Thomas: Why Bob Dylan Matters

October 10, 2018

Why Bob Dylan Matters
Richard F. Thomas
(Dey Street, 2017)
368 p.

Book publishers know their business, and no doubt the title of this book will succeed in drawing readers. It worked for me, and it is apropos: certainly the author believes that Bob Dylan does matter. But a more informative title might have been Dylan and Greco-Roman Poetry, or even Intertextuality as a Literary Device in the Works of Bob Dylan. But books bearing such titles might remain on the shelf, unread, and that would be a shame.

The principal argument of the book is that Dylan’s penchant for drawing on traditional songs in his own songs — a practice well established and recognized as part of his art — has expanded, especially in the last two decades, to an engagement with the poets of classical antiquity, and especially with Ovid, Virgil, and Homer. It’s a startling claim on first blush, perhaps, but Thomas makes a convincing case, and he knows whereof he speaks: he is George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard, an accomplished Virgilian, and trustee of the Loeb Classical Library. (In a fit of distraction, I wondered if, given his interest in popular music, he might prefer to be George Martin Penny Lane Professor?)

The evidence comes from the last three collections of original songs: “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012). This in itself makes the book interesting and valuable; it is the only book on Dylan of which I am aware (though, admittedly, there are many that have escaped my notice) that focuses principally on this period.

Thomas first suspected that Dylan might be taking an interest in the classics when he heard “Lonesome Day Blues”, from “Love and Theft”, in which one of the stanzas is:

“I’m gonna spare the defeated
I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud”

which reminded him of a passage from Book VI of the Aeneid, in which Virgil writes:

“Remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
To spare the defeated peoples, tame the proud.”
(Aeneid, Bk VI)

It can’t be a coincidence, and it was intriguing enough that he began listening to the new songs with ears open to further allusions to classical poetry. These efforts were bountifully rewarded with Modern Times. By his estimation, the songs on that record make over 30 references to the exile poems of Ovid. And on the most recent record, Tempest, Thomas finds numerous references to passages in Homer’s Odyssey woven into the fabric of the songs. The same record has a song, “Early Roman Kings”, that leans toward making an interest in antiquity overt.

Given this evidence, a few questions arise. One, perhaps, is a doubt: is it possible that, on the principle that one wielding a hammer sees nails, a classics professor might hear echoes of antique poets that are not really there? If there were but one or two examples, this doubt might be worth entertaining, but having reviewed the evidence Thomas provides, I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that Dylan is actually doing this.

Indeed, among the most interesting aspects of the book is Thomas’ further argument that this interest in antiquity is not new for Dylan. The evidence extends beyond the texts of his songs. For instance, we learn that back in Hibbing, MN, when young Dylan was still Robert Zimmermann, he was a member of his school’s Latin Club, and in 1963, on his first trip to Europe to play for the BBC, he afterwards took a flight to Rome, where he stayed for a few days, plausible evidence that he had a special interest in the city. There is even an early, unofficial song called “Goin’ Back to Rome” (in which, winsomely, Dylan contrives to rhyme “Colosseum” with “always see ’em”).

There is not much evidence from Dylan’s early and middle career that he was thinking of things Greek or Roman. We have “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, which is set in Rome, and Thomas informs us that in draft “Changing of the Guards” has a stanza that seems to have Virgil’s famous fourth Eclogue in mind, but beyond that the pickings are slim.

Yet, consistent with the book’s overall thesis, the evidence picks up since 2000. Dylan has chosen Rome as the site for a number of major press conferences in these years and, even more interesting, the playlists for his concerts in the city have differed radically from those he played in other cities. There does seem to be something special about the place for him. The image on the cover of Tempest is of a statue of Minerva; this same statue is on stage with Dylan on his recent tours. In interviews he has hinted that his most recent work might be rooted further back in history than the folk traditions of American music that everyone associates with him, making references to “the ten hundreds”, or times when “people had only one name”. As always with Dylan, his interviews are elliptical performances, very much part of a cat-and-mouse game with the reporters and fans, and hard to interpret, but it is plausible, at least, that he might be dropping clues for those who have ears to hear.

The bigger question is: why is he doing this? The first part of an answer has to be that, in a sense, this is nothing new for him. His songs have always been in conversation with the folk tradition, with the blues, and with the Bible; fragments of old songs have been worked into his own songs from the beginning. This is an act of creative appropriation of the tradition. We don’t think of his songs as pastiches because he has made these sources his own, and his own artistic voice can be heard through them. A good recent example is “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, which, as Thomas makes clear, is a veritable tapestry of references to Woody Guthrie songs and old folk songs collected by Alan Lomax, yet the result is a powerfully unified original song. As T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” In these songs, Dylan steals.

