Electroweak anniversary

October 17, 2017

Today marks 50 years since Steven Weinberg submitted his famous paper, “A Model of Leptons”, to Physical Review Letters. In this short paper (of just 3 pages) he proposed a theoretical framework within which the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force could be understood as two different aspects of a single underlying force, dubbed “electroweak”.

The paper was actually published on 20 November 1967, and it has had an interesting history. At first it was ignored, garnering just 2 citations in the first 3 or 4 years. When this neglect changed, it changed dramatically, and for several decades “A Model of Leptons” was the most cited paper in the literature on high-energy, fundamental physics. It won Weinberg the Nobel Prize in Physics (shared with Salam and Glashow) in 1979.

The idea that the fundamental forces of nature (electromagnetism, weak, strong, and gravitational) might be different aspects of a single, simpler force that could be described more economically has been, it is fair to say, one of the leading ideas in physics in the last 100 years or so. Einstein tried to unify electromagnetism and gravity, and huge piles of ink were lavished on the effort to unify electromagnetism with the weak and the strong forces into a “grand unified theory”. String theory, for several decades now the sexiest branch of theoretical physics, is another example of this same ambition.

But it is noteworthy that Weinberg’s proposal is the only successful example of unification that we have managed to find.

Here is a good history of the paper’s composition and reception from CERN Courier.

Livy III: Hannibal’s War

October 15, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XXI-XXX
Hannibal’s War
Titus Livius
(Oxford, 2006) [c.20 BC]
xlviii + 740 p.

We last left Livy as he narrated, at the end of his Book X, the conclusion of the Samnite Wars in c.300 BC, by which time Rome had emerged as a regional power controlling most of the Italian peninsula. In Books XI-XX, which have been lost, he would have recounted the history of the next 80 years, covering first the conflicts in southern Italy against the Greek forces led by Pyrrhus, and then the First Punic War, in which conflict with Carthage arose, principally over control of Sicily.

The present volume, about the Second Punic War, covers a period of just 20 years, but they were years of high drama and memorable incident in which Rome faced her greatest threat yet: the invasion of Italy by Carthaginian forces, led by the famous general Hannibal.

Though Rome had been triumphant in the First Punic War, Carthage had not been crushed in the defeat, and tensions had continued to roil. The story is told of a young boy, Hannibal Barca, who

at about the age of nine, was in a boyish fashion trying to coax his father Hamilcar into taking him to Spain. Hamilcar, who had finished off the [First Punic] war in Africa and was on the point of taking his army across to Spain, was offering sacrifice. He brought Hannibal to the altar and there made him touch the sacred objects and swear to make himself an enemy of the Roman people at the earliest possible opportunity.

Hannibal took his vow seriously. At the age of just 25 he became a general in the Carthaginian army, and decided that the time was ripe to begin.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to simply attack Roman territories; ever the strategist, he conceived a plan to force Rome to declare war on him. He chose Spain as the place to make his first move. At that time Carthage controlled much of Spain south of the Ebro river, while the Romans controlled the territories north of the river. However, there was a city, Saguntum (modern Sagunto, a little north of Valencia), which, though south of the river, was allied to Rome. Hannibal laid siege to the city, and the Romans came to its aid, at the same time sending a delegation to Carthage to formally declare war.

This was all the invitation Hannibal needed to take his troops onto Roman soil, and in Book XXI Livy relates the famous story of how Hannibal led his army north, over the Pyrenees, through Gaul, and then south over the Alps and into Italy. The daring of the journey impressed itself strongly on the imagination of the times: with a huge army, including a set of awe-inspiring war elephants, beset by attacks from the suspicious and worried people who lived along the route, and without roads through the snow-covered mountains, he persevered and emerged onto the plains of northern Italy, where he was met by a Roman legion commanded by Publius Scipio, the father of the man who was, eventually, to prove too much for Hannibal to handle.

But that time was yet to come; now it was Hannibal’s turn to prove too much for the Romans to handle. The Romans met him in three consecutive battles, first along the shores of the Trebbia River, then at Lake Trasimene, and finally, and most famously, at Cannae. In each of these battles Hannibal drew the Roman into a trap — pinning them down, ambushing them, and executing brilliant tactical manoeuvres on the battlefield — and the Romans suffered horrendous, lopsided defeats in each case. The slaughter peaked at Cannae, where Hannibal used a pincer movement to encircle the Roman army, and only a few, who ever thereafter suffered shame, survived. Livy says that more than 40000 Romans were killed that day, and some historians put the death toll even higher.

These were devastating defeats, and had Hannibal pressed his advantage and marched to Rome, it is possible that the course of the war might have played out very differently. Perhaps I would be writing now, in Punic script, about how, despite its promising beginnings, the Roman civilization, known to us only through archeological investigations and a few scattered historical references, was subsumed by the Carthaginian empire.

But that is not what happened; instead, Hannibal took time to rest his troops and tend to supplies, and this gave Rome, with what Livy calls “the spirit of Roman constancy under adversity”, the time it needed to calm its panic, raise new legions (12 of them!), and formulate a defence plan. Fabius Maximus was elected dictator, and he led the new legions out. Considering that they were trounced each time they confronted Hannibal in battle, Fabius made a sensible decision: not to confront him. Instead, his army shadowed Hannibal’s: moving along the ridges when Hannibal was in the valley, keeping the invaders always in view, disrupting their supply lines, but not committing to a full fight. This strategy — which bears Fabian’s name even today — drew intense criticism from the Roman people, who regarded it as cowardly and un-Roman. (Indeed, it was only when he was forced to share command with a consul, Varro, that the disaster of Cannae occurred, for it was Varro who led the army into that trap.)

At this point the scope and complexity of the conflict widened, and I’ll not attempt to trace its complicated course in detail. Hannibal crossed the Alps in 217 BC; by 213 the Romans had 23 legions in the field. Over the next few years, there were numerous regions in which Rome and Carthage came into conflict: in Italy, especially around the city of Capua, which was taken by Hannibal and held for most of the duration of the war, in south Italy (the region of Bruttium, in the toe of the Italian boot), but also in Spain, Gaul, and Sicily. The Romans had a staunch Sicilian ally in Hiero, king of Syracuse, and the Carthaginians courted Philip V of Macedon, who did indeed intervene but to little lasting effect, except perhaps to encourage an increase in the size of the Roman navy.

In 212 BC Hannibal made his closest approach to Rome. During the previous year the Romans had been laying siege to Capua, and Hannibal, in a bid to draw them off by threatening Rome itself, marched his army north and encamped about 8 miles from the city. He himself came within 3 miles, and saw the city with his own eyes for the first, and, as it turned out, last time. The people of Rome were frightened, but her leadership were not spooked, and they resolutely kept their armies where they were. Seeing that Hannibal’s bluff has failed, Capua surrendered.

