SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 1

SPQR is a long book – including the notes and index, it totals a chunky 606 pages. I picked it up at the British Museum’s Nero exhibition, my mind fired up by a couple of hours looking at exhibits illustrating all aspects of ancient Roman life in the first century AD.

Mary Beard’s ubiquity

By the bottom of page one I was disappointed. Dame Mary Beard DBE FSA FBA FRSL is a tiresomely ubiquitous presence across all media:

  • she has a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘A Don’s Life’, columns which have been gathered into not one but two books
  • she has fronted seven TV documentary series – Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town (BBC 2), Meet the Romans with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Caligula with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard (BBC 1), Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit (BBC 2), Julius Caesar Revealed (BBC 1), she wrote and presented two of the nine episodes in Civilisations (BBC 2) and she hosts a new BBC arts programme Lockdown Culture
  • she regularly appears on Question Time and other BBC panel shows
  • she is very ‘vocal’ on her twitter account and has been ‘controversial’ enough to trigger a number of twitterstorms
  • she’s written nineteen books and countless articles and reviews

To churn out this huge volume of content requires compromises in style and content, especially when making TV documentaries which have to be lucid and simple enough to appeal to everyone. Listing her enormous output is relevant because it helps to explain why this book is so disappointingly mediocre. What I mean is, SPQR is a readable jog through all the key events and people of ancient Rome – and God knows, there are thousands of them. But it contains few if any ideas worth the name and is written in a jolly, chatty, empty magazine style.

Compare and contrast with Richard Miles’s book about Carthage which combines scholarly scrupulousness with teasingly subtle interpretations of ancient history, propounding interesting and unusual ideas about the cultural struggle waged between Rome and Carthage. Well, there’s nothing like that here.

On the back cover there’s a positive review from the Daily Mail:

‘If they’d had Mary Beard on their side back then, the Romans would still have an empire!’

and this jolly knockabout attitude accurately captures the tone of the book. Beard is the Daily Mail‘s idea of an intellectual i.e. she’s at Cambridge, she knows about a fairly obscure subject, and she can speak a foreign language. She must be brainy!

And she’s outspoken, too. She’s what TV producers call ‘good value’. She can be relied on to start a twitterstorm by being outspokenly ‘controversial’ on statues or black lives matter or #metoo or any of the usual hot topics. Indeed Beard first came to public notice when she wrote in the London Review of Books in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that America ‘had it coming’, an off the cuff remark which prompted a storm of abuse. More recently she sparked ‘controversy’ through with her apparent defence of Oxfam workers practising sexual exploitation in Haiti, and so on.

Like so many other people on social media, Beard mistakes being provocative for actually having anything interesting to say; in which respect she is like thousands of other provocateurs and shock jocks and arguers on social media, all of whom think they are ‘martyrs to the truth’ and ‘saying the unsayable’ and ‘refusing to be silenced’, exactly the kind of rhetoric used by Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage. She is the Piers Morgan of academia.

Mary Beard’s reasons to study ancient Rome

The superficiality of her thinking becomes horribly clear on page one of SPQR where Beard gives us her reasons why ancient Rome is still relevant to the present day, why it is important for us all to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

As a lifelong specialist in Classics you’d hope these would be pretty thoughtful and persuasive, right? Here are her reasons, with my comments:

1. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world, and think about ourselves.

No it doesn’t. I imagine you could study economics and international politics, biology and geography, climate science and sociology and psychology without ever needing to refer to ancient Rome. Marx, Darwin and Freud go a long way to defining how we understand the world. Cicero a lot less so.

2. After 2,000 years, Rome continues to underpin Western culture and politics.

No, it doesn’t. Brexit, Boris Johnson’s current problems, Trump’s popularity, modern music, art and design; all these can be perfectly well understood without any knowledge whatsoever of Roman history.

3. The assassination of Julius Caesar… has provided the template… for the killing of tyrants ever since.

Has it?

4. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond.

Well, yes and no. Italy and France and Spain are undoubtedly similar to the Roman territories of the same name and many cities in western Europe have Roman origins – but everywhere north of the Rhine or Danube was untouched by the Romans, so the borders and cities of modern-day Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Czech republic, Slovak republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Croatia have bugger-all to do with ancient Rome. It’s a tendentious fib to say ‘modern Europe’ owes its political geography to Rome.

5. The main reason London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province of Britannia.

Well a) after the Romans left in 410 London, like all other British cities, fell into disrepair. The reason London slowly rose again as a trading centre during the early Middle Ages has more to do with the fact that it is the logical place to build a major city in England, being close to the continent and at the lowest fordable point of a major river which reaches into the heart of the country and is thus a vital transport hub; b) London is capital of the United Kingdom because of political developments vis-a-vis Wales, Scotland and Ireland which took place a thousand years after the Romans left.

6. Rome has bequeathed us the ideas of liberty and citizenship.

This is true, up to a point, although these ideas were developed and debated in ancient Greece well before the Romans came along, and have undergone 1,500 years of evolution and development since.

7. Rome has loaned us catchphrases such as ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’.

It was when I read this sentence that I began to doubt Mary Beard’s grasp on reality. Is she claiming that ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ is by any stretch of the imagination a ‘catchphrase’ which anyone in Britain would recognise, who hadn’t had a classical education?

She’s closer to the mark when she goes on to mention a couple of other catchphrases like ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ or ‘bread and circuses’, which I imagine a large number of people would recognise if they read them in a magazine or newspaper.

But lots of people have given us comparable quotes and catchphrases, from Shakespeare to the Fonz. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes over 20,000 quotations. Citing just three quotations as the basis for persuading people to study an entirely new subject is far from persuasive. If the number of quotations which a subject has produced is taken as a good reason for studying it, then Shakespeare would be a hugely better relevant subject for everyone to study, to understand where the hundreds of quotations which float around the language deriving from him come from (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? To be or not to be? Is this a dagger I see before me? All that glitters is not gold. The be-all and end-all. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.)

And then came Beard’s showstopper claim:

8. Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were.

Is Mary Beard seriously claiming that ‘Ancient Rome is important’ (the first sentence in the book) because ‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’? Let’s ponder this sentence and this argument for a moment.

Can Beard possibly be saying that actual gladiators, trained professional warriors who fight each other or wild beasts to the death in front of huge live audiences, ‘are as big box office now as they ever were’? I wish she was. I’d definitely pay to see that. But of course she isn’t she must be referring to the entertainment industry. I’m guessing it’s a throwaway reference to any one of three possible items: the television show Gladiators, which started broadcasting in 1992, some of whose expressions became jokey catchphrases (‘Contender ready! Gladiator ready!!’); to the 2000 movie Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, that was very successful and won five Oscars; and possibly to the 2010 American TV series Spartacus. Two TV shows and a movie about gladiators in 30 years. Hardly a deluge, is it?

Beard’s argument appears to be that, because a successful game show, movie and TV series have been made on the subject of ‘gladiators’ that is a sufficient reason for everyone to drop everything and study ancient Rome.

a) That’s obviously a rubbish argument on its own terms, but b) it ignores the wider context of modern media, of the entertainment industry, namely that there is a huge, an enormous output of product by film and TV companies, all the time, on every subject under the sun. If your argument is that, because a subject has been chosen as the topic of immensely popular movies or TV shows this proves that we must study that subject, then we should all be studying the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The reality of modern media is that it chews up and spits out any subject which it thinks will make money. In the last twenty years I have been dazed by the enormous explosion in the number of science fiction movies and TV shows, about alien invasions and artificial intelligence and robots and androids, which have hit our screens. Does this mean we should all study artificial intelligence and robotics? No. These are just entertainment products which we may or may not choose to watch.

Placed in the broadest context of western cultural products, then, gladiators, or even the overall subject of ancient Rome, pale into insignificance. Ancient Rome is just one of half a dozen hackneyed historical settings which TV and film producers return to from time to time to see if there’s some more profit to be squeezed from them, up there with Arthur of the Britons, Henry VIII and the Tudors, Regency-era dramas like Bridgerton, Dickens adaptations, the Wild West, not to mention the perennial subject of the two world wars which never go out of fashion.

If you base your case for studying an academic subject on its TV and movie ratings (‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’) then it follows that a) subjects with higher ratings are even more necessary to study (the Edwardian society of Downton Abbey, say) and b) low ratings for the subject you’re promoting undermine your argument. My son told me about an HBO series titled simply ‘Rome’ which only ran for two series (2005 to 2007) before it was pulled due to huge expense and disappointing ratings. Maybe ancient Rome isn’t as popular a subject as a professor of Classics likes to think.

Summary

Anyway, the eight sentences I’ve listed above constitute the list of the reasons given by ‘Britain’s leading Classicist’ for studying ancient Rome.

Not very persuasive, are they? Every one of these instances sounds plausible enough at a first glance, if you read it quickly, skimming over it as you skim over a magazine on a plane flight or listen to the script of a big budget documentary about Pompeii you’re half paying attention to.

But stop and ponder any of the eight arguments for more than a moment and they disintegrate in your hands. They are all either factually incorrect or laughably superficial, and they strongly indicate the fluent but facile nature of the mind which selected and wrote them.

Missing obvious arguments

In passing, it’s odd that Beard misses several obvious arguments from her list.

Because I’m interested in language, I’d say a good reason for studying Classics is because Latin forms the basis of a lot of contemporary English words. If you grasp a relatively small number of principles about Latin (such as the prefixes e- for ‘out of’ and in- for ‘into’ and ab- for ‘from’) it can help you recognise and understand a surprising number of English words.

Easily as important as Rome’s impact on political geography is the obvious fact that three major European languages are descended from it, namely Italian, French and Spanish. That’s a really massive lasting impact and people often say that studying Latin helps you learn Italian, French or Spanish.

In fact, having studied Latin, French and Spanish I don’t think it’s true. The main benefit of studying Latin is that it forces you to get clear in your head the logical structure of (western) language, understanding the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, the arrangement of adjectives and adverbs – in other words, it gives you a kind of mental map of the basic logic of western languages, a mental structure which then helps you understand the structure of other languages, including English.

My son studied Latin at school and remembers his teacher trying to persuade his class that Latin was a ‘cool’ subject by telling them that the Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard had studied it. Beard’s efforts t opersuade us all to take ancient Rome more seriously are on about the same level.

But maybe I’m missing the point because Beard is talking about history and I’m talking about languages.

Once we got chatting about it, my son went on to suggest that arguably the most obvious legacy of ancient Rome is its architecture. All over the western world monumental buildings fronted by columns and porticos, sporting arches and architraves, reference and repeat the Architecture of Power which Rome perfected and exported around the Mediterranean and which architects copy to this day.

But again maybe I’m missing the point talking about architecture when Beard is determined to focus very narrowly on the history, on the events and personalities of ancient Rome.

Then again, having discussed it with my son made me realise that how narrow that focus is. If we agree that the biggest legacy of Rome was its political geography, the founding of important towns and cities in western Europe, its ancestry of widely spoken languages, and its hugely influential style of architecture, then this places the actual history of events, long and colourful though they may have been, in a relatively minor role – in terms of direct enduring influence on our lives, now.

Feminists can be boring old farts, too

Just because she makes a point of not wearing make-up and makes a big deal on the radio, on TV, in the TLS, in countless reviews and in all her books about being a ‘feminist’ doesn’t make Mary Beard any less of a privileged, out of touch, Oxbridge academic than hundreds of fusty old men before her. She attended a girls private school, then the all-women Newnham college Cambridge, and went onto a long and successful academic career at Cambridge, rising to become Professor of Classics.

This is all relevant to a book review because I am trying to convey the powerful impression the book gives of someone who is fantastically pleased with themselves and how jolly ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ and ‘outspoken’ they are and yet:

a) who is apparently blind to the fact that they are exactly the kind of out-of-touch, white privileged media figure they themselves have expended such effort in books and articles criticising and lambasting

More importantly:

b) who mistakes sometimes dated references to popular culture or trivial ‘provocations’ about gender or race on twitter, for thought, for real thought, for real deep thinking which sheds new light on a subject and changes readers’ minds and understanding. As the Richard Miles’ book on Carthage regularly does; as this book never does.

Facebubble

A Facebubble is what is created among groups of friends or colleagues on Facebook who all befriend each other, share the same kinds of values, are interested in the same kind of subjects and choose the same kinds of items from their newsfeeds. Over time, Facebook’s algorithms serve them what they want to read, suggesting links to articles and documentaries which reinforce what they already know and like. After a while people become trapped in self-confirming facebubbles.

It is a form of confirmation bias, where we only register or remember facts or ideas which confirm our existing opinions (or prejudices).

Again and again Beard’s book confirms your sense that, despite her rhetoric about making the subject more accessible and open, she is in fact addressing a relatively small cohort of readers who are already interested in the history of the ancient world. The oddity is how she again and again gives the impression of thinking that these already knowledgeable readers are somehow representative of the broader UK population.

Of course this is true of more or less any factual book which addresses a specific audience for a specialised subject – it assumes a tone of general interest. What makes Beard’s book irritating is the references to the notion that ‘we’ are ‘all’ still fascinated by ancient Rome, that ‘everyone’ ‘needs’ to be engaged with the subject. That ancient Rome ‘demands’ our attention. Those are the words she uses.

But no, ancient Rome does not ‘demand’ our attention and no ‘we’ are not ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome. My Chinese postman, the three Albanians who put up my new fence, the Irish labourers who took away the wreckage of the old fence, the Asian woman on the checkout at Tesco, the Jamaican guy who blows leaves out the road for the council, the Turkish family who run the delicatessen round the corner – are they ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome? Does it ‘demand’ their attention? It feels as if she’s writing for a white, middle class, university educated Radio 4-listening public and badly mistaking them for representing the big, complex, very diverse population of modern Britain.

On page two she tells us how:

SPQR takes its title from another famous catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (p.16)

Is this a famous catchphrase, though? Roughly how many people know what SPQR stands for? What percentage of the population do you think could translate Senatus PopulusQue Romanus? Maybe people with degrees in the humanities, particularly in the arts and literature, probably ought to. And anybody who’s been to Rome as a tourist might have noticed the letters SPQR appearing on letter boxes and manhole covers. I know what it stands for and what the Latin means because I happen to study Latin at my state school and went on to do a history-based degree, which is precisely why I bought and am reading this book. But I have the self awareness to know that I represent a fairly small, self-selectingly bookish percentage of the total population.

Myth busting

On page 3 of the introduction, Beard says her book will set out to smash some of the ‘myths’ which ‘she, like many’ grew up with’ (p.17). These are:

  1. that the Romans started out with a plan for world domination
  2. that in acquiring their empire the Romans trampled over peace-loving peoples
  3. that Rome was the thuggish younger sibling of classical Greece

Are these myths which you grew up with? Is it very important that ‘we’, the British people, have these ‘dangerous’ myths corrected? No, not really. They are only remotely important in the mind of someone who specialises in the subject.

All this rhetoric of ‘need’ and ‘must’ and ‘demand’ builds up an impression of special pleading, defined as when someone ‘tries to persuade you of something by only telling you the facts that support their case’. Beard is a Professor of Classics. Her job is to teach students Classics. She has taken it upon herself to make Classics more ‘accessible’ to a wider public, which may well be admirable. She tries to persuade us that everybody ought to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

But the arguments she uses to do so are weak and unconvincing.

I am not attacking Beard or her subject. I am critiquing the poor quality of her arguments.

First impressions

All these arguments and my responses to them occurred in the first few pages of the book. I hope you can see why, before the end of the 5-page introduction to SPQR, I realised that this was not going to be a scholarly book, and was not going to show much intellectual depth. It is a long, thorough and competent Sunday supplement-level account of its subject, stuffed with interesting facts, with some novel spins on things I thought I knew about (for example, the latest thinking about the legend of Romulus and Remus).

But it is disappointingly magaziney, features article-y, lacking in real depth. Instead of really unsettling and disrupting your ideas, of opening new vistas of understanding, as Richard Miles’s book does, Beard’s ideas of ‘controversy’ are on a disappointing twitter level – telling us that ancient Rome was a very sexist society, that its political debates about freedom versus security are very like our own, that there’s a lot we still don’t understand about its origins, that the archaeology is still much debated.

These are all ideas you could have predicted before you opened the book. That’s what I mean by comparing it to a very long magazine article which is packed with the latest knowledge and hundreds of dates and historical personages, but doesn’t really change your opinion about anything.

Very disappointing.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh

Waugh was a professional writer from the year he published his first short story in 1926 till his death in 1966. During that period he published some 26 short stories. There are several editions of his collected short stories, notable the Everyman one and the Penguin one. I read the Penguin one but the Everyman edition (which includes a few more stories than the Penguin) is the one that’s available online.

What all the editions tend to highlight is that Evelyn Waugh did not, in fact, write many short stories. All the editions include the juvenilia written at school, and the half dozen stories written at Oxford, to bulk up the books. And for real aficionados and completists it’s good to have everything in one volume like this. But the fact remains that in a writing career of 40 years he only published 26 short stories.

Spin-offs from novels or no short stories at all

Not only that, but when you look more closely, you realise that a number of the stories are offcuts of the novels and so closely linked as to be barely standalone narratives.

Thus ‘Incident in Azania’ is set in the fictional country created for the novel Black Mischief and feels very much like an anecdote which could have been included in that novel but was cut as surplus to requirements. ‘Cruise’ is a short squib, a lampoon consisting entirely of postcards written by a gushing, silly, posh young lady on a cruise round the Med, an idea recycled from one of his travel books. ‘Charles Ryder’s Schooldays’ is quite obviously a spin-off from Brideshead Revisited and ‘Basil Seal Rides Again’ is a final flurry for the character at the centre of Black Mischief and Put Out More Flags.

So four of the 26 are direct spin-offs from novels.

More than that, three of the stories are actual extracts from the novels: ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ is an early version of the final chapters of A Handful of Dust and ‘By Special Request’ is not a standalone story at all, but the original ending of A Handful of Dust as it first appeared when the novel was serialised in Harper’s Bazaar. ‘Compassion’ was recycled in its entirety into the end section of Unconditional Surrender.

So seven of his adult short stories aren’t really standalone narratives but either rely on the novels they derive from or are actual excerpts from them. Leaving 19.

Two of these 19 aren’t really short stories at all. The post-war narratives ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’ and ‘Love Among The Ruins’ are far longer than your normal short story, certainly than the other stories included here, and so are generally categorised as novellas. Leaving 17.

And lastly, by far the longest item in the collection, at around 80 pages, is ‘Work Suspended: Two Chapters of an Unfinished Novel’ which, as the title suggests, is not and was never intended to be a short story, but the first sections of an abandoned novel.

Leaving only about 16 short stories gleaned from a career which lasted nearly 40 years.

Commissions

Finally, the notes in the Penguin edition reveal one more fact about the ‘short stories’, which is that quite a few of them were commissions, not written off his own bat. Now there’s nothing wrong with a story being commissioned – both Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four were commissioned over the same historic dinner (30 August 1889) with the magazine editor, J. M. Stoddart. However, all of Waugh’s commissioned stories only make sense, or make a lot more sense, when you learn they were commissioned as part of series on a set theme:

Thus:

  • ‘A House of Gentlefolks’ was commissioned for a series titled The New Decameron
  • ‘The Kremlin’ was commissioned for a series titled Real Life Stories by Famous Authors (which explains its opening sentence: ‘ This story was told me in Paris very early in the morning by the manager of a famous night club, and I am fairly certain that it is true.’).
  • ‘Too much tolerance’ was commissioned for a series titled The Seven Deadly Sins of Today and only really makes sense in that context
  • and ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’ was written for the Tight Corner series in the Daily Mail, ditto

The short story not Waugh’s metier

So the conclusion I draw from this little statistical analysis is that Waugh was very much not a short story writer, certainly not in the manner of Saki or Somerset Maugham or Kipling or J.G. Ballard, writers who produced a tremendous output of short stories but, more importantly, who suited the short story format. All four of those authors, in their different ways, knew just how to manage their material into artefacts which create maximum artistic and psychological impact and a range of effects. Waugh not so much.

In fact I’m afraid to say I found a lot of Waugh’s stories disappointing. A few I didn’t even understand, I didn’t see the point of them.

In a novel like Vile Bodies Waugh took scores of anecdotes about the shallow, heartless behaviour of his upper class Bright Young Things and combined them in such a way as to produce a kind of group portrait which was much larger than the sum of its parts. But broken down into short, isolated texts, most of these anecdotes feel much weaker, and sometimes pretty lame.

For me the stories’ value was analytical, they gave me a greater understanding of what you could call the ‘mosaic technique’ of Waugh’s novels, what I’ve referred to as the importance of gossip, not only as subject matter of the novels but as a key element of his technique. The way the central events of the novels are always commentated on by the shoals of secondary characters which fill his novels, gossiping at parties and restaurants and balls and dinners, mingling catty comments about the central events of the novel’s narrative with deliberately throwaway mentions of the trials and tribulations of other, unrelated people to give a powerful sense of their ultimate irrelevance; or the way all stories, and all lives in the modern world are swamped and trivialised by the sheer number of people and tragedies and stories we’re meant to pay attention to.

This technique has multiple benefits: from the point of view of literary realism, it helps create the illusion of the throng, of the crowdedness of London High Society, where everyone knows everyone else, goes to each other’s parties and dinners, where everyone spends a lot of time energetically gossiping about each other’s ups and downs and affairs.

Seen in terms of technique it has at least two benefits: it allows Waugh to skip or cut briskly between scenes with great dramatic effect, just as films can cut from one scene to another in a split second. This encourages or suits Waugh’s tendency to be concise and clipped, so that some of his best scenes are only half a page long before they cut away to something completely different. Technique and style are perfectly combined.

(Waugh’s debt to cinema technique becomes overt in some of these texts, not least in ‘Excursion in Reality’ which is a Vile Bodies-era satire about a hapless young writer who gets caught up in the 24/7 crazy world of film production; and the very first text in the collection is a kind of commented-on version of the screenplay of a black-and-white, silent movie.)

Waugh’s understated debt to Modernism

The second benefit of Waugh’s ‘mosaic technique’ is the way this approach subtly incorporates some of the best features of the previous generation’s Modernism. Modernism refers to a movement in literature during and after the Great War which sought to depict the hectic, frantic, fragmented, fractured experience of living in big cities in styles or narrative structures which reflected psychic collapse and disintegration. Thus the disintegration of a highly sensitive mind portrayed in T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the extreme fragmentation of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, the collapse of a unified narrative and then of the English language itself in James Joyce’s Ulysses, or the collapse of the patriarchal Victorian tone of voice into the swirling stream of consciousness of Virginia Woolf’s novels.

Waugh swallowed Modernism whole, experimented with it, and then adapted it for his own purposes, keeping only what he needed. The very first story in the collection, ‘The Balance’, published in 1926, is the best example (described below) in the way it is broken up into short snippets headed by the captions of the silent movie it describes. This immediately recalls the clever use of newspaper headlines in the ‘Aeolus’ chapter of Ulysses and anticipates the blizzard of newspaper headlines, advertising slogans, popular songs and so on which litter the classic example of German high Modernism, Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin, published a few years later in 1929.

My point is that this technique of fragments, of consciously breaking up the text of a narrative into a mosaic of short clipped scenes, of cutting away from the main protagonists of an event to a group of their friends heartlessly laughing about their fates, a technique exemplified in Vile Bodies but which appears, with greater or lesser frequency throughout all his fiction, this was Waugh’s version of Modernist fragmentation and alienation.

Waugh and mental breakdown

And although Waugh has the (deserved) reputation of being a great comic writer, actually rereading the novels as I’ve been doing, it has been a shock to realise just how much misery, suffering and pain they include.

There are scores of examples but, focusing literally on mental breakdown, I think of the devastating impact on Tony and Brenda Last of the tragic death of their son in A Handful of Dust. Take the scene where they return from their son’s inquest to big, empty Hetton Hall and Brenda barely makes it into the entrance hall before sitting down in a decorative chair which nobody usually sits on, sitting there and looking around her in a daze. Or immediately after Tony gets news of his son’s death and trembles on the brink of going to pieces, is only saved by the compassion of ‘the Shameless Blonde’, the sturdy American woman aviator who stays with him and forces him to play cards all afternoon. A scene of tremendous psychological power.

Or take Vile Bodies which is all very hilarious up till the racing car crash which precipitates the concussion and nervous collapse and eventual death of the bright, confident heroine Agatha Runcible.

A key strand in the similarly polyphonic novel Put Out More Flags is the psychological decline of Angela Lyne, up to that point a confident, dominating presence in London High Society, whom the advent of war reduces to an alcoholic wreck, hiding out in her serviced apartment, drinking all day in dark glasses with the curtains closed.

A central thread in Brideshead Revisited is the agonising decline of the bright and beautiful young undergraduate Sebastian Flyte into a shambling, poverty-stricken, feverish wreck in the slums of Tunis.

And then, of course, Waugh wrote an entire novel dramatising his own mental breakdown, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold in 1957.

So for a writer who’s (correctly) associated with the reactionary views of England’s moneyed upper classes and (correctly) famous for his high-spirited comedy, it’s worth repeating that Waugh also wrote throughout his career about extreme tragedy, psychological trauma and mental collapse, and did so using his own version of the polyphonic, mosaic narrative technique – both a subject matter and a technique more usually associated with the avant-garde.

Anyway, to return to the short stories, my point is simply that if most of them had been included in one of his novels, they would have made one more hilarious scene amid the general mayhem of the polyphonic, multi-stranded plots and contributed to the complex artistic and psychological impact of the novels. But given here, as standalone short stories, as just one bald anecdote, a surprising number of them come over as lame and flat.

Which is why I wouldn’t really recommend these short stories to anyone. I’d recommend reading pretty much all the novels first, before you bother with them.

Pre and post-war

One last point. The stories can also be divided in chronological order into those written before the Second World War and those written after. At a glance you can see that he was far more prolific in short stories before (21) than after (5). (For the period of the war itself he was either serving in the Army or, from December 1943 to June 1944, entirely busy writing his magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited.)

If we count Scott-King’s Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins as novellas, then he can only be said to have written three short stories between 1945 and 1966, confirming my feeling that the short story was emphatically not his genre. That said, all three post-war short stories are good.

Short stories 1. Pre-war

1. The Balance (1926)

Born in 1903, Waugh was only 22 when he wrote this, by far his most experimental and avant-garde text.

In the cinema

Very much in the style of Vile Bodies, this fairly long text uses a number of highly experimental narrative techniques. Most of it, the long first part, consists of scenes from an imagined film. It opens with a cook and a house parlour maid (Gladys and Ada) making their way to their seats in a cinema and then making cheerily working class comments on the action of the movie they’re watching. Somewhere behind them (in the more expensive seats) sits a Cambridge student who drawls knowing intellectual comments (pointing out the debt to European Expressionism of some of the shots, explaining what steak tartare is). And the text is punctuated by the captions in CAPITAL LETTERS which are appearing onscreen, as this is a black-and-white, silent film.

Thus the text consists of: capitalised captions, interspersed with the narrator’s description of what is happening onscreen, interspersed with the working class comments of the two servants given in italics, and the occasional sardonic comment from Mr Cambridge.

The ‘story’ is made up of clichés and stereotypes, which allows his working class women to spot in advance what’s going to happen, the Cambridge man to make superior comments, and Waugh to mock all of them.

Adam is at art school. He loves Imogen. Imogen’s mummy tells her she must stop seeing him. They share a cab to Euston where she catches a train to the country. Ada, catches cab to home near Regent’s Park, goes up to room, melodramatically considers suicide by pills, imagines the vulgarity of family breaking down door, calling police, thinks again. Scoops up his best books and takes them to a luxury second-hand bookseller, the fussing about first editions suddenly reminding me of The Picture of Dorian Gray. He gets a tenner for his books, then a cab to Paddington and train to Oxford and goes to see, one by one, his incredibly posh undergraduate friends. Old Etonians, the Bullingdon Club, chaps who hunt, who paint, who drink very heavily.

The window blind has become stuck halfway up the window so that by day they are shrouded in a twilight as though of the Nether world, and by night Ernest’s light blazes across the quad, revealing interiors of unsurpassed debauchery.

Yes, Dorian Gray. Waugh is channeling Wilde turned into a 1920s silent movie. And deliberately elitist or excluding references to aspects of Oxford life. Eights week. Commem. The Bullingdon. The Canning. All the posh young men he tries are busy till he resorts to visiting the rooms of Ernest Vaughan.

They go for dinner at a local pub, get plastered, go on to some rough proletarian pubs, play darts, get into loud arguments, get kicked out, catch a cab back to the colleges, gatecrash a party, pour drinks on the carpet, nearly get into another fight till Ernest walks dignifiedly out into the quad, throws up and passes out.

Cut to the next evening when the pair gatecrash a Liberal Association party at Oxford town hall. Having irritated the guests and got blind drunk they walk outside where Ernest steals a car, drives it haphazardly down St Aldate’s before mounting then kerb and crashing into a shop window. Police close in and arrest him. Adam walks very depressed back to his hotel room. He uncaps the bottle of poison and drinks the contents down in one.

End of film. Glady and Ada and the smart Cambridge graduate and a hundred others exit the film, all chatting about it, the two women to make their way back to their shared rooms in Earls Court where they’ll carry on discussing it over cups of cocoa.

Adam outside the film

At which point the text cuts and changes to a series of three sections of parts. Part one finds Adam in the hotel bedroom piecing together the fragments of the last 24 drunken hours and then remembering standing by the bedroom window in a storm of nausea before throwing up through it into the courtyard, presumably evacuating the poison from his system.

A boyhood memory

In the short part two he has a vivid memory of being a 7-year-old boy and playing a game with the family cat, Ozymandias, which consisted of locking it and himself in his bedroom then chasing it round the room terrorising it at every stop; only then did the real game begin, which was the challenge of trying to coax it back to a state of relaxed affection. And the particular memory which floats into his head as he lies on the bed recovering from his failed suicide attempt, is of the time that Ozymandias escaped to the top of the wardrobe, so the 7-year-old Adam pulled his table over to the wardrobe and put a chair on top of the table and climbed up on both and reached out for the cat and… the whole lot collapsed to the floor and he fell and knocked himself out. Vivid as yesterday he remembers the sensation of slowly ‘regaining consciousness’ and piecing together like a jigsaw the scattered flowing bodily sensations till he had attached particular pains to particular parts of the body and his ego was once again in control.

This early experience of psychological fragmentation, flotation and reassembly recurs at moments of drunkenness, as now. Now he gets up and has breakfast in the hotel still in a hallucinatory state:

He had breakfasted in a world of phantoms, in a great room full of uncomprehending eyes, protruding grotesquely from monstrous heads that lolled over steaming porridge; marionette waiters had pirouetted about him with uncouth gestures. All round him a macabre dance of shadows had reeled and flickered, and in and out of it Adam had picked his way, conscious only of one insistent need, percolating through to him from the world outside, of immediate escape from the scene upon which the bodiless harlequinade was played, into a third dimension beyond it.

Adam talks to his reflection

Adam walks out of Oxford along the towpath. He had written a letter to Imogen begging her to come back. He crosses a bridge over the canal and looks at a swan sailing by whose reflection is broken and fragmented. He tears up the letter and chucks the fragments into the river, then has a brief conversation with himself. He supposes tearing up the letter means he is over Imogen, and the fact that he’s here at all means he’s resolved to go on living. Was there no moral influence on his decision to live, no wish not to burden his loved ones, no profound insight into the meaning of life? No. Simply a rest, a sleep, a change of scenery. Ultimately, those are the small measures which make all the difference. No intrinsic motives from the soul. Just as random as…circumstance.

