The sun shall not smite thee

May 28, 2020

It was almost 40C here today, and as I was melting I thought of this line from a recent ECM recording of the music of Cyrillus Kreek, an early twentieth-century Estonian composer. The text is Psalm 121, and the choir is Vox Clamantis, one of the great choirs in the world today. This is really lovely.


Ovid: Love Poems

May 25, 2020

Ars Amatoria
Translated from the Latin by Len Krisak
(U Penn Press, 2014) [16 BC, 2 AD]
232 p.

Remedia Amoris
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1990)  [c.5 AD]
25 p.

It was Ovid’s love poetry, especially his metrical seduction manual, the Ars Amatoria, that got him cast into the outer darkness. Facetiousness in matters of love and sex, it seems, would get you nowhere in Augustus’ Rome, at least in the long run.

His love poetry was of three varieties: the Amores, first published in 16 BC, was a collection of short love poems; the infamous Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) was a set of long poems instructing readers in the art and craft of winning a lover; and the Remedia Amoris (The Cures for Love) were the back slap and hot toddy administered to those coping with the aftermath of a failed affair of the heart. Taken together, they form a neat package tied up with a bow. Taken individually, they are rather less winsome. But let’s take a look.


Roman-ReadingThe essential political background to understanding Ovid’s love poetry is that he was writing shortly after the promulgation of Augustus’ marriage laws, which were intended to improve the morals and social stability of Rome’s upper classes. Augustus had made adultery a civic offence, and required all eligible persons to be married. This is essential to understanding Ovid because it is conspicuously absent from Ovid’s vision: instead, his poetic world is one animated by adultery, secret meetings, winks, nudges, and a general deceitful disregard of marriage vows.

His Amores touch on a number of traditional subjects: the locked-out lover, laments for departed lovers, comparisons of love and war, and avowels that love can attain immortality through poetry. But there are novel ideas introduced too. One poem denies that the poet was unfaithful with a servant girl; another admits the same. One comforts a girl whose hair has fallen out after using a toxic dye; another — which has been given a superbly bracing translation by Len Krisak in this volume — condemns a girl who procured an abortion. I particularly liked a poem in which the poet enumerates all the many varieties of feminine beauty:

She’s dowdy — I dream what would suit her better.
She’s dressed to kill — her dower’s on display.
I fall for blondes, I fall for girls who’re auburn,
A dusky beauty charms in the same way.
If dark hair dangles down a snowy shoulder,
Her sable locks were Leda’s crowning glory;
Or if they’re gold, Aurora charms with saffron;
My love adapts to every ancient story.
Youth tempts me. So do riper years. Youth’s prettier,
Yet older women’s ways have me in thrall;
Yes, every worthwhile girl in Rome’s great city,
My love’s a candidate to win them all.
(II, 4)

Ovid is writing in elegiac couplets: paired lines in which the first has six beats and the second five. This stutter-step scheme grants the poems a slightly humorous cast, giving the shortened line, when needed, the punch of a natural punch-line. Ovid himself has some fun with this idea in the first lines of the first poem in the Amores, which go like this:

Prepared for war, I set the weapon of my pen
To paper, matching meter, arms, and men
In six feet equal to the task. Then Cupid snatched
A foot away, laughing at lines mismatched.
(I, 1)

There’s a playful allusion here to Virgil’s Aenied (which had been published just three years earlier): Ovid actually begins with the same word as Virgil (“Arma”) before pivoting to highlight the difference between epic poetry and Ovid’s preferred elegy. Len Krisak does a wonderful job, here and throughout, of maintaining this metrical limp in his translation.