In the same year a new and momentous figure entered the war: Publius Cornelius Scipio, the aforementioned son of the elder Publius Scipio who had first met Hannibal on his entry into Italy. The elder Scipio had been killed in battle in Spain, along with his brother, in the previous year, and the Roman forces in Spain were leaderless. Scipio the younger, though still in his 20s, volunteered to assume leadership, and the Senate accepted his offer. Upon arrival in Spain, Scipio made an impression immediately. Livy relates two stirring speeches, one to this soldiers, to convince them to accept him as leader (Bk XXVI, 41), and another (Bk XXVI, 43) to justify, as his first military mission, an attack on New Carthage (modern Cartagena), the principal Carthaginian port city on the Iberian peninsula. His troops’ confidence in him was well founded, for by a series of brilliant tactical moves, the Romans took control of the city in a single day of fighting. Scipio won, by acts of magnanimity, the praise of the conquered people too, who described him as “very much like the gods”. He was a man, says Livy, “whose valour was such that he never thought he had achieved enough, and whose search for true glory was insatiable”.

As the contest in Spain turned in favour of the Romans, an army commanded by Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, repeated Hannibal’s feat of marching from Spain, through Gaul, and over the Alps into Italy. It was easier going this time, on account of the roads that Hannibal had built during his passage, but it was no easier upon arrival, for he was met by several Roman legions, and, clashing with them, the Carthaginians were soundly defeated, with Hasdrubal himself killed, and, Livy tells us, as many as 50000 Carthaginians slain. The Romans saw the battle as something of a repeat of Cannae, but with victory now on their side, and they declared a festival of thanksgiving.

By 206 BC the situation was roughly this: Hannibal was still in Italy, but his movement was confined to the southernmost part of the peninsula; in Spain, the Carthaginian presence was confined to the coastal area around modern Cadiz; and Sicily was safely in Roman hands. The time was right, thought Scipio, for Rome to send a force to Carthage, and so to bring the war to an end at last. Livy relates two excellent speeches delivered to the Roman senate, the first by Fabius Maximus (he of the Fabian tactics) arguing against an invasion, and the second by Scipio arguing in favour. Scipio carried the day, and began his preparations.

The Romans sailed for Africa in 203, and, landing, earned a quick victory over the main Carthaginian force by setting fire to their camp at night. In the wake of this disaster for Carthage, Hannibal was recalled from Italy, and, his sixteen-year sojourn ended, he reluctantly obeyed:

Rarely, they say, has anyone departing into exile from his own country displayed such distress as Hannibal did then as he left the country of an enemy. It is said that he often looked back at the coast of Italy, levelling accusations against the gods and men and even invoking curses on himself and his own head for not having led his men straight to Rome when they were covered with blood from the victory at Cannae. (Bk XXX, 20)

Hannibal and Scipio, “the greatest generals not merely of their own day, but of the whole of history down to their time” (Bk XXX, 30), finally met one another at the Battle of Zama. Given the creativity of the two generals, it was a surprisingly straightforward affair; the Romans, though slightly outnumbered, carried the day. Hannibal went to the Carthaginian senate and recommended that they accept terms from the Romans, and then, to elude capture, boarded a ship bound for Antioch. The ship bore him away, and out of this history for the time being, though of course he has retained a permanent place in the memory of Roman civilization and its branches. Scipio, on the other hand, returned to Rome in triumph, and was granted the cognomen by which he is known to this day: Scipio Africanus.

And so this segment of Livy’s history comes to a close.


The relationship between Roman politics and Roman religion continues to be an interesting aspect of these books. We don’t hear as much about the sacred Roman chickens as we used to, but religion continues to exert a significant influence over affairs of state in this period. Each year, when the consuls were elected, the principal religious figures for that year were also chosen, and Livy takes care to keep us informed of both. The Senate frequently orders sacrifices, and they were willing to suspend military affairs until honour had been duly paid to the gods. Festivals of thanksgiving were held; temples were built after significant victories. The Romans were a pious people.

Hannibal’s presence in Italy was momentous, and this was emphasized by the number of strange prodigies which occurred during these years. An ox climbed to the third floor of a building and threw itself to its death; glowing figures appeared in the sky; a six-month-old child shouted “Triumph!” in the vegetable market; a spear at Lanuvium moved on its own; a crow entered the temple of Juno; men dressed in white were seen wandering at a distance; stones fell from the sky like rain; a wolf stole a sentinel’s sword; soldier’s spears burst into flame in Sicily; two shields began to bleed; the sun appeared to shrink; burning stones fell from heaven at Praeneste; at Arpi the sun seemed to fight with the moon; at Capena two moons were seen at once; the spring of Hercules flowed with blood; in Antium the ears of wheat were found to be bloodied; sweat appeared on the statue of Mars on the Appian Way; goats grew wool; a hen turned into a cock; the sea caught fire; a cow gave birth to a foal; ravens nested in the temple of Juno Sospita; in Apulia a palm tree caught fire; a shower of chalk occurred at Cales; lightning struck the Capitol and the temple of Vulcan; a spear of Mars moved on its own; a Sicilian cow spoke; a woman in Spoletum turned into a man; an altar was seen in the sky; a swarm of bees entered Rome; the temple of Jupiter was struck by lightning at Aricia; phantom warships were seen on the river at Tarracina; the river at Amiternum ran with blood; the sun turned red; a huge rock seemed to fly; a tower at Cumae was destroyed by lightning; a mule gave birth at Raete; a lamb was born with an udder full of milk; in Anagnia the ground before the city gate was struck by lightning and burned for a day and a night; birds abandoned the grove of Diana; snakes of amazing size jumped from the water like fish at play; at Tarquinii a pig was born with a human face; statues sweated blood; a shower of stones fell at Veii; a wolf entered Capua and mauled a guard; two snakes entered the temple of Jupiter at Satricum; a two-headed pig was born; two suns were seen; an ox spoke; a vulture flew into a shop in a crowded forum; it rained milk; a boy was born with the head of an elephant; mice gnawed a golden crown; a swarm of locusts descended on Capua; a foal was born with five feet; at Arpinum a sinkhole opened. Care was taken to expiate these prodigies with appropriate sacrifices.


The Second Punic War was the most extensive that Rome had fought, and it was a watershed in her history. At its end, her influence extended not only through Italy and Gaul, but also Spain and North Africa. She was beginning to look something like the Mediterranean Empire that she was to become. The next books of Livy’s history will, I believe, relate how she turned east and conquered the Greeks, a development that was to have long-term cultural consequences for the West.

In the meantime, few episodes in Roman history had been, or would be, as full of memorable incident and character as the Second Punic War. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this account.


It rarely happened that good fortune and sound judgement were bestowed upon men at the same time. (Bk XXX, 42)

Old English Genesis

October 9, 2017

Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
81 p.

This year my extravagant birthday gift was The Complete Old English Poems, a door-stop of a book in which Craig Williamson has translated into modern English the entire surviving body of Anglo-Saxon poetry. This poetry — consisting of roughly 31000 lines in total — includes, most famously, Beowulf, but also a number of other substantial poems on a variety of subjects. I am planning to read through them, slowly, over the next few years.