So, granted that he has an established history of creatively stealing from other sources, why has he begun to steal from the Greco-Roman poets? Here, I think, any answer has to be tentative. Perhaps, as Thomas argues, the exile poems of Ovid that pervade the songs on Modern Times appeal to Dylan because he feels himself to be in exile in the world, cut off by his celebrity and his itinerant life from normal relationships and a home. Likewise, perhaps the Odyssey is important to him because he, too, travels the world with nowhere to rest. Perhaps. Or perhaps it is simply that, having spent his life writing verse and song, he has felt an attraction to returning to the original sources of the poetic tradition within which he has worked. In any case, I find it heartening to think that Dylan is grappling with the legacy of these poets, absorbing and transmuting them through his own distinctive artistic pursuits.

I have said that Thomas is a distinguished classicist, and evidently he is also an avid Dylanologist. The great danger to such enthusiasts, that uncritical acclaim I call Dylanitis, is occasionally in evidence, as when he describes Dylan’s widely panned film Masked and Anonymous as “hugely underrated”. But, on the other hand, people who don’t love Dylan don’t write books about him, so we simply keep a few grains of salt on hand, and take one when, for instance, we read that Dylan compares with Eliot in his genius for appropriating the Western tradition.

There is plenty of backward and forward in the book’s argument, which is not presented as neatly as I’ve tried to make it here, and not all of the book’s contents are straightforwardly related to its thesis. At times Thomas pursues a particular line of inquiry at a length beyond what would be perfectly judicious by classical standards. At a few points the book’s argument seems to circle back on itself, with the same evidence coming up again. The result is a book that feels a bit of a jumble, but a jumble of good things. There is a fascinating section, for instance, on the wonderful song “Highlands”, which is obviously in conversation with Robert Burns, but also, Thomas argues, with Dylan’s own “Tangled Up in Blue”. There is an excellent analysis of Dylan’s “autobiography” Chronicles, Vol.1, which, following Clinton Heylin, Thomas considers to be a cunningly constructed blend of truth and fiction, and there is a very good discussion of Dylan’s Nobel speech (which, given the attention it pays to Odysseus, could also be marshalled as evidence of Dylan’s interest in the classics).

When I picked up the book I thought I would simply glance through it, but once I began reading I became interested in the argument, and was happy to read the whole thing. Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it has convinced me to listen again to the most recent albums, which, with the exception of Time Out of Mind, I have not loved. I approach them now with fresh ears.

*

For an envoi, here is the song that sparked this line of thinking: “Lonesome Day Blues”.


Heroism and hope in The Lord of the Rings

October 5, 2018

A few months ago I noted a good video essay on The Tree of Life. Today, from the same source — viz. the Youtube channel “Like Stories of Old” — comes a two-part essay on The Lord of the Rings. The essay is mostly about the book, but, since it’s a video essay, illustrated with scenes from the movies.

The first half is on “Heroism and Moral Victory”, especially on Tolkien’s translation of the locus of heroic action from the physical to the moral plane:

The second half is titled “A Mythology of Hope”, and explores the place of that virtue in Tolkien’s story:

It’s a good, hearty meal.

The ideas in these videos are drawn mainly from three books: Matthew Dickerson’s Following Gandalf, Bradley Birzer’s Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and Peter Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien.


Dickens: Little Dorrit

September 28, 2018

Little Dorrit
Charles Dickens
(Nonesuch, 2008) [1857]
853 p.

The practice of throwing debtors into prison, where their means to repay the debt are greatly reduced, is nonsensical, and it must have seemed so to many at the time when debtors’ prisons were used. It seemed so to Dickens, whose own father was confined to the Marshalsea debtors’ prison when Charles was a lad. That early, humiliating experience for the Dickens family became, many years later, the background for this novel on the life and fortunes of the Dorrit family.

At the beginning of the novel Edward Dorrit, formerly a wealthy man, is thrown into the Marshalsea in the expectation that he’ll be out again in a day or two, but days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years, and still he remains. His wife is with him, and his children, including the youngest, little Amy Dorrit — the little heroine, or, at least, the little centerpiece of our story — are born and brought up within the walls. When she becomes a young woman, Little Dorrit leaves the prison to take up humble work as a seamstress, but returns each night to care for her aged father, continuing to make the prison her home.

The main arc of the story’s first half relates how it comes about that an honourable London businessman, Arthur Clennam, befriends Little Dorrit and, with unprecedented tenacity, pursues the Dorrit case through the nation’s financial bureaucracy, with the happy result that the Dorrits are finally released from the Marshalsea.

In the second half the wheel of fortune continues to turn: what was down goes up, and what was up goes down, and soon enough it is Little Dorrit who finds herself in a position to help Clennam. Naturally, there is a romantic element complicating these negotiations.

Woven into the story are the nefarious doings of a French criminal attempting to blackmail Arthur’s family by threatening exposure of a family secret — an underwhelming secret, it must be said, which eventually comes out like a whimper.

Chesterton, in the introduction he wrote to the novel, calls the book “Dickens’s dark moment” on the grounds that “the main business of the story of Little Dorrit is to describe the victory of circumstances over a soul”, a very un-Dickensian project indeed, “not connected in any manner with the special thing that he had to say”. And there is something to this view: Chesterton highlights the contrast between David Copperfield‘s Mr Micawber, himself also a denizen of debtor’s prison, but ebullient and unbeaten in spirit, and Mr Dorrit, who is passive and overmastered.

