Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

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

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

The Aeneid’s structure

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

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

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

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

Historical background

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

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

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

The price of peace

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

Aspects of patriotism

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

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

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

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

A political poem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copying the Greeks

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

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

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

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

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

The process of composition

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

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

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

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

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

The violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The animal sacrifices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgil’s multi-levelled and holey theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Furens

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

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

The poetry

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

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

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

  • flexibility in writing lines and passages
  • compactness

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

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

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

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

Pederast

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

All For Love, or, The World Well Lost by John Dryden (1677)

….we have lov’d each other
Into our mutual ruin.
(Antony to Cleopatra, All For Love Act 2)

John Dryden (1631 to 1700) was the dominant literary figure of the Restoration period, loosely 1660 to 1700. The period is sometimes called the Age of Dryden by academics who are paid to label things.

Dryden was extremely prolific. He not only wrote original poems – notably extended satires on the fierce politics and bickering theatre-world of the Restoration era – but produced an awe-inspiring number of translations, notably of Virgil’s Aeneid, of episodes from Homer, Ovid, and Boccaccio and translations from the Middle English of some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Not only this but during the revival of the theatre under the restored King Charles II, Dryden wrote some 30 plays, including texts for some of the earliest English operas.

Dryden’s dominance was in part due to his development of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters) and rhyme royal (rhymed iambic pentameters) into extremely flexible and expressive tools, for writing satirical poems, plays comic or tragic, and narrative verse, whether high toned or entertaining. He added a few variations to add variety, namely alexandrines and triplets. Triplets are when not two but three lines share the same end rhyme, and an alexandrine is a line of six beats or feet rather than the usual five of the pentameter, such as this line from the Faerie Queene:

And to the Dwarfe awhile his needlesse spere he gave.

Setting standards

But there’s a further reason for Dryden’s dominance. No other poet or playwright wrote so extensively about literature. Dryden not only set about establishing orderly blank verse as the standard medium for verse, and set out to revive serious high poetic drama in the theatre; he wrote numerous essays explaining why he wanted to do this and how he was setting about doing it. He was the greatest theorist and justifier of the great change in poetic style and medium which took place during his lifetime.

In Restoration England there was a great hankering for law and order and regularity. Laws were brought in to compel conformity to the state religion, the Royal Society brought together scientists who were seeking the fundamental laws of nature, and writers of the period were motivated to seek out the laws and rules which underpinned the best literature of the ages.

Dryden wrote very appreciatively about both Chaucer and Shakespeare – in fact his translations of Chaucer helped revive interest in him – but at the same time he deprecated them for ignoring what he took to be fundamental rules about correct format and diction and style appropriate to each poetic genre.

Bringing order to the drama

In particular, when it came to plays, Dryden was among many authors of the period in thrall to the so-called Three Unities. Two thousand years earlier the Greek philosopher Aristotle had delivered a series of lectures analysing the tragic plays of his time and noting what the most successful of them had in common. The most successful Greek tragedies tended to focus on just one subject and not waste the audience’s attention on sub-plots and distractions. They tended to happen in one place rather than a confusing variety of locations. And they tended to be very focused in time, often taking place in just one day, sometimes, like Oedipus Rex, taking place in real time, with no jumps, gaps or ellipses.

These were the three unities which later generations converted from being a shrewd analysis of the particular cohort of plays Aristotle chose to analyse into grand universal laws which ought to be applied to all serious dramas.

All this is by way of explaining why Dryden chose to rewrite Shakespeare’s tragic drama Antony and Cleopatra in order as nearly as possible to comply with the three unities.

Unity of Time Shakespeare’s play covers an extravagant ten years of ancient history, from Fulvia’s death in 40 BC to the lover’s suicide after the Battle of Actium in 30 BC. By contrast Dryden’s play covers just the last few days leading up to the main characters’ double suicide.

Unity of Subject Shakespeare’s play is diffuse in the sense that, beside the central story, it also touches on the war against Sextus Pompeius, the character of Lepidus, vivid portraits of Octavius Caesar and his entourage. Antony and Cleopatra covers a larger timeframe and has more named characters than any other Shakespeare play, some 57. By deliberate contrast, Dryden focuses right down on just ten named characters.

Unity of Setting And whereas Shakespeare’s play makes huge leaps in location, from Alexandria to Rome to Greece to Sicily to Athens, Dryden’s sticks to a handful of buildings in the capital of ancient Egypt, Alexandria.

So a concerted focus on setting, subject and time. All depicted in neat, regular and easily understandable verse.

Synopsis

Act One

The Egyptian priest Serapion sets the scene by describing ominous portents and prodigies which are afflicting the country, such as the untimely flooding of the Nile.

Cleopatra’s eunuch and chief minister Alexas dismisses all these omens, tells Serapion to stop broadcasting them, and instead focuses on the army of Caesar which is camped within sight of Alexandria.

Alexas rues the day Cleopatra ever met Antony and so got Egypt dragged into Rome’s civil wars. Alexas gives us the backstory that, since his ignominious defeat at the naval Battle of Actium, Antony has been hiding in the temple of Isis ‘a prey to black despair’, and refusing to see Cleopatra.

Enter Ventidius, a Roman general who is an old friend and colleague of Antony’s (‘A braver Roman never drew a sword’). He is appalled to witness Antony wandering distracted and depressed and insists, over the objections of Antony’s assistants, in seeing the great man.

In their dialogue Antony expresses worldweariness unto death and Ventidius laments that a man who was once ‘the lord of half mankind’ has been reduced to such a pitiable state out of wretched submission to ‘one light, worthless woman’).

After having a good cry together, Ventidius gets to the point of his visit which is that he has brought 12 battle-hardened legions with him from Syria. They will fight for Antony – but only on condition that he abandons Cleopatra. They are not prepared to die for a flighty foreign queen.

Antony is inspired and agrees these terms.

Act Two

The focus switches to Cleopatra who laments the tragic downturn in her fortunes to her maids, Charmion and Iras. Charmian reports back from a visit to Antony where she tried to persuade him to come see Cleopatra but she refused. Cleopatra sends Alexas.

Cut to Antony in company with Ventidius when Alexas enters bearing flattering messages from Cleopatra and gifts of jewellery for his generals and a bracelet of rubies for Antony. Ventidius gives vitriolic comments on this activity, calling Alexas a ‘vile crocodile’.

When Alexas fumbles to fix this bracelet on Antony’s wrist, he slyly asks wouldn’t he prefer the sender to tie it on herself, and introduces Cleopatra who enters, for the lover’s first confrontation in the play. Ventidius is disgusted and warns Antony to keep his resolve and Antony starts well by delivering a long speech outlining how love for Cleopatra has reduced him and his career to ruins. In fact ‘ruin’ is a key word in this act.

But, inevitably, Antony, like an alcoholic offered a bottle of scotch, relapses. The crux comes when Cleopatra presents a letter from Octavius himself in which Caesar has offered her not only continued rule over Egypt but the kingdom of Syria as well, if she would only surrender Antony. Now, by proving that she refused to do so, Cleopatra wins Antony all over again, he falls into her arms and proclaims his undying love.

Ventidius is disgusted:

VENTIDIUS: ⁠O Women! Women! Women! all the gods
Have not such pow’r of doing good to Man,
As you of doing harm.

Nonetheless Antony orders Ventidius to unbar the gate facing towards Caesar’s army, as he is keen to lead his (Ventidius’s) legions into battle.

Act Three

Between acts 2 and 3 Antony has led an army out of Alexandria and defeated Caesar’s army, leaving five thousand dead. The act opens with he and Cleopatra celebrating and mutually praising each other. But after a certain amount of hailing each other as Venus and Mars, respectively, Cleopatra and her entourage exit, allowing Antony’s loyal general and conscience, Ventidius to enter.

He pours cold water on Antony’s good mood by pointing out that Caesar has the whole world and any number of allies and their armies to draw on while Antony has only the finite resources and manpower of Alexandria.

Antony laments that he has had only one true real friend and proceeds to describe the kind of friendship which consists of a complete unity of mind and spirit, which makes me wonder whether he had read Cicero’s Essay on Friendship. (Although the idea of super friendship had been recycled countless times during the Renaissance and was probably available to Dryden as a cliché both of humanistic discourse.)

Anyway, this One True Friend he has in mind is the young Dolabella and Ventidius now proceeds, to Antony’s great surprise…to invite this same Dolabella on stage!

Antony recovers from his shock, embraces his young friend, and there is some dialogue where Dolabella upbraids him for falling thrall to Cleopatra, while Antony reminds Dolabella how utterly enthralled the latter was when Cleopatra made her grand entrance at Cydnus, and explains it was jealousy lest his young soul mate fall equally for Cleopatra which led Antony to banish him from his side (!)

[This offers Drydren the opportunity to do a direct rewriting of the most famous speech from Shakespeare’s play, when Enobarbus describes Cleopatra’s magnificent arrival at Antony’s camp by boat. Below I give a detailed comparison of Shakespeare and Dryden’s styles using a much smaller excerpt.]

Dolabella has come from Caesar’s camp to offer terms. Antony asks who was man enough to stand up to mighty Caesar and plea for terms? Was it Dolabella? Was it Ventidius? No, they reply; someone nobler and stronger than either of them. Then pray produce this prodigy, Antony demands.

At which, with a magician’s flourish, and with rather cheesy dramaturgy, Dryden presents Antony’s forsaken wife Octavia and their three small children! All of them then proceed to gang up on Antony:

⁠DOLLABELLA: ⁠Friend!
OCTAVIA: ⁠Husband!
BOTH CHILDREN: ⁠Father!

– his best friend Dolabella, his loyalest general Ventidius, his noble wife and his three children all beg him to abandon the Egyptian queen and treat with Caesar, who has made a surprisingly generous offer:

OCTAVIA: I’ll tell my Brother we are reconcil’d;
He shall draw back his Troops, and you shall march
To rule the East: I may be dropt at Athens;
No matter where, I never will complain,

At which point Antony utterly capitulates, giving in, begging their forgiveness, weeping, saying Octavia can lead him wherever she wills.

It seems that Cleopatra has heard of this reconciliation because her representative, Alexas, hurriedly arrives and…is ironically dismissed as too late by Ventidius, before he too departs. Alexas has a moment alone onstage to lament that a) as a eunuch he has never known love and passion b) he advised Cleopatra to drop Antony, she refused, so now she’s the one being dropped.

Enter Cleopatra and her entourage. Alexas barely has time to tell her that Antony has defected to the enemy when Octavia herself enters and the stage is set for a set-piece dramatic confrontation between wife and mistress, between duty and passion, between married chastity and sexual indulgence. Cleopatra wins on the topic of beauty and ‘charms’ but Octavia triumphs with her virtue, calling her rival, in effect, a whore.

Obviously this is all a man’s creation, written for a highly patriarchal society, in which the male-created characters speak and argue in terms dictated by patriarchy. Yet Shakespeare was writing for an even more hierarchical society and his women soar.

In Octavia’s handful of scenes in Antony and Cleopatra she emerges as a well-defined character and in her brief scene with Antony in Rome there is real affection and gentleness on both sides. Here, in Dryden, this little set-piece feels like a contrived and highly schematic binary opposition of the kind you find in his political poems.

That said, after Octavia sweeps off the stage, Cleopatra staggers with affliction:

CLEOPATRA: My sight grows dim, and every object dances,
And swims before me, in the maze of death.
My spirits, while they were oppos’d, kept up;
They could not sink beneath a Rivals scorn:
But now she’s gone they faint.

Act Four

Act 4 takes an unexpected turn. Antony asks Dolabella to tell Cleopatra he is leaving and the scene is initially mildly comic because Antony makes to leave three times but each time comes back to give Dolabella just a few more points to say to Cleopatra. It’s a portrait of a man struggling to tear himself away.

But this one request turns out to be the focus of the entire act because Ventidius overhears this arrangement and turns, rather suddenly, into a kind of organising spirit. For he realises that Dolabella is himself still in love with Cleopatra. Now Ventidius fantasises about stepping into Antony’s shoes (‘What injury/To him to wear the Robe which he throws by?’)

Ventidius also overhears (suddenly there is lots of overhearing and eavesdropping – all very Restoration comedy and very unlike the plain dealing of the first three acts) Alexas suggesting to Cleopatra that she make Antony jealous by encouraging Dolabella’s love making, the idea being that Antony will hear about this and be prompted to come running back to her.

ALEXAS: Th’ event wil be, your Lover will return
Doubly desirous to possess the good
Which once he fear’d to lose.

To make it even more staged and contrived, Ventidius gets Octavia to accompany him in eavesdropping on this scene, namely Dolabella supposedly passing on Antony’s final farewell to the queen. At first both play up to their roles i.e. Cleopatra feigns upset at Antony leaving but then says she might accede to Dolabella’s passion and Dolabella, thus encouraged, admits that he’s always loved her from afar. Flirtation:

DOLABELLA: ⁠Some men are constant.
CLEOPATRA: ⁠And constancy deserves reward, that’s certain.

Ventidius and Octavia see and hear all this from the back of the stage (in a very stagey contrived kind of way). They see Dolabella pretend that Antony had been fierce and heartless in casting her off. But they are all surprised at the extent to which Cleopatra is distraught and collapses to the floor in a faint. This prompts Dolabella to regret his scheming and admit he was lying and to stagily beg forgiveness. Cleopatra joins in the mutual confessing, that admitting she was leading him on as a scheme. Now both succumb to guilt at their respective betrayals (of lover and friend).

But this doesn’t stop Ventidius and Octavia then returning to Antony and swearing they’ve seen Cleopatra and Dollabella holding hands and kissing. Ventidius even ropes in Alexas, who backs them up because, although he hadn’t witnessed the scene himself, this is what he recommended Cleopatra to do.

This all backfires for Ventidius. He hoped portraying them as lovers would finally extinguish any love for Cleopatra and set Antony free, but in the event Antony is so full of jealous anger at Cleopatra’s betrayal that it shocks and disgusts Octavia.

OCTAVIA: Tis not well,
Indeed, my Lord, ’tis much unkind to me,
To show this passion, this extreme concernment
For an abandon’d, faithless Prostitute.

Antony repeatedly tries to argue that Ventidius cannot be right, Cleopatra cannot have pledged love to Dolabella, that she still loves him and his obstinate determination to exculpate her infuriate Octavia. She thought they were completely reconciled at the end of Act 3 but now she sees how naive she has been. She realises Antony has but ‘half returned’ to her. And so she storms out for the final time, Ventidius, like any Restoration schemer, lamenting that Heaven has blasted his ‘best designs’.

The last element in the unfolding of this grand misunderstanding comes after Octavia has stormed out and Dolabella and Cleopatra enter only to be surprised at the ferocity of Antony’s accusations against them, calling them ‘false and faithless’ serpents.

They try to explain themselves but Antony refuses to believe them and Cleopatra in particular beats herself up that one minute’s feigning has now wrecked a lifetime of love. Antony orders them out of his sight, forever but even as he does so he weeps bitter tears. In other words, pity, fear and sympathy are wring to the maximum.

Act Five

Obviously the entire audience knows Antony and Cleopatra will die in this act so the only question is how Dryden handles the scenes, what speeches he gives them.

The act opens with Cleopatra grabbing a knife ready to kill herself and her maids Charmian and Iras struggling to stop her. With comic timing Alexas walks in and Cleopatra forgets suicide and turns her entire fury on him, the counsellor who suggested she play act being in love with Dolabella. Wretch! He has killed her!

Alexas reassures her that the plan half worked – Dolabella and Octavia both banished, Antony has returned to being a wounded animal and may, again, be wooed. He is right now up the tower of the Pharos watching the sea battle between the Egyptian and Roman fleets.

Right on cue, the high priest Serapion enters and announces that, far from attacking Caesar’s fleet, Cleopatra’s fleet sailed right up to it and…joined it! Everyone cheered and the Egyptians fell into line behind the Romans. Now they are entering the port and will soon be in the palace. Antony was beside himself with rage and tried to throw himself tom his death, was prevented, and is hurrying back into the city.

Serapion tells her to flee to her Monument and orders Alexas – the author of her recent banishment – to go and confront Antony and admit the pretending-to-be-in-love-with-Dolabella scheme was his idea. Cleo, Serapion and the others leave quivering Alexas to a soliloquy lamenting his fear.

Enter Antony and Ventidius who roundly insult the craven Egyptians then vow to rouse what men they can and launch an attack on the invaders and so meet their death like Romans.

They come across Alexas and Ventidius is prompted to kill him on the spot, but Antony thinks he’s too despicable to kill. He just wants to know where Cleopatra is. At which, Alexas tells them both the whopping lie that she has holed up in her Monument where, overcome with grief, she has stabbed herself to death.

Alexas’s motivation for this appears to be an extreme way of extenuating and justifying Cleopatra, faithful unto death, for he says her last words were of undying love for Antony. Antony is, of course, stricken with grief and guilt. Alexas thinks to himself his plan has worked, it has prompted Antony to realise how much he loves/loved Cleopatra. All he has to do now is say it was a false report and they will leap back into each others’ arms.

Ventidius expresses satisfaction that the bloody woman is dead and reminds Antony they promised to go out, all guns blazing. But Antony doesn’t care any more, is overcome with apathy and indifference: if Cleopatra is dead, then nothing matters any more.

ANTONY: What shou’d I fight for now? My Queen is dead.
I was but great for her; my Pow’r, my Empire,
Were but my Merchandise to buy her love;
And conquer’d Kings, my Factors. Now she’s dead,
Let Cæsar take the World,———
An Empty Circle, since the Jewel’s gone
Which made it worth my strife: my being’s nauseous;
For all the bribes of life are gone away.

There follows quite a long dialogue between Antony, who asks Ventidius to kill him and live to tell his story, and Ventidius who complains what it will look like if he lives on like a coward after his master has nobly quit the stage. But as Antony turns away his face in readiness for the death blow, Ventidius betrays him by stabbing himself.

Antony laments but praises his friend’s amity unto death; then falls on his own sword but messes it up, so he is badly wounded but not dead. He’s trying to kneel up to have another go when Charmian and Iras enter and Cleopatra!

In his agony, for a moment Antony thinks he has died and gone to heaven and his mistress is greeting him, but then realises he is still alive and Alexas lied to him.

Antony, rather trivially, double checks with Cleopatra that she is true and she never felt anything for Dolabella. Of course not! They place Antony, rather incongruously, in a chair and he delivers a stirring requiem:

ANTONY: ⁠But grieve not, while thou stay’st
My last disastrous times:
Think we have had a clear and glorious day;
And Heav’n did kindly to delay the storm
Just till our close of ev’ning. Ten years love,
And not a moment lost, but all improv’d
To th’ utmost joys: What Ages have we liv’d?
And now to die each others; and, so dying,
While hand in hand we walk in Groves below,
Whole Troops of Lovers Ghosts shall flock about us,
And all the Train be ours.

He gives Cleopatra a last kiss. [It’s notable how little actual sensual activity there is from this pair of lovers who are supposedly wallowing in the sink of sin. One kiss – that appears to be it.]

Despite the protests of her maids, Cleopatra resolves to die, motivated not least by a refusal to be led in triumph through the streets of Rome to be gawped at by the plebs. She bids the maids go fetch her finest clothes and jewellery and ‘the aspicks’.

They return, dress Cleopatra in her finery, who sits in the chair next to Antony’s, and addresses a speech to the snakes which are going to deliver her from a cruel world. Offstage they hear Serapion declaring Caesar is approaching so she hurries, forcing the snake to bite her on the arm. As Serapion beats on the locked doors the two handmaids apply the snake to themselves, too and slowly drowse down, laying on the body of their queen as Serapion’s men burst open the door and run up to them.

SERAPION: ⁠Charmion, is this well done?
CHARMION: ⁠Yes, ’tis well done, and like a Queen, the last
Of her great Race.

Serapion delivers a eulogy to the dead lovers and now we realise the point of the business with the chairs, the apparently incongruous notion of propping the dying Antony up on a chair. The intention was that the two dead lovers present a striking tableau, at the play’s very ending, of sitting on royal thrones:

SERAPION: See, see how the Lovers sit in State together,
As they were giving Laws to half Mankind.
Th’ impression of a Smile left in her face,
Shows she dy’d pleas’d with him for whom she liv’d,
And went to charm him in another World.
Cæsar’s just entring; grief has now no leisure.
Secure that Villain, as our pledge of safety
To grace th’ Imperial Triumph. Sleep, blest Pair,
Secure from humane chance, long Ages out,
While all the Storms of Fate fly o’er your Tomb;
⁠And Fame, to late Posterity, shall tell,
⁠No Lovers liv’d so great, or dy’d so well.

Several thoughts:

1. Shakespeare had ended his play with a scene of Cleopatra’s death which is so intense as to be uncanny, spectral, supernaturally intense. Dryden clearly had to end his play with a bang and you can imagine him casting around for a suitable final setup/scene/page and lines. This closing spectacle of the two dead lovers propped up on thrones makes a striking – and strikingly different from Shakespeare – final tableau.

2. But it is also subject to a very negative interpretation. They may be sitting there like emperors giving laws to half mankind, but they are in fact corpses, dead, powerless, defunct. they are a mockery of living power, a travesty of real authority. The real thing – Caesar – is at the door. And although he (tactfully on Dryden’s part) never makes an appearance in the play, his presence – and the awe due to real power – is present throughout and, in a sense, drives the entire plot.

3. Thus Dryden presents actors, directors and audiences with a very ambiguous tableau at the play’s end. It might be possible to take Serapion’s words at face value. But the more I mull it over the more the sight of two dead losers propped up on outsize thrones by their sycophants should probably be made to look macabre, outlandish, like the gruesome finale of a Hammer horror movie.

General thoughts

All For Love is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s an easy read. This is due to its greatest strength which is also its weakness, which is its tremendous clarity. Everything is clearly explained in calm and lucid iambic pentameters. The rhythm of the verse is as regular as the German train network. Everything arrives on time and in correct order. All the characters explain how they feel or what they are going to do with admirable candour and clarity. There is very little metaphor or simile and certainly nothing obscure or difficult, nothing to disturb the flow of high-toned sentiments. Even when the characters claim to be in a transport of passion, they still manage to explain it in clear and lucid language expressed with regular rhythm:

CLEOPATRA: … My Love’s a noble madness,
Which shows the cause deserv’d it. Moderate sorrow
Fits vulgar Love; and for a vulgar Man:
But I have lov’d with such transcendent passion,
I soar’d, at first, quite out of Reasons view,
And now am lost above it…

Even when it sounds poetic, the language, on closer examination, always turns out to be clear and rational:

VENTIDIUS: I tell thee, Eunuch, that she has unmann’d him:
Can any Roman see, and know him now,
Thus alter’d from the Lord of half Mankind,
Unbent, unsinew’d, made a Womans Toy,
Shrunk from the vast extent of all his honours,
And crampt within a corner of the World?

There are lots of places in Shakespeare which are puzzling to scholars and readers alike, lots of places where the thought is compressed into clever wordplay so convoluted or uses words referring to things or practices which are now so lost or obscure to us, that even the experts aren’t clear what he was trying to say. Nothing like that ever happens in Dryden. There is a steady trickle of metaphor and simile but nothing obscure, nothing puzzling, no sudden imaginative leaps to take your breath away. He has followed Cleopatra’s injunction to:

CLEOPATRA: ⁠Be more plain.

Mermaid’s inadequate notes

The notes to the 1975 Mermaid paperback edition I read, written by the editor N.J. Andrew, are disappointing. There aren’t many of them and what there are are mostly concerned with pointing out textual variations in the early printed editions, described in the clipped abbreviations of editorial scholasticism i.e. the dullest kind of notes possible for a classic text.

There is, admittedly, a second type of note, which is where he quotes passages from Shakespeare to indicate where Dryden copied or imitated the Bard. This also is pretty boring and he need only have given the reference not take up half the page quoting the entire passage. Editions of Shakespeare are easy to access.

What the reader very much does want is notes explaining the characters’ motivations, any obscurities, explaining some of the incidents referred to in the text which took place before the play started, or other people referred to in the text who don’t appear, and so on.

But there are almost no notes like that. Better than the tedious textual notes might have been references to the lives of Plautus or other ancient sources Dryden used. But again, nada. The Mermaid paperback is clearly printed and nice to hold in the hand but there must be editions with fuller, more useful notes.

A comparison

One of the places where Andrew highlights the comparison with Shakespeare is particularly famous and instructive. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra Act 2 scene 2 line 239 onwards, Enobarbus is drunkenly praising Cleopatra’s amazing charisma to a table of Roman diners:

ENOBARBUS: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies

The first line is clear enough but the ‘cloy the appetites they feed’ bit requires a moment to process, as does its repetition in the next phrase. I think the idea is that male sexuality is usually quenched and dowsed after sex with a woman, sometimes leading to boredom or even repulsion. I had to look up the dictionary definition of ‘cloy’ to find that it is: ‘disgust or sicken (someone) with an excess of sweetness, richness, or sentiment.’ So I think the passage is based on the idea that women attract men who, however, often grow sick of them, particularly after their initial sexual appetite is satisfied. BUT that Cleopatra is not only different, but has the opposite effect, that the more men are with her and have sex with her, the more wild they are driven by love and lust.

Now I’m not very interested in this idea, as an idea, just the way it’s so densely expressed. Maybe I’m being dim, but I did have to look up the word and read the passage half a dozen times to be sure I understood it. So that’s what I mean by describing Shakespeare’s later style as dense and compact.

Compare that with a passage which seems pretty obviously derived from it in All For Love. Dryden has Antony tell Cleopatra to her face:

ANTONY: There’s no satiety of Love in thee;
Enjoy’d, thou still art new; perpetual Spring
Is in thy armes; the ripen’d fruit but falls
And blossoms rise to fill its empty place;
And I grow rich by giving.

It’s less impactful in at least three ways:

1. It’s more clearly expressed: ‘Enjoyed [i.e. after sex] thou still art new’ and the even clearer ‘Perpetual spring is in thy arms’.

2. For sure, there’s a metaphor about ripened fruit falling but being continually replaced with new blossoms (which promise evermore fruit), the implication being that her sexual allure is always new, and never falls into that surfeit or male repulsion which Shakespeare refers to. But the thing about both these metaphors (perpetual spring, ripened fruit) is how easy they are to understand. They’re more sensual and easy to process and so, also, more…well, relaxing. Contrast with the Shakespeare phrase that Cleopatra makes hungry where most she satisfies. This feels much more primeval; he is describing basic physical appetites, physical hunger, physical satisfaction after sex. At the same time, though, although these words describe basic physical processes they are, in a sense, also quite abstract, hunger being a very abstract word, like anger or love. So the Shakespeare passage manages to feel both more intellectual and more basic, at the same time! This maybe explains why, as a description, it feels a lot more intense, intensely physical yet intensely psychological, and all these factors help explain why it feels more dramatic.

3. And this brings me to my final point, which is the speech’s dramatic placement or context: by this I simply mean that having Enobarbus give his vivid description gives it all kinds of dramatic and psychological reverberations; because Enobarbus is a chorus to Antony’s actions who both approves and disapproves of his master’s infatuation, and so is ambivalent about the figure of Cleopatra. The opening lines sound like extravagant praise but Enobarbus goes on to be scathing about Cleopatra in the very next phrase, so it is an ambivalent, complex speech.

Moreover, it is a description of her in her absence given to a dinner party table of Romans who have never seen her so are all agog at Enobarbus’s account, which, of course, allows the old soldier, a bit drunk, to crank up his description, to exaggerate. In doing so he is bigging up himself as the top eye-witness to all Antony and Cleopatra’s affairs. The grandeur of the description reflects well on its teller.

4. And, lastly, and pretty obviously, Cleopatra is not there, so this is a conjuration from empty air, it is a word painting, it is a tone poem, it is Enobarbus showing off his way with words at the same time that Shakespeare is showing off his ability to conjure magnificence on a bare wooden stage. Quite apart from the subject matter, the speech conjures the pure magic of poetry on the stage, like Prospero with his staff.

Returning to the Dryden passage we find it lacks all of these complex multi-layered effects. In Dryden the speech is just part of Antony telling Cleopatra how wonderful she is. Obviously there’s some context in the specific context in the play i.e. it reflects Antony’s over-confidence in the military victory he’s just won, and the fact that he’s been swung round from deep depression into a renewed will to live, conquer and be in love; so, arguably, it reflects his manic mood and this explains why it is hyperbolic overstatement. But still…it almost completely lacks the complex psychological and dramatic multidimensionality of the Shakespeare version.

Hopefully, just this one comparison demonstrates how the Dryden is easier to process and enjoy, has merits of its own, but almost completely lacks the verbal, psychological and dramatic complexity which Shakespeare achieves.

‘Ruin’

Key words and symbols are often buried in Shakespeare and take rereading or rewatching to bring them out. Not least because his language is so packed with metaphors, imagery and word play it can be like spotting a needle in a haystack. By contrast, as in so many other things, keywords in Dryden are much easier to spot and process because his language is so much plainer and clearer, so repetitions stand out like a church spire in a landscape.

Thus it wasn’t difficult to notice the word ‘ruin’ recurring again and again. Not a very subtle choice of word or image or metaphor, on the contrary, a very rational choice for a drama about two people who ruin themselves, each other, their causes and countries. But it is repeated so many times it is clearly an attempt to create the same kind of verbal threading and echo that Shakespeare does so effortlessly.

ALEXAS: And Dolabella, who was once his Friend,
Upon some private grudge, now seeks his ruine

ALEXAS: She dotes, Serapion, on this vanquish’d Man,
And winds her self about his mighty ruins

VENTIDIUS: O, she has deck’d his ruin with her love,
Led him in golden bands to gaudy slaughter,
And made perdition pleasing…

VENTIDIUS: ⁠So, now the Tempest tears him up by th’ Roots,
And on the ground extends the noble Ruin.

ANTONY: I was so great, so happy, so belov’d,
Fate could not ruine me; till I took pains
And work’d against my Fortune,

ANTONY: ⁠That I derive my ruin
From you alone—
⁠CLEOPATRA: ⁠O Heav’ns! I ruin you!

ANTONY: ⁠All this you caus’d.
And would you multiply more ruins on me?

CLEOPATRA: …’twill please my Lord
To ruine me, and therefore I’ll be guilty.

VENTIDIUS: ⁠O Syren! Syren!
Yet grant that all the love she boasts were true,
Has she not ruin’d you?

ANTONY: This, this is she who drags me down to ruin!

VENTIDIUS: Justice and Pity both plead for Octavia;
For Cleopatra, neither.
One would be ruin’d with you; but she first
Had ruin’d you: the other, you have ruin’d,

OCTAVIA [going up to Cleopatra]: ⁠I would view nearer
That face, which has so long usurp’d my right,
To find th’ inevitable charms, that catch
Mankind so sure, that ruin’d my dear Lord.

And so on. No great perspicacity required to spot the keyword or to understand how Dryden intends it as the central theme of his play. For though Dryden gives the lovers the best love and passion poetry he can conceive, the long introductory essay to his play makes it crystal clear that he takes a strong moral line and thinks they were wrong and immoral. That their neglect of their duties – to their families, their friends, their armies and their countries – mean that their wretched fate was entirely deserved and fitting.

In Dryden’s view, we are not meant to admire history’s most famous lovers, but to condemn them.


Related links

Poetry

History

Restoration art

Restoration drama

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599)

Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, was first produced, in all probability, in 1599. The plot is based entirely on three of Plutarch’s biographies of eminent Romans, which Shakespeare found in Sir Thomas North’s translations into English of The Lives of the Most Noble Greeks and Romans, first published in 1579. The three lives he drew from are those of:

As you can see, whereas the assassination only takes up the last tenth of Caesar’s life, and the period from the assassination to the Battle of Philippi only takes up ten of Antony’s 87 chapters, the assassination and aftermath constitute almost all of Plutarch’s life of Brutus which may, at a very basic level, explain why Brutus emerges as the hero’ of Shakespeare’s play.

Brief synopsis

The figure the play is named after, Julius Caesar, actually dies half way through the play. The first half of the play depicts the conspiracy leading up to his assassination, the second half depicts the main consequences.

The play opens with Rome preparing for Caesar’s triumphal entrance accompanied by his best friend and deputy, Mark Antony. Brutus is a noble upstanding ally and friend of Caesar, but he fears that Caesar will become king and so overthrow the republic which he loves. Cassius is depicted as a wily and slippery friend-cum-tempter who convinces Brutus to join a conspiracy to murder Caesar. As Cassius says to himself (and the audience) after Brutus has left him.

CASSIUS: Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed…

The night before the planned assassination is wild and stormy, with various characters observing or hearing of ominous portents and signs. The conspirators turn up at Brutus’s house and they finalise their plans. When they’ve left Brutus’s wife reveals her extreme anxiety that something terrible is about to happen. Brutus hasn’t told her about the planned assassination and does his best to calm her nerves.

On the day of the assassination, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia describes an ominous dream she had of his dead body spurting blood and begs him to stay at home, but one of the conspirators, Decius Brutus, smoothly reinterprets her dream in a positive light and persuades Caesar to go to the senate as planned.

In the Senate building the conspirators crowd round Caesar before stabbing him to death. A very nervous Antony enters and reveals himself as two-faced: to the conspirators he gingerly says he respects their motives though is understandably upset, and they are satisfied with that. But when they’ve left him alone he reveals he is outraged and distraught at the behaviour of these ‘butchers’ and vows revenge.

Cut to the Roman forum where Brutus makes a speech defending the assassins’ actions before handing over, as the assassins had agreed, to Antony, who had promised to make a moderate and sensible eulogy to the dead man and appeal for calm. Instead he uses the opportunity to inflame the mob into hysterical rage and sends them rampaging through the streets to find and kill the assassins.

Act 4 cuts to 18 months later and finds a slightly tipsy Antony at table with a new character, Octavian who, we learn, was named in Caesar’s will as his main heir and has used the time since to amass a private army and become a player in Rome’s power politics. Now Octavian is cutting a deal with Antony and a third character, Lepidus. They treat Lepidus with contempt, dismissing him from the table with the result that the actor playing Lepidus has just 4 lines. With him gone the other two settle down to signing a compact. They seal it by agreeing a list of political opponents who will be ‘proscribed’ or murdered. The first line of the scene indicates the new atmosphere of brutality.

ANTONY: These many, then, shall die; their names are pricked.

I don’t think any character says it explicitly, but one of Caesar’s distinguishing features, politically and strategically, was going out of his way to ‘forgive’ his opponents. Well, look what that led to: the biggest opponent he forgave and took into his entourage, Brutus, murdered him. So, lesson learned, Octavian and Antony will show no mercy or forgiveness. Opponents will be ruthlessly exterminated.

The second part of Act 4 skips nearly a year ahead, to October 43 and finds the two assassins, Brutus and Cassius, camped with their armies near the town of Philippi in Greece, opposed by the armies of Antony and Octavius, on the night before the fateful battle between the two forces.

Brutus and Cassius have a prolonged and acrimonious quarrel before patching things up. Left alone in his tent with only a serving boy who soon nods off, Brutus sees a ghost who warns ominously about the upcoming battle.

Act 5 is entirely devoted to a succession of quickfire scenes depicting the Battle of Philippi. The two key moments are when Cassius, misled by false reports that his army has lost, persuades a slave to kill him. And then, only moments later, after Brutus’s army really is defeated, Brutus, also, begs a comrade to help him commit suicide.

Moments later, Octavian and Antony enter, stand over the dead bodies and Antony praises Brutus as ‘the noblest Roman of them all’.

