Archive for January, 2021

Seneca: Dialogues and Essays

January 31, 2021

Dialogues and Essays
Seneca
(Oxford World’s Classics, 2007) [c.60]
xxxiv + 263 p.

In a previous episode we looked at Seneca’s tragedies for the stage, in which the Stoic philosophy is presented, as it were, in the negative – this is how the world looks if the wisdom of Stoicism is unheeded – but in this collection we get the positive case, as Seneca draws on his Stoic principles to give counsel to those standing in need of it.

There is a nice variety of texts. There are two “consolations”, one written to a grieving mother whose son has died, and another to his own mother on the occasion of his exile to Corsica. There are several moral reflections, on anger, on peace of mind, and on mercy. And there are several essays of a more philosophical slant in which Seneca reflects on providence, on the causes of human happiness, and on the shortness of life. The final selection, drawn from a scientific work on earthquakes, finds Seneca ruminating on the fear of death.

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The closest point of intersection with the tragedies comes in the essay On Anger, in which he warns against the perils of giving rein to fury:

There is not a single useful quality to be found in this monstrous and dangerous passion, but on the contrary every sort of evil, fire and sword. Trampling shame underfoot, it defiles men’s hands with murder, casts wide the limbs of children, and leaves no place free from crime, disregarding fame and unafraid of disgrace, beyond remedy once it has hardened from anger to hate.

He advises the reader to avoid becoming angry – by keeping in mind the many faults of those who act from anger, by avoiding curiosity about what others think of you – and provides guidance on how to calm anger in yourself and in others. A keen moral insight is that we can be tempted to persist in anger precisely because we recognize how unreasonable it is:

We persist in our anger, so we may not give the impression of having had no reason for our initial loss of temper, and, most unjustly of all, the injustice of our anger makes us stubborn; for we hold on to it and foster it, as if the intensity of our anger were proof of its justice.

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The basic shape of Stoicism is on good display in the first essay, On Providence. Stoics believed that we live under the dominion of fate, and that all one can profitably do in the face of adversity is to master one’s response to it:

Whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end; it is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it.

In a kind of echo of Socrates, he argues that external circumstances, however dire, cannot harm a good man, for the soul is sustained by virtue: “Nothing bad can happen to a good man”. In fact, he argues, providence sends particular adversities to good men in order to strengthen them in virtue, likening fate to a conscientious father training his son to succeed in the world. “A man needs to be put to the test if he is to gain self-knowledge; only by trying does he learn what his capacities are.” Or, again, “Never is the proof of virtue mild.” By sending rain on the just and the unjust, God is also teaching us what is truly valuable and important, for when he ensures that wealth and honour are not granted mainly to the virtuous, God casts doubt on the value of those false gods:

In no way can God better cast doubt on what we desire than by awarding those things to the most disreputable men and denying them to the best.

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This vein of moral counsel sounds better, I think, when directed at oneself than when given to others. Maybe the “stiff upper lip” attitude really is the best, but when offered to one in mourning or serious affliction, it can sound simply unfeeling, or obtuse. This is easy to parody, but there are times when Seneca himself edges up to justifying the joke:

What greater folly is there than fearing the swaying of the earth or the sudden collapse of mountains or the incursions of the sea as it is cast beyond the shore, when death is present on all sides and rushes upon us from every quarter, and nothing is too insignificant in size to have enough strength to bring destruction on the human race?  (On Earthquakes)

At other times, though, the manly poise of Stoicism is attractive. A counsel that recurs through these essays is that we ought to anticipate what evils might befall us, for by anticipation we reduce their power to harm us: “The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.” (Consolation to Marcia, 9) “Takes away” is too strong, but cultivating a lively sense of the perils that might befall us is, I think, a means by which we can prepare ourselves to suffer them. Even more valuable is the counsel to pursue true happiness by cultivating personal virtue; it is the health of our soul that is of ultimate value. Of the attractions of pleasure, he warns that pursuit of pleasure will lead to the loss of both virtue and pleasure, whereas pursuit of virtue first will yield both virtue and, in a more cultivated sense, pleasure.

