Archive for October, 2022

Massinger: The City Madam

October 31, 2022

The City Madam
Philip Massinger
(Delphi Classics) [1632]

After a reasonably good experience with a play by Philip Massinger, I decided to pluck another from his considerable body of work, and I plucked The City Madam. It’s a domestic comedy about two brothers — one, Sir John, a successful manager of his wealthy estate, the other, Luke, a wastrel and a scoundrel — and about what happens when the latter assumes the responsibilities of the former.

As the play opens, Luke has been brought to the family estate by his brother after having been released from debtors’ prison. The family, thinking ill of him, treat him as they would an abused servant:

My proud Ladie
Admits him to her Table, marry ever
Beneath the Salt, and there he sits the subject
Of her contempt and scorn; and dinner ended,
His courteous Neeces find emploiment for him
Fitting an under-prentice, or a Footman,
And not an Uncle. (I, i)

But Luke, at least initially, appears to be content with his humble station:

I am a Freeman, all my debts discharg’d,
Nor does one Creditor undone by me
Curse my loose riots. I have meat and cloaths,
Time to ask heaven remission for what’s past;
Cares of the world by me are laid aside,
My present poverty’s a blessing to me;
And though I have been long, I dare not say
I ever liv’d till now. (I, ii)

In fact, his character seems to be so reformed — though we, the audience, being privy to his conversations with the other servants, know this seeming to be false — that his brother, Sir John, devises a test: he, John, announces that he intends to devote himself to religious life in a monastery, and permanently transfers ownership and management of the estate to Luke. “Outward gloss,” he says in private, “often deceivs, may it not prove so in him.” Meanwhile, Sir John intends to return to the estate in disguise to see what transpires.

It doesn’t take long for Luke to reveal his true colours. He abuses his sister-in-law and nieces, throwing them into poverty (“Hee’s cruel to himself, that dares not be / Severe to those that us’d him cruelly.”), and entraps the servants by goading them into wrongdoing and then punishing them. In one memorable speech, he reveals that his sudden ascent has inflamed his greed:

Increase of wealth
Is the rich mans ambition, and mine
Shall know no bounds. The valiant Macedon
Having in his conceit subdu’d one world,
Lamented that there were no more to conquer:
in my way he shall be my great example.
And when my private house in cram’d abundance
Shall prove the chamber of the City poor,
And Genoways banquers shall look pale with envy
When I am mention’d, I shall grieve there is
No more to be exhausted in one Kingdome.
Religion, conscience, charity, farewell.
To me you are words onely, and no more,
All humane happinesse consists in store.
(IV, ii)

His wickedness reaches a humorous zenith when Sir John, who has adopted the guise of a Satan-worshipping wizard from barbarous lands (that is, from Virginia!) come in search of virgins for his rites of human sacrifice, finds Luke all-too-willing to offer up his nieces for the purpose (“They are burden some to me, and eat too much.”). Sir John conjures up a procession of all those — family, servants, and friends — whom Luke has harmed during his brief term in power, which only provokes malign laughter from him:

This move me to compassion? or raise
One sign of seeming pity in my face?
You are deceiv’d: it rather renders me more flinty,
and obdurate. A South wind
Shall sooner soften marble, and the rain
That slides down gently from his flaggy wings
O’reflow the Alps: then knees, or tears, or groans
Shall wrest compunction from me. ’Tis my glory
That they are wretched, and by me made so,
It sets my happinesse off.
(V, iii)

But it is too much. Sir John unveils himself, to great acclaim from all hands, and Luke’s downfall is immediate. He is denounced as an “avaritious Atheist” and sent away to some desert, or to Virginia!


Is it a good play? It has its merits: it is funny without being frivolous, it has a pleasing, clear structure with a satisfying ending, and its moral instincts are sound. On the other hand, the verse is, with rare exceptions, pedestrian, and the characters are not especially distinctive.

It has been occasionally revived, including in a series of 2011 performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK, but we could not say that it has had enduring success on the stage.

The title of the play is oddly tangential. There are one or two references to a “City Madam” or “City Dame”, but none, it seems to me, come near the central action of the play.