I have begun with the Junius manuscript, which consists of several poems on Biblical subjects. The first is “Genesis”, a work of roughly 3000 lines which takes as its matter Genesis 1-22, including the creation of the world, the Fall, Noah, the Tower of Babel, the calling of Abraham, and the Sacrifice of Isaac, but also brings in other Biblical material to relate the story of the fall of the rebel angels.

Happily for me, this first taste has whetted my appetite for more; I enjoyed it thoroughly. Williamson aimed to preserve the poetic form of the original alliterative, strong-stress verse typical of the Anglo-Saxons, and his translation has the tough, terse feeling that we expect.

It is right to praise the Lord of heaven
With wise words and loving hearts.
He is almighty, infinite, eternal, abiding —
Source and Shaper, Guardian of glory,
King of all exalted creatures, Lord of Hosts.
He exists before beginning, beyond ending.
Righteous and steadfast, he will rule forever
The embracing expanse of high heaven,
Its length and breadth, its range and reach,
First established for the children of glory,
The guardian angels, the hallowed host,
Who held a bounty of brightness and bliss
Through the emanating might of their bold Maker. (l.1-13)

What most surprised me about this poem was the extent to which it reminded me of Paradise Lost; the rebellion of the angels, and the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden, especially, and also the poem’s adoption of the devil’s point of view brought Milton’s poem powerfully to mind. Did Milton know this Old English original? I’d have thought not, but in fact the evidence is more ambiguous: he was a friend of Junius, the manuscript’s owner at the time. Most interesting is Williamson’s observation that sections of Paradise Lost can be scanned both as iambic pentameter or as Anglo-Saxon strong-stress verse. He grants the consensus view that the “Old English influence on Milton’s epic is impossible to prove”, but also states his personal view that “there is some connection in terms of form, characterization, and narrative thread between the two poems”.

They refused to revere his words and works,
So he turned their triumph into dark defeat,
An agony of existence under the earth.
They balked in heaven and were blistered in hell,
Where they spend each restless night in flames,
An ever-ready, relentless fire. At dawn, cold comes,
An eastern wind of almost ice. They’re caught
Between the twin torments of frost and fire,
The stabbing heat, the piercing cold.
Hell holds them both in bitter balance. (l.333-341)

Satan resolution to revenge himself on God by marring his finest creation is reminiscent of Milton:

We know he has marked out middle-earth,
Where he has made mankind in his own image.
He hopes to resettle our place in heaven
With these pure souls. This is our chance
To spoil his plan, avenging ourselves
On his precious Adam and all of his heirs.
In that new world we’ll frustrate his will.
Now I no longer aspire to the holy light
Or hope for heaven where the Lord intends
To enjoy eternity with his host of angels.
We’ll never succeed in weakening God’s will,
So let’s just subvert it with the children of men.
Let’s teach them untruths, seduce them to sin,
Lead them to lie. Let’s worm our way
Into this world and undo God’s work. (l.423-437)

Some aspects of the demon’s temptation of Adam and Eve differ from the Biblical account. In this poem the serpent first approaches Adam, but is rebuffed, and only then approaches Eve. More surprisingly, the nature of the serpent’s temptation is different: although he does promise Eve that eating of the fruit will grant her an unsuspected glory:

Eat this fruit, taste its sweetness,
Savor its power to open your eyes,
So that you can see beyond yourself,
Beyond this world to the throne of God
And curry favor with your own Creator. (l.620-625)

He also tells them that God has rescinded and reversed his forbidding of the fruit (“He commands you to taste this fair fruit / That he knows you crave.”), thereby casting their disobedience as, plausibly, a well-intentioned mistake. This is a theologically fraught innovation that I’m not convinced makes a great deal of sense. But then the poet captures the moment of the Fall with admirable concision: “He ate the apple / And lost himself.” (l.780-1)

There are a few places in the poem where the fact that the Anglo-Saxons admired warriors and the warrior virtues comes through strongly. Abraham, for instance, is portrayed as a rather typical heroic figure:

Abraham, you are honored among heroes
In the eyes of God, who gave you the glorious
Gift of ash-spears and gleaming swords
To slash through your savage enemies,
Carve a bloody swath through your fierce foes,
A road of wrath, a hard path of pain.
That company was waiting in a cruel camp
To descend upon you, dealing out death
In grim combat, but God himself
And your great army expelled that evil,
Banned that bane, put the faithless to flight. (l.2128-2138)

This seems incongruous to us, as a transparent example of pre-Christian values infiltrating the Biblical story, but cases like this are instructive, for of course it is likely that we, too, allow the prevailing values of our time to influence how we read and understand our religion, rather than allowing our religion to teach us how to evaluate the values prevailing in our particular time and place. And lest the poet’s characterization of Abraham seem too outlandish, I’ll just note that he can be superbly sensitive too, as when he allows Abraham to describe his feelings at growing old without a child:

“My heart is a cold cache of sorrow —
For this agony I know no comfort or counsel.” (l.2205-6)


The “Genesis” poem is, on textual grounds, thought to be the work of at least two poets writing originally in different languages, and the Old English poem as we have it is thought to have been assembled from these earlier pieces sometime in the ninth century. It has been a wonderful poem with which to launch this long-term reading project in Anglo-Saxon verse.

Machiavelli: Discourses on Livy

October 2, 2017

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius
Niccolò Machiavelli
Translated from the Italian by J.C. & P. Bondanella
(Oxford, 2003) [c.1515]
xxxii + 413 p.

Casting about for supplementary material to accompany my reading of Livy’s Roman history, I discovered that Machiavelli had written this analysis and commentary on Livy’s first ten books, covering Rome’s history from her origins down to the end of the Samnite Wars, c.300 BC. Intrigued, and anticipating that reviewing important episodes in Livy would help to cement my knowledge, I thought that I would glance at it, and I ended up reading it cover to cover.

Machiavelli wrote these Discourses at a country villa near Florence beginning in about 1513, at around the same time that he was writing The Prince, but, like that more famous volume, it was not published until after his death. (The Discourses appeared in 1531.) I am probably one of the few modern readers for whom the Discourses are my first encounter with his writing; he has a reputation as an amoral but brilliantly perceptive analyst of politics and strategy, and I was curious to see to what extent that reputation would be confirmed in this context.

The book is not a section-by-section commentary on Livy, but a collection of wide-ranging political and military analyses, with historical illustrations drawn principally, though not exclusively, from Livy’s Books 1-10. From time to time he draws also on later books of Livy, from other ancient sources, and, quite often, from Italian history of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. As such, the Discourses can, I think, be seen as belonging to the tradition of Italian Renaissance humanism, for which antiquity was a special source of interest and inspiration for contemporary intellectual and political life. He states his purpose as follows:

“I shall be bold to speak freely all I think, both of old times and of new, in order that the minds of the young who happen to read these my writings, may be led to shun modern examples, and be prepared to follow those set by antiquity whenever chance affords the opportunity. For it is the duty of every good man to teach others those wholesome lessons which the malice of Time or of Fortune has not permitted him to put in practice; to the end, that out of many who have the knowledge, some one better loved by Heaven may be found able to carry them out.” (II, preface)

It is a book that displays to very good effect his talent for keen analysis of complicated political problems. That said, the Machiavalli I met in these pages was not the ruthless strategist whom I had expected to meet, but rather a thoughtful and careful student of human nature and history, with a distinct preference for honour and honesty, about which more below.


