As a teenager and young man he developed a reputation as the best poet in Rome, though this had been eclipsed by Plutarch’s time by the giants who came after him (Virgil, Horace, Ovid et al).

(3) He did a brief stint of military service under Lucius Cornelius Sulla in the Social War but then concentrated on studying with orators and philosophers. A young man named Roscius was angry that his father had been murdered via one of Sulla’s proscriptions and his house cheaply sold off to an ex-slave named Chrysogonus. When he made a fuss Sulla had him charged with murdering his own father. Cicero’s friends persuaded him that representing Roscius in court would kick start his career as a lawyer so he did and Roscius won his case. Cicero, though, was worried about Sulla’s anger and diplomatically went to Greece for two years to study with philosophers and orators (79 to 77 BC).

(4) The philosophers Cicero studied under and doctrines he came to favour, namely the New Academy. He worked hard at public speaking, taking lessons from some of the best practitioners in Greece and Asia (Minor).

(5) After Sulla died (in 78 BC) Cicero returned to Rome (in 77) and almost immediately made an impact as a lawyer and speaker. How painstakingly he studied elocution and delivery. He had a quick wit and turn of phrase but often carried it too far and acquired the reputation of being malicious.

(6) Appointed quaestor to Sicily at a time of grain shortages. Won over the natives for being ‘careful, just, and mild’. He brilliantly defended some young men charged with corruption and cowardice but, on returning to Rome, was disappointed that nobody had heard of this great triumph. ‘his excessive delight in the praise of others and his too passionate desire for glory remained with him until the very end, and very often confounded his saner reasonings.’

(7) He trained himself to remember the names of people and places. He secured the conviction of Verres for corruption in Sicily. Plutarch gives some examples of Cicero’s ready wit:

  • verres is the Roman word for a castrated boar, so when a freedman named Caecilius, who was suspected of Jewish practices, wanted to push aside the Sicilian accusers and denounce Verres himself, Cicero said: “What has a Jew to do with a Verres?”
  • Verres had a son who had the reputation of being little better than a prostitute so that when Cicero was accused by Verres of effeminacy he reploed, “This is the kind of language you should be saving for your son at home”
  • The leading lawyer Hortensius appeared for Verres and received an ivory sphinx as his reward so that when Cicero made an oblique reference to Hortensius and the latter declared that he had no skill in solving riddles, Cicero was able to reply, “Really? Despite having a sphinx in your house.”

(8) The Sicilians remained grateful for his good governance and when Cicero was made aedile (69) sent him so much food and livestock Cicero used it to lower food prices in Rome.

An assessment of Cicero’s many properties, legacies and the dowry he received with his wife. He wasn’t rich and often didn’t take fees for his legal work. He ate lightly and took regular exercise and was always conscious of his health.

(9) He was elected praetor in 66 and heard many law cases. The case of Licinius Macer and Cicero’s wisecrack to Publius Vatinius. His supervision of the case of Caius Manlius, a close supporter of Pompey’s.

(10) Now Plutarch comes to Lucius Sergius Catalina who came to represent the various elements in the city which wanted to overthrow the state. Plutarch echoes Sallust’s claims that Catalina corrupted all those around him with loose living, and that he created a cabal of conspirators by committing a human sacrifice and making them eat the flesh. His lieutenants raised mobs in Etruria and Cisalpine Gaul. Corruption and greed had undermined morale, as had the growing gap between rich and poor. Only a spark was needed to ignite this tinderbox.

It was against this backdrop that both optimates and populares were prevailed on to vote Cicero consul for 63 BC.

(11) In fact Cicero’s election owed a lot to the fact that Cataline himself stood for election and Cicero was a candidate both factions could agree on to keep Cataline out.

(12) Cicero faced a problem straightaway which was agitation by the tribunes of the plebs to set up a committee of ten with extraordinary powers, thus upsetting the constitution. Cicero managed to get this proposal rejected in the senate with some careful speeches. He got the other consul, Gaius Antonius, sent to govern Macedonia, leaving the management of Rome in his hands.

(13) Cicero’s career proved that politicians should use charm and eloquence to promote the good.

(14) Catiline now planned to take matters into his own hands before the return of Pompey from the East. His main supporters were people who had benefited from the disruptive times of Sulla, both nobles and soldiers. They wanted more anarchy and disruption. Catiline allied with Manlius, a soldier under Sulla. Cicero stood in the next consul elections, for 62, but Cicero called him to the senate and cross questioned him in front of everyone about rumours of a conspiracy. Cicero appeared at the hustings wearing armour under his toga and with a heavy bodyguard to alert the people that his life was in danger and this helped Catiline lose the consulship for the second time.

(15) Catiline begins organising his men in Etruria into cohorts and legions. Three of the top men in Rome came for a meeting at Cicero’s house, Marcus Crassus, Marcus Marcellus, and Scipio Metellus. Crassus had received an anonymous letter saying the time of blood was approaching and to flee the city. Cicero convened a meeting of the senate at daybreak and distributed the other letters Crassus had to their intended recipients. They all contained identical details of a plot. When the senate then heard that Manlius was mustering forces in Etruria it passed a law placing management of the city entirely in Cicero’s hands.

(16) Catiline orders conspirators Marcius and Cethegus​ to go to Cicero’s house and murder him. But one of them had told his lover Fulvia all about it and she warned Cicero who wouldn’t give the men admittance. Later that day Cicero convened the senate again and Catiline himself appeared in person to defend himself but no-one would sit near him. When he tried to speak he was shouted down whereupon Cicero ordered him to leave town, which he did with 300 followers and the fasces, symbol of a power he did not rightfully possess. He joined Manlius, they raised standards and had about 20,000 men under arms.

(17) Catiline’s agent in the city was Cornelius Lentulus, of noble birth but low living, who had been expelled from the senate. As well as greed and corruption Lentulus was influenced by prophecies that he would become Rome’s next ruler.

(18) Lentulus wasn’t taking half measures. His plan was to kill all the senators and as many of the other citizens as they could, burn down the city and spare no one except the children of Pompey; these they were to hold hostage pending a reconciliation with Pompey who was said to be on his way back from the East. A night was set for the great conflagration.

Enter two ambassadors from the Gaulish tribe of the Allobroges. The conspirators approached these and played on their grievances and claims of bad government by the Romans. They gave them letters to their senate as from Catiline asking their support in the coming revolution. Plutarch describes how Cicero contrived to seize the ambassadors, the letters and a conspirator sent to accompany them to their country, with the help of the Allobroges themselves.

It is notable that Sallust’s account of this sequence of events is much more clear and logical and persuasive than Plutarch’s, which is vague and confused.

(19) So next morning Cicero assembled the senate again and read out the letters and interrogated the conspirators. Caius Calpurnius Piso backed up the accusations and then report came that a huge cache of weapons had been found at Cethegus’s house. Them, granted immunity, the conspirator accompanying the Allobroges gave them complete details of the conspiracy. Lentulus and the other conspirators were convicted, relieved of their offices and placed under house arrest.

Plutarch then described Cicero leaving the senate, going to the house of a friend and deliberating what punishment to administer. He was reluctant to execute them because of the kindliness of his nature, because he didn’t want to seem to be abusing his power, because many were very well connected. But if he was lenient and let them live, he risked jeopardising the state. Anything less than death would probably only encourage their surviving collaborators.

(20) Cicero’s wife Terentia was supervising an annual religious ceremony at his house and a sign appeared to them:

The altar, it seems, although the fire was already thought to have gone out, sent forth from the ashes and burnt bark upon it a great bright blaze.

Terentia came to Cicero and advised against mercy and for the extreme penalty, as did his brother and a philosopher he consulted.

Next day there was yet another meeting of the senate to debate punishment and all the senators spoke for death until it came to Caesar.

(21) Caesar spoke eloquently for clemency and the prisoners to be imprisoned. Cicero’s friends supported this because it exposed Cicero to less censure. But then Cato the Younger spoke and a) cast suspicion on Caesar and b) angered and inflamed the senate and persuaded them to vote for death.

Sallust’s account of all this is infinitely more interesting, subtle and powerful.

(22) Cicero went with the senate to fetch the conspirators for they had been placed under supervision in various houses. One by one they were fetched, marched through the forum to ‘the prison’ and put to death. At the end of the day Cicero walked through the streets to his house with the people ‘calling him the saviour and founder of his country.’ The lengthy passage in Sallust which describes Catline’s behaviour after the punishment of the conspirators in Rome, his rallying of forces with Manlius and their extended military campaign which ended with losing a battle to the loyalist legions of two generals is all glossed over by Plutarch in a sentence:

For most of those who had flocked to the standard of Catiline, as soon as they learned the fate of Lentulus and Cethegus, deserted him and went away; and Catiline, after a conflict with his remaining forces against Antonius, perished himself and his army with him.

(23) Describes the enmity against Cicero of those who resented his power, most notably Caesar and how they tried to interfere with the oath-taking required at the end of Cicero’s consulship. But how Cato defended him and got the people to declare him Father of the Country.

(24) In subsequent years Cicero made himself unpopular by endlessly going on about Catiline and Lentulus and how he had saved the state. That said, he was generous in his praise of great thinkers of the past (Plato, Aristotle) and used his influence to protect and promote contemporary philosophers and orators.

(25) Another selection of Cicero’s witty quips, often at the expense of the very powerful. For example:

He gained great applause by an encomium on Marcus Crassus from the rostra, and then a few days afterwards as publicly reviled him, whereupon Crassus said: “What, did you not stand there yourself a day or two ago and praise me?” “Yes” said Cicero, “exercising my eloquence by way of practice on a bad subject.”

(26) Plutarch shares another dozen or so examples of Cicero’s witty sharp retorts causing offence and creating enemies, not least Crassus on the eve of the latter setting out for Syria (November 55). Jokes comparing people to slaves or for being ugly or dissolute. Funny but wounding, and creating many enemies.

(27) More examples:

When Faustus, the son of the Sulla (who was dictator at Rome and placarded many people for death) got into debt, squandered much of his substance, and placarded his household goods for sale, Cicero said he liked this placarding better than his father’s.

(28) The story of young Publius Clodius Pulcher dressing himself up as a woman in order to get into the house of Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, during the women-only religious ceremony in order to seduce her. Clodius got lost in the big house, was spotted by a maid who alerted all the women of the house who barricaded the doors against him. Caesar divorced Pompeia and had an action for sacrilege brought against Clodius.

(29) Cicero gave evidence Clodius at least in part because of his wife’s enmity towards Clodius’s sister who she thought had designs on Cicero. But he was a bad man. Witnesses came forward to claim Clodius had had sex with all three of his sisters. Despite all this Clodius was acquitted due to extensive bribery.

It was about this affair that Caesar made his famous quote that he didn’t divorce his wife because he believed her guilty of adultery, but because ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.’

(30) Having escape conviction, Clodius was elected tribune of the plebs in 58. It never ceases to amaze me how a) very small a pool of educated nobles there appeared to be, so that the same names go round and round offices and positions, in these narratives and b) how often they took each other to court, and c) how even obvious crooks with terrible reputations got elected. The other thing is how like a school playground ancient Rome seems to have been, with everyone currying favour with everyone else, and wanting to be in everyone else’s gang, and telling takes and bullying and bribing each other.

Clodius set about making himself popular by passing laws in the people’s interests, had large provinces allotted to the consuls, organised the poor into political clubs, and formed a big bodyguard of armed slaves.

Plutarch states that the three most powerful men in Rome at this time were Crassus, Caesar and Pompey (without mentioning anything about the triumvirate; does this indicate it was a label given by later historians?).

Plutarch’s account is incorrect in many details. For example, he says that Cicero lobbied for a post with Caesar setting out for Gaul but was talked out of it by Clodius who suddenly came onto him as his new best friend. Warner says Caesar offered him the post and Cicero rejected it. Plutarch says the rejection made Caesar cross and he turned against Cicero and also persuaded Pompey against him. See what I mean by the politics of the school playground. And now Cicero began to be vulnerable to his behaviour during the Catiline conspiracy in that he had eminent Roman nobles put to death without a formal trial.

Cicero puts on modest clothes, grows his hair and went about the streets as a supplicant of the people but Clodius now had control of street gangs and got them to catcall Cicero and pelt him with mud and stones.

(31) Although the senate and many young people supported Cicero, Clodius surrounded the senate house and menaced the senators and it began to look like Cicero would have to flee to protect himself. Cicero appealed to Pompey who he had helped at numerous points in the past; but Plutarch says Pompey was now married to Caesar’s daughter and so took his side and avoided Cicero (again Plutarch fails to mention the triumvirate).

Cicero consulted with many friends who gave conflicting advice, but in the end he decided to leave the city and set out one night on foot planning to head for Sicily.

(32) As soon as it was confirmed he had fled Clodius had a law passed formalising Cicero’s exile. Many people helped him on his journey but Plutarch mentions two Sicilians who had benefited from his help in the past who now spurned him, particularly the praetor of Sicily, Gaius Virgilius, who told him not to come there.

So he crossed Italy to Brundisium on the Adriatic coast and set sail for Albania and so on into Greece. Cicero became depressed in exile, contradicting all his claims to be a Stoic philosopher, and Plutarch makes a well-phrased point:

Public opinion has the strange power of being able, as it were, to erase from a man’s character the lines formed there by reason and study; and, by force of habit and association, it can impress the passions and feelings of the mob on those who engage in politics, unless one is very much on one’s guard and makes up one’s mind that in dealing with what is outside oneself one will be concerned only with the practical problems themselves and not with the passions that arise out of them.

(33) In his absence Clodius burned down his villas and his house in Rome and erected on the site a Temple to Liberty. He tried to auction the properties but no-one would buy them. When Clodius then turned his ire on Pompey, the latter had a change of heart and regretted acquiescing in Cicero’s flight. The senate went on strike and refused to ratify legislation. Street violence escalated till tribunes were wounded in the forum and Cicero’s brother was wounded (57 BC).