Tips for aspiring adulterers can occasionally be gleaned from the Amores, as when he describes how to communicate with the object of his affection without drawing the attention of unwanted (ie. husbandly) eyes:

I’ll send a wordless message with my eyebrows;
You’ll read my fingers’ words, words traced in wine.
When you recall our games of love together,
Your finger on rosy cheeks must trace a line.
If in your silent thoughts you wish to chide me,
Let your hand hold the lobe of your soft ear;
When, darling, what I do or say gives pleasure,
Keep turning to and fro the ring you wear.
(I, 4)

But this didactic element becomes the central theme in the Ars Amatoria, which was published in about 2 AD. Of its three books, the first two instruct men on how best to seduce women, and the third instructs women on the complimentary art.

Quite a number of topics are covered: where to find a lover, how to recruit her maid as an ally, and advice on personal grooming:

Plain cleanliness works best, and drill-field tans don’t hurt.
Your well-cut toga should be free of dirt.
Keep shoe straps lose and buckles bright — no rust.
(But don’t forget that good fit’s still a must.)
Be sure a barber, not a butcher, cuts your hair
And trims your beard with care. Please try to wear
Nails short and clean. Be sure no ugly hair growth shows,
Sprouting from the hollows of your nose.
Don’t let your breath go sour, and you should take note:
Armpits must never smell like billy goat.
But any more than that, let wanton girls employ —
Or any man who would prefer a boy.
(I, 513-524)

But the poems don’t show us only the sunny-side of adultery. Ovid also highlights the benefits of targeting a woman “on the rebound” (“So try her when she’s rival-wounded; watch her sob, / Then see she gets revenge. Make it your job.”) and the advantages to be gained from making false promises (“Make promises! They do no harm, so who can chide us? / In promises, each man can be a Midas.”) He holds, in a way that makes him particularly relevant to us after the sexual revolution, that sex is a sport, and as such is best divorced from moral evaluation:

Don’t steal from friends, but keep your word. Show piety,
Avoid all fraud, and keep your hands blood-free.
But if you’re smart, cheat only girls and have your fun.
Allow yourself this fraud, but just this one.
Yes, cheat the cheaters; most of them are far from good.
Catch them in their own traps — it’s right you should!
(I, 641-6)

It is, then, no great surprise to find that, after counselling deception and amoral pursuit of pleasure as proper to a man’s conduct in love, we should find him justifying rape:

Some women take delight in brute assaults; they act
As if it’s quite a coup to be attacked.
And longed-for women who escape and call you cad?
Their faces fake their joy; they’re really sad.
(I, 675-8)

Of course, it is we, the readers, who are really sad here. Maybe, perhaps, there was a time and place when this — not just this apologia for rape, but this whole conception of love and sex as a flamboyant circus, an anything-goes, winner-takes-all demolition derby — was amusing, but living where and when we do, I believe we’ve had quite enough of it. I know I have. Ovid has been accused, over the years, of being superficial and essentially cheap; I resisted that conclusion when I read Metamorphoses, but here it seems perfectly apt.


ovid-love2The third part of his love poetry, the Remedia Amoris, addresses the sobering fallout: what to do when jilted in love, abandoned, or ignored. His advice is mostly what you’d get from a newspaper columnist: go to the country, stay active, go fishing, travel. Don’t read her letters, or visit places you went with her. Avoid alcohol. Don’t bother with witchcraft; it’s probably not going to help. It might help, he says, to think of her as critically as you can:

‘Those legs of hers’, I used to say, ‘how ugly.’
And yet in fact, to tell the truth, they weren’t.
‘Those arms of hers’, I’d say, ‘by no means pretty.’
And yet in fact, to tell the truth, they were.
‘How short she is!’ — she wasn’t. ‘How demanding!’
For those demands I chiefly hated her.

In the end, his best advice might be this Aristotelian counsel: if you need to get over her, do your best to act as if you’re over her:

Love comes by habit, habit too unlearns it;
If one can feign one’s cured, one will be cured.