Shaping and forming

As usual Shakespeare takes his source material and a) shapes it into a five-act play with a beginning, middle and end and b) presents all the 15 or so speaking parts in such a way as to give them each character and individuality, no matter how brief their appearance.

This is especially true of the leading four roles, Caesar, Cassius, Antony, and above all Brutus. Though the play bears someone else’s name, Brutus is the lead protagonist. As T.S. Dorsch puts it in his introduction to the 1955 Arden edition of the play, ‘Caesar is the titular hero, Brutus is the dramatic hero’ (Introduction page xxvii). (And yet see below for the way this initial impression – Brutus as the ‘hero’ – must then be tempered and adjusted by recognition of the centrality of Caesar’s spirit.)

Moral dilemmas

Caesar was written a little earlier than Hamlet (composed sometime between 1599 and 1601) and they share something in common: Brutus, a fundamentally decent man, must nerve himself to commit an unprovoked murder in the name of the greater good; Hamlet, a fundamentally good man, must nerve himself to commit the coldblooded murder of his uncle, who he suspects of murdering his (Hamlet’s) father.

They even at one point share the same key word, ‘question’, placed with emphasis at the end of a key sentence; for Hamlet it is the question of whether to soldier on or commit suicide and thus escape a sea of troubles:

HAMLET: To be or not to be, that is the question.

For Brutus it is the more characteristically practical question of whether Caesar, once crowned king, will become a dictator:

BRUTUS: He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

Both, then, must balance two conflicting moral imperatives, in Brutus’s case the ban on killing weighed against the greater good of the state, in Hamlet’s the ban on killing weighed against the call of justified revenge. No surprise, then, that both characters give vent to their dilemma in a series of to-the-audience soliloquies, indicators of psychological depth vouchsafed to none of the other characters. Hamlet and Brutus alone are inside the secret chamber of the drama, confronting this central moral dilemma, while all the other characters are in a sense on the outside of the psychological drama, mere players, contributors.

Speed

Julius Caesar is a play in a hurry – there is a lot to cram in. This sense of haste or the shoehorning of material comes over in numerous places and makes it, for me, an unsatisfactory play.

Acts 1, 2 and 3 hang together well enough, telling a continuous narrative of the growth and development of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, with atmospheric meetings of the conspirators and the midnight fears of Brutus’s wife, Portia, thrown in to jack up the sense of anxiety and danger.

(Though even here there is much compression: the opening scene which depicts Caesar’s triumphing after defeating Pompey’s son conflates it with the feast of the Lupercalia where Antony thrice offered Caesar the crown and he rejected it, in reality two events which were months apart, October 45 and February 44 respectively.)

Shakespeare moves his narrative at high speed up to the assassination itself (on 15 March 44 BC), accurately based on his sources (Caesar falling at the feet of the statue of Pompey), before moving quickly on to the immediate aftermath, namely the big central scene where first Brutus then Mark Antony speak to the rowdy crowd in the Roman Forum (again skipping over the real events which played out over several days of intense confusion in Rome and telescoping them all into the same few hours).

But then there is a huge leap or break in continuity, for Act 4 skips forward 18 months to show Antony meeting with Octavian to form a pact, the so-called Second Triumvirate (along with the non-descript Lepidus who is assigned a mere 4 lines). To be precise, the play goes straight into a scene with the three men seated round a table deciding which of their political enemies they will ‘proscribe’ i.e. mark for elimination, liquidation, murder.

The point being that this meeting took place in northern Italy in October 43, 18 months after Caesar’s assassination and an enormous amount had happened in that time: After negotiating an uneasy peace with Antony, the assassins decided to flee Rome, heading out East where the senate, in the coming months, ratified their control of the provinces of Asia, where they proceeded to raise armies loyal to them.

Meanwhile, Octavius had arrived in Rome: he raised legions on the strength of his name, he encouraged Cicero to denounce Antony in a series of speeches in and outside the senate leading up to Antony being declared an enemy of the state; he led his army into several pitched battles with Antony’s forces; then both men realised they had more in common than divided them, not least opposition to the assassins or ‘liberators’ as they called themselves, led by Brutus and Cassius. All this goes unexplained when the narrative instead leaps to the scene depicted at the start of Act IV, where Octavius and Antony are shown cobbling together an alliance along with the third leader of a significant army in Italy, Lepidus.

And then, in the very next scene, the play makes another great leap, 11 months further down the line, to the immediate build-up to the Battle of Philippi, when the armies of the assassins and the Caesarians finally come face to face, which was fought in October 42 BC.

Now, making great leaps through events was standard procedure for Shakespeare, witness the history plays which play tremendously fast and loose with chronology. The aim was to skip all the boring details and alight on the key psychological moments. His plays are not factual but psychological histories, picking and choosing the moments he needs to create what are, in effect, character studies of people from history in extreme circumstances.

Thus the complex historical realities of Cassius and Brutus are reshaped to provide a series of scenes which dwell mostly on the psychological dynamic between them, turning history into psychodrama and, the slow complex course of events into a tremendously compressed narrative which moves with the speed of a hurtling train.

Brevity

It turns out there’s a website that analyses Shakespeare stats, and this confirms with statistics the impression you get either watching or reading the play that it is compressed and fast: this tells us that, at 2,451 total lines Julius Caesar is shorter than the average Shakespeare play (average play: 2,768, average tragedy: 2,936). That specific acts are the shortest of their kind: Act Four: 409 lines, much shorter than average (average play: 560, average tragedy: 547); Act Five at 353 lines, the shortest of all tragedies; much shorter than average (average play: 484, average tragedy: 478). And it has 17 scenes which is also less than average (average play: 21; average tragedy: 24). So a lot of action is compressed into fewer lines and scenes than his average play. While, by contrast, the sense of hectic activity is also the result of it having an above average number of characters, 49 characters compared to the average play: 36; average tragedy: 39.

More characters depicting more events, including a highly compressed time-scheme, in a much shorter than average space = hence the sense of hurtling pace.

The snapshot battle scenes

The snapshot approach is vividly epitomised in the final scenes of the play. These are all set during the confused battle of Philippi and play very fast and loose with the historical facts, not least the fact that there was not one but two quite distinct battles of Philippi, fought on 3 and 23 October, whereas Shakespeare makes it all happen on one day – in theatrical time, all in about ten hectic minutes.

None of this matters, it gets in the way of what Shakespeare wants to do which is to provide a neatly rounded end to his drama. All tragedies end in death and so does this one – not the death of the eponymous dictator which, as we’ve seen, comes half way through the action, but the deaths of the two leading conspirators and best buddies, Cassius and Brutus, Cassius falsely believing the battle is lost and so honourably killing himself (well, begging his colleagues and servants to hold his sword while he plunges onto it); then, just a few minutes later, Brutus correctly being informed that the battle is lost and doing exactly the same. Both are given pathetic (in the original sense of the word, meaning designed-to-evoke-tears-of-emotion) speeches, and then proceed to their stabby ends.

I can see what Shakespeare’s aiming to do, to shape messy history into another smoothly delivered morality lesson with the same overall shape as all his other historical morality lessons, leading up to the well-known and heart-rending deaths scenes for both the assassins. But, in my opinion, they don’t really come off and this leaves an enduring impression that the play is unsatisfactory, half-cocked or somehow unfinished.

Part of the problem is the bittiness of the battle scenes. Designed to convey the chaos and peril of battle, they consist of a series of very short scenes, sometimes only half a dozen lines, with one set of soldiers running on, shouting a few lines at each other, then running off only to be immediately replaced with a new set of soldiers running on from the other side of the stage and depicting key moments from other locations on the battlefield. Shakespeare does it in Henry IV and Henry V and probably all the other history plays.

On Shakespeare’s static stage, with huge allowance made for the conventions of the time, this works. But it has proved very difficult for directors in more realistic times, in the Victorian era, let along the post-war period of super-realistic drama, to depict what Shakespeare asks the actors to do without it seeming artificial and contrived and, sometimes, a bit absurd.

The double suicide risks absurdity

This sense of absurdity is, unfortunately, reinforced by the doubling up of the suicide scenes. If it had been just Brutus who realised the battle was lost, delivered a stirring speech about the nobility of his aim to rid Rome of tyranny, then fell on his sword with dignity, it would be one thing; but the effect of Brutus’s speech and death are – for me at any rate – seriously undermined by the fact that Cassius has done the exact same thing 3 minutes earlier.

Not only that, but Cassius’s death is not the result of noble resolve and high-mindedness, it is caused by a really stupid mistake. He sends a messenger back to their base to check whether it has been overrun by the enemy (Antony and Octavius’s army) and, if not, to signal back to them that all is fine. He then sends a colleague up a nearby hill to watch the messenger’s progress. The man up the hill proceeds to completely misinterpret events, because he shouts back down to Cassius that their messenger has been captured. They both hear a big roar from soldiers which the lookout interprets as the enemy cheering at having captured Cassius’s spy. And so Cassius concludes that all is lost and begs colleagues to help him commit suicide.

Except that only minutes after he has collapsed to the floor and bled to death, another messenger comes running in to announce that everything is OK, that the messenger got through to the camp, and it has been successfully held against the enemy, and the cheer they heard was not from the victorious enemy but from his own men cheering to hear he is still alive. Except that now he isn’t. He is dead on the ground and the too-late messenger is given a sad and tear-jerking speech over his dead body before himself stabbing himself and falling on Cassius’s body.

At which point another group of Cassius’s soldiers enter, hoping to find their gallant leader and instead discovering two bloody corpses.

This is… this is hard to take seriously. It is what Plutarch reports as actually happening but in historical accounts is given much more context and explanation and so emerges as a noble and tragic act. It is hard to take seriously a man who kills himself out of high-minded motives which are really just all a stupid mistake.

And then more or less the same thing happens to Brutus – although without the stupid mistake. He at least, at a later stage of the day, has drawn the correct conclusion that the battle is lost . But, in my opinion, the power of his suicide is seriously drained of dignity and meaning by the silly suicide of Cassius only moments before. To persuade us of all that happening in just 2 or 3 minutes of stage time is a big ask and, in the BBC production I’ve just watched, fails.

The standard end-speech

Then the play ends with the stock-in-trade, bog standard arrival of the victors who behold the bodies of their noble antagonists and order that their bodies be given full and proper funerals. Compare and contrast Fortinbras arriving at the end of Hamlet to encounter a stage littered with dead bodies.

In Hamlet this has a pathetic effect in the original sense of the word, depicting a man who has no idea of the complex psychodrama which has played out in the court of Denmark, but instinctively recognises nobility. It has a complex flavour because it is, at the same time, a conventional king’s conventional, conservative response to a situation which is wildly unconventional and strange. We have been witnesses of the extremely complicated psychodrama of which the conventional Fortinbras only sees the outward or external results, and responds in a standard, conventional way.

Whereas Antony and Octavius entering at the end of Julius Caesar, expressing a few stock sentiments about what noble men Cassius and Brutus were and ordering they be given proper state funerals…doesn’t have the same effect. It feels thin and inadequate to me. Shakespeare tries. He saves up some of the best poetry in the play for Antony’s brief eulogy:

ANTONY: This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

Excellent words, an eloquent summary of the life and motives of the Great and Noble Brutus who is the real subject of this play and yet…they don’t quite compensate for the structural weaknesses of much that came before.

It was a popular play in Shakespeare’s time because audiences couldn’t get enough of kings and princes getting their brutal come-uppance, and so they loved the pathetic suicide speeches of Cassius and Brutus. To my modern sensibility these scenes felt rushed and contrived and so ended the play on a false note.

Famous bits

As so often with Shakespeare the most impactful thing is not necessarily the overall narrative, compressed and hurried as it is – it comes in the numerous moments of deep psychological penetration which litter the drama.

Antony’s Forum speech

The most famous of these is the long scene 2 in Act 3, where Brutus (foolishly, fatally) invites Mark Antony to make a funeral oration to the Roman crowd over the body of the assassinated Caesar. It opens with famously quotable phrases:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.

It is a highly enjoyable scene because it is a sustained performance of psychological manipulation. Again and again Antony swears to the crowd that he is not there to inflame them with anger against the assassins, who he repeatedly calls ‘honourable men’, at every mention the phrase sounding increasingly ironic and, eventually, contemptuous – while all the time in fact doing his level best to do just that, to inflame them into a wild mob rage against the assassins so that, by the end, the crowd are ready to rush off and burn down the houses of all the assassins. It is a tour de force of sophisticated rhetoric and mob manipulation, all masquerading as modesty and plain speaking:

I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend…
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on…

As T.S. Dorsch rather grandly puts it: ‘If ever Shakespeare wanted to show genius at work, surely it was in Antony’s oration’ (Arden introduction p.lii) and many, many commentators have analysed the speech at length, highlighting its rhetorical techniques. One reason for its effectiveness is its sheer length, it goes on and on, as Antony pauses for breath, retires for emotion, quells the crowd and draws one more rabbit out of his hat (the reading of Caesar’s will).

But another reason, I think, is its sheer exuberance: it is a bravura performance by a man at the top of his game, of a canny chancer and opportunist responding magnificently to the fact that his patron and protector has been cruelly murdered and his entire world turned upside down. The 1970 movie of the play sinks under the weight of an astonishingly bad performance of Brutus by Jason Robards, but is illuminating in lots of other ways, not least in the way it shows Antony, played with a swaggering sneer by Charlton Heston, having whipped the mob into a frenzy and sent them off to burn the conspirators’ houses down, collapsing exhausted against a nearby cart of wine barrels, hacking one open, drinking deep of the booze, and declaring:

ANTONY: Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!

His invocation of chaos allies him with Iago and other instigators of anarchy. He doesn’t care what happens, because he’s supremely, sublimely confident that come what may, he will ride the storm and easily get the better of poor saps like Brutus and Cassius. As he does…for a while….

Caesar’s dignity

We only get a flavour of Caesar’s character in three scenes: in the opening one where he is processing regally through the crowd, conferring with colleagues; in the long scene where his wife tries to dissuade him from going to the senate that morning, the ides of March, but Caesar allows himself to be persuaded to attend by the flattery and insinuation of one of the conspirators, Decimus Brutus; and then, maybe, in the dignity of his bearing while the assassins close in with their importunate demands for the return from exile of Metellus Cimber’s brother, before they reveal their daggers and their true intentions.

In the complex opening scene, where many themes and characters are first revealed, Caesar utters the famous lines hinting at his suspicions of Cassius and Brutus:

CAESAR: Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
ANTONY: Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous;
He is a noble Roman, and well given.
CAESAR: Would he were fatter!

Ominousness

The play overflows with bad omens. It is interesting to consider that Shakespeare and his audience in the 1590s appear to have been every bit as irrationally superstitious as Plutarch and his readers in about 100 AD. In between there had been one and a half millennia of dark and middle ages, and then the Renaissance, all of which continued to take seriously signs and omens and superstitions and auguries and harbingers and portents and premonitions.

CASCA: Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glared upon me, and went surly by,
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For, I believe, they are portentous things

Hence the extensive scenes set during the dark and stormy night before the assassination in which all the characters describe nature in turmoil and retail rumours of the dead rising from their graves, great fires across the sky, and so on. The play is drenched with these irrational superstitions, with strange sightings on the dark and stormy night before the assassination, so much so that even the man himself has, or so Cassius alleges, caught the infection:

CASSIUS: But it is doubtful yet,
Whether Caesar will come forth to-day, or no;
For he is superstitious grown of late,
Quite from the main opinion he held once
Of fantasy, of dreams and ceremonies:
It may be, these apparent prodigies,
The unaccustom’d terror of this night,
And the persuasion of his augurers,
May hold him from the Capitol to-day.

On the morning of the fateful day Calpurnia repeats and reinforces the theme, claiming that all manner of strange sights have been seen across Rome:

CALPURNIA: There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

But in fact, as the Calpurnia scene shows, this is another of Cassius’s slurs on Caesar, dictated by his own festering resentment, for in that scene Caesar is very deliberately placed in antithesis to Calpurnia’s fears and alarms, instead displaying a rational and fearless contempt for superstition and hearsay.

The night before murder

One of the most beautiful scenes in literature has to be the young king in Henry V on the night before the battle of Agincourt, disguising himself and going among his soldiers to discover their mood. Night time prompts a special sensitivity in Shakespeare. Compare with the beautiful and sensitive dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo in Act 5 scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice.

Here, the night before the planned assassination provides the setting for a number of characters to reveal their worries and fears. It is, of course, a violent stormy night, full of thunder and lightning and so part of the atmosphere of portents and premonitions which anticipate the assassination, and then return at the end of the play to anticipate the deaths of the two leading protagonists.

The night before is always a powerful, revealing moment in a Shakespeare tragedy. Think of the night when Macbeth and his wife are terrified to admit even to themselves their feverish plans to murder the lawful king.

Here, after some scenes involving Cicero, Casca and so on, the drama really zeroes in on the troubled minds of Brutus and his wife. The extent to which we are taken into his private life indicates his centrality as a protagonist. As always, Shakespeare reveals a sensitivity to women characters which seems centuries ahead of his time. Both here and in the scene the next morning when Calpurnia begs her husband not to attend the senate, these wives are depicted with great psychological acuity. The audience is entirely persuaded to sympathise with them and see their points of view.

The night before battle

I should have referred to Henry V in this section, because it is more appropriate. The long Act 4 scene 2 set in Brutus’s tent where he and his best buddy Cassius have a prolonged falling out, ends with Cassius leaving Brutus in the company of his young servant, Lucius, who Brutus asks to fetch a lamp and then settles down to read while Lucius gently plays a harp. As so often in Shakespeare there is a sweetness and delicacy to the scene and Brutus’s concern for the tired boy which reaches out beyond the ostensible subject matter, and his own time and place, and seems to kiss something deep and essential in human nature, a depthless kindness and generosity.

It is all the more effective, then, having conjured this gentle atmosphere, when it is broken by the sudden apparition of Caesar’s ghost to Brutus. As I mentioned at the start, this play was written while Shakespeare was working on the much longer, much more complex Hamlet which also, of course, features an ambiguous ghost. Brutus’s ghost never tells his name, all it says, when Brutus asks its identity, is that he is ‘Thy evil spirit, Brutus’. But any uncertainty is cleared up right at the end when Brutus tells his comrade, Volumnius:

The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:

Explaining that this is why he knows his hour has come.

Revenge

Chances are it is because this allows the play to fit neatly into the format of the revenge tragedy. The argument goes that, rather than disappearing at his death, the titular figure goes underground but remains a presence, disturbing the minds of men, and especially the guilty men who murdered him, as all good ghosts in revenge tragedies are supposed to.

The long argument between Brutus and Cassius which makes up Act 4 scene 2 changes from being a rather pointless bicker to showing the subtle, lingering effects of their crime driving two former friends apart – at one point Brutus bitterly reproaches Cassius for what he’s done, what they’ve done, not unlike the mutual reproaches of the guilt-ridden Macbeth and his wife.

And then in the ghost scene the subterranean presence of the dead man becomes explicit – the haunting of their minds goes from metaphorical to literal.

On this reading, the final scenes do not depict an absurdist comedy of misunderstandings but depict the fitting closure of the revenge theme, as both Cassius and Brutus in their different ways can only find peace through terminating their troubled consciousnesses. And as they point out in order to make the theme of revenge and closure totally obvious to even the dimmest theatre-goer, both do so using the same swords they used to murder Caesar.

CASSIUS: Caesar, thou art revenged,
Even with the sword that kill’d thee.

And Brutus, looking down on his friend’s body, makes the revenge theme explicit:

BRUTUS: O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3, 94 to 96)

Then, after all is lost, Brutus rams home the thought as with his final words:

BRUTUS: Caesar, now be still:
I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.
(Runs onto sword. Dies)

On this reading Octavius and Antony don’t arrive on the scene to wind up external historical events but to bring to a fitting end the psychodrama of two men undermined and fated by their own guilt.

On this reading Brutus is not the protagonist he appears to be – that figure is the spirit of Caesar who determines everybody else’s actions, and works underground to bring about his just revenge. The play could be called The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus but it is also The Revenge of Julius Caesar.

Antony’s irony

T.S. Dorsch repeats the good point (first made by various scholars before him) that the true turning point comes not with the murder of Caesar as such (although that is, obviously, the main central event) but with the arrival a few minutes later of a servant from Antony. This servant asks their permission for his master to approach them safely, but with the special combination of enduring love for the dead dictator with flattery of the assassins which is to become Antony’s leading tone or strategy. Dorsch compares it to the introduction of a new theme into the final part of a symphony.

The assassins’ naive hope is that by eliminating the dictator they will restore the One Good Thing which was the old Res publica. But all they have done is return Rome to its pre-civil war state of being a snakepit of conflicting ambitions and men who lie and scheme, and Antony’s character as a champion schemer is wonderfully written and reaches its apogee in the complex ironies of his great speech in the forum. And all this is already present in the servant’s message:

SERVANT: Brutus is noble, wise, valiant, and honest;
Caesar was mighty, bold, royal, and loving.
Say, I love Brutus, and I honor him;
Say, I feared Caesar, honored him, and loved him.
If Brutus will vouchsafe that Antony
May safely come to him and be resolved
How Caesar hath deserved to lie in death,
Mark Antony shall not love Caesar dead
So well as Brutus living, but will follow
The fortunes and affairs of noble Brutus
Thorough the hazards of this untrod state
With all true faith.

‘With all true faith’ ha ha ha. As in his speech in person to the assassins, and then to the crowd in the forum, Antony means the precise opposite of what he says, and his discourse is therefore the most vigorous and dynamic and enjoyable of all the characters.

Compare and contrast with the straightforward noble honesty of Brutus’s speeches, which are moving in performance and yet, somehow, eminently forgettable. In these instances ‘character’ doesn’t seem a strong enough word for what Shakespeare is doing: he manages to conjure up entirely different psychological worlds through the medium of spoken language.

Seen from this perspective Cassius is a kind of mini-me to Antony’s master. The opening scenes are all about Cassius flattering and bringing out Brutus’s straightforward noble fears about Caesar’s ambition to become king so that, when Brutus leaves, Cassius rejoices in his ability to manipulate the greater but simpler man. But next to Antony he is an amateur. Antony is a master of discursive distortion and deviousness. In the psychodrama of the play he triumphs not because his army has won a battle, out there, in the boring real world. He triumphs because his discursive ability is streets ahead of either the straightforward Brutus or the wily Cassius, wily and tricksy certainly, but not wily enough. Antony outwilies everyone and it is deeply enjoyable to watch him do so, a master at work.

Brutus as Hamlet

Brutus soliloquises like Hamlet and often in language very similar to Hamlet’s:

BRUTUS: It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question…

That is the question. A little later he delivers the beautiful lines:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

But Dorsch warns against taking Brutus at face value, at his own valuation, as a noble hero. Once Cassius has swayed him to join the conspirator, all the others accept him as their leader and yet…the sober truth is that on every major decision he’s called upon to make, Brutus makes exactly the wrong call:

  • they conspirators want to bind themselves by an oath but Brutus overrides them and delivers a pompous little speech about Roman Honour
  • then Cassius suggests they invited Cicero to join them but Brutus decisively rejects that
  • Cassius worries whether they ought to kill Antony at the same time as Caesar but, again, Brutus overrides this, insisting that Antony is just a ‘limb’ of Caesar’s

In the aftermath of the murder it quickly becomes clear that Brutus has no better idea what to do to restore the republic than to run out into the streets shouting ‘Freedom! Liberty!’ He has no plan to present to the senate, no strategy to establish control of the all-important army.

And within minutes of the assassination he makes the catastrophically bad decision to let Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral. In the history of Bad Decisions, this is in the top ten.

Things get worse during the long argument scene in Act 4. This has several functions: it is here partly to point the time-honoured moral of how conspirators fall out among themselves. But it also shows Brutus to very poor advantage, showing him bullying and imposing on his snivelling partner. There’s a slight comparison to be had, maybe, with Milton’s Satan who starts Paradise Lost as a vast, awesome and terrifying figure and slowly and relentlessly shrinks and shrivels down until, by the end of the poem, he is the size of a misshapen frog. There isn’t a direct comparison, but something broadly similar can be said of Brutus who starts the play with noble soliloquies and high ideals but consistently mismanages every aspect of one of the most cack-handed conspiracies in history.

His final two contributions are to override Cassius’s suggestion that they delay and battle, insisting they fight on the battlefield of Philippi (which turns out to be a disaster). And then to mismanage the battle itself so that his own side is utterly defeated.

Stripped of all the high-sounding rhetoric, it’s not really an impressive record, is it? Shakespeare, as it were, restores the high dignified tone surrounding Brutus in the opening scenes with Antony’s fine words about ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ – but the litany of really fatal errors and mismanagement I’ve just listed tends to outweigh those fine words.

Dorsch sums up by saying Brutus is a man who honestly struggles with a problem which is beyond his abilities to solve. Murdering one man was easy. Resurrecting the Roman Republic which had collapsed for all kinds of reasons turned out to be wildly beyond the ability of a dozen or so men with daggers and not the slightest idea what to do next.

Suicide

Cassius’s eventual suicide is anticipated and prepared many times earlier in the play. Shakespeare makes him a man extremely willing to consider suicide at the slightest contradiction. Already in act one, when he is only just starting to sketch out the reasons to resist Caesar’s tyranny, he gets very vexed describing their subjugated state to Casca and then whips out his dagger and says he’s ready to off himself at any moment, that suicide is the last refuge of the oppressed:

CASSIUS: I know where I will wear this dagger then;
Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius:
Therein, ye gods, you make the weak most strong;
Therein, ye gods, you tyrants do defeat:
Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself. (1.3)

At the height of his argument with Brutus he bares his breast and asks Brutus to stab him:

CASSIUS: There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast; within, a heart
Dearer than Plutus’ mine, richer than gold:
If that thou be’st a Roman, take it forth;
I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart:
Strike, as thou didst at Caesar. (4.3)

By contrast, Brutus betrays no such melodramatic thoughts, indeed Shakespeare has him explicitly speak against suicide in the comrades’ dialogue before the start of the fateful battle:

BRUTUS: Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself, I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life: arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.

So there is concealed in the text a debate, of sorts, about suicide (just as suicide is a major theme of Hamlet who considers killing himself in order to escape his unbearable moral dilemma).

Critics have pointed out that this little speech against suicide is contradicted by Brutus’s own behaviour a few minutes later, but, as so often in Shakespeare, the logics of individual positions (along with accurate chronology and a host of other details) are sacrificed to the compelling immediacy of the drama. In this case the Brutus’s philosophical position is overruled by the dynamic of the play, embodied in the power of Caesar’s ghost as an instrument of fate/fortune/destiny:

The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:
I know my hour is come.

You can’t fight a messenger from the other side, and so:

It is more worthy to leap in ourselves,
Than tarry till they push us.

Against the wyrd of ghosts, philosophy has no power.

Reading Shakespeare

Reading Shakespeare is like this. You watch a production of the play and take in the gross events of the plot, noticing pretty obvious things like the murder, the ghost and the suicides. And then you read and reread the play and start to notice the way these aren’t just isolated events, but have been carefully prepared for earlier in the text or have lingering consequences afterwards.

And so you begin to realise that the suicides didn’t come out of nowhere but were anticipated, the idea was discussed, at a number of key moments earlier, or that, in the case of revenge, the word and the theme recur steadily, carefully placed in dialogue and speeches after the assassination. And you begin to appreciate the number of themes and verbal echoes which thread throughout the text which, as a result, comes more fully to life, seems deeper and more complex and more full of carefully planted echoes and anticipations than you dreamed when you just watched it on the stage.

And behold! You have walked through the looking glass into a new world made entirely of text, where ‘history’ or the ‘real world’ are no longer the prime concern, are only useful if they can be quarried for material to bolster and elaborate the dream world of the text, and you are just the most recent of the scores of millions of people who have watched this drama, read this text, and entered this dream.

Wisdom sayings

Apart from his skill at shaping stories into compelling narratives, and his supernatural ability at delving deep into the psychology of such a variety of people of all ranks, ages and genders, Shakespeare is famous for his unparalleled ability to expressing things memorably, for taking age-old saws and insights and giving them beautiful and memorable phrasing.

All his plays abound in sudden moments when his language clarifies and expresses a human thought for all time. Here’s Brutus at the end of his fierce meeting with Cassius, concluding the allies’ discussion of where and when to give battle the next day, explaining that opportunities must be seized:

BRUTUS: There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Noble and heroic, isn’t it? In this respect alone, reading Shakespeare and soaking our minds in the wonderfully evocative expression of all kinds of human feelings, emotions, desires and opinions, hugely ennobles his readers. Although, rather spoiling the effect, the whole speech is uttered as part of Brutus’s insistence that they go to meet their opponents at Philippi, despite Cassius’s objections. In other words, it is the very beautiful expression of a disastrous miscalculation.


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The Legend of Cleopatra by Geoffrey Chaucer (1386)

And as for me, thogh that I can but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte
And in myn herte have hem in reverence;
And to hem yeve swich lust and swich credence,
That ther is wel unethe game noon
That from my bokes make me to goon.

(The narrator describing his love of books in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1380s)

The Legend of Good Women is a long-ish poem by the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 to 1400). Like so many poems from the period, it features a dream vision i.e. the narrator falls asleep and then has a supernatural fantasy (in this case of the god of Love) which is described in a naturalistic manner. Chaucer wrote three other dream vision poems (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls) and it was a very popular genre for other poets of the period (for example, William’s Vision of Piers Plowman, written by William Langland about a decade earlier).

In the prologue to the poem, after he has fallen asleep, the god of Love appears to the narrator (pretty obviously Chaucer) and reprimands him for giving a negative image of women in a) his translation of the long French poem, The Romance of the Rose ‘that is an heresye ayeins my lawe’, and b) his portrayal of the fickle and inconstant Criseyde, in his very long poem, Troilus and Criseyde. The god of Love demands that Chaucer correct this breach of manners by depicting women from myth or legend who have lived well according to the medieval religion of courtly love i.e. lived and died for Love. Who have been ‘Cupid’s saints’.

This is meant to be a poetic version of the real-life story behind the commissioning of the poem, for it is said that Anne of Bohemia, the wife of King Richard II, expressed the same sentiments of gentle disapproval and so laid on Chaucer the commission of writing a poem in praise of women and hence The Legend. Nice, if it’s true.

Courtly love

In the Middle Ages the cult of Courtly Love arose, stemming supposedly from the south of France and spreading to all the courts of Europe. Courtly love wittily and sophisticatedly reworked the format and rhetoric surrounding Christian saints and, indeed, the Christian religion itself, into a mock-serious ‘religion’ centred around the adoration of a courtier knight or poet for his semi-divine mistress or Lady.

Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. To quote my review of Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995):

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

As it spread, the cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address recommended to courtiers who wanted to play this sophisticated game. As the Dutch historian of the late Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga, put it, back in 1919:

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life.
(The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, Penguin paperback edition, page 105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

And so Chaucer is reprimanded by the stern god of Love for having been discourteous to women as a whole in his portrayal of Criseyde, and must – by the rules of Courtly Love – atone to all noble women for this transgression.

A ‘legendary’

The structure of the poem is based on the ‘legendary’, a well-established medieval format of a collection of lives of saints. Thus each section of the poem is the courtly love equivalent of a saint’s life, except that these saints died not out of devotion to the Christian God, but as martyrs to the god of Love.

Thus, for example, the very title of the legend of Cleopatra invokes Christian rhetoric in a light, sophisticated play on ideas: Incipit Legenda Cleopatrie, Martiris, Egipti Regine, meaning ‘Here starts the legend of Cleopatra, martyr, queen of Egypt.’ She was, quite obviously, not a martyr to the Christian religion, which didn’t exist when she committed suicide (in 30 BC); but viewed through the prism of Courtly Love, she and any number of other fine ladies from pre-Christian myth and legend were martyrs to the religion of Love.

The Legend of Good Women devotes a chapter or legend to each of nine virtuous women from myth and legend, being:

  1. The legend of Cleopatra
  2. The Legend of Thisbe
  3. The Legend of Dido
  4. The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea
  5. The Legend of Lucretia
  6. The Legend of Ariadne
  7. The Legend of Philomela
  8. The Legend of Phyllis
  9. The Legend of Hypermnestra

Unfinished

Like Chaucer’s most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, the Legend appears to be unfinished. The Retraction or Apology for the Canterbury Tales mentions 25 legends and we only have nine, so maybe some are lost or maybe he never completed it. The balade embedded in the prologue mentions several women — Esther, Penelope, Marcia Catonis (wife of Cato the younger), Lavinia, Polyxena and Laodamia — who don’t appear in the legends we have; were they meant to be included?

At the end of the Prologue the god of Love indicates that the nineteen women who are attending Queen Alceste must all be included in the poem (though he doesn’t name any of them):

Thise other ladies sittinge here arowe
Ben in thy balade, if thou canst hem knowe,
And in thy bokes alle thou shalt hem finde;
Have hem now in thy Legend alle in minde.

It’s discrepancies like this which lead scholars to conclude the poem was abandoned. Whether the poem’s state is due to Chaucer becoming bored with it is uncertain, but it is now regarded as very much a lesser work, despite being popular when first written. The legends are a bit repetitive, with the same high-minded behaviour tending to recur again and again, so that it lacks the drama of Troilus and and the wonderful variety and vivid characterisation which is key to The Canterbury Tales.

Iambic pentameter

The poem is among the first works in English to use the iambic pentameter, which Chaucer later used throughout The Canterbury Tales. A pentameter is a line with five beats:

When I consider how my light is spent

Lines of poetry can be divided up into units surrounding a beat. A long time ago, the Greeks categorised all this and called these units ‘feet’. When you write a line of verse it naturally has strong or emphasised or accented syllables, and weak or soft or unaccented syllables, and a moment’s reflection makes you realise there’s a certain amount of variety to these.

For a start, a ‘foot’ can have one, two, three or possibly more syllables. And the accented syllable can come first, second, third in the order of these syllables. All the possible permutations were defined and named by the ancient Greeks two and a half thousand years ago, which explains why we still use unusual (Greek) words to describe them.

A Wikipedia article lists all the possible permutations of beat within a foot, with their Greek names. By far the most common ‘foot’ in English is the ‘iamb’, where the unit has two syllables and the emphasis falls on the second syllable. If you emphasise the syllables in bold you’ll get it straightaway:

When I consider how my light is spent

Or just:

di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum

It is a pentameter because it has five beats. It is a iambic pentameter because each of the beats comes in a pairing with a softer, unaccented syllable, which comes before it. The accent falls on the second syllable of each unit or ‘foot’. di dum.

Anyway, the point is that, even if he didn’t introduce it to English poetry, Chaucer was the first poet to write extensively in this metre. With the vast examples of Troilus and the Canterbury Tales, he helped to establish it as the basic, default metre for English poetry, which it has remained ever since.

Reading Chaucer’s verse

The single most important thing to do when reading Chaucer’s medieval verse is to pronounce the final ‘e’ in every word – then the lines will scan as five-beat pentameters. Here I’ve bolded the e’s which need to be pronounced, not the beats.

The moste party of thy tyme spende

Don’t pronounce these e’s as eee, but as schwa, or ‘er’.

The most-er party of thy tym-er spend-er

Now the line has five regular beats and is a iambic pentameter (nobody minds that it has a final unstressed syllable dangling at the end, this dangling syllable is very common in Chaucer’s verse and gives it a nice bouncy feel).