Let me put it this way: The City Madam has convinced me that I’m finished with Philip Massinger for now; with no ill will, but with no real regret either, I am moving on.

Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment

October 24, 2022

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Translated from the Russian by Pevear and Volokhonsky
(Everyman, 1993) [1866]
608 p. Second reading.

I remembered Crime and Punishment as a philosophical novel; it was an exploration of what happens, or could happen, if amoralism, or some species of moral relativism, replaced belief in an objective moral law. This was sort of right, at a high enough level of abstraction, but in fact it’s a lot more complicated, and a lot more messy. Sure, Raskolnikov is a bit of a theorist, and he believes, or says he believes, that there is a class of great men who can commit what are considered crimes and not only get away with it, but actually retain a kind of innocence because the power of their wills overcome those who would condemn them, or because they have no remorse, or because they act without reference to a binding law, or something. But this doesn’t really get formulated, in the pages of the novel, as a philosophical statement about morality. Raskolnikov just admires those great men who act boldly in ways that would land ordinary folk in jail, and thinks he may be “a Napoleon” himself. He finds out that he is not.

It has been oft-remarked that Crime and Punishment is a thoroughly unusual murder mystery, for although there is undoubtedly a murder to solve, the question for us, the readers, is not who but why. And, this being a murder mystery by Dostoyevsky, we never do find out, because nobody knows, not even the murderer! Raskolnikov is frequently asked for the reason, and more frequently asks it of himself, but he fails to find a stable answer. He did it for money. He did it to help his mother and sister. He did it to test whether he was “a Napoleon”. He did it to experience freedom and power. “Freedom and power, and above all, power! Over all trembling creation, the whole ant heap!” There is an element of truth in all these explanations, but as readers we know that there was something else at work too. In the book’s amazing opening act, leading up to the murders, we witness Raskolnikov roaming the city, fixated on his idea, obsessed with it, unable to shake it off and apparently unable to resist it, and all the while coddling his ego, telling himself “that his reason and will would remain unimpaired at the time of carrying out his design,” even as he had already substantially lost control of both.

Though he is less of a master than he thinks he is, this is still his story: his obsession, his theory, his acts, and his descent into the psychological maelstrom. Yet as we read we notice that Dostoyevsky brings in a variety of other characters: his mother and sister, of course, and Sonia, and Svidragailov, and the police detective Porfiry Petrovich. The role of the last is obvious, but as I was reading, and as the straight line between Raskolnikov’s crime and whatever-the-outcome-will-be became tangled in a web of all these other relationships, I began to wonder: what are these other characters here for? Dostoyevsky, after all, is not telling us the true history of Raskolnikov; he doesn’t have to introduce any characters, so why did he put these ones in? How are they serving the story?

I don’t think there’s any one answer to this question. We mustn’t forget that the novel was originally serialized, so it is possible that Dostoyevsky introduced characters without really knowing what purpose they would end up serving! But one idea kept occurring to me as I was reading, and it was this: Raskolnikov has a theory, a mental abstraction, that he toys with, and in his theory he imagines that he could float free of the realm of moral obligation and moral judgement. But the other characters are in the novel to show us, if not him, that this theory is false. At every step, he is entangled in a web of moral relationships with everyone. After spontaneously doing a good deed for Sonia’s family, for instance, he is flooded with a sense of relief and strength:

“Enough,” he pronounced resolutely and triumphantly. “I’ve done with fancies, imaginary terrors and phantoms! Life is real! haven’t I lived just now? My life has not yet died with that old woman! The Kingdom of Heaven to her—and now enough, madam, leave me in peace! Now for the reign of reason and light… and of will, and of strength… and now we will see! We will try our strength!” he added defiantly, as though challenging some power of darkness.

This, of course, is just the opposite side of the coin to the one he has been obsessing over. Does anyone who thinks they can commit a crime without flinching also fantasize about doing a good deed without experiencing any joy? And a little later, when he tells a lie to his mother to avoid having her learn about his crime, he suffers a crushing realization:

… now he would never be able to talk freely about everything, that never again would he be able to talk freely about anything to anyone. The anguish of this thought was such that for a moment he almost forgot himself.