It has been a good experience to revisit these poems, which I first read some years ago, having now a much better appreciation of the poetic tradition within which Ovid was working and a greater familiarity with his own poetry. I cannot say with hand on heart that I particularly liked these poems; they have their droll merits, of course, and love, being part of the human comedy, makes room for capering whimsy, but these poems have a cruel edge that renders them unwelcome to me. If anything I’ve read by Ovid justifies his sometime reputation as a charlatan or mincing devil, these will do. I don’t like to think of Ovid in exile, but I’d have been content to have these poems suffer that fate in his place.

Feast of the Ascension, 2020

May 21, 2020

Jesus led his followers into the vicinity of Bethany, we are told. “Lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from then, and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51.) Jesus departs in the act of blessing. He goes while blessing, and he remains in that gesture of blessing. His hands remain stretched out over this world. The blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us. But at the same time, they are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become “present” within it.

The gesture of hands outstretched in blessing expresses Jesus’ continuing relationship to his disciples, to the world. In departing, he comes to us, in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God. That is why the disciples could return home from Bethany rejoicing. In faith we know that Jesus holds his hands stretched out in blessing over us. That is the lasting motive of Christian joy.

— Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth.

Today into the heavens has ascended
Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, Alleluia!
He sits at the Father’s right hand,
and rules heaven and earth, Alleluia!
Now have been fulfilled all of
Father David’s songs,
Now God is with God, Alleluia!
He sits upon the royal throne of God,
in this his greatest triumph, Alleluia!
Let us bless the Lord:
Let the Holy Trinity be praised,
let us give thanks to the Lord,
Alleluia! Amen.

Music by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

The insanity of Sorabji

May 19, 2020


Kaikhosru Sorabji is a figure who sits off to one side in histories of twentieth-century music. Born in the UK in 1892, he died in 1988 and so lived through the whole tumultuous history of modern music. His music seems to have little in common with what others were doing. He was a composer-pianist in the line that runs back through Medtner, Alkan, and Godowsky to Liszt, Chopin, and Schumann, but with these differences: he was a terrifyingly gifted virtuoso at the keyboard, and he was insane.

Well, perhaps he wasn’t actually insane, but what shall we make of his Opus clavicembalisticum, sometimes named as the single most difficult piano piece ever composed, which runs to over 4 hours in performance? That’s at least a little bit insane.


One of the easy bits of Opus clavicembalisticum.

I hadn’t imagined that he wrote things longer and more demanding than that, but it turns out — may wonders never cease — that he did. Jonathan Powell has just released a complete recording of his Sequentia Cyclica super Dies Irae, a massive set of variations on the famous “Dies irae” chant that runs to over eight hours in performance! I’ve listened to it once. It’s an astonishing piece of work of mind-boggling complexity and daunting ambition.

Here is a brief sample. Can you hear the Dies Irae in this? Me neither.


Williams: Augustus

May 15, 2020

John Williams
(NYRB Classics, 2014) [1971]
336 p.

I’ve whiled away the past year of my Roman reading project in the company of poets of the Augustan age: Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius. In this poetry the figure of Augustus is frequently present, but usually on the periphery. We hear him praised, and certain of his acts and policies impinge upon the poetry in various ways, but we do not get a strong sense of the man himself. But we do know that his reputation, in the eyes of the Roman historians, is primarily a good one: he brought stability to Rome, and moderation, even though he altered its Republican government for keeps. If he did not burn as brightly as Julius Caesar, he burned more steadily, and certainly he compared favourably with the string of cruel and even lunatic emperors who followed in his immediate wake. But he was the emperor, and so even to those who admired him he was a somewhat distant figure, not susceptible of nuanced appraisal.

In this novel John Williams takes Augustus as his subject, and attempts to imagine the man as a man, using the resources of the modern novel to humanize a figurehead. His main interests are in the man’s character and his relationships with family and close friends.

The novel is epistolary, consisting of a collection of letters exchanged between his family members, friends, and courtiers. The letters move back and forth in time, and do not always pertain directly to Augustus, but he is there in the background, and gradually, here and there, as in a pointillistic painting, a picture of his life emerges.