A shift of perspective

And then in its last two pages the text does what I mentioned so many of them doing: it switches perspective altogether to create a deliberate alienation effect. Suddenly we are at a country house named Thatch and Mrs Hay has invited her undergraduate son Basil and one friend for luncheon but a whole carload has turned up, gossiping and smoking all the time.

The point being, they are all telling each other about the other night when horrible Adam gatecrashed lovely Gabriel’s party with some ghastly man named Vaughan who was offensive to everyone then threw up. Here, right at the start of his career, we find Waugh using a technique which will serve him again and again, which is spending a lot of time on a close account of the incidents and thoughts of one or two protagonists; and then suddenly cutting far away to hear the same events being retold as throwaway gossip by people who don’t give a damn about the characters we’ve just been following and have invested so much time and trouble in.

It’s a very simple technique but very modernist in feeling, pulling the rug from under our feet, suddenly making us realise how silly and trivial the little trials and tribulations we’ve been following are in the great scale of things. Making the entire fictional edifice in which we had been investing time and emotion seem infinitely fragile and inconsequential.

Short conclusion

Arguably, and certainly to someone like myself, soaked in early twentieth century modernism, this is the most interesting of all the stories in the book. It clearly foregrounds three things: one, the very self-conscious modernist technique which Waugh studied, copied and assimilated; two, the interest in altered and extreme psychological states, reflected not only in Adam’s drunkenness but the much more interesting and vivid descriptions of regaining consciousness after his concussion as a small boy; three, the determinedly, almost offensively, upper class nature of the settings and characters – Mayfair, Lord and Lady this, Old Etonians at Oxford etc.

Of course it was this latter strand, the supremely upper class settings and characters, which were to characterise the rest of his writings. But this, Waugh’s first published short story, makes abundantly clear the surprisingly experimental nature of his early literary taste.

And also shows how an interest in morbid or damaged psychology was not just a personal thing, but has its roots in the fin-de-siecle obsession with decadence, its hyper-Gothic interest in altered states and very deeply troubled psyches, epitomised by Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray which leaves stray echoes in some of the self-consciously aesthetic moments this text – but reborn thirty years later in the era of Freudian psycho-analysis, jazz nightclubs and cocktail bars.

For these reasons I found it by far the most interesting, and intellectually stimulating, story in the collection.

A House of Gentlefolks (1927)

Only a year later and Waugh has swallowed, assimilated and concealed his learnings from Modernism (although there is a surprising reference to the famous Modernist author, Gertrude Stein, on the second page).

This is a first-person narrative which, in style at least, is thumpingly traditional, telling a simple narrative in chronological order with no fancy tricks. The narrator arrives by train at a rural station, it is raining, catches a taxi to Stayle, a grand country house surrounded by a wall, entry via umpteen gates, seat of the Duke of Vanburgh.

The narrator tells us his name is Ernest Vaughan, same name as the drunk in the previous story and, as he tells us he was sent down from Oxford for bad behaviour, it is presumably an early example of Waugh’s career-long habit of populating his fictions with recurring characters.

Anyway, sent down from Oxford, Ernest is at a loose end when his godmother tells him the Duke of Stayle is looking for a tutor to take his 18-year-old grandson and heir to the earldom on a tour round Europe. The only snag is the boy is mad. They now introduce him to the young fellow, actual name George, who has, it must be said, odd manners. Ernest feels sorry for him, as he only attended school for a term and is obviously ill at ease with strangers. He decides to take the job on.

Within a few hours they’re on the train to London, Ernest with a check for £150 in his pocket, where they check into a hotel and Ernest takes George on a tour of London’s attractions, revues, nightclubs and parties with his super-posh friends. Plus the very best tailors to get formal suits and travelling clothes made up. Over the next few days Ernest watches George blossom, learning about food, restaurants, fine wine, and party etiquette before his very eyes.

At one point they have a candid conversation in which he suggests that he isn’t mad at all; maybe it’s his grandfather and his great-aunts (who Ernest met in the first scene) who are the eccentrics, and this certainly seems likely to Ernest and to the reader.

Then it all grinds to a halt. In an ending almost as crass as saying ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’, Ernest gets a letter from old Lord Stayle saying the family’s thought better of the experiment and are cancelling the trip. George is to come home straight away. A lawyer arrives to cancel all obligations and take him off. George’s parting words are that in 3 years time he’ll come of age and be able to do what he wants.

In a way the most telling moment comes in the final sentence:

Five minutes later Julia rang up to ask us to luncheon.

This has the brisk brevity of Vile Bodies, powerfully conveying the sense that, oh well, that adventure’s over, he’s mad, she’s dead, they’ve gotten divorced, Harry’s married Margot, he died in the war, she’s pregnant, whatever – conveying the dizzy speed of the high society social life Waugh dedicated himself to.

The Manager of ‘The Kremlin’ (1927)

The unnamed narrator likes going to a restaurant in Paris. One night he stays late and the manager, Boris, tells him his story. He was a student when the revolution joined out and joined a white army fighting the Bolsheviks. It was a motley crew which included various foreign nationals including a Frenchman. Boris helped save this man’s life by lending him his Russian uniform when they travelled through the most backward parts of Asiatic Russia. They were forced to flee east. Once in Japanese territory they shake hands and part. Boris took ship to America where he hoped to join his mother who had fled there early in the revolution. He does not thrive and after a couple of years takes ship to France, travelling to Paris where he hears there is a large diaspora. Here he really runs out of money and is down to his last 200 francs. In a very Russian gesture, he decides to blow it on one last luxury meal. As chance would have it the Frenchman he saved those years ago is dining at the next table. He accosts his old colleague and asks him how he’s doing. Boris explains he’s skint. The Frenchman runs a motor car company and toys with offering him a job but reflects that a man who could blow his last francs on an exquisite French meal is really cut out for the restaurant business. And so he loans Boris the money to start a restaurant and Boris employs some Russians he knows and now he is rich. Which is the story he tells the narrator in the early hours, as the ‘Kremlin’ restaurant closes up.

Love in the Slump (1932)

Big gap between the previous story published in 1927 and this one in 1932. During that time Waugh published his biography of Rossetti, Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), travelled to Abyssinia and produced Remote People (1931).

Originally titled ‘The Patriotic Honeymoon’, this is broad farce. An eligible if unremarkable young couple get married, decide to spend a patriotic honeymoon in England then experience a series of farcical mishaps. The portrait of the young wife is obviously a lampoon but nonetheless interesting social history about just what subjects were lampooned back then – portrait of a frustrated singleton c.1932:

Angela was twenty-five, pretty, good-natured, lively, intelligent and popular—just the sort of girl, in fact, who, for some mysterious cause deep-rooted in Anglo-Saxon psychology, finds it most difficult to get satisfactorily married. During the last seven years she had done everything which it is customary for girls of her sort to do. In London she had danced on an average four evenings a week, for the first three years at private houses, for the last four at restaurants and night clubs; in the country she had been slightly patronising to the neighbours and had taken parties to the hunt ball which she hoped would shock them; she had worked in a slum and a hat shop, had published a novel, been bridesmaid eleven times and godmother once; been in love, unsuitably, twice; had sold her photograph for fifty guineas to the advertising department of a firm of beauty specialists; had got into trouble when her name was mentioned in gossip columns; had acted in five or six charity matinées and two pageants, had canvassed for the Conservative candidate at two General Elections, and, like every girl in the British Isles, was unhappy at home.

It’s interesting that what spurs Angela on to take the initiative and propose to bland, boring, safe, accountant Tom Watch is that he father has announced he has to make economies and will probably be closing the London house in order to retrench to his place in the country, sack a few of the servants, live a simpler life. Angela doesn’t want to live a simple life. So she combines her £200 a year with Tom’s £800 a year which they reckon they’ll be able to live on, just about, though not being able to have a child.

It rains on the wedding. They catch a train to Aunt Martha’s house in Devon. At some remote rural stop Tom gets out to check if they need to change and is buttonholed by an old school acquaintance who insists on buying him a drink then another at the station bar. When they come out on the platform the train’s gone, along with his baggage and bride!

He reluctantly accepts the old school chum’s back to his place and stay over. They drink a lot. He wakes up to discover his host is going hunting. Against his better nature he dons a hunting outfit, is loaned a mare, and has a good day’s run till he’s thrown and the mare trots off. He makes his way across country to an inn, the Royal George Hotel Chagford, where he’s taken in and given a bed for the night. Next morning he discovers the stop for his aunt’s place is no fewer than three changes from his present location so he sets off on slow local stopping trains not arriving at the station till late at night. He has travelled all day in wet clothes. No car is available. He decides to stay the night in the station inn.

Next morning Tom wakes hoarse and feverish. A taxi takes him to Aunt Martha’s where he discovers that… his beloved fiancée has left, having received a telegram from his first host saying Tom had met with an accident, she has travelled to his (the first host)’s house. Tom is too coldy to do anything and goes to bed. Next day, the sixth of the honeymoon, he begins to feel it’s not working our quite as he expected. His aunt’s maid suggests the host’s name will be inside the jacket he lent Tom and so there’s a brief exchange of telegrams with Angela a) saying she’s having a lovely time and b) no point meeting up now, wait till they meet up back in London. Which they do the next day.

And, as so often, the story cuts away from the main protagonists so that we learn from a conversation between Angela’s parents that she’s been given access to a lovely cottage in Devon, quite near the estate of the chap she stayed with. Won’t that lovely? The implication is that, after less than a week of honeymoon, Angela has found someone richer and more exciting than Tom to have an affair with.

Too Much Tolerance (1932)

The narrator is stopping between ships at a stifling little port on the Red Sea. It’s important to know that this ‘story’ was commissioned for a series about the Seven Deadly Sins and as such is a lampoon on the idea of tolerance, too much tolerance. It’s a simple idea. The narrator falls in with the only other European in his hotel, an amiable round-faced moustachioed commercial agent and this man displays the virtue of tolerance to excess. He likes all the races and creeds he meets.

In a gesture towards psychology Waugh explains that he had been brought up by elderly parents, retired from India, who held very fixed beliefs about etiquette and social distinctions. So as a young man he set out to consciously rebel against all that, to be open, and tolerant and accepting.

Slowly the narrator learns how this attitude has led to the man being hopelessly abused and reduced in life. Out of kindness he took a fellow into partnership in the business he’d set up with the legacy from his parents, but while he was serving in the Great War the fellow ran it into bankruptcy. Strange thing, though, almost immediately afterwards, his partner set up a new concern and is now a rich man.

In a similar vein, he reveals he has a 27-year-old son who’s never had a job, wants to be something in the theatre, gads around London with well-off friends. So our chap sends him as much money as he can to support him.

Lastly, he has a wife, or had a wife. His father had strict moral principles about who could and couldn’t be introduced at home, but he thought that was all rubbish and encouraged his wife to have her own friends and go out and about on her own. She liked dancing, he didn’t, she went to dance lessons and then dance clubs and then left him for a chap who was good at dancing and had a bit of a fast reputation.

So here he is. Reduced to ‘selling sewing machines on commission to Indian storekeepers up and down the East African coast’, a victim of his own niceness and credulousness:

a jaunty, tragic little figure, cheated out of his patrimony by his partner, battened on by an obviously worthless son, deserted by his wife, an irrepressible, bewildered figure striding off under his bobbing topee, cheerfully butting his way into a whole continent of rapacious and ruthless jolly good fellows.

Excursion in Reality (1932)

Struggling young novelist Simon Lent, living in a pokey mews flat and managing a relationship with demanding Sylvia, is hired out of the blue by British movie mogul Sir James MacRea. He is collected from his mews flat and plunged into a mad whirligig of meetings, missed appointments, canteen breaks, tours round film studios and sets, a whirlwind affair with Macrae’s secretary, Miss Grits, all based on the nonsensical notion that he should write an updated version of Hamlet, with modern dialogue, with a bit of Macbeth thrown in. Lent demurs. Sir James steamrollers over him:

“Ah, you don’t see my angle. There have been plenty of productions of Shakespeare in modern dress. We are going to produce him in modern speech. How can you expect the public to enjoy Shakespeare when they can’t make head or tail of the dialogue. D’you know I began reading a copy the other day and blessed if I could understand it. At once I said, ‘What the public wants is Shakespeare with all his beauty of thought and character translated into the language of everyday life.’”

For three weeks Lent throws himself into the ridiculous project, working hand in glove with Miss Grits and summoned to meetings at any hour of day or night. And then, as suddenly as he was summoned Lent is dropped by the director and studio, his contract terminated, and returns to the calm life of a struggling novelist, living in a tiny mews flat and having long moody dinners with Sylvia again.

Incident in Azania (1933)

Azania is the name of the fictional African country Waugh invented as the setting for his fourth novel, Black Mischief, loosely based on Zanzibar which he had visited on his 1930 trip to East Africa, recorded in Remote People.

The story is so inconsequential, I wondered if I’d read it right. Into the small colonial society of Matodi, port city of Azania, arrives the strapping blonde Prunella Brookes, attractive feisty daughter of the local oil company agent. Since there are only eight Englishwomen in the entire town, including a 2-year-old and all the rest married, her arrival inevitably causes a stir and soon there is gossip about which of the most eligible bachelors she is likely to date.

Then she disappears, then ransom letters arrive at the club. She has been kidnapped by bandits, led by the notorious Joab! They want £10,000 for her safe return.

The story is picked up by the wider press and a strapping Australian journalist flies in, a reporter for the Daily Excess. In a repetition of the satire on the press which featured in Black Mischief and was to form the central theme of Scoop, this chap writes a series of sensational and utterly invented descriptions of the bandits and their squalid caves and their fearsome leader.

Finally, he collects the ransom money, takes a jeep and the local Armenian businessman and all-round fixed Mr. Youkoumian up in the hills determined to find and confront this Joab, hand over the ransom and free the lovely young virgin. Instead, in a tremendous anti-climax, they encounter Miss Brooks stumbling down the track towards them, apparently freed and unharmed. With complete illogicality, instead of turning and heading back to town, Prunella insists they are surrounded by Joab’s snipers and so Youkoumian had better take the car and ransom and drive further up the hill to the bandit camp.

During the wait Prunella gives the ardent journalist a detailed and obviously completely fictional account of her stay among the bandits. Then Youkoumian returns, Prunella declares the snipers have all withdrawn, they get in the car and return to Matodi.

Much fuss and bother about her, the memsahibs clucking like hens, the chaps congratulating themselves on job well done, the journalist files his last triumphant story and departs, and a couple of months later Prunella quietly sails back to Blighty.

Only slowly does it dawn on some of the senior members of the ex-pat community that they have been diddled. There’s no proof and it isn’t explicitly stated, but the implication is that the entire ‘kidnapping’ was a con set up by Prunella with Mr Youkoumian, who split the £10,000 ransom between themselves.

Bella Fleace Gave a Party (1933)

Miss Annabel Rochfort-Doyle-Fleace or Bella Fleace as she is known to the entire countryside, is a very old lady, ‘over 80’ (p.103), who lives alone in a grand house which somehow survived the upheavals surrounding Irish independence, in a place called Ballingar.

One colourless morning in November she decides to give a Christmas party in the old style. The preparations are elaborate and described in length, along with pen portraits of the house’s staff (butler Riley), the caterers and so on.

The preparations were necessarily stupendous. Seven new servants were recruited in the village and set to work dusting and cleaning and polishing, clearing out furniture and pulling up carpets. Their industry served only to reveal fresh requirements; plaster mouldings, long rotten, crumbled under the feather brooms, worm-eaten mahogany floorboards came up with the tin tacks; bare brick was disclosed behind the cabinets in the great drawing room. A second wave of the invasion brought painters, paperhangers and plumbers, and in a moment of enthusiasm Bella had the cornice and the capitals of the pillars in the hall regilded; windows were reglazed, banisters fitted into gaping sockets, and the stair carpet shifted so that the worn strips were less noticeable.

Bella takes a great deal of trouble writing the invitations by hand and considering who to invite and who to exclude, which leads to more brief portraits of the inhabitants of the grand houses in the area, including the various arrivistes and nouveaux riches.

The great night comes, the mansion is illuminated by candles, decorated by swags of flowers, the staff are ready, the expensive food is cooking but…nobody comes, nobody that is except the two arrivistes she had specifically excluded from inviting, but who are attracted by the lights and music from the old house. Puzzled, then perplexed, the old lady slumps on the sofa in the hall. Next day she dies. Her heir, a distant cousin and Englishman named Banks, arrives to make an inventory of the house and its contents. Tucked away in Bella’s escritoire, beautifully written, stamped and addressed he finds the invitations to the party, unsent.

Cruise, or Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure (1933)

Consists entirely of a series of letters and postcards sent home by a silly young woman on a Mediterranean cruise. Must have seemed very clever when it was published. Still pretty funny.

POSTCARD

This is the Sphinx. Goodness how Sad.

POSTCARD

This is temple of someone. Darling I cant wait to tell you I’m engaged to Arthur. Arthur is the one I thought was a pansy. Bertie thinks egyptian art is v. inartistic.

POSTCARD

This is Tutankhamens v. famous Tomb. Bertie says it is vulgar and is engaged to Miss P. so hes not one to speak and I call her Mabel now. G how S. Bill wont speak to Bertie Robert wont speak to me Papa and Lady M. seem to have had a row there was a man with a snake in a bag also a little boy who told my fortune which was v. prosperous Mum bought a shawl.

The Man Who Liked Dickens (1933)

A version of the story which ends the novel A Handful of Dust namely the man, named Mr McMaster here, Mr Todd in Handful, who lives an extremely isolated life among the Shiriana Indians in the Amazonas for 60 years. One day the Indians bring an Englishman to him who has staggered out of the rainforest, shattered, suffering from shock and exposure, an explorer whose partner Anderson has died.

This Paul Henty has a very similar backstory to Tony Last in Handful i.e. his wife left him for another man and, in the first flush of embitterment he got talking to a chap in his club who was planning an expedition to Amazonia and here he is.

The details of the ‘expedition’ are different. There were initially more members, who are all given pen portraits and to whom various misadventures happened, eventually depriving Henty and Professor Anderson of colleagues and a lot of supplies. And in this version Anderson simply falls ill of malaria and dies, compared to the version in the novel where it is the main hero who falls ill, and the expedition leader, Dr Messinger, who sets off to find help in a canoe and is washed over a waterfall to his death. Here the Indians who had brought him this far overnight abandon Paul, taking the canoe, leaving him to stumble along the river bank, becoming increasingly starved, feverish and hallucinatory. This, also, is less effective than the devastating description of the state of utter, helpless misery Tony Last is reduced to after Dr Messinger disappears.

As in the novel the McMaster/Todd figure has power over the local Indians because he fathered most of them – and he has a gun. He informs Henty that a black man stayed with him and read to him every afternoon. Henty is happy to do the same and is shown the man’s ant-eaten collection of Dickens novels. At first all goes well, but by the time they’re into the second volume of Bleak House Henty is restless. He brings up the idea of him leaving and returning to civilisation and for the first time McMaster becomes slightly menacing. Yes. The black man had the same ideas. Then he died. McMaster says he will get the Indians to build a canoe. The months drag on. Then the rainy season arrives and McMaster says it will be impossible to travel. He tries to communicate with the Indians but they don’t even understand sign language. He finds a token left in Martin Chuzzlewit which is a pledge McMaster gave to the black man, Barnabas Washington, that he would be allowed to leave at the end of reading that book. When Henty insists that McMaste lets him leave McMaster simply tells the Indians to stop making him food, to stop bringing him the same breakfast, lunch and dinner he’s been having as McMaster. Henty is forced to resume.

Then a lonely wandering prospector arrives at the camp. McMaster is vexed, gives him something to eat and sends him on his way in under an hour. But that’s time enough for Henty to scribble his name on a piece of paper and press it into the man’s hand. From that moment he lives in hope that his name will eventually reach civilisation, the towns on the coast, and an expedition will be launched to find and rescue him. Thus encouraged he accepts McMaster’s invitation to a feast given by the Indians. He eats and drinks heartily.

When he wakes up it is days later and his watch has gone. McMaster explains that while he slept a little expedition of three Englishmen arrived looking for him. His wife in England is offering a reward. McMaster shows the men the grave of the black man, saying it was Henty’s, and gave them Henty’s watch as proof that the poor man had gotten ill, died and been buried there. The Englishmen went off well contented with the story, the evidence and the proof. No-one else will come looking for him. Ever. He is doomed to spend the rest of his life reading Dickens to a madman in the depths of the Amazon jungle.

So in all important points it is identical with the text used as the final part of A Handful of Dust. And, as there, the final speech where McMaster explains how he tricked him and that he is now doomed meets with no reply from Henty, no indication of his reaction, making it a thousand times more powerful. In much the same way that there is no response from Basil Seal when the old native in Black Mischief explains he’s just taken part in a cannibal feast and eaten his own girlfriend. None needed. This situation itself is shock enough.

Out of Depth (1933)

This is an oddity, a science fiction story, a time travel story. It starts conventionally enough in Waugh’s usual environment, the posh upper classes. Rip is an ageing American who always dines with Lady Metroland when he’s in London (Margot Metroland having weaved in and out of Waugh’s stories since Decline and Fall). When he arrives for dinner he finds most of the other guests gathered round an unusual figure:

An elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits. It was like Mother Hippo in Tiger Tim; it was like an evening shirt-front in a du Maurier drawing; down in the depths of the face was a little crimson smirking mouth; and, above it, eyes that had a shifty, deprecating look, like those of a temporary butler caught out stealing shirts.

Lady Metroland introduces him as Dr Kakophilos, a magician. She is very proud of the sensation he creates, but Rip finds him a sinister, repellent person with a thin Cockney voice. At the end of the party a very drunk Rip finds himself driving Dr Kakophilos and old friend Alistair Trumpington home. Kakophilos invites them in and in his sitting-room is suddenly dressed in magician’s garb, ‘a crimson robe embroidered with gold symbols and a conical crimson hat.’ He launches on a discourse about time and space, recites words of power, while Rip and Alistair giggle drunkenly. As they get up to leave, the magician asks them both if they have a favourite period in time. Alistair says the time of Ethelred the Unready, Rip prefers to go forwards, to five hundred years in the future, thinking it a load of gibberish then stagger to their car and Alistair drives off very drunk and crashes into a van in Shaftesbury Avenue.

When Rip comes to he finds himself in London five hundred years hence, a deserted city in ruins which has been reclaimed by nature. Piccadilly Circus is covered in hummocky turf and a few sheep.

The entrance of the Underground Station was there, transformed into a Piranesi ruin; a black aperture tufted about with fern and some crumbling steps leading down to black water. Eros had gone, but the pedestal rose above the reeds, moss grown and dilapidated. (p.137)

He walks down to the river, almost all the buildings have gone, it is wild. He finds a cluster of huts built on stilts. At dawn the inhabitants emerge, savage tribal people dressed in skins. He walks forward and they surround him, offering no violence, just puzzled. Rip is convinced this is a drunken hallucination but it just won’t wear off.

Days then weeks pass as he is fed fish and coarse bread and beer. Finally there is a great fuss and some educated people arrive. The big thing in the story is that they are black. For a start the boat they arrive in is mechanically driven i.e. far above the scope of the savages, and they were wearing uniforms of leather and fur and well organised under a commanding leader. They trade with the natives, exchanging manufactured goods for gewgaws the natives have dug up and also taking Rip from them.

In other words, the tables have been turned, the roles reversed, and instead of technologically advanced white men penetrating darkest Africa and trading with primitive blacks, now it is the whites whose society has collapsed and the blacks who penetrate up the wide lazy Thames.

Eventually their ship arrives at a military station on the coast, in the style of the early western outposts in Africa. There is a steamer, a black anthropologist with glasses studies him, they get him to read old books with what is obviously, to them, an ancient accent, they measure his skull with calipers. In every way a reversal of white colonial practice.

Then, described in the briefest way, barely a paragraph, he is in a Christian mission and finds the congregation of illiterate whites staring at an altar where a black priest in the outfit of a Dominican friar conducts a Mass, something Rip remembers from his youth, something which has obviously not changed for 2,500 years.

Then he comes round in a hospital bed to find a priest by his bedside, obviously calling into question the extent to which anything he’s just experienced was ‘real’. But when the priest tells him that Alistair, also in hospital, has woken from a dream of being in the middle ages, Rip in a panic thinks maybe it was true, maybe his consciousness was thrown forward in time.

I have seen this described as Waugh’s most overtly Catholic story, which it might well be. But it was the vision of an England fallen back into uncivilised savagery, and visited by colonising technologically advanced Africans which caught my imagination.

By Special Request (1934)

This was the original ending of A Handful of Dust as it appeared in the original magazine serialisation in Harpers’ Bazaar. It feels very flat and banal compared to the horrifying reading-Dickens ending which he eventually chose. Above all, this original final version of the story is very, very short at just eight pages.

In this version, Tony takes the elaborate steps to secure a divorce which feature in the novel but then, when he realises how avaricious and selfish Brenda has become, he calls off the divorce settlement negotiations and – this is the point of divergence, does not set off on a hair-brained expedition to Brazil, but instead (much more likely) treats himself to a long and leisurely cruise.

The story commences as Tony’s liner returns to Southampton. He is met by his chauffeur but surprised to learn that his estranged wife, Brenda, is in the car. They are frightfully decent and polite to each other. Brenda explains she just had to give up that flat, it smelt so frightfully of hot radiators. He knows this is a Decision Moment: should or should he not take Brenda back and forgive her? But in reality, he falls asleep in the warm soft back of the car and only wakes when they reach Hetton.

Where they are greeted by the butler and the luggage unloaded and then he and Brenda inspect the work which has been done in the renovated bathrooms, checking the taps and so on like a, well, an old married couple.

After dinner they sit in the library and Brenda timidly hopes Tony wasn’t in a rage with her when he left, isn’t in a rage now. Course not, he replies, and asks after Beaver, her one-time lover. Well, it all ends up being about money. Tony cut her off without a cent and Beaver didn’t have any money, was blackballed from clubs, she tried to get a job with Mrs Beaver who turned her down, then working in her friend Daisy’s restaurant but that didn’t last.

Then Beaver met the Shameless Blonde and fell madly in love and chucked Brenda, who was now on the brink, living on scraps from the delicatessen round the corner. But the Blonde wouldn’t have anything to do with him and so his mother eventually sent him off to Europe to be a buyer for her business. And so here she is, penniless and without prospects. During the recitation Tony begins to nod off again and so she says, ‘Come on, let’s go up’, and as simply as that their marriage resumes.

In a 3-page coda months have passed and Tony and Brenda are happily married and have popped up to London to do some shopping. Brenda is on at Tony to do something about the flat she leased a year ago for her affair with John Beaver. So at last Tony goes round to see Mrs Beaver, who owns the apartment block. Only instead of simply cancelling the lease, he comes to a discreet arrangement with Mrs Beaver…to have his name removed from the lease and name board of the block, for a fee. Tony rejoins Brenda after her shopping and they catch the train back their country house.

And the train sped through the darkness towards Hetton.

Clearly that is a metaphorical darkness, for the transaction inaugurates a new era of infidelity and betrayal in their marriage. On the one hand this ending is obviously much more realistic than the reading-Dickens ending. But you can also see why it’s unsatisfactory in several ways.

  1. At a stroke it wrecks Tony’s character, his position as the unchanging moral rock at the centre of the story. And in doing so undermines the… the moral or psychological structure of everything which had preceded it.
  2. And undermines the value of the death of their son. That was such a shocking, staggering event that for the entire story to fizzle out in Tony’s go at having an affair feels cheap and nasty. The reading-Dickens ending may be weird, wildly implausible, bizarre and cruel but it has the great advantage of matching the cruel death of little John. In its madness and cruelty it is a far more fitting ending to the novel.

Period Piece (1936)

Lady Amelia, an old lady, likes having stories read to her by Miss Myers. She likes crime stories, often quite violent ones, American ones with ‘brutal realism and coarse slang’, ‘narratives of rape and betrayal’. I suppose, in Waugh’s circle and for his audience, this idea itself might be quite amusing.

When Miss Myers one day ventures the opinion that the story she’s just finished reading was far fetched, Lady Amelia replies that if you recounted stories from the lives of the people around them, you’d probably call them far-fetched. She then tells the story of ‘the extremely ironic circumstances of the succession of the present Lord Cornphillip.’

Etty a cousin of her mother’s marries Billy Cornphillip, a phenomenally boring man. Lady Amelia was a bridesmaid (p.155). Their marriage upset Ralph Bland who was Billy Cornphillip’s nearest relative and stood to inherit his fortune if he’d died without an heir. He has a wife and children to support and not much money. Over the years, though, Etty fails to become pregnant so Ralph bucks up.

Ralph comes to stay one Christmas but his 6-year-old son gives the game away when he tells Billy that, when he (Billy) inherits, he’ll pull the whole place down. At that point there is a complete breach between the two men and war declared. Billy is a Conservative and Ralph comes down to stand in his constituency as a Radical (and wins). At which point Billy accuses Ralph of corruption during the election and successfully gets him unseated.

Ralph takes this very badly and takes to attending speeches Billy is giving and laughing of clapping in the wrong place, he gets drunk in the local pub and is found asleep on Billy’s terrace. All this is very difficult for skinny Etty who had been friends with Ralph.

One bonfire night Ralph got drunk and made a load of threats against Billy, who called the police and had him up in magistrates court and he was given a banning order but amazed everyone by leaving that very afternoon for Venice with Billy’s wife, Etty! However, the affair was not a success, they stayed in an insanitary palace, Etty fell ill, Ralph ran off with American lady who was much more his type, and so Etty returned to England. She tries to find friends to stay with but, eventually, everyone hears she was back with Billy and about to have a baby. It is a boy i.e. a son and heir.

So this is very broadly the same plot as in Unconditional Surrender – a posh chap accepts the child his wife has had by another man she’s been having an affair with.

But the point of the story, or maybe its literary feature, is the way it veers away at the very end from what might well be the most bombshell part: which is that the boy never knew he wasn’t the son of his father, and which is described only indirectly:

until quite lately, at luncheon with Lady Metroland, when my nephew Simon told him, in a rather ill-natured way. (p.159)

It is very characteristic indeed of Waugh that these kind of bombshell moments are told at one remove or prompt little or no response. Blink and you might miss them. Imagine the impact on the son, his confused feelings, the agonised conversations when he confronts his mother and father. Absolutely none of that is here, all left to the reader to work out, that’s if he or she even notices this revelation, given the way it is tucked away at the end of the little story as a throwaway sentence.

On Guard (1934)

Millicent Blade is a lovely girl but she has a small shapeless nose. In another example of the way Waugh, when reaching for a comparison for anything, thinks first of his prep or public school, his description of Millicent’s nose goes:

It was a nose that pierced the thin surface crust of the English heart to its warm and pulpy core; a nose to take the thoughts of English manhood back to its schooldays, to the doughy-faced urchins on whom it had squandered its first affection, to memories of changing room and chapel and battered straw boaters.