The book is divided into three sections, the first dealing mainly with matters of internal politics, the second addressed mainly to military affairs and international politics, and the third being something of a grab bag (or, at least, a section for which Machiavelli states no particular objectives). Each section is divided into about fifty topics, usually treated analytically and augmented with historical data as evidence. It is, therefore, a difficult book to summarize, but I will try, in what follows, to pull on a few of the common threads that I found woven through it. There is, for those interested, a quite detailed overview of the contents on the book’s Wikipedia page.

Machiavelli is interested, for instance, in the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government. He sketches out six principal types, corresponding to the same six defined by Aristotle, as principality, aristocracy, and democracy, and their corrupted forms of tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy. He sees something bad in all of them: the corrupt ones are bad, of course, from their nature, but the good ones are also defective on account of their generally brief duration. He is not an advocate for any one form, and in fact recommends (which I think Aristotle also did, if memory serves) that different forms be instantiated at different levels of governance, so that each may serve as a check upon the others. He is interested in how political power is exercised; he praises the Romans, for instance, for replacing the kingship with the consulship, an office having the same powers but having their exercise distributed among persons and alternating in an orderly fashion.

To the question of whether nobles guard freedom more effectively than do the people, he answers in the affirmative, citing the examples of Sparta and Venice in contrast with that of Rome. But he then later argues that “a people is wiser and more constant than a Prince”, especially when judging of particular, concrete matters (I, 43), and are wiser than a prince when choosing men to fill political offices so long as they are comparably well informed (I, 34). On the other hand,the people are vulnerable to flattery and demagoguery, for “large hopes and brave promises easily move them” (I, 53). A great leader is of inestimable value — citing the example of Camillus, he writes that

“a great man is constantly the same through all vicissitudes of Fortune; so that although she change, now exalting, now depressing, he remains unchanged, and retains always a mind so unmoved, and in such complete accordance with his nature as declares to all that over him Fortune has no dominion.” (III, 31)

Yet even the power granted to such a man must be circumscribed and defined, for hazards attend the giving of too much power to any one man:

“Where an uncontrolled authority is given, no security is afforded by the circumstance that the body of the people is not corrupted; for in the briefest possible time absolute authority will make a people corrupt, and obtain for itself friends and partisans. Nor will it be any hindrance to him in whom such authority is vested, that he is poor and without connections, for wealth and every other advantage will quickly follow” (II, 35)

There is much in these pages about good governance. When, for example, a citizen attempts to gain power through false accusations, he points to the example set by the Romans as a remedy:

“The Romans demonstrated exactly how false accusers must be punished. Indeed, they must be turned into public accusers, and when the public indictment is found true, either reward them or avoid punishing them, but when it is found false, punish them as Manlius was punished.” (I, 8)

(Manlius, I remind you, was thrown from the Tarpeian Rock.) To preserve justice, a state must always uphold the rule of law:

“In a republic, nothing should be left to be effected through irregular methods, because, although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be violated for ends which are not good.” (I, 34)

There must, for example, be no-one who is above the law, whether because of their wealth, power, or renown:

“Nothing, I think, is of worse example in a republic, than to make a law and not to keep it; and most of all, when he who breaks is he that made it.” (I, 45)

“No well-ordered State ever strikes a balance between the services of its citizens and their misdeeds; but appointing rewards for good actions and punishment for bad, when it has rewarded a man for acting well, will afterwards, should he act ill, chastise him, without regard to his former deserts. When these ordinances are duly observed, a city will live long in freedom, but when they are neglected, it must soon come to ruin.” (I, 24)

By way of illustration he cites the example of Horatius, a man celebrated for his courage and credited with saving the city from destruction, but then subsequently found guilty of homicide and punished in accordance with the law.

He seems not to have much to say on economics, though he does argue that “it should be the object of every well-governed commonwealth to make the State rich and keep individual citizens poor” (I, 37). He is endorsing here the Roman ideal of the farmer-statesman, especially exemplified by Cincinnatus, who was summoned from ploughing his family farm to the office of dictator in a time of crisis.

He is also aware of the importance of a shared vision and common values for a healthy polity. He advocates a kind of political ressourcement, because “for a sect of commonwealth to last long, it must often be brought back to its beginnings”. The United States, with its strong civic emphasis on the founding fathers, illustrates this virtue. Machiavelli illustrates the principle with reference to the Catholic Church:

“For had not this religion of ours been brought back to its original condition by Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, it must soon have been utterly extinguished. They, however, by their voluntary poverty, and by their imitation of the life of Christ, rekindled in the minds of men the dying flame of faith; and by the efficacious rules which they established averted from our Church that ruin which the ill lives of its prelates and heads must otherwise have brought upon it.” (III, 1)

The Machiavelli we know from The Prince — the master of the tactical art of politics — can also be found in these Discourses. The centrepiece of this aspect of the book is unquestionably the section “Of Conspiracies”, a long (~35 pages in this edition) analysis of types of conspiracies that arise in a state, their origins and objectives, the conditions under which they succeed and fail, and how they can be countered and exposed. It’s an excellent, potted example of Machiavelli’s talent for analysis.

He warns rulers about the dangers that arise when a leader harms those under his authority:

“never … think so lightly of any man as to suppose, that when wrong upon wrong has been done him, he will not bethink himself of revenge, however great the danger he runs, or the punishment he thereby brings upon himself.” (II, 28)

When such dangers do arise, he advises that “it is safer to temporize with than to meet it with violence”, and this, I think, applies when the danger arises from below. But the situation is reversed when one is threatened from above, or by a superior power, for in that case he counsels confrontation as the better tactic, and the passage is worth quoting in full:

“It is better that a thing be taken from you by force than yielded through fear of force. For if you yield through fear and to escape war, the chances are that you do not escape it; since he to whom, out of manifest cowardice you make this concession, will not rest content, but will endeavour to wring further concessions from you, and making less account of you, will only be the more kindled against you. At the same time you will find your friends less zealous on your behalf, since to them you will appear either weak or cowardly. But if, so soon as the designs of your enemy are disclosed, you at once prepare to resist though your strength be inferior to his, he will begin to think more of you, other neighbouring princes will think more; and many will be willing to assist you, on seeing you take up arms, who, had you relinquished hope and abandoned yourself to despair, would never have stirred a finger to save you.” (II, 14)

There is no one size fits all solution for those threatened unjustly by an authority, but those finding themselves in such a situation would do well, I think, to take a good, long look at this passage.