Passages like these, and there are many, show us, I think, that Raskolnikov’s dream of being “a Napoleon” is really superficial. Even if he could (though he can’t) succeed in stripping one act of its moral qualities, doing this comprehensively is a hopeless task. And that hopelessness, paradoxically, is his hope.


Because Raskolnikov is not “a Napoleon”, he needs his crime to remain hidden. But because he is a human being, he needs to confess it, somehow. There is one spine-tingling moment in which his friend, Razumikhin, guesses the truth, though no words are exchanged between them:

Raskolnikov stopped once more.

“Once for all, never ask me about anything. I have nothing to tell you. Don’t come to see me. Maybe I’ll come here…. Leave me, but don’t leave them. Do you understand me?”

It was dark in the corridor, they were standing near the lamp. For a minute they were looking at one another in silence. Razumikhin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and intent eyes grew more penetrating every moment, piercing into his soul, into his consciousness. Suddenly Razumikhin started. Something strange, as it were, passed between them…. Some idea, some hint, as it were, slipped, something awful, hideous, and suddenly understood on both sides…. Razumikhin turned pale.

But this doesn’t count as confession, and so we come to the extraordinary scene in which Raskolnikov finally reveals the truth to Sonia. This was for me the most engrossing and powerful scene in the book, a scene replete with long silences, hesitant words, oblique hints and questions, and as gripping as any thriller. As in the case of the crime, he has reached a point where the truth cannot be any longer concealed: “he felt at the very time not only that he could not help telling her, but also that he could not put it off.” (V, 4) Even so, when it comes to it Raskolnikov sits silently, and I think is only finally able to tell her because she first guesses it:

All of a sudden she started as though she had been stabbed, uttered a cry and fell on her knees before him, she did not know why.

“What have you done—what have you done to yourself?” she said in despair, and, jumping up, she flung herself on his neck, threw her arms round him, and held him tightly.

As the conversation spools out, and gathers a certain amount of momentum, he starts to offer her the various justifications that have been swirling through his head for so long, including his “Napoleon” line of thinking:

“I know now, Sonia, that whoever is strong in mind and spirit will have power over them. Anyone who is greatly daring is right in their eyes. He who despises most things will be a lawgiver among them and he who dares most of all will be most in the right! So it has been till now and so it will always be. A man must be blind not to see it!”

But there are people before whom untruths reveal themselves as hollow, and I think Sonia is one of these. To her, Raskolnikov says something that he never says, I believe, to anyone else: that he did something wrong.

“Well … that’s all … Well, of course in killing the old woman I did wrong … Well, that’s enough.”

Not a fulsome recantation, but as close as he gets before suddenly lapsing back into another of his favourite theories:

“I’ve only killed a louse, Sonia, a useless, loathsome, harmful creature.”

This scene is a truly masterful portrait of a soul struggling to free itself from a burden. Sonia is the only person in the world to whom he could entrust this secret, and he tells her not because he wants to make her complicit or because he thinks she will make excuses for him, but because she is trustworthy, and can absorb it, and because he knows she will not excuse him.


If there is a question about why Raskolnikov commits the murders, there is also a question about why he eventually turns himself in. It’s complicated. He is suffering, of course, in the aftermath of the crime. He is afraid of the police detectives and has been told that his sentence may be less severe if he comes in voluntarily. The presence of Sonia is somehow relevant; remember he actually leaves the police station without confessing and only returns when he sees her in the street. The police detective Porfiry Petrovich, a few days prior to his confession, has a bracing conversation with Raskolnikov in which he advises him to own his actions for his own good:

“You ought to thank God, perhaps. How do you know? Perhaps God is saving you for something. But keep a good heart and have less fear! Are you afraid of the great expiation before you? No, it would be shameful to be afraid of it. Since you have taken such a step, you must harden your heart. There is justice in it. You must fulfil the demands of justice.


“I am convinced that you will decide, ‘to take your suffering.’ You don’t believe my words now, but you’ll come to it of yourself. For suffering, Rodion Romanovitch, is a great thing.”

The punishment Raskolnikov faces not as something to be avoided, but something to be accepted and endured, for to evade justice is not tenable — practically, but above all personally. Suffering for his crime will do him good, and is indeed the only path forward. Here, too, Raskolnikov is up against the realities of the moral life, and can only resist them by doing further damage to himself.