Another tribune, Titus Annius Milo decided to stand up to Clodius and brought forward legislation to have him prosecuted. Pompey occupied the city with troops and drove Clodius out then summoned the citizens to vote on letting Cicero return. It was carried unanimously, the senate wrote to thank all the cities which had offered Cicero hospitality and decreed his houses in Rome and the country should be rebuilt at public expense.

This is the behaviour of children, isn’t it? No adequate reason is given for all these changes of attitude among ‘the people’ – and what of Pompey’s ignoble and inconstant shilly-shallying?

After 16 months exile Cicero returned in triumph, crowds turned out to welcome him, in Rome even Crassus turned out, at the bidding of his son Publius who was a big fan.

(34) Soon as Clodius was out of town Cicero went to the capitol with a crowd and tore down and destroyed the tablets which recorded Clodius’s laws. Which caused controversy.

(35) With casual abruptness Plutarch then tells us that Clodius was killed by Milo (18 January 52 BC) or more precisely by his entourage in an affray on a road outside Rome. Milo was promptly charged with murder and hired Cicero to be his defence attorney but Plutarch goes on at great length about how nervous Cicero was, giving other examples of his timidity, specially as Pompey provided soldiers to surround and protect the court so as to prevent intimidation by Clodius’s gangs. Milo was convicted and went into exile in Massilia.

(36) In 53 BC, after the death of Publius Crassus in Parthia, Cicero was elected augur (proposed by Pompey and the lawyer Horntensius).

In 51 he was appointed governor to the province of Cilicia and went with great reluctance, because he thought it was his duty. He ruled with great fairness, reducing crushing interest rates, overseeing trials fairly, his home open to all petitioners. Plutarch describes the correspondence with young Marcus Caelius Rufus who asked him to send panthers to take part in games he was organising and Cicero’s reply that there were no panthers in Cilicia, letters which, amazingly, we can still read. After a year he returned to find Rome in the distemper which augured civil war.

(37) As Warner says, Plutarch gives no explanation at all of either the triumvirate, how it was set up and ruled throughout the 50s, nor of its collapse after Crassus’s death in Parthia in 53 and Pompey’s wife’s death in 54, and the growing sense that the two most powerful men, Pompey and Caesar, were engaged in a rivalry to the death.

Instead Plutarch leaps straight into Cicero’s efforts to mediate between both men who he knew well. Very casually and superficially the narrative suddenly leaps to Cesar invading Italy and Pompey precipitately fleeing Rome (49 BC). Plutarch relies heavily on Cicero’s letters as he cites the ones in which he begs Atticus for advice on what to do and then admits it (‘So much for the evidence of the letters.’). Cicero is insulted when Caesar writes to him through an intermediary rather than directly.

(38) Eventually Cicero abandons Italy and sails to join Pompey. He meets Cato who promptly tells him he has made a mistake and ought to have stayed in Italy without taking sides and made himself useful whatever the outcome. Good point. Cicero made himself unpopular by openly saying he regretted coming, criticising Pompey’s strategy and making his usual tactless remarks. As above, Plutarch then gives half a dozen examples of Pompey’s witty barbs.

(39) After Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus (9 August 48) Cato, who had control of the fleet, offered command to Cicero  as an ex-consul. But Cicero turned it down and refused to have anything more to do with the cause, something that made Pompey’s son and friends threaten his life.

Cicero sailed to Brundisium and waited there for Caesar to finish other operations and land there. Then with great trepidation he went to see him. To his relief Caesar welcomed him, walked and talked with him and treated him as an honoured guest, praising his eloquence and writings. a) Caesar comes over as an attractive character b) he was also a writer and so maybe appreciated Cicero’s specialness.

He gives an account of Cicero giving a speech defending some associate of Caesar’s and moving so skilfully from emotion to emotion that Caesar’s body literally trembled and he dropped his papers. And the modern read asks themselves: Can anything like that possibly ever have happened or is it an almost fairy tale level of simple-mindedness.

(40) Plutarch describes the way that, after Caesar assumed power, Cicero dropped politics and the law and devoted himself to philosophy and writing, translating works of politics, ethics and philosophy, translating Greek terms into Latin for the first time. He stuck to his country estate at Tusculum, only rarely visiting Rome. He praised Caesar as required.

(41) Plutarch tells us Cicero planned to write a history of Rome but never found time. He divorced Terentia in 46 BC claiming she didn’t support him in his exile and didn’t look after their daughter. But critics mocked the way he promptly married a young woman named Publilia and claimed it was because she was rich and Cicero needed to pay off his debts. Then in 45 his beloved daughter Tullia died young. He was prostrate with grief.

(42) Plutarch mentions Cicero’s Philippics against Anthony in passing and skates even more lightly over the assassination of Caesar, simply saying Cicero had no part in it. Days after the killing Anthony addressed the senate arguing to preserve the peace and Cicero followed with a long eloquent speech arguing for an amnesty. But when the people saw Caesar’s body carried through the forum and saw his blood-stained toga and listened to Anthony’s speech they went mad with rage and seized torches and attacked the houses of the conspirators who had, sagely, already fled.

(43) Anthony began to fear Cicero was once again becoming a power in the state. He was tempted to accompany the new governor of Syria but the consuls pleaded with him to stay in Rome and support the state. He said he’d retire to Athens till they came into office and set off in July 44.

But then news came of a shift in the situation with the arrival in Rome of young Octavian, adopted heir of Caesar, in April 44. This prompted Anthony to shift his strategy, deciding to seek the support of the senate. Cicero was suddenly invited back and returned accompanied by cheering crowds etc (is this taken from his own self-serving letters?). But when Anthony invited him to a meeting Cicero, scared, refused to go, which threw Anthony into a fury.

(44) Then middlemen brought Octavian to Cicero and they negotiated a deal: Cicero would use his influence and powers of oratory on Octavian’s behalf and Octavian would use his money and soldiers to protect Cicero. Characteristically, instead of political analysis, Plutarch takes half a page to tell us that Cicero had a dream foretelling the next ruler of Rome in which he saw young Octavian very vividly, and met him as a boy and teenager and always took care to be polite. Well, if remotely true, that care now bore fruit.

(45) Cicero’s friendliness with Octavian was criticised by Marcus Junius Brutus, who thought it was self-serving. Warner adds a note repeating his idea that Cicero’s plan was to use Octavian to rid the state of Anthony, then replace Octavian himself.

Plutarch says Cicero’s power reached its height. He had Anthony expelled from Rome then sent the two consuls to fight him. Octavian persuaded the senate to award him the power and insignia of a lictor. Octavian defeated Anthony at the battle of Mutina 21 April 43 at which the two consuls were killed and their armies joined his. Now he was the most powerful man in Rome and the senate feared for the old constitution. So Octavian shrewdly met with Cicero and asked him to arrange for them both to be elected consuls, then he would submit to his older colleague. Who was using who?

(46) But as soon as Octavian was elected ‘suffect’ consul i.e. completing the time of a consul who had been killed, on 19 August 43, he paid no further attention to Cicero who realised he had been used. Instead Octavian went into alliance with Anthony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and divided up the government as though it were a piece of property. They drew up a list of 200 men who needed to be executed and Cicero’s name was on it. Anthony refused to join the alliance unless Cicero was killed and Lepidus backed him. The idea was each would sacrifice someone close and dear to them. On the third day Octavian gave in and agreed to Cicero’s murder. Homo homini lupus est.

(47) Cicero was at his country estate with his brother when he heard the news. They set out immediately for the coast with a view to joining Brutus in Macedonia. Plutarch wrings the scene for all the emotion he can, with the brothers frequently stopping their litters to condole each other in floods of tears etc. Eventually Quintus decided he had to return home because he had set out with no money. A few days later he was betrayed by his servants and murdered.

Cicero was carried to Astura where he found a ship which carried him down the coast but then he landed and began to head back to Rome, uncertain and afraid. He contemplated going to Octavian’s house and committing suicide on the hearthstone so as to draw down a curse on it, but then decided to return to the sea and go to Caieta where he had a villa.

Characteristically Plutarch intensifies the mood by describing an ill omen when a flight of crows rose up into the air and flew towards Cicero’s boat as it was being rowed ashore. But he made it to his villa in safety.

(48) The murderers had arrived. They found the villa and broke the doors down only to be told by one of Cicero’s servants that he had left by a secret path which wound down to the sea. The centurions intercepted his litter and Cicero with dignity stretched out his neck allowing them to murder him. At Anthony’s orders they cut off his head and the hands which had written the virulent addresses against Anthony known as the Philippics (and which Plutarch has told us absolutely nothing about).

(49) The head and hands were carried to Anthony in Rome who was organising an election. He cried out ‘let there be an end to proscriptions’, then had them nailed over the ships’ battering rams which adorned the Rostrum in the forum.

Gruesome

For some reason Plutarch, here, right at the tragic end of this great Roman figure, bolts on a macabre anecdote which trumps the Cicero hands and head one. He claims that the servant who told the centurions about Cicero’s getaway path was caught and handed over to Cicero’s bother’s wife (Pomponia) who forced him to cut off his own flesh bit by bit and roast it, and then to eat it!

This, indeed, is what some of the historians say; but Cicero’s own freedman, Tiro, makes no mention at all of the treachery of Philologus.

So why does Plutarch? Don’t you think the inclusion of this gruesome anecdote, which isn’t even accepted by the best witness, tells us everything you need to know about Plutarch’s audience, around 100 AD? I.e. its appetite for the gruesome and the macabre, along with melodramatic omens, prophecies and dreams, trumps any interest in responsible analysis and interpretation.

That said, the last two sentences reveal a taste for the sentimental which resonates to this day:

I learn that Caesar, a long time after this, paid a visit to one of his daughter’s sons; and the boy, since he had in his hands a book of Cicero’s, was terrified and sought to hide it in his gown; but Caesar saw it, and took the book, and read a great part of it as he stood, and then gave it back to the youth, saying: “A learned man, my child, a learned man and a lover of his country.”

Moreover, as soon as he had finally defeated Antony,​ and when he was himself consul, he chose Cicero’s son as his colleague in the office, and it was in his consulship that the senate took down the statues of Antony, made void the other honours that had been paid him, and decreed besides that no Antony should have the name of Marcus. Thus the heavenly powers devolved upon the family of Cicero the final steps in the punishment of Antony.

Rex Warner’s introduction to the Penguin edition emphasises and implicitly praises Plutarch’s commitment to artistry, to creating biographies as carefully crafted as paintings. OK. But the obvious consequence, which Warner, to be fair, points out, is that: a) many of these ‘effects’ pandered to the debased taste of 1st century imperial Romans and b) led Plutarch to focus on the sensational and sentimental aspects of his subject matter while skating over or omitting important historical, political and social issues which we’d desperately like to know more about.


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Plutarch’s lives of Marius and Sulla (translated by Rex Warner)

Now the generals of this later period were men who had risen to the top by violence rather than by merit; they needed armies to fight against one another rather than against the public enemy.
(Doleful reflections of the Amphictyons of Delphi upon being ordered to hand over all their treasure to the Roman general Sulla who was besieging Athens: Life of Sulla, chapter 12)

1. Plutarch’s Life of Caius Marius (157 to 86 BC)

Plutarch’s life of Marius is divided into 46 brief sections. Rex Warner’s translation of Plutarch in the Penguin edition is relaxed and chatty. Very clear, very readable. However it is not available online whereas the 1920 Loeb Classical Library edition is. So, for practical purposes, I’ll quote Loeb.

As for the personal appearance of Marius, we have seen a marble statue of him at Ravenna in Gaul,​ and it very well portrays the harshness and bitterness of character which were ascribed to him. For since he was naturally virile and fond of war, and since he received a training in military rather than in civil life, his temper was fierce when he came to exercise authority.

Plutarch brings out very vividly the successive rivalries during the Jugurthine War (112 to 106 BC) between Metellus, Marius, and his quaestor Sulla. The Roman army comes over as an engine of fierce rivalries. But although Plutarch describes some of Marius’s military victories, in Numidia (112 to 106 BC) and then against the Cimbrian and Teutons who threatened to invade Italy from Gaul (113 to 101 BC) what really impresses is the second half of the life, and especially the final years when Marius fell from military and political favour and was eventually outlawed from Italy and had to go on the run, in disguise.

These final sections of his adventures on the run (35 to 45) read more like a boy’s own adventure story than history. The modern histories I’ve read refer to Marius’s brief exile only in general terms whereas in Plutarch we meet the captains of the ships which smuggle him out of Ostia, then dump him further down the Italian coast, the peasants who take him in and try to hide him, his betrayal and arrest to the authorities. We meet the Cimbrian soldier who is ordered to kill him but can’t bring himself to do so because, in the darkened bedroom, he sees Marius’s eyes darting fire and hears the voice of a god warning him against such a wicked deed. And so on. It’s like something out of the Arabian Nights more than history, more even, than biography.

Superstitions

Rex and other commentators emphasise Plutarch’s focus on the individual, on character, and call him ‘the first of modern biographers’ (p.9). None of them mention the ubiquity of superstition, prophecies and the uncanny i.e. the irrational, in his narratives. Thus in Marius alone:

  • as Marius prepares to sail back from Africa to Rome a soothsayer predicts great things (8)
  • in the campaign against the Cimbri and Teutones Marius has a Syrian prophetess named Martha accompany him in a litter (17)
  • the story that his army was accompanied everywhere by two vultures (17)
  • over the Italian cities of Ameria and Tuder flaming spears and swords are seen in the sky moving as if in actual battle (17)
  • from the massed ranks of the enemy arose an unearthly wailing (20)
  • heavy rain often follows a major battle because the supernatural powers want to hallow and cleanse the earth (21)
  • Fortune or nemesis or natural necessity, call it what you will, some force always ensures the enjoyment of any great success is never unalloyed or pure (23)
  • the incident of Fannia’s donkey who ran out to drink water from a spring near where Marius was being held by his escort, stopped directly in front of him, let out a tremendous bray, then went frisking past him – from which Marius drew the conclusion that his escape would be by sea

And:

When he was quite young and living in the country, Marius had caught in his cloak a falling eagle’s nest, which had seven young ones in it; at sight of this, his parents were amazed, and made enquiries of the seers, who told them that their son would be most illustrious of men, and was destined to receive the highest command and power seven times. (36)

  • when a Cimbrian soldier went into Marius’s bedroom to kill him he saw a pair of mighty eyes darting flame at him and a voice as of a god saying: ‘Man, does thou dare to slay Caius Marius?’ (39)

The grotesque

A sprinkling of what must surely be grotesque exaggerations, notably the wildly improbable description of the mass suicides of the Cimbri civilians once their menfolk were defeated

The fugitives were driven back to their entrenchments where the Romans beheld a most tragic spectacle. The women, in black garments, stood at the wagons and slew the fugitives — their husbands or brothers or fathers, then strangled their little children and cast them beneath the wheels of the wagons or the feet of the cattle, and then cut their own throats. It is said that one woman hung dangling from the tip of a wagon-pole with her children tied to either ankle, while the men, for lack of trees, fastened themselves by the neck to the horns of the cattle, or to their legs, then plied the goad, and were dragged or trampled to death as the cattle dashed away. (27)

In their hurry to claim for Plutarch all kinds of proto-modern interests in character and psychology, Rex and others simply ignore the much more prominent traits of primitive superstition and a garish, vulgar fascination with grotesque violence.