Machiavelli does not dwell in these pages on the relationship of politics to religion, but he does make a few brief comments that illuminate his views. He notes, quite properly, that religion had an essential civic role for Romans, who saw it as “absolutely necessary for maintaining a civilized society” (I, 11), and he seems himself to endorse this view when he says that “there can be no greater indication of the ruin of a state than to see a disregard for its divine worship” (I, 12). But his attitude to religion appears to be rather practical rather than devout; he speaks of the advantages of religion “when it is properly used” (I, 15), and thereby makes it subservient to political ends. Still, his general view on the close affiliation of politics and religion, especially considered as an echo of the ancient understanding, serves as a corrective to what I think is a fairly common misapprehension today — namely, our tendency to think that the union of politics and religion was a peculiarly medieval phenomenon undone in the early modern period, whereas in truth this union was strong in the ancient world, was stressed, teased apart, and clarified by distinctions in the medieval period, only to be recovered in its more ancient form, in the vogue for antiquity, during the Renaissance (Machiavelli being a case in point) and early modern period. It was not until the eighteenth century that the assault on the fittingness of this close alliance began in earnest.

Another recurrent theme throughout these Discourses concerns the risks and advantages of “regime change”, of efforts to alter the form of government of a people. Machiavelli understands that the virtue of a people (or its absence) is relevant to the type of government appropriate to that people (“different institutions and ordinances are needed in a corrupt State from those which suit a State which is not corrupted; for where the matter is wholly dissimilar, the form cannot be similar.” (I, 18)) and that, therefore, no one form of government is suitable for all (“Let a commonwealth, then, be constituted in the country where a great equality is found or has been made; and, conversely, let a princedom be constituted where great inequality prevails. Otherwise what is constituted will be discordant in itself, and without stability.” (I, 55)). The attempt to introduce democracy to a polity that has previously been under a powerful prince is especially fraught, and one must, in Machiavelli’s words, “kill the sons of Brutus” — that is, remove all those tho had specially benefitted under the prince, lest they conspire against the new order. That this counsel might be pertinent to our contemporary affairs has not been entirely overlooked.

Many hazards attend efforts to change social institutions:

“It is no less arduous and dangerous to attempt to free a people disposed to live in servitude, than to enslave a people who desire to live free.” (III, 8)

Rapid social or political change is disruptive and requires or produces violence, and slow change is difficult to motivate and manage. He sees slow change as being, on balance, preferable, and counsels authorities to proceed by subterfuge and misdirection:

“Whoever takes upon him to reform the government of a city, must, if his measures are to be well received and carried out with general approval, preserve at least the semblance of existing methods, so as not to appear to the people to have made any change in the old order of things; although, in truth, the new ordinances differ altogether from those which they replace. For when this is attended to, the mass of mankind accept what seems as what is; nay, are often touched more nearly by appearances than by realities.” (I, 25)

Even in ideal circumstances, however, when foresight and cunning are used conscientiously, success is elusive, and this for a basic reason that is one of the main grounds for a principled conservatism:

“In close vicinity to every good is found also an evil, so apt to grow up along with it that it is hardly possible to have the one without accepting the other. This we see in all human affairs, and the result is, that unless fortune aid us to overcome this natural and common disadvantage, we never arrive at any excellence.” (III, 37)


I mentioned at the beginning that the middle section of the book is devoted to an analysis of international affairs, including warfare, and there is a fair bit of material about specifically military strategy and tactics. He writes focused analyses, for instance, of the role of artillery in warfare (II, 17) and on the disadvantages of fortresses (II, 24). (The Romans, he notes, conquered many fortresses and, upon conquering them, invariably pulled them down.) He discusses the causes of war, the value of strength over reputation, and the dangers of using hired soldiers. Occasionally he lets drop a sentence that has something of the aphorism about it:

“We should never hazard our whole fortune where we put not forth our entire strength.” (I, 23)

“Men fighting in their own cause make good and resolute soldiers.” (I, 43)

“Not gold but good soldiers constitute the sinews of war” (II, 10)

His main argument is that military leaders of his own time were incompetent because they failed to follow the military example set by the Romans.


In order to bring this long discussion to a close, I’d like to return to the question of Machiavelli’s reputation as an immoralist, or at least an amoralist. These Discourses do not really support that appraisal. It is true that he does not hesitate to describe ruthless or underhanded tactics that will be effective, but this is not the same as endorsing those tactics. The most morally troublesome argument I could find concerns what actions may or may not be licit in the conduct of war; he takes an extreme position:

“When the entire safety of our country is at stake, no consideration of what is just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or shameful, must intervene.” (III, 41)

This is inconsistent not only with modern standards, but with the Just War tradition as a whole. It is also inconsistent with what he says elsewhere, as, for instance, when in a section that would seem to be an illustration of the above principle (“That Fraud is fair in War”), he qualifies it in important ways:

“I would not have it understood that any fraud is glorious which leads you to break your plighted word, or to depart from covenants to which you have agreed; for though to do so may sometimes gain you territory and power, it can never, as I have said elsewhere, gain you glory.”

Similarly, after describing candidly the violence which a king will sometimes have to commit in order to preserve in existence a corrupted state, he remarks as follows:

“These indeed are most cruel expedients, contrary not merely to every Christian, but to every civilized rule of conduct, and such as every man should shun, choosing rather to lead a private life than to be a king on terms so hurtful to mankind.” (I, 26)

All of which makes me think he might have been, after all, a pretty decent fellow.


My interest in these Discourses was first aroused on account of their relation to Livy, and I certainly did appreciate the chance to revisit episodes in his history, but, as is probably evident from the comparative lack of references to Livy in these notes, I soon found that the book took on independent interest. Reading The Prince has never been very high on my list of priorities, but it is now higher than it was before.


[Law and custom]
Just as good customs require laws in order to be maintained, so laws require good customs in order to be observed. (I, 18)

[Power, real and statutory]
Power may readily give titles, but not titles power. (I, 34)

[Gratitude and vengeance]
Tacitus said, “Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness: the truth is that gratitude is irksome, while vengeance is accounted gain”. (I, 29)

…which has such dominion in their hearts that it never leaves them to whatsoever heights they climb. For nature has so ordered it that while they desire everything, it is impossible for them to have everything, and thus their desires being always in excess of their capacity to gratify them, they remain constantly dissatisfied and discontented. And hence the vicissitudes in human affairs. (I, 37)

[A hierarchy of praise]
Among all men who are praised, the most highly praised are those who have been leaders and founders of religions. Close afterwards come those who have founded either republics or kingdoms. After them the most celebrated men are those who, placed at the head of armies, have enlarged either their own realm or that of their native country. To these may be added men of letters… (I, 10)

[Adversity unifies]
The causes of division in a commonwealth are, for the most part, ease and tranquillity, while the causes of union are fear and war. (II, 25)

Nabokov: Pnin

September 26, 2017

Vladimir Nabokov
(Vintage, 1989) [1957]
191 p.

Nabokov began Pnin, a novel about a Russian professor emigrated to the United States, as he was in the final stages of writing Lolita. As that book had some trouble finding a publisher, it was Pnin that hit the shelves first. Unfortuately for Pnin, and for its character Pnin, Lolita appeared the following year and thoroughly eclipsed Pnin. But it’s an excellent book all the same, of course; no-one who can write like Nabokov could write something wholly unworthy of attention, and Pnin is very far from being that.