If you do this with all the lines (unless the e comes before a vowel, in which case don’t pronounce it), they all become regular, and the thing comes into focus as a jolly rhythmic canter (s is pronounced as z in this excerpt) (and now I am bolding the syllables to emphasise):

Of good-er wommen, maiden-ez and wyv-ez,
That weren trewe [don’t pronounce the e because it is followed by a vowel: so true-win] in lovinge [omit the e] al hir lyv-ez.

Obviously there are other differences in pronunciation between Chaucer’s English and ours but I’m not writing a book. If you just pronounce the e’s, emphasise the beat and pause at the end of every line, it will start swimming into focus. Above all don’t worry if you don’t understand half of it. Don’t stop to look up individual words. Get into the swing and the rhythm first and the general gist will emerge. Years ago I was taught how to pronounce it and remember most of the principles but, listening to myself say it out loud, I suddenly realised I sound a bit like the Swedish chef from the Muppets, especially if you really pronounce those final e’s.

The prologues

Actually there are two prologues, one scholars think was the original (Prologue A), and a second one which survives in just one copy and critics think was a later version, maybe composed when Chaucer revised the poem some time in the 1390s (Prologue B).

There’s a lot of overlap but also passages unique to each prologue. The solution (well, a solution) is to have an edition like the old OUP Complete Chaucer which is big enough to print both versions side by side. To compare and contrast, if you’re feeling scholarly: or just to jump from one to the other to make sure you catch everything he wrote.

They both begin with a characteristically invocation of the importance of ‘olde bokes’ from which we study and learn. Book learning.

Than mote we to bokes that we finde,
Through which that olde thinges been in minde,
And to the doctrine of these olde wyse,
Yeven credence, in every skilful wyse,
And trowen on these olde aproved stories,
Of holinesse, or regnes, of victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry thinges,
Of whiche I may not maken rehersinges.
And if that olde bokes were a-weye,
Y-loren were of remembraunce the keye.
Wel oghte us than on olde bokes leve,
Ther-as ther is non other assay by preve.

Lightly translated:

Then must we to the books that we find
Through which the old things are kept in mind,
And to the doctrine of these old ways
Give credence in every skillful ways
And believe in these old approved stories,
Of holiness, or reigns, or victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry things,
Of which I need not make rehearsings.
And if that old books were put away,
Lost would be of memory the key.
Well ought we, then, in old books to believe,
Because there is no other way to prove.

In praise of the daisy

As soon as the poem has got settled in it turns into an extended passage in praise of the humble daisy.

Now have I than swich a condicioun,
That, of alle the floures in the mede,
Than love I most these floures whyte and rede,
Swiche as men callen daysies in our toun.
To hem have I so great affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whan comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam up, and walking in the mede
To seen this flour agein the sonne sprede,
Whan hit upryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sighte softneth al my sorwe,
So glad am I whan that I have presence
Of hit, to doon al maner reverence,
As she, that is of alle floures flour,
Fulfilled of al vertu and honour,
And ever y-lyke fair, and fresh of hewe;
And I love hit, and ever y-lyke newe,
And ever shal, til that myn herte dye…

It barely needs translating, but:

Now have I then such a condition
That, of all the flowers in the meed,
Then love I most these flowers white and red,
Such as men call daisies in our town.
To them have I so great affection,
As I said before, when comes in the May,
That in my bed there dawns for me no day
But I am up and walking in the meed
To see this flower against the sun spread,
When it uprises early in the morrow.
That blissful sight softens all my sorrow,
So glad I am when I am in its presence,
To do it all manner of reverence,
As she that is of all flowers the flower,
Fulfilled of every virtue and honour,
And always alike, fair and fresh of hue,
And I love it and ever like new,
And always will until my heart dies…

Why is it so effective? Because it has a sweet and touching innocence without being naive or sentimental. Plus the language of Middle English has an intrinsic simplicity about it, a simplicity of vocabulary, for example, a pure English which was to become increasingly cluttered with new-fangled foreign imports and made-up words as we move into the Renaissance but, back in Chaucer’s time, feels simple and fresh.

But it’s also important to note that this passage is the product of tremendous poetic sophistication. Many Italian and French poets had already written poems in praise of various flowers – there is a vast epic poem named The Romance of the Rose – and Chaucer has read them and knowingly references lines and ideas from them. He tells us as much:

For wel I wot, that ye han her-biforn
Of making ropen, and lad awey the corn;
And I come after, glening here and there,
And am ful glad if I may finde an ere
Of any goodly word that ye han left.

For well I know that you have here-before,
Of making rope and led away the corn,
And I come after gleaning here and there,
And am full glad if I may find an ear
Of any goodly word that you have left.

If you think about it, praise of flowers is very compatible with the ideas of Courtly Love. It is a soft and beautiful subject very appropriate for a feminised court (as, for example, grittier stories of knights and wars, anything from the bloodthirsty ancient world, emphatically were not).

So popular did the cult of flowers as a kind of sub-category of Courtly Love become that we have records of courts dividing into factions who, in a witty, sophisticated spirit, staged debates about the relative merits of different flowers.

There are records of debates between defenders of the flour and defenders of the leaf. In the hands of this culture everything becomes allegorical, symbolic of something else, and so the flower came to be associated with beauty and sensual pleasure which is intense but, alas, fleeting; whereas the leaf symbolises fidelity and endurance – and so these debates and poems displayed the participants’ skill and graciousness, but always circled round to alight on a firm Christian moral.

An entire medieval poem survives on the subject – The Floure and the Leafe – and Chaucer references this cult, too:

Ye lovers, that can make of sentement;
In this cas oghte ye be diligent
To forthren me somwhat in my labour,
Whether ye ben with the leef or with the flour.

You lovers, that can write of sentiment,
In this cause ought you to be diligent
To further me somewhat in my labour,
Whether you are with the leaf or with the flower.

That poem is invoked half a dozen times, with Chaucer humorously clarifying that he is not coming down on one side or other of the Great Debate, but wishes to speak of ancient stories from well before the Great Strife began:

But natheles, ne wene nat that I make
In preysing of the flour agayn the leef,
No more than of the corn agayn the sheef:
For, as to me, nis lever noon ne lother;
I nam with-holden yit with never nother.
Ne I not who serveth leef, ne who the flour;
Wel brouken they hir service or labour;
For this thing is al of another tonne,
Of olde story, er swich thing was begonne.

And so the Prologue wends its lazy way, weaving a complex tapestry of references to ancient authors, to the cult of the leaf and the flower, praising the daisy but also praising a Grand Lady or muse figure to whom the narrator speaks.

The narrator describes rising early one May morning and going out into the fields to kneel down ‘Upon the smale softe swote gras’ and admire the sweet daisy (‘The Empress, and flower of flowers all’) and its lovely scent.

He hears the birds singing their songs and imagines they are taunting the hunters who hunted them in winter and lay traps for them. Some of the birds are singing lays of love in honour of their mates, some sing in praise of St Valentine, on whose day they met, and they nuzzle their beaks against each other. Any who have erred promise repentance. And the gods Zephyr and Flora give to the flowers their sweet breath.

This is all a magnificent preparation, sweet and sensitive and beautiful. For after this hard day admiring flowers and listening to the birds, the narrator makes his way home, has his servants rig up a couch in a little arbour, and there he falls asleep, and at this point the Dream Vision commences:

The Dream Vision

The narrator dreams he is in a meadow and sees come walking the god of Love, with two small wings and holding two fiery darts. He is holding hands with a queen, dressed in green with a fret of gold about her hair and a white crown, looking, in other words, very like his beloved daisy. The narrator says people say the god of Love is blind but this god of Love is looking at him very sternly and makes his blood run cold!

The queen is named ‘Alceste the debonayre’. Behind them come ‘ladyes nyntene’ in attendance, followed by a vast concourse of other women, making up maybe a quarter, maybe a third of the world’s population! (At the very end of the Prologue, the god of Love suggests that the figure is 20,000. Small world.)

It is at this point that the ladies spy the daisy the narrator is worshipping and stop to sing a ballad with a repeated refrain. Each verse lists a number of famously beautiful women from antiquity and tells them to hide or retire, because none of them can compare with the lady they are accompanying i.e. Alceste. In one version of the prologue the refrain runs:

Alceste is here, that al that may desteyne.

The other version has:

My lady cometh, that al this may desteyne.

Where I think ‘desteyne’ means ‘disdain’ in the sense of triumphs over or puts all that – all those other women – in the shade. The second version feels fractionally better, more powerful.

Now this entourage notice the narrator and call him over to them and the god of Love proceeds to reprimand him for translating the Romance of the Rose and writing Troilus and Criseyde and generally portraying women, and love, in a bad light. Why has he shown women in such a negative light?

‘Why noldest thow as wel han seyd goodnesse
Of wemen, as thow hast seyd wikedness?’

Couldn’t Chaucer find in all his fancy books stories of women who were ‘good and trewe’? After all, he has no fewer than sixty books in his library, telling of ancient Greeks and Romans, featuring many stories of women who preferred to die than betray their love, who preserved their virginity, or were faithful to their husbands, or were dutiful in their widowhood. This is a fierce indictment.

But then queen Alceste intervenes on the narrator’s behalf, reminding the angry god of Love (at great length) of the mercy of great kings and even of beasts, such as the noble lion. Such should be the mercy the god should show this errant servant who was only translating matter out of old books. (You can see how the intercession of a compassionate queen softening the wrath of a stern ruler echoes the role assigned to Mary in Catholic theology, interceding on the part of us poor sinners; a posture which could also be mapped onto countless medieval courts, where hard-headed kings and princes could (possibly) be softened by appeals for mercy from their queens.)

Alceste proceeds to plead the poet’s cause and it becomes clear (if it wasn’t before) that the sleeper and narrator of the vision is Chaucer himself, because she cites his many works which do speak favourably of love, to wit, The House of FameThe Book of the DuchessThe Parliament of Fowls, the story of Palamon and Arcite (i.e. the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales). And ‘to speke of other holynesse’ he has translated the popular medieval philosopher, Boethius.

Alceste concludes her defence of Chaucer by promising that, if the god of Love forgives him:

“Now as ye been a god, and eek a king,
I, your Alceste, whylom quene of Trace,
I aske yow this man, right of your grace,
That ye him never hurte in al his lyve;
And he shal sweren yow, and that as blyve,
He shal no more agilten in this wyse;
But he shal maken, as ye wil devyse,
Of wommen trewe in lovinge al hir lyve,
Wher-so ye wil, of maiden or of wyve,
And forthren yow, as muche as he misseyde
Or in the Rose or elles in Creseyde.”

Out of reverence for the queen (and obeying the Courtly Love injunction to cede to your Mistress’s requests), the god of Love quickly and graciously forgives the narrator, who promptly kneels and delivers his own justification. Chaucer grovellingly points out that he never meant to do any harm. He only repeated what his source authors wrote. His purpose was only ever to promote ‘trouthe in love’ and to warn his readers away from falseness and from vice. ‘This was my menynge’.

By which point I’m realising that this has turned into a court case, or a trial, comparable in structure to the debates about the floure and leefe. It has the same formal structure of accusation and two figures arguing for the prosecution and the defence.

Anyway, Chaucer is still wittering on when Alceste, rather winningly, tells him to shut up. No pleading can influence the forgiveness of a god, which proceeds by his own grace alone. And she then proceeds to itemise the penance Chaucer must undertake:

“Now wol I seyn what penance thou shald do
For thy trespas, and understond hit here:
Thou shalt, whyl that thou livest, yeer by yere,
The moste party of thy tyme spende
In making of a glorious Legende
Of Gode Wommen, maidenes and wyves,
That weren trewe in lovinge al hir lyves;
And telle of false men that hem bitrayen,
That al hir lyf ne doon nat but assayen
How many wommen they may doon a shame;

“For in your world that is now holde [considered] a game.
And thogh thee lyke nat a lover be,
Spek wel of love; this penance yive I thee.

“And to the god of love I shal so preye,
That he shal charge his servants, by any weye,
To forthren thee, and wel thy labour quyte.”

And she concludes his penance with a sudden surprising reference to the real world.

“Go now thy wey, this penance is but lyte.
And whan this book is maad, yive hit the quene
On my behalfe, at Eltham, or at Shene.”

Chaucer is grovellingly grateful. The god of Love is amused and tells him of the high ancestry of this forgiving queen, for the first time explaining why it is Alceste of all ancient women who accompanies him. It is because, according to legend, Alcestis was the wife of Admetus, king of Pherae in Thessaly. To prolong his life, she offered to die in his stead. Later she was rescued from hell by Hercules.

Thus she is an eminently fitting figure to herald a book about feminine loyalty and ‘trouthe’ unto death. What is not in any ancient version of the story is the association the poet goes on to make between Alceste, queen of women, and the daisy, queen of flowers whose colours, as we observed above, she is dressed in (green and white and gold).

The god of Love concludes the vision with two points: first, he indicates (as mentioned above) that all nineteen of the unnamed escorts of Queen Alceste should appear in this poem he has to write. Lastly, he tells Chaucer to start with Cleopatra. He gives no strong reason, just the general thought:

“For lat see now what man that lover be,
Wol doon so strong a peyne for love as she.”

‘Let’s see what man would ever suffer for love as much as she did!’ In other words, Cleopatra is arguably the most eminent example from the ancient world of a woman who died for love.

The Legend of Cleopatra, approach

And she hir deeth receyveth, with good chere,
For love of Antony, that was hir so dere.

Well, after all the buildup (the Prologue is about 800 lines long), the actual legend of Cleopatra is disarmingly short, a mere 126 lines long.

I’ve read the several Plutarch biographies which underpin modern knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra (Julius Caesar, Antony) and Suetonius’s life of Augustus, as well as half a dozen histories of the period but there’s not much point applying them here. This is an entertainingly cartoon version of the story, short and simple with sweet medieval details and phrasing thrown in.

In fact this lack of historical rigour is something the author was conscious of and expresses through the god of Love, who is made to explicitly order Chaucer to keep his legends short and sweet:

“I wot wel that thou mayest nat al hit ryme,
That swiche lovers diden in hir tyme;
It were so long to reden and to here;
Suffyceth me, thou make in this manere,
That thou reherce of al hir lyf the grete,
After thise olde auctours listen to trete.
For who-so shal so many a storie telle,
Sey shortly, or he shal to longe dwelle.”

“I know well that you may not it all rhyme,
What such lovers did in their time,
It were too long to read and to hear.
Suffices me, you write in this manner,
That you rehearse of all their life the great,
Following what those old authors liked to treat.
For whoso shall so many a story tell,
Should say shortly or he shall too long dwell.”

The Legend of Cleopatra, plot summary

After the deeth of Tholomee the king, regned his daughter, quene Cleopataras. Out of Rome was sent a senatour to rule Egypt and he was named Antonius. He abandoned his legal wife, the sister of Octavian, because he wanted another wife: ‘For whiche he took with Rome and Cesar stryf’.

Antonius was brought to such a rage and tied himself in a noose (the noose of fate), ‘Al for the love of Cleopataras, That al the world he sette at no value.’

Cleopataras loved this knight for his ‘persone and of gentilesse, And of discrecioun and hardinesse’. So they got married.

The narrator complains that, as he has so many stories to write, he doesn’t have time ‘The wedding and the feste to devyse’ so he’ll get right to the point:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

Octavian was infuriated by this marriage and so led a host of brave Romans against Antonius.

Interestingly, the longest passage in this short poem is a vivid if cartoony description of a battle at sea, the decisive Battle of Actium. The description keeps talking about ‘he’ as if referring to one person, but translations indicate it is a generic pronoun, like ‘one’, and best translated as ‘they’, thus describing the behaviour of countless sailors in incidents from the battle.

And in the see hit happed hem to mete —
Up goth the trompe — and for to shoute and shete,
And peynen hem to sette on with the sonne.
With grisly soun out goth the grete gonne,
And heterly they hurtlen al at ones,
And fro the top doun cometh the grete stones.

In goth the grapnel so ful of crokes
Among the ropes, and the shering-hokes.
In with the polax presseth he and he;
Behind the mast beginneth he to flee,
And out agayn, and dryveth him over-borde;
He stingeth him upon his speres orde;
He rent the sail with hokes lyke a sythe;
He bringeth the cuppe, and biddeth hem be blythe;
He poureth pesen upon the hacches slider;
With pottes ful of lym they goon to-gider;

And thus the longe day in fight they spende
Til, at the laste, as every thing hath ende,
Anthony is shent, and put him to the flighte,
And al his folk to-go, that best go mighte.

As:

And in the sea it happened that they meet —
Up sounds the trumpet — and to shout and beat,
And urged them to set on with the sun.
With grisly sound out booms the great gun,
And fiercely they hurtled all at once,
And from the top down came the great stones.

In goes the grapnel, so full of crooks,
Among the ropes, and the shearing-hooks.
In with the poleaxe presses one and another;
Behind the mast one begins to flee,
And out again, and drives him overboard.

One stabs himself upon his own spear;
One tears the sail with hooks like a scythe;
One brings a cup, and bids them to be blithe;
One pours out peas, so on the deck they slither;
With pot full of lime they fall together;

And thus the long day in fight they spend
Til, at the last, as every thing has end,
Anthony is beat and put to flight,
And all his folk run off as best they might.

Chaucer follows the sources so much as to say that it was the flight of Cleopatra’s fleet which plunged Anthony into despair but jumps over all the events which followed in order to get straight to his suicide. He laments the day that he was born and runs himself through the heart with his sword. Unlike Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Antony, Chaucer’s one conveniently dies on the spot.

Knowing she will get no forgiveness from Caesar, Cleopatra flees back to Egypt, ‘for drede and for distresse.’ And now we come to her suicide, but first Chaucer repeats the moral mentioned in the Prologue, that all men who make great boasts about the sacrifices they’ve made for love, should observe how it’s really done.

Ye men, that falsely sweren many an ooth
That ye wol die, if that your love be wrooth,
Here may ye seen of women such a trouthe!

Cleopatra is so bitterly pained with lost love and despair that she gets her workmen to build a shrine with all the rubies and fine stones of Egypt. She has Antony’s body laid in it, along with plenty of with ‘spycerye’. Then has a pit built next to it and gets all the serpents that she owns put into it.

And then Cleopatra delivers the point, the message, in an extended speech – for she says that on the day they were married she swore an oath to be with Antony night and day, and as he suffered wele or wo, to accompany him, to bear all with him, ‘lyf or deeth’.

“And this same covenant, while me lasteth breath,
I will fulfill, and that shall well be seen.”

She made an oath, a covenant, a promise and now – far excelling most women and all men – she will fulfil it unto death. And so she jumps naked into the pit full of snakes (!). Immediately the snakes began to bite her and she received her death ‘with good chere.’

“Was never unto hir love a trewer quene.”

Thoughts

It’s not worth wasting time pointing out the many facts Chaucer has simply dropped, he’s in a hurry to get to the only bit that matters for the purposes of his royal commission, the moment of Cleopataras’s outstanding fidelity to love:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

True to his commission, Chaucer has exonerated Cleopatra. She is not at all the wicked, oriental seductress, the Egyptian whore who seduced a noble Roman away from his family and duty, as depicted in Augustan propaganda and later male, Roman accounts.

On the contrary, in this brisk telling of her story Cleopatra emerges as an epitome, a role model of fidelity unto death, a type of fidelity no man could ever aspire to. And not just included in a collection of loyal women, but carefully and deliberately placed as the first in the list, the loyalest and truest of all the loyal and true women of antiquity. A role model for love.


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The Life of Mark Antony by Plutarch

This is one of the longest lives at 87 chapters, longer than Sertorius (27), Crassus (33), Cicero (49), Brutus (53), Caesar (69), Cato the Younger (73) or Pompey (80). Dates and other information in square brackets are not in Plutarch but content I’ve added in to make the account more accurate.

Plutarch’s life of Marcus Antonius

(1) Marcus Antonius [83 to 30] came from an undistinguished family. His grandfather was murdered during the purges of Marius in 87 BC. Plutarch tells an anecdote about how, when a friend came asking for money, all his father could give him was a bowl, and that when his wife discovered it was missing she threatened to torture all the slaves to find it until his father confessed to having given it away. (Torture all the slaves? So the references to torturing slaves to  establish something, as jokily referred to in the plays of Plautus and Terence, is based on common practice.)

(2) His mother was Julia, a third cousin of Julius Caesar. When his father died, his mother remarried Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, an eminent man of noble family who was always in debt due to his extravagance and so had got lured into the Catiline conspiracy. He was one of the conspirators caught in the capital about whom the famous debate in the senate was held (where Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger put opposing views, namely clemency versus execution, as described in detail in Sallust’s Catilinarian Conspiracy). As a result of Cato’s violent argument, Lentulus was summarily executed on the orders of Cicero, consul at the time. According to Plutarch, this explains Antony’s violent hatred of Cicero who he would, 20 years later, directly cause to be executed. Thus does the whirligig of time being in his revenges.

A promising youth, Antony fell under the influence of Gaius Scribonius Curio, who debauched him with wine and women till he was massively in debt and Curio’s father banned him from the house. Then he fell in with Publius Clodius Pulcher, the street demagogue and rabble rouser. He acquired so many enemies that he thought it wise to leave Italy for Greece, where he studied military tactics and oratory. Interestingly, Plutarch tells us that Antonius adopted:

the Asiatic style of oratory, which was at the height of its popularity in those days and bore a strong resemblance to his own life, which was swashbuckling and boastful, full of empty exultation and distorted ambition.

So by chapter 2 we know where Plutarch’s sympathies lie. With Brutus the liberator and Cato the principled, against Caesar the tyrant and Antony his swaggering lieutenant. OK. Good.

(3) Antony accompanies Grabinius to Syria as captain of his horse and distinguishes himself in a siege against Aristobulus at Jerusalem in 57 BC. He plays a leading role in the campaign to restore King Ptolemy XII Auletes to the throne of Egypt after he’d been dethroned by his people. For example, capturing the city of Pelusium. (Cato 35, Pompey 49) Something which, presumably, endeared him to Ptolemy’s daughter, Cleopatra, when he was to meet her 15 years later.

(4) “He had also a noble dignity of form; and a shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Hercules.” He liked to play on his putative descent from Hercules. He dressed casually, was boastful and banterish, all this produced goodwill and reputation among the soldiers, helped by ‘his liberality, and his bestowal of favours upon friends and soldiers’.

(5) When the crisis between Caesar and Pompey came to a head, Curio, with money provided by Caesar, got Antony elected tribune of the plebs in 50 BC [following straight on from Curio’s own term]. During the crisis Antony played a key role at crucial moments. In January 49 he read out Caesar’s letter to the senate with his proposals for a compromise. It was he who suggested the further compromise that both Caesar and Pompey lay down their arms simultaneously, but this proposal was rejected by the consuls and Lucius Cornelius Lentulus (not the same Lentulus as the one involved in the conspiracy) expelled Antony from the Senate building by force and threats.

Which is why Antony changed into the clothes of a slave and headed to Caesar’s camp by the river Rubicon, there to brief him that all compromise was impossible. (Pompey 58, Caesar 30) It was the hounding of Antony in his capacity as tribune which made it possible for Caesar to dress up his motivation for invading Italy as being in part to restore the rights of the tribunes i.e. to dress up personal ambition in lofty rhetoric about rights and customs. [See the opening chapters of Caesar’s Civil War.]

(6) It was this which allowed Cicero to write, in his Philippics against Antony, that he was the prime cause of the civil war, which is, of course, silly, and Plutarch goes on to say so, and to explain that Caesar was not a man to do anything on a whim. No:

that which led [Caesar] to war against all mankind, as it had led Alexander before him, and Cyrus of old, was an insatiable love of power and a mad desire to be first and greatest.

Not a fan, then.

After Caesar crossed into Italy and drove Pompey across the Adriatic to Macedonia, he lacked the ships to follow and so turned around and headed to Spain to quell the Pompeian legions there, leaving Rome to Lepidus, who was praetor, and Italy and the troops to Antony, in his capacity as tribune of the people.

Antony curried favour with the troops by living with them and sharing their exercises and making generous gifts of money, but he was impatient with administering justice and gained a reputation for sleeping with other men’s wives. In other words, he did a lot of damage to Caesar’s cause.

(7) Nonetheless Caesar was right to put his faith in him as a general. Early in 48, having crushed Spain, Caesar has marched his army all the way back into Italy and rustled up the ships to transport them across the Adriatic. He was besieging Pompey’s army at Dyrrhachium in the Balkans with limited forces and sent word for Antony to send reinforcements. And Antony did a very good job by embarking 20,000 men and escaping the blockade of Brundisium being carried out by Lucius Scribonius Libo. He sailed them down the Macedonian coast in a storm but managed to find a safe port and so brought his forces safely to Caesar – the forces with which Caesar was to win the decisive Battle of Pharsalus later that summer.

(8) Antony distinguished himself at two engagements, where he stood and rallied fleeing troops, and Caesar gave him the decisive command of the left wing at the Battle of Pharsalus. [This is skipped over here because Plutarch describes it at length in his life of Pompey, chapters 68 to 73]. After Caesar won and had himself appointed dictator, he set off in pursuit of Pompey to Egypt, but made Antony his Master of Horse and sent him back to Rome. This post was second only to dictator and when the dictator was absent, as Caesar was, Antony was effectively in complete control.

(9) But while Caesar is away Antony shocked Rome with his loose living, his drunkenness, his heavy expenditures, his debauches with women, his spending the days in sleep or wandering about with an aching head, or attending the nuptial feasts of mimes and jesters. He has a falling out with Publius Cornelius Dolabella, who he thought had had an affair with his wife, so he drove the latter from his house. When Dolabella proposed a law for the abolition of debts and sought to enact it by force and seized the Roman Forum, Antony responded by unleashing his soldiers upon the assembled masses, killing hundreds. – The civil war had taught them nothing. Political street violence wouldn’t go away (at least not until the arrival of the ultimate strong man).

(10) When Caesar returned to Rome he disapproved of Antony’s actions, pardoned Dolabella and chose Lepidus rather than Antony to be his co-consul the next year. (Antony, in fact, was stripped of all official positions and received no appointments for the year 46 or 45 BC.)

Anthony took to wife Fulvia, the widow of both the demagogue Clodius and the hellraiser Curio, who was a tough woman and determined to reform him. Plutarch waspishly claims that Cleopatra owed her a debt because Fulvia house-trained Antony and made him ready to be ruled by a woman. [Before you get too impressed, remember this is the woman who delighted in seeing the severed head and hands of Cicero, executed in December 43 and sparked a full blown war with Octavian in 41.]

An anecdote: Antony goes to meet Caesar on  his return from Spain, but then news breaks that Caesar is dead. So Antony made his way back to Rome disguised as a slave (an echo or repeat of his flight from Rome at the start of 49) and in disguise gained admittance to his own house claiming to be a slave with a message. He hands it to Fulvia who tearfully begs for news about her beloved Antony, at which point he drops his disguise and embraces her.

(11) When Caesar returned from victory in Rome, from all the men who went to meet him it was Antony he honoured and had accompany him in his ‘car’ back to the capital. Plutarch continues the idea of rivalry with Dolabella, claiming Caesar wanted to hand over power to him but Antony vehemently opposed it. Plutarch repeats the story about Caesar being warned about Antony and Dolabella and replying that it wasn’t these fat men who worried him, it was the pale and thin ones, indicating Brutus and Cassius. [Told less convincingly than in the lives of Caesar (62) or Brutus (8).]

(12) A repeat of the story of how Antony was taking part in the annual festival of the Lupercalia and ran with a diadem to the rostra where Caesar was sitting, had his fellow athletes lift him up and place the diadem on Caesar’s head. Some applauded but when Caesar pushed it away the whole crowd applauded. This happened several times before Caesar stood in displeasure, pulled the toga from his throat and said anyone who wanted could strike him there and then. It’s an odd story, isn’t it, with a folk legend aptness but also a deep implausibility. And the related anecdote that unknown hands hung wreaths  on the heads of Caesar’s statues, which were then torn down by the tribunes. All this is told better in Caesar 61.

(13) The conspirators discuss inviting Antony to join. Trebonius shared a tent with Antony as they both accompanied Caesar back to Rome, hinted at the idea and Antony firmly refused. At which they switched round to considering killing Antony along with Caesar – a neat illustration of the way that, once you’ve crossed the line into deciding you need to kill people to get rid of the ‘tyrant’ and the ‘dictator’, it quickly becomes a list. In fact, Brutus is held up as the man of principle who insists that nobody else is harmed. Fearing Antony’s popularity and position, they nonetheless arrange for some of their number to engage Antony outside the senate hall so he is not present when the deed is done.

(14) In this account the actual assassination of Caesar takes up one short sentence. Fair enough; it is described in great and dramatic detail in the life of Caesar [chapters 63 to 69]. Anthony flees into hiding but when he realises the conspirators are harming no-one else but are holed up on the Capitol, he comes out of hiding, gives his son to them as a hostage guaranteeing safe passage, and then entertains the assassins to dinner. In the senate he proposes an act of amnesty and a distribution of provinces among Brutus and Cassius and their partisans.

In the immediate aftermath Antony was widely thought to have acted with immense wisdom to calm the risk of civil war.  But everything changed when he made the official funeral address over Caesar’s body.

At the close of his speech shook on high the garments of the dead, all bloody and tattered by the swords as they were, called those who had wrought such work villains and murderers, and inspired his hearers with such rage that they heaped together benches and tables and burned Caesar’s body in the forum, and then, snatching the blazing faggots from the pyre, ran to the houses of the assassins and assaulted them.

This one act split the city, terrified the assassins into fleeing and, in effect, restarted the civil war.

(15) The assassins fled Rome. Caesar’s wife gave Antony his fortune to dispense with and all his papers. Antony implemented Caesar’s wishes but went further, appointing magistrates who suited him, acting increasingly autocratically.

(16) Octavian It was at this point that 18-year-old Octavian arrived in Rome, a son of Caesar’s niece. When Octavian asked for the money Caesar had left him, in order to distribute the payment of 75 drachmas which Caesar had enjoined, Antony ridiculed the boy for being a mere stripling, and also blocked his attempt to become a tribune. But Octavian allied with Cicero and others of the anti-Caesar party and Antony began to fear him, so held a summit conference, gave into his demands, and was reconciled. Briefly. For then Antony learned Octavian was touring the country drumming up old soldiers and recruiting an army.

(17) Cicero was the most powerful man in Rome and got the senate to declare Antony a public enemy while he was out of the city conducting a siege. Plutarch says this drove Antony and his army out of Italy and over the Alps and they suffered hardships and starvation, but this brought out the best in him, as adversity always did, and the soldiers admired him for sharing their privations.

(18) When Antony’s army came close to camp near to Lepidus‘s the latter, who owed Antony many favours, surprised him by being reluctant to acknowledge him. He came to Lepidus’s campy dishevelled and unshaven and won the sympathy of the troops. Many of Lepidus’s soldiers implored him to usurp their commander and take over but Antony insisted Lepidus be treated with respect and when their armies united he did so. This inspired Munatius Plancus also to join him so that he crossed the Alps into Italy with 17 legions of infantry and 10,000 horse.

(19) Octavian had realised he couldn’t treat with Cicero because the latter was a man of principle, so realised he had to come to an accommodation with Antony. So Octavian, Antony and Lepidus met on an island where ‘they divided up the whole empire among themselves as though it were an ancestral inheritance’. The Second Triumvirate. They all wanted to get rid of political enemies but agreeing a list presented great difficulties. Octavian gave up Cicero to Antony, Antony gave up Lucius Caesar (Antony’s uncle) to Octavian, Lepidus gave up Paulus his brother. ‘Nothing, in my opinion, could be more savage or cruel than this exchange.’

(20) Plutarch has it that the soldiers demanded additional tokens of their alliance so Octavian married Clodia, a daughter of Antony’s wife Fulvia. As a result of these agreements, 300 men were proscribed and put to death, including Cicero. [Wikipedia has 2,000 Roman knights and one third of the senate.] Antony ordered his head and right hand be cut off, the one he had used to write his savage criticisms of Antony with, and nailed to the rostra in the forum [Cicero 48]. In the Gallic Wars Caesar remarked on the Gauls’ ‘barbaric’ practice of sticking the heads of defeated enemies on poles around their camps. How is this different? What could be more savage and barbarian?

(21) Antony emerges as the most powerful of the triumvirate but makes himself very unpopular for his dissolute living. And because he had bought up the house of Pompey [only recently and tragically dead] and the people were upset to see it closed against commanders, magistrates and ambassadors and filled instead with mimes, jugglers and drunken flatterers.

The triumvirate not only sold the properties of those they slew, but brought false charges against their wives and heirs in order to confiscate their belongings. They instituted new taxes, and plundered the  treasure deposited with the Vestal Virgins.

Then Octavian and Antony led their armies into Macedonia against Brutus and Cassius, leaving Rome in charge of Lepidus.

(22) This short chapter deals with the campaign of Octavian and Antony in Greece against Brutus and Cassius, describing but not mentioning by name the crucial two battles at Philippi in October 42, mainly to bring out how it was Antony who was victorious while Octavian was sick in his tent and his forces lost their part of the battle. [Brutus and Cassius’s campaigns in Greece, the long buildup to the battle, the battle and its aftermath are described in great detail in Plutarch’s life of Brutus, taking up the final third of the text, chapters 38 to 53, which is why he skimps it here.] In Plutarch’s account Cassius commits suicide after the first battle, Brutus after the second.

In the negotiations of the triumvirate it was Antony who insisted that Cicero was killed. In revenge Brutus ordered Hortensius to execute Antony’s own brother, Caius. In revenge, Antony had Hortensius executed on his family tomb. Thus the logic of civil wars.

(23) After the battle Octavian, still sick, returns to Rome, while Antony remains in Greece, raising money and enjoying himself, gaining a reputation as a philhellene, listening to learned debates, attending games, giving money to Athens.

(24) In 41 Antony left Lucius Censorinus in charge of Greece and he and his army crossed into Asia meaning the Eastern, Greek-speaking part of what is now Turkey. Here he was greeted as conqueror, lavished with gifts and women and lapsed into his former lifestyle of debauchery. His tax gatherers milked the territory till a brave local politician complained that they had already given Antony 200,000 talents, now he was demanding more. Which gave him pause.

For Antony was simple and slow, quick to forgive, lavish of gifts, but easily flattered and deceived by his subordinates.

(25) Enter Cleopatra who:

roused and drove to frenzy many of the passions that were still hidden and quiescent in him, and dissipated and destroyed whatever good and saving qualities still offered resistance.

Antony sends to her to attend him in Cilicia to explain her support for Cassius. Antony’s messenger, Dellius, on meeting her immediately realises his boss will be enslaved by such a lustrous woman, now at the peak of her beauty [born in 69 BC, in 41 she was 28].

(26) Cleopatra first meets Antony by sailing down the river Cydnus to his camp. This inspires the single most gorgeous description in Plutarch who says she sailed up:

the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded poop, its sails spread purple, its rowers urging it on with silver oars to the sound of the flute blended with pipes and lutes. She herself reclined beneath a canopy spangled with gold, adorned like Venus in a painting, while boys like Loves in paintings stood on either side and fanned her. Likewise also the fairest of her serving-maidens, attired like Nereïds and Graces, were stationed, some at the rudder-sweeps, and others at the reefing-ropes. Wondrous odours from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.

Antony asked her to come meet him but Cleopatra refused and told him to come meet her. And he obeyed.