Thus Plutarch dwells lovingly on the scenes in Rome once Marius has returned from exile, seizes power along with Cinna, and unleashes a tidal wave of vengeful violence:

Headless trunks thrown into the streets and trampled under foot excited no pity, though everybody trembled and shuddered at the sight. The people were most distressed however, by the wanton licence of the Bardyaei, as they were called, who butchered fathers of families in their houses, outraged their children, raped their wives, and could not be checked in their career of rapine and murder until Cinna and Sertorius, after taking counsel together, fell upon them as they were asleep in their camp, and transfixed them all with javelins. (44)

Gory enough for you?

The ludicrous

And then incidents which are so wildly improbable as to be ludicrous. Take the incident of the faked diarrhoea. Marius fell in with a rabble rousing demagogue who didn’t hesitate to murder his political opponents, Saturninus. Marius attempts to keep the respect of the senate but also stay in with Saturninus, a balancing act which is epitomised one night:

For when the leading men had come to him by night and were trying to incite him against Saturninus, without their knowledge he introduced Saturninus into the house by another door; then, pretending to both parties that he had a diarrhoea, he would run backwards and forwards in the house, now to the nobles and now to Saturninus, trying to irritate and bring them into collision. (30)

2. Plutarch’s Life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78 BC)

Sulla served as captain of cavalry under Marius in the Jugurthine War. To his bravery was attributed the final negotiations which led to the capture of Jugurtha and Sulla was embittered when Marius received the credit and triumph for it. Sulla was tasked with fighting the Social War (91 to 87 BC) and when Marius, in Rome, managed to manoeuvre Sulla out of leadership of the army set to head off to deal with Mithradates in Turkey, Sulla rejected the senate’s decision, let his men kill the senate’s envoy and marched on Rome.

Why Sulla failed

Rex gives admirably brief, one-page introductions to each of the lives (generally pointing out how Plutarch ignores the profound historical importance of this or that event in order to focus on trivial anecdotes or shallow moralising). Therefore it is Rex who sums up Sulla’s political agenda, once he’d become dictator (82 to 78 BC) and why it failed, more briefly and better than any other account I’ve read.

After marching on Rome to seize power twice, with an intervening period of anarchy and bloodshed under Cinna (87 to 84 BC), Sulla set out to make the republic safe by ensuring the situation which led to the anarchy could never happen again. These he took to be:

  • the ability of the tribunes of the plebs to veto laws suggested by the patricians and senate, which sounds fine in theory, but in practice tribunes were all too often bribed by powerful interests to derail senatorial rule
  • the struggle between senate and equites for control of the courts, which again unravelled into political powerplays
  • the consecutive consulships of overmighty rulers (in the recent past the consecutive consulships of Marius in 107, 104, 103, 102, 101, 100)

So Sulla:

  • abolished the legislative powers of the tribunate and debarred those who held it from higher office
  • restored the courts to full control of the senate
  • revived the lex annalis which set minimum ages to hold each of the magistracies in the so-called cursus honorum and required fixed periods between people holding each post

It was a valiant effort but, as Rex points out, it was blind to the fact that the chief threat to the republic came not from any law or aspect of the constitution but from a reality which transcended them, which was the advent of proconsuls appointed for long periods of time to prosecute distant wars whose armies came to owe more allegiance to them than to the state – the conversion of Roman armies into something closer to private armies answerable to charismatic warlords.

The obvious examples were Marius, Sulla himself, Pompey then Caesar, then Mark Anthony and Octavian and the era of instability and collapse exactly matches the rise of this new phenomenon.

Plutarch’s Sulla

Predictably, Plutarch focuses on gossip and anecdote:

  • Sulla had a famously bad complexion, covered in blotchy spots.
  • Though he came from a patrician family, it was very down at heel and he spent a dissolute young manhood with dancers and actors and cross-dressers and comedians. Throughout his life, strict and stern in public, once he sat down at a banquet he reverted to a monstrously debauched and bohemian character.

And, once again, a blizzard of superstitions, omens and prophecies:

  • A certain man in the retinue of Orobazus, a Chaldaean, after looking Sulla intently in the face, and studying carefully the movements of his mind and body, and investigating his nature according to the principles of his peculiar art, declared that this man must of necessity become the greatest in the world, and that even now the wonder was that he consented not to be first of all men. (6)
  • Sulla himself relates that when he was dispatched with an army to the Social War, a great chasm in the earth opened near Laverna, from which a great quantity of fire burst forth and a bright flame towered up towards the heavens; whereupon the soothsayers declared that a brave man, of rare courage and surpassing appearance, was to take the government in hand and free the city from its present troubles. And Sulla says that he himself was this man, for his golden head of hair gave him a singular appearance, and as for bravery, he was not ashamed to testify in his own behalf, after such great and noble deeds as he had performed.
  • When Sulla had set out for his camp on unfinished business,​ he himself kept at home and contrived that most fatal sedition, which wrought Rome more harm than all her wars together had done, as indeed the heavenly powers foreshadowed to them:
    • for fire broke forth of its own accord from the staves which supported the ensigns, and was with difficulty extinguished
    • and three ravens brought their young forth into the street and devoured them, and then carried the remains back again into their nest
    • and after mice had gnawed consecrated gold in a temple, the keepers caught one of them, a female, in a trap, and in the very trap she brought forth five young ones and ate up three of them
    • but most important of all, out of a cloudless and clear air there rang out the voice of a trumpet, prolonging a shrill and dismal note, so that all were amazed and terrified at its loudness. The Tuscan wise men declared that the prodigy foretokened a change of conditions and the advent of a new age (7)
  • While the senate was busied with the soothsayers about these prodigies, and holding its session in the temple of Bellona, a sparrow came flying in, before the eyes of all, with a grasshopper in its mouth, a part of which it threw down and left there, and then went away with the other part. From this the diviners apprehended a quarrelsome dissension between the landed proprietors and the populace of the city and forum; for the latter is vociferous like a grasshopper, while the former haunt the fields (like the sparrow). (7)
  • After he had offered a sacrifice, Postumius the soothsayer learned what the omens were, and stretching out both hands to Sulla, begged that he might be bound and kept a prisoner until the battle, assuring him that he was willing to undergo the extremest penalty if all things did not speedily come to a good issue for him. (9)
  • It is said, also, that to Sulla himself there appeared in his dreams a goddess whom the Romans learned to worship from the Cappadocians, whether she is Luna, or Minerva, or Bellona. This goddess, as Sulla fancied, stood by his side and put into his hand a thunder-bolt, and naming his enemies one by one, bade him smite them with it; and they were all smitten, and fell, and vanished away. Encouraged by the vision, he told it to his colleague, and at break of day led on towards Rome. (9)
  • Mithridates, who was staying at Pergamum, was visited with many other portents from Heaven, and that a Victory with a crown in her hand, which the Pergamenians were lowering towards him by machinery of some sort, was broken to pieces just as she was about to touch his head, and the crown went tumbling from her hand to the ground in the midst of the theatre, and was shattered, whereat the people shuddered, and Mithridates was greatly dejected. (11)

And so on and very much on. And The Grotesque:

Nearby is Apollonia, and in its vicinity is the Nymphaeum, a sacred precinct, which sends forth in various places from its green dell and meadows, streams of perpetually flowing fire. Here, they say, a satyr was caught asleep, such an one as sculptors and painters represent, and brought to Sulla, where he was asked through many interpreters who he was. And when at last he uttered nothing intelligible, but with difficulty emitted a hoarse cry that was something between the neighing of a horse and the bleating of a goat, Sulla was horrified, and ordered him out of his sight. (27)

Fairy tales

At Fidentia, when Marcus Lucullus, one of Sulla’s commanders, with sixteen cohorts confronted fifty cohorts of the enemy, although he had confidence in the readiness of his soldiers, still, as most of them were without arms, he hesitated to attack. But while he was waiting and deliberating, from the neighbouring plain, which was a meadow, a gentle breeze brought a quantity of flowers and scattered them down on his army; they settled of their own accord and enveloped the shields and helmets of the soldiers, so that to the enemy these appeared to be crowned with garlands. This circumstance made them more eager for the fray, and they joined battle, won the victory, killed eighteen thousand of the enemy, and took their camp. (27)

Fortunate Sulla

Plutarch emphasises the Sulla himself was happy to attribute much of his success to Fortune rather than his own personal merits or achievements. So in the matrix of opinions about what constitutes a Successful Man which the Parallel Lives amount to, Sulla stands at one extreme of the spectrum, a superstitious man who attributed much to Fortune. Hence his own insistence on the agnomen (‘a fourth name occasionally given as an honour to an ancient Roman citizen’) ‘Felix’, superficially meaning ‘happy’ but at a deeper level meaning ‘lucky’ – more than lucky, in the deepest sense of the word, fortune-ate. Fortune rich. Fortune full.

Slaughter in Athens 86 BC

Apart from the civil war and street fighting in Rome, what comes over more vividly from this account than others I’ve read, is the unmitigated slaughter Sulla inflicted on Athens after a prolonged siege in which he had devastated the surrounding territory. ‘There was no counting the slain’. The blood flowed under the city gates (14).

Proscriptions in Rome

The mass murder in Rome of Sulla’s enemies who he included on lists of ‘proscriptions’ brings to mind Stalin sitting up late into the night going through long lists of names, putting a tick or a cross next to who should live or die.

Sulla now busied himself with slaughter, and murders without number or limit filled the city…He also proscribed anyone who harboured and saved a proscribed person, making death the punishment for such humanity, without exception of brother, son, or parents, but offering anyone who slew a proscribed person two talents as a reward for this murderous deed, even though a slave should slay his master, or a son his father. And what seemed the greatest injustice of all, he took away the civil rights from the sons and grandsons of those who had been proscribed, and confiscated the property of all. Moreover, proscriptions were made not only in Rome, but also in every city of Italy, and neither temple of God, nor hearth of hospitality, nor paternal home was free from the stain of bloodshed, but husbands were butchered in the embraces of their wedded wives, and sons in the arms of their mothers. (31)

Mass murder at Praeneste

Meanwhile Marius the younger, at the point of being captured slew himself; and Sulla, coming to Praeneste, at first gave each man there a separate trial before he executed him, but afterwards, since time failed him, gathered them all together in one place — there were twelve thousand of them — and gave orders to slaughter them all. (32)

Metrobius

Plutarch’s life ends where it began, with comments on Sulla’s private behaviour and liking for louche, lowlife, bohemian company. Despite having a series of respectable wives, in the usual Roman fashion, Sulla also:

consorted with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people, drinking with them on couches all day long. For these were the men who had most influence with him now: Roscius the comedian, Sorex the archmime, and Metrobius the impersonator of women, for whom, though past his prime, he continued up to the last to be passionately fond, and made no denial of it.

Mass murderer, sacker of Athens, failed attempter to restore the Republic, and lifelong lover of a female impersonator.

A grisly end

Then comes the kind of moralising conclusion which delighted the ancients and then the Christians, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Plutarch claims that in his final illness Sulla was literally eaten alive by worms.

By this mode of life [his decadent lifestyle] Sulla aggravated a disease which was insignificant in its beginnings, and for a long time he knew not that his bowels were ulcerated. This disease corrupted his whole flesh also, and converted it into worms, so that although many were employed day and night in removing them, what they took away was as nothing compared with the increase upon him, but all his clothing, baths, hand-basins, and food, were infected with that flux of corruption, so violent was its discharge. Therefore he immersed himself many times a day in water to cleanse and scour his person. But it was of no use; for the change gained upon him rapidly, and the swarm of vermin defied all purification. (36)


Related links

Roman reviews

  • Plutarch
  • Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla
  • Plutarch’s life of Sertorius
  • Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Crassus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Pompey
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cicero
  • Plutarch’s Life of Caesar
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger
  • Plutarch’s Life of Antony
  • Plutarch’s Life of Brutus

Plutarch

Plutarch was a Greco-Roman philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. He lived from about 46 to about 120 AD. He was a prolific writer in all genres: an ancient catalogue attributes no fewer than 227 works to Plutarch, of which 78 have come down to us.

Plutarch is most famous for the Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of eminent Greek and Roman leaders. These were arranged in pairs, one Greek and one Roman, in order to compare their lives and achievements and characters. The surviving lives contain 23 pairs of biographies as well as four unpaired single lives = 50 lives in total.

As he explains in the opening paragraph of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch was not concerned with history as such, with the broad sweep of historical events, but with exploring how the characters of famous men influenced their lives and destinies. Hence a lot of room is taken up with gossip and anecdote on the assumption that this often tells you more about a person than their official CV. Plutarch consciously sought to create a portrait of each figure and himself compares his craft to that of a painter.

In his history of the Roman republic, Tom Holland explains that the parallel lives only make sense in the format Plutarch conceived them for, as pairs, and disapproves of the way Penguin Books rearranged the lives, removing them from their pairings and reorganising them by chronological period, to produce volumes of biographies of just Greeks or Romans, thus losing the point of the entire project.