Hector kissed her reverently on the tip of this nose. As he did so, his senses reeled and in momentary delirium he saw the fading light of the November afternoon, the raw mist spreading over the playing fields; overheated youth in the scrum; frigid youth at the touchline, shuffling on the duckboards, chafing their fingers and, when their mouths were emptied of biscuit crumbs, cheering their house team to further exertion…

Hector gazed at her little, shapeless, mobile button of a nose and was lost again . . . “Play up, play up,” and after the match the smell of crumpets being toasted over a gas-ring in his study . . .

A good deal of the upper-class pose in Waugh’s fiction derives from the failure of all these public schoolboys to ever grow up and genuinely confront a wider world; their preference to stay within the safe sanctuaries of Oxbridge colleges or Westminster common rooms or Inns of Court chambers or their gentlemen’s clubs, mentally prisoned in their boyhoods, never growing up.

Anyway, Millicent’s fiancé, Hector, is off to Africa, buying a farm off a chap named Beckthorpe who has consistently bad luck with it. Dining with Beckthorpe at his club, Hector wonders what he can give Millicent as a memento, to make her remember him till he’s well off enough to invite her over. Some jewellery? A photo?

Beckthorpe suggests a dog, and so as to ram the point home, name it Hector. Next day Hector goes to one of London’s largest emporiums and, in rather a panic, buys a poodle. When he leans down to commune, the little perisher takes a snap at him which he adroitly avoids. Hector tells the doggy to prevent any other men getting at Millicent.

Millicent, characteristically, goes to the wrong station so misses seeing Hector off on the train to the port to the ship which will take him to Africa. Hector gives the poodle to Beckthorpe to give to Millicent. Millicent writes to tell him she loves it and it has already bitten a ‘man called Mike.’

The narrative now steps back to reveal that Millicent’s passions for men generally last about 4 months and was reaching that period when Hector’s last minute flurry of activity to find a job slightly renewed it. The comic conceit of the story is the idea that the puppy heard and understood Hector’s injunction not to let other men near Millicent.

The rest of the text develops this idea via mishaps with a series of suitors. Hector the dog adopts strategies to be the centre of attention so no suitor stands a chance: he makes a fuss of the sugar bowl, goes to the door and scratches to be let out then scratches to be let back in, or pretend to be sick, gagging and retching so that Millicent carries him from the room thus destroying any attempt at humour.

As for Hector the supposed fiancé, Millicent soon forgets about him. He writes weekly from the farm in Kenya where things are hard, but Millicent rarely even opens the envelopes and never reads to the end. When friends ask her about Hector, she increasingly thinks they’re referring to the dog not her beloved:

it came naturally to Millicent to reply, ‘He doesn’t like the hot weather much I’m afraid, and his coat is in a very poor state. I’m thinking of having him plucked,’ instead of, ‘He had a go of malaria and there is black worm in his tobacco crop.’

If young men she’s met at parties call, Hector learns to mimic taking a call, cocking his head on one side, so that Millicent gets into the habit of putting the receiver to the dog’s muzzle, deafening the (hungover) young men with a barrage of barks. If men invite Millicent for a walk in the park, Hector goes on ahead, carrying her bag and periodically dropping it so the young man has to pick it up.

Two years pass. Suitors come and go each of them, eventually, foxed by the dog. She has long ago stopped caring about her lover in Kenya. At last Hector meets his match in the person of the middle-aged Major Sir Alexander Dreadnought, Bart., M.P., a man routinely put upon by friends and family from an early age who had developed a forebearing nature.

Hector tries out all his tricks but Dreadnought simply finds him charming. Dreadnought invites Millicent and her mother to his place in the country where Hector does everything he can to be obnoxious, ragging the carpet, rolling in poo in the grounds then coming back and soiling every chair in the house. He howled all night, killed some partridges, hid so the household were up half the night looking for him. Dreadnought takes it all in good part.

Back in London Hector the poodle ponders his options and realises that, all his strategems having failed, there was only one last desperate way for him to keep his promise to his original master, his purchaser, Hector. And so the next time Millicent leans over to nuzzle him, Hector makes one quick snap and bites Millicent’s pretty little snub nose clean off! A plastic surgeon repairs it but creates a new type of nose, strong and Roman. Gone is all Millicent’s schoolboy charm. Hector achieves his aim, and turns her into a suitorless spinster:

Now she has a fine aristocratic beak, worthy of the spinster she is about to become. Like all spinsters she watches eagerly for the foreign mails and keeps carefully under lock and key a casket full of depressing agricultural intelligence; like all spinsters she is accompanied everywhere by an ageing lapdog. (p.171)

Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing (1935)

Has a great comic opening line:

‘You will not find your father greatly changed,’ remarked Lady Moping, as the car turned into the gates of the County Asylum.

Ten years earlier Lord Moping had attempted to hang himself after a particularly distressing annual garden party had been ruined by squally weather. He was taken away and housed in the wing of the asylum reserved for wealthier lunatics where the Lady Moping visited him periodically. This is the first time their grown-up daughter, Angela.

Lord Moping is brought to the doctor’s office where they wait by a kindly old gent with lovely white hair who the doctor tells them is named Mr Loveday. He has become Lord Moping’s assistant in the asylum, patient and kind.

Lord Moping is huffy and busy with all his ‘work’, under the delusion that he needs to do a great deal of research about rivers and fisheries and send off letters to important people such as the Pope. He claims not to recognise or know Angela and hurries back to his room, but Mr Loveday very kindly comes back a few minutes later to see Lady Moping and Angela and assure them that his lordship will like to see them again, it’s just he’s very busy and distracted at the moment.

When he’s gone the governor tells him Loveday is not a warder or nurse, as they thought, but himself an inmate. Why? Twenty years earlier, when a young man, he knocked a young woman off her bicycle and strangled her. Gave himself up immediately.

Angela is a noble spirit, a compassionate soul. She thinks it’s unfair such a sweet kind old man as Mr Loveday should be locked up. She studies the laws surrounding lunacy. She makes an excuse to pop over to the asylum again and asks to ‘interview’ Mr Loveday. When she asks him if he’d like to be free, Loveday replies that, yes, he has one little ambition he’d like to fulfil before he dies.

Angela leaves with the tears of the sensitive in her eyes. She studies more, lobbies the various important personages who come to stay at their house over the summer. Finally she gets her way and it is announced Mr Loveday will be released. There is a big ceremony with the governor, Angela and various lunatics in attendance, then Mr Loveday walks free.

A few hours he is back, handing himself in. He took advantage of his hours of liberty to strangle another young lady who happened to ride by.

Gruesome, in the manner of Roald Dahl’s boom-boom Tales of the Unexpected.

Winner Takes All (1936)

A tale of two brothers, Gervase and Thomas Kent-Cumberland, the first much favoured, feted, celebrated and blessed with all the gifts a grand family can bestow; Thomas an unwanted second child which his mother hoped would be a girl. Throughout their lives Gervase receives all the benefits and gifts:

  • Gervase is born in an expensive nursing home with all the trimmings, his birth celebrated with a bonfire on the beacon hill, his christening with a garden party leading to fireworks; Thomas in a shoddy modern house on the East Coast delivered by a repellently middle class doctor
  • when their uncle buys Thomas the big red model car he’s always wanted for Christmas, their mother assumes he’s got it wrong and changes the labels so Gervase receives the grand toy
  • when their father dies during the Great War their mother becomes extremely parsimonious and obsessed by the threat of Death Duties, cuts are instituted all through the grand household and in their school activities, so that poor Gervase doesn’t inherit the debts – ‘ “It is all for Gervase,” Mrs. Kent-Cumberland used to explain’
  • Gervase is sent to Eton, to save money Tom is sent to a much cheaper, modern school
  • Gervase goes up to Christ Church Oxford where he consorts with other magnificent Etonians in the Bullingdon Club; when Tom goes to visit him he is intimidated and drinks too much in a corner
  • marooned at home after school, his mother sets Tom to reorganising the family library; in it he comes across a manuscript journal kept by a Colonel Jasper Cumberland during the Peninsular War; Tom does a lot of research, identifies maps of the campaign and a picture of the Colonel and writes an introduction and notes to it; all this is taken off him and given to Gervase who publishes it under his own name and gains all the praise and kudos
  • swiftly followed by Gervase’s 21st birthday party whose celebrations are lengthy and elaborate; Tom’s old bedroom is given to a guest and he has to sleep in the local pub
  • meanwhile Tom had been found in a motor manufacturing firm in Wolverhampton and found digs over a fruitshop on the outskirts of town

After a while you realise Waugh has just sat down and made a list of every single humiliation a younger son can be put through, and then inflicted in his fictional Tom. The sequence of humiliations rises to a sort of climax when Tom falls in love with a very ‘common’ girl from the motor manufacturer works, Gladys Cruttwell. When he, finally, reluctantly, takes Gladys home to meet his mother, Mrs Kent-Cumberland is, as you might expect, appalled.

With the result that Tom is swiftly removed from the motor business and dispatched to a farm in Australia! Meanwhile Gervase has come of age and now owns and runs the estate at Tomb with lavish prodigality, extending buildings, buying hunters, contemplating a swimming pool, entertaining lavishly each weekend.

Meanwhile years pass and Mrs Kent-Cumberland does not notice from his letters (which she rarely reads) that Tom has fallen in love with an Australian girl, that he is sailing with her and her father to London, that they have arrived!

She sends Gervase to meet them who reports back that they are a) staying at Claridges (rich and b) going to stay in the country with the Chasms (socially connected). Eventually they arrive, tall Mr MacDougal and daughter Bessie. What quickly emerges is they own vast territories in Australia and are loaded. Bessie is a comically naive and impressionable young woman, impressed by everything she sees. But the more she sees of England the less remarkable Tom seems. The more his brother stands out as a copy of him but with more life. When Mr MacDougal has a confidential chat with Mrs Kent-Cumberland and informs her that his annual revenue is somewhere around £50,000, a twinkle comes into her eye.

She makes plans and carries them out. She encourages Gervase to be very nice to Bessie, drops hints to Bessie about the advantages of being attached to the eldest son and then carries off her masterstroke – she returns from London one day to tell Tom she has just bumped into Gladys Cruttwell! Of course she arranged a luncheon and told Gladys that Tom had never got over him. Now she lies to Tom and tells her Gladys never got over him. She has invited her to come and stay for a few days. She plays on Tom’s sense of guilt and fair play, asking whether he had not, in fact, led on the poor girl and then dumped her.

When they are reunited and left alone they both proceed along these carefully arranged lines with the result that two weeks later Tom and Gladys are married. Mrs Kent-Cumberland explains everything to the MacDougals, not least that Gervase, the taller, handsomer brother is free and available. They are married after 6 weeks engagement. He and Bessie have two children and six racehorses. Tom and Gladys are packed off to Australia where MacDougal gives him a junior management job on a remote ranch in the middle of nowhere.

Not so much a tale of sibling rivalry as of sibling crushing defeat. And the indomitable figure of the scheming upper class mother.

An Englishman’s Home (1939)

Mr Beverley Metcalfe made his pile in the cotton trade in Alexandria and then bought a large acreage and house in the quaint Cotswold village of Much Malcock. He is nouveau riches, he insists on calling the nice Georgian house he’s bought Much Malcock Hall, although all the locals, including his ineffective gardener Boggett, insist on referring to it by its traditional name, the Grumps. The narrative paints a lazy, comic picture of the village and its inhabitants, at least those of the ‘card-leaving class’ aka ‘the gentry’, namely Lord Brakehurst, Lord Lieutenant of the County, his wife Lady Brakehurst had, Lady Peabury (‘a diligent reader of fiction, mistress of many Cairn terriers and of five steady old maidservants’) and Colonel Hodge, and ‘the Hornbeams at the Old Mill were a childless, middle-aged couple who devoted themselves to craftsmanship’, vegetarians and bohemians. Everyone cordially dislikes everyone else. It’s all very English.

Into this placid little world drops a bombshell – a young man has bought one of old farmer Westmacott’s fields and is planning to build an estate of suburban villas there! Now this field abuts at different points the properties of Metcalfe, Peabury, Hodge and Hornbeam and so they convene a series of meetings at which they agree to find out what can be done to prevent the development, contact the local council, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and so on.

Eventually it becomes clear they are going to have to buy the field off its purchaser in order to keep it undeveloped. Colonel Hodge is sent by the committee to meet the purchaser, Mr. Hargood-Hood at the village’s one pub, the Brakehurst Arms. Here Mr. Hargood-Hood very successfully terrifies the Colonel by showing him what he intends to build: it’s not an estate it’s an experimental industrial laboratory, complete with two great chimneys to emit the poison fumes, a water tower to get high pressures, and six bungalows for his staff.

The text then includes correspondence between Metcalfe and Lady Peabury in which it is revealed that Mr Hargood-Hood wants £500 for the field (and lawyer’s fees and cost of the architect’s drawings). (Back when he bought his Georgian house Metcalfe had been offered the option of buying Westmacott’s field for some £170 but turned it down because of the expense; so this represents a tripling of the asking price.)

Peabury refuses Metcalfe’s offer to go halves on the purchase – the two obstinately refuse to co-operate – with the result it looks like the development will go ahead and both Peabury and Metcalfe begin to make plans to sell their homes and move out of the village when Colonel makes a last-ditch bid to avert building going ahead. He comes up with a solution to the great Peabury-Metcalfe standoff which is to purchase the field in order to build a scout hut on it: Lady Peabury will contribute £250, Metcalfe £500, and the other families a few pounds. This allows the field to be purchased from Hargood-Hood and disaster averted, while Metcalfe gets to have the new building named after him and can swank round the village as a public benefactor.

Only in the last few paragraphs do we learn that it was a scam all along. Hargood-Hood’s ‘lawyer’ is in fact his brother and they make a tidy living by descending on idyllic country villages, buying up a plot with suitably loaded neighbours, then threatening to build their toxic factory and letting the gentry buy back the field at a grossly inflated rate. it’s a scam, a con, although, as ‘Jock’ admits, they cut this one pretty fine. The gentry of Much Malcock squabbled for so long that the brothers were nearly left holding the baby!

The Sympathetic Passenger (1939)

Mr James hates the radio, the endless blare of music from wirelesses owned by his wife and daughter. (Dislike of wirelesses which are on all the time blaring out music being a theme which also crops up ‘Tactical Exercise’ and is prominent in the final volume of the Sword of Honour trilogy)

With relief he leaves his house and sets off to drive to the local train station. On the way he sees a man trying to flag down lifts. He stops and offers him a lift to the station. What follows is the dialogue of these two people in a car. Mr James casually mentions his dislike of the radio and this triggers the hitchhiker into an increasingly demented rant, in which he accuses the BBC of mind control and other wild, delusional accusations. A car overtakes them playing loud blaring music and the hitchhiker orders Mr James to chase it and overtake it so they can kill the heathen driver. Mr James is by now terrified but his car simply won’t go faster at which point the hitchhiker says he will kill Mr James.

They arrive at the station and Mr James leaps out but the other guy is quicker and is closing in on him when…a load of policemen sortie from the station entrance and pounce on the man, Oh yes, he’s a well known lunatic, the policeman tells him cheerily. In fact Mr James is lucky to be alive.

Mr James drives home a chastened man and when he arrives, for once, doesn’t complain about his wife or daughter playing the radio. In fact he now finds it strangely reassuring.

Work Suspended (1942)

This is a long piece and reviewed in a separate blog post.

Charles Ryder’s Schooldays (written 1945, published 1982)

I’ve mentioned the struggle many privately educated writers of Waugh’s generation had in escaping the mental world of their prep and public schools and this is a kind of quintessence of that world and that problem. The thirty or so pages of this fragment are set at a private school named Spierpoint Down which is pretty obviously Waugh’s own public school, Lancing on the South Downs. Crucially, unlike Brideshead Revisited, it is not a first-person narrative told by Charles, but a third person narrative about him. Charles is in the Classical Upper Fifth.

It is the first day back after the summer holidays, Wednesday 24 September 1919. We are treated to an excruciatingly tedious exposition of life at Spierpoint, with its hundred and one stupidly named buildings (Head’s House, Old’s House) and petty regulations and privileges for the different year groups or prefects and so on (the way one is allowed to wear coloured socks or walk arm in arm with a friend once one has graduated to this or that privileged class or clique).

It is a world of private rules designed to create a strong esprit de corps among those who are in the know and exclude everyone outside. It is drenched in hyper-privileged assumption that all the pupils are rich, know London’s restaurants and theatres, belong to a network of extended families which run everything and know each other, and the assumption that all these insufferable fifth formers will, in due course, go on to ‘the university’ meaning Oxford.

Charles likes Art and Drawing. He helps a rather over-confidential master, Mr Graves, assemble a small printing press and sort out the moveable typepieces into different fonts. There is Sunday morning communion with a lavish description of the vast Victorian and unfinished chapel. Charles and two friends are caned for refusing to say their evening prayers when ordered to by their head of house.

The diary of classes, sports, book reading, conversations and petty jealousies continues for another few days until Sunday 28 September and abruptly halts, exhausted by its own tedium. This fat chunk of public school fetishisation lacks any of the wit or humour or fun or lightness which characterises the best of Waugh’s writing. it feels intolerably smug and superior and self-satisfied. You can see why he never published it during his lifetime.

Short stories 2. Post-war

Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947)

A novella – reviewed in a separate blog post.

Tactical Exercise (1947)

This is good story, in a grim, grand guignol sort of way. John Verney hates his wife Elizabeth. He was wounded in Italy. The pain of the wound leads to outbursts of anger. He returns home to have to live with her family in house in Hampstead. Everything infuriates him: the back garden is a bomb crater, all the glass in the back windows are broken. A grimy life of rationing. John stands as Liberal in a county constituency but loses badly to a Radical who happens to be a Jew. His bitterness against life makes him increasingly antisemitic.

Meanwhile, his wife Elizabeth works in something clandestine in the Foreign Office. She’s clever, she’s a linguist. When John learns her boss is a Jew it crystallises his hatred of his wife. She becomes a symbol of everything he hates with all the resentment and bitterness of the war, his coming down in the world, his political failure. For John his wife becomes a representative of the shabby socialist bureaucracy which shackles him, she is helping communist regimes in eastern Europe, and she works for a Jew!

Still they manage to just about be civil to each other and live together. They both go to see a film, a trite murder mystery in which the wife drugs the husband and throws him out of the window of a holiday home overlooking a cliff. He falls to his death. She inherits his wealth. This gives John the idea of copying it.

A month or so later they go on holiday to a holiday cottage at the edge of a cliff. John thinks he’s being clever by softening up the locals for the crime he plans to commit by telling everyone that his wife sleepwalks, telling chaps at the golf club, down the pub. One of them even recommends him to go talk to the local doctor, a nice chap.

The twist in the tale is that she has been planning to murder John all along. She brought a bottle of whiskey along as a treat and John has been having a glass every evening before supper. Now, when he finishes the glass he starts to feel strangely woozy. She helps him to the sofa, by the window, the window overlooking the cliff, and the long fall to the jagged rocks below…

This macabre little tale is one of several which anticipate the twisted stories of Roald Dahl.

Compassion (1949)

This narrative was recycled in its entirety, and almost verbatim, into the final part of the third novel in the Sword of Honour trilogy, Unconditional Surrender.

In the novel the events involve the trilogy’s protagonist, Guy Crouchback; here they involve a Major Gordon. The basic narrative is identical: Gordon is posted as British Military Mission i.e. liaison with the communist Yugoslav partisans in a place called Begoy in Croatia. He describes the wrecked town and the heavy-handed Partisan authorities who call themselves ‘the Praesidium’. To be precise:

Begoy was the headquarters of a partisan corps in Northern Croatia. It lay in a large area, ten miles by twenty, of what was called “Liberated Territory,” well clear of the essential lines of communication. The Germans were pulling out of Greece and Dalmatia and were concerned only with main roads and supply points. They made no attempt now to administer or patrol the hinterland. There was a field near Begoy where aircraft could land unmolested. They did so nearly every week in the summer of 1944 coming from Bari with partisan officials and modest supplies of equipment. In this area congregated a number of men and women who called themselves the Praesidium of the Federal Republic of Croatia.

Gordon is assigned a creepy interpreter named Bakic who spies on him. The narrative concerns the 108 Jewish displaced persons Major Gordon discovers in the town. Their representative, an anxious young woman named Mme. Kanyi, tells Gordon they want to leave, to get away to Italy. Mme. Kanyi’s husband is an engineer and does his best to keep the struggling power plant going.

Gordon becomes obsessed with helping the Jews but is blocked at every turn, especially by the communist authorities who are very suspicious of his motivation. He manages to get two representatives out on a flight to Bari, but by the time the authorities give permission for the rest to be flown out the autumn fogs and then winter snows prevent planes landing at the airstrip.

When his mission is wound up and he is transferred back to Bari Gordon eventually learns that the Jews were in the end evacuated and sent to a camp for displaced persons near Lecce. When he visits the camp the Jews he helped crowd round but Mme. Kanyi and her husband are not there. All they know is that they were taken off the lorries evacuating them from Begoy at the last moment.

At this point occurs the biggest difference from the narrative as it appears in the novel. Here Gordon gets a cousin in the newly opened embassy in newly liberated Belgrade to do some digging for him. This cousin writes him a letter which is quoted verbatim in which he reports that the Kanyis were executed by the communist authorities. The husband was blamed for sabotaging the power plant and the wife was accused of having an affair with the British liaison officer and for concealing counter-revolutionary propaganda. Now we and Gordon know that the husband was the only person keeping the wretched power plant going, and that the wife was not at all having an affair with him, they just spoke a few times. As for the ‘counter-revolutionary propaganda’ that was a load of old London magazines Gordon left with her to help her while away the long winter nights. Their execution is, in other words, a farcical tragedy and an enormous injustice.

In the story he recounts all this to his regiment’s second in command and the chaplain. When he says it was a complete waste of time, the chaplain gives him a more subtle theological interpretation, saying that no matter how pointless it may seem, the situation a) prompted good works by Gordon but also b) that the Kanyis in some way did him good, drawing out of him a new feeling for compassion and charity which hadn’t been there before. Hmm. Thought-provoking.

In the novel the facts remain mostly the same but the treatment feels completely different. The final scene with the bluff second in command and the chaplain offering words of comfort are completely absent from the novel. But it’s not the absences, it’s the positive additions in the novel which transform the story.

  1. We have known Guy intimately for almost three novels. Everything which happens resonates with his character of sterling integrity and quiet determination.
  2. In the novel Guy has other Brits around him, namely the squadron leader and de Souza who add a kind of variety to his responses, so his obsession with saving the Jews becomes one action among multiple ones carried out by the British Mission.
  3. The final scene with the chaplain is swept away and replaced by a more complex final arrangement: in this, instead of getting a written and therefore rather bland report about the fate of the Kanyis, it is told to him by a lickspittle functionary of the army who we have, through the course of the book, come to realise is a communist fellow traveller or stooge. Unlike the anonymous cousin in Belgrade of the story, this creep, Gilpin, the coward who had to be kicked out of the plane on his first parachute jump then lied to everyone about his ‘bravery’, it is this character who Waugh has gone to great lengths to build up as a representative of the corrupt ‘values’ of the new era, who tells Guy to his face about all the ‘evidence’ of the Kanyis’ counter-revolutionary activity, and smirks that they got the revolutionary justice they deserved. It is a vastly more powerful and disgusting experience to read the version in the novel, and very effectively crystallises all the morel, military, political and social failures and compromises which he sees the end of the war as bringing.

So this is an interesting enough story, but you shouldn’t read it here, you should read The Sword of Honour trilogy where the same basic story acquires multiple extra resonances and meanings from its inclusion in a novel.

Love Among the Ruins (1953)

A novella – reviewed in a separate blog post.

Basil Seal Rides Again (1963)

This was Waugh’s last published work of fiction. All critics quote Waugh’s own description of it in the dedication to old friend Ann Fleming, as: ‘a senile attempt to recapture the manner of my youth’. It certainly contains a roll call of well-loved characters from the 1930s comic novels, including Peter Pastmaster, Parsnip and Pimpernell (the joke names he gave the left-wing 30s writers Auden and Isherwood), Lady Metroland, Sonia Trumpington and numerous others, indeed the narrative opens with Peter and Basil attending a banquet to celebrate the award of the Order of Merit to Ambrose Silk (the lisping aesthete character Waugh based on Brian Howard). Peter and Basil have let themselves go: ‘They were two stout, rubicund, richly dressed old buffers’.

Critics have judged the story harshly but I found some of it funny, for example the opening dialogue between the two old boys as they suffer through long speeches then go for a pee at the same time, gossiping all the time in an amusingly drunken senile way:

‘This Albright married someone — Molly Meadows, perhaps?’
‘I married Molly Meadows.’
‘So you did. I was there. Well, someone like that.’

Returning to his wife, Angela, in their London house, Basil, having caught sight of himself in the toilet mirrors, is more than usually aware that he is fat and unwell. Basil reviews his life and we learn that he blew all the toes off one foot while demonstrating an explosive device during the war, hence his  family nickname of ‘Pobble’ and the need to walk with a cane. Suddenly he realises he is old:

His voice was not the same instrument as of old. He had first assumed it as a conscious imposture; it had become habitual to him; the antiquated, worldly-wise moralities which, using that voice, he had found himself obliged to utter, had become his settled opinions. It had begun as nursery clowning for the diversion of Barbara; a parody of Sir Joseph Mannering; darling, crusty old Pobble performing the part expected of him; and now the parody had become the persona.

He and Angela agree to try out one of those health clinics, sanatorium thingies. They drive down to Kent, check in and have an interview with the presiding doctor:

‘You complain of speechlessness, a sense of heat and strangulation, dizziness and subsequent trembling?’ said this man of science.
‘I feel I’m going to burst,’ said Basil.

For 3 or 4 days they put up with the diet of carrot juice and raw eggs but then, in an entirely predictable bit of comic business, Basil procures some brandy off the young man who runs the resort gym and runs a tidy black market in illicit booze and grub. He drinks it down in one and passes out. The sanatorium  doctor expels him. Basil and Angela return to London.

Here he discovers his daughter, 18 year old Barbara, is in love with a ghastly, uncouth young man, Charles Albright. Late at night Basil discovers the pair rummaging around in his wine cellar, basically stealing some booze to take to a ‘happening’. This is barely into the 1960s so it’s not a psychedelic 60s happening, it’s a beards-and-jazz, beatnik 50s happening.

Basil insists on having an interview with the young man by himself, a solemn occasion for both parties at which Basil is disconcerted to find himself being bested. He looks into the young man’s eyes and face and recognises himself.

After a boozy lunch Basil drops in on Sonia Trumpington who lives alone, with her son, doing charitable works and sewing. He asks Sonia is she knows this Charles Albright, she replies yes, he’s a friend of her son, Robin. When Basil whiningly asks what his daughter can see in the scuffy, beardy young man, Sonia robustly replies, you! He looks, speaks and behaves just like a young Basil.

Sonia says she has photos somewhere of the mother and digs up an old photo album from the 1930s. She identifies the young woman as Elizabeth Stayles, there’s a photo of Basil about to throw her into a lake at some gay 1930s house party.

Seeing the photo awakens an old memory in Basil’s mind. Elizabeth Stayles, yes, didn;t he have an affair with her, all those years ago?

Basil thanks Sonia and returns to his London house whence he invites young Barbara for a chat in Hyde Park by the Serpentine. Here he informs his daughter that her lover is his, Basil’s son. He had a brief fling with Elizabeth Stayles when he got out of hospital after the toes incident, during the Blitz winter of 1940. Only lasted a week then Basil took back up with Angela and Elizabeth (Betty) rooted around for someone else and ended up marrying Clarence Albright, killed in action 1943. Betty herself died young of cancer in 1956. The point is there’s no-one to gainsay his story.

His story being that his daughter, Barbara, has been going out with, and fooling around with, her half-brother. Barbara gets up from the park bench and stumbles across the park. Basil catches a cab to Bellamy’s club for an egg nog, and then onto Claridge’s to meet his wife. She says their daughter returned home looking tragic and locked herself in her room. ‘What she needs,’ says Basil, ‘is a change of scene. I’ve bought all three of us tickets to Bermuda.’

To be honest, from the text I’m not sure whether Charles really is Basil’s son or whether it’s the last in Basil’s long list of outrageous lies and scams. If it is an outrageous lie he has conjured up to scupper his daughter’s relationship with the young man, then it is obviously cruel and heartless. If is isn’t a lie, if it’s true, it’s still a pretty heartless story for Waugh to concoct; told from the father’s point of view it completely ignores the emotional devastation the revelation must have on his daughter.

But I don’t quite understand the handful of critics I’ve read who say the story is ‘disgusting’, as if it was an entirely new note in Basil or Waugh’s career. They seem to forget that Waugh has Basil unknowingly EAT the young woman he fancies in Black Mischief after she’s been caught, killed and cooked by a tribe Basil is staying with. That book was published in 1932, precisely 30 years before this story. Or that in Waugh’s first novel the kindly Mr Prendergast has his head cut off with a hacksaw by a psychotic prison inmate. Or the short story about the polite and docile Mr Loveday who strangles young women to death. Or the devastating ending of Handful of Dust. Or the heartless death of Angela Runcible in Vile Bodies. Or the not one but two suicides in The Loved One.

In other words I wasn’t upset by the story’s apparent cruelty because casual cruelty had been a stock in trade for Waugh’s fiction right from the start.

So: I like the bufferish tone of the story and I liked the old-boy banter between Peter and Basil and especially between 60-something Basil and his wife. It felt both sweet and charitable to the infirmities of age, as was the brief sad interlude where they visit old Margot Metroland and find her sitting in the dark hunched over a television set (as so many lonely old people become addicted to doing).

On the other hand, all the dialogue with his daughter struck me as hopelessly unrealistic, stiff and unnatural, really false although – but how can I know how 60-something posh fathers spoke with their debutante daughters in 1962?

And as to the harsh, cruel sting in the tail, well, it doesn’t feel to me like some sad falling-off of Waugh’s powers at all but entirely in keeping with the cruelty and sadism lurking in the wings of all Waugh’s 1930s novels and of a piece with macabre little horrors such as ‘Mr Loveday’s Little Outing’ (1935) or ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’ (1939).


Credit

The Complete Short Stories by Evelyn Waugh was first published by Chapman and Hall in 1947. All references are to the 2018 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’ He said we should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds (including what there was of Harris’s); and the hard work would give us a good appetite, and make us sleep well.

Three Men in A Boat is routinely included in any list of the funniest books ever written in any language. It describes the lazy dawdling progress of three late-Victorian ‘chaps’ on a 2-week boating holiday up the River Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back again. Despite being slapdash in ‘plot’ and very uneven in tone, it was wildly popular upon publication, has sold solidly ever since and been translated into loads of languages. Why?

Guidebook to a new type of activity

One answer is that the book caught the spirit of a moment when commercial activity on the Thames had all but died out, almost the entire barge traffic which dominated it having been decimated by the railway revolution of the 1840s and 1850s. As a result a new fashion had been developing since the 1870s for boating as a leisure activity. In fact at various points the narrator complains about the Thames becoming too busy with pleasure craft, with thousands of skiffs and rowboats and his particular bete noire, the steam pleasure cruiser.