Seneca also frequently avers to the importance of making Nature the standard of one’s conduct. “Two most beautiful things will follow us wherever we go, universal Nature and our own virtue.” (Consolation to Helvia, 8) “Nature is the guide I choose; wisdom lies in not wandering from her path and in moulding oneself in accordance with her law and example. (On the Happy Life, 3). However, it is not clear to me from these essays just what is meant. It might be that we have here, in nascent form, the natural law tradition, in which “nature” – that is, the kind of creature that we are – teaches us what we need to truly flourish. But Seneca does not expound.

If we should pursue virtue first, then by implication we should not pursue wealth, or power, or fame first. Seneca has often been accused of hypocrisy on this account, for he, advisor to emperors, was wealthy, powerful, and famous. I recently came across amusing evidence of this bad reputation when I was reading John Marston’s seventeeth-century play The Malcontent, in which one of the characters actually talks about Seneca, saying:

Out upon him! he writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure, and died like an effeminate coward. (III.1)

The same or similar charges were laid at his feet in his own lifetime, and in his essay On the Happy Life he offers a defence. First, to a truly virtuous man these advantages are matters of indifference, so that they can be surrendered, or retained, without any fault. But, more than that, he acknowledges that his moral advice is not to be confused with his own habitual way of life:

I speak of virtue, not of myself, and my abuse is directed at vices, especially at my own. (18)

Essentially, he admits the justice of the critique, but without yielding his commitment to pursue virtue as best he can. I, for one, am satisfied.

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The finest of these essays, in my judgment, is On the Shortness of Human Life, a thoughtful reflection on the transience of our affairs that will, I predict, bear re-reading. We believe that life is too short, he argues, because we forget that we are mortal: “You live as though you were going to live forever.” But we will not, and as we busy ourselves with this and that, our life is silently passing away:

No one will restore your years, no one will restore you once more to yourself. Your life will pursue the path it started on, and will no more check than reverse its course; it will create no uproar, give no warning of its speed: silently it will glide on its way. No further will it extend its course at the command of a king, or because of the people’s approval; just as its path was set from your first day, so will it run, nowhere deviating, nowhere delaying. What will the outcome be? You have busied yourself, life hurries on: death meanwhile will arrive, and for it you must find time, whether you wish it or not. (8)

If we cultivate awareness of the brevity of life, we will be motivated to spend our time wisely: “Life is sufficiently long, and has been granted with enough generosity for us to accomplish the greatest things, provided that in its entirety it is well invested.” Of greatest importance is that we not attempt too much, avoid merely being busy, and clear away time for interior recollection:

It is generally agreed that no activity can be properly undertaken by a man who is busy with many things — not eloquence, and not the liberal arts… An untroubled and calm mind can visit all parts of its life: the minds of those who are busy with other things, as if they are under the yoke, cannot turn around, bend, and look back. Therefore their life disappears into an abyss, and as there is no benefit in pouring in any amount of water, if a vessel has no bottom to contain it, so it makes no difference how much time is given, if there is no place for it to lodge, it passes out through the cracks and chinks of the mind. (7, 10)

I have always known this to be true in my own life – that being too busy spells the death-knell for spiritual and intellectual life – and finding it echoed here in Seneca is sobering, considering how just obligations in my life certainly do keep me appallingly busy. But perhaps we are running up, here, against the limitations of Stoicism. Christianity teaches that I find my life not by withdrawal from the press and burly of events, but by pouring myself out in love for those around me. This, I am hoping, is true, as one who is carried forward by a swift current hopes that it goes somewhere good. But, then again, even Jesus withdrew to a quiet place to pray…

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I’m happy to have read these essays. Seneca must have been a remarkable man. I find much to admire in him: moral seriousness, high achievement, literary range. It is sad to think that, in the end, he committed suicide. (By the way, there is a good deal of hearty exhortation in these essays on the nobility of killing oneself. Another limitation of Stoicism.) But, somewhat to my surprise, I find that, having read this volume, my plans to follow it up by reading a selection of Seneca’s letters is not alluring. I think that I’ll take my leave of Seneca for now, and pick up instead this hefty volume marked ‘Tacitus’.