But I’m not convinced that Chesterton’s argument is quite convincing as a criticism of the novel as a whole. After all, the title is not Mr Dorrit. His daughter escapes the fatalism that afflicts him, and this indeed is why the story follows her. Mind, her character poses different problems for the reader. She is so delicate that one worries she might dissolve in a light rain, a mere wisp of a character. But I am inclined to give Dickens the benefit of my doubt; he clearly intends her to be simple and good, from her top of her mild head right down to the tips of her mild toes.

There are an abundance of secondary characters in the story, many there just to develop sub-plots that have to intersect with the main story at crucial junctures before fading away. My favourite of these was Mrs Plornish, a Londoner with a knack for speaking Italian, or something bearing a distant resemblance to Italian, and an old woman known only as “Mrs F’s aunt” who sits tight-lipped in the corner until, at inopportune moments, she utters oracles.

A novelty of the book — not quite unprecedented in Dickens’ corpus, but not expected either — is the international setting. I’ve already mentioned the (at the risk of redundancy in triplicate) dastardly French villain, and on his trail we visit Calais and Marseilles, but we also follow the Dorrits to a sojourn in Venice and then to Rome, all of which is quite delightful, even if they all feel rather like a variant on Dickensian London.

The chief triumph of the book is Dickens’ satire on government bureaucracy in his invention of the Circumlocution Office, the great study and object of which is “HOW NOT TO DO IT”. If you love Dickens, but haven’t read Little Dorrit, you might enjoy reading the section in which he introduces the Circumlocution Office for the first time: here. Pure delight.

To my mind Little Dorrit ranks somewhere in the middle to low range of Dickens’ novels. I liked it better, I think, than Barnaby Rudge, and perhaps it could be considered a  competitor to Martin Chuzzlewit or even The Old Curiosity Shop. But I would be surprised to find a reader for whom it was a particular favourite.


A web of words

September 24, 2018

Today, a collection of links on, mostly, literary matters:

  • Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating story about one man’s efforts to read a collection of burned papyrus scrolls recovered from Pompeii. These scrolls are so damaged that they cannot be unrolled, and Brent Seales is putting high tech imaging to use to try to peer inside them. Whether he will finally succeed or not is uncertain, but it’s a great story.
  • A few months ago I heard an interview with a medievalist, Rachel Fulton Brown, about her most recent book, Mary and the Art of Prayer, which I thought sounded excellent. I was surprised to discover, poking around, that she is at the center of a brouhaha, in the resistance, over incursions of identity politics and all its works into medieval studies departments. You’d think such departments might be sleepy backwaters, immune from the tender ministrations of the politically ambitious, but apparently not.
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of the most famous in the annals of psychology. I am a little surprised to learn, therefore, that it ought to be taken with a giant grain of salt, and may in fact have been fraudulently presented to the public. Ben Blum writes a fascinating analysis at Medium.
  • When I wrote, a few months ago, about my first encounter with the poetry of Catullus, I made particular mention of his short epic, “The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis”. Writing at the LA Review of Books, Daisy Dunn takes a more detailed, and more appreciative, look at this remarkable poem.
  • At The New Yorker, Brian Phillips writes in praise of the children’s novels of Joan Aiken. We have The Wolves of Willoughby Chase at home, but I am unfamiliar with her other books, which sound delightful.
  • In a similar vein, Michael Dirda recommends a mostly forgotten children’s book by Walter de la Mare, whom I know only through his poetry, and that only slightly.
  • Speaking of children’s books, there are plenty of people investing plenty of time and money to keep your children’s eyes on screens instead of books. Richard Freed describes the powerful science and technology being leveraged to ensure kids become addicted, and Nicholas Tampio reviews the effects this screen time, at home and at school, is having on children. Essential reading for parents.

Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

September 21, 2018

On the Nature of Things
T. Lucretius Carus
Translated from the Latin by Ronald Melville
(Oxford, 1997) [c.55 BC]
xxxviii + 275 p. Second reading.

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; My purpose is
With the sweet voice of Pierian song
To expound my doctrine and as it were to touch it
With the delicious honey of the Muses;
So in this way perchance my poetry
Can hold your mind, while you attempt to grasp
The nature of the world, and understand
The great design and pattern of its making.”
(I, 943-50)

Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura is one of the great epic poems of the ancient world, and, as is claimed in this volume’s introduction, “perhaps the greatest didactic poem ever written in any language”. It is a work plump with fascinating scientific theories, and one with interesting and influential philosophical ideas also; it is, arguably, the latter that account for much of its continuing appeal.

We know little about the author, and the securest dating of the poem derives from a reference to it in a letter of Cicero; it was probably first published in around 55 BC.

The poem consists of about 7400 lines of Latin hexameter, and is divided into six books. The overall argument of the poem is to present and defend the natural philosophy of the Epicurean philosophical school.

Lucretius’ basic metaphysical principles and atomistic physics are described in the first two books; the middle books are devoted to the human person, soul and body; and the final two treat the development of human societies before culminating in an ambitious (if, alas, mostly wrong) naturalistic account of dramatic natural phenomena like lightning, earthquakes, volcanoes, and disease.