We first meet Pnin as he is en route, in a fairly disorganized fashion, to deliver an evening address to a women’s group in a town some distance from Waindell College, where he teaches. Later we encounter him switching residences, only to find himself beseiged by the noisy antics of schoolchildren. Later still he is hosting a dinner party for academic colleagues. Nabokov is on record as not particularly caring for plot as an element in fiction, and though the cunningly constructed masterpiece that was to be his next book, Pale Fire, might seem to belie that claim, Pnin shows No-Plot Nabokov at his considerable best. To be sure, we get to know Pnin, and we learn quite a lot about his history and his present hopes, his family and his friends, but the half-dozen chapters of the book might, it seems to me, be shuffled around without great impairment to the effect, and each might stand on its own as a masterclass in miniature.

For Nabokov is a master of prose, and that, for me, is the principal attraction. His humour is sharp, his diction impeccable, his tone elegant and erudite. When, for instance, Pnin has his remaining teeth removed in order to make way for dentures, Nabokov gives us this delightful passage:

It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate.

Later we learn that as a young man Pnin had been in love with a woman, Mira, from whom he was separated by the Russian Civil War, but whom he encountered again, a decade later, in Germany:

…one night, at a Russian restaurant on the Kurfürstendamm, he saw Mira again. They exchanged a few words, she smiled at him in the remembered fashion, from under her dark brows, with that bashful slyness of hers; and the contour of her prominent cheekbones, and the elongated eyes, and the slenderness of arm and ankle were unchanged, were immortal, and then she joined her husband who was getting his overcoat at the cloakroom, and that was all — but the pang of tenderness remained, akin to the vibrating outline of verses you know you know but cannot recall.

And I, at any rate, can sense the vibrating outline of those verses too.

Given the similarities between Pnin’s history and Nabokov’s own, it is tempting to see the novel as partially autobiographical. In support of this we might cite Pnin’s numerous careful sotto voce lepidopteric observations, but then Nabokov put such material into many of his books. Certainly Pnin has not the linguistic gifts of his author, a good portion of the novel’s broad comedy deriving from his manful but unavailing wrestling with the English tongue. In the end, I know of no particular reason to think the book particularly autobiographical in substance.

Though I enjoyed this and that aspect of the book, I suppose that on balance I am mildly disappointed with Pnin. For me the summit of Nabokov’s art, insofar as I know it, is Pale Fire, and naturally I approach each new Nabokovian novel in the hope of scaling another such summit. It’s a self-defeating recipe for disappointment. But on its own terms Pnin is funny, entertaining, sometimes touching, and technically virtuosic. A good read.


[Academic life]
And still the College creaked on. Hard-working graduates, with pregnant wives, still wrote dissertations on Dostoyevsky and Simone de Beauvoir. Literary departments still laboured under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers. Word plastics like ‘conflict’ and ‘pattern’ were still in vogue. As usual, sterile instructors successfully endeavoured to ‘produce’ by reviewing the books of more fertile colleagues, and, as usual, a crop of lucky faculty members were enjoying or about to enjoy various awards received earlier in the year. Thus, an amusing little grant was affording the versatile Starr couple – baby-faced Christopher Starr and his child-wife Louise – of the Fine Arts Department the unique opportunity of recording post-war folk-songs in East Germany, into which these amazing young people had somehow obtained permission to penetrate. Tristram W. Thomas (‘Tom’ to his friends), Professor of Anthropology, had obtained ten thousand dollars from the Mandoville Foundation for a study of the eating habits of Cuban fishermen and palm climbers. Another charitable institution had come to the assistance of Dr Bodo von Falternfels, to enable him to complete “a bibliography concerned with such published and manuscript material as has been devoted in recent years to a critical appraisal of the influence of Nietzsche’s disciples on Modern Thought”. And, last but not least, the bestowal of a particularly generous grant was allowing the renowned Waindell psychiatrist, Dr Rudolph Aura, to apply to ten thousand elementary school pupils the so-called Fingerbowl Test, in which the child is asked to dip his index in cups of coloured fluids whereupon the proportion between length of digit and wetted part is measured and plotted in all kinds of fascinating graphs.

Beowulf, pictured

September 18, 2017

Adapted by Gareth Hinds
(Candlewick, 2007)
128 p.

Generally speaking I’m fond of attempts to adapt classic stories into a variety of different forms: poetry, film, music. Granting that such adaptations are usually inferior to their originals, they nonetheless can give a familiar story a new freshness, and when done with affection and appreciation they augment my appreciation too.

Beowulf is an interesting case, for the Old English original is inaccessible to me (still, though I have dormant plans), and all I’ve ever known are a variety of adaptations, some, I believe, more nearly conveying the experience of reading the original than others. Gareth Hinds has adapted the story into a graphic novel, which, given the nature of the medium, means that he is primarily adapting the story rather than the poem, but it’s such a wonderful story, and so well suited to a visual treatment, that I approached it in a spirit of expectation, especially on the strength of a glowing appraisal in a recent overview of Beowulf adaptations.

I’ll be the first to admit that my familiarity with graphic novels is slight, and so I am perhaps not an informed judge, but I thought this was excellent and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is quite faithful to the original, both in overall structure and in certain details. As to the latter, for instance, there is that brief sequence shortly after Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot in which King Hrothgar’s wife makes an appearance in the hall; it is a notable moment of the poem because it’s the only occasion, I believe, in which a woman enters the action (unless we count Grendel’s mother); Hinds introduces her at the same point, and with the same modest emphasis.

As to the structure of the story, Hinds captures and conveys it brilliantly through the use of three very different colour palettes for the story’s three panels. Each of the three battle scenes are shown in long, wordless sequences of drawings. The monsters are truly monstrous, and, like the poem, this graphic novel is extremely violent (reserved for teens or older, I should think). Where Hinds does use words, they are of an elevated tone befitting the material, and on the basis of the occasional echoes of alliterative verse that I hear in the prose, I believe he must be relying in whole or in part on an uncredited translation.

For me an edition of Beowulf like this could never be a substitute for a verse translation (of which my favourite is Sullivan/Murphy), but as a complement it has much to recommend it. In closing, here are a few photographs to give a flavour of the look of the book:

If ye love me

September 13, 2017

Here is a good recording of Tallis’ If ye love me in rehearsal, sung by the superb ensemble Vox Luminis. I always find these rehearsal videos a bit jarring: it seems incongruous to see such a slovenly assortment of unshaven, rumpled creatures producing such a heavenly sound. I imagine it must have been quite amusing to this group to show up on rehearsal day and find that two of the singers had dressed the same. “Let’s put them in the middle!”

Anyway, the music is divine.


Benson: Confessions of a Convert

September 10, 2017

Confessions of a Convert
Robert Hugh Benson
(Christian Classics, 2016) [1913]
128 p.