The book was originally conceived as a mixture of history book and tourist guide to cash in on the newish pastime, and quite literally showed ‘how to do it’, with advice on how to hire a boat, what kind to get (our heroes hire ‘a Thames camping skiff’, ‘a double-sculling skiff’), an itinerary with top sights to spot, what to expect, how far to expect to travel each day, with historical notes about Romans and Saxons and kings and queens and the castles and monasteries of each Thames-side settlement.

‘We won’t take a tent,’ suggested George; ‘we will have a boat with a cover. It is ever so much simpler, and more comfortable.’

Admittedly the book as we have it now almost completely submerges this factual information in prolonged comic digressions and humorous sketches, but as a practical guide, it still has a vestigial interest: most of the route, the locks and so on are unchanged and most of the pubs and inns named are still open. Here’s an example of Jerome’s factual but dreamy guidebook style:

From Wallingford up to Dorchester the neighbourhood of the river grows more hilly, varied, and picturesque. Dorchester stands half a mile from the river. It can be reached by paddling up the Thame, if you have a small boat; but the best way is to leave the river at Day’s Lock, and take a walk across the fields. Dorchester is a delightfully peaceful old place, nestling in stillness and silence and drowsiness. Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times; it was then called Caer Doren, ‘the city on the water.’ In more recent times the Romans formed a great camp here, the fortifications surrounding which now seem like low, even hills. In Saxon days it was the capital of Wessex. It is very old, and it was very strong and great once. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.

How to holiday

The second element is it shows you what tone to approach such a holiday in, namely one of humorous self-deprecation. It is not only a guide to the route and its sights, but the mood and manner of insouciant larking around to take on such a holiday.

The book is less of a guidebook than a toolkit of whimsy, humour, comedy, irony, pranks, mishaps and ironic reversals. Reading any passage at random makes you feel lighter and gayer. In fact it is a model, in its simplicity and sustained good humour and sheer fun, of what a modest staycation should be like and, as most of us know to our cost, rarely is.

Humour

This brings us to the third and most obvious element which is the humour, the comedy, and the most striking thing about the book which is how incredibly well the humour has lasted. Much of Three Men in a Boat is still very funny indeed. Jerome manages to turn almost every incident and passing thought into comedy with the power of his whimsy and frivolous invention.

I was hooked from the moment in paragraph three when the narrator describes what a hypochondriac he is, how the minute he reads any advert for a new medicine he becomes convinced he has all the symptoms of the relevant illness, and proceeds to develop this into a comic riff about how he once went to the British Museum to read up on a slight ailment he thought he had, and then found his eye diverted by another entry in the medical encyclopedia and, in the end, ended up reading the entire thing from cover to cover, convinced he had every symptom of every ailment listed in the book, from Ague to Zymosis.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

He doesn’t stop there. His new-found health anxiety led him to pay a worried visit to a doctor friend who  sounded him out, discovered where he’d been and what he’d been reading and calmly gave him a prescription for… exercise, fresh air and to stop poking about in subjects he didn’t understand!

The narrative opens on this mood of restless and entirely fictional hypochondria, as the narrator (‘J’) and his two pals meet up for a drink and a pipe, and all agree they need some kind of break, some kind of rest cure… This leads into a comic consideration of all the alternative types of holiday available with the invariable disasters they entail, with a particular lingering taking a sea cruise and a vivid comic description of the prolonged sea sickness it so often leads to… until:

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’

They discuss the novel charms of a slow cruise up the River Thames… And off we go. (Actually, as the book progresses, we discover that they have been on quite a few boat trips up the Thames before, but somehow that doesn’t dampen the initial boyish enthusiasm.)

Play acting

And this is another aspect of it: the three chaps in the boat are in a sense playing at being late-Victorian larks. There is a strong element of play-acting, of theatricality, in many of the best scenes and this encourages the reader to take part in the acting.

When I was a student there were chaps who liked to wear boaters and blazers and hire punts on the river. They were acting the part of chaps punting along the willow-strewn river while their lady loves lay back among the pillows, trailing one hand in the river and holding a glass of chilled champagne in the other. It encourages a spirit of acting.

The models of the narrator’s two chums, Harris and George were, in real life, the founder of a London printing business (Harris) and a banker who would go on to become a senior manager in Barclays (George). But not on this trip. On this jolly jaunt they are acting the parts of incompetents and fools larking around.

Male friendship

Which brings us to the chappiness of the chaps, the fact that the book is not only a record of an idyllic trip through an idealised bit of English landscape, but is also an idealised account of male friendship. If only our real friends were as whimsical, funny, amusing and doggedly loyal as the chaps in the boat.

Having gone on various all-male holidays myself, I know that a key element of them is the sense of exaggerating each other’s shortcomings and characteristics. Things always go wrong and the sign of a good holiday, and of a good relationship, is to retain good spirits and a sense of humour whatever happens.

Without wanting to sound too pompous about it, a key element in this kind of practical, camping, outdoors-style venture is the element of forgiveness. If one of you sets the tent up all wrong so that it falls down in the middle of the night in the middle of a rainstorm, it takes a lot of character, and of love, not to get angry but to keep your sense of humour.

One way to manage this is to turn each other into cartoons. I had a couple of friends who went on an epic journey across South America. They had difficult times made worse by drunkenness and general incompetence. They discovered early on that the way to avoid anger and arguments was to treat each other as cartoon caricatures of themselves, so they weren’t criticising each other (which is hurtful) but were attacking each other’s cartoon avatars (which was funny and defused tensions).

In fact they developed a particularly powerful variation on this theme which was to mimic a couple of  fictional sports commentators, Brian and Peter, alternating commentary on their real-life activities in wheedling, whining, microphone voices of two fictional

‘In a long career of cocking up travel arrangements, surely this is Dave’s biggest screw-up of all, turning up at the airport a day after their flight had left. Brian.’

‘Thank you, Peter, yes in a lifetime of commentating on drunken Brits fouling up abroad, I think this definitely takes gold medal. It looks like young Dave now has no serious competition for the Most Incompetent Tourist of the Year award which he has, to be fair, put so much effort into winning’.

By turning each other into comic caricatures, male friends can be quite brutally critical about each other, but in a way which defuses tension and increases male bonding.

George and Harris

So the three chaps are not only characters but caricatures, types. Very early in the book we learn that Harris is caricatured as the Lazy One.

Harris said he didn’t think George ought to do anything that would have a tendency to make him sleepier than he always was, as it might be dangerous. He said he didn’t very well understand how George was going to sleep any more than he did now, seeing that there were only twenty-four hours in each day, summer and winter alike; but thought that if he did sleep any more, he might just as well be dead, and so save his board and lodging.

And the drinker.

I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: ‘Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;’ ‘Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of ’88;’ ‘Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886.’

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. ‘Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!’ The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.

And the glutton:

Harris said there was nothing like a swim before breakfast to give you an appetite.  He said it always gave him an appetite.  George said that if it was going to make Harris eat more than Harris ordinarily ate, then he should protest against Harris having a bath at all.

While George is caricatured as Dim, so that everyone can enjoy feigning surprise every time he makes a sensible suggestion (which he does, in fact, all the time; the whole idea of a trip up the river is his, after all). George always knows ‘a little place just round the corner’ which will serve a jolly fine whisky or brandy or whatever the occasion demands. ‘George said he felt thirsty (I never knew George when he didn’t)’.

And ‘J’, the narrator, thinks of himself as the imaginative, soulful one who does all the organising, a contention the other two vehemently deny.

Englishness

A central aspect of Englishness is a kind of dogged incompetence. I have Canadian cousins and I am quietly appalled at how good they are at everything. Their jobs, their cars, their airplane deals, the house on the lake, their camping, their barbecues, they’re just super capable at everything.

By comparison, whenever I try a barbecue the sausages are burned on one side, raw on the other or smell of paraffin; I not only can’t handle the massive armoured cars most people drive around in these days, but they terrify me. Whenever I went camping the inner tent always touched the outer tent so that the rain came through and, generally, dripped precisely on my face or that of my angry partner. I went canoeing once but, although I’m quite confident on water, ended up going round in circles and eventually gave it up in frustration.

In all these respects and more I think of myself as very English, in living a life of quiet frustration, putting up with endless humiliation by shop assistants, local government officials, crooked financial advisers, maladroit tradesmen, pestering insurance salesmen and countless other rip-off merchants, living in a small, over-crowded, angry country run by buffoons, painfully conscious all the time of my own failings and lack of ability.

For a whole year I’ve been meaning to fix the trellis currently leaning against the fence to the fence with battens and screws so I can plant some climbers for it. But in order to do that I need to figure out where to go to buy the wood to make the battens, how to saw them to length, which make of electric screwdriver to buy (battery or cord) and then which size of screws. It is a forest of impenetrable obstacles. I wonder if it’ll ever get done. Can’t help feeling my Canadian cousins would have done it in half an hour and then got on with organising another delicious barbecue.

(I’d written that paragraph, looking out the window at the trellis, before I came across the sequence in chapter 3 of Three Men In A Boat describing at comic length the legendary incompetence of the narrator’s Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes his entire extended family, the servants and neighbouring shopkeepers in his cack-handed attempts to simply hang a picture on a wall. The inability to do even the simplest household chore reminds me of all Charles Pooter’s domestic accidents in Diary of a Nobody. Both books show that being useless at even the simplest household tasks has been a hallmark of English comedy for at least 130 years.)

Heroic failure is the English way. As no end of commentators have pointed out, the British most remember their military disasters, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the massacre at Isandlwana, the Somme, Dunkirk and the Blitz. We like it when we’re being hammered. Until very recently our tennis players and our footballers have been notable for their dogged third-rateness (Tim Henman, any England squad since 1970).

American humour tends to be smart and snappy, a festival of fast-talking, wisecracking one-line-merchants from Groucho Marx through Cary Grant in his screwball comedies to Woody Allen. English humour is about fumbling and falling over things: Dad’s Army, Some Mothers Do Ave Em. Ooh Betty. They don’t like it up ’em, Captain Mainwaring. This tone of perplexed failure is perfectly captured in the narrator’s description of bathing in the sea from the start of the book:

It is the same when you go to the sea-side. I always determine—when thinking over the matter in London—that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast, and I religiously pack up a pair of drawers and a bath towel. I always get red bathing drawers. I rather fancy myself in red drawers. They suit my complexion so. But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town.

On the contrary, I feel more that I want to stop in bed till the last moment, and then come down and have my breakfast. Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off. But I haven’t enjoyed it. They seem to keep a specially cutting east wind, waiting for me, when I go to bathe in the early morning; and they pick out all the three-cornered stones, and put them on the top, and they sharpen up the rocks and cover the points over with a bit of sand so that I can’t see them, and they take the sea and put it two miles out, so that I have to huddle myself up in my arms and hop, shivering, through six inches of water. And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting.

English weather

Foreigners often accuse the English of being obsessed with the weather. This is because it is so perverse and unpredictable. Occasionally we do actually have hot summers but my lifetime has been marked by confident predictions of ‘barbecue summers’ which end up being dismal washouts. Not that the English weather’s particularly interesting, it’s rare that you have really hot blue-sky summer days and, where I live in London, we rarely if ever have snow in winter. English weather is usually boring and mundane, lacking vivid extremes, like English culture generally. I read once in the CIA Handbook that for more than 50% of the time the English sky is grey and overcast. I remember it feeling like that during the entire premiership of John Major, 1990 to 1997.

Anyway, any adult English person has had the experience of organising a barbecue or birthday party or wedding reception outdoors in a garden or park or grand mansion only to have it rained off by steady, grey. ‘Rain stopped play’ is one of the commonest terms in cricket. It’s amazing that Wimbledon ever makes it to the final on schedule given the amount of time lost to English summer rain. The gloomy weather is a big part of that heavy-hearted sense of entirely predictable failure and disappointment which is at the heart of the English character.

Hence the national obsession with weather forecasts, on telly, the radio, in all the papers, despite the fact that any rational adult knows the weather forecast is usually wildly wrong. I remember looking at the BBC’s weather forecast for my part of London which told me it was hot and sunny despite the fact that, out the window, at that very minute it was chucking down with rain. As in so many big organisations, reliance technology meant the weather forecasters were relying more on their expensive computer model than looking out the bloody window.

Three Men In A Boat shows you that nothing has changed, the weather forecast was just as rubbish 130 years ago:

I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper. ‘Heavy showers, with thunderstorms, may be expected to-day,’ it would say on Monday, and so we would give up our picnic, and stop indoors all day, waiting for the rain.—And people would pass the house, going off in wagonettes and coaches as jolly and merry as could be, the sun shining out, and not a cloud to be seen.

‘Ah!’ we said, as we stood looking out at them through the window, ‘won’t they come home soaked!’

And we chuckled to think how wet they were going to get, and came back and stirred the fire, and got our books, and arranged our specimens of seaweed and cockle shells. By twelve o’clock, with the sun pouring into the room, the heat became quite oppressive, and we wondered when those heavy showers and occasional thunderstorms were going to begin.

‘Ah! they’ll come in the afternoon, you’ll find,’ we said to each other. ‘Oh, won’t those people get wet. What a lark!’

At one o’clock, the landlady would come in to ask if we weren’t going out, as it seemed such a lovely day.

‘No, no,’ we replied, with a knowing chuckle, ‘not we. We don’t mean to get wet—no, no.’

And when the afternoon was nearly gone, and still there was no sign of rain, we tried to cheer ourselves up with the idea that it would come down all at once, just as the people had started for home, and were out of the reach of any shelter, and that they would thus get more drenched than ever. But not a drop ever fell, and it finished a grand day, and a lovely night after it.

The next morning we would read that it was going to be a ‘warm, fine to set-fair day; much heat;’ and we would dress ourselves in flimsy things, and go out, and, half-an-hour after we had started, it would commence to rain hard, and a bitterly cold wind would spring up, and both would keep on steadily for the whole day, and we would come home with colds and rheumatism all over us, and go to bed.

Voilà the English national characteristics: the complete incompetence of the forecasters, the blithe indifference of the newspapers (or radio or telly) which publish this twaddle day after day, the utter unreliability of official information, the inevitability that whatever you decide to do will be wrong, and the one over-riding certainty of disappointment. A Philip Larkin world.

Hence, the one time our trio of chums need a cab to collect their stuff from the front door and take them to Waterloo station in a hurry the road, which is usually packed with empty cabs hurtling back and forth, is empty. Similarly, when they get to Waterloo they can’t find anyone who knows the platform for the train to Kingston.

Activities the English (in the shape of J, Harris and George) are doomed to fail at

  • going on an ocean cruise – seasickness
  • putting up a tent in the rain – recipe for homicidal rage
  • hanging a picture on a wall – reduce entire family to tears
  • swimming in the sea – cut your feet to ribbons and get half drowned
  • running a train system – it was an over-priced shambles in the 1880s and still is
  • washing their own clothes in the river – disaster
  • rigging up the hoops and canvas over the boat for the night – they manage to get tangled in the cloth and nearly throttled
  • cooking scrambled eggs – J had never heard of this dish before but Harris turns it into a burned mess
  • opening a tin of pineapple with a knife – impossible to do without serious injury
  • finding a room for the night in Datchet – never do this
  • singing a comic song after dinner – Harris should be banned from even trying
  • playing the bagpipes – when a young fellow J knew practiced at home the neighbours called the police and accused him of murdering his family

To say nothing of the dog

I’m not a dog person, but I appreciate that many English people are, and so I can see that the character of the dog Montmorency, a mischievous fox terrier, is a vital component in the story. He brings a warm, snuffling supplement to the human narrative, either getting into mischief or shedding an ironic light on the human shambles, adding the final cherry on the cake to many a comic moment.

Take the scene in chapter 14 where the chaps knock up a supposed Irish stew by combining the leftovers in the party’s food hamper:

I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.

A cat couldn’t do that, add that final comic touch. Any sensible cat would have sloped off long ago to the warm lap of a homely lady happy to stroke and feed it fishy titbits all day. A dog sticks it out through thick and thin, no matter how incompetent his master(s). Mind you, Montmorency is not quite the tail-wagging, faithful hound some people make out.

When first he came to live at my expense, I never thought I should be able to get him to stop long. I used to sit down and look at him, as he sat on the rug and looked up at me, and think: ‘Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him.’

But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.

To hang about a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs, is Montmorency’s idea of ‘life’.

And again:

Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.

And:

We spent two very pleasant days at Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had got to heaven.

The dog is one more prompt for that amused exasperation which is the tone of the book throughout, that resigned tolerance of each other’s foibles (that’s to say inadequacies and incompetence), the cussed obstinacy of the universe, the stupidity of other river users, with the dog thrown in as an additional element of chaos and frustration.

Montmorency’s ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.

He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

Harris said I encouraged him. I didn’t encourage him. A dog like that don’t want any encouragement. It’s the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that.

Montmorency helping to untangle the tow line

The dog speaks, by the way. It is given a variety of opinions and several passages of dialogue, once with the cat in Marlow High Street, once when it challenges the kettle to a fight. And it’s not the only normally non-speaking entity to be attributed agency. I was particularly taken with the story of his earliest attempt to sail a boat in which he and his friend struggled to even erect the mast and then managed to get themselves completely tangled up in the sail.

The impression on the mind of the sail seemed to be that we were playing at funerals, and that I was the corpse and itself was the winding-sheet. When it found that this was not the idea, it hit me over the head with the boom, and refused to do anything.

Digressions

Three Men In A Boat in a sense consists almost entirely of digressions. It’s as if, having laid out the narrative of what actually happened in its logical order, Jerome then pondered how he could exaggerate every single incident into the most preposterous comic riff possible.

He has a fantastic comic conceit, i.e. the ability to take a simple idea and develop it into a preposterous and fantastical series of exaggerations. Thus when they’re discussing what food to take, they all solemnly agree no cheese, which prompts J to launch a fairly straightforward joke about the way cheese is very smelly.

For lunch, he said, we could have biscuits, cold meat, bread and butter, and jam—but no cheese. Cheese, like oil, makes too much of itself. It wants the whole boat to itself. It goes through the hamper, and gives a cheesy flavour to everything else there. You can’t tell whether you are eating apple-pie or German sausage, or strawberries and cream. It all seems cheese. There is too much odour about cheese.

But this is only the beginning: mention of cheese leads the narrator to remember the time a friend bought some cheeses in Liverpool –

I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool. Splendid cheeses they were, ripe and mellow, and with a two hundred horse-power scent about them that might have been warranted to carry three miles, and knock a man over at two hundred yards.

– a story which becomes steadily more inflated and preposterous over the next four pages, as the cheese proceeds to alienate all the passengers in the train back to London, his cab driver who collects him at the station. The wife of the man he transported it for announces she is moving out of her house (and taking the children) until the cheeses are removed, and then the story develops a surreal, almost horror story persistence as the narrator tries dumping the cheeses in a nearby canal only for the barge drivers to insist the smell is making them ill and that he trawls them back up; he next sneaks them into a mortuary, but the coroner complains that he is trying to wake the dead, and the entire, by this stage surreal and absurd fantasy, only comes to an end when he takes them all the way to the coast and buries them deep in the sand, although people can still smell their strong whiff, but (comically) attribute it to ‘bracing’ sea air.

So it’s: 1. a book of wonderful comic digressions, a kind of unscholarly, more mundane version of Tristram Shandy – but also 2. it struck me how extended these digressions are; he rarely stops a comic conceit after a sentence or two when he can carry it on for as many paragraphs as possible.

Look at the four paragraphs about Montmorency’s character quoted above. Jerome could have stopped after the first paragraph, he’s made his point, it’s very funny. But he presses on for another three paragraphs, milking the notion of Montmorency being a serious hindrance to anyone trying to pack a bag to the absolute max.

Or take the extended sequence about the utter rubbishness of weather forecasts which I quoted above. That’s only the beginning. The weather riff then goes on for twice as much again, leading into a prolonged passage about the barometer in a hotel in Oxford which obstinately pointed to ‘Dry weather’ while it was raining so hard the lower part of the town was flooded.

Probably the book’s central quality is the ability of these digressions to take a comic ball and run with it for a really extended period of time, never dropping it, but blowing the original comic balloon up to the size of a zeppelin.

The fantastical

This raises a third point, which is the tendency of many of the jokes to cross a border from the realistic  to the ridiculous and then continue on into the positively fantastical. Many if not most of J’s extended anecdotes have this quality of exorbitancy, meaning: ‘exceeding the bounds of custom, propriety, or reason’.

I realised this during the account of their inability to find the right platform at Waterloo for the train to Kingston. At first it is realistic, in the sense that big train stations often are chaotic. Then it becomes enjoyably farcical as porters, officials and even the station master give completely contradictory advice. But then it crosses a borderline from exaggeration into outright fantasy when they find a train driver who’ll take them wherever they want to go for half a crown, so they pay up and this man drives his train to Kingston, without telling the station authorities or any of the passengers aboard apart from our chums.

So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston. ‘Nobody will ever know, on this line,’ we said, ‘what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.’

‘Well, I don’t know, gents,’ replied the noble fellow, ‘but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”

By this point it’s become as fantastical as a children’s story. You feel it’s only a small hop and skip and a jump from here to the Hogwarts Express. And then the punchline:

We learnt, afterwards, that the train we had come by was really the Exeter mail, and that they had spent hours at Waterloo looking for it and nobody knew what had become of it.

The book is generally described as a heart-warming story of a trio of chaps messing about in a boat. This element of fantastical exaggeration is surprisingly under-reported.

And excess. Here is the narrator descanting at length about the types of people who insist on fencing or chaining off their little bits of the Thames waterfront, or erecting officious noticeboards:

The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

‘Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.’

People associate the book with mellow nostalgia, but I hope I’m showing that it’s quite a lot more extreme and disruptive than that suggests. There’s a surprising amount of this comic excess, talk of murdering and strangling and burning and trampling and so on.

There’s a good microcosm of the process in chapter 12 where in just a few sentences you can follow the thought process going from reasonable to exaggerated to manic.

Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant. It is the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion. It is the town of showy hotels, patronised chiefly by dudes and ballet girls. It is the witch’s kitchen from which go forth those demons of the river—steam-launches!

(The more I read, the more I realised Jerome isn’t dealing in jokes; he writes entire comic sketches. Although he doesn’t do the deliberate surrealism, the way he carries a comic conceit from the funny onto the exaggerated and then to outlandish conclusions reminds me a bit of Monty Python. It is no surprise to learn that he started his career in the arts, in the theatre, as an actor, and wrote a dozen or so plays alongside his career as a prose writer and magazine editor.)

Purple prose and historical fantasias

This brings us to the last aspect of the book worth noting which is the continual advent, in between the extended comic digressions, of passages of over-ripe purple prose. This comes in two flavours: 1. soppy rustic idylls about nature and 2. historical fantasias when the author presents sub-Walter Scott descriptions of the passage of Good Queen Bess or some such historical personage through whatever historic old town or castle they’re boating past.

The many over-ripe nature passages are clearly written with his tongue firmly in his cheek:

The red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing. The little sail stood out against the purple sky, the gloaming lay around us, wrapping the world in rainbow shadows; and, behind us, crept the night.

We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset.

And are nearly always the prelude to an almighty thump of bathos. In this case J experiences this great communing with Nature at its most spiritual just before he steers their boat into a punt full of anglers who proceed to curse and excoriate them in extensive and colourful terms. So the purple passages are, at bottom, another type of joke, a variation on the idea of the extended comic passage.

Although some of them are maybe just meant to be happy, light and evocative, slightly tongue in cheek, but also capturing the beauty of unspoilt countrside.

Down to Cookham, past the Quarry Woods and the meadows, is a lovely reach. Dear old Quarry Woods! with your narrow, climbing paths, and little winding glades, how scented to this hour you seem with memories of sunny summer days! How haunted are your shadowy vistas with the ghosts of laughing faces! how from your whispering leaves there softly fall the voices of long ago!

Like P.G. Wodehouse a couple of generations later, the over-egging of these descriptions is part of their knowing, light, good humour.

2. A good example of his historical fantasias is when the trio reach Runnymede and J gives an extended imagining of Bad King John being forced to meet his rebellious Barons and taken on a barge to the island where he is obliged to sign the historic Magna Carta, all visions of bluff, manly, hearts-of-oak Englishmen.

the heart of King John sinks before the stern faces of the English fighting men, and the arm of King John drops back on to his rein, and he dismounts and takes his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons follow in, with each mailed hand upon the sword-hilt, and the word is given to let go.

Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runningmede. Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Charta Island. And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air, and the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.

Many critics have objected to these passages as disrupting the flow of what they think of as a comic novel and feel ought to remain strictly in character as a Comic Novel. But I have already shown that the text is not as straightforwardly humorous as people think. To my mind both the rural visions and the historical fantasias are natural extensions of Jerome’s tendency to really extended comic fantasy. They are another type of tall tale. They share, along with the comic passages, the tendency to exorbitance, to overstep the bounds of ‘realism’ into fantasy.

Many critics have come down hard on these passages but, personally, I found them amusing and entertaining diversions, a relief from the need to be laughing all the time, so they added to the variety and pacing the text.

Also they have the charm of their time. It’s not as if we, nowadays, in 2021, get to read very much high-minded Victorian patriotic history. Modern historians are devoted to debunking the past and showing what a sexist, racist, slave-ridden society Britain has always been. It’s as pleasant to slip into Jerome’s manly, patriotic visions of English history as it is to pretend, for the duration of the reading, that one is a late-Victorian young buck messing about on the river.

Mock heroic

The mock heroic as a literary genre consists of:

satires or parodies that mock Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.

Obviously Three Men In A Boat isn’t a mock heroic work in this sense but, like much comedy, it uses mock heroic techniques. All I mean by this is two things:

1. As an extension of his habit of slipping into extended historical fantasies, Jerome also slips, often in the space of a sentence, into humorously comparing one or other of his companions or the dog, to heroic historical counterparts; as when Montmorency sees a cat in Marlow High Street:

We were, as I have said, returning from a dip, and half-way up the High Street a cat darted out from one of the houses in front of us, and began to trot across the road. Montmorency gave a cry of joy—the cry of a stern warrior who sees his enemy given over to his hands—the sort of cry Cromwell might have uttered when the Scots came down the hill—and flew after his prey.

He doesn’t say which of Cromwell’s battles he’s referring to, maybe to Cromwell’s decisive victory over them at the battle of Worcester in 1651. But the point is the humour in the vast dysjunction between a dog spying a cat in a road and one of the great battles of British history.

2. My other point is more specifically lexical, meaning specifically about language, and more specifically than that, about quotes. Like many comic authors before and after him, Jerome creates a comic effect by juxtaposing descriptions of his clumsy mates and their scrappy dog with solemn and portentous quotes, the more solemn and portentous the funnier the effect, and what language is more solemn and portentous than quotes from those twin peaks of the English language, Shakespeare and the Bible?

Thus he ends a comic passage about his school days and the unfairness of the way the only boy in his class who loved schoolwork was always ill and off school, whereas J and his mates, who hated schoolwork, always showed disgusting good health no matter how hard they tried to get ill and get days off school – he ends this passage with a mockingly solemn aphorism from the Bible:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven…

Although the naughty schoolboy in him can’t help adding a comic and demotic phrase to the end of this quote:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked.

You can almost imagine J or one of his friends solemnly intoning these phrases in the persona of a dreary vicar, delivering a wise and learned mock sermon on the subject of Harris falling into a stream or George driven mad with frustration at having a tin of juicy pineapple but no can opener to open it with.

(Compare and contrast with the use of Biblical quotes and phraseology by Jerome’s contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, who was saturated in the Bible, its phrases and rhythms, and aspired to, and sometimes matched, the solemnity of the original, as in Recessional.)

So much for comically inappropriate use of Biblical phraseology, as to Shakespeare, comic characters for centuries have used tags from the Bard out of context in order to heighten a comic moment. Thus when George forgets to wind his watch and wakes in the early hours to see, with panic, that it is a quarter past eight and he needs to be at the office by nine, his response is to repeat in comic mode an exclamation from Hamlet, tragically intense in its original context, but long since watered down to become a comic expostulation:

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ exclaimed George; ‘and here have I got to be in the City by nine.’

3. As I wrote this I realised that alongside the mock heroic presence of these two reliable old warhorses, the Bible and Shakespeare, in the text, there is a notable absence: there are no Latin tags. Jerome had a surprisingly harsh upbringing in the East End, attending a day school, unlike most of the authors and critics of the time, who enjoyed the blessings of a preparatory school followed by public school followed by Oxford or Cambridge, all of which of course, soaked them in the Classics and explains why later Victorian literature is littered with Latin tags which ‘everyone’ was supposed to understand.

Not so Jerome. The absence of Latin is one of the subtle indicators of the slightly lower class vibe of the text which contemporary critics picked up on and criticised (see section on Demotics, below).

The narrator as raconteur

This wide range of comic effects is possible because the narrator early on establishes his persona as a raconteur, a story-teller and memoirist, which allows him very casually to introduce as many memories and incidents and anecdotes as he wants. The narrator’s tone and voice immediately create a very relaxed, flexible and roomy atmosphere. It’s indicated by the number of passages or sequences which overtly begin as memories and tales:

  • I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was…
  • I remember my brother-in-law going for a short sea trip once…
  • Another fellow I knew went for a week’s voyage round the coast, and, before they started, the steward came to him to ask whether he would pay for each meal as he had it, or arrange beforehand for the whole series…
  • He always reminds me of my poor Uncle Podger…
  • I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool…
  • I lived with a man once who used to make me mad that way. He would loll on the sofa and watch me doing things by the hour together…
  • I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper…
  • There was a boy at our school, we used to call him Sandford and Merton…
  • It was my misfortune once to go for a water picnic with two ladies of this kind [fussed about their dresses]. We did have a lively time…
  • One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked, and drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene…
  • Speaking of comic songs and parties, reminds me of a rather curious incident at which I once assisted…
  • I remember being terribly upset once up the river (in a figurative sense, I mean). I was out with a young lady—cousin on my mother’s side…
  • I remember going up once from Staines to Windsor—a stretch of water peculiarly rich in these mechanical monstrosities—with a party containing three ladies of this description…
  • I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes…
  • I was one of a party who hired an up-river boat one summer, for a few days’ trip….

Some highlights

Passages that stood out for me included:

  • the time Harris not only got lost in the Hampton Court Maze but persuaded a whole load of other people to follow him until they were all lost
  • the time J took some young ladies dressed in the latest fashion for a boat trip and the comedy of their things getting wet and dirty
  • the comic passage about the time he was having a soulful moment in a graveyard which was interrupted by an interfering old man who wanted to show him all the tombs and monuments
  • the extended description of Harris making a complete fool of himself trying to sing a comic song after a dinner party
  • the comic anecdote of the German professor who sang a tragic song about a dying maiden but who two mischievous German students had told the foreign audience was actually a cheerfully comic song so that the foreigners guffawed and tittered all the way through, rendering the professor speechless with anger
  • the notion that the kettle can hear you expressing a wish for tea and so deliberately refuses to boil, so the best thing is to talk loudly about how the last thing you want is tea, then the perishing thing will boil, alright!
  • how, back in good King Henry’s day, the innocent day tripper couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into the bloody king and Ann Boleyn on one of their many snogging trips
  • the procession of our heroes down Marlow High Street after a shopping expedition for food and drink, accompanied by the ‘boys’ of almost every shop in the town, plus random urchins and various stray dogs

by the time we had finished, we had as fine a collection of boys with baskets following us around as heart could desire; and our final march down the middle of the High Street, to the river, must have been as imposing a spectacle as Marlow had seen for many a long day.