Lucretius is famous for his spirited and resourceful defence of atomism. The idea is not original with him — that honour is usually bestowed upon the Greek Democritus, of course — but he presents it seasoned “with the delicious honey of the Muses”, a sweetener intended to help the medicine go down. For him, atoms are small, indivisible, infinite in number, eternal, and indestructible. From these characteristics he derives two overarching metaphysical principles which govern all that follows. The first is that atoms do not come into being:

“We start then from her [nature’s] first great principle
That nothing ever by divine power comes from nothing.”
(I, 148-9)

and the second is that they do not pass out of being:

\; \; \; \;  \; \;  \; nature
Resolves all things back into their elements
And never reduces anything to nothing.”
(I, 215-7)

Thus the picture he presents us with is that of a world composed of an infinite number (though a finite variety) of indestructible material bits in motion. These bits, he argues (against Aristotle), are surrounded by a void. The existence of this void he rather deftly deduces from the fact of translational motion, for if there were no void it would be impossible for atoms to move from one place to another, their being impeded by the presence of other atoms. And these two categories, atoms and the void, exhaust his ontology:

“…apart from void and matter no third substance
Can remain to be numbered in the sum of things,
Neither one that falls within the range of senses
Nor one that mind can grasp by reasoning.”
(I, 445-7)

Thus for Lucretius, as for his intellectual descendants, such things as mathematical objects, moral principles, and immaterial souls have no reality.

Atoms move about, bumping into one another and combining in new ways to make new things. He uses a nice metaphor to describe this process, one particularly apt for use by a poet writing poetry:

“Moreover in my verse it matters much
How letters are arranged and linked with others.
The same denote sky, sea, land, rivers, sun,
The same denote crops, trees, and animals,
And, if not all, by far the greater part
Are alike; but the position decides the meaning.
So with real things, when the combination of their atoms,
Their motions, order, forms, shapes, and positions
Are changed, the thing itself must change.”
(II, 1013-21)

Because he believes that the number of atoms is infinite, and that this process has been taking place for infinite time, he does not shrink from the conclusion that our world itself came to be out of just such chance encounters:

“The seeds of things
In random and spontaneous collision
In countless ways clashed, heedless, purposeless, in vain
Until at last such particles combined
As suddenly united could become
The origins always of mighty things,
Of earth, sky, sea, and breeds of living creatures.”
(II, 1058-62)

Thus, step by haphazard step, the world around us has taken shape. Perhaps the most famous section of the poem, in Book V, is that in which he traces for us the slow development of the world from its origins to the establishment of early civilizations: the production of animals, the origins of speech, the discovery of fire, the origin of religion (which he, oddly, considering his other principles, attributes to apparently genuine visions of the gods), the beginnings of metallurgy and agriculture, the advent of music, and the building of cities. The atomic theory he puts to use in a variety of creative ways: to explain sense perception, and the laws of optics, for instance. It is interesting that this broadly evolutionary view of history does not include any conception of the evolution of life; for Lucretius, animal species are distinct and unchanging (V, c.920).

By the same reasoning which leads us to view our world in this way, we conclude that other worlds, too, have and will come to be. Moreover, turning the coin over, they will eventually fall apart again, just as our world one day will:

“So death rightly comes, when by constant flow
All things are thinned, and all things, struck from without
By an increasing hail of blows, succumb;
Since at the end great age finds food to fail,
And without ceasing bodies from outside
Beating on things subdue them and destroy them.
So shall the ramparts of the mighty world
Themselves be stormed and into crumbling ruin
Collapse.”
(II, 1139-47)

The naturalness with which his minimalist ontology — atoms and the void alone — leads to this final, whimpering destruction of all that the we know and love accounts for his dousing it with “the delicious honey of the Muses”, even if, perhaps, we doubt that we could be wholly convinced to part with our inheritance even for so sweet-seeming a mess of pottage.

As with many of his modern descendants Lucretius’ forthrightness about the ultimate fate of everything is paired with a strange lacuna. He is quite explicit that his ultimate purpose in writing this poem — his moral purpose — is to provide peace of mind, to teach his reader the art of “being undisturbed”. He aims at this in part by providing naturalistic explanations for unusual and frightening natural phenomena, so as to free the minds of his readers from the anxiety induced when they are experienced as signs of divine displeasure,

“Proceeding to set free the minds of men
Bound by the tight knots of religion.”
(IV, 7-8)

And Lucretius, following “the first who dared / Raise mortal eyes against” religion — namely, Epicurus, the hero of his tale — understands that a central part of achieving this peace of mind must be coming to peace with death. He therefore argues at length, in Book III, that the Epicurean universe in which only atoms and the void exist is necessarily one in which:

“… we may be certain that in death
There is nothing to fear, that he who does not exist
Cannot feel pain”
(III, 866-8)

There is a dignity in this paradoxical conviction that the way to avoid losing all is to definitively lose all, that the creature’s fear can be overcome by its accepting its total self-destruction, fear and all. Perhaps we are impressed by the vision of a philosopher who attends quietly to truth even as the world around him is consumed in a great conflagration. We may feel the persuasive power of Lucretius’ belief that

“True piety is for a man to have the power
To contemplate the world with quiet mind.”
(V, 1199-1200)

If we do feel that persuasive power, we ought to honour it, on the likelihood that there is some good in it. And Lucretius puts our good will to the test when he yields no quarter to those who, though not fearing death, wish nonetheless to extend their lives for as long as possible, for what difference, he argues, could longevity possibly make?