Robert Hugh Benson was one of the more notable of the English converts to Catholicism who flagged in eminence behind John Henry Newman and G.K. Chesterton. Not only was he a well-known clergyman of the Church of England, but his father had been Archbishop of Canterbury, and so he had grown up in the elite circles of English society and Anglican religion. He was in his early 30s when he abandoned his position to be received into the Catholic Church, and approximately a decade later he published this brief spiritual autobiography.

It is not a spiritual autobiography worthy to compare with the greatest, but for those who have followed something like a similar course, or for those contemplating something like a similar course, or just for Catholics suffering an acute case of Anglophilia there is much here to hold one’s interest.

Despite his upbringing in a highly-churched milieu, he professes to have had little religious inclination as a child. It was only when he went to university and encountered, surely not for the first time, but with new appreciation, the sacred music of the liturgy that his religious sense was awakened: “It was the music, first and last, and it was through that opening that I first began to catch glimpses of the spiritual world.” With hindsight he considers this aesthetic experience as, in itself, incomplete, but credits it with having turned him in the right direction and urged him forward, a twitch upon the thread.

It didn’t take long for him to take a professional turn toward religion. Perhaps because of the family upbringing he had had, and without any great fervency, he thought it fitting that he become a clergyman, and began to take steps in that direction. It is amusing to read of his general view of the landscape of the Christian world at that time, the exemplar of the parochial English parson:

“The Roman Catholics, I thought, were obviously corrupt and decayed, the Ritualists were tainted, and the extreme Protestants were noisy, extravagant, and vulgar. Plainly there was only one religious life possible, that of a quiet country clergyman, with a beautiful garden, an exquisite choir, and a sober bachelor existence.”

This all changed when, shortly after his ordination to the diaconate, he travelled to the Holy Land. It did not take long for him to perceive that there, at the center of it all, the Church of England was an oddity that meant not very much to not very many. He saw that others regarded him rather as he would have regarded someone from the national Church of Zembla who thought the Church of Zembla the natural via media to which all well-balanced, thoughtful Christians ought to belong: an object of gentle amusement and benign pity.

Upon his return, then, he saw Anglicanism in a new, less flattering light, and he began to think critically about it. He became troubled by the weakness of the Anglican case for continuity with the medieval and patristic Church, and he began to see, too, the need for a living, authoritative voice in the Church to interpret and Gospel in new situations and to answer new questions. He gravitated toward “High Church” Anglicanism, on the reasonable grounds that “faith and its expression should go together”, but he came to wonder if the Anglican service, “rendered so beautiful by art and devotion, was no more than a subjective effort to assert our claim to what we did not possess.” And this doubt, once raised, could not be resolved by backing off of High Church principles; it was prompted by Anglicanism itself.

Life moved on, of course. He joined an Anglican religious community modeled on the Benedictines. In time, his wrestling with questions of authority and continuity led him to adopt the theory of “the Church Diffusive”, as he called it. The Church Diffusive consisted of all churches faithful to the creeds and having apostolic authority — in practice, in his view at that time, Rome, Moscow, and Canterbury. Where these churches agreed, the Holy Spirit was speaking authoritatively; where they disagreed, private judgement prevailed.

The principal problem with the theory of the Church Diffusive, of course, was that the member churches of the Church Diffusive rejected it. If the theory was right, then those churches were religious authorities; but if they were religious authorities, then the theory must be false. It didn’t take Benson long to see this problem clearly.

Part of what he wanted to see in a Church was confidence and authority to speak boldly on matters of faith and morals, as one having not just a duty but also competence to do so:

“In things that directly and practically affect souls…she must not only know her mind, but must be constantly declaring it, and no less constantly silencing those who would obscure or misinterpret it.”

There are those, of course, who criticize the Catholic Church for speaking in just this way — though opportunities for such criticism seem not so plentiful of late as they once were — but for Benson it was a definite attraction; he understood that this confidence was a sign of a healthy authority.

He discussed these matters with friends, and they, in their concern that he might become a Catholic, sent him to a variety of distinguished Anglican theologians for counsel and instruction. He listened to them, and heard their learned explanations of the merits of Anglicanism, but was struck by an insight:

“I suddenly realized clearly what I had only suspected before; namely, that if the Church of Christ was, as I believed it to be, God’s way of salvation, it was impossible that the finding of it should be a matter of shrewdness or scholarship.”

And this applied also to the evidence of Scripture:

“Dogmas such as that of the Blessed Trinity, sacraments such as that of Confirmation, institutions such as that of Episcopacy — all these things can indeed, to the Anglican as well as the Catholic mind, be found in Scripture if a man will dig for them. But the Petrine claim needs no digging: it lies like a great jewel, blazing on the surface, when once one has rubbed one’s eyes clear of anti-Catholic predisposition.”

This insight — that too much subtlety was a defect — seems to have brought him up to the edge of the Tiber, and it was reading Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine that convinced him to take the plunge: it “waved away the last floating mists and let me see the City of God in her strength and beauty”.

He was not, we may say, a happy convert. C.S. Lewis famously described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”, but Benson beat him to it:

“I had no kind of emotional attraction towards it, no illusions of any kind about it. I knew perfectly well that it was human as well as divine, that crimes had been committed within its walls; that the ways and customs and language of its citizens would be other than those of the dear homely town which I had left; that I should find hardness there, unfamiliar manners, even suspicion and blame. But for all that it was divine; it was built upon the Rock of rocks; its foundations were jewelled even if its streets were as hard as gold; and the Lamb was the light of it.

But the setting out towards its gates was a hard task. I had no energy, no sense of welcome or exultation; I knew hardly more than three or four of its inmates. I was deadly sick and tired of the whole thing.”

And so, in 1903, he was received into the Catholic Church. The interesting final act of the book details how people responded to his decision. He describes one Anglican dignitary who thought that approaching the Catholic Church “not as a critic or a teacher, but as a child and a learner” was immoral; he apparently considered religion rightly to be “a matter more or less of individual choices and tastes”, a view that has waxed greatly in prevalence in the interim years without becoming any less daft. In fact Benson was criticized roundly from all quarters, but the spectrum of opinion struck him as noteworthy:

“I have been told that I became a Catholic because I was dispirited at failure and because I was elated at success; because I was imaginative and because I was imperceptive; because I was not hopeful enough and because I was too hopeful, faithless and too trusting, too ardent and too despairing, proud and pusillanimous.”

But then again, somewhat to his surprise, many Anglicans, both of his acquaintance and in the general public, were also supportive of his decision. Even more surprising was the incomprehension he encountered among some Catholics who could not understand why he would abandon a perfectly respectable English church to adopt a “foreign” one. The tribal instinct is strong.

Benson has some sound things to say about the process of conversion. Though he had been largely motivated by fairly abstract questions about religious authority and about what the Church is, the resolution of his doubts involved more than abstractions:

“Catechumens, therefore, must remember that while on the one side they must of course clear the ground by the action of the intellect, on the other side it is far more vital that they should pray, purify motives, and yield themselves to God.”