It was on this editorial principle that, in 1958, Penguin published a volume of six lives from the last 70 or so years of the Roman Republic, being Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Caesar and Cicero, entitled Fall of the Roman Republic, translated by the novelist and Classicist Rex Warner (1905 to 1986).

In his very brief introduction to the Penguin edition, Warner justifies the decision by arguing that a) Plutarch’s original pairings of Greeks and Romans often have very little in common and feel ‘artificial’, so that b) translating the original pairings runs the risk of confusing the reader by forcing him or her to jump backwards and forwards between the very different social, economic and historical backgrounds of Greece and Rome. It’s a persuasive argument.

(And to be fair to Penguin they have, in recent years, reconsidered this editorial decision and published some of the lives in pairs, as Plutarch originally intended. The most recent edition of this volume of six Roman lives for the first time includes the brief passages Plutarch wrote comparing the lives of his Greek and Roman exemplars.)

Rex Warner (1905 to 1986)

Born in 1905, Warner went to public school and on to Oxford where he was associated with the Auden group. He wrote poetry, plays and novels, and is best remembered for the eccentric allegorical novel, The Aerodrome (1941), which I reviewed a few years ago.

From 1945 to 1947 he was in Athens as Director of the British Institute and became involved in numerous translations of classical Greek and Latin authors. His 1954 translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War for Penguin Classics sold over a million copies and helped to establish the commercial and cultural viability of Penguin Classics. Warner went on to translate Xenophon, Caesar and this selection of Plutarch’s Roman lives for Penguin.

Bill Thayer

An American named Bill Thayer has created a fabulous website onto which he has transcribed all 50 of Plutarch’s parallel lives (as well as a staggering amount of other ancient literature). They’re all given in the out-of-copyright 1923 Loeb Classical Library edition by Bernadotte Perrin. It includes interesting notes, handy maps, and a very useful list of all Plutarch’s lives in the form of a table.

When I saw this table I realised I wanted to read more than just the 6 lives included in the Penguin volume. I was particularly intrigued by the less well-known characters of Sertorius and Lucullus who had walk-on parts in several of the histories I’ve read. In fact I realised there were no fewer than 11 Plutarch lives from the final century of the Roman Republic which I was curious to read. In chronological order of birth these are as follows. Ones included in the Penguin edition are in bold:

  • Marius (b. 157)
  • Sulla (b. 138)
  • Lucullus (b. 118)
  • Crassus (b. 115)
  • Sertorius (b. 126)
  • Pompey (b. 106)
  • Cicero (b. 106)
  • Caesar (b. 100)
  • Cato the Younger (b. 95)
  • Antony (b. 83)
  • Brutus (b. 85)

Some I read in the Rex Warner Penguin translation, some in the 1923 Loeb classics edition, some swapping between the two. In order to be clear and consistent, references are to the long-established ‘chapter’ numbers which each life is divided into.

Initially I reviewed Marius and Sulla in the form of a summary overview of their lives and careers, taking material from other sources to make them historically accurate but this just ended up making them into  second-rate Wikipedia articles.

I realised it was more useful to stick closely to what Plutarch actually wrote, summarising every one of his short ‘chapters’, and recording the eccentric material he periodically includes – the anecdotes and omens and folk tales and sayings – precisely because that’s the kind of thing which doesn’t appear in  the conventional histories or biographies but sheds most light about h ow the ancients thought about great figures and great events.


Related links

Roman reviews

  • Plutarch
  • Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla
  • Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Crassus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius
  • Plutarch’s Life of Pompey
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cicero
  • Plutarch’s Life of Caesar
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger
  • Plutarch’s Life of Antony
  • Plutarch’s Life of Brutus

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner (1941)

What a record of confusion, deception, rankling hatred, low aims, indecision!
(The Air Vice-Marshall nicely summing up this absurd novel, page 200)

There’s a genre of books about English village life, set in the 1920s and 30s, which are so normal, so provincial, so banal, and yet so utterly removed from the world we live in now, 80 years later, that an air of surrealism hovers over them, a gentle sense of unreality.

American tourists fresh from the excitement of Pamplona, the glory that was Greece or the grandeur that was Rome etc, were often nonplussed to arrive in 1930s England and find themselves invited to village fetes and vicarage tea parties, all emotions so repressed, everything so hemmed in by good taste, the scones and cream arranged just so, that foreign visitors felt something weird and lurid must be hidden just below the surface.

This feeling, that everyone’s frightfully good manners are too good to be true, is one appeal of the very English detective novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, where the primmest of country house parties all turn out to conceal vipers’ nests of infidelity and jealousy.

Rex Warner’s third novel, The Aerodrome, takes this kind of vicarage tea party mode, a fussy English concern for napkins and cucumber sandwiches (the central figure is in fact a village Rector’s son) and then transmutes it into an increasingly weird and clunky allegory.

Rex Warner

Warner was a typical product of the Auden generation. Born in 1905 to a clergyman father, he went to a jolly good boarding school where he was jolly good at games, and then onto Oxford, where he associated with W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender, and published in the chummy university magazine, Oxford Poetry.

He was also typical of that generation in that:

  1. he picked up at post-war Oxford a radical attachment to revolutionary communism (this was the generation of the Cambridge spies e.g. Anthony Blunt, expensively educated at Marlborough, Cambridge then became a spy for Stalin)
  2. he went on to become a teacher and writer

The Aerodrome was Warner’s third novel. The first, The Wild Goose Chase (1937) is a fantasy in which three brothers, representing different personality types, are on holiday when they come across a wild goose and chase it into a fantasy land ruled by a right-wing dictator. The second, The Professor (1938), is the story of a liberal academic whose struggles against a repressive government eventually lead to his arrest, imprisonment and murder.

The Aerodrome continues this combination of fantasy and strong political message. It’s the story of a fairly innocent and naive young man, Roy, brought up in a village vicarage by the dear old Rector and his lovely wife, all of them friendly with the kindly old Squire and his lovely sister.

Roy is partial to a few beers and games of darts with the lads at the village pub, and is having a heady first-love affair with the publican’s willing daughter, Bess. But he also finds himself drawn to the slick, drawling, manly air force officers from the nearby Aerodrome.

For just outside the village, with its sweet old Manor house and characterful old pub and dawdling river, is a big new Aerodrome, staffed by brisk, efficient, no-nonsense men of action, the dynamic hi-tech forces of the 20th century looming over the almost feudal life of ye olde village.

Should Roy choose the earthy life of the village i.e. getting drunk with Mac and Fred, and (literally) rolling in the hay with bosomy Bess? Or acquiesce in the growing power of the Aerodrome and its brisk no-nonsense leader, the Air Vice-Marshal, and a love affair with the highly-sexed wife of one of its top officials?

However, what this quick summary fails to capture is the weirdness of the actual plot and the difficulty of penetrating Warner’s clunky, thunking prose style.

It’s not exactly rubbish, but I can see why The Aerodrome is long forgotten (it has no Wikipedia page, you can’t find the text anywhere online). And difficult to understand how the noted short story writer V. S. Pritchett called Warner ‘the only outstanding novelist of ideas whom the decade of ideas produced’, let alone why Anthony Burgess considered it as much of a modern classic as Nineteen Eighty-Four!

The plot

1. The Dinner Party

The story opens in media res with our hero drunk lying face down in a wet mire in Gurney’s Field, enjoying the sensation of the watery black mud seeping in at the collar and between the buttons of his formal dinner shirt. We learn his name is Roy. He is the son of the village Rector. It is his twenty-first birthday.

2. The Confession

Earlier that evening Roy’s parents had held a little birthday dinner party for him, the guests consisting of the Rector and his kindly wife, the elderly Squire and his lovely sister, and a Flight-Lieutenant from the nearby Aerodrome.

To Roy’s horror his ‘father’, the Rector, makes a speech in which he reveals that he and his wife are not Roy’s parents, but that baby Roy was brought to them by someone from the local village and they arranged to take him as their own. Now they’re revealing the truth. In front of a table of strangers.

Disgusted, the Flight-Lieutenant gets up and leaves, Roy follows him, and ends up going to local village pub where he proceeds to get hog-whimpering drunk, staggers out the pub and across country with two drinking buddies – which is when he trips over a wire fence and finds himself face down in the mud – which is where the book opened.

On reflection I can see how this episode is meant to convey, as literally as can be, the earthiness of village life, its drunken peasant quality.

Anyway, Roy sobers up a bit and staggers back to the vicarage. He slips through the only unlocked window into the house, and finds himself in the study and is still in the curtained window alcove when he realises the Rector is kneeling in prayer and (like Hamlet’s father) confessing his sins. Astonishingly, he reveals that his wife was once in love with his best friend, Antony – he caught them in embraces a couple of times – and so the vicar-father conceived a wicked plan to go mountain climbing with Antony, to get to a particularly tricky cliff and there to yank Antony off the ledge and, as he dangled helplessly from the safety rope, to slowly cut through the rope so that Antony plunged to his death.

This whole scene would be pretty unrealistic in itself, but as Roy peeps through the curtains drawn across ‘his’ window he sees the Rector’s wife peeping from the curtains of the neighbouring window alcove. She spots him and winks. On her usually placid face is a shocking expression of malice and contempt.

As the Rector-father concludes his long piece of exposition, she slips over to the door and makes a fuss of opening it as if coming into the room, the Rector snaps out of his prayerful trance and welcomes her presence, she puts on a simpering vicar’s wife expression and Roy, watching all this from the crack in the curtains, is left absolutely flummoxed.

Within the space of one short evening he has discovered that his ‘parents’ are not his parents, that his supposedly saintly ‘father’ is in fact a cold-hearted murderer and his lovely ‘mother’ had a passionate affair!

But not half so flummoxed as the reader. Is this clever allegory, deliberately absurd Joe Orton-style satire, or tripe?

3. The Agricultural Show

Events follow each other in quick succession, with a sense of mounting hysteria, or plain weirdness. Roy, his ‘parents’ and the Squire’s sister meet up next morning to motor out to the annual Agricultural Show. So far, so Archers. They bump into the Flight-Lieutenant who is breezily apologetic for leaving the little birthday party the night before, then, on a whim, jumps onto the back of the show’s prize bull (Slazenger), cutting through the nearby fabric of the marquee tent they’re in, and riding the mooing protesting massive bull through the gap in the tent and out into the astonished and screaming crowds. What?

4. The Accident

They come to the Beer Tent where Roy discovers his drinking buddies from the night before, Mac and Fred. Strange scenes: a retired grocer with a red face and white hair staggers to his feet and makes a long speech to his dead mother to forgive him his wicked life. In another corner is a rat-catcher who, for a pint, takes live rats out of his teeming pockets and bites their heads off. A quarrel turns into a fight and the village bell-ringer, George Birkett, is smashed in the face with a broken beer glass by a short man who then darts out the tent, allegedly some member of staff from the Aerodrome (p.44).

This isn’t a normal Agricultural Show. It is more like something out of Breughel, or maybe Hieronymus Bosch.

It’s time for Roy’s date with Bess, they agreed to meet at noon, he finds her, they swagger arm in arm through the show, to her adulation he has a go at the coconut shy and being a big touch chap knocks all the coconuts off their shies.

They come across the Flight-Lieutenant now ensconced in a display area of his own, demonstrating the working of various machine guns to entranced little boys, and onlookers. He sees them and shouts over that the bull was recaptured and is perfectly fine, then gets on with his demonstration.

Roy and Bess wander beyond the bounds of the show itself across farmland to a remote barn and here have what was presumably as much sex as the censors of a 1940s novel would allow i.e. it’s written obscurely and elliptically, but clothes are unbuttoned and some kind of sexual experience is had (though nothing is ‘satisfactorily achieved’) which leaves Roy dazed (p.47).

They are just adjusting their clothes when the Flight-Lieutenant comes running over the field towards them and announces in his foppish, bantering style, that there’s been an accident. ‘I’m afraid I’ve potted your old man’. The F-L thought he’d loaded one of his machine guns with blanks, but they were real bullets, the Rector was among the crowd, and when he fired, the gun fired a ream of real bullets into the Rector who fell over like a nine-pin. It is specifically pointed out that the bullets didn’t just hit him, they ripped off his face. The corpse is unidentifiable. The Flight-Lieutenant is absurdly formal about his apologies. Frightfully sorry, old boy. ‘It was a really bad show.’ (p.48).

5. The Squire

Everyone takes this tragedy in their stride. The narrator isn’t that upset. The body lies in a coffin at the Rectory for a few days. Roy goes to the Manor to visit the Squire. He finds the old man at the end of a visit from an airman from the Aerodrome. The smartly dressed man salutes and leaves. The old Squire tells Roy the devastating news that the Aerodrome is going to take over the village, all its land, lock stock and barrel, converting the pub, all the houses, even the church, to air force purposes (p.55).

This prompts him to a soliloquy in which he reflects that his whole life has been for nothing, all the little kindnesses, running the boys club, helping expectant mothers, it’s all come to this. To be kicked out of his own home in his 70s. And his sister, Florence, has devoted her life to him, but he knows she’s never been happy. At least not except for one short period and he, the Squire, did what he could to crush even that (p.56). Roy listens politely and embarrassed.

6. The Funeral

The Rector’s funeral is held at the local church. First the Air Vice-Marshall appears at the Rectory. He is immensely blunt and to the point, polite as a robot, unbending. Roy can feel himself attracted to the man’s steely efficiency (the ‘power and confidence of the man’, p.62) and we get the impression both the womenfolk – the Rector’s wife and the Squire’s sister, Florence – moisten at the lips.

To people’s surprise, the ceremony is led by the Air Vice-Marshall. The address he gives is blunt to the point of rudeness. In fact he hardly lauds the dead man, instead using the opportunity to announce to the startled villagers that the entire village is going to be taken over by the Air Force, who will instal a new padre, take over as employees of all the adults, maintaining their pay, as long as the work is done conscientiously. An old boy rises to his feet to protest but the Air Vice-Marshall asks for him to be removed and two smartly-dressed airmen are immediately at the man’s sides, taking his arms and hustling him out of the church (p.67). After this stunning announcement the Air Vice-Marshall steps down from the pulpit and the rest of the service follows in the traditional style.