“Live though you may through all ages that you wish,
No less that eternal death will still await,
And no less long a time will be no more
He who today from light his exit made
Than he who perished months and years ago.”
(III, 1090-4)

Perhaps we respond to this detachment by doubling-down on our admiration: here is a man who truly wears his metaphysical hairshirt with Roman fortitude. Or perhaps we doubt that a philosophy that can so readily relativize the value of life is worth our uncritical adherence. The shelter, after all, which the Epicurean seeks from the metaphysical black hole that devours his world is his own interior life: his untroubled mind, his calmness in the face of disorder, his contemplation of truth. Yet do these things survive the destruction that lays all else to waste? Not in the long run — Lucretius tells us that much — but in the short? Now? It is here, I think, that the armour is pierced most effectively. The Epicurean moral universe, like our less systematic but substantially similar reigning view today, is underpinned by the presumed reality of human freedom, which imparts to all the Epicurean virtues a nobility and even a reality they cannot otherwise possess. There is no virtue in patience if one is not free to be impatient — indeed, there is no virtue of patience if there are only atoms and the void. Likewise for courage, and for prudence, and for all the virtues, and for the very notion of virtue as a moral quality, and for moral qualities tout court. Take his mandorla of freedom from him and you take all; yet his own principles do just that.

Famously, Epicurus, and Lucretius after him, tries to save human freedom in his system by introducing “the swerve” — an apparently random motion which atoms make from time to time to prevent the universe’s being deterministic:

“While atoms move by their own weight straight down
Through the empty void, at quite uncertain times
And uncertain places they swerve slightly from their course.”
(II, 217-9)

But this was feeble, being both arbitrary and inadequate to the purpose.

We therefore find, I think, that the Epicurean materialist metaphysics, like the modern one, consumes the metaphysician, leaving no-one to live out his moral ideal. We are left only with random motion and ultimate dissolution. And this, I think, even by Epicurean standards would be a counsel of despair.

**

I enjoyed re-reading this poem, which I first read at least 20 years ago. In the Roman reading project in which I am presently engaged it was my first sustained dose of Roman philosophy — just Greek philosophy at second hand, admittedly, but who among us can do better? — and I found a good deal to engage with. It is true that the very notion of a great poem about natural science seems slightly quixotic, rather like singing a Mass in honour of, say, Charles Darwin. But one soon forgets this genre-busting aspect, and falls into enjoyment of the poem on its own terms.

The translation of Ronald Melville I found good apart from the title (“On the Nature of the Universe”), which might well be a more fitting translation of De Rerum Natura on some grounds, but to which I nonetheless prefer the traditional English title (“On the Nature of Things”). I do harbour a regret that I didn’t splurge for Anthony Esolen’s translation, not least because I expect his commentary would have been superior to that found in this Oxford edition. But this, admittedly, is speculation, and I suppose that, in a Lucretian spirit, I could moderate my regret by meditating on the Epicurean counsel that, whatever translation I chose, “eternal death will still await”.


Feast of St Hildegard

September 17, 2018

Today is the feast of St Hildegard of Bingen, our most recent Doctor of the Church, and one of our most musical saints.

Of all her exceptionally beautiful pieces it is hard to choose just one, but here is O Frondens Virga, performed by Chanticleer.

Sancta Hildegard, ora pro nobis.


Howells: Roman Holidays

September 7, 2018

Roman Holidays, and Others
William Dean Howells
(Harper & Bros., 1908)
302 p.

I’ve now been to Rome a half-dozen times, and certain features of the city have become familiar: the crowds of tourists in certain locations (and not in others), the traffic, the security checks, the wondrous art and architecture, the sense of the wide sweep of history being somehow simultaneously present. I’ve been a visitor often enough to wonder what it was like to be a visitor in earlier times, and I have made a point, in a desultory way, of looking for travel memoirs about the city, especially if written before the age of mass air travel. H.V. Morton stands on our side of that watershed, but still long enough ago that the experience was a different one. Then there was Henry James, and Charles Dickens before him.

Recently I learned of this memoir, written in 1908. William Dean Howells was a figure previously unknown to me, but he was apparently well-known in his day, having been a prolific author and literary critic, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and even called — perhaps not entirely as a pun — “the Dean of American Letters”. He was 70 years old when he went to Italy, intent on revisiting sites he had first seen when, as a young man in his 20s, he had first travelled in la bella paesa. On this trip, as recounted in this book, his itinerary included Genoa, Naples, Pisa, and even (en route to home) Monte Carlo, but the lion’s share of his time, and the lion’s share of his book, were devoted to Rome.