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[Know your limits]
Whenever you attempt something, measure yourself  and at the same time what you are attempting, both the thing you intend and that for which you are intended; for if you fail in the task, the regret this causes will make you bitter. It makes a difference whether a man is of a fiery nature or a cold and docile one: defeat will drive a man of spirit to anger, but induce sadness in one whose nature is sluggish and passive. Accordingly let our activities be neither trivial nor bold and overambitious, let us keep our hopes within sensible bounds, and let us attempt nothing to make us wonder later at our success, even should we succeed. (On Anger, 7)

[Examen]
When the lamp has been removed from my sight, and my wife, no stranger now to my habit, has fallen silent, I examine the whole of my day and retrace my actions and words; I hide nothing from myself, pass over nothing. For why should I be afraid of any of my mistakes, when I can say: ‘Beware of doing that again, and this time I pardon you.’ (On Anger, 36)

[Exhortation]
If you are a man, look up with admiration at those who attempt great things, even if they fall. This is the sign of a noble heart — to aim at high things.” (On the Happy Life, 20)

[Being prepared for death]
We occupy a stage decorated with various properties that are on loan and must be restored to their owners; some of these will remain until the final curtain. And so we have no grounds for self-admiration, as though we were surrounded by our own possessions; they have been loaned to us. We may use and enjoy them, but the one who allotted his gift decides how long we are to be tenants; our duty is to keep ready the gifts we have been given for an indefinite time and to return them when called upon, making no complaint: it is a sorry debtor who abuses his creditor. (Consolation to Marcia, 10)

Esolen: The Hundredfold

January 25, 2021

The Hundredfold
Songs for the Lord
Anthony Esolen
(Ignatius, 2019)
224 p.

“It is manna”

I am at peace under the open skies,
Gathering berries into a gallon pail,
As finches twitter, and the small gnats wail,
And if a cloudy empire lives or dies,
No news will reach me when the seagull cries;
More potent is the snuff of last year’s leaf
In the pouch of the earth where worms abound
And black ants carve their boroughs, reef to reef,
Reveling in the joy of being brief
Beneath the eye of heaven, where I have found
Blessings of God like hoarfrost on the ground.

Poetry was once more popular than it is today. We have the modernists to blame, at least in part, for that. Their abandonment of form, disdain of popularity, and retreat into something approaching private language left the reading public cold. But the problem goes deeper than that, for poetry itself — even the older, once popular, poetry of Blake, or Longfellow, or Frost — has been mostly abandoned. Modern life feels out of step with poetry. The nearest we get to it, I suppose, is in pop songs — a beggarly substitute, by and large.

Anthony Esolen has long been an advocate for our great poets, and for the reading of poetry. He sees in the decline of poetry’s fortunes a sign of cultural decay, and, likewise, in a revival of poetry a green shoot. But a revived poetry would be a poetry that once again touched the heart, and took up residence in the memory, of ordinary people.

Hence The Hundredfold, a long poem — a single poem, he is careful to insist — in one hundred parts, intended to be accessible and attractive to as many readers as will deign to pick it up. It is religious poetry, largely, as much of our greatest poetry has been. Like the Scriptures themselves, the poem follows an arc from creation to redemption, pivoting on the life of Christ, and especially on Easter.

The architecture of the poem has been carefully designed. I have said that it consists of 100 segments — which, for convenience, I shall call “poems” in their own right. Two-thirds of these (66) are short lyric poems, like the one above, each prefaced by a phrase from Scripture. Sometimes these poems are absorbed in the Scripture itself, and sometimes the verse of Scripture is the basis for a meditation on modern life:

“Then wrought Bezaleel and Aholiah, and every wise hearted man, in whom the Lord put wisdom.”

I was a boy, and gazed into the dome
Flocked with the saints and angels of the Lord:
Mysterious clarity, keen as any sword,
Alien shores and faraway, but home;
Holiday language of the loving eye
Summoning worshipers to rise and come
Robed in the heraldry of God on high.
Then came the learned with their sidelong speech,
And sat about the glory like a swarm
Of weevils on the corn in ear, to preach
Only such wonders as their wit could reach,
With the vague softness of the common worm:
Flesh without bone, and structure without form.