Raskolnikov confesses, but does he repent? There is a crucial episode near the end of the book that encourages us to believe, I think, that he did. Just before going to the police to turn himself in, he has a strange and profound experience unlike anything else in the novel:

He suddenly recalled Sonia’s words, “Go to the cross-roads, bow down to the people, kiss the earth, for you have sinned against it too, and say aloud to the whole world, ‘I am a murderer.’” He trembled, remembering that. And the hopeless misery and anxiety of all that time, especially of the last hours, had weighed so heavily upon him that he positively clutched at the chance of this new unmixed, complete sensation. It came over him like a fit; it was like a single spark kindled in his soul and spreading fire through him. Everything in him softened at once and the tears started into his eyes. He fell to the earth on the spot….

He knelt down in the middle of the square, bowed down to the earth, and kissed that filthy earth with bliss and rapture. He got up and bowed down a second time.

“He’s boozed,” a youth near him observed.

I don’t know exactly what is going on here, and I don’t think he does either, but this seems like a moment of grace, or of honesty, in which something good touches him, some kind of release from the turmoil and terror that he has been enduring, and it is mysterious. It feels like it could be a moment of repentance.

But hearts can be hardened, of course, and grace, if that is what it was, can be rejected. That Raskolnikov did not, finally, repent we have on the word of two authorities: the narrator, and Raskolnikov himself. The former tells us straight-up, in the epilogue: “He did not repent of his crime,” which seems decisive. And Raskolnikov says, in conversation with Sonia,

“Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he said to himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, it was a legal crime, of course, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law… and that’s enough. Of course, in that case many of the benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that step.”

It was only in that that he recognised his criminality, only in the fact that he had been unsuccessful and had confessed it.

It seems that in the end, he fell back on his “Napoleon” theory, though he granted that he himself turned out not to be “a Napoleon”.

What, then, does the future hold for him? At the end of the novel he is in a prison camp, and Sonia is there too, having followed him. It is clear that if the future holds anything good for him, it will be because of her, because of her love for him, and his, also, for her. We are given reason to hope, though the way will not be easy.

He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.

Porfiry, it seems, was right all along.


Well, what can I say? It’s a great novel, one of the greatest, as we all know. It is a relentlessly honest portrayal of a lost soul, wonderfully written. I was commenting to a friend that Dostoyevsky gives the impression, on each page, of being out of control, as if the story has a mind of its own and surges forward without any guidance. We almost never feel the hand at the tiller. Yet on the large scale, over the course of 500 pages, his mastery is complete, at least in this novel. (I’m not so sure about some of the others!)

It may not be the straightforward philosophical novel that I thought I recalled, but it does nonetheless press a philosophical question, or set of questions, about the nature of morality. If a reader holds that the moral order is entirely socially constructed, or relative, or illusory, or some such thing, I find it hard to predict how he will experience the novel, but I expect it would be likely to cause some discomfort. I am aware of at least one person who gave up on moral relativism after reading it.

Most of my knowledge of the Russian classics has been through the translations of Pevear and Volokhonsky. I hope, I really do, that the wildness of their prose reflects something that is really there in the original.

Homer: The Iliad

October 18, 2022

The Iliad
Translated from the Greek by Four Illustrious Translators
[c.800 BC]
c.500 pages. Second reading.

When first I attempted The Iliad, many years ago, it was a sad and dispiriting affair, and I struggled through it without any enjoyment. Now, with quite a few other, if lesser, ancient epics under my belt, I felt sufficiently buoyed up with hope and girt about the loins to try again. Alas! Let me not say that I fared no better, but let me also be honest: it was a sad and dispiriting affair.

The problems for me were principally two, I think. One was the diffuse structure of the poem. I understand the basic shape: the Trojans prevail in battle so long as Achilles sits in his tent, but, stirred to action, he turns the tide and triumphs in the epic confrontation with Hector. But within that basic framework the poem felt aimless to me: there were so many characters, gods and men, churning back and forth in endless succession, speechifying, throwing spears, world without end. Like a great Trojan warrior dragging the body of his foe through the dust, I was dragging my own battered self from one episode to the next, bereft of hope.