It was certainly a different time. Remarks on the qualities of Roman horses and carriages no longer have the practical value they were intended to have. He notes the introduction of elevators in some buildings, of indoor heating, and of electric lighting in hotels which has brought an end to “that rivalry between the coming guest and the manager to see how few or many candles can be lighted”. In fact, he is so interested in these matters, and in the details of where an American traveller might best lodge, and which cafés are “the resort of all the finer sort of afternoon tea-drinkers”, that in the early going I came close to throwing him and his book from the Tarpeian Rock.

But this would have been precipitous, and it is good that I resisted the temptation, because as the book proceeds it opens up. Howells himself, it turns out, is a genial host, unhurried and gently witty, with a winsome air of self-depreciation (as when he excuses his failure to visit many of the churches of Rome by asking “What right had I, a heretic and recusant, to come staring and standing round where the faithful were kneeling and praying?”) but a willingness to press a moral point when he thinks it justified (as when he observes a beautiful view in Monte Carlo by noting that “beyond the Casino seaward were the beautiful terraces, planted with palms and other tropic growths, where people might come out and kill themselves”). And some of his advice really might be still practical for a select clientele: “If I were buying piazzas in Rome I should begin with the Navona”.

If part of the attraction of such a memoir is in seeing what has changed, it is equally true that it is cheering to see what has not. Naturally the major sites were substantially then as they are now. But the constancy extends even to smaller matters, such as the prevalence of cats at the foot of Trajan’s Column (which was the first odd thing I noted on the first morning of my first visit to Rome), the unsettling strangeness of the Capuchin ossuary off Piazza Barberini, and the notable difference in quality between Italian trains and French (which I experienced when I had to switch trains, as he did, at the border town of Ventimiglia).

Howells’ aesthetic judgments are not always sound. We can, perhaps, in a spirit of charity, understand why he might say of the outsized baroque statues in St Peter’s that

they swagger in their niches or over their tombs in an excess of decadent taste for which the most bigoted agnostic, however Protestant he may be, must generously grieve

but it is harder to comprehend how he could say of Rome’s magnificent churches that they are “each less lovely than the other” — this, I note with some relief, being a judgment offered alongside the admission, already noted, that he didn’t go into many of them. (Actually, if we are considering exteriors only, there is some justice in his judgment.) His approving remarks about Santa Maria Maggiore — that it is “far richer than any gold could make it in the treasures of history and legend, which fairly encrust it in every part” — averted at this sensitive juncture another temptation to send the book plummeting to its death.

The book does have weaknesses, then, foremost among them being, to my mind, Howells’ lack of interest in the religious significance of anything he sees, but, in the end, Howells went to Rome because he loved Rome, and because the city repaid that love, and on this strength the book can win the hearts of readers who feel the same. The special allure of the city is at least partly captured in a remark he makes about the Spanish Steps, but which has wider application:

It is beauty that rather makes the heart ache, and the charm of the Steps from above is something that you can bear better if you are very, very worthy, or have the conceit of feeling yourself so.

*

This is not the first travel memoir about Rome that I would recommend — all of the authors I mentioned at the top are preferable — but Howells is not without his charms, and for seasoned travellers he might well be just the thing.

**

For another, markedly superior, appreciation of this book, consider reading John Byron Kuhner’s essay: “Romesick with William Dean Howells”.


On the silver screen

September 4, 2018

A few film-related links today:

  • Writing at The Weekly Standard, John Simon gives a primer on the films of Ingmar Bergman. I believe I’ve seen about a half-dozen of Bergman’s films, and many of those Simon recommends as good entry points are yet unseen by me. Like Bresson, I’ve found Bergman a tough nut to crack; sitting down to watch him sometimes feels too much like homework. But, as always in such cases, I willingly shoulder the blame, and I’m planning to follow-up on some of Simon’s suggestions, homework or not.
  • I have no similar difficulties with the films of the Coen Brothers, from whom the most recent news is that their forecast mini-series, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, has now been converted into a feature film instead. This is disappointing, as I’d been curious to see what they would do with the extra time and scope that the mini-series format would provide, but, on the other hand, a new film from the Coen Brothers could never be simply disappointing. I look forward to it.
  • I’ve also been looking forward, for over a year now, to Terrence Malick’s new film, Radegund. Rumours were circulating that it might premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but the festival’s line-up has now been announced and I am sobbing quietly, in voiceover.
  • It is also rather sad to note that I have lived in and around Toronto for almost 20 years and have never been to a single TIFF screening.
  • Also at The Weekly Standard, Tim Markatos has written a fine appreciation of Dreyer’s classic film The Passion of Joan of Arc, and of other cinematic treatments of St Joan’s life. I’ve actually seen quite a few of these, including Rossellini’s, Bresson’s, and Rivette’s — but I’ll not contest the critical consensus that Dreyer’s is the best.

Cicero: Political Speeches

August 25, 2018

Political Speeches
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by D.H. Berry
(Oxford World Classics, 2009) [70-43 BC]
400 p.