And again, later:

“The puzzle which God had flung to me consisted of elements which needed for their solution not the head only, but the heart, the imagination, the intuitions; in fact, the entire human character had to deal with it.”

It could hardly be a conversion were it otherwise.

Benson died one year after publishing this book, at the age of just 42, whether from a lingering illness, or suddenly, I have not been able to discover. He accomplished a great deal in his short life, and this memoir of conversion, modest though it is, stands as a fine testament to a man who evidently loved truth, was devoted to God, and had the courage to put first things first.


[The spirituality of the city of Rome]
Here was this city, Renaissance from end to end, set under clear skies and a burning sun; and the religion in it was the soul dwelling in the body. It was the assertion of the reality of the human principle as embodying the divine. Even the exclusive tenets of Christianity were expressed under pagan images. Revelation spoke through forms of natural religion; God dwelt unashamed in the light of day; priests were priests, not aspiring clergymen; they sacrificed, sprinkled lustral water, went in long, rolling processions with incense and lights, and called heaven Olympus. Sacrum Divo Sebastiano, I saw inscribed on a granite altar. I sat under priest-professors who shouted, laughed, and joyously demonstrated before six nations in one lecture room. I saw the picture of the “Father of princes and kings and Lord of the world” exposed in the streets on his name-day, surrounded by flowers and oil lamps, in the manner in which, two centuries ago, other lords of the world were honoured. I went down into the Catacombs on St. Cecilia’s Day and St. Valentine’s, and smelled the box and the myrtle underfoot that did reverence to the fragrance of their memories, as centuries ago they had done reverence to victors in another kind of contest. In one sentence, I began to understand that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”; that as He took the created substance of a Virgin to fashion for Himself a natural body, so still He takes the created substance of men — their thoughts, their expressions, and their methods — to make for Himself that mystical body by which He is with us always; in short, I perceived that “there is nothing secular but sin.” Catholicism, then, is “materialistic?” Certainly; it is as materialistic as the Creation and the Incarnation, neither more nor less.

It is impossible to describe what this discovery means to a Northern soul. Certainly it means the obscuring of some of the old lights that had once seemed so beautiful in the half-gloom of individual experience, or rather, their drowning in the strong sunshine. Set beside some Roman pomp an exquisite Anglican service: how provincial, domestic, and individualistic becomes the latter! Set beside a Gregorian professor lecturing to Greeks, Roumanians, and Frenchmen, on the principles of restitution or the duty of citizens to the State, an Anglican divine expounding St. Paul’s Epistles to theological students; a friar in S. Carlo beside the most passionate mission preacher in the Church of England; the olive-laden peasants shouting hymns in S. Giovanne in Laterano beside a devout company of Anglicans gathered for Evensong; an hieratic sacrificer in S. Maria Maggiore beside the most perfectly drilled Ritualist in Mass vestments! Oh! Set any section of Catholic faith and worship seen in holy Rome beside the corresponding section of Anglican faith and worship! Yet Anglicans are shocked in Rome, and Dissenters exclaim at the paganism, and Free-thinkers smile at the narrowness of it all. Of course they are shocked and exclaim and smile. How should they not?

Thus, in truth, a sojourn in Rome means an expansion of view that is beyond words. Whereas up to that time I had been accustomed to image Christianity to myself as a delicate flower, divine because of its supernatural fragility, now I saw that it was a tree in whose branches the fowls of the air, once the enemies of its tender growth, can lodge in security — divine since the wideness of its reach and the strength of its mighty roots can be accounted for by nothing else. Before I had thought of it as of a fine, sweet aroma, to be appreciated apart; now I saw that it was the leaven, hid in the heavy measures of the world, expressing itself in terms incalculably coarser than itself, until the whole is leavened.

A hymn to the Virgin

September 8, 2017

It’s the birthday of Our Lady. Here is Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, in a wonderful performance from King’s College, Cambridge:

Sir Gawain, again

September 4, 2017

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage
(Faber & Faber, 2007) [c.1400]
ix + 114 p.

This is a poem that I love, and, in addition to a Middle English version, I’ve a few different translations in my collection, most notably that of Tolkien. Arguably one doesn’t need, and shouldn’t want, a translation, the original being adequately accessible to any reader willing to put in a little elbow grease, but I heard good things about this translation by Simon Armitage, and sometimes one just doesn’t have any elbow grease ready at hand.

Armitage has retained the basic poetic element of the original: an alliterative line with three (and sometimes four) stresses. When three, the three alliterate, but when four he sometimes opts to include two alliterative pairs. Consider, for example, this short passage taken from one of the hunting episodes:

On the bugles they blew three bellowing notes
to a din of baying and barking, and the dogs
which chased or wandered were chastened by whip. (ll.1141-3)

The first line has three stresses in the pattern aaa, but the second has two pairs in the pattern abba, and the third again has two pairs but in the pattern abab. Occasionally, as I said, he hits all four stresses with the same sound (“trussing and trying all the trammel and tack” (l.1129)), but these are exceptional.

Alliterative poetry is wonderful to read aloud, and I read this aloud to myself as much as I could — or as much as my saintly wife would tolerate in the wee hours while she was trying to sleep. Sometimes the ear picks up the stresses not evident to the eye, as in a line like: “A man quite capable, it occurred to Gawain” (l.848).

A novelty of Armitage’s version is that he has broken the poem up into short segments, almost all of which are short enough to fit on a single page, and has, at the end of each page, interrupted the regular scheme of stresses with a set of four short lines, each having two alliterative stresses, and sometimes rhyming. For example, here is the passage in which Gawain, whose cowardice and unfaithfulness have been unmasked by the Green Knight, gives voice to his regret:

Then he grabbed the girdle and ungathered its knot
and flung it in fury at the man in front.
‘My downfall and undoing, let the devil take it.
Dread of the death-blow and cowardly doubts
meant I gave into greed, and in doing so forgot
the fidelity and kindness which every knight knows.
As I feared, I am found to be flawed and false,
through treachery and untruth I have totally failed, said Gawain.

‘Such terrible mistakes,
and I shall bear the blame.
But tell me what it takes
to clear my clouded name. (ll.2376-88)

I found that I grew very fond of these little envoi as I read; they provided a punchy variation in the rhythm that kept me interested.

Although I did, for the most part, enjoy reading this translation very much, I found it sometimes lapsed into colloquialisms that I found jarring. Granted, this is not grand, solemn poetry like Beowulf, but still I cringed a little at passages like this one, spoken by the Green Knight as he lays down his shocking challenge to Arthur’s court:

“I’ll kneel, bare my neck and take the first knock.
So who has the gall? The gumption? The guts?
Who’ll spring from his seat and snatch this weapon? (ll.290-2)

The point is arguable; the Green Knight is a lively, uncouth character who might, I grant, speak in this way, if only to ruffle Arthurian feathers.

Armitage has also translated the same poet’s magnificent poem Pearl, and I’m curious about it. It is one of the most technically virtuosic poems in the English tradition, and I’m wondering how Armitage grapples with those challenges. Perhaps I’ll read it — in a year and a day.