7. New Plans

Afterwards in the pub, what I suppose Warner intends us to think of as the common people, the chavs, the villagers, swig their ale and complain about the news: ‘The old Rector was a good man, he wouldn’t have allowed no takeover of the village’ etc.

When the pub closes, Roy has another date with Bess, she comes out the pub to join him, link arms and go for a country walk. She, like the Rector’s wife and the Squire’s sister, is impressed by the Air Vice-Marshall (just twenty years later Sylvia Plath would write: ‘Every woman adores a fascist.’). Bess begs and insists that Roy join the air force, and they get married and he will be an airman and she will be an airmans wife, oh won’t it be marvellous.

As so often happens, the Flight-Lieutenant strolls along at just that moment, the opportune moment, like an angel or allegorical figure, like Hermes or Puck.

He sits down by them in the shade of a hedgerow and Bess enthusiastically tells him that Roy is going to join the air force and they’re going to be married. At which the Flight-Lieutenant rather surreally explains that, when the air force take over the village, he is going to be made padre and so he sort of has the legal right to marry them right now if they want. ‘Tomorrow’, says the excited Bess. And Roy walks her back to the pub and hands her over to her publican father, both of them dizzied by the prospect of getting married.

8. The Impulse

En route back to the Rectory, Roy bumps into the Squire’s butler, flustered and without his customary bowler hat, who tells him the Squire has taken to bed and is very sick. Returning to the Rectory, Roy finds the Air Vice-Marshall has arranged to stay overnight and overhears a conversation in which he tells the Rector’s wife:

‘I was merely observing that those who have been my enemies tend to die out, usually as a result of their own weakness or incompetence, while I survive them.’ (page 81)

Roy formally enters, the adults suspend their conversation, the Rector’s wife also tells him about the Squire who’s been calling for Roy. Cut to a few hours later and Roy is in the Squire’s bedroom, curtains drawn, night-time, fire burning, the old man is in bed, unconscious, barely breathing. Suddenly he stirs and utters the words: ‘Your father’ before relapsing exhausted. A few moments later, with great effort, he says: ‘Florence’.

Now, having been alerted to the unlikely sexual shenanigans concerning the Rector and his wife right at the start of the novel, I immediately began to suspect there was more to Roy’s parentage than meets the eye. The precise story, as told by the Rector at the opening birthday party, was that the baby was found in a basket by the road at the top of the village, and the wife of the village publican brought the babe in a basket to the Rector who adopted it (p.19).

Well, the abandoned baby with a fateful parentage is as old as writing, appearing in Jewish (Moses) and Greek (Oedipus) mythology, and hundreds of novels as a cheap plot (Tom Jones, Oliver Twist). What if Roy is the Squire’s sister’s son? What if she had an affair with the wicked Rector? Alternatively, who was it ‘discovered’ and brought the babe in a basket to the Rector’s? The landlord’s wife. What if Roy is her child? In which case his affair with Betty would be incest.

Anyway, Roy has taken the old man’s hand as he tries to say something dreadfully important, but at that moment the Squire’s sister, Florence comes in and starts to gently stroke the old man’s face when, to everyone’s astonishment, the old man’s legs shoot out, his grip tightens on Roy’s hand, and he bites deep into his sister’s hand!. She shrieks and the old man only bites harder at which the sister’s face completely transforms and she starts beating him round the face, smack smack smack. Too astonished to move, Roy watches the old man’s jaws slacken, the sister whip away her bleeding hand, and they both hear his death rattle. The old Squire is dead (p.85).

Roy sees it is his duty to comfort the Squire’s sister, although at the same time repelled by her actions. Then out into the hall where the Squire’s servants are all gathered, muttering about the news, and so home to the Rectory where he finds the Air Vice-Marshall, brisk and businesslike, fastening his gloves before getting into his chauffeur-driven car and motoring away.

9. The Honeymoon

Cut to a few weeks later. The Flight-Lieutenant, true to his word, has ‘married’ Roy and Bess. Not only that but he and a couple of air force buddies have fitted them up a sort of quarters in a corrugated iron shed at the bottom of airfield property. Over the days they and the happy couple bring pillows and fabric and turn it into a cosy love nest. Neither of their families know they’re married. They meet at the edge of the village and spend afternoons and evenings there together. They finally have proper sex, and Roy is astonished by the world of splendour which opens up for him.

On the day of the Squire’s funeral, the air force begins its formal takeover of the village. The village divides into two parties, the older inhabitants who’ve been used to traditions and dislike the new regime, and the younger men who admire the airmen and their machines and, now that agricultural work has come to an end, hope to get jobs as labourers or technicians up at the aerodrome – with the landlord acting as a sort of referee between them.

The Squire’s sister becomes openly contemptuous of the airmen, spitting on the ground after the Flight-Lieutenant’s walked by. He now takes Sunday service in the church but doesn’t bother changing out of his airforce uniform and reads dully and uninspiredly. The Rector’s asks Roy if he might consider working for the air force. She doesn’t know that, at the same time as he got married to Bessy, Roy signed up to join the air force.

10. A Disclosure

Roy is bowled over by the intimacy and power of sexual love, and a bit irked that Bessy is far more excited by the prospect of him joining the air force, learning to fly, them getting married quarters and a little car, of travelling abroad! The weeks go by. One day she is a bit distant. She explains that her mother is always trying to put her off him. Roy vows to go and see her, walks down the sloping field, stops at the bottom and waves. He feels a tremendous closeness and intimacy with her, as with no-one else.

He walks to the pub and presents himself to the landlord’s wife in the garden, among the lupins, delphiniums and buzzing bees. After preliminary chat she takes him up to her bedroom (her husband, the landlord, being fast asleep in the bar) and tells him blank: Bess is his sister. The Rector had an affair with her, the landlady. She got pregnant, Bess is the result. At first Roy denies it, explaining that the Rector explained at his birthday that he was not Roy’s biological father. Oh but he was, the landlady explains. Just that he got the Rector’s wife pregnant quite a bit before they were married. They married in a hurry, then the Rector’s wife was packed off abroad with her, the landlady, Eve, to accompany her. The Rector’s wife returned, the story of the finding of the baby in a basket was cooked up and arranged between all three of them. And during this period the Rector had started an affair with the landlady, getting her pregnant too. ‘Oh he was a fine man.’

So the beautiful young woman Roy is having an affair with, who he has married and who has opened up for him the world of sexual delight… is his half-sister!

Chapter 11 Change of Plan

Roy walks back through the village, across the fields and up towards the tin shed in the field, when he hears voices. Laughter. He jerks open the door of the shed to reveal Bess on the bed naked and the Flight-Lieutenant naked above her. As she scoops bedclothes up around her nekkid body, the Flight-Lieutenant is up and getting swiftly dressed, so swiftly that within moments he is moving towards Roy holding his call-up papers for the air force. As Roy looks down, the Flight-Lieutenant, obviously quite scared, skips past him, into the open and is off with a typically unfeeling quip: ‘Sorry about this, but all’s fair, you know’ (p.112).

It’s the old story: the more totally in love you are, the deeper the knife twists in your guts. Roy reels. Bess’s uneducated simplicity comes out. She thought she was being ‘nice’ to both of them. She tells him she started her ‘affair’ with the Flight-Lieutenant the day before she and Roy were married. And she goes on to tell him, as if it will help, that the Flight-Lieutenant is much better, physically, than him: much more confident, much more exciting, makes her feel much more at ease. Thanks, Bess.

This chapter well conveys the flood of contradictory feelings you experience in such a situation, including the impression that it’s all a bad dream and all you have to do is reach out your hand to restore the wonderful, paradisal intimacy you once shared with another human being. But the more they talk the worse it gets, and then Roy decides to prick her smug self-satisfaction and tells her they are brother and sister.

This prompts a moment of horror, Bess struggles to process this momentous new fact, but then she manages to smile and say, ‘Well at least that makes it easier.’ She reaches out her hand and smiles at him, ‘What shall we do now, Roy?’ but he too has processed the situation to a conclusion and says, ‘Do what you want’, turns on his heel, walks down the field then breaks into a run over fields and fences, till he gets to the river, strips off and dives into its refreshing cleansing cold waters.

12. The Air Vice-Marshall

Cut to a few weeks later. Roy has been inducted into the air force along with fifty or so other recruits. Life isn’t as cushy as he’d anticipated, the accommodation is basic, the food is poor, up early, to bed late, lots of exercise and none of them have been anywhere near a plane.

The Air Vice-Marshall assembles them in an underground lecture theatre (a lot of the Aerodrome’s facilities, it turns out, are underground, linked by an underground railway – maybe on the model of the French Army’s Maginot Line defences.)

The Air Vice-Marshall delivers an extended lecture about what is expected of the new recruits (pp.121-128). They are seeking not only to protect but to transform society. He anatomises the feudal rules of the village, labouring under a worn-out religion nobody believes any more, losing themselves in drunkenness and humiliating ‘love affairs’.

The airmen must rise above all that. First be rejecting their parents and all aspects of their former lives. Then the Air Vice-Marshall embarks on a lengthy description of how, although love and sex are inevitable for any young man, they must not let themselves be trapped by women, time-bound creatures made by biology to be bound to the past (parents) and future (children) more than men. All love affairs end in tears. A true airman makes sure the tears are not his. All love affairs are between unequals. The airman must make sure he is not the giver who ends up feeling exploited. He must always be the exploiter, the taker.

This way the airman can fulfil his destiny which is to escape the constraints of time and achieve the complete self-mastery, which is Freedom.

I can imagine many a feminists head exploding in outrage as she reads this extended and forensic explanation of how to exploit women and their supposedly ‘better’ nature. For me, though, the disappointment is in Warner’s fictional character’s target. We know from the book about European fascism which I’ve just finished reading (To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw) that, in the ideology of true Fascism, a key tenets alongside transforming the state and devoting yourself to The Leader, is fighting communism. Communism was the great bogeyman which helped unify all kinds of forces on the right of politics and helped them bury their differences to create authoritarian dictatorships across Europe.

You can see why mentioning specific political movements or parties is too specific or narrow for the kind of broad allegory Warner i writing. But it seemed to me that he was playing to the gallery instead of addressing the issue. What I mean is: these passages address an issue dear to the hearts of humanist and liberal readers of literature (love and relationships and feelings and emotions etc) and completely irrelevant to the actual historical circumstances of Fascism, which has its origins in the collapse of parliamentary democracy and the spread of street violence which only The Strong Man says he can quell.

13. Alterations

They watch a synchronised flying display. The man behind the radio-controlled co-ordination of the planes is an elderly mathematical genius. The Air Vice-Marshall congratulates him. The implication is that someday soon actual pilots will be redundant.

Roy is now a talented pilot. He’s surprised to discover he is already regarded as more promising that the Flight-Lieutenant who he used to so admire. When he goes down into the village he finds it transformed. The sleepy high street is full of air force vehicles or squads of cadets marching up and down. The Manor has been gutted and turned into an officers club with a new rooftop restaurant, the elaborate garden torn up to make way for a swimming club and tennis courts. When he drops into the pub, Roy’s old mates avoid him. He’s one of them now.

The airmen hear that the Flight-Lieutenant is going native. It’s as he and Roy have switched identities. Roy finds the villagers harder and harder to take, beginning to think these simple muddy souls are fit only for hard labour, while the Flight-Lieutenant is reported to be taking his duties as padre more and more seriously, delivering extended sermons, asking for Aerodrome funds to help repair the church tower. He has long ago lost interest in Bess. On his rare visits to the pub Bess tries to be friendly with Roy, but he’s having none of it.

In a striking scene Roy makes a rare visit to the Rectory only to discover the Flight-Lieutenant leaning against an armchair, having his hair idly stroked by the Squire’s sister. He has become their darling – whereas Roy has become an airman – coldly he asks for his clothes, shakes hands and departs. He has become the brisk, rude personality he admired at the start of the book.

14. Eustasia

Their positions become even more reversed when we learn that the Flight-Lieutenant is in love with a lady on the airbase called Eustasia, but that she upsets him by often asking after Roy — rather as Bes, although ‘married’ Roy, secretly lusted after the Flight-Lieutenant.

Now, just to spite the Flight-Lieutenant, Roy determines to have an affair with her. (Eustasia is, by the way, the wife of the genius mathematician-engineer who’s designing the radio-controlled airplanes. She’s bored. She has lots of affairs with the fit young pilots.)

The Flight-Lieutenant takes Roy to her rooms, introduces them. She has just got out of the shower and is wearing a dressing gown. Clearly this is her seduction outfit. She tells the Flight-Lieutenant to run along and buy some cigarettes and, once he’s gone, there is a moment of stasis super-charged with meaning and lust. Then she puts her hand on Roy’s knee, he grasps her thigh, she pout towards him and they are kissing lustfully.

In the midst of their grappling they realise the Flight-Lieutenant has reappeared in the room, sinks to the floor beside the sofa, puts his head against it and start crying. Roy looks down at him with contempt. The Flight-Lieutenant lets rip with a lot of stuff about how she’s the only woman who understands him, he feels so out of place at the aerodrome, and other emotional claptrap. With a jolt Roy realises this is how he must have appeared when he made his declarations of undying love to Bess. Eustasia treats him like a puppy. Everything he says, his entire outpouring of heartfelt emotion, means nothing to her.

Now this, this thread of meditations about love, which run from Roy’s puppy love for Bess, through devastation at her betrayal, to his newfound cynical confidence with a worldly woman like Eustasia, and their cynical almost sadistic treatment of the Flight-Lieutenant, this strikes me as having an imaginative force and experience unlike anything else in the book. The intense focus on analysing the relations between men and women reminds me a little of Kingsley Amis.

They become lovers. They meet and have sex every day in her stylishly decorated apartment. Roy is a confident man of the world and takes her to the officers club and to balls. He thinks back with a shudder to the time he wasted in the shabby tin hut on the edge of a field with the landlord’s stupid daughter in her home-made dresses. God, how far he has come!