Cicero was considered, in his own time, the greatest orator of the Roman world, and his reputation has not faded greatly in the meantime, for those Latinists equipped to appreciate it. This volume gathers together a number of his most famous speeches — not all of them actually given in public, but all intended, at least, to be considered as contributions to Roman politics.

The earliest, from 70 BC, when Cicero was 30 years old, are two In Verram speeches which he prepared for the prosecution of Verres, a former governor of Sicily who had been arrested for corruption. Verres had two main characteristics: he was plainly guilty, and he was immensely wealthy. If acquitted, therefore, the reason would be plain: the courts were corrupted by bribery. Cicero therefore cannily turned the trial into a test of the Senators’ competence to sit as jurors over their peers: “This is a trial in which you will be passing verdict on the defendant, but the Roman people will be passing verdict on you.” This first speech was so effective that Verres fled before the trial could proceed. Nonetheless, Cicero later published a set of five speeches that he would have given, had the trial occurred, in which he set forth his evidence. The fifth of these is included here.

*

In 66 BC Cicero gave a famous speech in praise of Pompey. In the previous year Pompey had, against all expectation, succeeded in clearing the Mediterranean of the pirates who had long plagued Roman traders, and, his star ascendant, was being considered for command in the war in the east against Mithridates. Cicero’s speaks in favour of granting Pompey this honour:

“My subject is the outstanding and unique merit of Gnaeus Pompeius — a subject on which it is more difficult to finish speaking than to begin.”

*

In 63 BC Rome was upset by the Catiline conspiracy, an attempt by Catiline to overthrow the government and assume power. This is one of the most famous episodes in all of Roman history, thanks largely to the four great speeches, the Catilinarians, which Cicero, who was consul at the time, composed. The first was given to the Senate on 7 November, the day after the discovery of the conspiracy. Catiline himself was present, and much of the speech is addressed directly to him. A well-known fresco depicts the scene. Cicero advocated Catiline’s exile, rather than his execution, on the grounds that Catiline’s conspirators were likely to follow him, thereby cleansing the city of the trouble that has threatened it. And Catiline did flee the city, that very night.

The second Catilinarian was given the next day, this time to the people of Rome. Cicero described the conspiracy, marshaled the evidence, and urged any remaining conspirators to follow him out of the city. It is a sometimes humorous speech, in which the invective is inventive and powerful. A few weeks later, on 2 December, he laid a trap and intercepted correspondence between conspirators. On this evidence he arrested several of them who remained in Rome, and the next day he spoke again to the people of Rome to describe these developments; this is the third Catilinarian. Finally, on 5 December, Cicero spoke again before the Senate, presenting two main proposals for what to do with the captured conspirators: execute them (as advocated by Silanus) or condemn them to life in prison (as advocated by Caesar), and calling on them to make a wise decision.

As it happened, Cicero himself ordered the execution, without trial, of five captured conspirators, which caused great controversy in Rome and eventually led to Cicero’s being exiled for several years. His part in the drama saved the city (if his own account is to be believed) but nearly ruined his public career.

*

By 46 BC Rome was in a quite different situation. Caesar was gaining power, and the Republic was under threat from within. Six years earlier Cicero had fought on Pompey’s side against Caesar, and, when Caesar had been victorious, Cicero ceased speaking in the Senate for fear of giving its proceedings a legitimacy he denied that it possessed. But in 46 BC Caesar offered clemency to Marcellus, a friend and ally of Cicero, and in response Cicero rose in the Senate and spoke in honour of Caesar, beginning with a phrase that became famous: “Diuturni silenti…” (The long silence…”). This speech’s unstinting praise of Caesar, in Caesar’s presence, strikes our ears as sycophantic, and we cannot help noting the change of tone from his earlier speeches to a healthier Republican Senate.

*

The final speech in this collection comes from September 44 BC, about six months after the assassination of Caesar. It is the Second Philippic, a speech directed against Mark Antony, against whom Cicero, siding with Octavian, was fighting for control of Rome. The speech was originally called In Antonium (Against Antony), but acquired its peculiar title on account of a jesting comparison Cicero made, to a friend, between himself and Demosthenes, the most famous orator of the Greek world, who had composed a series of speeches, the Philippics, against Philip of Macedon.

Cicero had reason to later regret his Second Philippic, for in 43 political alliances changed, and Antony joined with Octavian (and Lepidus) to form the so-called Second Triumvirate. They drew up lists of those they wanted executed to consolidate their power, and Antony put Cicero’s name at the top. He was captured, and killed, on 7 December of that year.

**

Reading these speeches is a crash course in the Roman history of the period, for Cicero stood at or near the center for most of his public life, and this is reason enough to get to know them. But surely part of the attraction, too, is the famous eloquence of Cicero, who is credited with turning the Latin language into an instrument of supple power and charm, and whose greatness as a rhetorician was admired for as long as Latin was spoken. Unfortunately, this aspect of his genius is hard to preserve in translation, and is, perhaps, ultimately unavailable to those of us who cannot read his original words with appreciation. Such is my lamentable condition.