With these lyric poems are interwoven 21 hymns, written expressly to be sung to well-known hymn melodies. Taken as a group, these are, perhaps, my favourite parts of The Hundredfold, and I would love to see them incorporated into hymnals. As poems, they are vastly better than most of the recent material that fills modern hymnals. Esolen is a student of hymnody, and understands the appeal of sturdy, poetic song for group singing. He writes in the great tradition that has given us the lion’s share of our finest hymns. As an example, consider this hymn written for the tune CVM RHONDDA:

In this far-off land of famine,
Gentle Shepherd, come to me.
I have wondered from Thy plenty;
Sands and bones are all I see.
Son most faithful, Son most faithful,
Let me ever feast with Thee,
Let me ever feast with Thee.

Leave me not upon the journey,
Halt and lame and like to fall.
Hold my arm when I shall tremble,
When the thieves and death appall.
Stand beside me, stand beside me,
At the final trumpet-call,
At the final trumpet-call.

Break the bonds of flesh and darkness,
Thrust to hell the powers of night!
Shower Thy living grace upon me,
God of God and Light of Light!
Lord and Conqueror, Lord and Conqueror,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight,
Let me praise Thee in Thy sight!

Tell me that doesn’t stir the heart!

The third main plank in the architecture consists of a set of 12 dramatic poems — epistles, monologues, and dialogues, in iambic pentameter — expressly after the manner of the master, Robert Browning. These are marvellous, and, if I may, I’ll change my mind and claim these as my favourite parts, albeit for private rather than communal enjoyment. The first eavesdrops on the thoughts of the Blessed Virgin as she silently ponders her sleeping son; another is told, many years after the fact, by the boy who had brought the loaves and fish when he went to hear Jesus preaching; another is spoken by Blind Bartimaeus; and still another relates a conversation between the two men whom Jesus met on the road to Emmaus. These verses are wonderfully flexible, the characters vividly portrayed, with their own distinctive voices, and the poems themselves, like Browning’s exemplars, are deeply thoughtful and imaginative creations. By the very nature of their form, they are hard to excerpt, but let me illustrate with this passage which opens an epistolary poem written by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor:

To the Sun-Brilliant Giver of Increase,
The great Bridge-Builder spanning heaven and earth,
Chief of the Julian clan, First Citizen,
Mild Counselor to our gathering of old men,
Commander of armies fortressed from the banks
Of the Euphrates to the chilly Rhine —
Whose barbarous sots once struck from the black woods
And slaughtered a whole legion, while their whores
Poured like a swarm over the corpses, spoiling
The spoilers of their gold, so Parthian rings
Still wedged on dead men’s fingers shed their gleam
On the beer feasts of some grease-eating king
Who has to use two hands to count to ten,
Mocking with all his thanes your southern godhead
As his sheep leave their droppings in his hall —
To thee, O Claudius, from the rocks of Spain
I send obedient salutations: Hail.

The Hundredfold concludes with a tour de force: a 100 line coda written in 33 Dantean tercets. It’s a poetic form that is very difficult in English, but Esolen is equal to the task. (He has done it before, in the concluding canto of his translation of Dante.) The neat numerics of this coda are no accident; the whole of The Hundredfold is built on a strict numerical plan. The dramatic poems and hymns, together, are 33 in number — being the age of Christ at his Passion — and they total 3333 lines. The 66 lyric poems total 100 stanzas and 1000 lines. The coda, as I’ve already said, echoes the 33 and 100. I don’t know about you, but this kind of thing sets my heart racing and my palms to sweat.

It is not for me to say whether Esolen is a great poet, but I am confident in my judgement that he is a good poet. As a contribution to a revival of poetry, and of Christian culture, The Hundredfold is an admirable effort. I can recommend it unreservedly.

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“You shall not make your children pass through fire.”