Jerome’s demotic tone

Nothing excuses violence of language and coarseness of expression…

Contemporary critics, upper-middle class to a man, tutted about Jerome’s slangy expressions and disapproved of the lower-middle-class character of the protagonists. They disliked their levity, their lack of respect for their elders and betters and authority figures of all types. Nothing is taken seriously, everything is debunked. Education.

I don’t understand German myself. I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since.

Or the high minded activities of worthy philanthropists.

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who ‘have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.’ Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year! It is not worth it.

Even the modern reader can, I think, detect moments when Jerome seems to be deliberately using slang expressions for effect:

  • She was nuts on public-houses, was England’s Virgin Queen.
  • For once in a way, we men are able to show our taste in colours, and I think we come out very natty, if you ask me.
  • We—George, Harris, and myself—took a ‘raw ’un’ up with us once last season, and we plied him with the customary stretchers about the wonderful things we had done all the way up. [where ‘stretchers’ seems to mean tall tales or whoppers]

The narrator has a habit of adding ‘like’ at the end of sentences, which is clearly non-orthodox and deliberately put in to make the tone just that bit East End.

  • Neither the beef nor the strawberries and cream seemed happy, either—seemed discontented like.
  • We had had a sail—a good all-round exciting, interesting sail—and now we thought we would have a row, just for a change like.

Equally non-U is the way the tone of many of the passages is surprisingly immoderate.

I never see a steam launch but I feel I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in the silence and the solitude, strangle it.

Take the extended passage about the wretched people who put up loud signs warning boaters from mooring on their river frontages which I quoted above, in which J tells us he’d like to burn down their houses and Harris declares he’d like to slaughter their entire families and sing comic songs on the ruins!

In addition to humorously contemplating murder and arson, the narrator cheerfully confesses to having, as a boy, been a thief, pure and simple:

Having acquired a taste for the water, I did a good deal of rafting in various suburban brickfields—an exercise providing more interest and excitement than might be imagined, especially when you are in the middle of the pond and the proprietor of the materials of which the raft is constructed suddenly appears on the bank, with a big stick in his hand.

And appears to recommend stealing a boat in the here and now:

To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would say, take your own boat—unless, of course, you can take someone else’s without any possible danger of being found out.

And the text contains a number of incitements to actual vandalism, which I can well imagine the property-owning classes and all right-minded critics sharply disapproving of.

Of course the entrance [to the Wargrave cut off the Thames] is studded with posts and chains, and surrounded with notice boards, menacing all kinds of torture, imprisonment, and death to everyone who dares set scull upon its waters—I wonder some of these riparian boors don’t claim the air of the river and threaten everyone with forty shillings fine who breathes it—but the posts and chains a little skill will easily avoid; and as for the boards, you might, if you have five minutes to spare, and there is nobody about, take one or two of them down and throw them into the river.

The three chaps come over as fairly middle class with their ‘drats’ and ‘dashes’ and ‘come on old chap’s so I was surprised when J admits a more working class accent in his circle. He describes going boating with a lady friend and how much it changed her temper for the worst. But it was her accent which surprised me.

‘Oh, drat the man!’ she would exclaim, when some unfortunate sculler would get in her way; ‘why don’t he look where he’s going?’

And it’s a telling detail that J doesn’t like Maidenhead because it is ‘too snobby’ and la-di-dah:

The London Journal duke always has his ‘little place’ at Maidenhead; and the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else’s husband.

To summarise: it’s not as posh as it seems. In fact it’s odd to think a book so entirely associated with Hooray Henries dressed in boaters and blazers, hiring punts and hampers and recreating what they considered to be the book’s ineffably upper class and joshing tone, was ever criticised for its lower class attitude

It is just a comedy, but it’s a good deal more rough, anti-social and subversive than most people remember.

It is an ancient place, Streatley, dating back, like most river-side towns and villages, to British and Saxon times. Goring is not nearly so pretty a little spot to stop at as Streatley, if you have your choice; but it is passing fair enough in its way, and is nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill.

What he thought of the nineteenth century

  • some quaint-perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.
  • The sun had got more powerful by the time we had finished breakfast, and the wind had dropped, and it was as lovely a morning as one could desire. Little was in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century.
  • I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.
  • Mr. W. Lee—five times Mayor of Abingdon—was, no doubt, a benefactor to his generation, but I hope there are not many of his kind about in this overcrowded nineteenth century.

A purple patch about the river Thames

The river—with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech-trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory—is a golden fairy stream.

But the river—chill and weary, with the ceaseless rain-drops falling on its brown and sluggish waters, with a sound as of a woman, weeping low in some dark chamber; while the woods, all dark and silent, shrouded in their mists of vapour, stand like ghosts upon the margin; silent ghosts with eyes reproachful, like the ghosts of evil actions, like the ghosts of friends neglected—is a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain regrets.

He’s fallen in the water

In chapter 13 they moor in a grassy spot for lunch. Harris makes himself comfortable on the loose edge of a little stream, starts to carve the appetising steak pie they’ve brought with them but, before anyone can do anything, the earth gives way and he falls into the stream, emerging moments later from amid the reeds muddy, wet and cross. The steak pie isn’t too happy, either.

The incident itself is fairly funny, but two things make it Jeromian. One is that Harris doesn’t just fall in the water, he vanishes! One minute he’s there, something distracts the other two for a second or so and, when they turn back, Harris has vanished leaving them utterly bewildered! For a moment they are thunderstruck… until they hear a wet groaning coming from the reeds. The book is full of moment like this, not just a bit funny, but extreme, like theatrical coups de grace, like a kind of verbal special effect, which stuns author and reader alike.

The second element is the cod Biblical, mockingly philosophical tone of the narrator as he describes the scene, a tone which marinates the entire book, by assuming a high-falutin’ tone in effect mocking all things earnest and pompous, mocking teachers and vicars and property owners and stationmasters and sextons, mocking Great Writers and Lofty Sentiments; contrasting the Timeless Wisdom of the Books of Books and the Immortal Spirit of Nature with the clumsy reality of three hapless young chaps who keep falling in the water and endlessly fighting.

Harris believes to this day that George and I planned it all beforehand. Thus does unjust suspicion follow even the most blameless for, as the poet says, ‘Who shall escape calumny?’ Who, indeed!

Shakespeare, again.


Related links

Related reviews

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

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

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

Imaginary beings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bestiary manqué

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

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

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

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

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

Pictures

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

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

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

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

Favourites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Threes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

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

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

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

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

A Borges reading list

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

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

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

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

Ancient world

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

Middle Ages

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

Early modern

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

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


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Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Worstward Ho by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Worstward Ho is a short piece of prose published by Samuel Beckett towards the end of his life. The title is a parody of the adventure novel Westward Ho! by Victorian novelist, Charles Kingsley, which itself is a reference to the Elizabethan play Westward Ho! by Thomas Dekker and John Webster.

Regarded with a detached eye, the title is almost a parody of Beckett’s notorious miserabilism, but the title doesn’t begin to capture the apocalyptic evisceration of language which characterises the text.

Along with other late prose pieces, Company and Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho was collected in a volume with the equally parody-worthy title, Nohow On, which is actually one of the recurrent phrases in WO, in 1989.

On the first page the text includes what is probably Beckett’s most famous quote:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

By this late stage in his career, Beckett had moved far beyond conventional categories such as novel, novella or short story. In fact he had moved beyond what most people probably think of as literature or even meaningful language.

The piece takes his late prose mannerisms to extremes. The following analysis relies on the excellent summary of the piece given by James Knowlson in his biography of Beckett, Damned To Fame, because Knowlson has read and thought about this difficult piece far more than I will ever have time to.

Shakespearean source

Beckett began writing Worstward Ho on 9 August 1981 (we know all this kind of detail because these notebooks were left, in good condition, to university archives). Beckett wrote out three quotes from King Lear to the effect that, if you can say we’ve reached the worst, you have not reached the worst. It is Edgar who says, in King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1:

And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’

The worst is unsayable, inexpressible. Therefore, the mere fact of being able to speak or write, by definition, means you’re not there yet. The piece therefore approaches the final collapse of language, repeatedly enacting it, but failing to cross the threshold into silence. Language can’t. It can only try and try again. Hence the repetitive nature of the motto: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Language games

In the attempt to approach the edge of expressibility, Beckett experiments with language’s potential and Knowlson gives a useful little summary of the tactics employed:

Paring away

Most obviously the English language has been pared right back to a handful of words, brought together to create small phrases or lexical units.

A place. Where none. A time when try see. Try say. How small. How vast. How if not boundless bounded. Whence the dim. Not now. Know better now. Unknow better now. Know only no out of. No knowing how know only no out of. Into only. Hence another. Another place where none.

Combinations

These tiny units, the handful of words and short phrases, are then combined, recombined, repeated with variations. The strategy of ‘enumeration’ which had been part of his prose since Watt.

On back to unsay void can go. Void cannot go. Save dim go. Then all go. All not already gone. Till dim back. Then all back. All not still gone. The one can go. The twain can go. Dim can go. Void cannot go. Save dim go. Then all go.

New coinages

Paradoxically, having reduced English to almost the bare minimum, Beckett generates a number of new words, coinages, especially around the core idea of ‘worse’.

unworsenable, unmoreable, unlessenable, evermost, meremost, dimmost, unlestening, unnullable

This much messing about with words is unusual in Beckett. And there’s lots of it, it’s a conspicuous feature of this piece:

invain, unasking, missaid, whosesoever, hindtrunk, astand, nohow, vastatween, inletting, outletting, ununsaid, unreceding, unsay, unsunk, unmoreable

As you can see, most of them are created by adding un- to perfectly normal words to create their opposite. Matter and anti-matter. Inventions in the desert of language. Tinkerings on the verge of the void.

Swapping parts of speech

In the same spirit, words change their usual syntactical function. Thus nouns are used as verbs, verbs as nouns, adverbs as adjectives and so on.

Alliteration

Playing with these last few counters of a mind on the brink of collapse throws up a surprising number of alliterative phrases, which possess a hard, chiselled beauty:

Skull and lidless stare. Where in the narrow vast? Say only vasts apart. In that narrow void vasts of void apart.

Tongue twisters

Knowlson makes the point that Beckett loved crossword puzzles, word games, tongue twisters and there turns out to be surprising capacity for such games even when playing with a handful of dead counters:

  • Somehow in. Beyondless. Thenceless there. Thitherless there. Thenceless thitherless there.
  • With leastening words say least best worse. For want of worser worse. Unlessenable least best worse.

The intrusive narrator

Beckett took the tradition of the intrusive narrator, who had been used for comic effect in 18th and 19th century novels, and turns him into an unsmiling director of the action whose presence is indicated by the imperative form of the verb ‘say’. Say this. Say that. The word ‘say’ occurs 100 times in the text. Could be paraphrased as ‘take a…’ or Let’s assume the existence of…’ only pared right back to the shortest possible verbal gesture:

Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none.

Or this longer quotation gives a flavour of how the text creates itself through a series of orders or suggestions:

It stands. What? Yes. Say it stands. Had to up in the end and stand. Say bones. No bones but say bones. Say ground. No ground but say ground. So as to say pain. No mind and pain? Say yes that the bones may pain till no choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Or better worse remains. Say remains of mind where none to permit of pain.

And what is it all this ‘saying’ is labouring to conjure into words, into reading, into being?

Content

Autobiographical memories

There is no ‘plot’, Good God, what an idea! But quite a few shapes or patterns emerge from this careful series of patterned paragraphs.

Beneath the dense wordplay, and forest of repetitions two images seem to emerge vaguely, as if through a fog, an old man walking hand in hand with a boy:

Bit by bit an old man and child. In the dim void bit by bit an old man and child. Any other would do as ill… Hand in hand with equal plod they go. In the free hands – no. Free empty hands. Backs turned both bowed with equal plod they go. The child hand raised to reach the holding hand. Hold the old holding hand. Hold and be held. Plod on and never recede. Slowly with never a pause plod on and never recede turned. Both bowed. Joined by held joining hands. Plod on as one. One shade. Another shade.

Having read Knowlson’s biography, both of these central images strike me as having direct autobiographical roots. Beckett’s father loved going for walks in the Dublin hills, and took his son as often as possible, hence old man and boy hand in hand. The second recurring image is of an old woman:

Somehow again on back to the bowed back alone. Nothing to show a woman’s and yet a woman’s. Oozed from softening soft the word woman’s. The words old woman’s. The words nothing to show bowed back alone a woman’s and yet a woman’s. So better worse from now that shade a woman’s. An old woman’s.

And after his father died, Knowlson describes the way, on his increasingly infrequent returns to Ireland the family home, Beckett would accompany his mother to lay flowers on his father’s grave.

Nothing and yet a woman. Old and yet old. On unseen knees. Stooped as loving memory some old gravestones stoop. In that old graveyard. Names gone and when to when. Stoop mute over the graves of none.

Physical extremity

As so often, Beckett’s places his characters in extreme physical situations – not atop burning buildings or such, but caught in tight, taut, claustrophobic poses which mimic the tight, taut nature of the psychological conception and are reflected in the tight, taut, claustrophobic prose.

  • It stands. See in the dim void how at last it stands. In the dim light source unknown. Before the downcast eyes. Clenched eyes. Staring eyes. Clenched staring eyes.
  • Head sunk on crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes.
  • Clenched eyes clamped to it alone. Alone? No. Too. To it too. The sunken skull. The crippled hands. Clenched staring eyes.

Cramped, crippled, clenched. No wonder Beckett found it physically exhausting to write texts which require the reader not only to clench his body, but in some respect to clench your mind while reading. Knowlson tells us it took Beckett seven months just to write the first draft of Worstward Ho and that, over the winter of 1981 to 1982 he told friends that writing the piece was making him physically sick. As he wrote to long-time American collaborator, Alan Schneider, in his characteristically clipped and telegraphic style:

Struggling with impossible prose. English. With loathing.

Worstward Ho took Beckett a lot of effort to write and takes us a lot of effort to read, but I think it repays the effort. I think the major mistake that most people make who struggle with Beckett is thinking there is some grand hidden meaning behind it all. I think the truth is the opposite. There is no deep and hidden meaning, no powerful allegory or network of symbols which, if you could only decipher, would suddenly unlock these difficult texts, somehow make them easier to read and process.

They are what they are. The words mean what they say. Any reader or critic is at liberty to read into them any meaning they like, but all such readings looking for hidden meanings take you away from the immediate presence of the actual words themselves and their genuinely strange, haunting, beguiling, rigorously unsentimental, anti-romantic, hard, spare impact. And their difficulty.

First the bones. On back to them. Preying since first said on foresaid remains. The ground. The pain. No bones. No ground. No pain. Why up unknown. At all costs unknown. If ever down. No choice but up if ever down. Or never down. Forever kneeling. Better forever kneeling. Better worse forever kneeling. Say from now forever kneeling. So far from now forever kneeling. So far.

If the words are ‘about’ anything, if there is a ‘plot’ (and there isn’t) it’s to do with the way the text talks to itself, manipulates itself, positions, poses then immediately questions and subverts itself.

The dim. The void. Gone too? Back too? No. Say no. Never gone. Never back. Till yes. Till say yes. Gone too. Back too. The dim. The void. Now the one. Now the other. Now both. Sudden gone. Sudden back. Unchanged? Sudden back unchanged? Yes. Say yes. Each time unchanged. Somehow unchanged. Till no. Till say no. Sudden back changed. Somehow changed. Each time somehow changed.

It is the record of the narrator shaping and unshaping and anti-shaping the words and patterns and whatever they refer to, or unrefer to, as it goes along, or doesn’t go along, says or unsays, changes or unchanges, neverending, nevermoving, until it brings itself to a sudden and abrupt end:

Enough. Sudden enough. Sudden all far. No move and sudden all far. All least. Three pins. One pinhole. In dimmost dim. Vasts apart. At bounds of boundless void. Whence no farther. Best worse no farther. Nohow less. Nohow worse. Nohow naught. Nohow on.

If you let go the reflex need to find ‘meaning’, if you recalibrate your mind to just go with the words in front of you and let them in, let them do their work, not strain for meaning and over-read them, but take them at face value, then they take you on an amazing journey to a very strange place, then they do something wierd to your mind. This is one of my favourite Beckett works because one of the purest, like The Unnamable, it is one of the least referential and therefore feels like a difficult, rebarbative, but deeply rewarding adventure in the possibilities of language and strange psychological effects.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

Historical notes

England had three king Edwards in a row, over a century of Edwards – Edward I (1272 to 1307), Edward II (1307 to 1327), Edward III (1327 to 1377).

Ed the first was a hard man who devoted himself to conquering Wales and Scotland, acquiring the nicknames Edward Longshanks (he was, apparently, over 6 foot 6 in height) and ‘the Hammer of the Scots’.

Edward III came to the throne as a boy (hence the unusual length of his reign, 50 years) and for the first decade England was ruled by his mother and her lover. Once he had thrown off their tutelage, he also became a mighty king, launching what became the Hundred Years War against France, during which his son, Edward the Black Prince, won famous victories at Crecy and Poitiers.

In between came the second Edward who is traditionally seen as one of the Middle Ages’ ‘bad’ kings. Not as awful as king John, but nonetheless he ruled unwisely, alienated the population, most of his nobles, struggled against rebellion and insurrection. The most notable battle of his reign was the humiliating defeat at Bannockburn where 6,000 Scots, led by Robert Bruce, crushed an army of 15,000 English infantry supported by 2,500 heavy cavalry.

Marlowe is not interested in much of this. What fascinates Marlowe the playwright is the relationship between Edward the fey king and his notorious favourite, Piers Gaveston. As a boy Edward was presented with a foster brother, a child named Pierce (alternately Piers or Peter) Gaveston, the son of a Flemish knight who had fought with the king against the Scots. Gaveston became Edward’s nearest friend and confidant, a relationship which grew into something deeper, a profound dependency.

This may or may not have been a homosexual relationship, in the modern sense of the word (Edward had a wife, Queen Isabella, of France) but Edward became intensely dependent on his favourite’s company, and showered him with inappropriate honours, land and titles, which helped to fuel widespread anger at both men. The French royal family took the closeness of the relationship as an insult to the queen, and so forced Edward to exile Gaveston.

In fact Gaveston was sent into exile not once, but three times, once under Edward I right at the end of the old king’s reign, and twice under Ed the second, from spring 1308 to July 1309 into Ireland, and from October to December 1311. In the play, Marlowe elides the second and third exiles into one. When Gaveston returned for a third time, in 1312, his behaviour continued to infuriate his enemies so much that he was hunted down and executed by a group of magnates. King Edward may have been distraught but he still had 15 years of reign left, so Gaveston was in no way the primary cause of his downfall.

Instead Edward now shifted his reliance to the Despenser family (referred to throughout the play as ‘Spencers’), and to another young man his own age, Hugh Despenser (Spencer) the Younger. It was as he shifted his reliance to this family, rewarding numerous members with honours and land, that a really determined opposition to Edward’s rule gained strength, and it solidified when his wife returned to Paris in 1325 and refused to come back. His regime began to collapse as his advisers abandoned him and Edward was forced to flee to Wales, where he was captured and taken to Berkeley Castle, where he died on 21 September 1327, it is generally thought he was murdered, and soon a gaudy rumour went around that he had been killed by having a red-hot poker inserted into his anus and pushed up into his bowels.

Executive summary

The Elizabethan Drama website gives a good summary:

  • Part One: Act I.i – Act III.i – the Gaveston years (1307 to 1312)
  • Transitional Scene: Act III.ii – the scene ties together Gaveston’s removal in 1312 to Edward’s military challenge to Lancaster at Boroughbridge in 1322.
  • Part Two: Act III.iii – Act V.v – the final years of Edward’s reign (1322 to 1327)
  • Coda: Act V.vi, the final scene of the play; the end of the Mortimer era (1330).

The play

Act 1

Scene 1 Marlowe pitches us straight into the action, as we find Piers Gaveston onstage reading a letter from the king telling him his father (Edward I) is dead (7 July 1307), and to hasten back from exile to his bosom.

In his opening speech, Marlowe makes it crystal clear what kind of sensual sybarite Gaveston is:

I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant king which way I please.
Music and poetry is his delight;
Therefore I’ll have Italian masques by night,
Sweet speeches, comedies, and pleasing shows;
And in the day, when he shall walk abroad,
Like sylvan nymphs my pages shall be clad;
My men, like satyrs grazing on the lawns,
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay.
Sometime a lovely boy in Dian’s shape,
With hair that gilds the water as it glides,
Crownets of pearl about his naked arms,
And in his sportful hands an olive-tree,
To hide those parts which men delight to see,
Shall bathe him in a spring; and there hard by,
One like Actæon peeping through the grove,
Shall by the angry goddess be transformed,
And running in the likeness of an hart
By yelping hounds pulled down, and seem to die

It is very gay. Gaveston says that, having just returned from exile, he is like Leander, arriving panting on the shore having swum across the Hellespont to be with his lover, and looks forward to embracing the king, and ‘dying’ on his bosom, where dying has the obvious romantic meaning, but is also the Elizabethan sense of having an orgasm. And in this long quote note how Gaveston thinks entirely in terms of men and boys, men like satyrs, his pages dressed like girls (sylvan nymphs are always female), lovely boys coyly hiding their groins with olive branches. It is a gay fantasia.

It’s quite jarring when the play leaves these visions of sensual homoerotic bliss and, with a loud crunching of gears, suddenly turns into a Shakespeare history play with the abrupt arrival of King Edward, Lancaster, the elder Mortimer,Young Mortimer, Kent, Warwick, Pembroke and Attendants. Suddenly Marlowe tries to persuade us he is the author of a historical drama and it’s not totally believable.

Thomas, second Earl of Lancaster, an immensely rich and powerful man, loathes the upstart Gaveston. He is exceeded in his hatred by Young Mortimer. Both tell Edward they promised the recently dead king to keep Gaveston in exile, so they are outraged that Edward has recalled him. Edmund, Earl of Kent, is a half-brother of King Edward, and he speaks up for Edward and reproaches the two others for daring to criticise the king. He goes so far as to suggest the king cut off Lancaster and Mortimer’s heads. Young Mortimer calls Edward ‘brain-sick’ and Lancaster says, if Gaveston is recalled, Edward should expect to have his head thrown at his feet. The angry rebellious nobles exit.

Gaveston has been hiding and overhearing and commenting in asides on the preceding dialogue. Now he steps out and lets Edward see him, who is delighted and embraces him. And promptly makes him Lord High Chamberlain, Earl of Cornwall and Lord of the Isle of Man. He offers him a personal guard, gold, and his own royal seal. Kent points that even one of these titles would be excessive for a man of Gaveston’s modest background, but this only incenses the king to shower more gifts on him.

Enter Walter Langton, bishop of Coventry. It was a quarrel with the bishop – caused when Gaveston invaded his woods to go hunting – that escalated till the old king, Edward I, sided with his bishop and exiled Gaveston. Now Gaveston gets the opportunity for revenge, the pair fall to insulting each other and Edward eggs Gaveston on to knock off the bishop’s headdress, tear his clothes and beat him up. Edward says he’ll seize all the bishop’s rents and assign them to Gaveston. Gaveston announces he’ll have the bishop consigned to the Tower of London.

It’s easy to see why all responsible subjects, at every level, would despise and hate Edward and Piers.

Scene 2 The elder and younger Mortimers, the earls of Warwick and Lancaster meet together and share how appalled they are at news of the wealth and titles Edward is lavishing on Gaveston. They are joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who tells them about the terrible treatment of the bishop of Coventry.

They are joined by young Queen Isabella (the historical Isabella was born in 1295 and so was 12 years old when she married Edward in 1307) who laments that Edward ignores her and gives all his attention, love and money to Gaveston. Together they decide to call a meeting of all the nobles, a parliament, and pass a law to banish Gaveston.

Scene 3 The briefest of scenes in which Gaveston tells Kent he knows about the plot. Basically it’s a fig leaf to pretend the passing of time, until…

Scene 4 The rebellious nobles assembled in Westminster. They’ve barely finished signing the document, when Edward himself arrives, seats himself on his throne with Gaveston at his right hand. All the nobles tut and complain at this inappropriate positioning. Edward orders officials to lay hands on the rebels, but the rebels issue counter-orders for Gaveston to be arrested and taken away, and it’s these orders the officials obey.

The archbishop remonstrates with Edward, but fiery young Mortimer interrupts to tell him to excommunicate the king, then they can depose him and elect a new one. The impact of all this for the reader is that both sides use extreme language – a kind of Tamburlainian excessiveness of language – right from the start.

Edward immediately capitulates, collapsing into a whining boy, handing out titles like sweeties to the assembled lords, so long as they’ll leave him part of England to frolic in with Gaveston:

So I may have some nook or corner left,
To frolic with my dearest Gaveston

Young Mortimer is genuinely puzzled why the king loves such a worthless fellow. Edward’s reply is disarmingly simple:

KING EDWARD: Because he loves me more than all the world.

Despite this avowal, Edward realises his entire nobility is against him, and so signs the document of Gaveston’s banishment, with tears. The nobles leave Edward alone on the stage to rage against their actions, and especially the tyranny of the archbishop and of the Catholic church, vowing to burn its churches to the ground, fill the Tiber with slaughtered priests and then massacre his entire nobility.

It is the totalising, hyper-violent mindset of Tamburlaine, there is no subtlety, none of the sensitivity of Shakespeare’s Richard II.

Enter Gaveston who has heard he is to be exiled. Alas yes, says the king, but his love will never fade. Edward has the idea of sending Gaveston to be governor of Ireland (which is what actually happened, in 1308). They exchange miniature portraits of each other and then can’t take leave.

Luckily the queen enters and Edward lets her have both barrels, expressing his dislike, calling her a French whore (see what I mean about the intemperateness of the language?). Edward angrily accuses her of involvement in the exile plot, and leaves with Gaveston.

Alone onstage Isabella laments that she ever got married, wishing she had drowned on the sea crossing or been poisoned at her wedding.

Lancaster, Warwick, Pembroke, the Elder Mortimer and Young Mortimer re-enter and are sorry for Isabella, who they find sitting alone and weeping. She turns to them and begs them to repeal the banishment of Gaveston; they are astonished, but she explains that begging them for Gaveston’s return is the only hope she has of winning back Edward’s heart. She takes Young Mortimer aside and whispers her reasons to him as the others talk.

Then, to their consternation, Mortimer returns and begs the nobles to overturn their decision. He argues that Gaveston may make friends and allies in Ireland, on balance, better to have him back in London where a servant can be bribed to assassinate him. And banishing then recalling Gaveston will humiliate him and make him realise his place. And his bad behaviour will mean they have the people on their side. Isabelle thinks it’s a good plan, and hopes it will make the king love her again.

Edward re-enters, dressed in mourning and deeply lamenting the departure of Gaveston, wishing he had been struck dead by some fury from hell. So when Isabelle tells him the nobles have relented and will let Gaveston return, he embraces her, weeps and kisses her. But, quite obviously, not for her sake.

In his relief and delirium Edward showers the rebel nobles with titles and positions, Warwick shall be his chief counsellor, Pembroke shall bear his sword in processions, he offers Young Mortimer admiral of the fleet, or Lord Marshall, he makes Elder Mortimer, general of his army against the Scots.

Having acted and sounded like a proper king, Edward then calls in a messenger to send the recall to Gaveston in Ireland. And tells the lords he has arranged Gaveston’s marriage to the heir of the Earl of Gloucester, then invites them all inside for a feast.

Leaving the Elder Mortimer who tells the Young Mortimer the king has reformed, and goes on to list a number of rulers and heroes from the ancient world who had young male friends or lovers. Elder Mortimer trusts that, as Edward matures, he will abandon his youthful ‘toy’. Young Mortimer details what it is about Gaveston that infuriates him – the enormously expensive clothes he wear,s worth a respectable lord’s entire revenue, that he struts around the court, that he and the king mock respectable nobles. Still – both of them believe the king has made a sincere repentance.

Act 2

Scene 1 In the household of the Earl of Gloucester, who has just died, his servants Spenser and Baldock debate which great man to attach themselves to, Spenser electing the Earl of Cornwall (Gaveston). He goes on to lecture the bookish Baldock on how he needs to dress more boldly, and be more sycophantic, if he wants to rise in the world (all this being a satire on contemporary Elizabethan fashions and behaviour).

Enter Margaret de Clare, dead Gloucester’s sister and niece of Edward II. For years, since the first Edward’s time, she has been pegged to be married to Gaveston and now she reads out a letter he has sent her, declaring her his love. She tucks it in her bosom, where she hopes her lord will rest his head, and tells Spenser he will be rewarded for his service.

Scene 2 On the coast, with a party of nobles, Edward joyfully greets Gaveston as he returns from Ireland. To pass the time he asks the nobles what emblems they’ve come up with for the tournament he plans to hold in Gaveston’s favour. The king ignores news of the French king’s manoeuvres in Normandy, and the nobles notice all he cares about is his favourite.

The emblems are slyly critical of the king and he gets angry. Isabelle tries to calm him. But all is forgot when Gaveston actually appears and Edward enthusiastically greets him, then turns to his nobles to get them to greet him as keenly. Of course, they don’t, some being sarcastic, Gaveston is immediately offended and Edward eggs him on to insult them. The argument quickly gets out of control, Lancaster draws a sword as if to stab Gaveston, the king calls his servants to defend them, Young Mortimer draws a sword and does manage to wound Gaveston.

Gaveston is taken away and the king banishes Lancaster and Young Mortimer from his court. These two say Gaveston will lose his head, the king says it’s they who will lose their heads, and so the two parties exit opposite sides of the stage, threatening to raise armies.

Come, Edmund, let’s away, and levy men;
‘Tis war that must abate these barons’ pride.

Edward storms out and the rebel nobles make a vow to fight until Gaveston is dead. Enter a messenger who says Elder Mortimer, leading an English army, has been captured and his captors demand £5,000. With what seems to me wild inconsistency, Young Mortimer says he’ll go see the king (who he’t just declared war on) to beg for the ransom.

The scene cuts to Tynemouth castle, the idea that Young Mortimer and Lancaster force their way in past the guard and confront the king. He tells them to ransom Elder Mortimer themselves. They point out he was fighting in Scotland on the king’s behalf, and go on to give Edward a reality check: his royal treasury is empty, the people are revolting against him, his garrisons have been beaten out of France, while the Scots are allying with the Irish against the English, Edward is so weak foreign princes don’t bother sending him ambassadors, his treatment of his wife has alienated the French royal family, the English nobles avoid his court, and ballads about his overthrow are sung in the streets, the inhabitants or north England – overrun by the Scots – curse his and Gaveston’s names. Not a good situation, is it?]

EARL OF LANCASTER: Look for rebellion, look to be deposed;

Young Mortimer says he’ll sell one of his estates to ransom his old uncle and he and Lancaster storm out in a fury. Now even loyal Kent, the king’s half-brother, counsels the king to get rid of Gaveston, but the king furiously rejects his advice, and so Kent, the last word of sanity, reluctantly abandons him.