The second problem for me was all the fighting. Maybe it’s churlish to complain of fighting in a poem about war; the criticism is just. But, just as I tend to yawn and drift away in films when giant action scenes play out, so here I struggled to maintain attention through all the rock throwing and spear hurling and sword swinging. True, the gruesome deaths Homer grants certain characters reward a certain morbid fascination, but for the most part I found the sword-play immoderately tedious. This bothers me some, because I believe the poet intended those bits to be exciting, and maybe in performance they would have been, but I couldn’t maintain enthusiasm for them.

It was not that I found nothing to like. The siege of Troy, for instance, was motivated by the Greeks’ desire to recover Helen, absconded with Paris and now held securely within the city’s walls. But the poet tells us, early on, that she and Paris have grown cool to one another as the war has played out on the plain before the city, a revelation that casts a pall of pointlessness over the whole affair. This is dramatically effective. I also appreciated the evenhandedness of Homer, who is a Greek writing about a Greek triumph, but who generously grants the Trojans the same heroism and dignity that he lavishes on the Greek warriors.

As the battles raged, I was sometimes tempted to abandon the poem, but I held on in anticipation of the tale of the Trojan horse, which I expected would provide a change of pace and a straightforward storyline. Imagine my chagrin when, inching closer and closer to the end, it gradually dawned on me that the episode of the Trojan horse is not part of the Iliad after all. Ah well.


My first acquaintance with the Iliad, years ago, was through the translation of Richmond Lattimore, made in the early 1950s. This is still a well-regarded translation, often chosen for courses on Homer because it attempts to follow the Greek line as closely as possible: the metre is Homer’s own dactylic hexameter, and Lattimore tried to keep each line of English more or less aligned with the corresponding line of Greek. But personally I found, and find, that the hexameter line is awkwardly long for English verse, giving the poem a baggy, sprawling feel.

This time out I wanted to explore another approach. There are literally dozens of translations available, so I had to choose.

In the 1970s Robert Fitzgerald made a translation in blank iambic pentameter, and this, too, has maintained a good reputation; I was curious to peer into it. A popular version in the past few decades has been Robert Fagles’ translation, written in an irregular metre of five or six beats and said to be vivid and exciting. I was also curious about the 18th century translation, in rhyming couplets, by Alexander Pope; it might be rude to force Homer into a mold so foreign to him, but perhaps a genius could manage it?

In the end, I decided not to decide: I read all four — Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Pope — in rotation, Book by Book. I lost the continuity of a single poetic voice, but I gained a diverting variety, and diverting variety was what I needed.


In fact, I found it a cheering exercise to pause occasionally to compare translations of specific passages, and I’ve chosen a few to present here. Homer is famous for his heroic similes, so I’ve picked one of those; the Iliad is famous, as I’ve already said, for its gory death scenes, so I’ve chosen one of those; and, finally, I selected a charming domestic scene involving Hector and his family, which was a personal favourite.

Let’s begin with the simile. In this one, taken from Book 13, the charging Trojan army is compared to a boulder propelled by a raging torrent. Here is how Lattimore renders it:

The Trojans came down on them in a pack, and Hektor led them
raging straight forward, like a great rolling stone from a rock face
that a river swollen with winter rain has wrenched from its socket
and with immense washing broken the hold of the unwilling rock face;
the springing boulder flies on, and the forest thunders beneath it…

I’m not sure about the “immense washing”, but I like the image of the “springing boulder” and of the forest “thundering” as the boulder crashes through.

Here is Fitzgerald:

Trojans massed and running
charged them now, with Hektor in the lead
in furious impetus, like a rolling boulder
a river high with storm has torn away
from a jutting bank by washing out what held it;
then the brute stone upon the flood
goes tossed and tumbling, and the brush gives way,
crashing before it.

I much prefer this shorter line, and I like also the alliteration of “tossed and tumbling” and the slightly oblique description of the river as “high with storm”.