(27) A chapter on the character of Cleopatra, tactfully observing that she was no necessarily the most beautiful of women, but she had an ineffable charm and wove a magic every time she spoke.

(28) Instead of preparing for war against the Parthians, Antony sank into oriental sloth, went to Alexandria with Cleopatra and spent his time in feasting and drinking. Plutarch includes a very rare snippet of autobiography which hints at the personal sources of information for his biographies.

Philotas, the physician of Amphissa, used to tell my grandfather, Lamprias, that he was in Alexandria at the time, studying his profession, and that having got well acquainted with one of the royal cooks, he was easily persuaded by him (young man that he was) to take a view of the extravagant preparations for a royal supper. Accordingly, he was introduced into the kitchen, and when he saw all the other provisions in great abundance, and eight wild boars a-roasting, he expressed his amazement at what must be the number of guests. But the cook burst out laughing and said: “The guests are not many, only about twelve; but everything that is set before them must be at perfection, and this an instant of time reduces. For it might happen that Antony would ask for supper immediately, and after a little while, perhaps, would postpone it and call for a cup of wine, or engage in conversation with some one. Wherefore,” he said, “not one, but many suppers are arranged; for the precise time is hard to hit.” This tale, then, Philotas used to tell; and he said also that as time went on he became one of the medical attendants of Antony’s oldest son, whom he had of Fulvia, and that he usually supped with him at his house in company with the rest of his comrades, when the young man did not sup with his father. Accordingly, on one occasion, as a physician was making too bold and giving much annoyance to them as they supped, Philotas stopped his mouth with some such sophism as the: “To the patient who is somewhat feverish cold water must be given; but everyone who has a fever is somewhat feverish; therefore to everyone who has a fever cold water should be given.” The fellow was confounded and put to silence, whereat Antony’s son was delighted and said with a laugh: “All this I bestow upon thee, Philotas,” pointing to a table covered with a great many large beakers. Philotas acknowledged his good intentions, but was far from supposing that a boy so young had the power to give away so much. After a little while, however, one of the slaves brought the beakers to him in a sack, and bade him put his seal upon it. And when Philotas protested and was afraid to take them, “You miserable man,” said the fellow, “why hesitate? Don’t you know that the giver is the son of Antony, and that he has the right to bestow so many golden vessels? However, take my advice and exchange them all with us for money; since perchance the boy’s father might miss some of the vessels, which are of ancient workmanship and highly valued for their art.” Such details, then, my grandfather used to tell me, Philotas would recount at every opportunity.

(29) Astonishingly, Antony liked to dress up as a slave and go round the streets of Alexandria, looking through people’s doors and mocking them. And Cleopatra accompanied him in these merry jaunts! She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, and watched him as he exercised himself in arms. The Alexandrians said that he used the tragic mask with the Romans, but the comic mask with them.

He was fishing once, and had bad luck, and was vexed at it because Cleopatra was there to see. He therefore ordered his fishermen to dive down and secretly fasten to his hook some fish that had been previously caught, and pulled up two or three of them. But the Egyptian saw through the trick, and pretending to admire her lover’s skill, told her friends about it, and invited them to be spectators of it the following day. So great numbers of them got into the fishing boats, and when Antony had let down his line, she ordered one of her own attendants to get the start of him by swimming onto his hook and fastening on it a salted Pontic herring. Antony thought he had caught something, and pulled it up, whereupon there was great laughter, as was natural, and Cleopatra said: “Imperator, hand over thy fishing-rod to the fishermen of Pharos and Canopus; thy sport is the hunting of cities, realms, and continents.”

(30) Eventually the real world intruded on these larks. His wife and brother had become enemies of Octavian and been forced to flee Italy. Meanwhile, Labienus, Caesar’s best lieutenant in Gaul, who had gone over to Pompey and then escaped East after Pharsalus, was leading a Parthian army into Asia. Antony set off to engage Labienus but received messages from Fulvia.

[Fulvia had become involved in a full-blown conflict with Octavian which is known as Fulvia’s civil war or the Perusine war, because it ended up with Octavian besieging the forces of Fulvia and Antony’s younger brother, Lucius Antonius, in the Italian town of Perusia, modern Perugia.]

Plutarch has Antony changing direction to meet her but she died en route to meet him. [Wikipedia, by contrast, says Octavian took Perusia but spared both Lucius Antonius and Fulvia, sending the latter into exile at Sicyone near Corinth where she promptly died of disease.] Either way, when Antony arrived in Rome, he was able to restore friendship with Octavian by blaming any dissension on his headstrong wife.

The triumvirs divided up the empire, making the Ionian sea a boundary, assigning the East to Antony and the West to Caesar and giving Africa to Lepidus. They then arranged either to be consuls themselves or arranged for their friends and allies to have senior offices. So the Republic was in effect dead.

(31) In order to cement their alliance, Antony married Octavian’s half sister, Octavia, who was recently widowed. The senate passed a law allowing her to marry in less than the legal requirement of 10 months mourning. It’s one among many examples of the way the laws and the senate operated on a micro level to adjust things for fellow members of the small Roman elite.

(32) Pompey’s son Sextus Pompeius inherited command of his big fleet. Antony and Octavian meet him at Misenum, where they make peace [August 39]. As he is entertaining them on his flagship, a senior officer of Sextus’s whispers in his ear that they could cut their ropes, set sail, execute them, and Sextus would become ruler of the Roman world. But Sextus chooses integrity and rejects the idea.

(33) Antony sends Antony sent Publius Ventidius Bassus on ahead into Asia to oppose the Parthians while he has himself made Pontifex Maximus, as Julius had been. The partnership between Octavian and Antony functioned but Antony consistently came off worse in all their deals, even when things were decided (improbably enough) by throwing dice or cockfights (!). A soothsayer tells Antony to avoid Octavian.

Antony leaves Rome for Greece taking Octavia who has borne him a daughter. In Athens he learns that Ventidius had conquered the Parthians in battle [of the Cilician Gates] and slain Labienus [39 BC]. Antony takes part in traditional Athenian games.

(34) A more detailed description of Publius Ventidius’s successes against the Parthians which go some way to redeeming the disastrous defeat of Crassus in 53 BC. in 40 BC the Parthians invaded Syria led by Pacorus, the son of King Orodes. Ventidius met Pacorus’ huge army [in the Battle of Cyrrhestica] where he inflicted an overwhelming defeat in which Pacorus was killed [38 BC].

Ventidius doesn’t pursue them into their own land as he is worried about Antony’s jealousy, and when Antony arrived with an army, he takes over Ventidius’s siege of Antiochus of Commagené in the city of Samosata, which in fact goes very badly, leaving Antony chagrined. He sends Ventidius back to Rome for a triumph.

Plutarch makes a general point that other generals flourished under Antony or that he was more successful in campaigns conducted by those under him, namely: Ventidius against the Parthians, Sossius in Syria, and Canidius who conquered , who was left by the Armenians.

(35) Tensions had been building between Octavian and Antony who sailed for Italy with 200 ships but sent his wife on ahead of him, and when Octavia met Octavian she pleaded with him not to make her a widow, and so the two imperators were reconciled again, for the time being…

So they ate and conferred in peace, then Octavian gave Antony two legions to pursue his wars in the East while Octavian set off to quell remaining Pompeians in Sicily. Antony left Octavia and his children with Octavian.

(36) But in Asia Antony fell back into his old infatuation with Cleopatra. In October 41 he called her to attend him in Cilicia and made her a gift of ‘Phoenicia, Coele Syria, Cyprus and a large part of Cilicia…and.. the balsam-producing part of Judaea and all that part of Arabia Nabataea which slopes toward the outer sea’. Antony set up or removed monarchs, punished nations and ruled like an eastern potentate. He acknowledged his children by Cleopatra, and granted her numerous honours. In 40 she bore him two children. All this scandalised conservative Roman opinion.

37 to 52: the Parthian War

(37) In 38 BC Phraates put his father Hyrodes, king of Parthia, to death, and many nobles fled Parthia. Antony assembles a vast army, including the forces of many vassal kings, against Phraates but Plutarch tells us he mismanaged everything in his haste to win quick victories so he could get back to Cleopatra.

(38) For example, in his haste he left behind a number of state of the art siege engines in Armenia in charge of Statianus and 10,000 men. But this meant that when he laid siege to Phraata, a large city, in which were the wives and children of the king of Media a) the siege dragged on needlessly, but b) Phraates attacked the waggon camp back in Armenia, massacred the soldiers, killed Statianus and destroyed the engines. A calamity.

(39) The Parthians then march up to the besieged city, Antony lifts the siege and marches off, pretending to flee, but then turns and engages the Parthians in perfect battle order. They see them off, attacked first by the cavalry then the infantry and follow the Parthian army for many miles, but are disheartened to see how few of them they’ve killed. Then the Medes in their own camp turn traitor and attack them.

(40) It is a long punitive campaign. Some Parthian soldiers ride alongside Romans and tell them they and their king Phraates respect them, but despise Antony for relying on fear and famine rather than fighting. Eventually Antony decides to break camp and retreat. He is too downhearted to address his men but gets Domitius Ahenobarbus to do it.

(41) A  man of the Mardian race offers to guide the Roman army back, emphasising that they should avoid the open plain and cleave to hilly country. Antony is not sure whether to trust him, till the Mardian offers to be put in chains as he guides them, so they agree. On the third day the Mardian notices a dyke has been cut to pour water across then Roman path and predicts an ambush, giving Antony enough time to prepare his legions and fight it off.

(42) Having cracked the strategy for fighting them off, Antony puts his army in the shape of a hollow square with slingers and cavalry on the outside and succeeds in fighting off the notorious Parthian cavalry for four days. But Antony makes the bad decision of letting Flavius Gallus lead an attack against the Parthians and, when he gets cut off, sending only small detachments to reinforce him which all get massacred. Eventually the entire Roman army wheels round to attack the Parthians, but it was a defeat.

(43) 3,000 dead and 5,000 wounded. Plutarch is typically sentimental, saying Antony went to visit the sick and they all with tears in their eyes assured him they were fine and would be happy so long as great Antony makes it to safety i.e. testament to his popularity.

(44) The Parthians camp near the Roman camp. Antony makes a speech berating those who have fled but asking for any punishment for transgressions to come down on his head so long as his army can be victorious.

(45) The Parthians continue to harry the retreating Romans. The Romans begin to starve and experiment with unknown vegetables. One of these is a herb which drives the eater mad, producing a mad obsession to turn over and move stones, and then death.

(46) Once again some individual Parthians fraternise with Roman soldiers and say their army, too, is exhausted and hungry. But a local named Mithridates came offering advice and showed one of Antony’s lieutenants hills in the distance and told him the entire Parthian host is waiting there to ambush them.

(47) Thus warned that the road through the deserts would leave them exposed, Antony holds a council of advisers and opts to take the path through the mountains, short of water though this would leave them. The Parthians attack their rear while the troops in the van fall on a river and start drinking but the water is salt and poisonous, causing stomach cramps.

(48) The Romans march on, assured by their guide that once they cross the next river the Parthians won’t pursues them. A garbled passage seems to imply that some of the Romans attacked and looted their own baggage train. There is such confusion that Antony calls one of the freedmen in his body-guard, Rhamnus, and tells him that, when he gives the order, he is to run Antony through then cut off his head. Weeping and lamentation from his entourage. But their guide swears the river is close and word comes that the disorder in the rearguard is caused by their own forces, and everyone cheers up.

(49) The Parthians continue to harass their rearguard, raining down arrows till they arrive at The River and cross it at which point the Parthians (supposedly) unstrung their bows and praised their bravery. Would be lovely to hear the Parthian version of all this. Finally they cross the river Araxes into the kingdom of Armenia and drop to the ground and kiss it. Although they promptly fall ill of dropsies and dysenteries.

(50) Antony undertakes a review and discovers 20,000 of his infantry and 4,000 cavalry have perished. (These numbers are always suspiciously round.) More than half from disease, which sounds the right kind of amount from modern accounts of the impact of disease and famine. Plutarch says Antony blamed their defeat on Artavasdes the Armenian who had led back from Media 16,000 horsemen who would have made all the difference in encounters with the mounted Parthian cavalry.

(51) They marched on to the coast at Sidon through snowstorms and lost another 8,000 men. Here Antony was beside himself with impatience to see Cleopatra.

(52) The king of the Medes falls out with the king of the Parthians and sends word to Antony that he is ready to join him on another campaign against the Parthians. This is music to Antony’s ears because it was precisely the  lack of Medean cavalry which he blamed for his previous failure.

(53) In 35 Octavian gave permission to his sister, Antony’s wife, to sail east with a fleet carrying extensive supplies. Antony wrote her telling her to stop at Athens, at which point she realised he wanted her out of the way while he consorted with Cleopatra. And Cleopatra realised her rival wanted to engage in battle. So Cleopatra loses weight and takes to simpering when Antony is there and pining when he’s not, and is backed up by a host of sycophants who tell Antony Octavia only married him as a matter of public policy. And so Antony puts off the war to go to Alexandria to see Cleopatra.

(54) Octavia returns to Rome where she continues to live in her absent husband’s house, raising their children, behaving nobly and honourably, and by doing so helping to highlight Antony’s disreputable behaviour. By contrast Antony dresses up in oriental royal costumes, holds an elaborate ceremony at which he distributes thrones and honours to Cleopatra, and her children, for all the world like an eastern king of kings.

(55) Octavian made sure to keep all these accusations before the senate and people, drip feeding scandal. Antony replies with his own accusations:

  1. Octavian seized Sicily from Pompey but never gave him a share of it
  2. Antony lent Octavian ships which he never gave back
  3. after ejecting their fellow triumvir Lepidus from office and degrading him, Octavian was keeping for himself the army, the territory, and the revenues which had been assigned to Lepidus
  4. Octavian had distributed almost all Italy in allotments, to his own soldiers, and had left nothing for the soldiers of Antony

Octavian replied:

  1. he had deposed Lepidus from office because he was abusing it
  2. he would share whatever he’d won in war with Antony whenever Antony should share Armenia with him
  3. Antony’s soldiers had no claim upon Italy, since they had Media and Persia

Playground squabbles.

(56) Antony gathers a huge naval force of 800 ships of which 200 are Cleopatra’s though he sends her back to Egypt. Cleopatra bribes his advisers to plead her case, that she needs to be by his side. So Antony relents and invites her to Samos where they party to the sound of theatre performances, music, banquets and processions. ‘How will the conquerors celebrate their victories if their preparations for the war are marked by festivals so costly?’

(57) Then on to Athens where there are more festivals and parties and Antony makes a great speech to Cleopatra, ostensibly on behalf of the city. Antony sends word to have Octavia ejected from his house and she leaves with all his children, to the great scandal of the people.

(58) It is 32 BC and Octavian is alarmed at Antony’s preparations for war. He is unpopular because he is enforcing high taxes, a quarter of income for citizens, and eighth for freedmen. If Antony had struck now he might have won the people, but he delayed. Then senior Antony officials who had been hounded out by Cleopatra maliciously told Octavian about Antony’s will. Octavian seized this from the Vestal Virgins and read it out to the senate. The most offensive provision was that he wanted to be buried in Egypt.

A man called Calvisius then made the following charges against Antony:

  1. he had bestowed upon Cleopatra the libraries from Pergamum, in which there were two hundred thousand volumes
  2. at a banquet where there were many guests he had stood up and rubbed her feet, in compliance with some agreement  they had made
  3. he consented to have the Ephesians in his presence salute Cleopatra as mistress
  4. many times, while seated on his tribunal and dispensing justice to tetrarchs and kings, he would receive love-billets from her in tablets of onyx or crystal, and read them
  5. and once when Furnius was speaking, the ablest orator in Rome, Cleopatra was carried through the forum on a litter, and Antony, when he saw her, sprang up from his tribunal and forsook the trial and, hanging on to Cleopatra’s litter, escorted her on her way

(59) Cleopatra’s suspicion or jealousy of Antony’s entourage, many of whom she forces to flee.

(60) When Octavian was quite ready a law was passed to wage war on Cleopatra and remove from Antony the power he had handed over to her i.e. reclaim it for the Roman authorities. Octavian claimed Antony had been drugged and bewitched and was under the thumb of Cleopatra’s officials.

Plutarch gives us the usual litany of ill omens he claims occur before every war or battle:

  • Pisaurum, a city colonized by Antony situated near the Adriatic, was swallowed by chasms in the earth
  • from one of the marble statues of Antony near Alba sweat oozed for many days, and though it was wiped away it did not cease
  • in Patrae while Antony was staying there, the Heracleium was destroyed by lightning
  • at Athens the Dionysus in the Battle of the Giants​ was dislodged by the winds and carried down into the theatre
  • the same tempest fell upon the colossal figures of Eumenes and Attalus at Athens, on which the name of Antony had been inscribed and prostrated them
  • the admiral’s ship of Cleopatra was called Antonius; some swallows made their nest under its stern but other swallows attacked these, drove them out and destroyed their nestlings

(61) So war begins between Octavian and Antony. Antony had 500 fighting ships, 100,000 infantry soldiers and 12,000 horsemen and the tribute of all the kings in the east.

(62) But so in thrall is Antony to Cleopatra that he decides to fight the battle at sea, even though they are struggling to fully man their ships. These are high-sided with as many as ten ranks of oars and heavy and slow to manoeuvre. Whereas Octavian’s ships are fully manned and in perfect array. He invites Antony to come and dock at Brundisium and Tarentum and that he’ll withdraw a day’s march to allow Antony to land and arrange his forces perfectly for battle.

Antony replies by challenging Octavian to single combat; then to re-enacting the battle of Pharsalus. But while Antony was lying at anchor off Actium, where now Nicopolis stands, Caesar got the start of him by crossing the Ionian sea and occupying a place in Epirus called Toruné.

(63) Octavian’s fleet engaged Antony’s but Antony boldly had his rowers released and sent up top to look like soldiers and his ships drawn up in battle array so that Octavian was put off and withdrew. Antony sealed off watersources to prevent Octavian’s fleet watering. Domitius defected from Antony to Octavian but Antony generously sent his baggage, servants and friends after him.

Some allied kings defected. Canidius advises Antony to send Cleopatra away and abandon the naval strategy, drawing Octavian onto land where Antony has the bigger force and better track record.

But Cleopatra’s insistence that they fight a naval battle prevailed, even though she was already making preparations to flee. Octavian approves a plan to kidnap Antony as he walked on the shore and it nearly succeeded, they captured the man in front of him but Antony managed to get away.

(64) Antony burns all but 60 of the Egyptian ships and packs these with 20,000 heavy-armed soldiers and 2,000 archers. An old infantry centurion complains to Antony that naval battles are all very well for  Egyptians and Phoenicians but Romans fare best on land.

(65) Four days of rough winds and high seas but on the fifth, 2 September 31 BC the Battle of Actium took place. Antony exhorts his men and tells the captains to keep the ships in the narrow mouth of the gulf. At first Antony’s ships refused to budge and Octavian thought they were anchored, but then the more impetuous left their line to attack him. Excellent! His ships were smaller and lighter and more nimble and able to surround Anthony’s.

(66) There was little ramming because Antony’s ships were too slow and Octavian didn’t want to risk his. It was as if three or four of Octavian’s ships were laying siege to Antony’s monsters. The battle is in mid flow when Cleopatra’s 60 ships made sail and began to leave right through the battlefield. Abandoning all reason, betraying his soldiers and sailors and allies, as if bewitched, Antony leapt into a five-oared galley and made after her.

(67) He caught up with her and was taken aboard Cleopatra’s ship where he sat with his head in his hands after they’d docked at Taenarum. For three days he didn’t move until her women persuaded him to come ashore and be reconciled with her. The world lost for love.

Some of their friends arrive in heavy transport ships and tell them the fleet is destroyed but they still possess an awesome land force. So Antony wrote to Canidius ordering him to withdraw across Greece into Asia. And he hands over a big transport ship full of the rarest treasure to his friends, telling them to divide it up and make the best of their fortune.

(68) In fact his fleet held out for hours at Actium and was only overcome by a storm, while he abandoned nineteen legions of undefeated men-at‑arms and 12,000 horsemen. Madness. The greatest example in human history of a man who was pussywhipped, meaning: “Totally controlled, domineered, or emasculated by a woman.”

His men held out for seven days expecting Antony to return at any moment, but he didn’t and after their commander Canidius ran away in the night, they handed themselves over to Octavian. Octavian sails on to Greece where he redistributes the grain which Antony had stripped from them for his forces. And here again a second unusually direct bit of reminiscence by Plutarch:

My great-grandfather Nicarchus used to tell how all his fellow-citizens were compelled to carry on their shoulders a stipulated measure of wheat down to the sea at Anticyra, and how their pace was quickened by the whip; they had carried one load in this way, he said, the second was already measured out, and they were just about to set forth, when word was brought that Antony had been defeated, and this was the salvation of the city; for immediately the stewards and soldiers of Antony took to flight, and the citizens divided the grain among themselves.

(69) Antony reaches the coast of Libya, sends Cleopatra ahead to Alexandria, and takes to roaming around with just two companions. Plutarch says nothing about Antony’s state of mind but his actions betoken a ghost man, a man who has ruined his cause and his reputation and has nothing to live for. When the general commanding Antony’s forces in Libya defected to Octavian Antony tried to kill himself but is stopped by his friends.

Eventually he sails on to Alexandria where he discovers Cleopatra is engaged in a ridiculous scheme, namely to raise and drag her fleet along the course of the current Suez canal, from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea and thus go and colonise somewhere to escape conquest by Octavian. But the Arabs burned her boats and Antony convinced her he still had a land army so she desisted.

And now Antony forsook the city and the society of his friends, and built for himself a dwelling in the sea at Pharos, by throwing a mole out into the water. Here he lived an exile from men, and declared that he was contentedly imitating the life of Timon, since, indeed, his experiences had been like Timon’s; for he himself also had been wronged and treated with ingratitude by his friends, and therefore hated and distrusted all mankind.

(70) A digression on the life and notorious misanthropy of Timon of Athens, clearly a legendary figure by Antony’s time.

(71) Canidius arrives to tell him what finally happened at Actium and the news that all the kings and tetrarchs and whatnot of the Middle East are defecting to Octavian. All he has left is Egypt. At which Antony abandons his depression and goes back into Alexandria where he embarks on a new round of feasting and partying, holding coming of age feasts for his children. Antony and Cleopatra establish a new society which they call Partners in Death. Cleopatra starts collecting rare poisons and experimenting with them on prisoners. the painless ones are too slow but the quick ones are very painful. After lengthy experimentation she settles on the venom of the asp.

(72) They send a petition to Octavian, Cleopatra asking that she be allowed to keep her children, Antony that he may go and live as a private citizen in Athens.

(73) Octavian wrote to Cleopatra that he would treat her well if she would kill or expel Antony. Plutarch shares some typical gossip, telling us that the leader of Octavian’s embassy was one Thyrsus, ‘a man of no mean parts’ who had frequent converse with Cleopatra till it made Antony jealous and he had Thyrsus strung up and flogged then sent back to Octavian. After that Cleopatra went out of her way to suck back up to Antony, celebrating her own birthday very modestly but Antony’s birthday with great splendour. Octavian was called back to Rome by Agrippa.

(74) The war is suspended for winter, but next spring Octavian advanced on two fronts, coming down through Syria and advancing east across Libya. Octavian hears that Cleopatra has built an extravagant tomb into which she has collected all her treasure and sends reassuring messages to her, because he is scared she will kill herself, set light to it and thus deprive him of his loot.

When Octavian is at the outskirts of the city Antony sallies force and fought brilliantly, routing Octavian’s cavalry and driving him back to his camp. Plutarch tells a typically waspish anecdote.

Then, exalted by his victory, he went into the palace, kissed Cleopatra, all armed as he was, and presented to her the one of his soldiers who had fought most spiritedly. Cleopatra gave the man as a reward of valour a golden breastplate and a helmet. The man took them, of course — and in the night deserted to Caesar.

(75) Antony makes Octavian a second offer of single combat. Octavian of course refuses so Antony insists on leading his army into battle. At feast the night before the battle, he tells his friends he will be victorious or die trying, while they all cry.

That night, as usual with Plutarch there are omens. Just the one this time which is that over the city a great music and noise is heard as of a Dionysian festival, but it is heard to move from the city centre towards the gate facing Octavian’s camp and then disappear. It was, people said, the god he had devoted his life to, Dionysius, abandoning him.

(76) On 1 August 30 BC Antony watches his fleet set out to engage Octavian’s but, at the last minute, raise their oars in peace, surrender, and be accepted into Octavian’s fleet. Also his cavalry defects. He fights with his infantry but they are defeated. He withdraws into Alexandria ranting that he has been betrayed by Cleopatra. Scared, Cleopatra retired into her refuge, had the doors locked and barred and messengers sent to Antony telling her he was dead.

Antony goes into his chamber, laments that he has been found wanting in courage to a woman, and orders his man Eros to kill him. Instead Eros kills himself. You just can’t get the staff. So Antony tries to stab himself but makes a hash of it. When he recovers he orders the bystanders to finish him off but they all run away. Until the secretary Diomedes arrives with orders to take Antony to her tomb.

(77) A peculiar scene. Antony is carried to Cleopatra’s tomb but she refuses to unbar the doors to let him in, instead insisting that he is laid on a bier and that she and her serving women haul him up using a rope and pulley system, even though this is extremely difficult for her. When they’ve finally got him inside, Cleopatra rents her clothes and beats her breasts and there’s blood everywhere, but he tells her he’s had a good life and to look out for herself.

(78) Antony dies and his sword is taken by a servant who shows it to Octavian.

When Caesar heard these tidings, he retired within his tent and wept for a man who had been his relation by marriage, his colleague in office and command, and his partner in many undertakings and struggles.

Octavian calls in colleagues and reads out his correspondence with Antony, emphasising how reasonable he had been and how rude Antony’s replies. Then Octavian sends Proculeius to negotiate with Cleopatra, anxious that she will burn her treasure and wanting her to adorn his triumph through Rome.

(79) Proculeius wangles his way into the tomb. He goes back accompanied by Gallus and while Gallus is keeping Cleopatra in conversation by the door, Proculeius uses a ladder to get up to that window, the window they hauled Antony in through, and then down the stairs and to the door and takes Cleopatra by surprise. She tries to stab herself with a small knife but Proculeius is too fast, seizes it, shakes her down to ensure she has no other weapons, then sends her under guard to Octavian.

(80) Now Octavian finally arrives in Alexandria, proceeds to a tribunal erected in the gymnasium. The population prostrate themselves in terror but Octavian says he holds them blameless and won’t punish them. At this crucial moment Plutarch rather spoils the effect by saying Octavian does it at least in part to gratify his companion, Areius the philosopher.

(81) As for the children of Antony, Antyllus, his son by Fulvia, was betrayed by Theodorus his tutor and put to death. Theodorus stole the precious stone the boy wore about his neck but when this was discovered he  was crucified. Cleopatra’s children, together with their attendants, were kept under guard and had generous treatment.

Caesarion, who was said to be Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, was sent by his mother, with much treasure, into India, by way of Ethiopia. There Rhodon, another tutor like Theodorus, persuaded him to go back, on the ground that Octavian invited him to take the kingdom. And Octavian had him executed, after his mother died. One way of regarding this is barbaric. But it should be out in the context of the mass proscriptions Octavian enforced in Rome. His rule was characterised by large scale executions.

(82) Octavian allowed Cleopatra to bury Antony with lavish rites. Then she began to starve herself. But Octavian threatened the lives of her children and thus forced her to eke out a miserable existence.

(83) An interview between Octavian and Cleopatra at which she tries to justify her course of action but Octavian refutes her interpretations at every step. When a servant reveals that she is hiding away her jewellery she crossly slaps him and insists to Octavian that she is storing up women’s ornaments in order to send to Octavia and Livia to beg them to intercede for her. And so Octavian went away confident that she wanted to live. But she fooled him.

(84) One of Octavian’s entourage tells Cleopatra that his army is setting off for Syria and will be taking her, so she obtains permission to pour libations at Antony’s tomb one last tie and Plutarch give her a long sentimental speech.

(85) Cleopatra has a bath and then dinner. A man from the country arrives carrying a basket. The suspicious guards tell him to open it and are amazed at the size of the figs it contains. He bids them have a taste if they like so they let him pass. After her meal Cleopatra sends Octavian a written message, then has herself locked in her chamber with her two serving women. When Caesar opens the tablet and reads the message asking for her body to be buried next to Antony’s he knows what has happened and sends messengers to go instantly to prevent her. But they find Cleopatra lying dead upon a golden couch, arrayed in royal state.

And of her two women, the one called Iras was dying at her feet, while Charmion, already tottering and heavy-handed, was trying to arrange the diadem which encircled the queen’s brow. Then somebody said in anger: “A fine deed, this, Charmion!” “It is indeed most fine,” she said, “and befitting the descendant of so many kings.” Not a word more did she speak, but fell there by the side of the couch.

(86) Plutarch reports the 4 or 5 different versions of how she was poisoned, whether she stirred up the asp to make it angry, dipped her hand in the basket or took the snake out and applied it to her arm or breast. In Octavian’s triumph an ‘image’ (does this mean a model or effigy) of Cleopatra was included with the snake hanging from her, though Plutarch doesn’t say where exactly on her body.

Octavian was cross but admired her lofty spirit and so let her be buried with full rites next to Antony. Statues of Antony throughout Alexandria were torn down but those of Cleopatra were allowed to remain standing after one of her friends, Archibius, gave Caesar two thousand talents. She was 39, Antony was 55, they had been an item for 15 years.

(87) As in many a Victorian novel, Plutarch ends his narrative by tying up all the loose threads and telling us what happened to all Antony’s children and their descendants. He had seven children by three wives and their marriages and second marriages and intermarriages make for a complicated diagram. One of the two daughters he had by Octavia:

Antonia, famous for her beauty and discretion, was married to Drusus, who was the son of Livia and the step-son of Octavian. From this marriage sprang Germanicus and Claudius, Germanicus dying young but Claudius coming to the throne in the chaos after Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD.

Before Germanicus died he fathered Julia Agrippina, who, at age 13, was married off to Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. They had a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. 21 years later, with Ehenobarbus dead, Agrippina married the emperor Claudius. And Claudius, having adopted Agrippina’s son, gave him the name of Nero Germanicus. This was the Nero who came to the throne in 54 AD.

So Antony’s ‘blood’, if there is such a thing, ran on into the Julio-Claudian dynasty for several generations.

Learnings

Predestination

Plutarch is a fatalist. He believes everything is predestined to happen. Not very often, but at various key moments when central characters try to avert war or settle conflicts or lay high-minded plans, Plutarch is at hand to tell us that an implacable fate controls our ends.

It was destined that everything should come into Caesar’s hands. (55)

A maze of cross-references

The way that the lives refer to each other creates an evermore complex matrix of cross-references, which turn them into a complex meta-narrative, or a multi-stranded history.

Iraq, Iran and the West

At some point, reading about the inexorable opposition of the Parthian Empire to the Romans (i.e. ‘the West’) and learning that the Parthian Empire was roughly cognate with present-day Iraq and Iran – made me think of the never-ending conflict between those places and ‘the West’ in my day.

Modes of death of Plutarch’s eminent Romans

  • Marius (died a natural death aged 71)
  • Sulla (died a natural death aged 60)
  • Lucullus (died a natural death aged 61)
  • Crassus (died killed in battle aged 61)
  • Sertorius (assassinated aged 53)
  • Pompey (murdered aged 57)
  • Caesar (assassinated aged 55)
  • Cato the Younger (suicide aged 49)
  • Brutus (suicide aged 43)
  • Cicero (murdered aged 63)
  • Antony (suicide aged 53)

It’s the opposite of a scientific sample but you notice how the first three died of natural causes, although Marius and Sulla had been mass murderers; somehow there was the space for them to retire, as for lucky Lucullus. But from then onwards all the rest die violent deaths, and the third aspect of trend is the number of suicides. It feels like Rome no longer had room for many of its eminent men. They were no longer just killed in battle or assassinated but removed themselves from a world which no longer had room for the beliefs or values or causes they had supported. In a voodoo kind of way it’s as if the Republic liquidated itself.


Related links

Roman reviews

Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

This is one of Plutarch’s longer biographies of eminent Romans, at 73 ‘chapters’ or sections.

Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Younger (95 to 46 BC), was a conservative Roman senator in the period of the late Republic. He made a reputation for being a stern, inflexible defender of the strictest interpretation of traditional ‘Roman’ values and a literalistic interpretation of the constitution. As such he was in effect a defender of the optimates party of traditional aristocrats and the senate as a body, against the growing power and political lobbying of the populares party, represented by others in the 80s and 70s but during the 60s and 50s increasingly represented by Julius Caesar. Cato saw Caesar as an over-ambitious autocrat who sought to tear up the traditional constitution and make himself tyrant and king, so he bitterly opposed him at every opportunity.

Ironically, the net effect of his stern speechifying and high-minded opposition to Caesar helped to create the impassible divide which arose between Caesar and Pompey (who he defected to and served during the civil war) and precipitated the civil war which overthrew the republic that he loved. When compromise was required, Cato offered inflexible opposition.

His suicide in north Africa, where he was one of Pompey’s governors, after Caesar had effectively won the province in 46 BC, was, in my opinion, not a noble end to a noble life but epitomised the political cul-de-sac he’d painted himself into. Compromise and mutual respect are the basic requisites for a functioning democracy.

The life

(1) Marcus Porcius Cato or Cato the Younger was a great-grandson of Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Censor, Cato the Elder and Cato the Wise (234 to 149). The Elder was a Roman soldier, senator, and historian known for his conservatism and opposition to Hellenization, who was the first to write history in Latin with his Origines, a now lost work on the history of Rome.

Unusually Plutarch gives us something of Cato’s boyhood. Both his parents died leaving him, his sister and brother orphans. They were brought up by a maternal uncle. People noticed he was inflexible, harsh, not given to laughter though occasionally he smiled. He was a slow but steady learner, and Plutarch favours us with some 2,000 year old theory of education (based, apparently, on Aristotle).

(2) When he was 4 the Social War broke out and Pompaedius Silo, a representative of the rebels, visited Cato’s guardian’s house and humorously asked the children for their support. The others childishly agreed but Cato stared inflexibly silently in front of him, even when the visitor held him out the window as if to drop him. He took boyhood games very seriously.

(3) The dictator Sulla liked Cato and his half brother for their father’s sake and Cato’s tutor Sarpedon often took him to visit, till one day the 14-year-old asked why there were so many cries of torture and severed heads (!) carried from Sulla’s house and when his tutor explained everyone was too frightened to intervene, Cato angrily asked for a sword and said he’d rid his country of this scourge.

Cato’s devout attachment to his brother Caepio.

(4) He was made a priest of Apollo and moved out of his guardian’s house. He tried to put into practice Stoic philosophy and lived very plainly. He was a close companion of Antipater the Tyrian, a Stoic philosopher. He believed in a form of justice which was rigid and uncompromising.

(5) When the tribunes wanted to make changes to the Basilica Porcia which his famous ancestor had constructed, Cato was reluctantly drawn into defending it and opposing the move. Everyone commented on the stern maturity of his speech.

He took vigorous exercise, refused to ride a horse or be carried in a chair, exercised in cold or heat. Spartan.

(6) He was surprisingly unabstemious, though, and would stay up through the night, drinking and arguing with philosophers. He dressed so deliberately unostentatiously that it drew attention. When he came into an inheritance he shared it liberally with friends.