They are not half in love with easeful death,
They are not half in love with anything;
No field in summer makes them catch their breath
Where the corn ripens, and the sparrows sing;
The man wishes he had no seed to cast
In the warm spring upon the ready earth;
The woman, that her womb were bolted fast.
Death they may fear, but birth
Is perfect terror, or the sad and slow
Contraction of the little life they play,
Without a germ or root or bloom to show,
Numb to the pulse of both the night and day.
Nor do they haunt where Moloch’s flames appall,
Because they would not bear a child at all.

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“Ephphatha,” which means, “Be opened.”

Because I lay under the weight of earth
And the dust was a pillow to my cheek —
The dust and blood that swaddled me at birth,
When I first wailed as if my heart would break —
I could but hear and speak
Faintly, and in confusion of the sound;
And all my fellow men who dwelt in tombs,
Where never a call of clarion trumpet comes,
Spoke and heard as if muffled by the ground
And by the crowds of buried men around.

Lord, let me not be deaf forevermore.
Open my clotted ear, untie my tongue,
Let me break forth in song,
The double prayer that ear and tongue are for.
Lead me to the clear air where I belong,
Where the least whisper is a call to be
One with the listening angels in their throng,
As they await the call of victory.

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Christ is the image of the invisible God.

At the ninth height of being, eyes are bright
With what is now, what was, what is to be.
Shall we then cup our hands to sip the light?
Nay, in the river frolic and be free,
While the nine choirs like rollers of the sea
Sing of the far-flung spray of flower and star,
I have the abyss of glory here, for He
The Three and One, who thunders from afar,
Is the intimate wellspring where the blessed are.

Wodehouse: Uncle Dynamite

January 16, 2021

Uncle Dynamite
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2006) [1948]
320 p.

There can be few less auspicious beginnings for an aspiring son-in-law than to inadvertently smash not just one, but two of the precious items in your intended father-in-law’s collection of curios, but this is just what happens to the hapless Pongo Twistleton upon his arrival at Ashenden Manor. Nor can it be particularly advantageous to find oneself overrun and overruled, in one’s own home, by a bombastic uncle, but this is just the position in which the long-suffering Bill Oakshott finds himself. Likewise, to be engaged to be married to a young man whom all the world sees is unsuitable, and who is persistently in love with another, could never be a recommended course for young and eligible women, but such is the quandary of the beautiful Hermione Bostock.

The resolution of these conundrums, and several others, becomes the project of Uncle Fred, whose boundless invention and shameless deceptions make him well-suited to the task. Adopting false identities, he makes a place for himself among the Ashendenizens, and gradually, by fits and starts, works his way through to triumph. It’s an inspired performance by Wodehouse; maybe not one of his very best, but a far sight better than you or I could do.

Musical anniversaries in 2021

January 11, 2021

There is quite a raft of musical anniversaries to celebrate this year. From a thorough list (Thanks again, Osbert) I have culled the following set:

Memorials

  • 25 years:
    • Vagn Holmboe
    • Mieczyslaw Weinberg
    • Toru Takemitsu
  • 50 years:
    • Marcel Dupré
    • Igor Stravinsky
  • 100 years:
    • Camille Saint-Saëns
    • Engelbert Humperdinck
  • 150 years:
    • Daniel-François-Esprit Auber
    • Sigismond Thalberg
  • 400 years:
    • Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck
    • Michael Praetorius
  • 500 years:
    • Robert Fayrfax
    • Josquin Desprez

Birthdays

  • 100 years: Malcolm Arnold
  • 150 years: Alexander von Zemlinsky
  • 450 years: Michael Praetorius
  • 500 years: Philippe de Monte
  • 800 years: Alfonso X El Sabio

It’s the year of Michael Praetorius, in a sense, who gets both a birthday and a memorial commemoration, but the big names this year, at least for me and my house, will be Stravinsky and Josquin. I’ve planned a listening project for each: for Stravinsky, I’ll be focusing on the three big ballets (The Rite, Petrouchka, and The Firebird) and his choral music, with a smattering of other things thrown in; for Josquin I hope to listen through all of his 60-odd motets, 60-odd chansons, and 18 Mass settings. It should be great!

I’m also looking forward to spending time with Takemitsu, whose beguilingly dissonant music always lures me back, and Thalberg, whose virtuoso piano works have been given an airing in a few recent records by top-shelf piano virtuosos (this and this). I did a large Weinberg listening project just a few years ago, but I intend to revisit some of the highlights.