Now Fagles:

Trojans pounded down on them!
Tight formations led by Hektor careening breakneck on
like a deadly rolling boulder torn from a rock face —
a river swollen with snow has wrenched it from its socket,
immense floods breaking the bank’s grip, and the reckless boulder
bounding high, flying with timber rumbling under it…

Exclamation mark! I think we get a strong sense of motion and drama in this version: “pounded down”, “breakneck”, “reckless”, “bounding”, “flying”. Too much of this could get exhausting, but it serves this particular simile quite well.

Lastly, Pope:

Thus breathing death, in terrible array,
The close compacted legions urged their way:
Fierce they drove on, impatient to destroy;
Troy charged the first, and Hector first of Troy.
As from some mountain’s craggy forehead torn,
A rock’s round fragment flies, with fury borne,
(Which from the stubborn stone a torrent rends,)
Precipitate the ponderous mass descends:
From steep to steep the rolling ruin bounds;
At every shock the crackling wood resounds.

The feeling is entirely different. I’m a sucker for rhyme, and I confess I find this translation congenial, though I can certainly see that it is least faithful from a metrical point of view. Still, it is fascinating to see how Pope is able to fit in all of the essential details, even if taking a few extra lines to do it.


Next let’s look at a death scene. In Book 14, the Trojan Ilioneus runs into the Greek Peneleus, and it doesn’t go well for him. Lattimore puts it this way:

This man Peneleos caught underneath the brow, at the bases
of the eye, and pushed the eyeball out, and the spear went clean through
the eye-socket and tendon of the neck, so that he went down
backward, reaching out both hands, but Peneleos drawing
his sharp sword hewed at the neck in the middle, and so dashed downward
the head, with helm upon it, while still on the point of the big spear
the eyeball stuck.

So Ilioneus’ head was first skewered, then severed, but the eyeball remained fixed firmly to the spear’s tip. Fitzgerald gives us a slightly different picture:

Peneleos drove his spearhead
into the eye-socket underneath the brow,
thrusting the eyeball out. The spearhead ran
straight through the socket and the skull behind,
and throwing out both hands he sat down backward.
Peneleos, drawing his long sword, chopped through
the nape and set the severed helmeted head
and trunk apart upon the field. The spear
remained in the eye-socket.

Where Lattimore had the head “dashed downward”, Fitzgerald has it more gently “set apart”. I notice also that for Fitzgerald the spear remains in the eye-socket, rather than directly in the eye-ball, which strikes me as more plausible. In any case, here is Fagles:

… the one Peneleous lanced beneath the brows,
down to the eyes’ roots and scooped an eyeball out —
the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape
and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide
as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword,
hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head
and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all.
But the big spear’s point still stuck in the eye-socket —

I like the “lanced” and “lopped” and “tumbled”, and I note with approval the spear-transfixed eye-socket again. Finally, Pope:

Full in the eye the weapon chanced to fall,
And from the fibres scoop’d the rooted ball,
Drove through the neck, and hurl’d him to the plain;
He lifts his miserable arms in vain!
Swift his broad falchion fierce Peneleus spread,
And from the sprouting shoulders struck his head;
To earth at once the head and helmet fly;
The lance, yet sticking through the bleeding eye,
The victor seized…

It is interesting that Fagles echoed Pope’s “scoop”, which seems an odd verb to describe a spear’s action. Again, I rather like this rendering, though I acknowledge that certain details, like the weapon that merely “chanced” to find its mark, or the “sprouting shoulders”, aren’t quite apt.


Lastly, let’s take a peek at Hector at home as he plays with his son, little Hectorides. This is from Book 6, and is one of the few passages in the poem not actively flexing its muscles. We’ll take the translators in the same order, beginning with Lattimore:

So speaking glorious Hektor held out his arms to his baby,
who shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse’s bosom
screaming, and frightened at the aspect of his own father,
terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse-hair,
nodding dreadfully, as he thought, from the peak of the helmet.
Then his beloved father laughed out, and his honored mother,
and at once glorious Hektor lifted from his head the helmet
and laid it in all its shining upon the ground.