Many of the characters writing these letters are well-known historical figures: Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Horace, Ovid, his daughter Julia, his friend and advisor Maecenas. Others, like a tutor hired in his household, are either imagined or known only glancingly in the history books. Williams uses the epistolary structure of the novel well to give us a variety of perspectives on Augustus, and also to highlight tensions between the characters (as when he alternates letters from Cleopatra to Marc Antony with her letters to her government ministers, the former full of flattery and misdirection and the latter of hard-headed realism on the same topics).

He is also able to bring to life some of the quieter moments that we know happened, but which are normally passed over in historical accounts. What was it like, for instance, when young Octavius received news that his adoptive uncle, Julius Caesar, had been killed? Williams paints the scene for us through the eyes of a friend. What was it like for Augustus to sit with Marc Antony and Lepidus while negotiating which notable Romans would be executed? Williams brings us into the room. What would it have been like to attend one of the literary evenings at which Augustus hosted poetry readings by Virgil and Horace? Williams brings one to life.

We also learn about Octavius’ childhood, and for me the most touching letter in the book was one in which his childhood playmate and nurse, a slightly older girl, recounts how she encountered him again, by chance, in the streets of Rome when they were both elderly. It’s like that scene in the life of Joseph when he is reunited with his brothers — when people who grew up together but whose lives took very different paths meet again under drastically changed conditions, and all that accumulation of experience drops away, revealing the tenacity of the intimate human bond — and just as affecting.

The effect of the collection of letters is prismatic: the life of Augustus comes to the reader refracted through the eyes of many others. But in the last fifty pages of the book this changes: Williams gives us a long letter from Augustus himself, a reflective letter written in old age, in which he reviews and ponders the events of his life. Episodes that we saw before through the eyes of another we see again through his eyes, alongside ruminations on the advantages and disadvantages of power and influence. It is a fine way to sum up and round out the book.

This novel won the National Book Award in the year of its publication. It is well-written, thoughtfully constructed, and presents well-known historical events in an interesting way. The writing is not dazzling, but it is sound and sturdy. Augustus is not a great book, but it is a good one.

Here and there

May 12, 2020

A few good things I’ve read of late:

  • With more time at home, I’ve been making an effort to read more to the kids. But I think I’ll steer clear of Tolstoy’s children’s stories.
  • If, like me, you enjoy looking at illuminated medieval manuscripts, perhaps you’ve wondered how they made the dyes that colour the images, and, in particular, perhaps you’ve wondered what made those blues so distinctive. The secret was lost for centuries, but a group in Portugal claims to have discovered the blue molecule. It’s 6′-hydroxy-4,4′-dimethoxy-1,1′-dimethyl-5′-{[3,4,5-trihydroxy-6-(hydroxymethyl)tetrahydro-2H-pyran-2-yl]oxy}-[3,3′-bipyridine]-2,2′,5,6(1H,1′H)-tetraone. I should have thought that was kind of obvious.
  • Roger Scruton’s last book, on Wagner’s Parsifal, has now been published. Sue Prideaux doesn’t care for it, mostly on the grounds that Wagner was such a prude. Good grief. I’ve long been circling around another book on this opera, by Richard Bell, but have yet to take the dive.
  • Continuing the theme of theologically-inflected music, James MacMillan writes about the fruitful encounter between modern music and Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (of which his own music is a fine example).
  • A new biography of Kierkegaard — Philosopher of the Heart, by Claire Carlisle — has been recently published, and has received some positive notice. Both Adam Kirsch at The New Yorker  and Christopher Beha at Harper’s find its structure somewhat awkward, but not enough to overshadow its fascinating subject. It is always good to read about Kierkegaard — and even better to read Kierkegaard himself.
  • “Some people acquire foreign languages more easily than others. I, alas, am one of those others,” writes Joseph Shaw. Me too, Mr. Shaw. But he’s taking a stab at Latin nonetheless, and I’ve been doing the same, in a manner of speaking, as I help my daughter to prepare for a Latin exam. Facies reginae canes terrebit. Mali milites oppidum arserunt. Magnam puellam sum. But I still don’t know how to ask for the butter…

For an envoi, here is the prelude to Parsifal:

Wodehouse: Full Moon

May 2, 2020

Full Moon
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2006) [1947]
272 p.