Enter Queen Isabella with waiting women and Spenser and Baldock. Very unfairly, the king blames Isabella for all his troubles – until Gaveston advises the king to dissemble and be nice to her. She is pathetically grateful for even the slightest show of affection. Conversation turns to Young Mortimer and Gaveston briskly recommends the king cut off his head.

It may be worth just pausing a moment here and noting there is something hysterical about all Marlowe’s plays. Maybe it’s because of the direct contrast with Shakespeare’s history plays, but there is absolutely no subtlety: Gaveston is madly passionately sensuously in love with Edward from the start, the king ignores his nobles, within a page or two of them appearing both parties are threatening to stab, murder, assassinate and overthrow each other.

Baldock and Spencer turn up and are taken into Edward’s service on the recommendation of Gaveston.

Edward confirms that he will marry Gaveston to Margaret, his (Edward’s) niece and only heir to the deceased Earl of Gloucester.

Digression on Marlowe’s lack of subtlety

In Dido, Aeneas either completely loved Dido or completely overthrew her in order to leave for Italy, there was no halfway house. Tamburlaine is turned up to maximum mayhem throughout both his plays. Barabas in The Jew of Malta is a scheming murderous miser from the get-go. There is, in other words, precious little subtlety in Marlowe, not psychological subtlety, anyway. What there is is the thrill of the extremity, exorbitance and hyperbole of so many of the emotions, the melodrama; and there is tremendous pleasure to be had from the combination of sensuality and power in the verse, in the quality of the poetry.

Scene 3 Kent announces to Lancaster, Young Mortimer, Warwick, Pembroke and the other conspirators that he has broken with his half-brother, Edward, and is joining them. Some suspect he is a spy but Lancaster vouches for him. Whereat Young Mortimer tells the drums to sound so they can storm the castle in which are the king, Gaveston et al.

Scene 4 Inside Tynemouth castle as the rebels storm it Amid the alarms of battle, Edward tells Gaveston, Margaret and the queen to escape by ship, he will post by land with Spencer. They all exit except the queen, who is found when Lancaster and the rebels come onstage. She laments her unhappy lot, blaming everything on Gaveston. They ask where the others have gone, she explains the king split his followers into two parties hoping similarly to divide the nobles. Young Mortimer is sympathetic to the queen and invites her to go with them as they chase the king. She demurs. The rebels exit. Isabella is left alone and says she is beginning to love Mortimer, at least he is kind to her.

Scene 5 Country near Scarborough Enter Gaveston closely pursued by the lords who capture and arrest him. The leading rebels all declare they will have Gaveston hanged immediately, only refusing to stab him to death because it would dishonour them. At that moment enter the Earl of Arundel as messenger of the king, begging a last opportunity to see Gaveston. They all deny the request, urging that Gaveston be hastened to death but old Arundel gives his word that Gaveston will be returned, and then Pembroke nobly joins him. The others reluctantly agree.

The scene abruptly cuts to somewhere in southern England, the idea being that Pembroke and Arundel and their men guarding Gaveston have travelled this far to take him for his last interview with the king. In a page or so it is explained that Pembroke took the fatal decision to depart from the route for the night, to see his wife who lived nearby, and leave Gaveston in the charge of some of his soldiers.

Act 3

Scene 1 Enter Warwick and his men. They have ambushed Pembroke’s party while Pembroke was away. Now they capture Gaveston and drag him off to murder him.

Scene 2 Edward laments his Gaveston is lost. Young Spencer says, if it was him, he’d behead all the rebel nobles (this is exactly what Gaveston suggested right at the start of the play: that’s what I mean by lack of subtlety). Spenser’s father, Old Spenser, arrives with soldiers. He has come to serve his king. For his loyalty Edward creates him Earl of Wiltshire.

Enter the queen with letters from her brother the king of France, that he has seized Edward’s lands in Normandy. Edward charges his wife and young son to travel to France to negotiate with the French king. (In reality, the future Edward III was not born until 1312, after Gaveston’s murder).

Enter the Earl of Arundel with the news that Gaveston is dead. He recapitulates the story of his meeting with the rebels, his pledge to return Gaveston to them, how Warwick’s force ambushed Pembroke’s while their lord was away, abducted Gaveston, and cut his head off in a ditch. Well, Edward is not happy, although Marlowe lacks the psychology and the language to ‘do’ grief. He is much better at anger and vengeance:

Treacherous Warwick! traitorous Mortimer!
If I be England’s king, in lakes of gore
Your headless trunks, your bodies will I trail,
That you may drink your fill, and quaff in blood,
And stain my royal standard with the same,
That so my bloody colours may suggest
Remembrance of revenge immortally
On your accursèd traitorous progeny.

Moving the plot briskly along, Marlowe has Edward adopt young Spenser as Gaveston’s replacement in his affections.

Even more briskly, the nobles send a messenger who demand that Edward rid himself of his new favourite, Spenser. This is one among many moments when Marlowe doesn’t just concertina events, he crushes them to a pulp, moving through the actual sequence of historical events at light speed. Edward contemns the nobles’ request, embraces young Spenser, chases the herald off the stage and vows defiance.

End of part one / part two

I found it invaluable to read the annotated Elizabethan Drama version of the play which, at this point, has an extended note which explains that there is now a Big Jump in time. The Gaveston years are over (Gaveston was murdered in 1312) and the play now leaps over ten years to 1322. A lot has happened, but Part Two opens with the Battle of Boroughbridge in March 1322. Edward is on the rise, has raised an army of 30,000, and chased Lancaster’s rebel army up the river Severn to the village of Boroughbridge.

Scene 3 The battle is in mid-flow and Marlowe brings Edward and his established favourite, Young Spenser, on one side of the stage opposite Lancaster, Young Mortimer and the other rebels on the other, so the two groups can hurl abuse at each other. He did the same thing in the Tamburlaine plays. For the umpteenth time Edward claims the rebels will pay with their heads.

Scene 4 The king is triumphant, crows over Lancaster, Warwick and Young Mortimer, commands his men to take them away and behead Lancaster, Warwick et al, but consign Young Mortimer to the Tower. Warwick calls him a tyrant. Edward and his train exit.

Leaving Young Spenser to brief an ambassador from France to go back to France and persuade the king and nobles to drop their support for Isabella. This requires a note of explanation: In March 1325 Isabella had returned to France and refused to return, sick of being ignored by her husband, and had begun to plot his overthrow. In this scene Spenser gives the ambassador gold to bribe French nobles away from the queen.

Act 4

Scene 1 London near the Tower Enter Kent who has been banished. He is hoping for a fair wind to carry him to France. He is joined by Young Mortimer, who has escaped from the Tower of London.

Scene 2 Paris It is 1325, three years after the Battle of Boroughbridge where Edward decisively established full control over his realm. We are in Paris with Queen Isabella and their son, Edward, the future Edward III. She had been sent there to broker a peace deal with the French king. In this scene she laments that England is under the rule of the rapacious Spencer family and the king under the thumb of Young Hugh Spencer, and also laments that her plans to raise the French nobles to support her return and overthrow Spencer, have come to nothing. She is ‘friendless in France.’

Enter Sir John of Hainault who invites them to come and stay at his estate. And then she is delighted by the arrival of Kent and Young Mortimer from England. They assure her many will rise up to overthrow Edward, if someone gives them a lead. All of them are grateful for Hainault’s offer of support and hospitality.

Scene 3 In King Edward’s palace at Westminster The king rejoices with his lackeys (young Spenser is now Earl of Gloucester) at his achievement, for the first time, of complete control over his realm. He gets Spenser to read out a list of the nobles who have been executed, then they discuss the reward they’ve put out on Young Mortimer’s head.

Enter a messenger with a letter from the ambassador sent to France warning that the queen and her allies (Mortimer and Kent) plan to return and raise a rebellion. Edward defies them, and calls on the winds to blow their fleet quickly across the sea to England so he can defeat them in battle.

Scene 4 Harwich The rebels have landed (24 September 1326). Queen Isabella laments her husband’s bad kingship. She is superseded by Mortimer who makes a speech to the assembled troops explaining they have come with two specific goals: to reclaim for Isabella all the lands that have been sequestered by the Despencer family; and to remove the king’s bad advisers (the Despencer family).

Scene 5 Bristol The queen’s party gained strength as it marched on London, and Edward was forced to flee West. At the start of the scene Spenser counsels the king to take ship to Ireland, Edward demurs and says they must stand and fight, but Baldock counsels flight and they scarper.

Enter Edmund Duke of Kent, Edward’s half-brother who – if you remember – was loyal for most of the first half, before being driven to join the rebels. Now he regrets it, now he’s seen Young Mortimer snogging the queen, he fears their aim to overthrow the king altogether:

Fie on that love that hatcheth death and hate!

Bristol has surrendered without a struggle to the rebels. Kent is worried that Mortimer is watching him.

Enter Queen Isabella, Prince Edward, Young Mortimer, and Sir John of Hainault. They have triumphed. Edward has fled. His son is declared Lord Warden of the realm. Kent asks how they’re going to treat the king? Mortimer mutters to Isabella that he doesn’t like Kent’s soft attitude.

A Welsh nobleman enters with the elder Spencer. He says Young Spenser has taken ship with the king to Ireland. Mortimer orders Elder Spenser to be taken away and executed.

Scene 6 Neath Abbey (Historical note: by mid-November, Edward and his few remaining followers – including Arundel, Baldock and Younger Spenser – were in hiding at the abbey of Neath in south Wales.) The abbot welcomes the small party to the abbey. Edward appreciates the peace and quiet.

They’ve barely been assured they are quite safe here, before enter Welsh nobleman Rice ap Howell and Leicester to arrest them for high treason. Spenser and Baldock are taken away – the general idea, to be beheaded – the king is to be escorted to Kenilworth Castle. When Leicester says they have a litter ready to convey him, Edward lets fly with some Marlovian hyperbole:

A litter hast thou? lay me in a hearse,
And to the gates of hell convey me hence.
Let Pluto’s bells ring out my fatal knell,
And hags howl for my death at Charon’s shore;

Note the characteristically Marlovian use of Greek classical myth. Leicester takes away the king. Baldock and Spenser lament their fate. Arundel and Spencer were hanged, castrated and eviscerated.

Act 5

Scene 1 (Historical note: It is now 20 January 1327. Edward is being kept at Kenilworth castle. He has surrendered the Great Seal to Mortimer and Isabella) Leicester is treating Edward kindly, but Edward has a long speech lamenting his situation. Parliament has sent a delegation (the bishop of Winchester and Trussel) asking him to abdicate. Edward takes off his crown but is loath to hand it over and delivers a lengthy soliloquy whose beauty and unexpected sensitivity anticipates Shakespeare.

But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?

The nobles demand he resign the crown to his son, young Edward, for the time being the ward of the queen and Mortimer, but Edward, for page after page, agonises, accuses them, prevaricates – it is genuinely moving in a way rare for Marlowe. He tells them to take his handkerchief, wet with tears, to the queen.

Sir Thomas, Lord of Berkeley Castle, arrives with a commission to take possession of the king (he is being passed from one gaoler to another). Giving up the crown has plunged him into despair. They explain where they’re taking him, he doesn’t care:

EDWARD: Whither you will; all places are alike,
And every earth is fit for burial.

Scene 2 The royal palace Now run by Queen Isabella and her lover, Young Mortimer. Mortimer presses the urgency of having young prince Edward crowned, so as to cement his authority and Mortimer’s power. The queen assents to whatever her lover suggests.

Enter the bishop of Winchester with the crown, with rumour that Kent is planning to free his half brother the king, and that Edward is being moved from Kenilworth to Berkeley Castle.

To end their anxiety Mortimer explicitly asks the queen if she wants Edward dead, and she reluctantly, weakly agrees. Mortimer calls in two junior nobles, Baron John Maltravers and Sir Thomas Gurney, draws up and signs an order handing the king over to their care. Mortimer explicitly orders them to mistreat the king, humiliate and abuse him, move him from place to place, to Kenilworth then back to Berkeley so no-one knows where he is.

Enter Kent and the young prince Edward. The prince is understandably concerned about his father, Kent has several asides in which he laments his support for Mortimer and condemns Isabella for her hypocrisy. This breaks out into an open squabble as Mortimer physically grabs the prince to separate him from Kent, Kent asserts that as Edward’s nearest blood relative he should be protector to the prince. Both parties exit different sides of the stage.

Scene 3 King Edward is now in the care of Matrevis and Gurney, who systematically mistreat him, as ordered by Mortimer, giving him puddle water to drink, roughly force-shaving him.

Enter Kent who wants to speak with the king, but he is seized by soldiers. The king is roughly bundled into the nearby castle, while Kent is ordered to be taken before Mortimer, the real power in the land.

Scene 4 Mortimer knows the king must die but that, whoever does the deed will suffer once his son is mature. Therefore he contrives an ambiguous letter, which can be read both as ordering Edward’s death, but warning against it. He gives it to a messenger, Lightborn, to take to Matravers. He questions him about his qualifications and Lightborn assures him he knows numerous ways of murdering and killing. The precise method he’ll use on Edward, he keeps secret. What Mortimer is keeping secret from Lightborn is that along with the message, he is being given a token to show the captors which will instruct them that Lightborn himself be murdered once he’s killed Edward. Lightborn exits.

Mortimer soliloquises, reflecting on how he now has complete and ultimate power.

Now is all sure: the queen and Mortimer
Shall rule the realm, the king; and none rule us.

The setting changes (in that easy immediate way which was possible on the bare Elizabethan stage) to Westminster. Enter King Edward the Third, Queen Isabella, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Champion and Nobles, and we witness the coronation of young prince Edward to become King Edward III. This actually took place on 1 February 1327.

The first thing that happens before the new king is his half-uncle Kent is dragged in by soldiers who tell Mortimer Kent had attempted to free the king from imprisonment. Incensed, Mortimer immediately orders him to be beheaded, but the new king intercedes for his uncle but discovers there is nothing he can do, and Kent is dragged off to be executed. Edward fears that he himself will be next and complains to his mother, who promises to protect him.

Scene 5 A hall in Berkeley castle Matravers reveals that Edward is being kept in a dungeon filled with water up to his knees, yet he survives. They are planning to call in Edward and abuse and humiliate him some more when Lightborn arrives, shows them the ambiguous letter (from which they realise Edward is to be murdered) and the token (which signals that Lightborn himself must be murdered thereafter).

Lightborn gives instructions to what he needs – a red-hot spit and a feather bed – takes a torch and goes down into the dungeon where Edward is kept. He is repelled by the darkness and the stink. Edward knows he’s come to murder him, He describes his conditions, forced to stand for ten days in water soiled by the castle’s sewage, someone playing a drum continually so that he cannot sleep. It’s worth noting, in passing, that the Middle Ages, and the Elizabethan era describing them, were both well aware of the power of psychological as well as physical torture.

Edward accuses Lightborn of going to murder him. Lightborn says he will not have his blood on his hands and Edward is slightly appeased. We know Lightborn will not literally have blood on his hands as he does not intend to stab Edward, but to insert the red-hot poker in his anus. It is a very black piece of humour on Marlowe’s part.

Somehow a bed appears in the scene. Some editors suggest Lightborn has brought Edward onstage i.e. up out of the ‘dungeon,’ where a bed has been brought by Matravers. Now Lightborn gently coaxes Edward to lie down on it. Edward’s spurts of misgiving and fear are surprisingly moving, for Marlowe. He closes his eyes, begins to drift off, then suddenly starts awake and says he fears if he sleeps he will never wake.

At which Lightborn confirms it’s true, shouts for Matravers and Gurney to come running in with a table which they turn upside down and lay on Edward’s body and press so hard they suffocate him. No red-hot poker? No. It was by Marlowe’s time part of the legend of the king’s murder and is in his primary source, but Marlowe chose to leave it out. Possibly because of the censorship, murdering a king was historical fact, but such a crude torture of the lord’s anointed might have got the play in trouble with the authorities.

No sooner is Edward dead and the other three stand back from their labours, than Matravers stabs Lightborn to death. Grim and brutal. Mind you, if you think about how Shakespeare handles the death of kings or emperors, it always involves extended metaphors of Nature turned upside, down, earthquakes, graves yawning open, night-owls shrieking and so on. All that kind of supernatural paraphernalia is utterly absent from this account.

Scene 6 The royal palace Matravers reports to Mortimer that the king is dead, Lightborn murdered but Gurney has fled and might well leak their secret. Enraged, Mortimer tells him to get out before he stabs him.

Seconds later Queen Isabella enters to tell Mortimer that young Edward III has heard his father is murdered, tears his hair with grief, and has roused the council chamber against Mortimer. a) Edward has heard almost before Mortimer himself – or, more precisely, as soon as the audience has been informed of an action, it is one of the conventions of these dramas that all the other characters learn the same information at the same time. Young Edward has not only learned about his father’s murder, but raised the council about it, in approximately the same space of time it took Isabella to tell Mortimer about it, maybe 60 seconds.

These plays take place in magic time, in a sort of imaginative time which is closer to our unconscious sense of the connection between events and people, than to our everyday, rational understanding of time. In actual history, three years passed between the murder of Edward II and the revolt of young Edward III against his ‘Protector’, Mortimer, and the Queen. In this play not even three minutes pass.

Enter King Edward the Third, Lords and Attendants. Edward has grown in stature and now takes upon himself the authority of king, says his murdered father speaks through him and accuses Mortimer of murder. Mortimer says where’s the evidence but Edward produces the letter Mortimer gave Lightborn (it appears the Gurney must have handed it over).

Edward orders Mortimer to be taken away in an executioner’s cart, to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This sounds brutal – it is brutal – the intention was to demonstrate the utter control over every subject’s body of the all-powerful monarch.

Mortimer delivers a dignified soliloquy about facing death, then is taken away by officers. Edward is uncertain how to treat Isabella who pleads with him as her own flesh and blood that she had no part in the murder. Edward orders her to the Tower of London pending more police work and maybe a trial. Isabella weeps a few more phrases of regret, and is taken away.

Officers enter with the head of Mortimer. See, it’s Magic Time, by which I mean that orders are no sooner given than they are carried out, as the unconscious mind wishes all its desires to be enacted, immediately. It is more like dreamtime than the Real World. This may be a so-called history play but it is, in this respect, as much an inhabitant of fairy land as a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Mortimer’s head is given to Edward who speaks to it, cursing that he was too young to prevent his father’s murder.

Attendants enter with the hearse of King Edward II (who had, in Real Time, been dead and buried for three years), so that Edward can put on his funeral robes, make his last speech – offering his dead father the traitor’s head, weep for his father, then everyone processes offstage to presumably funeral music, maybe the slow beating of a drum.

Thoughts

The history of the events described in this play are long and complex and it is impressive the way that Marlowe manages to contract and compress them into a dramatic whole.

Like Shakespeare he gets characters’ ages wildly wrong (young prince Edward appears towards the end of Part one when he hadn’t in fact been born yet), puts characters on the wrong sides of the conflict, conflates two characters into one or just invents them as he needs them. He has bent and twisted the events related in his sources, mainly Holinshed’s Chronicles, entirely to suit his own needs.

But more than that, what comes over is the immense freedom of the Elizabethan stage as a medium: a few props could be moved around on an empty stage and, bingo, we have moved from a room in the king’s palace to open country in Yorkshire, a handful of people wearing robes march onstage and we are at the king’s coronation, they all exit and a curtain at the back of the stage is drawn apart to reveal the king in his dungeon.

This makes Elizabethan plays difficult to stage, but amazing to read, because of their blithe indifference to the limits of reality or factuality. Almost in mid-sentence characters transition from one setting to another, can walk from a castle in Wales into a palace in London. Quite quickly you get used to the range of settings the playwrights deploy, and the extraordinary freedom with which they deploy them, the speed with which they get to the point, the kernel of a scene, with characters over-reacting, storming and raging, falling helplessly in love – whatever it is, the playwrights get straight to the heart of a scene and then milk it for all it’s worth.

It is a fast-moving parade of colourful scenes which, repeatedly remind me more of pantomime, with its garish baddies and soppy love affairs, and comedy turns, than 21st century media like TV plays or serious film.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

JOHN FAUSTUS: All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyèd in their several provinces;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;

Title and provenance

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

Date Written: c. 1589-1592.

Source: In 1587 a version of the story of Doctor John Faustus was published in Frankfurt-on-Main, in German. Soon after – a 1592 edition is the earliest one extant – an anonymous English translation, containing modifications and additions, was published in England, under the title The Historie of the damnable life of Doctor John Faustus. It is clear from the numerous similarities in plot, episodes and even language that the History was Marlowe’s primary source for his play.

Doctor Faustus exists in two versions: the 1604 (‘A’ text) quarto is shorter; a second, longer version was published in 1616 (the ‘B’ text). Which one is more ‘authentic’ has been exercising Marlowe scholars for four hundred years. The editor of the New Mermaid edition – Roma Gill – thinks the shorter A version likely to be purer Marlowe, and the later B version includes additions by other writers. This is a review of the 1616 ‘B’, long version, as found on the ElizabethanDrama.org website.

Executive Summary

The famous theologian Doctor John Faustus is spiritually unfulfilled with his chosen vocation, teaching and debating at the university in Wittenberg. He reviews all existing forms of human learning, dismissing them one by one as trash, fit only for small minds. He decides occult knowledge and magic is the only thing for him and the climax of part one is when he conjures a devil, an agent of Satan, Mephistopheles, and signs a contract with him, which gives Faustus the gift of sorcery and the secrets of the universe for 24 years, in exchange for his eternal soul.

Then there’s the middle bit where Faustus takes advantage of his magical powers, flying into space in a chariot drawn by dragons, an extended farce scene poking fun at the pope, before the most famous scene where he conjures up the most beautiful woman in all human history, Helen of Troy, with the words: ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships…’ Different printed editions of the play give different scenes demonstrating how Faustus uses his powers.

In the final part of this moralising fairy tale Mephistopheles returns and demands Faustus’s soul and, after a lot of pleading, Faustus is dragged down to hell. So let that be a lesson to you, children: Do NOT sign away your soul to the devil, no matter how tempting the short-term offer. ‘What must you not do, Johnny?’ ‘I must no sign my soul away to the devil, miss.’ ‘Good boy, Johnny.’

The play

Prologue

Consciously rejects the grand locations and warlike deeds of his earlier plays (Dido, Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta) for something more intimate. The prologue introduces Dr John Faustus with a potted biography of his birth, upbringing and education at Wittenberg, where he soon excels in theology.

Till swoln with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursèd necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.

This is very slick and professional, to take us from nothing to having a good grasp of Faustus’s character and biography in just 27 lines before the prologue indicates the scene with his hand, and the play opens. Very impressive.

Act 1

Dr Johann Faustus is sitting in his study reviewing books of learning, the law, medicine, politics, and dismisses them all as superficial trash:

Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
‘Tis magic, magic, that hath ravished me

Here, right at the start of the play a Good Angel and a Bad Angel appear to Faustus, respectively encouraging him, and telling him not to, study magic. Faustus summons two fellow students of the dark arts who have, apparently, helped him, Valdes and Cornelius. To all these characters, Marlowe allots his trademark booming verse, packed with soaring ambition, studded with stunning images of luxury and power, imagining what it will be like when they have total magical control:

VALDES: As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords,
So shall the spirits of every element
Be always serviceable to us three;
Like lions shall they guard us when we please;
Like Almain rutters with their horsemen’s staves,
Or Lapland giants, trotting by our sides;
Sometimes like women, or unwedded maids,
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows
Than has the white breasts of the queen of love:
From Venice shall they drag huge argosies,
And from America the golden fleece
That yearly stuffs old Philip’s treasury;

Faustus gets excited at the images of power and luxury his friends conjure up, and he invites them for dinner and to plan how to practice magic.

Scene 2 Street outside Faustus’s house Two scholars enter and ask Faustus’s servant, Wagner, where his master is. The scene is padded out with comic material, namely that Wagner has picked up scraps of rhetoric and logic and so teases the two scholars by proving their arguments illogical or wrongly formed etc. Eventually he spits out that his master is at dinner with Valdes and Cornelius and the two scholars go away, sad, and tutting and shaking their heads, because that pair have a bad reputation for the dark arts.

Scene 3 A grove This is the scene where Faustus, alone in a grove in the countryside, has drawn a circle and written into it various magical symbols and now recites a Latin spell, there is a crack of thunder, and a devil appears, Mephistopheles. Although he should be terrifying, he proceeds to explain the processes and procedures of devils in relatively bureaucratic terms: when they hear anyone abjure Christ, God and the Scriptures a devil will come speeding, hoping to win a soul.

Faustus’s superficiality, the lack of understanding behind all his fine reading, is amply demonstrated. He says he agrees with the ancient philosophers in thinking hell a children’s fable, of confounding heaven and hell. When Mephistopheles tries to explain that hell isn’t a world of punishments, it is deprivation of the boundless soul-filling job of being in heaven, Faustus mocks him and tells him to ‘learn of Faustus manly fortitude’. In other words, it is plain for everyone in the audience to see that Faustus is not only a blasphemer and infidel, he us stupid when it comes to the only thing in life which matters.

It is Faustus who boastfully makes the offer, telling Mephistopheles to go and tell his master, mighty Lucifer:

FAUSTUS: Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and to aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.

You can see how this kind of megalomaniac over-reaching is first cousin to Tamburlaine’s heaven-vaulting ambition, and Faustus’s ambitions are cast in very similar terms:

By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge thorough the moving air,
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributary to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany.
Now that I have obtained what I desired.

Scene 4 A comic scene with Wagner the servant (who speaks in servant prose) who encounter a ‘clown’ or beggar in the street and raises two devils to terrify the clown into serving him (Wagner).

Wagner can raise devils? This scene, in fact all the scenes with Wagner and some of the banter between Faustus and Mephistopheles has a raggedy comedy about it. T.S. Eliot described The Jew of Malta as ‘a savage farce’ and Faustus also has farcical elements, as if Marlowe can’t take his own story seriously.

Scene 5 Faustus’s study He listens to the arguments of the good and bad angel, but is resolved for bad, He realises:

The god thou serv’st is thine own appetite,

And yet he is determined to do it. He argues back against the good angel, and then – it being midnight – conjures Mephistopheles. The devil tells him to stab his arm to draw the blood to sign his pact with great Lucifer.

But something genuinely spooky happens. As Faustus tries to write, his blood keeps congealing, preventing him from continuing to sign away his soul. Mephistopheles hurries offstage and returns with a chafer of flame which they use to prevent Faustus’s blood congealing, and he finishes writing out the contract. But then appears on his arm the words Homo fuge, Latin for ‘man, flee!’ Faustus is momentarily panic-stricken, but Mephistopheles magics up a dancing troupe of devils to distract him. Thus reassured (or dazzled) Faustus reads out the contract he has drawn up: Mephistopheles will be his to command for 24 years to carry out his every wish, and then:

I, John Faustus of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents, do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister Mephistophilis; and furthermore grant unto them, that, four-and-twenty years being expired, and these articles above written being inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus, body and soul, flesh and blood, into their habitation wheresoever.

Mephistopheles again double checks that Faustus is entering into the contract of his own free will. This is important for the very legal pernicketiness which characterises Christian theology. Faustus affirms it. Now commences his 24 years of fun.

Faustus asks Mephisopheles about hell and the latter gives a famous and profound description:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.

Hell is the absence of God and of God’s grace which is what saves and redeems humans. It is not so much a place, as a condition we carry round with us. Hence Mephistopheles’ earlier declaration:

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

Once again Faustus shows his idiocy by saying he doesn’t believe hell exists, it’s an old wives’ tale. Nonetheless, Mephistopheles says he’ll bring him the most beautiful women in the world, each morning, fresh to his bed. And Mephistopheles gives him a book full of magic spells.

Scene 6 Some time later, in Faustus’s house, he accuses Mephistopheles of misleading him, of looking up at the stars and the beautiful heaven he will never see. Mephistopheles tries to talk him round, the two angels appear and the bad won triumphs, hardening Faustus’s heart. Incidentally, there’s an indication of what the pair have been up to:

Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,
Made music with my Mephistophilis?

He quizzes him about the nature of the solar system, the planets and the stars, which knowledge Mephistopheles rattles off but when Faustus asks him who made it all the devil literally cannot bring himself to utter the word God.

When the good angel prompts Faustus to try to repent he is visited by Lucifer and Beelzebub. They tell him not to think on heaven or call on God. To distract him they summon up an allegorical masque of the seven deadly sins. Faustus loves the show and Lucifer gives him a parting gift of a book of magic before exiting.

Scene 7 A comic scene between Robin and Dick, two ostlers or staff at an inn who have got their hands on one of Faustus’s books and appear to be thinking of using it to gain magical powers.

Chorus 1 The chorus describes how Faustus rode a chariot pulled by dragons out into the solar system to behold the planets in their motion. Returned to earth after 8 days, he is now riding a dragon across its surface and will soon arrive at Rome.

Scene 8 Faustus and Mephistopheles review the tour they’ve made through France, Germany and down into Italy. Faustus is loving it:

Whilst I am here on earth, let me be cloyed
With all things that delight the heart of man:
My four-and-twenty years of liberty
I’ll spend in pleasure and in dalliance…

Now they hide in order to watch the annual Festival of St Peter inside the palace of the Pope. A procession enters, the striking part of which is that a ruler named Bruno is in chains, and the Pope orders him to go on all fours so as to act as a footstool for him (the Pope) to ascend his throne.

This Bruno is a fictitious ‘anti-pope’, a role which arose in the 14th century when two different popes were elected for a period of fifty years, who opposed and anathematised each other. But there was never an anti-pope named Bruno, just as the pope in these scenes is referred to as Adrian and depicted as an enemy of the Holy Roman Emperor, whereas the one and only pope named Adrian (the only Englishman to have been pope) ruled from 1154 to 1159 and was an ally of the Holy Roman Emperor. Similarly, the scene features a King Sigismund of Hungary and there has never been a King Sigismund of Hungary. In other words, these names are just handy labels for a scene of broad farce. Similarly, the scene

Faustus and Mephistopheles watch all this then disguise themselves as cardinals of France and Padua in order to give the pope their theological opinion that the antipope Bruno should immediately be burned at the stake and the Emperor excommunicated. The pope hands Bruno over to our disguised pair to carry out the sentence.

Scene 9 The pope’s privy chamber The pope is holding a feast for king Sigismund and his cardinals. Faustus reveals that he and Mephistopheles have magically transported Bruno safely back to Germany. The two real cardinals of France and Padua enter and are perplexed when the pope asks how their imprisoning and punishment of Bruno is going; both deny any knowledge although, of course, the pope’s entire court swears they saw it happen. So the cardinals are dragged off to prison and punishment.

Faustus gets Mephistopheles to say a spell (interesting to compare these spells with the same sort of thing Shakespeare used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to make him invisible and proceeds to wreak havoc, whispering insults in the pope’s ear, as if from his neighbour, whisking away the pope’s plates and goblet of wine, etc, eventually slapping the pope. Concluding some evil spirit is loose among them, the pope calls in some friars who solemnly chant magic spells, er, prayers, until Faustus and Mephistopheles set about them, too, beating them and throwing fireworks at them as they run away.

Pantomime.