The helmet in question, I guess, might have been something like this, and who would blame the child for being a little frightened at it? Next, Fitzgerald:

As he said this, Hektor held out his arms
to take the baby. But the child squirmed round
on the nurse’s bosom and began to wail,
terrified by his father’s great war helm —
the flashing bronze, the crest with horsehair plume
tossed like a living thing at every nod.
His father began laughing, and his mother
laughed as well. Then from his handsome head
Hektor lifted off his helm and bent
to place it, bright with sunlight, on the ground…

I like that “bright with sunlight”, and I find the verse, in this metre, has an appealing poise and stability. Now Fagles:

In the same breath, shining Hektor reached down
for his son — but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror —
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight…

I find this a little too intense: “recoiled”, “cringing”, “screaming”, “terrified”. Poor kid. But “fiery in the sunlight” is good. Finally, Pope:

Thus having spoke, the illustrious chief of Troy
Stretch’d his fond arms to clasp the lovely boy.
The babe clung crying to his nurse’s breast,
Scared at the dazzling helm, and nodding crest.
With secret pleasure each fond parent smiled,
And Hector hasted to relieve his child,
The glittering terrors from his brows unbound,
And placed the beaming helmet on the ground.

This is a model of brevity, while still capturing the details we find in the others. I would hazard a bet, also, that little Hectorides would prefer the rhymes.


In the end, my first choice among these translations is Fitzgerald’s. His metre is a good one for an epic in English, giving the verse a noble sense, and his version felt sturdy and steady. Lattimore I thought too spindly and diffuse, and Fagles felt too emotionally volatile after a while. My second favourite was actually Pope, despite the obvious deviations from Homer’s style; the rhymes provided a steady beat that kept me moving forward, and I actually felt that the going was easiest when reading his version.

It’s disappointing, of course, to struggle, again, to appreciate such a great poem. I’d like to have had a more substantial encounter this time out, but it was what it was. I expect to have a better time with the Odyssey, and I’m looking forward to it.

Yeats: Poems

October 11, 2022

Selected Poems and Four Plays
W.B. Yeats
Edited by M.L. Rosenthal (4th Ed.)
(Scribner, 1996)
xliv + 270 p.

For some years I’d been hoping to devote some time to the poetry of Yeats. I was familiar with really only a few of his poems: “Sailing to Byzantium”, “The Second Coming”, “Down by the Salley Gardens”, and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” pretty much exhausted my acquaintance, I believe. For some reason which I cannot now specify, but probably gleaned from references to him here and there, I hoped that I was going to discover in him a friend, a kindred spirit.

I regret to say that this has not happened. I’ve had a tough time with Yeats. True, my collection now has 30 or so pages folded down to mark poems that appealed to me — poems like the simple and direct “A Drinking Song”, the folk-like “To an Isle in the Water”, the humorous “Politics”, or the elegiac “The Four Ages of Man” and “To a Friend whose Work has Come to Nothing”, or, with some surprise, the religious lyric “The Mother of God” — but sadly these were the exceptions. I found Yeats thorny and cold-shouldered, by and large. Truth be told, I simply found a great many of these poems hard to understand. I felt I was reading the poems without an entry point, and they remained, very often, merely cryptic and elusive. I don’t know if this is a common experience with this poet, but it was mine.

This volume also includes four of Yeats’ plays, but I was dispirited and didn’t read them.

Hesiod: Theogony

October 3, 2022

Works and Days
Translated from the Greek by C.S. Morrissey
(Talon, 2012) [c.700 BC]
xvii + 125 p.

Let us begin,
singing of the Muses of Helicon.
The great sacred mountain, Helicon,
belongs to them.
Around its deep-blue spring,
with gentle feet
they shall dance, worshipping
at the altar of Zeus, the mighty son of Cronus.
First they bathe their soft skin
in the stream Parnassus, or in the Hippocrene
(the Spring of the Horse) sprung by Pegasus’ hoof,
or in the sacred river Olmeius.
Then up on the peak of Helicon,
they put their feet into the dance.
They are beautiful.
With passion and grace, they move nimbly.

So begins Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem that stands close to the fountainhead of the Western literary tradition, serving as a relatively lightweight companion to Homer’s epics. The poem is a genealogy of the gods, setting forth an account of how the Greek pantheon came into being in the form that it did. More specifically, we might be able to argue that the poem’s central story concerns how Zeus came to power, and how he defended that power against challenges from other gods.