It was fitting that Wodehouse placed at least one of his Blandings novels under the patronage of Diana, for lunacy is Blandings Castle’s speciality.

And the presiding moon is appropriate in another way too, for moonlit nights are the special province of romance, and two are blooming at Blandings. The parents of the dim-witted beauty Veronica are hoping to marry her off to a wealthy American visitor, Tipton Plimsoll, and the mother of Prudence Garland is trying to thwart her daughter’s plans to marry Freddie’s old pal, Bill Lister (aka “Blister”).

What transpires is a diverting series of episodes in which suitors appear in disguise or are accosted by conscientious pig-men, diamond necklaces are misappropriated, and a diet of barley-water proves the only respite from visions of men resembling kindly gorillas. The Empress of Blandings, of course, content in her rotund excellence, makes a crucial intervention to bring about the happiness of all concerned.

Wodehouse is in fine mettle. The book is up to his usual high standards of craftsmanship, and offers pleasure on every page.

A night to remember: 22 Dec 1808

April 30, 2020

On the night of 22 December 1808, one of the great musical evenings in our history took place in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. It was on this night that Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 and Symphony No.6 and Piano Concerto No.4 and Choral Fantasy had their premieres. Three of these are among the greatest compositions of their kind in our musical tradition. Also on the programme were a few movements from his C major Mass, an aria, and a piano improvisation. Beethoven himself played the piano that evening, and it was the last time, on account of his hearing loss, that he would ever perform one of his concertos in public.

Contemporary accounts say that the night was something of a disaster: the orchestra badly rehearsed, the theatre frigid. The concert lasted 4 hours. Read more about it here.

Imagine, though, what it might have been like to be there that night, and to witness the entry into the world of these great masterpieces.

I thought it would be fun to recreate the concert here, as a way of celebrating Beethoven’s anniversary year. Here are the pieces that were played that night, in the order in which they were played:

Symphony No.6 (played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann)

Ah, perfido! (sung by Birgit Nilsson, with the RAI Orchestra of Rome under Wolfgang Sawallisch)

Mass in C major: Gloria (UCLA Chorale and Orchestra under Donald Neuen)

Piano Concerto No.4 (Mitsuko Uchida with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons)


Symphony No.5 (West–Eastern Divan Orchestra unde Daniel Barenboim)

Mass in C major: Sanctus (UCLA Chorale and Orchestra under Donald Neuen)

Piano improvisation (Of course, we don’t know what it sounded like, but it seems likely that it was something like this.)

Choral Fantasy (Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra)


A night to remember! I’d like to think that, had I been there, I’d have left in a state of admiration and gratitude.



Arden of Faversham

April 22, 2020

Arden of Faversham
(Methuen, 2014) [c.1592]
160 p.

Arden of Faversham is, to borrow an apt phrase, a “shabby little shocker”. It came to the English stage in the early 1590s, and told the more-or-less true story of how Alice Arden and her lover plotted to murder her husband, Thomas Arden, events which had occurred about 40 years earlier, and about which tongues still wagged. It belongs to a genre I’ve not encountered before in Elizabethan drama: the “true crime” tale.

I was prepared, therefore, for it to be bloody, but I did not expect it to be so funny. Thomas Arden is a marked man, surrounded on all sides — though he knows it not — by people determined to see him dead. Yet much of the action of the play dramatizes thwarted attempts on his life, as he guilelessly avoids the knife time and again — until he doesn’t. But the effect on stage would, I think, be quite comical, with an undercurrent of violence ready to burst forth. The play is something like an Elizabethan Fargo.