(7) He became betrothed to a woman named Lepida who had been dropped by Metellus Scipio but then Metellus changed his mind and wooed and won her which made Cato so furious he eased his mind by writing scathing verses against Metellus. Then he married Atilia, a daughter of Serranus.

(8) During the war of Spartacus (73 to 71 BC) Cato volunteered to serve since his brother was a military tribune. He displayed good discipline, self-control, courage in all emergencies and sagacity. When the commander, Lucius Gellius Publicola (consul in 72) awarded him honours Cato turned them down, saying he’d done nothing special. So he acquired a reputation as being clever and brave, but odd.

(9) In 67 he was appointed military tribune and sent to Macedonia, to serve under Rubrius the praetor. It’s fascinating to learn that he travelled to this post with fifteen slaves, two freedmen, and four friends. He was assigned a legion and won over the men by his unpretentious willingness to join in with all the tasks.

(10) Cato hears a Stoic philosopher named Athenodorus Cordylion, was living at Pergamum, he travelled there to persuade him to return with him to the army camp, which the latter did. Cato was more proud of this achievement than any military conquest.

(11) Cato’s brother fell sick at Aenus in Thrace. He made his way there as quickly as possible but his brother died before he arrived. People were surprised at his excess of grief and the huge amount he spent on the funeral rites, ‘not observing how much tenderness and affection was mingled with the man’s inflexibility and firmness against pleasures, fears, and shameless entreaties.’ In other words, Plutarch likes Cato.

(12) When he completed his military service the men saw Cato off with tears and embraces, which was unusual, On his journey through Asia he was very humble about his entrance to towns, didn’t do it with grand display and intimidate the local magistrates (which, by implication, was the norm).

(13) Plutarch tells the genuinely funny story of Cato entering Antioch in Syria to find a reception of young men in military cloaks or gala gowns and imagining it was for him. But when the city master of ceremonies stepped forward and greeted him it was to ask when Demetrius would be arriving – all this pomp was for him. Even funnier, Demeterius had at one stage been a slave of Pompey’s but Pompey was so in the ascendent that an ex-slave of his drew more of a grand welcome than Cato. Cato’s friends laughed about this all the way to their inn.

(14) When Cato arrived in Ephesus Pompey, who was there, made a big point of going to meet and greet him by hand, and praising his virtue to his face and behind it. But this was all in self interest, for Pompey never attached Cato to his entourage as he did other young men. Anyway, as a result of Pompey’s favour, the towns he subsequently passed through made a special effort to give him honours, though he asked his friends to ensure he didn’t fulfil the prediction of his friend Curio, that he would return from Asia more tamed.

(15) Deiotarus the Galatian repeatedly sends him lavish presents but Cato sends them back. Taking ship for Brundisium, his friends advise the ashes of Caepio should travel by another ship but Cato insisted they go in the same boat as him even though they turned out to have a difficult crossing.

(16) Back in Rome he is elected quaestor in 65 BC though not before making a careful study of the full constitutional roles and responsibilities of the office. Once instated he insisted on utter rectitude and obedience to the rule from his many clerks, who were used to pulling the wool over the eyes of new young officials. Cato sacked a leading clerk for embezzlement which led to a protracted law case.

(17) By his thoroughness Cato raised the office of quaestor to almost eclipse the consulship in dignity. He:

  1. made sure all debts to the public treasury were immediately called in, so that he could then make all the disbursements owed
  2. he weeded out false claims and decrees
  3. the assassins who murdered people on Sulla’s notorious proscription lists for money, and were widely loathed, he called to account, demanded the money back, upbraided them for their filthy acts, at which point many of them were arraigned for murder: for many people this closed the door on the shameful time of Sulla’s dictatorship (82 to 78 BC)

(18) He got to work early and left late. He set the state treasury on its feet. He attended the senate and popular assemblies to make sure slack politicians didn’t make promises of money they couldn’t keep. All in all he showed that the state treasury could be run honourably.

On the last day of office he was being accompanied home by a grateful crowd, when he heard that his boyhood friend Marcellus was trying to register a crooked remission of moneys so Cato turned right round, marched back to the treasury and, in Marcellus’s sight, expunged the application from the tablets, then took Marcellus home with home for dinner. Nothing personal, just inflexible application of the rules.

(19) Having held the quaestorship, Cato is automatically enrolled in the senate. Here he shows the same inflexible devotion to duty, arriving first, leaving last, and making sure he reads all notes and briefing papers, keeping across all details of all policies. Unlike many who drifted into it by accident, Cato

chose a public career as the proper task for a good man, and thought that he ought to be more attentive to the common interests than the bee to its honey. And so he was careful to have the affairs of the provinces and decrees and trials and the most important measures sent to him by his connections and friends in every place.

He soon became a byword for lecturing sternness and honesty. His name began to be of proverbial weight. Plutarch gives examples.

(20) When the time came to vote for tribunes despite his friends urging him to stand, Cato decided against and set off for one of his country estates to study philosophy. But on the way they encountered the entourage of Metellus Nepos on their way into town so Metellus could stand as tribune. At which Cato ordered his people to about turn and hastened back to Rome to contest the tribuneship in order to preserve the freedoms of the state.

(21) When he stood for the tribuneship many thought that, rather than seeking advantages for himself, he was conferring a gift on the role. In 63 he was elected one of the ten tribunes. He promptly lived up to his reputation for rectitude by prosecuting the consults elected that year to serve in the following years, Silanus and Murena, for bribery. It was the custom for the accused to hire a man to tail the prosecutor everywhere to see who he was talking to and what materials he was gathering. Murena’s hired man was soon impressed by Cato’s rectitude and eventually, if he asked Cato whether he was going about business for the trial that day, if Cato said no, he took his word and didn’t tail him.

Cicero was consul in 63 and defended Murena from Cato’s prosecution and got him off but it didn’t affect his respect for Cato’s honesty and he often consulted him, for:

in the tribunal and in the senate he was severe and terrible in his defence of justice, but afterwards his manner towards all men was benevolent and kindly.

(22) Two chapters on the Catiline conspiracy. Plutarch skips over all the details, to the debate about what to do with the conspirators Cicero has captured in the city. Plutarch focuses on Caesar’s speech advocating leniency for the conspirators i.e. that they be sent to various cities under house arrest until the conspiracy was completely quenched. Plutarch really comes out as anti-Caesar with these remarks:

Caesar now rose, and since he was a power­ful speaker and wished to increase every change and commotion in the state as so much stuff for his own designs, rather than to allow them to be quenched, he urged many persuasive and humane arguments.

That’s not how it comes over when you read Sallust’s reconstruction of Caesar’s speech in his account of the Catiline Conspiracy, which is sober and responsible. It also chimes with his lifelong practice of clemency and forgiveness first.

(23) But what Plutarch wants to get to is how many of the senate were swayed by Caesar until Cato stood up to speak and tore into Caesar as himself a traitor supporting traitors:

Caesar, he said, under a popular pretext and with humane words, was trying to subvert the state; he was seeking to frighten the senate in a case where he himself had much to fear; and he might be well content if he should come off guiltless of what had been done and free from suspicion, since he was so openly and recklessly trying to rescue the common enemies, while for his country, which had been on the brink of ruin, and was so good and great, he confessed that he had no pity; and yet for men who ought not to have lived or been born even, he was shedding tears and lamenting, although by their deaths they would free the state from great slaughter and perils.

So ferocious and impassioned that the senate voted overwhelmingly for immediate execution and Cicero led them away to the Roman prison and had them garrotted there and then. A rash impetuous act which would come back to haunt him in later years (when he was threatened with prosecution for having murdered these men without due legal process and so was terrified into going into exile in 58 BC).

Plutarch gives us an interesting little piece of social history by telling us that this was the only speech of Cato’s to have been recorded, and this is because Cicero was responsible for instituting the new practice of having a number of secretaries skilled at shorthand to record senate procedures. (Which is the central fact in Robert Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero.)

(24) Another quite funny anecdote. In the middle of Cato’s furious tirade against Caesar he observed a messenger come into the senate and hand Caesar a note, at which point he thunderously pointed this out to the senate and claimed it had something to do with the conspiracy, demanding he read it out. Caesar handed it over to Cato who read it and realised it was an erotic message from none other than his own sister, Servilia, to Caesar, who she was in love with (though he was married). Cato flung it back at Caesar. This is a lovely moment.

Plutarch goes on to state that Cato had bad luck with ‘his’ women: one sister gained a bad reputation for her carryings-on with Caesar, the other thrown out of her husband Lucullus’s house for infidelity, and his own wife Atilia ‘put away’ because of her ‘unseemly behaviour’. So Cato marries a daughter of Philippus, Marcia.

(25) The strange case of Quintus Hortensius, a man of splendid reputation and excellent character, who tries to persuade Cato to farm out to him his daughter who just happens to be married to another man, Bibulus. Why? To bind their families together and increase wise and virtuous offspring. Cato politely refuses. Things then become garbled as Plutarch states that Hortensius then asked for Cato’s wife in marriage. The fact that Cato agreed and that her father agreed, indicate that he had, or was about to, divorce her. Lots of divorces and remarriages among the Roman aristocracy.

(26) So Lentulus and the other conspirators are executed but Plutarch says Caesar continues to stir up unrest among the city’s poor and describes Cato as being wise and good in passing a law to expand the free grain distribution to the poor and landless.

It is 62 BC and Pompey is en route back to Italy from his triumphs in the East. Metellus has taken up the tribuneship and proposes a law asking Pompey to hurry back and protect the city. Cato at first politely declines and asks Metellus to reconsider. But when the latter takes advantage of his meekness, becomes angry and shouty, leaving witnesses with the sense that they’re both bonkers.

(27) The night before the vote the forum was filled with armed strangers and gladiators and servants with strong support from Caesar, who was praetor. That night Cato bravely walks with his friend Minucius Thermus through the throng of armed men to the temple of Castor and Pollux and pushes through the armed gladiators to eventually plonk himself in a chair between Caesar and Metellus who were conversing.

(28) The proposed law is read out but Cato snatches the paper out of Metellus’s hand. When Metellus continues to recite it from memory, Cato puts his hand over his mouth. So Metellus ordered the men at arms to come to his aid and some of the people pelted Cato with sticks and stones. Not a model democracy, was it?

(29) This brawl goes on for some time with Metellus attempting to read his law and some of the people threatening him. In the event Metellus fled from the people to the forum, made a long speech against Cato, and then fled the city altogether heading towards Pompey.

Switching subject, Lucullus had returned triumphant from the East in 66 but had been forced to wait for a triumph by the opposition of Caius Memmius who wanted to suck up to Pompey. Cato opposed this, partly because Lucullus was married to Cato’s sister. The importance of these marriage and family alliances and allegiances is difficult to capture but was a key element in Roman politics.

(30) Pompey as he approached Rome sent asking the senate if they could postpone the consular elections so he could canvass for Piso in person. The senate was inclined to agree but Cato vehemently disapproved. Seeing he was going to be an obstacle, Pompey then sent a message asking for the hand in marriage of Cato’s daughter for him and the other daughter for his son. When they heard this the women in question were delighted to make such high matches but Cato immediately refused and sent back that he wasn’t to be bought with marriage alliances. Plutarch, for once, is critical, and makes the kind of point I’ve made, which is that Cato’s intransigence brought about the very thing he sought to avoid:

However, if we are to judge by the results, it would seem that Cato was wholly wrong in not accepting the marriage connection, instead of allowing Pompey to turn to Caesar and contract a marriage which united the power of the two men, nearly overthrew the Roman state, and destroyed the constitution. None of these things perhaps would have happened, had not Cato been so afraid of the slight transgressions of Pompey as to allow him to commit the greatest of all, and add his power to that of another.

(31) Furthermore, Cato blocks Pompey’s wishes for a law distributing land to his veteran soldiers, and then blocks Caesar’s wish, on returning from Spain, to canvass for the consulship whilst remaining outside the city pending a triumph. Cato denied him this, too, by talking for an entire day and so talking the time out. But the effect of this scrupulous defence of principle was to drive Caesar and Pompey together and both to support the unscrupulous agitator Clodius. Again, by his scruples he brought about the thing he most opposed. Lucullus and Cicero are of h is party, but the new triumvirate outpowers them and Caesar is elected consul for 59.

(32) Plutarch describes the street violence encouraged by Cato’s opponents. With the help of this rioting Pompey’s land redistribution bill is passed after all along with an unusual clause compelling all senators to take an oath to uphold it. Inevitably, Cato refused to do this until persuaded into it by Cicero who said it was vanity to hold out against the general will, and that he needed Cato in Rome rather than in exile.

(33) Caesar introduces a law to divide almost all of Campania among the poor and needy. Of course Cato objects and so Caesar has him dragged off to prison. Plutarch alleges that it is by such shameless laws that Caesar curried favour with the people and so got himself awarded governorship of Gaul for five years despite Cato warning the people that they themselves were creating a tyrant.

(34) Caesar’s creature, Clodius, gets Cato sent against his will as governor to Cyprus and Ptolemy of Egypt, very obviously to get him out of the way to the clique can pursue their aims unobstructed. Clodius is particularly hot to hound Cicero out of Rome, something he couldn’t achieve if Cato were there.

(35) En route to the East Cato wrote to Cicero whose enemies were trying to get him banished to submit to the mood of the times. King Ptolemy of Egypt comes to see him and finds Cato full of wisdom, not least in his advice to have nothing to do with the rapacious crooks at Rome (Pompey and Caesar) and return to Alexandria and be reconciled with his people. Ptolemy in fact continues onto Rome but Plutarch has him (improbably) at the door of the first magistrate he visits groaning at his own weakness.

(36) Confusingly (for me at any rate) Plutarch then talks about an apparently different Ptolemy, ‘the Ptolemy in Cyprus’, who poisons himself. Cato hears this at Byzantium where he is supervising a peace (?) before he goes on to Cyprus and organises the auctioning of the king’s belongings. He insists on handling every aspect of this himself and so alienates a lot of his friends.

(37) An extended description of the falling out between Cato and his friend Munatius, who feels himself slighted. In the end they are reconciled with kindness and tears. This is a good example of an anecdote or passage which has nothing to do with politics or history, as such, but demonstrates Plutarch’s primary focus which is an interest in ‘the perception and manifestation of character‘.

(38) When Cato returned from the East he meant to present immaculate accounts of the enormous sum of money he was bringing back (7,000 talents of silver), but his account books were lost in unfortunate accidents which vexed him because he had wanted to display them as models and templates.

(39) Cato arrived back from the East in 56 BC and all Rome turned out to meet him, the senate and the people. Characteristically, Cato sailed right past his reception committee and to the docks, which irritated many. But he made up for it when he paraded the wealth he’d brought back through the forum, and he was awarded an extraordinary praetorship.

(40) In 57 BC Cicero had returned to Rome after an exile of 16 months. He promptly acted controversially by having all the records of Clodius’s acts as tribune destroyed, claiming that Clodius had been improperly elected through bribery. Surprisingly, Cato contradicted Cicero’s speech, saying it had not been illegal for Clodius to move from the patrician to the plebeian class, and arguing that if Clodius’s acts were to be erased so should his, Cato’s, in the East because his appointment was made by Clodius. This public disagreement caused Cicero to break off friendship with Cato for a long time.

(41) Plutarch briskly skips over the conference of the triumvirate at Luca. He calls it:

a conspiracy for the division of the supreme power and the abolition of the constitution.

It was where they agreed to make Crassus and Pompey consuls for the following year. Lucius Domitius is encouraged to put himself forward as a rival but Pompey’s thugs attack him one early morning as he is walking in the Campus Martius, killing a torchbearer and injuring others, including Cato who was with him.

(42) So Pompey and Crassus were voted consuls for 55 BC. But Cato didn’t give up his opposition and stood for praetor so he could oppose them from an official position. Plutarch describes the bribery and tricks Pompey used to prevent Cato’s election but he then gives a big address to the people expressing his fears about a tyranny and is followed home by a big crowd (as so often happens in these anecdotes).

(43) Caius Trebonius proposes a law assigning provinces to the consuls which Cato vehemently opposes, speaking against it at such length from the rostrum that he is dragged from it by his opponents, a fight breaks out, some people are killed (!). When another law is promulgated giving Caesar his command in Gaul, Cato makes a speech directly addressing Pompey saying he is unwittingly creating a burden which will crush him. But Pompey ignored him, trusting in his own power and fortune.

(44) Cato is elected praetor for 54 and tries to introduce a law eradicating bribery. This makes him unpopular with the mob who like being bribed, and he is pelted and jostled in the forum until he claws his way onto the rostrum and makes a principled speech which reduces the mob to silence. He institutes a bill whereby the candidates for election all give a deposit to Cato who then monitors the election and anybody caught cheating forfeits their deposit.

(45) His honesty shames the great men of the state who league against him. Clodius is back in Pompey’s orbit and regularly attacks him for corruption etc. Cato replies that he brought more treasure back from Cyprus by honest means than Pompey did from ravaging the East. Cato said Pompey had no right lending his legions to Caesar in Gaul without consulting the state as if they were his private possessions. And warns that he remains near Rome (i.e. didn’t take his governorship of Spain) in order to manage factions at elections as they were games.

(46) Cato ensures his friend Marcus Favonius is fairly elected aedile, the post which supervised games and entertainments, but Cato actually carries out a lot of the duties. People are amused by the way Cato rewards the players with humble gifts of food and fruit rather than elaborate gold and luxuries. He thought that to sport and entertainment, light and gladsome arrangements were appropriate.

(47) In 52 BC the street fighting of Clodius and Titus Annius Milo’s gangs and others became so extreme that elections to the magistracies were suspended. Opinion crystallised that Pompey needed to intervene with his army to restore order. When this was proposed in the senate to everyone’s surprise Cato supported it, with the simple argument that any government is better than no government at all.

(48) And so Pompey is appointed sole consul, floods the streets with soldiers, puts an end to political violence and safeguards the elections. A benign military dictatorship. He asks Cato to be his adviser. Cato, typically, says when he criticised him before it wasn’t out of personal malice and if he helps him now it won’t be to truckle favour, in both cases it is for the good of the state. He advises him against the retrospective prosecution of officials for winning their places by bribery, arguing that a) it will be difficult to know where to stop and b) it was unfair to punish people according to a law which didn’t exist when they acted.

Cato’s difficulty as a juror in trials where he couldn’t be suborned or bought and so was an unpredictable quality to both prosecution and defence.

(49) All this time Caesar is using the money and power he accumulates in Gaul to buy friends and influence in Rome. Finally it dawns on Pompey that he is becoming a threat. Cato decides to stand for the consulship to try and limit’s Caesar’s ambitions. Cato proposes a law that candidates must canvas in person, and not through middle men who distribute money and bribes, which alienates the populace who like money and bribes. Refusing to employ the common practices of a consul ingratiating himself with the people, he is not elected.

(50) Cicero upbraids Cato because, when the times required a man like him in power, he refused to change his principles and humble himself to stand for election, and so lost the opportunity to help the state. How much should a man compromise his principles in order to win power to enact his principles?

(51) It is reported in Rome that Caesar attacked Germans in Gaul during a truce, and massacred them. A great public celebration is called but Cato declares Caesar should be handed over to the Germans whose trust he breached. Caesar wrote a letter to be read out in the senate justifying his actions and execrating Cato at length. But this only gives Cato an opportunity to deliver a long, carefully evidenced indictment of Caesar’s behaviour and ambitions, so that the latter’s friends regret reading out the letter in the first place.

The senate consider it is well to find a replacement for Caesar but Caesar replies that he’ll only do that if Pompey lays down his arms. At which Cato points out that what he prophesied was coming to pass, that overmighty leaders with private armies were dictating to the senate rather than following the instructions of the government.

“Those things are come to pass which I foretold to you, and the man is at last resorting to open compulsion, using the forces which he got by deceiving and cheating the state.”

(52) Plutarch skips over the entire complex web of events which led to the escalating crisis between Caesar and Pompey, the ultimatums, the attempts at mediation, and skips suddenly to Caesar having crossed the Rubicon and occupied the town of Ariminum (January 49 BC). Cato says ‘I told you so’ and recommends that Pompey be supported in opposing Caesar. Pompey acknowledges that Cato was a prophet but fails to raise the armies he told everyone it would be so easy to raise and decides to flee Rome.

At this perilous moment Plutarch pauses to tell us about Cato’s private life, namely that he remarried the Marcia he had divorced and who subsequently married Hortensius, who had died, leaving her free again. Apparently Caesar made much of this in the virulent diatribe he wrote against Cato, claiming the latter in effect farmed his wife out to the wealthy Hortensius so that, when the latter died, he could remarry his wife and come into a fortune. Thus the Roman aristocracy, bickering among themselves.

(53) Cato opts to support Pompey and is sent as Pompeian governor to Sicily. But when he hears that Pompey has fled Italy for Greece he makes the droll remark that:

there was much inconsistency and obscurity in the divine government, since Pompey had been invincible while his course was neither sound nor just, but now, when he wished to save his country and was fighting in defence of liberty, he had been deserted by his good fortune.

As to being governor of Sicily, when a Caesarian force arrives under Asinius Pollio, Cato says he doesn’t want to lay waste the province with war and so sails to join Pompey in Greece. Here he made good policy suggestions, namely not to plunder a city that was subject to Rome, and not to put a Roman to death except on the field of battle. This brought to the party of Pompey a good repute, and induced many to join it.

(54) Cato is sent to Asia, whither he is accompanied by his sister, much reformed from her dissolute behaviour, and where he persuades Rhodes to declare for Pompey. At first Pompey is inclined to give Cato command of his huge fleet of some 500 ships, until it is pointed out to him that Pompey is not devoted to his cause but to Rome and that, the minute Caesar was defeated, Cato would be insisting that Pompey surrender his command, too. So he appoints Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus admiral.

But Cato proves an asset. When all the generals give speeches to the men before a big battle at Dyrrhachium, the soldiers listen lethargically, but when Cato addresses them and invokes all the ideas of patriotism and bravery and tells them the gods are watching he rouses them to a true fighting spirit and Pompey wins the battle.

(55) When Pompey marched his army into Thessaly, he left Cato in command of the supplies and men he left at Dyrrhachium, along with fifteen cohorts. After Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus, Cato offered command of the fleet to Cicero, who refused, saying he wanted to return to Italy. But Pompey’s son, Gnaeus Pompey, was violently against anyone who deserted the cause, and might have killed Cicero had he left. Cato talked him into remaining and so probably saved his life (well, for the time being; nobody’s life is really saved, not forever).

(56) Guessing that Pompey had headed south Cato sailed to Africa with his fleet. In Libya he met Sextus Pompeius and learned of his father’s murder. Ashamed of abandoning men, Cato found himself taking command of the remaining Pompeian forces (reminding us how close, how very close, the military world was to all the Roman ‘statesman’ we read about. It was a totally militarised politics.)

He learns of other Pompeian forces under Juba the king and Attius Varus and resolves to join them. Cato shows all the signs of mourning (for Pompey) walks rather than rides a horse, only lies down to sleep, east sitting down.

(57) Cato tries to resolve the squabbles between the Roman commanders Scipio and Varus, and King Juba of the Numidians. He is punctilious about not taking command because he is only a pro-praetor whereas Scipio is a pro-consul.

(58) Scipio was going to give in to Juba’s request to have the city of Utica razed to the ground and it inhabitants slaughtered but Cato vehemently objected, got himself appointed governor of it to ensure its loyalty to the Pompeians. With his usual administrative flair he turns it into a storehouse for Pompeian forces in Africa. But his advice to Scipio, to play a waiting game and let Caesar tired himself in Africa, is ignored. Scipio mocks Cato locked up safe and secure in a walled city but when Cato offers to take his army to Italy to decoy Caesar back there, Scipio mocks this too. And Cato begins to realise Scipio is a rash and unreliable leader and would probably make himself tyrant, given half a chance.

All of which is grimly confirmed when messengers bring news of the Battle of Thapsus 6 April 46 in which Caesar demolished the much bigger army of Juba and Scipio and Varus.

(59) That night the population panics but Cato walks among them calming their fears. When day comes he assembles the 300 or so Roman citizens in the town, businessmen and moneylenders with the senators who had taken refuge there. (It is typical of the kind of insights you glean from these texts, that Plutarch calls these people Cat’s ‘senate’. Did this mean every town and city in a Roman province had its own ‘senate’ made up of the richest Roman inhabitants?)

Cato then makes a speech advising everyone to stay put and not flee, severally. And says it’s their free choice whether to switch to Caesar but he would admire and praise them more if they if they remained true to what he saw not as ‘Pompey’s side’ but the cause of Rome and its laws and traditions.

(60) Cato’s speech inspires the people to elect him their leader and use their goods and weapons and lives as he thinks fit. Someone suggests a law freeing all the slaves but Cato, with typically legalistic precision, says such a law would be illegal, but individual slave-owners can free them and all of military age will be accepted into the army. Both Juba (with the remnants of his army) and Scipio (with his fleet) send messages saying they await Cato’s decision what to do next.

(61) The senators manumitted their slaves but the leading 300 citizens were conflicted and Plutarch gives a paragraph of their thinking and reasoning why they want to hand themselves over to Caesar.

(62) Given these divisions Cato sends back to Juba and Scipio telling them not to come. But when a large number of allied cavalry arrive, Cato and the senators beg them to come inside the city and stay with them.

(63) The horsemen say they will but only if Cato drives out the ‘barbarian’ ‘fickle’ Phoenician people of Utica. Cato says he will consider it. When he returns inside the city the 300 have become bolder and complaining why they are being forced to oppose the undefeatable Caesar, and muttering more and more about the senators being responsible for their danger.

Then he hears that the cavalry force is riding away so grabs a horse and rides after them. They say come with us and be saved. Cato bursts into tears and begs them to come back to Utica if only for one day, to protect the senators.

(64) The cavalry take up positions inside Utica which is now really divided between the senators, who are with Cato, and the 300 businessmen, who want to surrender. Cato has decided to kill himself, since every future he can foresee is one of tyrants in which his beloved Rome is ruined. But he delays in his bid to reconcile the 300 and the senators. The 300 want to send messages to Caesar surrendering and offer prayers. Cato says by all means send messages but prayers are for the defeated and he is not defeated; he is triumphant in spirit, it is Caesar who has admitted his treacherous intent.

(65) As Caesar’s forces approach, Cato tries to keep order in the city, to ensure the senators’ safety, and to prevent the cavalry looting and killing. He tries to unite the people into accepting the treacherous 300, so they stand as one city. He helps those who want to flee embark from the harbour.

(66) Lucius Caesar offers to go as envoy to the great Julius and fall down at his feet to beg for Cato. But Cato says, No, this is his job. Instead they discuss how to save the 300. Then he gathers his son and family round him and takes a bath.

(67) He hosts a big dinner party after which literary and philosophical subjects are discussed, including the so-called ‘paradoxes of the Stoics’ which include the maxim that all good men are free and that the bad are all slaves. A peripatetic philosopher begins to object to this but Cato wades in and argues at length and fiercely for its truth. Only the good, like him, are truly free. The bad, like Caesar, despite all appearances to the contrary, are slaves. From his tone and words everyone realised he intended to kill himself.

(68) He walks with family and friends, embraces them all, and retired to his bedroom. Here he reads Plato on the soul but on glancing around discovers his sword is gone, His son removed it. He orders his slaves to find it, gets angry and hits them when they can’t, eventually his son arrives in floods of tears and Cato remonstrates with him for taking away his means of defence.

(69) He is left with just two friends and asks if they have been set there to talk him out of killing himself.

(70) These two friends burst into tears and leave. Then the sword is sent in, carried by a child. He sets it aside and rereads the Plato twice, then falls asleep. Then wakes up and sends an official, Butas, to check everyone who wanted has safely departed the harbour. His doctor he has bandage the hand he damaged punching his servant. Butas tells him most of those who wanted to depart have left but a strong wind and storm are blowing up.

When Butas has left Cato tries to kill himself but makes a weak blow with the sword and falls to the floor. His slaves and son rush in, weeping. The doctor tries to push his intestines which are spilling out of his abdomen back in, but when he realises what is going on, Cato pushes him away, tears at his own intestines and at the wound to make it bigger, and so dies. How disgusting. How undignified.

So, as with Pompey and Caesar and Cicero, Plutarch really lays on the domestic details in order to work his death scene up into one designed to spark strong emotion. Craftsmanlike, painterly.

(71) In an improbable show of unity which one suspects owes more to Plutarch’s partiality, he has the 300 and the townspeople all uniting in their love of Cato and declaring him the one free man. They dress his body richly, bury it near the sea and erect a statue which stands to this day.

(72) Soon after Caesar arrives at Utica, learns of Cato’s death and utters the famous words:

“”O Cato, I begrudge thee thy death; for thou didst begrudge me the sparing of thy life.”

But Cato didn’t want to live if it meant living at the whim of (people he thought) tyrants and of simultaneously having the sparing of his life turned into a great credit to Caesar’s reputation. No. He only really had one course of action.

(73) Coda about Cato’s son, who Caesar spared, as was his habit. Initially he became a figure of fun by having an affair with the wife of an eastern king, and Plutarch quotes some maxims or aphorisms made about him. But he ended well, dying fighting at Philippi against Caesar and Antony. His daughter married that Brutus who assassinated Caesar, was part of the conspiracy and died in the cause. And this expired the line of Cato.

Thoughts

Choosing sides

At various points in the reading you realise how difficult it is to know what to do in a society which is falling to bits. It wasn’t really a question of choosing sides because not until the final breakout of civil war were there two sides to pick from. Cato’s career demonstrates that the uttermost probity and honesty only take you so far. In the real world compromise has to be made on a host of occasions. A big example is when Cato surprised everyone by backing Pompey as sole consul in 52. Any government is better than anarchy.

But that, for me, raises the central issue. There are lots of interpretations, lots of scholarly reasons given, for the collapse of the republic, but in my opinion the fundamental one was the collapse of political discourse into street violence. Over the preceding generations it had become acceptable to physically attack your opponents and their supporters in the street. The problem was how to contain this violence, how to contain it within the realm of politics and stop it spreading over into the realm of violence.

Philosophy

Much is made of Cato’s devotion to philosophy, but it can be said of him as of so many other people who study the subject, that in the end they choose the school and philosophy which suits their temperament, which they were always going to choose. He was harsh and inflexible and sought to display little or no feeling, so he was drawn to stoicism which “teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.”

Far from teaching ‘truth’, philosophy is like a huge breakfast buffet where you can tuck into whatever you fancy and mix and match at will, change your opinions, decide you fancy a fry-up instead of pastries. Or, to quote Bob Dylan, “People do what they want to and then think up reasons to justify their actions later.”


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Roman reviews

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings (1994)

He even became quite fond of several of his pupils, and described to like-minded friends the pleasure he took in caning them.
(Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, page 139)

Evelyn Waugh 28 October 1903 to 10 April 1966 (aged 62)

This is a long book, 724 pages, 627 of actual text i.e. without notes and index, but a hugely enjoyable read. I began to write my review as a chronological account but, as with my reviews of lives of Ian Fleming and Somerset Maugham, it just got too long. Too much happened to these fascinating authors. Instead I’m going to do it by themes.

Selina Hastings

It helps that Hastings is herself part of the posh world she describes, being the titled daughter of an earl – Lady Selina Shirley Hastings, eldest daughter of Francis, 16th Earl of Huntingdon – herself educated at private school and Oxford. (Indeed, according to her Wikipedia entry, ‘She and her sister, Lady Harriet Shackleton, are in remainder to several ancient English baronies, including those of Hastings and Botreaux.’) Hence the ease and confidence with which she writes about Waugh’s world, and the aristocratic characters and notable dynasties in it. She writes about this or that eminent personage of Waugh’s generation as if they’re old friends.

‘That’

After a while I noted a stylistic tic Hastings has which is to say of this or that person of the time (the 1930s, 40s and 50s) that they are ‘that noted figure’, ‘those notorious sisters’, and so on. She is signalling that she is inside this world, she is part of this world, that for her, with her privileged upbringing confidently swimming in the world of the English aristocracy, these figures from the literary world or aristocratic world are so well known that she assumes everyone knows about them.

  • …that most influential reviewers, Arnold Bennett (p.180)
  • Peter Rodd’s father was that exquisite flower of diplomacy, one-time ambassador in Rome, Sir Rennell Rodd. (p.260)
  • Evelyn, together with Duff and Diana and Chips Channon, stayed at the Palazzo Brandolini as guests of that indefatigable social climber, Laura Corrigan… (p.265)
  • Gabriel Herbert was 22, a handsome, amusing, athletic girl, daughter of that dashing adventurer, Aubrey Herbert 285
  • the fourth Earl of Carnarvon had purchased a large expanse of that beautiful peninsula 287

This biography puts forward no great theories or revelations, but invites you to immerse yourself at great length (the Minerva paperback edition is 724 pages long) in Waugh’s world. It is a big, juicy Christmas cake of a book and a hugely enjoyable read. I like biographies which give you the confident feeling, no matter how spurious, that human beings and the society they move in can be understood.

Father, Arthur Waugh

Evelyn’s father, Arthur, was a author, literary critic, and publisher. Arthur attended Sherborne public school and New College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry for a ballad on the subject of Gordon of Khartoum in 1888. Arthur wrote a biography of Tennyson and achieved notoriety by having an essay included in the notorious Yellow Book magazine. From 1902 to 1930 he was Managing Director and Chairman of the publishing house Chapman and Hall, the publishers who were to publish most of his son’s novels. In 1893 Arthur married Catherine Raban and their first son Alexander Raban Waugh (always known as Alec) was born on 8 July 1898. Our hero, Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh, was born five years later on 28 October 1903.

Bad relations with father

Evelyn’s relationship with his father was difficult and strained for at least 4 reasons:

1. Arthur idolised his first son, Alec, who went on to fulfil every paternal dream, becoming head boy at his school, playing for the First XI and First XV, writing poetry and generally being an all-round star pupil. For his boyhood and adolescence Evelyn was always in the shadow of his brother, a situation he exaggerated and dramatised in the short story ‘Winner Takes All’.

2. Arthur didn’t hide that he wished his second child had been a daughter.

3. As a young man Arthur delighted his friends with reading from literature in which he did all the voices. As a father of small children this was entertaining, but as he got older his manner hardened into a perpetual playing, mimicking, quoting and play-acting. After dinner the whole family would be taken to the ‘book room’ and subjected to readings from Pinero or singalongs from Gilbert and Sullivan. This began to grate on Evelyn’s nerves when he was a boy and by his later teenage years he had developed a real antipathy to his father (p.449). He hated the way it was impossible to break through Arthur’s pose of bonhomie to have any genuine communication. When he was irritated with him, Waugh referred to his father as ‘Chapman and Hall’, the publishing firm he was managing director of.

4. Easygoing, joking, Gilbert and Sullivan Arthur found his son’s character unnecessarily hard, haughty, vindictive and cynical. Once he became successful and well known Evelyn In the manner of the Bright Young Things he often said the kind of wounding and hurtful things which his hardened peers accepted and enjoyed, but which made Arthur very uncomfortable.

Home in North London

Initially the family lived in Hillfield Road, West Hampstead but in 1907 moved to a house Arthur designed and had built and named Underhill in the London suburb of Golders Green, which still abutted farms and fields. From 1910 to 1916 Waugh attended Heath Mount preparatory school. Although physically on the short side, Waugh didn’t lack confidence in his intellectual powers. He was a bully, he physically bullied smaller boys, including the famous photographer Cecil Beaton who never forgot or forgave him.