Strange to think that Josquin and Fayrfax died in the same year. I’d have put them in adjacent centuries if asked at the bus stop.

I’m not really sure what I should listen to from Dupré or Sweelinck; I don’t have much in my collection. Suggestions welcome.

Favourites in 2020: Books

January 8, 2021

‘Twas a tough year for book reading in 2020. I had a few reading projects on the go, with middling success. One ambitious project — to read the Bible in one year — foundered somewhere in the Book of Proverbs. I had planned to read a half dozen of Thomas Hardy’s novels, but only got through two — both excellent! I’ve been exploring playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare, and that went well until the autumn, when it didn’t. The one thread that I managed to maintain consistently was my ongoing exploration of Roman history and literature.

Since I’ve written, or intend to write, about these books at greater length, I’ll content myself today with brief notice of my favourites from the past year. WordPress’ formatting has gone haywire in recent months, and I don’t know how to fix the wayward image wrapping below; my apologies. In alphabetical order:

Beethoven: Impressions by his Contemporaries

I was fascinated to read this collection of first-hand accounts of meetings with Beethoven written by friends, rivals, and musical tourists. It provides a nicely rounded portrait of the man, and was one of the highlights of my observance of Beethoven’s anniversary year.

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Boswell & Johnson: Journeys to the Western Isles

I found great enjoyment in these two books which were the literary fruit of the journey Boswell and Johnson took together through the wilds of Scotland. Johnson’s focus is mostly on Scotland, and Boswell’s is mostly on Johnson, and the latter is the better of the two.

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Esolen: The Hundredfold

A book-length religious poem in which Esolen reaches back to verse forms that once had a wide appeal — hymns, lyrics, and dramatic monologues — to create an insightful and involving meditation on the life of Christ. A book full of music, in more ways than one.

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Gribbin: Six Impossible Things

A slim, non-technical introduction to issues in the interpretation of quantum mechanics. I appreciated the clarity of the writing, and was left in amazement at our radical uncertainty about what this immensely successful theory actually means. One of the better popular science books I’ve read in some years.

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Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd

A wonderful novel about the complexities of love, and a meditation on what makes for a good marriage partner. Splendidly written on every page.

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Hardy: The Return of the Native

A darker, moodier exploration of romance and love, with a variety of interesting formal elements adding to the appeal. Also splendidly written. I wish I had had more time for Hardy this year!

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von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

Written shortly after Vatican II, this is a very curious and valuable commentary on the aftermath of the Council from an author usually classed with the reformers, but here found to be a sharp critic.

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Statius: Thebaid

An epic poem from Rome’s first century AD which re-tells an old Greek story about a fraternal rivalry for power in Thebes. It might sound unpromising, but the poem has a lot of personality and a number of things on its mind. A happy surprise.

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Tacitus: Annals

A narrative overview of the Julio-Claudian dynasty from Augustus to Nero (14-68 AD), this is a sternly written, fiercely intelligent history. One could hardly ask for a better guide to the strange concatenation of emperors through this perennially-interesting period. One of the highlights of my Roman history project so far.

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Wodehouse: Blandings and Uncle Fred

Not one book here, but an assortment. I polished off the Uncle Fred books, and continued my long, pleasant meander through the Blandings Castle series. When the world’s gone bonkers, and circumstances might reasonably get you down, Wodehouse stands ready to ease the heart and delight the mind.

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Prospects for reading in 2021 are not looking particularly auspicious, but I am nonetheless looking forward with anticipation, drafting plans in hope rather than assurance. Setting aside with relief my disastrous efforts to spend a year with Yeats, I’m retreating this year to the safety and comfort of Wordsworth; Wodehouse will, I hope, continue to grace my bedside table; and my years-long Roman history project will reach a crescendo, or perhaps a long diminuendo, with a traversal of Gibbon’s gargantuan Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Such, at least, is the plan. We’ll see how it turns out!

Popular authors: Shakespeare (6), Wodehouse (5), Tacitus (3), Seneca (2), Hardy (2).