Zeus himself doesn’t stand at the fountainhead. He’s a third generation god. One of the intriguing, and perplexing, aspects of the poem is the way in which, from relatively simple beginnings — just earth (Gaia) and sky (Uranus) — the universe is quickly overrun with a bewildering welter of gods and monsters. It is Zeus who, by his cunning and power — and by his thunderbolts — imposes some semblance of order atop Mount Olympus, though of course this order is only relative, for even Zeus is a famous meddler whose actions sow disorder in realms both divine and human.

For me, the poem raised a host of questions to which I don’t have particularly solid answers. What does this story, or series of stories, tell us about Greek religion? Did they believe these stories to be true? In what sense? Was Hesiod creating or only curating these stories? Was this an attempt at abstract philosophical theology, or a quasi-political attempt to unite disparate peoples by weaving together regional religious traditions?

This edition of the poem includes, as afterward, an excerpt from the writings of Eric Voegelin in which he argues that Theogony is an early attempt to inject speculative reason into the realm of mythology, to discern order in the loose tradition of stories about divinity that circulated in Hesiod’s culture. That may be.

Reading these stories as a Christian, certain features stand out. We have our own story of the origin of all things, and it is, in comparison to what we find in Hesiod, breathtakingly simple. Both Jews and Christians have, over the centuries, pored over the text, often finding significance in the details. We might be tempted to draw general conclusions about Greek theology from the fact that, for instance, the gods act unjustly, but it is hard to know what significance could be ascribed to a particular pair of divinities having, say, 6000 children. A poem like Theogony would resist that kind of close attention, it seems to me. And although the Greeks honoured Hesiod and his poem, it never occupied a position in Greek culture analogous to that of the Pentateuch in Judeo-Christian cultures.

In the end, I mostly enjoyed reading Theogony, or at least was able to enjoy the idea of reading it, even if I did not find it particularly engrossing.


Works and Days is a less ambitious, more various poem — so various, in fact, that some argue that it ought to be Works and Days, two separate poems, perhaps by two separate poets. However that may be, it does fall into two parts. The first, Works, continues, or reiterates, some of the theological and mythological content of the Theogony, though in a more casual register. The famous story of Pandora appears in a more elaborated form than in the Theogony, being offered as an account of why mankind must live with evils. Hesiod also gives us a brief chronology of the world in Five Ages, beginning with a Golden Age and declining by degrees to his own time. The world was better in the past.

Alongside the mythological material is down-to-earth advice about the importance of hard work and good character to a man’s success in life, and practical guidance about the tasks that need doing on a farm at different times of the year, the hazards of sailing, and how best to honour the gods in one’s everyday life.

This practical streak continues in Days. The poet offers counsel about which days of the week, or the month, or the year, are good for various activities.

Few people know that
the twenty-seventh day of the month is the best
for opening up a wine jar. It’s also the best
for putting the yoke on the necks of
oxen and mules
and swift-footed horses.
It is also the best for launching
a swift and many-oared ship
into the wine-dark sea.
Indeed, few people name things truly.

Naturally, it is hard to remember all of the specifics, but it is a comfort to know that when I should be in need of guidance about when to plant or plow, or deliver a child, or geld a boar, or cut timbers, I will be able to look up the best practices.


I have read the poems in a relatively recent translation by C.S. Morrissey. I can’t remember why I chose this edition; perhaps it was because the introduction, all too brief, was written by Roger Scruton. I’m glad I chose a verse translation, though had I thought to shop around beforehand I might have preferred the one by Richmond Lattimore, a renowned translator of the Greek classics whose versions of Homer I will be reading next. In any case, Morrissey’s translation read well, even if I sometimes wished he’d salted it with fewer carriage returns, so as to preserve more clearly the shape of the hexametric line.

Considered simply in themselves, I appreciated these poems, maybe chiefly on account of their antiquity and the influential place they have in our literary tradition. Considered as a launching event in my reading project in Greek history and literature, I might have wished for something more glorious and enthralling. However, they are what they are, and nothing can dissuade us from proceeding to Homer.