Archive for November, 2021

Lucan: Pharsalia

November 30, 2021

Translated from the Latin by Matthew Fox
(Penguin Classics, 2012) [c.65 AD]
lxx + 474 p.

For civil hatreds, only the sword suffices
to draw right hands down deep into Roman vitals.
(VII, 373-4)

Lucan began writing his epic poem on the Roman civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great when he was still in his early 20s — a precocious, but not precipitous, venture, for Lucan also had the misfortune to begin writing his epic poem during the reign of Nero, with this consequence: had he not begun early he’d not have begun at all. In 65 AD, when just 25 years old, Lucan was arrested for his part in a conspiracy against Nero’s life; he was forced to commit suicide, leaving his great poem incomplete.

The poem that we do have is probably a substantial part of the poem he had planned. It begins with Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC — the spark that set the forest aflame — and ends with Caesar besieging Alexandria in 47 BC. Perhaps Lucan intended to bring it down to Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC; we don’t really know. There are about 8000 lines in all. He wrote in dactylic hexameter, the metre used by Homer, Virgil, and Ovid in their epic poetry, so he was clearly swinging for the bleachers.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the poem, considering the poetic tradition within which he is clearly conscious of working, is the absence of supernatural elements. There are no gods presiding over these affairs of men, no divine interventions, no sacred groves or pious gestures. Lucan is writing history, straight up.

“The madness of war is upon us, the power of iron,
the fist, will confound all justice, and wicked crimes
will be called virtue — and this fury will continue
for many years. What use to beg the gods for an end of it?
Peace comes with a tyrant.”
(I, 712-16)

I was amused to read that in our tradition Lucan has, on these grounds, often been classed with the historians, rather than the poets. It’s not an entirely unjust view, but it does evoke a certain pang of pity for the man, who must have given himself some trouble, historical accuracy and all, to make his lines scan.

A second aspect of the poem that surprised me was its view of its two central combatants. Given that Caesar won the civil war, and given that Lucan was writing under an emperor who belonged to the Julio-Claudian line he founded, I expected Caesar to be the hero of the tale. But not so. Lucan obviously favours Pompey. More than once he is directly critical of Caesar:

“For shame,
Caesar! That you alone love wars your men condemn!”
(V, 326-7)

Pompey, on the other hand, gets handled with kid gloves. Even his flight from the field of battle at Pharsalus, which in previous accounts I’ve always seen interpreted as his lowest point, a shameful and unmanly retreat, Lucan tries to burnish into something glowing:

Success in war never saw you arrogant
nor will adversities see you broken now.
As faithless as she was to you when happy,
through three triumphs, now in misery
Fortune is beneath you. Now you depart untroubled,
your burden of fate laid down. Now you are free
to reflect on happy times. Your hopes recede,
never to be fulfilled. Now you are allowed
to know what you have been.
(VII, 793-801)

It’s not such a good thing to lose the principal battle of the civil war, of course, but at least he was freed up to reflect on happy times. It’s the slimmest of silver linings.

When, on the shores of Egypt, the end finally comes for Pompey, Lucan grants him a heroic finish:

But when the steel struck
his back and cracked against his chest, Magnus
maintained a splendid dignity and holy figure,
his face cursing the gods, his mortal end
changing nothing in the man’s appearance
or behavior — so they acknowledge who saw
his severed head.
(VIII, 814-820)

The reason for this preference of Pompey over Caesar connects to the underlying logic of the poem, which develops a critique of monarchy and concentration of power. The force of this argument increases as the poem proceeds, and I am not surprised to discover that Lucan had a gradual falling out with Nero during the period of composition. As I already mentioned, this growing animus caught up with him, and brought him down, before the poem could be finished.

Lucan has been continually read and appreciated in all the centuries between his time and ours, and he has had a huge influence on our literary tradition. Dante, Petrarch, and Chaucer, each in their own way, owe him a debt. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed reading the poem, but found that its straightforward, naturalistic approach to its subject matter prevented it from matching the high ambition and grandeur of the other epic poets. It just seemed a bit flat. Perhaps this is the translation more than the poem; it’s hard to know. But if I want to read again the history of this very dramatic and fascinating period of history, I will reach first for Caesar’s own account.

Music for Dante: The Divine Comedy III

November 25, 2021

We previously had a listen to Liszt’s Dante Symphony, which premiered in 1857. A few years later an Italian composer, Giovanni Pacini, wrote another symphonic work based on the Comedy. His Sinfonia Dante, which is not nearly as well-known, premiered in Florence in 1865 to mark the 600th anniversary of Dante’s birth.

This symphony is divided into the traditional 4 movements, with the first three dedicated to each of the three parts of the Comedy, and the final movement, entitled “Il trionfo del Dante”, a kind of musical encomium for the poet.

The reasons for its comparative neglect might be various — Italians, for instance, do not have a reputation for writing symphonies — but it’s plausible that the primary reason is simply musical. It’s a pleasant work but not a gripping one; it’s tuneful but not especially memorable. If you’re interested, you can hear the whole thing (~22 minutes) right here:


Next time we’ll look at a few pieces based on the Divine Comedy that were written in the first decades of the 20th century.

Wodehouse: Galahad at Blandings

November 17, 2021

Galahad at Blandings
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2009) [1964]
256 p.

Blandings Castle once again plays host to a motley cast of characters, each pursuing, in her or her own way, the perennial temptations of mankind: money, love, and pigs. Lord Emsworth has a new, irritatingly competent secretary; his niece is engaged to a young American rumoured to have suddenly lost his fortunes on the stock exchange; a young suitor pines for the estate’s newest pig-girl; and, naturally, young lovers need cash money in order to marry against their parents’ wishes.

Before the festivities conclude, jewelry will be stolen, policemen will be biffed on the helmet, sisters will be locked in libraries, and, to no-one’s surprise, the Empress of Blandings herself will overindulge in hard liquor. Into the fray strides Galahad Threepwood, a man “as calm and cool as a halibut on a fishmonger’s slab,” who, by clever management, misdirection, and occasional honesty, finds a way through to a happy ending. Of course.

In some respects, these books centered on Galahad are much the same as the books centered on Uncle Fred, of which we’ve read a few lately: the same thriving on conflict and disorder, the same capacity for beneficent duplicity, the same ability to engineer a happy resolution against apparently impossible odds. But it doesn’t really matter. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Wodehouse’s books are always full of allusions to great works of English literature, and especially to those of Shakespeare. There are at least a few such in this book. But I was surprised also to find an allusion to G.K. Chesterton:

Gally enlivened their progress with the story of the girl who said to her betrothed, ‘I will not be dictated to!’ and then went and got a job as a stenographer.

It is, perhaps, not one of Chesterton’s finest witticisms, but it is his. I haven’t, however, been able to identify the book in which he wrote it.