Family holidays were spent with the Waugh aunts at Midsomer Norton in Somerset. Here Waugh became deeply interested in high Anglican church rituals and served as an altar boy at the local Anglican church.

Waugh’s diary

But the key fact about him is that he wrote: he kept a detailed diary (which has survived), he wrote stories and poems which were published in the school magazine, which he edited, he wrote all the time, perfecting a style of clipped, witty gossip.

Lancing College

Alec had been sent to the same public school as his father, Sherborne, but in 1915 he was discovered in a homosexual relationship and expelled. All would have been hushed up if Alec hadn’t gone on – after joining the army and in intervals of officer training – to write a novel, The Loom of Youth, openly describing the gay affair at a school which was recognisably Sherborne. The result was that Waugh , much to his irritation, couldn’t go to Sherborne and instead was sent to Lancing public school on the South Downs (just the kind of aggrieved second bestness which he dramatised in ‘Winner Takes All’).

These days a year at Lancing College costs £37,000 plus all the extras (uniform and kit) x 6 years = easily £225,000.

Hastings is very good at conveying the atmosphere of Lancing which was founded in 1848 by Nathaniel Woodard, a member of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican church which aimed to reintroduce the pageantry and beauty and mystery which had been lost at the Reformation. The school is noted for the enormous chapel which dominates all the other buildings and, being built on a hill, the entire locality. The foundation stone was laid in 1868 but wasn’t completed and dedicated (to St Mary and St Nicholas) until 1911, shortly before Waugh arrived.

What comes over from Hastings’ evocative account is:

  • the extreme religiosity of the school, with compulsory attendance at daily prayers plus the full roster of Anglican feasts
  • the fantastic complexity of the rules and regulations which governed every aspect of dress and behaviour, with different rules for each year group and even for each of the four houses within the years – reading Hastings you begin to understand why order and ritual in every aspect of their lives, continued to structure the perceptions and ideas of this generation for the rest of their lives
  • the boys were treated as ‘men’, and much was expected of them in terms of duty and responsibility
  • the variety and eccentricity of many of the masters
  • the overwhelmingly arts and humanities nature of the syllabus
  • the surprising amount of homosexuality: it’s hard to understand why Alec was expelled from Sherborne when Hastings describes in detail, with quotes form letters and diaries, intense love affairs which Waugh had with a number of his fellow pupils: pretty younger boys were liable to be courted and wooed by rivalrous older boys, which resulted in all kinds of emotional tangles

Maybe what comes over most, though, is that although Waugh write continuously, pouring out stories and poems which populated the school magazine and continuing his astonishingly precocious diary, his first love was art and design. He was extremely interested in calligraphy and scribing. He was encouraged by masters of an artistic bent and spent some time visiting an eccentric aesthete who lived near the school and owned a full range of pens and knives and inks and precious papers. Waugh developed a real skill for art and design, designing the covers for books and magazines. He was thrilled when one of the masters took receipt of an old-style luxury printing press and was allowed to use it.

All of this is described in detail in the abandoned fragment ‘Charles Ryders’ Schooldays’ which appears to be a straight from life description of a few days from Waugh’s last year at Lancing.

Hertford College, Oxford

The drinking and writing continued on to Oxford. Waugh attended Hertford college. What surprised me is the extent of the homosexual activity. There are lots of descriptions of parties where the men danced with each other or snogged in corners or on sofas, descriptions of Evelyn rolling on sofas tickling the tonsils of another undergraduate. He had intense, long affairs with Richard Pares and Alastair Graham.

Graham was a small, beautiful young man who matched Evelyn in drinking but with pronounced aesthetic tastes. Graham sent him love letters with photographs of himself naked. It is from the period of this affair that Evelyn based his image of perfect, heady Romantic Oxford, and the portrait of Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead is based on Alastair Graham.

Waugh did next to no work, no one ever saw him with a book open or reading and repeatedly came close to being expelled. He had won a  £100 annual scholarship to study History, a subject in which, it turned out, he had absolutely no interest, to the immense frustration of the senior history don C.R.M.F. Cruttwell. The pair quickly came to dislike each other, Cruttwell’s lofty criticism of his attitude driving Waugh to real hatred. Hastings amusingly shows that Waugh got his revenge by naming a whole series of negative characters Cruttwell, for example the murderous lunatic in Mr Loveday’s Little Outing was originally named Cruttwell.

Instead of reading and studying, Waugh drank heavily all the time (see his recommendation to Tom Driberg to be drunk p.91 and his advice to be drunk all the time p.97).

Hastings describes the immense influence on his peers of the aesthete Harold Acton, part of the set of rich young aesthetes known as the Georgeoisie, also featuring Brian Howard, founder member of the Hypocrites Club. Acton dedicated his 1927 book of poems, Five Saints, to Waugh and Waugh dedicated his first, breakthrough novel, Decline and Fall, to Acton. As the years went by Acton was to surprise everyone who knew and adulated him at Oxford by never really making his mark in the world of letters, whereas Waugh surprised everyone who’d known him as a hopeless drunk at Oxford by turning out to be one of the most notable writers of the mid-century.

In the summer of 1924 Waugh took his final exams and got a solid Third after which his tutor cancelled his scholarship for the ninth and final term which he required to qualify for a degree. He left in high dudgeon with no prospects of a career.

Nicknames

Hastings brings out the way this post-war generation revelled in consciously infantile behaviour and language. They gave nicknames to each other and wrote and talking in a deliberately juvenile manner. Waugh loved nicknames, which pack his letters and diaries and fictional characters. As examples, he nickamed:

  • his father ‘Chapman and Hall’, after the firm he worked for
  • his brother ‘Baldhead’ or ‘Baldie’
  • among the Lygon set Waugh nicknamed himself ‘Boaz’ or ‘Bo’, Maimie Lygon became ‘Blondy’, Dorothy Lygon ‘Pollen’ or ‘Poll’, Maimie’s Pekinese dog was ‘P.H.’ (standing for Pretty Hound)
  • in his letters to Diana Cooper he was known as ‘Mr Wu’
  • his future wife’s mother, Mary Herbert, was known as ‘Mrs What What’ as this is what she said all the time
  • once remarried, Waugh’s pet name for his second wife, Laura, was ‘Whisker’
  • the house he bought at Stinchcombe was nicknamed ‘Stinkers’
  • it ran in the family: in letters to Alec’s wife Joan, Arthur Waugh refers to his wife, Kate, as ‘Mrs Wugs’ (p.412)

Teaching

Waugh left Oxford in the summer of 1924 with no plans and no career and no training. Exactly like the hero of his breakthrough novel, Decline and Fall, he looked for work as teacher in the kind of private school he attended and an agency found him a post at ‘Arnold House’, a preparatory school at Llandullas on the ‘bleak, beautiful Denbighshire coast’ where he commenced duties in January 1925 (p.127).

Thus commenced four years of drift and unhappiness. He was alright at the teaching although useless at games which never interested him. He savoured the quirkiness and eccentricities of the other masters, all fodder stored away for his first novel, but he was miles away from his partying friends in Oxford and London.

What made things worse was that when, during the holiday, he returned to London he had gotten embroiled in a love affair with the sexy, promiscuous, hard drinking but aloof Olivia Plunkett-Greene who slept with everyone but him, making him fall deeper and more bitterly in love with her. She was the basis for the fabulously fearless Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies.

‘Olivia as usual behave like a whore and was embraced on a bed by various people.’ (Waugh’s diary quoted p.141)

He took with him to Wales the manuscript of a novel titled The Temple at Thatch, but when he sent a copy to his friend the influential aesthete Harold Acton, Acton’s comments were so critical and dismissive that Waugh burned the only manuscript in the school furnace (p.135).

What really comes over from Hastings’ account of this period is the intensity of Waugh’s drinking. He got very drunk every night, and often started during the day. Some friends were scared by the intensity of his intake and his diary records thoughts of suicide. His autobiography records a particularly vivid suicide attempt, where he went down to the Welsh coast, stripped off and waded out to sea intending to drown himself (p.136).

All this was expressed in the relationship with Olivia, who herself drank till she passed out (by 1936 she had become an alcoholic and retired from society to live with her mother).

Writing

Waugh quit the post at Arnold House in order to be closer to London and took a job at a school in Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire. His diary records that his status among the boys was transformed when he bought a motorbike (p.143) but he had only been here a few weeks when he sacked for allegedly making a drunken pass at the school matron (p.149).

He then secured a teaching post at a school in Notting Hill at £5 a week. Between all these short jobs he came home to stay with his parents at Underhill, the family home in Golders Green, under the increasingly disapproving glare of his father.

He still regarded himself as first and foremost a draughtsman, and enrolled in London courses in printing, cabinet-making and carpentry. Throughout his life Waugh applied metaphors and similes from carpentering and cabinet making to constructing well crafted novels.

His writing career didn’t exactly blossom. Having destroyed his draft novel, he managed to get a highly experimental short story, ‘The Balance’, published in a 1926 anthology published by his father’s publishing house, Chapman and Hall (p.145). He researched and wrote an extended essay on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood which was printed privately by his lover, Alastair Graham. And it was on the basis of this that an Oxford acquaintance, Anthony Powell (Eton and Oxford) now working for the publishers Duckworths, commissioned a full-length biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which Waugh wrote during 1927 (pp.158 to 160).

It’s worth pausing at this point to reflect on how he got started as a writer. Obviously he had to be able to write and to have written things worth reading, but he had huge advantages: his father was managing director of the publishing house which published his first short story; his brother was an established novelist ready with tips and advice; his lover privately published his first extended work; and a friend from Oxford commissioned him to write his first published book.

The Establishment

That is how it works; the network of families and friends met through public school and Oxford which dominated the literary world, the professions, politics and the City for most of the twentieth century. Arguably Waugh’s main subject was also the focus of his life, which was gossip and stories about the intricately interlinked network of aristocratic families which dominated English life, linked via marriage, school, Oxford, the army, business and politics into a great matrix of power and influence wielded to protect and promote each other. The network of power and influence which satirists of the 1960s called ‘the Establishment’ and which still dominates English to this day: David Cameron Eton and Oxford; Boris Johnson Eton and Oxford.

Giving individual examples is not very impressive because it’s only the sheer number of examples of the intermeshing of families of power and influence on every page, it’s the cumulative affect of the matrices of power, which really conveys the ubiquity and control of this class.

Journalism

Waugh was never a qualified, full-time journalist. During this unsettled period he spent a couple of months (April to May 1927) as a trainee journalist at the Daily Express, during which, by his own account, he filed no stories and spent a lot of time at the cinema. Or, as usual, getting drunk (p.151). It was the first of several skirmishes with journalism which were to build up to his comic masterpiece, Scoop. The general conclusion is clear: the journalists he saw in action were lying scoundrels who mostly fabricated their stories or exaggerated trivial events into ‘stories’ using a defined and limited set of rhetorical sleights of hand. He wrote pieces for magazines and newspapers to the end of his career, but never lost his amiable contempt for journalism and journalists.

First marriage, to she-Evelyn

In 1927 he met the honourable Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred Gardner, the daughter of Lord and Lady Burghclere, who was sharing a flat with Pansy Pakenham (p.153). Waugh was on the rebound from the final failure of his intense and troubled relationship with Olivia Plunket-Greene, Gardner was tiring of being pursued by half a dozen suitors. Photos of her at the time confirm written accounts that she was boyish in appearance and no conventional beauty. She’s was described as unusually immature, almost childish (‘young for her age’, p.155), she referred to Proust as Prousty-Wousty, to all her acquaintance as angel face or sweety pie – and this in a generation which Hastings goes out of her way to describe as consciously, modishly immature and childish.

Portrait of the two Evelyns by Olivia Wyndham (1928)

Hastings gives a fascinating account of Evelyn’s proposal which was so casual as to be barely noticeable, along the lines of, ‘Why don’t we try it and see how it goes?’ Gardner, who had (allegedly) already been engaged nine times, thought about it over night and next day replied, ‘Yes, why not?’ (p.163).

They were both 24, very immature, on the rebound from other relationships and also both wanted to escape the smothering tutelage of their parents. They both thought that getting married would set them free of parental restraint and define their adult identities.

Unfortunately, it didn’t, but first ‘the Evelyns’ had to negotiate permission to marry with Gardner’s mother, the formidable Lady Burghclere. She successfully blocked Waugh getting a job at the BBC (p.168). When Waugh submitted the MS of Decline and Fall to the publisher Duckworth’s, the head of the firm, Gerald Duckworth’ brother was married to Evelyn Gardner’s aunt, Margaret, and was well aware of the family’s snobbish disapproval of Waugh, and so turned the novel down. This is how it, the English establishment, works. Someone’s cousin, brother, sister, mother, friend they were at public school or Oxford with intervenes to help out, give a leg up, or block their ambitions, in which case your turn to another set of brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts or uncles to help you out.

27 June 1928 the Evelyns got married despite all Lady B’s objections, almost on a whim, in a disgustingly low church (St Paul’s, Portman Square, p.175)), with few friends or family present. The writer Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) gave Gardner away. Harold Acton (Eton and Oxford) was the best man. Brother Alec (Sherborne and Oxford) was a witness. A friend, Joyce Fagan, had moved out of a bijou little apartment in Canonbury and passed it on to the newly-married couple at a rent of £1 a week.

September 1928 Decline and Fall published to universal good reviews, from old timers such as Arnold Bennett and J.B. Priestly to new kids on the block like Cyril Connolly (Eton and Oxford). Waugh invited these important contacts to dinner or luncheon at the flat, and they were all enchanted by the 25-year-old pixies.

Literary agent

Alec introduced Waugh to his literary agent, A.D. Peters ( Haberdashers’ Aske’s and Cambridge) who was to be central to his career (p.182). Peters immediately started finding Waugh commissions to write articles about the younger generation for magazines and papers. Hastings features numerous passages describing Peters’ complex and aggressive negotiations on his client’s behalf with newspapers, magazines and publishers, both in Blighty and America. Several themes emerge:

  • the books were divided into two categories:
    • hardly anybody liked his travel books, they didn’t sell, and Peters failed to find American publishers willing to take several of them on at all
    • the novels were mostly well reviewed and received but during the 1930s he never had a bestseller and so was permanently strapped for cash
  • this explains why Waugh continuously hustled for jobs from papers and magazines, endlessly coming up with ideas for features and articles: the problem here was that he often knocked them off at such great speed that magazines (such as Vogue, Harpers, Nash’s and so on) quickly became cautious and took to turning down Waugh articles and stories
  • and this relates to something Hastings doesn’t explicitly state, but which becomes apparent as you read through the book, which is that Waugh didn’t really have many opinions about anything, or not opinions that could be translated into interesting articles; fresh off the back of Decline and Vile Bodies he could make some quids by claiming to be a spokesman for the generation of Bright Young Things; but by mid-1930s his actual opinions – conservative, reactionary Catholic in thrall to a rose-tinted image of the landed aristocracy was not very saleable

Travel books

Waugh came up with the idea of writing articles about a cruise, which could then be compiled into a book as he was, throughout the 1930s, to come up with wizard wheezes for travel books. A number of his pals were good at this – Hastings refers to ‘the intellectual avidity of Robert Byron…the exuberance of Peter Fleming’ (p.269) [both of whom went to Eton and Oxford] – and it was an obvious way to go on an adventure and be paid for it.

The odd thing is that Hastings makes it crystal clear that Waugh hated travelling. He invariably ended up feeling sad and lonely and was often excruciatingly bored. In fact the account of his first trip to Abyssinia, Remote People, includes three short interludes entirely devoted to the problem of boredom. Reviewing the book Rebecca West made the witty point that a writer who writes about boredom almost invariably creates boredom in the reader (p.240), but I found this to be wrong.

I have travelled widely on my own (Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, India, Thailand) and can vouch for the fact that there often are moments or days of excruciating loneliness and boredom. So I found the short passage in Remote People about boredom more interesting than some of the straight travel writing. It felt more personal and more true in much the same way as his reporting on the coronation of Haile Selassie was painfully accurate about its shabbiness and lack of glamour, or his description of the ‘famous’ monastery at Debra Lebanos as sordid and squalid.

Although he fibbed about some of the details, there is, overall, about the travel books, as the letters and diaries, a fundamental honesty, a self-exposing, excoriating, merciless honesty about himself and others  in Waugh’s writing which is, even when it’s unattractive, admirable.

Anyway, it’s interesting to learn that his four travel books were not well received. Publishers and reviewers didn’t like them as much as the novels and they didn’t sell anywhere near as well. I agree they don’t have the well wrought artfulness of the novels but I enjoyed the three that I read for what you feel is the blunt unvarnished truth of Waugh’s reporting and therefore accurate descriptions of faraway places in a long ago time which will never return.

His wife’s betrayal

Wasn’t a sudden, impulsive thing. Hastings gives good reasons why the Honourable Evelyn Gardner became unhappy.

  1. She never really loved Waugh, she liked him and admired him.
  2. She was a sickly child. In February 1929 they boarded the Stella Polaris for a cruise round the Mediterranean. This turned into a nightmare as Gardner fell very seriously ill and by the time they reached Port Said was taken off the ship and stretchered to the British hospital with double pneumonia and pleurisy. Despite his intense concern and nursing his sick wife every day, Waugh managed to turn in a creditable travel book, Labels, but Gardner continued to be frequently ill when they got back to London. A subconscious plea for more attention? Or indication of underlying unhappiness?
  3. Trouble in the bedroom: Hastings doesn’t give details but quotes Gardner saying Waugh was no good in bed and her suspicions that this was because he had learned all his sexual technique from sex with men (p.196); elsewhere Hastings links this with his sexual shyness and lack of confidence around women.
  4. Both Gardner and Waugh married to escape from being at home and dominated by parents. They thought it would make them free and independent. Instead, once the initial euphoria had worn off, they realised they were alone and in difficult financial straits, as neither of them had a job.
  5. Gardner’s loneliness. Precisely in order to earn some money Waugh had to take himself off to a study or, more often, go out of London altogether, to stay with friends or in country inns, so he could concentrate on writing. Gardner was a fun-time 1920s party girl, and hated being left at home all alone night after night.

Hence, Waugh encouraged her to go out and socialise, recommending a close cadre of ‘safe’ male friends, one of whom was John Heygate (Eton and Oxford) (p.192). She spent more and more time with him, dashing, clever (job as assistant news editor at the BBC) and eventually, in July 1929, sent Waugh a letter saying she’d fallen in love with Heygate and wanted a separation (p.193).

Waugh was devastated. The cosy new base he’d built for his professional and personal life came crashing down. Hastings quotes friends who say that from that point onwards, a new note of cynicism and anger entered his personality and his work. Disgusted, he managed to see Gardner only once more in the rest of their lives (at the legal divorce proceedings).

Waugh based the very commonplace, drab and casually immoral character John Beaver in A Handful of Dust on Heygate. It is interesting to learn from Heygate’s Wikipedia article that:

  1. He did marry Gardner, in 1930, which was jolly decent of him – but they were divorced in 1936.
  2. He was very right-wing, a Nazi sympathiser, and attended the 1935 Nuremberg Rally in the company of his friend the writer Henry Williamson, next to Unity and Diana Mitford. Lovely people.

Childishness

Hastings repeatedly emphasises the childishness of Waugh and his friends (p.251-25 3). From one point of view the whole affair with and marriage to Gardner was an apotheosis of childishness. She was famous in her circle for her lisping childish pronunciation, for giving everyone nursery nicknames, for looking and dressing like a pre-pubescent boy (a page boy, in Diana Mitford’s description).

But it wasn’t just them. Hastings considers their entire generation cultivated a childish irresponsibility. Maybe it was a rebellion against their heavy Victorian and Edwardian parents, and against the enormous tragedy of the Great War which their older brothers fought and died in. But calculated frivolity and heedless hedonism was, of course, the signature mode of the bright young things of the 1920s, and much of this had a deliberately childish aspect, a refusal to grow up or take anything seriously.

In Waugh’s fiction this is probably best exemplified in various plotlines in Vile Bodies but in his social life Hastings shows how it was a deliberately cultivated pose in some circles of friends, for example the Lygon sisters. Hastings quotes postcards and letters they sent each other written in fake baby language, or with the interpolations of a fictional stupid character named Tommy (actually a joke at the expense of a neighbour of the Lygons, Tommy MacDougall, ‘a dashing master of foxhounds’, p.252) who interrupts the main text to ask stupid questions rendered in misspelt capitals:

When we meet again it will be gay and terribly exciting and not at all like a biscuit box
WY LIKE A BISKIT BOCKS PLESE?
Wait till you are a little older Tommy and then you will understand.
(quoted page 252)

I am going to live in Oxford all the summer and write a life of Gregory the Great.
WHO WAS GREGRY THE GRATE?
He was a famous pope, Tommy.
(quoted page 301)

This style of gushing naivety is used by Waugh in the funny short story ‘Cruise’ which consists of postcards from an archetypally dim, naive, semi-illiterate flapper on a cruise back to her parents. The story uses a phrase which recurs in the actual Lygon correspondence, obviously a catchphrase of their group or the time, which is to use the gushingly simple-minded phrase ‘God how sad’ for anything which goes wrong from tea not being nice to riots in foreign cities (eventually abbreviated in letters to ‘G how s’.p363). If you say it in a posh 1920s flapper voice it is quite funny.

Another notable group slang phrase was ‘lascivious beast’ for priest. For the rest of his life, in letters to close friends, Waugh regularly referred to priests he was meeting in England or abroad and even in Rome, as ‘lascivious beasts’ or just ‘beasts’.

The three Lygon sisters and their fabulous country estate at Madresfield were very important psychologically to Waugh after the trauma of his divorce from Gardner. He recreated a fake childish world with them, which was maintained in their lively correspondence, and he dedicated Black Mischief to ‘Mary and Dorothy Lygon’ when it was published in October 1932.

Conversion to Catholicism

Obvious roots:

  1. He was a very earnestly seriously Christian schoolboy.
  2. Many people of his generation and in his immediate circle converted to Catholicism in the late 1920s.

The most interesting thing about Waugh’s conversion is that it wasn’t romantic or mystical, it was entirely intellectual (pp.225, 227, 229). Talking it over with Catholic friends and then with one or two high society Jesuits he came to the intellectual conviction that:

  1. Christianity explained the world, humans and morality
  2. Catholic Christianity, established in Rome by the martyr Saint Peter, was the oldest, truest, most universal, most enduring form of Christianity (p.225)

And that was it. From this intellectual conviction he never strayed. Details of liturgy and practice, aspects of theology, his emotions or feelings about religion, all these could change and he could happily take the mickey out of them because none of it altered his deep intellectual conviction about the fundamental truth of Roman Catholicism.

Evelyn always insisted that his response to his faith was purely intellectual and pragmatic. (p.487)

Thus Waugh could jokingly refer to priests as ‘lascivious beasts’ and any amount of levity and satire about individual churchmen without a qualm because it wasn’t a question of respecting this or that piety; for Waugh Catholicism simply was the universal truth about the world, whether he was serious and solemn about it or messing about with friends. His own personal attitude didn’t change the Truth. The Truth carried on regardless of anything he wrote or thought or said, that was its appeal.

It didn’t do any harm that entering the Catholic church meant joining a small, embattled, unfashionable elite, and that Waugh identified solely with the old, aristocratic Catholic families and with only the best high society Jesuits – that suited his snobbish elitism very well. But it wasn’t the fundamental motive.

Politics

Waugh wasn’t very interested in politics (‘contemptuous as he was of political life and all politicians’, p.495). Arguably the one enduring subject of his work, diaries and letters was Gossip about people he knew or knew of. Even when he was ‘reporting’ from Abyssinia what excited him most was the court gossip as bruited among the catty diplomatic circles.

His politics followed his religion in the sense that he believed that Absolute Truth resided elsewhere, the human nature is fallen and deeply flawed, that perfection can never be achieved in this world and all attempts to achieve it inevitably end in repression. He handily defined his credo in an extended passage from the travel book he was commissioned to write about Mexico, Robbery Under Law, published in 1939 just as the world plunged into another world war. Because it’s so central to everything he wrote it’s obviously a carefully worded and thorough credo, it’s worth repeating in full:

Let me, then, warn the reader that I was a Conservative when I went to Mexico and that everything I saw there strengthened my opinions.

I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth; That his chances of happiness and virtue, here, remain more or less constant through the centuries and, generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives; That the balance of good and ill tends to revert to a norm; That sudden changes of physical condition are usually ill, and are advocated by the wrong people for the wrong reasons; That the intellectual communists of today have personal, irrelevant grounds for their antagonism to society, which they are trying to exploit.

I believe in government; That men cannot live together without rules but that they should be kept at the bare minimum of safety; That there is no form of government ordained from God as being better than any other; That the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole-time task to keep the peace.

I believe that the inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of elimination; That men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes; That such a system is necessary for any form of co-operation work, more particularly the work of keeping a nation together.

I believe in nationality; not in terms of race or of divine commissions for world conquest, but simply thus: mankind inevitably organizes itself in communities according to its geographical distribution; These communities by sharing a common history develop common characteristics and inspire local loyalty; The individual family develops most happily and fully when it accepts these natural limits.

A conservative is not merely an obstructionist, a brake on frivolous experiment. He has positive work to do.

Civilization has no force of its own beyond what it is given from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all.

Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity.

Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace.

Fascist Spain and Italy

This explains Waugh’s support for Mussolini, when Fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935, and for the forces of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Waugh visited Abyssinia three times and was appalled at the poverty, cruelty (read the description of Addis Ababa prison in Remote People) and barbarity of much of the country, which wasn’t a country at all but an empire of subject peoples held together by force. He saw Italy as bringing European law and order and culture and, above all, Religion, to a corrupt and failing country.

I was shocked when I first read of his support for the ‘noble cause’ of Franco and the nationalists in Spain but it, of course, makes perfect sense. The Spanish socialist government may have been democratically elected but it embarked almost immediately on a campaign of closing churches and arresting priests. If you believe the Catholic Church is a vital connection between the creator God and his people, as Waugh very deeply did, then this simply could not be allowed and Franco’s intervention to restore law and order and preserve the church of course received Waugh’s initial support. Until it became clear that the Franco forces were committing atrocities every bit as bad or worse than the communists he vilified – at which point he washed his hands of the whole affair.

Waugh’s Second World War

One quote says it all:

The ordinary soldiers disliked [Waugh] to such an extent that for a time [his superior officer, Lieutenant] Laycock felt obliged to set a guard on his sleeping quarters. (p.445)

Despite being every bit as committed to the war effort as his alter ego, Guy Crouchback, in the Sword of Honour trilogy, and despite showing real bravery in the face of enemy attack (Stuka divebombing in Crete) Waugh was universally disliked in the army. He had no idea how to deal with the ordinary working class soldiers, veering between heavy sarcasm and shouted orders, both of which failed to command affection or respect (‘He bullied and bewildered them’, p.445). His commander in 8 Commando, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Laycock (Eton and Sandhurst), told him he was so unpopular as to be virtually unemployable in the army (p.445).

He was an outsider to all the regular soldiers, bluff philistine types who instinctively took against this ‘bookish chappie’ with his smart repartee and corrosive cynicism. And when he did manage to wangle a place in a commando unit (as Crouchback does) Waugh was easily outclassed by genuine aristocrats such as Lord Randolph Churchill. His brown-nosing snobbish hero worship of these real blue blood types was so obvious, and repellent to onlookers, that Hastings is able to quote several written accounts describing it. His toadying to anyone with a title was a running joke with the WAAFs at the headquarters of Combined Operations (p.419).

Lord Lovat (Ampleforth and Oxford), the deputy brigade commander, wrote of Waugh:

‘I had known him vaguely at Oxford, and, while I admired his literary genius, had marked him down as a greedy little man – a eunuch in appearance – who seemed desperately anxious to “get in” with the right people.’ (quoted page 450)

I was surprised to learn that when Lovat ordered the scruffy, ill-disciplined Waugh to go to a barracks in Scotland to re-undergo basic training, and Waugh objected and took his complaint to Lovat’s superior, General Haydon, the latter sacked him on the spot for insubordination. This was August 1943. Waugh remained in the army but without a post or position. This marks the end of his romance with the army. From now on he just wanted to get out, to return to civilian life and resume his career as a writer.

This disillusion and demotivation is strongly conveyed in the short prologue and epilogue to Brideshead Revisited where it is assigned to the novel’s narrator, Charles Ryder.

Waugh’s real wartime career closely followed the narrative of the Sword of Honour trilogy, or the trilogy was very closely based on his own experiences. But having read Hastings’ account makes you realise that Waugh’s greatest achievement in the novel was putting Crouchback on the same social level as the blue blood heroes he describes, and accepted by his fellow officers. Waugh was an outsider because he was a social-climbing, bookish cynic. In the trilogy Waugh converts the reasons for Waugh’s outsiderness – bookish, sarcastic, cynical, bad at handling soldiers – into the far more noble and romantic and acceptable reasons for Crouchback’s outsiderness, namely long-running depression over being dumped by his wife and a stern commitment to Catholic values which none of the other officers understands.

Sex

It’s strange that sexual problems in the bedroom appear to have contributed to the swift collapse of Waugh’s first marriage, and that Hastings periodically thereafter describes him as lacking sexual self-confidence, strange because his diaries and letters are full of sexual encounters – homosexual ones at school and Oxford and for a while afterwards in London, and then various encounters with prostitutes abroad. In Tangier, January 1934, Waugh explored the red light district and visited a brothel where he bought a 16 year old girl for 10 francs:

but I didn’t enjoy her very much because she had a skin like sandpaper and a huge stomach which didn’t show until she took off her clothes & then it was too late.
(Diary quoted p.297)

He then takes a 15 year old concubine whose face is entirely covered in blue tattoos and he thinks about setting up in an apartment of her own for his sole use (p.297). I was very struck by Waugh’s own account of being in an Italian brothel and paying for a big black guy to sodomise a white youth on a divan, all artfully staged and arranged for the viewing pleasure of Waugh and his friends.

I suppose there’s all the difference in the world between staging such events or, in more general terms, paying for sex, and having to manage consensual sex with a female partner, with someone you have to talk to later, arrange all the domestic chores, go out to dinner with and so on. That is an infinitely more complex situation to deal with and Waugh wouldn’t be the first man to find it demanding and intimidating.

Waugh writes the word ‘fuck’ quite a lot. One of his female correspondents deprecated his use of the word in a letter to her, so it was obviously not freely used in his posh circles. I was struck by the bluntness of a letter Waugh wrote his second wife, Laura, about taking leave from the army at Christmas 1942, just after she had given birth to their third child:

There is an hotel at Shaftesbury with a very splendid sideboard. I think we might take a week end there soon when you are fuckable. (quoted page 444)

which certainly gives an indication of the way he wrote to her, and maybe spoke to her, but it is not necessarily indicative of the bluntly physical attitude he actually took to sex because we know from his countless other letters, that he cultivated a range of voices and styles (baby talk, high gossip, satire, facetious descriptions of army life) in his letters, depending on who they were written to. Everything he wrote was written for effect.

(The really surprising thing about that letter is that it was preserved and published. Who gave permission for it to be published? I wouldn’t want my casual notes or texts to my wife to be published for the world to read.)

Music

Strikingly, Waugh had no feel at all for music and hated almost all forms of it. At one point he comments that listening to Palestrina was purgatory while, at the other end of the musical spectrum, he loathed the loud jazz which became more and more dominant in London nightclubs as the 1920s progressed.

If you don’t perceive music as the complex interlinking of melody, harmony, rhythm and syncopation, you tend to register it simply as noise and ‘racket’. Waugh’s loathing of music took most concrete form in his detestation of the ‘wireless’, the new-fangled radio which came in during the 1920s and became more and more and more popular during the 1930s and 40s. His was one of the few middle class households in the country which didn’t possess a wireless and so didn’t listen to Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast about the outbreak of war in September 1939 (p.383).

Witness his short story ‘The Sympathetic Passenger’, lampooning a man who hates the wireless; or the scenes in Unconditional Surrender where Guy is convalescing in an RAF hospital whose ‘long-haired boys’ have radios everywhere in the building cranked up to full volume blaring out jazz music which drives Guy so mad he phones a friend and begs to be taken away.

Anti-Americanism

‘God, I hate Americans’, quoted on p.299

The brash, superficial, loud, vulgar consumer capitalism of America came to epitomise everything Waugh hated about the modern age (p.221). Like most British writers he came to rely on sales in America to keep him solvent but that didn’t stop him being very rude about America and Americans in correspondence and, sometimes, to their faces.

Evelyn had always referred with patronising contempt to Alec’s fondness for America, and since the war had come to regard the United States as the apogee of everything that was tasteless, vulgar and barbaric. (p.511)

This is exemplified in the easy-to-overlook joke at the start of The Loved One where the two British protagonists are depicted on the verandah of a rundown bungalow at dusk, surrounded by decay, thick vegetation and the sound of cicadas, so that you think they must be in some god-forsaken colony in darkest Africa or the Far East and only slowly do you discover that they are in fact in Hollywood. Hastings pulls out some choice quotes from his huge correspondence:

The great difference between our manners and those of the Americans is that theirs are designed to promote cordiality, ours to protect privacy. (p.512)

My book [Brideshead Revisited] has been a great success in the United States which is upsetting because I thought it in good taste before and now I know it can’t be. (letter to John Betjeman, quoted p.512) [Betjeman went to Marlborough and Oxford]

Post war

The last 100 pages of the novel are marked by three themes:

1. Writing for money

Waugh continued to write a lot but the quality was often poor. Hastings records the umpteen commissions he received from magazines and newspapers, driving a very hard bargain, demanding the maximum rate possible, and then very often disappointing with work which was so hurried or roughshod, the magazines quite frequently refused to publish it or asked for their money back.

Of similar dubious or debatable quality are his handful of post-war stories, the novellas ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’ (genesis, writing and reviews summarised pages 500 to 502) and ‘Love Among the Ruins’ (in Hastings’ opinion, ‘a nasty little tale’, p.553) and the oddity which is The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (origin and writing described pages 560 to 567).

The Loved One is another oddity, which begins well and is full of lusciously funny details, but somehow fizzles out: he fails to find a plot to match the comic richness of his subject (American funeral homes). (Its genesis, writing and reception described on pages 514 to 522.)

Students and fans often overlook the overtly Catholic books he wrote, such as the novel about the Roman Empress Helena, discoverer of the ‘True Cross’ (1950) which was slammed in his own day and has never sold well (described pages 538 to 541). The 1930s biography of the Elizabethan martyr Thomas Campion (1935) and the biography he promised to write of his good friend, Catholic convert and Jesuit priest Ronald Knox (The Life of the Right Reverend Ronald Knox, 1959) [Knox attended Eton and Oxford].

Then there were two poorly received travel books ‘The Holy Places’ (1952) and ‘A Tourist in Africa’ (1960). In 1961 he was paid £2,000 by the Daily Mail to go back to British Guiana on the eve of independence and write five articles on his impressions. These were so flat and incurious the Mail printed only one and demanded their money back (p.606).

The exception to all of this, and all the more remarkable for the mediocrity of the rest of his post-war output, are the three novels of the Sword of Honour trilogy (Men at Arms, described page 546 to 551; Officers and Gentlemen pp.571 to 573; Unconditional Surrender pp.594 to 599) which I find magnificent, richly funny, fascinating with social history, and deeply moving.

2. Comic dislike of his children

Waugh genuinely disliked small children and his own were no exception.