15. Discipline

To his surprise Roy is appointed personal assistant to the Air Vice-Marshall. Slowly he discovers the scope of the Aerodrome, not just to defend the country but to transform it. Thus it has departments devoted to banking, agriculture, fisheries and so on.

From this point on (page 149), rather suddenly, Roy – and therefore the entire text – is transported to high up in the secret paramilitary organisation which actually runs the Aerodrome, and we now hear all about it from two sources: 1. verbatim speeches which the Air Vice-Marshall gives explaining the movement’s philosophy and 2. Roy’s description of his own discoveries about the movement’s aims (to take over and transform society).

Alongside his discoveries, Roy hears of incidents of insubordination in the village, leading up to the murder of an Air Force officer. In vague militaristic terms we learn that an example is made, anyone caught criticising the Air Force is dealt with severely.

Then we learn that the Flight-Lieutenant has been taking his job as padre too seriously and making anti-Air Force comments. The Air Vice-Marshall takes Roy along with him to the next Sunday service at the village church and they are both surprised to see the Flight-Lieutenant appear in full vicar outfit, to which he has no right, ascend to the pulpit and start talking about the good old days before the Air Force took over.

At which point the Air Vice-Marshall steps into the aisle and orders the Flight-Lieutenant to come down. As he hesitates some parishioners start muttering and there are shouts of ‘throw him out’ at which the Vice-Marshall draws his revolver and points it at the Flight-Lieutenant.

While he hesitates the Squire’s sister rises and starts shouting at the Vice-Marshall, pushing her way past sitting parishioners into the aisle, points at the Vice-Marshall and other airmen, starts saying, ‘Listen, listen all of you,’ and the Vice-Marshall shoots her point blank.

The Squire’s sister falls to the floor dead. The parishioners cower, the women start weeping, the Flight-Lieutenant comes down along the aisle and kneels beside the bleeding body, the Vice-Marshall orders his men to arrest him (p.159). The Vice-Marshall and Roy leave the church together, Roy is astonished at how little he feels for the murdered woman.

16. The secret

Roy goes to the club. Fellow officers are laughing and joking about the shooting. Roy reveals an extremely strange attitude to the killing of one of his oldest friends, which is that he finds it unaccountable that he seems to be somewhat moved. This is not an ordinary novel, in which we might expect the protagonist to be badly shaken up. He realises it is nearly his birthday, nearly a year since the events which kicked off the narrative. He realises he isn’t interested in the date or the occasion. He has now been lifted onto the Air Force’s level of abstract living, detached from human values.

He walks past the pub and toys with going in but the locals, the ones he used to be mates with, give him dirty looks. But the landlady comes out, takes him aside, and tells him how miserable Bess is, in fact she’s so broken-hearted she’s ill. This gets through Roy’s zombie-carapace a little and he promises to get Dr Faulkner the chief medical officer at the Aerodrome to visit her.

As he walks into the Aerodrome grounds he sees Eustasia outside her apartment building. She waves him over and insists on taking her upstairs to his flat. There she announces that she’s pregnant, staring at the floor. Roy is horrified – airmen are forbidden from having children, it ties them down – but pretends to be pleased.

But when Eustasia starts telling him how excited she’ll be to leave the Aerodrome and go live in another part of the country, Roy can’t hide the dismay at the ruin of all his plans and ambitions, and suddenly Eustasia gets really angry, ‘You never loved me’ etc. And then Roy feels sees in her the recriminations he brought against Bess and feels sorry for her. And they have sensitive tearful sex, both of them knowing their happy-go-lucky fun days are over.

17. Bess

Roy accompanies Dr Faulkner, the Aerodome chief medical officer, to see Bess. She is in her bedroom, hunched up in the windowseat, staring into space, catatonic, the lap of her homespun dress full of primroses she’s picked. Immediately we think of Ophelia, who went mad and picked flowers.

In a surprising development Roy gets down on his knees and puts his head in her lap. She strokes it absent-mindedly like Ophelia and Hamlet. He realises that Eustasia and the entire Aerodrome and its plan to take over and transform the nation mean nothing to him next to Bess’s love.

I remembered suddenly and vividly the moment in the past when we had been together in the field listening to the larks singing, the time when I had decided easily and gladly to abandon myself to her love. The promises and ambitions of that time may have been stupid and ill-considered. I had believed them to have become null and void; but I saw now that the feeling that had prompted them could never be recalled. It was not that I had any more a desire to possess her. Such an idea would in any case have been absurd; but I knew in a moment and with certainty that compared with her health and happiness the aerodrome and all that it contained meant nothing to me at all… (p.175)

I was astonished at how soppy this was, and how quick and complete the change in Roy’s attitude. He has little or no plausibility as a character, as a depiction of a real human being. He is more a robot witness of the ‘allegorical’ and often bizarre events Warner puts him through.

18. New friends

Roy bumps into the Rector’s wife waiting outside the Aerodrome. It is eerie how neither of them seem particularly upset by the events they’ve witnessed – the Rector and the Squire’s wife being shot dead.

She amazes the reader by explaining that the Flight-Lieutenant is the dead Squire’s sister’s son. The Squire had refused to have the boy in the house, had insisted on him being sent away, nobody knew about it, and nobody realised it was the Flight-Lieutenant until a chance remark of his confirmed it. (But this is the man who shot dead the Rector, her husband – how can anyone… oh, whatever).

Roy accompanies Dr Faulkner to see Bess and then walk back to the Aerodrome on numerous occasions. She had been in a deep depression, incapable of speaking. Slowly she is coming out of it and the doctor assures Roy her recovery will be complete, but he’s not telling something, Roy catches him and the Rector’s wife conferring, there’s some secret.

Somehow Roy manages to reconcile his realisation that he loves Bess, that he sympathises with the villagers and realises the values of the Aerodrome are worthless with… working closely with the Air Vice-Marshall on the plan to take over the country. You can see how he’s not really a person, but more a puppet in a pantomime.

And it tells you everything about Warner’s priorities that he devotes just one paragraph to this subject – the plan to take over the entire country: whereas he has given us pages and pages about a) Bess & her health b) about the Flight-Lieutenant being the Squire’s sister’s son and now c) goes into an extended analysis of the new flavour of his love affair with Eustasia i.e. they stop having sex but enter a deeper kind of relationship. All his about love and relationships, but barely a paragraph about the plans to take over the country. Those are his priorities.

Now you might remember that the Flight-Lieutenant had been imprisoned at the Air Vice-Marshall’s order after the scene at the village church. Now he’s released, has been reduced to the ranks and is working as ground staff. Roy meets him again at Eustasia’s apartment and they discover they’re back to being friends again. Roy tells him how disillusioned he is with the Air Force, the Flight-Lieutenant urges caution.

But at their next meeting Roy tells the Air Vice-Marshall that he has got Eustasia pregnant.

  1. The Air Vice-Marshall reveals that he, too, once had a liaison with her (confirming the sense that more or less all the men on the Aerodrome have slept with Eustasia)
  2. The Air Vice-Marshall angrily reminds Roy that a key tenet of the Air Force is it is absolutely forbidden to have children. Children are a tie to the future and an airman must have no past or future, he must elude time in order to become a New Man.

The Air Vice-Marshall gives Roy three days to sort it out i.e. to force Eustasia to have an abortion. (This is a pretty obvious symbol of the Air Force’s literal denial of life in all its messy glory, and crystallises Roy’s sense that:

the code under which I had been living for the past year was, in spite of its symmetry and its perfection, a denial of life, its difficulty, its perplexity and its suffering, rather than an affirmation of its nobility and its grandeur. (p.193)

19. The Decision

One day Roy is out at the Aerodrome watching the Flight-Lieutenant and other mechanics making last-minute adjustments to the twenty-seater plane which is to fly the Air Vice-Marshall to some important meeting. The Flight-Lieutenant steps briskly away, in the direction of Eustasia’s block of flats and Roy goes to follow him, but is intercepted and delayed by a chat with Dr Faulkner.

Walking on to Eustasia’s flat he is almost knocked over by a squad of six motorcyclists heading out of the base at top speed. Arriving at Eustasia’s flat Roy finds all the doors open and a message. She and the Flight-Lieutenant have done a bunk, running away together. He realises the motor bikes were sent out to catch them. Stepping out into the Aerodrome road, Roy sees one of the bikers returning. He salutes and the biker tells them they caught up with the escapees at a narrow stone bridge. The cars crashed, both the people inside were crushed, killed.

He is describing it to the doctor, stunned, when an orderly tells him the Air Vice-Marshall wants to see him. Roy reports. The Air Vice-Marshall is in an excellent mood. He jovially tells Roy how this means he is off the hook – no more pregnant Eustasia, no more difficult decision for Roy. He can refocus on his work.

Roy tells him he can stuff his work. He is disgusted and repelled by the organisation, The Air Vice-Marshall controls his fury and tells Roy he has no option but to have him killed. (All this passes as in a dream. I had no sense of threat, and couldn’t care less about Roy, unlike, for example the real terror you feel on Winston Smith’s behalf.)

The Air Vice-Marshall is just offering Roy a last opportunity to change his mind and save his life when there is a swift knock at the door and the doctor and the Rector’s wife walk in. This is more like a Whitehall farce than a dystopia. The doctor apologises and call the Air Vice-Marshall Antony.

Antony!? The name of the man the Rector confessed to sending plummeting to his doom up some mountain, the supposed lover of  his wife, the Rector’s wife before they got married!?

Yes: now it all comes tumbling out, as on the last page of a whodunnit or the last few minutes of a bedroom farce. Yes: as a young man the Air Vice-Marshall (Antony) had been in love with the Rector’s wife (we never get to learn her name), and had had a fling with her while the Rector was pursuing a more formal wooing. Spotting them, the Rector had suggested their trip to the mountains where he cut Antony’s rope sending him plunging down the mountainside. But he had survived and returned (somehow the Rector never noticed this), returned to discover that his lover, pregnant with his son, had now married the Rector (thinking Antony dead) and born the child who is… none other than Roy!

So…. so when the landlady told Roy she was his mother, after the Rector had an affair with her…. that was a lie? So Roy is not a blood relative of Bess? So their ‘marriage’ was not incest?

But not only this – the Rector’s wife now tells us and the audience that Antony not only returned from the dead and berated her for marrying his would-be murderer and making him his son’s father… Antony then went and had an affair with her best friend, the Squire’s sister, got her pregnant, and spirited away the baby, a boy, a son, who was to return years later as…. the Flight-Lieutenant!!!

So…. the Air Vice-Marshall… let me get this straight… when the Air Vice-Marshall shot dead the Squire’s sister in the church he was killing the woman he had an affair with and the mother of his son, the Flight-Lieutenant, who he then had thrown into prison and… and has just now despatched a squad of motorcycle riders to have killed.

Yes, because the Rector’s wife now accuses Tthe Air Vice-Marshall of having had one of his sons murdered, and being on the verge of murdering the other, too (Roy).

(So the Flight-Lieutenant and Roy were brothers… which explains why he was invited to Roy’s 21st birthday party right at the start… doesn’t it?)

After the Rector’s wife makes her big speech explaining all this, the Air Vice-Marshall turns to Roy and says I told you so. What an absurd, messy, sordid business life is. Come with me, cast off the shackles of the past and be free.

Can you not see, and I am asking you for the last time, to escape from time and its bondage, to construct around you something that is guided by your own will, not forced upon you by past accident, something of clarity, independence and beauty? (p.200)

The doctor now reveals that it was he who saved Antony/the Air Vice-Marshall’s life after his fall and nursed him back to life. He pleads for Roy’s life. Furious, the Air Vice-Marshall says he’ll be lucky to survive for his treason.

He asks Roy if he’s coming with him to the climactic meeting of the organisation, to finalise plans for the coup. Roy says No. The Air Vice-Marshall tells him he’s going to lock the doors, if anyone tries to escape he’s giving orders for them to be shot down, He goes out and they hear the lock turn.

Through the window of the office where he’s locked up, Roy idly watches him walk across the runway, meet up with the Chief Mathematician and all the other important men from the organisation. They get in the plane. The Air Vice-Marshall himself is flying it. It taxis down the runway, turns and takes off. But it doesn’t climb as it should. Then climbs too steeply. Then the wing Roy had seen the Flight-Lieutenant fiddling with falls off! The plane plummets back to earth, smashing and exploding on impact, killing everyone inside it.

20. Conclusion

Three last pages tie up loose ends. The doctor tells Roy how he was friends with both the Rector and Antony and a) nursed the latter back to health b) decided with him to keep his survival a secret and stage a fake funeral c) never told the Rector the truth (thus letting him live a life plagued by guilt).

And watched the recovered Antony vow never to let himself be influenced by women or love or the past, but to remake and remodel himself. Out of this burning ambition grew the ambition to remodel the entire country and human nature. So: that’s the origin of the Air Vice-Marshall’s steely determination and ‘fascist’ beliefs.

But now that he’s dead, the organisation he had built up over years collapses. The threat of a coup evaporates.