Written mostly in blank iambic pentameter, the verse of the play is often excellent. Consider this passage, from Act III, in which Arden meditates on the bad character of his wife, whom he knows to be an adulteress:

If love of me or care of womanhood,
If fear of God or common speech of men,
Who mangle credit with their wounding words,
And couch dishonour as dishonour buds,
Might join repentance in her wanton thoughts,
No question then but she would turn the leaf
And sorrow for her dissolution;
But she is rooted in her wickedness,
Perverse and stubborn, not to be reclaimed;
Good counsel is to her as rain to weeds,
And reprehension makes her vice to grow
As Hydra’s head that plenished by decay.
Her faults, methink, are painted in my face,
For every searching eye to overread.

Or consider this passage, in which Alice’s lover, in a moment of moral clarity, considers how his scheming to murder and supplant Arden has destroyed his own happiness:

My golden time was when I had no gold;
Though then I wanted, yet I slept secure;
My daily toil begat me night’s repose,
My night’s repose made daylight fresh to me.
But since I climbed the top-bough of the tree
And sought to build my nest among the clouds,
Each gentle stirry gale doth shake my bed,
And makes me dread my downfall to the earth.
But whither doth contemplation carry me?
The way I seek to find, where pleasure dwells,
Is hedged behind me that I cannot back,
But needs must on, although to danger’s gate.
Then, Arden, perish thou by that decree.

This is a fine reflection on how it might feel to be trapped by and soured upon one’s own ambition.


The characters in the play are, in a certain sense, stock characters: the unfaithful wife, the jealous lover, the jilted husband, the crafty servant, the hired gun. But there are numerous touches here and there that render them more interesting. The relationship between Alice and her lover, for instance, is a passionate one, but also one prone to lurking suspicions and violent eruptions of bitterness. Though the characters seek happiness together, for the audience there is no expectation that they will find it.

And in the final act, when once the deed has been done, the playwright very deftly shows us Alice cracking under the strain: feigning ignorance of Arden’s whereabouts (for he actually lies in a side room, “smeared in blood and filthy gore”), she repeatedly asks aloud where he might be, awkwardly invites her lover to sit in her husband’s chair at the table, and starts at every mention of his name. It is a quite masterful portrait of a guilty conscience.


One wonders how a play as good as this can be anonymous. It seems an injustice. I am told that over the years it has been attributed to Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, among others. The 2016 edition of The Oxford Shakespeare actually attributes it partly to young William himself, who was just launching his playwrighting at about this time, and actually I find this attribution, while not obviously right, at least not obviously wrong, for the use of asides and monologues reminded me frequently of Shakespeare, and, as I’ve already said, the verse is often very good. In any case, whoever it was wrote the thing did a fine job, and the play is an entertaining read. I would jump at the chance to see it on stage.

The tidal flood beneath the lunar sway…

April 20, 2020

… but in Latin.

Reading Seneca’s essay On Providence I came across a surprising passage in which, in an aside, he says:

If anyone observes how shores are laid bare as the sea withdraws into itself, and yet are covered again in the shortest of time, he will believe it is some unseen fluctuation that causes the waves now to diminish and flow inwards, now to burst forth and with a great surge reclaim their former home; but in fact the waves increase by degrees, approaching to the hour and day proportionately larger or smaller in volume as they are attracted by the star we call the moon, whose power controls the ocean’s surge.

Now, it is true that the translator (John Davie) does not use the word “tide” here, but that must be what he is talking about. This is fascinating to me, because I had thought that the connection between the moon and the tides was a post-Newtonian discovery.

For instance, in his defence of a heliocentric model, Galileo argued that the tides are caused by the rotation of the earth. This was wrong; I’d thought it was put forward in the absence of a better explanation. But apparently not. Fascinating.