Scene 10 Street near an inn Back to the serving men Robin and Dick. The vintner accuses them of stealing a cup from the inn. Rather over-reacting, Robin uses Faustus’s book to read and spell and conjure up Mephistopheles. As punishment for dragging him away from more important work, Mephistopheles transforms them into a dog and an ape, who promptly bark and bounce around the stage. Panto.

Scene 11 Court of the Holy Roman Emperor at Innsbruck Two servants, Frederick and Martino, explain that Faustus has arrived at the Emperor’s court, having magically transported Bruno to Germany, and has promised to show the emperor all his historical antecedents.

Scene 12 The emperors ‘presence chamber’ The emperor formally greets Faustus and thanks him for rescuing Bruno, the German anti-pope. Faustus then presents a dumb show in which we all see the figure of Alexander the Great confront and defeat the Persian emperor Darius before setting the latter’s crown on the head of his paramour. The emperor is mightily impressed, though he has to be restrained by Faustus from embracing the dumbshow Alexander.

One of the emperor’s courtiers is a drunken nitwit named Benvolio, and as a result of saying he doesn’t believe in Faustus’s powers, the latter gives him the horns of a stag. Everyone laughs then Faustus menaces him with setting a pack of devils to tear him to pieces as Diana’s hounds tore Actaeon to pieces. The emperor intercedes and so Faustus relents and removes Benvolio’s horns. This is comedy, farce – but what strikes me is the use of classical myth to articulate it. The Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Scene 13 A grove near Innsbruck In revenge for his humiliation, Benvolio organises an ambush with Frederick and Martino and, when Faustus comes along, they stab him, knock him to the ground and then chop off his head! They exult over his corpse but are terrified when the headless body gets to its feet. He cannot be killed. Now he conjures up Mephistopheles and two other devils to drag the three conspirators off to dump them in mud and drag them through thornbushes and throw them off steep rocks to break their bones, and they all exit, screaming.

That’s not all. Some soldiers had been included in the assassination attempt and when they now come forward to attack Faustus, the latter conjures up Mephistopheles and other devils in the guise of an army with drums and fife who march against the soldiers and chase them offstage with fireworks.

Scene 14 Show what became of the three conspirators Benvolio, Frederick and Marino, now covered in mud, scratched and bruised and,.. with stags horns on their heads! They conclude there is nothing they can do against such magic and will retreat to Benvolio’s castle, there to live in retirement till their shame has passed.

Scene 15 A convoluted comic scene in which a horse-courser or dealer begs Faustus to sell him his magic horse, which he finally does for 40 dollars but tells the man not to ride it into water. Barely 30 seconds have passed and Faustus has just gone to bed, before the dealer returns to say he did ride the horse into water and it disappeared leaving just a straw behind. Now the dealer goes to pull Faustus out of bed but his leg comes off in his hand, Faustus wakes up shouting Murder, murder’, and the dealer runs off. Faustus’s leg is magically restored (just as his head was in scene 13) and  his servant tells him the Duke of Vanholt wishes to see him.

Scene 16 Robin, Dick, the horse-courser, and a carter are down the pub sharing their reasons for hating Faustus.

Scene 17 The Court of the Duke of Vanholt The Duke thanks Faustus for building him a castle in the air. His wife, the duchess, is pregnant and expresses a fancy for grapes. Although it is midwinter, Faustus dispatches Mephistopheles who returns a few seconds later with a spray of wonderful fresh grapes.

The Duke and Duchess are still marvelling at this when there is a load of rowdy banging at the gate. It is Robin, Dick, the carter, and the horse-courser. They’re drunk, insult Faustus and demand more beer! Faustus asks the duke to indulge him and calls for more beer. This scene takes up an inordinate space, in which the horse dealer drunkenly asks whether Faustus can remember having his leg pulled off, Faustus says yes, the dealer asks where it is, Faustus replies, back here with me, and so on. Presumably the Elizabethan audience found all this very funny.

All four begin to accuse Faustus with their grievances but one by one he strikes them dumb, last of all the hostess who’s come to ask for her bill to be paid, and they exit like zombies. The duke and duchess are very amused.

Scene 18 Back at Faustus’s, Wagner enters to tell us his master is preparing to die, has given Wagner:

his wealth,
His house, his goods, and store of golden plate,
Besides two thousand ducats ready-coined.

Then we see Faustus at dinner with two scholars. They have been discussing who was the most beautiful woman in the world (as wise and learned scholars will, after a few beers) and decided it must be Helen of Troy. Faustus promptly gets Mephistopheles to lead her in, in a dumbshow of the same style as the one where Faustus conjured up Alexander the Great. They are immensely impressed and gratified, thank Faustus and leave.

The tone completely changes as an old man enters and warns Faustus, at length, to save his soul. Faustus is stricken with remorse and tries to repent but Mephistopheles turns savage, accuses him of breaking the bargain, and warns him he will tear his flesh in piecemeal.

Faustus is so terrified he instantly promises to renew his vow, and Mephistopheles hands him a dagger so he can cut his arm and renew the contract in his own blood and then, vengefully, orders Mephistopheles to torment the good old man who just visited him. Faustus asks for just one thing – that he may possess Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world they saw a few minutes ago, to distract him from his vow.

Re-enter Helen, passing over the stage between two Cupids which prompts the famous lines:

FAUSTUS: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? −
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
[He kisses her]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! −
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

What strikes me now about this speech is, again, the way it is drenched in references to Greek myth, and references Troy, Paris, Achilles, Jupiter, Semele and Arethusa.

Scene 19 in which Faustus pays his debt and is dragged down to hell With a crack of thunder Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistophilis enter Faustus’s study. Separately, Faustus finalises his will with Wagner, gifting him all his belongings. Then the scholars visit and Faustus laments and regrets his life of sin, his promise and the threat of eternal damnation.

A scholar tells him to turn to God but the devils hold his tongue, dry his tears, pull down his hands so he cannot pray. Then he for the first time tells them the full story, of how he sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of partying, Horrified, the three scholars retire into the next room.

Now Mephistopheles closes in on him, admitting it was he who drew his taste to books of magic, closed up the books of divinity and steered Faustus’s soul to damnation. The good angel and bad angel appear, the good one showing him the throne in heaven Faustus would have been awarded, the bad one explaining now he will be dragged down to hell and hell appears to be a pretty bad place. Mephistopheles shows it to him:

EVIL ANGEL: Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare
Into that vast perpetual torture-house.
There are the furies tossing damnèd souls
On burning forks; their bodies boil in lead;
There are live quarters broiling on the coals,
That ne’er can die; this ever-burning chair
Is for o’er-tortured souls to rest them in;
These that are fed with sops of flaming fire,
Were gluttons, and loved only delicates,
And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates:
But yet all these are nothing; thou shalt see
Ten thousand tortures that more horrid be.

It is noticeable how traditional this image is, and how different from the much more subtle, psychological definition of hell (as the absence of God which all damned people carry around within themselves wherever they go) which Mephistopheles expressed at the start of the play. Too subtle for the climax of a tragedy, which requires blood and guts and screaming, or as much garish suffering as possible. And hence the reversion to a traditional fire and pitchforks interpretation here at the play’s climax.

The clock chimes eleven. He has an hour left and delivers a blisteringly intense speech of terrified desperation:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! − Who pulls me down? −
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ! −

The clock ticks relentlessly forward and then strikes midnight. There isn’t, as you might have expected, a big set-piece scene featuring Lucifer, Beelzebub et all gloatingly seizing him. Instead Faustus’s final moments are brief and brutal as a pack of devils enter and drag Faustus offstage as he screams his final lines:

O mercy, Heaven! look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books! − O Mephistophilis!

Even reading this I found genuinely harrowing. Well acted onstage it can be terrifying.

Scene 20 There is a short, half-page-long scene as the three scholars cowering next door, go into Faustus’s study and discover his body all torn to pieces, and recount the terrible screams they heard. Well, they’ll gather up his body and give him a fine funeral at which all the students of the university will wear black.

Chorus 2 Brief and to the point:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learnèd man.
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.

Thoughts

A divided text Clearly there are two completely different types or tones of content sitting cheek-by-jowl in this strange uneven text: the genuinely tragical and sometimes very moving, and the farcical, panto content. Most scholars and indeed readers and audiences can easily see that the comic scenes were almost certainly not written by Marlowe. Marlowe’s humour, as demonstrated in The Jew of Malta, is stylish, cynical and savage. Much of the humour in Faustus’s comic scenes (pulling Faustus’s leg off, cutting his head off, four churls getting drunk down the pub) is just stupid.

Endless theology There’s enough theological issues or problems in the play – the precise status of the good and bad angel, the extent of Faustus’s free will, whether God’s grace could save him up to the last minute – to keep serious-minded scholars in academic papers for the rest of time. After all, Marlowe was himself a scholarship-winning student of divinity at Cambridge and Roma Gill’s introduction informs us that Mephistopheles’ subtle vision of hell as exclusion from the bliss of salvation is in fact closely translated from a text by the 4th century Church Father, Saint John Chrysostom.

Dazzling escapades For us ordinary folk, though, it’s useful to make a list of Faustus’s various escapades: that he rides through the solar system in a chariot pulled by dragons (!), rides across Europe on the back of a dragon, gets to slap the pope and chase friars with fireworks, and that Mephistopheles changes two servants into an ape and a dog. He creates a masque featuring Alexander the Great and builds a castle in the air and, by implication, has Homer sing to him, and has sex with Helen of Troy. On the farcical end of the scale, he sells a horse dealer a horse which is in fact a straw, gives a drunken knight real stags’ horns, survives having his head cut off and his leg pulled off, and strikes four noisy chavs dumb.

Clever critics have pointed out that Faustus’s escapades mark stages on his degeneration: he starts out hymning the infinite power of the mind, associating with Homer and travelling the solar system, before degenerating into a court entertainer for the Duke of Vanholt, calling up historical masques and magicking up fresh grapes, before he becomes involved in the downright stupid escapades involving lost heads and legs and, in the final scenes, wishes to cease having a body altogether, to be buried in the earth or to become as incorporeal as the dew, so as to escape the torments of hell.

It’s a neat idea, but ignores the actual order of some of the adventures, not least that the best one – kissing Helen of Troy – happens at the end. But it does tie together all the adventures and bring out the often tawdry and banal nature of what people actually get when their dreams are fulfilled.

Marlowe’s Greek imagination Shakespeare litters his plays with references to English folklore, dialect words and imagery (the names and symbolism of English flowers, for example). There’s nothing like that in Marlowe. In Marlowe almost every analogy or metaphor references Greek myths or legends. From the masque of Alexander the Great early on through the apparition of Helen of Troy at its climax, through to the best line in the short epilogue mentioning Apollo, and via hundreds of other references, the Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Campus tragedy Dr Faustus is a tragedy about an academic. It is a tragedy about the overweening pride which comes from being very learnèd and superior, ‘glutted with learning’s golden gifts… swollen with cunning of a self-conceit’, as the prologue puts it – but lacking wisdom or morality.

In a way, it is a tragedy about the perils of over-education. There’s a modern genre called the campus novel or campus comedy, dating from Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim and characterising many of David Lodge’s novels. The presence of the three scholars right at the climax of the play highlights the fact that, all the way through, Dr Faustus is a campus tragedy.

Dr Faustus as Marlowe’s psychodrama

Marlowe studied Divinity at university, but also read widely in Latin classical literature. The quote from St John Chrysostom indicates how deeply he knew his theology, and a glance at any of the poems or plays shows how drenched his imagination was in the Greek myths and legends.

It isn’t the most obvious thing about the play, but Dr Faustus can be read as a dramatised debate between these two halves of Marlowe’s education, between the two major cultural traditions of Europe, Christian belief and the enormous cultural heritage of the classical world.

On the whole Faustus’s vision of power and the infinite reach of the human imagination are expressed through metaphors and references to Greek myth – the downsides, the price to pay for overweening ambition, the limits of the purely human, are expressed in theological terms. Man can aspire to the marvellous – but at the end of the day, he is a creature, created by a Creator, to whom he owes an infinite debt.

Obviously this tension is openly expressed throughout the play, most narrowly in the debates between the good and evil angel, or in the warnings of the old man, who wanders in off the street to tell Faustus to repent. It is encoded in the imagery of the play, in the two contrasting sets of symbols and images, one pagan, one Christian.

But you can argue that the debate, the conflict of value systems, comes to a symbolic climax in the figure of Helen of Troy, and her appearance just before Faustus is dragged offstage by the devils.

Helen is maybe the most famous figure from all Greek myth, an image of worldly beauty, of sensual bliss who also epitomises the appeal and attraction of classical culture, and by extension, the world of the Imagination, with its promise of intellectual reward, emotional comfort and psychological reassurance. How many thousands of artists and millions of art-lovers find consolation in turning from the banal, dirty, frail and disappointing realities of the world, to open a book and enter a wonderful world of imaginative consolation.

And yet… Helen has been conjured by a devil. The entire thing is a deception. She is not real, the pleasure she brings is not real. When Faustus says:

Her lips sucks forth my soul: see, where it flies! −

There is a clear and very obvious ambiguity in the line. It is simultaneously a lover’s expression of sensual bliss, the kind of erotic hyperbole common to Renaissance poets and their heirs – but at the same time has a diabolical and theological meaning. The devil who made or is impersonating Helen really is sucking out his soul. The Helen Faustus and the audience sees is a gorgeous mask over a death’s-head skull.

And so, along with being a storming theatrical entertainment, and a satire on the entire notion of the over-ambitious Renaissance Man – Dr Faustus can also be read as dramatising the tensions in Marlowe’s divided mind between the two central traditions of European thought, which he was expert in, which saturated his thinking, and which he never managed to reconcile in his short life.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Ovid’s Amores translated by Christopher Marlowe

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet (3.13)

Introduction to Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, generally known as Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) was a well-known Latin poet who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and a younger contemporary of arguably the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Virgil (70 BC – 19 AD).

After years of success and public honours, at the height of his fame, in 8 AD the emperor ordered Ovid to be summarily exiled to the remote backwater of the Black Sea. Possibly some of his verse had offended, either because of their satire or their erotic content. Possibly he had a relationship with the emperor’s daughter Julia. To this day, scholars aren’t completely sure. Augustus ordered Ovid’s works removed from libraries and destroyed, but that seems to have had little effect on his popularity. He was always among the most widely read and imitated of Latin poets and more copies of his works survive than of any other Latin poet.

Amores is Latin for ‘loves’ and the work consists of 48 poems, all in the first person, which describe the poet’s love affair with a rich and unhappily married woman, named Corinna. The series doesn’t tell a well-defined narrative with beginning, middle and end. Some poems seem to refer to specific events, but more often they address topics arising from the general idea of being in love. Some seem aimed at a generic female figure, others wander off the central topic altogether to make general points about Poetry, or the poet’s Muse. One is an elegy to fellow poet Tibullus, who had done much to establish the genre of the erotic elegy.

The word ‘elegy’ has come to mean a lament for someone who’s died, but in Ovid’s day it had the broader meaning of a poem written to or about a specific person – in this case Corinna, although many of the poems are actually written to figures surrounding her, such as her eunuch.

Scholars credit Ovid with taking aspects of the love elegy and developing them further, in particular a subversive irony and humour, ironising his own role as lover, the beloved’s character and, indeed, the whole palaver of being in love, wooing and all the rest of it.

Summary of the Amores

Book 1 contains 15 poems. The first tells of Ovid’s intention to write epic poetry, which is thwarted when Cupid steals a metrical foot from him, changing his work into love elegy. Poem 4 is didactic and describes principles that Ovid would develop in the Ars Amatoria. The fifth poem, describing sex in the afternoon, first introduces Corinna by name. Poems 8 and 9 deal with Corinna selling her love for gifts, while 11 and 12 describe the poet’s failed attempt to arrange a meeting. Poem 14 discusses Corinna’s disastrous experiment in dyeing her hair and 15 stresses the immortality of Ovid and love poets.

The second book contains 19 poems. The opening poem tells of Ovid’s abandonment of a Gigantomachy in favour of elegy. Poems 2 and 3 are entreaties to a guardian to let the poet see Corinna, poem 6 is a lament for Corinna’s dead parrot; poems 7 and 8 deal with Ovid’s affair with Corinna’s servant and her discovery of it, and 11 and 12 try to prevent Corinna from going on vacation. Poem 13 is a prayer to Isis for Corinna’s illness, 14 a poem against abortion, and 19 a warning to unwary husbands.

Book 3 contains 15 poems. The opening piece depicts personified Tragedy and Elegy fighting over Ovid. Poem 2 describes a visit to the races, 3 and 8 focus on Corinna’s interest in other men, 10 is a complaint to Ceres because of her festival that requires abstinence, 13 is a poem on a festival of Juno, and 9 a lament for Tibullus. In poem 11 Ovid decides not to love Corinna any longer and regrets the poems he has written about her. The final poem is Ovid’s farewell to the erotic muse.

The most accessible poems

I have boldened the poems I found easiest to understand and so most enjoyable, being 1.5, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13 and 2.14 about abortion, 3.6 about impotence, 3.8 the elegy to Tibullus, 3.13 telling his mistress to be discreet.

The summaries in italics are in the Penguin edition and appear to be the summaries given in the original Elizabethan edition.

Book 1

1.1 How he was forced by Cupid to write of love instead of war – At the time epic poetry was written in hexameters which have six ‘feet’ or units per line, whereas love poems were written in pentameters with five ‘feet’. The poet humorously complains that he set out to write bold, manly war poetry but that Cupid stole one of the ‘feet’ of his verse, and so now he is condemned to write love poems. He complains this is topsy turvey, Cupid should not have the power to intervene in poetry, but Cupid replied by shooting him with one of his arrows.

Thus I complaind, but Love unlockt his quiver,
Tooke out the shaft, ordaind my hart to shiver:
And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,
Saying, Poet heers a worke beseeming thee.
Oh woe is me, he never shootes but hits,
I burne, love in my idle bosome sits.

1.2 First captured by love, he endures being led in triumph by Cupid – What is keeping him awake at night? It is love. He gives examples of types of animals which know that fighting against man’s shackles and bridles only makes it worse. Similarly, he has the wisdom to submit.

Yielding or striving do we give him might,
Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.

1.3 To his mistress – He describes his devotion and his good qualities as a lover:

Be thou the happy subject of my books
That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.

1.4 He advises his love what devices and signals they ought to employ when they were at dinner with her husband present – The poet goes to a dinner party along with his lover and her husband and gives a long list of instructions to her not to dally too much or too openly with him, not to hang about his neck, fondle his chin, entwine her legs with his and the secret signs they will use to convey their passion to each other.

View me, my becks, and speaking countenance;
Take, and return each secret amorous glance.
Words without voice shall on my eyebrows sit,
Lines thou shalt read in wine by my hand writ.

1.5 Sex with Corinna – He describes an afternoon when Corinna comes to his rooms and they make love (quoted in full below).

1.6 To her porter, to open the door for him – He begs Corinna’s doorkeeper to let him into the house to see his love. This is an example, believe it or not, of a recognised genre, the paraclausithyron, the ‘door poem’ or ‘lament beside the door’, in which the exclusus amator (‘shut-out lover’) addresses the door or doorkeeper keeping him from his mistress. Horace wrote a poem threatening the door, Tibullus appealed to the door, Propertius wrote a poem in which the door is the speaker. The trope was revived by some of the troubadors, recurs in Victorian poetry, and lives on into our day, witness the 1971 song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? by the Rolling Stones:

Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door

1.7 That his mistress, who he has beaten, should make peace with him – In a blind rage he hits his lover, then sees her tears and throws himself at her feet in regret.

1.8 He reviles the bawd who has been introducing his mistress to the courtesan’s art – The longest poem in book 1, the poet describes the ancient bawd and procuress Dipsas as a witch and then overhears, from a hiding place, the old crone giving his mistress lessons on how to keep a lover on tenterhooks. At the end of her lecture the poet heartily curses her.

1.9 To Atticus: that a lover may not be lazy, any more than a soldier – The poet compares lovers with soldiers, including the greats of the tale of Troy, and says he is like a soldier, at his mistress’ beck and call as a soldier is of his captain’s.

1.10 To his girl, that she should not demand money for her love – He complains that alone among species, female humans refrain from sex until given gifts, until bought like whores.

The mare asks not the horse, the cow the bull,
Nor the mild ewe gifts from the ram doth pull.
Only a woman gets spoils from a man,
Farms out herself on nights for what she can;
And lets [prevents] what both delight, what both desire,
Making her joy according to her hire.

He swears that the gift he gives his mistress – his – will last long after the gold and jewels that common mistresses demand.

1.11 He pleads with Nape to carry a letter to Corinna – He asks Corinna’s maid to take a message to her and await her reply.

1.12 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – He seems to be attacking a book or books or manuscript, maybe it’s a letter announcing his mistress cannot visit.

1.13 To Dawn, not to hurry – He criticises the dawn for waking humanity from its rest and forcing all kinds of people, trades and animals to their daily work.

Poor travellers though tired, rise at thy sight,
And soldiers make them ready to the fight.
The painful hind by thee to field is sent;
Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.
Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them
To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

But, worst of all, parting him from his mistress.

1.14 He consoles his girl, whose hair has fallen out from excessive hair-washing  – He mocks Corinna for cutting off her hair and dyeing the rest and then complaining about the result.

She holds, and views her old locks in her lap;
Ay me! rare gifts unworthy such a hap!

1.15 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – The book ends with Ovid describing the immortal fame achieved by the great poets of the past and the subjects they wrote about (Troy, Aeneas, the golden fleece) and that he will be among them (as he, indeed, is).

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,
Verse is immortal and shall ne’er decay.
To[ verse let kings give place and kingly shows,
And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vild things;
Fair Phœbus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

Book 2

2.1 Why he is impelled to write of love, rather than of titanic struggles – The poet describes the sort of audience that he desires, hot maids looking for a husband and boys hurt, like him, by Cupid’s arrows. He jokingly says what good will it do him to write about Achilles or Odysseus, they’re long dead? But if he writes a poem to a pretty woman, he might get a snog out of it!

2.2 To Bagous, to keep a more lax watch over his mistress, who has been entrusted to him – The poet asks Bagous, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress in a poem I found largely incomprehensible.

2.3 To the eunuch serving his mistress – The poet addresses a eunuch, arguing he should let him see his mistress.

2.4 That he loves women of all sorts – An unusually comprehensible poem in which the poet explains that he loves every woman he sees, tall or short, dark or fair, coy or brazen, singing or silent, dancing or plodding:

I cannot rule myself but where Love please;
Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.
No one face likes me best, all faces move,
A hundred reasons make me ever love.

2.5 To his faithless mistress – How lucky is a lover who intercepts letters or hears gossip that his lover is unfaithful: because she can deny it and he can believe her. But the poet saw with his own eyes how, when a dinner party had ended, she kissed at length, with tongues, ‘another’ (presumably her husband).

2.6 On the death of his parrot – A pet parrot has died and he expends numerous classical analogies in mourning it. Despite reading the poem several times I can’t work out whether the parrot belonged to Corinna, or the poet, or whether Corinna is meant to be speaking (‘The parrot, from East India to me sent/Is dead…’)

2.7 He swears to his mistress that he has not made love to her maid – The poet complains that she’s always accusing him of something, in this case of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis. The poet denies it based on class loyalty, he would never demean himself to have sex with a slave. He throws in an unnerving detail – that her back is ‘rough with stripes’. From being whipped!?

With Venus’ game who will a servant grace?
Or any back, made rough with stripes, embrace?

2.8 To Cypassis, Corinna’s maid – In humorous contrast to the preceding poem, the poet now addresses Cypassis freely admitting that they’ve been having sex, and using classical precedents (Achilles and Agamemnon both had affairs with servants) as freely to justify the affair to Cypassis as he had used others to deny it to Corinna.

The poem appears to take place in real time, i.e. is his part of a dialogue, because after he’s taken the credit for speaking up in her defence when Corinna accused her, he promptly asks her to lie with him as a reward and, when she refuses, gets cross and threatens to reveal the truth to her mistress (which would, presumably, lead to another whipping).

2.9 To Cupid – The poet reproaches Cupid for causing him so much pain in love, for driving him like a headstrong horse or a storm at sea, when he (the poet) is a fellow soldier, a colleague, in love’s wars.

2.10 To Graecinus, that he can love two at once – His friend Graecinus told him it was impossible to be in love with two women at the same time, but he is (‘Which is the loveliest, it is hard to say’)! He describes the joy of two lovers at length and humorously gloats over his enemies who lie alone at night in their big empty beds.

2.11 To his mistress sailing – He is very anxious indeed about a planned sea voyage Corinna is going to make, curses the pioneers of sea adventures, and then invokes a ton of gods to look after her, before anticipating the joy of their reunion when she returns.

2.12 He rejoices that he has conquered his mistress – A humorous poem in which he compares himself to a mighty warrior and says he deserves to be crowned with bay leaves like the traditional victor of a campaign because he has won Corinna who is even at this moment lying on his breast, a victory greater than the defeat of Troy.

2.13 To Isis, to aid Corinna in Labour– He prays to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to Lucina goddess of childbirth, to protect and save Corinna who is having an abortion he is sure is from him, save Corinna and, in doing so, also save the anxious poet.

My wench, Lucina, I entreat thee favour;
Worthy she is, thou should’st in mercy save her.

2.14 To his mistress, who has attempted an abortion – The poet laments that, although women are not involved in war, they have come up with ways to harm themselves, namely having abortions which, apparently, involves ‘hid irons’ and ‘dire poison’. If all women had practiced abortion, the world would be empty, there would have been no Priam or Achilles (as usual his mind goes straight to the Trojan Wars), no Romulus and Rome, in fact no Ovid and Corinna.

2.15 To a ring which he has given his mistress – He wishes he were his mistress ring so he could familiarly touch her lap and pap.

2.16 To his mistress, to come to his country estate – He wishes his mistress would come to his country estate in Sulmo (in the Abruzzi, a region of east-central Italy). He gives an extensive description of the region’s natural beauties but says that, without her, it means nothing.

2.17 That he will serve only Corinna – He laments that his mistress is well aware how beautiful she is and this makes her haughty and disdainful. He recalls how many women from classical myth accepted a more junior lover e.g. Venus with club-footed Vulcan.

And thou, my light, accept me howsoever;
Lay in the mid bed, there be my lawgiver.

2.18 To Macer, writing of his love poems – Another poem pointing out that he would like to write of war and high tragedy but his mistress is wriggling on his lap, refuses to go when he orders her, and so his poems end up being about love and his love emotions.

I yield, and back my wit from battles bring,
Domestic acts, and mine own wars to sing.

2.19 – To his rival, her husband, who does not guard his wife – He is irritated with the husband for making Corinna so available. Forbidden love is sweeter, and he rattles off a list of women from myth and legend who were difficult to attain and so fired up their lovers more (Danae kept in a high tower, Io guarded by Juno)

What flies I follow, what follows me I shun.

In fact, he warns the husband, unless he starts protecting her more seriously, Ovid is going to give up being her lover, it’s too easy, it’s boring.

Now I forewarn, unless to keep her stronger
Thou dost begin, she shall be mine no longer.

Book 3

3.1 The poet’s deliberation whether to continue writing elegies or to turn to tragedy – Walking in a wood he is confronted by personifications of Elegy and Tragedy. Tragedy says he has become a laughing stock, writing about his lewd love affairs. Time to fulfil his talents and write Great Things. Elegy replies that she is light and trivial and yet suited for some subjects. She dresses out Venus and Corinna. The poet says he will turn to Grand Things in time and Tragedy appears to grant him a period to continue dawdling with trivial love, before turning to Higher Things. A worry which is still nagging him in 3.10:

When Thebes, when Troy, when Cæsar should be writ,
Alone Corinna moves my wanton wit.

3.2 To his mistress watching the races – He has come to the races, not to look at the horse, but his mistress. As avidly as she feeds on the arduous horse, he feeds on sight of her. There is an extended description of every element of a Roman horse-race and how they can be metaphorically applied to his feverish wooing.

3.3 On his mistress, who has lied to him – He is appalled that his mistress has lied to him and yet looks just as beautiful and desirable as before. Are there no gods, is there no justice? Characteristically, he launches into a long list of legendary figures and asks why the gods bothered punishing them so excessively if they are going to let his mistress off scot-free?

3.4 To a man who guards his wife – He warns a man who is trying to guard his lover from adultery that it will have the opposite effect: forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; it is nature to hanker for what is banned.

3.5 To a torrent, while he is on his way to his mistress – He has travelled day and night to reach his lover and now is prevented by a river in flood as the mountain snows thaw. Characteristically, he then compares the flooded river to numerous other rivers in Graeco-Roman mythology, an extended litany which helps to make this the longest poem in the book.

3.6 He bewails the fact that, in bed with his mistress, he was unable to perform – 

Though both of us performed our true intent,
Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Interestingly, he points out that whatever caused the first failure, it was compounded by shame i.e. embarrassment. Interesting because that is, indeed, how erectile disfunction works, the more aware you become, the worse it gets, and the more humiliated you feel. At several points he directly describes the failing member:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mockèd me, hung down the head and sunk…

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,
Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday…

3.7 He mourns that his mistress will not receive him – He is consumed with anger and jealousy that his mistress has rejected him, ‘the pure priest of Phoebus and the Muses’, for a battle-scarred hunk whose hands are bloody from the men he’s killed. Alas, poetry and the arts are now worth less than gold – Barbarism!

3.8 He mourns the death of Tibullus – Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. In Ovid’s poem Cupid has broken his bow and mourns. He compares Tibullus’ death to those of legendary heroes and says death makes him doubt the existence of the gods.

Outrageous death profanes all holy things,
And on all creatures obscure darkness brings.

It is a sweet and moving elegy, in the modern sense of the word.

3.9 To Ceres, complaining that because of her ceremonies he is not allowed to sleep with his mistress – The Festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from meeting his mistress who lies alone in an empty bed. There is an extended description of Ceres’ history and attributes, before he concludes that he’d rather be celebrating a festival to Venus!

3.10 To his mistress, from whose love he cannot free himself – So many times he has been turned away from her door and slept on the floor. ‘Long have I borne much, mad thy faults me make.’ He has impersonated one of her servants and seen many a sated lover leaving her bedroom, observed her tricks and signs to lovers at dinner parties, put up with her lies and deceptions. But now he has made some kind of break:

Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain,
And what I have borne, shame to bear again.

Now hate and love fight in his breast.

Now love and hate my light breast each way move,
But victory, I think, will hap to love.
I’ll hate, if I can; if not, love ‘gainst my will,

Torn: ‘Nor with thee, nor without thee can I live.’

3.11 He complains that his lover is so well known through his poems that she is available to many rival lovers – Actually, when you stop and reflect on the previous 40 or so poems, you realise that he has not in fact painted a particularly vivid picture of his lover. Horse-racing, his native countryside, the maid he had a fling with, the doorkeeper, her husband, even the details of horse-racing – and lots and lots of references to classical myths, yes, certainly. But in a curious way, the mistress – if her name is Corinna – is strangely absent from many of the poems, and even when she’s explicitly named, a strangely fugitive presence.

Which makes you realise how conventional this poem lamenting that fact that he’s made her famous, actually is.

Characteristically, he turns to classical mythology to give examples of how vivid and blazing and enduring the poet’s myths and fables have been.