I abhor their company because I can only regard children as defective adults, hate their physical ineptitude, find their jokes flat and monotonous…The presence of my children affects me with deep weariness and depression. (quoted op.527)

The Waugh children (all 6 of them) were exiled to the nursery and, as soon as possible, sent off to prep schools. Waugh hated Christmas because of all the noise and disruption and had a little private party when they went back to their schools (p.527ff.). Waugh cultivated the pose of a father who detested his children and, although this must have been horrible to experience, it is often very funny to read about, especially when expressed in his deliberately outrageous letters.

His eldest son, Auberon Waugh (1939 to 2001: Downside and Oxford) went on to become a novelist, journalist and literary editor. He wrote an autobiography describing his unhappy childhood in detail and said that, as a boy, he would happily have swapped his father for a bosun’s whistle (p.528).

3. Boredom and depression

Above all, Waugh was bored bored bored, often bored to death. He drank to excess to stave of boredom and depression, and the against-the-fashion pose of young fogey he cultivated in the 1930s, and which came to seem out of place during the People’s War, crystallised into the persona of an angry, overweight, red-faced old buffer after the war. Waugh knew what he was doing; the persona he cultivated is described with precision in the self-portrait which opens The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold:

It was his modesty which needed protection and for this purpose, but without design, he gradually assumed this character of burlesque. He was neither a scholar nor a regular soldier; the part for which he cast himself was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel and he acted it strenuously, before his children at Lychpole and his cronies in London, until it came to dominate his whole outward personality. When he ceased to be alone, when he swung into his club or stumped up the nursery stairs, he left half of himself behind and the other half swelled to fill its place. He offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright and antiquated as a cuirass.

Hastings picks up the word ‘pomposity’ and quotes a passage from a letter to Diana Cooper:

Women don’t understand pomposity. It is nearly always an absolutely private joke – one against the world. The last line of defence. (p.568)

All this is interesting because you don’t find in fiction, or anywhere nowadays, a sympathetic explanation of the quality of pomposity. The idea of it being a sort of private joke is thought provoking, an insight into the way all kinds of people’s odd manners might be taken as very personal jokes against the world…

Hastings gives example after example of Waugh’s astounding rudeness to everyone he met, no matter how powerful and influential – the bitter arguments he had with even his closest friends, and the well-attested rows he had with his long-suffering wife, Laura.

One of the most loyal friends of  his later years was the tough-minded socialite Ann Charteris (1913 to 1981) who had three husbands, first Lord O’Neill, secondly Lord Rothermere and then the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming (Eton and Sandhurst). Hastings quotes comments about Waugh from several of his close woman friends such as Diana Cooper and Nancy Mitford, but Ann Fleming put her finger on it when she wrote to her brother, Hugo, in 1955:

‘Poor Evelyn, he is deeply unhappy – bored from morning till night and has developed a personality which he hates but cannot escape from.’ (quoted p.558)

Not only was he a martyr to boredom but to insomnia and since the late 1930s had been taking various sleeping draughts which he mixed, against all medical advice, not in water but with creme de menthe. It was when he began, in addition, dosing himself with bromide that he developed first the physical and then the mental symptoms so accurately described in Pinfold.

He was invited to stay at the Flemings house, Goldeneye, in Jamaica where he was irascible and ungrateful. Ann Fleming again: ‘Poor Evelyn – killing time is his trouble and not a night without sleeping pills for twenty years’ (quoted p.571).

And when Nancy Mitford asked him, after he had paid her a bad-tempered visit in Paris, how he could reconcile behaving so badly and speaking so spitefully about everyone with his religion’s words about  loving your neighbour as yourself:

‘He replied rather sadly that were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible…& anyway would have committed suicide years ago.’ (quoted p.505)


Credit

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings (1994) was published by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1994. All references are to the 1995 Mandarin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (1948)

‘Pardon me. Aren’t you the friend of the strangulated Loved One in the Orchid Room? My memory’s very bad for live faces.’
(Miss Aimée Thanatogenos in The Loved One, page 70)

In Hollywood with Dennis Barlow

We are in the British expat community in Hollywood, California. Dennis Barlow is 28 (p.33). He was a budding poet back in Britain but was lured to Hollywood on the promise of extending his literary potential and making a lot of money. However, he didn’t like the life of a lackey to the Megalopolitan film studio. ‘He repined, despaired, fled,’ and got a (poorly paid) job at a pet cemetery (The Happier Hunting Ground) run by fast-talking, business-minded Mr Schultz, working alongside brisk Miss Poski. Here, grateful Americans pay to have their pet cats, dogs, parrots, goats and many other species embalmed, stuffed, buried or cremated. They like Dennis because:

‘They find me reverent. It is my combination of melancholy with the English accent. Several of our clientele have commented favourably upon it.’

Sir Francis Hinsley

Since he moved to Hollywood, Dennis has lived with Sir Francis Hinsley. A generation earlier Sir Francis had been the only Brit with a knighthood in Hollywood, ‘the doyen of English society, chief script-writer in Megalopolitan Pictures* and President of the Cricket Club.’ Twenty-plus years later his career has not prospered. He now works in the lowly studio press department and the swimming pool which used to flash with the shining limbs of lovely young starlets is now ‘cracked and over-grown with weed’ (an entirely coincidental but slightly eerie overlap with the dominant image from J.G. Ballard’s short stories).

(* Mention of Megalopolitan Pictures will remind anyone who’s read Waugh’s short stories that this is the name of the fictional film company mentioned in the 1932 short story lampooning the British film industry, ‘Excursion in Reality’. Even in relatively small details like this, Waugh reused names and characters which, cumulatively, go to create the strong sense of a parallel comic universe. If the shabby world of seedy sin and sweaty guilt portrayed by Graham Greene came to be called Greeneland, surely Waugh’s use of recurring comic names and characters throughout his oeuvre helped to create WaughWorld.)

‘Juanita del Pablo’

Hinsley’s most recent triumph is the PR creation of a new star, ‘Juanita del Pablo.’ That isn’t her real name, her real name is Baby Aaronson. She was spotted by a director for her eyes, and handed over to Hinsley to mould. So he changed her name, got her plastic surgery to make her look more Hispanic and got her flamenco lessons. Unfortunately, a few movies into her career and the League of Decency has cracked down on immoral films i.e. ones which include passionate Hispanic babes. Now Irish women are all the rage, so Hinsley’s getting ‘Juanita’s hair dyed auburn, they’ve pulled out all her teeth and given her dentures to help her learn Irish brogue. Hinsley is sitting on the verandah of his rundown bungalow with Dennis trying to decide on a suitably Irish name for his remodelled creation.

Sir Ambrose Abercrombie

Thus the narrative opens when Sir Francis and Dennis are enjoying a sundowner at the end of another arid scorching California day. Another venerable Brit pops by. This is Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, who ‘used to bounce about the lots in his famous series of fatiguing roles, acrobatic, heroic, historic, and come almost nightly to Sir Francis for refreshment’. His career has continued to thrive and he is now very much President of the Cricket Club and acknowledged head of the English expat community. He very very much disapproves of Dennis taking a job at the pet cemetery. Lets the side down, very bad form.

Sir Francis is fired by his studio…

The plot, such as it is, kicks in when, a few week later, Sir Francis makes a presentation to the assembled board of the studio, reading out his press release for Juanita’s new Irish backstory and profile. It goes down badly and, as soon as he’s left the room, the execs agree to hand the project over to someone else. For a few more days Francis works from home with the studio secretary. Then one day she fails to turn up. He makes a few calls to the studio, finds himself put off and batted around various secretaries, then finally pops into the studio, to discover his office has been given to someone else (with thumping satire, named ‘Lorenzo Medici’), his name removed from the door, his stuff chucked in a skip, and that he has been fired, without anyone having the guts or decency to tell him.

… and hangs himself

Dennis comes home late from work to discover Sir Francis has hanged himself on the stairs. He has to cut him down and call the cops. It is Sir Francis’s death which triggers the main content of the book, which is Dennis’s visit to the largest cemetery and morticians in Los Angeles, the famed Whispering Glades.

Whispering Glades Memorial Park

There is some attempt at fictionalisation but the long passage which dominates the first half of this short book reads almost like a piece of magazine journalism, as Dennis is given a guided tour of the cemetery by a series of immaculately presented, polite and efficient young women, who talk him (and the reader) through every possible variety of service and product which the cemetery offers, for example: is the body to be embalmed, buried or cremated? In fact, in the words of the soft-spoken and sensitive guide:

‘Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment or immurement, but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment. That is very individual. The casket is placed inside a sealed sarcophagus, marble or bronze, and rests permanently above ground in a niche in the mausoleum, with or without a personal stained-glass window above. That, of course, is for those with whom price is not a primary consideration.’ (p.37)

Is there to be a funeral service, in which case which denomination, Protestant, nonconformist, Catholic, Jewish or other? Will the body be displayed for mourners, in which case full body lying on a sofa, or in a casket, casket half closed, casket only revealing the face? What should the body be wearing, formal attire or did he or she have favourite clothes? Holding symbolic objects, for example a favourite toy, if it’s a child, or a flower to symbolise peace? In which part of the cemetery should the body be buried, in a family plot or Pilgrims’ Rest, in Lovers’ Nest or on the beautiful Lake Isle or, if a writer, in Poets’ Corner?

Throughout the presentation the winsome young lady uses the phrase The Loved One rather than the deceased, the body, the corpse – ‘The Loved One’ and the repetition of this phrase begins to give it a noumenal, rather unreal charge.

We learn that Whispering Glades was founded by a Wilbur Kenworthy who had a dream of presenting the dead to their mourners as happy and at peace, and so is reverently referred to by his employees as The Dreamer. (By the way, just as the deceased is referred to as The Loved One, so the the mourners, relatives and so on of the deceased are uniformly referred to as The Waiting Ones.)

This is all very entertaining (although note the way, that as with so much Waugh, it is also deeply factual; as I the smooth sales patter of the cemetery’s sales woman went on and on it began to make me think about my own funeral arrangements i.e. I don’t have any, and whether I ought to make some).

Identikit American young women

But at one point in the tour the saleswoman hands over to a cosmetician and something happens: Dennis is smitten by her. Part of the reason reads, nowadays, as pretty controversial. It is because she is different, different from the identikit appearance of so many many young American women which Dennis (and Waugh) note, lament and satirise – and he goes on to describe the way post-war America was covered by identikit lookalike stewardesses and hostesses and waitresses and so on. Of the saleswoman who’s brought him this far, he writes:

She left the room and Dennis at once forgot everything about her. He had seen her before everywhere. American mothers, Dennis reflected, presumably knew their daughters apart, as the Chinese were said subtly to distinguish one from another of their seemingly uniform race, but to the European eye the Mortuary Hostess was one with all her sisters of the air-liners and the reception-desks, one with Miss Poski at the Happier Hunting Ground. She was the standard product. A man could leave such a girl in a delicatessen shop in New York, fly three thousand miles and find her again in the cigar stall at San Francisco, just as he would find his favourite comic strip in the local paper; and she would croon the same words to him in moments of endearment and express the same views and preferences in moments of social discourse. She was convenient… (p.45)

Obviously, young #metoo feminists might read this as an objectifying, degrading description, typical male condescension etc, and there is obviously something to this. But you could turn it right around and say that Waugh had noticed, and was satirising, precisely the ‘honey I’m home’ identikit model of American womanhood which feminists of the 1960s protested against and are still protesting against. Later on, Waugh repeats the same sort of idea i.e. the way American women in particular were slaves to American consumerism and advertising.

[She] spoke the tongue of Los Angeles; the sparse furniture of her mind—the objects which barked the intruder’s shins—had been acquired at the local High School and University; she presented herself to the world dressed and scented in obedience to the advertisements; brain and body were scarcely distinguishable from the standard product. (p.105)

Miss Aimée Thanatogenos, cosmetician

Anyway, the cosmetician that the standard-model guide and hostess hands Dennis over to is not a ‘standard product’, she is more rare and refined and individual, less plastered in just the right make-up. Waugh gives her Greek parentage and the comic name Aimée Thanatogenos and Dennis falls in love with her. The only snag is that Aimée Thanatogenos adores the most senior figure at Whispering Glades, the head embalmer, the fabulously named Mr Joyboy. What a great name. A truly great piece of comic invention.

Mr Joyboy, chief embalmer

Mr Joyboy is not handsome or attractive but he is a master at his trade.

Mr Joyboy was not a handsome man by the standards of motion-picture studios. He was tall but unathletic. There was lack of shape in his head and body, a lack of colour; he had scant eyebrows and invisible eyelashes; the eyes behind his pince-nez were pinkish-grey; his hair, though neat and scented, was sparse; his hands were fleshy; his best feature was perhaps his teeth and they though white and regular seemed rather too large for him; he was a trifle flat-footed and more than a trifle paunchy. But these physical defects were nugatory when set against his moral earnestness and the compelling charm of his softly resonant voice.

Mr Joyboy can make any corpse, no matter how mangled, appear beautiful and serene for its resting in state. Not only that but when he arrived at Whispering Glades he brought new manners and decorousness to the operation. Under the previous head cosmetician the trolleymen referred to corpses and stiffs and even the ‘dead meat’. Under Mr Joyboy all such disrespect was scrupulously banned. He not only is a master cosmetician, he enforces respect and courtesy wherever he goes. And so that is why Miss Aimée Thanatogenos adores him.

Now, the plot is padded out with various events, for example Sir Ambrose takes charge of the funeral arrangements and commissions Dennis to research materials for Sir Ambrose’s eulogy and to write a poem in honour of the deceased, so there is quite a lot of bother about Dennis going through the dead man’s books and looking for inspiration.

(By the way, I was expecting to get a description of Sir Francis’s funeral, complete with comic caricatures of Hollywood types, but Waugh resists the temptation and the funeral is barely even mentioned, glossed over in order to get on with the plot.)

Encounter on the Isle of Rest

But the real core of the story is the way Dennis, a genuinely sensitive soul, becomes fascinated by the setup at the Whispering Glades and obsessed by Aimée Thanatogenos. Their interaction is crystallised when he finds himself wandering into the Glades and taking the ferry to the Isle of Rest, there to lie down amid the sound of the bees (a recording emitted from loudspeakers hidden in the mock bee hives) and bumps into Aimée Thanatogenos who has come there for her lunch break. They chat, he finds out more about her, he starts sending her poems.

Dennis’s purloined poems

Admittedly, in a nice comic touch, they’re not poems written by him but cherry-picked from anthologies of English verse although, in another comic touch, Dennis quickly discovers that most of the well-known English poems are unsuitable for plain and simple wooing:

Nearly all were too casual, too despondent, too ceremonious, or too exacting; they scolded, they pleaded, they extolled. Dennis required salesmanship; he sought to present Aimée with an irresistible picture not so much of her own merits or even of his, as of the enormous gratification he was offering. The films did it; the crooners did it; but not, it seemed, the English poets. (p.84)

Miss Thanatogenos consults the Guru Brahmin

Anyway, poor Miss Thanatogenos finds herself torn between dawning feelings for her ardent if sometimes incomprehensible English suitor and her adoration of the older expert in her field, with the result, that in a further comic/satirical strand, she writes a series of querulous letters to a well-known Los Angeles agony aunt:

Once, in days of family piety, it bore the title Aunt Lydia’s Post Bag; now it was The Wisdom of the Guru Brahmin, adorned with the photograph of a bearded and almost naked sage. (p.80)

With predictable inevitability, we are told that the daily column and sensitive replies of this woman agony aunt are, in fact, churned out by two overworked, harrassed, middle-aged hacks.

The Guru Brahmin was two gloomy men and a bright young secretary. One gloomy man wrote the column, the other, a Mr Slump, dealt with the letters which required private answers. (p.93)

Promotion and dinner with Mr Joyboy

Her situation becomes further complicated when Mr Joyboy makes a move on her, to her surprise, dismay and bewilderment. First of all he gives her the frabjous news that the owner of Whispering Glades has decided it is high time it had its first woman embalmer and that Mr Joyboy has recommended her, Miss Thanatogenos, for the role (p.86).

But she is even more thrilled when he modestly and chastely asks if she would do him the honour of dining with him this evening to celebrate. Miss Thanatogenos excitedly accepts, dashing off yet another note to the two disgruntled hacks who go by the name of Guru Brahmin and are beginning to get fed up of her continual requests for advice about her love life.

In the event, the dinner clarifies a lot of things because, eminent in his field and wonderfully competent though he may be, Mr Joyboy is, at the end of the day, just an embalmer in a morticians, not that well paid, and so lives in a very average seedy house in an estate far out on the edge of town with his mother who keeps a crapulous parrot (Sambo) and whines and criticises throughout their shabby meal (tinned noodle soup, a bowl of salad with tinned crab compounded in it, ice-cream and coffee, p.91). Mr Joyboy compounds his crassness by not driving her home but turning her out and telling her a street car back into town runs from the corner. Oh what disappointment!

Miss Thanatogenos becomes engaged to Dennis

As you might imagine, this bitter disappointment makes Miss Aimée Thanatogenos reconsider Dennis as a prospect. At the same time we see Dennis asking the owner of Happier Hunting Grounds for a raise. When Mr Schultz roughly turns him down, Dennis buttonholes the minister performing the funeral of their latest customer (a much-loved Alsatian) how you get into the minister racket and how well it pays. Not very well at all, replies the mournful minister (p.97).

Later that day, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos leads Dennis to one of the many fake chapels and churches scattered around the vast grounds of Whispering Glades, this one a fake Scottish kirk near which is situated a solid granite bench with a heart-shaped hole cut out and a snatch of love poetry. Miss Aimée Thanatogenos makes Dennis solemnly repeat the verse and then they kiss through the big heart-shaped hole. They regard themselves as engaged.

Mr Joyboy sulks

Alas, from that day onwards Mr Joyboy, who had always had a kind world for Miss Aimée Thanatogenos and always gave the corpses she was to paint and finalise an extra special smile, becomes distant and sulky. The corpses no longer have the same smiles. He is himself disappointed, and jealous.

But one day Miss Aimée Thanatogenos makes a special effort to be nice to Mr Joyboy who responds by telling her his mother has experienced a bitter tragedy, her old parrot has passed away and she is inconsolable. Mr Joyboy has gone to the trouble of arranging a funeral for the parrot at the Happier Hunting Ground pet cemetery and invites Miss Aimée Thanatogenos to join them.

Oops. That’s where Dennis works. And once or twice during their engagement, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos has casually let slip that she disapproves of the Happier Hunting Ground and the way it applies to mere animals the ceremony and respect which should be reserved for humans. Although she was introduced to us as an exception to the identikit young American woman, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos is portrayed as every bit as inflexibly moral and high-minded as her devout women ancestors and zealous feminist descendants.

Moreover, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos shows Mr Joyboy a poem Dennis has ‘written’ for her and he is impressed and promises to show it to a writer he knows, to see if it can be published. Oops. We know all of them are simply copied from The Oxford Book of English Verse.

We are now only 20 pages from the end so I expected the narrative to lead up to the comic scene when Miss Aimée Thanatogenos attends the funeral of Mrs Joyboy’s parrot and is shocked to discover that her fiancé works at the despised pet cemetery, has lied to her and might even, with his numerous questions about Whispering Glades, have been just pumping her for commercial tricks and technique all along. Except I was wrong. Like the funeral scene I was expecting, the Big Reveal scene is omitted, and glossed over in a sentence, announcing that Miss Aimée Thanatogenos is so shocked that, in the words of the raddled old hacks who write the Brahmin Guru column, ‘she marries the other guy’.

The engagement of Dennis and Aimée had never been announced in any paper and needed no public denial. The engagement of Mr Joyboy and Aimée had a column-and-a-half in the Morticians Journal and a photograph in The Casket, while the house-journal, Whispers from the Glades, devoted nearly an entire issue to the romance. A date was fixed for the wedding at the University Church. Mr Joyboy had been reared a Baptist and the minister who buried the Baptist dead gladly offered his services. The wardrobe-mistress found a white slumber-robe for the bride. Dr Kenworthy intimated his intention of being there in person. The corpses who came to Aimée for her ministrations now grinned with triumph. (p.106)

This is genius not only because it’s funny, but because of the crispness of the prose. There is no fat. Each comic aspect of the situation is briskly and lucidly described.

Encounter at the nutburger bar

Dennis doesn’t even realise he’s been dumped till he follows Miss Aimée Thanatogenos to a nutburger bar and asks why she hasn’t been returning his calls. She explains a) he lied about the poems b) he lied about working at Happier Hunting Grounds c) he’s an awful person and d) Mrs Joyboy’s dead parrot looked awful in its tiny casket with its head lying on a pillow.

Once he’s grasped the situation, Dennis replies with a barrage of arguments and self justification, none of which sticks till he almost at random mentions the silly vow they took at the Scottish Kirk. To his surprise, this hits home and Miss Aimée Thanatogenos is quelled. In her American dimness, she thinks this is a real, enduring vow and is suddenly struck silent as Dennis drives her home and pulls up outside her flat.

Mr Joyboy fails to offer comfort

Dennis drives off and Miss Aimée Thanatogenos phones her new fiancé, Mr Joyboy, for comfort and reassurance. But she can barely hear him for the tremendous racket in the background. Mr Joyboy’s mother has bought a new parrot and is breaking him in. Miss Aimée Thanatogenos pleads for his time, pleads to see him, but Joyboy persists in saying that at a time like this his mother needs him. It is a new parrot.

Mr Slump counsels suicide

Thoroughly disillusioned, Miss Aimée Thanatogenos next phones the news paper which publishes the Brahmin Guru. It’s the evening so the receptionist tells him the column is written by several gentlemen, she can probably reach Mr Slump at Mooney’s Saloon, so she gets the number and calls him there. The bartender takes the call and hands over the phone. Now as bad luck would have it, Mr Slump, who has been drinking more and more and turning up later and later for work, has been fired just that very day. When Miss Aimée Thanatogenos begins blathering about her love life down the phone he lays the receiver on the counter, takes a drink, orders another drink, and chats to his neighbour till the tinny little voice has quite finished. Picks up the receiver to hear Miss Aimée Thanatogenos pitifully asking what she should do. Take a lift, Mr Slump tells her, to the top of your building then throw yourself off, then hangs up.

Miss Aimée Thanatogenos commits suicide

Miss Aimée Thanatogenos takes some sleeping pills and sleeps till dawn. She wakes, dresses and walks the short distance to Whispering Glades, goes in the staff entrance, sits by the lawn watching them change colour as dawn comes up. Then enters the building, goes to the main workroom, finds a big bottle of poison and injects herself with it. It is cyanide. She dies.

Mr Joyboy comes blubbing

Next morning Mr Joyboy arrives at the Happier Hunting Ground to break the news to Dennis. Dennis had hardened his heart against Miss Aimée Thanatogenos so is not that upset. Joyboy blames him – Dennis brushes aside his accusations – Joyboy wants Dennis to help him dispose of the body before the owner of Whispering Glades finds it. Might be difficult to explain away. Dennis says he’ll think about it and sends him away.

Sir Ambrose makes Dennis an offer

Far funnier is the surprise news that Dennis has quit the Happier Hunting Ground. Without too much effort he has managed to qualify as a non-denominational priest or minister, and has sent round to the British expat community a card announcing the services of ‘Squadron Leader the Rev. Dennis Barlow’.

This brings Sir Ambrose briskly to his door to tell him that working at a pet cemetery was one thing but this, deer boy, this is quite another. It simply won’t do. In the current fraught political situation, it reflects very badly on the old country. Slowly they fence and negotiate and it emerges that the Cricket Club have had a whip-round to pay for Dennis’s ticket home – and that Dennis was expecting precisely this to happen. In fact Sir Ambriose has arrived with a cheque made out to Dennis for travelling expenses which he suavely pockets.

Playing Mr Joyboy

The story ends with Dennis transformed from the sensitive poet obsessed with Whispering Glades and Miss Aimée Thanatogenos and metamorphosed into the confident practical joker / scammer Basil Seal. For when Mr Joyboy returns, still upset and panicking about what to do, Dennis has worked out a very smooth plan.

Problem one, how to dispose of the body? Well, after hours Mr Joyboy must bring Miss Aimée Thanatogenos’s body to the Happier Hunting Ground. As their senior employee, Dennis has free use of the crematorium and they’re often cremating pets who don’t require ceremonies or funerals at all times of day or night. So the staff will leave and he will incinerate Miss Aimée Thanatogenos safely and securely.

Problem two, how to explain Miss Aimée Thanatogenos’s mystery disappearance? Well, everyone knows she had a thing with Dennis and Dennis has abruptly returned to England so all her few acquaintance and workmates need to know is that she’s run off to England with him. Eloped. Unethical but romantic.

Problem three, money. Dennis smoothly extorts $1,000 from Mr Joyboy for performing this service, and tells him to cash Sir Ambrose’s cheque while he’s at the bank.

Cremating Miss Aimée Thanatogenos

And so it is that Dennis drives the Happier Hunting Ground van over to Whispering Glades after dinner and he and Mr Joyboy furtively manhandle a coffin into it. Then he drives them back to the Happier Hunting Ground, they carry the heavy coffin up to the furnace, push it in, turn on the gas and ignite the flames. It will take an hour and a half, and then pulverising the skull, the pelvis and bigger bones, scraping it all into an urn and burying it somewhere. Mr Joyboy departs in disgust.

In a final twist of the satirical knife, Dennis conscientiously makes an entry in the Happier Hunting Ground Book of Remembrance, entering Mr Joyboy as the customer and Aimée as the name of his beloved pet. This means that tomorrow and on every anniversary as long as the Happier Hunting Ground exists a postcard will be sent to Mr Joyboy with the message: Your little Aimée is wagging her tail in heaven tonight, thinking of you.

Unlike so many Englishmen who came hopefully to southern California and failed and broke their hearts and lost all their money, Dennis is leaving triumphant and enriched. What’s more, he will be taking with him back to Blighty a priceless chunk of Experience, of Life, which the artist in him will be able to labour over long and hard. What more could a man ask of life?


Credit

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1948. All references are to the 1971 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (1930)

 At Archie Schwert’s party the fifteenth Marquess of Vanburgh, Earl Vanburgh de Brendon, Baron Brendon, Lord of the Five Isles and Hereditary Grand Falconer to the Kingdom of Connaught, said to the eighth Earl of Balcairn, Viscount Erdinge, Baron Cairn of Balcairn, Red Knight of Lancaster, Count of the Holy Roman Empire and Chenonceaux Herald to the Duchy of Aquitaine, ‘Hullo,’ he said. ‘Isn’t this a repulsive party? What are you going to say about it?’ for they were both of them, as it happened, gossip writers for the daily papers.

I tend to prefer older novels to contemporary novels and poetry because they are more unexpected, diverting, free from our narrow and oppressive modern morality and better written. Go any distance into the past and the characters will have better manners and the narrator write a more grammatically  correct English than you get nowadays. There will also be old phrases which I dimly remember from my youth which have now vanished, swamped by all-conquering Americanisms. And, sometimes, you just get scenes which are odder and more unexpected than earnest, issue-led modern fiction can allow itself. Thus, at the opening of Evelyn Waugh’s beautifully written, impeccably well mannered, but ultimately devastating 1932 novel, Vile Bodies, we read:

High above his head swung Mrs Melrose Ape’s travel-worn Packard car, bearing the dust of three continents, against the darkening sky, and up the companion-way at the head of her angels strode Mrs Melrose Ape, the woman evangelist.

Not the kind of sentence you read every day.

Crossing the Channel

Vile Bodies opens on a cross-channel ferry packed with an assortment of Waugh-esque eccentrics, including a seen-it-all-before Jesuit priest, Father Rothschild, a loud and brash American woman evangelist, Mrs Melrose Ape, and her flock of young followers; some members of the fashionable ‘Bright Young People’ aka ‘the Younger Set’ (Miles Malpractice, ‘brother of Lord Throbbing’, and the toothsome Agatha Runcible, ‘Viola Chasm’s daughter’); two tittering old ladies named Lady Throbbing and Mrs Blackwater; the recently ousted Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Walter Outrage, M.P.; and a hopeful young novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes, who has been writing a novel in Paris.

Although there are passages of narrative description what becomes quickly obvious is that Waugh is experimenting with the novel form in a number of ways. One is by presenting short snatches of conversation and dialogue between a lot of groups of characters briskly intercut. No narratorial voice gives a setting or description, there is only the barest indication who’s talking, sometimes no indication at all. You’re meant to recognise the speakers by the style and content of what they say. It’s like the portmanteau movies of the 1970s, like a Robert Altman movie, briskly cutting between short scenes of  busy dialogue.

The book as a whole is a concerted satire on the generation of ‘Bright Young Things’, the privileged young British aristocrats and upper-middle-class public schoolboys who were adolescents during the Great War and who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge in the early 1920s, throwing themselves into a lifestyle of wild abandon and endless partying in the rich man’s quarter of London, Mayfair.

As you might expect, we not only get accounts of their activities, but the point of view of their disapproving elders and betters. Here’s the former Prime Minister, who we often find in conclave with Lord Metroland and Father Rothschild:

‘They had a chance after the war that no generation has ever had. There was a whole civilization to be saved and remade — and all they seem to do is to play the fool. Mind you, I’m all in favour of them having a fling. I dare say that Victorian ideas were a bit strait-laced. Saving your cloth, Rothschild, it’s only human nature to run a bit loose when one’s young. But there’s something wanton about these young people to-day.’

The younger generation’s frivolity is exemplified in the way Adam’s engagement with his fiancée, Nina Blount, is on again, off again, on again, their breaking up and making up punctuating the novel right till the end, in a running gag.

To start it off, Adam telephones Nina to tell her that the customs officials at Dover confiscated his novel and burned it for obscenity. She is sad but has to dash off to a party. In London he checks into the eccentric Shepheards Hotel (note the posh spelling), Dover Street, run by the blithely forgetful owner, Lottie Crump, who can never remember anyone’s name (‘”‘You all know Lord Thingummy, don’t you?’ said Lottie”). Lottie was, apparently, based, as Waugh tells us in his preface, on ‘Mrs Rosa Lewis and her Cavendish Hotel’.

Here Adam discovers the posh and eccentric clientele, including the ex-king of Ruritania (my favourite), assembled in the bar (the parlour) and wins a thousand pounds on a silly bet with a fellow guest. So he rushes to phone up Nina to tell her their wedding is back on again. She is happy but has to rush off to a party, as she always does.

Adam goes back to the group of guests, all getting drunk, and an older chap who calls himself ‘the Major’ offers the advice that the best way to invest his money is bet on a horse. In fact, he knows a dead cert, Indian Runner, running in the forthcoming November Handicap at twenty to one. So Adam drunkenly hands over his newly-won thousand pounds to the Major to put on this horse. The reader little suspects that this, also, will become a running gag for the rest of the book.

Then Adam stumbles back to the phone in the hallway and rings up Nina to ask her about this horse.  It is a comic premise of the novel that the world it portrays is minuscule and everybody knows everybody else, so it comes as no surprise that Nina just happens to know the horse’s posh owner and tells him it’s an absolute dog and will never win anything. When Adam explains that he’s just handed over his £1,000 to a Major to bet on it, Nina says well, that was foolish but she must dash for dinner and rings off. As usual.

Phone dialogue

A propos Adam and Nina’s conversations, Waugh prided himself that this was the first novel to include extended passages of dialogue carried out on the phone. Something about the phone medium offers the opportunity to make the characters sound even more clipped, superficial and silly than face-to-face conversation would:

‘Oh, I say. Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.’
‘Oh, Adam, you are a bore. Why not?’
‘They burnt my book.’
‘Beasts. Who did?’

Beasts and beastly. Dreadful bores. Ghastly fellows. I say, old chap. That would be divine, darling. Everyone speaks like that, and focusing on the dialogue brings this out.

Gossip columns and the press

Vile Bodies is wall to wall posh. That was its selling point. Waugh tells us that the ‘Bright Young People’ were a feature in the popular press of the time, as the characters in Made In Chelsea or Love Island might be in ours. Hmm maybe the comparison with a TV show is not quite right. After all, the characters appear in the gossip columns of the papers and some of the characters are themselves part of the set who make a career on the side writing about their friends.

When I was younger there were gossip columns by Taki in the Spectator and Nigel Dempster in the Express and Daily Mail. I imagine the same kind of thing persists today. Obviously people like to read about the goings-on of the rich and privileged with a mixture of mockery and jealousy. That’s very much the mix Waugh was catering to. He’s well aware of it. He overtly describes the ‘kind of vicarious inquisitiveness into the lives of others’ which gossip columns in all ages satisfy.

But over and above the permanent interest in the comings and goings of the very rich, the subject of the dissolute younger generation just happened to be in the news at the time and so Waugh’s novel happened to be addressing a hot topic at just the right moment. He was instantly proclaimed the ‘voice’ of that generation and Vile Bodies was picked up and reviewed, and articles and profiles and interviews were spun off it, and it sold like hot cakes. His reputation was made.

Interesting that right from the start of his writing career, it was deeply involved in the press, in the mediaVile Bodies is, on one level, about the rivalry between two gossip columnists for popular newspapers, and feature scenes in newsrooms and even with the editor of the main paper. Two of his books from the mid-30s describe how he was hired by a newspaper as a temporary foreign correspondent, the two factual books, Remote People and Waugh in Abyssinia. And he used the experiences and material from both books as material for his satirical masterpiece about the press, Scoop (1938). If we look back at Decline and Fall with this in mind, we notice that a number of key moments in that book are caused by newspaper reports, and that many of the events are picked up and reported by and mediated by the Press.

Waugh’s 1930s novels are famous for their bright and often heartlessly comic depiction of the very highest of London high society, but it’s worth pointing out how the topic of the Press runs through all of them, and the extent to which his characters perform their roles and are aware of themselves as performers (see below).

Bright Young People

Anyway, back to Vile Bodies, it is a masterpiece of deliberately brittle superficial satire, the text’s fragmentation into snippets of speech enacting the snippets of apparently random, inconsequent conversation overheard at a party, the world it comes from being one of endless parties, endless frivolity, which he captures quite brilliantly.

‘Who’s that awful-looking woman? I’m sure she’s famous in some way. It’s not Mrs Melrose Ape, is it? I heard she was coming.’
‘Who?’
‘That one. Making up to Nina.’
‘Good lord, no. She’s no one. Mrs Panrast she’s called now.’
‘She seems to know you.’
‘Yes, I’ve known her all my life. As a matter of fact, she’s my mother.’
‘My dear, how too shaming.’

It’s a set, a group, a clique. They all know each other and many are related, couples, parents, children, aunts, cousins. Waugh’s novels themselves partake of this cliqueyness by featuring quite a few recurring characters. Figures we first met in the previous novel, Decline and Fall, include Lord Circumference and Miles Malpractice, little David Lennox the fashionable society photographer. Lord Vanbrugh the gossip columnist is presumably the son of the Lady Vanbrugh who appeared in D&F and Margot Maltravers, formerly Mrs Beste-Chetwynde who was a central character in the same novel, also makes an appearance under her new name, Lady Metroland, hosting a fashionable party. (She confirms her identity by whispering to a couple of Mrs Ape’s angels that she can get them a job in South America if she wishes, the reader of the previous novel knowing this would be at one of Lady M’s string of brothels there). And quite a few of these characters go on to appear in Waugh’s later novels. The effect is to create a comically complete ‘alternative’ version of English high society, with its narrow interconnectedness.