D.H. Berry is, I am sure, a conscientious translator, but his renderings of these great speeches in this edition are not, I dare say, great English prose to compare with Cicero’s great Latin prose. We can appreciate the large scale structure of the speeches, and some of the rhetorical techniques, but the sheer beauty of the language, which seduced generations of admirers, is occluded. Damn you, John Dewey!


Pearl

August 11, 2018

Pearl
Anonymous
Translated from Middle English by Simon Armitage
(Faber and Faber, 2016) [c.1350]
xviii + 103 p.

It is a wonderful poem: intimate and affecting, and, at the same time, showcasing the most dazzling virtuosity.

It tells the story of a man who has lost his spotless pearl — whom, we soon learn, was his daughter, who died when just two years old. He, in sorrow, falls asleep and, in that sleep, dreams that he sees her, now grown, from across an impassable river. They talk; she comforts and corrects him, teaching him about the soul’s journey beyond this life, and about the heavenly kingdom in which she now dwells. He, eventually overcome at his longing to be with her again, dashes into the river, whereupon he awakens.

It is a heart-breaking poem. His sorrow and his longing are so vividly conveyed. I felt it before I was a father myself; I feel it more now. It is a consoling poem too. The counsel his dream-daughter offers him is not sentimental; it is, as it were, doctrine clear and solid as a pearl. It is an encouraging poem, building to a glorious vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, the abode of the blessed, with twelve gates of pearl. And then that vision, in an instant, dissipates, taken from him by his own wilfulness.

The poem has the elegant and intricate structure of a Bach fugue. Let me try to describe it.

There are 101 stanzas, each of 12 lines, for a total length of 1212 lines — a thematically important number, for the heavenly Jerusalem to which the poem aspires is itself suffused with the number 12. Each stanza follows a strict rhyme scheme.

In addition to the rhymes, each line also follows the alliterative stress patterns of Old English poetry, with three or four stressed, alliterative syllables. Thus we have poetry at the level of each line, with lines linked together by rhyme into stanzas.

But the stanzas too are linked, grouped into sets of 5, with each group having a keyword which appears in the first and last lines of each stanza. And the groups of stanzas are also linked, for the first line of the first stanza in each group links to the keyword of the previous set of stanzas. In this way the groups of stanzas are threaded together to create a kind of poetic daisy chain.

Let me illustrate this daisy chaining with an example from Simon Armitage’s translation. The first set of 5 stanzas uses the keyword “spot”. Thus the first and last lines of the first few stanzas are:

[1] Beautiful pearl that would please a prince
[…]
for that priceless pearl without a spot.

[2] And in that spot where it sprang from me
[…]
my precious pearl without a spot.

[3] Spices must thrive and spread in that spot
[…]
from that precious pearl without a spot.

This continues until stanza 6, which introduces the second group. The first line continues with the keyword of the first group, but the last line gives us the new keyword: “ornament”.

[6] Suddenly my spirit rose from that spot
[…]
weave cloth so exquisite in ornament.

[7] Ornamenting the hills to every side
[…]
outshone by opulent ornament.

And so on. When we reach the last group of stanzas in the poem, we discover that their keyword is “pleasing/pleasure”:

[100] Had I put His pleasure before my own
[…]
or propose to spoil a Prince’s pleasure.

[101] To please the Prince and join Him in peace
[…]
and beautiful pearls, pleasing to him. Amen. Amen.

Casting an eye back up at stanza 1, we see that the first line echoes this same keyword, thereby giving the poem as a whole a circular shape, like a pearl. It is, truly, a most beautifully crafted poem.

I have read other translations, and I have also struggled myself through the Middle English original — which, being written in a dialect spoken outside London, is considerably more challenging for modern readers than, say, Chaucer’s poetry. To my knowledge no translator has been able to retain all of the poetic structure of the original, and Armitage is no exception. He chooses to retain the alliterative stresses and the stanzaic patterns, but to forego the rhyme scheme. He gets the small scale structure and the large, but misses the middle. Thus an example stanza reads as follows:

‘Courteous Queen,’ said that lovely creature,
kneeling on the floor, raising her face,
‘Matchless mother and fairest maiden,
fount from which grace and goodness flows.’
Then from her prayers she stood and paused
and in that place she spoke these words:
‘Sir, many seek grace and are granted it here,
but in this domain there are no usurpers.
All heaven belongs to that holy empress,
and earth and hell are within her dominion.
No one will oust her from her high office
for she is the queen of courtesy.

The keyword here is “courtesy”. You can hear the alliteration. The alliterated sound is usually on stressed syllables, which teaches us to how to read the lines. For example, in the penultimate line we alliterate on ‘h’, stressing ‘her’, ‘her’, and ‘high’, which underlines, I think, the dignity and majesty of Our Lady.

This poem is preserved for us in a single manuscript — Cotton Nero A.x. Incredibly, these original pages, complete with illustrations, can be viewed online.

In the end I enjoyed this rendering of the poem, as I enjoyed also Armitage’s version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It is handsomely presented by Faber and Faber, with a single stanza on each page, in a sturdy hardback. Recommended.