Bess is now healed. Reconciled with her, Roy now marries her in a formal ceremony. They sit in the fields by the ancient elms. He is at one not only with her, and with Nature but with… past time, the way the messiness of time, our pasts and everyone else’s pasts prevents anything human from being pure, or being made new. The author’s final message is:

It was not for me, I knew now, to attempt either to reshape or to avoid what was too vast even to be imagined as enfolding me, nor could I reject as negligible the least event in the whole current of past time. (p.205)


Cast

  • Roy – the 21-year-old first person narrator
  • The Rector – his supposed father, murdered his friend Antony, shot dead by the Flight-Lieutenant at the Agricultural Show
  • The Rector’s wife – Roy’s supposed mother
  • Antony – the Rector’s friend and his wife’s lover, who the Rector confesses to murdering in chapter two
  • the Squire – a 70-year-old, white haired old worthy, lives in the Manor, dies after the Aerodrome requisition the entire village and specifically after his siter has beaten him round the face
  • the Squire’s sister – Florence, who has devoted her life to her brother, but falls into a huge rage at his death-bed and then is shot dead by the Air Vice-Marshall of the church
  • Mac – one of Roy’s drinking buddies from the (unnamed) pub in the (unnamed) village
  • Fred – another of Roy’s drinking buddies
  • the landlord – of the unnamed pub
  • the landlady – of the unnamed pub, who claims to be Roy’s mother, by the Rector
  • Bess – the landlord’s sexy but simple daughter who Roy has a passionate affair with, and even gets unofficially ‘married’ to, until the landlady tells Roy she is actually the illegitimate daughter of the Rector and so Roy’s step-sister
  • the Flight-Lieutenant – a drawling, lackadaisical smart young representative of the Aerodrome and its complete lack of conventional manners or pieties, who accidentally shoots the Rector dead, has a fling with Bess behind Roy’s back, is tasked with being the village padre after the Aerodrome takes it over, but slowly adopts village values, takes his duties seriously, begins speaking out against the Air Force
  • the Air Vice-Marshall – ‘a slight tense figure’ (p.158) the logical, no-nonsense head of the Air Force and indeed of the wider ‘movement’ which is planning to take over the country and transform it
  • the mathematician – a tall, elderly man with a small straggling beard (p.131) mastermind of a new technology of remote controlled airplanes; married to the pneumatic Eustasia
  • Eustasia – sexy wife of the mathematician who has had affairs with a string of airmen and now takes up with Roy
  • Dr Faulkner – medical co-ordinater at the Aerodrome, tends to Bess during her melancholia

Time

Several times the Air Vice-Marshall goes well beyond a conventional view of fascism as the takeover of the state and the expulsion of all the time-servers and money-lenders and parasites who infest it, far beyond that, to expound a vision of a new type of Man who will have a new type of relationship with Time! (p.128)

He explains that the airman must reject his parents, siblings, family and background i.e. all the ties of the past – and cease to worry about his own life, how it will turn out etc, in other words, cease to fear about the future. In other words, the New Men, by abandoning the ties of past and future, by entire devotion to the mission of the Air Force, can escape Time itself:

‘What is the whole purpose of our life… To be freed from time, Roy. From the past and from the future.’ (p.150)

Only then will we become ‘a new and more adequate race of men’ (p.128).

But in the last few chapters, as Roy passes the apogee of his attachment to the Aerodrome ideals, he comes to see that men are stuck in time for better or for worse, and that it is this embedded-in-time-ness which creates the potential, the adventure and excitement which are quintessentially human, as against the rigid, utterly predictable logic of the Air Force. ‘We in the Air Force had escaped but not solved the mystery’ (p.177).

It is only human to make mistakes, and get caught up in the confusing messiness of life, whereas it is an error:

to deny wholly the relevance of the world of time and feeling where such mistakes were only too easy to make, and to erect in contrast with it our own barren edifice of perfection, our efficient and mystical mastery over time. (p.181)

This interest in Time is an unusual and thought-provoking spin on the central polarity the novel describes. It reminds me of the contemporaneous obsession with time in T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton (1936).

Style

My plot summary gives you the events but doesn’t give any sense of how hard The Aerodrome is to actually read, chiefly because of its clotted, clunky style.

Warner writes in long sentences, often with three or four subordinate clauses, with non-standard word order, and using idioms or phrases which have long ago been dropped from ordinary English. Take the opening of chapter five:

In our house, as I should say in many others, death had not been in the past a frequent topic of conversation; but now, with a dead body in an upper room lying beneath a sheet, both the presence and the certainty of death were never, during the days that preceded the funeral, far from our minds. (page 50)

The prose is sufficiently different in layout and phrasing from modern English that, at moments, it prompts your mind (expecting clarity and logic) to set off in the wrong direction and you have to call it back in order to reread what the text actually says. Take this passage describing the layout of the Aerodrome, much of which is built beneath ground so that staff move around it using an underground railway.

By this railway we had come immediately after breakfast, accompanied by the three or four officers who were responsible for our training, and since the early days after we had been called up had been rigorous enough, we had been surprised to find this place so luxuriously furnished and so unlike the severity of the quarters in which we had so far lived. (p.119)

A modern writer would perhaps say the training had been ‘very rigorous’ – saying rigorous ‘enough’ sets a modern reader up to expect that it was vigorous enough for something to follow logically. Similarly, when I read the first ‘so’ I expected the sentence to continue ‘so luxuriously furnished that…‘ – I mean that the ‘so’ would lead into a conclusion rather than remain an adverb.

Maybe it’s just me, but I found Warner’s prose as stiff and restraining as Roy’s dinner party white shirt. Towards the end of the book the landlord’s wife approaches Roy:

She appeared to me at once as both older and less self-possessed than she had been at our last interview, and though for some weeks after that time I had avoided conversation with her, now I was by no means displeased to see that she evidently wished to talk to me; for I still retained for her the affection of my childhood, and did not fancy that she could reveal anything else to me that could disturb the serenity in which I lived. (page 163)

Warner’s clunky, peculiar prose style has at least two consequences:

1. You as the reader have to work quite hard to penetrate the prose and make out what’s happening, or to rethink the crabbed sentences into more flowing English so you can grasp their meaning. Quite often I felt Warner was struggling, didn’t have the basic expressive skill, to describe his own story.

I saw that Eustasia was watching me closely. Her large eyes were fixed on my face and there was an expression of eagerness in them, as though she were attempting to drag to her my thoughts from behind my forehead. (p.169)

2. The style is so peculiar and stilted that it keeps you on the outside of the narrative.

Apparently Warner intended his book to be an ‘allegory’ and it’s just as well because it doesn’t work as a psychological novel i.e. a novel where we’re meant to care in the slightest about the characters.

Roy barely reacts to the bizarre and shocking things he sees – his father’s confession, the Squire’s sister slapping the Squire to death, the Vice-Marshall shooting her dead – Roy moves through the story like a zombie.

The only places his account comes to life are in the scattered descriptions of being really head-over-heels in love with Bess, the persuasive account of his distress when he discovers her with another man, and then the new set of emotions he discovers during his affair with the worldly-wise Eustasia.

But almost all the other passages – about the Rector, his wife, the Squire, his sister and much of the description of the Aerodrome – are processed logically, in his stiff, starchy sometimes clumsy prose, and leave the reader utterly outside the experience. I kind of read at The Aerodrome but never felt I got inside it. Certainly none of its characters or events made much impression on me. For Anthony Burgess to compare it with Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of the most effectively nightmareish novels ever written, is grotesque.

Critique

By the end of the book, it has become, almost in spite of itself and its odd prose style, an impressive text. I’ve given a detailed summary so you can judge for yourself what you think of the story as a story; I’ll mention a few other aspects.

Many critics claim Warner is a kind of English Kafka. This is maybe true in two respects:

  1. the overall allegorical feel of the story in which incidents and details are crafted to fit into the totality of the allegory, as they are in The Trial and The Castle
  2. the bizarre and inexplicable elements – having recently reread all of Kafka I was reminded how plain weird many of the episodes in Kafka’s novels are, and also that he left the novels in fragments precisely because he was good at weird and intense scenes but less good at figuring out how to stitch them together

Kafka and Warner are even similar in their attitude to sex, in the sense that Kafka’s two main protagonists, Joseph K and K, seem to be very attractive to women but end up having sudden sex in incongruous places with little or no courting or foreplay – a little like Roy finds himself fornicating in a hay barn or a rickety tin shed with Bess.

For me, though, the central criticism of the Aerodrome is in its vision of a totalitarian movement. It’s too simple and too clean. Having just read Ian Kershaw’s exhaustive survey of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, a key element in the rise of right-wing dictatorships was the violence – the violence of thugs on the street, the violence of left and right wing paramilitaries, and then the violence of seizing and holding power. Enemies were rounded up, gaoled and murdered.

The Aerodrome contains some thrilling speeches by the Air Vice-Marshall about how the movement is not going to take over the country, it is going to transform it, how the old world of muddle and confusion will be swept away, how a new breed of men who have rejected the past and have no fear of the future – who have, in other words, escaped the bonds of Time – will for the first time live properly human lives.

But, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is a very shiny, technology-driven vision. Clean, antiseptic. It doesn’t take into account the actual conditions which gave rise to right-wing government across Europe which were, above all, poverty, unemployment, complete loss of faith in elected governments, and real fear of a communist revolution. These were the elements which so destabilised European nations that right-wing, often military figures could step in and promise to restore order, give people jobs, and prevent the advent of the communism which huge portions of the population were so terrified of.

None of this is in The Aerodrome. None of the political complexity, the collapse of government, and the street violence. It is a strangely antiseptic and theoretical vision of what a fascist regime would look like. And this theoretical or ‘allegorical’ treatment extends to the way the opposite of the fascist movement is not a communist or social democrat regime, it is rural tradition. But this wasn’t the alternative most people in urban industrialised Europe faced, let alone in Britain, the most urbanised country in the world.

Instead the central antithesis in the book between hi-tech airmen and drunks from the pub feels like a warmed-up version of the age-old dichotomy between city and countryside which stretches back through all civilisations, to the ancient Roman and Greeks and probably beyond, in which the businesslike city-dweller is glamorous but somehow shallow, while the country-dweller is humble and thick but somehow more authentic.

And in the simplicity of its age-old dichotomy The Aerodrome also fails to investigate the much more tangled imagery of contemporary Fascism which somehow managed to combine both elements, so that the Nazis managed to create posters and propaganda films which showed blonde Hitler youths both helping with the harvest, exercising in the country and flying brand new Messerschmitt fighter planes.

German Fascism, like Italian and Spanish cousins, combined veneration of Blood and Soil with veneration of shiny new technologies, to present the propaganda image of the totality of a nation united in one purpose.

By adopting his gleaming airmen versus doddery old village types, Warner misses all the complexities and contradictions of actual Fascist regimes, and instead paints a kind of children’s cartoon version of it.

The Aerodrome is, at the end of the day, despite its terrible prose and lack of any attempt to create credible characters, an interesting and occasionally enjoyable book. But as any kind of guide or insight into the actual fascist mind it strikes me as useless.

Also it tells you bugger-all about the air force, any air force, or what it was like to fly a plane in the late 1930s. For a book which describes the joy of flying, try Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936).

Credit

The Aerodrome by Rex Warner was published in 1941. All references are to the 1968 Sphere Books paperback edition (cover price 7/6).


Related links

The Auden Generation

Rex Warner was one of the generation of English schoolboys born in the Edwardian decade who went to public schools during the war, then onto Oxford and Cambridge in the 1920s, where they met, mingled and often had affairs (many of them were gay or bisexual), before going on to start their writing careers at the very start of the 1930s.

They were the generation which gave literature in England in the 1930s its distinctive tone, its schoolboy enthusiasms – for the shiny Art Deco world, for a glamorised black-and-white movie view of spies and fighting, and (since so many of them dabbled with left-wing politics) for sixth-form disapproval of unemployment and a simple-minded sort of communism.

At the time, this cohort of poets and novelists was often referred to as ‘the Auden Group’ and in hindsight is often called ‘the Auden Generation’ because of the enormously influence of the poetry and criticism of W.H. Auden. It includes:

  • Edward Upward b.1903 Repton School, Cambridge, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1934
  • Christopher Isherwood b.1904, Repton School, Kings College London
  • Cecil Day-Lewis b.1904, Sherborne School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1935
  • Rex Warner b.1905 St George’s School Harpenden, Oxford
  • W.H. Auden b.1907 Greshams School, Oxford
  • Louis MacNeice b.1907, Marlborough, Oxford
  • Stephen Spender b.1909 Greshams School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1936
  • Benjamin Britten b.1913 Greshams School, Royal College of Music

All the guys on this list knew each other well from public school or Oxbridge, and collaborated on poems and plays and travel books which brought a new feel to English literature. They were modern and unstuffy, they rejected the values of their fuddy-duddy Edwardian parents. They were unashamed of their homosexuality or bisexuality, and rejected hypocritical old sexual morality.

They rebelled against their parents’ timid Anglican Christianity (‘nothing but vague uplift, as flat as an old bottle of soda’ as Auden put it). Many of them e.g. Rex Warner and Louis MacNeice, were actually the sons of clergymen and (with a kind of inevitability which tends to disillusion you with human nature) quite a few ended up many years later reverting to the Anglican faith of their boyhoods (e.g. Rex Warner and, surprisingly, Auden himself).

They revelled in the new 1920s world of fast cars and speedboats, the excitement of air travel and the sheer glamour of steam trains with names like The Flying Scotsman. They were totally at home in the new media of radio and film, typified by Auden’s poetic commentary for a documentary about the London to Glasgow night train in 1936.

Auden’s poetry is significant because it is, arguably, the first in English literature which doesn’t reject the city and fetishise the countryside as most previous poets had. It’s true some English poets had conveyed the squalor of the late-Victorian metropolis, and T.S. Eliot had described 1920s urban crowds seen through the eyes of someone having a nervous breakdown:

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (The Waste Land lines 60 to 65)

But instead of horror or revulsion at the modern world, Auden conveys a tremendous excitement and enthusiasm for a world of factories, mine workings, racing cars, air speed records, ocean liners, electricity pylons. (Spender wrote a poem entirely about electricity pylons striding across the landscape, which led some critics to nickname the group the ‘pylon poets’).

And Auden does it in poetic forms which are popular and accessible. If Eliot’s poetry represents a crisis of Modernity in which sensitive, highly cultivated minds break down before the assault of the modern world and convey this in fragmented works packed with recondite references to the highest of European high culture (Dante, St John of the Cross), then Auden is the opposite.

Totally at home in the 20th century with its crowds and trains and trams and advertising hoardings and jazz bands and radio programmes, Auden knocks off ballads and limericks and lyrics and songs with a devil-may-care insouciance, a slapdash brilliance which a whole generation found inspiring and liberating after the psychologically intense, cramped and unhappy poetry of Modernism with its daunting battery of obscure references. Now poetry could be silly, inconsequential, as wittily throwaway as a Cole Porter lyric.

You were a great Cunarder, I
Was only a fishing smack.
Once you passed across my bows
And of course you did not look back.

It was only a single moment yet
I watch the sea and sigh,
Because my heart can never forget
The day you passed me by.