Thus we know from Decline and Fall that Lord Metroland married Margot Beste-Chetwynde. She was heiress to the Pastmaster title. Therefore her son, Peter Beste-Chetwynde, in time becomes Lord Pastmaster. Margot caused a great stir in Decline and Fall by going out with a stylish young black man.  Here in Vile Bodies there is a sweet symmetry in discovering that her son is going out with a beautiful black woman. Hence Lord Metroland’s grumpy remark:

‘Anyhow,’ said Lord Metroland, ‘I don’t see how all that explains why my stepson should drink like a fish and go about everywhere with a negress.’
‘My dear, how rich you sound.’
‘I feel my full income when that young man is mentioned.’

Sociolect

The snobbery is enacted in the vocabulary of the text. Various social distinctions are, of course, directly indicated by possession of a title or one’s family. But also, of course, by how one speaks. Obviously there’s the question of accent, the way the upper class distinguish themselves from the middle and lower classes. But it’s also a specific vocabulary which marks one off as a member of the chosen, its sociolect – not only its slang but a very precise choice of key words which mark off a group, signal to other members one’s membership of the group and of course, signal to everyone else their very definite exclusion. Thus:

Divine Mrs Mouse thinks a party should be described as lovely. When her daughter describes the party she’s just been to as divine her mother tut tuts because that single word betokens the class above theirs, indicates that her daughter is getting above her station.

‘It was just too divine,’ said the youngest Miss Brown.
‘It was what, Jane?’

Because it is a word very much associated with the hardest core of the upper classiest of the Bright Young Things, represented in this book by the wild and heedless party animal, Miss Agatha Runcible.

Miss Runcible said that she had heard of a divine night club near Leicester Square somewhere where you could get a drink at any hour of the night.

Bogus This is another word much in vogue to mean simply ‘bad’ with the obvious overtone of fake:

  • ‘Oh, dear,’ she said, ‘this really is all too bogus.’
  • Miss Runcible said that kippers were not very drunk-making and that the whole club seemed bogus to her.

In fact their use of ‘bogus’ is cited by Father Rothschild as one of the things he notices about the younger generation. He takes a positive view of it, suggesting to his buddies Mr Outrage and Lord Metroland that the young actually have very strict morals and find the post-war culture they’ve inherited broken and shallow and deceitful. (In this way ‘bogus’ for the 1920s was similar to what  ‘phoney’ was to be for Americans in the 1950s as popularised by Catcher In The Rye, ‘square’ was for hippies, and ‘gay’ is for modern schoolchildren).

Too ‘Too’ is an adverb of degree, indicating excess. Most of us use it in front of adjectives as a statement of fact, for example ‘This tea is too hot’. But the upper classes use it as one among many forms of exaggeration, indicating the simply superlative nature of their experiences, their lives and their darling selves. Used like this, ‘too’ doesn’t convey factual information but is a class marker; in fact its very factual emptiness, its semantic redundancy, highlights its role as a marker of membership:

  • ‘I think it’s quite too sweet of you…’
  • ‘Isn’t this too amusing?’
  • ‘Isn’t that just too bad of Vanburgh?’

‘It was just too divine’ contains a double superlative, the adverb ‘too’ but also the adjective ‘divine’ itself, which is obviously being used with frivolous exaggeration. The party was divine. You are divine. I am divine. We are divine.

Such and so Grammatically ‘such’ is a determiner and ‘so’ is an adverb. So ‘so’ should be used in front of an adjective, ‘such’ in front of a noun phrase. In this narrow society, they are both used in much the same way as ‘too’, to emphasise that everything a speaker is talking about is the absolute tip top. After listening to someone telling us they had such a good time at such a wonderful party and spoke to such a lovely man, and so on, we quickly get the picture that the speaker lives a very superior life. To get the full effect it needs to be emphasised:

  • Such a nice stamp of man.’
  • ‘It seems such a waste.’
  • Such nice people.’
  • Such a nice bright girl.’

There’s an element of risk in talking like this. Only a certain kind of person can carry it off. Trying it on among people who don’t buy into the entire elite idea, or among the real elite who know that you are not a member, risks ridicule.

So talking like this is a kind of taunt – I can get away with this ridiculous way of speaking but you can’t. The epitome of this verbal bravado is Miss Runcible, whose every word is littered with mannered vocabulary and superlatives, flaunting her superlative specialness, daring anyone else to compete.

Simply Paradoxically, for a very self-conscious elite, the pose is one of almost idiotic simplicity. Consider Bertie Wooster. His idiocy underpins his membership of the toff class. He is too stupid to do anything practical like have a job and his upper class idiocy is a loud indicator that he doesn’t need a job, but lives a life of privilege. Well one indicator of this attitude is use of the word simply.

  • ‘I simply do not understand what has happened’
  • ‘Nina, do you ever feel that things simply can’t go on much longer?’
  • ‘Now they’re simply thrilled to the marrow about it .’
  • ‘She’d simply loathe it, darling.’
  • ‘Of course, they’re simply not gentlemen, either of them.’

Darling Preferably drawled, a usage only the very confident and suave can get away with.

‘Darling, am I going to be seduced?’
‘I’m afraid you are. Do you mind terribly?’
‘Not as much as all that,’ said Nina, and added in Cockney, ‘Charmed, I’m sure.’

Terribly Another denoter of frivolous giddy poshness, since the time of Oscar Wilde at least, via Saki and Noel Coward. Terribly and frightfully.

  • ‘No, really, I think that’s frightfully nice of you. Look, here’s the money. Have a drink, won’t you?’
  • ‘I say, you must be frightfully brainy.’

-making Many of these elements have survived the past 90 years, they continued into the equally frivolous Swinging Sixties and on into our own times, though often mocked, as in the TV series Absolutely Fabulous (1992 to 1996). A locution which is a bit more specific to this generation, or certainly to this book, is creating phrases by adding ‘-making’ to the end of an adjective. Thus:

  • ‘Too, too sick-making,’ said Miss Runcible.
  • ‘As soon as I get to London I shall ring up every Cabinet Minister and all the newspapers and give them all the most shy-making details.’
  • Miss Runcible said that kippers were not very drunk-making and that the whole club seemed bogus to her.
  • ‘Wouldn’t they be rather ill-making?’
  • ‘Very better-making,’ said Miss Runcible with approval as she ate her haddock.

The usage occurs precisely 13 times in the novel, mostly associated with the most daring character, fearless Miss Runcible, and Waugh pushes it to a ludicrous extreme when he has her say:

‘Goodness, how too stiff-scaring….’ (p.174)

This locution made enough of an impression that Waugh singled it out in his preface to the 1964 edition of the novel for being widely commented on, and even taken up by a drama critic who included it in various reviews: ‘”Too sick-making”, as Mr Waugh would say.’ Did people actually say it, or was it a very felicitous invention?

Cockney

In my review of Decline and Fall I noted how much Waugh liked describing Cockney or working class characters and revelled in writing their dialogue. Same here. Thus a taxi driver tells Adam:

‘Long way from here Doubting ‘All is. Cost you fifteen bob…If you’re a commercial, I can tell you straight it ain’t no use going to ‘im.’

This turns out not to be a personal foible of Waugh’s. In Vile Bodies we learn that mimicking Cockney accents was highly fashionable among the creme de la creme of the Bright Young Things.

  • ‘Go away, hog’s rump,’ said Adam, in Cockney,
  • ‘Pretty as a picture,’ said Archie, in Cockney, passing with a bottle of champagne in his hand.
  • ‘Look,’ said Adam, producing the cheque. ‘Whatcher think of that?’ he added in Cockney.
  • ‘Good morning, all,’ she said in Cockney.

At university I knew very posh public schoolboys who had a cult of suddenly dropping into very thick Jamaican patois which they copied from hard-core reggae music (the extreme Jamaican pronunciation of ‘nay-shun’ kept recurring). Same kind of thing here – upper class types signalling their mockery and frivolity by mimicking the accents of the people about as far away from them on the social spectrum as possible.

Alcohol

Everyone’s either drunk, getting drunk or hungover. Their catchphrase is ‘Let’s have a drink’.

‘How about a little drink?’ said Lottie.

The American critic Edmund Wilson made the same comment about the literary types he knew in 1920s New York, and in general about ‘the Roaring Twenties’, ‘the Jazz Era’. Everyone drank like fish.

They went down the hill feeling buoyant and detached (as one should if one drinks a great deal before luncheon). (p.173)

Everyone was nursing a hangover. Everyone needed one for the road or a pick-me-up the next morning, or a few drinks before lunch, and during lunch, and mid-afternoon, and something to whet the whistle before dinner, and then onto a club for drinks and so on into the early hours. At luncheon with Nina’s father:

First they drank sherry, then claret, then port.

It goes without saying that these chaps and chapesses are not drinking beer or lager. Champagne is the unimpeachable, uncritisable, eternal choice for toffs and all occasions.

  • (Unless specified in detail, all drinks are champagne in Lottie’s parlour.)
  • Archie Schwert, as he passed, champagne bottle in hand, paused to say, ‘How are you, Mary darling?’
  • Adam hurried out into the hall as another bottle of champagne popped festively in the parlour.

Drinking heavily and one more for the road and still partying at dawn are fine if you’re in your 20s (and well off and good looking). Give it 40 years and you end up looking and talking like the Major in Fawlty Towers as so many of these bright young things eventually did.

Ballard Berkeley as Major Gowen in Fawlty Towers

The extended scene at the motor races (Chapter Ten) contains a very funny description of four posh people becoming very drunk. Their progressive inebriation is conveyed entirely via their speech patterns, which become steadily more clipped and the subject matter steadily more absurd, so that when a race steward comes round to enquire where the  driver of the car they’re supporting has gone to (his arm was hurt in an accident so he’s pulled into the pits and his car is empty) they immediately reply that he’s been murdered. When the steward asks if there’s a replacement driver, they immediately reply, straight faced, that he’s been murdered too.

‘Driver’s just been murdered,’ said Archie. ‘Spanner under the railway bridge. Marino.’
‘Well, are you going to scratch? Who’s spare driver?’
‘I don’t know. Do you, Adam? I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if they hadn’t murdered the spare driver, too.’

Since they each drink a bottle of champagne before lunch, the three posh friends start to come down at teatime and Waugh is as good on incipient hangovers as on inebriation.

The effect of their drinks had now entered on that secondary stage, vividly described in temperance handbooks, when the momentary illusion of well-being and exhilaration gives place to melancholy, indigestion and moral decay. (p.177)

More on this scene below.

Politics

The satirical point of view extends up into political circles, one of the jokes being that several of the most extreme and disreputably hedonistic of the Bright Young People are, with a certain inevitability, the sons and daughter of the leaders of the main parties and, since one or other of them is in power at any given moment, children of the Prime Minister.

In fact the mockery extends to the novel’s cheerfully satirical notion that the British government falls roughly every week. In the opening chapter we meet the Prime Minister who’s just been ousted, Outrage, and in the same chapter the supremely modish Miss Runcible. Only slowly does it become clear that she is, with a certain inevitability, the daughter of the current Prime Minister (Sir James Brown).

Half way through the book this Prime Minister is ousted because of stories about the wild party held at Number 10 which climaxed with his half-naked daughter, dressed as a Hawaiian dancer, stumbling drunkenly out the front steps of Number 10 and straight into the aim of numerous press photographers and journalists. Disreputable parties held by Tory toffs at Number 10? Well, it seems that in this, as so many other aspects of British life, nothing has really changed since the 1930s.

Moments of darkness

The best comedy, literary comedy as opposed to gag fests, hints at darker undertones. Shakespeare’s comedies tread, briefly, close to genuine cruelty or torment as, for example, in the hounding of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Comedy generally is an unstable genre. For a generation or more we’ve had the comedy of cruelty or humiliation or embarrassment. I find a lot of modern comedy, such as The Office too embarrassing and depressing to watch.

Waugh’s comedy goes to extremes. It often includes incidents of complete tragedy which are played for laughs, or flicker briefly in the frivolous narrative as peripheral details, which are glossed over with comic nonchalance but which, if you pause to focus on them, are very dark.

It’s there in Decline and Fall when little Lord Tangent has his foot grazed by a shot from the starting gun at school sports day, the wound gets infected and he has to have the foot amputated. A lot later we learn, in a throwaway remark, that he has died.

Flossie’s death

Something similar happens here when a young woman, Florence or Flossie Ducane, involved in a drunken party in the room of one of the posh guests at the posh Shepheard’s Hotel attempts to swing from a chandelier which snaps and she falls to the floor and breaks her neck. Adam sees a brief report about it in the newspaper:

Tragedy in West-End Hotel.
‘The death occurred early this morning at a private hotel in Dover Street of Miss Florence Ducane, described as being of independent means, following an accident in which Miss Ducane fell from a chandelier which she was attempting to mend.

1. All kinds of things are going on here. One is the way moments of real tragedy provide a foil for the gay abandon of most of the characters. Each of these momentary tragedies is a tiny, flickering memento of the vast disaster of the First World War which looms over the entire decade like a smothering nightmare – all those dead husbands and brothers and fathers who everyone rushes round brightly ignoring.

(There’s a famous moment in the story, when Adam is hurrying to Marylebone station to catch a train out to the country pile of Nina’s father [Doubting Hall, Aylesbury], when the clock strikes 11 and everyone all over London, all over the country is still and quiet for 2 minutes because it is Remembrance Sunday. Then the 2 minutes are up and everybody’s hurly burly of life resumes. When I was young I read the handful of sentences which describe it as an indictment of the shallowness of Adam and the world, barely managing their perfunctory 2 minutes’ tribute. Now I see it as a momentary insight into the darkness which underlies everything, which threatens all values.)

2. On another level, the way Adam reads about Flossie’s death in a newspaper epitomises the way all the characters read about their own lives in the press; their lives are mediated by the media, written up and dramatised like performances. They read out to each other the gossip column reports about their behaviour at the latest party like actors reading reviews of their performances, and then, in turn, give their opinions on the columnists/critics’s writing up, creating a closed circle of mutual admiration and/or criticism.

3. On another, more obviously comic, level, what you could call the PR level, Adam smiles quietly to himself at how well the owner of the Shepheard’s Hotel, Lottie Crump, handled the police and journalists who turned up to cover Flossie’s death, smooth-talking them, offering them all champagne, and so managing to steer them all away from the fact that the host of the party where the death occurred was a venerable American judge, Judge Skimp. His name has been very successfully kept out of the papers. Respect for Lottie.

Simon Balcairn’s suicide

Then there’s another death, much more elaborately explained and described. Simon, Earl of Balcairn, has his career as a leading gossip columnist (writing the ‘Chatterbox’ column in the Daily Excess) ruined after he is boycotted by Margot Metroland and blacklisted from the London society through whom he makes his living. He gets Adam to phone Margot and plead to be admitted to her latest party, one she is giving for the fashionable American evangelist, Mrs Ape, but she obstinately refuses. He even dresses up in disguise with a thick black beard and gatecrashes, but is detected and thrown out.

Convinced that his career, and so his life is over, Simon phones in one last great story to his newspaper, the Daily Excess, a completely fictitious account of Margot’s party in which he makes up uproarious scenes of half London’s high society falling to their knees amid paroxysms of religious guilt and renunciation (all completely fictitious) – then, for the first time completely happy with his work, lays down with his head in his gas oven, turns on the gas, inhales deeply, and dies. It is, and is meant to be, bleak.

This feel for the darkness which underlies the giddy social whirl, and the complicated psychological effect which is produced by cleverly counterpointing the two tones, becomes more evident in Waugh’s subsequent novels, Black Mischief (1932) and A Handful of Dust (1934). In this novel he describes it as

that black misanthropy…which waits alike on gossip writer and novelist…

And it appears more and more as the novel progresses, like water seeping through the cracks in a dam. Nina starts the novel as the model of a social butterfly, utterly empty-headed and optimistic. After she and Adam have a dirty night in Arundel i.e. sex i.e. she loses her virginity, she ceases being so much fun. She finds the parties less fun. She starts to squabble with Adam. About half way through the novel she is, uncoincidentally, the peg for an extended passage which sounds a note of disgust at the book’s own subject matter (which is where, incidentally, the title comes from):

‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’
(…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris–all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…. Those vile bodies…)

Waugh cannily sprinkles among the witty dialogue and endless parties a slowly mounting note of disgust and revulsion.

Comedy is adults behaving like children

From the moment of her deflowering Nina grows steadily more serious, almost depressed. You realise it’s because, in having sex, she’s become an adult. Things aren’t quite so much bright innocent fun any more. At which point I realised that the appeal of the Bright Young Things is, in part, because they behave like children, drunk and dancing and singing (OK, so the drinking is not exactly like young children) but at its core their behaviour is childish, persistently innocent and naive.

The Bright Young People came popping all together, out of some one’s electric brougham like a litter of pigs, and ran squealing up the steps.

Much comedy is based on adults behaving like children. It’s a very reliable way of getting a comic effect in all kinds of works and movies and TV shows. It occurs throughout this book. There’s a funny example when, at Margot Metroland’s party, the ageing ex-Prime Minister, Mr Outrage, gets caught up in the exposure of Simon Balcairn infiltrating the party in disguise but, because of the obscure way the thing is revealed with a variety of pseudonyms and disguises, the PM becomes increasingly confused, like a child among adults and he is reduced to childishly begging someone to explain to him what is going on. The comic effect is then extended when he is made to confess he experiences the same bewildering sense of being out of his depth even in his own cabinet meetings.

‘I simply do not understand what has happened…. Where are those detectives?… Will no one explain?… You treat me like a child,’ he said. It was all like one of those Cabinet meetings, when they all talked about something he didn’t understand and paid no attention to him.

Mr Chatterbox

Balcairn’s suicide creates a vacancy for a new ‘Mr Chatterbox’ and Adam happens to be dining in the same restaurant (Espinosa’s, the second-best restaurant in London) as the features editor of the Daily Excess, they get into conversation and so, with the casualness so typical of every aspect of these people’s lives, he is offered the job on the spot. ‘Ten pounds a week and expenses.’

Adam’s (brief) time as a gossip columnist turns into a comic tour de force. Just about everyone Simon mentioned in his last great fictitious account of Margot’s party (mentioned above) sues the Daily Excess (’62 writs for libel’!) with the result that the proprietor, Lord Monomark, draws up a list of them all and commands that none of them must ever, ever be mentioned in the paper again. This presents Adam with a potentially ruinous problem because the list includes ‘everyone who is anyone’ and so, on the face of it, makes his job as gossip columnist to London’s high society impossible.

He comes up with two solutions, the first fairly funny, the second one hilarious. The first one is to report the doings of C-listers, remote cousins and distant relatives of the great and good, who are often ailing and hard done by. The column’s readers:

learned of the engagement of the younger sister of the Bishop of Chertsey and of a dinner party given in Elm Park Gardens by the widow of a High Commissioner to some of the friends she had made in their colony. There were details of the blameless home life of women novelists, photographed with their spaniels before rose-covered cottages; stories of undergraduate ‘rags’ and regimental reunion dinners; anecdotes from Harley Street and the Inns of Court; snaps and snippets about cocktail parties given in basement flats by spotty announcers at the B.B.C., of tea dances in Gloucester Terrace and jokes made at High Table by dons.

This has the unexpected benefit of creating new fans of the column who identify with the ailments or  afflictions of these ‘resolute non-entities’.

The second and more radical solution is simply to make it up. Like a novelist, Adam creates a new set of entirely fictional high society characters. He invents an avant-garde sculptor called Provna, giving him such a convincing back story that actual works by Provna start to appear on the market, and go for good prices at auction. He invents a popular young attaché at the Italian Embassy called Count Cincinnati, a dab hand at the cello. He invents Captain Angus Stuart-Kerr the famous big game hunter and sensational ballroom dancer.

Immediately his great rival gossip columnist, Vanbrugh, starts featuring the same (utterly fictional characters) in his column, and then other characters begin to mention them in conversation (‘Saw old Stuart-Kerr at Margot’s the other day. Lovely chap’) and so on. This is funny because it indicates how people are so desperate to be in the swim and au courant that they will lie to themselves about who they’ve seen or talked to. It indicates the utter superficiality of the world they inhabit which can be interpreted, moralistically, as a bad thing; but can also be seen as a fun and creative thing: why not make up the society you live in, if the real world is one of poverty and war?

But Adam’s masterpiece is the divinely slim and attractive Mrs Imogen Quest, the acme of social desirability, to whom he attributes the height of social standing. She becomes so wildly popular that eventually the owner of the Daily Excess, Lord Monomark, sends down a message saying he would love to meet this paragon. At which point, in a mild panic, Adam quickly writes a column announcing the unfortunate news that Mrs Quest had sailed to Jamaica, date of return unknown.

You get the idea. Not rocket science, but genuinely funny, inventive, amusing.

Father Rothschild as moral centre

Adam and Nina are invited to a bright young party held in a dirigible i.e. airship.

On the same night their more staid parents, politicians and grandees attend a much more traditional party for the older generation at Anchorage House. The main feature of this is the Jesuit Father Rothschild sharing with Mr Outrage and Lord Metroland a surprisingly mild, insightful and sympathetic view of the behaviour of the young generation. They have come into a world robbed of its meaning by the war, a world where the old values have been undermined and destroyed and yet nothing new has replaced them. A decade of financial and political crises ending up in a great crash. No wonder they make a point of not caring about anything. Genuinely caring about someone or something only risks being hurt. Hence the vehemence of the display of aloofness, nonchalance, insouciance, darling this and divine that and frightfully the other, and refusing point blank to ever be serious about anything.

In fact, Father Rothschild is given an almost apocalyptic speech:

‘Wars don’t start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions.’

And this was written a few years before Hitler even came to power. Everyone knew it. Everyone sensed it. The coming collapse. The bright young things are laughing in the dark.

A touch of Auden

W.H. Auden often gets the credit for introducing industrial landscapes and landscapes blighted by the Great Depression into 1930s poetry, but it’s interesting to notice Waugh doing it here in prose. In a plane flying to the South of France, Nina looks down through the window:

Nina looked down and saw inclined at an odd angle a horizon of straggling red suburb; arterial roads dotted with little cars; factories, some of them working, others empty and decaying; a disused canal; some distant hills sown with bungalows; wireless masts and overhead power cables; men and women were indiscernible except as tiny spots; they were marrying and shopping and making money and having children.

One episode in the sad and dreary strand of English poetry and prose through the middle half of the twentieth century, E.M. Foster’s lament for the cancerous growth of London in the Edwardian era, D.H. Lawrence’s horrified descriptions of the mining country, John Betjeman’s comic disgust at light industrial towns like Slough, Philip Larkin’s sad descriptions of windswept shopping centres. But during the 1930s it had an extra, apocalyptic tone because of the sense of deep economic and social crisis.

Other scenes

The movie

Adam goes back to visit Nina’s father for a second time to try and borrow money, but is amazed to walk into the surreal scene of a historical drama being filmed at her father’s decaying country house (Doubting Hall, set in extensive grounds) by a dubious film company The Wonderfilm Company of Great Britain, run by an obvious shyster, a Mr Isaacs. (Worth noting, maybe, that Waugh has the leading lady of the movie, use what would nowadays be an unacceptable antisemitic epithet. Waugh himself has  some of his characters, on very rare occasions, disparage Jews, but then they disparage the middle classes, politicians, the authorities and lots of other groups. Their stock in trade is amused contempt for everyone not a member of their social circle. Waugh comes nowhere near the shocking antisemitism which blackens Saki’s short stories and novels.)

Isaac is such a shyster he offers to sell Adam the complete movie, all the rushes and part-edited work for a bargain £500. Adam recognises a crook when he sees one. But his prospective father-in-law doesn’t, and it’s a comic thread that, towards the end of the novel, old Colonel Blount has bought the stock off Isaacs and forces his reluctant neighbour, the Rector of his church, to stage an elaborate and disastrous showing of what is obviously a terrible film.

(It is maybe worth noting that Waugh had himself tried his hand at making a film, with some chums from Oxford soon after he left the university, in 1922. It was a version of The Scarlet Woman and shot partly in the gardens at Underhill, his parents’ house in Hampstead.)

The motor race and Agatha

Adam, Agatha Runcible, Miles Malpractice and Archie Schwert pile into Archie’s car for a long drive to some remote provincial town to watch a motorcar race which a friend of Miles’ is competing in. It’s mildly comic that all the good hotels are packed to overflowing so they end up staying in a very rough boarding house, sharing rooms with bed which are alive with fleas. Early next morning they do a bunk.

The car race is described at surprising length, with various comic details (in the pits Agatha keeps lighting up a cigarette, being told to put it out by a steward, and chucking it perilously close to the open cans of petrol; this is very cinematic in the style of Charlie Chaplin).

There is a supremely comic scene where Miles’s friend brings his car into the pits and goes off to see a medic – one of the competitors threw a spanner out his car which hit our driver in the arm. A race steward appears and asks if there’s a replacement driver for the car. Now, in order to smuggle his pals into the pits in the first place, Miles’ friend had handed them each a white armband with random job titles on, such as Mechanic. The one given to Agatha just happened to read SPARE DRIVER so now, drunk as a lord, she points to it and declares: ‘I’m spare driver. It’s on my arm.’ The race steward takes down her name and she drunkenly gets into the racing car (she’s never driven a car before) her friends ask if that’s quite wise, to drive plastered, but she replies: ‘I’m spare driver. It’s on my arm’ and roars off down the course.

There then follow a sequence of comic announcements over the race tannoy as it is announced that Miss Runcible’s car (‘No 13, the English Plunket-Bowse’) has a) finished one lap in record time b) been disqualified for the record as it is now known she veered off the road and took a short cut c) has left the race altogether, taking a left instead of a right turn at a hairpin corner and last seen shooting off across country.

Our three buddies repair to the drinks tent where they carry on getting drunk. When ‘the drunk major’ turns up, promising to pay Adam the £35,000 that he owes him thanks to the bet he promised to make on a racehorse, they each have a bottle of champagne to celebrate.

Eventually it is reported that the car has been spotted in a large village fifteen miles away, town where it has crashed into the big stone market cross (‘ (doing irreparable damage to a monument already scheduled for preservation by the Office of Works)’).

Our threesome hire a taxi to take them there and witness the car wreck, mangled against the stone post and still smoking. Villagers report that a woman was seen exiting the car and stumbling towards the railway station. They make their way to the railway station and the ticket seller tells them he sold a ticket to London to a confused young woman.

(It may be worth noting that this entire chapter, with its extended and detailed description of competitive car racing, was almost certainly based on a real visit to a car race Waugh made, to support his pal David Plunket Greene. The real life race, which took place in 1929, is described, with evocative contemporary photos, in this excellent blog.)

Agatha’s end

To cut a long story short, after interruptions from other strands, we learn that Agatha sustained serious enough injuries in her car smash to be sent to hospital. But that’s not the worst of it. She had concussion and has periodic delusions, so she is referred on to ‘the Wimpole Street nursing home’. Here, in Waugh’s telegraphic style, we are given impressionistic snippets into her nightmares in which she is driving always faster, faster! and the comforting voice of her nurse trying to calm her as she injects her with a tranquiliser.

There’s a final scene in this strand where several of her pals pop round to visit her, bringing flowers but also a little drinky-wink, then some other appear and before you know it there’s a full scale party going on in her room, someone brings a gramophone, they all dance to the latest jazz tune. They even bribe the staid nurse with a few drinks and things are getting rowdy when, inevitably, the stern matron arrives and kicks them all out. Carry on Bright Young Things.

But, long story short, the excitement exacerbates Agatha’s shredded nerves and, towards the end of the narrative, we learn in a typically throwaway comment from one the characters, that Agatha died. Adam:

‘Did I tell you I went to Agatha’s funeral? There was practically no one there except the Chasms and some aunts. I went with Van, rather tight, and got stared at. I think they felt I was partly responsible for the accident…’

The fizzy bubbles mood of the opening half of the novel feels well and truly burst by this stage. Characters carry on partying and behaving like children but it feels like the moral and psychological wreckage is mounting up like a cliff teetering over them all.

Nina’s infidelities

The on again, off again relationship between Nina and Adam comes to a head when she declares she’s in love with a newcomer in their social circle, a man who speaks in even more outrageous posh boy phrases than anyone else. In fact, she casually informs Adam, she and Ginger got married this morning. Oh.

But this is where it gets interesting because Nina is such an airhead that she can’t really decide, she can’t make up her mind between Adam and Ginger. She goes off on a jolly honeymoon to the Med with him, but doesn’t like it one bit, he’s off playing golf most of the day. If you recall, Adam and Nina had had sex, at the hotel in Arundel, so there’s a more than emotional bond between them. Anyway, long and the short of it is she agrees to see him, to come and stay with him and, in effect, to start an affair with him as soon as she gets back to London.

It is all done for laughs but Waugh doesn’t need to draw the moral, to go on about psychological consequences, to editorialise or point out the moral implications for Nina and her set. All of this is conspicuous by its absence. It is left entirely to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Waugh’s text has the chrome-covered sleekness of an Art Deco statuette, slender, stylish, quick, slickly up to date.

He is the English F. Scott Fitzgerald, giving a highly stylised depiction of a generation in headlong pursuit of fun, drinks, drinks and more drinks, endless parties, with the shadow of the coming psychological crash looming closer and closer over his narratives.

The completely unexpected ending

The cinema show

Comedy of a sort continues up to the end, with the scene I mentioned before, of gaga old Colonel Blount, accompanied by Nina and Adam who are staying with him for Christmas, insisting on taking his cinematographic equipment round to the much put-upon local Rector, spending an age setting it up, and then blowing his entire household fuses in showing the terrible rubbish film which the director Isaacs has flogged to him.

It is a great comic scene if, to my mind, no longer as laugh out loud funny as the early scenes, because my imagination has been tainted by a silly death (Flossie), a suicide (Simon Balcairn), the nervous breakdown and death of pretty much the leading figure int he narrative (Agatha).

Anyway, after the power cut, the Colonel, Adam and Nina motor back to Doubting Hall for Christmas dinner and are in the middle of boozy toasts when the Rector phones them with the terrible news. War has broken out. War?

The last world war

In an extraordinary leap in subject matter and style, a startling break with everything which went before it, the very last scene discovers Adam, dressed as a soldier, amid a vast landscape of complete destruction, a barbed wire and mud nightmare derived from the grimmest accounts of the Great War and stretching for as far as the eye can see in every direction. It is the new war, the final war, the war Father Rothschild warned against, the war they all knew was coming and which, in a way, justified their heartless frivolity. Nothing matters. Jobs don’t matter, relationships don’t matter, sobriety or drunkenness, wild gambling, fidelity or infidelity, nothing matters, because they know in their guts that everything, everything, will be swept away.

Waugh’s humour continues till the end, but it is now a grim, bleak humour. For floundering across the mud landscape towards Adam comes a gas-masked figure. For a moment it looks as if they will attack each other, the unknown figure wielding a flame thrower, Adam reaching for one of the new Huxdane-Halley bomb (for the dissemination of leprosy germs) he keeps in his belt. God. Germ warfare. The utter ruined bottom of the pit of a bankrupt civilisation.

Only at the last minute do they realise they’re both British and then, when they take their masks off, Adam recognises the notorious Major, the elusive figure who took his money off him at Shepheard’s all those months (or is it years) ago, to bet on a horse, who he briefly met at the motor racing meet, and now gets talking to him, in that upper class way, as if nothing had happened at all.

‘You’re English, are you?’ he said. ‘Can’t see a thing. Broken my damned monocle.’

Now the Major invites him into the sanctuary of his ruined Daimler car, sunk past its axles in mud.

‘My car’s broken down somewhere over there. My driver went out to try and find someone to help and got lost, and I went out to look for him, and now I’ve lost the car too. Damn difficult country to find one’s way about in. No landmarks…’

It is the landscape of Samuel Beckett’s post-war plays, an unending landscape of utter devastation, dotted with wrecks of abandoned machinery and only a handful of survivors.

Once they’ve clambered into the car’s, the Major opens a bottle of champagne (what else?) and reveals a dishevelled girl wrapped in a great coat, ‘woebegone fragment of womanhood’. On closer examination this turns out to be one of Mrs Apes’ young girls, the laughably named Chastity. When quizzed, Chastity ends the narrative with a page-long account of her trials. It turns out that Margot Metroland did manage to persuade her to leave Mrs Ape’s religious troupe and go and work in one of her South American bordellos –so this fills in the details of the 3 or 4 girls we met during Decline and Fall who were being dispatched to the same fate.

Only with the outbreak of war, she returned to Europe and now presents in a breathless paragraph the story of her employment at a variety of brothels, being forced into service with a variety of conquering or retreating troops of all nations. The Major opens another bottle of champagne and starts chatting her up. Adam watches the girl start flirtatiously playing with his medals as he drifts into an exhausted sleep.

So, Waugh is pretty obviously saying, all of Western civilisation comes down to this: a shallow adulterer, a philandering old swindler, and a well-worn prostitute, holed up in a ruined car in a vast landscape of waste and destruction.

Aftershocks

Vile Bodies is marketed as a great comic novel and it is, and is often very funny, but as my summary suggests, it left me reeling and taking a while to absorb its psychological shocks. The deaths of Flossie, Simon and Agatha, and Nina’s slow metamorphosis into a thoughtless adulterer, all steadily darken the mood, but nothing whatsoever prepares you for the last chapter, which is surely one of the most apocalyptic scenes in the literary canon.

I had various conflicting responses to it, and still do, but the one I’m going to write down takes a negative view.

Possibly, when I was young and impressionable and first read this book, I took this devastating finale to be an indictment of the hollowness of the entire lifestyle depicted in the previous 200 pages. Subject to teenage moodswings which included the blackest despair, I took this extreme vision of the complete annihilation of western civilisation at face value and thought it was a fitting conclusion to a novel which, from one point of view, is ‘about’ the collapse of traditional values (restraint, dignity, sexual morality).

But I’m older now, and now I think it represents an artistic copout. It is so extreme that it ruins the relative lightness of the previous narrative. All the light touches which preceded it are swamped by this huge sea of mud.

And it’s disappointing in not being very clever. Up to this point any reader must be impressed, even if they don’t sympathise with the posh characters, by the style and wit with which Waugh writes, at the fecundity of his imagination, and the countless little imaginative touches and verbal precision with which he conveys his beautifully brittle scenarios.

And then this. Subtle it is not. It feels like a letdown, it feels like a copout. It’s not a clever way to end a noel which had, hitherto, impressed with its style and cleverness. It feels like a suburban, teenage Goth ending. It’s not much above the junior school essay level of writing ‘and then I woke up and it was all a dream’.

A more mature novel might have ended with the funeral of Agatha Runcible and recorded, in his precise, malicious way, the scattered conversations among the usual characters, momentarily brought down to earth and forced to confront real feelings, before swiftly offering each other and drink and popping the champagne. In this scenario the Major might have turned up as a fleeting character Adam still can’t get to meet, Nina unfaithful thoughts could have been skewered, Margot Metroland’s society dominance reasserted despite heartbreak over her dead daughter, Lord Monomark appointing yet another bright young thing as Mr Chatterbox, the ousted Prime Minister Mr Outrage still utterly confused by what’s going on, and maybe a last word given to sage and restrained Father Rothschild. That’s what I’d have preferred.

Instead Waugh chose to go full Apocalypse Now on the narrative and I think it was a mistake – an artistic error which became more evident as the years passed and the world headed into a second war, which he was to record much more chastely, precisely, and therefore more movingly, in the brilliant Sword of Honour trilogy.


Credit

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1930 by Chapman and Hall. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

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