3.12 On the feast of Juno – A straightfoward description of the Festival of Juno, which takes place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins. He ends the poem by piously hoping that Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

3.13 – To his mistress; if she will be licentious, let her do it discreetly – He tells her not to boast about her night’s adventures, if she is going to stray, at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Be as wanton as she likes in bed, but, risen and dressed and in company, be sage and graceful and proper. That will make it easier for him to overlook her infidelities.

3.14 To Venus, putting an end to his elegies – In a relatively short, poignant poem, he bids farewell to ‘tender Love’s mother’ i.e. Venus, to ‘weak elegies’ and his ‘delightful muse’. What gives it a particular feel is that it is almost devoid of the extensive lists of gods and heroes which pad out most of the poems. Instead he speaks fondly of his home among the Paeligni tribe of the Abruzzi. Whereas visitors might think it fitting that Mantua sired the great poet Vergil and Verona was home to Catullus, they might be surprised that the little town of Sulmo was his birthplace. But he loves it and will praise it. And now it is time to move on, to tackle a greater ground with a greater horse. To move onto the more Serious kind of poetry which has periodically nagged him throughout the series.

Marlowe’s translation

Marlowe’s Ovid is the earliest, the least studied of his works and the most dismissed. One reason is the technical inaccuracies, errors and mistranslations which, apparently, crop up in every line, partly Marlowe’s errors, partly because the printed texts he was working from were themselves inaccurate.

This, understandably, irks Latin scholars and has resulted in 400 years of negative reviews. We, however, need not be very troubled by these pedantic concerns about literal accuracy. A hundred years ago Ezra Pound showed that translations can be full of howlers but still be very beautiful (Cathay). The thing deserves to be judged on its own terms.

That said, these poems are often boring and quite hard to follow. Why? Having just read Hero and Leander and the first couple of plays, I think it’s for several inter-connected reasons:

The couplet form

Ovid’s original was written in couplets, that’s to say paired lines, sentences divided into two lines which end with a full stop. The impact of reading a series of self-contained rhymed couplets quickly becomes monotonous. It feels mechanical.

Aye me an Eunuch keepes my mistrisse chaste,
That cannot Venus mutuall pleasure taste.
Who first depriv’d yong boyes of their best part,
With selfe same woundes he gave, he ought to smart.
To kinde requests thou wouldst more gentle prove,
If ever wench had made luke-warme thy love.

It feels like Marlowe is cabined and confined by this format. He is clearly constrained to convey Ovid’s original meaning and struggles to do so within the narrow bounds of the couplet. It routinely feels like he is contorting normal English phrasing or rhythm, so much so that I found it very difficult to understand what entire poems were actually about. 1.2 mentions a husband and husbands generally, but I struggled to understand even one line.

I sawe ones legges with fetters blacke and blewe,
By whom the husband his wives incest knewe.
More he deserv’d, to both great harme he fram’d,
The man did grieve, the woman was defam’d.
Trust me all husbands for such faults are sad
Nor make they any man that heare them glad.
If he loves not, deafe eares thou doest importune,
Or if he loves, thy tale breedes his misfortune.

The pronouns, and the apparent subject, of the poem keep changing so that I’m not sure who’s being talked about. I’ve no idea why incest has cropped up, I’ve no idea who the man is, or the woman is in the first four lines. I don’t understand what faults are being referred to, and I nearly understand the last couplet but don’t really know who the ‘thou’ referred to is. Is it the poet’s lover Corinna? But if so, why does her tale breed ‘his misfortune’?

Latin

Latin is a more compact language than English. Its declensions and conjugations, the way it changes the ends of the words to convey changes in case for nouns, and tense and person for verbs, mean that one Latin word can convey what can easily take two, three or four English words to express.

Latin can elegantly fit into two lines ideas and meanings which English can only fit into the tight straitjacket by mangling word order and meaning. To give one repeated example of this at work, many of the poems start with a ringing couplet whose first line sounds fine because he has written it out at full length, so to speak – but whose second line is incomprehensible, as Marlowe tries to fit into the second line a meaning which really requires one and a half or two. Quite often the second lines are incomprehensible.

I ask but right, let her that caught me late,
Either love, or cause that I may never hate… (?)

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains,
While rage is absent, take some friend the pains…(?)

I, Ovid, poet, of my wantonness,
Born at Peligny, to write more address. (?)

It explains why Marlowe continually distorts normal word order and sense. In the poem about the doorkeeper, he writes:

Little I ask, a little entrance make,
The gate half-ope my bent side in will take.
Long love my body to such use makes slender,
And to get out doth like apt members render.

So, the first line is fairly smooth and understandable, the second is peculiarly phrased (‘bent side’?). The third line is understandable if you make the effort to read it carefully, and the fourth line is gibberish. He’s mangling the English because he’s trying to shoehorn a Latin meaning which simply contains more than an English couplet can handle.

The net effect is that it’s possible to read line after line, poem after poem, without really understanding what they’re about. Easy to begin skipping verse which is so hard to get a grasp of, or reading through entire passages without properly understanding them. Takes this couplet from 1.3:

I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The first line is so compacted you have to read it several times to parse the meaning – the second half of the second line is clear enough, but I don’t quite get why he’ll live with his love forever ‘if men have faith’. What have other men got to do with it? Maybe it means something like, ‘as long as men are faithful, I’ll live with thee forever’, but the little shoebox of the heroic couplet forces him to abbreviate English words so much as to teeter on the incomprehensible.

Contrast with Marlowe the playwright

Taken together what the set highlights, by being such a sharp contrast to it, is Marlowe’s natural gift for a completely different type of verse when he is writing at will and with freedom – for verse which flows freely for entire paragraphs – his gift for rolling lines which convey a luxurious flow of meaning over 5, 6, 7 or more lines, the kind of wonderfully fluent passages you find again and again in the plays. Here is Jupiter flirting with Ganymede at the start of his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of Time;
Why, are not all the gods at thy command,
And Heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine daughters sing when thou art sad;
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face:
And Venus’ swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed:

What makes this both enjoyable and understandable is they way the same basic thought (‘I’ll give you anything you want, sweet Ganymede’) expands out over ten lines. All the examples repeat the same basic idea – that all the gods will dance at Ganymede’s command – and the reader, having once grasped the basic idea, is freed up to enjoy the poet’s embellishments and elaborations. We readers revel in Marlowe’s inventiveness and fluency and therein lies the mental pleasure, the sense of luxury which derives from the effortlessness with which Marlowe spins out elegantly phrased elaborations of the theme. It’s like a luxury hotel, every room is smoothly and tastefully furnished.

Seeing Marlowe pace up and down the cage of these rhyming couplets, makes you appreciate it even more when you see him released to go bounding joyfully across the open sunny savannah of the blank verse of his plays.

The dead parrot

Whereas in the Ovid translations, the reader continually feels, along with the poet, that his natural grandiloquent discursiveness has been chopped up and cramped into bite-sized couplets. The poem about the death of Corinna’s parrot ought to be funny, the subject is potentially humorous, but the performance feels stuttery and confined.

Elisium hath a wood of holme trees black,
Whose earth doth not perpetuall greene-grasse lacke,
There good birds rest (if we beleeve things hidden)
Whence uncleane fowles are said to be forbidden.
There harrnelesse Swans feed all abroad the river,
There lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever.
There Junoes bird displayes his gorgious feather,
And loving Doves kisse eagerly together.
The Parrat into wood receiv’d with these,
Turnes all the goodly birdes to what she please.

What does ‘if we believe things hidden’ really mean? That belief in the afterlife is some esoteric knowledge? – but it wasn’t. As in hundreds of other lines, the meaning is puzzlingly meaningless or unclear. The line about harmless swans on the river is easy enough to understand but, although you can see the idea lurking behind ‘there lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever’, the actual phrasing feels clumsy and contorted, and poetry is about the actual phrasing.

Juno’s bird (the peacock) displaying her gorgeous feather I understand alright, and the loving turtle doves are a stock cliché – but the final couplet is horrible: ‘The parrot into wood received with these’ is just horrible phrasing, and what does the final line actually mean? Is it something to do with the parrot’s ability to mimic the other birds? I’ve no idea.

Love in the afternoon

Of the 45 poems only one manages to be both completely understandable and to show the extended fluency on a simple idea which distinguishes the more relaxed and fluent verse of his plays – which explains why it’s the one that is always included in anthologies.

Book 1 Elegy 5

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed
Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered there withal.
And striving thus, as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see!
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest; being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!

And then, it’s about a naked woman and sex, which always helps.

Legacy

There are several points to make.

1. Marlowe’s sonnet sequence

Although they are obviously not sonnets, and he didn’t write them from scratch, nonetheless the Amores can be thought of as ‘Marlowe’s sonnet sequence’. Most other leading poets of the day wrote an extended series of sonnets, all addressed to the same remote and aloof mistress, which they used to explore different moods and subjects, some tragic, some humorous. Examples include Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser’s sequence Amoretti, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the set which is sometimes seen as ending the fashion, Michael Drayton’s Idea sequence.

The point is, the Amores played something of the same role for Marlowe, allowing him to experiment with how to phrase in English a wide variety of moods, emotions and tones of voice. Each of the poems tends to make a case i.e. is not a flow of emotion, but a string of rhetorical arguments around a particular love-related issue (jealousy, passion, anger, regret). So you could argue that the Amores was practice, warming up and rehearsal for deploying variations on all these emotions in the mouths of the characters in his plays, for example the variety of arguments deployed by Aeneas and Dido as they fall in and out of love.

2. Grabby openings

One of the often-noted features of both Shakespeare’s sonnets and John Donne’s lyrics, is their colloquial, dramatic, buttonholing opening lines – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ or ‘I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved…’ being examples of Shakespeare and Donne, respectively.

The point is you can make the case that Marlowe helped establish this tone – that instead of the long and formal exordium of earlier Renaissance poetry,  Marlowe’s translations leap straight in with colloquial, chatty or arresting openings:

What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Thy husband to a banquet goes with me…

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains…

Leave colouring thy tresses, I did cry…

Ay me, an eunuch keeps my mistress chaste… (2.3)

Well, maybe. Maybe some of them. But just as many start with crabbed or obscure lines, simple situational setups, or promising phrases which are then bent and broken:

An old wood stands, uncut of long years’ space,
‘Tis credible some godhead haunts the place…

I sit not here the noble horse to see;
Yet whom thou favour’st, pray may conqueror be.

What, are there gods? herself she hath forswore,
And yet remains the face she had before.

Rude man, ’tis vain thy damsel to commend
To keeper’s trust: their wits should them defend.

Flood with reed-grown slime banks, till I be past
Thy waters stay: I to my mistress haste.

3. The ubiquity of classical mythology

So obvious it’s easy to overlook, but the Amores are stuffed with references to the gods and legends of the ancient world. Probably Marlowe read Horace and Virgil, too, and many other Latin authors, but the way the characters of the gods and the stories of their adventures continually pop into the poet’s mind to illustrate almost every point he’s making, will also characterise the plays – certainly Dido and Tamburlaine – where all the characters invoke the Roman gods, the characters from the tale of Troy, plus stock stories from ancient myth.

4. Classical padding

About half way through I began to notice a pattern to many of the poems: Ovid states the situation and describes it in fairly realistic terms. And then, around line 10, he will suddenly switch to invoking classical precedents. One minute he’s addressing his mistress, doorkeeper, friend etc. Then there is almost always a swerve, a change of tone, and he suddenly begins a (usually very extended) list of comparisons with figures from myth and legend. This suggests two thoughts:

  • It is padding. He can pad out any thought, emotion or moment by invoking a classical precedent and then describing it at length, or alternatively piling up a list of quickfire precedents. Either way, most of the poems are twice as long as the ostensible subject justifies, because they have these long passages invoking Venus and Vulcan and Jove and Achilles and so on.
  • I wonder to what extent people living in those times really did structure, categorise and make sense of their human experience through the filter of classical myth and legend. We nowadays – I think – invoke a range of discourses, popular sayings about mental health, maybe, or gender stereotyping or other cliches, maybe about northerners and southerners, or class-based tropes. I’m not in a position to make a full list and I dare say it varies from person to person. But whereas we might think ‘I’m depressed, I’m stressed, it’s sexism, the management don’t know what they’re doing’ – those kinds of categories – I wonder if denizens of the ancient world actually thought, ‘Well beautiful Venus had an affair with ugly Vulcan, this is like jealous Juno taking her revenge on Hercules, he’s sulking like Achilles’ and so on. Or was it only in the poems? Is it an entirely literary artifact?

5. Poetry lasts forever

People still talk about Troy, the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, getting on for 3,000 years after the stories were first told. Ovid is still mentioned, discussed and quoted long after most of the generals and all the politicians of his day are forgotten. Poetry really does outlast not only men’s lives, but entire civilisations. It’s an ancient trope because it’s true. In this couplet, I like the way he places poetry alongside ‘history’s pretence’.

Poets’ large power is boundless and immense,
Nor have their words true history’s pretence.

That’s a complicated word, ‘pretence’, because it involves effort and aspiration (pretensions), but also acting and dissembling. History is the attempt to make sense of what has happened but, as I’ve made clear in my 350 history reviews, it is always a story, or an attempt to frame a meaningful narrative. And the sense of what history is, what it is for, as well as the actual ‘histories’ of every period, change and mutate over time. But not Ovid’s words, or Marlowe’s. When Marlowe wrote ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships’ he made something which will last as long as the English language.

It’s a trope, it’s a cliché which recurs as on of the threads running through the Amores. But it’s true.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe

Scholarship attributes Marlowe’s poems – Hero and Leander and his translations of Ovid and Lucan – to his time at Cambridge, before he came down to London and started writing for the stage i.e. before he was 23.

Hero and Leander is incomplete. Marlowe conceived it as a miniature epic or epyllion retelling the ancient love story of Hero and Leander in rhyming couplets. He wrote two sections (of 484 and 334 lines, respectively) before breaking off. The poem takes up just 24 pages of the Penguin edition of Marlowe’s complete poetry.

After Marlowe’s death, the poem was continued and completed by fellow playwright and poet, George Chapman. Chapman’s continuation takes up 56 pages i.e. is twice as long as the original. It was Chapman who divided the ‘completed’ poem, including Marlowe’s part, into sestiads, a word he made up referring to the city of Sestos where the poem is set, on the model of The Iliad which describes the war at Ilium (as Troy was then known).

These medium-length poems on a classical subject were popular in late-Elizabethan England. Frequently taken from the works of the Roman poet Ovid, they were generally about Love, often with strong erotic or sensual overtones. They were fashionably Italian in tone and were aimed at a refined and knowledgeable audience. Shakespeare wrote something similar with his Venus and Adonis.

The legend

The first thing to get straight is that Hero is the name of the woman in the story. She is a priestess of Aphrodite who lives in a tower in Sestos, a city on the European side of the Hellespont (the narrow strip of water near modern Istanbul which separates Europe from Asia Minor.

Leander is a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander spies Hero at a festival of Adonis, on the spot falls in love with her, woos and wins her then every subsequent night swims across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lights a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him on his nightly swim.

Their meetings last a long, hot summer. But one stormy winter night, a strong wind blows out Hero’s lamp and Leander loses his way in the storm-tossed sea and drowns. When Hero sees his dead body, she throws herself from the top of her tower to join him in death.

Sestiad one (484 lines)

The tone, the register, the descriptions are from the start over the top and exorbitant, much like the style of the plays. We learn that Hero was wooed by Apollo, no less, that her dress is stained with blood for all the suitors who have died for her sake. She has soaked up so much beauty that nature wept and turned half the world black (the commentators aren’t quite sure whether this means black-haired [as opposed to radiant blonde] or to the fact that any one moment half of the earth is in darkness):

So lovely-fair was Hero, Venus’ nun,
As Nature wept, thinking she was undone,
Because she took more from her than she left,
And of such wondrous beauty her bereft:
Therefore, in sign her treasure suffer’d wrack,
Since Hero’s time hath half the world been black.

Cupid was said to have looked on her and been struck blind her beauty. Or to routinely mistake Hero for his mother, the goddess of Love. Nor is Leander any less heroically beautiful. His hair would have outshone the famous golden fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. The moon (Cynthia) longs to be embraced by him. Zeus might have drunk from his hand.

Many commentators have pointed out that Marlowe devotes just as sensual a description to Leander as to Hero, and use this as evidence for the claim that Marlowe was gay.

His dangling tresses, that were never shorn,
Had they been cut, and unto Colchos borne,
Would have allur’d the venturous youth of Greece
To hazard more than for the golden fleece.
Fair Cynthia wished his arms might be her Sphere;
Grief makes her pale, because she moves not there.
His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;
Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.
Even as delicious meat is to the tast,
So was his neck in touching, and surpast
The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,
How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back; but my rude pen
Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men,
Much less of powerful gods: let it suffice
That my slack Muse sings of Leander’s eyes;
Those orient cheeks and lips, exceeding his
That leapt into the water for a kiss [Narcissus]
Of his own shadow, and, despising many,
Died ere he could enjoy the love of any.
Had wild Hippolytus Leander seen,
Enamour’d of his beauty had he been:
His presence made the rudest peasant melt,
That in the vast uplandish country dwelt;
The barbarous Thracian soldier, mov’d with nought,
Was mov’d with him, and for his favour sought.
Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,
For in his looks were all that men desire,—
A pleasant-smiling cheek, a speaking eye,
A brow for love to banquet royally;
And such as knew he was a man, would say,
‘Leander, thou art made for amorous play:
Why art thou not in love, and loved of all?
Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own thrall.’

So, yes, possibly, you might claim some of these lines as proving that Marlowe was gay or had a gay sensibility – although, rereading the factual information about him, I now realise the evidence for this is actually very slender, based on hearsay and the written evidence of spies and liars.

The real point, for me, of a passage like this is surely how easy it is to read, easy and stylish and confident, brash, verging on the bombastic. Zeus would have drunk out of his hand! Because the poem starts in this high tone it’s easy to overlook how absurdly overblown a lot of its descriptions and claims are. Here is the description of Venus’ temple where Hero is a ‘nun’:

The walls were of discolour’d jasper-stone,
Wherein was Proteus carved; and over-head
A lively vine of green sea-agate spread,
Where by one hand light-headed Bacchus hung,
And with the other wine from grapes out-wrung.
Of crystal shining fair the pavement was;
The town of Sestos call’d it Venus’ glass:
There might you see the gods, in sundry shapes,
Committing heady riots, incests, rapes;

The vigour, the energy of the conception is captured in the riots, incests and rapes of the disgraceful gods (which he goes on to summarise for another ten lines). Power. Energy. Dynamism. This is what Ben Jonson meant when he referred to Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

The lion’s share of the first sestiad (lines 199 to 340) is devoted to a long section of Leander pleading with Hero to have sex with him, ‘his worthy love-suit’. Leander lines up a battery of arguments, cast in the pseudo-philosophical form popular at the time, to persuade Hero out of her priestly virginity and into loving and sleeping with him. In fluent succession he argues:

  • why does Hero worship Venus when she surpasses her so much in beauty
  • he vows to excel all others in her service
  • women must be used like musical instruments or metal jars, both of which go off and tarnish without use
  • lone women are like empty houses, which collapse and decline
  • women need men to validate them:

One is no number; maids are nothing, then,
Without the sweet society of men.

  • women are like raw gold which needs to be stamped with the owner’s imprimatur to gain value
  • virginity is nothing, has no reality, you can’t point to it or weigh it – therefore it means nothing

This idol, which you term virginity,
Is neither essence subject to the eye,
No, nor to any one exterior sense,
Nor hath it any place of residence,
Nor is’t of earth or mould celestial,
Or capable of any form at all.
Of that which hath no being, do not boast;
Things that are not at all, are never lost.

  • how can virginity be called virtuous when we are born with it – only that can be virtuous which we strive for and achieve
  • she is so beautiful that if she lives alone, people won’t think she is virtuous, they’ll think she is being maintained by some rich man as his mistress
  • Venus likes banquets, Doric music, midnight revel, plays and masks – by rejecting all this life and human interaction for the life of the cloister Hero is ‘a holy idiot’ (line 333) in fact she is committing a sin against her goddess
  • she will most resemble Venus when she carries out ‘Venus’ sweet rites’ i.e. sex
  • rich corn dies if it is no reaped – beauty in solitude is lost

Who cares whether any of this is true or not (or sexist or misogynist) – the point is the roll, the rise, the rhythm of Marlowe’s arguments, breaking over Hero’s poor bowed head like the waves of the sea.

In fact Hero had long ago given in to his arguments, to his good looks and to Cupid’s arrow, though, as he reaches to embrace her, she eludes him. Instead she explains that she lives in a high tower on the coast, attended by ‘a dwarfish beldam’ who keeps her company with chatter and ‘apish merriment’. Before she knows it she’s said ‘Come thither’ but is immediately ashamed, regrets her boldness, casts her hands up to heaven – but Cupid beats down her prayers, turning her tears to pearls.

The digression about Hermes and the Destinies

At this point the entire narrative shifts scene and the last hundred lines (377 – 484) go off at a strange tangent, describing a peculiar story using Greek characters but, apparently made up by Marlowe himself. In this digression, Hermes messenger of the gods, on the same day he laid Argus asleep, spied a country maid and pursues and woos her and tumbles her to the ground, but as he’s undressing her she suddenly starts up and runs off shouting, so Hermes follows her, wooing her with stories and these make her stop to listen. At length she asks him to bring him a cup of the ‘flowing nectar’ on which the gods feast, and so Hermes pops up to heaven and steals some off Hebe, handmaiden to the gods and returns to earth to hand it to his shepherdess-lover.

Zeus discovers this theft and is more angry than he was when Prometheus stole the fire (everything is more than, the best, the toppermost). Zeus banishes Hermes from heaven and the sad god goes wandering up and down the earth till he bumps into Cupid and tells his tale of woe. This is all the prompting Cupid needs to take revenge on Zeus, and he shoots the ‘adamantine Destinies’ with his golden darts so they fall in love with Hermes and will do anything he asks.

Hermes goes way over the top and commands the Destinies to topple Zeus from his throne and replace him with his father, Saturn, who Zeus had overthrown. But barely was Saturn upon the throne and Zeus incarcerated in hell than Hermes stopped paying court to the Destinies, they noticed this and felt scorned, forswore Love and him, and promptly restored Zeus back to his throne.

Hermes nearly ended up locked in hell except that learning will always overcome all obstacles and rise to heaven and so Hermes, as the patron god of learning, eventually regained his place.

Yet, as a punishment, they added this,
That he and Poverty should always kiss;
And to this day is every scholar poor:

And explains why rich fools always seem to lord it over the Muses’ sons, well-educated wits, and the ‘lofty servile clown’ ‘keep learning down’. In other words, why deserving poets like Marlowe are always short of money and dependent on aristocratic fools.

It has the neatness of a fable, the folk tale origin of a proverb. Except that it is easy to overlook the fact that Marlowe just described the overthrow of the king of the gods by the keepers of the universe. He is, on other words, a poet whose imagination is always soaring off into the uttermost extremities of enormity.

Sestiad two (334 lines)

It’s a bit of an effort to click back to the original story, and find Hero playing hard to get, skipping off from Leander’s clutches, but turning round and eyeing him coyly, dropping her fan oops. She seems to make it home because the next thing we know Leander sends her a love letter, she replies telling him to come to her tower, and he arrives to find the front door wide open, and her room strewed with roses. He asked, she gave ‘and nothing was denied’. Marlowe is a very sexy writer:

Look how their hands, so were their hearts united,
And what he did, she willingly requited.
(Sweet are the kisses, the embracements sweet,
When like desires and like affections meet;)

Then she is overcome with guilt and shame and then fear that she has given herself too easily and he will tire of her, so she goes to him again, throwing herself on his bosom, making her body a sacrifice to her own anger at herself.

Leander, meanwhile, is a relatively naive and innocent lover and he is nagged by a suspicion that he hasn’t done enough or isn’t doing it right, and so he clasps her to him even more and suddenly finds his ardour rising again and the pleasing heat revived ‘Which taught him all that elder lovers know’. And yet she fled, keen to maintain ‘her maidenhead’ (in which case, all the shenanigans the poet has been describing must be merely foreplay).

Dawn comes, deliberately slowing her pace to let the two lovers take a long, drawn-out farewell. Hero gives Leander a myrtle to wear in his bonnet, a purple ribbon round his arm and the ring wherewith she had pledged her devotion to Venus. He is so liberally festooned with love’s tokens that Leander has barely got back to Abydos before everyone in both cities knows all about their love.

But Leander burns with love, flames for Hero’s absence. Leander’s father notices and pooh-poohs his love which only makes Leander burst out even more passionately like a wild horse that tamers try to restrain.

Sitting on a rock looking across the Hellespont to Hero’s tower, Leander’s love overcomes him, he tears off his clothes and leaps into the sea. But Poseidon god of the ocean, is convinced by his beauty that the legendary Ganymede has entered his element, and grasps Leander.

Leander strived; the waves about him wound,
And pull’d him to the bottom, where the ground
Was strewed with pearl, and in low coral groves
Sweet-singing mermaids sported with their loves
On heaps of heavy gold, and took great pleasure
To spurn in careless sort the shipwreck treasure;

It’s brilliantly vivid and colourful. Poseidon at first embraces Leander but our hero wriggles free of his grasp and, realising he is not Ganymede, Poseidon drops his lustful intent and turns to sporting with Leander. He fixes Helle’s bracelet on his arm so the sea can’t harm him and then frolics, as Leander strides through the water towards Hero, Poseidon swims between his strong arms and kisses him.

He watched his arms, and, as they open’d wide
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
And, as he turn’d, cast many a lustful glance,
And throw him gaudy toys to please his eye,
And dive into the water, and there pry
Upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb,
And up again, and close beside him swim,
And talk of love. Leander made reply,
‘You are deceiv’d; I am no woman, I.’

Hm, many people seem to be mistaking Leander for a woman. Is this sexy? Is it gay? Or is it more a kind of imaginative exuberance, a super-sexed hyperbole which transcends love or sex or gender, reaching for a kind of super-human vivacity and energy.

Poseidon starts telling a story about a shepherd who dotes on a boy so beautiful, who played with

a boy so lovely-fair and kind,
As for his love both earth and heaven pin’d;

(OK, maybe it is gay) but Leander is in a hurry to get across the strait and pulls ahead of Poseidon lamenting he is going so slow. Angered, Poseidon throws his mace at Leander but immediately regrets the decision and calls it back, where it hits his hand with such violence it draws blood. Leander sees it and is sorry, and Poseidon’s heart is softened by the lad’s kind heart.

Leander finally staggers ashore and runs to Hero’s tower. She hears knocking at the door and runs to it naked but seeing a rough dirty naked man in the doorway, screams and runs off to hide in her dark room. But here Leander follows her, spying her white skin in the gloom, she slips into her bed, Leander sits on it, exhausted, and speaks these lovely lines:

‘If not for love, yet, love, for pity-sake,
Me in thy bed and maiden bosom take;
At least vouchsafe these arms some little room,
Who, hoping to embrace thee, cheerly swoom:
This head was beat with many a churlish billow,
And therefore let it rest upon thy pillow.’

She wriggles down inside her bed, making a sort of tent of the sheets, while Leander whispers and entreats to her, and reaches in and begs and she is tempted but resists and is finally, at length, won like a town taken by storm,

Leander now, like Theban Hercules,
Enter’d the orchard of th’ Hesperides;
Whose fruit none rightly can describe, but he
That pulls or shakes it from the golden tree.

He appears to take her virginity:

she knew not how to frame her look,
Or speak to him, who in a moment took
That which so long, so charily she kept;

But I made the mistake of thinking they were having sex earlier, when it was only foreplay and here, again, what happens is obscure because next thing we know Hero slips out of the bed like a mermaid and stands and a kind of twilight breaks from her, and Leander beholds her naked for the first time. And at this moment Apollo’s golden harp sounds out music to the ocean and the morning star arises, driving night down into hell.

And it is there that the poem breaks off.

Famous quote

The poem contains one of Marlowe’s two most famous lines. Early in the first sestiad Hero is stooping down to a silver altar within the temple of Venus with her eyes closed. As she rises she opens her eyes and Cupid shoots a gold-tipped arrow through Leander’s heart, and Marlowe breaks off for a little digression on the nature of Love:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-rul’d by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows, let it suffice,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?

We know not what we do – or we have no idea why we like one thing instead of another, even when they’re indistinguishable like two identical gold ingots. We can’t explain why we love one thing instead of another just like it. It is fate.

Footnotes

Just some of the scores of Greek myths Marlowe refers to. Notice how many of them are about sex.

  • Before the advent of carpets, rooms in houses rich and poor, were strewn with rushes i.e. dried grasses.
  • Actaeon a fair youth, out hunting he accidentally saw the goddess Artemis bathing naked and as punishment she drove his hunting hounds into a wild frenzy so that they tore him to pieces.
  • Argus was a hundred-eyed monster sent by Hera to watch over beautiful maid Io and prevent Zeus sleeping with her, so Zeus sends Hermes to slay Io.
  • Cupid’s arrows According to Ovid, Cupid has two types of arrow, gold-tipped to kindle love and lead-tipped to extinguish it (Metamorphoses I, lines 470-471).
  • Ganymedea beautiful youth carried off by Zeus in the shape of an eagle and brought to heaven to be the cupbearer of the gods. The Latin for Ganymede is Catamitus which is the origin of the English word ‘catamite’ denoting a pubescent boy in a pederastic relationship with an older man, or the receiver of anal intercourse.
  • Ixion was the treacherous king of Thessaly who murdered his father-in-law. Zeus took pity on him and brought him to Olympus where Ixion promptly repaid his kindness by trying to seduce Hera. Learning about this, Zeus created a fake model of Hera out of clouds and sent it to Ixion. The fruit of their union was the race of centaurs. Ixion was punished for his hubris by being bound to a wheel perpetually turning in hell.
  • Pelops was killed by his father Tantalus, cut up, cooked, and served at a dinner of the gods. Only Demeter actually ate anything, though, unknowingly eating Pelops’ shoulder. When Hermes was subsequently tasked with reconstituting Pelops, he gave him a shoulder made of ivory. The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, VI, l.403-11.
  • Phaëthon was a son of Apollo, the sun god. He undertook to drive the chariot of the sun but lost control of the horses and was destroyed by Zeus to prevent him setting fire to the world (Metamorphoses II, 30)
  • Proteus the sea god, a byword for continual continual change.
  • Salmacis was a nymph who loved the fair youth Hermaphroditus who ignored her. But she embraced him and begged the gods that they never be parted, the gods granted her wish and transformed them into one being with the attributes of a man and a woman (Metamorphoses, IV, 285ff)
  • Tantalus was King of Lydia and a son of Zeus. He stole nectar from the gods to give to men and was consigned to hell where he suffered permanent thirst and hunger with goblets of water and plates full of rich food just out of reach.

Sources

An ancient work, The Double Heroides, is attributed to Ovid and, among other fictional letters, it contains an exchange of verse letters between Hero and Leander. In that text Leander has been unable to swim across to Hero in her tower because of bad weather and her summons to him to make the effort will prove fatal to her lover.

But research has shown that most of the details in Hero and Leander are taken from the much later 340 line-poem by the 6th century Byzantine poet Musaeus, who is actually namechecked in Marlowe’s poem (although Marlowe makes the error, common in his time, of mistakenly thinking Musaeus was a contemporary of Homer).


Related links

Marlowe’s works

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