The Auden Group had all been too young to take part in or even understand, the First World War but, as impressionable teens, were exposed by their schoolmasters to endless stories of British pluck and heroism. They had all taken part in the Officer Training Corps at school and were used to playing at soldiers, wearing schoolboy soldier outfits, using schoolboy compasses and schoolboy maps to take part in pretend battles and missions.

It was this bright-eyed, schoolboy innocence they brought to the world as they found it in the late 1920s and 1930s. On the one hand it was a world of thrilling opportunities, with its hot jazz and dance halls, and radio just one of the new technologies opening the horizons of millions, its fast cars and sleek trains.

But on other hand, these boys were just leaving university and looking for their first jobs as the world was plunged into the economic collapse of the Depression, a world in which something had obviously gone badly wrong if millions were unemployed, factories and mines were shut down, and the destitute of Jarrow had to march on London to beg for work.

This exciting, thrilling modern world with all its cocktails and gizmos was at the same time somehow compromised, wrong, in error, needed to be rejected, rejuvenated, overthrown. Beneath the smouldering heaps of slag which disfigured the landscapes of the Black Country and the industrial North, slumbered the dragon of change, impatient to overthrow the old regime, the Old Gang.

Auden, again, vividly captured the feeling of an entire generation of impatient, upper-middle-class young men that they’d been sold a pup, that something was badly wrong, that society was poised on the brink of some terrible catastrophic change.

It is time for the destruction of error.
The chairs are being brought in from the garden,
The summer talk stopped on that savage coast
Before the storms, after the guests and birds:
In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.
The falling leaves know it, the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground, know it–
This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s:

Orders are given to the enemy for a time
With underground proliferation of mould,
With constant whisper and the casual question,
To haunt the poisoned in his shunned house,
To destroy the efflorescence of the flesh,
To censor the play of the mind, to enforce
Conformity with the orthodox bone,
With organised fear, the articulated skeleton.

You whom I gladly walk with, touch,
Or wait for as one certain of good,
We know it, we know that love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union,
More than the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,
The self-confidence of the falling root,
Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang; would leave them
In sullen valley where is made no friend,
The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,
The hard bitch and the riding-master,
Stiff underground; deep in clear lake
The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.

Some of this is, admittedly, pretty obscure, but other bits leap out as wonderfully expressive:

In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.

And the whole things conveys the sense of crisis, through a heady mix of 1. details picked out like close-ups in a movie:

…the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,

2. Invocations of northern mythology, not the sunlit references poets usually made to Greek mythology, but something northern, darker, more sinister:

This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s…

3. Snapshots of the real derelict industrial England:

… the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground…

It was a heady mixture of technical brilliance (Auden could and did write in almost every form known to English poetry, as well as inventing a few), brilliant details which leap out at you, great phrase-making, and confident mastery of modern psychology:

… love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union

References to kinky sex:

The hard bitch and the riding-master,

And ominous threat, the vague but powerfully expressed sense that there needs to be sweeping social change if anything is to be fixed, the solution to society’s problems, it:

Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang.

The confidence of his voice influenced an entire generation away from the crabbed, fractured obscurities of Modernism (epitomised by Eliot’s Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos) towards this lighter, more open, confident and often funny tone, oddly combined with its schoolboy enthusiasm for ‘revolution’, for ‘radical’ change – something which, of course, none of them really understood.

(It was this political naivety, this ‘playing’ with radical politics which led George Orwell [b.1903, educated at Eton] to despise Auden, who he described as ‘a kind of gutless Kipling’. He really hated the whole gang. In reviews of their books, Orwell frequently referred to them as ‘the pansy poets’. Two other big names of the Thirties also stood apart from the gang, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, although both were Edwardian-born chaps who attended pukka schools – Greene b.1904, Berkhamsted school, Oxford; Waugh b.1903, Lancing school, Oxford.)

Spain

This sense of Auden’s omnicompetence and omniscience is exemplified in the first half dozen stanzas of the long poem Auden wrote after visiting Spain early in the civil war, titled simply Spain, which was published as a pamphlet in order to raise money for the Republican side.

Spain opens with a succession of stanzas each of which start with the word ‘Yesterday’ and give a visionary review of early Spanish history, building up a sense of the country’s pagan primeval past, before the poem arrives at the plight of the present.

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

It’s the confident tone, and the breadth of knowledge, and the fluent technique which allows him to include all these references in such powerful striding rhythms, which thrilled and influenced all the writers, especially the poets, of the 1930s. Only a few managed to resist, to establish a voice of their own.

Stephen Spender

Spender was a key figure of the group, went to the same private school as Auden, on to Oxford, then to bohemian Germany, was bisexual, political, published his first poems in 1933, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936, travelled to Spain and wrote extensively about it during the civil war. Over the years he developed extraordinary connections with writers across Europe and became a leading literary figure in post-war Britain, not least as literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967. He was made a CBE in 1962 and knighted in 1983.

But I’ve always his poetry Stephen Spender wet and weedy. He’s too nice. He lacks the peculiar obscurity and the threat which lies behind even the most apparently accessible Auden. And he generally delivers one good phrase per poem and then the rest feels like padding. Here’s his famous pylon poem.

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

It’s a copy, a pastiche, the work of a devotee. Much of it is poor, like the opening line:

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made…

The line about the electricity pylons being ‘Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret’ catches most people’s eyes, specially if they’re men. This is the best stanza:

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This has the Auden touch with its explicit reference to threat and danger and sense of the future as being ominous. ‘Whips of anger’ is good. But overall, it is (in my opinion) second rate.

Louis MacNeice

One of the contemporaries who was influenced by Auden (they all were) but maintained his independence was the car-loving, heterosexual Louis MacNiece.

MacNeice wrote funny, stylish poems which took a more mordant, sceptical look at the contemporary world than Auden’s. All Auden’s poems, when you look closely, contain a lot about his own personal unease and psychological issues. For the decade of the 1930s his inclusion of these neuroses (generally the parts of his poems which are most obscure in syntax and imagery) seemed to express the anxieties of the times.

MacNeice was a much more frank and forthright personality and so a lot of his verse has a more objective, external, sometimes journalistic vibe. Even when he starts off writing about workers in a factory, Auden ends up dragging in his own uncertainty and anxiety. MacNeice stays far more impersonal or, when he does express himself, that self is far more straightforward (maybe because he was far more straightforwardly heterosexual).

Possibly his most famous short poem or lyric is Snow.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

It isn’t neurotic or nostalgic or sentimental or depressed as so much poetry can be. It is vigorous and positive. It isn’t dressed in old-fashioned Victorian poetic rhetoric: its vocabulary and speech rhythms are absolutely modern:

… I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips

What could be more prosaic and mundane? Except that, into this banal scene, MacNeice has inserted a world of wonder and, for the purpose, invented a register which allows wonder without any recourse to old-fashioned phraseology or imagery.

World is crazier and more of it than we think

No classical myths or historical figures or lady loves are invoked. Just one man in a room, sitting by a snug fire, peeling a tangerine as it starts to snow outside and suddenly he is struck by how weird and varied the world is. And how wonderful it is to be alive.

Autumn Journal

MacNeice is far more at home in his own skin than Auden. His most famous longer poem, Autumn Journal, is a wonderfully flowing verse diary he kept of the 1938 autumn of the Munich Crisis, recording day-to-day impressions of what he read and felt and saw in the London around him as everyone held their breath while British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew three times to Germany to negotiate with Hitler in a bid to resolve the crisis over Czechoslovakia and prevent a world war.

It opens with a vivid depiction of the fuddy-duddy world of Edwardian colonels and village fairs which Auden, also, often satirised. But whereas Auden shoots out scattergun pellets, flying impatiently from one cinematic detail to another, note how MacNeice is much slower, more patient, describes the scene thoroughly, more like a novel.

Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches
Not raising her eyes to the noise of the ’planes that pass
Northward from Lee-on-Solent. Macrocarpa and cypress
And roses on a rustic trellis and mulberry trees
And bacon and eggs in a silver dish for breakfast
And all the inherited assets of bodily ease
And all the inherited worries, rheumatism and taxes…

(The poem is laid out with more visual inventiveness than above, with successive lines indented to give visual variety. This doesn’t seem to be possible in WordPress.)

Actually, rereading this opening section makes me realise how much this passage depends on the word ‘and’ to create what is, in some ways, a rather simple accretion of detail. Auden leaps from detail to detail giving you a dizzy sense of a master film director; MacNeice says: ‘and another thing…’, giving you the sense of someone leading you into an interesting story.

Whether because of the fear and censorship surrounding homosexual love, or because Auden was so much the intellectual in whatever he wrote whereas MacNeice is much closer to the pie-and-a-pint, ordinary man-in-the-street, MacNeice’s heterosexual love lyrics are simpler and more immediate that Auden’s. Less troubled. Here’s a later passage from Autumn Journal where he’s thinking about his wife:

September has come, it is hers
Whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
Whose nature prefers
Trees without leaves and a fire in the fireplace.
So I give her this month and the next
Though the whole of my year should be hers who has rendered already
So many of its days intolerable or perplexed
But so many more so happy.
Who has left a scent on my life, and left my walls
Dancing over and over with her shadow
Whose hair is twined in all my waterfalls
And all of London littered with remembered kisses.

Beautiful, non? In its simplicity of diction, flow and candour.

Afterlife of the Auden Group

The arts in the 1930s were a bit like the 1960s. Caught up in fast-moving turbulent times a new generation of writers, poets and artists spearheaded new forms and media and subjects, determined to overthrow the conservative certainties of their parents, especially when it came to sexual freedom and artistic experimentation – many getting mixed up with heady declarations of political and social revolution, which they spent the rest of their lives trying to live down (Day Lewis left the Communist Party in 1938, Spender in fact only lasted a few months as a member and a decade later he was one of the six leading European writers who recorded their disillusionment with communism in the seminal essay collection The God That Failed, 1949.)

And then it all suddenly ground to a halt. The abject failure of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War – ground down to defeat amid internecine conflict and bitter recriminations – broke their boyish idealistic spirit (the Spanish Civil War ended on 1 April 1939). A few months later (September 1939) the Second World War broke out and was not at all the glamorous struggle these public schoolboys had spent a decade anticipating. Literary movements collapsed, people moved away (to America, generally, where Auden and Isherwood fled in 1939).

[Auden’s] departure with Isherwood for America in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender, p.276)

The dust settled and a lot of people spent the rest of their lives writing memoirs and essays and documentaries trying to figure out what it had all meant.

Over the 80 or so years since, a small industry has developed of people who claimed to have been there at decisive moments, eye-witnesses to artistic revolutions, friends of the great – magazine editors and critics who were already lionising and mythologising Auden and his mates in the 30s and spent the rest of their lives carrying the torch (or, alternately, expressing the same animosity towards these flashy and over-successful young whippersnappers).

There are now hundreds of books and thousands of academic papers about The Auden Generation, essays galore which pore and pick to pieces every work by every member of ‘the movement’, major or minor.  What started as in-jokes and fooling between friends have been blown up into dissertations which academics have built entire careers upon.

In this respect the Auden Generation are comparable to the Bloomsbury Group which preceded them: at the core were one or two writers or artists of real note (Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury, Auden in his group) and surrounding them concentric circles of steadily less and less interesting or talented figures, often their friends or family or lovers.

They all wrote memoirs explaining how brilliant they all were, and recording every conversation, letter, diary entry and in-joke for posterity, and biographers coming afterwards have added to the pile and the complexity, dwelling at length on who said what to whom or who slept with whom and what every reference in every letter and diary really means — until it becomes difficult to penetrate the sea of obfuscation and really grasp what was important and lasting.

Auden emigrates to America

When you look at the sea of highly professional and deadening commentary which mythologised the group and the era, you can appreciate why Auden just walked away from it all, from England’s small, incestuous and parochial literary scene, and why he took ship to New York in January 1939, with sometime lover and literary collaborator, Christopher Isherwood. Years later he said in an interview:

The Ascent of F6 was the end. I knew I had to leave England when I wrote it…I knew it because I knew then that if I stayed, I would inevitably become a part of the British establishment. (quoted in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, page 195)

A member of the Establishment like Cecil Day-Lewis, appointed poet laureate in 1968.

(Mind you, the main, practical reason for moving to America was that there was more work there for a freelance poet, playwright and critic, and a man’s got to eat. One of their literary enemies, Evelyn Waugh, was particularly scathing about the way Auden and Isherwood abandoned their native country just as the Second World War broke out, putting them into his hilarious 1940 novel Put Out More Flags as the characters Parsnip and Pimpernel).

The left-behind

Relocating to America allowed Auden to carry on developing and evolving (generally in a way his early English fans disapproved of) while the group members and hangers-on left back in England often struggled to adapt their youthfully exuberant style to the realities of post-war, austerity England, and then to the grimly conformist 1950s. None of them were ever so young again or able to recapture the first fine careless rapture of being alive in the exciting, terrible, scary and thrilling decade of the 1930s. Spender became an anti-communist, a reliable stalwart of the Cold War literary scene, eventually knighted for his services to blah blah. MacNeice wrote long boring radio plays. Reading any of them in the 1970s was like reading a sustained lament for a lost world.

The Mendelson revival

Even the American Auden became sometimes intolerably boring. In later life he suppressed a lot of his best work from the 1930s – he came to believe it was meretricious, flashy and immoral – or tinkered, rewrote and generally watered down what he did allow to be reprinted, so that for a long time it was impossible to find or read.

Only after Auden’s death in 1973, when his literary executor Edward Mendelson published a comprehensive volume of everything Auden wrote in the 1930s – The English Auden – were we able to read a) the poems Auden had banned from being reprinted for 30 years or more; b) the original, generally far more dynamic versions of his poems; c) lots of surprisingly attractive ephemera, lyrics from plays or literary magazines which had slipped through the cracks.

Which is why The English Auden isn’t just a handy collection of all Auden’s writing from the period, but 1. an incredible collection of poetry of genius, as well as 2. explaining at a stroke why Auden so dominated the period, creating a voice and style and persona and rhetoric for modern moods and feelings, in an enormous range of formats and genres, which captured a decade as few writers before or since ever have.

And even made it into a Richard Curtis movie:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


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